Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – Clarke’s Cabinet of Curiosities

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“Why do stones move all by themselves in California’s Death Valley? Can frogs and toads really live for centuries entombed in solid rock? Do the mountains of Mongolia still harbour neanderthal man?”

The last episode of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious WorldClarke’s Cabinet of Curiosities, is a handy way to include some strange mysteries that might not fit in with the themes of the earlier editions.

It begins in Death Valley, California where tracks in the ground indicate that rocks seem to have dragged themselves across the arid desert surface.  What adds to the mystery is that in the hundred years or so since the phenomenon was first noted nobody has actually seen them move.  Dr Dwight Carey’s theory involved abnormal weather conditions – which was certainly on the right track – although it wasn’t until recently that the mystery was finally laid to rest.  The solution can be found here.

Crail in Fife is our next destination, where the topic of ball lightning is examined.  This had already been discussed briefly in the first edition (we again see the footage of the plucky cafe owners and hear the tale of the speedy exit of the man with the wooden leg!) but here there are also theories proposed as to what it might be.  Professor James Tuck, who helped to create the atomic bomb, had been working on experiments in America to artificially create ball lightning.  He certainly generated something – which he admits may or may not have been ball lightning – but the debate about what ball lightning actually is rages on.  Even today there’s no common consensus, but this webpage has some of the more recent theories.

The Minnesota Iceman is a strange story.  It surfaced in the late 1960’s and was purported to be a neathandal man encased in ice.  He became something of a minor celebrity, appearing at numerous fairs and sideshows, before mysteriously vanishing again – although he returned to the limelight fairly recently.  The fact that he’s never been made available for rigorous scientific research would tend to indicate that he’s a fake, but reports of neathandal men spotted in Mongolia suggest that maybe, just maybe, the Minnesota Iceman was real.

Frogs encased in solid rock is another odd mystery for which there’s no answer.  In his closing piece to camera, Arthur says that “even if we solved all the mysteries in this series there’s plenty more where they came from. For our universe is not only more mysterious than we imagine, it is more mysterious than we can imagine.”

Even after thirty five years, Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World still stands up.  If some of the mysteries now have solutions, there are still plenty that don’t and, as previously touched upon, whilst the twenty five minute running time of each edition means that many topics could only be touched upon briefly, the series still managed to cover a considerable amount of ground.

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Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – Strange Skies

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Strange Skies opens in Flagstaff, Arizona where Dr Peter Boyce discusses the canals of Mars. This was the place where, back in 1894, the Lowell Observatory was established to examine whether the astonishing claim made a few years earlier by Giovanni Schiaparelli (that the surface of Mars was rife with canals) could be true.    Percival Lowell was convinced not only that canals existed, but they were made by the Martians in order to channel water from their ice caps.  His theories sparked a wave of Martian frenzy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which the programme compactly summarises.

Although Strange Skies gives Dr Boyce time to expound his theory that Lowell did observe something on the surface of Mars, even if it wasn’t exactly canals, Arthur’s on hand to pour cold water over these claims a few minutes later.  Given that the canal theory was dismissed some considerable time ago (indeed, long before this programme was made) it’s slightly surprising that this edition opened with a straight-faced statement that there might still be something in it.  But although it’s long been disproved it’s still an interesting story – further reading can be found here.

The apparent disappearance of the planet Vulcan (said to have existed between Mercury and the Sun) doesn’t seem to be very well known today.  This is probably because no such planet ever existed, but it’s another fascinating tale.  Urbain Le Verrier was a French mathematician who had discovered Neptune, so when he believed that he’d discovered another planet – Vulcan – it was no surprise he was taken seriously.  Others had also observed it, but then to seemed to disappear.  Most doubt it was ever there in the first place, but there’s still a few scientists who do believe in it.  This webpage has plenty of information on the subject.

Later, Strange Skies tackles a weighty topic – what was the Star of Bethlehem?  Was it a comet, or possibly a nova?  Another theory is that it was a conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn.  Dr David Hughes is seen working on a computer program which mapped the constellation at the time the Star was observed.  No doubt the computer was cutting edge at the time, although it looks rather primitive now (its total processing power could probably fit comfortably in the most basic mobile phone).  For those who believe the Star was a natural phenomenon this programme lays out some possible theories and this lengthy article is worth reading if you want to investigate further.

Although nothing is discussed in too much detail, Strange Skies still manages to provide some decent food for thought and is an entertaining twenty five minutes.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – Dragons, Dinosaurs and Giant Snakes

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I wonder if Roy Mackal, Chicago University’s Professor of Biology, was an inspiration for Indiana Jones?  He certainly looks the part, as he comes complete with a rakish hat.  After his introduction, he has a chat with a Chicago cab driver.  It’s an amusingly stilted exchange, as the cab driver asks him what he’s carrying.  “Well a jungle machete, some medical supplies for the tropics and a back-pack.”  The wooden cab driver then asks where he’s heading. “Well you may not believe this, we’re off to Africa to look for dinosaurs.”  Okay, sounds reasonable to me!  If he’s not Indiana Jones, then maybe he modelled himself on Conan-Doyle’s Professor Challenger?   But does he succeed in his quest?  We’re teased that later in the programme we’ll find out.  This article has some decent background on him.

Whilst Arthur’s amused expression tells its own story, he does concede that many species of animal have only recently been discovered, so it’s possible that some strange-sounding animals may exist in remote locations.  One such example is the giant snake which menaced Belgian helicopter pilot Colonel Remy van Lierde in the Congo.  There’s a picture of the snake (said to be fifty feet) although it’s hard to get an impression of its size as there’s no landmarks around it.  Arthur seems convinced though, and he reveals that analysis of the photograph proved that the snake was over forty feet long.  Further reading can be found here.

De Loy’s Ape (the picture at the top of this post) is certainly a striking image.  Is it a previously undiscovered species of ape or simply an elaborate hoax?  The programme is non-committal, but there’s plenty of opinions to be found on the internet, most of which say it’s a fake.

Some of the other animals discussed are less interesting, although things pick up a little when the topic of Mammoths is discussed.  It’s mentioned that Russian scientists planned to clone a new Mammoth the next time they found a preserved one in the ice.  It’s not been done yet, although it’s still being discussed.

As for Professor Mackal, it’s obvious that the programme’s budget didn’t stretch to following his team up the Congo.  So we have to make do with hearing him talk about what he did (or didn’t find) when he returns.  He’s non-committal, but leaves us with the hope that next time something concrete will turn up.

With a lack of definite finds or compelling evidence of strange beasts, I think it’s fair to say that Dragons, Dinosaurs and Giant Snakes is one of the less compelling editions of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – UFOs

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Arthur opens this edition with a forthright statement.  “I think I can claim to be a reluctant expert on UFOs. I’ve been interested in them for almost fifty years, long before the phrase ‘flying saucers’ was invented. UFOs are very common. If you’ve never seen one you’re either unobservant or you live in a cloudy area. I’ve seen half a dozen good ones. And now I have some very definite opinions on the subject.”

The first mystery discussed on UFOs occurred in Wellington, New Zealand 1978.  A plane, with a television crew aboard, had taken the same route as a previous plane which had reported multiple UFO sightings.  The television camera captured some very bright, odd shapes which couldn’t be identified.  “I really don’t know what’s going on” admitted the reporter.  This is a classic UFO sighting – there’s no doubt something was in the air which can be classed as an Unidentified Flying Object, but does that mean it was extraterrestrial in origin?  This brief report, from 2008, mentions that they remained a mystery decades later – as they do to this day.

It was a man called Kenneth Arnold who, on the 24th of June 1947, created the modern flying saucer craze.  His observation of a group of UFOs, which he likened to flying saucers, caused a sensation and from then on the most commonly reported design of UFOs were saucer shaped.  Arnold makes an appearance in this edition to tell his story (as no doubt he did thousands of times during the decades since his reported sighting) and UFOs benefits from his direct testimony.  Whether he was telling the truth is another matter of course ….  There’s a wealth of information about Arnold’s flying saucers out there for the curious to read about.  This is a good place to start.

It’s interesting to ponder whether the publicity surrounding Arnold’s encounter directly affected future sightings of UFOs.  Since so many sightings post-Arnold were also saucer shaped, it’s possible to wonder where were all the flying saucers before he spotted the first one?  Some of the more famous flying saucer pictures are briefly discussed, including the iconic shot by Stephen Pratt of Yorkshire (used as the image on this post).

Arthur then discusses some of his UFO sightings – one of which turned out to be a weather balloon.  It shouldn’t come as any surprise that he leans towards finding a rational explanation for UFOs if he can.  To illustrate this, the UFO film shot by Lee Hansen in Catalina back in 1966 is investigated and is declared to be an aircraft.  Arthur agrees with this, although there will be many who still believe that it was an alien craft.  As he says, with long-range sightings there’s always room for doubt and that’s why he’s no longer interested in such reports.  But what does interest him are close encounters.

And it’s to Ranton in Stafford that we go, to speak to Mrs Jessie Roestenberg.  “To my amazement there, suspended on the top of the roof of this old farm, was this object that I can only describe as a huge mexican hat. It was that shape, without the bobbles. It must have been fifteen to twenty yards from where I stood. It covered the roof, so in circumference it must have been about sixty feet, it was enormous.  The people in the space-craft were just looking out, I could see them from the waist to the top of their heads. They were very beautiful people. They had long golden hair.”

With no evidence, it’s easy to dismiss stories like Mrs Roestenberg’s, although the programme then teases us that sometimes clues are left behind.  Forestry worker Bob Taylor tells of his strange encounter with an unearthly object just outside Edinburgh.  Even more entertaining than his tangle with this mysterious alien artifact is the reaction of his wife.  “He looked terrible when he came in the door. And he just stood at the door and I said ‘have you had an accident with your lorry?’ and he said no, I’ve been attacked. And I said ‘what with?’ and he said a spaceship. And I said ‘oh goodness me, there’s no such a thing as a spaceship, I’m going to phone the doctor'”.  Wonderful stuff!  Disappointedly he wasn’t able to take a piece of the ship as evidence, but strange track marks did pique the interest of the police.

With a running-time of just twenty five minutes, UFOs can only scratch the surface of this phenomenon.  But it does work as a useful introduction to some of the more famous cases which continue to generate debate today.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – Out of the Blue

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Out of the Blue opens with Arthur playing table tennis.  This seems slightly odd, but all becomes clear when he explains that his daily table-tennis partner – at the Otter’s Club, Colombo – saw fish falling from the sky.

There’s some classic eye-witness interviews in this one.  Joe Alpin recalls a strange event during WW2.  “The sky suddenly darkened. And then the frogs came. Millions of them. Raining out of the sky.”  Possibly Joe overestimated the number a little, as millions seem a little excessive – although he did claim it rained frogs for well over an hour, so there must have been quite a few.

Mrs Sylvia Mowday looks just the sort of sensible, late middle-aged woman that you wouldn’t think would make up a strange story simply for a bit of publicity, so maybe her froggy tale was true.  “We heard something thudding against the umbrella.  When we looked, to our amazement it was a shower of frogs. There were hundreds of them.”  This happened in the 1950’s – a few years after Joe’s sighting – and it’s interesting that Mrs Mowday only mentions hundreds.  Had raining frogs been curtailed since the war, or was she simply better at counting than Joe?!

Although reports of frogs falling from the sky are quite common, so are tales of fish descending from the heavens.  A series of interviews in Marksville, Louisiana illustrate how a number of residents all witnessed a deluge of flying fish.  From the testimony of the wonderfully named Sheriff Potch Didier to the accounts of several older woman (who all seem to have had maids at the time – clearly this was an affluent neighbourhood) it all sounds most odd.

Although Arthur considers that the whirlwind theory – freak atmospheric conditions which cause the likes of fish or frogs to be scooped up – might explain some of these events, he concedes that it doesn’t answer all of them.  And why are there never any reports of fish, frogs or other items getting sucked up into the sky?

Gordon Honeycombe’s incredibly detailed narration sets the scene for the next strange event.  “On Sunday March the 13th 1977, Mr Alfred Wilson-Osbourne, chess correspondent for the Bristol Evening Post, left the Westbury Park Methodist Church to walk home with his wife. Their journey took them past a car showroom.”

And what did they see? A shower of hazelnuts.  Mr Wilson-Osbourne wins the prize for the most accurate estimation of the number of objects he saw.  Joe Alpin reckoned he saw millions of frogs, Sylvia Mowday estimated that she observed hundreds of frogs, whilst Mr Wilson-Osbourne gives us a more precise figure – three hundred and fifty.

These aren’t the most staggering of mysteries, but they’ve quite fun nonetheless and some of the interviewees are highly entertaining.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – The Riddle of the Stones

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“Why did the people of prehistoric Britain set up the great stone circle on Salisbury Plain? What is the meaning of Stonehenge? Were Britain’s other rings of stone centres of an unknown Pagan cult? Were they places of sacrifices and death? Were they observatories where, four thousand years ago, astronomers plotted the courses of the sun, moon and stars?”

This edition of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World sets up a great many questions, so it’ll be interesting to see if it can come up with any answers.  But what’s clear from the start is that Arthur has little sympathy with “latter-day druids” who have claimed the likes of Stonehenge for themselves.  “Their association with stone circles is the invention of eighteenth century romantic writers.  The druids flourished a thousand years after the completion of Stonehenge, so to confuse them with stone circles is like mixing up the Battle of Britain and the Battle of Hastings.”

The megalithic tomb at Newgrange in Ireland is described as an almost unknown wonder.  Built over five thousand years ago it’s certainly an impressive sight.  Professor Michael O’Kelly, who was responsible for restoring it to its former glory, describes how he began to believe that the ancient builders of Newgrange had designed it in such a way as to allow the rays of the sun to illuminate the tomb on certain days – most especially the 21st of December (the Winter Solstice).  He describes how, on the 21st of December 1967, he stepped into the tomb to prove his theory.  This turned out to be correct, as he witnessed the chamber being illuminated with the bright winter sunshine.  This webpage has more detail on both Newgrange and Professor Kelly.

That Newgrange was designed to take account of the movement of the heavens seems clear and it’s also been supposed that some stone circles were created to serve as observatories – allowing ancient astronomers to use them as gigantic calendars (back then, knowing what time of the year it was would have important in many ways).

It’s a little odd to watch somebody clambering over the top of Stonehenge – it’s hard to imagine that happening today.  Richard Brickerhoff did so to test a theory that the strange bumps in some of the stones were evidence of a particular type of astronomical practice that had been carried out thousands of years ago.  It’s a nice enough theory, but doesn’t really convince.  Although Arthur admits that some stone circles do show evidence of astronomical alignments, he suggests that most could be nothing more than meeting places.

Some places continue to baffle though, such as Avebury in Wiltshire.  Containing multiple stone circles, it’s a particularly impressive construction feat – especially when you consider how difficult it would have been to move stones that weighed sixty tons (hundreds of people would have been required to move just a single stone).

The mystery of the stone circles is nicely summed up by Dr Aubrey Burl.  “It’s like reaching out into the darkness, you can go so far but in the end you can never touch them. You’re always reaching for a shadow.”  When so many experts are only too happy to spin extravagant theories, it’s refreshing to hear from someone who doesn’t claim to have all the answers.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – The Great Siberian Explosion

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“On the morning of June the 30th 1908 something came hurtling out of the sky. An enormous ball of fire which exploded above the Siberian forest with a sound that was heard a thousand miles away and a blast that laid waste the trees over an area the size of London and New York put together.”

This edition opens by giving us numerous suggestions about what this strange object could have been – a meteorite, a piece of antimatter, a small black hole, an atomic bomb (decades before the first recorded one was created) or even an exploding flying saucer.  But more noteworthy than this is that the pre-credits section features a different piece of introductory footage of Arthur C. Clarke.  For the previous six editions, Gordon Honeycombe’s narration about Clarke (author of 2001, inventor of the communications satellite, etc) has been combined with shots of him strolling down a Sri-Lankan beach, umbrella in hand.  But here we see him walking through the streets instead.  It’s a small point, but after watching the episodes in quick succession it does stand out – possibly the programme makers decided it was time for a change, a wise move if so.

The effects of the explosion seemed to be far reaching.  In southern England the evening was unusually light – well past midnight it was still bright enough to play golf, for example.  Whether this was connected at the time to the Siberian explosion isn’t clear, but it is interesting that the investigation into the explosion only began in 1927, nearly twenty years after the event.

One of the things that impresses about Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World is how often the programme-makers were able to talk to individuals who had direct experience of the strange events featured across the series.  The Great Siberian Explosion is no exception as Dr Leonid Krinov, who investigated the explosion back in the 1920’s, gives an account of what he learnt from the eye-witnesses he interviewed.  Even though he was asking them to remember back some twenty years it seems they had no difficulty – but then such an event would be something that would no doubt stick in the memory.

Usually the series would feature several different mysteries across a single edition, but here they concentrate on just one.  The Siberian explosion is strong enough to fill the twenty five minute running time, although the widely held belief that it was a meteor or comet that exploded in the atmosphere – which explains why no crater was discovered – might disappoint those who favour a more outlandish answer.  This webpage neatly sums up the main facts, whilst the comments underneath offers some wackier explanations.  Arthur sums up all the possibilities, although he finds it difficult to keep a straight face when describing some of them (an exploding nuclear engine from a flying saucer, for example) .