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Fort Snelling, Manitoba, Canada, 1860
Simon Newcomb
Simon Newcomb (1835-1909) was to the late 19th century what Carl Sagan is to the late 20th Century -- the best-known astronomer and spokesman for science of his era.

He was certainly America's methematician and astronomer of rank and its most effective spokesman for the scientific method. Newcomb has gained repsect from all quarters. Even Aleister Crowley, the English occultist , once described Newcomb as the sole scientist of distinction produced by America.

Newcomb was a notive of the villiage of Tatamagouche, west of Picton, Noca Scotia. The lengthy entry on the scientists in The Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th edition, 1911) states that he was elected first president of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America. But it does not mention that Newcomb was also elected the first president of the American Society for Psychical Research.

In the late 19th century, scientifically trained minds were challenged by the notion that psychical phenomena might be produced and tested at will. They tested what they could find.

Newcomb, after devoting some twenty years to psychical research, came to the conclusion that nothing had been proved one way or the other, despite all his efforts and all those of other psychical researchers in Britain and America.

In his spirited memoirs, The Reminiscences of an Astronomer (1903), Newcomb presented an account of how he led a major scientific expedition to the Pas in Northern Manitoba to observe the solar eclipse of 18 July 1860.

Nature did not cooperate with the astronomers. The day before the eclipse it rained. "We found the most elevated spot we could, took out our instruments, mounted them on boxes or anything else in the shallow puddles of water, and slept in the canoe. Next morning the weather was hopelessly cloudy. We saw the darkenss of the eclipse and nothing more."

But on his way back, stopped at Fort Snelling in Northern Manitoba, Newcomb had an opportunity to use the scientific method of close observation of nature to examine some beliefs about a celestial event of another sort.

It is too bad that not all reports of strange events in the heavens are scrutinized as closely -- and as personably -- as were the stars in the sky that evening!

    On our return across Minnesota we had an experience which I have always remembered as illustrative of the fallacy of all human testimony about ghosts, rappings, and other phenomena of that character.

    We spent two nights and a day at Fort Snelling. Some of the officers were greatly surprised by a celestial phenomenon of a very extraordinary character which had been observed for several nights past.

    A star had been seen, night after night, rising in the east as usual, and starting on its course toward the south. But instead of continuing that course across the meridian, as stars invariably had done from the remotest antiquity, it took a turn toward the north, sunk toward the horizon, and finally set near the north point of the horizon. Of course an explanation was wanted.

    My assurance that there must be some mistake in the observation could not be accepted, because this erratic course of the heavenly body had been seen by all of them so plainly that no doubt could exist on the subject.

    The men who saw it were not of the ordinary untrained kind, but graduates of the West Point, who if any one, ought to be free from optical deceptions. I was confidently invited to look out that night and see for myself. We all watched with the greatest interest.

    In due time the planet Mars was seen in the east making its way toward the south. "There it is!" was the exclamation.

    "Yes, there it is," said I. "Now that planet is going to keep right on its course towards the south."

    "No, it is not," they said: "you will see it turn around and go down towards the north."

    Hour after hour passed, and as the planet went on its regular course, the other watchers began to get a little nervous. It showed no sign of deviating from its course. We went out from time to time to look at the sky.

    "There it is," said one of the observers at length, pointing; to Capella, which was now just rising a little to the east of north; "there is the star setting."

    "No, it isn't," said I; "there is the star we have been looking at, now quite inconspicuous near the meridian, and that star which you think is setting is really rising and will soon be higher up."

    A very little additional watching showed that no deviation of the general laws of Nature had occured, but that the observers of previous nights had jumped at the conclusion that two objects, widely apart in the heavens, were the same.

    UFOs OVER CANADA, R. J. Colombo