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Researching the Baigong Pipes

by Brian Dunning, Dec 03 2009

I thought that today I would share with you a bit of an insider’s peek at what went into the creation of last week’s Skeptoid episode about the Baigong Pipes. It was a particularly effective use of my research process, mainly the skeptoid-research Google Group mailing list.

In summary, the Baigong Pipes are popularly said to be a series of manufactured metal pipes buried in ancient rock in a cave in China. This example of an “out of place artifact” is sometimes claimed as proof of ancient alien visitation.

My time was limited on this particular episode, so all the research had to be done over the Internet. I didn’t have time to visit libraries or anything. Google Books can often fill in such gaps, but it didn’t turn up much in this case. Worse, I found very little information on the Internet. Oh, there are hundreds of articles all right, but they all contain the same information (which is minimal) and appear to all be sourced from the same original Chinese newspaper article, for which an English version is available. According to the English Internet, that little bit of information is all anyone knows about the Baigong Pipes. And it’s not nearly enough for a Skeptoid episode.

So, as I often do in such cases, I put out a call for help to skeptoid-research. I asked for any Chinese speaking people to scan for articles in Chinese. And a helpful researcher found a great one. Nearly all of the information in the article has not, so far as I could find, ever been translated into English. The pipes were originally discovered by an author named Bai Yu who was traveling the region. Information on Bai Yu is hard to find; his book Into the Qaidam was not found on any book sales sites I searched, and his name translates into “whitefish” so it’s difficult to learn much about him when searching for his name.

This article ultimately opened the door for the actual scientific explanation of the Baigong Pipes: fossilized casts of trees, washed into the Qaidam basin as flood debris, and subsequently incorporated into sandstone. The Chinese scientists who made this final determination had not only the geologic background to confirm the deposition process, but they also found the original organic material in the “pipes” and found fossilized tree rings.

There are other such structures found elsewhere in the world. Notably, there are some in Louisiana that come from tree roots. They are somewhat gnarled and curved, like tree roots. Most accounts of the Baigong Pipes, however, are that they are long and straight, much more like piping than tree roots.

I received an additional email from a listener after the episode came out, who done academic work on the Baigong Pipes, and explained that (being in China) they were likely casts of bamboo. Bamboo is, of course, long and straight, and would produce casts much more pipe-like than would tree roots.

However, the Chinese article from which I got most of my information was clear that the scientists had found tree rings, which bamboo lacks. So we have a bit of a discrepancy, and at this point I’m not quite sure what type of plant the Baigong Pipes came from. Not that it makes much difference, but it is a detail that should have been correctly included in the episode. If I’d received this feedback before the episode came out, I probably would have been able to resolve the issue. I referred the listener to skeptoid-research, and hopefully he’ll sign up and keep me on the straight and narrow next time I delve into paleobotany.

By the very nature of Skeptoid, I’ve had to move on to future topics, and no longer have time available to work on the Baigong Pipes episode. I’ll gladly include a clarification if the information comes in, next time I do a “things I’m wrong about” episode. In the meantime, I’ll keep sending out questions when my own research fails me. If you’d like to contribute, feel free to join the mailing list.

Make no mistake: Having an excuse to spend so much time each week researching such diverse and engaging topics is fantastic. I love every minute of it.

11 Responses to “Researching the Baigong Pipes”

  1. AdamK says:

    It was a particularly interesting episode. I’d never heard of the Baigong Pipes or of fossilized tree casts. The latter topic is fascinating.

  2. MadScientist says:

    Casts of dead trees are not all that unusual. In Western Australia there is an entire exposed forest of root (and perhaps some lower trunk) castings; it is known as “The Pinnacles”. If you know what type of environment such casts develop in, you can go prospecting for them.

    Unless the wood itself is mineralized (as with petrified wood) you will not see tree rings (and in the case of bamboo you will never see tree rings). However, it is plausible that there are multiple accretion rings on the casts and such a feature may be misinterpreted as tree rings.

  3. gwen says:

    I am a fan of your show, and this is one of the most fascinating subjects you have done as of yet. can’t wait for the next one!

  4. AUJT says:

    The sign up email addy is not good. Please repost.

  5. Are you talking about the link to join the Google group? Just go to and click the link. There are 100’s of people on the list so I know it works… :-)

  6. Sean Ellis says:

    I think “out of place artefact” is a bit of a mouthful and would like to draw eveyone’s attention to the wonderful word “twonky”, meaning an anachronistic object out of place.

    This was coined by John Varley in his SF novel “Millennium”, where it was referring to items left behind accidentally by time travellers.

  7. Dan says:

    Thanks for the insight. It is amasing how much information you fit into each episode of Skeptoid.

    Keep up the good work.

  8. moyston says:

    Well interesting, im sure there are always ppl around that will try to de bunk theories or things that cant be explained. i didnt read how you explained that the pipes that were found are made of metal …bamboo turned to metal or the salts around the bamboo over years formed metal?.

  9. Nicole says:

    Do you know if travels can visit this destination? I keep finding the same 4 photos on the internet and links to hokey UFO website.

    Great podcast.

  10. Benjamin says:

    Pathetic completely pathetic. Your research is not research. You simply pick a skeptical article out of all of the skeptics. This is not proof or any type of research. This is some moron putting his opinion in on the topic. You haven’t visited the site and the last time I checked trees do not form iron rings.