An interview with Dr. I. M. Niemand, Director of the Psychophysical Institute of Solar and Terrestrial Relations, Camarillo, California.
In the closing days of December, 1957, at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New York, Dr. Niemand delivered a paper entitled simply, “On the Nature of the Solar S-Regions.” Owing to its unassuming title the startling implications contained in the paper were completely overlooked by the press. These implications are discussed here in an exclusive interview with Dr. Niemand by Philip Latham.
LATHAM. Dr. Niemand, what would you say is your main job?
NIEMAND. I suppose you might say my main job today is to find out all I can between activity on the Sun and various forms of activity on the Earth.
LATHAM. What do you mean by activity on the Sun?
NIEMAND. Well, a sunspot is a form of solar activity.
LATHAM. Just what is a sunspot?
NIEMAND. I’m afraid I can’t say just what a sunspot is. I can only describe it. A sunspot is a region on the Sun that is cooler than its surroundings. That’s why it looks dark. It isn’t so hot. Therefore not so bright.
LATHAM. Isn’t it true that the number of spots on the Sun rises and falls in a cycle of eleven years?
NIEMAND. The number of spots on the Sun rises and falls in a cycle of about eleven years. That word about makes quite a difference.
LATHAM. In what way?
NIEMAND. It means you can only approximately predict the future course of sunspot activity. Sunspots are mighty treacherous things.
LATHAM. Haven’t there been a great many correlations announced between sunspots and various effects on the Earth?
NIEMAND. Scores of them.
LATHAM. What is your opinion of these correlations?
NIEMAND. Pure bosh in most cases.
LATHAM. But some are valid?
NIEMAND. A few. There is unquestionably a correlation between sunspots and disturbances of the Earth’s magnetic field ... radio fade-outs ... auroras ... things like that.
LATHAM. Now, Dr. Niemand, I understand that you have been investigating solar and terrestrial relationships along rather unorthodox lines.
NIEMAND. Yes, I suppose some people would say so.
LATHAM. You have broken new ground?
NIEMAND. That’s true.
LATHAM. In what way have your investigations differed from those of others?
NIEMAND. I think our biggest advance was the discovery that sunspots themselves are not the direct cause of the disturbances we have been studying on the Earth. It’s something like the eruptions in rubeola. Attention is concentrated on the bright red papules because they’re such a conspicuous symptom of the disease. Whereas the real cause is an invisible filterable virus. In the solar case it turned out to be these S-Regions.
LATHAM. Why S-Regions?
NIEMAND. We had to call them something. Named after the Sun, I suppose.
LATHAM. You say an S-Region is invisible?
NIEMAND. It is quite invisible to the eye but readily detected by suitable instrumental methods. It is extremely doubtful, however, if the radiation we detect is the actual cause of the disturbing effects observed.
LATHAM. Just what are these effects?
NIEMAND. Well, they’re common enough, goodness knows. As old as the world, in fact. Yet strangely enough it’s hard to describe them in exact terms.
LATHAM. Can you give us a general idea?
NIEMAND. I’ll try. Let’s see ... remember that speech from “Julius Caesar” where Cassius is bewailing the evil times that beset ancient Rome? I believe it went like this: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.”
LATHAM. I’m afraid I don’t see--
NIEMAND. Well, Shakespeare would have been nearer the truth if he had put it the other way around. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in ourselves but in our stars” or better “in the Sun.”
LATHAM. In the Sun?
NIEMAND. That’s right, in the Sun. I suppose the oldest problem in the world is the origin of human evil. Philosophers have wrestled with it ever since the days of Job. And like Job they have usually given up in despair, convinced that the origin of evil is too deep for the human mind to solve. Generally they have concluded that man is inherently wicked and sinful and that is the end of it. Now for the first time science has thrown new light on this subject.
LATHAM. How is that?
NIEMAND. Consider the record of history. There are occasional periods when conditions are fairly calm and peaceful. Art and industry flourished. Man at last seemed to be making progress toward some higher goal. Then suddenly--for no detectable reason--conditions are reversed. Wars rage. People go mad. The world is plunged into an orgy of bloodshed and misery.
LATHAM. But weren’t there reasons?
NIEMAND. What reasons?
LATHAM. Well, disputes over boundaries ... economic rivalry ... border incidents...
NIEMAND. Nonsense. Men always make some flimsy excuse for going to war. The truth of the matter is that men go to war because they want to go to war. They can’t help themselves. They are impelled by forces over which they have no control. By forces outside of themselves.
LATHAM. Those are broad, sweeping statements. Can’t you be more specific?
NIEMAND. Perhaps I’d better go back to the beginning. Let me see ... It all started back in March, 1955, when I started getting patients suffering from a complex of symptoms, such as profound mental depression, anxiety, insomnia, alternating with fits of violent rage and resentment against life and the world in general. These people were deeply disturbed. No doubt about that. Yet they were not psychotic and hardly more than mildly neurotic. Now every doctor gets a good many patients of this type. Such a syndrome is characteristic of menopausal women and some men during the climacteric, but these people failed to fit into this picture. They were married and single persons of both sexes and of all ages. They came from all walks of life. The onset of their attack was invariably sudden and with scarcely any warning. They would be going about their work feeling perfectly all right. Then in a minute the whole world was like some scene from a nightmare. A week or ten days later the attack would cease as mysteriously as it had come and they would be their old self again.
LATHAM. Aren’t such attacks characteristic of the stress and strain of modern life?
NIEMAND. I’m afraid that old stress-and-strain theory has been badly overworked. Been hearing about it ever since I was a pre-med student at UCLA. Even as a boy I can remember my grandfather deploring the stress and strain of modern life when he was a country doctor practicing in Indiana. In my opinion one of the most valuable contributions anthropologists have made in recent years is the discovery that primitive man is afflicted with essentially the same neurotic conditions as those of us who live a so-called civilized life. They have found savages displaying every symptom of a nervous breakdown among the mountain tribes of the Elgonyi and the Aruntas of Australia. No, Mr. Latham, it’s time the stress-and-strain theory was relegated to the junk pile along with demoniac possession and blood letting.
LATHAM. You must have done something for your patients--
NIEMAND. A doctor must always do something for the patients who come to his office seeking help. First I gave them a thorough physical examination. I turned up some minor ailments--a slight heart murmur or a trace of albumin in the urine--but nothing of any significance. On the whole they were a remarkably healthy bunch of individuals, much more so than an average sample of the population. Then I made a searching inquiry into their personal life. Here again I drew a blank. They had no particular financial worries. Their sex life was generally satisfactory. There was no history of mental illness in the family. In fact, the only thing that seemed to be the matter with them was that there were times when they felt like hell.
LATHAM. I suppose you tried tranquilizers?
NIEMAND. Oh, yes. In a few cases in which I tried tranquilizing pills of the meprobamate type there was some slight improvement. I want to emphasize, however, that I do not believe in prescribing shotgun remedies for a patient. To my way of thinking it is a lazy slipshod way of carrying on the practice of medicine. The only thing for which I do give myself credit was that I asked my patients to keep a detailed record of their symptoms taking special care to note the time of exacerbation--increase in the severity of the symptoms--as accurately as possible.
LATHAM. And this gave you a clue?
NIEMAND. It was the beginning. In most instances patients reported the attack struck with almost the impact of a physical blow. The prodromal symptoms were usually slight ... a sudden feeling of uneasiness and guilt ... hot and cold flashes ... dizziness ... double vision. Then this ghastly sense of depression coupled with a blind insensate rage at life. One man said he felt as if the world were closing in on him. Another that he felt the people around him were plotting his destruction. One housewife made her husband lock her in her room for fear she would injure the children. I pored over these case histories for a long time getting absolutely nowhere. Then finally a pattern began to emerge.
LATHAM. What sort of pattern?
NIEMAND. The first thing that struck me was that the attacks all occurred during the daytime, between the hours of about seven in the morning and five in the evening. Then there were these coincidences--
NIEMAND. Total strangers miles apart were stricken at almost the same moment. At first I thought nothing of it but as my records accumulated I became convinced it could not be attributed to chance. A mathematical analysis showed the number of coincidences followed a Poisson distribution very closely. I couldn’t possibly see what daylight had to do with it. There is some evidence that mental patients are most disturbed around the time of full moon, but a search of medical literature failed to reveal any connection with the Sun.
LATHAM. What did you do?
NIEMAND. Naturally I said nothing of this to my patients. I did, however, take pains to impress upon them the necessity of keeping an exact record of the onset of an attack. The better records they kept the more conclusive was the evidence. Men and women were experiencing nearly simultaneous attacks of rage and depression all over southern California, which was as far as my practice extended. One day it occurred to me: if people a few miles apart could be stricken simultaneously, why not people hundreds or thousands of miles apart? It was this idea that prompted me to get in touch with an old colleague of mine I had known at UC medical school, Dr. Max Hillyard, who was in practice in Utica, New York.
LATHAM. With what result?
NIEMAND. I was afraid the result would be that my old roommate would think I had gone completely crazy. Imagine my surprise and gratification on receiving an answer by return mail to the effect that he also had been getting an increasing number of patients suffering with the same identical symptoms as my own. Furthermore, upon exchanging records we did find that in many cases patients three thousand miles apart had been stricken simultaneously--
LATHAM. Just a minute. I would like to know how you define “simultaneous.”
NIEMAND. We say an attack is simultaneous when one occurred on the east coast, for example, not earlier or later than five minutes of an attack on the west coast. That is about as close as you can hope to time a subjective effect of this nature. And now another fact emerged which gave us another clue.
LATHAM. Which was?
NIEMAND. In every case of a simultaneous attack the Sun was shining at both New York and California.
LATHAM. You mean if it was cloudy--
NIEMAND. No, no. The weather had nothing to do with it. I mean the Sun had to be above the horizon at both places. A person might undergo an attack soon after sunrise in New York but there would be no corresponding record of an attack in California where it was still dark. Conversely, a person might be stricken late in the afternoon in California without a corresponding attack in New York where the Sun had set. Dr. Hillyard and I had been searching desperately for a clue. We had both noticed that the attacks occurred only during the daylight hours but this had not seemed especially significant. Here we had evidence pointing directly to the source of trouble. It must have some connection with the Sun.
LATHAM. That must have had you badly puzzled at first.
NIEMAND. It certainly did. It looked as if we were headed back to the Middle Ages when astrology and medicine went hand in hand. But since it was our only lead we had no other choice but to follow it regardless of the consequences. Here luck played somewhat of a part, for Hillyard happened to have a contact that proved invaluable to us. Several years before Hillyard had gotten to know a young astrophysicist, Henry Middletown, who had come to him suffering from a severe case of myositis in the arms and shoulders. Hillyard had been able to effect a complete cure for which the boy was very grateful, and they had kept up a desultory correspondence. Middletown was now specializing in radio astronomy at the government’s new solar observatory on Turtle Back Mountain in Arizona. If it had not been for Middletown’s help I’m afraid our investigation would never have gotten past the clinical stage.
LATHAM. In what way was Middletown of assistance?