6 of history’s strangest ever theories about outer space

Sixty years ago, on 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union’s famous satellite Sputnik was launched into orbit, and the space age began. Or did it? Sputnik may have marked the beginning of humanity’s physical exploration of the universe, but we had already been exploring it with our minds for thousands of years beforehand, often with some very surprising results.

To mark the 60th anniversary of Sputnik’s launch (and 70 years since the first flying saucer sighting back in 1947), a new book, Space Oddities by SD Tucker, seeks out the strangest, most surprising and downright silliest ideas about outer space that have arisen throughout history. Here are six of the very oddest… 

Gerald Heard had a peculiar idea that the UFOs then being sighted all across the globe, as such as this ‘sighting’ in Sicily, were piloted not by humanoid ETs, as you may have presumed, but by alien super-bees from Mars. (Image: Bettmann / Getty Images)
 

1 An ice idea

The renegade Austrian astronomer Hanns Hörbiger (1860–1931) didn’t believe in stars, and in an influential 1913 book made the startling assertion that the Milky Way was made entirely out of ice. According to Hörbiger, a series of massive, planet-sized ice-blocks was floating up there in space, encircling our entire solar system in an impenetrable white ring. Light from a few actual suns lurking beyond the ice-ring then shone through this frozen barrier, reflecting off its massed ice-crystals and giving observers on Earth the mere illusion of billions of stars twinkling down at us from the inky blackness. 

Other astronomers might attempt to show off photographs of the Milky Way’s alleged ‘stars’ to prove their case, but Hörbiger had an easy answer ready to these arguments: all such images were simply fakes. As to any tedious mathematical objections which might have been made to his proposal, Hörbiger had an even more emphatic response in store. “Mathematics,” he once pronounced, “is nothing but lies!”.

Hörbiger’s full, entirely maths-less, theory was termed the Welteislehre, or ‘world ice theory’. Basically, it held that at some distant point in our galaxy’s past there had been a gigantic super-sun, millions of times the size of our own, next to which had orbited a massive planet, covered by layers of ice hundreds of miles thick. Eventually, this ice-planet fell into the super-sun, melted, and transformed into jets of super-charged steam that blew the sun apart, spewing out lumps of rock and fire which ultimately settled down to become the planets of our own current solar system. 

Vast clouds of oxygen were also released from the explosion, and reacted with thin layers of hydrogen gases already swirling through space, creating masses of space-water which, space being cold, soon froze into the gigantic ring of interstellar icebergs which now encircled us all. Sometimes, said Hörbiger, one of these ice-blocks breaks away and floats into the pull of our sun’s gravitational field, falling into it and creating sun-spots, which are really colossal melting ice-cubes. Hörbiger’s theory was later taken up by various leading Nazis, including Adolf Hitler.

 


Hanns Hörbiger, founder of the World Ice Theory. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

 

2 Through a glass

During the 1950s, John Bradbury, a chiropodist from Ashton-under-Lyne, UK, developed a new kind of telescope filled with an amazing 15 lenses. According to Bradbury, the more lenses in your telescope, the better the view of the heavens you would get, something which allowed him to see the very edge of the universe itself, which he said was rectangular, made of metal, and magnetic. His special telescope also somehow allowed Bradbury to discern that the Earth was not spherical at all, but flat on the top, where mankind lived, and hemispherical on the bottom, like a grapefruit cut in half. 

As for the moon, Bradbury determined it was constructed of a thin shell of carbon one or two inches thick, and slightly convex. As it travelled through the sky, it accumulated large amounts of phosphorescent plasticine from some unknown source – more and more each day, until it was completely covered in the stuff, leading to what we call a full moon. Then, as the weight of this plasticine grew too heavy, it all started to drop back off again, until we were left with no visible moon at all. One night in 1953, Bradbury claimed to have seen a giant finger made of plasticine emerging from the top of the moon, a remarkable sight indeed, but one which nobody else was able to confirm because no other astronomers possessed one of his multi-lensed telescopes. The reason nobody possessed one of these devices was because, by filling it up with so many pieces of glass, Bradbury ended up with massively distorted images bearing no resemblance whatsoever to reality. 

 


Samuel Shenton, founder of the International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS). (Photo by Kent Photo News (K.P.N.)/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
 

3 Falling flat

Samuel Shenton (1903–71) was the Devon-based leader of the International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS), which he founded in 1956. Shenton’s beloved ‘flat earth’, he said, was best imagined as being a kind of giant Rich Tea biscuit surrounded by a big circular wall of ice cubes. In 1962, Shenton explained the basics of his theory thus: “You see, the world is flat, like a plate. It is steady, and doesn’t move or revolve. It is surrounded by a solid ice-barrier, and the whole lot is at the bottom of a [cylindrical] pit in what we call ‘Mother Earth’, which is a flat plain so large that it is endless. When you travel around the world and arrive back at the same place, it is like walking around the edge of a plate.” Shenton further speculated that missing persons who leave their homes one day and then never return may simply have walked too far by accident and then fallen off the edge of the world whilst trying to navigate the ice-barrier. 

Given the nature of Shenton’s beliefs, the advent of the space age proved quite an irritation for him. On 24 December 1968, Shenton observed Nasa perpetrate the ultimate lie. To a live TV audience of an estimated 500 million, the Apollo 8 astronauts turned their camera down upon Earth itself, displaying disturbing evidence it was round. Seeing as Shenton believed that the Bible proved Earth was flat, he reasoned this footage was simply a “deceptive cloak” on Nasa’s behalf, and by April 1969 he was putting the Apollo 8 crew right in a shocking interview with the Birmingham Evening Echo. Above our Earth, he said, was a giant mass of water, which we were currently protected from by a big air-bubble. An atomic explosion or giant earthquake could make this air-bubble pop any day now, flooding the world once more as in the days of Noah, when the world was apparently square. The shock of a second ‘Great Flood’, predicted Shenton, could be so huge that it would make the disc-shaped flat earth revert back to its hitherto-unknown original form, transforming the Rich Tea world-biscuit into a giant Jacobs cream cracker. From this, many people might conclude that Mr Shenton was somewhat cream crackers himself. 

 


Earth rising over curvature of the moon as seen from Apollo 8. (Photo by NASA/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

 

4 The planet of love

The mad Frenchman Charles Fourier (1772–1837) was most famous as a leftwing political theoriser, whose particular brand of thinking was eventually dubbed ‘utopian socialism’, but he was also a very bizarre cosmological theoriser. Basically, Fourier thought that the work of Isaac Newton was fine so far as it went, but that the major attractive force keeping planets in orbit around their suns was not really gravity, as Sir Isaac had said, but passion or love. Fourier proposed that the planets, moons and stars were in some sense living animals, with senses like sight, touch and taste, and who were seemingly obsessed with having sex with one another; most notoriously, Fourier declared that eclipses were really caused by the sun engaging in a “conjugal embrace” of the moon.

In Fourier’s own words: “A planet is a being which has two souls and two sexes, and which procreates like animal or vegetable beings by the meeting of the two generative substances,” which are emitted from their two poles. By this, Fourier meant that the north pole of every planet was male, and that the south pole of every planet was female. Each pole was actually a giant genital, emitting a sort of subtle, airy, sperm-like substance of either male or female quality, termed ‘aroma’. Throughout his work, Fourier constantly talks about planets emitting aromas onto one another in order to turn each other on prior to mating. These ‘aromas’ are best thought of as being a virtually incorporeal ‘fluid’ which connects the planets together into their own little solar systems throughout the universe. Basically, such ‘aromal fields’ were an erotic form of gravity, making planets orbit around their larger suns, or moons around their parent-planets, in much the same way that love-struck teenagers might follow the object of their affections around everywhere they go. So, according to Fourier, the next time you look up into the night sky, you’re really peeping in upon a giant galactic orgy!


Portrait of French social theorist Charles Fourier. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

 

5 Hive mind

Gerald Heard (1889–1971) was a highly erudite Cambridge graduate, writer, broadcaster and mystic of Anglo-Irish origins who later found his true home in California, the early centre of post-Second World War flying saucer mania. Heard was a man of many remarkable ideas, the most remarkable of which was laid out in his 1950 book The Riddle of the Flying Saucers: Is Another World Watching? which holds a place in the record books as the first full-length, non-fiction book about the subject published by a British author. The title was serialised in the Sunday Express throughout October 1950, giving his countrymen ample opportunity to consider Heard’s peculiar idea that the UFOs then being sighted all across the globe were piloted not by humanoid ETs, as you may have presumed, but by alien super-bees from Mars who were watching over us from afar, and perhaps even planning an invasion.

Heard speculated that the Martian bees, having access to various advanced (though presumably tiny) items of super-technology, might well have got around the flower-free conditions of their desert-like homeworld by creating a form of artificial sugar from some unspecified “synthetic substance” which would in effect be a new industrial form of chlorophyll. By mixing this with water and exposing it to air and sunlight, the natural chemical processes of certain plants could then be imitated on a vast scale, said Heard, creating huge supplies of sugar for the bees to eat virtually on-demand. 

Following America’s dropping of atom bombs on Japan in 1945, it appeared to Heard that the alien bees’ monitoring of Earth had stepped up a gear. Maybe the bees were worried we would blow up the entire planet through our foolishness? Worse yet, maybe the dust from our ruined Earth would float into space and hover in a big belt around Mars, blocking out the sun’s light and thereby impeding alien honey production? The potential reasons for the bees to fear and hate us seemed endless. Heard did propose training up Earth-bees to become diplomats who could speak to their Martian cousins and work out some kind of peace treaty, but sadly nothing ever came of the idea. 

 

6 Fallen Angel

During the 19th century, before we had the technology to really know what conditions on other nearby planets were like, strange crossovers began to emerge between astronomy and spiritualism, with self-styled psychics claiming to have travelled to places such as Mars and Venus using their astral bodies. For example, in 1895 one Colonel Albert de Rochas (1837–1914), a Frenchman with a liking for both psychical research and hypnotism, was called out to help a family friend, given the pseudonym ‘Mireille’, who was suffering some ailment. 

Knowing of his skills in hypnotism, Mireille hoped de Rochas could help alleviate her sufferings. He did, but during one trance session Mireille claimed to be rising up through outer space, which she deemed to be luminous and full of “phantoms”, one of whom was a dead childhood friend of hers named Victor. Mireille spoke of visiting Mars in astral form, before one day it seemed as if her body had been suddenly taken over by the spirit of Victor. He was initially puzzled as to why he was wearing women’s clothing, but once he had calmed down Victor explained that, following his death, he lived on among the planets – a form of existence about which he could give little information beyond the curious detail that all dead people had arms which also functioned as genitalia, or “organs of affection”. According to Victor, these arms grew larger and larger over time and were often mistaken for angel wings, when they were really giant celestial penises. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Colonel de Rochas refused to believe ‘Victor’s’ story.

 

Space Oddities by SD Tucker is published by Amberley Books. To find out more, click here.

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here