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Leonora Piper, Turn-of-the-Century Medium 

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Wikimedia Commons

When Leonora Evelina Piper (née Symonds) was 8 years old, she was out playing in the garden when she was overcome by a sudden and mysterious blow to the side of her head, accompanied by a hiss, which eventually became words and a message. In utter hysterics, the girl bolted for the house, where she told her mother: “Something hit me on the ear and Aunt Sara said she wasn’t dead but with you still.” A few days later a letter arrived. Sara had indeed died—on the same day, and around the same time the little girl had gone into a fit.

According to her parents, it wasn’t the only time in her childhood that Piper would show possible psychic predilections. But for the most part, the family set that aside. A daughter who might have the ability to commune with the afterlife isn’t necessarily something you want to advertise to the neighbors.

Leonora eventually grew up, married a shopkeeper named William Piper, and moved from New Hampshire to Boston. The pair had a daughter named Alta in 1884, who, despite bringing much joy to the couple, also aggravated a longtime injury in Piper. As a child, Piper had been involved in an ice-sledding accident that led to internal abdominal bleeding. Following Alta’s birth the pain was so bad Piper sought the help of a clairvoyant—an elderly blind man who purported to have the ability to contact healing spirits. When they touched, it ended up being Piper who experienced something otherworldly.

The young woman reportedly entered a trance-like state. She became dizzy and said she heard a myriad of voices, one of which came through clearly enough that she was able to write down a message. As soon as she was finished, Piper handed the dispatch to a man who was also at the parlor that day, a local judge, who said it was a message from his deceased son. As Deborah Blum writes in Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, Piper returned to the blind clairvoyant a few more times, but retreated after she found herself becoming the focus of attention. She was pregnant with her second daughter, and said she didn’t want to practice as a medium.

Despite that resistance, the budding mystic relented in 1885, agreeing to meet with a widow named Eliza Gibbens. According to Gibbens, Piper was able to relay personal details “the knowledge of which on her part was incomprehensible without supernormal powers.” Gibbens then sent her daughter, Margaret, to further test Piper. Margaret brought a sealed envelope with a letter penned in Italian, and the reluctant clairvoyant had no trouble reciting details about the person who had written it. Margaret and Eliza then decided to take the news to their sister and daughter, Alice, who had recently been quarantined with scarlet fever, and whose illness led to the death of her 1-year-old son, Herman. (After her quarantine, the child had been returned to Alice although she hadn't fully regained her strength; she developed whooping cough, and the infection soon spread to the child, where it turned into fatal pneumonia.)

Alice, and her husband William James—a Harvard professor, founder of the Society for Psychical Research, and skeptic who helped discredit several popular mediums in Boston—went to see Piper. With little knowledge about the couple or their recent circumstances, she successfully conjured the name of their deceased little boy (or at least James felt she did; the name Piper spoke was Herrin, not Herman).

"If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black … it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white. My white crow is Mrs. Piper,” James would later say in his 1896 presidential address to the Society for Psychical Research. Not everyone was so convinced, however, and James himself would later express skepticism of his own.

For years Piper held private readings at her home and allowed members from the British and American Societies for Psychical Research (SPR) to attend. She was reportedly completely cooperative when it came to inquiring minds, permitting researchers to frequently sit in on her séances. She was likely the most thoroughly scrutinized medium of her day: SPR members also sent test subjects and even hired private detectives to follow Piper and her husband around to see if they exhibited any behavior that might indicate information-gathering regarding potential clients. Their quests proved fruitless—no sign of fraud was ever found. According to Amy Tanner's 1910 book Studies in Spiritism, Piper charged $20 per séance (about $580 today), enough to help support her family.

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While in her trances, Piper used so-called “controls”—spirits that spoke through her. “Dr. Phinuit”—a Frenchman—served as the primary control in Piper's early mediumship, but she went on to become a supposed vessel for a number of spirits who would then communicate through voice or automatic writing. She also employed psychometry, a method in which the medium uses material objects to do readings, and was taken on several trips to Britain to demonstrate her supposed abilities there.

Despite her many believers—she was among the most famous of mediums in the age of Spiritualism—many others called Piper's supposed abilities a hoax, and not even a good one at that. She often failed to provide accurate details about her clients or their dearly departed, and persistent inaccuracies regarding her controls befuddled those who were studying her. (Dr. Phinuit for example, didn’t seem to know much about the French language or medicine, his two defining characteristics.) Another investigator tested Piper by concocting a story of a dead relative named Bessie Beale, and the medium went on to relay messages from the nonexistent spirit.

Some said Piper had multiple personalities, others believed her to be savvy mentalist with a knack for cold reading and “fishing,” and others still said she had a talent for surreptitiously learning details about guests before they sat down for a session. Even William James didn’t believe Piper was communicating with ghosts, but rather using telepathy, and drawing on memories and other information from her clients as well as others, perhaps even subliminally. The scholar could find no "independent evidence" to back the possibility of of spirit control.

Oddly enough, Piper herself would prove to be conflicted about the nature of her abilities. In a 1901 “confession” in the New York Herald [PDF], Piper announced her separation from the Society for Psychical Research and was quoted as saying, “I have always maintained that these phenomena could be explained in other ways than by the intervention of disembodied spirit forces … I am inclined to accept the telepathic explanation of all the so-called psychic phenomena, but beyond this I remain a student with the rest of the world.” She also described the spirit controls as "an unconscious expression of my subliminal self," and if all that wasn’t definitive enough: "I must truthfully say that I do not believe that spirits of the dead have spoken through me when I have been in the trance state …”

Needless to say the piece caused an uproar, and even caused SPR member Richard Hodgson, an avid believer, to write an open letter claiming she had been misunderstood. He also released a statement to the Boston Advertiser from Piper, which read: "I did not make any such statement as that published in the New York Herald to the effect that spirits of the departed do not control me. … My opinion is to-day as it was 18 years ago. Spirits of the departed may have controlled me and they may not. I confess that I do not know. I have not changed.”

Ultimately, all the press likely only served to fuel the interest in Piper and her clairvoyant services. And while we may never know what she truly believed, it didn’t matter when it came to the business of mediumship: She found fame and fortune in her séances, though she reportedly never sought much attention beyond continuing to meet with sitters and allowing herself to be repeatedly, almost obsessively observed for science.

In the early 1900s, Piper's trance abilities reportedly began to fade. She gave her last séance in 1911, and officially retired some years later. She lived to be 93 years old, dying on July 3, 1950 from bronchopneumonia at her home in Brookline, Massachusetts. She is buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Arlington, Massachusetts. History remembers her as a conflicted character—and as William James's one "white crow."

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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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5 Things You Didn't Know About Sally Ride
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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are five things you might not know about the astronaut, who passed away five years ago today—on July 23, 2012—at the age of 61.

1. SHE PROVED THERE IS SUCH THING AS A STUPID QUESTION.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A TENNIS PRO.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. HOME ECONOMICS WAS NOT HER BEST SUBJECT.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. SHE HAD A STRONG TIE TO THE CHALLENGER.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. SHE DIDN'T SELL OUT.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

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Remembering Comet Hale-Bopp's Unlikely Discovery
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Comet Hale-Bopp was a sensation in the mid-1990s. It was visible to the naked eye for 18 months, shattering a nine-month record previously set in 1811. It inspired a doomsday cult, wild late-night radio theories about extraterrestrials, and plenty of actual science. But a year before it became visible to normal observers, two men independently and simultaneously discovered it in a coincidence of astronomical proportions.

On the night of July 22-23, 1995, Alan Hale was engaged in his favorite hobby: looking at comets. It was the first clear night in his area for about 10 days, so he decided to haul out his telescope and see what he could see. In the driveway of his New Mexico home, he set up his Meade DS-16 telescope and located Periodic Comet Clark, a known comet. He planned to wait a few hours and observe another known comet (Periodic Comet d'Arrest) when it came into view. To kill time, he pointed his telescope at M70, a globular cluster in the Sagittarius system.

Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through a starry night sky.
Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through the sky over Merrit Island, Florida, south of Kennedy Space Center.
George Shelton // AFP // Getty Images

Hale was both an amateur astronomer and a professional. His interest in spotting comets was actually the amateur part, thought it would make his name famous. Hale's day jobs included stints at JPL in Pasadena and the Southwest Institute for Space Research in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. But that night, peering at M70, he wrote, "I immediately noticed a fuzzy object in the field that hadn't been there when I had looked at M70 two weeks earlier." He double-checked that he was looking in the right place, and then started to get excited.

In order to verify that the fuzzy object wasn't something astronomers already knew about, Hale consulted his deep-sky catalogues and also ran a computer search using the International Astronomical Union's computer at Harvard University. Convinced that he had found something new, Hale fired off an email very early on the morning of July 23 to the IAU's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, telling them what he had found, along with detailed instructions on how to verify it themselves. Hale also tracked the object as it moved, until it moved out of view. It was definitely a comet, and it was definitely new.

Meanwhile, Tom Bopp was in Arizona, also hunting for comets. At the time, Bopp was working at a construction materials company in Phoenix, but he was also an accomplished amateur astronomer, with decades of experience observing deep-sky objects. That night, Bopp vas visiting the remote Vekol Ranch, 90 miles south of Phoenix, known as a great location for dark-sky viewing. He was with a group of friends, which was important because Bopp didn't actually own a telescope.

The Bopp group looked through their various telescopes, observing all sorts of deep-sky objects late into the night. Bopp's friend Jim Stevens had set up his homemade 17.5-inch Dobsonian reflector telescope and made some observations. Stevens finished an observation, then left his telescope to consult a star atlas and figure out what to aim at next. While Stevens was occupied, Bopp peered into Stevens's telescope and saw a fuzzy object enter the field of view, near M70. He called his friends over to have a look.

The Bopp group proceeded to track the fuzzy object for several hours, just as Hale was doing over in New Mexico. By tracking its movement relative to background stars, they (like Hale) concluded that it was a comet. When the comet left his view, Bopp drove to a Western Union and sent a telegram to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. (For historical perspective, telegrams were extremely outdated in 1995, but technically they were still a thing.)

Brian Marsden at the Central Bureau received Bopp's telegram hours later, after getting a few followup emails from Hale with additional details. Comparing the times of discovery, Marsden realized that the two men had discovered the comet simultaneously. According to NASA, it was the farthest comet ever to be discovered by amateur astronomers—it was 7.15 Astronomical Units (AU) from our sun. That's 665 million miles. Not bad for a pair of amateurs, one using a homemade telescope!

The Central Bureau verified the findings and about 12 hours after the initial discovery, issued IAU Circular 6187, designating it C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp. The circular read, in part: "All observers note the comet to be diffuse with some condensation and no tail, motion toward the west-northwest."

Four men smile, posing outdoors next to a large telescope at night.
Comet hunters (L to R): David Levy, Dr. Don Yeomans, Dr. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp pose next to a telescope during a public viewing of the Hale-Bopp and Wild-2 comets.
Mike Nelson // AFP // Getty Images

Less than a year later, Comet Hale-Bopp came into plain view, and the rest is history. It was a thousand times brighter than Halley's Comet, which had caused a major stir in its most recent appearance in the 1980s. Comet Hale-Bopp will return, much like Halley's Comet, but it won't be until the year 4385. (And incidentally, it was previously visible circa 2200 BCE.)

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