No, this meat patty didn't see strange lights in the sky or witness the kidnapping of a human being by space-hopping, big-eyed, bulbous-headed, anal-probe-wielding extraterrestrials.
We didn't actually see the subject of the abduction get carried off. But we're sure it happened all the same. And here's the irrefutable evidence.
Subject name: Mac Tonnies
Last known residence: Apartment just off the Plaza
Hometown: Independence, Missouri
Background: Starts writing science-fiction in elementary school. By the time he graduates from William Chrisman High School in 1994, he's completed enough short stories to fill a small book. Illumined Black is published by a small press a couple of years later when Tonnies is a sophomore in college. The young man's future looks bright. The book carries positive cover blurbs from established writers, such as cyberpunk pioneer Bruce Sterling, and Booklist calls Tonnies a "surprisingly mature craftsman."
As Tonnies continues his college career, bouncing around before finishing with a bachelor's degree at Ottawa University, he continues to produce short stories but doesn't get many of them published. Tonnies takes to the emerging world of Internet writing like he was born for it.
His "Posthuman Blues" becomes one of Kansas City's best blogs, filled with well-written, intelligent takes on offbeat news items and humorous rants from a left-leaning political perspective.
Evidence of Abduction: Tonnies returns to book publishing this year not with another volume of short stories or a novel but with After the Martian Apocalypse: Extraterrestrial Artifacts and the Case for Mars Exploration.
The book, yet another in the cottage industry of speculative musings about the "Face on Mars," is published by Paraview Pocket Books, a 2-year-old paranormal-studies imprint of the publishing giant Simon and Schuster. Paraview started as a publish-on-demand house, a sort of Internet-based version of the vanity press model of publishing. But when Simon and Schuster turns Paraview into a more traditional publishing imprint in 2002, Tonnies is one of the beneficiaries. His book suddenly gets a major press run and a big promotional push.
It's the latest in an ever-expanding genre that speculates about signs of intelligent life on the planet Mars. Quick recap: After a 1976 Viking image showed something on the surface of the planet that had an uncanny likeness to a human face, NASA examined the formation with its orbiting Mars Global Surveyor in 1998. Up close, the formation looked merely like a slightly unusual mesa, and the Face on Mars controversy appeared to have been firmly debunked. But "researchers," who by then had invested years of their lives trying to prove the Face was an artificial structure, spent several more years staring at pixels of NASA images and claimed that the Face was still a face -- and they demanded even closer inspection by scientists at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology, whom they accused of intentionally trying to cover up evidence.
Tonnies' book on the subject is smarter than most, proposing startling histories for the Face while debunking the more outlandish notions of out-there Mars prophets such as the infamous Richard Hoagland. But the book's squishy nature -- it's nearly impossible to nail down any outright statement of fact by Tonnies that can be checked against a verifiable outside source -- can be explained only by alien interference, this tenderloin figures.
After all, what rational Show-Me Missourian would make assumptions that a hill on Mars "might" betray signs of artifice, which in turn "could" indicate ruins of an ancient civilization, which "maybe" could have been wiped out by some kind of ancient planetary cataclysm?
All that from a few grainy spacecraft photos.
This meat patty is especially intrigued by Tonnies' explanation that much of his theorizing rested on the work of an actual astronomer, a man named Tom Van Flandern, and his "exploded-planet hypothesis." According to Van Flandern, Mars is actually a former moon that orbited a much larger planet that exploded hundreds of millions of years ago, its fragments forming the asteroid belt that fills the space between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
Tonnies speculates that this explosion wiped out the ancient civilization that carved the Face. He also calls Van Flandern's theory "frightening and cinematic" and "colorful," though he gently suggests that it conflicts with "prevailing interpretations."
But we figure space aliens prevented Tonnies from mentioning the small detail that Van Flandern is actually a classic crank and that his theory -- which forms the backbone of Tonnies' book -- is dismissed by professional astronomers.
That's one of the things we learned in a conversation with Brian Marsden, the prominent Harvard astronomer who arbitrates the naming of new objects in the solar system. When night-sky observers argue over who gets credit for discovering a new comet, for example, it's Marsden who makes the call. Marsden tells the Strip he knows Van Flandern well -- the two were classmates at Yale in the 1960s. But when Van Flandern went to the Naval Observatory after graduation, he developed "whacky ideas," Marsden says, about gravitation and solar system evolution -- ideas that other scientists don't take seriously. (Van Flandern left the Naval Observatory in 1983.) Marsden hinted that there was an odd story behind Van Flandern's turn away from mainstream science, so we called up the man himself, who today operates something he calls Meta Research.
Van Flandern, a pleasant 64-year-old guy, entertained this meat patty with tales about having had several losses of faith after graduating from college that led him to doubt mainstream science. He turned against the medical establishment, for example, when doctors couldn't treat his wife's schizophrenia but Van Flandern (he says) cured her with megadoses of vitamins. And Van Flandern regaled this rump roast with tales of how he experimented with high doses not only on himself but also on his kids, with hilarious results. He recalled that concerned school officials sent his children home because they had broken out with rashes after dad had dosed them so high with vitamins. Ah, that's funny stuff.
We naturally also discussed his bizarre model of the solar system's evolution; it involves a superspinning sun snapping off pieces to produce planet pairs that later spontaneously exploded, and other fun ideas. But we had to ask: If he's right and everyone else is so wrong, how come there aren't busts of him in the world's science museums? Persecution, he answered. Anyone with an idea that runs contrary to the hallowed theories of mainstream science gets hounded out of the fold.
"But you still have to go for it," he told this side of beef. "I'm going to remain intellectually honest to the experimental results, regardless of where it takes me."
We decided to ask University of Missouri-Kansas City astrophysicist and cool guy Keith Ashman about Van Flandern's theories. He didn't seem very impressed.
"This spinning sun idea was blown out of the water years ago. The angular momentum doesn't add up," Ashman told us over beers at Mike's Tavern a few weeks ago. (For a profile of the guitar-playing Brit, see Kendrick Blackwood's "Big Bang," December 11, 2003.) Like other astronomers, Ashman is annoyed that he has to fend off such nonscientific stuff, but we were buying the alcohol, so he put up with it. "This is the frustrating part," he said. "We really do understand how the solar system formed. We don't need shit blowing up." And Ashman didn't think much of Van Flandern's complaints about persecution, either. "All of them have stories of being suppressed -- but it's when they stopped doing science," he says.
And Ashman didn't think much of Tonnies' speculation about cover-ups at NASA and the JPL, both of which the iconoclastic Ashman has his own experience with. "The vast majority of us are anti-authoritarian, fiercely independent people who simply don't do what we're told," Ashman said. Would scientists really sit on information proving that ancient civilizations left artifacts on Mars? "All of these cats know that anyone who got that would win a Nobel, which is going for $1.3 million at the moment," Ashman noted. "If any of them at JPL had ideas that an ancient civilization left artifacts on Mars -- first of all, they'd be down to the L.A. Times blabbing about it, and second, they'd be putting in to be the principal investigator on the next mission to Mars."
New evidence: When this chuck steak reported some of Ashman's comments to the talented young "Tonnies," we suspect it was actually his alien replacement who sent back this reply:
"I'm not claiming Mars was killed by an exploding planet. I merely present the possibility and play with it, intellectually, to see where it goes."
The Strip can only pray that eventually, whatever sick space travelers have taken away the real Tonnies will some day return him in one piece -- or at least with his frontal lobe restored.
Tony Ortega talks about this week's Pitch with KRBZ 96.5's Lazlo after 4 p.m. Wednesday.