“It’s been my policy to view the Internet not as an ‘information highway,’ but as an electronic asylum filled with babbling loonies.” —Mike Royko
I came across that quote today. It’s tempting to agree with Royko, whoever he is, but what he was forgetting is that the whole world is filled with babbling loonies. In one of Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhikers” books (I forget which one)*, he had a character who had built a wall around his house and called it “Outside of the Asylum”, inverting the perspective so that he saw himself outside the wall that enclosed the entire rest of the world: “the Asylum”. Inside, outside: it all depends on how you look at it. I’ll come back to that.
Back in 1869, a New York doctor called Cyrus Reed Teed was conducting electrical experiments on himself. Since electrical science was still quite new, it was reasonable enough to be interested in the effects of electrical energy on the body, and to investigate whther they might be beneficial. Whether or not this one was beneficial to Teed depends on your point of view. He was knocked unconscious, but while out for the count was visited by a divine spirit who told him that She was the Messiah. Inspired, once he awoke Teed vowed to apply his scientific knowledge to “redeem humanity.” He promptly changed his first name to “Koresh,” the Hebrew equivalent of Cyrus.
Actually, he had already been a little eccentric before this event, attributed by some to the effect of previous shocks. I don’t know: I got a strong shock yesterday from a computer power supply that I was modifying and it didn’t make me eccentric. (Who would design a heatsink to be at high voltage? The world is full of maniacs.) But after Reed’s visit from the Messiah, he really got into his stride. He preached alchemy, reincarnation, immortality, celibacy, communism, and a other radical ideas. He called it “Koreshanity”, and collected a number of followers. They formed communes in Chicago and San Francisco, and then in 1894 the largest and longest-lived Koreshan community in Estero, Florida. It’s now the Koreshan State Historic Site, an official Florida State Park. Seriously.
Teed’s most important revelation though, was that everyone had been making a big mistake since realising that the Earth is a sphere. Oh, Teed agreed that the Earth is a sphere: anybody can see that. But he realised that we don’t live on the outside surface. Standing on the outside of a spinning sphere? Clearly, you’d immediately fly off into space. No, the answer was simple: the Earth is hollow, and we are on the inside surface. Centrifugal force sticks us to the ground. Or something.
There were a few details that needed clarification. The Sun, for example, can’t be a gigantic ball of gas much larger than the Earth. It must be much smaller, suspended at the centre of the Earth; and Teed decided that it was powered by a natural battery. In order to explain astronomy and such, he postulated that light inside the hollow Earth always follows a curved path, not a perfect straight line as such fools as Galileo and Newton had assumed. (Stars are refracted images of light from the battery Sun.) As critics pointed out more difficulties with his theory, Reed modified and expanded it to explain. Always, he applied his own version of consistent logic. There’s a good website that goes into it all in much more detail at http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/hollow/morrow.htm.
Flat Earth, Round Earth, Hollow Earth. People can look at the world and happily envisage any of them. It all depends on how you look at it.
* I looked it up. It’s ‘So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish’. The character was called John Watson, although he named himself “Wonko the Sane” after building the asylum wall. In the radio series, he was played by no less a sane personage than Christian Slater.