[Paleopsych] NYTBR: (Mary Roach) 'Spook': Ghost Trusters

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Mon Oct 10 01:11:45 UTC 2005

'Spook': Ghost Trusters

    Science Tackles the Afterlife.
    By Mary Roach.
    Illustrated. 311 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $24.95.


    A PROFESSOR of obstetrics at an esteemed university explains to Mary
    Roach his quantum-theory equation to measure the energy lost when the
    soul departs the body. He wants to test it by putting a live organism
    in a box with electromagnetic sensors and watching it die. But he
    can't find collaborators - a predicament Roach has trouble believing.
    "Most people don't listen nearly as long as you have," the forlorn
    professor tells her.

    Roach has endless patience with people whose ideas are most charitably
    described as unconventional. In "Spook," she sets off on a skeptic's
    scavenger hunt to find out if there's any scientific way of proving
    there is life after death, listening to a whole range of people who
    have doubtless grown used to people's eyes glazing over - or worse.

    Describing her undertaking as a "giggly, random, utterly earthbound
    assault on our most ponderous unanswered question," Roach gives all
    her subjects their due. The guy who says he's determined the weight of
    a dog's soul. Researchers who interview children claiming to be
    reincarnated. Mediums who transcribe their conversations with the

    She takes a "Fundamentals of Mediumship" course in England, and heads
    out with the International Ghost Hunters Society (14,000 members in 78
    countries) to tape-record so-called spirit voices in a national forest
    in California. Later, ignoring the locals' warnings that a Canadian
    professor keeps rats and mows his lawn in a three-piece suit, she
    allows him to lock her in a soundproof chamber and expose her brain to
    electromagnetic fields in an attempt to pick up ghost "presences" in
    the atmosphere. "It is interesting," she writes in a perfectly deadpan
    style, "to come across people who feel that a ghost communicating via
    a spell-checker is less far-fetched than a software glitch."

    Reading "Spook" is a bit like listening to the weekend programming on
    NPR - "This American Afterlife"? - intellectual, assiduously
    attentive, but the obvious undercurrent is "People do the wackiest
    things!" And depending on your frame of mind, you find yourself either
    oddly entranced or wondering, "Why am I listening to this?"

    "Dead people never seem to address the obvious - the things you'd
    think they'd be bursting to talk about, and the things all of us
    not-yet-dead are madly curious about," Roach writes about her time
    with the mediums. "Such as: Hey, where are you now? What do you do all
    day? What's it feel like being dead? Can you see me? Even when I'm on
    the toilet? Would you cut that out?"

    You occasionally wonder if you should feel sorry for her subjects,
    take them aside and whisper, "Do you know what you're in for?" Just as
    they are at their most earnest in explaining their thankless and
    usually fruitless research, she'll toss in a question like a whoopee
    cushion. But if Roach teases, she never mocks. Ultimately, she
    exhibits great sympathy for her characters.

    Death has been good to Roach - her first book, "Stiff," which peered
    into the many uses of human cadavers, was a surprise best seller.
    There is less to work with here; dead bodies have many legitimate
    uses, but many of the people she tells us about in "Spook" are more
    likely, as she says, "nutters."

    She draws on everything from the works of Descartes to an episode of
    "The Partridge Family" (the one in which Susan Dey hears the Rolling
    Stones through her braces) in outlining the long history of the
    scientific exploration of the possibility of life after death.

    The third-century-B.C. physician Herophilus opened up cadavers and
    declared that the soul was located in the fourth chamber of the brain.
    Leonardo da Vinci believed it was in the top of the spinal column. And
    Aristotle claimed that semen supplied the soul of a new individual.

    In the 1920's, ectoplasm, spat up by mediums and believed to be the
    physical manifestation of the soul, was all the rage; in 1989,
    Cambridge University acquired the archives of the Society for
    Psychical Research, including the ectoplasm of a medium, Kathleen
    Goligher. In 2000, a sheep rancher in Bend, Ore., became, as Roach
    declares him, "the second man in history to set up a soul-weighing
    operation in his barn."

    Roach is a wonderfully vivid writer and most fun when she is exploring
    the world of the modern soul-searchers. "Spook," like "Stiff," is a
    "who knew?" kind of book, and it's fascinating to discover that a
    researcher in the 21st century would be, say, trying to weigh the
    consciousness of a leech. And as a reporter, Roach has a keen eye for
    the perfect detail, an ear for the zinging quotation and a finely
    tuned sense of the preposterous. She excerpts this exchange from a
    medium's conversation with the great beyond:

    "What type of 'body' do you have?"

    "She says fat people are thin here. . . ."

    "How is the weather?"

    "It's Florida without the humidity."

    Roach is also relentlessly curious. For her, "Google" is definitely a
    verb: while looking up devices related to the Suggestometer, a gadget
    used by mediums, she discovers a Launder-Ometer, a Crackometer and
    Gary Ometer, a former director of debt management for the United
    States Treasury, and calls him up. (He cheerfully plays along.)

    There is one maddening lapse in her reporting, however. At the end of
    a chapter on cardiologists studying near-death experiences, she
    confesses in a footnote that she did not see the experiment she
    described pages earlier because she could not get permission from the
    hospital (she watched a similar one in California). In a book that
    attempts to apply scientific rigor, this seems a glaring shortcut.

    But "Spook" is less about figuring out what science says about the
    afterlife than it is a celebration of the wide, occasionally crazy
    spectrum of human pursuit. When we talk about the afterlife, Roach
    concludes, facts may be less meaningful than belief - an Indian boy
    probably wasn't reincarnated, but there's no denying the happiness of
    the father who believes that the boy in his lap is his dead son
    returned to him.

    "I believe that not everything we humans encounter in our lives can be
    neatly and convincingly tucked away inside the orderly cabinetry of
    science," Roach writes. What she celebrates is the passion that drives
    the inquiry, that keeps people at their research despite the
    loneliness - and mockery. She may have a skeptic's mind, but she
    writes with a believer's heart.

    Kate Zernike is a national correspondent for The Times.

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