April 21 – Nessin’ Around

Today’s Factismal: The “Surgeon’s Photograph” of the Loch Ness Monster was first published 80 years ago today.

The one sure thing about science is that we are always discovering new and interesting things. In the past two years year alone, we’ve discovered bacteria that conduct electricity, worms that live two miles underground, and frogs that fly. But the problem with discovering new and interesting things is that there are lots of people who like to take advantage of our drive to discover.

A photograph of Nessie,  taken by Hugh Grey in 1933

A photograph of Nessie, taken by Hugh Grey in 1933

Perhaps the most well-known example of this is the infamous “Surgeon’s Photograph” of the Loch Ness Monster. Nessie, as she is affectionately known, had been identified in the press and folklore for centuries, but the best photograph that had ever been taken of her was one so blurry that it could have been anything. So a race to capture fame and glory by capturing Nessie (or at least her image) began.

The "Surgeon's Photograph" of Nessie, published in the Daily Mail on April 21, 1934

The “Surgeon’s Photograph” of Nessie, published in the Daily Mail on April 21, 1934

And in 1934, it looked like the race had been won. A photograph attributed to Colonel Robert Wilson was published in the Daily Mail, showing the head and neck of a monster swimming in the loch. Because he was a prominent surgeon and asked that he not be identified, it became known as “the Surgeon’s Photograph” and because he had such a sterling reputation, its provenance was without question. Case closed – Nessie was real.

The complete image of the "Surgeon's Photograph"

The complete image of the “Surgeon’s Photograph”

Except that wasn’t the whole story. Some experts questioned the photo because of the wildly different behavior of the rings around Nessie and the waves in the background; the differences were visible in the cropped photograph and even more obvious in the full image. They suggested that perhaps, thanks to mist, darkness, and distance, Wilson had mistaken a bird for a monster. But it would turn out that their alternative explanation was wrong, simply because they trusted the surgeon’s veracity.

It wasn’t until 1994 that the truth came out. Wilson and two other people had conspired to create a fake image by gluing the head of a monster onto a toy submarine and taking its photograph. Their motive was revenge; one of the conspirators was a noted big game hunter who had mistaken tracks made with a hippo-leg umbrella stand for Nessie’s real tracks. When the truth had come out about his error, he was furious and decided to make fools of those who had made a fool of him.

Despite the revelation that the photograph was faked, people still go to Loch Ness to look for the monster. They want to discover what, if anything lives in the waters (witness the recent furor over the “Nessie from space” image). If you’d like to do some searching for monsters of your own without going all the way to Scotland, then why not join the SERC Marine Invasions Research Lab? They are trying to find out how much progress invasive species like the mitten crab, the green crab, and algae plates have made, and if efforts to counter these real-life monsters have had any effect.
http://www.serc.si.edu/labs/marine_invasions/citizen_science/index.aspx

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