13 May 2020


Richard Noakes. Physics and Psychics; The Occult and the Sciences in Modern Britain. Cambridge University Press. 2019.

Psychical researchers, at least those at the more serious end will often justify the validity of their subject by referring to the many notable scientists in other areas of science who have been interested in, and often done their own research into alleged psychic phenomena.

In particular a group of physicist at the end of the nineteenth century, giants in their field, who not only researched psychical phenomena but were convinced of their reality. These included Sir Oliver Lodge, who was Professor of Physics and Mathematics at University College, Liverpool and later the first principal of Birmingham University, as well as the mathematician and physicist James Clerk Maxwell. The chemist William Crookes, and many other contemporaries, were active researchers and proponents of psychic phenomena.

Although their interest is now sometimes seen to be an anomaly, and it is possible to point to many of their contemporaries who were as critical of psychical research as any modern-day ‘skeptic’, Richard Noakes demonstrates that their interest was not an isolated off-shoot of the development of science, but an integral part of the history of science.

He points out that in the mid-nineteenth century ‘physics’ as a distinct discipline was only gradually being refined, and what phenomena it might or might not include was still open to debate. It is significant that some of the earliest scientific interest in psychic and ‘occult’ topics came from scientists and engineers working in the fields such as electricity and telegraphy. As scientists were finding out more about magnetism, electricity and Hertzian (radio) waves, the idea of some other invisible, almost undetectable force seemed an attractive idea and attracted many researchers.

Noakes also suggest that a major influence in the wider acceptance of psychic phenomena came as a result of the increasing secularisation of scientific thought. Many, maybe even most, of the early ‘physical-psychical scientists’ were Christians who tended to look to psychic phenomena as a defence against the growth of secular and atheistic ideas in all aspects of scientific thought. In this they mirrored the more ‘occult’ inclined movements such as Theosophy. This attitude continued in psychical research well into the twentieth century, and set the pattern for the development of the Society for Psychical Research’s search for evidence of personal survival after bodily death. Indeed, the idea of conservation of matter and energy was used to suggest that there was a scientific background for such a belief.

The book describes many of the experiments undertaken by Crookes, Lodge and others, which may seem rather naive to us now, particularly in the attempts made to study the physical phenomena of mediumship. The experiments, although outwardly scientific – electrical connectors which would break if the medium moved to fake an effect for instance – were invariably flawed by allowing the medium and his/her (usually her) handlers to impose their own conditions on how the experiment was conducted. One sceptical researcher who broke the conventions and pulled the curtain away from the medium’s enclosed chair, to reveal her moving into the seance-room was generally regarded to have broken the etiquette of the séance.

You must remember though that most of these investigators were physical scientists and their experiments reflected their scientific experience. Electric motors don’t tell lies, gravity doesn’t need a dark room to work, the spectrum doesn’t have an ‘off-day’ in the presence of a sceptic. Although conjurers like Maskelyn were already reproducing seance-room phenomena, the idea of asking one to investigate a medium as part of a scientific experiment was thought unacceptable. The idea predominated that such tomfoolery may amaze and mystify the hoi-poloi, but ‘Herr Professor’ could not be fooled by such simple tricks. Indeed, the names in this book indicate the class divide that ran through the whole field of psychical research, and still does to some extent.

Another issue that confronted the physicists was the growing doubt of the idea of ‘ether’ as a universal medium through which such effects as gravity, radio waves and the transmission of light were possible. It was also available to explain how even the transmission of messages from the dead to the living, might be facilitated. Ether provided a medium for the survival of an individual presence following bodily death, a concept which Crookes in particular returned to after the carnage of the First World War and the death of his own son.

The challenges the concept of ether, through Einstein’s and others’ theories and experiments, led to physicists questioning the work of the earlier pioneers like Crookes and Lodge. The ‘discovery’ and later dismissal of ‘N-Rays’ as a semi-psychic equivalent to X-Rays also increased the unwillingness of scientists to involve themselves in an increasingly controversial and possibly career threatening topic as psychic phenomena.

Although some physicists retained an interest in psychic phenomena, their scientific involvement was often limited to devising physical controls to guard against any fraudulent practice when investigating mediums and others claiming paranormal powers.

As physicists began to move away from studying psychic phenomena, another developing science was moving into the field, psychology. A pioneer of introducing the methods of the sciences of the mind and brain into the investigation of psychical phenomena was J B Rhine, a botanist who had begun studying psychic phenomena after studying psychology at Harvard, and undertaking investigations of psychics.

Convinced that the medium Mina Cranston used trickery in her seances, he began testing for psychic abilities in laboratory conditions, using the term ‘parapsychology’ instead of ‘psychical research’. He moved from investigating mediums and ‘spontaneous phenomena’ toward testing for traces of paranormal abilities in the general population, via his students at Duke University.

We now tend to see the involvement of prominent scientists in investigating phenomena such as table-turning, materialisations and the activities of the seance-room as a bizarre side-track to their their more conventional scientific work. Noakes denies this and suggests that it was “of a piece with the scientific and technological enterprises for which our protagonists are justly remembered”, concluding that if that is so, “it will greatly enhance our understanding of the complex sources of scientific creativity in the past and our appreciation of them in the future.” – John Rimmer.

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