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Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife Paperback – 3 Oct 2006

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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1ST edition (3 Oct. 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393329127
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393329124
  • Product Dimensions: 1.4 x 0.2 x 2.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 458,467 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Reading Spook is like attending a lecture by a professor who is equal parts Groucho Marx and Stephen Jay Gould, both enlightening and entertaining. --Dorman T. Schindler"

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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Georgia on 5 Jun. 2007
Format: MP3 CD
Can science prove or disprove the existence of ghosts and the afterlife? That's what a certain journalist decided to find out. The journey is funny and strange and even touching in places. And the answers she comes up with might surprise you. This isn't fantasy, it's all strict scientific fact. The only reason I give it only 4 stars instead of 5 is that I feel the author neglected some areas of research into the paranormal that could have been usefully explored. Still, it's a well thought out and open-minded look at a subject that is all too often shoved off to the side with books on occultism and religion.
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I met Roach's work with the book Stiff. So when I realized she had a book about the supernatural I got interested.
And the book it's okay, it revolves a lot about the subjects.

But, then... I always found the tone of the book to be excessively skeptical.
The thing is that it always tries to find a scientific explanation for everything, even if sometimes forceful.
I mean, it goes to say that all of the paranormal stuff is scientifically explainable - even if by the mental issues of the people who claim it - and doesn't allow much of free space for the contraditory.
Even so, it's a very fun read and if you like Mary Roach, you'll like this book. Go for it.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 287 reviews
114 of 129 people found the following review helpful
Enjoyable although not quite as sharp as "STIFF" 11 Feb. 2006
By Wayne Klein - Published on
Format: Hardcover
People frequently confuse a breezy style, humor and ability to entertain with being superficial. While Mary Roach's latest book isn't quite as compelling as "Stiff" it's an enjoyable journey one step beyond. When Roach is serious (which pops up between very funny quips)she asks some important questions about the afterlife, our perception of it, ghosts and reincarnation. Perhaps it's the subtitle that disappoints people but having read "Stiff" I knew what to expect. If you come to this book ignoring the subtitle (this skeptical humorist tackles the afterlife and science although more about that later with a sense of humor but doesn't quantify the afterlife with science herself).

Roach asks some penetrating questions with humor. For example, she discusses an author that discusses reincarnation, birthmarks and how a pregnant woman can see the corpse of someone. The soul of the slain man turns up in her child. Also, she discusses a pretty creative idea--emotional imprinting from an event that can leave birthmarks on the skin of the unborn creating a duplicate of a birthmark from the person whose soul has flown into the unborn child. She goes on a journey to investigate a family that claims their child has memories from a previous life and while going as an unbiased observer using humor and logic to deflate some of these unusual claims.

Yet she's always hopeful. She relates the story of a computer that is used for near death experiences. She discusses Professor Bruce Greyson's experiment in near death experiences using a computer with images that can only be seen if you were hovering below the ceiling. Patients that have had defibrillators put in have their hearts stopped to see if their defibrillators are working (they should restart the patient's heart). Many people claim to have seen the attempt to revive them floating above their body. If that's the case they should be able to see the computer screen and tell Greyson what images are on it. She also takes a look at cases involving ghosts and other related areas.

Roach focuses on the scientific approaches taken by various people to try and verify the afterlife's existence. This isn't a "science vs. faith" argument. Instead, this is an attempt to see if the scientific approach works or not in these various experiments. Roach asks some practical and hard questions about these various experiments, theories and researchers. The subject is more elusive here than in "Stiff" for obvious reasons. This isn't a book about faith. Roach is trying to find some solid basis for faith in the afterlife and that is going to continue to be challenging.

Roach discusses in her afterword that she starts all of her books in complete ignorence of the subject. Does that provide her with a sense of the impartial attitude that journalists need to write material like this? I'm not sure but it does allow errors, holes and mistakes to occur. It also means that she really doesn't have a whole lot to prove. Regardless of whether "Spook" is as balanced and informed as it should be Roach asks some provocative questions and tries to find answers. You may not be enlightened but you will be entertained and the questions that Roach asks are always interesting. While the answers don't always hold up to scrutiny Roach's journey to discovery is always entertaining.
110 of 132 people found the following review helpful
Big Subject, Nice Attempt, Not Worth It 12 Jan. 2006
By Gary R. Larson - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I can see where Ms. Roach probably found herself a bit cornered while exploring the subject of life after death. First, she doesn't want to turn this book into a sprawling tome that explores the meaning of human existence. She also doesn't want to go down the long road of exploring every spiritual quest ever taken on by humanity. Then there are considerations regarding strongly held religious feelings; you don't want to step on the wrong toes. So, I think Ms. Roach took the right approach to the book in exploring a few areas of possible interest, looking at them as objectively as possible and seeing if anything raises an eyebrow.

So, the shortcomings of "Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife" may not be so much the fault of the author. If you've ever watched a Bigfoot documentary, you know that you're going to be disappointed if you expect some hunter to emerge from the woods with an eight foot tall ape-man on a leash. Also, you know that the blurry footage is a guy in a gorilla suit, no matter how much you'd like to believe otherwise. These documentaries always jazz up the footage with a little editing and some scary music. That's because simply showing how unrealistic it is to believe in Bigfoot after all this time doesn't make for entertaining viewing. They're taking advantage of us because we want to be taken advantage of, just a little.

Mary Roach respects us more than that and gives us what she can. Unfortunately, it doesn't make for very entertaining reading. The one thing that was really missing for me was that feeling of "Aha!". I understood that Ms. Roach couldn't take on everything regarding the subject but I wished it had been a little wider in scope. I would've liked a little more philosophical exploration and perhaps a bit of sociological and psychological examination regarding our views on death. I'm not suggesting Roach should have done an Elizabeth Kubler Ross examination on the process of dying or re-written "Being and Nothingness", but something to chew on in those areas wouldn't have been bad.

I think there might have been a little more to touch on regarding the subject other than debunking soul weighers and psychic mediums. For instance, the culturally independent archetypes that we all share, or the discoveries in physics, mathematics, biology and philosophy that entice us to believe that there may be a God or at least a design. Then again, this book isn't called "Science tackles God", its called "Science tackles the Afterlife", but the discussion of one seems to so inevitably tie into the other, which once again leads to the complications I mentioned above.

I can't let the author completely off the hook, though. "Spook" pales in comparison to Carl Sagan's "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark", a book that deals with similar subject matter, and more, in a more thought provoking manner. I also have a new rule regarding review snippets claiming a book to be "Hillarious!"; they are never "Hillarious!". I think "Hillarious!" is book-critic speak for "the author makes occasional off-the-cuff comments." Then again, Roach didn't need to re-write "The Demon Haunted World" and I don't get the impression that she would claim herself to be "hillarious!" Perhaps my greatest criticism of Roach's approach is that she sacrifices some of the exploration previously mentioned for long, detailed accountings of her research. I think she could have convinced the reader that she thoroughly explored the subject without giving us so much detail. She may have mistaken our enthusiasm for her own when it came to the minutiae of her subject. The few inset diagrams and photos never seem to get to the heart of what we want drawn out. Maybe she could have even stepped on a toe or two. Also, I don't know that science tackles the afterlife so much in "Spook" as does a healthy skepiticism. This is another trap; you really can't "prove" a negative.

"Tackling the afterlife" may look like a wellspring to a writer looking for a subject, but it turns into a blind alley. I can't say that its entirely the author's fault, and I wouldn't dismiss other work from Mary Roach, but "Spook" never really finds its footing. I don't think that anyone expects to find the truth of our human destiny in this book, but they won't find much else, either. Inviting as this book may seem, both skeptics and those looking for something more than life has to offer will be disappointed.
32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
Tasty froth on some weak beer 4 Jan. 2006
By Royce E. Buehler - Published on
Format: Hardcover
If you're tuned in to her boisterous, quirky sense of humor, you'll find Mary Roach's book will take you on a sprightly voyage around the earthly borders of the afterlife. Don't expect any serious examination of whether there is or can be any real evidence of something beyond those borders, and you'll enjoy the excursion.

Building on the success of _Stiff_, her well-received survey on the world of corpses, our author advanced to the obvious next stage. She set out to write a book about secular investigations into the hereafter, beginning from a state of utter ignorance and friendly skepticism. She lets us look over her shoulder as she pokes around rather randomly into reincarnation research in India, the vaginal and gastric origins of ectoplasm, the accuracy of industrial scales used to weigh the soul, near death experiences, tape recordings of the long-dead in Donner Pass, and testimony from a ghost once allowed into evidence by a North Carolina court. She has a great deal of fun, much of it gossipy, some of it delightedly gross. The list of eminent men and women who have tried to cage and measure spirits is long. (I had no idea that Alexander Graham Bell's Mr. Watson was a devotee of spirit voices plucked from the ether.)

Ms Roach is game for pretty much anything, enrolling for example in a school for mediums. Skepticism wins almost every round, though never too decisively, which might spoil the party. The most interesting research is into possible correlations between hauntings and (1) infrasound or (2) EMF, each of which can induce a sense of uncanniness in a certain percentage of the population.

In sum, you will learn nothing substantial from the book, but it's not intended to resolve any serious questions. It's an entertaining, anecdote packed ramble through some of the fringe science community's haunted attics, under the aegis of a tour guide whose chatty, brassy style will turn off some tourists and enchant many others.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Science writer researches the afterlife 30 July 2006
By F. Orion Pozo - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Mary Roach

Spook provides a light-hearted look at the current status of research into the existence and survivability of the soul. Mary Roach calls it "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." At the end of the book, she admits that she began this project "from a state of near absolute ignorance." This is one of the book's most endearing features, since the reader gets a glimpse of how Ms. Roach goes about researching a topic.

The book does not end up with a definitive answer. If science had proof for or against the afterlife, it would have been big news. So this is an exploration of the current state of the research. The author claims that she does not approach the topic as a debunking skeptic, but she does throw in a lot of humorous asides in an attempt to amuse as well as explore.

Chapter One, "You Again," is about reincarnation. Ms. Roach goes to India for a week to visit Kirti S. Rawat, director of the International Center for Survival. Her purpose is to accompany him as he examines a claimed case of reincarnation. She meets the child, his family, and the family of the deceased man that the child claims to be. She also runs into cultural differences in a society where many people believe in reincarnation and don't need scientific proof.

The second chapter is a historic discussion on past research by people who believed there was a soul. Questions such as whether the soul came from the sperm or the ovum, or whether it entered the fetus at some point in its development are reviewed. Also looked at are those who searched for the exact bodily organ that contained soul.

"How to Weigh a Soul" is the third chapter. It explores the research done to see if the soul has weight. If so, can a drop in weight at death be proof of the existence of the soul leaving? The famous experiment by Duncan Macdougall that determined the soul weighs 21 grams is reviewed as well as other more recent attempts. The fourth chapter goes on to look at the attempts to photograph or capture an image of the soul as it leaves the body.

The next couple of chapters delve into the claims of mediums who say they can establish communication with departed spirits. Chapter 5 is a history of the attempts by mediums to produce ectoplasm, a physical manifestation of spirit energy. Chapter 6 then goes on to look at current research with gifted mediums at the VERITAS Research Program of the University of Arizona conducted by Gary Schwartz. This is followed by the author taking a Fundamentals of Mediumship course at Arthur Findlay College in England.

Chapter 8 "Can You Hear Me Now?" looks into attempts to use technology to establish communication with dead souls. EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) on tape recorders and radio static is the current trend, but Ms. Roach also looks into the history of this field.

Chapter 9 begins a section where Ms. Roach looks to see if physical phenomena, rather than spirits, may cause the feelings of contact with the beyond. First she visits Dr. Michael Persinger at the Consciousness Research Lab at Laurentian University in Sudbury Ontario. He is studying the ability of complex electromagnetic fields to produce hallucinations that might resemble contact with the dead. Chapter 10 looks into whether low frequency sound waves (10 - 20 hertz) could do the same thing. Ms. Roach visits Vic Tandy who teaches at Coventry University whose research is in this area.

Chapter 11 is my personal favorite. It deals with a 1925 North Carolina ghost who appeared to his son to tell him where to find the most recent version of his will. The case went to court and the new will was accepted by the family. Both the old and new wills were on file in the courthouse, and Ms. Roach brings in the president of the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners. Although the family decided to accept the new will, it turns out to be a poor quality forgery. Yet the story of family intrigue is so interesting that the chapter left me wanting someone to write more about this case.

The last chapter looks into what Mary Roach feels is the most promising of the current research to prove the existence of the soul. Based on the reports of people who have had Near Death Experiences (NDEs) who claim they felt themselves rising out of their bodies and looking down on the room they are in, this research places an object that can only be seen from the ceiling in rooms where people might possibly experience an NDE. Interviews are then conducted to see if they experienced an NDE and saw the object. This research is being conducted by Bruce Greyson at the University of Virginia.

The books ends with a 13 page bibliography that goes chapter by chapter through the resources Mary Roach used for the book. Some may criticize her for attempting to write such a book without being an expert in the field. I find that her newness to the topic gives her a fresh unbiased perspective. However, I feel that she attempts to cover her inexperience with humor that sometimes detracts from the work. If you can endure the jokes, the information provided is well presented.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
Chuckling at the Scientifically Uninvestigatable 23 Nov. 2005
By R. Hardy - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Having told us all about what happens to people's bodies after death in the funny and informative book -Stiff_, Mary Roach has gone beyond, to tell us what happens to their souls. Well, not exactly; there are lots of opinions on the matter, not necessarily religious ones, and she investigates the more-or-less scientific explanations in _Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife_ (W. W. Norton). And just because she has a fine sense of the absurd, she is quite at home writing about, and even visiting, the nutters who do not like our ignorance of the regions beyond death and have made it their mission to clear everything up. That they do not quite succeed is not at all surprising. There may be little scientific evidence of the actual existence of souls, and anyway, as supernatural entities they would not be fit subjects for scientific investigation. Humans have spent thousands of years wondering about what happens after death, and most religions have something to say upon the subject, but when we got to the scientific age it was time to start asking about the issue scientifically. A lot of silliness has ensued, much of it has amused Roach, and she has unflaggingly communicated her amusement to us in wisecracking prose that is just the right tone for such a subject.

Perhaps the most famous scientific investigation of the soul was the one that discovered it weighed 21 grams, an amount that has even been turned into a movie title. Actually, Dr. Duncan Macdougall, a surgeon, reported the soul to weigh three-fourths of an ounce, but as Roach says, "Who's going to go see a movie called _Point Seven Five Ounces_?" In 1901, Macdougall weighed a patient at expiration and found the expected weight drop; it did not seem to bother him that he was confusing the issues about souls by making them material substances. Such research is not dead; Roach interviews Gerry Nahum, a medical school professor, who wants to weigh and do other thermodynamic research on souls, but is having trouble getting funding, even from the Catholic Church. Spiritualism is here, of course, and Roach even goes to a weekend school for spiritualists in England. She gets advice on readings that sounds like the basics for making a television career as a medium: "Stick with the everyday. Try to be general because there's a better likelihood you'll be right." And she finds herself looking at her partner's clothes and accessories for clues. She comes away, though, with the realization that mediums are not intentionally duping their clients, but have duped themselves into thinking they are channeling information from paranormal sources, and they profit from eager and uncritical subjects. Overall, she is disappointed with what the dead are able to tell us. They ought to be bursting to tell us all about the afterlife that has been the subject of our curiosity ever since we understood what death was. Roach wants to know: "Hey, where are you now? What do you do all day? What's it feel like being dead? Can you see me? Even when I'm on the toilet? Would you cut that out?" We don't get good answers, and we don't good advice on stock tips. One spook informed us that the afterlife was just like Florida without the humidity, and that fat people are thin there.

Roach goes to India to investigate those who are researching the return of spirits to new bodies, in a chapter delightfully titled "You Again: A Visit to the Reincarnation Nation." Beware if you are a rogue Brahman, as the pertinent scriptures say you may reincarnate as "the ghost Ulkamukha, an eater of vomit." She comes across people who feel that spirits are communicating with them by means of anomalies in their computers' spell-checkers, and find that explanation "less far-fetched than a software glitch." She goes to the Donner Camp Picnic Ground (which is a real place) with researchers who think that electronic gadgets might pick up the voices of the cannibalized dead. There are indeed sounds recorded on the outing, but their significance is uncertain: the enthusiast with her heard, "I need more milk," while she herself heard "a rapid, metallic `gobba-lobba-ob.'" She is a generous interviewer, wide-eyed but not credulous. In fact, she applies a sensible skepticism to all her research, but comes to the conclusion that such a stance isn't much fun; when she jokes, "The debunkers are probably right, but they're no fun to visit a graveyard with," she is merely confirming that science is going to have little to say in affirmation of the issue, but we will keep wondering. It's a fine end to a book that has a huge amount of arcane knowledge and good humor in it. Where else, after all, are you going to find out that Elizabeth Taylor reported a near-death experience, but was pushed out of the spirit world and back to Earth by her husband Mike Todd who had gone before her. Roach adds, "Whether this was done for her benefit or his is not clear."
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