Science and Spirits
Yikes. I didn't realize how long it had been. I know that I said I was working on a couple of things that I'd try to post soon, but soon has clearly come and gone and I still haven?t finished either of them. Still, it has been too long an interlude so I?ve thrown something together to show you what?s been keeping me busy.
This is an old photo but still one of my favourites.
I guess the fact that family time takes precedence over blogging is a given, but for the last few years I?ve been able to work in the alumni web stuff without too much difficulty. However, since early December something in the lab has been sopping up every millisecond of my "free" time, (I hope you'll excuse a bit of personal horn tooting.)
You now can count yourself among the handful of people who have ever seen data such as the squiggle to the left. In case it wasn't immediately obvious, the trace is a recording of the force generated by thin strands of muscle surrounding some rather small bronchioles. It may not seem impressive, but it truly is. For one thing, the spikes represent changes in tension of approximately 10 microNewtons (1 ?N = 0.001 milligram). Furthermore, the contractions were initiated in muscles that envelop the tiniest air passages deep within the lung by triggering the release of intrinsic chemicals.
Yawn, so what's the big deal, and why should anyone care? Well, up until now, every investigator who has performed experiments of this nature has initiated contractions by hosing down a chunk of lung tissue with copious quantities of fluid, containing industrial strength concentrations of the naturally-occurring activators (or their man-made equivalents), and/or whatever drugs they happen to be testing. The relevance of their studies to the events that actually occur in the body was uncertain, at best. Using a novel approach we've been able to more closely approximate physiologically natural conditions because, as I note above, we are using the lung's built-in activating mechanisms. Given the unique possibilities this approach provides for examining the factors that regulate airway caliber in normal and diseased lungs, we are now putting in 12 - 16 hour days exploiting the heck out of the preparation before we tell other labs about it. As a consequence, as you?ve seen, the posts here may not be frequent, and when they do come, it will likely be in spurts, in the downtime when we pause to analyze the data.
That was the science, now for the spirits (ethereal rather than alcoholic).
To keep things crawling along (and to perhaps relieve the creeping malaise of boredom that exists on the other public sites) I've resurrected and reworked something out of my files.
I believe that there is a difference between religion and spirituality. I'm not particularly religious but I do acknowledge that there are some apparently supernatural phenomena that I can't readily explain. So, although my beliefs have been shaped by my daily use of the scientific method, I am forced to keep an open mind.
Recently, a couple of things had me thinking about spirits. The first is the oft-shown ad for The Village
, which contains scenes from The Sixth Sense
. The second is the new TV show Medium, which I've watched a couple of times with my wife and found to be somewhat intriguing science fiction/fantasy. The common thread is that the protagonist sees ghosts. Now I don't exactly believe in ghosts, on the other hand, I find that I'm not able to completely disbelieve in them. Anyway, I was reminded of several anecdotes I'd previously written up but never quite finished and I present them below.
In college, I knew someone who claimed to live in a haunted house, and described numerous encounters with a particularly grumpy old specter. Of course that was the late sixties, so if you are thinking hallucinogens, and want to take his tales with a grain of salt, I won't be offended.
In my own experience I've only seen one phantom and I'm not sure that it counts. It was the ghost of a beloved 18-year-old cat we?d had to put down to end the suffering caused by intestinal cancer. If pressed, I would have to admit that, although I saw the apparition several times during the 18 months we lived in the house subsequent to his death, it was also true that I had held him in my arms while the vet euthanized him, so the specter was quite possibly a guilt-driven interpretation of shadows at the edge of my peripheral vision. However, deep down I'm not able to completely convince myself of that.
I currently know someone who seems to have "the sight". Several times he has matter-of-factly come out with, well, not exactly predictions, but statements of fact, that have come true soon afterward, e.g., there's going to be a car accident. And, at least on some level, he appears to have an awareness of what can best be described as ghosts, or perhaps spirits. He?s doesn't appear to be using these "powers" to serve any ulterior purpose. His pronouncements are too ingenuous and matter-of-fact and he seems to believe what he says. No matter how hard I try to convince myself that his predictions are just coincidence and his visions the products of an over-active imagination, again there's still a tiny part of me that's not certain. As they say, once is an accident, twice is co-incidence but three times is a trend. With this guy, we?re somewhat beyond the trend phase and edging into the realm of a phenomenon.
Perhaps the most disconcerting experiences I've had along these lines had to do with a brief flirtation with Ouija boards.
A couple of people in the crowd I hung out with in college got interested in these things and had a few "seances". If you're not familiar with Ouija boards, the one we used was hand made from a rectangular piece of hardwood that had been sanded so the surface was smooth and even. On the surface of the board, our hosts had inscribed a YES on one end and a NO on the other. The alphabet was displayed as two rows of 13 letters and the numbers 1 - 0 were below the alphabet. At the bottom of the board was the word GOODBYE. To "receive" a message from the beyond, an upturned, porcelain saucer with an arrow painted at the edge was used as a pointer. Two people sat on opposite sides of the board and placed their fingers lightly on the edge of the saucer. During the session the saucer moved around answering yes our no, or spelling out messages.
For me, and I expect for most of the rest of the people involved, it began as a lark. My first and only visit, I stood to one side as the hosts sat at the board and linked up with the spirit world (they'd read how in a book). The saucer skittered around, answering yes or no in response to people's increasingly silly questions. The yes or no stuff soon became a bit boring (to me the whole rigmarole seemed to be an elaborate production roughly equivalent to answering questions with a magic eight ball). I guess my hosts agreed because they called up a new spirit and invited it to speak freely.
The "visitor" spelled out a message in which it claimed to be a young girl named Sally, who was 9 years old, and had lived in the house. The conversation was rather disjointed because the words hot, burning, so hot, and other semi-coherent things along these lines, were repeated over and over. Some of the less skeptical members of the circle speculated that the girl had lived in the house and had died in a fire. Since I'd spent a lot of time in the sturdy brick Victorian house and had seen no obvious signs that there had ever been a fire, I remained unconvinced.
After a while, Sally's repetitiveness became frustrating and the hosts dismissed her. They asked if anyone else wanted to be a "medium". The prettiest girl in the room said yes, and for reasons other than a strong belief in the paranormal, I immediately volunteered to be her partner. After we had placed our hands on the inert saucer, they again dialed up the spirit world. Immediately, there was a change in the feel of the saucer. It seemed to take on an energy of its own and I was quite surprised by its apparently spontaneous movements. My arms and hands were completely relaxed and it really felt as if it were hovering slightly above the board's surface and tugging my hands with it as it moved around. In response to a question about who the message was for, the saucer spelled out tanya, the name of one of the girls in the room. It then moved laboriously from letter to letter spitting out gibberish which someone copied down. After a couple of minutes, Tanya sighed and grabbed my arm to break off "contact". She then took the pencil and used hash marks to split the gibberish up into "words". She claimed that the message was in Russian, her native tongue, and although she refused to tell us what the message said, she did indicate that it was from her brother, Aleksy, who had died several years before. None of us knew she had a brother, let alone one named Aleksy, which, in fact, was one of the words in the message, so I was rather unnerved and immediately gave up my spot.
The festivities continued with someone asking who in the group would be the first to die and the saucer literally flew off the table. We thought that to be interesting but inconclusive so the question was asked again and after moving around frantically the saucer spelled out Ana, which was, in fact, the name of a girl standing close to the spot at which the saucer had flown off the table a few moments earlier. Very twilight zone stuff, isn?t it? Someone pursued this by asking when (74) and then how (gibberish, later someone quietly pointed out to me that within the nonsense letters was the name of Ana?s fiance). In response to the follow up question of who would be the last to die, the spirit spelled out my name (I grudgingly have to admit that, despite my initial skepticism, this was something of a relief). I do remember thinking to myself that I'd have to keep in touch with Ana to see if she survived past 1974 which would mean I was in good shape since there would be 50+ years left until she would be 74. She did indeed make it all the way through 1974, but she and her husband left Kingston about the same time I did (August 1975). At that point, I lost track of them and also of most of the other participants, so I have no way of knowing whether the prediction is still a possibility. I?m still sputtering along, so here's hoping. Most of the group kept at it for a while, but I was unsettled by what had happened and I'd had enough, so I left. I didn't have any great urge to communicate with anyone, and I was just superstitious enough that I didn't want to risk having any spirits delving into the recesses of my mind and revealing my deep dark secrets to the rest of the group.
What I've described would have been creepy enough, but a few days later I bumped into one of the hosts in the Student Union. He told me that the day after our session they had gone up and down the street asking about fires and met an old man 90+ years old, who had lived on the street his whole life. My friend reported that the old man had told them that he couldn?t remember any fire, but that one of his playmates, a little girl named Sally, lived in that house and she had died of scarlet fever in 1905. After that I?d truly had more than enough. Although they had several other sessions, I never participated.
As I write about these events over 30 years later, I have realized that there are several plausible alternate explanations that I didn't consider at the time. It's entirely possible that the old man was a fabrication and since none of us spoke Russian it's also possible that Tanya was pulling our legs, with my partner as her accomplice.
On the other hand, that saucer really hovered and I did not detect any obvious tension in my counterpart's fingers so I still retain this tiny shred of uncertainty?