129: Spook by Mary Roach

by Gerard

129: Roach, Mary. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. 295 pp. ISBN 978-0-393-32912-4.

The Dewey Decimal Classification, for all of its ease of use and formulaic predictability, is also very Christian-centric. The 200s are devoted to religion, but the non-Western religions are relegated to the 290s. Contrary to what you might believe, works on the origin and continuation of individual souls falls under philosophy (the 100s). This is because the soul is an object identified when human beings start to wonder where they come from and where they are going after death. It is more a question of consciousness than religious belief. That being said, there are numerous works on the existence and fate of one’s soul.

Mary Roach, known for her witty scientific investigations of human coitus (Bonk) and corporeal decomposition (Stiff), tries to get to the bottom of the soul question. Does it exist? Can it be quantified? What can science help us to understand about it? Her journeys take her to India to investigate alongside a reincarnation specialist. For there, she visits mediums, biologists, quantum physicists, “ectoplasm” experts, and near-death experience researchers. Since no one has provided conclusive evidence for souls and their nature, the researchers she visits have to be (by default) operating just outside of the normal sphere of science. The great thing about that is that they have to. No great research was ever lauded for staying inside the current mode of thinking. The experiments they are trying are slightly odd and cumbersome, but try to answer real questions.

Roach’s immediate skepticism is readily apparent in all of her encounters, but she is willing to keep a partially open mind (most of the time). It’s very hard to keep a straight face when you’re sitting in a class, learning how to become a medium for ghosts when you don’t have a firm hold of your own beliefs. Coming at this from the cold light of science is the rational thing to do. Her humor is brilliant, however. There were many times when I had to stifle laughter (in public) for fear being labeled “a nutter.”

I honestly think this book has something for everyone. If you whole-heartedly believe in the soul, then you should be excited to see that there are scientific minds at work trying to prove it. And if you don’t, then you can laugh and enjoy the blow-by-blow account of all the weird articles published by the Society of Psychical Research. After reading her earlier book Stiff, I am looking forward to her other two.