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Hollow Earth

Part of “Pseudoscience A to Z”, a series of articles in the Skeptics Canada newsletter.

Hollow Earth adherents can point to a well-known man of science as their “patron saint”: Sir Edmund Halley. You may have heard of a comet named for him? That is one of the very few connections to genuine science that you could hope to find in this notion. Many modern believers will refer to it as a theory, but to call it that today is really an insult to the word, and to call it half-baked would insult pastry chefs.

It all began in 1692, when the illustrious Sir Edmund postulated the idea that the Earth, rather than being a simple globe, was actually composed of four concentric spheres nestled one in the other, with a luminous atmosphere. He also thought that the aurora borealis was caused when this atmosphere leaked through a hole at the North Pole.

How could one come up with such an idea? Halley was having difficulty explaining inconsistencies in the Earth’s magnetic field, particularly the way it seemed to move gradually over time. He explained this with his concentric spheres, each having their own magnetic field. Let’s not be harsh on him, for this was many years before the evidence for a molten core which acts like a giant magneto. Independent spheres with their own magnetic fields could also account for the observed phenomenon, as unlikely as the (literally) underlying geophysics might be.

Searching for more information on hollow Earth proponents will lead one through an odd assortment of characters, but one who looms large in legend is Captain John Cleves Symmes, the pride of Hamilton, Ohio. An impressive monument, topped by a sphere with a hole through it, was erected in the town by his son after Symmes’s death in 1859, and can be seen to this day. Despite his obviously unorthodox beliefs he did contribute to science in at least one positive way. He tried unsuccessfully during his life to finance a U.S. expedition to the North Pole, and after his death one of his ardent supporters, newspaper editor Jeremiah Reynolds, took up the torch and managed to convince the government to send a research team to Antarctica. They failed to find a hole, but did establish that the area was a continental land mass and not merely an icecap.

What of the inhabitants inside the hollow Earth? Scouring the literature on this subject over the years we find that adherents seem to fall largely into two camps. There are those who believe that the inhabitants are peaceful, enlightened beings, living in a paradise free from hate, greed or want. Fabled Atlantis often figures into these stories, and brings its advanced technology into play by being the source of UFOs, which they use to fly to the surface. It seems that such an advanced race is still lacking when it comes to designing an elevator. The other camp clings to the belief that the underworld is a secret Nazi base, and it is their flying saucers that appear in our skies. The alleged “holes at the poles” are dwarfed by the holes in this theory.

There is a significant Canadian contribution to this business. According to Leslee Dru Browning, a self proclaimed psychic, she was astral travelling one day with an inhabitant of the hollow Earth, a person she called Zyne. She says that he took her into the inner realm – but not through the North Pole. Rather, they entered somewhere in the hills near Zephyr, Ontario, about an hour north of Toronto. An unofficial Skeptics Canada expedition, carried out in a soft chair with some single malt to relax the brain cells, combed the area in vain, but astral travelling is not a skill I have mastered. Time to do it the mere mortal way, with a car, a map, and a pair of legs.

Zephyr is nestled in the rolling hills of northern Durham, with farms undulating away in every direction. The ads, flyers, and business cards in the general store are a typical mix of old and new, with posters for yoga classes pinned beside info on the local farrier. A tiny town, little more than a hamlet, its peaceful citizens appear to have no idea of what lurks beneath their feet. And whatever that may be, it certainly doesn’t seem to involve holes. The geology is not the type that would support a cave, nobody ever tried to build a subway, and I couldn’t even find a pothole in the road, which makes this town mysterious enough given the time of year.

A few kilometres southeast of town lies the inaptly named Mud Lake, filled with clear water. Could this be a portal to the nether regions? My visit revealed nothing out of the ordinary, and the only denizens appeared to be tree swallows.

An expedition with scuba gear might find out more, but not me. I would rather try fishing.

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