Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Chronovisor

People have been obsessed with the idea of a time machine ever since H. G. Wells wrote his
classic novel. Perhaps even longer than that: since the beginning of... well, machines.

But did you know there already is - or was - a supposedly functional time machine?
To be precise, a machine that allegedly shows and photographs the past.

Certainly its alleged inventor was a real person: Father Pellegrino Ernetti* - a Catholic priest, no less.

Father Ernetti - who was an exorcist, among other things - may (or may not) have been a kook; but he was also a serious scientific researcher. He was a highly respected authority on archaic, pre-polyphonic music.

Ernetti was apparently also very interested in physics (some say he actually had a degree in quantum physics), and his curiosity knew no boundaries, especially after a curious incident that is said to have happened on September 15, 1952, in Milan.

Ernetti was trying to filter harmonics out of Gregorian chants, in the company of the renowned physician and psychologist, Father
Agostino Gemelli. (The famous teaching hospital in Rome is named after him.)

At one point during the work the two men apparently heard the voice of Gemelli's late father speaking to them on the wire recorder they were using. (Gemelli - a noted skeptic - later confirmed this incident).

This propelled Ernetti's research into the present timespace location of sounds and sights that seem "gone", a thing of the past, to us. His quest led him to speculation about the possibilities of constructing a machine that would capture the sights of the past: a chronovisor (literally, a "time-seer").

Later Ernetti claimed that in the 1950s he had contacted some of the most prominent physicists of the time - Enrico Fermi and Wernher von Braun, among others - and that they had actually produced such a machine.

But the story gets weirder.

Ernetti claimed that in January (12-14) of 1956 the team managed to produce "live" images of Christ's crucifixion, in 36 A.D. - and they had a photograph to prove it!

The photo in question was published on May 2nd, 1972, in the Italian weekly La Domenica del Corriere.

Does it look unconvincing or just plain awkward to you?
I don't blame you.
To me, it looks like a painted statue - and not a terribly accomplished one, at that.

And that's exactly what it turned out to be: the copy of an image of a sculpture kept in the sanctuary of Collevalenza, a 1931 work by the Spanish sculptor Cullot Valera. 

(EDIT: There may be some confusion regarding the date of the sculpture. I haven't had the time to research it more in depth, so, for the time being, I will simply refer you to the comment below this entry.)

And this is precisely what makes this story so utterly strange.

Had Ernetti been an unsophisticated (and dishonest!) third-rate kook, nobody would even remember this story anymore.

But Ernetti was a highly educated man.
Furthermore, not one of the people who knew him ever doubted his personal integrity.

Why, then, did he allow such a preposterously obvious hoax to come out and smear his name?
Surely it would have been easy to make up a plausible excuse for not presenting any photographic "evidence". Of course most people would not have believed him - but at least it would save him from the ridicule that ensued.

Be that as it may, the Chronovisor is said to be kept in the vaults of the Vatican.

And, by the way, there is a book about it.

(There should be a hyperlinked book cover visible above. If you cannot see it, try viewing the page in a different browser. And I am sorry for the inconvenience. Blogger has been having A LOT of issues lately, and I am this close to switching to a different blog publisher.)

I really wish I could recommend it, but I am not sure I can.
It is a translation - and, arguably, an adaptation - from the German original.
I haven't read the original, but I doubt it would make that much difference.

You see, the problem with this book is not (only) in the language, the unnecessary - typically journalistic - hyperboles and stereotypes ("There is no city in the world more beautiful than Venice, and no view in Venice is more beautiful than sunrise from the basilica and the Benedictine abbey on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore"... Oh really?), but in the organisation and treatment of the material itself. It goes in all directions, with digressions that have nothing whatsoever to do with the subject itself.

And there is more: the American translation has an "appendix" that does not contribute to the quality of the book. It seems the editors (of the American translation, interestingly - not of the German original) received a purported unsolicited "confession" by an unnamed distant relative of Father Ernetti's, who claims the priest confessed to him on his deathbed that he had made the whole thing up - but that "it is possible" for such a contraption to work.

Let me tell you: as a journalist and as a reader I do not approve of such appendices - especially since their authenticity is absolutely impossible to establish. It is neither ethical nor stylistically elegant.

But, sure enough, some webmasters and other online scribblers (yes, of course I am an online scribbler, too ;)) who lack a discerning mind are now quoting said "confession" as if it were the gospel truth.

It isn't.
For what it's worth, personally I do not really believe that the Chronovisor ever worked (although I wouldn't be too surprised if it turned out it did); and it is painfully obvious to anyone that the "Christ's photo" was nothing but an awkward fake.
But that doesn't mean I am going to rely on other possible fakes to make up my mind.

And I do think such a thing as Ernetti's chronovisor could be possible.
What's more, there seems to be a group of Russian scientists who are, if you'll forgive the pun, looking into it.

Whatever you think - and I hope you do think - never forget to be a healthy skeptic.
Which, contrary to popular opinion, means keeping an open mind at all times.

(For another version of this story go here.)



* A totally and utterly and disgustingly irrelevant bit of trivia: Father Ernetti was born at the exact same point in time - on the same day of the same year (October 13, 1925) - as the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher. :)


Anonymous said...

A little correction. Padre Ernetti got the picture in 1953. The Collevalenza's sculpture was made in 1959, six years later.

You can read more in French and Italian books written by Francois Brune.

Myosotis said...

Thank you very much, Anonymous!

It is a very good - and always welcome - reminder that one cannot be too careful when researchng (not that this was "research" proper) - and in thought, too.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, MERRY CHRISTMAS (or whatever you celebrate ;)).