Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Famous People & the Supernatural Part VI: Crookes, Barrett

William Crookes & William Fletcher Barrett
by Robin Strom Mackey

William Crookes’ was an inventor of scientific equipment and a chemist. His scientific pursuits included the discovery of the element thallium and the invention the Crooke’s tube, a glass vacuum tube with two electrodes at either end, with which he was able produce and study the fluorescent rays of light energy not otherwise visible to the human eye. A decade later, physicist J.J. Thomson would name those streams of charged particles electrons. Crookes’ interest in the supernatural was centered around the work of the famous medium D.D. Home. According to an 1874 paper, by Crookes, he studied Home not as a performer, but because he felt that there was an actual “occult force” that Home was able to harness, that could be studied and measured. For his paper on Home, he was publicly chastised by John Tyndall the newly elected president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Despite this, Crookes persisted in his research, searching for a physical theory to explain what he had observed, until eventually he grew weary of the criticism of his peers and abandoned his research for the safer regions of mainstream science.

William Fletcher Barrett was the first physicist to become interested in the spiritual realm. Barrett had worked under John Tyndall, the outspoken opponent of Crookes, for four years before taking a professorship himself, at the Dublin Royal College of Science. Barrett was professedly uninterested in the spiritual realm. However, while on holiday Barrett and his friends dabbled in the newly emerging field of hypnotism, occasionally conducting experiments among the local villagers. Barrett noticed that when one of the young village girls was hypnotized she had an uncanny ability to read other people’s thoughts. Intrigued in his further observations, Barrett returned to his university, conducted a few more experiments and eventually published a paper of his findings, blandly entitled, “On Some Phenomena Associated with Abnormal conditions of Mind. In the paper, Barrett tentatively postulated that in an unconscious state, a mind may be capable of tapping into the thoughts and feelings of another person. He suggested that this occurred in a “’community of sensation (Blum, 2006).’” He further urged that further investigation might indeed be warranted. He submitted his paper for presentation to the 1876 meeting of the British Association of Science, who after initial rejection, eventually accepted the paper and allowed him to present.

Barrett also did a study on divining rods. While he could not define what made the rods work, he admitted that there appeared to be something to the use of the tools.


Blum, D. (2006). Ghost Hunters; William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. Penguin Books, New York, NY.

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