An entertaining and thought-provoking foray into the science of the bizarre, the peculiar, and the downright nutty!
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About the Author
Department of Physics, University of Bristol, England. The author of more than eighty scientific papers, Fisher has made more than 200 radio and television appearances worldwide.
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Weighing the Soul
I once took part in a science call-in show on an Australian radio station where a builder phoned in claiming to be able to change his weight by the force of his will. He said that he could reduce his weight by a kilogram just by crouching down on his bathroom scale and concentrating, and the reading on the scale proved it.
My caller really believed that he could change his weight. He was not the first to have fallen into this trap. Who among us has not stepped on and off the bathroom scale several times and chosen to believe the lowest weight that was registered? I told him that the reading on his bathroom scale probably depended on his position on the scale platform but congratulated him on performing a real scientific test of his belief. My congratulations were absolutely genuine. That is what real science is all about — checking out beliefs against reality, a process that often involves the accurate measurement of weight.
Scientists, like dieters, are preoccupied with weight. Dieters want to lose it, but scientists want to find it, because it tells us more about Nature than any other single measurement. The founding patron of the Royal Society of London, King Charles II, scoffed at its members for "spending time only in weighing ayre and doing nothing else," but such accurate measurements eventually revealed that air is a very real material composed of a mixture of different gases. It seemed that heat must also be a real material: a tenuous liquid that flowed from hotter to colder places and forced other materials to expand as it entered them. Attempts to weigh heat proved fruitless, however, and forced later scientists to conclude that heat is not a material substance but a form of the immaterial entity that we now call energy.
Heat is not the only immaterial entity that scientists have tried to weigh. Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings show the jackal god Anubis using a set of balance scales to weigh the soul of a recently dead person against a feather. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the American doctor Duncan MacDougall used a modern balance in an actual attempt to weigh the departing soul. MacDougall contended that the soul, if it existed, must have the attributes of a material substance, and his experiments seemed to support his conclusion. This chapter tells the story of those experiments, which were remarkably similar to late-eighteenth-century efforts to weigh heat, and asks why modern scientists find it so easy to believe in a mysterious, weightless entity called energy but find it so difficult to believe in the validity of MacDougall's results. The answers shed light on the true nature of scientific belief and show why scientists can have such a hard time of it when it comes to having their beliefs accepted by other scientists and by the wider community.
I have always been fascinated by the idea that I might have a soul. My early Sunday school teachers inculcated the idea and responded to my incessant questioning as to where the soul might be by saying that it was deep inside me. My earliest scientific experiment was to shine a flashlight down my throat while looking in a mirror to see if I could get a glimpse of my soul, which I imagined would look rather like a Gummi Baby.
I was not the first experimentalist to search for the physical location of the soul. Leonardo da Vinci was denounced as a sorcerer in 1515 for attempting to find the seat of the soul by dissecting the brain, following the belief of the time that the soul, or senso comune, had its abode at the center of the head. More recently, the California physiologist Vilayanur Ramachandran and his colleagues have claimed that a specific part of the brain associated with temporal lobe epilepsy is also associated with intense religious experience.
I began to lose my personal belief in the soul when later teachers explained that the soul was something that I could never touch, see, or feel. This worried me, since I could not understand how a soul could touch and affect me if I could not touch and affect it. I did not know that philosophers have struggled for three hundred years with this intractable question, known as the mind-body problem, or that one person had tried to solve it experimentally by attempting to weigh the soul.
The experimenter was Dr. Duncan MacDougall, a physician at a small municipal hospital in Haverhill, Massachusetts. MacDougall, like myself, was not sure whether the soul existed or not, but he was quite convinced that, if it did, it must be a material object that occupied space. He outlined his argument in a letter to his friend Dr. Richard Hodgson, M.D., on November 10, 1901:
If personal identity (and consciousness and all the attributes of mind and personality) continue to exist after the death of a body, it must exist as a space-occupying body, unless the relations here in this world between the conscious ego and space, our notions of space as fixed in our brain by inheritance and experience are wholly to be set aside and a new set of space relations to consciousness suddenly established, which would be such a breach in the community of nature that I cannot imagine it.
MacDougall's central tenet, that things can only exist in a space that we are able to conceive and visualize, was to take a considerable battering at the hands of Einstein and others a few years later, but even in MacDougall's day it was already obvious from scientific experiment that there were more things in Heaven and Earth than we could dream of, and scientists have repeatedly had to invoke the existence of things outside the range of our imagination just to make sense of the things that we can see, feel, and measure. MacDougall's imagination, though, was limited to the concrete. He believed that the soul, if it existed, must have material form. What he wanted to know was whether that material had weight.
MacDougall does not distinguish in his writings between weight and mass, although the difference has been known since the time of Newton. Mass is an intrinsic property of an object and does not depend on where the object is. Weight is the downward force that tips a set of scales when the object is in a gravitational field. Objects weigh less on the Moon than they do on Earth because the Moon's gravitational pull on the object is smaller. The force also drops off with distance from the center of Earth (or the Moon), which is one reason records in field events such as the high jump or the shot-put tend to be easier to set at high altitudes. The ultimate place to set such records would be in space, where Earth is so far away that its gravitational attraction is negligible and objects still have the same mass but virtually no weight.
We still don't know what mass is. The most popular the ory is that "empty" space is actually populated by particles called Higgs bosons, which convey the property of mass to any other particles that they come close to. Higgs bosons are tricky things to describe. In 1993, at the suggestion of my Bristol University colleague Professor Sir Michael Berry, the U.K. Minister of Science William Waldegrave challenged physicists to produce a description that would fit on one page. The winning entries, one of which is reproduced in the notes to this chapter, demonstrated the huge gulf between the actuality of Nature and our attempts to understand it using human common sense.
The search for isolated Higgs bosons has so far been fruitless, but it is at least conceivable that there could be a form of matter that does not interact with such bosons and would therefore be massless and weightless, bizarre though that concept may appear. Even in modern-day terms, then, MacDougall's question as to whether the soul material had weight was not unreasonable. His first experimental answer to the question, though, seemed to defy all reason. He describes it in his letter to Dr. Hodgson:
On the 10th day of last April , my opportunity came. On a Fairbanks Standard platform scales, I had previously arranged a framework of wood, very light; on top of this I placed a cot bed with clothing in such a manner that the beam was not interfered with in any way.
At 5:30 P.M. the patient, a man dying of consumption, was placed on the bed [Macdougall was later at pains to point out that the patient, a young black man, was a fully informed volunteer and that he was not subjected to any additional discomfort]. He lived until 9:10 P.M. During those three hours and forty minutes he lost weight at the rate of an ounce in one hour, the sixtieth part of an ounce in one minute, so that every ten or fifteen minutes I was compelled to shift the sliding weight back upon the beam in order to keep the beam end up against the upper limiting bar, which I wished to do for the sake of making the test of sudden loss all the more marked and decisive, if such loss should come [my italics]. This loss of weight ... was due to evaporation from the nasopharyngeal and bronchopulmonary and buccal mucous membrane accompanying respiration, and also from the evaporation of moisture from cutaneous perspiration.
At 9:08 P.M. my patient being near death, for the last time I sent back the shifting weight on the beam so that for the last ten minutes [sic] the beam end was in continuous contact with the upper limiting bar. Suddenly at 9:10 P.M. the patient expired and exactly simultaneous with the last movement of the respiratory muscles and coincident with the last movement of the facial muscles the beam end dropped to the lower limiting bar and remained there without rebound as though a weight had been lifted off the bed [my italics]. Later it took the combined weight of two silver dollars to lift the beam back to actual balance ... . [T]hese were found together to weigh three-fourths of an ounce.
MacDougall had, it seemed, weighed the departing soul. He wrote to Dr. Hodgson: "Have I discovered [the] soul substance with my weighing machine? I think so, and I mean to verify and re-verify and rere-verify, if I live long enough." MacDougall's actions, though, belied his words and revealed him as a true scientist. Science is not a matter of discovering something and then looking for more and more confirmatory instances. That proves nothing. What good scientists do is to try to prove themselves wrong. The more they fail to prove themselves wrong, the more they begin to believe the original idea or observation.
MacDougall went looking for other explanations for the sudden change in weight. With his balance sensitive to a tenth of an ounce, he knew that he had weighed something, but he was not at all sure that the something was the soul. His checks, though, did not reveal any other physical explanation. There was no urine loss or bowel movement (although these should not in any case have affected the measurements), and both he and his collaborator Dr. Sprouh climbed onto the bed and vigorously inhaled and exhaled to check whether air loss from the lungs might have an effect. It shouldn't have, and it didn't.
He still wasn't satisfied and tried the experiment with a second patient, who was, like the first, "a man moribund from consumption." The exact time of death of his patient was harder to determine, but the result of the experiment was similar: "Inside of three minutes with all channels of loss closed [i.e. urine, bowel movement, etc.] a loss of one ounce and fifty grains took place."
On May 22 of the following year he was able to write to Dr. Hodgson with the results of four more experiments:
Since I wrote you last I have had four more experiments on human subjects. In the first of these four there was a loss of half an ounce coincident with death. ... In the second of the four, the patient dying of diabetic coma, unfortunately our scales were not finely balanced, and although there is a descent of the beam requiring about three-eighths to half an ounce to bring it to the point preceding death, yet I consider this test negative. ... The third of the four cases shows a distinct drop in the beam registering about three-eighths of an ounce, which could not be accounted for; this occurred exactly simultaneous with death. ... The fourth case in this series was negative. Unfortunately owing to complications which we could not prevent the patient was but a few minutes on the bed before he died, and whether I had the beam accurately balanced before death or not I cannot be sure.
The results were exciting, but MacDougall was faced with a problem that working scientists face every day of their lives — which results to accept and which to reject? The choice is not a simple one. A wild deviation from an accepted theory or working hypothesis could herald a new discovery, or it could be a misleading and embarrassing artifact. In How to Dunk a Doughnut, I described the sad case of the Viennese physicist Paul Ehrenhaft, who tried to measure the charge of the electron by measuring the movement of charged water drops in an electric field. Ehrenhaft performed thousands of experiments and accepted all of his results indiscriminately, so that he could only account for the scatter in his measurements by assuming that the droplets were coated by many electrons, each with a tiny electrical charge. The American Robert Millikan performed similar experiments in America but assumed that there were only a small number of electrons on each drop and robustly rejected results that didn't fit with his hypothesis. As it turned out, Millikan was right and Ehrenhaft was wrong, and the weird, anomalous results that both men had found, but which they had treated very differently, were due not to some new fact of Nature but to dust, droplets sticking together, and other accidental effects.
MacDougall was searching for a new fact of Nature and took the same path that Ehrenhaft later followed by conscientiously describing all of his results, whether they fitted his hypothesis or not. He followed Millikan, though, in looking for reasons to reject results where possible, but unlike Millikan he published his reasons for rejecting them, both in his letters to Hodgson and later when he published the results in the open literature.
By then he had repeated his experiment fifteen times with dogs instead of people. The results were uniformly negative. There was no weight loss on death when men or women were replaced by dogs, and MacDougall cautiously wrote to Hodgson: "If it is definitely proven that there is a distinct loss of weight in the human being not accounted for by known channels of loss, then we have here a physiological difference between the human and the canine at least (and probably between the human and all other forms of life) hitherto unsuspected." He added: "I want first to publish the discovery as a fact in the physiology of death, stripped, as a good friend of mine has said, of its 'psychical significance,' because to insist upon the latter might raise prejudice in the minds of many of our present day scientific men, and prevent repetition of the experiment by others." He was to be sadly disappointed.
Nervous about public reaction, MacDougall kept his results to himself for five years. His only public disclosure was in informal conversation to a group of fellow passengers during a trip to Europe later that year on board the liner Cestrian. Despite their encouragement, he refrained from publishing the results of his experiments, fearing ridicule and a community backlash. He had already experienced a backlash from the hospital staff in Haverhill when he was pursuing his experiments. One can imagine the offense that the experiments must have given to the religious and moral susceptibilities of the hospital staff in a small, conservative American township. The objectors attempted to disrupt the experiments. MacDougall mentions, for example, that while attempting to weigh a woman dying of diabetic coma, "there was a good deal of interference by people opposed to our work."
Some years later, an "unauthenticated publication of his attempts" with "the usual distortion of everything that gets in the papers" forced MacDougall's hand. Rather than have distorted newspaper reports as the only public source of his results, he wrote an account of his experiments for the professional journal American Medicine, with a duplicate copy in the American Journal of Psychical Research. His publication in the latter journal might seem surprising, but research into the possibility of psychic phenomena was much more mainstream then than it is now, and along with anecdotal reports, the journal contained a substantial number of papers reporting rigorous experiments designed to test whether particular psychic phenomena really existed and could be demonstrated under controlled conditions that would convince skeptics.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Weighing the Soul"
Copyright © 2011 Len Fisher.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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Table of Contents
1 Weighing the Soul,
2 Making a Move,
3 A Salute to Newton,
4 The Course of Lightning through a Corset,
5 Fool's Gold?,
6 Frankenstein Lives,
7 What Is Life?,
8 Conclusion: Necessary Mysteries,
Appendix: A Brief Catalogue of Necessary Mysteries,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A breezy sort of review of the most controversial scientific discoveries, focusing mainly on things we cannot see, but can prove exist, like energy, electricity, and so on. It was a fun style, but random in the things he chose to write about. I wasn't really sure what the theme tying all these things together was supposed to be. Still, fun for science types.