Charles Fort
Prophet of the Unexplained
by Damon Knight
  

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
introduction by R. Buckminster Fuller

Doubleday, New York; 1970

224 pages

February 2007

  
Curiosities of science

Charles Fort was a collector of oddities, anomalies, the unexplained events which are reported but not given serious attention because they do not fit. Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained is Damon Knight's biography of Fort (1874-1932), and a thoughtful analysis of his compilations and conclusions.

Fort wrote four books, compilations of anomalies:

  • The Book of the Damned  (1919)
  • New Lands  (1923)
  • Lo!  (1931)
  • Wild Talents  (1932)

— all of which are in the omnibus edition, The Books of Charles Fort (1941). It's important to note that the events which Fort presents are not imaginaries, fancies, counterfactuals; rather they are occurrences reported in newspapers, scientific journals, and other sources; but which do not seem to fit our currently standard theories and histories.

There's a fair sample here of Fort's collected oddities in astronomy, chemistry, the human mind, as well as everyday things which fall out of the sky but shouldn't. For a long time it was believed that stones could not fall from the sky, because, obviously, there are no stones floating in the sky; yet finally, science caught up with observation and integrated meteorites into astronomical theory. Damon Knight does a fine job of showing Fort's obsessive curiosity, and justifying it.
  

A science of curiosities

Knight draws some detailed parallels with Immanuel Velikovsky, and looks at astronomers' and others' theories about Unidentified Flying Objects. I found more surprises here than I expected. And Fort's writings have inspired some science fiction authors; among those Knight mentions are: Eric Frank Russell (Sinister Barrier), H. Beam Piper ("He Walked Around the Horses"), and James Blish (Jack of Eagles). Russell was long involved in Fortean Society affairs. For a blast of weirdness, check out the Fortean Times or the International Fortean Organization. But mayhap the fantasts take the weirder way:

[H. P. Lovecraft's] criticisms were not solely literary. When I praised Charles Fort for poking holes in scientific theories, he replied at once with a carefully reasoned, convincing defense of the dogmatism of the professional scientist. Fort's books, he said, were not to be taken seriously, though amusing enough and a great source of material for the writer of fantasy and science fiction.

Fritz Leiber
"My Correspondence with Lovecraft", Fresco, Spring 1958
Fafhrd & Me: Selected Essays
  

Damon Knight's own analysis of Fort's data leads him to some startling conclusions. But you should read these yourself, in context. Such observations, or seeming observations, have a long history:

There is a tale of the Nemean Lyon that Hercules slew, which first rushing among the herds out of his unknown den in the Mountain of Cytheron in Boetia, the credulous people thought he was sent from their Goddess the Moone.

And if a whirle-winde did chance to snatch any thing up, and afterwards rain it down again, the ignorant multitude are apt to believe that it dropt from Heaven. Thus Avicenna relates the story of a Calfe which fell down in a storm, the beholders thinking it a Moon-calfe, and that it fell thence.

John Wilkins
The Discovery of a World in the Moone
or, A Discourse Tending to Prove
that 'tis probable there may be another habitable World in that Planet  (1638)
  

Scientific curiosity

What is the importance of tracking scientific anomalies? To my mind, in keeping science's edges loose, lest they petrify. This generally is where new theories arise, the frontiers of knowledge. Science is more than a fine-print set of rules and properties; it is a dynamic process. We may be absolutely and finally certain of all our fixed truths and codified laws, that in all important aspects science is settled and sealed and done — and yet it moves.

  

© 2007 Robert Wilfred Franson

 

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