Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Philadelphia Experiment

The What? My friend Anastasia asked me the other evening what I knew about the Philadelphia Experiment. Nothing at all. One of Ben Franklin’s more ludicrous antics? No, something more recent. My eyes bulged and my jaw dropped as Anastasia explained. She showed me a Greek text about it, and by now my eyes were chapel hat pegs and my jaw had hit the table with a clang. ‘I think I’d better investigate this in English; I’ll report back tomorrow’ I told her.

48 hours later I find that the application of reason and the exercise of critical faculties have reduced the need for ophthalmic and osteopathic help. I can’t give you the ‘facts’ about the Philadelphia Experiment; there don’t seem to be any. But the story, such as it is, goes something like this:

During WWII the Americans[1] decided that invisibility might have its military uses. Their version of Harry Potter’s cloak took the form of an electromagnetic shield: an electromagnetic field large and powerful enough to surround an entire battleship.

The experiment (so the story continues) was only too successful: the ship, complete with crew, disappeared, only to reappear briefly somewhere in Virginia before becoming fully visible again back in Philadelphia. It had also, we are told, ‘gone back ten seconds in time’, (I wish someone would explain what on earth, or indeed anywhere else, that phrase could possibly mean), and various ghastly physical and mental things had happened to the crew.

Well. It wouldn’t have been the first and has certainly not been the last time that an infantile fear of Reds (Muslims, Jews, Blacks, Bicycle-riders) under the beds, an improper grasp of scientific concepts, and a total lack of humour have together made America do something lunatic, with horrific, surreal, or at least Pythonesque consequences.

Perhaps the Americans really were, misled by an incomplete understanding of the Grand Unified Field theory (with its appropriate acronym GUF) and Einstein’s Special and General theories, trying for invisibility. It’s perfectly true that light waves are deflected, bent, by passing near or through huge gravitational fields, such as that of the sun. That this should happen is one of the implications of Einstein’s theories, so that when, soon after he published them, a planet (I think it was Venus) conveniently passed behind the sun, careful observations were made and it was found that, just as Venus disappeared behind the sun and then later reappeared, it seemed to be slightly off where it ‘ought’ to have been: light from Venus had been bent by passing near the sun. This didn’t ‘confirm’ Einstein’s theories — that’s not how scientific method works — but if it hadn’t happened then it would have shown that Einstein had been wrong.

But Venus (if that’s the one it was) seemed only the teensiest bit to one side of its ‘proper’ place, and the gravitational field of the sun completely dwarfs anything even all the electricity in America could produce. (Gravitational and Electromagnetic fields are for these purposes the same thing.)

What seems more likely is that the American Navy was doing something called ‘Degaussing’ the ship: using powerful electromagnetic fields to reduce its residual magnetism, thus rendering it less vulnerable to magnetic mines. Degaussing, on a smaller scale, is a simple enough operation familiar to anyone who has worked above an amateur level with tape-recorders. Perhaps people of the New-Agey type got hold of the wrong end of the stick and spread wild stories, which, being more entertaining than the possible truth, gained currency and belief.

Don’t misunderstand me: America does do strange, wild, sinister things, for which it then provides boring spurious ‘explanations’ when people find out. I have some sympathy for believers in UFOs, Crop Circles and suchlike. For instance, something strange and nasty certainly happened at Roswell in the ’fifties or whenever it was, and ‘official explanations’ about weather balloons really won’t do. As for crop circles, mischievous students working at night with planks and bits of string simply couldn’t produce patterns of such complexity and elegance. The trouble is, people who are so open-minded their brains have dropped out hear of these things and start talking rubbish, thus making the stories less rather than more credible. They are unwittingly the debunkers’ best allies.

If people would take the trouble to study scientific method and above all logic, just a little bit, they would on the one hand be less likely to fall for idiotic new-agey stuff of the Erich von Däniken sort, and on the other less ready to have the wool pulled over their eyes by authorities who, with their relentless efforts to provide dull, debunking and implausible ‘explanations’, show that they probably have something to hide. They might, in short, become able to say ‘Here is something strange and interesting: let us calmly and reasonably find out more.’

[1] ‘America’ and its cognates should be taken here to mean the U.S. government, armed forces, secret services etc. and not the ‘ordinary’ people of America, many of whom are quite sane and decent, if rather brashly over-self-confident.

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