PULLMAN, Wash. – Early historian Hartmann Schedel described an African tribe called Blemmyes, headless humans with their eyes, nose and mouth on their chests, in his 1493 work “Nuremberg Chronicle.” An ancient woodcut shows one of the odd creatures sitting cross-legged with one finger of his raised right arm pointing skyward – possibly showing where his missing head might have gone.
The same tome, a chronology of what was believed to be the complete history of the world, also depicts the Panotti people on an island off the coast of Scythia, near the Ukraine, who could wrap their huge ears around their bodies to keep warm at night – or to serve as a substitute for clothing.
Of course, neither Blemmyes nor Panotti were real, and Schedel wasn’t the original perpetrator of this misinformation. (That honor goes to Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist.)
“People embellish what they see and use their imaginations to provide or ascribe details to observable phenomena that may not really exist,” said Greg Matthews, metadata librarian and photographs curator at Washington State University Libraries. “The woodcuts from the ‘Nuremberg Chronicle’ push this notion a step further by suggesting that we have even imagined whole species and cultures without checking such information against facts, but instead by basing our accounts on anecdote and speculation.”
The libraries’ Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections will feature Blemmyes, Panotti and other instances of how human knowledge has gone awry over time in its upcoming exhibit, “Outrageous Hypotheses: Selections from the MASC,” that continues through Oct. 31.
An opening reception is planned 3-4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 21, in MASC, downstairs in Terrell Library. Exhibit hours are 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.
The exhibit is inspired by this year’s common reading book selection, “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error,” by journalist Kathryn Schulz. Thousands of first-year and other WSU students will use topics from the book in classes across the disciplines, attend numerous special presentations by guest and faculty experts and participate in events related to the common reading. In addition, Schulz will visit on Feb. 24 and present the Common Reading Invited Lecture that evening.
Gravity plan vs. Grand Coulee Dam
Columbia Basin irrigation to increase farm production in central Washington became a national concern with global food shortages during World War I, according to Steven Bingo, processing archivist at WSU Libraries. Two groups emerged with radically different proposals.
A map of the gravity plan touts how the Columbia River
course follows an outline of George Washington’s profile.
One supported building a dam on the Columbia River – the future Grand Coulee Dam. The other promoted a gravity plan to transport water from the Pend Oreille River in Idaho to the Columbia Basin through a 130-mile system of canals and tunnels.
This plan was favored by many in the 1920s, including Osmar Waller, a professor of mathematics and civil engineering at Washington State College 1893-1920. In 1920, he served as secretary on the Columbia Basin Commission, charged by the state to assess the feasibility of irrigating the Columbia Basin.
While Grand Coulee Dam ultimately won out, Bingo points to the extent that gravity plan proponents – who formed the Columbia Basin Irrigation League – exaggerated their case. In a promotional essay titled “Gold from Sagebrush,” the league claimed that the plan would irrigate 1.9 million acres of land.
It’s not clear how plan promoters came up with this figure. Today, some 670,000 acres of basin land are cultivated through Grand Coulee irrigation.
When it became apparent that the dam would be built, gravity plan backers argued that they were never against Grand Coulee in the first place; rather, they took credit for bringing the dam to reality through “their tireless efforts,” Bingo said.
“This sort of claim illustrates Schulz’s idea that ‘our memories often serve the quasi-magical function of causing our mistakes to quietly disappear,’” he said. “In the exhibit, the gravity plan is presented as a comedy performed by those blind to the shortcomings of their proposal.
“I also would invite viewers to imagine the region without the Grand Coulee Dam,” Bingo said. “While the region would be minus a populist symbol, electricity for emerging industries in the 1940s and a catchy Woody Guthrie tune, the Columbia today might have more salmon, and those displaced by rising waters along Lake Roosevelt could have stayed put.”
Mark O’English, WSU Libraries university archivist, explored evolving scientific knowledge for the exhibit, including geocentrism – the early belief that the Earth was at the center of the solar system with the sun, moon, stars and other planets revolving around it.
Though questioned as far back as ancient Greece, the geocentric system view would reign as the prevailing model until the writings of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus in the 1540s gave credence to the heliocentric, or sun-centered, system model.
But it was a slow, treacherous slog to acceptance.
“Galileo was tried for heresy in the 1630s, in part due to his endorsement of the heliocentric system,” O’English said. “The church would continue to prohibit pro-heliocentrism books into the mid-1700s.”
Another Earth-based oddity, the flat earth movement, has carried over to the present. In 1881, the movement’s father, Samuel Rowbotham, published “Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe!” in which he argued that the Earth was flat based on his observations of a six-mile, straight-line stretch of the Bedford River in Norfolk, England.
Even after Rowbotham’s death in 1884, his followers kept up his cause through two organizations until the Flat Earth Society was founded in 1956; it still exists today.
What Rowbotham didn’t account for, O’English said, were light refraction, different air temperatures and their relationships to the curvature of the Earth. Light passing through different temperatures can refract, allowing people to view things that are actually below the horizon.
It is these kinds of mistakes that have informed and will continue to inform our understanding of the world around us.
“I was taken by how much our belief in what’s correct evolves over time,” O’English said. “The materials we’re featuring in this exhibit were almost all accepted factual knowledge in their day, propounded by people who had the best of intentions and believed in what they were saying.
“With that in mind, you have to wonder what facts that we believe are right today would be featured in a similar exhibit 200 to 400 years from now.”