Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
W. W. Norton & Company, 2006
Trade Paperback, 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780393329124

The best-selling author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers now trains her considerable wit and curiosity on the human soul. What happens when we die? Does the light just go out and that's that—the million-year nap? Or will some part of my personality, my me-ness persist? What will that feel like? What will I do all day? Is there a place to plug in my lap-top?" In an attempt to find out, Mary Roach brings her tireless curiosity to bear on an array of contemporary and historical soul-searchers: scientists, schemers, engineers, mediums, all trying to prove (or disprove) that life goes on after we die. She begins the journey in rural India with a reincarnation researcher and ends up in a University of Virginia operating room where cardiologists have installed equipment near the ceiling to study out-of-body near-death experiences. Along the way, she enrolls in an English medium school, gets electromagnetically haunted at a university in Ontario, and visits a Duke University professor with a plan to weigh the consciousness of a leech. Her historical wanderings unearth soul-seeking philosophers who rummaged through cadavers and calves' heads, a North Carolina lawsuit that established legal precedence for ghosts, and the last surviving sample of "ectoplasm" in a Cambridge University archive.

My Thoughts:

In Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife Mary Roach investigates what happens after we die with the same entertaining style and humor found in her other books. The subject of life after death is explored in both scientific and unscientific ways. Roach writes, "Flawed as it is, science remains the most solid god I've got. And so I decided to turn to it, to see what it had to say on the topic of life after death. (pg 12-13)"

Spook includes a bibliography. Subjects explored in the twelve chapters include: reincarnation, searching for the soul with microscopes, how to weigh or see a soul, ectoplasm, mediums, communicating with the dead, electromagnetic fields, searching for ghosts, and near-death experiencers.

Roach approaches the exploration in a random light hearted manner. It's by no means an exhaustive in-depth exploration. Her goal clearly is to entertain the reader while conveying some information on the various topics. "Simply put, this is a book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and in an afterlife for it to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith. (pg. 14)"

Of the three books by Roach I've read, Stiff, Packing for Mars, and Spook, I'd have to say that I enjoyed Packing for Mars and Stiff more than Spook. Based on that comparison to other books by Roach, Spook is recommended. New readers will perhaps want to start with one of her other books first while fans will want to read this anyway.


My mother worked hard to instill faith in me. She sent me to catechism classes. She bought me nun paper dolls, as though the meager fun of swapping a Carmelite wimple for a Benedictine chest bib might inspire a taste for devotion. Most memorably, she read the Bible to me. Every night at bedtime, she'd plow through a chapter or two, handing over the book at appropriate moments to show me the color reproductions of parables and miracles: The crumbling walls of Jericho. Jesus walking atop stormy seas with palms upturned. The raising of Lazarus--depicted in my mother's Bible as a sort of Boris Karloff knock-off, wrapped in mummy's rags and rising stiffly from the waist. I could not believe these things had happened, because another god, the god who wore lab glasses and knew how to use a slide rule, wanted to know how, scientifically speaking, these things could be possible. Faith did not take, because Science kept putting it on the spot. opening

Most of the projects that I will be covering have been - or are being - undertaken by science. By that I mean people doing research using scientific methods, preferably at respected universities or institutions. Technology gets a shot, as does the law. I'm not interested in philosophical debates on the soul (probably because I can't understand them). Nor am I going to be relating anecdotal accounts of personal spiritual experiences. Anecdotes are interesting, occasionally riveting, but never are they proof. On the other hand, this is not a debunking book. Skeptics and debunkers provide a needed service in this area, but their work more or less assumes an outcome. I'm trying hard not to make assumptions, not to have an agenda. pg. 14

The deeper you investigate a topic like this, the harder it becomes to stand on unshifting ground. In my experience, the most staunchly held views are based on ignorance or accepted dogma, not carefully considered accumulations of facts. The more you expose the intricacies and realities of the situation, the less clear-cut things become.
And also, I hold, the more interesting. Will I find the evidence I'm looking for? We'll just see. But I promise you a diverting journey, wherever it is we end up. pg. 18

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