In the preface to his compendium Science Frontiers: Some and Curiosities of Nature, physicist William R. Corliss offered some very simple advice to his readers: do not look for profundities!
This odd statement deserves some elaboration. First, as a writer with a personal interest in the scientific-side of “weirdness” (to which, I will firmly assert, much actual science can, and should be applied!), William R. Corliss would have been a sort of “giant among men” for the detailed attention he gave to the study of what he called “anomalistics”. I say “would have been,” only because for Corliss, to place anything on a pedestal above the rest in the ranks of nature would seem unnecessary, and hence, it is my guess that Corliss might have played down the significance of his own role in the study of the unusual, though arguably, he was among the most science-minded researchers to ever dip his toe into the darkened pools of the unexplained.
Hence why, from time to time, I enjoy highlighting the later Mr. Corliss in my blogs and other writing, since his work in the area of Forteana, though not forgotten, remains somewhat obscure by today’s standards.
In keeping with that general modesty that Corliss echoed in his collected works, there came that unique phrase which we have already entertained once in the present missive: do not look for profundities! Here, in its full context, is the complete quote from Corliss, as it appeared in his preface:
The primary intent of this book is entertainment. Do not look for profundities! All I claim here is an edited collection of naturally occurring anomalies and curiosities that I have winnowed mainly from scientific journals and magazines published between 1976 and 1993. With this eclectic sampling I hope to demonstrate that nature is amusing, beguiling, sometimes bizarre, and, most important, liberating. “Liberating?” Yes! If there is anything profound between these covers, it is the influence of anomalies on the stability of stifling scientific paradigms.
This idea that anomalies have a unique influence on “the stability of stifling scientific paradigms” seems key, for often in the past, the irreverent or unusual “anomaly” observed by some slightly less dogmatic theoretician proves to be a new key in understanding the nature of things; and hence, a paradigm shift often occurs thereafter, if the observed anomaly presents enough cause for a broader re-shaping of our ideas.
For those who have not read Corliss’s work, I highly recommend it, in that same spirit of those who find amusement, enjoyment, and perhaps a bit of appreciation for the broad-mindedness that the study of anomalies promotes. As time has worn on, I do feel my skepticism has hardened (greatly, in fact), and in ways conducive to critical thinking that I don’t always see among my colleagues; people can change, with time, and I know that I have, and once upon a time, I think I may have been more open (or even susceptible) to the allure and mystique of the mysterious… mistaking the merely unusual for being one of those “profundities” Corliss warned about.
None of this is to say that there is anything wrong with accepting the occasional marvels provided by those things which don’t quite fit into the broader narrative, as it relates to the unexplained. I think that, if anything, the true anomalies, like anachronistic marvels of ancient times (the Antikythera Mechanism, for instance), and unusual phenomena in the areas of geophysics (to which, with little doubt, at least a healthy number of UFO sightings over the years can be attributed), are indeed fascinating.
Further, anyone who would say that the study of such unique areas of science wouldn’t yield things that, perhaps, might even be startling in their upset, as far as “shifting paradigms” go, would be a bit off, in my opinion. Corliss, despite his level approach to the subject, seemed to share this general sentiment, expressing that with the advent of electronic communications over the course of his most active years of data collecting, the case for extant anomalistics seemed as good as ever:
“In today’s electronic milieu, anomalies travel from computer screen to computer screen, by E-mail, and by fax. What an immense untapped resource for the Catalog of Anomalies! From all this, I am certain that nature is even more anomalous than the following pages intimate.”
Profound or not, what Corliss helped us see is that there is much to nature we have yet to discover, and much more that we can hope to learn from the study of the unusual.