☞ The Anomalies that Drive Science

There is a certain delight to finding facts and bits of information that don’t quite make sense. Whether it’s the discovery of a weird signal from Proxima Centauri or the fact that lightning can spur the growth of fungi, there’s a lot that we don’t fully understand yet. But the good news is that each of these pieces of knowledge are wedges that we can use to pry open our understanding of the world. These are the grist for scientific progress.

One source for some of these kinds of facts is the work of the physicist William R. Corliss, whose Sourcebook Project compiled these anomalies into a series of books:

The Sourcebooks, Handbooks and Catalogs are compiled from 40,000 articles from the scientific literature, the results of a 25-year search through more than 12,000 volumes of scientific journals, including the complete files of Nature, Science, Icarus, Weather, etc. The Sourcebook Project is compiling an objective, unsensationalized catalog of anomalous phenomena.

Of course, whenever this kind of thing is done there is the chance it can drift into cryptozoology and other kinds of crackpottery—I am reminded of the Time-Life series Mysteries of the Unknown—but hopefully, as long as anomalies are viewed as information for further study, rather than Mysteries for their Own Sake, this is how science moves forward.

Due to my interest in these kinds of collections, I was therefore delighted when my friend Mike Vitevitch, a cognitive scientist, passed along Wikenigma, “an Encyclopaedia of Unknowns.” While I’m not certain the quality of this collection, I am sold on its goal: “to inspire and promote interest in scientific and academic research by highlighting opportunities to investigate problems - ones which no-one has yet been able to solve. In other words a catalyst for curiosity.”

On Wikenigma you can explore different fields, from mathematics to earth science, and find examples of things that contributors have identified as not yet known or understood. And what a delightful phrase: “catalyst for curiosity.” Go forth and explore!


I recently published an article in Wired about how we need to be inspired by old technologies in order to build new ones. It involved reading a lot of old computer magazines:

…I love the nostalgia these magazines evoke, that sense of wonder and possibility that computers brought to us when they first entered our lives.

But there’s much more to it than mere delight. I’ve found that excavating old technology often points the way to something new.

That’s especially the case when you’re digging, as I like to do, in the strata from the early age of personal computers. These old magazines, in particular, describe a sort of Cambrian explosion of diversity in hardware and software designs; their pages show a spray of long-lost lineages in technology and strange precursor forms. You may come across a stand-alone software thesaurus (with a testimonial from William F. Buckley Jr.!), or a word search generator, or a magazine on floppy disks. And let’s not forget the MacTable, a beechwood desk made in Denmark to fit the Macintosh and its various peripherals.

Go check out the entire piece here.

And as a bonus for my Newsletter Readers, please enjoy the pace of technological change as exemplified by a November 1986 issue of MacUser that defines the terms uploading and downloading:


    A few links worth checking out:

    Until next month.

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