129 Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, by Mary Roach (2005).
Mary Roach is one quirky writer. I read her book Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, a few years back and found it fascinating, irreverent, and just plain weird– the subject matter, that is, not the writing. When I saw Spook, I knew that would be my choice in the 120s.
Spook is surprisingly diverse in time and place, even though the subject sometimes seemed a bit repetitive. We travel to India with Roach to examine claims of reincarnation, join in classes to teach people who want to become mediums, and hover over an operating table (along with an experimental computer setup) to try to capture proof of the existence of the light at the end of the tunnel, or some other variation of an end of life experience. There’s lots of history of science as well, which can be tedious in the wrong hands but in Roach’s writing hums along merrily through a litany of curious ideas and strange performances: the search for homunculi in sperm, the astonishing physical feats of mediums producing ectoplasm during seances, the curious court case of a will revealed by a ghost….
My favorite section was about Duncan MacDougall, the early 20th c. doctor who used a large and very precise scale to try to determine the weight of the soul. His idea was to place a dying man on the scale and observe carefully to see how the weight dropped at the moment of death– that is, the moment that the soul left the body. Roach paints a macabre but surprisingly amusingly picture of the hovering doctor, trying to predict which tuberculosis patient will be the next to die and practically wringing his hands over the decision of when to wheel them from their rooms to the final death watch on the scale itself. (No word on whether the patients were alert enough to consent.) This grimly dark humor is Roach’s specialty and is strangely appealing.