Did you know it's possible to subject your blog to a handy ratings system? We were thrilled when we found out, and promptly submitted our humble blog for "review." Alas, it came back with a rating of... NC-17! Say what? Sure, we offer alcoholic drink recipes, but Jen-Luc Piquant swears she assiduously checks the IDs of any thirsty freeloading avatars that swing by to sample those libations. And we keep the cursing to a minimum. So why the NC-17 rating?
Well, in recent posts, there were six mentions of "corpse," five mentions of "death," three mentions of "hurt," two mentions of "hell" and one mention of "penis" (a dessicated, detached penis belonging to an ancient Egyptian mummy, but apparently that doesn't matter to the blogospheric ratings board). I leave it to my readers to draw their own conclusions regarding what this says about my psyche. It's all the more embarrassing because Cosmic Variance -- where Future Spouse hangs his blogging hat -- came in with a G rating. Disney meets David Lynch in our Los Angeles abode. Even more galling: PZ Myers at Pharyngula merited a PG rating (2 mentions of "abortion" and 1 mention of "screwing"). C'mon! The guy routinely posts graphic cephalod porn! That's gotta be worth an X rating, or at the very least, an R! At least the marvelous folks at the Shakesville blog -- from whence I found the rating system -- also garnered an NC-17 rating.
The ratings board was accurate about one thing: we can't deny that we do have a rather morbid fascination with corpses, death, and various other gross-out factors. (I'm currently reading a novelization of the infamous Crippen murder -- you know, the guy who killed his wife, chopped her up, and buried the pieces in the basement. The head was never found.) And we're suckers for a gripping ghost story. Which is why I pounced on a May 14 story in Infoworld about "the ghost who sabotaged the mainframe." When I say "pounced," I mean, clipped and saved in my fodder file until I found an excuse to mention it. But better late than never.
It tells the sad tale of Ernie who, back in 1971, was head of data processing for unnamed nonprofit in New York City. Ernie had recently retired, having spent years setting up the department and writing all the programs for the mainframe. A week after retiring, he was killed in a car crash. And soon after that, all kinds of mysterious strange things started happening around the office. Nobody took much notice, until the door the computer room began opening and closing on its own. Even weirder, instead of the usual cold blast of air that met the workers when they opened the door, there was a warm gentle breeze. And then, the new director of data processing tried to replace the old mainframe computer. The Ghost of Ernie was having none of it, and the new system was beset with problems -- until the new director took a stand and got forceful, demanding that Ernie leave things alone. Apparently it worked, and once the new system was up and running, the old mainframe was sold as scrap. From then on the Ghost of Ernie was sensed no more.
There were some mocking comments around the Internets when this story first appeared, and even its author, Jill Terry, admits she used to be such a skeptic, before she found herself actually arguing with a perceived ghost, and realized that "lunacy is relative." And she's not alone: a 2005 Gallup poll found that more than a third of Americans believe that houses can be haunted, with 32% specifically professing to believe in ghosts. I'm firmly in the skeptic camp myself, but I'm disinclined to add to the ridicule, for reasons which shall soon become clear. Terry's story has some classic tropes of the genre: the warm gentle breeze, the prickling of the skin, the strange occurrences, and odd sounds. All that's missing is a visual: Ernie, apparently, was a shy sort of specter.
The notion of ghosts has been around for millennia, even making an appearance in the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh. We're still fascinated by the subject today. Witness the popularity of TV shows like Medium, Jennifer Love Hewitt's Ghost Whisperer, or cable TV's documentary-style Ghost Hunters. It's all part of man's strong desire for some sort of "life" after physical death, because it's so difficult for us to imagine the prospect of simply "not being."
For all the public fascination, no respectable scientist ever took this stuff seriously -- at least not in public -- until the late 19th century, when a renowned Harvard professor of psychiatry, William James, joined with a small group of other illustrious scientists to found the American Society for Psychical Research -- the US counterpart to the British Society for Psychical Research. Together, they sought solid, scientific proof of supposedly "inexplicable" phenomena: ESP, mediums (slate writing, table rapping, etc.), and ghostly visitations, specifically, "crisis apparitions": in which a loved one appears to a person at night, and said person finds out soon after that the loved one has died.
James and his cohorts form the basis for Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Deborah Blum's latest book, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. It's a meticulously researched, engagingly written, and fascinating read, championing the courage of James and Co. in defying the scientific establishment by undertaking such a pursuit, without turning a blind eye to their failures and tortured humanity. The history is filled with colorful personalities and both amusing and moving anecdotes, and I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in this unusual period of scientific history. In case you're worried that Blum's book is some New Age-y defense of crass spiritualism: yes, the vast majority of the cases the SPR studied turned out to be fraudulent -- sometimes ingeniously so -- and this was understandably very disheartening to the researchers. But a tiny fraction -- 5% -- defied all attempts at scientific explanation, and gave them the will to go on. (Blum takes no strong stance on that remaining 5%, other than to say it warrants further research until (a) a scientific explanation is found, or (b) definitive proof that they are genuine evidence of an afterlife can be offered.)
I was surprised to learn that Michael Faraday was one of the outspoken skeptics, publishing a letter to The Times of London in 1853 explaining the "secret" behind table tilting, based on his own carefully designed experiment. "The experiment showed that table tilters were often unaware of their own actions," Blum writes. "As Faraday explained, the board was responding to unconscious muscular twitches, 'mere mechanical pressure exerted inadvertently by the turner.'" On the other side of the fence was Faraday's fellow physicist William Crookes, who was an SPR member, off and on, although Blum reports that the objectivity of his research suffered on account of his susceptibility to the more attractive female mediums he studied. Still, the man was hardly a scientific crackpot, even if he wasn't in a par with Faraday's gigantic stature.
The various SPR members - both US and British -- passed on to the Other Side without ever definitively proving any real psychic powers, the existence of ghosts, or the existence of an afterlife. Blum herself largely remains a skeptic, although she admits to being fascinated by the crisis apparition phenomenon. She also mourns the loss of an era when some of the Western world's best scientific minds were brought to bear on the problem. Because that 5% of unexplained events remains just that: unexplained.
That doesn't mean there aren't a few theories. There are still a handful of skeptics seeking more than the usual debunking and unmasking of fraud. They seek a valid scientific explanation for such apparitions, other than the obvious: people can hallucinate or mistake reflections, shadows and strange noises for ghostly activity. Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire is one of them. He's collected anecdotes and measured a wide range of physical conditions at purported "haunted" sites -- light, humidity, sound, and magnetic fields -- and has reported some interesting findings.
For instance, some haunted locations have magnetic fields that are stronger than normal. It's possible that the stronger fields affect the brain in some way. It's already known that electrical stimulation of the angular gyrus will make you feel as if someone is behind you, mimicking your movements (although if you'd grown up with my older brother, that wouldn't have been a hallucination). A similar kind of stimulation might contribute to near-death experiences. Then there's temperature: people routinely report cold spots or sudden drops of temperature in specific areas, which they believe indicate a ghostly presence. More often than not, it's a draft coming from somewhere in the house, or the result of lower humidity. One of the sites Wiseman studied, Mary King's Close, showed lower humidity in those areas purported to be haunted.
The Close is a series of allegedly haunted streets and houses in Edinburgh. Wiseman's study of the area was carried out in 2005, part of an Einstein Year program sponsored by the National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts. About 70% of the 200 members of the public who participated reported experiencing unusual phenomena, mostly mild (suddenly feeling cold, eg), although some felt they were being watched or touched, felt their clothes being tugged, or heard unexplained footsteps. The results indicate that these experiences are "real" in the sense that people actually feel those sensations. That doesn't mean they're attributable to ghosts. Wiseman was very clear on this point: "Although some people may view the results as evidence for ghosts, our findings suggest that participants' expectations, combined with subtle differences in the appearance and physical characteristics of the locations, may affect how anxious people feel when they enter the spaces, and this may create unusual sensations."
The biggest culprit when it comes to ghostly sounds and sightings might be infrasound, low-frequency sound waves below the range of human hearing, that can nevertheless have tangible effects: feelings of nervousness, for example, or hyperventilation, or even a sense of another presence in the room. There's even speculation that these sound waves vibrate at the resonant frequency of the human eyeball, causing visual hallucinations.
Vic Tandy was a strong proponent of the infrasonic theory, and even pegged the specific guilty frequency -- 18.9 Hz -- before his untimely death in 2005. Officially, he was affiliated with the school of international studies and law at Coventry University, but he was also the unofficial "chief ghost buster." (Perhaps Bill Murray will play him in the film version of his quest.) He wrote two papers for the journal of the Society of Psychical Research: one citing infrasound as the cause of a "haunting" in a laboratory in Warwick, and another citing infrasound as the source of a "ghost" in the cellar at Coventry Cathedral. Lots of otherwise sane people felt uneasy descending into the cellar, sensing some kind of presence, and occasionally -- as in the case of a visiting journalist -- seeing the face of a woman peering over their shoulder.
As for the Warwick laboratory, Tandy himself worked there, and could personally attest that the effects of infrasound feel very real indeed. He was working late one night, and suddenly felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. At the same time, he caught a glimpse of a gray apparition out of the corner of his eye, that disappeared when returned to face it. The culprit? A newly installed extractor fan. "When we finally switched it off, it was as if a huge weight was lifted," he told the Guardian in July 2000, and he suspected there may also be a connection between infrasound and "sick-building syndrome." I have a strong suspicion that Ernie the Ghost's spooky effects were at least partly due to something like infrasonic vibrations from that old mainframe -- because when Terry and her colleagues got rid of it, the "ghostly presence" disappeared. Regardless, Tandy died before he could complete his investigation into why some people are affected by infrasound and others, apparently, aren't.
On the whole, unless one is seeking to debunk ghoulies and ghosties and psychic powers, engaging in this type of thing won't exactly win the respect of one's scientific peers. Just ask Robert G. Jahn. For 30 years, Jahn ran the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab (PEAR), which conducted highly controversial research on telekinesis and the ability of study participants to influence machines using just the power of thought (unaided any of those newfangled wireless implants that enable monkeys to move computer cursors with their thoughts). The experiments were essentially mechanized coin flips: people tried to influence the outcome of each "toss".
Ultimately, Jahn published more than 60 papers, mostly with the Society for Scientific Exploration, which devotes itself to research topics outside the mainstream, of the scientific community. His "evidence" wasn't exactly compelling: after accounting for statistical fluctuations, he concluded that only 2 or 3 out of 10,000 "flips" could be attributed to influence from the participants' thoughts. After three decades of research, I, for one, would require something a bit more tangible as evidence. Still, science is ideally about rigorous honest inquiry, and there shouldn't be taboos on what's allowed to be investigated -- if someone wants to look into kooky phenomena like ghosts and ESP, and they're adopting a scientific approach, why should they be subjected to ridicule and isolation? It's not like our tax dollars were paying for PEAR's research (it would never have passed peer review, anyway); Jahn relied on private donations.
That quest is now over for Jahn: PEAR closed its doors earlier this year, putting an end to a strange era in Princeton's history. The ever-irascible Bob Park -- author of Voodoo Science -- called PEAR "an embarrassment to science," but I'm more inclined to share the view of Princeton physics professor Will Happer (and I suspect Blum would, too): "I don't believe in anything Bob is doing, but I support his right to do it."