Shen Kuo’s “Strange Happenings”

Shen Kuo was a polymath, scientist, and statesman of Song Dynasty China (circa 960-1279 CE). Shen was at least pretty danged good at archaeology, astronomy, botany, cartography, ethnography, geology, hydraulic engineering, math, meteorology, pharmacology, and zoology. He was also an academy chancellor, diplomat, government finance minister and state inspector, military general, musician, and poet.

Among Shen Kuo’s most famous works is The Dream Pool Essays. Written in virtual isolation at his private garden estate outside of what is now Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province, China, Dream Pool Essays contains writings on astronomy, botany, geology, natural phenomena, zoology, moveable type printing, and Shen’s personal beliefs and philosophy. It also contains a section called “Strange Happenings,” which recounts a UFO sighting. That is not a typo.

Not As Good As Stranger Things

“Strange Happenings” recounts the tale of an unidentified flying object spotted in the skies above the city of Yangzhou. During the reign of Emperor Renzong (1022-1063 CE), a bright, pearlescent object was supposedly seen multiple times during over multiple nights. Similar reports were made by villagers in Anhui and Jiangsu to the east.

An actual photo of the UFO from the Song Dynasty.

Shen recounts one villager’s story, in which intense beams of light blazed out of the craft’s door as it opened; the outer shell then opened, revealing a “big pearl the size of a fist, illuminating the interior in silvery white.” The light was said to be too bright to look at, and powerful enough to be seen from ten miles away. “The spectacle was like the rising Sun,” the villager reported, “lighting up the distant sky and woods in red.” The object then flew off at high speed and disappeared over the horizon.

“Strange Happenings” also reports that Yibo, a well-known poet from the nearby city of Gaoyou wrote a poem about his encounter with the pearl-like craft. This and other publicity led the city of Fanliang in Yangzhou to build what was called the “Pearl Pavilion,” a place where tourists could travel to by boat and stay, in hopes of a UFO sighting.

Photo credit: Marcο_Paiola via / CC BY-NC-ND

Important People, Important Discoveries, Pseudoscience

Humboldt’s Equilibrium

Alexander “Big Al” von Humboldt was a Prussian polymath, known for his contributions to geography (specifically botanical geography), naturalism, philosophy, and science in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Humboldt did so much for the sciences, in fact, that there’s an entire school of thought bearing his name.

Not to be confused with Alexander Van Halen.

A significant concept in Humboldtian science is equilibrium. Said the man himself, “The general equilibrium which reigns amongst disturbances and apparent turmoil, is the result of infinite number of mechanical forces and chemical attractions balancing each other out.”

A Prussian Yin Yang, If You Will

Humboldt’s equilibrium, then, is derived from an infinite number of forces acting simultaneously, in a variety of ways, all around the world. The general order of nature is, in Humboldt’s view, the result of infinity and complexity; however, Big Al also believed that one could gain a greater understanding of the order of nature by measuring more natural forces around the world.

On a voyage to South America in 1799, Humboldt made many significant discoveries that illustrated his theory of equilibrium. In his Physical Profile of the Andes, a graphic record he created during his journey, Humboldt sought to capture every physical force encountered in the mountain range in a single table, from electricity to living organisms.

The Physical Profile included a detailed map of biodistribution, showing the specific locations of plants and animals at the various elevation levels of the Andes Mountains.

Humboldtian Science Branches Out

As he continued his work in botany, Humboldt’s studies gradually moved further and further away from traditional science. He discovered further examples to support his theories of equilibrium and the interconnectedness of all natural elements. Building off the Physical Profile of the Andes, Humboldt focused intensely on the underlying connections and relationships between different types of plants.

“As in all other phenomena of the physical universe, so in the distribution of organic beings,” Humboldt wrote. “Amidst the apparent disorder which seems to result from the influence of a multitude of local causes, the unchanging law of nature become [sic] evident as soon as one surveys an extensive territory, or uses a mass of facts in which the partial disturbances compensate one another.”

Humboldt applied his theory of equilibrium to the overall connectedness of the creation of our planet. In his view, the history of the earth was a continuous global distribution of heat, vegetation, rock formations, etc. To show these connections visually, Humboldt developed isothermal lines that help to balance general forces while preserving local peculiarities. As he himself wrote, the whole equilibrium and order of nature can be seen only “gradually and progressively from laborious observing, averaging, and mapping over increasingly extended areas.”

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Historical Science & Technology, Pseudoscience

The Baghdad Battery

These days, batteries are everywhere and in everything. You’ve probably got one in your pocket right now, in fact (in your phone). The origin of modern batteries can be traced back to good ol’ Big Ben Franklin in the 1700s, but the alkaline batteries that were the standard for decades did not appear until 1899. Less than two decades later, lithium batteries had been developed; lithium-ion batteries took another 60 years to appear, with rechargeables not far behind.

But way, way back when, in the Parthian period (circa 250 BCE to 224 CE), the first-ever battery was invented. Or was it?

Scroll Storage or Power Source?

The “Baghdad Battery” consists of three components: a ceramic pot, a copper tube, and an iron rod. Though its true purpose remains unclear, the most widely accepted explanation of this disparate trio is that they were used collectively to store sacred scrolls—wrap the scrolls around the rod, but the rod into the tube, and stow the tube in the pot.

A modern, commercially-available version of the Baghdad Battery.

A modern, commercially-available version of the Baghdad Battery.

However, upon its initial discovery, it was speculated that these three pieces could be combined to create a galvanic cell; that is, a battery.

Some folks speculate that, with the addition of wine, lemon juice, grape juice, or vinegar to serve as acidic electrolyte, the copper and iron materials could function as electrodes and produce an electrical current. Researchers, particularly German painter and naturalist Wilhelm “Big Willie” König, noted that a high number of objects from ancient Iraq (whence the “battery” originated) were plated with very thin layers of gold. These researchers suggest that the Baghdad Battery was used to perform an early type of electroplating.


Though at least two attempts to duplicate the Baghdad Battery’s supposed electrical potential have proved successful, the genuine artifact has since been debunked as a possible power source. Firstly, an iron-copper-electrolyte junction produces gas and, along with it, bubbles; these bubbles would create insulation around the electrode; this insulation would increase with ongoing use, making the battery progressively less effective. Secondly, even in a perfect setup, the voltage generated by an iron-copper-electrolyte cell of this size would be far lower than that required for electroplating.

König later determined that the “electroplated” items he had studied were, in fact, fire-gilded with mercury.

Photo credit: Boynton Art Studio via / CC BY


The Continuous Failure of Perpetual Motion

Like the philosopher’s stone and the perfect Cuban sandwich, the secret of perpetual motion has long been sought by mankind. Over the centuries, brilliant scientists and average Joes alike have tried—and failed—to create perpetual motion machines. We know today that the laws of thermodynamics make perpetual motion literally impossible, but earlier peoples had no such knowledge. Below are brief tales of some of history’s most significant “perpetual motion machines”.



The Magic Wheel

In 8th century CE Bavaria, a device known as the “magic wheel” was created; its “inventor” is lost to history. It was simply a wagon wheel on an axle, affixed to a base, and, once set in motion, the magic wheel would continue to spin for a very, very long time (though not perpetually). Locals at the time, being superstitious folk, thought the wheel was spun by magic. Instead, a series of large magnets around the wheel’s outer rim and a larger stationary magnet on the wheel’s base generated magnetic attraction and repulsion that kept the wheel in motion. Eventually, the wheel would come to a stop due to frictional losses at its central bearing, but it could spin for long enough to freak people out.

Indian mathematician and astronomer Bhāskara II created a thematically similar device, cleverly dubbed Bhāskara’s wheel. Instead of magnets, Bhāskara’s device used the flow of mercury between curved/tilted spokes to generate movement once set in motion. It, too, would eventually stop due to friction.

Maricourt’s Armillary Sphere

In the 13th century CE, French scholar and scientist Petrus Peregrinus de Maricourt—who is also known as Peter Maricourt and is somehow not a Harry Potter character—created a magnetically powered, “automatic” armillary sphere. Based on a design sketch of a perpetual motion machine by Villard de Honnecourt, Maricourt’s armillary sphere was designed to rotate perpetually on its celestial axis, once per day, to mimic the movement of the heavens above.

Cox’s Timepiece

In the late 18th century, James “Big Jim” Cox of jolly ol’ England and John Joseph “Big John Joe” Merlin of Belgium developed “Cox’s Timepiece.” The device operate in essentially the same way as any other mechanical clock of the time, but needed no winding. Cox claimed that it was a perpetual motion machine, and indeed the timepiece did work continuously without any outside intervention. However, as its internal mechanisms are powered by changes in atmospheric pressure via a mercury barometer, this is not true perpetual motion.

Cox’s timepiece still exists, and can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It no longer functions, however, as it was deactivated prior to being moved to the museum.

Sir Congreve’s Water Machine

In Eighteen-Hundred and Twenty-Seven, English inventor Sir William “Big Bill” Congreve created a convoluted contraption that utilized an endless band of sponge, a separate but equally endless band of weights, a bed of still water, and an inclined plane over pulleys. The sponge would raise water via capillary action, and the bands would turn as the weight of the water exceeded that of the weights, which would in turn squeeze the water out of the sponge as it rotated. This design allowed water to disobey the law of physics that prevents liquids from rising above their own level, which crated a continuous ascent and overflow. Though in theory his design was sound, it proved to be yet another failure in the pursuit of perpetual motion.

Keely’s Fraud

American inventor John Ernst “Big John Ernst” Worrell Keely announced the invention of an induction resonance motion motor, based on “etheric technology”, which even in 1872 must have sounded less than legit. Keely claimed that he had discovered a method of power generation based on the vibrations of tuning forks, and his machine appeared to run on water. Less than a year later, investors in Keely’s machine—who had given him nearly $5 million—accused the inventor of fraud, though no definitive proof was found at the time. After Keely’s death, it was discovered that his machine was powered by hidden air pressure tubes.

Perrigo’s Free Energy Device

In the late 1910s, MIT graduate and Missourian Harry Perrigo claimed to have invented a free energy device that derived its power from “thin air” or “aether waves”. Perrigo successfully demonstrated his device before Congress in December 1917, and had applied for a patent. However, investigators discovered that the device was powered by a hidden, battery-powered motor.

Papp’s Inert Gas Engine

In 1966, Joseph “Big Joe” Papp claimed to have invented an alternative internal combustion engine that ran on inert gases. He was awarded a patent for his perpetual motion device, as well as several others for unrelated inventions. Financial backing for production of his engine was secured from numerous investors, but a public demonstration of his engine resulted in an explosion that killed one observer and injured two others. Noted theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, who was critical of the abstracts of Papp’s patents, noting a poor grasp of theoretic physics and was present at the demonstration, concluded that the explosion was deliberate, an attempt by Papp to avoid the discovery of his hoax; Papp subsequently blamed the explosion on sabotage by Feynman. Papp continued to accept money from investors, but never produced or demonstrated another of his engines.

Photo credit: Tekniska museet via / CC BY


A Brief History of Iridology

It has long been said that “eyes are the windows to the soul”; iridologists claim that eyes are window’s into the human body’s state of health. Also referred to as “iridodiagnosis” or “iridiagnosis”, iridology is a form of “alternative medicine” introduced in the 17th century CE and still occasionally practiced today, despite being debunked as pseudoscience literally hundreds of years ago.

What Is Iridology?

Proponents of iridology claim that information about the patient’s overall health—including healthy or unhealthy organs, past and future health issues, and susceptibility to certain illnesses/diseases—can be gleaned from the study of the patterns, colors, and other characteristics of the patient’s iris.

As you can plainly see, this patient's got the leprosy.

As you can plainly see, this patient gots the leprosy.

Flashlights, magnifying glasses, cameras, and slit-lamp microscopes are used to examine the patient’s irises. Iridologists look for tissue changes, specific pigment patterns, irregular stromal architecture (the stroma is the outermost layer of the iris), and more. Charts dividing the iris into 80-90 sections, each corresponding to a bodily system, are used to determine whether the system indicated by a given iris section is healthy, inflamed, or distressed. According to iridologists, changes to specific details of the iris correspond to changes in internal organs.

However, as the features of the iris are among the most stable parts of the human body from birth to death, and as quality research studies and supportive clinical data on iridology are wholly nonexistent, the practice has long been considered pseudoscience. Iridology is and never has been regulated or licensed by any American governmental agency, and—somehow—numerous organizations offering certification in the practice still exist today.

Who’s the Jokester Behind This One?

Though not referred to as “iridology” in the text, a number of the general principles of iridology are laid out in Chiromatica Medica, written by Philip Meyen von Coburg and first published in 1665.

The first to use the term “iridology” was Hungarian scientist and physician Ignaz von Peczely, now considered the “Father of Iridology”. (In von Peczely’s native tongue, the word is augendiagnostik, literally “eye diagnosis”.) Legend has it that von Peczely “discovered” iridology when he noticed similar markings in the irises of a man and an owl who had both broken a leg.

The practice was furthered by Swedish doctor/priest Nils Liljequist. Suffering from unnatural outgrowth of his lymph nodes, Liljequist treated the ailment with medication made of iodine and quinine (and hopefully other stuff, too, but no exact record exists). After treatment, he noticed changes to the color of his irises, which inspired him to create and publish an iridology “atlas” in 1893. This atlas, The Diagnosis of the Eye, contained 270 illustrations of the iris.

It was not until the 1950s that iridology came to the United States. Bernard Jensen, a chiropractor (who better to study the eye, amirite?), offered classes in iridology, based on his own methods. In 1979, Jensen and his partners in quackery, P. Johannes Thiel and Edward Lane, failed to establish the basis of their practice during a controlled experiment. In the experiment, Jensen et al. were tasked with analyzing photos of 143 different irises to identify patients with kidney disease (48 of those studied suffered from kidney ailments). The iridologists, perhaps unsurprisingly, could not determine the healthy from the unhealthy; one of the “scientists” deduced that 88 percent of the healthy patients suffered from kidney disease, another determined that 74 percent of the actually ailing patients were, in fact, healthy.

Photo credit: Joe Crawford (artlung) via / CC BY