Mysterious boom rattles New England

The autumn idylls of New England were disturbed recently by forces unknown. The New York Times reports:

A mysterious boom jolted New Hampshire and at least one adjoining state on Sunday morning, rattling homes, spooking pets and prompting several hundred amateur sleuths to go online to try to find out what possibly could have caused all the commotion.

So far, the source of the boom has confounded residents, many of whom speculated that it might have been an earthquake.

But an official at the National Earthquake Information Center, which is part of the U.S. Geological Survey, said that none of the agency’s stations had found any evidence of an earthquake in all of New England during the past seven days.

Some residents wondered if a meteorite or an aircraft might be behind the mystery, one that generated some complaints next door in Massachusetts.

With earthquakes ruled out — the last quake recorded in the area was a magnitude 1.7 on August 22 — speculation abounds as to the noise’s source, with some hypothesizing that it may have been a military test of some kind. Others suggest the culprit may have been a small meteor exploding in the atmosphere. However,

[…] while a meteor is likely the cause, the only way to prove it is if someone saw it. Because it was overcast across much of the region Sunday morning, there might not be any evidence of a meteor.

Unless it happens again, the source of this mysterious sound may remain an October mystery.

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The tragedy and farce of Cleveland’s Balloonfest of ’86

Cleveland, Ohio is used to being the butt of jokes. Its famous burning river and the perennial underperformance of its football team have earned it widespread mockery and the enduring moniker “the mistake on the lake.” Once one of the nation’s five largest metros, Cleveland’s industry has bled offshore and its people have fled for suburbs and Southern climes, leaving behind a well-worn rustbelt emblem with an outsized set of legacy cultural institutions.

In 1986, movers and shakers at the United Way tried to shift this narrative with a single bold stroke. Their plan: break a Guinness world record by releasing more than one million balloons into the air as a fundraising gimmick, and show the world that Cleveland could be something more than a cheap punchline.

To do so, they contracted an LA-based balloon company that spent six months preparing for the event. A structure the size of a city block, covered with a mesh net, was set up to hold the balloons, which were filled in a single day by 2,500 volunteers. Altogether, more than 1.4 million balloons were inflated and launched into the air on September 27, 1986 — and truly, it was a sight to see.

Alas, Balloonfest ’86 was not the positive turning point Cleveland had hoped for. A simple principle had evaded the organizers: what goes up must come down. A cold front trapped the balloons close to the ground and forced many of them into the lake just offshore. The rest caused problems elsewhere: shutting down airports, clogging highways and waterways, littering the region with plastic and string. Horses in surrounding exurbs suffered “permanent injuries” when they were spooked by balloons landing in their pastures, prompting lawsuits and a payout from the event organizers. Most tragically, a Coast Guard search for two missing fishermen had to be called off due to the balloons; both men drowned. (This also prompted a lawsuit and subsequent settlement.)

Asked for comment on the event years later, the United Way said simply “we would not do a balloon launch ever again.”

You can watch a short documentary (7 minutes) about the Balloonfest incident below:

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The radioactive wild boar-pigs of Fukushima

A wild boar.
A wild boar.

In the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, 1000 square miles of surrounding territory were evacuated of all inhabitants and left fallow ever since. Despite high levels of background radiation, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (as it is known) has become a thriving haven for wildlife (funny how big a difference the total absence of human beings can make!). After being off-limits to humans for more than thirty years, today the area is thickly forested and home to wildcats, deer, and bison, among other large mammals.

Something similar has happened in the area around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan after the 2011 tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster. From the BBC:

“Once people were gone, the boar took over,” explains Donovan Anderson, a researcher at Fukushima University in Japan.

His genetic study of the wild boar that roam in an area largely abandoned after Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster – has revealed how the animals have thrived.

Using DNA samples, he also discovered that boar have bred with domestic pigs that escaped from farms.

This has created wild pig-boar hybrids that now inhabit the zone.

Apparently, these boar pose such a nuisance that the Japanese government has contracted local hunters to cull them.

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U.S. government releases interim UFO report

At last, the moment we’ve been waiting for since last December’s COVID relief bill has arrived: the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has released its interim report on two decades of UFO sightings to Congress.

The New York Times reports:

A total of 143 reports gathered since 2004 remain unexplained, the document released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said. Of those, 21 reports of unknown phenomena, involving 18 episodes, possibly demonstrate technological capabilities that are unknown to the United States: objects moving without observable propulsion or with rapid acceleration that is believed to be beyond the capabilities of Russia, China or other terrestrial nations.

[…]

The nine-page document essentially declines to draw conclusions, announcing that the available reporting is “largely inconclusive” and noting that limited and inconsistent data created a challenge in evaluating the phenomena.

[…]

The government intends to update Congress within 90 days on efforts to develop an improved collection strategy and what officials are calling a technical road map to develop technology to better observe the phenomena, senior government officials told reporters on Friday.

While details are scant and the report’s authors decline to go out on any limbs, what’s especially interesting here are the things that aren’t ruled out. One line in particular stands out to me: “21 reports of unknown phenomena, involving 18 episodes, possibly demonstrate technological capabilities that are unknown to the United States: objects moving without observable propulsion or with rapid acceleration that is believed to be beyond the capabilities of Russia, China or other terrestrial nations.

You can read the unclassified report yourself here.

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Department of Defense UFO report expected as soon as tomorrow

In recent weeks, the world has been abuzz about a string of UFO sightings, footage drops, and surprising statements from sober and well-regarded public officials. Long the purview of crackpots, cultists, and the New Age movement, recent sightings are seemingly now being taken seriously by the government and mainstream press alike.

For instance, the following footage, which depicts an unidentified triangular craft spotted by a U.S. Navy vessel, aired on NBC news last month:

Similarly, this segment appeared on the May 16 broadcast of 60 Minutes:


Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) published a New York Times op-ed in which he described his visits to Area 51 as well as a clandestine Pentagon operation, called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which investigated reports of UFOs and similar phenomena involving American military personnel. The conclusions Reid shares are equivocal, but intriguing:

What have I personally learned from official investigations into unidentified aerial phenomena so far? The truth, disappointing as it may be, is that there’s still a great deal we don’t understand. It’s unclear whether the U.F.O.s we have encountered could have been built by foreign adversaries, whether our pilots’ visual perception during some encounters was somehow distorted, or whether we truly have credible evidence of extraterrestrial visitations.

Even former President Barack Obama commented on UFOs in a recent interview: “What is true, and I’m actually being serious here, is that there is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are,” he said.

Apparently, we should prepare ourselves for further disclosures, thanks to an upcoming report. Writes New York Magazine:

One of the many curiosities packed into the $2.3 trillion omnibus spending and coronavirus-relief package passed by Congress in December was a stipulation requiring the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to deliver an unclassified report on unidentified flying objects to Congress within six months, compiling what the government knows about UFOs rocketing around over American airspace.

The report — which comes after a slow, four-year drip of reporting and government admissions on UFO sightings — could be delivered to Congress as early as June 1. Regardless of what’s in it, the release will be the most direct and substantive U.S. government account of what officials call unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) ever made public.

Whatever the report describes, it is sure to be pretty interesting.

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The mystery of the Wanggongchang Explosion

Ancient Chinese figures regard a small gunpowder explosion.
Ancient Chinese figures regard a small gunpowder explosion.

In the spring of 1626, during the reign of the Tianqi Emperor — the last ruler of the Ming dynasty — a catastrophic explosion devastated Beijing. As many as 20,000 people were reportedly killed, and entire square miles of the city were completely obliterated. Yet despite the large scale of destruction, and the generally meticulous recordkeeping of the imperial court, the cause and nature of the explosion are still subject to fevered speculation. Some even suggest that it never actually occurred at all.

The earliest account of the event appears in an official gazette (dibao) from the summer of 1626, reprinted later under the title “Official Report on a Heavenly Incident” (see Feng 2020):

When the sky was bright and clear, there was a sound like a roar from the northeast to the southwest corner of the capital, and the ashes rose and the houses were uprooted. In a moment there was a great earthquake, and the sky and the earth collapsed, and it was dark as night. From Shunchengmen in the east to Jinbu in the north, three to four miles in length, the surrounding area was destroyed, affecting tens of thousands of homes and people. The area around Wang Gong’s factory is completely devastated, with pieces of corpses everywhere, a suffocating smell filling the air, and rubble falling from the sky, confusing the vision. It is difficult to describe this heartbreaking sight. The roar of the explosion was heard from Hexiwu in the south, in Tongzhou in the east, in Miyun, and Changping in the north.1

Feng (2020, p. 74) notes two ways that this report differs from “conventional” gazettes:

The first is that it includes no reference to imperial edicts or court memorials; instead, it features copious entries describing how people, including the emperor and officials, suffered from the catastrophic explosion. Second, the text delineates an extensive array of abnormal and uncanny scenes that occurred in multiple locations across Beijing, conveying an atmosphere of panic in the capital. These elaborate narratives of “strangeness” stand in sharp contrast to the typically terse accounts of disasters in other gazettes.

Setting aside these reports, the simplest explanation for the explosion is not so strange at all: an accidental ignition of stores at the Imperial Gunpowder Workshop (Wanggongchang). Indeed, the Wanggongchang Armory, which produced nearly two tons of gunpowder per week2, was located near the epicenter of the blast. Yet while this account might seem to accord with the principle of Occam’s Razor, some argue that the details don’t add up. In particular, analysis suggests that the destruction described in contemporary records would have required explosive force equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT, orders of magnitude more than even the largest plausible stockpiles of black powder could produce.3 Others contend that specific elements of the official narrative (a “roaring rumble” from the northeast, a bright streak of light, mushroom-shaped clouds) are inconsistent with a gunpowder explosion.

Alternative explanations abound. A 1986 conference in Beijing

explored all the possible causes of the incident from a spontaneous explosion of black powder to a natural gas leak, and the more far-fetched theories of meteorites, hidden volcanoes, and an underground nuclear discharge. The conference participants ultimately concluded that an earthquake resulted in a release of gasses at the site which ignited a massive explosion and firestorm which destroyed the area.

Other more “outlandish” theories, Jeremiah Jenne notes, “have implicated supernatural forces and even an interplanetary nuclear strike on Beijing.”

The reality may be far more mundane than any of the above. Feng (2020) argues that historical accounts of the explosion immediately sought to “politicize” it. In fact, the Tianqi Emperor was not a popular figure. He was, as Jenne recounts, “an odd young man, more comfortable in a carpenter’s shop than reading documents. […] Power devolved to his mother and the eunuchs, in particular, the infamous Wei Zhongxian, one of the most corrupt officials in Chinese history.” Along these lines, Feng suggests that “the ‘Official Report’ emphasizes the strangeness of the explosion in a manner that subtly aims to provoke the audience’s suspicion of the eunuch faction.” Perhaps the real story, then, is one of exaggeration for political effect — an industrial explosion embellished and distorted to tar a distrusted group.

 

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74 interesting facts from 2020

2020 was by no means a good year, but it was certainly an eventful one. The flood of daily developments made it easy to lose track of any given story, and there’s a lot that slipped by us totally unnoticed.

The New York Times, however, has compiled a list of 74 “interesting, striking, or delightful” facts that appeared in its reporting over the course of the year. There’s some fascinating stuff on it, e.g.:

January

1. Japan’s legal system has a 99 percent conviction rate.
Carlos Ghosn, at Home but Waiting for the Next Move



2. Fishing remains the United States’ second most dangerous profession, after logging.
Overtaken by Frigid Seas, Hours From Help, There Was Little Chance of Survival



22. Years after Wyatt Earp’s famous turn at the O.K. Corral, in Tombstone, Ariz., he rambled around Los Angeles as an unpaid consultant for silent cowboy movies.
Richard Prince: This Ain’t No Retrospective, It’s a Rodeo



23. In Finland, a tradition of getting drunk at home in your underwear is so commonplace that there’s a word for it, “kalsarikännit.” The rough translation is “pantsdrunk.”
Getting Tipsy at Home in Your Underwear

55. The beaches of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, are covered with “blubberstones” — gravel mingled with rendered fat, vestiges of the mass killings of seals and whales.
Grief and Geology Both Take Time in ‘The Book of Unconformities’



56. Martha Stewart, who has a line of CBD products, including pâte de fruit, was introduced to the palliative effects of cannabis by Snoop Dogg, a friend, at Comedy Central’s 2015 “Roast of Justin Bieber.”
Martha Stewart, Blissed Out on CBD, Rides Out the Pandemic

You can check out the complete list here.

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Knecht Ruprecht, the rustic Christmas farmhand of German folklore

Knecht Ruprecht
Knecht Ruprecht (left) is a servant of St. Nicholas in German folklore.

While supported logistically by a workforce of Christmas elves, the Santa Claus of American folklore largely works alone. European tradition, in contrast, assigns a variety of helpers and companions to assist St. Nicholas in his yearly duties (the most well known, perhaps, being Krampus). One such figure, originating in Germany, is Knecht Ruprecht (possibly a precursor to Belsnickel). Dating at least to the 17th century (and meaning “Farmhand Rupert” or “Servant Rupert”), Knecht Ruprecht

is St. Nicholas’s most familiar attendant in Germany. According to some stories, Ruprecht began as a farmhand; in others, he is a wild foundling whom St. Nicholas raises from childhood.

Ruprecht wears a black or brown robe with a pointed hood. Sometimes he walks with a limp, because of a childhood injury. He can be seen carrying a long staff and a bag of ashes, and on occasion wears little bells on his clothes. Sometimes he rides on a white horse, and sometimes he is accompanied by fairies or men with blackened faces dressed as old women.

Like Krampus and Belsnickel, Knecht Ruprecht is something of a “bad cop” counterpart to St. Nick:

According to tradition, Knecht Ruprecht asks children whether they can pray. If they can, they receive apples, nuts and gingerbread. If they cannot, he hits the children with his bag of ashes. In other versions of the story, Knecht Ruprecht gives naughty children gifts such as lumps of coal, sticks, and stones, while well-behaving children receive sweets from St. Nicholas.

With one day left until Christmas, you better be good lest Knecht Ruprecht hit you with a bag of ashes!

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Astronomers detect mysterious signal from nearby star

Is it a message from an alien civilization? Probably not, but it’s a sufficiently strange to raise eyebrows in the scientific community. National Geographic reports:

Astronomers searching for signs of life beyond Earth have spotted something strange. An as-yet unexplained radio signal appears to be coming from the direction of the star closest to the sun—a small red star roughly 4.2 light-years away called Proxima Centauri. Adding to the excitement, at least two planets orbit this star, one of which might be temperate and rocky like Earth.



Breakthrough Listen, a decade-long search for alien broadcasts from the nearest million stars, was using Australia’s Parkes Observatory to study Proxima Centauri when the team detected the conspicuous signal, which they dubbed BLC-1. […] 



Although the signal is faint, BLC-1 passed all the tests the Breakthrough team uses to filter out the millions of signals generated by humans: It was narrow in bandwidth, appeared to drift in frequency, and disappeared when the telescope shifted its gaze from Proxima to a different object.

You can read the full story here.

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Tonight is Krampus Night

A vintage illustration of Krampus.
In Central European folklore, Krampus is a horned figure described as “half-goat, half-demon,” who during the Christmas season punishes children who have misbehaved.

Fewer Christmas traditions are stranger than that of Krampus. Krampus, as you may be aware, is St. Nicholas’s sinister (and lesser-known) demonic sidekick. If old St. Nick is the good cop who rewards well-behaved children with gifts of toys, Krampus is his bad cop counterpart: he punishes naughty children by beating them with birch switches (and by terrifying them with his demonic visage). Truly unlucky troublemakers might be kidnapped away in the basket he carries strapped to his back. The tradition recalls the old trope of saints vanquishing demons through the power of God and forcing them into their thrall, but likely has deeper roots in pre-Christian Alpine customs.

Many Americans remain unfamiliar with Krampus, although his profile has grown in recent years (owing in part, no doubt, to the 2015 holiday horror film of the same name). But he is widely celebrated across several parts of Europe, including Austria, Bavaria, Hungary, and surrounding regions. Young men in these parts will traditionally dress up as Krampus in the first two weeks of December, particularly on the evening of 5 December (the night before the Feast of St. Nicholas), and roam the streets frightening children with rusty chains and bells. So grab your mask, hit the streets, and get in the Krampusnacht spirit — just be prepared for some weird looks if you’re not in Europe.

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The biggest waves on the Great Lakes

A massive wave pounding the shore along Lake Michigan, 2018.
A massive wave pounding the shore along Lake Michigan, 2018. https://www.boreal.org/2018/10/11/181867/photo-gallery-winds-whip-up-20-foot-waves-on-lake-superior

The Great Lakes, though their water is fresh, are so large they are often described as inland seas. Collectively, the Great Lakes region is sometimes called the “Third Coast”1 — and given its 5,300 miles of coastline2, it’s more than just a branding attempt to put the area on equal footing with the East and West coasts. But just how far does the comparison extend?

Far enough: even the lesser Great Lakes have seen waves large enough to make even the saltiest of sailors blanch. Waves on Lake Michigan can reach 20 to 23 feet3. More than 100 meteotsunamis — tsunami-like waves generated by rapid changes in barometric pressure — occur across the Great lakes each year. And in October 2017, the Great Lakes Observing System’s buoys recorded the largest waves it had ever detected: 28.8 feet on Lake Superior4. (The system’s records date back to 1979.)

Below, you can see footage of some truly monstrous waves on Lake Superior from 2018:

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