Sabtu, 07 Maret 2009

Wizardry That Would Amaze Harry Potter

These scientists would fit right in at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry - except that their astounding conjurings were not works of fiction.

The latest Harry Potter book and film, with all their wizardry, magic and bizarre scientific experimentation, puts us in mind of some real-life science experiments that in their weirdness, fantastic ambitions and astonishing implications rival anything conducted at Hogwart's. Mad or not, these scientists managed to conjure incredible manifestations, human invisibility and even attempted to build a Messiah!

John Tyndall and the Test Tube of Beasties

John Tyndall was a respected Irish physicist of the 19th century. Making his career primarily in Great Britain, Tyndall made important contributions to the study of atmospherics and radiant heat, and may be best known for his discovery of "the Tyndall effect" - the diffusion of light by large molecules and dust in the air.

One of his experiments, however, conducted in the late 1800s, sounds like something out of a computer-effects movie. Tyndall had combined a variety of vapors from nitrates, iodides and acids in a test tube to record the effects of beams of light upon them. What he saw forming in the glass tube astonished him. At first the vapors formed clouds of remarkable colors. But then they started to take on distinct and familiar shapes. The vapor clouds began to arrange themselves in the form of vases, bottles, shells and various flowers. "In one case," he said, "the cloud-bud grew rapidly into a serpent's head; a mouth was formed, and from the cloud, a cord of cloud resembling a tongue was discharged."

More incredibly, the vapor then formed itself into a perfectly symmetrical fish. "It positively assumed the form of a fish, with eyes, gills and feelers. The twoness of the animal form was displayed throughout, and no disk, coil, or speck existed on one side that did not exist on the other."

What happened here? Had Tyndall inadvertently inhaled some strange vapors and hallucinated the scene? Or were his thoughts - images from his mind - somehow made manifest in the stimulated vapors? We may never know exactly what happened in Tyndall's laboratory that day.

Sir Thomas Brown and the Spectral Plant

You have no doubt seen the famous Kirlian photographs in which the outline of a severed piece of a leaf still appears in Kirlian energy. A phenomenon similar but much more remarkable is said to have taken place in the laboratory of Sir Thomas Brown, a 17th century physician and author, when he saw the "spectre" of a plant rise from its burned remains.

In this experiment, Sir Brown took a plant and reduced it to ashes through calcination - a process in which an object is turned to powder through high temperature, then by drying, decomposing or oxidizing it. After fermenting the powder, he poured it into a vial. When heat was applied again, something unexplained occurred.

A witness wrote: "This dust thus excited by heat, shoots upward into its primitive forms; by sympathy the parts unite, and while each is returning to its destined place, we see distinctly the stalk, the leaves, and the flower arise; it is the pale spectre of a flower coming slowly forth from its ashes. The heat passes away, the magical scene declines, till the whole matter again precipitates itself into the chaos at the bottom. This vegetable phoenix thus lies concealed in its cold ashes."

In other words, when the vial was heated - even from the heat of a person's hand - a ghostly form of the original plant rose from the ashes out of the vial. All parts of the plant could distinctly be seen, according to this account, then faded away. It sounds like a conjurer's trick, but that is the story that has been passed down.

John Murray Spear and the God Machine

In their efforts to create a Utopia or a more perfect world society, many a well-intentioned scientist have been led down dark roads to the abominable. The experiments of the fictional Dr. Victor Frankenstein (and the not-so-fictional Johann Konrad Dippel) come to mind. But they may have been eclipsed in their maniacal ambitions by the work of a group led by John Murray Spear, who gathered to create nothing less than the Messiah - God himself.

Spear, a minister of the Universal Church, brought together a group in October, 1853 to a cottage on a hilltop in Lynn, Massachusetts with the intention of physically constructing "Heaven's last, best gift to man" - what they hoped would be the New Messiah. Spear was deeply into spiritualism and participated in many séances as a trance medium in which many spirits spoke through him on a great many subjects. In 1853, through automatic writing he began to channel a group of spirits who called themselves the "Band of Electricizers," directed by the spirit of Benjamin Franklin himself.

These spirits and others, claiming to be working for the elevation of humankind, provided Spear with plans for advanced ships, "thinking machines" and great planned cities. A priority, however, was the creation of the New Messiah. Spear and several other spiritualists congregated at High Rock Cottage in Lynn to begin their audacious experiment. Over a nine month period, Spear channeled the instructions for the machine while the others built it, piece by piece, "much the same way... that one decorates a Christmas tree."

The result was a crazy, if somewhat impressive, assembled mass of machined copper and zinc parts, shafts, flywheels, magnets, wires, insulators, chemical compounds and a "brain" made up of copper and zinc plates that were supposed to draw power directly from the atmosphere. All at the exorbitant cost of over $2,000.

Electricity was applied to the machine and then Spear, himself clad in metal and gemstones, sat near it. He fell into a deep trance and it was said that an umbilical of light stretched between the two. Some time later, one of the pregnant members of the group, near delivery, lay on the floor in front of the machine for two hours while she went through labor pains. And when she rose and touched the machine, the group claimed that for a few seconds their God machine actually became animate!

Did it? Critics and skeptics who saw the machine said that it did not move (except for a few dangling parts), but that it was beautifully put together. Eventually, it was torn apart by an angry mob and nothing of it appears to have survived.

Young Scientist and the Invisibility Suit

We know that today's stealth aircraft are virtually invisible to radar, but can true invisibility be achieved through electromagnetic or other means? Some believe exactly that was accomplished with the infamous "Philadelphia Experiment," but the account of that incident has become so muddled and fictionalized (like the alleged UFO crash at Roswell) that the truth may never be known.

In 1934, however, a young British scientist is said to have achieved full invisibility of himself - and he did so on a brightly lit stage in front of an audience. The scientist, whose name seems to be lost to history (might it have been "Potter"?), walked on stage in a crowded public hall in London, England and declared that he had discovered the secret to electromagnetically induced invisibility. Wearing a device he called an Electro-Helmet and other gear that witnesses said made him look like "a deep-sea diver," he stepped into an open-front cabinet. He reached up and touched two contacts above his head with both hands, then gave the signal for the switch to be thrown. The switch appeared to send a current of electricity to his strange devices and through the scientist. His body at first became transparent... and then gradually vanished from his feet to his head!

According to the story, spectators invited onto the stage could touch and feel his body within the cabinet as if he were still there, but they could not see him. "All one could see," the story goes, "was the development of a cone of light such as might be projected between the two poles of a powerful transmitter." Naturally, the inventor refused to reveal how his contraption worked, stating only that it was the result of many years of experimentation. Photos were allegedly taken of this feat, but could not explain how it was accomplished - only that he was visible one moment and invisible the next.

Was he a brilliant scientist? Or a clever magician? Or perhaps he was a graduate of some real-life version of Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.


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