Saturday, October 12, 2019

Remembering William R. Corliss (1926-2011)

Recommended reading: John Ruch's 9-24-19 Washington Post article entitled "He Saw the Scientific Promise in the Paranormal, But Now His Legacy Could Be Lost," in which the work of the late William R. Corliss is covered extensively (and with a surprising paucity of snide remarks):

Lightning curls into balls that pass ghostlike through windows and explode. Auroras dip from the sky to buzz and crackle around astonished viewers. Unexplained booms shake the skies over bays and rivers worldwide.

For more than three decades, a Baltimore physicist named William Corliss collected scientific journal reports of these and thousands of other strange phenomena into dozens of books, culminating in his multivolume “Catalog of Anomalies,” a shadow encyclopedia of things science doesn’t understand. Like any curiosity seeker, he aimed to delight and dazzle; but he also hoped to spur new discoveries and understandings. “Anomalies reveal nature as it really is: complex, chaotic, possibly even unplumbable,” Corliss wrote in one catalogue. “However iconoclastic the pages of this book, the history of science tells us that future students of nature will laugh at our conservatism and lack of vision.”

Corliss was praised by some fellow scientists in his day, but now, eight years after his death at 84, his family is shuttering his self-publishing house in Glen Arm, Md. Tomes with such stiffly offbeat titles as “Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena” (which Corliss said sold 100,000 copies) or “Rare Halos, Mirages, Anomalous Rainbows and Related Electromagnetic Phenomena” will go out of print for the first time. And Corliss’s legacy as a proponent of anomalistics, an interdisciplinary field that seeks scientific discoveries in the lore of the curious and the unexplained, may be destined for obscurity, lost in library book-weedings and buried in footnotes in the even lesser-known works of his handful of fans.

Corliss was not your typical compiler of UFO tales and ghost stories. In the 1960s, he served as director of advanced programs in the nuclear division of what is now Lockheed Martin and penned numerous scientific books as a technical writer for such partners as Nobel Prize-winning chemist Glenn Seaborg and NASA. But even those dry histories and manuals included references to unexplained mysteries and digs at the way the scientific establishment is sometimes faster to laugh at an idea than to investigate it.

Two revolutionary books set Corliss on his maverick course. One was a 1920s creationist assault on mainstream geology. Corliss himself never bought into the creation myth, according to Patrick Huyghe, publisher of a journal called the Anomalist and one of the few writers to interview the publicity-shy author. But he was intrigued by the widespread evidence for “catastrophism” — the concept that biblical-scale disasters like mega-floods and super-quakes shape the planet’s surface — and championed it well before it became cool again in an asteroid-killed-the-dinosaurs tale you may have heard.

The other book that influenced Corliss was “The Book of the Damned,” by Charles Fort. Fort was an eccentric New York journalist who spent the early 1900s scouring newspapers and scientific publications for bizarre reports — rains of blood and frogs, UFOs, ancient Roman coins plowed up in American fields — and compiled them into wild, absurdist books that mocked academic certitude. The stories were “damned” from textbooks because they didn’t fit prevailing theory.

Fort launched an entire genre of paranormal writing. Hundreds of imitators followed — Corliss foremost among them. On research trips for NASA to Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, Corliss detoured into old journals to follow up on some of Fort’s reports. He was astonished to find that Fort had touched only the tip of the anomaly iceberg.

In 1965, Corliss started compiling his own collection. Unlike the cranky Fort, he maintained a respect for science and its skeptical approach. He selected material primarily from the pages of respectable scientific journals and eschewed Fort’s dramatic taste in titles, instead referring to his research blandly as the Sourcebook Project. From 1974 through 2007, he published his collections first as ring-bound pages, then as meticulously indexed hardback catalogues, almost always printed in the relentlessly unsexy font of an old electric typewriter. For illustrations, he signed up a fellow outsider: John C. “Jack” Holden, a cartoonist trained in geology, who told me he delighted in Corliss’s professional dedication to “things that shouldn’t be.”

Corliss hoped that his compilations of the weird just might spark a scientific revolution. After all, the history of science is replete with cases of ridiculed reports and obscure observations that, when fitted together, revealed something new: the extraterrestrial origin of meteorites, for example, or the grim reality of battered-child syndrome.

Of course, many bizarre reports are untrue or insignificant, and Corliss admitted that his books were undoubtedly full of chaff. But several formerly fringe claims for which he connected the dots on 150 years’ worth of reports have joined scientific orthodoxy, including gigantic “rogue waves” that appear from nowhere to swamp ships, and the eerie glows known as “sprites” that sometimes manifest above thunderstorms. There is no sign, however, that Corliss’s research directly inspired any discoveries. (Rogue waves and sprites were “discovered” by accident, detected by recording devices set up for other purposes.)

As a motto, Corliss adopted a quote from “The Hidden Self,” an obscure 1890 essay by psychologist and philosopher William James, which reads in part: “Round about the accredited and orderly facts of every science there ever floats a sort of dust-cloud of exceptional observations, of occurrences minute and irregular, and seldom met with, which it always proves less easy to attend to than to ignore. ... Anyone will renovate his science who will steadily look after the irregular phenomena.” James referred to this “dust-cloud” of anomalies as the “Unclassified Residuum,” and Corliss set forth to classify it.

Along the way, Corliss won some high-profile fans who shared his open-minded eclecticism. Among them was Arthur C. Clarke, the sci-fi visionary of “2001” fame, who praised the physicist in his memoir, “Astounding Days.” Nobel-winning geneticist Barbara McClintock was another; her biographer, Nathaniel Comfort, told me her discovery of the mobility of genes was such a shocking anomaly that it stirred her curiosity about other strange observations.

At his death in 2011, Corliss left no successor, and the fate of his archives is unclear beyond some newsletters still posted on his website, Science Frontiers ( His family declined my interview requests, but his son Jim Corliss confirmed via email that “book sales have finally slowed down to a trickle,” and “I think we will be sadly saying goodbye to the Sourcebook Project this year.”

That means saying goodbye to thousands of reports that, at the least, can inspire readers to a renewed sense of natural wonder. Holden recalls the favorite anomaly he learned about from Corliss: mima mounds, unexplained patterns of humps that dot the U.S. landscape. “No one knows what they are. ... I like that,” Holden says. “The more we learn, the more we don’t know.”

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