Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Historical mystery solved, and watch out for falling rocks

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This is probably one of the least known mysteries in history. Even calling it an historical mystery is a bit of a stretch, since nothing of an historical nature happened. It’s probably more accurate to call it  a fortean historical mystery. And in any event, it’s an interesting little story, so I’m sharing it. The story starts with a letter. A letter dated to the early nineteenth century. In this letter, a man recounted an event that had happened in his childhood, some decades earlier. It was a memorable event, that’s why he wrote it down, and that’s why someone saved the letter no doubt. Well, who knows, old stuff gets saved all the time for no apparent reason. My apartment is proof of that.

When our story teller was a child, he and his family were staying at a shepherd’s shelter high in the Scottish Highlands. And not for the fresh air and ambience, back then if one was in a cabin in the mountains, one had a practical reason for being there. In this case, I assume it involved sheep, but that’s not germane to our story. And one night there was a terrible storm. At the height of the storm, the people in the shelter witnessed large boulders being pushed uphill by the wind on the slope next to the shelter! Numerous people witnessed it, the boulders were still there in the morning, and no one had an explanation for it. It would have been an incredible thing to witness no doubt.

So, 200 yeas later, how would this mystery be solved? Fortunately the long lost letter writer had included enough details in his description that it seemed like the actual location could be found. And in the remote Scottish Highlands, it likely was still more or less undisturbed since the event in question, there not being a whole lot of highways or suburbs built in said location. So an informal expedition was mounted, including such specialists as could be enticed to spend a day or two tramping around in the hills, a geologist being one such. The expedition set out, and with little difficulty located the scene. The site of the shelter was still visible, and the boulders still littered the hillside beside it. Mystery solved!

OK, that was a little joke. The experts investigated, especially the geologist. The boulders were on the same side of the valley as the shelter. On the other side of the valley, cliffs. And more importantly cliffs from which it was obvious that rockfalls must happen from time to time. And thus, now the mystery was solved. At the height of the storm, there had been a rockfall. Boulders had rolled down the far side of the valley, across the valley, and partway up the opposite slope. And since it was storming and night, only the end of the boulder’s journey across the valley had been witnessed. And a sight it must have been, that’s for sure.

Wait, so how come these people didn’t notice the following morning that a rockfall had occurred on the other side of the valley, and such must have been the origin of the boulders they witnessed during the night? Easy, back then people generally (and still are) unaware of how far boulders can roll when they fall off a cliff. It wasn’t till the century that geologists really got a handle on this, a mile or more in some cases. I remember in one of my geologic hazards classes seeing pictures of a popular campground in Lassen that was closed in the 1960s because a visiting geologist pointed out that the big boulders scattered through the campsite had come from an unstable cliff a mile away and barely even visible through the trees from the campsite. And that, well, it would be happening again.

Fun story, if one likes that sort of thing. The only point here (there’s always a point,) is that people in the past observe things through the filter of what they knew about the world. The people who witnessed this event weren’t stupid, and one of them was articulate enough to decades later write down an accurate description of the event. Just at the time “common sense” told them that the boulders couldn’t have come from the other side of the valley, so the only explanation was that the wind was indeed blowing them up a hill. So one has to be a little careful about historical descriptions of event, one can see stuff today that science can’t yet explain, imagine how it must have been for people a few centuries ago.

Fodder for another blog post I suppose.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit, and is arguably an historically important image. OK, that’s a stretch. Credit and copyright: AP. It’s a house in Lytteton, New Zealand struck by a car size boulder during the recent earthquake. Notice the hole in the lawn where it bounced, and it went through the house like it was made of paper. No one was killed by it at at least. Looking at this though, the fellow who wrote the letter above, was lucky he lived to write the letter.)

Written by unitedcats

March 26, 2012 at 9:30 pm

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