William Corliss catalogs oddities of heaven and earth

February 07, 1993|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Marine light wheels and Martian canals, lights on the moon and Costa Rica stone spheres, calculating prodigies and missing solar neutrinos: These are a few of William R. Corliss' favorite things.

For nearly 25 years, the soft-spoken Glen Arm physicist has collected, categorized and evaluated anomalies; those observations of nature, many quirky and bizarre, that wriggle defiantly away from any accepted scientific paradigm.

Culling through 14,000 volumes of scientific journals, Mr. Corliss has documented some 40,000 anomalous phenomena, from sightings of ball lightning and fish falls to "sane hallucinations," cobweb storms and other beguiling conundrums like ice fogs, conical hail, luminous mists, black auroras and deja vu.

The universe never ceases to amaze Mr. Corliss, 66. "I find new things all the time. . . . I always find something curious I haven't heard of before," he says.

Behind Mr. Corliss' obsession with the believe-it-or-not stuff of science is a serious purpose: "The collection and consolidation of the unknown and poorly explained to facilitate future research and explanation," is how he describes his mission.

It is Mr. Corliss' hope that one day his efforts will pay off by yielding concrete proof for a revolutionary reconfiguration of the cosmos. If that means overturning the big-bang theory or the theory of relativity, so be it. "Science progresses by taking account of anomalies," he says.

Examples of ex-anomalies promoted to breakthrough status abound throughout the history of science. Mercury's orbital anomalies were used by Einstein to support the theory of relativity, Mr. Corliss says.

But an anomaly can work both ways. In "The Moon and the Planets," his book, or "catalog" as he calls it, of astronomical anomalies, Mr. Corliss also provides examples of research by astronomers who studied Mercury's orbit that could potentially deal a serious blow to the theory of relativity.

Mr. Corliss also calls to mind the 19th-century meteorologist Alfred Wegener, a "hero of anomalies," who championed the idea that the continents once fit together. "Nobody believed him then," Mr. Corliss says. But today, the theory of continental drift is a reigning paradigm of the scientific community.

Sourcebook Project

Mr. Corliss' publishing company, the Sourcebook Project, is a veritable clearing house for anomalies. The atypical cottage industry is based in Mr. Corliss' home, which nestles in the woods that surround Loch Raven reservoir. Since his first book, "Strange Phenomena, vol. I," appeared in 1974, he and his wife, Virginia, have published 29 books on anomalies that appear in geophysics, geology, biology, astronomy, psychology, meteorology and other fields. While Mr. Corliss does the research, Mrs. Corliss manages the company's finances.

One of Mr. Corliss' books, "Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena," was reprinted by Doubleday and then Arlington and has sold 60,000 copies. His book, "The Unexplained" (Bantam), has sold more than 100,000 copies. With his current catalog series of anomalies, projected to include 30 volumes, Mr. Corliss hopes to expand his scope to eccentricities found in chemistry, physics, logic and math.

Counting the books he has written as a free-lancer on contract with NASA and other federal agencies, Mr. Corliss has written 49 books, including "Biological Anomalies: Humans II" -- the 13th work in the catalog series -- to be published next month.

In Science Frontiers, his wryly humorous newsletter, Mr. Corliss also lists accounts of idiosyncrasies drawn from such sources as Readers Digest, Classical and Quantum Gravity, and a computer bulletin board for aviators. Subscribers to the bimonthly newsletter can find a meteorological theory supporting the parting of the Red Sea next to a San Francisco Chronicle article about 24,000-year-old bone tools found in a Yukon cave. Flip the page and there are two accounts of spontaneous human combustion and accompanying speculation, from the Journal of Meteorology.

Hoaxes and misinterpretations can and do sneak past Mr. Corliss' stringent criteria for "anomalousness," especially in fields vulnerable to fraud, such as ESP research.

In an effort to include as many anomalies as possible, Mr. Corliss has also taken pains to salvage data from the 19th century -- "Anomalous events are too rare to discard because they are old or because money cannot be found to put them into computerized data systems," he says. "People were just as smart then as they are now."

Mr. Corliss has fans scattered among universities and research facilities around the world, many of whom belong to the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE). The society was founded in 1982 for the discussion of research "outside the established disciplines of science." Like Mr. Corliss, the members are avowed iconoclasts who are constantly "searching for ways to shift paradigms around," he says.

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