18 February 2019


David E. Presti. Mind Beyond Brain: Buddhism, Science and the Paranormal. Columbia University Press, 2018.

This is a fascinating - if slightly expensive for its size - book that treads the boundaries between science and mysticism in an enlightening way. The author/editor is a professor at Berkeley in California, specialising in neuro-biology and cognitive science, which means he has a grasp of the materialism that underpins any kind of ‘spiritual’ experience. However, he is not one for whom the brain has a rigid structure that must resolve all things unresolved at present. Not just by reducing them to our knowledge of neurones anyhow.

Indeed his opening premise seems to be that physical science since the 18th century has largely progressed by seeing things only as if they are the result of jello within the brain-matter as being of paramount importance. It has done that by divorcing this hard science from the more fuzzy truth that we as conscious beings play a part in the equations that we define around the nature of reality.

That softer, metaphysical or religious, truth is not necessarily wrong, just different. But science has tended to avoid the hard yards of seeking how to make the incompatible, compatible. Presti argues that this may form the missing element within the necessary rules that define how reality ultimately comes into being and operates. So, if we wish to understand those functions we cannot do so by ignoring the interaction between matter, space and ourselves.

The title itself will scare the life out of materialists, for whom mind beyond brain is almost a literal contradiction from the premise that brain creates as epiphenomena and so in effect must cage mind. So mind outside and beyond resembles mysticism, not science.

However, the book compromises a series of chapters by the author and several colleagues, all research scientists in closely related areas; and is developed from out of a Charlottesville, Virginia retreat in 2010 set up by a Bon shamanistic Buddhist who invited open-minded material scientists to discuss ways in which these differing views of brain might interact with his ideas.

That think tank helped inspire this book and speakers at the event each write their own chapters on their specialist interests in that regard. Presti himself writes the introductory and concluding chapters summing up how science of consciousness has arrived where we are and then how we might move on and incorporate the data revealed by four other specialists exploring the more esoteric rather than traditional neuroscience evidence.

These chapters look in turn at near death experiences (Bruce Greyson - a Virginia professor of psychiatry and neuro-behavioural science), reincarnation (Jim Tucker, a psychiatry professor who has written extensively on research into past life recall of children), Mediums, apparitions and deathbed visions (Emily Kelly, whose PhD from Edinburgh was gained by studying the work of noted early psychic researcher F W H Myers) and psychic experiences and spirituality (Edward Kelly, a perceptual science specialist). There is an extensive fifty page set of notes, references and bibliographies to further your knowledge of each topic.

Not being a large book, each chapter running to about 20 pages long, it is not right to expect in-depth analysis of topics covered. But it is a cogent review of the main points of debate within these overlapping fields. Moreover, it reflects on how the mood has changed in areas such as NDEs - from 40 years ago with these being then usually assumed to be obviously imaginary to now being widely accepted as in some way real with only the cause to be agreed upon.

Presti notes that this usually comes down to what he phrases in this way of these topics: “Whether they are explainable in terms of known neurobiology, or yet unknown but nonetheless conventional neurobiology - or will require a substantial shift in our explanatory worldview - (that) is what remains the outstanding question.”

Whilst a little dry though not impenetrable, and quite popularly written by working scientists, it has just a touch of the books that the late Lyall Watson used to write. Like him this is looking at how science and parascience interact in ways most people unfamiliar with the status of neurological research may not have come to see. -- Jenny Randles.

12 February 2019


Leo Ruickbie. Angels in the Trenches: Spiritualism, Superstition and the Supernatural During the First World War. Robinson, 2018.

Owen Davies. A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination and Faith During the First World War. Oxford, 2018.

These two books cover similar topics; the manner in which people used religious, supernatural and 'magical' themes in dealing with the personal and social traumas of the First World War. What I found interesting was the difference in treatment between the two volumes, some of which is hinted at in their subtitles.

Leo Ruickbie is the editor of the Society for Psychical Research's magazine Paranormal Review, and has access to the Society's library and records, as well as the records of The Ghost Club, in its various manifestations. Despite its title Angels only has a fairly brief description of the legendary 'Angels of Mons' and other supernatural visions at the Front. Much of it is taken up with accounts of paranormally related incidents from the families and friends of SPR notables such as Sir Oliver Lodge and Conan Doyle.

Lodge's son Raymond, a second lieutenant in the South Lancashire Regiment, was killed in the second year of the war at Ypres. Sir Oliver Lodge, who had been a prominent member of the SPR since the 1880s was a Spiritualist and had previously published a book, The Survival of Man, in which he claimed that it was possible to communicate with the dead through spiritual mediumship. After his son's death he attended seances at which he believed he had communicated with Raymond, and published his accounts of these in Raymond, or Life and Death (1916), a book which created a great deal of controversy, and caused many to cast doubts on its author's scientific credibility.

Many other members of the SPR had family members at the front, or served there themselves, and accounts of their experiences are related throughout this book. But it is here I have my greatest problem with it. Although other aspects of wartime belief and superstition are described, including an interesting account of the campaigns against 'fake mediums' accused of exploiting the bereaved families at home, it reads to a large extent as an account of the SPR at war, and the activities of its members.

This in itself would be of great interest, particularly as it seems the Society collectively seemed less interested in the supernatural phenomena related by servicemen, than in the traditional forms of 'psychical research' which it had been involved with pre-war. However the format of the books makes it difficult to follow the development of any particular aspect of wartime supernatural belief. Rather than being divided into chapters giving a coherent narrative, the 404 pages are divided into five sections, one for each year of the war, which are then split up into as many as 50 smaller pieces, ranging from a paragraph to several pages in length, with no clear linking pattern.

This can make the book difficult to follow at times, with narratives of the war service of particular individuals – Raymond Lodge, for one – spread in small chunks throughout the 404 pages. other aspects of supernatural experience are similarly dispersed throughout the volume, making it hard to put together all the information on topics such as, for instance, lucky charms and mascots, the superstitions of front-line troops, or the careers of individual figures.

Nevertheless, the book gives a insight into the fears of all involved in the conflict, and the ways in which they used the 'supernatural' both as an attempt ease the pain of loss, and as a reassurance for the future. Amidst the tragedy there are, however some lighter notes. I always find it ironic when national stereotypes are reinforced in real life, and I found one splendid example here. In discussing the various superstitions and lucky charms that flyers were particularly fond of, we learn that “Britain's highest scoring fighter ace Captain Albert Ball, VC, DSO and two bars, MC,” always carried a slice of his mother's plum pudding in the cockpit, while his French counterpart, Jean Navarre, “The Sentinel of Verdun” would never take to the air without a lady's silk stocking accompanying him! Vive la sport!

As mentioned earlier, much of this book is centred on the activities of the SPR and some of its members. Although individual members took an interest in the psychic phenomena which were being reported from the battlefields, they received very little attention from the Society's ruling elite, resulting in complaints from the general membership that the Society was neglecting these 'spontaneous cases'. Ruickbie notes that while independent researchers like Charles Richet [right] in France appealed to soldiers at large to report cases, the SPR's data came largely from its own members and their relatives in the services.

At the time much of the official SPR activity was focused on the hugely complicated 'Cross Correspondences', which were considered to be potential proof of the reality of post-mortem existence. There seemed to be an inner-circle within the SPR involved in a kind of Messianic project, which was “something like a secret cult, with supernatural schemes, sordid sex, and a love-child at the centre of it”. Unfortunately that's all we are told.

Owen Davies's book seems to me to be arranged in a far more logical and reader-friendly manner, with individual chapters dealing with particular topics such and prophecies of the war, lucky charms and superstitions, and a review of how churches and religious figures regarded the stories that were emerging from the battlefields.

Even before the outbreak of the war, there were many prophecies, some more accurate that others, predicting a great European war sometime in the early twentieth century. Of course, many of these were logical predictions, based on an analysis of the political and military conditions of the time. Some of these were promoted by sensationalist journalists such as William Le Queux who published a series of books and articles predicting a coming war, most famously The Invasion of 1910. Erskine Childer's The Riddle of the Sands also warned against growing German sea-power.

As well as these, there were any number of 'psychic' prophets such as 'Madame de Thebes', a major figure in French society, who published an annual almanac, which made regular predictions of a coming war. And, as Davies shows, Nostradamus's Centuries were recycled, although as with most of his prophecies, they were only deciphered after the events he was allegedly describing had actually happened!

There were also many 'folk prophecies' circulating, some with a religious basis, which were often promoted, sometimes rather at arms-length, by established churches, and some very local folk-prophecies, such as The Black Pig of Kiltrustan. The long-established Old Moore's Almanac's prophecy for August 1914 was rather understated: “The vacation is likely to be disturbed by adverse events, in which the travelling public are involved”, which sounds more like the announcement of a rail-replacement bus service that the outbreak of a World War!

The chapter on 'Visions, Spirits and Psychics' covers what are perhaps the most famous supernatural stories of the conflict, the Angels of Mons, and the story of 'The Bowmen', and the controversy surrounding its origin. Similar supernatural interventions were reported from all sides and all fronts, involving appearance of both religious and secular historical figures from the nations involved. There were visions on the home front as well, with the 'Angels of Essex' in particular receiving considerable derision from the press.

In all times of conflict, fortune tellers became more popular. The authorities on all sides of the conflict showed concern about their effect on public morale, and various attempts were made to shut down, or at least discourage such activity. One cause of worry was the appearance of fake psychics who were seen as exploiting the families of soldiers at the front. A number were prosecuted, but there was always the get-out that their fortune telling was 'for amusement only'. Of course there was no way of telling just how seriously their clients regarded their 'predictions'. Davies's thoughts on the activities of these figures is surprisingly sympathetic, pointing out that many of them regarded themselves as therapists rather than prophets, and their honesty as to the realities of war was itself a source of concern to the authorities.

Lucky actions and lucky charms needed nothing more than a soldiers own experience to be created. A narrow escape from a shell or a gas attack while carrying some personal item sent from home instantly created a lucky charm. The story of a pocket Bible stopping or deflecting a bullet was far from a myth, and a number of examples are displayed in war museums across Europe. One was even depicted on a UK postage stamp marking the WWI Centenary. Another popular lucky charm, one of the most popular good-luck token taken into the battlefields by British soldiers, was the swastika, often in the form of badges, medallions and key-rings.

The churches in the combatant nations were ready to offer supernatural protection through prayer, to the troops of their own army, each of whom of course had 'God on their side', but perhaps more remarkable were a number of secular groups who felt they were able to offer psychic assistance. Davies draws our attention to the 'New Thought' movement, which grew out of Christian Science, and which called upon its members to combine their thoughts to offer protection to troops - they published a pamphlet on how to do this, entitled 'Bulletproof Soldiers'. The organisation eventually morphed into 'Pelmanism', a memory training programme which I remember being advertised in newspaper small ads into the 1960s.

In his final chapter, Davies looks at the post-war history of the beliefs that developed during the conflict. If the churches thought that the prayers that were said for the troops and those they left behind would develop into a religious revival, they were to be disappointed, although there was a wave of Marian apparitions in Belgium in the inter-war years. Spiritualism experienced growth but this was largely through 'Home Circles' and big public exhibitions in places like the Albert Hall. How much of this led to a growth in Spiritualism as a practising religion is debatable. Like Leo Ruickbie, Davies notes that the aftermath of the war for the SPR was mixed, with it dividing between a 'scientific' and a 'spiritual' wing, a division that plagued the Society for many years. Perhaps the only 'supernatural' movement that developed any momentum from the war was popular astrology, which “moved from the advertising columns to the main pages of the newspapers", and brought the development of the celebrity astrologer.

In the final paragraphs, we see that the same superstitions and good-luck charms that were carried through the trenches and battlefields thirty years earlier, re-appeared in the Second World War. We have reviewed a number of books recently which have argued against the idea that modern society became 'disenchanted' from magic as science developed. Although charms, amulets, prophets, astrology and the whole paraphernalia of belief have been with us for millennia, both these titles bear out Owen Davies's final words: “... the First World War and its legacy confirmed that the supernatural was profoundly modern.”  – John Rimmer.

8 February 2019


Trevor J Blank and Lynne S McNeill (Editors). Slender Man is Coming: Creepypasta and Contemporary Legends on the Internet. University Press of Colorado, 2018.

Who by now who follows Fortean themes, especially the contemporary ones, has not heard of the Slender Man? For the handful of you who may have emerged from your survivalist compound in the woods in order to top up your hoard of jerky, he/it is an abnormally tall, thin humanoid, dressed in a black suit and tie. Faceless, he loiters in the shade in children's playgrounds in exactly the manner that one should not. Thereafter, terrible things happen to the aforementioned mites and the blame is to be firmly laid at the out-of-focus feet of the Slender Man.

His/Its origins are firmly documented. The creature was created by Victor Surge (real name Eric Knudsen) on the Something Awful forum in 2009. There was a competition to produce 'paranormal' images and this has become the most notorious entry. The notoriety came about as a result of several violent episodes associated, some more tenuously than others, to the Slender Man. The culmination was the stabbing of a 12 year-old girl by her classmates in Waukesha, Wisconsin as a form of sacrifice to the Slender Man. This is what really put this fictional entity in the spotlight. Although other violent incidents occurred, the others did not seize the public consciousness in quite such a way. Without this, we would not be looking at yet another book about him/it.

Trevor J. Blank, Ph.D., is a folklorist and associate professor of communication and interdisciplinary studies at the State University of New York at Potsdam. His research interests include digital expression, pop culture, humour, public health, and urban legends. Lynne McNeill is a folklorist at Utah State University where she teaches online folklore courses. Her research interests include legends, folk beliefs, and digital culture.

This volume consists of essays by folklorists who must still be grateful for the well-documented path that the Slender Man has travelled. Comparisons are made with HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, which is also something whose creation has been recorded, although maybe not as assiduously as that of our protagonist. Paul Manning examines the impact of images, photographs in this case, can bleed over into life by bringing in the Cottingley fairies and the resultant fallout and how it affected Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in particular. In quite a few of the essays there is, unsurprisingly, an eye cast on how the Slender Man fits in with children and their culture. In general, what this work consists of is the professional folklorist examining this most recent and traceable of folklore. There are copious footnotes, a bibliography at the end of each essay and a main index at the back.

How does this work out? Well, the book is scholarly. So much so that some of the writing is verging on the impenetrable unless, presumably, the reader is also a scholar of folklore. Also, they really, really like the word 'ostention' which is, for the uninitiated, is 'the acting out of a legend'. It seems that, unsurprisingly, similar material is gone over time and again in different essays. The concept of the tulpa is covered, as it was in previous publications about the same subject. The Waukesha, Wisconsin, child stabbing is well and truly covered too. The crux, mind you, at the end of the day, is does this book bring anything particularly new to the dark being lurking in the shadows at the back of children's playgrounds? Maybe in the rarefied world of academia, but nothing of note jumps out for the rest of the world.

This is not a book to purchase for the casual enquirer into either the Slender Man phenomenon or folklore. For more approachable ones, some of those previously reviewed on this site will be worth a look. There are quite a few books on the subject of a fictional bogeyman than, quite honestly, one would think possible. It bears repeating that, if it were not for the appalling Waukesha issue where twelve year-olds behaved in such a potentially murderous fashion, it is safe to say that nobody would have heard of or be covering the Slender Man at all, let alone push out book after book on the subject. It may also be worth keeping in mind that the newer a medium of communication is then the more scrutiny it comes under. Still, if one is in the market for a much more in-depth look at the Slender Man and how he/it can be so malign that children are willing to commit such heinous acts in his/its name, then this does actually fulfil that criterion. – Trevor Pyne.

2 February 2019


Boria Sax. Dinomania: Why We Love Fear and Are Utterly Enchanted by Dinosaurs. Reaktion Books, 2018.

Anyone buying this lavishly and beautifully illustrated book will know from its title not to expect a history of dinosaurs. This book instead, which appears to be born of the author's own genuine fascination with the creatures, traces how society has treated the discovery of the dinosaur from the earliest of times.

That treatment has varied over the course of centuries. In the past, our ancestors under the influence of the Bible's statement in Genesis "And there were giants in those days" were mislead into mistaking fossil bones for evidence of human giants. It was not until the arrival of the nineteenth century that a more scientific approach was begun, and the science of palaeontology was founded This coupled with the proliferation of finds sparked interest, indeed obsession in the wider public, which has not shown any recent signs of diminishing. The central theme, then, of the book, is how that obsession has changed over time in society. This in fact is a form of cultural history because we learn a great deal about society from the way that society has reacted to and treated the discovery of the dinosaur.

In 1851 the Victorians created the astonishing Crystal Palace for the great Exhibition in Hyde Park, which was later moved to South London, and one of its prize exhibits was the collection of life-size dinosaurs, which "first brought dinosaurs to widespread public attention". The Victorians were careful not to place the models in sensationalist poses, and as the author comments, the models tell us more about the Victorians than they do about dinosaurs. Today the models can still be viewed at the Crystal Palace Park. [below]

Because the dinosaur became a symbol of modernity (oddly), the Americans at the turn of the 20th century, became the leaders of the field, with Andrew Carnegie purchasing the enormous skeleton of a diplodocus, which he named after himself and had placed in the British Museum. This seems to have been the start of a rapid acceleration in the commercialisation of everything dinosaur, the logo of a dinosaur then appearing on the petrol station pumps of Sinclair oil, inter alia.

This rapid commercialisation has exploited the image of the dinosaur throughout the twentieth century through theme parks, films and books. Inevitably the tone has been one of kitsch, the author commenting that the dinosaur has almost never appeared in high literature; he could find only two examples, one a reference in Dickens' Bleak House, and the other in a work by Italo Calvino. The author suggests one possible reason for this may be that the story of the dinosaur, "big, scary and extinct", provoked fears of humankind's own extinction, a theme the author then explores in some depth.

These philosophical musings then lead Sax to conclude with a series of provoking thought experiments, such as "what if the dinosaur had not become extinct..." Ultimately the book asks us to reflect not only on how our ancestors viewed the subject of the dinosaur but also on how we view it. By reflecting on the subject in this way, I suspect the author is trying to lead us to obtain for ourselves a morsel of self=knowledge. -- Robin Carlile

22 January 2019


Peter Shaver. The Rise of Science: From Prehistory to the Far Future. Springer International. 2018.

This book delivers a magnificent, outstanding and informative understanding of the evolution of science. The author shares his lifetime in science explaining the history of scientific discoveries from the earliest civilisations to the prospects for the far future, in a concise and comprehensible manner, “The world a few lifetimes ago would have looked much like as it did hundreds or even thousands of years before. It is only since then that our lives have changed so dramatically, thanks to science and technology.”

Shaver starts his narrative with a brief history of mankind. Our ancestors emerged out of the mist of time, developing conscious awareness about seven million years ago, evolving separately from chimpanzees and becoming a separate species, moving to the open Savannah of Africa and the cold plains of Asia, Europe and ultimately the rest of the world. A crucial evolutionary adaptions was bipedalism, bringing major advantages and allowing them to move faster and more efficiently, and free their hands for other tasks. Footprints have been found of our early ancestors in solidified volcanic ash dated at over 3.5 million years ago. Over the last two million years the technology of tools evolved, then about 50-100 thousand years ago, innovations of several kinds began to appear, tools made of bones, composite weapons such as spears, bow and arrow, fishing, cave paintings, jewellery, transport and burial sites, and most significantly activities of a symbolic and abstract nature.

He shows that all known cultures of the world practised some form of religion and each community created gods in its own image. About 10,000 years ago some of our ancestors gave up their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and became farmers. Humans were developing in step with each other even though they were on opposite sides of the planet, cities were built and were located in close proximity to large sources of water as irrigation was essential to all of them, they built canals, dikes and dams, and devices based on the principle of the lever were used in Egypt and Mesopotamia to raise water and pour it into canals

Although writing such as the cuneiform system was developed, along with mathematics, geometry and astronomical observations were conducted, Shaver points out that “none of these huge civilisations produced 'natural philosophy; the rational study of the intrinsic properties and workings of the natural and physical world the basis of modern science” and that “there was not a single natural philosopher known to us in any of these civilisations in spite of their wealth, size and millennia of history of existence. Why?”

The answer Shaver gives is that survival was uppermost for learned individuals, who were mostly employed in the workings of the state, and were constrained by the belief that it was religion that answered questions by invoking a god or other mythological ways to gather explanations. Certainly, he says, the priesthoods would have suppressed any independent thoughts, as kingdoms were ruled by a mandate from the gods, and the marriage of religion, politics and power.

It was the 'Greek Miracle' in the sixth century that the rise of science occurred, the world view changed from being dominated by mythology and religion, to causes that were part of the real world “the world was to be explained by science not by religion”, and the various schools of natural philosophy developed creating thousands of these Greek thinkers.

He outlines the work of many of the Greek philosophers, whose thinking laid the foundation of modern science. Men such as Thales of Miletus (625-545 BC) who is said to have predicted the solar eclipse of 28th May, 585 BC, Thales sought to explain the universe in natural rather than supernatural terms, and was followed by subsequent Greek philosophers over the next thousand years. Besides being considered the first true astronomer and mathematician, he also worked on metaphysics, ethics, history, engineering and geography, calculated the height of the pyramids from triangulation, and explored magnetism and static electricity.

Shaver then sets out the contributions to knowledge of many celebrated Greek philosophers. Pythagoras (570-495 BC) is best known for his geometric theorem, but he also contributed to music, astronomy and medicine. The 5th century Leucippus, was the originator of an atomic theory which asserting everything in the material world had a natural explanation. His most famous student was Democritus (420 BC) who is widely considered the father of modern science. He proposed that all matter is made of atoms (atmos meaning indivisible), clustered in groups. He also suggested that light consisted of atoms in transit, and that the universe was originally composed of atoms in chaos, collisions ultimately forming larger units such as Earth. As well as this early atomic theory, he also wrote on epistemology, aesthetics, mathematics, ethics, politics and biology.

Socrates (470-399 BC) was a towering figure in philosophy concentrating on moral issues. He did not make a direct contribution to science but Shaver shows that his method of enquiry had an influence on the scientific method, maintaining that scientific ideas have to stand up to scrutiny. His student Plato (428-348 BC) was a central figure and his most famous student was Aristotle, the three of them laid the foundations of western philosophy and science. Mathematics was central for Plato who said the real world can only be deduced through rational thought and mathematical truths are perfect, unlike the physical world of our senses.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) considered to be the 'Father of Zoology' had by far the greatest impact on the development of science. His vast output of 170 works on the natural sciences had a dominant influence through Islamic, medieval and Renaissance times until the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century.

Modern day scientific discoveries are unfolding at a rapid rate in every area and Shaver shows how advances in astronomy have benefited enormously from the new technologies that have become available over the last century. The entire electromagnetic spectrum has become accessible for astronomical observation: the radio, millimetre and optical wavebands are now observable with ground based telescopes as well as the infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray and gamma ray wavebands. Giant telescopes have been built, outfitted with huge high-tech instruments backed up by massive computing power, extending our observational reach to the farthest limits.

Shaver describes the 'Roads to Knowledge' as “curiosity, intelligence, freedom, education, self-motivation and determination are clearly essential. Luck and serendipity can sometimes play a role - stumbling onto a discovery, or finding a vital clue that leads to a major development”. He makes the important point that even mistakes can have beneficial consequences. War and peace are certainly important factors as many resources are concentrated during wartime and developed in peacetime. He gives examples such as code-breaking leading to the development of computer science, and the research into atomic weapons leading to the study of the subatomic world and the development of beneficial peaceful uses.

Many of the figures the author describes have shown a incredible determination to progress in their research. Galileo joined a monastery and became a medical student before becoming a tutor of mathematics and science, Newton at sixteen years old managed to avoid being a farmer and obtained a position at Cambridge, Herschel built his own telescopes and spent decades alone studying the heavens.

Shaver continues his account with the growth in the number of scientists (he calculates approximately eight million working in the world today) and the fact that the world currently spends 1.5 trillion dollars per year on research. Large international collaborations are becoming more commonplace and they have the greatest impact on science. Shaver goes on to show the development of the great inventions of the day, and describes possible future paths such as the 'quantum computer' allowing vast numbers of multiple states to be acted upon in parallel, and the remarkable 'slug slime” a glue that will stick skin, arteries and internal organs even a beating heart.

Science is integral to the fabric of society, we are reminded that science has risen and fallen three times over the last two and a half thousand years, and even in the last century has faced threats such as the Nazis burning books of 'Jewish science', China’s anti-intellectual 'Cultural Revolution', and most recently from radical Islamic fundamentalists. He makes the remarkable claim that “Our own evolution may also have accelerated over the years, and may now be as much as a hundred times faster than it was a few million years ago”.

In his conclusion Shaver says “The biggest developments of the far future may well come from discoveries that have not yet been made, and that we at present cannot even imagine. The mind boggles at what the future may hold for us. It will be quite an adventure”.

As well as being a comprehensive history of science, this is a well-written and very readable volume, with the author's enthusiasm and authority shining through. It is an ideal introduction to the development of scientific thought for the interested general reader, and could well be a standard textbook for schools, which would instil a real enthusiasm for science as well as provide the basic facts. I recommend this book wholeheartedly. – Gerrard Russell

17 January 2019


Edward Beyer and Randall Styers. Magic in the Modern World: Strategies of Repression and Legitimization. Penn State U.P., 2018.

Until recently, the idea that magic had been gradually removed from the modern world – the idea of ‘disenchantment’ - had been the standard attitude of historians and other scholars for over a hundred years. It was been perhaps expressed most clearly in Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971). The Reformation and the Enlightenment were seen as having removed magic from the world of everyday external experience, and internalised it purely in terms of subjective belief.

The first section of this book – the ‘strategies of repression’ - comprises four essays which describe how this process of disenchantment attempted to divorce magic from secular and scientific consideration. Randall Styers's 'Bad Habits, or How Superstition Disappeared in the Modern World' looks at how ‘superstition’ was changed from a religious to a purely psychological concept. Originally used to describe supernatural manifestations in a religious context – which could be either malign or beneficial – it gradually turned into a description of ‘wrongthink’, condemning those irrational ideas which were seen as incompatible with modernity.

Benedict Lang’s piece, 'Why Magic Cannot be Falsified by Experiments' considers the assumption that magical practices can be verified in the same way as scientific experiments, through verification by reproducing effects. He explains that main reason this does not appear to happen is because of the number of variables that might be seen to influence the result of a magical process. These cannot be adjusted for in the same way they can for a laboratory experiment, although in describing a personally conducted experiment involving a bottle of after-shave and a glass of Australian Cabernet, Lang also demonstrates that the repeatability of conventional scientific experiments has its own problems, which have often been overlooked by later writers

Adam Jortner's chapter, 'Witches as Liars' examines how witchcraft and magic were viewed in the early American republic, as enemies of the new nation's democratic values. Magic was the direct opposite of reason, and reason was proclaimed as the basis of free and democratic government. The arguments against magic were promoted through historical studies, with the Salem witch trials of a century earlier being used as an example of government being disrupted through magical beliefs, allowing an unscrupulous individual to exert power over the populace.

The message was also spread through fictional accounts and theatrical presentations. William Pinchbeck achieved fame through a touring magical act, which involved amongst other wonders a 'Goat of Knowledge', turning later into an 'Amazing Randi' style debunker, explaining to the formerly gullible public who lapped up his performances exactly how the 'magic' was produced.

Of course, even in the new, rational Jeffersonian republic there were still people immersed in the depth of magic and credulity, such as Native- and African-Americans. A certain David Reese wrote a book with the striking title of Humbugs of New York; Being a Remonstrance against Popular Delusions Whether in Science, Philosophy or Religion, where he made it clear that those most vulnerable to such humbuggery were the “weak sisters and female brethren [sic] whose intellectual imbecility renders them an easy prey to delusion”.

The second half of the book, 'Magic in Modernity', considers 'Legitimisation', consisting of a second set of four essays looking at contemporary magical thought and practice. The first essay, by Egil Asprem considers the use by contemporary magical practitioners of John Dee's 'Enochian' Angel alphabet. But Asprem says that modern magicians using this system take little notice of Dee's original sources and his prophetic purpose, instead using sources which have been mediated through nineteenth and early twentieth century writers and practitioners. In many cases they were basing their practice on the Enochian messages described in Meric Casaubon's True and Faithful Relation, which was actually written denouncing Dee's angelic magic, which Casaubon thought were actually actually produced by evil spirits. Outlining the way in which Dee's original texts were re-interpreted and re-discovered by later writers, he finds a “cacophony of practices, theories, interpretations and discourses building on Dee's material” and concludes that many modern practitioners of 'Enochian' magic have been working from almost totally fictional material.

This is an approach which practitioners of magical systems based around the so-called Necronomicon might quite openly endorse. The version of the Necronomicon that Dan Harms describes appeared first in New York City in 1977, attributed to the pseudonymous 'Simon'. Since then there have been numerous versions from different publishers. The Necronomicon is of course the totally fictitious book of 'forbidden knowledge' invented by horror writer H P Lovecraft, and in his fictional history it was translated from the original Arabic into English by John Dee himself, presumably just a hundred yards or so away from where I am writing this!

Harms claims that Simon's version of the Necronomicon is not a hoax, as its origins are quite transparent, concluding that the Necronomicon established its authority with practising magicians, “not through reference to magic itself, but through our postmodern conceptions of what magic should be”

The conflict, and indeed close relationship between magic and science is examined in Erik Davis's account of the life and work of the magician and rocket scientist Jack Parsons. His involvement in magic developed in the libertarian and libertine atmosphere of post-war Californian bohemian society, where he met characters such as L. Ron Hubbard and Robert Heinlein. Davis sees Parsons as a postmodernist figure - resembling the practitioners of Necronomicon rituals - who drew his inspiration from traditional magical roots, literary, and scientific sources in a way that seemed to integrate science and magic.

Seiðr was a form of Norse ritual magic, dating from Viking and pre-Viking times, and historically performed exclusively by women. In the Nordic sagas, it was considered an attack on a man's virility to charge him with practising seiðr, and an example is given of the trickster Loki taunting Oðinn about his masculinity by making such an accusation. This has caused problems for contemporary Neopagan and and Heathens – a term largely signifying attachment to North European traditions – and this chapter analyses the historical and modern significance of gender and gender politics for contemporary practitioners. This is perhaps the least accessible essay in this collection, requiring a significant amount of background knowledge to fully follow the argument.

Perhaps the main value of this collection is not so much in each individual contribution, but in adding a great deal of scholarly weight to the voices increasingly challenging the 'disenchantment' theory of the history of magic, and establishing contemporary magical practices as subjects worthy of scholarly study. – John Rimmer

14 January 2019


Barry Scott Wimpfheimer. The Talmud: A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2018.

Until fairly recently, most non-Jews had either never heard of the Talmud, or else were under the impression that it gave instructions upon how to sacrifice Christian children. It is actually a massive compendium of early Jewish thought. The core of it, termed the Mishnah, is a systematic law code. The bulk of the work is a discursive commentary on this known as Gemara. Analysts divide the contents in halakhah (law) and aggadah (non-law, mostly legend).

For a representative example of halakah, Wimpfheimer takes a basic legal decision from the Mishnah: ‘A dog who took a cake [baking on top of hot coals] and went to a haystack, it ate the cake and set fire to the haystack: on account of the cake [an owner] pays full damages, but on the haystack [an owner pays] half-damages.’

This passage produced endless commentaries by later writers, for instance Maimonides (twelfth century), whose Mishnah Torah was an attempt to produce a more systematic codification of Jewish law. But Rabad, ‘the established leading rabbi of Provence’ disagreed so strongly that he wrote a sharp gloss on it while he was on his death bed: he said that the dog’s owner should be liable for the whole haystack, not only one half.

For aggadah, he picks out one of the most implausible legends: that when the Children of Israel reached Mount Sinai, ‘the Holy One Blessed Be He overturned the mountain like a barrel over them and said to them, “It is good if you all accept the Torah, but if not . . . there will be your burial site”.’ This was deduced from a single word in the Book of Exodus (19:17), betahtit, “at the foot of”; the prefix be- is unnecessary, so it was interpreted as meaning that they were not at the base of the mountain, but literally underneath it.

In many places the Talmud gives various rival opinions without adjudicating between them. Ezekiel (37:1-14) had a vision of dead bones coming back to life. ‘One early rabbi asserts that the bones were brought to life for a moment, they sang a song and they expired. This occasions a reaction from a colleague who thinks that this is too literal a rendering: the dry bones, in his view, are a hypothetical parable. A group of later rabbis disagrees with both ideas. The dry bones’ corpses, says one rabbi, got married and had children and grandchildren in the land of Israel. Another rabbi adds to this claim by asserting that one of his ancestors was one of these dry bones people and the rabbi possesses his ancestor’s phylacteries.’

In 1240, at the behest of Louis IX of France, the Talmud was put on trial. It was found guilty and sentenced to be burnt. Some twenty carloads of handwritten Talmuds went up in smoke, at a site normally used for executing humans, but fortunately this was not the end.

The first printed editions were incunabula, that is, from before 1500. These were only of single tractates. The first complete edition was produced at Venice by Daniel Bomberg between 1520 and 1523. In this, the text was framed by the commentary of Rashi (1040-1105), and Tosafist commentary. This was successful enough to establish a fixed pagination for the body of the entire Talmud (though this must have created headaches for the typesetters of all subsequent editions).

It became more widely distributed than ever before. The first volume of the 1880-1886 edition produced at Vilnius by the Romm Press sold more than 22,000 copies in its first year. One interesting edition was the 'Survivor’s Talmud'. In 1946 a delegation of rabbis approached the United States military about the unavailability of the Talmud for the many Jews displaced by the Nazis. So they requisitioned a printing house in Heidelberg and brought out a 'beautiful' photo-offset edition.

The Vilna edition has become absolutely standard, so that, for instance, among Orthodox Jews, it is a standard practice for a bride’s family to present the groom with a full set of the Talmud as a wedding present, but it has to be the Vilna edition. Most curiously, among ultra-Orthodox circles in Israel, it is absolutely forbidden for females to study the Talmud, but this is, again, only applied to the Vilna edition, so that women and girls ‘are permitted to study from worksheets onto which the Talmud’s digital text has been pasted.’

It is unfortunate that limitations of size mean that many things have had to be left out. He mentions that the original Venice printing of the Talmud was purchased by, among others Henry VIII of England. Space, I suppose, did not permit him to describe how Henry VIII later engaged a Talmudic scholar as part of his (unsuccessful) campaign to persuade the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

I think that a glossary and list of abbreviations would have been useful. More than once in his notes he references “two JTS manuscripts”. I think this may stand for 'Jewish Theological Seminary', but he does not say so. – Gareth J. Medway

11 January 2019


Damion Searls. The Inkblots - Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing. Broadway Books, 2018.

When I first took a look at the cover of this book, the main title prompted a stray thought to arise in my mind.  Was this not the name of a black American vocal group that was popular in the 1940s and early 50s? An online check quickly confirmed that they were, of course, known as 'The Ink Spots'. Presumably they chose that name to emphasise that they were all black, but they were certainly not making any reference to the famous 'Rorschach Inkblot Test', nor do they have any relevance to this book review. 

My point in mentioning that trivial query is to give an illustration of how our human minds work, by association. This happens most obviously with words and images.  Word association research for psychological insights was pioneered by Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton. The participant was instructed to say the first word that came to mind on hearing each word in a series given by the researcher. Freud and Jung both experimented with the technique for what it might reveal about the subconscious.

When it comes to the use of images to explore the subconscious of a participant by their response to, or interpretation of, an abstract 'ink blot' shape, Hermann Rorschach (1884 - 1922) is the man we remember. And yet, apart from his eponymous test, what else do we know of him? In general, very little, which is why this book is of such great interest. Until now there has not been a full biography of Rorschach's tragically short life. In fact, this book is effectively two biographies in one. The first part gives us an overall appreciation of the man, his life, career and character. The second part covers the evolution and usage of the Ink Blot Test itself over the more than 100 years of its life, or perhaps the term 'afterlife' would be more apt.

The photograph of Rorschach on the book's cover shows a surprisingly modern-looking man in the prime of life, handsome and charismatic in a way that is very reminiscent of the film star Brad Pitt. His hair is short and spiky, adding to his visual appeal, but I felt there was a quality in his eyes that revealed a young man with deep intelligence, curiosity, sensitivity, and empathy. These are indeed the qualities that Searls skilfully presents to create a living portrait of Rorschach from the mass of source material, such as personal letters, that he painstakingly gathered for this project.

As the final part of the subtitle confirms, Searls develops a theme that runs through the whole book, that of 'the power of seeing', the key to understanding the simple genius of the Inkblot Test in which there is no right or wrong answer.  It all depends on your perception. "Tell me what you see" is a prompt that may be used by the practitioner to invite the subject to reveal personal associations and thought processes in a way that is not obviously judgemental. Rorschach's emphasis on the quality of empathy is all about how we connect with the world around us, both in our inner associations and how we project them back to others.


Rorschach was fascinated by inkblots from an early age. Searls reveals a most interesting fact from his research: "In a twist of fate that seems too good to be true, Rorschach's nickname in school was 'Klex', the German word for 'inkblot'. Was young Blot Rorschach already tinkering with ink, his destiny foretold?"

For one interested in destiny and life purpose, synchronicity is often a signpost to help make a decision, or to confirm a meaning to what has already happened. Searls refers to 1884, the year of Rorschach's birth, as a "light-bringing year. The Statue of Liberty, officially titled 'Liberty Enlightening the World', was presented to the US ambassador in Paris on America's Independence Day." It was also the year that electric street-lights first appeared in continental Europe, and in America the first workable roll of photographic film was patented by George Eastman. Zurich, where Rorschach was born, was a modern, dynamic city, the largest in Switzerland, and a melting pot of intellect and innovation.

Fate intervened in young Hermann's life on several occasions. Searls tells some engaging stories of a happy childhood, with a sister and then a brother coming after him into a happy family. But his dear mother died when he was only 12, a severe blow. His father re-married but the three children suffered yet more when their fears of having a 'wicked stepmother' became all too true. She was rigid and "strict to the point of cruelty", although years later his kind heart moved him to express appreciation for her in letters to his sister Anna, to whom he remained very close. In 1903 his father became ill and died when Hermann was only 19. He had to grow up quickly, and it was this event that galvanized him into the decision to train and pursue a career helping the afflicted in mental health asylums.

Rorschach could have been a great artist. He was inspired by his father, an art teacher, and might have followed that path had his father not died at that time when we was still weighing up his options. On page 17 of the book there are two classical portrait drawings side by side, one by his father and one by Hermann. They are both impressively excellent, conveying the idiosyncratic expressions and characters of the elderly male subjects. This alone showed me that the young Rorschach had an eye of compassion and empathy, which must have served him and his patients very well.

He did find happiness with a good wife, a Russian woman named Olga with whom he became engaged in 1909, the same year he graduated in medicine. They went on to have two children, but they did not in turn produce any offspring so there are no living descendants of Rorschach in the world today. But he lives on in his ten standardised inkblot images and the test he devised that to this day, despite controversies along the way, is still used in some psychological assessments. And now, thanks to Damion Searls' very fine biography, Hermann Rorschach will deservedly be remembered as a man as well as a name. – Kevin Murphy