“Back to the wall” (Amber Room)


Commies, Nazis, and Indiana Jones wannabes all play roles in the long, captivating, dispiriting history of the Amber Room. The room was an extremely opulent portion of the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg  its highly-ornate walls were worth untold millions, as was the artwork which hung on it. It featured bright gilded panels imbued with gold and amber, as well as gold leaf and mirrors and esthetically arranged.

It was the pride of the Romanov Dynasty and then the Soviet Union until invading German soldiers took possession of it. While trying to move the room, the Nazis found it too brittle to be safely disassembled. Anatoly Kuchumov could have told them that. He served as a Soviet curator and he discovered how fragile the pieces were when he tried to move the invaluable collection into hiding. He settled for building false walls to cover the amber panels but the impromptu gamble failed and the German soldiers took apart he walls and packed it into crates. They sent it to Königsberg Castle, which was razed after the arrival of Brits and Soviets, with the latter burning the building completely.

Kuchumov recovered three Florentine stone mosaics, which were the only inflammable portions of the Amber Room. More than three decades later, German citizen Hans Achterman saw a documentary about the room and he recognized the stone mosaics as something identical to an item in his parents’ attic. His father had been one of the soldiers who had dismantled the room and he stole the mosaic and kept it as a souvenir. This find stoked a batch of conspiracy theories and wild claims about other parts of the room still being hidden or otherwise waiting to be found.

Some proponents believe the room’s contents were packed into crates and moved before the Red Army got to Königsberg. Others maintain they were put on a ship which sank. Other ideas are that it is being held in mine shafts or an abandoned warehouse.

Investigative journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy addressed all this and much more in their work, The Amber Room: The Fate of the World’s Greatest Lost Treasure. They interviewed former intelligence officers, government officials, retired military, and curators. They concluded that, “The Soviet Union, while wanting to be seen to search for the Amber Room, was also determined that nothing should be found.”

That’s because the USSR’s leaders knew their soldiers had destroyed the Amber Room but wanted to keep the idea it still existed as a bargaining chip. So when looted German artwork is mentioned, the Soviets retort that Amber Room also went missing.

The Soviet official with the most vested interest in the destruction’s cover-up was Kuchumov. He nervously watched as his former museum colleagues were shipped to Siberia for failing to protect treasures from the Nazis, and none of those valuables were worth what Kuchumov oversaw.

He spent several years in charge of a commission whose ostensible mission was to unearth the Amber Room. But it was all a sham and Kuchumov was an “acting chairman” in the most literal sense. The commission’s actual purpose was for Kuchumov to keep his freedom by maintaining an illusion that Amber Room valuables were still out there waiting to be found. The longer it stays hidden, the more the legend grows.

“Sticky situation” (Star jelly)


Since at least the 15th Century, there have been reports of what is generally termed star jelly, either falling from the sky or appearing mysteriously overnight. Descriptions vary, but witnesses usually talk about seeing a sticky, slimy goo, somewhat akin to Jell-O, and usually concentrated in puddle or patch form.

Folklore often attributes the jelly to meteors, but there is no scientific evidence for a connection. And even a shooting star that appears to be directly overhead is likely thousands of miles to the left or right and would leave any deposit far from the viewer. Star jelly has a much shorter shelf life than even the most perishable vegetables and usually evaporates or disintegrates before it can be analyzed.

Many guesses have been made as to what it is, from the scientific to the pseudoscientific to the just plain bizarre. Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning looked at some of these and concludes that star jelly is likely not a single phenomenon but multiple ones that have come to reside under the same mysterious umbrella.

Among the rational, terrestrial explanations are that it star jelly are a form of slime mold, which are neither fungus nor bacteria, and which use spores to reproduce. They prefer dead plant matter, which enables them to feeding on its microorganisms. Slime molds begin as a single cell, can reproduce quickly, and move noticeably. When growing, slime molds are wet and slimy, and appear suddenly, with a gelatinous appearance that morphs into a dusty form. Much wind or rain at all will cause it to evaporate or disintegrate. These distinctions are consistent with many star jelly reports, though not all.

Another possible answer are a cyanobacteria called Nostoc. Nostocs exist everywhere on the planet as minuscule colonies of bacteria. They are so tiny that only a botanist looking for them would be likely to make a sighting. But when wet, Nostocs swell to a much larger size and transform into gooey lumps or puddles. This would create an illusion of sudden appearance, when it was actually a change in appearance.

Another candidate is bryozoan, a phylum which exists in colonies of interdependent individuals. Most of these colonies are about a half a millimeter long and secrete exoskeletons. In some species, these skeletons are somewhat solid, making the colony look like a plant or coral. In other species, this exoskeleton is gelatinous, which turns the colony into a wet, sticky blob. Both of these eventualities could be taken to be star jelly.

Other natural substances that could explain star jelly include unfertilized frog spawn or deer sperm. And in The Book of British Amphibians and Reptiles, authors speculate that star jelly may form from the glands in frog and toad oviducts. Birds and mammals will eat the animals but not the oviducts which, when they come into contact with moisture, swell and distort leaving a vast pile of jellylike substance.

There has been speculation that star jelly being a more revolting substance, specifically chemical waste dumped from the airline toilets. However airplanes have never dumped toilet from the sky. It is possible for airline toilet systems to leak, forming blue ice can fall off when the plane descends. But the results are not gelatinous and have a color inconsistent with star jelly descriptions.

A far less reasonable airliner-related speculation is that star jelly is chemtrail residue. This is an instance of Tooth Fairy Science, where someone attempts to explain something by means of something not yet proven. Since chemtrails remain in the realm evidence-free paranoia, they make for a poor explanation as to what causes star jelly.

Jelly star sightings are sometimes accompanied by reports of widespread sickness enveloping the area. This leads to the most (literally) out there answer, that star jelly houses an alien virus. But there would be no reason to suspect that the jelly is causing a mass sickness. That would be a correlation/causation error. There’s never been a diagnosis of a pathogen tied to star jelly and any town is going to have a virus going around to some degree at any time. You could tie that virus to anything you wanted, be it rutabaga sales, tech stock prices, or the percentage of men wearing fedoras.

“Plane truth” (Malaysian Airlines flight MH370)


On March 8, 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Its final appearances were some unexpected cameos on radar and satellite data. About 40 minutes after departure, the Boeing 777 signed off from Kuala Lumpur air traffic control over the South China Sea.

Minutes after signing off, the pilots made a U-turn back toward Malaysia. The plane was equipped with an ACARS system which periodically transmits maintenance data, and the system was inoperable after the U-turn.

Later, a right turn was made and the military radar detected the craft west of Thailand. The final contact, between an Inmarsat satellite and the aircraft’s automated satellite data unit, located the plane as having been in the Indian Ocean west of Australia. That is about when the plane’s fuel would have run out. Search and rescue teams were unsuccessful, though conspiracy theorists enjoyed  more fruitful days.

Plausible ideas such as a hijacking or pilot suicide were aired. But hijackers want something in return or, in the case of 9/11, aim to commit a very public atrocity. Neither of those things happened. As to the latter idea, Captain Zaharie Ahmad had recently separated from his wife and a flight simulator game at his home had some unusual Indian Ocean landings on it. But that’s hardly enough to (reasonably) deduce he committed a mass murder/suicide.

Some have pondered about North Korean involvement. There are two competing narratives here: One has Kim Jong Un lackeys hijacking the plane in order to reverse engineer it; the other paints North Koreans as the victims, with the 777 carrying a nuclear weapon meant to take aim at Pyongyang. This idea was reminiscent of suspicion that the downed KAL 007 airliner in 1983 had been on a spy mission. However, there is no satellite or radar data suggesting the Malaysian airliner was ever on a route to North Korea.

Keeping with the theme of vile eastern dictators, another hypothesis implicates Vladimir Putin. In this tale, a cutting-edge Russian spy satellite detected the Malaysian airliner plummeting into the Bay of Bengal. However the Russians kept quiet about it in order to not reveal it had this new technology. How anyone in the West knows this, since it contradicts the narrative it’s trying to promote, is unclear.

Another Putin-related claim was that the vanishing came after the US had imposed sanctions against Russia, so Putin arranged for hijackers to divert the plane to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Besides being post hoc reasoning and lacking all evidence, this proposal fails to explain how a Malaysian airliner being sent to Kazakhstan would harm the United States.

The most far-out explanations include the airliner making its way to an alternate dimension or being caught in a time warp a la Manifest

While the disappearance remains a mystery, a reasonable answer has been suggested by members of the Air Line Pilots Association. What follows is a succinct version of the theory.

First, since the airliner’s automated communications stopped, this may indicate the ACARS system had been damaged. Second, an emergency locator beacon was never triggered while within range of ground personnel who could have heard it. This suggests that whatever doomed the plane took place over several minutes and was not an instantaneous catastrophe. Third, it seems probable that the pilots became incapacitated. All three of these occurrences could be explained by smoke.

Members of the association agree their initial action when smelling smoke would be to turn off all unnecessary electronics, to include radios. This would explain the ACARS no longer transmitting, and would also explicate the lack of communication from the airplane to traffic control. As to the emergency locator beacon, pilots cannot switch it off, and besides, there would not necessarily been anything to trigger it.

If the smoldering got pronounced enough, carbon monoxide or smoke inhalation could have rendered the pilots incapacitated. As to why they wouldn’t have responded with a Hollywood “Mayday!” moment, no one in air traffic control can help with a smoky cockpit. Pilots follow a guideline of, “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate” – in that order.

The reconstructed flight path that we now know the plane followed is consistent with the association’s recommendations of what backup airports the pilots would have chosen. And when debris from a Boeing 777 did begin to appear more than a year later, it was all consistent with the notion of a crash in the ocean west of Australia.   

“Strong claim” (Temporary super strength)


In elementary school, my younger brother and I observed a couple of juvenile miscrenats trying to sneak a smoke. When they noticed us, they sprinted in our direction and one of them held me down, nervously asking me what I had seen and threatening me with harm if we told anyone. I laid there and meekly took it all until I looked to my side and noticed the other youthful tobacco connoisseur had my scared sibling pinned on the grass.

This provided a surge of energy and determination that caused me, a somewhat wussy 5th grader with average strength, to fling aside the 6th grader who was holding me, then doing likewise to his same-aged cohort. I was now the one doing the pinning down, and my firm grasp kept both assailants immobilized until my brother safely fled.

While there was no lifesaving involved in this case, there have long been tales of heroes rescuing a disaster victim by temporarily acquiring superhuman strength. This power affords them the ability to do much than control a pair of grade school hooligans. These stories’ central figures are said to have summoned the means to lift objects as massive as a car or boulder.

One of the more well-known instances of the putative phenomenon was when the helicopter used in Magnum, P.I. crashed and pinned the pilot under shallow water. A quick-acting onlooker lifted the 2,000-pound helicopter and allowed the pilot to survive.

Occasionally, the courageous crusader is asked to repeat the feat and is unable to do so, sometimes being unable to even budge the object. This lends credence in the mind of some that a temporary super power enabled the hero to do it the first time.

The usual explanation centers on a surge of adrenalin. It’s true that an adrenalin rush leads to physically-measurable changes. As it is pumped into the bloodstream, airways relax, metabolism increases, and muscles experience glycolysis, which readies them for action. Additionally, endorphins are released, peripheral vision is reduced, reflexes sharpen, and reaction times improve.

But while all this may make one capable of doing something that he or she normally couldn’t, does this extend all the way to being able to literally lift a ton? For that answer, we can look to the work of biomechanist Vladimir Zatsiorsky. He uses different strength categories to describe someone’s lifting potential. The primary ones are Absolute and Maximal.

Absolute refers to the theoretical maximum that a person’s muscles, fibers, tendons, and bones would allow them to lift. This is what physiology shows would be theoretically possible, but people actually fall short of being able to reach the full amount.

Meanwhile, Maximal strength is the most that could be lifted using conscious effort, such as in construction work or a weightlifting session. This usually caps out at about 67 percent of the person’s Absolute ability. Beyond that, tissues would fail, no matter how strong the desire to lift more or how much adrenalin had been released.

There is a third, seldom-seen category that rests between these Absolute and Maximial. It can be attained when one is in a competitive mode, such as in the Olympics, especially if being cheered by frenzied onlookers. Zatsiorsky has detected some world-class athletes reaching as high as 92 percent of their body’s Absolute strength during the most intense competitions. That this could happen in such a venue makes sense, as no situation is more pressurized. Unless, perhaps, there’s a life in your vicelike hands.

Such as in a case cited by Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning. He relates an anecdote where a car ran over an Arizona bicyclist in 2006 and trapped the victim to the pavement. On the scene was powerlifter Tom Boyle, who had previously demonstrated the ability to deadlift 700 pounds. Impressive stuff. But the car weighed a ton and a half, and as the story goes, our muscular rescuer managed to get its front wheels off the ground. But since the vehicle’s weight was much more than Boyle’s Absolute lift, his body would have hit structural failure well before summoning the ability to raise the vehicle.

This supposed ability cannot be tested. There is no way to replicate the exact original conditions and there are obvious ethical constraints to intentionally placing someone beneath a pinned car or helicopter. In the Arizona, Magnum P.I., and similar cases, leverage or buoyancy likely came into play and substantially lessened the amount of weight lifted. Another possible mitigating factor, Dunning noted, is that lifting many cars a few inches leaves most of the vehicle’s weight still supported by suspension springs.

So to be clear, these stories are not being fabricated by the hero, victim, or onlookers. In life-and-death situations, details are going to be fuzzy and mis-remembered. Perhaps Boyle lifted from the lighter back end of the car and not the heavier side. Perhaps the car was inclined in such a way that the leverage angle was more favorable.

Whenever such incidents are captured on video and can be paused and rewound, extenuating circumstances can be noticed, which a terrified witness would have missed at the time. For example, during the helicopter incident, the rescuer did not lift the rotorcraft as was reported; rather, he rocked it as it was lying on its side against a sloped and uneven riverbank. While the act was heroic, it did not require the superhuman effort attributed to it.

Physical changes that take place during an emergency situation may lead a person to exceed their usual abilities, but only by a known, limited increment. The hero won’t acquire the ability to impersonate Christopher Reeve. Hitting 80 percent of one’s Absolute strength or subduing a pair of Marlboro-packing bullies seems to be the limit.

“Lyin’ hearted” (Sphinx age)


I have been fortunate to do extensive travel andmy favorite of all the stops has been the Sphinx. Workers carved the man-lion hybrid, whose face likely depicts the Pharaoh Khafra, into a limestone bedrock hill. It remains one of the world’s most recognized sculptures thousands of years after its construction. But how many thousands of years is that?
Whether built by Egyptians or aliens, these workers left behind plenty of evidence of their time spent there. Radiocarbon dating evidence shows the tools, housing, and ovens employed by Sphinx workers were in use around 2500 BCE. Despite a strong consensus among archaeologists, geologists, and Egyptologists about this date, a few non-experts prefer a contrary timeline.

There was, for example, a 1990s television movie, The Mystery of the Sphinx: New Scientific Evidence, which suggests it was built much earlier. Also, science fiction author John Anthony West and alchemist René Adolphe Schwaller de Lubicz have both claimed the extent of wall erosion surrounding the Sphinx is much greater than other places in Giza. The duo claim this could only happen if the limestone lion had been exposed to the elements thousands of years before the consensus date of 2500 BCE.

But Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning points out that weathering can result from desert winds combining with native sand. Also factoring in is how soft the limestone would have been when the Sphinx was being built. Contrarians believe the weathering is  best explained by water that flowed near the Sphinx site during a period when there was much greater rainfall. However, archaeologists have excellent paleoclimatology data for the region, so they know rainfall there 4500 years ago was much heavier than what it is today.

Crucially, the Giza Plateau is high ground and the area encompassing the Sphinx and Pyramids is a summit and is therefore a highly unlikely place for water to flow to. Furthermore, almost all geologists maintain there is little reason to try and squeeze water erosion into this Egyptian equation. Dunning writes, “The pattern of erosion on rock depends not upon what’s doing the eroding, but upon the characteristics and hardness of the rock itself. It’s impossible to tell what did the weathering, water or wind.”

And according to geologist August Matthusen, “Variations in the rock usually account for the different weathering morphologies.”

There are a number of ways to explain why there is significant weathering found on the Sphinx’s deep west wall and no other place on the plateau. These reasons include salt crystal exfoliation, underground water, and excavation.

To make the alternate hypothesis work, contrarians propose the existence of an earlier advanced civilization that preceded Egypt. The deficiencies with this idea are the geological evidence presented so far and the lack of proof of a society large and advanced to build the Sphinx, then disappear – all without leaving traces of themselves.
In the Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology, Dr. Ken Feder writes, “There is no sign of an infrastructure necessary to support a large population of workers, no sign of the ability to produce a large agricultural surplus to feed the construction workers, no evidence of dormitories for housing them, no huge storage facilities for food, no great bakeries, no cemeteries in which to bury the workers who would have died during the construction project.”

And one doesn’t need an alternate history anyway. The Sphinx is magnificent enough on its own. My amazement when gazing upon this ancient wonder would not have been any more pronounced by thinking it was even older or by suspecting that sleuth pseudoscientists had exposed a cover-up.

“Nyet so fast” (Rasputin invincibility)


A Siberian works his way from poverty and obscurity to become the primary confidant of the Tsarina. He plays a pivotal, albeit unintentional, role in the collapse of the Romanov Dynasty and the birth of communist societies. He was known as the Mad Monk, though he was neither. He did, however, spent time in a monastery debating theological ideas, and sported a greatly unkempt appearance, which when combined with his captivating, harrowing eyes and strange demeanor, made him at once the target of suspicion, wonder, and revulsion.

This life story is fascinating enough without needing embellishment. But there are some persons who find humans landing a probe on a comet to be ho-hum while being simultaneously fascinated by evidence-free doomsday tales of a hypothetical Planet X. In the same way, there are some who remain unsatisfied with amazing true historical accounts and crave a still more spectacular story.

Hence, the idea that Rasputin was nearly indestructible was born. Allegedly, killing him required that he be poisoned, shot multiple times, beaten, and tossed bound into a river, and even all that was barely enough. For maximum efficiency, this fable sometimes holds that he owed his quasi-invincibility to his mystical powers, the same supernatural abilities that Tsarina Alexandra was convinced had saved her hemophiliac son. Because she was certain he had, the self-proclaimed miracle healer and seer became the darling of the ruling matriarch.

She wanted to keep him close, literally and figuratively, so the man who once lived as a peasant received a massive upgrade to castles, ballrooms, and carriages. He enjoyed high society status, had access to the royal inner circle, and influenced politics, culture, and society. Most everyone of relevance had a strong opinion about him, either good or bad.

Some of those in the latter category were insiders who thought Rasputin was dooming the Romanovs and Russia, and wanted him out of the way permanently. The first attempt on Rasputin’s life came in the summer of 1914, when he was stabbed in the abdomen. He survived but a year later, conspirators hatched a second assassination plot, which was uncovered before it could be acted upon.

In December 1916 came another attempt, and the third time was the harm. Led by Prince Felix Yusupov, four other conspirators lured Rasputin to a St. Petersburg palace, where the dastardly deed was done.

Three are three sources which relate what took place in those early morning hours of Dec. 30: The written accounts of Yusupov and his henchman, Vladimir Purishkevich; and the autopsy report. There are some key differences between the first two sources and the other one.

Yusupov recalled that he offered Rasputin tea, cakes, and alcohol, all laced with cyanide. Despite being plied with a lethal chemical compound, Rasputin merely complained about a headache and fiery stomach.

The rest of the putative first-hand account from the assailants goes like this: At 2:30 a.m., Yusopov fired a bullet into Rasputin’s stomach at close range. The victim collapsed, seemingly dead. Rasputin was left lying there for nearly an hour before coming to and attacking Yusupov. Rasputin rushed past the other conspirators, who fired shots at the fleeing man. This time, the killers shot him through the back and head, yet still he survived.

A frustrated and enraged Yusupov then grabbed a club and began pummeling Rasputin, whose body was eventually bound and tossed into the icy Malaya Neveka River. Some claimed that when found, Rasputin was making the sign of the cross, proof he had been thrown living from the bridge and worked free of his ropes.

The autopsy shows something far less dramatic than all this. First, the pathologist found no cyanide present, even though he looked for it specifically since Yusupov  said he plied Rasputin treats laden with it.

Second, while three bullet wounds were found, the pathologist determined that  two bullets hit the torso and one entered the forehead. These entered from the front, not in the back as would be consistent with a fleeing man. Moreover, gunpowder residue was found near the wound, suggesting the gun was fired from close-range, not from across the room. The pathologist also reported that the wounds’ angle indicated the victim was lying down when shot.

Also of note, the autopsy referenced no water in Rasputin’s lungs. And while photographs of the frozen corpse do show Rasputin’s arms to be free, they are not making the sign of the cross.

In summary, the autopsy shows Rasputin was shot from behind, collapsed, rolled onto his back, and was then shot through the head as he lay dying. There was no poison, no water-filled lungs, and no bound, beaten body. He had merely been done in by a lethal head shot.

The embellishments have been fabricated to create a fascinating but false narrative of Rasputin being nearly indestructible. That he had survived two earlier assassination plots, including one that came to fruition, may have sparked the notion of invincibility, and his mystical nature likely added to the post-mortem reputation. Such unwarranted speculation is common when fascinating life comes to a premature end, and has happened with the likes of JFK and Elvis.

“Cosmo’s Fear Factory” (Doomed cosmonauts)


The Space Race is one of the great tales in human history, replete with drama, competition, personalities, ingenuity, setbacks, heroes, perseverance, and pride. But some consider it to have a frightening sidebar, with some Soviet spacefarers said to have been aboard a doomed vessel that veered off course and into space, where they met a horrific and terrifying death.

The story of doomed cosmonauts stems from the extensive logs and audio recordings of two radio operators, the Italian brothers Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia. The polyglot pair, who taught themselves to speak Russian, recorded and documented the space race more thoroughly than any other amateurs. Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning described their space race collection as “by far the most comprehensive private collection known.” They began their documentation and archiving with the Sputnik I launch and kept at it inexhaustibly for the few years.

They even converted a World War II bunker into a radio observatory.
According to Dunning, the pair taught themselves how to detect the Doppler Effect in signals from orbit and then use that calculation to determine a spacecraft’s speed and altitude. They were so efficient that by the time the Soviets launched Sputnik 2, the brothers had assembled equipment that enabled them to hear the heartbeat of the dog on board.

The disconcerting turn came in November 1960 when the brothers detected, from a Soviet space frequency, a continual relaying of “S-O-S.” Doppler calculations showed almost no relative speed, causing the duo to suspect that the spacecraft was on a course heading away from Earth. The signal grew progressively weaker until vanishing forever. It seemed that a manned Soviet spacecraft had permanently left Earth’s orbit.

Three months later, the brothers picked up another space transmission, which some listeners thought sounded like the dying breaths of an unconscious man. A signal from the same flight was interpreted by the brothers’ cardiologist father as being that of a failing human heartbeat. But the most harrowing recording was of a woman seeming to say (roughly translated here), “Isn’t this dangerous? Talk to me! Our transmission begins now. I feel hot. I can see a flame. Am I going to crash? Yes. I feel hot. I will re-enter.”

The Soviets made no mention of any of this. Of course, the USSR routinely covered up its failures, space-related or otherwise. And Dunning noted that its launch record in the early Space Race days was a poor one. And with a state-run media being the only news outlet, the Soviets could squash any inconveniences or embarrassments. Soviet authorities, in fact, did just that when they painted certain cosmonauts out of photographs. Also, the training death of at least one cosmonaut, Valentin Bondarenko, was concealed for many years.

However, deducing that there were cosmonauts who were catapulted to a sci-fi-worthy death in deep space requires ignoring some inconsistencies. Chief among these is that the supposed Morse code tapping and astronaut breaths and heartbeats were recorded when the Soviets were using dogs and mannequins in their launches. And while the Soviets had achieved the ability to escape Earth at this time, the Vostok 8K72 booster they favored used were far too small to be a manned capsule. Also, two Vostok missions were equipped with dummies and human voice tape recordings to test if the radio worked. That would make for a reasonable explanation that requires no doomed cosmonauts and subsequent cover-up of such.

Declassified Soviet documents on its space program have no reference to any of this. In addition, there is a lack of corroborating evidence from the radio tracking stations that were far more advanced than what the Judica-Cordiglias had assembled. Finally, Some Yuri Gagarin biographers suggest that most of the lost cosmonaut hypothesis could be explained by accidents that happened in low orbit, not in space.

“Red, Inc.” (Red mercury)


Red mercury has been held in mystical regard for centuries: From allegedly being buried with Egyptian royals in order to guarantee them an afterlife to the hushed reverence with which medieval alchemists spoke about it to cacophonous Internet pop up ads blaring about its panacea qualities.

Some modern incantations have the substance manifesting itself in vampire bat nests. Unintentionally comedic YouTube videos show a blob of supposed red mercury being repelled by garlic, attracted by gold, and showing no reflection.
In truth, there are no bat nests. The winged mammals instead cling to walls, rafters, and cave dwellings when needing to rest or sleep. Of more importance with regard to this topic, there also is no red mercury elixir. The only red-hued mercury is mercury sulphide, whose main use is in pottery decoration and to which no healing abilities are attributed.

While much less cool than pharaoh tombs or hypothetical vampire bat nests, Singer sewing machines have also been reported to house red mercury. The ridiculous rumor was apparently started by someone who found it a convenient avenue to unload his surplus sewing machines for 2,000 times their worth.

While usually associated with healing, red mercury tales have darker versions that tie it to nuclear weapons or bomb making. These began making the rounds when eastern European communism collapsed. This time of upheaval and uncertainty, combined with legitimate concern about what would become of nuclear stockpiles, led to wild speculation that red mercury was a necessary element to the weapons and that this destructive force about to be purloined by terrorist outfits or unleashed by a government desperate to stay in power. The rumor may have begun since red mercury is a nickname for a certain nuclear isotope. 

Terrorists have apparently tried to make the rumors come true. In 2015, Islamic State members were arrested after attempting to buy red mercury, though exactly what it is they were buying and what their plans were for it are unclear since the substance doesn’t exist.

“Pontificating” (Pope Joan)


Pope Joan was a legendary woman said to have reigned as head of the Catholic Church from 855 to 857, while keeping her gender secret. Her story first appeared in the 13th century and came to be accepted as true in most of Europe before being disproven during the Reformation.

Most versions of the tale wax about a talented, erudite woman who disguised herself as a man and who rose through the church hierarchy and was eventually elected to lead the world’s Catholics. Her sex was revealed when she gave birth during a procession, after which was either murdered or whisked away. Of course, if she had been a quick enough thinker, she would have claimed that her miraculous ability to give birth as a man was a sign she was chosen by God.

The first known reference to a female pope came around 1250 in a chronicle penned by Jean de Mailly. This account inspired several more versions, embellishments, and reworkings over the next few centuries. The most popular and influential version was written by Martin of Opava. Historians credit him with giving her a name, specifying when she ruled, and adding a steamy tidbit that Joan concocted the elaborate schemed to aid her lover.

The legend was generally accepted as true until the 16th century, when a widespread debate among Catholic and Protestant writers called the story into question. They noted the multi-century gap between her supposed reign and the first accounting of it. As much as is written about and by the Catholic Church, the idea that not even one scrap of evidence of Pope Joan would exist until three centuries after her lifetime seems untenable.

Proponents of a Pope Joan point to a reference in a chronicle written by Anastasius Bibliothecarius, a contemporary of de Mailly. However, this fleeting reference is inserted as a footnote, is out of sequence, and is written in a different hand.

The legend began to unravel when parliamentary magistrate Florimond de Raemond looked into Joanian texts with the goal of giving historical context to the story. Rather than finding the clues he was hoping to, de Raemond found a loosely-assembled, contradictory, meandering fairy tale entirely lacking in authenticated documentation. Neither de Raemond nor any other investigator ever found any reference or evidence of a Pope Joan during the years of her supposed reign.

This includes church enemies who would have been only too happy to highlight it and embarrassment to the Vatican. Imagine, an institution with immense power, wealth, and privilege, and which denies leadership positions to females, being bamboozled by a woman and spending two years unable to figure it out. Besides, the pontiffs Leo IV and Benedict III were known to have been reigning during the time in question.

“Gravity Fails” (Anti-gravity devices)


H.G. Wells dreamt up an innovation that allowed anything placed above it to be freed from gravitational constraints and rise or hover indefinitely. This works as science fiction, but in science fact, such a perpetual motion machine would seemingly violate the law of energy conservation.

Further, gravity cannot be blocked as if it were light or sound, said a highly-reliable source, Albert Einstein. For the General Theory of Relativity holds that gravity is a result of the way mass distorts space-time.

Those holding the opposing view embrace a highly hypothetical notion called electrogravitics. This faux field is populated primarily by enthusiasts of UFOs, free energy, and conspiracy theories. Internet videos purportedly show airborne capacitors working in a vacuum, meaning they would be receiving neither propulsion nor wind. The medium in which these devices are being demonstrated – online videos – allows for no independent testing of the claims.

Some proponents grasp onto the notion of gyroscopes, which produce a force that, when twisted, seems to lift operate independent of gravity. Although this force is known to be illusory, it has still led to numerous claims that anti-gravity devices have been achieved. None of these works have ever been demonstrated to work under controlled conditions.

Still, believers have hyped many inventions that supposedly achieved anti-gravity effects. In 1921, high schooler Thomas Townsend Brown noticed that Coolidge tubes seemed to change mass depending on where they were placed on a scale. Inspired, he refined a series of devices until he had managed to create a type of large capacitor which he asserted demonstrated anti-gravity abilities. Scientists who have studied Brown’s devices have found no such effects and instead attribute the observed force to ionic drift or ion wind.

In 1989, it was reported that a weight decreases along the axis of a right spinning gyroscope, but further testing showed null results. Three years later, Russian researcher Eugene Podkletnov claimed to have discovered that a fast rotating superconductor reduced the gravitational effect. Many studies have attempted to reproduce Podkletnov’s experiment, always to negative results.

Then Ning Li and Douglas Torr wrote in Popular Mechanics that they had built a working prototype of an anti-gravity device, but no further evidence of this prototype has been offered.

Meanwhile, Henry Wallace invented a series of rotating devices that consisted of rapidly spinning brass discs which he said created a gravitomagnetic field. Again, no independent testing or public demonstration of these devices followed.

To a skeptic, these repeated failures are a sign the devices don’t work as advertised. To a conspiracy theorist, it’s a sign our overlords are repressing valuable technology. Depending on how far down the rabbit hole a believer is, this technology is sometimes said to be the result of reverse engineering an alien spacecraft.