“You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed,” Coach Bob says in The Hotel New Hampshire. That’s the secret to happiness, he suggests, or at least the secret to enough purpose to keep passing the open windows.
I think Dr. Steven Collins, the “biblical archaeologist” we met in yesterday’s post, understands what John Irving and/or his character meant by that. Whatever else we might say about the guy, he’s found his obsession: the quest for the biblical Sodom. The man knows what he’s going to be doing tomorrow, and next week, next month, next year. And so he’ll always have a reason to get up in the morning.
He’s also a bit of a kook, of course, as evidenced by his belligerent rejection of, well, everything there is to know about biblical studies and the ancient Near East that doesn’t fit with his fixation on a literal destruction of a literal Sodom literally described by a literally contemporaneous account somehow literally written centuries later by a literal Moses. That willfully selective ignorance makes him kooky, but he doesn’t strike me as a charlatan. Collins’ quest for Sodom seems like an earnestly quixotic effort and not a variation on the “Fundraisers of the Lost Ark” scam that resurfaces every little bit.
I was a bit worried, watching some of his videos from Tall el-Hammam, that he might be impatiently dismissive of the more recent Iron Age aspects of the site, eager to sweep them out of the way in search of the age-of-the-patriarchs relics he desperately hopes to find. (The idea that “Sodom” may have been resettled and repopulated as a prosperous Iron Age city, oddly, doesn’t seem to trouble him. I kind of think it should?)
So that was how I first looked at this story in yesterday’s post. Here was a quixotically obsessed and somewhat kooky biblical archaeologist working on a dig in the Jordan Valley and along came a team of multidisciplinary scientists to harvest data from the site in pursuit of legitimate scientific inquiry that yielded remarkable results. But I’ve since learned a bit more about that team of scientists and their collaboration with/as the “Comet Research Group” and I’m thinking I should revise my understanding of this story. It may be quixotically obsessed kookiness on all sides.
Here’s a 2017 Pacific Standard piece by Rex Dawson focused on two of the 21 co-authors of that comet-theory paper on Tall el-Hammam, “Comet Theory Comes Crashing to Earth.” One of those is Dr. James Kennett, a once highly respected marine geologist now discussed with a kind of tactful pity:
Both Kennett and Columbia’s Broecker, are elected members of the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Science; near age peers, they are also old friends. Years ago, Broecker noted, Kennett published seminal discoveries on ancient climate shifts by studying cores drilled deep into the ocean floor.
Speaking graciously of Kennett, Broecker lauded his friend’s early climate studies as extremely important. But when the comet theory came along, Broecker immediately was highly skeptical. Kennett repeatedly called him to lobby for the comet until Broecker cut him off saying he didn’t want to hear about the theory anymore.
“It is all wrong,” said Broecker, if not “very likely total nonsense. But he never gives up on an idea.”
Kennett seems fixated on the Younger Dryas, Broecker added, “He won’t listen to anyone. It’s almost like a religion to him.”
This is sometimes what happens when scientists propose a new theory that up-ends the conventional wisdom. When my college astronomy professor and his colleague at Villanova first published their work on binary star systems, he said, they were challenged as quacks until further studies confirmed their findings, after which, he said, some of their harshest critics began writing, “Of course, as Bradstreet and Guinan have demonstrated …”
Alas for Dr. Kennett, subsequent studies have consistently not supported the claims and findings of much of his comet-impact research. And so most of the scientists asked about him in Dawson’s piece speak of him like that line from Hamlet: o, what a noble mind …
The other co-author of this Tall el-Hammam paper Dawson profiles (or attempts to profile) is a bit more of a mystery. “‘Allen West’ isn’t exactly who he says he is,” Dawson writes:
West is Allen Whitt — who, in 2002, was fined by California and convicted for masquerading as a state-licensed geologist when he charged small-town officials fat fees for water studies. After completing probation in 2003 in San Bernardino County, he began work on the comet theory, legally adopting his new name in 2006 as he promoted it in a popular book. Only when questioned by this reporter last year did his co-authors learn his original identity and legal history. Since then, they have not disclosed it to the scientific community. …
West has no formal appointment at an academic institution. He has said he obtained a doctorate from a Bible college, but he won’t describe it further. Firestone said West has told him he has no scientific doctorate but is self-taught. West’s Arizona attorney refers to him in writing as: “A retired geophysicist who has had a long and distinguished career.”
In the early 1990s, a new-age business West was involved in Sedona, Ariz., failed, and his well-drilling company went bankrupt. Then he ran afoul of California law in small Mojave Desert towns in a scheme with two other men, with court records saying they collected fees up to $39,500 for questionable groundwater reports.
I’ve got two guesses as to the Bible college from which Whitt/West obtained that doctorate.
The Comet Research Group, then, also seems to find meaning from getting obsessed and staying obsessed. Like Collins, they seem to be on a quest — looking for the thing they hope to find and, apparently, sometimes finding it whether it’s there or not.
So, was a Bronze Age city at Tall el-Hamman really destroyed by a “Tunguska-sized air strike”? And is there any credible evidence to connect this site to the biblical story of Sodom?
Maybe, but I can’t trust either of these groups to tell us with any degree of confidence. To find out the answers to those questions we’ll need a smarter bear.