Book Review: Spook


Note: This is #48 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge for 2008.

After reading Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, I decided that while that particular subject left me kind of weirded out and uncomfortable, I liked Roach’s style and tone quite a bit. She was both funny and educational, which is a hard combination to pull off. So I decided to give one of her earlier books a turn and picked up Spook: What Science has to Say About the Afterlife. I liked it quite a bit better.

Basically, the approach is similar to what she took with Bonk in that Roach sets out both to document the scientific study of the afterlife and to do a little exploratory action research herself. So we learn about early natural philosophers and anatomists who tried to measure the weight of a soul by loading up a dying man on a scale and squinting at the dials during the moment of expiration. We learn about scientific debates over what bit of the brain houses the soul, fueled by case studies of head trauma and, unpleasantly enough, vivisection. We learn about surgeons who put laptop computers up above the operating table, but with their screens facing the ceiling so that a patient who reports having his consciousness float above his body can prove it by reporting the contents of the computer’s display. And then there’s the part where a cryptologist hatched a plan for proving that one can commune with the dead by encoding a message that was indecipherable without the key that he would only provide from beyond his own grave.

What I really admire about Roach’s books, though, is that she’s not content to just summarize her Google searches on a particular topic. Instead, Roach actually jumps right in with two feet and a wry smile. We see her travel to India to ride along to rural villages with a researcher looking for scientific proof of reincarnation. We hear about her trek out to the site of the Donnor party tragedy with a group of people showing how they can use tape recorders to receive hidden messages from the deceased. And in my favorite part of the book she travels to England to attend a 3-day workshop full of crackpots trying to learn how to run seances and communicate with the dead. It’s hilarious to see Roach as the lone logical wolf biting her tongue amid a room full of sheep doing their best to convince themselves that the can hear the voice of your old Aunt Millie when both their parents were only children.

And it’s pretty clear that Roach isn’t buying any of this, as she gently (and sometimes not so gently) mocks the researchers and mediums she encounters. In her own very piercing and funny way she’s quick to point out errors in their reasoning, biases in their thinking, and fatal flaws in their research design. But a friend of mine once said that the best scientists are those who can be two opposite things at once: completely open to any idea, and utterly skeptical about everything. Roach comes pretty close to this ideal. She’s willing to entertain all kinds of claims about the afterlife –reincarnation, messages from the dead, ghosts, the existence of a soul that persists after shedding its mortal coil, out of body experiences, and more. But she’s also the kind of person that demands real, scientific proof before she’ll buy into it. She doesn’t report getting that kind of proof in Spook, but she has a lot of fun looking for it. So did I.

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