Friday, October 23, 2009

Is There Only Death After Life?

[ Spook: Science Tackles The Afterlife. By Mary Roach. © 2005. Nonfiction. ]

One reason why I enjoyed this book: that snarky (ex-)Catholic girl tone. Sarcasm that an ex-Catholic like yours truly can really appreciate.

As Mary Roach explains in Spook, her early years were steeped in Catholicism, her mother reading the Bible to her at bedtime. But as she grew into adulthood, science provided better answers than religion. For example, maybe the Lazarus story was just a case of premature burial; nothing miraculous happened.

But Mary doesn't embrace science with blind faith. As she observes: "Of course science doesn't dependably deliver truths. It is as fallible as the men and women who undertake it... Flawed as it is, science remains the most solid god I've got."

In her book she pursues the question: Is there a soul separate from the physical body that lives on after death? Or, to put it in a nutshell, are ghosts real?

She begins at the beginning, discussing how scientists like Anton van Leeuwenhoek tried to find the soul with scalpels and microscopes. In 1675 the dutch naturalist discovered bacteria and other microorganisms in stagnant water with his microscope. He called them animalcules. From there he searched for preformed humans in sperm, evidence of human souls. Despite his work physical evidence of the soul remained elusive. (Gee, I wonder why...)

So soul searchers tried at find proof at the other end of the scale: death. And this work literally involved a scale.

Back in 1901 surgeon and physician Duncan MacDougall tried to weigh the soul. Employed at the
the Consumptives Home in Dorchester, Massachusetts, he rigged up a special cot to place a patient dying from tuberculous. In turn the cot was hooked up to a scale. MacDougall noted there was a loss of three-fourths of an ounce after the patient passed on. Ergo, the difference in weight had to be the soul leaving the body.

Critics of MacDougall's research had other explanations, e.g., the difference was due to the last breath of the patient being expelled.

At this point in the story Mary Roach's makes a snarky Catholic girl comment regarding MacDougall and the other physicians watching the man on the cot-scale dying for three hours.

She writes: "In place of the more usual bedside attitudes of grief and pity, the men assumed an air of breathless intent expectancy. I imagine you see this on the faces of NASA engineers during countdown and, possibly, vultures."

Bring her story up to modern times, Mary takes a trip to the Consciousness Research Lab at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. The director of the lab, researcher and neuroscience professor Michael Persinger, has a theory about ghost encounters. His believes that electromagnetic fields, such as those created by geomagnetic activity, induce a haunting in a person's brain, specifically the sensation of being watched by an invisible presence.

Persinger wires up a Mary with a special helmet that exposes the subject to an electromagnetic field. She waits for a ghost to appear. What happens, like the other incidents during her research, is inconclusive.

But despite questions leading to nothing positive, Mary finds the answer to the question of life after death -- her own answer.

But not mine.


X. Dell said...

Since I've never seen a ghost, I've never considered the possibility that they are real. As for consciousness, the sciences teach us that their are laws of conservation (conservtion of energy, conservation of matter--or in an Einsteinian sense, the conversion of one to the other). So if my consciousness is a thing, I would have to guess that it didn't just appear out of thin air, or simply disappear.

I've seen some studies which suggest that mass and energy might hold the mmory, thus our psyches would be the result of the physical properties involved with life. Either way, the atoms that make up the body have been here billions of year before us, and will be here billions of years afterward.

Of course, death is the one true mystery, for no one can say for certain what happens afterward. Everyone's simply guessing.

BTW, I was listening t NPR's Science Fridays where the topic of MacDougal's experiment came up. One of the physicians interviewed said that the loss of weight was statistically insignificant.

Ray said...

Yesterday I attended a paranormal expo. I'll post about it later, but one person talked about a haunted house with stonework loaded with quartz. Apparently quartz does a good job of absorbing human spirits. So instead of being cremated after I die, I'm gonna get quartzified.

I wish I had caught that NPR story on MacDougall. I had heard about his research before but Spook was the first book I read that went into some detail about his work.