Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Introducing 'The Tables Turned'

In Victorian Britain, 'thousands of people [were] turning tables'.* Well-known members of the scientific community, including co-discoverer of natural selection Alfred Russel Wallace and chemist William Crookes, were among them: active enthusiasts of spiritualism, and regular seance-goers. Others, such as Michael Faraday, were more sceptical, and denounced the popular pastime. Many fell somewhere in between on this spectrum of belief. But how were people supposed to judge what was going on, and who could be relied on for expert guidance? Was the world of science able to determine whether the events of the seance were real?

This drama recreates what happened when leading physicist John Tyndall attended a seance in the early 1860s, inviting its audiences to experience and consider how Tyndall investigated spiritualistic phenomena. Members of the British Science Association and of the British Society for the History of Science will take on the roles of a man of science, of selected dinner-party guests with a range of views on the subject, and of the medium herself. Together we will attempt to uncover whether the spooky spirit-rappings, ghostly messages and emanations, and miraculous levitations are evidence of a supernatural force, of life beyond the grave? Or is it all a cleverly-concealed and -managed fraud? At stake in this dispute is the authority of experts in the natural world to investigate the supernatural. Under debate will be processes of observation and fact-making, and the scientific method itself.

*[Anon.], 'The Mystery of the Tables', Illustrated London News, 18 June 1853, pp. 481-2, 481.