One of the great unsung heroes of science who helped cultivate our early understanding of Auroras and their geomagnetic effects had been American mathematician Elias Loomis.
Loomis, a Connecticut native, graduated from Yale in 1830 and after a period there as a tutor, traveled abroad to undertake scientific studies before returning to accept a position as a an instructor of natural philosophy and mathematics at what was then called Western Reserve College in Hudson, Ohio.
The second-oldest observatory recognized in the United States today had been the one Loomis founded there in 1838. After his tenure at Western Reserve College, Loomis transferred to the University of the City of New York, thereafter returning to his alma mater to accept a position teaching natural philosophy at Yale, and even being elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1839.
Among his many writings had been textbooks on subjects like mathematics, some of which were translated into Japanese. However, arguably some of Loomis’s most interesting writings were his recorded observations about an “exceedingly brilliant” auroral display that occurred in September, 1859.
“Believing that an exhaustive discussion of a single aurora promised to do more for the promotion of science than an imperfect study of an indefinite number of them, Professor Loomis undertook at once to collect and to collate accounts of this display,” wrote Loomis biographer Hubert Newton in 1890. “A large number of such accounts were secured from North America, from Europe, from Asia, and from places in the Southern Hemisphere; especially all the reports from the Smithsonian observers and correspondents, were placed in his hands by the Secretary, Professor Henry.”
“These observations and the discussions of them were given to the public during the following two years, in a series of nine papers in the American Journal of Science,” Newton wrote, adding that “Few, if any, displays on record were as remarkable as was this one for brilliancy or for geographical extent. Certainly about no aurora have there been collected so many facts.”
Although Loomis is perhaps best known for his contributions in the form of nineteenth century textbooks on mathematics and auroral displays, Loomis is also remembered in certain circles for his interest in the peculiar phenomenon said to occur with chickens who become entangled in the winds of tornados: it had long been said that these colossal winds could rob the birds of their plumage.
Intent on finding a way to test the merit of this claim, in the 1840s Loomis devised an ingenious method of replicating the effects of a tornado on chickens, which involved stuffing the dead birds into a cannon and firing it vertically. As the dead chickens were fired from the cannon and propelled skyward, Loomis hoped that a similar effect might be achieved. However, his experiments proved to be inconclusive, since rather than merely depluming the birds, firing them from a cannon also tore them to pieces in most cases.
Always the man of science, Loomis recorded his advice for any researchers that might similarly attempt to reconcile the issue in the future: when firing chickens from cannons, try using lower muzzle velocities!
Interestingly, observations of naked chickens in the aftermath of tornados and other severe weather would continue in the years after Loomis conducted his failed experiments with firing chickens from cannons. By the late 1970s, scientists appeared to be confronted with the reality that tornados do, in fact, deplume chickens.
Or do they?
According to Randy Cerveny, a chronicler of bizarre weather-related stories, the featherless chicken phenomenon may have an entirely different solution, one involving a peculiar evolutionary defense mechanism the birds possess. Cerveny says that what is known as “panic molting” is a fairly common behavior among flightless birds. It allows them to lose their feathers if they perceive that they are in danger.
“If a predator is attacking and grabs them by the feathers, the feathers simply come out and the chicken escapes,” Cerveny explained in 2009. This is not unlike how some reptiles like lizards can shed their tails when confronted by a predator, leaving a wriggling appendage behind that their would-be attacker is able to snack on, while the lizard crawls away and, eventually, regrows an entirely new tail.
Similarly, “panic molting” chickens will lose portions, or even all of their feathers under circumstances where they are stressed or perceive danger. Therefore, rather than tornado winds stripping the chickens of their plumage, it appears the birds may occasionally shed their feathers naturally due to the perceived threat.
In the end, it seems the answers that Loomis and others had pursued had existed in the world of biology all along, rather than meteorology. However, no one would dispute that firing chickens from a cannon had certainly been one of the most novel approaches ever applied by a scientist attempting to unravel nature and its mysteries.