Weird World Book: The search for the Loch Ness monster

The modern encyclopedia stands as a bastion of secure knowledge and sober precision. Yet there was a time when reference publications flirted with bold forays into the unknown. Would you believe, for example, that our own World Book once sponsored a search for the Loch Ness monster? It’s all part of the files of weird World Book.

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The submarine builder and pilot Dan Taylor, Jr., the biologist Roy Mackal, and World Book Vice President Harry Reucking confer in front of the submarine Viperfish shortly before its launch in 1969. World Book sponsored the submarine in its hunt for the Loch Ness monster.

As early as A.D. 565, people began reporting sightings and descriptions of a creature living in Loch Ness, a deep freshwater lake in Northern Scotland. According to the most common descriptions, the creature has flippers; one or two humps; a thick, tapering tail; and a long, slender neck. Some observers think the Loch Ness monster may be related to a dinosaurlike reptile. Others believe it resembles a modern sea animal, such as a manatee or seal. No scientific evidence has been found to support any of these claims, however, and most biologists believe the monster, nicknamed “Nessie,” does not exist.

But not all of them. Among those to give the idea serious scientific consideration was Roy Mackal. Mackal was a biologist at the University of Chicago with an interest in cryptozoology, the search for legendary creatures. In 1969, he teamed up with the former Navy submariner Dan Taylor, Jr., who had built his own one-person submarine. Their expedition to Loch Ness was sponsored by the World Book Science Service, and Taylor’s submarine, called the Viperfish, bore the name of World Book Encyclopedia in huge letters along its side.

The biologist Roy Mackal demonstrates his biopsy harpoon, designed to capture a sample of the Loch Ness monster's flesh for laboratory testing.

The biologist Roy Mackal demonstrates his biopsy harpoon, designed to capture a sample of the Loch Ness monster’s flesh for laboratory testing.

Taylor and Mackal equipped the Viperfish with air-powered biopsy harpoons, hoping to snag a piece of the monster’s flesh for scientific analysis. But the project was plagued by technical problems. The little yellow submarine proved to be slow and leaky, and several times Mackal worried that Taylor would drown. Also, the Viperfish’s lights were not bright enough to see far in the murky waters of Loch Ness. Dozens of dives yielded no hard scientific evidence of the creature. But Taylor did report one close encounter. While diving at a depth around 250 feet (75 meters), he felt the craft being slowly rotated to one side and saw billows of silt stirred up in the water. It was only after the craft had returned to surface that Taylor suspected he may have just had a close brush with Nessie.

Cryptozoologists have yet to produce hard proof of the Loch Ness monster’s existence. And the old Viperfish today stands decommissioned on the grounds of the Loch Ness visitors center. But after a long, hard day of careful editing and fact-checking, the World Book science team still dreams of an altogether more intrepid quest for knowledge.


Jeff De La Rosa
Manager, Sciences

The Assassination of a President

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Dan Zeff, now the longest-serving World Book editor, had joined the company only about a year before the tragedy occurred. In this piece, Dan recounts his memories of what it was like at World Book on that mournful day 50 years ago.

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I was working in the office as usual on the Friday of the assassination. For some reason, my most vivid memory of the day was that it was raining outside and I walked to the train in the rain. It might have been that the office was closed early because everyone was in such a state of shock.

I recall someone first announcing that the president had been shot and thinking that it was a comment in bad taste. Then the word quickly spread. For many minutes, nobody knew the president’s condition, only that he had been shot while riding in a motorcade. I recall a small television set in the lunchroom was showing TV network coverage of the aftermath of the shooting and that many of us gathered around the set in total silence. Two secretaries that I remember in the office were crying when the word finally came out that Kennedy was dead.

There must have been a hurried emergency editorial meeting soon after the confirmation of the death to consider how to update World Book. It was a considerable logistical problem because the assassination happened late in the year when much of our coverage doubtless was finished and locked up. A senior editor named Gordon Leviton was tapped to update all the relevant World Book articles. He worked in his World Book office by himself all weekend to revise our coverage.

Much of the day was a blur after the confirmation of the death, but I do recall watching “The Tonight Show” that evening, not feeling like going to bed. I think the host at that time was Jack Paar. My memory of that telecast was Wayne Newton, who was a guest on the show. He sat on the couch reserved for guests and sang a hymn a cappella. I believe it was “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” but it could have been something similar. It was a simple and unaffected rendition and for the first time that day and evening, I choked up.

Thinking Through the Wheel

Pottery wheel

Pottery wheel

About every five years or so, I get a hankering to take a ceramics class. I was first introduced to pottery my senior year in college. A few art-major friends had raved about the quality of our school’s ceramics studio, so I figured, why not give it a try?

The class was an introduction to wheel throwing, a technique in which you plop a mound of clay onto a rotating wheel and use your hands to mold it into the shape of your choice: a vase, a pitcher, a plate—or, for most beginners, a lot of misshapen bowls that can be used to hold keys, loose change, and not much else.

Centering clay is the first step to building anything on the wheel. To center clay, you place your hands over the clay and use your upper body strength to press it into a cone shape. When the clay is centered, it spins in rhythm with the wheel. When off center, it has a little (or a lot of) wobble to it, similar to a skipping record. Skilled ceramicists can transform clay from a stubborn, immovable mass into a pliable, silky silly putty within seconds. For the beginner, however, centering resembles a wrestling match in which the clay almost always wins.

I’ve taken enough ceramics classes that I can, eventually, center the clay every time, or at least center it enough to move on to the next steps—opening the clay and pulling up the walls of the vessel. Raising the walls involves two seemingly contradictory concepts: precision and ease. You cannot force the walls to rise faster than the speed of the rotating wheel. With each rotation, you must guide a small ring of clay up the wall just the slightest bit. If you try to force the clay to move faster than the speed of the wheel, you throw the clay off center, creating the fatal wobble that will eventually cause your vessel to lose its battle with gravity and collapse.

I’m not nearly athletic enough to even attempt surfing, but I think of this step as the artistic equivalent of catching a wave. You can’t over-think, or you’ll inevitably screw up. And you can’t be impatient—trickier than it sounds, given that most experiences of modern-day life propel us to multitask at every given moment. Instead, you must simply relax and let the clay move your fingers up the walls at their own chosen speed.

Working with clay always gives me a good gauge of my mental state. If I’ve had a stressful day, or consumed too much caffeine, or am tired and distracted, or push too hard to get my pot done quickly, I generally meet with failure. But if I give up, and let the natural rhythm of the wheel guide the process, I’m surprised by how easy and natural throwing can feel. And no matter the results, I always leave class calmer and more centered than when I walked in.

Given the time constraints most of us face, and the pressure many students now feel to focus on career-oriented classes, the benefits of artistic pursuits—whether they be for professional or personal reasons—may soon be lost when in fact they are needed most. I’ve now made enough mediocre pottery—cereal bowls, coffee mugs, decorative vases—that I don’t bother saving most of the pieces I throw. But I return to class for the relief of taking 90 minutes to unplug, get my hands dirty, and let go.

Cassie Mayer,

Senior Manager, Digital Products

World Book, Inc.

Brave New Library

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I have to admit, my blood ran cold. I had just read the first sentence of a chapter called “The Annoyed Librarian” in the book Library 2020, edited by Joseph Janes. The sentence states: “The library in 2020 will be just like the library today, except without all the books, music, and movies.” As I was still absorbing that bombshell, I got to the second sentence, “The books will be the first to go, because they’re already going.” As I read on, with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I realized that everything the “annoyed librarian” was predicting made perfect sense. The process of providing information digitally—whether that information originally came in printed, audio, or visual form—is well underway and is bound someday to come to its natural conclusion (i.e., a library “without all the books, music, and movies”). In fact, less than a month after reading that chapter, I saw a news story about a library that opened in Texas that contains not a single book. Apparently, 2020 is already here.

Are we going to be okay with this? I started thinking about why I had come to love libraries so much. I remember long summer days, when I would ride my bike to the Gage Park library, fill the basket with mystery books, and spend the whole afternoon reading on our back porch swing. I remember my father’s amazement when a neighbor asked for his help with a simple electrical problem. My father couldn’t understand why the man hadn’t gone to the library, consulted a book, and figured out the answer for himself. I remember taking my son to storytime during his toddler years and being introduced to beautiful new picture books while he colored his first fall leaves and glued together his first snowman.

I guess the common thread of what makes libraries important goes back to the reasons they were established in the first place. The Institute Library in New Haven, Connecticut, for example, one of the few independent lending libraries still in existence today, was started by eight young working men in 1826. They pooled their resources—and held weekly meetings—so that they could share whatever information they had and enrich their lives intellectually, culturally, and perhaps eventually, materially. That is still the idea behind public libraries today: their resources are available to all. We can all read many more books, see many more movies, and listen to many more musical recordings than most of us could afford to purchase on our own. We can search job boards and prepare a resume even if we don’t own a computer and can’t afford to maintain an Internet connection at home. In addition, we have librarians who can help us find the materials we need, having first chosen and assembled the best resources from all of the millions of available works. Libraries are also places where people meet, exchange ideas, and work on creative projects together, whether it’s toddlers gathering for storytime, teens collaborating on a podcast or video game, or neighbors coming to hear a local politician at election time.

From the sound of it, the “bookless” BiblioTech library that opened near San Antonio in Bexar County, Texas, is doing all that. The library provides access to about 10,000 e-books, 600 e-readers, 48 computer stations, laptops, tablets, study rooms, a children’s area, and a cafe. It offers free computer classes, homework help, and a toddler reading hour to Bexar County residents. So ultimately, although the medium has changed, the essence of what a library provides has not: a child can still ride to the library on a summer day to pick out mysteries, but she’ll be riding home with a preloaded e-reader instead of a basketful of books. A new homeowner can still get help with that electrical problem, and toddlers will still learn to color and paste at story time. I think I’m okay with that, as long as one thing doesn’t change: we have to keep our libraries adequately funded so that they can keep up with the challenging pace of technological change.

Kris Vaicikonis

Associate Manager, Humanities

Advancement in Learning and Kung Fu

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World Book Editor Mike Noren practices kung fu

 

In my time away from World Book, I sometimes help teach Shaolin kung fu to children at a martial arts school on Chicago’s North Side. The benefits of the kung fu training, for both myself and the kids, are numerous: from physical fitness and self-defense, to the development of discipline and mental focus, to the appreciation of teachings and ideas from a different time and place. The martial arts school, like the best schools of any type, seeks to give its students essential skills suited to everyday life, while also “transporting” them culturally—in this case, to China’s Shaolin monastery, a place long celebrated for its martial arts.

 

At their earliest stages, our kung fu students learn the traditional bow—to be done at the beginning and end of every class—along with basic stances and kicks. The stances and kicks are perfected through practice, and students advance through the different belt, or sash, ranks by mastering increasingly difficult forms and techniques. Commonly, the study of kung fu opens up doors to other areas. Some students go on to explore different martial arts, like judo or Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Others push their kung fu to the highest level, compete in tournaments, and even travel to the Shaolin monastery to stay and train. Still others shift their focus into a broader appreciation of Chinese history, arts, and culture. The journeys all begin with the same introductory lessons, but the students can advance in wildly different, but equally rewarding, directions.

 

In the educational publishing business, we have many of the same goals: the development of skills, the tightening of focus, the appreciation of culture, and the opportunity for individual exploration. Across print and digital formats, publishers can provide an accessible “white belt” entry point for young students and beginning readers, along with a clear course for advancement through the higher levels. As readers continue to grow, they can explore their own particular areas of interest, delve into ancient history and modern sciences, and ultimately build up a knowledge base and skill set worthy of “black belt” designation. It’s the student who has to put in the work, but the instructor, the school, and the publisher can provide the tools for learning and a roadmap for growth.

 

By Mike Noren, World Book Editor

A Peace fore Ewe too Reed

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You know how it is when something suddenly grabs your attention, raising your awareness of the thing so that you notice it every time it occurs, even to the point of obsession? I have had this kind of experience recently. The object of my obsession: homophones—those words that have the same pronunciation but different spellings and meanings. The examples World Book gives, in its “Homonym” article, are site/cite and ate/eight.

I can’t blame (credit?) World Book for my recent obsession with homophones. No, it began innocently enough while I was reading a translation of Erec and Enide, a medieval romance by Chrétien de Troyes. There I was, minding my own and Erec’s business, expecting to encounter noble knights and fair damsels, and instead I came upon a most unexpected beast—the dreaded homophone obsession. I think it took just one word for the beast to grab me: knight. Was there a sentence in the text that read, “The knight set out at night”? I doubt it. It probably just flashed through my mind. But that was enough. As I continued to read Erec and Enide, I began to see homophones in nearly every sentence. Here’s one, complete with my homophonic interpolations: “But I pray (prey) you (ewe), whatever may happen, should I (eye, aye) die (dye) and she come back, to love her and hold her dear (deer) for (four/fore) love of me and for my prayers, and give her so (sew/sow) long as she live…the half of her land to be (bee) her own.” And then, “Fair (fare) son (sun), if I (eye, aye) had my way (weigh), thou shouldst not (knot) thus depart.” And so on and so on. I was doomed.

It’s not as though I never thought of homophones before. As an editor, I’m looking for homophonic mistakes all the time. I just take the practice for granted. When I check copy, I need to make sure that, for instance, principle isn’t used where principal would be correct or that their or there isn’t used when they’re would be right. And as you know, spell-check is useless in such cases. It is incapable of telling you whether you have committed a homophonic violation.

Furthermore, I thought, I had become aware of the challenging nature of homophones—the way they complicate the language—when I was involved in a community literacy program several years ago. Speaking homophones, as it were, is not a problem, but reading or writing them can produce much confusion. Consider plain/plane and here/hear, for instance. Or read the following sentence aloud: “Aye herd the belles peel, two.” A strange sentence, perhaps, but there’s no problem with it when it is delivered orally and understood as “I heard the bells peal, too.” As a written sentence, however, it’s a whole different story.

While in the grip of my obsession, I also found myself wondering why English has so many homophones. From what I could glean from my limited research, it seems that homophones may be “largely a matter of historical chance,” as one source put it. I guess there’s nothing inherently sinister about them after all. They just seem that way sometimes. So for those of you who may have thought that homophones are the product of some great language conspiracy on the part of English teachers, lexicographers, and editors, I’m afraid that that does not seem to be the case.

Thanks to the cursèd Chrétien, I found myself noticing homophones everywhere. Not just in his book—but everywhere. And then I started constructing (sometimes ridiculous) sentences with them for myself. Here are a few:

When the ball hit young Jeremy, he began to bawl.

In some cases, the sum of three numbers is an even number.

The maid made the bed.

Two miles may be too far to walk.

Now you fill in the blanks:

She became bored with playing ______ games.

The bus fare seemed too high; it just wasn’t __________.

He’s a nasty fellow, as you can tell by his mean __________.

I would like you to go chop some __________.

If you want to hire me, you’ll have to offer me a __________ salary.

Heathcliff wondered how much more of the _______ he had to trek across.

So anyway, as time goes by, I have come to understand that my obsession may not have been a totally bad thing. Maybe I have stumbled on the makings of a parlor game or quizzes that can be used in the classroom. I’ll have to think about that. For now, I leave further sentence examples for you to come up with on your own. I offer the list that follows as a place to start. Good luck!

 

Michael B. Schuldt
Managing Editor
The World Book Encyclopedia

 

 

(By the way, the answers to the fill-in-the-blank sentences above are board, fair, mien, wood, higher, and moor.)

air/ere

all/awl

away/aweigh

bare/bear

bawl/ball

bell/belle

board/bored

days/daze

deer/dear

die/dye

do/dew/due

doe/dough

done/dun

earn/urn

fair/fare

four/for/fore

gamble/gambol

hair/hare

heal/heel

heard/herd

here/hear

high/hi

higher/hire

I/eye/aye

knight/night

lean/lien

made/maid

mail/male

mean/mien

meet/meat/mete

might/mite

more/moor

no/know

not/knot

one/won

pain/pane

pear/pare/pair

peel/peal

plain/plane

plait/plate

pour/pore/poor

principle/principal

raise/raze/rays

real/reel

right/rite/write

ruff/rough

sail/sale

seem/seam

shoo/shoe

sign/sine

sleigh/slay

so/sew/sow

some/sum

sore/soar

tea/tee

there/their/they’re

through/threw

tighten/titan

time/thyme

to/too/two

wait/weight

ware/wear

weak/week

would/wood