THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE

‘Mind-over-matter’ is one thing: we have an idea what we’re dealing with. It comes from within, perhaps with a little help from above. But when the forces acting upon us appear to come from somewhere ‘out there’, far away, somewhere dark and deep and impenetrable, then we really have a mystery on our hands.

The Bermuda Triangle, sometimes called ‘The Devil’s Triangle’ is one such mystery. A writer called Vincent Gaddis first coined the term in 1965, and described the triangular area as stretching from Florida to Bermuda to Puerto Rico and back to Florida. Planes disappeared, ships were sucked under - including two nuclear submarines, and all manner of other strange occurrences were reported to have taken place within the triangle. (See map)

In recent years the area has been stretched somewhat, to accommodate many additional disappearances. It now includes most of the Western Atlantic, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

The bombers of Flight 19
It all began on the afternoon of 5th December 1945, when five Avenger torpedo bombers (Flight 19) flew into the area from a US naval base in Florida. The sky was fairly clear that day, and this was to be a routine training exercise. At about 7pm, after several confusing and distressed messages from the planes, radio contact with Flight 19 was lost.

At 7.27pm a long-range search and rescue aircraft took off with 13 experienced crew members aboard, to look for Flight 19. It also never reported back. At 7.50pm a ship in the area reported seeing a plane explode in the sky, and later saw an oil slick in the area where the rescue-plane may have gone down. Nothing was ever found of the five bombers or the rescue-plane.

FORCES FROM BEYOND

“The answer to that is spherical, and in the plural.”

 

(Howard Carter, who discovered Tutankhamen, when asked if the curse of Tutankhamen was at work, because some of those who discovered the tomb had died or became ill)

The Marine Sulphur Queen
In February 1963, the S.S. Marine Sulphur Queen was on a voyage through the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Virginia, and approaching The Devil’s Triangle. After six days, when the tanker was one day overdue, a sea and air search was launched. However, neither the ship nor its thirty-nine men were ever seen again. Only an oar and a few other floating items from the ship were found later.

What on earth could have happened to Flight 19, the Marine Sulphur Queen and the numerous other planes and vessels which came to a sticky end? Among the theories put forward were phenomena such as time warps, reverse gravitational fields, kidnapping by aliens and witchcraft.

 
The most popular book on the subject, which achieved a cult-like status, was The Bermuda Triangle by Charles Berlitz (1974), which described scores of incidents in dramatic terms. Both the Gaddis and the Berlitz books were sloppily researched and contained so many misleading statements and omissions as to make them almost worthless. To give just one example, Gaddis reports on the ‘mysterious’ disappearance of the freighter Suduffco, without mentioning the terrible weather conditions at the time. Sloppy research did not stop the Berlitz book from selling about eighteen million copies in thirty languages.  

Down to earth - a solution?
It was left to Larry Kusche to sift meticulously through the Berlitz claims in his book The Bermuda Triangle Mystery - Solved. By going back to the original sources he was able to find rational explanations for most of the incidents.(1) Of course it sold far fewer copies. It contained no exciting mysteries, only down-toearth explanations. We much prefer to read about powerful, malign, supernatural forces.

Kusche studied, for example, the official Navy report on the disappearance of Flight 19 and the rescue plane. The leader pilot was unfamiliar with the area and the other four pilots were in training. Evidently the compass on the leader’s plane had failed and they were lost. Although the leader handed over to another plane, it was too late as fuel had become too low to allow a return to base, even if they had known in which direction to fly. They finally had to ditch their planes in seas described as ‘rough and unfavourable’.

What about the rescue plane which disappeared on the same day - a bizarre and tragic coincidence to say the least? The plane had been notorious for fuel leaks causing fumes to waft into the crew area. Any spark or cigarette could have caused the explosion, and an explosion was indeed witnessed by a ship at the time. If that is what happened it would point to a carelessness on the part of the crew which is hard to believe, but it is at least a rational explanation, and accepted as such by the navy.

As for the Marine Sulphur Queen the few bits of wreckage found (including part of a name board with the letters ‘ARINE SULPH’) shows that the ship did not simply vanish without trace, as some of the books and articles implied. The lack of any distress message from the tanker shows that its end was sudden. It had been plagued by fires and, considering its inflammable cargo of molten sulphur, perhaps it exploded. It was also known to be structurally weak, due to modifications it had undergone, and may have simply broken into two. (The weather was reported to have been rough.)

This is not to say that we have explanations for all the accidents and weird incidents which have occurred in The Devil’s Triangle (or the enlarged quadrilateral as it appears to have grown into!) We can never know for certain what happened in some of the cases. All we can do is look at the facts carefully, with an open mind, and make our best guess. Bear in mind also the following points:

  • that many of the accidents which have been attributed to the triangle actually happened hundreds of miles from it
  • that there are unexplained accidents and disappearances at sea and in the air all over the world
  • that this is one of the busiest areas for ships and planes in the world
  • that it is in the nature of maritime disasters that evidence tends to disappear - an ocean is a very big place
  • that the area is known for extremely strong winds, sudden storms and powerful ocean currents
  • that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof! (Excuse the repetition.)

Perhaps the last word should go to the U.S. Coast Guard: ‘There is nothing mysterious about disappearances in this particular section of the ocean. Weather conditions, equipment failure, and human error, not something from the supernatural, are what have caused these tragedies.’ (2)

   
CROP CIRCLES    
While not as threatening or malign as the Bermuda Triangle, crop circles were for many people just as intriguing a mystery. TV crews came from all over the world, and tourists paid money to farmers to walk through their fields to marvel at the mysterious patterns. Dowsers, mystics and ufologists had a field day (so to speak), and many solemnly pronounced the presence of other-worldly forces, whether from within the earth or from outer space.

The study of crop circles is sometimes called cereology and someone who studies them is a cereologist, since they mostly occurred in fields of cereals such as corn or barley. It began in the late 1970s and reached a peak by about 1990. The overwhelming majority of cases were in the South of England, although once it had caught on there were also instances in countries as far afield as Japan, Russia, Canada and New Zealand.

In 1990 the patterns became more elaborate. Some had several concentric circles, asymmetrical arms or ‘hands’ protruding from them, and other strange patterns which were reminiscent of ancient pagan signs and runes. One boasted a five-point star. What mysterious forces could possibly be at work here?

 
Some explanations
One popular idea was that the patterns were caused by a plasma vortex - a spinning mass of ionised air (how it became electrified is not clear), luminescent and similar to ball lightning. When this electric twister moves along it flattens the crops as it goes. Science did not recognise such a force, however, especially as it managed to carve out circles with such perfection, and whatever the weather!

A second school of thought was more mystical in approach. Science was clearly inadequate to explain these marvellous patterns. There had to be psychic and spiritual forces at work, perhaps even mythical creatures including fairies. Some thought that the earth itself had a kind of mind of its own, and speculated upon the hidden messages within the patterns.

Hoaxers rear their heads again
Well, it was fun while it lasted. We cannot account for every crop circle, but we do know that a large number were made by hoaxers. A number of people have confessed to the hoaxes and have demonstrated on camera how they did it. As open-minded students we have to concede at least the possibility that some of the circles may have been created by extra-terrestrials, or plasma vortices or supernatural forces.

Almost all scientists would consider a natural explanation to be the most likely in the light of the evidence, especially bearing in mind our maxim that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof’. There is no need to resort to supernatural explanations for something if simple, more natural explanations can do just as well.

There were at least seven groups of hoaxers. Why would they go to such lengths? What’s in it for them? Some of the hoaxers confessed to a feeling of great delight in watching the TV crews and selfappointed ‘experts’ gazing in awe at their handicraft and declaring it to be an insoluble mystery. Others derived artistic satisfaction from their work.

One group of hoaxers, the Wessex Sceptics, created a set of circles near Marlborough, and were filmed doing so by Channel 4 television. Dr. Meaden, an expert cereologist was invited to the site and asked for his opinion. He declared it ‘100 percent genuine…a textbook example…genuine in every way.’ Not long after this embarrassment Dr. Meaden stepped down from the limelight. (3)

 

 

The Doug and Dave show
Doug Bowers and Dave Chorley were possibly the most famous team of hoaxers, having been responsible for a large number of circles. Another expert, Pat Delgado, considered to be the Father of Cereology, commented on one of Doug and Dave’s creations: ‘This is without doubt the most wonderful moment of my research. No human could have done this.’ He did not know, of course, that Doug and Dave were responsible, or that the making of it had been filmed, and witnessed by several reporters the night before. (4)

How did the hoaxers do it?
Each team had their own techniques, and most were surprisingly simple. Doug and Dave favoured the Stalk-stomper. One member of the team stands stationary, holding a rope, while the second member takes the other end of the rope and walks round in a circle treading the corn down in front of him. The stalk-stomper, basically a plank of wood, is then used to squash down the corn inside the circle. Some found that an ordinary garden roller made the neatest lines and circles, and others preferred something similar to a surfboard. Doug and Dave were filmed creating a 60-foot diameter circle in just twelve minutes.

What concerns some people about the crop circles is the enormous waste of food, and the poor farmers having to cope with the hoards of sight-seers tramping over their crops! Some of the farmers, however, had the sense to recoup their losses by introducing an entry-charge.

 
SENSATIONAL ARCHAEOLOGY (OR FRINGE ARCHAEOLOGY)    

The word archaeology comes from the Greek words archaia meaning ‘ancient things’, and logos meaning ‘the study or science of’.

Lost civilisations, lost cities, architectural structures under the sea, visiting astronauts who meddled with our history and taught pre-historic people astronomy and how to build pyramids, faces on Mars, radical new chronologies - all exciting ideas that challenge the stuffy old orthodox archaeologists who are trying to shut them up! Much of it sounds plausible, all of it provocative.

No wonder their books sell tens of millions. But what are they, a breath of fresh air, or pseudo-scientists indulging in fantasy and taking us for a ride?

 

“The answer to that is spherical, and in the plural.”

(Howard Carter, who discovered Tutankhamen, when asked if the curse of Tutankhamen was at work, because some of those who discovered the tomb had died or became ill)

Archaeologists are like detectives investigating what happened in the past. They look for clues such as fossils, objects and even whole towns such as Pompeii, which was buried by lava in Roman times. As scientists they make careful records of the evidence they find, and then usually write it up, for others to review and criticise. It can sometimes be a boring and painstaking business.

There are some archaeologists, however, who work outside the framework of scientific method. Some are very popular and have written best-sellers about their ‘discoveries’. As with other pseudo-scientists they use scientific language. The fact that orthodox archaeologists dismiss their claims does not bother them, and they even use this to their advantage: ‘Look at Galileo and others who went against the orthodox view and were attacked for their views, but who eventually turned out to be right. Long live the mavericks who resist the orthodox!’

May there always be scientists who resist the orthodox. However, the difference between Galileo and the fringe archaeologists is that Galileo was scientific in his methods. He was an experimental scientist, using evidence which could be checked and reproduced. He was attacked by the powers that be because his discoveries went against the religious teaching of the day. He was in fact imprisoned and forced to recant - to state that he was wrong!

[It should also be stressed again that just because some scientists swim against the tide, this doesn’t make them right. History is filled with examples of the lone scientist working against his or her peers. Most turned out to be wrong and are long forgotten. For every Galileo there have been innumerable others who have ended up in a blind alley.]

 

Archaeologists at work -
often laborious but rewarding

Chariots of the Gods
In his best-selling book Chariots of the Gods? Swiss author Erich von Däniken argued:

  • that extra-terrestrials from a distant planet visited earth a few thousand years BCE (before the Christian era) and taught people aspects of their culture and technology; that they helped the ancient peoples to build such things as the great pyramids in Egypt and some giant sculptures in Peru
  • that all this advanced technology and culture had to come from elsewhere in the universe, as it was simply beyond the capabilities of the humans at that time
  • that giant drawings in the desert sands of southern Peru were drawn with instructions from the visiting astronauts, and that some of these were used as landing strips for their spacecraft (some of the drawings were of animals such as monkeys and birds and were so large that they could only be recognised from the air)
  • that references to these UFOs and extra-terrestrials are to be found in ancient writings and mythology.
 

Graham Hancock
Others such as Graham Hancock have followed in similar vein. His best known book Fingerprints of the Gods has also sold millions. A few of his beliefs are:

  • that many of the greatest monuments from our ancient cultures were built or designed with help from visitors from outer space; for example, the great pyramids of Giza in Egypt and the Sphinx were built or designed in about 10,450 BC (which is at least 8,000 years earlier than conventional dating methods make it)
  • that civilisations as far apart as Egypt, Mexico and Cambodia must have had direct contact with each other at that time, because of the similarities between some of their monuments
  • that ancient temples in the Angkor Wat region in Cambodia were built to reflect the shape of the Draco constellation in the sky, and the pattern of the three main pyramids of Giza in Egypt were built to reflect the stars of ‘Orion’s belt’.
 
Fantastic explanations not needed
Upon close examination the arguments of von Däniken and Hancock do not hold water. A group led by Joe Nickell showed, for example, that it was possible to reproduce the giant drawings in Peru by using simple materials which were probably available to the early Peruvians. (1) Also, how do von Däniken and others know that the early people were too primitive and helpless to build giant sculptures and monuments?

There are many examples, including Stonehenge, of prehistoric peoples showing resourcefulness and achieving feats of great ingenuity. Clues can also be found among certain contemporary Stone Age peoples, for example in Papua New Guinea, who have been able to hoist huge stones onto the top of tombs using ropes of organic materials, wooden levers and much strength. Experimental archaeologists have also been able to reconstruct the techniques used.

We simply do not need such an extraordinary explanation as von Däniken’s. Applying the principle of Occam’s Razor his hypothesis should be rejected. According to this principle, if you have two theories which both explain the observed facts then you should use the simplest until more evidence comes along. (See Occam’s Razor in the Glossary)

   
Finding patterns
Hancock argues that the ancient temples or pyramids were sometimes positioned to reflect star patterns in the sky, and that this shows such an advanced understanding of astronomy, that the builders must have had help from extra-terrestrial visitors. This overlooks the common psychological tendency to look for and to find patterns, or even hidden meanings, where none may exist.
 
Find a map of New York. If you mark with a red circle the five or six most important buildings, the chances are that they will fit the pattern of stars in some constellation or other. You may need, of course, to turn the map upside down or to tilt it to make them fit; or you could always drop one of the buildings - who would notice? Or if the buildings don’t fit so well you could make it famous land-marks instead, or perhaps top tourist attractions? And if New York didn’t work so well, why not try Washington, or London? One way or another, if you look hard enough, you’ll find a pattern.
Looked at in this way, Hancock’s argument that ancient monuments reflect stellar patterns begins to look a little thin. He was determined to find patterns and he did.

Geologists have also questioned Hancock’s reasoning. Using tried and tested dating techniques and by working out what the climate conditions were like at the time, they have concluded that it is highly improbable that the sphinx (and some of the pyramids) could have been built when Hancock says they were - in about 10,450 BC. (6)

As for the flying saucer landing strips and the visiting extra-terrestrials, well, the evidence is simply very weak. (Remember that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.) To try to investigate all the claims of the fringe archaeologists would require a large book.

   
Von Däniken’s admission
Von Däniken, the most popular and best selling of the fringe archaeologists, was challenged about certain inconsistencies in his research. During a PBS Nova television programme in 1978, he had to admit that some of his claims, conversations and research were invented. This he justified by referring to it as ‘writer’s licence’! He has also served prison terms for fraud of one kind or another. (7)

This, you would have thought, should be end of story. On the contrary, Von Däniken’s books continued to sell well all over the world, in several languages. (By the year 2,000 Chariots of the Gods? had sold over 36 million copies.)

In the view of archaeologist Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews ‘the past is much more interesting than writers like von Däniken or Graham Hancock would have us believe…[and] too important to be trivialised to make money from the ignorant.’

   
‘Piltdown Man’ - scientists don’t have it all their own way!    
A final example to show good and bad science at work in the world of archaeology.

In 1912 fragments of a human skull and an ape-like jaw-bone were found at Piltdown in Sussex. Many scientists were excited by the discovery because this was just the combination they had expected in an early human ancestor. It was the “missing link” between human and ape which they had been looking for. It soon became known as Piltdown Man.

In 1955, however, thanks to an electron microscope, fluorine dating and X-ray analysis, it turned out that Piltdown Man was a hoax. The skull belonged to a modern human, while the jaw-bone belonged to an orang-utan which had lived 600 years earlier. Oh dear! Creationists had a field day (see chapter 12). Many wasted careers had been devoted to studying Piltdown Man. Easy to say this with hindsight, but if only the scientists had been a little more sceptical! With modern dating methods and other tests such hoaxes are much less likely today. At least the scientists at the time owned up to having egg on their faces, and reviewed their theories. Pseudo-scientists, by contrast, are more likely to cling on to their theories come what may, and to ignore contrary evidence. (It happens that much other evidence has since come to light which emphatically does support the theory of a common ancestor for humans and apes. See chapter 12)

 

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