SPOOK by Mary Roach


Science Tackles the Afterlife
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Science writer Roach, having told all about cadavers in Stiff (2003), progresses to the logical next step: What happens after death?

Her journey begins in India, where she tracks down stories of children purported to be reincarnations of dead relatives. Lots to debunk here. Then on to all-but-unbelievable experiments to weigh, see or tape-record the soul, as well as tales of celebrated mediums, spirit guides and ectoplasm. Did you know there are mediums being tested in university labs today, and that you can attend medium school in England? While researching this, Roach learned a good bit about human psychology of the “if you wanna believe it it’s true” variety. She makes the point that, historically, investigators of the afterlife often capitalize on the latest scientific discoveries of new sources of energy so that they can be invoked to power a soul or, alternatively, explain away a phenomenon. Thus, the perception of ghosts might be due to some people’s sensitivity to very low frequency “infrasound.” One of her best ghost stories concerns a revised last will and testament whose discovery was attributed to a ghost telling his son where it could be found. The case went to trial and the ghost won. (There’s a neat follow-up.) For all Roach’s skeptical and often hilarious accounts, she is an eager volunteer and ready to accept evidence if evidence there be. Thus she reports that experiments are under way to study near-death experiences in which patients are briefly “killed” during surgery to implant defibrillators. If even one person reports seeing an image on a ceiling-mounted laptop in the O.R., whose screen faces the ceiling, she might be convinced. As it is, she admits to not “knowing,” but sort of believing in ghosts. Throughout, she is critical and witty—e.g., speaking of postmortem “recordings,” she says there is one of Chopin, “who has, we learn, resumed composing following a short stint of decomposing.”

Truly deft handling of the (mostly) daft.

Pub Date: Oct. 10th, 2005
ISBN: 0-393-05962-6
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2005


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