Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Remembering A Loch Ness Photo

St. George and the Dragon is a small cabinet painting by the Italian High Renaissance master Raphael, 1504-1506.

The painting used to be a highlight of the Pierre Crozat collection which was acquired through Diderot's mediation by Catherine II of Russia in 1772. For a century and a half, the panel hung in the Imperial Hermitage Museum. It was one of the most popular paintings in the entire collection of the Tsars. In March 1931 the Bolsheviks sold the painting to Andrew Mellon, who ceded it to the National Gallery of Art.

A little keyboard that you can carry around
is a gadget that lets you make music sitting
in bed, or in a motel room on vacation,
or, I suppose, sitting on a motel room bed.

Possibly the Loch Ness monster is a dragon
bringing tourists and tourist dollars to Loch Ness.

That’s useful. And Loch Ness tourists enjoy themselves
even if they don’t see the monster, just the loch.

But, still, the Loch Ness monster isn’t a gadget.

The image above isn’t the Loch Ness photo the title of this post talks about remembering. The image above by Raphael is a painting, back from the days people didn’t get a choice between photographs and paintings, back from the days of that Renaissance sunshine.

Raphael’s “Saint George and the Dragon” is one of my favorite dragon images because the dragon is so contrary to what we in the modern world think of as a dragon. The beast is kind of small. It’s not too scary. And it doesn’t look like the knight on horseback really would have a lot of trouble dispatching the creature.

And look at the remarkable history of the painting. From Renaissance Europe the painting found its way to the ruling class of Russia. Then the commies took over there and made a quick buck selling the painting to America’s archetypal industrialist, Andrew Mellon.

Commies don’t like dragon paintings? Commies don’t mind taking money from a capitalist?

The history of the painting is almost as interesting as the painting itself.

The history of the legend of Saint George and the Dragon is very interesting, too. The legend includes a “pond” as large as a “lake.”

Anyway, I think it’s interesting to consider the contemporary Loch Ness monster mythos as a variant of ancient dragon stories so I wanted to start today’s post with a real dragon image before getting all modern and high-tech with a photographic image.

And that having been done, here’s the photographic image I’m going to be talking about today:

That photograph is usually referred to by Loch Ness buffs as the “Flipper Picture.”

There are always people looking for the Loch Ness monster, but every now and then real scientists go to Loch Ness and attempt to do real science. The Flipper Picture is the result of one of those expeditions of real scientists.

When the photo first appeared, it was very persuasive and many people who had been skeptical about a real live animal as a candidate for the Loch Ness monster became convinced there was really something alive in the loch after all.

Then more passionate skeptics began to deconstruct the image and, over the years, many skeptics have gone back to the traditional view that Loch Ness is too small to support a population of real living animals on such a scale, and the Flipper Picture is just a grotesquely over-enhanced and re-touched image of some random marks in the sandy bottom of the loch.

Here is a reasonably detailed example of the debunking of the image: The Flipper Pictures Re-examined, by Dick Raynor.

It’s all very strange. Certainly a lot of people fake photographs. Certainly a lot of people can’t be trusted. Certainly Loch Ness has seen its share of dubious people and dubious photographs.

But some people can be trusted. And some photographs can be trusted. And as anyone with an interest in astrophotography knows, sometimes extensive processing of an image is done to clarify an image rather than create a false image.

The expedition that captured the Flipper Picture was staffed by a lot of MIT types, and the images were processed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the whole endeavor was overseen by the president of the Academy of Applied Science in Boston. Here is MIT’s more or less ‘official’ look back at the expedition: Technology Review: The Nessie Quest

I’ve never met any of the particular people involved with that expedition, but my purely personal subjective experience with meeting academic people in general is that “MIT types” are people who are the least likely to get involved with a con game or publicity grab of any kind.

Recently, just a few days ago, one of the people directly involved with the Flipper Picture visited the International Cryptozoology Museum.

The museum is operated by Loren Coleman, who has a blog about cryptozoology matters. Now the blog itself—in my opinion—is dubious. It spends a lot of time huckstering bad, really bad, TV shows. But I’ve never seen anything there that casts doubt on the character of Loren Coleman himself.

Anyway, so Martin Klein visited the museum. Martin Klein is an MIT-trained engineer who developed a great deal of the modern technology now called “side-scan sonar.” Klein designed a lot of the hardware that was used to capture the Flipper Picture.

Loren Coleman has a long blog post about Klein and his visit to the cryptozoology museum: Loch Ness Expedition Member Marty Klein Visits Museum

What I thought was most interesting was what a few comments brought out after the post. People asked Loren Coleman if Klein had changed his mind about his findings at Loch Ness so many decades ago. Coleman said Klein still stands by his original reports, interpreting his sonar contacts as: “… real … large … moving … trace indicating that the creature has several segments, body sections or projections such as humps,” and “… there are at least TWO large things moving.”

I am by my nature distrustful of “authority” figures of almost all kinds. But I generally trust “MIT types.” But that’s just me.

I think it’s interesting to consider the contemporary Loch Ness monster mythos as a variant of ancient dragon stories. And the Flipper Picture is very interesting to me because although I understand and accept that everyone—even “MIT types”—may engage in dubious behavior, may grab for publicity if the publicity grab would be perceived as relatively harmless by their peers, I tend to believe that the Flipper Picture can be trusted to represent what it appears to represent: A body segment of a real live large animal of an unknown type living in Loch Ness.

After all these years, I don’t think it would have hurt Martin Klein’s reputation if he had dropped some kind of hint that those expeditions of forty years ago were not as scientific as they had been originally presented. He could have hinted that perhaps the data they published was more equivocal than they had first thought.

But Martin Klein appears to stand by his data and his interpretation of it.

And if the Flipper Picture can be trusted, then the creatures in Loch Ness are real things. And if the Loch Ness monster mythos is a variant of ancient dragon stories than maybe dragons are as real as the Loch Ness monster is.

But even if the Flipper Picture can be trusted, it still doesn’t exactly answer the question about how “real” the Loch Ness monster is. Loch Ness is something like twenty-five miles long and something like seventeen miles wide. By any reasonable assessment that I’ve seen, that’s a pretty small body of water to support a breeding population of large animals.

If something can be honestly photographed then that something is really there in front of the camera. But a breeding population of large animals requires a habitat with relatively well-defined, well-understood zoological characteristics.

So the Flipper Picture seems to present a paradox: It seems to depict the body segment of a large animal living in a habitat where a large animal cannot live.

One way to resolve the paradox is to say the Flipper Picture must be a fake of one kind or another.

The more interesting way to resolve the paradox is to say that the Flipper Picture is real but the body segment of a large animal is the body segment of a large something that is like an animal but is really something else.

Of course that raises a lot of other questions. And a lot of those other questions are difficult and involve other, new paradoxes.

But why would anyone be afraid of new questions and new paradoxes?

I’m going to end today with a quote from Michael Crichton’s autobiographical book, “Travels.” The book recounts Crichton’s traditional medical training, and then his gradual investigation of some new age phenomena which called into question some of the mechanistic interpretations of reality academia typically takes for granted. This quote describes Crichton’s reaction to an almost classically non-material experience, human auras:

Perhaps Judith was taking a visual cue from me, saying “there” when she saw my hand stop. So the next time I stopped my hand above the warmth.

“Come on,” Judith said. “It’s not out there.”

I lowered my hand until I felt the warmth.


And suddenly I was panicked. I thought, This can’t be happening. I have no explanation for this.

It was impossible, but it was happening anyway. I didn’t know what to do with my experience. I didn’t think I was crazy. I could feel this warm contour, just as distinctly as you can feel hot bathwater when you put your hand into it. You know when your hand is in bathwater and when it’s not. There’s no mistaking it. It’s a physical phenomenon. Your hand will get warm and wet, even if you don’t believe in bathwater.

What I felt now was every bit as clear and unambiguous.

But I had no idea what it was. I was frantic to explain it. Yet I knew I couldn’t explain it. So I just gave up. It was a reproducible phenomenon that I couldn’t explain; as far as I knew, nobody could explain it; but it was real, anyway. And if I had had a psychotic break sometime after dinner, did I believe that Judith had had one, too, so that we now agreed on phenomena that weren’t really there?

No, no. It was real, all right.

Something cracked in my way of looking at things. I had to accept this experience, so I did. I thought, Maybe I’ll figure it out later. Meantime, I just would have to live with it.


Loren Coleman said...

Here's my reply to one part of what has been written here:

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