In the preface to “Spook: Science Tackles The Afterlife,” author Mary Roach tells her reader that she is not interested in philosophical debates on the soul, but neither is Spook a “debunking book” for skeptics. (Debunking books assume an outcome and set about trying to prove that outcome, whereas Roach’s goal is to approach her investigations without an agenda). It is, on the other hand, a scientifically minded query into the question of what happens when we die, a delve into the research being done on the topics of the soul and the afterlife. She stipulates that the research she’s interested in uses scientific methods and is being done at reputable universities or institutions. “Simply put,” she says, “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.”
Roach doesn’t promise that she will find the evidence she’s looking for in her book, but does promise a diverting journey as she looks into the most mysterious of existential questions. And she delivers on that promise, with humor and an infectious curiosity. “Spook” is full of entertaining facts and anecdotes. (For example, did you know that when a pope dies, he is struck three times on the forehead with a silver hammer to confirm his death?)
In the first part of the book, Roach spends time with Kirti S. Rawat, director of the International Centre for Survival and Reincarnation Researches in Indore, India. Roach accompanies Dr. Rajat as he travels to villages to visit Indian children who are rumored to be the reincarnation of people that have recently died. After returning from her trip, Roach dives into the history of attempts to physically observe the soul with the help of scales, x-rays, electrographs and a device called a “Snook tube.” She also uncovers some fascinating anecdotes about fraudulent claims by mediums that they had produced ectoplasm during seances. Ectoplasm is a paranormal substance described as “a strange, mystical material that flows out of any orifice and opening of a medium’s body during a seance.”
As she wraps up “Spook,” reflecting on her experiences and research as she collected information for the book, Roach’s last words on the subject are this: “I guess I believe that not everything we humans encounter in our lives can be neatly and convincingly tucked away inside the orderly cabinetry of science.” Not the most satisfying conclusion for those hoping for more definitive answers, but one that resonates with me. I thoroughly enjoyed accompanying Mary Roach on her irreverent journey, and was delightfully entertained along the way.