Would-be scientists who took a wrong turn on the road to enlightenment wound up in their own little corner at the mecca of knowledge known as MIT, enshrined in the Archives of Useless Research.
The archives, a compendium of crackpot theories also known as the "nut collection," preserve 200 books, drawings and pamphlets by brave laymen who sought to explain things like "Why Life Exists and Allied Subjects."But archivist Kathy Marquis says the weird science doesn't entirely clash with the serious science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, since both stem from people's desire to explain their existence.
"We want to collect basically not only what worked but what didn't work," she said.
At least two of the theorists from the 1920s, '30s and '40s were borne out by later scientists, warning that cigarette smoking could be linked to cancer. But it's the really useless that dominates, not the musings of the ahead-of-their-time, misunderstood geniuses.
There is Cyrus Reed, who advanced the theory that people are living inside Earth. And there is Seabury Doane Brewer, who determined that the sun is actually 600 miles away from Earth, as opposed to the 93 million miles generally accepted by astronomers.
Titles of the mainly self-published works are ambitious.
"The Fact of All Life," "Beyond Einstein," "Why Life Exists and Allied Subjects," are among the sticky issues bravely tackled.
Explaining the meaning of life is a key theme of the authors, along with debunking scientific beliefs such as the existence of gravity, and finding proof for religious beliefs.
"My own theory is these are the same kind of people who in another circumstance might have found their one answer in religion," Marquis said. "I think that's a lot of what drives science anyway. We want to know why."
The collection was donated to MIT by an editor of Scientific American. It also includes crank mail sent to MIT scientists over the years, Marquis said.
Most of the authors take a bombastic approach. But some are more modest, such as Ernest E. Sowell, who titled his 1938 work "A Layman's Guess or The Universal Electric Life Theory."
Sowell noted he lacked scientific training and admits that some might think him presumptuous. "However, there is an impelling desire on my part to do this," he wrote.
The "impelling desire" to explain the unexplainable is an integral part of science, Marquis said.
"The successful guys think about impossible things and try to explain them," she said. "These guys just kept thinking about impossible things."