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Book Review: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach

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They say to never judge a book by its cover, but this book’s cover is so brilliantly simple that I had to have it, and also it was the only book by Mary Roach left on the shelf. I was originally searching for Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by the same author. Since the afterlife has always held my attention for its straightforward possibilities it was a done deal.

What intrigued me all the more is that it was written by a skeptical squint; a squint with a delicious sense of sarcasm and cynicism, bookish but not humorless. This could reveal itself more interesting than anticipated. More so when I began criticizing the book before I even opened it. The lunacies the skeptics can come up with are as wacky as the new-age-y explanations for everything in the unexplained — just polar opposites but both un-centered. The skeptics will disprove anything outside of “accepted” science as pseudo-science poo with malicious fervor just as the para-kooks will believe in their preferred reality no matter how moronic it might be, with blissful glee.

But there remain certain issues that science cannot explain that may well be true. One of them is the amount of children recounting past lives before the age of reason when they don’t even understand death, or ritualistic religious beliefs in the afterlife. There are simply too many reported or accounted incidents for them to all be untruthful. Although I remain on the skeptical side, the sheer amount of reports cannot all be setups, though many of them surely are, or a symptom of the skeptical simplistic wrap-up excuse of all excuses for the unexplained, mass delusion.

So my pre-emptive critique of the book began with wonder as to how or even if she would tackle this matter. Not only did she, but it was in the first chapter of the book. In my view she came out swinging with her investigations into the afterlife.

The introduction explains her purpose in writing this book. She states that she’s not out to point fingers at charlatans, but rather that she is a skeptic that wants to believe.

“It would be especially comforting to believe that I had the answer to the question. What happens when we die? Does the light just go out and that’s that – the million-year nap? Or will some part of my personality, my me-ness, persist? What will that feel like? What will I do all day? Is there a place to plug in my lap-top?”

Not just a squint but a geek also. Only a geek would ask for wireless access in the afterlife. And to further prove her geekiness, she fills her books with tons of what I call useless information, the kind of information I feed upon just for the fun of knowing it. Such as when she makes a faux pas of addressing an Archbishop as Your Eminence (reserved for Cardinals) when she should have addressed him as Your Grace. And even while making her mea culpa, she can’t help but slap some humor into it.

“Your Holiness, reserved for the Pope himself, trumps all, except possibly, in my hometown anyway, Your San-Francisco Giants”

All this bantering simply adds spice to her book. Even the chapter titles are snarky comments towards the subject, such as “Can you hear me now? Telecommunicating with the dead.” But despite all the humor and geek-friendly useless information the investigations are serious.

When she decides to thoroughly investigate ectoplasm she gives us all the gritty details on how these women hid the ectoplasm inside their vaginas where the Victorian researchers of the day wouldn’t think to look. But then the leading researchers into the phenomena we’re so eager to believe that after magicians such as Harry Houdini debunked the levitation of tables and the hidden ectoplasm still tried to explain them as manifestations from beyond.

A good many chapters are dedicated not to the kooks, but to science. Since its early investigations into the afterlife, science has always been there trying to make sense of it all — from weighing the soul, to capturing the soul, or seeing it in its “infancy” hiding inside sperm. It all sounds wacky, until Roach broaches on the new religion of science, Quantum Physics. Quantum Physics begins with the first law of thermodynamics, which in layman’s term means that nothing is lost or created energy-wise. So these physicists who investigate the afterlife state that life is energy on the move and when the body dies this energy that propels the mortal coil must go somewhere. They won’t say soul, because, as they say, the energy goes somewhere, but in no way means that it leaves in a unit, as a structure, as a consciousness. It could simply dissipate into the surroundings. Those are the questions they are asking themselves and I find that fascinating to say the least.

The book covers the spectrum (see that pun I just made?) of the afterlife clearly but provides little answers, although not to the author’s unwillingness, but rather since there are still no answers. She ends the book with a few words that are heavy with meaning on the human condition.

“The debunkers are probably right, but they’re no fun to visit graveyards with. What the hell. I believe in ghosts.”

I simply couldn’t put this book down. I had to plow right through it. If you like books on such subject without falling into the trappings of kooks, pick it up now. It’s not over complicated with pedantic expressions but won’t take you for a fool either. Smart, funny and geeky this book gets an ethereal 5 outta 5.

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About David Desjardins

  • Great review. And you should pick up Stiff. It’s a great read, too, with her signature voice of sarcasm, skepticism and curiosity.

  • Duane

    Jeliel, I’m not familiar with the term “squint.” What is that?

    The 1st Law of Thermodynamics is not Quantum Physics, by the way. It’s classical physics. When you die, your body stops converting energy from one form into another. The metabolic processes simply stop. Part of the energy is radiated into the atmosphere (infrared radiation or heat energy). You are consumed by bacteria, who gain energy from energy your body is losing. Bacteria produce various fluids as waste by-products. That seeps into the ground and other little beasties consume that. Like they say, we are food for worms. The 1st Law is satisfied, with no need to invoke auras or spiritual energy or whatever. I guess that’s what the scientists looking into this said.

    …new religion of science, Quantum Physics.

    Religion? What do you mean?

    Nice snapshot, by the way. You write older than you look.

  • Sory for ym mistake on the Quanta vs standard physics. But the way the quantum phicisist explained it, it was like it was it’s first law.

    Squint being a science nerd

    And that’s just a caricature made of me by a artist friend, I’m actually in my thirty-somethings

  • holy crap… I hate it when I make a typo filled comment. Always when I got to much on my mind…

  • Duane

    Squint. Does that have something to do with looking through a microscope?

  • Yup! Pretty much the origin of the expression.