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Charles Fort, Chronicler of Unexplained Phenomena 

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1873 the sky rained frogs over Kansas City, Missouri. The Scientific American later reported that the amphibian shower “which darkened the air and covered the ground for a long distance” was the result of a recent rainstorm that swept through the area. It’s possible that the incident would have been left to collect dust in the annals of history if not for another event that took place a year later: the birth of Charles Fort.

Prior to his career as a researcher of unexplained phenomena, Charles was a curious kid growing up in Albany, New York. He felt socially anxious in school and had a poor grasp of math—which came through in his grades. But while he struggled academically, he found ways to satisfy his cravings for knowledge outside the classroom. He maintained a catalog of natural items that included minerals, nests, eggs, feathers, and organs from small animals pickled in jars of formaldehyde. He even went so far as to learn taxidermy so he could stuff and mount bird specimens at home. When his grandfather, a grocer and the father of a grocer, asked Charles what the boy wanted to be when he grew up, he was chagrined to hear the child respond: “a naturalist.”

Fort's life took a different path when he entered the journalism business at age 16. As a reporter for the Albany newspaper the Argus, he found an outlet for his inquisitive behavior. A few years later, he moved on to covering New York City news for the Brooklyn World. When two of his reporter friends left the paper to form the Woodhaven Independent, they appointed an 18-year-old Fort to be their editor.

Despite his rapid rise to success in his field, he still felt unfulfilled. As he wrote in his unpublished autobiography Many Parts, “I became a newspaper reporter [and] I arranged my experiences. I pottered over them quite as I had over birds’ eggs and minerals and insects.” But by limiting his experiences to a few sections of New York City, he feared he was trapping himself as a writer. Determined to “get together a vast capital of impressions of life,” he set off to travel the world alone after turning 19.

Fort imposed a few guidelines for his journey: He would wander spontaneously and refrain from looking for work, keeping a notebook, or anything else that might distract him from living in the moment. After visiting England, Scotland, South Africa, and the southern U.S., he returned home to New York ready to begin the next chapter of his life. He married Anna Filing, a friend he had known since childhood. She found comfort in domestic life as he pursued work as a fiction writer and took odd jobs.

Bess Lovejoy

Writing short stories for pulp magazines was a way for Fort to bring in supplemental income. Though he penned several novels during his lifetime, only one was ever published. The Outcast Manufacturers was a commercial failure and once again he blamed his struggles on lack of experience. Fort reflected on this period of his life years later by saying, “I was a realist, but knew few people; had few experiences for my material.” This time, instead of seeking enrichment abroad, he turned to the New York Public Library for inspiration.

What started as a search for story ideas eventually morphed into an obsession with the research itself. The old newspapers and scientific journals he sifted through contained gems too remarkable to fictionalize: On March 6, 1888, a blood-like substance dripped from the sky over the Mediterranean; in 1855 kangaroo-like tracks appeared in southern England; in 1872 a London house was bombarded with stones that came from no apparent source. Anomalous patterns appeared in every subject Fort explored, and he began collecting the stories like they were trinkets from his youth. By age 39 he was making daily trips to the library equipped with pocketfuls of blank sheets of paper for note-taking.

The cardboard boxes of notes he stored at home became the basis for a new project: a compilation of unexplained phenomena titled The Book of the Damned. When the book was released in 1919 there was nothing else on the shelves quite like it. A blurb on the dust jackets teased its contents: “In this amazing book—the result of twelve years of patient research—the author presents a mass of evidence that has hitherto been ignored or distorted by scientists.”

The book opens by introducing “the damned,” as in the damned “data that Science has excluded." As the work progresses, Fort presents evidence for dozens of oddities he encountered in his research, including strange weather patterns, poltergeists, cryptids (creatures that may or may not exist, like the Loch Ness Monster), and UFOs. A significant portion of the book is devoted to unusual objects raining from the heavens. In addition to frogs (which he cited as falling over Wigan, England and Toulouse, France, as well as Kansas City), Fort mentions showers of fish, eels, and insects.

He was quick to dismiss any theories that suggested the critters had been swept up from the ground by strong winds, instead positing the existence of a “Super-Sargasso Sea.” According to Fort, this place acted as a celestial dumping ground of sorts for “derelicts, rubbish, [and] old cargoes from inter-planetary wrecks” that sometimes leaked back down to Earth. The phrase has since stuck around as a place where lost things go, but Fort himself didn’t seem overly attached it. He followed up his explanation by writing, “Or still simpler. Here are the data. Make what you will, yourself, of them.”

Written in clipped and sometimes scatterbrained prose, the purpose of The Book of the Damned wasn’t to convince the reader of any concrete set of facts. Rather, Fort aimed to tear down the black-and-white thinking that prevailed among scientists of the time. Critics didn't buy it. The New York Times panned the book, saying it was “so obscured in the mass of words and quagmire of pseudo-science and queer speculation that the average reader will himself either be buried alive or insane before he reaches the end.” Science fiction writer H.G. Wells described it as beneath his attention, calling Fort “one of the most damnable bores who ever cut scraps from out-of-the-way newspapers.”

Readers, on the other hand, were hooked. The Book of the Damned sold well and it garnered enough interest in weird phenomena for Fort to publish three more non-fiction books on similar subjects—New Lands, Lo!, and Wild Talents.

When Charles Fort succumbed to leukemia on May 3, 1932 at age 57, he left behind a complicated legacy. He had inspired a cult following of self-described “Forteans” similarly interested in anomalous phenomena and skeptical of scientific dogma. The group is still going strong today, as anyone who attends The International Fortean Organization’s annual “Fortfest” or subscribes to The Fortean Times can see.

The media remembered him as less of an influencer than a crackpot, with both The New York Times and the The New York Herald Tribune painting him as a “Foe of Science” in their obituaries. But considering Fort viewed science as “established preposterousness,” that’s a characterization he likely wouldn’t have objected to.

Additional Source: Charles Fort, The Man Who Invented the Supernatural

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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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