Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
Are you tired of the dry cynical takes on the paranormal that is rampant in so many (good) books these days? Do you secretly yearn for those days when accounts of ghosts and mediums piqued your curiosity? If you were still on the fence about believing in an afterlife, would you long to take a year off to explore the unexplained, interview “experts”, delve into the history of humankind’s fascination with the topics?
If you answered yes to any of these questions – and even if you didn’t – you’re bound to be delighted and entertained by Mary Roach’s book: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.
In this witty, intelligent book, Roach takes her readers along for a ride that begins on the back roads of India, following reincarnation researcher Dr. Kirti S. Rawat, and talking with families that have children that they believe are reincarnations of recently-deceased persons from neighboring villages. She then veers onto a wide avenue to search for (and weigh) the soul. On this jaunt she touches on ideas of ancient philosophers, and considers the sanity of the not-so-ancient surgeon and homeopathic practitioner, Duncan Macdougall, who, around 1901, concluded that the soul weighs 3/4 pound (or 21 grams). Before rounding another corner on this journey, Roach interviews a present-day Macdougall sort, Dr. Gerry Nahum, of Duke University, who tries to explain negative entropy, electromagnetic energy, and thermodynamics, and how these relate to his modern approach to weighing the soul.
The next bend in the road takes Roach into the sticky world of ectoplasm and mediums, from the early 1900’s to a present day school for mediums in which Roach enrolls. To be kind, try as she might, Roach is not a star pupil. At one point in her studies, she...
“quietly excused myself and went to the bar, to commune with spirits I know how to relate to.”
In this section, she even gives us an account of her meetings with such notables as Alison Dubois and Michael Persinger. Along the way, Roach cover electronics built for the express purpose of communicating with the dead, and how the ghost of James Pinkney Chaffin swayed a court outcome concerning his last will and testament. This fun and fantastic journey ends with researchers interested in near death experiences.
In this excerpt from one of the final pages in her book, Roach is corresponding with Len Finegold, a physicist at Drexel University, about a paper by Dr. Nahum:
“…I mentioned quantum-mechanics-based theories of consciousness. You can’t hear someone sigh through e-mail, but I heard it anyhow.”
Perhaps due to her seeming lack-of-bias while interviewing the many people in this book, Roach seems to gain their trust as they do their best to explain their research or skills. She doesn’t try to convince the reader that ghosts do or don’t exist, or that a soul leaves the body upon our demise. She doesn’t blatantly say that she believes that paranormal research is or isn’t malarkey; but she does poke fun at several notions, and certainly at herself, on nearly every page. What conclusion does Roach come to? I’ll let that for you to find.
Skeptics and those who believe whole-heartedly that there is no such thing as ghosts will surely get a huge hoot from this book. I recommend that you don’t read this late at night – not because it is scary, but because you will wake your significant other with your bed-shaking outright and uninhibitable giggles. Believers may even be amused despite themselves, and will probably learn some interesting history about the various topics. This book may be a good choice for a skeptic to give to their non-skeptic acquaintances. Above all else, I think many of the posters here on the jref forums will enjoy this book immensely.
(Also by Roach: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which I also recommend, and her new book released this month (April 2008) – Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, which I have yet to read.)