Friday, August 01, 2014

The quest to know the unknowable

kw: book reviews, mysteries, history, conspiracies

A certain style of "documentary", be it in video or print, is exemplified by NASA's Unexplained Files on the Science Channel. The commentator gravely reports a series of observations and raises questions, interspersed with comments in sound bites from various scientists and other investigators. I'll give them a little credit: sometimes the last word goes to someone with a credible explanation that mostly removes excessive mystery. But we are usually left with a series of possibly unrelated facts and suppositions, all intended to indicate alien involvement.

I took up Brad Meltzer's latest book with a bit of trepidation, expecting something similar, but I was intrigued. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time, written with Keith Ferrell. Barring the first chapter, the reporting is balanced and the author offers a common-sense appraisal of the evidence. I haven't seen the show Brad Meltzer's Decoded on the History Channel, but it might be worth a look.

The book starts with a chapter about John Wilkes Booth, and whether he actually survived into the early 1900s after a look-alike was killed by Union soldiers. This story has more bizarre twists than Byzantine history, and ends with a mummy that might have been Booth, put on display for a few decades, then disappearing in the 1970s.

The last chapter is a separate top-10 rundown regarding the assassination of John Kennedy. It must have been hard to pick 10 items to cover. A quick look in Amazon shows nearly 8,000 books on the subject, with a current publication rate of about one new book every day. If you read as fast as I do, you'd have to spend 3-4 hours daily just to read the newest books as fast as they are printed! If someone has a comprehensive "Kennedy Assassination" library, just the books cost about a quarter million dollars. The chapter closes with an insightful comment that what this all primarily reveals is the depth of our anxieties.

That is true of conspiracies in general. You know the sacrilegious joke on Psalm 23: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil…because I'm the toughest, meanest SOB in the valley." Unless you are Rambo, a certain amount of paranoia is justified, because "everybody" may not be out to get you, but there is a good chance that somebody is! Particularly now that thousands of new computer viruses appear weekly and the hard-core crackers have hardware that can decode 350 billion passwords every second. It is amazing that most of us are still sane. Our biggest fear? An amorphous "THEY", a combination of "The Government" (all governments from a town council right up to the Fed) and "Big Business", including the company you work for. Even Google, with its slogan "Don't Be Evil" is suspected these days.

The ten subjects of the book:

  • John Wilkes Booth's possible survival
  • Confederate gold "mislaid" in 1865
  • The Georgia Guidestones: warning or threat?
  • Who was Dan Cooper (AKA DB Cooper)?
  • The missing cornerstones of the White House and the Capitol Building (spoiler: The author thinks they are in place, with later construction concealing them from view)
  • The spear that pierced Jesus; any of 3
  • Was Leonardo Da Vinci a prophet?
  • Does any gold remain in Fort Knox?
  • UFO's, Roswell, and Area 51
  • JFK Assassination: is there truth among the hype?
They are numbered in countdown order, from 10 to 1. Each chapter includes a dossier of replica documents intended to lend credence to the discussion.

Number 8 intrigues me. The Georgia Guidestones are a small Stonehenge bearing inscriptions in 8 languages, built in 1980 at a cost of a half million dollars. The first of ten statements is "Maintain humanity under 500 million in perpetual balance with nature." The rest are comparatively innocuous.

This map shows areas that will be "safe" in an expected cataclysm. Atlanta, Georgia is in the middle of the eastern safe zone. The map legend states that the purple areas will mostly be submerged. They happen to contain about 80% of America's population. When one finds out that the stones were designed and paid for by a Rosicrucian, people's antennae go up. The "500 million" statement is considered a threat. But to me (the author doesn't mention it this way), the word "maintain" is the key: after the disaster, the population of Earth will be half a billion or less, and people would do well to maintain it at that level.

Most of the chapter explores what the author and his team can find out about Rosicrucians. You'll still see advertisements touting "secret knowledge" in the backs of some cheap magazines, and that's about all most people know. As it happens, there is little to know. People like secrets, and some are drawn to "secret societies" such as the Freemasons or the Rose-and-Cross. Their "studies" bear a lot of resemblance to the Unexplained Files shows. Raising lots of questions about occult possibilities, but offering no answers.

I was also interested in item #4, about Leonardo. It all hinges on an insert missing from page 1,033 of a collection of his writings called the Codex Atlanticus. That insert has been found to be this portrait, apparently a self-portrait. From an artist's point of view, he had to use two mirrors to see himself from this angle, with the benefit that it would not be a "mirror image" of the left side of his head because of the second reflection. This is facetiously called a portrait of the artist as a young man. Young enough to have little or no white hair, perhaps, but I see a man of 40-50 years of age here.

So are Leonardo's writings in that Codex a prophecy, or worried speculations? Much is made of his many "inventions", ideas he sketched out but very seldom tried to actually build. Many have sparked further work by others and led to actual devices, such as the anemometer, parachute and helicopter (after a lot of further work!). Others, such as what some call his SCUBA, would not have worked. The SCUBA was actually an over-designed snorkel; the leather air bladder was a flotation device, not a pressurized breathing tank.

Like all "natural philosophers" of the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods in Europe, such as Newton a century or so later, Leonardo speculated about religion and philosophy as much as about science and technology. The Codex Atlanticus is more about such humanities studies than about science, and its frequently gloomy tone reflects his pessimism about human nature, a pessimism that led him to "cripple" most of his weapon designs so that contemporary engineers would be unable to build a working prototype. So his message to all generations is simple: Don't be afraid to dream big dreams, but be careful to whom you confide them.

P.S. About Leonardo's mirror writing. He was left-handed, but that wasn't much the point. Try this with a chalk board or whiteboard: take a writing instrument in each hand, and write with both hands, outward from a center point if you are right-handed, towards it if left-handed. You'll find it rather easy to write backwards with your opposite hand! With practice, if you are right-handed, you can write backwards with pencil or pen on paper with your left hand, in a mirror image of your usual handwriting style (or lack of it). A left-handed person will be able to write backwards with the right hand. That's probably what he did.

The book was fun and interesting to read. In a few chapters, such as the one about the "Spear of Destiny", we read that the real problem isn't whether some artifact has magical powers, but that unscrupulous people are diligently striving to find it and take advantage of the power. This team is genuinely interested in the truth, and the speculations are always wrapped up for a final analysis that makes more sense than I'd expected. I was intrigued that Meltzer includes blurbs and pictures of his team members but not of himself. Here is an image from his web site.

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