Apparently, at the time, books like Chariots of the Gods by Eric von Daniken were all the rage, and it seemed that publishers would jump at the opportunity of publishing just about anything talking about extra-terrestrial visitors, or mysteries in that general area. I have been told that von Daniken has been discredited. If that's the case, well that's fine, and if not, well that's fine too. Perhaps I missed the news that night.
John Mays told me that his friend decided that the best strategy would be to find a new subject and a new angle about it, and sat down and wrote a book which he remembered as being called Sirius, the Mystery of the Dog Star, a complete fiction, pretty much made up as he went along. Nevertheless, the book sold many thousands of copies after it had been published and the royalties paid for John's mate to get through college.
I'd have left it there and forgotten about it for ever if it hadn't been for one more thing: a year or two ago, one of my friends at work here started talking about Sirius, and he had read the book concerned, or at least a book very like it. He was able to tell me more about it, however, and to point me in the direction of more detail about it. The exact title is The Sirius Mystery and its subtitle is Was Earth visited by intelligent creatures from a planet in the system of the star of Sirius?
That, I feel, is not a snappy title, but let us continue. The whole issue of whether or not his book has any credibility at all hinges on a tribe of traditional people in Mali in West Africa. These people are called the Dogons and this started to ring alarm bells as I associated the word Dogon with the word dog, remembering that we have traditionally called Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, the dog-star.
As I delved further into this new mystery, I found that although Robert Temple's book was cited in the bibliography of many books of both mainstream and alternative styles, there was practically no independent material about the Dogons and their Sirius beliefs. According to Temple, their traditions run along these lines:
The starting point of creation is the star which revolves round Sirius and is actually named the Po star; it is regarded by the Dogon as the smallest and heaviest of all stars; it contains the germs of all things. Its movement on its own axis and around Sirius uphold all creation in space.
Po is the name the Dogon also give to the smalles seed they know. Their calendar is also built around this belief: as the star Po goes round Sirius every fifty years, their calendar is based around fifty year periods too. This was, apparently, documented in a book called African Worlds, published by two French anthropologists in the 1940s. There was, however, one thing that they scarcely mentioned: there really is a star that goes round Sirius in the way described: we call it Sirius B, and it is invisible not only to the naked eye, but also to most telecopes. It was not until 1862 that Alvan Clark discovered that Sirius did indeed have a companion star, and not until 1970 that this extremely faint star was successfully photographed. So the question is: had the Dogons beaten Clark to the discovery by hundreds of years?
Another striking claim is the Dogon assertion that "all earthly beings combined cannot lift it" which is also in line with the modern astronomical view, which is that a dwarf star like Po or Sirius B weighs in at about 50 tonnes per teaspoonful.
The Dogons also have a traditional belief and knowledge, we are told, of a solar system with the sun, not the earth, at its centre, and knowledge of these things must have come from extra-terrestrial visitors, many hundreds of years ago.
Please excuse my scepticism of all this: my trusted friend told me that the book was a work of fiction and wherever I looked, the only source material I could find seemed to be Temple's book and the papers from the French anthropologists, and half-remembered bits from people who have read or skimmed the book.
In 1996, twenty years after the publication of Temple's book, Jay Ingram of the Toronto Star
put forward an alternative view. Rather than visitors from the neighbourhood of Sirius, he
suggests that these secrets of the galaxy came from much closer to home. French missionaries
have been active in the Dogon region since the 1920s, a time when new discoveries about
Sirius had captured the European public's imagination. The fact that the second star was
extremely heavy had just been discovered.
Carl Sagan and Ken Brecher, two prominent astronomers, put forward a suggestion that maybe a Jesuit missionary pointed at the sky and says "See that star? It's actually two stars and the invisible star is the heaviest thing there is!"
There are precedents for the incorporation of recent information into traditional myths. Unfortunately, while this keeps scientists sane, it loses all the romance of the original story.
One more thing needs to be considered: a Belgian anthropologist, Walter van Beek, who worked with the Dogon recently, found that the vast majority of these people know nothing about Sirius's invisible companion, let alone its mass or its orbit.
Robert Temple has made some money out of it, and his book is still in print. You, however, need to make up your mind about it. Is it a serious, scientific study or a fantastic, futile fiction. Or is it somewhere in between? You make up your mind: you'll never be proved wrong!