Far Out: 101 Strange Tales From Science's Outer Edge [NOOK Book]


Mark Pilkington charts some of the more curious byways, scenic detours, and inspired failures of scientists, inventors, and, yes, crackpots, over the past few hundred years.

From the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis to zero-point energy, via the Hieronymous Machine and Phlogiston, Far Out tells the stories that are all too often ignored, lost, or simply forgotten by conventional science books. Some of them are perhaps best left languishing in the margins of history, but others may yet ...

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Far Out: 101 Strange Tales From Science's Outer Edge

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Mark Pilkington charts some of the more curious byways, scenic detours, and inspired failures of scientists, inventors, and, yes, crackpots, over the past few hundred years.

From the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis to zero-point energy, via the Hieronymous Machine and Phlogiston, Far Out tells the stories that are all too often ignored, lost, or simply forgotten by conventional science books. Some of them are perhaps best left languishing in the margins of history, but others may yet change our future. Entries cover physics, chemistry, biology, archaeology, parapsychology, psychology, and other areas yet to be inducted into mainstream science, including radionics, keranography, erotoxin, and remote viewing.

Written in a succinct and engaging style, each piece provides a useful, self-contained introduction to its topic, and provides enough information to allow readers to discover more if they so desire.

Far Out is the latest in the unique CD-sized book format from Disinformation, following the best-selling 50 Things You’re Not Supposed To Know series by Russ Kick. Once again, the book is printed in two colors, with the entries arranged into sections, many with appropriate illustrations, diagrams, or photographs.

Mark Pilkington is a freelance journalist, writer, and editor. As well as writing the “Far Out” column for the Guardian on which this book is based, he has also written for The London Times, Fortean Times, Arthur, and The Wire, among others. He also edits the highly praised anthology of cultural marginalia, Strange Attractor, and runs Strange Attractor Press.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781934708392
  • Publisher: Disinformation Company, The
  • Publication date: 10/1/2007
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 1,233,872
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Mark Pilkington is a freelance journalist, writer and editor. As well as writing the Far Out column for the Guardian (UK) he is a contributing editor to Fortean Times. He has also written for, amongst others, The London Times, The Wire, and Arthur. He is also the editor of the highly-praised anthology of cultural marginalia, Strange Attractor Journal.
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Read an Excerpt



By Mark Pilkington

The Disinformation Company Ltd.

Copyright © 2007 Mark Pilkington
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-932857-87-0



What is there in places empty of matter?—Isaac Newton, 1706.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do we. For as long as humankind has considered the universe around us, we have sought to fill its emptiness. In the fourth century B.C.E., Aristotle proposed "aether" as a name for the fifth element, or quintessence, postulated by his teacher, Plato. Aether, or ether, made up the worlds of the outer celestial spheres believed to surround our own.

By the mid-seventeenth century René Descartes was using the word to describe the medium of space. Vortices in this ether, he felt, were responsible for the accumulation of particles that formed matter and ultimately shaped all solid objects, from pebbles to planets.

A century later, the word encompassed a number of vague but related ideas about the subtle matter keeping the stars and planets in place. Many eighteenth century astronomers would invoke the aether to account for the variations and discrepancies in the motions of celestial bodies, or the way that light traveled through space.

Isaac Newton considered his version of the aether—which he described as strong, subtle and elastic while admitting that he did not know what it actually was—to be responsible for what we now recognize as gravity and electromagnetism, as well as our own physical movements and sensations. Always mystically inclined, Newton wondered if this aether wasn't a living force—essentially, spirit—though he knew that he could never prove this to be the case.

The aether was still very much alive in the nineteenth century. Following James Clerk Maxwell's unification of electricity and magnetism, light was revealed to be just another waveband in the electromagnetic spectrum. However, Maxwell's "undulations" still needed a medium through which to travel—emptiness was not an option. The Luminiferous Aether was proposed to answer that need.

For most investigators, however, the aether vanished following the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887, which sought, unsuccessfully, to record "aether wind" as a measurable effect of the Earth moving through the aether. To the experimenters' chagrin, their failure was taken as proof that the aether had never existed at all.

Subsequently, more sophisticated theories of subatomic physics and Einstein's space-time continuum have relegated the aether to the domains of mysticism and outré science. But its spirit lives on in dark matter, a modern manifestation of this most ancient idea.



For almost a century it was thought that flammable materials burned because they contained a colorless, odorless, tasteless and weightless substance called phlogiston (from the Greek phlogistos, flammable)—the matter of fire.

The theory was developed in late seventeenth century Germany by two university professors, Johann Joachim Becher and then Georg Ernst Stahl, who outlined his version in The True Theory of Medicine (1708). Expanding on the ideas of the sixteenth century Swiss chemist and physician Paracelsus, Becher suggested that metals and minerals were compounds which, when burned, released terra pinguis (meaning fatty, flammable earth) into the air. This left behind the metal's true form, the calx, composed of terra lapida ("stony earth"—giving a metal body), and terra mercuriallis ("mercurial earth"—giving it weight and color).

Stahl extended Becher's theory, replacing terra pinguis with phlogiston in 1700. Phlogiston was released into the air by the combustion of flammable matter and the respiration of living organisms. These processes formed phlogisticated air, which was then absorbed by plants. Charcoal, which left little residue when burned, was considered to be almost pure phlogiston, and when burned with a metal's calx, would restore it to its familiar compound state. Rusting iron, according to the theory, was slowly releasing its phlogiston into the air and so returning to its original, elemental state.

Among phlogiston's supporters was the scientist and theologian Joseph Priestley, inventor of the carbonated drink and discoverer of numerous key gases. One of these he described as being "an air five or six times as good as common air"; indeed, a candle placed inside it would burn extra brightly and a mouse breathing it lived for twice as long as it did in ordinary air (Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air Vol. II, 1775). Because things burned so well in this new type of air, Priestly called it "dephlogisticated air" and informed the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier.

Lavoisier took Priestley's dephlogisticated air into the laboratory, where he reached conclusions of his own. These he presented to the French Academy of Science on September 5, 1775—the day phlogiston died. "The dephlogisticated air of Mr. Priestley, is ... the true combustible body," said Lavoisier, "... there is no longer need, in explaining the phenomena of combustion, of supposing that there exists an immense quantity of fixed fire in all bodies which we call combustible."

Lavoisier would rename Priestley's dephlogisticated air "pure air" and later, "oxygen."



Having trained as a physician in Vienna and practiced as a doctor in the Saxe German mining town of Hettstedt, Samuel Hahnemann became increasingly disillusioned with the medical establishment's attitude towards the treatment of patients, which he considered to be vague and dangerous.

In 1790 he translated the distinguished Scottish physician William Cullen's Materia Medica into German, but took issue with Cullen's explanation of how Peruvian Cinchona bark (in which quinine would be isolated 28 years later) cured fever. So he decided to experiment with it on himself.

After several trials, in which he induced fever and palpitations, Hahnemann established the theory that the outward symptoms of a sickness were a reflection of the "untuning" of the vis vitalis—the life force thought to differentiate organic from inorganic matter—and that the effects of a substance on the healthy organism revealed what symptoms it could cure in the unhealthy organism. Working from the principle Similia Similibus Curentur, "like cures like," Hahnemann began systematically to experiment on himself and members of his family, noting the effects of numerous different substances on their healthy bodies.

In 1805 he published a directory of the symptoms induced by different medicines—the first of its kind—and developed his ideas into a practical system of treatment, which he called homeopathy. Although Hahnemann himself was subjected to a series of professional attacks by medical practitioners, homeopathy grew in popularity with Europe's patients. His method's moment of triumph came in 1813, when Hahnemann successfully treated a number of patients in Leipzig during a nationwide outbreak of typhus fever.

The central tenets of homeopathy—that like cures like and the more a solution is diluted the more potent it becomes—have changed little since Hahnemann's time. The practice achieved its greatest notoriety in 1988, when Nature published a paper by the French immunologist Jacques Benveniste. In it he observed that white blood cells still demonstrated an allergic response to water in which allergens had been diluted down to minute homeopathic doses. Benenviste's conclusion, that water somehow retained a "memory" of the molecules it once contained, caused a storm of controversy. A subsequent investigation by a Nature-appointed team attempted to discredit his findings, criticizing the working environment of his lab and his statistical analysis; but the team found no evidence of fraud.

The subject remains deeply controversial. Researchers on opposing sides of the argument regularly claim to have successfully replicated Benenviste's findings, or to have disproved homeopathy entirely. A 2005 survey published in the leading medical journal The Lancet looked at 100 homeopathic trials and found the results to be no better than those for placebos. It has been suggested that measured improvements in homeopathic patients arise largely from the experience of therapy itself—the time and attention spent on the patient by the homeopathist—rather than the mysterious little white pills prescribed as medicine.

But an improvement is still an improvement, however it works, and despite repeated attempts to undermine his theories, today Hahnemann's 200-year-old medicinal art accounts for 0.5 percent of the world's pharmaceuticals market.



May 25, 1782. In the culmination of a month's worth of startling experiments, 15 prestigious observers, among them several Lords and Fellows of the Royal Society, watched keenly as the 24-year-old chemist James Price mixed mercury with a tiny amount of a mysterious red powder. The substances were heated in a crucible for several minutes then allowed to cool. In their place appeared a yellowish metal, later identified by an Oxford goldsmith as constituting a high standard of gold.

Generally speaking there are two schools in the study of Western European alchemy. The more literal approach sees the sixteenth and seventeenth century alchemists as early chemists, predecessors of the sort of people James Price had recently joined as a Fellow of the Royal Society. The other school sees the alchemists in a more mystical light, and their descriptions of physical experiments as an allegory for a process of spiritual transformation.

Such a distinction would have meant little to many of the early alchemists, for whom spirit and matter were intrinsically connected, but by the time of Price's experiment, the practice had only one aim—turning base metals into gold.

News of Price's transformation spread quickly and caused a sensation; a sample of his gold even received the personal approval of King George III. Oxford University awarded him a doctorate and he wrote accounts of his experiments for the newspapers.

Within the Royal Society, however, all was not well: many important members, not least the president, Joseph Banks, were highly skeptical of his claims, but their demands that Price reveal his methods, and the composition of his miraculous red powder, fell on deaf ears. As the pressure upon him grew, he finally relented and agreed to a conclusive demonstration.

In early August 1783, with his reputation now close to tatters, Price invited three members of the Royal Society into his home. Accounts of what happened next vary, but at some point Price downed a glass of highly poisonous laurel water that he had distilled himself, and within hours, or maybe even minutes, he was dead.

Was Price simply a fraud who feared exposure? Was he suffering delirium as the result of mercury poisoning? Or, perhaps, as alchemist and historian Guy Ogilvy has suggested, the mystery powder was passed to him by another alchemical adept, meaning that Price was unable to reveal its secrets because he didn't actually know them himself.

The answer, and perhaps the secrets of alchemy, died with James Price, just as a new age of science was born.



A diligent gentleman scientist with a passion for electricity, Andrew Crosse was known as the "thunder and lightning" man around his home in the Quantock Hills, Somerset, where he also held a seat as an English Member of Parliament.

In 1836, Crosse was attempting to create artificial crystals by dripping a chemical solution through an electrified stone from Mount Vesuvius. After two weeks, Crosse noticed tiny white spots appearing on the surface of the stone, which was submerged in a mixture of water and hydrochloric acid. On the eighteenth day, filaments began to emerge from the spots and by the twenty-sixth day the spots had taken on a startling form. "Each figure," wrote Crosse, "assumed the form of a perfect insect, standing erect on a few bristles which formed its tail." On the twenty-eighth day, to Crosse's astonishment, the insects began to twitch their legs. Within weeks, a hundred had formed and, once rescued from the water, scuttled across his workbench in search of shelter.

The tiny "porcupine"-like creatures were identified as mites of the genus Acarus—it was initially thought they might represent a new species—perhaps Acarus crossii or Acarus galvanicus. Wishing to experiment further before making a public announcement, Crosse tried to keep his discovery quiet. But word soon got out and Crosse found himself labeled "a reviler of our holy religion," "a disturber of the peace of families," and denounced as a Frankensteinlike madman.

He had some surprising defenders, however. In 1837 the distinguished electrical pioneer Michael Faraday told the Royal Institution of Great Britain that he too had observed the appearance of mites during some of his experiments, though he didn't think that they were actually born of electricity. Nor, for that matter, did Crosse, though this did nothing to quell the vitriol of his detractors. "I have never ventured an opinion as to the cause of their birth, and for a very simple reason—I was unable to form one. The most simple solution of the problem which occurred to me, was that they arose from ova deposited by insects floating in the atmosphere," he wrote in 1837.

Crosse would have been working in homely conditions, and it seems most likely that his mites were of the common dust or cheese varieties, whose eggs had already contaminated his equipment before the experiments began. At least one fellow investigator, William Henry Weekes of Sandwich, England, repeated and expanded upon Crosse's work, noting that the number of mites was proportionate to the amount of carbon in the mixture, but his findings attracted little attention and Crosse remains to this day something of an electrical heretic.


Excerpted from FAR OUT by Mark Pilkington. Copyright © 2007 Mark Pilkington. Excerpted by permission of The Disinformation Company Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


001 Filling Space: The Aether,
002 Phlogiston: The Matter Of Fire,
003 The Memory Of Water,
004 Fool's Gold: Alchemy,
005 Acarus Galvanicus: Electric Mites,
006 Od: The All Permeating Force,
007 The Mechanical Messiah,
008 Ectoplasm: A Sticky Business,
009 N Rays,
010 Radionics,
011 Lysenkoism: The Perils Of State Science,
012 The Midwife Toad Affair,
013 Orgone: The Cosmic Pulse Of Life,
014 High Life,
015 Electronic Voice Phenomena,
016 Velikovsky: The Day The Earth Stood Still,
017 Rogue Planet,
018 Harmonic 33: The International Grid,
019 Sea Monkeys,
020 The Mars Effect,
021 Plant Sentience,
022 Think Of A Picture,
023 Ancient Electricity,
024 Perpetual Motion: What Goes Around,
025 James Graham: The Celestial Bedmaker,
026 Nikola Tesla And Universal Energy,
027 Shocking Health,
028 Keely's Trickster Engine,
029 The Death Ray,
030 The First Mobile Phone Network?,
031 Science In Chains,
032 The Water Wizard,
033 The E-Meter,
034 The Hieronymous Machine,
035 Dr. Rife's Oscillating Beam Ray,
036 Time Travel TV,
037 Pillow Talk: The Cerebrophone,
038 The Neurophone,
039 Electrogravitics: Human Flying Saucers,
040 Bodies Of Light: Kirlian Imagery,
041 The Poltergeist Machine,
042 Cold Fusion,
043 Starlite,
044 Extreme Noise Terror,
045 Invisibility: The Empire's New Clothes,
046 Angel Light,
047 Alfred Wegener: Geology Adrift,
048 Pet Predictors,
049 Life's A Gas,
050 Inner Journeys,
051 Dig It,
052 Toads In The Hole,
053 Rock Sound,
054 The Megalithic Yard,
055 Can You Hear The Hum?,
056 The Fear Frequency,
057 Evil Odors,
058 The Fog,
059 Lunar Lights,
060 The Architects Of Mars,
061 By The Light Of The Silvery Moon,
062 Hot Rocks,
063 Meteoric Pop,
064 Space Gunk,
065 Strange Rains,
066 All Across The Universe,
067 Keranography,
068 Oceanic Auroras,
069 Where Are You?,
070 Martian Spoken Here,
071 The (Near) Dead Live,
072 The Stigmatics,
073 Mind Control,
074 Peer Pressure,
075 The Experimenter Effect,
076 Obedience,
077 Living In A Box,
078 Pain On The Brain,
079 The Original Frankensteins,
080 Our Friends Electric,
081 Mind The Zap,
082 Erototoxin,
083 Why Are We Sleeping?,
084 Junk DNA,
085 It's The DNA Talking!,
086 Tusko's Last Trip,
087 Kinds Of Blue,
088 Rat Heaven,
089 Curses, Foiled Again!,
090 Water Witching,
091 Firestarters,
092 Strange Attractors,
093 Mind To Mind,
094 The Remote Viewers,
095 The Vanishing,
096 Tuning In To The Global Mind,
097 The Weight Of The Soul,
098 Experiments With Time,
099 The Future Man,
100 Retroactive PK: Can We Change The Past?,
101 Damned Science,

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