Drama queen scientists have been around for at least 89 years.
Scientists, as physicist Freeman Dyson has observed,
are neither saints nor devils but human beings sharing the common weaknesses of our species. [The Scientist as Rebel, p. 15]
Among these weaknesses is a propensity for drama. For some people, daily life isn’t exciting enough. Dwelling on potential disasters, claiming to be in possession of special and dreadful knowledge, adds a certain zing to their existence. It’s also a way of calling attention to themselves. Hey, Ma, look at me!
Over at his RealScience blog, Steven Goddard has unearthed a 1924 newspaper clipping that illustrates these points marvelously. Titled Mother Earth Doomed, it’s part of a digitized library of Australian publications stretching back to the 1800s. You can see the original here. I’ve cleaned up the 1,500 words of text and created a PDF as well.
89 years ago, Australians opening their newspaper were advised that they were not “safe.” They were told it was a certainty that the human race was “doomed.” The only question was which “disaster” would strike first.
Such proclamations were not, said the newspaper, the ravings of an imbecile, but:
the firmest conviction of a group of serious scientists of established reputation, who have devoted their lives to a dispassionate and careful examination of geological and astronomical evidence.
The names of four scientists were listed. The two identified by both a first and last name were Max Valier (who died six years after the publication of the newspaper article) and Hans Hoerbiger (who died seven years after it appeared).
The newspaper said the views of these men should be taken seriously because their research was informed by a “daring born of scientific accuracy and a cosmic largeness of vision.” It then listed their four horses of the apocalypse:
- human civilization would be violently “overwhelmed by the internal fires of the earth”
- water supplies would either run out or “overwhelm us completely in a second Noah’s flood from which no one will escape”
- air would either “give out or become poisoned”
- Earth would collide “with another heavenly body”
Readers were told that, according to “the latest calculations,” sea level should be falling by eight inches a year and that the reason this wasn’t happening was due to a replenishment process involving cosmic ice.
Just as we’re advised today that human-produced CO2 emissions must be causing global warming because scientists can’t think of another explanation, 89 years ago the public was told that cosmic ice theory “affords the only possible explanation of the yearly replenishment of our water supply.”
What the writer of the article had little way of knowing was that, in Germany, cosmic ice theory would be
heavily and successfully promoted as the “German antithesis” of the “Jewish” theory of relativity in the late 1920s. [see here]
It would also be institutionalized by the Nazis. These days, however, it’s considered an example of “science gone wrong.”
But scary stories full of danger and alarm seem never to lose their appeal – especially for the storytellers. In March 2009, Prince Charles declared that humanity had only
one hundred months left to take the necessary steps to avert irretrievable climate and ecosystem collapse.
His 100 months will expire in 2018 – five years from now.
But getting back to 1924, don’t you just love the way the news story ended with this overwrought bit of purple prose?
Our progress is no less terrible and fraught with peril than that of an unlighted vessel through a moonless night and a sea covered with icebergs. Suddenly, before we shall have time to be aware of our danger, like a thief in the night, our fate, in the form of an unseen leviathan of the heavens, may overtake us – and there will be the end of all our hopes and sufferings as we explode in a single blaze of glory.