This unusual year shows signs of becoming weirder yet. Reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Sea of Glory” about the little-known U.S. Exploring Expedition (or “Ex-Ex”) of 1836 reminded me how 1965 was a particularly strange year for me. That October my family moved from Texas to Vermont, where we were “the Kennedy killers” in the eyes of New Englanders still resentful of the President’s assassination; we arrived the week after a couple named Hill were abducted in neighboring New Hampshire by a UFO; the massive Northeastern power blackout occurred the following week; and I was expelled from school ten minutes into my first day for replying “yes ma’am” to a teacher who considered me sassy rather than Southern. Odder still, when I went home to tell my parents about the expulsion, they presented a book that arrived for me COD that day: a completely unsolicited copy of “The Hollow Earth” by Raymond Bernard, who claimed that, not only was the Earth hollow, it was where UFOs come from.
This book, which I still own, was cheesy even by mid-60s standards of high-acid paper and stapled bindings, with blurred, grainy illustrations and a publisher’s note saying, “We will not enter into any correspondence regarding this book. Whether you accept or reject the contents of this book is your privilege. No one cares.” The author, “Bernard,” was actually Walter Seigmeister, “an early 20th-century alternative health and esoteric writer and mystic who formed part of the alternative reality subculture,” according to Wikipedia. He lived briefly in Ecuador with Johnny Lovewisdom (AKA “the Hermit Saint of the Andes”) where they dabbled in unusual dietary practices, like “breatharianism” According to HowStuffWorks.com, the Breatharians answer for health problems was “stop eating. Or rather, live off prana, which is a Sanskrit word that translates to “life air” or “life force.” Born John Weirlo in 1919, Lovewisdom lived beside an Ecuadoran crater lake he deemed safe from nuclear fallout. He was also pretty sure he was the reincarnation of Ananda, Buddha’s main disciple. Lovewisdom invited him to visit upon learning about Seigmeister’s “Dream to make a super-race who worship the sun.”
However, Seigmeister’s main interest was his hollow earth theory, and he was in good company, including Edmond “Comet” Halley. Halley’s dad bought him cutting-edge astronomical equipment when he entered Oxford in 1673, and three years and many astronomical papers later, Halley dropped out, sailed to St. Helena Island where he cataloged 341 Southern Hemisphere stars, figured out the size of the solar system and improved the sextant. Upon returning home he published a star catalog, so impressing King Charles II that he commanded Oxford to grant Halley a master’s degree, and the Royal Society (the leading group of natural philosophers, or proto-scientists) made him a member and employee at age 22.
Halley soon argued with Society members Richard Hook and Christopher Wren about how to accurately measure planetary motion. They took their debate to Isaac Newton, who told them he’d figured it out earlier but couldn’t find his notes, but agreed to redo calculations. “Halley persuaded Newton to expand his studies and allow him to edit the work,” Wikipedia tells us, and, since the Royal Society had spent their book budget on “History of Fishes,” Halley paid all expenses for compiling and publishing Newton’s new work, “The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” (or “the Principia,” as its Latin abbreviation is better known). The Society also announced they couldn’t pay Halley his £50 annual salary, but reimbursed him with unsold copies of the fish book.
Describing Newton’s “Principia,” Stanford.edu wrote, “no work was more seminal in the development of modern physics and astronomy than Newton’s Principia. Its conclusion that the force retaining the planets in their orbits is one in kind with terrestrial gravity ended forever the view dating back at least to Aristotle that the celestial realm calls for one science and the sublunar realm, another.” It also laid the groundwork for calculus but wouldn’t have emerged had Halley not intervened, the same Halley who used Newton’s book to bolster his argument for a hollow earth since “the variations in Earth’s magnetic field couldn’t be due to some sort of magnetic body wandering around in rock, what with the rather solid nature of rock, so there must be unseen circles spinning around beneath our feet.”
“When you’re one step ahead of the crowd you’re a genius,” Rabbi Shlmo Riskin, noted. “When you’re two steps ahead, you’re a crackpot.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.