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Could Dragons Fly?

One science writer attempts to answer this age-old question in the context of Game of Thrones.

Check the links at the bottom. There are quite a number of fun articles examining various real-world sciences in this popular show.

Dragon, Utah

Dragon is a ghost town located in Uinta County, Utah, a scant mile from the Colorado border. It’s a true relic of the Old West, founded in 1888 and occupied for 50 years until the last residents departed around 1940.

Uinta County is desert country, harsh and barren. What drew people here? Minerals! But nothing so fancy as silver or gold. Instead, they mined Gilsonite, a form of asphalt that occurs naturally only in this corner of Utah. According to local lore, prospectors noticed black veins of Gilsonite on the surface of one canyon. In one area the veins looked a bit like a dragon, so the canyon was dubbed Dragon Canyon. Soon the Black Dragon Mine opened there. The town of Dragon grew up at the mouth of Dragon Canyon.

The settlement grew slowly, due to the difficulty of transporting ores from this remote location. At last, in 1904, the Uinta Railroad built a station in Dragon. This not only allowed easier shipment of ores, but people and merchandise could arrive from outside. Dragon thrived as telegraph wires, roads, and river crossings connected the surrounding area. Amenities such as saloons, a hotel, and a locomotive repair shop appeared. A school was constructed, also in 1904. In 1910, there was a public library. An unusual feature: the railroad would deliver books to patrons.

At its height, in 1920, Dragon was home to 287 people. However, more Gilsonite was discovered in neighboring areas, and production gradually shifted to its current center at Bonanza, 40 miles away. The locals hung on, introducing other industries such as sheep’s wool, but by 1938 the Black Dragon Mine had been forced to close. Soon after, the Uinta Railroad went out of business. Without jobs, the residents had to move on. By 1940, the population of Dragon was down to just 10 hardy souls.

Today the railroad bed has been converted to a recreational trail, used mostly by off-road vehicles during the summer months. Only a plaque, the graveyard, and scattered ruins remain of Dragon, Utah.

I wrote last year about the Chinese Lantern Festival hosted in my home town of Spokane, Washington. It was a beautiful sight, and so well received that they’ve decided to do it again.

Unfortunately, they aren’t doing the dining portion this time. However, the lanterns and sculptures are all-new. The big piece last year was a red dragon, which will return along with a number of smaller dragons and other beasts. However, the highlight for 2016 will be a model temple, in the style of Angkor Wat, which is built of porcelain plates and teacups.

The Lantern Festival is a little earlier this year than last. In fact, it just opened last night and runs until October 30th. This will likely increase attendance, as the bitterly cold weather will not have arrived yet. So will a slight reduction in the ticket price. They have also been a little less jealous about guarding the lanterns from public view. Allowing glimpses of the pieces ought to build interest.

It’s certainly worked, at least for our family.

Dragon Hoaxes, Part 3

Perhaps the most famous dragon hoax is that of the Loch Ness Monster. Legends of lake monsters had been circulating around the Scottish loch for centuries, but they spiked with a series of reports in 1933 and ’34. Among the most notable and controversial evidence is the so-called Surgeon’s Photograph.

A London physician, Robert Kenneth Wilson, allegedly photographed Nessie at play in April of 1934. He reported that he had been viewing the loch and noticed the creature, whereupon he started taking pictures. There were four exposures, but only two were clear enough to be published. Because the photographer didn’t wish to be associated with such a topic, the best shot was published as “the Surgeon’s Photograph.” It’s the archetypal Nessie image: turbulent waters, a long neck with tiny head, and suggestions of a humped back behind.

Its publication in The Daily Mail created a sensation and firmly fixed this image in the public mind. There were skeptics from the outset, however. Dozens of theories have been floated in the decades since: a submerged log, a bird, an otter, a large fish or eel, even an elephant from a passing circus. Some said the physician innocently took photos of an object without knowing what it was. Others believed the newspaper created the hoax to sell copies, and that was why Dr. Wilson would have no part of it.

During the same decades, technology for analyzing photos has also improved. Since the mid-1990s, the Surgeon’s Photograph has been known as a fake. Analysis showed that the photo had been cropped to make “Nessie” appear much larger, and the ripples surrounding her were also consistent with a small object. A 1999 book, Nessie — the Surgeon’s Photograph Exposed, related a complicated plot.

According to the author, a reporter named Marmaduke Wetherell had been duped by a hoax of alleged Nessie footprints. He was publicly mocked when he tried to sell pictures to The Daily Mail and set out to get revenge. Together with his co-conspirators, he build the Nessie model from a child’s toy submarine and wood putty. Dr. Wilson was another friend who agreed to sell the photos to The Daily Mail, so the editors wouldn’t know Wetherell was involved.

Despite this apparent resolution, claims and counter-claims have continued to surface. New science, such as sonar, is periodically employed to investigate the famous lake. Each adds a new ripple to the mystery of Loch Ness.

Dragon Hoaxes, Part 2

The discovery of a pickled dragon fetus created a sensation in late 2003. According to the claim, David Hart found this item in a box in his garage in Oxforshire. Supposedly his grandfather once worked at the Natural History Museum in London, and had left the box in the garage decades before.

The find consisted of a 30-inch tall glass jar full of formaldehyde, and within it the floating reptilian fetus. Hart related that this unusual object had been donated to the Natural History Museum in the late 19th Century by a group of German scientists. Their nefarious plan? That the Natural History Museum would become an object of ridicule after displaying such an object as if it were real. But, the story went, Museum officials were not fooled and put the object in the trash. From there it was salvaged by Dear Old Grandad, who kept it as a curiosity.

Well, if there actually had been such a donation by German scientists, the Natural History Museum would have been quite correct to dispose of it. The “fetus” and the story behind it were created by Hart and amplified by his marketing guy, Allistair Mitchell. It seems Hart had written a dark fantasy/thriller novel with dragons returning to terrorize modern Britain, and he hoped to create some buzz about the project. The “dragon fetus” was a model, created by the same company that provided props for the BBC’s famed Walking With Dinosaurs series. The “antique jar” was also a custom commission.

Did Hart’s scheme work? Well, he did get a publishing deal. Waterstones published his novel in 2004. I’ve glimpsed information that it was supposed to be first in a series, but I didn’t write the title down and now I can’t find any more on it or any other books in the series. So the “pickled dragon” hoax may have been partly effective, but ultimately it seems that you cannot really fake your way to success.

Dragon Hoaxes

From the moment a technology develops, it seems that some enterprising soul finds a way to use it in perpetuating some sort of hoax or scam.

Modern taxidermy allowed the creation of Feejee Mermaids, which were widely displayed in circus sideshows. Actually, they were created when the upper half of a small monkey was sewn together with the back half of a suitably sized fish.

Photography has spawned any number of hoax techniques. Double exposures appeared to show ghostly visitations, and paper props allegedly captured fairy visits. Pie plates were passed off as UFOs. As photography evolved into primarily a digital form, and the Internet flourishes, new and better hoaxes can be passed around with the speed of a mouse-click.

For some reason, Tibet has emerged as a hotbed of dragon hoaxes. In 2004, a photographer in an airplane over the Tibetan Himalayas claimed to have captured images of two dragons flying. In the most widely circulated photo, you can see what are claimed to be the dragons’ tails. Although evocative, these objects may have been cloud formations, or a glacier seen from above.

Then, just last month, a video went viral. It claimed to show a dragon that had fallen from the sky in Tibet. Cool! But, a hoax. The dragon was a realistic sculpture created for a Spanish television show. Cuarto Milenio is a reality show/documentary hybrid that attempts to explain various mysteries and legends. Apparently, they did an episode on dragon lore and someone got clever with the props.

Despite the hoax, I would totally watch that show on Netflix… if only I understood Spanish.

Dragon Stones

Dragon Stones, or Septarians, are semi-precious stones with mythic and allegedly magical properties. Legends from Madacascar state that an ancient race of dragons became extinct and sank to the bottom of the sea. However, their scales were preserved in the form of these striking minerals.

Technically, Septarians are concretions, a type of rock where chunks of two or more separate stones are cemented together by a third. In this case, calcite and limestone (chalcedony) are fused with aragonite. The resulting stone contains irregular patches of gray and pale orange/gold with dark red veins.

Those who study the magical properties of stones and crystals say that Dragon Stones have a protective aura. Various sources claim they can divert unwanted attention, build confidence for public speaking, boost healing energies, and aid in connecting with spiritual guides.

Addendum: Pictures have been requested. Click here.