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.
Tuesday, 24 February 2009
Sunday, 22 February 2009
. . . Who ferrets out a “medium”? “David ’s yours,
“You highly-favoured man? Then, pity souls
“Less privileged! Allow us share your luck!”
So, David holds the circle, rules the roast,
Narrates the vision, peeps in the glass ball
Sets-to the spirit-writing, hears the raps,
As the case may be.
To be precise—
Though I say, “lies” all these, at this first stage,
’T is just for science’ sake: I call such grubs
By the name of what they’ll turn to, dragonflies.
Strictly, it ’s what good people style untruth;
But yet, so far, not quite the full-grown thing:
It ’s fancying, fable-making, nonsense-work—
What never meant to be so very bad—
The knack of story-telling, brightening up
Each dull old bit of fact that drops its shine.
One does see somewhat when one shuts one’s eyes,
If only spots and streaks; tables do tip
In the oddest way of themselves: and pens, good Lord,
Who knows if you drive them or they drive you?
’T is but a foot in the water and out again;
Not that duck-under which decides your dive.
Note this, for it ’s important: listen why.
I ’ll prove, you push on David till he dives
And ends the shivering. Here ’s your circle, now:
Two-thirds of them, with heads like you their host,
Turn up their eyes, and cry, as you expect,
“Lord, who’d have thought it!” But there’s always one
Looks wise, compassionately smiles, submits
“Of your veracity no kind of doubt,
“But—do you feel so certain of that boy’s?
“Really, I wonder! I confess myself
“More chary of my faith!” That ’s galling, sir!
What, he the investigator, he the sage,
When all ’s done? Then, you just have shut your eyes,
Opened your mouth, and gulped down David whole,
You! Terrible were such catastrophe!
So, evidence is redoubled, doubled again,
And doubled besides; once more, “He heard, we heard,
“You and they heard, your mother and your wife,
“Your children and the stranger in your gates:
“Did they or did they not?” So much for him,
The black sheep, guest without the wedding-garb,
The doubting Thomas! Now ’s your time to crow:
“He’s kind to think you such a fool: Sludge cheats? . . .
From Mr. Sludge, "The Medium"
'The Tables Turned' will form part of the 2009 British Science Festival in Guildford, Surrey, in September. It will be first performed at the British Society for the History of Science Annual Conference in July. Further details soon...