Skepticism is Not a Four Letter Word

“All a skeptic is, is someone who hasn’t had an experience yet.”—Jason Hawes

I don’t know where or when he said it, but I have no doubt that he did.  It was either some quip of wisdom from his TV show, ‘Ghost Hunters’, or a darling from one of the eight books attributed to him (and other authors).

Hawes is a loud voice on the side of the “believer”, as opposed to the “skeptic”.  He has much influence over the opinions of a great many people, people who in many cases are my peers.  His characterisation of the skeptic as one who is simply mistaken or whom has just not had their eyes opened is offensive to me.

Hawes and his colleagues, as well as their throngs of fans, really only highlight the issue, an issue that doesn’t begin with them, but rather is just furthered by them.  It would be easy to just call it credulity, which in some cases might not be far off the mark, but it’s really not about that.  It’s about a tendency to label certain groups, stereotyping and maligning people who display certain characteristics, characteristics that don’t conform to the values of the person or group doing the labelling.

We all do it, even the best of us, but few among us are willing to put it in writing for all to see (and to copy relentlessly across website after website), such as Hawes has done.  It’s the basis of racism, ageism, and well, pretty much any -ism you can think of, and this example is no different.  It is, undeniably, Hawes expressing his dislike of skepticism (perhaps an –ism that doesn’t qualify as above).  He, along with many in the ghost hunting community, as well as the general paranormal or Fortean communities, take exception to anyone using the title skeptic, or using the obvious methods of skepticism in their approach to the subjects held therein.

There’s another side to this coin though, one populated with pseudo-celebrities and rock-star scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Richard Dawkins.  This is the other extreme – beyond a mere lack of belief – denial becomes the order of the day.  On its face it’s the promotion of science, reason and critical thinking, but in many cases it amounts to little more than denial and harsh criticism of people who don’t belong to this group.

These labels though, are not accurate and are very unhelpful, if not harmful.

I’m a skeptic, through and through.  I find no value in believing a thing without evidence in support of it and I fully agree with the statement “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.  I also identify as an atheist, which has a very specific meaning, though many would like it to mean something completely different than it does.

As I’ve mentioned recently, I dislike the way the word skeptic is used these days, and that dislike is embodied in both Jason Hawes remark above and in the labels we all assign to groups of people who don’t necessarily represent the true meaning of the word.

On one side of this particular coin are people like Hawes, who see skepticism as a dirty word, as an enemy, as a thing to guard against.  The other side uses the word as a weapon against incredulity and hoax.  Both, however, seem to get it wrong (at least on the surface).

Sharon Hill, over at Doubtful News, recently published an excellent article laying out exactly what being skeptical means, and doesn’t mean.  I’ll not reproduce her efforts here, but suffice it to say, she hit the nail on the head, and drove it home.  Skepticism is a way of doing things, it’s not club to which one might belong, declaring one’s loyalty to the narrow views of some elite cabal of intellectuals.  It’s also not an enemy to the field of paranormal research.  It is, in fact, the only way progress will ever be made in our collective research efforts.

My dislike of the way in which this word is used these days is rooted in the call, it seems, that everyone and anyone whose ideas aren’t readily accepted screams into the internet, claiming that the skeptics aren’t giving them their due.  The situation with Melba Ketchum comes to mind, though it’s a common thing in our world.

The thing is though, skepticism is something we all practise, it’s something we all must use in our struggle to survive this world, and it most definitely is something we all should be applying to our interests, whether they be Fortean or scientific (or both).  There are certain elements though, certain characters on both sides of the line, who use the term skeptic as a way of defining the worth of individuals, and this is an egregious error.

I, too, have been maligned by people on both sides, one because I approach things skeptically, the other because I identify with a community that is unfairly characterised by blind faith to unproven ideas.  Believe it or not, but in my case this is actually by design, partly at least.

To paraphrase the eternally witty Groucho Marx: “I choose not to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”  Or perhaps the wisdom of my namesake better fits the situation:

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.” – Mark Twain

I choose not to buy into the argument from either side, and I resent the idea that my view on certain subjects is invalid because of the misuse of a simple word.

I am skeptical, but I am not a skeptic.  I believe, but I am not a believer.

The quote that opened this piece is in error.  Were I to have an experience, as though it’s a foregone conclusion that I haven’t already, it would not change the nature of my approach to the subjects that hold my interest.  I will still review evidence with an eye toward mistakes and bias.  I will still value that which can be quantified over that which cannot.  I will still measure the credibility of a source before I accept it as true.

I will still be skeptical, but I will not be a skeptic.

As mentioned above, I identify as an atheist, and as is well laid out in the Doubtful News article linked above, skepticism is not equal to atheism, and vice versa.  The one may be the result of the other, or they may not be related in any way, but one who calls themselves either, cannot automatically be labelled the other by association.

I foresee a good deal of discussion sparked by my words on this topic, and I really don’t know if this piece has a purpose, beyond an aimless rant delivered from my soap box (as it’s been called in the past), but I leave you with the following in the hope that it tempers your responses:

Disagreement doesn’t equal disrespect. Saying ‘no’ is not rude. Thinking for yourself is not blasphemy.

When it Rains, it Pours: The Story of Weird Rain

Have you ever wondered where the term “it’s raining cats and dogs” comes from?  We live in a world where all manner of things is known to fall from the sky.  Most commonly, of course, we’re talking about water, in its various forms.  Mist, fog, drizzle, showers, rain, torrents, hail, sleet, snow, fish, frogs, worms, spiders and unidentified chunks of meat.

It may not be as exotic as the rain of diamonds and glass as has been suggested might fall on certain exo-planets identified by NASA, but our little blue ball sends some fairly weird stuff hurling from the heavens.

In answer to the opening question, no one really has any good idea where it came from, but there are some theories.  The leading explanation stems from the thatched roofs of merry old England, where small animals, such as cats and dogs, would borough into to the insulating material of the roof for shelter and would fall out during heavy rains.  This has never been confirmed, and there are other theories that compete for the ‘most plausible’ position.

As mentioned above though, there is a history of some pretty strange stuff raining down on our streets and heads, besides the usual Dihydrogen Monoxide.  There are more than 17 documented cases of small animals (and other things) falling from the sky since 1861, and no doubt many more prior to that time.  In fact there are depictions of fish rain from as far back as 1555 and earlier.

Pluie de poissons, gravure d’O. Magnus, 1555

One of the strangest cases of non-rain rain, is that of the Cosmic Meat from Olympia Springs, Bath County, Kentucky (USA) on March 3, 1876.

As reported in the New York Times on March 10, 1876, a woman named Mrs. Crouch was in her yard, making soap when what appeared to be small chunks of meat started falling from the sky.[1]  She described them as resembling large snowflakes, but some of the pieces were said to be as large as four inches cubed.  Eyewitnesses claimed that the meat looked like beef, though two men who either bravely or foolishly tasted it, said it was either venison or mutton.

The weird thing, as though meat rain isn’t weird enough, is that according to Mrs. Crouch, the sky was perfectly clear.  Several theories were passed about, and through analysis of the meat by a number of doctors, it was said that the most likely culprit was vultures or buzzards.  The doctors found that the meat was a combination of lung tissue, muscle tissue and connective tissues with cartilage, most likely being of equine origin.[2]  Officials believed that buzzards had feasted on a freshly dead horse nearby, and while flying overhead, one of the birds disgorged itself (threw up), and as they are apparently known to do, the rest of the flock followed suit, ultimately casting their dinner down on the head of Mrs. Crouch.

Photomicrograph of particles from red rain sample

The meat rain covered an area of approximately 5000 square yards, which raises the question; just how many buzzards would be required to achieve such coverage?  And would a large number of birds be able to fly high enough so as to be invisible to the naked eye from the ground?

The buzzard theory was the most plausible explanation of the time, though there was really only one competing idea, so calling it the most plausible doesn’t say much.  That other theory was forwarded by American journalist, humourist and author William L. Alden, wherein he claimed that cosmic meat floated about in outer-space with some abundance, and would, occasionally, fall to Earth in the manner of meteorites.[3]

Fresh meat isn’t the only weird thing to fall from the skies though, according to Wikipedia, as recently as September 12, 2013, fish were reported to have rained down in Chennai, which is the capitol city of Tamil Nadu, India.  Frogs too, are known to fall from the heavens.  Theories as to how this happens range from the suction of waterspouts which then fuel storms over land, bring small fish and other animals from lakes and other bodies of water, eventually depositing them far from their homes as the storm loses its momentum.  Others have suggested that fish eggs are taken up by these waterspouts, wherein the eggs hatch in the clouds, resulting in baby fish raining down.  Though it seems unlikely the eggs could stay airborne for a sufficient period of time for this to be true.

A single spore viewed with a transmission electron microscope, purportedly showing a detached inner capsule.

Recent headlines told the story of another strange weather phenomenon occurring in India.  This time it wasn’t an animal per se, but red rain.  As a part of an ongoing phenomenon, the last event occurring as recently as December 2012, residents of Sri Lanka and other parts of the Indian subcontinent found themselves in the midst of a strange series of rain storms that would turn their clothes pink.  In contrast to the above, this was rain, in that it consisted of water, but…it was red.  Other colours have been reported over the years, from yellow to brown to green, and there has been a good deal of debate as to what exactly it is.

Early theories suggested that perhaps it was some kind of bacteria in the water, perhaps picked up from local waste waters or the Indian Ocean, which is currently the official explanation.  Others said perhaps, it was fine meteor dust trapped in the upper atmosphere being condensed by the action of the rain.  Close analysis didn’t bear that theory out, however.

In January of 2006, two physicists from the Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam India, published a paper in the journal Astrophysics and Space Science, which suggested that the red rain was in fact caused by extraterrestrial biological cells brought to Earth via comets and meteors.[4]  This theory, of course, is hotly contested, but it remains a part of the discussion.

So, as mentioned earlier, no one really knows where the phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs” came from, but if experience is anything to go by, perhaps it harkens to an actual event where it really did rain cats and dogs.  Maybe not though.

[1] Author unknown. Flesh Descending in a Shower.  New York Times, March 10, 1876.

[2] Mysterious Showers of Meat. Scientific American – Supplement 2,437. July 22, 1877

[3] Alden, William L. Domestic Explosives and Other Sixth Column Fancies (From the New York Times). Lovell, Adam, Wesson & Company, 1877.  Page: 50-52

[4] Godfrey Louis, A. Santhosh Kumar. The red rain phenomenon of Kerala and its possible extraterrestrial origin. Astrophysics, Space Sci. 302 (2006) 175-187. arXiv:astro-ph/0601022

UPDATED: The Waffle Rock: What the Heck is it?

Waffle Rock, as it sits today at the entrance to the concourse for the Jennings Randolph Lake Observatory

If you’re a regular reader, you’re aware that I have a penchant for stone.  Well, for stone formations; circles, henges, pyramids, temples, statues, and pretty much anything made of stone…the older the better.

Yesterday I brought you the story of the Seven Strong Men of Russia, or Manpupuner, which, although some would like to think otherwise, is a natural rock formation near the northwest Ural Mountains.  Today, I bring you something similar, but a little closer to home (if you’re in North America at least).

There seems to be a good deal of confusion over this particular monument, but hopefully I can clear that up.  I’m talking about the little known Waffle Rock of West Virginia.

A long time ago, circa 1930, in the area of Mineral County, WV, there was a little town called Shaw.  You won’t find it on any modern map though, because it no longer exists.  Where Shaw once stood is now a small lake, Jennings Randolph Lake to be precise, but it wasn’t a natural disaster that condemned Shaw, it was the Army Corps of Engineers.  Residents of Shaw were asked to pack up their lives and leave, as the government had decided to install a dam on the Potomac River, as it flowed through the small town.  Several of those residents were less worried about their own wellbeing than they were about a strange rock known locally as ‘The Indian Rock’, which was set to be buried under meters of water with the completion of the dam project.

It might seem strange that people would be so concerned about a rock, but this was no ordinary rock.  One-time resident of Shaw, Ms. Betty Webster Bishop, recounts her memories of the rock via both the Army Corps of Engineers website, as well as a commemorative website honouring the history of Shaw.

“Our Sundays were for worship and rest. The one allowed activity was a walk in the woods. It was on one of these walks that my Mother discovered ‘her’ rock, as we often referred to it. She loved God and all aspects of nature, with a special fondness for rocks, large and small. This big rock, the subject of this story, was her ‘pot of gold’ at the end of the rainbow. She never tired of taking visitors to see it, whether local or out of town. She called it ‘The Indian Rock’, but we later referred to it as ‘Mom’s Rock.’ It was located a short distance up the hill. All who came were granted the privilege of visiting Mom’s ‘Indian Rock’. We felt it belonged to us and we reveled in the sharing of it. Many spoke of it and the awe it inspired, even after many years, and the many miles that separated us.”[1]

A picture of the original rock as it now sits beneath the lake

Betty’s story is heartwarming and engenders nostalgic longings for a simpler time.  The full version, which I encourage you to read, tells of her Mother’s discovery of the rock and how it came to be known, at least to them, as “Mom’s Rock”, and of how Betty brought its story to the world via a letter to the Saturday Evening Post (December 1984).  That letter was precipitous, and led to the best answer for what, exactly, this rock might actually be.  But this is getting ahead of the story.

Waffle Rock is, as it can only be described, a large rock showing a waffle-like pattern on one side.  The regular geometric pattern of raised, darker stone creates pockets or deep pits on the rock’s surface, and many have speculated on what might have caused such a strange pattern.  As is apparently a common failing of the editorial standards in the world of paranormal blogging these days, if you search for ‘Waffle Rock’, you’ll find numerous websites offering pretty much the exact same story, which generally goes as follows:

“This is a boulder on display at Jennings Randolph Lake in Mineral County, West Virginia. There have been numerous theories and speculations as to its origin, ranging from a pictograph made by prehistoric man, an indian carving, the impression of the skin pattern of a giant lizard, or evidence of a visit to earth by an early travelers (sic) from outer space.

After examination of the phenomenon, Corps of Engineers geologists and those of other agencies have concluded that it is a natural geological formation. Although such formations are not common, similar patterned boulders were found on the east side of Tea Creek Mountain in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Dr. Jack B. Epstein of the Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the interior, explained that the waffle rock is part of the Conemaugh geologic series that was deposited about 300 million years ago during the Pennsylvanian period. It is surmised that the waffle rock is a large loose boulder that fell from a parent outcrop somewhere higher up the slope, many decades ago, before the present trees grew.”[2]

I’m not entirely sure where this story came from, as I can find no papers, articles or publications by Dr. Epstein (who is in fact an Emeritus Geologist with the USGS and is widely published) regarding the Waffle Rock or even the general area in question, though this hardly rules it out. [See below for an UPDATE on this issue!]  Another website suggests that this information comes from a newspaper article that appeared in the Mineral Daily News-Tribune (unknown date), which I’ve also been unable to confirm – though I have confirmed that the listed author of the article was at one time employed by the newspaper.

In any event, the above is what you’ll find on almost every website regarding Waffle Rock, but – and again the editorial standards of these sites leaves something to be desired – the story really doesn’t provide any answers.

Ms. Webster Bishop’s accounting does provide some more material to sink one’s teeth into however.  In response to her December 1984 letter to the Saturday Evening Post, a letter-to-the-editor was published in the April 1985 edition, from a Col. Martin W. Walsh Jr. Corps of Engineers Commander (Baltimore MD).  Col. Walsh offered some interesting commentary about the rock:

 “Speculations range from the impressions of the skin pattern of a giant reptile, to evidence of space travelers on earth.  Upon examination by geologists from the U. S. Corps of Engineers and other agencies, it was concluded that the rock is a natural geologic formation.”[3]

Apparently Col. Walsh went on in his letter to describe the process by which such patterning could form naturally, suggesting that sand deposited by ancient streams consolidated into sandstone layers with rock above and below being compressed into the large folds that make up the pattern.  It’s believed that this occurred between 250 and 300 million years ago, during the formation of the Appalachian Mountains.

Col. Walsh’s explanation works as good as any, and for that matter, so does Dr. Epstein’s (if he really did make such statements).  Of course, as mentioned above, there are those who are less than enthusiastic about these conventional, natural explanations.  Many claim, namely the correspondent identified as “Jeff” and the author of’s piece on the matter, that the scientific explanations don’t account for all of the features present in the rock.

Google Earth view of West Virginia Outlook at Jennings Randolph Lake

The rock on display at the West Virginia Outlook on Jennings Randolph Lake is but a small piece of the original rock.  It was moved there to save the geologically significant piece of history from the dam project.  Photographs of the whole rock show clearly that the pattern, or the structure of the pattern does not run all the way through the rock, but rather can only be seen on one side.

Aside from the usual ancient alien talk, many believe that the pattern is actually an early form of hieroglyphic or primitive writing, and that the rock is the result of Neolithic art by pre-Columbian peoples.  Though this does not fit with current archeological theories of migration and culture.

Outside of these unconfirmed reports of analysis by the USGS and the Corps of Engineers, it doesn’t seem like many in the geological community are taking any interest in this story at all.  It is said that the Smithsonian Institute has a small sample of the Waffle Rock in its collection, though I was unable to find it in their online collection library (which doesn’t say much, it’s a rather difficult library to search).  I wonder what analysis has really been done, though I’m prone to accept Col. Walsh’s explanation over that of ancient aliens.

If you find this interesting, as I do, I urge you to read Betty Webster Bishop’s story on



In my research for this post, I contacted Dr. Jack Epstein of the US Department of the Interior (USGS) to clarify the story about his analysis and to determine the USGS official position on the Waffle Rock formation.  I have now received, by mail, a copy of the United States Geological Survey, Department of the Interior fact-sheet on this issue, written by Dr. Epstein in 1977 for the US Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District.

This confirms that the story given above, is in fact correct, and that both of the sources for information on the Waffle Rock are based in fact, though both provide only a very basic and condensed version of the facts.  A summary of the analysis follows:

As mentioned, the USGS and USACE both take the position that the Waffle Rock and all other examples of such a rock formation are natural and are explained thus: as layers of sandstone were formed during the Appalachian Orogeny (the epoch during with the Appalachian range was formed) approximately 250 million years ago via sediment laid down by ancient streams and water flows, the lower layers of the bedrock experienced compression forces as the Appalachian range heaved and folded.  Those different forces, which pushed that lower layer in different directions, resulted in a unique folding of the sandstone into the pattern shown, known as fractures or joints.

“Four sets of joints are apparent in the waffle rock.  Sets a and b are roughly perpendicular to each other; sets c and d are at an acute angle to each other.  The stress that formed the joints, as well as the folds in the rocks, bisects the angle between joints c and d…”

The mechanism that causes the waffle pattern to appear to be of a different material is similar to that which formed the Klerksdorp Spheres.  As the sandstone formed, iron ore particles filtered through the sediment and rock, and possibly leached out of the material below the sandstone, ultimately settling into spaces between sand particles, acting like a cement.  Once settled, the compression of the sandstone and fracture stresses turned the iron ore into Hematite (as with the Klerksdorp Spheres), which is darker, harder and of a different consistency than sandstone.

This process is sort of like a perfect storm of conditions, which resulted in the rare but not unique form we see in the Waffle Rock as it sits near Jennings Randolph Lake (also called Bloomington Lake).  Another example of the waffle rock sits at the entrance to the US Geological Survey Headquarters in Reston, Virginia.  As mentioned in the comment section, there are similar formations in Oklahoma and possibly other locations around the world.

This analysis, as mentioned, comes directly from Dr. Jack Epstein of the US Geological Survey, and stands as the USGS and USACE official position on this strange rock formation.  Readers should bear this in mind, when deciding for themselves, just what is the truth.  I’ve already heard from several people that the natural formation theory seems unlikely or implausible, but I would suggest that Dr. Epstein and his colleagues are the experts on this particular topic, and perhaps we laymen should defer to their expertise.

My thanks go to Dr. Epstein for his readiness to provide this information.

[1] Dennis, Norm. The Waffle Rock: A big attraction to the thousands of visitors at Jennings Randolph Lake each year

[2] “Jeff” via Robert Weese. Strange Fossil Rock Formation.

[3] Webster Bishop, Betty. The Rock and I.

The Terror of Sleep Paralysis Explained

An abduction scene from the movie ‘The Fourth Kind’

You wake from what feels like a deep sleep, opening your eyes to a darkened room.  It looks like your bedroom, sort of, but there’s something…

You can’t move!  It feels like there’s something, someone holding you down.  Your senses jump into overdrive, and you scan the room, as best you can.  Is there someone there?  Angels?  Aliens?  Demons?  You’re sure you can see creatures moving around you, and you can definitely feel that someone or something has invaded your home.

Are you having a supernatural experience?  Is this the start of an alien abduction scene?  Have you been targeted by malevolent forces intent on doing you harm?  A great many people believe the answer is yes.  And who can really say that one person’s experience is to be believed, while another’s is not?

The above scenario is actually a fairly common experience.  Some sources suggest that as many as 6-40% of the world population has or will experience, either once or multiple times, something like that described above (with a good deal of variation in the details).  That isn’t, however, a description of an abduction event or a supernatural encounter.  It’s a description of a sleep paralysis event.

Sleep paralysis is, as you might already be aware, a neuro-physiological problem that a great many people suffer through.  It is terrifying, it is violating, and it is apparently unavoidable (for some people).  Sleep paralysis is characterised as an interruption to the REM sleep cycle within the transition between wakefulness and rest, wherein the subject suffers from atonia, which renders them immobile for a period ranging from several seconds to several minutes, and possibly up to an hour.  During which time the person experiences elements from their dreams in what feels like their conscious world.

In truth, we all experience atonia while we sleep, which is, in simple terms, the brain’s mechanism for stopping you from acting out your dreams in real time.  Atonia means muscle weakness, and in relation to REM sleep, it means complete autonomous muscle immobility.  Dreams occur most often during the sleep cycle called REM or rapid eye movement, and each night when we enter dreamland, our brains undergo a change which stops our skeletal motoneurons from responding to signals to move as may be generated by dream content.

Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare), by Eugène Thivier (1894)

The neurophysiology of this process is well understood, to a point, but the finer details are hotly argued among neuroscientists.  It is believed that a condition known as IPSP or inhibitory postsynaptic potential – which is triggered by glycinergic inhibition of motoneurons, and makes postsynaptic neurons less likely to generate an action potential – is the main mechanism that causes atonia during REM sleep.[1]  In simpler terms, a chemical in the brain interrupts communication between certain synapses, thereby stopping them from reacting to dream-induced signals.  Other theories suggest that there may be other neurotransmitters involved, but the basic process is as described.

This system of synapses and neuronal potentials is complicated, in case you couldn’t tell from the above.  As a result, there are several things that can go wrong (in addition to sleep paralysis):

  • Narcolepsy – the brain’s inability to regulate sleep-wake cycles, often resulting in disrupted nocturnal sleep patterns and sudden onset of sleep during the day.
  • Cataplexy – the rare neurological condition causing involuntary and sudden loss of muscle tone or strength while fully conscious.
  • RBD or rapid eye movement behaviour disorder – the malfunction of the atonia process resulting in a person moving or physically acting out dreams while sleeping (sleepwalking is a type of RBD).

So, basically, sleepy paralysis is the opposite of RBD.  Instead of acting out the dream, the person experiences dream states during the transition between sleep and wakefulness, while still unable to move.  It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to understand how that could be a very disturbing and traumatic experience.  Consider also that some people experience the phenomenon several times a night for weeks at a time, and it becomes clear that research into possible treatments is sorely lacking at the moment.

The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli (1781) is thought to be one of the classic depictions of sleep paralysis perceived as a demonic visitation.

It’s believed that certain lifestyle situations contribute to an increased susceptibility for sleep paralysis (or any of the atonia related maladies listed above).  Those range from stress, to excessive use of stimulants, to the use of some medications, such as those used to treat ADHD.  Some doctors suggest that one who suffers through these illnesses can mitigate their risk of further events by strictly regulating sleep schedules, using good sleep hygiene, and avoiding the supine position (on your back, facing up), but there is no known method to cure or entirely stop the events from happening.

Now that we know what it is, we can discuss what it means.

If you experienced what was described at the opening of this post, would you think yourself crazy?  Would you believe that you had experienced the strangeness that was your dream being played out before your open eyes, or would you defer to what, in your experience, was a completely real event?  Certainly no one would blame you if you did.  Well, few would.

In his 2012 book The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins, the world famous militant-atheist and avowed skeptic, suggested that all reported alien abductions are examples of mental illness, with the lead culprit being sleep paralysis.  This book was targeted at the Young Adult audience and apparently was meant as a primer to the natural sciences.  It’s informative, but dismissive.

Dawkins’ attitude toward the phenomenon of alien abduction and other paranormal experiences is prevalent in skeptical circles, and justifiably so.  When one considers the almost archetypal scenes and characters associated with sleep paralysis events, one must admit that a great many people who report those experiences as real events, are simply mistaking what amounts to a dream for an actual experience.  Sleep paralysis is historically given as the standard explanation for alien abductions, as mentioned, and for angelic, demonic and all manner of other supernatural experiences.  The legendary succubus/incubus experience is thought to be the quintessential sleep paralysis motif, and it’s difficult to deny the connection.

Is that the end of the story though?  Not at all.

Sleep paralysis is currently the best explanation we have for many of these experiences, in spite of the adamant stance of those who wish to validate the abduction storyline.  Occam’s Razor tells us that the sleep paralysis or “mental illness” explanation is preferable over the fanciful stories of abduction and molestation, but Occam didn’t mean for us to reject all other theories over the simplest, he tells us simply to favour the simplest.

Is it possible that some people are being visited in their sleep by unknown entities?  The answer can only be yes.  Is it possible that some people are really experiencing nightmarish events at the hands of something otherworldly?  Again, the answer can only be yes.  In turn though, is it possible that most are being tricked by their senses and a malfunctioning system meant to protect us from ourselves?  Yes, that’s also possible.

The point of all this is simply to say that no one has all the answers.  Certainty is the sign of a small mind, and “…as for me, I know only that I know nothing”.


[1] Patricia L. Brooks, John H. Peever. Identification of the Transmitter and Receptor Mechanisms Responsible for REM Sleep Paralysis. The Journal of Neuroscience, 18 July 2012, 32(29): 9785-9795

Teleportation: From Ancient Myth to Modern Science

Being a die-hard fan of Star Trek, I basically grew up accepting the idea that people could be beamed from one location to the next.  They made it look so easy; you just stepped onto the lighted pad while some guy in a red (or yellow) shirt hit a few icons on his control board and after a few wibbly lines and sparkles, away you went.  They were never really clear on exactly how it worked or how far they could send you, but it must have been anywhere from a few hundred thousand miles to a million.  What a way to travel!

Of course, that’s a TV show.  A particularly good TV show in my opinion, but a fictional construct nonetheless.  Mr. Roddenberry was faced with a conundrum when he created a show based on interstellar travel, including visits to all manner of alien worlds.  How do we get our characters from the ship to the surface without endless voyages in shuttlecraft or what have you?  Easy, we invent a machine that magically transports them in an instant!  But did Roddenberry really invent the idea?

Well, no, he didn’t.

A Buraq, or mythical steed used by prophets, seen on a reproduction of a 17th-century Indian Mughal miniature

The idea that a person or thing can be magically transported from one location to another is actually quite an old one.  It has shamanistic origins, and there are accounts, arguably, in the Bible, but it likely predates the Biblical period.  Those Biblical accounts, Ezekiel 11:1, and in the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Denfrom the Hebrew Bible, tell of the mystical phenomenon of bilocation, where a person is observed in two places at once, often impossibly far apart.  This idea is also found in Vedic traditions, Buddhism and many other spiritual customs.  The story from the Holy Quran, of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, is sometimes thought of as another example.

The idea has a few names too: bilocation (also given as bi-location), apportation (or to apport), teletransportation, or more commonly, teleportation.  These terms all have slightly different meanings, but all refer to the same phenomenon.  The term teleportation was first coined by the inimitable father of paranormal research, Mr. Charles Fort in 1931, in his second non-fiction book titled Lo!.[1]  In it he described various events and happenings revolving around the idea and presented his thesis that, by way of a “cosmic joker”, certain objects and people could be transported over great distances by unknown means.  Fort connected many disparate phenomenon with teleportation, from telekinetic apportation, which is associated with spiritualistic séances and mediums, to missing persons cases and even weird rain (strange items and/or animals falling like rain, often from clear skies).

“Mostly in this book I shall specialize upon indications that there exists a transportory force that I shall call Teleportation.”

Charles Fort c.1893

But as mentioned, the idea long predates Fort and the spiritualism movement of the late 19th century.  The problem, as with any Fortean subject, is that the older the account, the less credible the source.  There are many stories from almost every culture that feature an event resembling Fort’s idea of teleportation, but it’s exceedingly difficult to pin down details, and thus we are forced to look at them as apocryphal myths.   Of course, the more modern accounts don’t really offer that much reliable information either.

Apportation gets a bad rap, resulting from the questionable methods of mid to late 19th century and early 20th century mediums and spiritualists, who used sleight of hand and outright trickery to dupe sitters into believing objects, such as flowers, stones, perfumes, and small animals, were either spontaneously disappearing or appearing (or both) during a séance.  Almost every account from this period has either been debunked or is considered to have been hoaxed, but there are a few worth mentioning.

The amazing story of the Pansini Brothers is one such account.

The Pansini Brothers, the sons of Signor Mauro Pansini, an Italian building contractor, were considered to be “mediumistic children”.  Following what was said to have been poltergeist activity in the family’s older home in 1904 and ongoing accounts of the older son speaking in tongues, the boys, Alfredo (10) and Paulo (8), we mysteriously transported a distance of ten to fifteen miles from the home in mere minutes.  Apparently there were multiple teleport events involving both boys, and on one occasion, in the presence of a bishop Bitonto, the boys vanished from the room as their mother and the bishop discussed means for ending this “obsession”.[2]

Despite fairly close scrutiny by Italian scientists at the time, no explanation was ever found for the events.

Another notable account of teleportation is that of Damodar Ketkar of Poona, India.  Ketkar, described as a young child in the grips of a “poltergeist persecution”, suffered a teleportation event on April 23, 1928.  According to a letter written by the boy’s British Governess, Miss H. Kohn, Damodar materialised in front of her and said to her “I have just come from Karjat!” (Which is approximately 63 miles from Poona)

Kohn noted, with some enthusiasm, that the boy’s posture upon materialising was “…of a person who has been gripped round the waist and carried, and therefore makes no effort but is gently dropped at his destination.”[3]  He apparently suffered no ill effects from the experience.

This case is unique and particularly interesting, as it’s the only known case of a person’s teleportation arrival being witnessed independently.  As with the others though, this tale stands, and will remain, uncorroborated.

Of course, anyone who stays abreast of modern technological advancements, is aware that scientists are working on making the Star Trek transporter a reality.  This research is in the realm of quantum physics, and it involves what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”, otherwise known as quantum entanglement.  A certain level of success has been achieved in the field of quantum teleportation, but we’re still far from zipping through space, from planet to planet, for various complicated reasons.

It is reasonable to think, though, that in time our greatest scientific minds will master the science and bring us something like a sci-fi transporter, but as Eric W. Davis concluded in his 2004 special report to the US Air Force Research Laboratory on teleportation physics:

“At present, none of the theoretical concepts explored…have been brought to a level of technical maturity, where it becomes meaningful…”[4]

[1] Charles Fort. Lo!. Claud Kendall (Publisher) 1931 New York [Online annotated version]:

[2] Lapponi, Joseph. Hypnotism and Spiritualism. New York: Long-Mans, Green and Co. 1907

[3] Price, Harry. An Indian Poltergeist with Miss H. Kohn. Psychic Research (New York) March 1930

[4] Davis, Eric. W. Teleportation Physics Report. Air Force Research Laboratory, Air Force Materiel Command – August 2004 AFRL-PR-ED-TR-2003-0034

Cyclopean Masonry: A Mystery of the Ancient World

They don’t make things like they used to, and that is, in some cases, a monumental understatement.  Silly wordplay notwithstanding, there is something to be said for the construction techniques of the old world.  Where modern buildings are designed to withstand the elements; wind, temperature extremes, earthquakes and floods, today’s engineers have to strike a balance between economics and robust design.  They do a good job, for the most part, but modern building techniques pale in comparison to the construction practices of ancient cultures.

The very fact that ancient monuments still stand is a testament to their expertise.  Ancient city ruins, pyramids, rock walls and pillars, they were all built to stand the test of time, and in many cases, they passed that test with flying colours.  This may be partly due to the materials they used.  Stone has an inherent durability, and the goal of longevity is only furthered by its use in construction.  Unlike its artificial counterparts – cement, concrete, asphalt, etc. – many types of stone have lifecycles counted in the millions of years, and if a stone monument, whether that be a wall, an archway, a pyramid or any other structure, is built using certain techniques, it’s certain to last eons into the future.

Part of the entrance tunnel to the Khafre Valley Temple, Egypt

It seems our ancestors were well aware of this, and one of their most successful stone construction techniques is unparalleled in today’s world.  That technique is polygonal wall construction.  The only truly earthquake proof construction technique, polygonal wall construction, or as it’s more popularly known, cyclopean masonry, is one of the oldest forms of stone masonry known to man.  It’s also the sturdiest.

The earliest examples of cyclopean masonry are found in Egypt, in the Khafre pyramid complex at Giza, specifically in the valley temple, which is the oldest part of the pyramid complex, dating to the fourth dynasty of the old kingdom (c.2520-2494 BCE).  Most experts however, exclude the Khafre valley temple from listings of cyclopean masonry, as the term itself is derived from the early Mycenaean culture of ancient Greece, which developed at least 1000 years later.

Cyclopean masonry at Delphi, Greece

The oldest Mycenaean structures to use the cyclopean masonry technique, dating from 1500 to 1100 BC, are found in the fortified walls of Mycenea and Tiryns (modern day Athens and the Peloponnese area), and are characterized by huge irregular shaped blocks of limestone, often unworked, and stacked to form a wall.  The blocks usually fit closely together with little space in the joints and no mortar.  As a result of the varying size and shape of the stones and the manner of their fit, they form a highly stable structure, capable of withstanding high magnitude earthquakes, as are common to the Mediterranean area.

Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia (AD 77-79), attributed the name Cyclopean Masonry to Aristotle, claiming that it was he who believed that only the mythical race of giant Cyclops were strong enough to have moved such huge boulders and set them in place.  Most examples of this type of construction are today called Cyclopean, though the technique is found throughout the world in many different cultures.

Easter Island

Some of the most famous examples of Cyclopean construction are found in Mexico and Mesoamerica.  Sites such as Pumapunku at Tiwanaku, Bolivia, and the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu, Cuzco, and Ollantaytombo.  The technique is used though, as mentioned, all over the world, with examples found in places like:  Italy, Turkey, Japan, and the Polynesian Islands like Rapa Nui (Easter Island), just to name a few.

Those examples found in Bolivia and Peru do provide some opportunities for head scratching though.  In those cases, as has been made famous by Ancient Alien proponents such as David Childress, Eric von Danikën, and the late Phillip Coppens, the technique has been used so expertly that it opens up questions about just exactly how it was done.

Perhaps the most impressive site where Cyclopean or polygonal masonry was used is Saksaywaman in Cuzco, Peru.  This site was once the capitol of the Incan Empire and was built somewhere around 1100 CE by the Kilike culture prior to the Incan takeover of the region in the 13th century.  The stones used are some of the largest ever quarried in pre-Columbian / pre-Hispanic America, the largest tipping the scales at 200 tonnes.

Edo Castle, Japan

The stones in question were typically andesite, which is a relatively hard igneous, volcanic rock, similar to basalt with a high silica content.  It is abundant in the region, and actually gets its name from the Andes Mountains.

What makes this site so incredible is both the size of the stones used and the precision by which they were placed.  The non-mortar joints are so tight that a slip of paper cannot be fitted between them.  Ancient Alien proponents, of course, claim this is evidence of out of place technology, perhaps provided by aliens, but modern science has a fairly good grasp on the process used.

UC-Berkley Professor of Architecture Jean-Pierre Protzen suggests, and has amply demonstrated, that large rotating workforces, impressively massive ropes, and ramps were used to quarry and drag similar stones to the site of Ollantaytambo, where they were then worked with hammers and chisels to precisely fit with their counterparts.[1]  He says they were then lifted into place by the use of ropes and pulleys.  He believes, and most archaeologists agree with him, that all of the American examples of Cyclopean masonry were constructed using this technique and required no more than the so-called primitive tools that were available to the Kilike and Incan peoples at the time.

The Ancient Alien mythos claims that the ruins at these sites cannot be the product of natural human ingenuity, pointing to the precision at Saksaywaman and Puma Punku and proclaiming that modern techniques could scarcely achieve such perfection, but as with most of their claims, it simply isn’t necessary to invoke alien intervention to explain the achievements of our ancestors.  Yes, these Incan sites are spectacular examples of Cyclopean masonry, but they are not unique among old world cultures.

As with other megalithic construction, the techniques used often turn out to be fairly simple, yet elegant solutions to the problems faced by the master architects of our past.  However satisfying and seemingly logical the alternative schools of thought on these issues tend to be, the truth is always better than a credulous fantasy.

At any rate, if one intends to dismiss the accepted wisdom of a subject, one had better first know just what is that accepted wisdom.


[1] Protzen, Jean-Pierre. Inca Architecture and Construction at Ollantaytambo. Oxford University Press 1993 ISBN-10: 0195070690

Bigfoot By Any Other Name…Is Just A Man? The Origin of the Word Sasquatch


I have an affinity for, or an affection for cryptids, specifically for Bigfoot.  If you follow me on twitter, you probably know me best by my avatar, which is Harry the Bigfoot from the 1987 hit movie Harry and the Hendersons (one of my all-time favourites).  I should be clear though, I’m not a believer.  That is to say that I’m decidedly undecided on the reality of Bigfoot, but I truly love the mythology and traditions surrounding the concept.  I would be overjoyed should some field researcher, or ‘squatcher’, bring the world undeniable evidence of the existence of this giant, hairy wild-man of the backwoods in, not only the Pacific North West of the United States, but also in other countries the world over…but I’m not holding my breath.

Bigfoot is perhaps the most famous mythological creature in human history, and there are many people making it their life’s business to seek out all information and knowledge on the subject, and to find evidence of this elusive beast, or beasts as the case may be.

But there’s an aspect of the Bigfoot phenomenon that a great many people don’t know, and it’s an issue that is formative to the entire mythology.  We all know that the name of Bigfoot, Sasquatch – which is used by most researchers because is seems to lend a small degree of credibility to the search – is actually a Native American / First Nations word meaning hairy wild-man, but do you really know the story behind that name?

The word Sasquatch isn’t technically a Native word, it was coined by Canadian teacher and Indian agent J.W. Burns in the 1920’s.  Burns taught for many years at the Chehalis Indian Reserve (No.5&6), which sits on the banks of the Harrison River near Vancouver, British Columbia (between Deroche and Agassiz).  That reserve houses the Chehalis First Nation band of Sts’Ailes people, who were almost wiped out by early European settlement of the area, and who have rebounded from the time of the horrible Residential Schools to a population of over 1000 band members.

Burns was, arguably, obsessed with the Indian tales of giant hairy wild-men, and he wrote extensively on the encounters that were shared with him by tribal elders and travellers.  It was through his writings that the word Sasquatch was brought into mainstream culture.  He wrote an article for the popular Canadian MacLean’s Magazine (April 1929 issue), in which he used the term frequently and since then it’s been a household name.

The problem is, the word Sasquatch was most likely a mistranslation.  That word doesn’t actually exist in the oral traditions of the people in question, nor in any other Native culture in North America.  The hairy wild-men of which Burns was a fanatic, apparently do exist, whether as a reality or as a fairy-tale, but they were known by many different names, depending on the specific tribe or band being referenced.  It’s generally thought that Burns confused the spelling and pronunciation of the Chehalis word ‘sasqac’.  This word means beast, but there are other contenders for the correct etymological originator, such as ‘sokqueatl’ and ‘soss-q’tal’, both of which mean wild-man, according to cryptozoologists Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark.[1]

It isn’t necessarily that Burns made a mistake, or misunderstood what was being said, some think he deliberately combined several words in an effort to make an umbrella term to cover all of the various languages he was working with, but it’s generally accepted that he did make the word up, for whatever reason.  And as such, we now have a blanket term, a household name for the creature or creatures that have been known to Native American and First Nations people for centuries.

There’s more to this, though, and it gets a bit weird.

World famous researcher and author Gian J. Quasar, renowned for being the authority on the Bermuda Triangle, and the creator/editor of The Bigfoot Blatt, has a slightly different theory.

Quasar says that Sasquatch has a completely different meaning, one you won’t be expecting.

In the first issue of The Bigfoot Blatt, of which there appear to only be two issues, Quasar expanded on a theory subtitled Lingua Fanca [sic] – Chinook Trading Jargon: A Skoocum Language, wherein he outlined the etymological origins and evolution of several words, apparently of the Chinook language.  He explains the origin of the word skoocum, suggesting that it began as the name of a greatly feared henchman of the Klikatats Indian band, who was known as the Casanov Skoocoom (or the henchman of Casanov, who was the chief of the tribe).  Skoocum is now used to describe someone who is good or excellent, or ‘cool’, and Quasar says that’s because the Casanov Skoocum was such a good murderer.

Quasar notes that the words in question are considered lingua franca (as he apparently tried to signify in the subtitle, listed above), or working languages, and are used to make communication possible between peoples who do not share a common mother tongue.  And it’s through this process that he claims that Sasquatch actually means Saskahaua George.

Quasar claims that Sasquatch came about as an alternative word meant to describe long haired wild-men of King George, or white men if you prefer.  He says that Indian warriors were known as sawash (or siwash), but they didn’t want to refer to non-Indian’s by the same term, so saskahaua was invented.

“Saskahaua George comes down to us as “Sasquatch” because the Indians seldom liked to refer to them as sawash (siwash a century ago). That implied they were Indians. But this is something that offended the Indians.”[2]

By implication, Quasar is saying that Burns coopted saskahaua, which ultimately became Sasquatch, which has now gone down in history as the Native word for giant, hairy wild-men, or Bigfoot.

Now, despite Quasar’s standing as a relatively respected researcher on the Bermuda Triangle phenomenon, he doesn’t appear to be a linguist, and his connection, if any, to Native American / First Nation customs is entirely unconfirmed.  That and the fact that the Chinook peoples are not related to the Chehalis people (though they were neighbours, geographically), makes his theory a little sketchy.  It’s an interesting thought though…

What if the word we’re all using to identify a huge, hairy, possibly mythological cryptid actually means white-man-of-King-George?  I doubt Quasar is going to convince anyone to give up the word now, but it does pay to understand just where our linguistic icons really come from.


[1] J. Clark & L. Coleman. The Unidentified & Creatures of the Outer Edge. Anomalist Books, 2006. ISBN 1933665114

[2] Gian J. Quasar. Lingua Fanca – Chinook Trading Jargon: A Skoocum Language. The Bigfoot Blatt – Issue 1, page 2.

The Hinterkaifeck Murders and the Devil’s Footprints

Six people – a family, well-to-do – murdered one-by-one in their own barn, at the hands of a monster unknown.

Sounds like the plot to a classic horror movie, but that’s actually the long-story-short for Germany’s most mysterious unsolved massacre; The Hinterkaifeck Murders.

It happened in 1922, in a rural area of southern Bavaria, on the farmstead known as Hinterkaifeck (which means farm beyond or hidden by the woods) in the small town of Wangen (now Weidhofen).  On the night of March 31, Andreas Gruber (63), his wife Cäzilia (72), their widowed daughter Viktoria Gabriel (35), along with her two children, Cäzilia (7) and Josef (2), and the new family maid Maria Baumgartner (44), were brutally murdered by persons unknown.  All but Josef and Maria were somehow lured to the barn, one-by-one, and bludgeoned to death with a mattock (similar to a pickaxe).  The killer or killers then entered the house and slaughtered the toddler and the maid in their beds.

It’s really not as cut and dried as that may suggest, though.

It turns out that Maria Baumgartner, the maid, was murdered on her first day on the job, in fact she may have been at the farm for only two to three hours before the first murder took place.  She had been hired as a replacement for the previous maid, who quit approximately six months earlier, claiming that the farm was haunted.

Crime Scene photo – the red numbers correspond to: (1) the living-bedroom of the couple Gruber – (2) the bedroom of Vikoria Gabriel – (3) the barn – (4) the location where four of the victims were found.

Some sources cite that a few days prior to the 31st, Gruber had found a trail of foot prints, leading from the edge of the dark forest to the rear of the family home, where they disappeared.  They then tell of Gruber and other members of the family hearing strange footsteps in the attic, finding an unfamiliar newspaper in the home, and one of the two sets of house keys going missing in the intervening days.[1]  Official sources however, claim that on the morning of March 30th, the day before the murders, Gruber had found that someone had tried to break into his ‘motor cottage’ (or garage), breaking the lock and disturbing the area outside the feed room.  After searching the farmstead for trespassers, he then found a single trail of footprints that led from the woods to the compound.[2]

As mentioned, around 7:30 on the evening of the 31st, all of the adult family members were somehow lured to the main barn and bludgeoned to death.  Later autopsies confirmed that a mattock, which was later recovered, had been the murder weapon, and the coroner at the time, noted that the wounds were precise, indicating that whomever had done this was at least familiar with the use of such a tool.  After then moving to the main house and using the same weapon on the toddler and maid, they then arranged the bodies in the barn, by stacking them on top of each other, piling hay over them and then covering them with a broken door.  They covered young Josef, in his bassinette, with one of his mother’s dresses and simply laid the maid on her own bed, covering her with a bed sheet.

Whomever committed this heinous act was apparently quite comfortable with what he/she/they had done, as they stayed in the home for several days afterward, feeding the cattle and having meals in the kitchen, just steps from the corpse of Baumgartner.  Neighbours reported seeing smoke rising from the chimney on the following Sunday, and the family dog had been handled and tied up near the barn when the postman arrived on Saturday afternoon.  Unfortunately the dog was later brutalised and left for dead with the family in the barn, though it survived.

The gruesome nature of the crime is story enough, but there’s much weirdness that goes along with this.

It turns out that paternal responsibility for young Josef had long been in question.  Viktoria, who was the official owner of the farmstead, was a rather promiscuous young woman.  Several men later came forward, claiming to have known her intimately, but a veritable war went on between Andreas Gruber and their long time neighbour and widower Lorenz Schlittenbauer.  It seems Schlittenbauer had also been with Viktoria, and it was believed that Josef was his son.  Schlittenbauer was required to make an alimony payment to the family, and retired any rights he had in parentage.  However, during these events Viktoria had elected to marry Schlittenbauer, who was several years her elder, but Gruber objected, and in return allegations of incest were leveled at Gruber, and he was ultimately imprisoned for a year prior to the murders.  It’s now largely believed that Andreas Gruber was Josef’s real father (and grandfather).

Crime Scene photo – The Maid’s room

The bodies were finally found on Tuesday April 4th, by Lorenz Schlittenbauer and four other neighbours, who had been alerted to something gone wrong by Gruber’s absence at church that past Sunday, and the absence of the younger Cäzilia at school on the Monday.  They attended Hinterkaifeck late in the afternoon, and following a brief search, found the gruesome scene in the barn.

Subsequent investigation and autopsy saw the corpse’s heads removed for study, which were ultimately lost (most likely in the battle at Nuremberg during WWII), and the bodies were buried, headless, in a local cemetery.  The farmstead was leveled a few years later, and now a monument stands on the site in honour of the departed.

So who did it?

There have been several suspects in the years since, not the least of which was Lorenz Schlittenbauer.  His familiarity with the farmstead and the people involved, coupled with the controversy of his would-be son and almost-wife, gave plenty of room for motive.  In fact, on the morning of the 30th, Gruber had seen Schlittenbauer at the neighbour’s farm while he tracked the trail of footprints, wherein he warned his neighbour of a possible prowler in the area.  This could have given Schlittenbauer opportunity to commit an atrocious act, while leaving doubt about who may have done it.

Crime Scene photo – Viktoria’s bedroom, showing Josef’s bassinette

Of course, there’s those foot prints.  Someone attended the farm, approached on foot from the wood, and apparently never left.  Yet no strangers or trespassers were found.

An escaped mental patient was also among the suspects.  Joseph Bärtle had slipped away from an asylum at Günzburg in 1921, and was apparently at large, possibly in the area of south Bavaria at the time.

But what if the foot prints weren’t the trail of a man after all?  I give you the Devil’s Footprints.

Found in February of 1855, following a heavy snowfall in Devon, England, were a strange line of tracks of an apparently two-legged creature with cloven-hoof feet.  The strange foot prints were tracked from Exmouth, across the Exe Estuary, to Teignmouth some 40 miles away.  There were, at times, large gaps in the trail, where it appeared that the creature had taken flight and then landed further down-field, and it was said that they appeared on rooftops, in gardens and up walls.  At the time witnesses attributed the tracks to the devil, hence the name, and though the tracks were studied and diagramed, no one has ever come up with an acceptable explanation for what made them.

Now, the Hinterkaifeck foot prints were never photographed, and the description of the tracks doesn’t provide any detail about their appearance.  And the Devil’s Footprints were never associated with any known crimes or otherwise unexplainable events, but one can’t help but see a similarity between the footprints of the Hinterkaifeck Murders and the Devil’s Footprints.

Were the family of Andreas Gruber slaughtered by a disgruntled neighbour, a deranged lunatic, or an otherworldly creature who left its calling card in the form of mysterious footprints?


[1] Author not listed. Hinterkaifeck. Armchair Detective:

[2] Elfriede Weber Alte Landgerichtsstr. (German language):

Louisa Oakley Green Ponders The Invisible, Luminous Universe

“Strange to say, the luminous world is the invisible world; the luminous world is that which we do not see. Our eyes of flesh see only night.”—Victor Hugo (1802-1885)

I wonder if French novelist Victor Hugo realized how true that statement might be when it comes to our disappearing universe? Disappearing universe, you might wonder? What’s that all about?

Well, to explain that, I must first flash back to my recent attendance at a Deepak Chopra lecture. I am not particularly a fan. His financial empire sets off an internal cynic alarm, but I was curious about what this icon was like in person. If I can leave a lecture with one new insight or nugget of information, I’m satisfied.

Most of his talk was predictable, but at one point he mentioned something that piqued my curiosity. He talked about the acceleration of matter in the expanding universe and how all galaxies are racing away from the Big Bang to the point of eventually exceeding the speed of light. It was a simple idea, but inspired some additional reading when I got home.

My area of science is biology, not astrophysics, and it never occurred to me that anything could exceed the speed of light. Yes, there’s the Warp Drive from Star Trek that supposedly creates a warp bubble enabling a ship to do just that. The ship remains in the bubble while the space “warps” around it. But as much as it pains me, the point must be made that Star Trek is still fiction.

Does Relativity Allow for Faster Than Light?

According to what I’ve read, under the special theory of relativity, a particle with subluminal velocity needs infinite energy to accelerate to the speed of light, although special relativity does not rule out the existence of particles that travel faster than light at all times (tachyons). That definition did not offer an entirely clear explanation for a non-astrophysicist, however, so I found a web column titled Ask an Astronaut—run by volunteers at Cornell University—that offered some more digestible insights.

First, the author explains, the universe is, indeed, expanding faster than the speed of light. But we should not think of it as a collection of galaxies all careening away from a central point.

Instead, he likens the universe to “a giant blob of dough with raisins spread throughout it” (raisins equal galaxies; dough equals space). Now imagine the dough is placed in a celestial oven and begins to expand, or more precisely, to stretch, maintaining the same proportions as before but with all the distances between galaxies expanding over time.

This, apparently, is what’s happening out there. Galaxies will eventually race away from us and disappear into the darkness, one by one, as if shut off by an immense omnipotent dimmer switch (albeit, long, long, long after we are all gone from this mortal coil).

Is Seeing Believing?

These galaxies are real, measurable entities that will someday fade beyond our perception. Perhaps millions of them already have and are quietly occupying an unseen pocket of our universe. This concept resonates with me and my personal experiences, the specifics of which I will explain a bit further down in this article. An important point I would like to make here is this: This is a scientific example of something that truly exists, but is beyond our ability to sense. Galaxies that exceed light speed in comparison to our galaxy, will travel too fast for their light to return to us so that we can detect them. However, their invisibility will not make them cease to exist or consign them to the realm of fiction. They’ll still be out there, somewhere, dwelling in an imperceptible cosmos. Any life that exists in those galaxies will forever be beyond our discernment as well.

Why does this resonate with me? I write about science all day, but I am married to a man who has a special ability to sense the invisible. In short, he’s psychic. What I explore in my book, Loitering at the Gate to Eternity, through research and stories is the possible existence of unseen energy beyond the physical realm. To be more specific, my book broaches the idea that maybe, as neuropsychiatrist and former Harvard Medical School instructor Dr. Diane Hennacy-Powell suggests, psychics may possess more sensitive nervous-system antennae than the rest of us. And they may be picking up on an entire plane of energy out there moving at a frequency beyond common observational measurement, like a galaxy traveling beyond the speed of light, like subatomic particles without the aid of instrumentation, or like our thoughts and emotions.

Is the Universe Invisibly Crowded?

Perhaps as Victor Hugo once wrote, “the luminous world IS the invisible world,” something we are too limited to see with “eyes of flesh.” Who knows how many universes and dimensions may exist beyond technology’s grasp? Are there bustling worlds silently surrounding or overlapping with our own? Why not? In a cosmos brimming with diverse energies, anything is possible.

It’s something to contemplate, perhaps even hope for, as we gaze into the night skies and fondly remember the faces, words and nuances of our departed who sometimes seem to exist only in the ghosts of our memories.

Incredible Out-Of-Body-Experience fMRI Results Aren’t What You Think

Did you see headlines like this over the last few days?  “The Woman Who Can Will Herself Out Of Her Body” or “Scientists unlock mystery of out-of-body experiences (aka astral trips)”, or even “Out-of-body experiences are the result of unusual brain activity, study claims”?

If you just read the headline and not the linked articles, you might have gotten the wrong impression.  Actually, even if you did read the article you may still have gotten it mixed up, but that’s not really your fault.

All three of those headlines, and a host of others, refer to a “study” published 10 February, 2014 in the science magazine Frontiers, titled Voluntary out-of-body-experience, an fMRI study.[1]  The story broke via a Popular Science Magazine article by Douglas Main, titled The Woman Who Can Will Herself Out Of Her Body.

It’s an interesting story.  An unnamed Canadian woman, an undergraduate student at the University of Ottawa, whom had attended a lecture on out-of-body-experiences, came forward claiming that she has the ability to leave her body at will.  To qualify that, her claim is that she, since childhood, has been able to induce a state of being that to her feels like she has left her body, whenever she wants.

At face value, this claim is no different than any other claim that a person can somehow leave their physical form in a non-corporeal state, and exist as some form of energy or body-less soul in the environment of their physical location.  Also known as astral projection or astral travel, this is a phenomenon that has been known to occult, metaphysical, and spiritual circles for many, many years.  And while those who undertake the practice, whether voluntary or not, seem to have no doubt that the experience is real, there is relatively little evidence to support it as a real phenomenon, as opposed to an hallucination.

Anyway, after coming forward, this woman underwent an fMRI “study” in the hopes that researchers might be able to see what was happening in her brain during such an episode.  What they found is impressive and interesting, but it doesn’t mean what the authors of those headlines mentioned above think it means.

There are a significant number of caveats that need to be put forward before anyone can really understand what happened here.

1)      This wasn’t a study.  It was an fMRI procedure that was described and discussed in a pseudo-research paper.  The output of the procedure is a technical readout that required interpretation by experts, but the fact that it was a single participant, and not a group of people surveyed and assessed with controls and blinding, means it’s not a study.

2)      The cited paper didn’t make any of the claims that the subsequent articles suggested, like the statement that science has “unlocked” out-of-body-experience, or that this woman can leave her body at will.  It says only that, during periods of time when she feels like she has achieved this astral trip, the brain imaging revealed the quoted results.  It does not confirm out-of-body-experience in any way.

3)      The publication in which the paper appeared, is not a peer-reviewed journal.  It is (self-described) as an “open source, community based academic publisher”.  It is reputable and is a valuable resource, but much of what appears on its website is suppositional commentary on on-going research.  It does have a community driven review forum, but this is not the same as peer-review publication.

4)      The purpose of the “study” was not to confirm or deny out-of-body-experiences.  It was to determine what goes on in the brain of a person who undergoes the experience, whatever that experience may actually be.

Now, to the result.  It turns out that when this woman undertook her astral trip during the fMRI procedure, the results showed significant deviation in her neural activity in the parts of her brain related to both visual processing and motor control.  And there was a significant activation in the area of her brain that is related to kinesthetic awareness (where your body parts are in relation to the rest of you).

This is fascinating, if you’re interested in neuroscience and psychology.  It provides insights into the way in which our brains organize and process sensory information, and the physiology of altered states of consciousness.

As mentioned though, it does not prove the case for out-of-body-experience.  The authors of the paper used the word hallucination several times throughout the paper as a label for what was happening, and it’s as good a word as any.  The woman involved claims that her experience is real, but this hasn’t been tested, at least in scientific terms, as it could have been with little effort.  The only evidence that she has this ability is her own claim that she does so.

The possibility does exist.  Most certainly.  But that’s really a separate issue from the “study” in question.

There is much better research that offers much better chances for finding answers in this regard.  Dr. Sam Parnia and his AWARE Study (which actually is a study) through the Human Consciousness Project is a prime example of what’s being done.  There’s also Dr. Dean Radin’s veritable mountain of research, experiments, and testable theories, among many other talented and brilliant scientists who focus on these subjects.  So with that in mind, why would anyone choose to place so much emphasis on a non-study-study that doesn’t say what they want it to say?

I leave you with the following:

“The human mind is a delusion generator, not a window to truth.” — Scott Adams

As amazing as our highly evolved brains are – and even in spite of evidence to the contrary in our culture, it is an amazing organ – they are really not to be trusted.  Outside of a discussion of existential psychology – which might suggest that what we think we know as reality, is nothing more than an elaborate dream – our brains primary function is to fool us into thinking that things are certain ways, when they really are not.

Astral travel may well be real, or at least no less real than any other form of reality, but how are we to differentiate between an hallucination and an unquantified experience confined to your head?

[1] Andra M. Smith & Claude Messier. Voluntary out-of-body-experience: an fMRI study. Frontiers in neuroscience.  10 February, 2014.