Geese and Lemmings

“They appeared to hover motionless on the horizon at some distance, seemingly the same size and intensity as stars, and then shoot into the heavens, where they could have joined any of the constellations as a full member. Ale+Ale/Morgan Gaynin

In California, my current home state, one is surrounded by quite a few within the populace whose level of inanity seems as homogeneous and predictable as that of the Three Stooges. Perhaps the state motto should be changed to: “Too many lemmings, not enough cliffs.” But I say, in the midst of this mélange, one finds, profession by profession, the greatest practitioners in the world. Deny it who can, explain it who may—there it is.

My wife, Rebecca, and I had somehow made the acquaintance of Kip Thorne and his wife, Carolee, and invited them over for dinner. Kip was an astrophysicist and recipient of every award in his field, including the Nobel Prize in 2017.

He was the world’s authority on Einstein and best friends with Stephen Hawking. Rebecca and I were invited for dinner at the Thornes’ to meet Hawking but declined, as the journey for someone on the west side of Los Angeles is less imaginable than would be, to an astrophysicist, a voyage to Alpha Centauri. One may eventually get to the stars, but no one can cross the (North-South) 405 Freeway on a weeknight. So we missed out on meeting Stephen Hawking. But we spent a rollicking evening at our joint in Santa Monica with the Thornes, while Kip most graciously shared with us—and in everyday language— some of what he was up to, gossiping merrily about black holes and differences in the gravitational field.

Well, the hour got late, the wine was awfully good, and as our friendship deepened, Kip revealed the most cherished aspect of his current endeavors. He had been instrumental in convincing the government to build what I recall as “gravity-testing stations” around the world to confirm, if possible, his—and perhaps Einstein’s and Hawking’s—theories. How would I know? I bought Hawking’s book, but (perhaps like you) I found I was not smart enough to read it.

I’d always thought of gravity as a constant—a prejudice only hardened by my career as a pilot. But no, Kip theorized the gravitational field should, and may be found to, differ slightly at different locations and over time. The difference would be so small that only the most-advanced, sensitive and costly apparatuses might hope to detect, and only the most-highly skilled technicians to discern the variations.

But they exist, Kip says, and they are attempts by some civilization far, far away in space to communicate with us.

Maybe he’s right, how would I know? But it put a memorable cap on the evening.

We humans long for understanding, for connection and, at once, for the mutually exclusive: certainty and mystery.

Consider the popular interwar British novelists, taking only those who dealt with aviation. Aircraft designer Nevil Shute wrote In the Wet and An Old Captivity, about aviators who become involved with clairvoyance and metempsychosis (which, for those studying for the written, is the transmigration or rebirth of souls). His Round the Bend features an Indonesian aircraft mechanic who, in preaching the doctrine of absolute perfection in airframe and powerplant maintenance, is accepted by his students as—and may in fact be—God.

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James Hilton’s most famous novel, Lost Horizon, has a DC-2 stolen by apostles of an unnamed quietist religion of Himalayan monks to transport the novel’s hero, Britisher Hugh Conway, to the mountains where he is to become the next high lama.

J.B. Priestley wrote extensively (I Have Been Here Before, Dangerous Corner, etc.) about the malleability of time.

They shared the fascination with the metaphysical, which was a resource of the survivors of the Great War— and their widows and orphans. Surely, the believers thought, there must be something beyond the grave and so, perhaps, some meaning in the preliminaries.

A close friend of Priestley was J.W. Dunne.

He, like Shute, was a designer of aircraft and one of the first in Britain. His designs first flew as gliders in 1907 and, soon thereafter, as powered aircraft (with thanks to Wikipedia).

Particularly notable was the Dunne D.5 of 1910, which was the first tailless airplane to fly and was tested by the U.S. Army. The D.5 (redesigned as the D.8) was a sweptwing aircraft, anticipating the various attempts of the prewar and World War II years, the German Gotha, G0147, the Northrop Flying Wing, and the Jeep (a near saucerlike contraption, of which shape more later). Dunne was a veteran of the Boer War, a devotee of and expert on dry-fly fishing (see his Sunshine and the Dry Fly, published in 1924), and a prolific writer and lecturer on what one must call “the supernatural.” He devoted, by his report, two years of his life to seclusion and contemplation of the questions, “What is time, what is thought, what are dreams?” and similar conundrums.

His Experiment with Time (1927) is a good starting point for any wishing to understand his theories.

I confess that, though I find his writing charming, he seems to be as crazy as those rats whose domicile may not be mentioned in a drawing room. From his writings:

“For example, the images of the hundreds of tobacco pipes which I have seen, smoked and handled all contain a certain element, which is now apparent to me as an ill-defined image of a ‘pipe’ in general. It presents all the essential characteristics which serve to distinguish a pipe from any other article such as, say, an umbrella.” And:

“I cared not a whit whether Time were ‘a form of thought,’ or an aspect of reality, or (this was later) compoundable with Space. What I wanted to know was: how it got mixed.”

Well, it is easy to mock, and it is not inconceivable that I mock from ignorance. Perhaps J.W. Dunne had figured out something but had not figured out how to communicate it—the situation of any actual artist endeavoring to “explain” what he has done.

Perhaps, like Kip Thorne, Dunne—a preeminently qualified scientist—had, in his musings, “shuffled off this mortal coil”; we, who had not so shuffled, were ill-equipped to comprehend the report made upon his return.

Hamlet, which contains “the mortal coil,” also has its hero inform his pal Horatio “there are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”

I must confirm the statement, which, with a bit of willpower, might create in me more humility before the incomprehensible. To wit: I was, on two occasions, walking in rural Vermont at night. I was in company, and we all observed, on both occasions, the most bizarre of craft in the sky.

They appeared to hover motionless on the horizon at some distance, seemingly the same size and intensity as stars, and then shoot into the heavens, where they could have joined any of the constellations as a full member. They would then continue their circling and return to their starting point and begin the round again.

On the second occasion, walking with my wife, we saw some vast object moving silently and slowly at some point above the height of land, 2 miles away, and displaying a red light revolving around the circumference of what seemed to be a disc.

I telephoned the tower at Plattsburgh AFB and gave them my report. They suggested that I may have been watching a flight of geese.

And indeed I may have, but if so, the geese were inside a vehicle doing a creditable impression of a flying saucer.


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