Saturday, 11 January 2020

Colonel Charles Halt Returns to Woodbridge conference

Woodbridge Community Hall, Suffolk, 8 September 2019

This Conference Report first appeared in Fortean Times, FT387, Christmas 2019

The author (left) with Colonel Charles Halt (right) at the 2019 Woodbridge conference on the Rendlesham Forest UFO Incident

THE RENDLESHAM Forest UFO Incident (RFUI for short), which occurred over several nights in the last days of 1980, remains Britain’s best-known UFO encounter. Nearly 40 years on, there’s now a UFO Trail in the Rendlesham Forest – complete with a grounded flying saucer sculpture. The former RAF Bentwaters air base, the epicentre of the RFUI, is now the Bentwaters Cold War Museum. A conference on “Rendlesham” – featuring star speaker Colonel Charles Halt, RAF Bentwaters deputy base commander in 1980 – is now an annual event in the Community Hall of the Suffolk town of Woodbridge, six miles from the scene of the incident.

This year’s conference was opened by its organiser, local boy David Young – he runs the Paranormal Dimensions podcast. Next up was ex-police officer John Hanson, author of the Haunted Skies book series on historic British UFO encounters (/) and more recently The Halt Perspective co-authored with Halt. Hanson has seen “numerous UFOs”, including two nocturnal encounters in Rendlesham Forest – a triangular craft and also “milky white orb” hovering off the floor of the same forest, shedding “pieces of fabric.”He passed around “aports” – stones that he said materialised in the air in Rendlesham Forest and landed – too hot to handle – with “thuds”.

Malcolm Robinson of Strange Phenomenon Investigations attributes his career as a paranormal investigator to “too many times on the ghost train as a kid” at his local fun fair. Robinson “started off as a bloody sceptic… how wrong was I?” (He still believes “the vast majority of UFO sightings can be explained,” while most Nessie sightings are “standing waves” caused by boats.) His scepticism changed after he was “slapped and kicked by… nothing” while investigating a haunted house in Sterling, where a “tremendous force pushed down on the back of his hand.”

Conference organiser David Young (right) in conversation with Colonel Charles Halt

Facebook star Sascha Christie, worked on the Capel Green Rendlesham documentary and knew Larry Warren. Warren was with the US Air Force Security Police based at Bentwaters at the time of RFUI and later co-authored with Peter Robbins probably the best-known “Rendlesham” book, Left at East Gate. Warren later stayed for a while on the Christie family’s sofa, Sascha helped him get Rendlesham-related talk radio gigs. But the title of Christie’s talk was “The Larry Warren Fraud.”

There were dodgy dealings in sports and pop star memorabilia. There was inaudible footage of Warren at other conferences. There was forensic critiquing of a photo put online in 2014, allegedly showing a UFO from “that night” in 1980. There were undoubtedly several different versions given by Warren of what he was doing and where he was on that weekend over Christmas 1980. Warren later admitted that his original account wasn’t his own, claiming he was covering up to protect other servicemen – in particular Sergeant Adrian Bustinza – from deep trouble if they told their stories about Rendlesham’s “underground bases”.

It’s good to see the UFO community doing basic journalistic fact-checking, more’s needed in this field! Christie’s efforts are to be commended (she took this year’s Ultimate Bravery in Ufology Award). But she ran through her thesis at breakneck speed, expecting the audience to be familiar with the confusing chronology around Skycrash (the original RFUI book, by Jenny Randles, Dot Cotton and Brenda Butler – the latter lives locally and was at this year’s event) then Left at East Gate and Bustinza’s account in You Can’t Tell the People by Georgina Bruni. It was all somewhat baffling.

The Woodbridge Community Hall, the conference venue - a short distance from Rendlesham Forest

Astronomer David Bryant spoke on orbs. Bryant admits “many orbs are just photographic” while some orbs caught on film “are clearly moths.” But he believes they’re “not all dust and raindrops.” He’s seen orbs with his own eyes on Track 10 of Rendlesham Forest. He recounted how George Washington at his disastrous War of Independence winter quarters at Valley Forge in 1777 was calmed by the sight of a “green orb” appearing before him.

Bryant believes orbs – “frequently associated with strange mists” – are some sort of living “hungry energy beings” that feed off our “alert expectation” that pumps electromagnetic energy in response to them manifesting in front of us. Bryant concluded that “we must strive to eliminate fraudulent, mischievous and dubious” data to arrive at “something which some day someone might take seriously.”

Hanson lamented the fact that “the media” still don’t take UFOs seriously. But there were a lot of slides showing our speakers posing with X-Files supporting actors or even members of the Bay City Rollers. Robinson at one point admitted “this talk’s gone all over the shop” while several speakers rushed slides of covers of their books past me so fast there wasn’t even time to read the titles. Most talks didn’t so much end as run out of time.

Despite some prior knowledge of RFUI and my journalists’ training, I still couldn’t follow such high-speed presentations. Attention to pace and timing is all it’d take for “the media” to take UFOs more seriously. Do ufologists now expect most punters to experience their lectures via their Facebook channel, with the benefit of a pause button?

Several conference-goers told me they were only here to hear “Chuck” – Colonel Charles Irwin Halt. Woodbridge Community Hall was draped with stars and stripes bunting in Halt’s honour. Unlike the self-taught ufologists preceding him, Chuck with his US Air Force officer’s training knows how to give concise presentations. He can also tell a vivid, compelling and credible narrative.

Joining the US Air Force while still in college, Halt ended up running the Pentagon’s jet engine operation. There followed a stint as adviser to the Shah of Iran’s Air Force – which he ended in time to avoid becoming a US Embassy hostage. He was heading for a command role with US forces in Norway when he was told RAF Bentwaters – then the largest base in the “free world” – needed a deputy base commander. This was in 1980, with a Soviet invasion of Poland feared, so “we exercised all the time – eight to ten hours in a gas mask.”

Over Christmas 1980, Bentwaters was “down for the holidays”, no flights scheduled. Following a routine Christmas Day dinner at Woody’s Bar at nearby RAF Woodbridge, Halt toured the base on his usual daily morning rounds on 26 December.This included stopping at the police base to pick up the police logs around 6.30am, where he found a laughing sergeant describing how three security officers had been “out in the woods chasing UFOs all night” after they “thought they saw a downed aircraft.”

There were two strands to the base police, explained Halt. “Law enforcement” wore blue uniforms and pistols – “they issued tickets.” Perimeter security wore camo fatigues and carried automatic weapons for “lethal force.” There were continual “behavioural problems” with security personnel, “it’s boring.”

Colonel Halt in conversation with local ufologist, Rendlesham investigator and contactee Brenda Butler

Jim Penniston, a security NCO, took a out a team off-base in a truck along a muddy track to investigate, leaving their weapons at the hut by the gate, as regulations required. Penniston reported “there’s something out there,” and that radios didn’t work. Halt told how Penniston had relayed back to security control that they “came across and object.” Penniston and another security policeman, Jim Burroughs, recalled chasing an object, “multicoloured lights, something.”

Halt “didn’t hear most of this stuff ‘till years later.” The security police involved were “drugged and hypnotised by the time I got to them.”

Following the debrief from the security police, Halt then attended the usual command post “morning stand up of senior colonels”. All were “sure there was a logical explanation.”

Over dinner the next night at Woody’s, Second Lieutenant Bruce Ingham, commander of one of the two “flights” of security cops, came in white as a sheet, telling Halt, “I need to talk to you and the base Commander right now.” In the privacy of the cloakroom, he said, “The UFO is back.”

Halt went out in an jeep with Sergeant Monroe Nevels, who brought his Nikon camera. Halt took with him his “old micro-cassette recorder for taking notes” and asked Nevilles to collect the Geiger counter.

There were “15-20 cops running around with light-alls” (torches) when they arrived at the scene. Halt went forward in a group of five to check out whatever it was with their “first generation” light scope had seen. He was shown three indentations in the ground where he was told “the craft landed the first night”. (Halt showed us his plaster cast of one of the indentations.) Neville’s Geiger counter showed “nothing significant by way of background radiation.”

Then they “watched for several minutes” a bright red irregularly-shaped glowing object, in the nearby farmer’s field, bobbing up and down as it moved towards the forest, panicking the farmer’s livestock, and “glowing, dripping and sending off sparks. The object “suddenly silently explodes into five white balls and disappears.” Next came “multiple objects, moving in formation at 500 feet” which Halt followed. After that, they saw two objects at “two or three thousand feet”, one “comes over us and a beam comes out of it, you could see dust particles in… the beam – one of two of objects goes over the Bentwaters base, the beams fired into weapons store.” The Suffolk Police were called out too, but the local post office had been broken into and that took priority.

The wall of UFO-related press cuttings on show at the conference

The next day “the Wing Commander (Major General Gordon E. Williams) drives in.” When Williams heard Halt had made a tape, he asked for it, so he could take to it the next weekly Third Air Force meeting. When the wingco returned from his meeting, Halt asked, “Boss, do I still have a job?” Williams returned Halt’s tape recorder, telling Halt, “Everybody listened… What do we do? Nobody had an answer.”

Halt’s boss decided “It happened off the base it’s a British affair.” When the British liaison officer returned from his holidays, Halt wrote him a memo, the carbon copy of which “disappeared.” Then “nothing happened… I was relieved this was going to go away… this is not career enhancing.”

“Two years later, Mr Warren gets involved” with a Freedom of Information Act request for Halt’s memo. “We had to release it,” Halt then “had to go into hiding, no comment, no way, I don’t want to get involved.”

Halt told how he quit RAF Bentwaters not because of “the incident” but because of the new commander, Sam Morgan, who he claimed bore him a grudge after Morgan’s son, also in the US Air Force and stationed at Bentwaters, had earlier run-ins with the Security Police. Halt got a job in Germany, that worked for Dick Cheney’s Department of Defense. Of RFUI, Halt says it was fortunate it didn’t harm his career, as it did harm the careers of the NCOs.

According to Halt, there were “spook fingerprints” all over Rendlesham “from day one.” Halt later found out that the CIA’s Dr Chris Green, believed to be “liaison” to the White House on UFOs – flew into the base days after the incident without his knowledge. Years later, Halt received a letter from a man who was in the Bentwaters air traffic control tower during “Rendlesham”, who claimed to have seen “three clearly triangular craft with lights”. His source added that “everyone on air traffic control who reports a UFO has been decertified and becomes a cook or mechanic.”

Malcolm Robinson at the conference

* A possible 40th anniversary Rendlesham “special memorial event” is planned for Woodbridge in 2020, details will be at here.

* There’s a video of Halt’s 2015 visit to the site of the RFUI here .

© Matt Salusbury

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Vote for Matt Salusbury for the editor of the Journalist!

Dear NUJ colleagues,

This is Matt Salusbury. I’m contacting you to ask you to consider voting for me in the election for the editor of the Journalist, the NUJ’s magazine. (Details of the timetable of the election are below.)

Matt Salusbury. Photo: © Pierre Alozie

You may already know something about me – possibly from reading my work in the Freelance newsletter.

The Freelance is distributed to over 3500 NUJ members in print (as an insert mailed out together with the Journalist) and read by many
more online. I have been co-editor of the Freelance for over a decade.

The subjects I have covered for the Freelance have varied enormously – from the NUJ gaining recognition by employers in workplaces where it hasn’t previously had recognition, to advice on negotiating higher rates, how Brexit will affect our many EU national members in the UK (as well as our members who are UK nationals in the EU) to court cases on whether colleagues are self-employed in law or have the legal rights of an employee. My coverage has often included developments affecting our members in the Republic of Ireland and in Continental Europe as well as the UK. The Freelance editors have always striven to explain to their audience the trade union terminology – what union recognition is, what an NUJ Chapel is, what “work to rule” is and why members are on strike.

Transferable skills
As a result of my background in the Freelance I have gained a deep understanding of – and a passionate engagement with – important issues and developments across our industry. I feel that the skills and insights I have gained, as well as the contacts both inside and outside the NUJ and the wider trade union movement, would be transferable to an editorial role at the Journalist.

I have worked in various sectors of our industry – as a staffer in a commissioning editor role on a business-to-business magazine, as a freelance writer and sub-editor, as a researcher for a media forward planning agency, as a lecturer to international students preparing to start Masters courses in media. I feel this range of experience gives me the ability to fulfill the Journalist’s stated mission of ensuring “adequate coverage is given to all sectors of the Union.”

Another area where my experience in the Freelance would transfer well to the Journalist is my understanding of the need to consult various stakeholders within the NUJ on stories before they are published, while at the same time maintaining strong editorial independence.

What changes would I make to the Journalist? Our industry is changing rapidly, many of us are struggling to make a living from journalism. So I’d like to see fewer opinion-based columns, less arts coverage and more on issues that affect us as journalists and how we can respond to these developments.

NUJ campaigns
The Journalist could work with the NUJ campaigns team to make the Union’s campaigns more visible to members, and periodically revisit ongoing campaigns to help keep them alive. One possible way to do this would be via a small “Campaigns” box in print in the Journalist with links to current NUJ campaigns.

Online strategy
Currently the Journalist is only available online as a pdf, it’s not easy to find online. You can’t cut and paste links to individual articles. I would look into the feasibility – with an eye to budget constraints and copyright – of having the individual articles of the Journalists available as web pages each with a URL. (Possibly behind a members-only area, I’d consult stakeholders about this.) This is turn would create possibilities for generating more advertising revenue.
The Journalist also needs its own Facebook presence and its own suitable unique Twitter handle.

Engagement with members
As editor I would plan to contact some of the more active Branches and ask if I can drop in to one of their meetings to discuss with them the Journalist and what they’d like to see in it – this would also likely pick up some stories for the Journalist. An active Twitter feed for the Journalist – including periodically Tweeting out Journalist articles – would also keep reader involvement going beyond the cycle of issues appearing in print and online. I would also include a phone number for the editor of the Journalist in the “Contacts” section of the Journalist in print.

Communicating NUJ policy and activities
Space should be given in the Journalist to important issues in the run-up to the Delegate Meeting (where timing allows) and reports on decisions made at Delegate Meeting should be included.
A “more online” page linking to other union resources that are updated more frequently – NUJ Active, the National Executive Council's NUJ Informed, Branch and sector newsletters and Twitter feeds including @NUJofficial – is also a very good idea. This would include information on which of these are in a members-only area and advice on how to get help for those who are struggling with logging into the NUJ members’ area.

NUJ posts held
Currently Vice-Chair, NUJ London Freelance Branch (LFB).
Previously Secretary, NUJ LFB.
Deputy editor, the Freelance (LFB newsletter, elected post) since 2006.
Currently member of Freelance Industrial Council (FIC), with a London region
seat. (I was previously in an East Anglia seat on FIC).
Previously on Newspapers and Agencies Industrial Council, representing FIC.
Previously NUJ rep on Writers’ Organisations Advisory Group (WOAG), a body advising the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS).
Delegate for LFB at numerous Delegate Meetings. NUJ member since 2002.

As an NUJ member, your ballot paper for the election of the editor of the Journalist should have been on its way to you by post on Wednesday 16 October and should arrive not long after that. If it doesn’t turn up, contact the NUJ via
If you’re voting, you need to post your completed ballot paper to arrive by Wednesday 6 November at the latest.

Please consider giving your first vote to me, and your second vote to Lynne Wallis.

See below for testimonials.

Can I count on your vote? Please let me know. Please also forward this email to other NUJ members who you feel may be interested in voting for me. If you’re happy with me letting members know you support me, or are prepared to write a short endorsement for me, even better!

Many thanks,

Kind regards,

Matt Salusbury


"I can’t think of a better candidate for this job than Matt Salusbury.

I’ve known him for a great many years – having sat with him on London Freelance Branch committee and the Freelance Industrial Council, and know well the depth and breadth of his experience across the media – and his commitment to the NUJ and trade unionism.

I’ve seen first-hand how his work on The Freelance has not only given him insight into and understanding of issues that affect our members in all parts of the industry. He is also an excellent communicator, who can give those issues the space and analysis they deserve.

The Freelance is an invaluable source of information about our industry and trade union issues to members throughout the UK. I trust Matt to do the same as editor of The Journalist and produce a union journal that looks outwards to and supports NUJ members from all sectors and all across the UK and Ireland."

Jenny Vaughan
Treasurer, NUJ London Freelance Branch

"Over the decade in which Matt Salusbury has been its co-editor The Freelance has been essential reading for me and thousands of other freelancers. It does not seek to entertain but to impart essential information, including facts that I have been able to produce in negotiations and to circulate among colleagues, arming them to get a better deal and know their rights. With his experience in both staff and freelance journalism, commitment, energy and technical skills I believe Matt could turn The Journalist into a more activist, informative and federating publication. Making it more accessible online would be a major plus."

Alison Culliford, former Deputy Chair, Paris Branch

Other members who support me include:
Barry White, NUJ Leeds and Wakefield Branch
Jens Anders Sorensen, Secretary NUJ Netherlands Branch
Pierre Alozie, Committee, NUJ London Freelance Branch
Tony Levene, Secretary NUJ London Freelance Branch (jobshare)

If you are not a member of the NUJ but you are a journalist and you're reading this, I would strongly suggest that you consider joining. By the time you realise that you should have joined, it's probably already too late.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Opposing the normalisation of lies

This article is from the Freelance, October 2019.

RECURRING themes at the Byline Festival of journalism in August were crime, corruption, misinformation, dark money and lies, lies, lies. Read more...

No deal Brexit looms again

This article is from the October 2019 Freelance

HIGH DRAMA struck as we were editing this Freelance: the UK Supreme Court ruled that the government's "prorogation" of Parliament was unlawful and void. Nothing is clear about what the revenant Parliament will do: but one effect may be that it can revisit the 99 pages of changes to immigration laws "laid before Parliament" just before it was unlawfully shut down. Read more...

Leave now, says immigration lawyer, as crackdown on foreign teachers in China continues

This story appeared in the September 2019 issue of EL Gazette

“DO NOT teach in China” says American lawyer Dan Harris. Writing in his award-winning blog , the international law expert recommends expatriates currently teaching there to “leave now.”

Shortly after the blog appeared, 19 people, including seven teachers working for language school chain EF, were arrested in the eastern city of Xuzhou. The story hit the headlines nationwide, with the China Daily running the headline “Keep toxic foreign teachers away from kids.”

EF issued a statement regretting the behaviour of its teachers and confirming it would dismiss those involved.

In his blog, Harris had warned of a crackdown on drug users, reporting stories of language schools suddenly ordering drug tests for foreign teachers. Read more...

Friday, 11 October 2019

A Roman carcal in Norfolk

This article first appeared in Fortean Times FT 382, August 2019

ONE explanations offered for sightings of big cats in Britain is “the escape theory,” the idea that British big cats are introduced exotics that escaped from menageries from Roman times onwards. (See FT 224;38).

A caracal, Image: Matt Salusbury

The problem with this idea is that there hasn’t been much evidence for historical escapes from circuses or menageries – the occasional escaped circus lion was usually quickly recaptured or shot.

Sure, the Romans had their circuses and wealthy Romans in Britain may have kept exotic big cats as pets. The huge Londinium amphitheatre under what’s now The Guildhall in the City of London had foundations showing signs of there having been a massive gates – and smaller sliding gates – suitable for releasing big animals into fights with gladiators in an arena that could have seated a quarter of Londinium’s population.

The Roman army included specialist venatores troops whose role included capturing wild animals, probably for the arena. Several Roman camps in Britain including Caerleon (Newport) had small arenas, more likely for the entertainment of the troops than for drilling. Venatores would have captured wild animals to be slaughtered before the crowds in local military arenas, their skins then being used for the headgear of legionary standard bearers.

We know venatores were active in Britain – the poet Martial describes seeing a Caledonian (Scottish) bear brought all the way to the Colosseum in Rome for its inaugural games. Mini-circuses involving animals – even imported ones – were cheaper to put on for the enjoyment of the legionaries than gladiatorial games. (“The Venatores – animal hunting in the army”, Duncan B Campbell, Ancient Warfare, Vol. XII, issue 5, Karwansaray Publishers, Rotterdam 2019.)

The bones of leopards have been found in a rubbish heap in Ancient Rome, with leopard remains unearthed in a Roman legionary camp in Dacia (modern Romania). The Emperor Gordian was recorded in AD 241 as having “60 tame lions” in his game parks around Rome, while The Augustan History, the Three Gordians, notes that “Caesar’s herd” had a facility to accommodate new arrivals at Laurentium, near the port of Ostia.

Most of the traffic in captured exotics, though, led to Rome rather than to the outlying province of Britannia. Homo Tyrannicus – A history of man's war against animals (Peter Verney, Mills & Boon, London 1979) recounts how the Eternal City’s demand for ventationes – combats between animals or between men and animals in the arena – all but wiped out African elephants in Tunisia and Libya during the Roman period. By the time of the birth of Christ, lions were rare in Libya and were later driven to extinction in much of North Africa and the Middle East to feed the games.

Venatores hunting a tiger from a mosaic in Istanbul, Wikimedia Commons

While ventationes continued right up to Rome’s final collapse, long after gladiatorial combats between humans had gone out of fashion, later Roman circuses featured huge herds of deer to make up the numbers. Circuses had by then already stripped the Empire of big cats and other exotics. As the Empire shrank, acquiring and bringing to Britannia whatever big cats remained in its territory became harder. The whole point of shipping over such animal was to kill them in front of a crowd. All this makes the prospect of exotic big cats surviving and escaping into the Romano-British landscape sometime before the legions abandoned the province in AD 410 a remote one. Nor is there any archaeological or documentary evidence.

Until now. Yes, that’s right, there’s new evidence for a big cat in Roman Britain. Well, not exactly a big cat, but an exotic introduced species of respectable-sized wildcat. The latest edition of The Annual – Bulletin of the Norfolk Archaeological Research Group (No. 27, 2018) includes “Some faunal remarks on the Aylesham Roman Project 2016/17 – a dog, a beaver tooth amulet and animal marks on tiles” by archaeologist Julie Curl. This looks at finds from the site of a Roman villa with a pottery and two kilns in Aylesham, Norfolk, excavated in 2016.

Here wet clay tiles were left out in the sun to dry, some ended up in a rubbish heap after various animals had walked over them and left their footprints in them – a pine martin, a European wildcat, newts and a small dog. One tile in particular has three toe marks of which Curl comments, “At this stage of the investigation, the prints compare well both in size and shape with the Caracal.” Lynxes survived in northern Britain until Saxon times (their range limited to further north than Norfolk) but Curl says the toe marks are “more oval” and slightly too pointed for a lynx. A caracal is the best match.

A caracal is a species of long-legged wildcat, easily twice the size of a domestic cat, red-brown in colour with long, elaborately tufted black ears (its name comes from the Turkish for “black ear”). Caracals now live in the wild in Africa and Asia. Turkey – where caracals are now very rare – is currently the nearest place to Britain to find them in the wild; their range in Roman times would have been greater.

Caracals are known to have been kept as pets by wealthy Romans; ancient Egyptian art shows caracals wearing collars. It’s not clear whether the caracal walking over tiles in Aylesham was a pet or a feral that had escaped, although most of the tracks found on the site were made by wild animals. Curl speculates that our Romano-British caracal could have been an “escaped pet, status symbol, performing animal or curiosity.” It wouldn’t have been impressive enough for the circus. While we know Romans used caracal pelts to make cloaks, its skin would also have been too small to end up as a standard bearer’s headdress.

The Dangerous Wild Animals Act requires owners to have a licence to keep a caracal, which needs to be on a lead and accommodated in a “secure outdoor area” with CCTV. In the days of the British Raj, normally solitary Indian caracals were trained to hunt in packs for birds or hares, but the drawback with caracals was they were reluctant to surrender their prey – they were never regarded as being all that tame. Caracals are, to put it mildly, a bit of handful for their owners. So a “pet” Romano-British caracal could easily turn into an exotic escapee.

Whether it was a pet or escapee, this discovery introduces something new and exciting to the “British big cats” controversy. Could there have been caracals loose in Roman times, and possibly later? 350 years of Roman occupation is enough time for an awful lot of caracal escapes.

The Mabinogian, a series of Welsh tales collected in the 11th century, describes a giant wildcat, the Cath Palug, or “scratch cat.” Could the descendants of the Roman caracal from Aylesham be it?

Could Romano-British caracals have hybridised with British lynxes, or with Roman domestic cats – more like African wildcats than today’s moggies – or with the European wildcats then endemic to England, injecting exotic genes into Britain’s feral cat or wildcat populations?

Hybrids of caracals and domestic Abyssinian cats have been recorded – they’re known as “caracats”, they’re still quite a lot bigger than domestic cats and have the luxurious tufted ears of the caracal, without their difficult temperament.

A 1997 census of exotic wildcats in the United States listed three hybrid cats of the “Caracal/Lynx” type. However, caracals (Caracal caracal) are sometimes called “caracal lynxes” or “African lynxes” because of their lynx-like tufts, although they are not that closely related to lynxes. Official publicity photos of an animal in London Zoo in the 1950s, for example, were captioned “caracal lynx” at the time.

Although caracals share with lynxes the tufted ears, caracals are actually in a distinct sub-family along with servals (Leptailurus serval) and African golden cats (Caracal aurata.) The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) belongs to a different sub-order of the Felidae (cats) family than the caracals. Any “caracal lynx” hybrids are thought to be dubious and misnamed. (See the Messy Beast website.)

© Matt Salusbury 2019

Oil, elements and aether

As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the periodic table, MATT SALUSBURY reveals that its inventor, Dmitri Mendeleev, had some pretty strange ideas.

(This article first appeared in Fortean Times, FT380, June 2019)

Dmitri Mendeleev. Image out of copyright

This year marks a century and a half since the appearance of the ground breaking periodic table of the elements. Unesco has declared 2019 the International Year of the Periodic Table (IYPT2019 for short), with celebratory events throughout the year.

IYPT2019 honours both the periodic table and its inventor, Siberian-born Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev. His An Attempt at a System of Elements, Based on Their Atomic Weight and Chemical Affinity was published in February after being conceived in a single day – 17 February 1869 – at St Petersburg University as an aid to a textbook on inorganic chemistry. Mendeleev’s first version of the periodic table was more a list arranged into columns than the beautifully designed minimalist chart we have today.

Recognition of Mendeleev’s periodic table really came in 1876 when French chemist Paul-Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran, unaware of Mendeleev’s work, discovered a missing element, which he named gallium. Mendeleev had predicted this element as “68?” on his table, accurately foretelling its characteristics.

Mendeleev didn’t regard his periodic table as his greatest achievement. He saw himself as a physicist more than a chemist, although he also found time to design Russia’s trade tariffs system and do battle with what he regarded as the alarming rise of Spiritualism in Russia – even within its scientific community. He instigated the 1875 Commission for the Investigation of Mediumistic Phenomena, which tested Spiritualist claims almost to destruction in a series of gruelling and highly publicised scientific trials of spirit mediums. Mendeleev concluded in his Materials for a Judgement about Spiritualism that these were frauds, that “the Spiritualist doctrine is superstition.”

Mandeleev's first limited edition periodic table, more elements arranged in a list than a table, from February 1869. Out of copyright

He was also an art critic, balloonist and a political influencer with access to ministers and the tsar. He introduced metrification into Russia, had a go at arctic exploration and volunteered his services as an expert witness in poisoning trials, as an inspector of cheese and as an adviser on alcohol taxation. (His doctoral thesis was On the Combination of Alcohol and Water.)

Some of Mendeleev’s big ideas, though, were bizarrely wrong. Much of his career was spent in sometimes heavily state-subsidised research into gas expansion, looking for that mysterious entity the “luminiferous aether”. This was a fluid medium saturating the entire universe, which he thought was lighter than all the elements “by a million times.” Aether would account for the “undulations” of light, but also gravity, Mendeleev believed. A heavily revised later version of his periodic table included the aether – indicated by a lower-case italic “x” on a row of its own at the top left, above what’s now accepted as the lightest element – hydrogen. To the left of hydrogen in the same chart was another lighter-than-hydrogen fantasy element, “coronium”. Mendeleev had lost interest in the expensive quest for aether by 1878, but returned to it in later life.

A later version of Mendeleev's periodic table with the "luminiferous aether" on a row of its own above hydrogen, and another lighter-than-hydrogen element "coronium". Out of copyright

It was with yet another of his many hats on – as a consultant to the Imperial Russian oil industry, based in Baku, Azerbaijan – that Mendeleev came up with another of his paradigm-shaking fortean ideas. Mendeleev helped establish Baku’s first oil refinery and was an early advocate of innovations in oil production and safety such as pipelines, although it was a while before the Baku oilmen adopted his ideas.

The oil industry was then still in its infancy, most of its commercial cracking of crude oil was to obtain paraffin for “illumination”. An 1865 technical manual for the oil industry by Henry Erni noted that oil-based paints, varnishes and petroleum soap were already a thing. The first petrol-driven vehicle, Karl Benz’s 1893 motor tricycle, was still a long way off.

As long as oil prospectors knew what surface signs giving clues to oil-bearing strata they should look for below, they didn’t bother much with the theory of what oil actually was.

The periodic table commemorated on stamps from the USA (top), Spain (centre) and North Korea (bottom)

The mainstream view formed at the time, which still mostly holds today, was that oil is a fossil fuel, the product of vast amounts of decayed marine algae and plankton. Oil is made of hydrocarbons – complex combinations of carbon and hydrogen molecules – that are supposed to be the broken down cell membranes of microbial life-forms that died and sank to the beds of seas and rivers hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago.

There, so the theory goes, the dead plankton and algae became trapped under layers of sediment. As geological action over the aeons pushed the oil-bearing strata further down, the action of immense heat and pressure caused the hydrocarbons in the algae and plankton’s cell membranes to break down. And that’s what crude oil is. There is an “oil window” of around 2-4km below the surface, where the temperature is about 60°-120°C, where the distillation process producing crude oil is thought to occur. The oil can then percolate through layers of porous rock, such as sandstone or pumice.

Erni declared that oil was “proved by its composition” to be “evidently of organic origin… a product of chemical decomposition, derived from organic remains, plants and animals, whole generations of which perished and accumulated during many destructive revolutions at the various ages of our planet.”

The evidence for this biological origin was mostly the “fetid” or “garlic” smells encountered in some oilfields. “Sweet crude” – crude oil with low sulphur content – is so-called because of its sickly sweet smell and taste, while hydrocarbons in which the chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms form into circles are known as “aromatic hydrocarbons” because they often have a fragrant aroma to them.

Early attempts to explain the process by which dead plankton ended us as crude oil included “steam generated by volcanic action”, “uplifting gas forces” or “dry distillation”. As Erni noted, “many other theories have gained some ground, though mostly with the vulgar.”

Mendeleev, though, was having none of this. He found the “biotic” (biological) explanation for oil not “satisfactory.” In his 1877 article “L’Origine du Pétrole”, he asked, “Where, when and how happened this useful substance?” He insisted that “metal carbides” reacted with water “deep within the Earth” to form acetylene (C2H2) which subsequently condenses to form heavier, more complex hydrocarbons.(Mendeleef, D., 1877. "L'origine du pétrole", Revue Scientifique, 2e Ser., VIII, p. 409-416)

A carbonaceous chondrite meteorite that fell in Poland, on show in the Geological Museum of the National Research Institute, Warsaw. Mendeleev observed that these meteorites, that contained carbon, could not have been of terrestrial origin. Photo: Matt Salusbury

Mendeleev noticed that hydrocarbon-rich areas tend to be hydrocarbon rich at lower levels of different geological epochs, even in the basement rock below strata of sediment, from epochs showing no similarities in vegetation or climate. He noted that in some oilfields were in Tertiary strata, from early in the age of mammals, while on other continents, crude oil was extracted from much more ancient Silurian strata, from the age of primitive toothless fish. He observed that whatever it was in oil had clearly travelled great distances from the places where it is found, and that the material “we take from the heart of the Earth” had apparently “never seen the light of day” before. He noticed that a small proportion of meteorites – the carbonaceous chondrites – contained carbon, which can’t have been of biological origin. Nor was there evidence in oil of the enormous quantities of organic debris we’d expect to see if it really was just deceased sea creatures. He suspected oil originated within the bowels of the Earth, in much “deeper layers than those where we encounter it.”

A lot has happened in science since then to support Mendeleev’s apparently wacky-sounding idea. Carbon turns out to be much more common in space and on other heavenly bodies than we thought. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is now known to have clouds and rains of methane, with lakes and seas of ethane and methane, while there are vast dust clouds in space that contain glycolaldehyde (HOCH2-CHO), a carbohydrate that’s a distant cousin of sugar. Carbon, it turns out, is the universe’s fourth most abundant element – almost none of the remains of dead creatures, nearly all of it in the form of hydrocarbons. We now think that the young Earth was never completely molten – it seems vast quantities of hydrocarbons formed in the Earth as it cooled and became trapped at great depths.

A glycolaldehyde molecule, an example of "sugar in space". Wikimedia Commons

The discovery of deep sea tube worms Riftia pachyptila happily living in volcanic deep sea geological vents, surviving by chemically synthesising hydrogen sulphide, even throws up the possibility of life forms living down there among the oil. Others have taken Mendeleev’s “abiotic” (non-biological) oil origin idea and run with it. Professor Thomas Gold’s The Deep Hot Biosphere (Springer Verlag, 1999) goes so far as to propose that hopanoids – vey basic micro-fossils found in crude oil – aren’t fossil plankton biomarkers at all, but recent life forms that live by chemically synthesising the hydrocarbons deep beneath the Earth – he estimates 10km down, at temperatures of 100°C and above. Gold even suggests that very early life forms billions of years ago colonised the deep subterranean oil reservoirs long before life on the surface evolved.

Unlike Mendeleev’s “luminiferous aether” fantasy and his lighter-than-hydrogen element coronium, his bizarre-sounding idea that oil forms in the centre of the Earth may have been right on the money after all.

Hopanoids - very basic trace micro-fossils found in crude oil. Wikimedia commons.

A Well-Ordered Thing: Dmitri Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table, Michael Gordin, Basic Books, New York 2004

Crude: The Story of Oil, Sonia Shah, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2004

The Deep Hot Biosphere: The Myth of Fossil Fuels, Professor Thomas Gold, Springer Verlag, 1999

“Sugar in Space”
, NASA Science, 20 June 2000

© Matt Salusbury 2019