Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

by Mary Roach

(Norton, $24.95, 312 pages, October 2005)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Readers who enjoy Spook, may also enjoy Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by the same author.

Laughter is the Best Medium in Engaging Look at the Afterlife

'Spook' Engages in Spirited Debate About Ghosts and the Paranormal

(Headlines from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Dallas Morning News)

When Mary Roach's debut book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, became a surprise best-seller in 2003, she faced the writer's most hoped-for yet dreaded question: "What can you do for an encore?"

Her reply, at once both logical and astonishing, appears in bookstores in time for Halloween. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, like Stiff before it, will provide fascinating and entertaining reading any time of the year.

Ms. Roach subscribes to the theory that the question of what happens when we die is too important to approach without laughter. In her hands, body and soul become "Stiff" and "Spook," and once the matter of necessary reverence is disposed of, irreverence can reign.

Though science is not favorably disposed to spooks, she keeps her mind open, and invites readers to join her on an adventure. Given the nature of the trek, she admits, they will be traveling over shifting ground and seeking evidence that may not exist. Regardless, she promises "a diverting journey, wherever it is we end up."

She delivers on that promise, including plenty of first-person comments as a wise-cracking tour guide and instructor. She also admits to being exasperating. Of the Indian professor who took her to visit the families of a four-year-old Hindu boy and his Muslim widow from a former life, she writes, "Poor Kirti. He wanted vanilla and got jalapeno."

Readers get lessons in looking for souls in sperm with microscopes or in other body parts with scalpels. They meet a professor who placed patients and their deathbeds on sensitive commercial scales, determined that a human soul weighs about 3/4 ounce, and later tried to see that soul on its escape from the body.

Of course, this is a field for charlatans, including female mediums who inserted rolls of gauze into their vaginas or swallowed them in ways that they could re-emerge as ectoplasm.

Not all mediums are deliberate deceivers. Readers meet the real-life Allison DuBois, the model for the character of the same name in the television program Medium. Hoping to learn what makes DuBois and others believe in her powers, Ms. Roach enrolled in a weekend "Fundamentals of Mediumship" course and discovers to her surprise that many psychics and mediums do not intentionally dupe their clients. Rather, both they and the people who visit them are "strongly motivated or constitutionally inclined to believe" that what the medium is saying applies to the deceased.

After looking into evidence that high-tech spirits use modern telecommunication systems, describing natural phenomena that could lead to ghost-like hallucinations, and examining a research project to evaluate near-death and out-of-body experiences, Ms. Roach arrives back where she started.

"Perhaps I should believe in a hereafter..., simply because it's more appealing.... The debunkers are probably right, but they're no fun to visit a graveyard with."

She follows that with a two-sentence closing zinger that would be unfair to reveal in a review, but any readers who fail to laugh are evidence of the nonexistence (at least in some people) of a soul.

Physicist, book critic, and children's science author Fred Bortz, though dubious about life after death, agrees that it is a fine idea.