Thursday, March 13, 2008

Nessie - the Loch Ness mystery

Since the Loch Ness monster story has been around for more than 1500 years, if there is a monster it is not likely that it is the same monster seen by St. Columba. Or, are we to believe that not only is Nessie very big, she is very old as well, a veritable Methuselah among beasts? In short, there must be more than one monster. I'll leave it to the zoologists to calculate how many monsters are necessary to maintain the species over the years. One report I read claimed that a minimum population of ten creatures would be needed to sustain the population. The same report claims that Loch Ness is incapable of sustaining a predator weighing more than about 300 kg (about 660 pounds) [The Naturalist, winter 1993/94, reported in The Daily Telegraph]. Adrian Shine once said the monster could be a Baltic sturgeon, a primitive fish with a snout and spines (actually ridges of horn-like skin) which can grow up to nine feet long and weigh in at around 450 pounds (actually they can grow much longer and weigh much more than 450 lbs.). This may sound like just another fish story to some, but there is scientific evidence that Nessie is, at best, a big fish in a big lake, or a big wake in a big lake. Shine, who has been studying the Loch Ness story for some twenty-five years, now thinks that what people see when they think they see the "monster" is actually an underwater wave. A similar view has been presented by Luigi Piccardi, an Italian geologist "who is convinced that seismic rumblings far below the famous Scottish lake cause the roiling waves, deep groans and explosive blasts that have for centuries led people to believe that a giant beast lurks below the loch's murky surface ("Mystery unlocked? A scientist says he's solved a monster controversy -- the 'beast' in Loch Ness is merely an illusion created by earthquakes," San Francisco Chronicle, June 27, 2001 by Chuck Squatriglia)."

The Naturalist reported on extensive studies of the lake's ecology that indicate that the lake is capable of supporting no more than 30 metric tons of fish. (The food chain of the lake is driven by bacteria, which break down vegetation, rather than algae like most lakes.) Estimating that a group of predators would weigh no more than 10 percent of the total weight of the fish available for them to consume, researchers arrived at the 300-kg (660-lb.) statistic. It strikes me as extremely odd that with all the sophisticated technology, the submarines, and the thousands of voyeurs that after all these years we still don't have a single specimen. We don't have a carcass; we don't even have a bone to examine. With at least ten of these huge monsters swimming around in the lake at any given time, you'd think that there would be at least one unambiguous sighting by now. You would think so, that is, unless you want to keep the hoax/myth/legend alive. I can't deny that there are good economic reasons for keeping the Loch Ness monster myth alive. It's good for tourism. And there are all those "scientific" investigations to be paid for with government funds and private donations: full employment for cryptozoologists. Then, of course, there is all that film sold to photographers in search of The Big One. But tourism grew out of the myth, not the other way around. This story would be told with or without multi-media centers and gift shops full of Nessie mementos.
Besides the photo which Mr. Boyd and others have exposed as a fake, there are many other photos of Nessie to consider. Not all photos of Nessie are fakes. Some are genuine photos of the lake. These photos are always very gray and grainy, taken of murky waters with lots of shadows and outlines. There is no question that in some of these there does appear to be a form which could be taken for a sea serpent. The form could also be taken for a log, a shadow on a wave, a wave itself, driftwood, or flotsam. Anyone who has traveled around Loch Ness will not be disappointed in the variety of forms which one will see when looking out upon the waters. The lake is very long, and on the day I was there it was very turbulent, even though the day was a rather pleasant one as far as Scottish summer days go. Obviously, since I was there for only one day, I had not come to Loch Ness to do any serious research into the monster. I'll confess that I didn't even bother to stop in Drumnadrochit to take in the Loch Ness Monster Exhibit, which, according to Fodor's guide book to Scotland, "presents the facts and the fakes."
I was on vacation, traveling with my wife, daughter, future son-in-law, and a dear friend. We headed down the B862, which affords intermittent views of the lake from the east side. It was a pleasant drive among moors and conifer spikes, but nothing spectacular in a land of glorious spectacles. The drive northward on the west bank along the A82 takes you right along the lake in many places and past the famous Urquhart castle, a "favorite monster-watching spot" (Fodor's).
Urquhart is on the tourist bus trail and gets more than its share of visitors. I had wanted to stop there and take advantage of its excellent location for monster watching but I couldn't get into the parking lot. I drove north past the castle, looking for a place to turn around, and after many miles finally found one. I drove south, past the castle again, as the parking lot guard waved me on by the castle: the lot was still full. I drove for miles looking for a place to turn around again, finally found one, and made a third pass with the same result. Was it a sign from Nessie? We had to do most of our viewing of Loch Ness from the road. While we didn't see any monsters that day, I still have a vivid memory of one of Scotland's longest (24 miles) and deepest lakes (750, 800, or 900 ft. in places, depending on which source you pick). I have no doubt that anyone who stared across those murky, wavy, shadowy waters would see many things that could be Nessie. I don't doubt that many, if not most, of the thousands of witnesses who testify to having seen Nessie are honest, decent folk who have interpreted their perceptions according to their wishes. They have come to the lakeside and they have been blessed with a visitation! They are truly special and their lives are now marked forever as unique. Best of all: they have a story to tell for the rest of their lives. In many ways they are like the young lady who declared that the highlight of her life was when she saw music icon Michael Jackson being whisked through a department store: "it was like seeing a UFO," she declared! I'll bet she'll be telling the story of her Michael Jackson sighting for years to come. Who knows to what epic proportions the young lady's tale might grow? Perhaps it will grow as big as Loch Ness itself, like the legend of Nessie.

The Loch Ness Monster, like Bigfoot and alien abduction, is now considered a myth unworthy of scientific investigation. But before that myth was debunked, MIT's Harold "Doc" Edgerton, SM '27, ScD '31, gamely joined the Nessie quest. In the last two decades of his life, the Institute Professor found time to lend his legendary expertise in strobe photography and sonar to the search for the creature said to lurk in the Scottish loch.
It started in 1972 with a telegram from Edgerton's friend Robert Rines '42, the president of the Academy of Applied Science in Boston. Rines had gone to Scotland in search of Nessie and was staying at the ­Drumnadrochit Hotel, whose slogan was "Where the monster plays in the bay, so they say." Rines thought he had a chance of docu­menting the monster using sonar and underwater photography. "Hitting pay dirt on fixed mode sonar and light attracting near underwater cameras," he telegraphed Edgerton. "Can you possibly pass through Drumnadrochit enroute to Greece to help?"
Edgerton initially declined, but that summer, Rines took an intriguing set of photographs at Loch Ness. Enhanced by computer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to emphasize edges and contrast, the photographs seemed to show the flipper of a large aquatic animal.
This 1975 Loch Ness photograph by Charles W. Wyckoff '41 was enhanced by computer at the Jet Propulsion Lab to better define object outlines.
Photo credit: JPL-enhanced photo courtesy of Robert Rines '42
Within two years, Edgerton signed on to help develop and provide equipment that could aid the search for creatures hidden in the depths of Loch Ness's murky, ­yellow-brown waters. "How could anyone ... not rise to the technical problems that are before the researcher in this field?" ­Edgerton wrote Rines. "I personally am tremendously interested in the apparent attraction of the animals in the Loch by our cameras and lights."
With Edgerton's equipment, Rines took additional, tantalizing pictures that led to a moment in the limelight and articles in Technology Review and National Geographic. But follow-up trips in the late 1970s failed to confirm the monster's existence.
Undaunted, Edgerton tinkered with his equipment to improve its performance in the low-visibility conditions of the loch. With Ian Morrison, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, he investigated a World War II Wellington bomber found during the Nessie search, and he pushed Morrison to publish articles on the loch's history.
By the mid-1980s, the ­intellectual tide was turning against the Nessie quest. Discover and the Skeptical Inquirer published scathing critiques of the flipper photographs and accompanying sonar data. Before long, the Loch Ness Monster became the academic equivalent of box office poison. Morrison had trouble publishing legitimate historical research on stone circles found at the bottom of the loch, and he wrote to Edgerton of a postgraduate doing geological work in the area: "Since the candidate wishes to retain academic respectability there is of course not the slightest mention of strange beasties."
In that letter, Morrison revealed his true feelings about the monster. "You may recall that whilst I will admit to getting a crick in my neck while diving (through a gut-level compulsion to keep checking that nothing was indeed sneaking up behind me, through those gloomy doom-laden depths ...), the cerebral scientist in me protests that it is very difficult to see how you could get a big beast into the Loch."
Edgerton treated Rines's Loch Ness obsession with gentle open-mindedness. Rines was still planning trips to search for the monster even after a high-profile 1987 investigation showed that some of his most exciting images were probably pictures of a strangely shaped log. Making no mention of that, Edgerton wrote to him that fall to ask why no results had been published from Rines's last trip and sent sketches of a new "streak camera" for detecting moving objects. Kindness to a friend and the chance to conquer equipment challenges held more value to him than the chance of finding a monster.
"Many factors point to no 'Nessie,'" Edgerton wrote Morrison in 1986. "Regardless, there is no harm in looking, especially with sonar since there may be things to discover."

1 comment:

john said...

You need a psychiatrist.many have seen the monster up close and call it a dinosaur like prehistoric even watched it open its skeptics are mentally ill.