Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

 The book commented on here is one of the most interesting historical studies of psychic phenomena I have read in recent years: Physics and Psychics: The Occult and the Sciences in Modern Britain  (Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xvi + 403. $120.00). It is authored by Richard Noakes, PhD, Associate Professor of the History of Science and Technology at the University of Exeter. I have been following Richard’s interesting articles about Spiritualism and psychical research for the last few years, work published in journals such as History of Science, and Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science.

Richard Noakes

Richard Noakes

Noakes Physics abd Psychics

The book is described by the publisher as “the first systematic exploration of the intriguing connections between Victorian physical sciences and the study of the controversial phenomena broadly classified as psychic, occult and paranormal.” Different from other studies that emphasize psychological and philosophical dimensions of the topic (something that is not neglected in this book), in Physics and Psychics Richard explores connections with physics, including ideas such as brain waves and the ether.

Here is the table of contents.

Animal Magnetism as Physics
The Oddity of Od
Outdoing the Electric Telegraph
“Scientific Men” and Spiritualism
Extending the Boundaries of Physics
Inventing Psychical Research
Identifying Physical-Psychical Scientists
Connecting Physical-Psychical Scientists
Gold Mines of Science, Handmaids to Faith
Changing Attitudes to Psychical Investigation
Removing Scientific “Stumbling Blocks”
Challenging Materiality
3.3 Dim Analogies
Maxwellian Psychics
Doubts and Criticisms
From Psychic Force to the Radiometer
Tying Mediums with Electricity
Magnetic Sense or Nonsense?
Physical as Psychical Laboratories
Wanting Opportunities?
Scourging Spiritualists and Scientists
Tricky Instruments of Psychics
Tricky Instruments of Physics
Psychical Researchers and Conjurors
N-rays and Psychical Expertise
Busy Men
“Applied” Psychical Research
Lodge’s Etherial Body
Interpreting Lodge’s Physics and Psychics
Interwar Transitions


Can you give a brief summary of the book?

Physics and Psychics is a revisionist study of the physicists, chemists, astronomers, electrical engineers and other “physical” scientists that involved themselves with psychical research and related enquiries in the period approximately 1850-1930. A significant proportion of them are British (e.g., William Crookes and Oliver Lodge) but I do discuss the handful of non-British practitioners who were involved (e.g., Baron von Reichenbach and Karl Friedrich Zöllner). I use this material to show that the interests of physical scientists in psychical research and related enquiries was both more widespread and more complex than we have assumed. We might find this surprising given the strongly psychological nature of psychical phenomena – a quality that placed them outside the formal boundaries of the physical sciences. A significant number of physical scientists showed some kind of interest in psychical phenomena and this interest varied in strength and nature. They included Lodge who investigated a wide range of psychical phenomena for nearly sixty years and his teacher John Tyndall who, while deeply sceptical of spiritualist mediumship, still turned up to seances. My book explores the plethora of reasons why physical scientists got involved – intellectual, religious and moral – and argues that only a combination of reasons can explain the patterns of interest that we find. Another major preoccupation of my book is with the role of psychical research in extending (as opposed to impeding) the theoretical and experimental aspects of the physical sciences. Many of the characters that I study saw the study of telekinesis, telepathy, Reichenbach’s “odic” force and other phenomena as exciting but problematic ways of applying, extending and enriching their “physical” research.

What is your background in parapsychology, and with the topic of the book specifically?

I’m sorry to say that I don’t have any background in parapsychology, psychical research or related endeavour. I have approached the history of these endeavours as somebody trained in the sciences and the history and philosophy of science.

What motivated you to write this book?

The book’s origins are in the doctoral research that I did in the 1990s so I’ve lived with this project for over two decades! That research started life as an attempt to deepen our understanding of what led to the discovery of the subatomic particle, the electron, in 1897. This led me towards mainly British scientific investigations of some of the strangest and most spectacular phenomena of electricity (e.g., cathode rays) but also to scientific practitioners who shared interests in electrical physics and the strange phenomena of spiritualism and psychical research. My doctoral dissertation looked at only a fraction of these practitioners and what I did next was to extend this much further in terms of people, practices, theories and analytical approaches.

Why do you think your book is important and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

My book is important because it highlights the fruitful encounters between more strongly established and less well established forms of scientific enquiry. It reveals a period when these encounters could be fruitful and creative – when psychical enquiries benefited from theories and practices of physics, and when psychical phenomena posed some interesting puzzles for physics to solve. My book also gives us hope that future encounters may not be as antagonistic as we might expect. It’s a hope that is confirmed by what I’ve read in the parapsychological literature over the past few decades and what I’ve learned from talking to physicists such as Bernard Carr. I also hope that like all works of history mine challenges many assumptions about the past and the present, and in particular encourages a more open-minded view of scientific enquiry. We often hear that associations between physics and anything psychical, occult, etc., threaten physics, but not all physicists in the past have accepted this and maybe my book will encourage more of the current and future generations to follow suit.

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Here is a video of an interview about Physics and Psychics.