On January 16, 1870, the New York Times published a brief article—no more than a few hundred words—describing a “meteorological phenomena” that occurred above my town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
“The night was very clear,” the unattributed reporter wrote, “the stars shining brightly; but the mysterious light came out in a broad circular spot and spread slowly,”—wait for it—“like the moonlight coming through a cloud or the reflection of a prairie fire, putting out the stars nearest to it.”
Never mind what it actually was; that reporter turned a phenomenon into a poem.
And he continued his poem a few lines later, noting that a second mysterious light appeared alongside the first “melt[ing] into one another” while each maintained a “perfectly distinct nucleus surrounded by a paler halo of white light.”
For weeks after discovering the story I marveled at the report of this so-called mystery in the sky. And I felt compelled to solve it. The event had occurred here, after all, in my sky, in my corner of the universe. All that separated me from the event itself was a measly 114 years.
I scoured the article for clues, though given the reporter’s proclivity for the poetic the facts were hard to pin down. Sure, I knew the “when” (January 4 at 10:30 p.m.) and the “where” (western Wisconsin), but beyond that, all I knew for certain was that though the lights “exactly resemble[d] the aurora borealis” they were not that. They couldn’t be, according to the reporter, because the phenomena had occurred “in the wrong corner of the heavens…”
So what was it? I consulted a colleague, a professor of physics and astronomy, and asked: “Any idea what in the world this might have been?” It was a tough question, particularly because whatever was in the sky that night wasn’t of the world; hence, the mystery. And it was hardly the only one.
If you use Eau Claire’s 1870 sighting as an astronomical time marker, then shift a quarter century in either direction, you will find two vastly different takes on the 19th century’s knowledge of all things interstellar. Twenty-four years pre-sighting we’d just learned of Neptune’s existence, yet 24 years post-sighting we were already dreaming up rocket ships. Or at least Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was, penning an 1894 article, “An Airplane or a Birdlike (Aircraft) Flying Machine,” in which he imagined an aircraft with the potential to reign the stars in a bit closer. “A recluse by nature,” Tsiolkovsky’s Wikipedia page states, “he appeared strange and bizarre to his fellow townsfolk. ”
It’s the “citation needed” that most captures my attention; the Wikipedia editor’s reluctance to admit that a self-taught hermitic man prone to envisioning flying machines in rural Russia might indeed seem “strange” to his neighbors.
In an effort to make him seem a little less strange to me, I seek out what I can in his aftermath. And what I find–photographs–serves as proof of his only occasionally strange existence. Of the black and white photos, I’m most drawn to the the picture titled “Photographs of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky with scale models of his airships.” My eyes drift first toward the airships, which, to the layperson’s eyes, resemble the hulls of a trio of upright metal canoes. In their midst, positioned between airships one and two, is a middle-aged Tsiolkovsky: a slight grimace half-hidden behind his beard.
For a moment I can’t even see him, though when I do, I mostly only see his floating head. His black suit coat blends perfectly with the bushes behind him, creating an optical illusion in which the man himself fades to the background of his own portrait. Several years after that photo—long after his airships failed to take flight—Tsiolkovsky wrote an article entitled “Conditional Truth” in which he argued that there is “no real (absolute) truth” because truth was based on the impossible premise of a “total comprehension of space.” He added: “Science that gives knowledge continuously moves forward, it rejects or asserts the old and finds out the new.”
I tend to side with the rocket scientist on both points. A “total comprehension of space” seems a bit daunting; especially for a guy like me who can’t even keep his dippers straight. And I agree, too, that science does continually refine truths. In some cases, it even solves our mysteries.
Which brings us back to Eau Claire, to my colleague, and to his answer for our phenomenon. “My guess would be an aurora,” he replied via email. He went on to speculate that the unnamed journalist was perhaps “overthinking things” by alleging that the event occurred in the wrong “quarter” of the sky. “At Eau Claire’s location, we can often be underneath the global auroral oval,” he explained, “and can see an auroral display anywhere in the sky.”
But aren’t auroras supposed to be colorful? I wondered. Hadn’t the reporter noted a pale white light?
Anticipating my question, my colleague had an answer for that, too: auroras, he explained, often appear white. He referred me to a link describing how auroras display a spectrum of colors to the human eye—including white-gray—and how if one is viewed on a cloudy night, it becomes even more difficult to identify.
So was January 4, 1870 a cloudy night in Eau Claire?
Since the National Climactic Data Center’s information on my city only stretches back so far, I take to the digitized archives of the local paper. Yet for some unknown reason, and with no explanation, all of 1870 remains unavailable.
I begin to think the universe is conspiring against my attempts to understand it, though rather than press the issue, I change tack: concern myself less with solving the mystery and more with my grappling with it.
As writers, perhaps we are at our best when reveling in our grapples, when we allow ourselves to embark down every trail with the gusto of a poetically inclined reporter, or a rocket scientist committed to building backyard airships. In both of these examples, the people in question undoubtedly fell short of their aims. The unnamed reporter couldn’t identify the phenomenon, nor could Tsiolkovsky’s airships send him upward for a closer look. Though despite falling short, these men still managed remarkable journeys, or at the very least strolls down lesser-trod trails.
Perhaps, thanks to consultation from a colleague, modern science has indeed, as Tsiolkovsky once argued, helped us refine our “truth.” Then again, maybe it hasn’t.
A gold star to anyone who can help me solve the mystery. But two gold stars to anyone who can’t.
Photo courtesy of Joshua Strang via Wikipedia.