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Goldblatt, David MD

Bookshelf: Book Review

Dr Goldblatt is Professor Emeritus of Neurology and the Medical Humanities at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in Rochester, New York.



Two recent books prove that science and spirit mean different things to different people. For Mary Roach, “science doesn't dependably deliver truths. It is as fallible as the men and women who undertake it…. Flawed as it is, [however,] science remains the most solid god I've got.”

To write her book, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Roach was willing to spend her time (and money – flying to India to do field work in reincarnation and to England for training in mediumship) seeking “evidence that some form of disembodied consciousness persists when the body closes up shop. Or doesn't persist.” She turned for help to “science. By that I mean people doing research using scientific methods, preferably at respected universities or institutions.” She had to be selective: she admits that, on the subject of life after death, “for the most part, science has this to say: Yeah, right.”



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Alan Lightman, a theoretical physicist and humanist, views science differently. Drawing on an insight provided by his thesis advisor, Kip Thorne, he writes in A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit, “A well-posed problem [in science] is a problem that can be stated with enough clarity and definiteness that it is guaranteed a solution.” He presents “Karl Popper's related notion: a scientific proposition is ‘a statement that can in principle be proven false.’…You can find a counterexample, an experiment that disagrees with the theory. And, according to Popper, unless you can at least imagine an experiment that might falsify a theory, that theory or statement is not scientific.”

Lightman believes “there are many interesting problems that are not well posed in the Popper or Thorne sense. For example: Does God exist? Or, What is love? …These questions are terribly interesting, but they lie outside the domain of science…. One cannot falsify the statement that God exists (or doesn't exist).”

With regard to religion, Roach and Lightman apparently have similar views. Roach reports that, in her life, “Faith did not take, because science kept putting it on the spot.” Lightman might not buy that reasoning, but he leaves the subject unexplored, both in the essays that deal with his own life and work and in the splendid portraits of scientists that constitute the heart of the collection. When he speaks of a sense of the mysterious, in Einstein's life and in his own, he does not link religion with the mysterious and mystical, as Einstein did.

Lightman's style is so ingratiating, it is easy on first reading not to realize how much information and conceptualization he has packed into his small book. His decision not to explore religious faith as part of the human spirit of scientists must have been deliberate.

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Lightman and Roach both pay a lot of attention to the role of human beings in science. Lightman sees “infinite mystery” in human as well as in physical nature, but he views science itself as “impersonal, disembodied.” (Art is different. “In the arts, the individual is the essence…. No one will ever write The Tempest except Shakespeare.”)

Roach, a “natural skeptic,” is not uncritical, but she is not credentialed to research the topics she investigated second-hand (such as the weight of the soul) and she does not pass judgment on the qualifications of the people who research them.

Lightman's assertions about the part that scientists play in science confused me. In his title essay, he says that, “in a sense, [a scientific] result already exists. It is only found by the scientist.” This idea leads him to conclude that if Heisenberg, Einstein, and Crick, for example, had not made the discoveries they did, “someone else would.” Why, then, I wondered, does he puzzle over the complex psyches of scientists? The personalities of Albert Einstein and Edward Teller were both “contradictory”; Richard Feynman “had a mystique.”

He resolves this quandary by distinguishing science from “the practice of science, [which] is a [collective] human affair, complicated by all the bedraggled but marvelous psychology that makes us human.”

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Mary Roach's book is even more fun than her previous bestseller, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Roach, who admits to a fourth-grade level of maturity, began Stiff this way: “The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I seen a head in a roasting pan. But here are forty of them, one per pan, resting face-up on what looks to be a small pet-food bowl. The heads are for plastic surgeons…”

This time, her touch is usually lighter, as befits her ectoplasmic subjects, although, sometimes, she still tells more than I wanted to know – how, for instance, and from whence, during a séance, a female medium might produce ectoplasm itself.

Roach's book has special interest for neurologists, who will want to decide which, if any, of the scientists she describes, and their methods, to take seriously: She interviewed a neuroscientist who records EEGs to prove that electromagnetic fields cause people to see ghosts and a psychologist who tape-records “electronic voice phenomena” to capture the words of people “whose vocal cords,” as Roach puts it, “long ago decomposed…. You can't hear the voices while you're recording; they show up mysteriously when the tape is replayed.”

In Roach's concluding chapter, “Six Feet Over” (which is followed by an epilogue entitled “Last Words”), she spends a lot of time with scientists who are investigating near-death experiences. She does not mention Orrin Devinsky's studies of out-of-body phenomena, but the interest is in “something other than a neurological phenomenon.” She does wrestle briefly with the demon of quantum mechanics, trying to make sense out of a reply she received from a researcher on near-death experience who says he is “convinced that consciousness can be experienced independently from the body, during the period of nonfunctioning brain, with the possibility of non-sensory perception.” He draws on quantum mechanics to make his theory fly, causing Mary Roach to deplane.

“I was corresponding,” she says, “with a Drexel University physicist named Len Finegold. I mentioned quantum-mechanics-based theories of consciousness. You can't hear someone sigh through e-mail, but I heard it anyhow. ‘Please beware,’ came his reply. ‘There are a lot of people who believe that just because we don't have an explanation for something, it's quantum mechanics.’” I can imagine Alan Lightman saying amen to that. Well, maybe not “amen,” but “yeah, right.”

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You can also judge these books by their jackets: Lightman's shows “a photograph of trails left by subatomic particles on a bubble chamber detector screen” that evokes fireworks, floral sprays, and peacocks' tails. Gorgeous. Roach's features the word SPOOK in silvery letters. When I turn the book from side to side, the letters mysteriously change from silver to blue, green, gold, orange, and red. And when I hold it just right, the two O's shine like the hollow eyes of a ghost. The effect is, well, spectral.

©2006 American Academy of Neurology