Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Space Oddities by S. D. Tucker


In an extract from his new book Space Oddities: Our Strange Attempts to Explain the Universe, author SD Tucker remembers the life of Hans Hörbiger - the forgotten Austrian astronomer who claimed that stars didn’t exist, and spied giant ice-cubes floating in space.

The next time you cast your eyes up towards the Milky Way some clear and cloudless night, take a moment to stop and ask yourself what precisely it is you are seeing. The standard answer is that you are observing a twirling, milky band of light, which stretches out across the heavens in a series of spiral arms, caused by the illumination given out by the innumerable distant suns of our galaxy. In short, you are looking at the stars. The renegade Austrian astronomer Hanns Hörbiger (1860–1931), however, didn’t believe in stars, and in an influential 1913 book, made the rather startling assertion that, far from being the result of starlight, the Milky Way was in fact made entirely out of ice. According to Hörbiger, a series of massive, planet-sized ice-blocks was floating around up there in space, encircling our entire solar-system in an impenetrable white ring. Light from a few actual suns lurking beyond the ice-ring then shone through this frozen barrier, reflecting off its massed ice-crystals, and giving observers on Earth the mere illusion of billions of stars twinkling down at us from the inky blackness. Various other astronomers might well object to this proposal, admitted the Austrian, and even attempt to show off photographs of the Milky Way’s alleged ‘stars’ to prove their case, but he had an easy answer ready to these arguments – all such images were simply fakes. As to any tedious mathematical objections which sceptical astronomers might have made to his proposal, Hörbiger had an even more emphatic response in store: ‘Mathematics,’ he once pronounced, ‘is nothing but lies!’

Hörbiger could justify this bombastic assertion by pointing back to his successful career as an engineer, during which, one of his most appropriate achievements was to have helped develop new cold-compressors for use in manufacturing artificial ice. In 1894, he had also invented a special kind of low-friction, automatically opening and closing steel disk-valve for use in blast-furnaces - a genuinely helpful invention, without which, various industrial processes, and methods of gas-exchange would simply not have been possible. However, Hörbiger’s invention of this valve was not something he had worked out laboriously at a desk in his workshop, through calculations and technical drawings; instead, it had simply ‘come to him’ whilst on the job. As such, for a qualified engineer, he had little time for mathematics. ‘Instead of trusting me you trust equations!’ he would harangue those who tried to point out to him the various reasons why his ice-ring theory could not be true. ‘How long will you need to learn that mathematics is valueless and deceptive?’

Hörbiger’s full, entirely maths-less, theory was termed the Welteislehre, or ‘World Ice Theory’ (‘WEL’ for short). Basically, it held that at some distant point in our galaxy’s past there had been a gigantic super-sun, millions of times the size of our own, next to which had orbited a massive planet, many times larger than Jupiter, covered by layers of ice hundreds of miles thick. Eventually, this ice-planet fell into the super-sun, melted, and transformed into jets of super-charged steam, which blew the sun apart, spewing out lumps of rock and fire, which ultimately settled down to become our own current solar-system. Vast clouds of oxygen were also released from the explosion, and reacted with thin layers of hydrogen gases already swirling through space, creating masses of space-water which -space being cold - soon froze into the gigantic ring of interstellar ice-bergs, which now encircled us all. Sometimes, said Hörbiger, one of these ice-blocks breaks away, and floats into the pull of our sun’s gravitational field, falling into it, and creating sun-spots, which are really colossal melting ice-cubes. Occasionally, the Earth happens to be orbiting in the path of one of these falling space-bergs, causing severe hailstorms, before it finally drops into the sun. Our moon is less lucky; being higher up and thus exposed to more ice, it is continually accumulating more and more frozen layers of water on its surface. Eventually, it will get so heavy that it simply falls down to Earth and kills us, claimed Hörbiger. Apparently, such a catastrophe had already happened several times in the past; the Earth used to have other smaller moons, which became so heavy with cosmic ice that they crashed down onto our planet thousands of years ago, destroying Atlantis and making Noah feel glad he had built that Ark. If you thought that the giant ice-berg crashing into the Titanic had been a disaster, implied Hörbiger, then just wait until the giant moon-berg finally collided with SS Planet Earth.

That’s quite a bold theory, and in order to support it, Hörbiger had to have amassed a huge amount of evidence, didn’t he? No. Much of Hörbiger’s ‘proof’ for his premise amounted to the fact that he had had a few strange dreams or visions which had revealed the ‘truth’ about our frozen universe to him. Just as he had created his Hörbiger-Valve entirely through intuition, so he had created his infamous WEL. As a small child, Hörbiger had owned a telescope. Through this, he liked to look at the moon. He thought its surface looked cold; and, all of a sudden, realised that this simply must be because it was covered with ice. That was Hörbiger’s first revelation. His second came when he had a strange dream in which the Earth became transformed into a giant pendulum, swaying on a luminous string. This apparently revealed to him the secrets of gravitation, showing how ice-bergs in space could be attracted towards the sun. Thirdly, whilst working as an engineer one day in 1894, he witnessed some molten iron falling onto a pile of snow, causing bits of soil beneath to explode under the pressure of the jets of steam, which had been released by the snow suddenly melting. This caused Hörbiger to immediately understand that an ice-planet had once dropped into a super-sun, thus giving birth to our solar-system. Coincidentally (or not), the basic principles of World Ice Theory coincided perfectly with the physical laws relating to water, gas, freezing, and pressure, which Hörbiger had studied and made use of throughout his entire professional life. At last, the WEL was all falling into place; all that now remained was for Hörbiger to write his 1913 book – all 790 pages of it – telling the world about his discovery. Surprisingly, the book had many fans; including, as readers of my own new book can find out, a certain Mr Adolf Hitler …


S. D. Tucker's new book Space Oddities: Our Strange Attempts to Explain the Universe is available to purchase now.