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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 September 2019

Richard Noakes
University of Exeter


The introduction sets out the historiographical framework and principle approaches of the book. Studies of nineteenth and twentieth century interactions between the established sciences and psychical phenomena have yielded many important insights but left many questions unanswered. We know a good deal about the psychical interests and investigations of a handful of scientists but only a partial sense of how far their examples were followed. We know a lot about the ‘occult’ uses to which spiritualists, theosophists and other occultists put developments in physical sciences relating to ether, energy, electricity and matter, but far less about the uses to which scientists made of psychical and occult phenomena in their scientific enquiries. Existing studies have also established much about the connections between ’physics and psychics’ at the level of ideas, theories and concepts, but have largely sidestepped the experimental nature of these connections.

Physics and Psychics
The Occult and the Sciences in Modern Britain
, pp. 1 - 20
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2019
On 15 October 1919, that venerable institution of British comic journalism, Punch, turned the focus of its regular commentaries on leading personalities of the day to Oliver Lodge, the ageing British physicist who had recently retired as Principal of Birmingham University. For “many years”, the anonymous contributor explained, Lodge had

harboured the ambition of achieving distinction as a serious man of science, and was so far successful that he attained to the position of the President of the British Association. It was only comparatively late in life that he discovered that the word Physics (a science to which he had devoted so many years of patient research) by a slight rearrangement of the letters composing it and the addition of another “c”, could be resolved into Psychics; and transferred his attention to a more congenial field of study.Footnote 1

Punch had, of course, deliberately misrepresented Lodge for satirical effect. He had not “transferred” to “Psychics” – the study of psychic or psychical phenomena – simply because the word closely resembled physics; the transfer had begun much earlier in his scientific career; and it had neither been complete nor always “congenial”. Yet some aspects of Punch’s portrait were closer to the truth. Lodge had indeed achieved scientific “distinction”, and not simply as president of a major British scientific institution (the British Association for the Advancement of Science) but as someone boasting a long career in scientific research, teaching and popularisation. Much of his scientific research and writing had explored the possible connections between what, in his later years, he termed “physics and psychics”.Footnote 2 For decades he had been developing arguments that physics had the concepts, theories and practices that could illuminate the baffling psycho-physical phenomena of psychical research, and that such phenomena offered potentially fruitful directions in which the scope of physics could be extended beyond its formal domains of matter and energy.

By 1919, Lodge was probably the only individual that most British reading audiences associated with connections between physics and psychics, mainly because of his staggering output of articles, books and public lectures. In the five decades before this, however, he was known as one of many eminent physicists with psychical ‘connections’, including four Nobel laureates, three presidents of the Royal Society of London and three other presidents of the British Association.Footnote 3 Some were well known for their role in one of the widest-reaching of all applications of the physical sciences: electrical communication (Figure 0.1). When, in the 1880s, Lodge’s connection with psychical investigation started, his name jostled for attention alongside those of other, and mainly older, professional scientists in the published membership lists of an organisation that had played an important role in raising the intellectual profile of the study of psychical phenomena across the globe: the Society for Psychical Research (henceforth SPR). Founded in 1882, this predominantly British organisation aimed to subject a host of what it deemed “debatable”, “remarkable” and seemingly “inexplicable” phenomena to the “exact and unimpassioned” methods of enquiry that had proven so successful in the sciences for hundreds of years.Footnote 4 The conspicuous absence of the word ‘supernatural’ from the SPR’s manifesto was entirely consistent with this methodological ambition: like so many mesmerists and spiritualists before them, the SPR studied phenomena that it believed to be manifestations of obscure aspects of the natural order, even if they were still deemed supernatural in some quarters.

0.1 A semi-satirical portrait of the late-nineteenth-century telegraph and telephone businesses. Some of the individuals shown here – Latimer Clark (1), William Crookes (2), Amos Dolbear (3), Thomas Alva Edison (4), Desmond Fitzgerald (5), Silvanus Thompson (6) and Cromwell Varley (7) – were also interested in psychical phenomena. From F[rancis] C[arruthers] Gould, ‘Telegraph and Telephone Magnet(at)es’, The City, 5 May 1883.

Reproduced by permission of the Telegraph Museum, Porthcurno.

The phenomena that the SPR reclassified as ‘psychical’ all suggested obscure and startling powers of the human mind and body.Footnote 5 They included ‘telepathy’ or the capacity to communicate images, words and other impressions to other individuals independently of the known senses; the ability to see or otherwise perceive ghosts of the dead or dying; the power to induce a trance state, effect medical cures and share the sensory experiences of individuals via ‘mesmerism’; and the ability to commune with the dead, materialise inhabitants of the spirit world, move objects at a distance and display the other startling powers associated with spiritualist mediumship. Some of the individuals who produced and studied these phenomena would, in the mid-1870s, launch the Theosophical Society. Modernising the ancient study of theosophy or ‘divine wisdom’, this organisation encouraged the development of obscure psychological powers for elucidating esoteric truths underlying all philosophies, religions and sciences relating to the origin, development and fundamental nature of mankind and the cosmos.Footnote 6

Many of the psychical phenomena studied by the SPR had been the preoccupation of the ‘occult philosophies’, ‘occult sciences’ and ‘occultisms’ that had flourished for centuries. However, the SPR sought to distance itself from such enterprises on the grounds that they seemed to represent approaches to obscure or ‘occult’ phenomena that were fanciful, secretive and morally dubious rather than what the organisation upheld as the empirical, open and morally sound approaches of the established sciences.Footnote 7 Most of the protagonists of this book shared this anxiety and were more likely to speak of unusual, residual and psychical phenomena than the more freighted ‘occult’ phenomena and certainly repudiated the idea that they were trying to apply science to ‘supernatural’ effects or a realm beyond the natural.Footnote 8 To further project an image of “exact and impassioned enquiry”, the SPR also denied prior commitment to “any particular explanation of the phenomena”, among which the most notorious was undoubtedly the core belief of spiritualists that the information conveyed by entranced mediums came from personalities in the afterlife.Footnote 9 The SPR’s rising membership (which had reached over 900 by 1900) suggests that this strategy clearly appealed to many Victorians looking for a more scientific approach to things ghostly and supernatural.

What sometimes surprised late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century commentators was that the SPR’s members included many of the most distinguished scientific, literary, medical, political and religious figures of the period. Some, and especially those forging the academic discipline of psychology, were particularly baffled to find so many physicists and practitioners of other physical sciences in the SPR because the kinds of phenomena included in the organisation’s remit were psychological to one degree or another and not the province of sciences that formally sidestepped questions of mind. In response, many physical scientists argued that since some psychical phenomena had some physical aspects then they were relevant and important to the physical sciences and should not be left solely in the hands of psychologists. By the time Punch was imagining his “transfer” from physics to psychics, Lodge was only one of a handful of professional physicists left willing to defend this argument. The scientific discipline to which psychical researchers now most closely associated their enterprise was psychology, although most professional psychologists – and, indeed, most professional scientists of the interwar period – denied that the methods and results of psychical research were robust enough to qualify the enterprise as a branch of any science. The situation would not change significantly over the course of the twentieth century, when most scientists, including many physicists, expressed grave doubts about the existence of psychical and paranormal effects and judged psychical research and its major offspring – parapsychology – as fields unworthy of their attention.Footnote 10

This book is about the heyday of ‘physics and psychics’ which took place in the period circa 1870–1930 and was much more prominent in Britain than elsewhere. It argues that the study of psychical phenomena occupied a much more significant place among late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century physical scientists than we have assumed and that the encounters between physical and psychical enquiries stimulated a degree of theoretical, experimental and other types of scientific activity that has been largely overlooked. These activities were not limited to professional physicists, who until the late nineteenth century were rare individuals in the scientific landscape. Indeed, it is because psychical research was pursued by practitioners of a wider range of physical sciences that the phrase ‘physics and psychics’ is a handy but problematic shorthand.

The involvement of distinguished physicists and practitioners of other physical sciences in psychical research and ancestral occult enterprises has long stimulated, baffled and even titillated historians of psychical research, physics, and of nineteenth-century sciences and occultisms more generally.Footnote 11 The result is that we know a good deal about selected individuals and the links that they tried to forge between physical and psychical enterprises at conceptual and theoretical levels, but we still lack an understanding of the bigger picture. How widespread was the interest in psychical investigation among physical scientists? What did this interest amount to? To what extent were ‘physics and psychics’ linked on experimental as well as theoretical levels? Why did physical scientists think that their skills were relevant to and productive in psychical investigation? And why did some change their approaches to psychical investigation or abandon such enquiries altogether? This book attempts to answer these and many other questions.

The hostility of today’s physicists to psychical research has invariably shaped their attempts to understand why so many of their nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century professional ancestors displayed a serious interest in the subject. Echoing nineteenth-century critics of psychical research and spiritualism, they attribute the embarrassing spiritualist beliefs of Lodge, the chemist William Crookes and others to temporary lapses in otherwise formidable powers of scientific judgement. Driven by strong religious, metaphysical or emotional attachment to the idea that we survive bodily death, these lapses, it is said, blinded them to the trickery of spiritualist mediums.Footnote 12 Radically alternative interpretations have been given by many contemporary spiritualists. For them, Victorian scientists lend weighty scientific support to the spiritual and psychical beliefs for which they have already gained conclusive evidence.Footnote 13

For all their differences, today’s physicists and spiritualists share an interest in the past as a resource for criticising or defending the beliefs and practices associated with psychical research, spiritualism, modern Theosophy and other so-called occult subjects. The approaches of most academic historians have long deviated from this. They generally abstain from evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of these beliefs and practices in favour of understanding their origin, development and significance. For this reason their work sidesteps the frequent and often sterile debates about whether ‘occult’ beliefs and practices meet some transhistorical criteria of ‘pseudo-science’ in favour of understanding the historical processes by which such things were eventually demarcated from ‘established’, ‘mainstream’ or ‘orthodox’ sciences.Footnote 14 This literature is correspondingly sensitive to historical actors’ notions of the scientific character of ‘occult’ subjects, which often challenged the ways in which the established sciences were defined. This sensitivity is particularly clear in historians’ terms of analysis. By referring to mesmerism, spiritualism, modern Theosophy and psychical research as ‘alternative-sciences’ rather than the more pejorative ‘pseudo’, ‘marginal’ or ‘occult’ sciences, they have better captured the considerable scientific potential that these controversial subjects had for so many nineteenth-century individuals.Footnote 15 Although many of these subjects were pursued for philosophical, religious and moral as well as scientific reasons, ‘alternative sciences’ remains a useful collective term for them and will be adopted here.

The need for an alternative collective term to ‘pseudo-sciences’ is especially pressing in the nineteenth century because it was a period when the boundaries of scientific orthodoxy, whether defined in terms of subject matter, forms of expertise, practices, audiences or sites of enquiry, were still being negotiated. The major revisionist studies of early Victorian phrenology and mesmerism are particularly instructive here because they demonstrate the significant role that these alternative sciences fulfilled in determining the boundaries of scientific orthodoxy and the social, political and cultural factors that necessarily informed this boundary work.Footnote 16 Alison Winter’s study of mesmerism, for example, shows that the trajectory of this controversial medical therapy was less bound up with the question of whether a quasi-magnetic fluid really passed between mesmeric doctors and their patients than with the challenges that it posed to early Victorian ideas about professional authority, and about the relations of class, ethnicity and gender.

The fluid boundaries of scientific orthodoxy make it equally perilous to approach mesmerism, spiritualism and psychical research with rigid distinctions between natural and supernatural, material and spiritual, manifest and occult. These distinctions were constantly being contested in the nineteenth century, not least because of the puzzling phenomena associated with the alternative sciences.Footnote 17 The notorious materialised spirits of seances, for example, seemed to challenge all these distinctions: they were clearly manifest to the senses, and had natural and even grossly material aspects, but their causes were hidden or occult, and ostensibly in the domain of the supernatural or spiritual. These kinds of phenomena were often deemed worthy of scientific investigation precisely because of these former qualities, but also because natural scientific enquiries had long proven successful in embracing phenomena that seemed to be supernatural, spiritual and occult.

Winter’s study amply demonstrates the insights that can be gained into alternative sciences when situating them in their historical contexts. It is an approach that has, in the past few decades, yielded more nuanced and altogether more satisfactory historical interpretations. Spiritualist mediumship proved an attractive career move to many nineteenth-century American and British women because it conferred on them powers of speaking, writing and behaving that subverted the oppressive femininities of the Victorian patriarchy; spiritualism secured many followers among English plebeians because it helped them challenge the control that educational, religious, medical and political institutions wielded over them, and it gave bereaved men welcome opportunities to write about emotionally charged communions with loved ones on the other side, and thus challenge the oppressive ideologies of masculinity that shunned public displays of grief.Footnote 18

One of the most important contexts for interpreting spiritualism and other alternative sciences has been the debates on the relationship between science and religion, or, more accurately, the sciences and Christianity. As many historians have shown, spiritualists, psychical researchers and modern Theosophists expressed more widely shared preoccupations with questions of mind, spirit, morality and cosmic purpose to which neither orthodox Christianity nor the seemingly materialistic sciences provided satisfactory answers.Footnote 19 In a period when the credibility of Christian doctrines was being challenged by historical criticism and by new scientific understandings of the earth’s history and the development of organic life, many aimed to safeguard their Christian faith, or to find alternatives to Christianity, by applying the methods of rational and scientific enquiry to obscure phenomena of the mind and body that had considerable spiritual, religious and moral significance.

In taking scientific and rational enquiry in these directions, proponents of alternative sciences were both extending and challenging ‘scientific naturalism’.Footnote 20 Succinctly characterised by Bernard Lightman as the “English version of the cult of science” pervading nineteenth-century Europe, this was an intellectual, cultural and political enterprise closely associated with some of the most vociferous scientists of the Victorian era, notably the biologist and prominent champion of Darwinism, Thomas Henry Huxley, and a physicist well known to many of this book’s protagonists, John Tyndall.Footnote 21 Scientific naturalism held that the sciences provided the most reliable understandings of the physical world (including humanity). These understandings were based on empirically established theories of material atoms, energy and biological evolution, and shunned scientifically unproven causes, including the spiritual and supernatural agencies at the core of religious institutions. Scientific naturalists’ intellectual goals underpinned their other ambitions: they campaigned ardently for the sciences to be enterprises that were thoroughly professionalised, free from the control that the Anglican establishment had long wielded over them, and practised by individuals whose profound knowledge of nature’s laws gave them the right to challenge the clergy’s cultural and moral authority. Spiritualists, psychical researchers and modern Theosophists, however, wanted to turn scientific naturalism against itself by showing how scientific methods could yield conclusive evidence of psychical, spiritual and other domains that challenged what they perceived to be scientific naturalism’s ‘materialistic’ philosophy, which proclaimed that everything in the cosmos, including life, mind and spirit, could be reduced to matter and force.

Historical understandings of our alternative sciences have also been deepened by situating them in the context of specific scientific and even technological developments, as well as general scientific, religious and intellectual trends. Unsurprisingly, this has preoccupied many historians of psychology over the past few decades, not least because many of the architects of the academic discipline of psychology – notably Granville Stanley Hall and William James – were involved in psychical research. The work of these historians makes it clear that in many quarters, mesmerism, spiritualism and psychical research were pursued as new forms of psychology or sciences of the mind, and played significant roles in the nineteenth-century debates about the proper nature and scope of psychology.Footnote 22

While historians of psychology have explored what, in debates about the nature of the human mind, gave plausibility and value to the claims of our alternative sciences, other scholars have looked at the way these achievements involved engagements with recent developments in physics and other physical sciences, as well as technologies related to those enterprises. The claims of spiritualists, psychical researchers, modern Theosophists and others were often represented as subtler varieties of these more material forms of progress. Many described spiritualistic communion with the departed and telepathic exchanges between the living as only spiritual or psychological forms of telegraphy and other revolutionary forms of communication involving electricity and the ether of space.Footnote 23 The capacity to see invisible spirits or to clairvoyantly apprehend distant or hidden scenes seemed more intelligible in the context of photography with visible light and X-rays.Footnote 24 The realms bordering on and transcending the material evinced in spiritualism and psychical research seemed to converge with physicists’ conceptions of a quasi-material or immaterial ether of space.Footnote 25 The higher spatial dimensions and subatomic structures apprehended by modern occultists using obscure psychological powers were more credible in the light of the mathematics of hypergeometry and the physics of electrons and radioactive emanations.Footnote 26

In exploring the engagement of our alternative sciences with physical sciences, historians have tended to focus on concepts and theories, and some have treated such concepts and theories as relatively unproblematic resources that could be borrowed, adapted and otherwise mobilised for psychical and occult purposes. These approaches are limited in at least two respects. First, they overlook the considerable experimental and practical aspects of the physical sciences, even though these provided the resources for some of the most elaborate psychical investigations of the period. Second, they represent a rosy and overly simplistic view of physical theories and concepts and, moreover, of nineteenth-century physics and other physical sciences in general. This has led at least one major study of our subject to suppose that physics and psychics can be approximately mapped onto science and pseudo-science respectively.Footnote 27

Challenging assumptions that nineteenth-century physics can be treated as a relatively unproblematic body of theories and practices are a growing number of studies demonstrating the enormous effort that went into establishing the discipline whose astonishing capacity for understanding, controlling and exploiting the phenomena of the physical world would prompt boasts that it was the ‘king’ of the sciences. These efforts necessarily embraced the natural and social, material and cultural.Footnote 28 Physicists had to confront a host of capricious effects, handle temperamental instruments, master abstruse mathematical methods, and carefully control spaces of research, teaching and display.Footnote 29 They also needed to develop literary and performative strategies that would persuade individuals crucially important to creating and securing the intellectual and cultural spaces of physics – for example, entrepreneurs, statesmen, university administrators, lawyers, educators, clergymen, editors and publishers – that they were supreme authorities on the physical world.Footnote 30 These efforts were particularly conspicuous in the numerous controversies in which physicists were embroiled over particular effects, theories, concepts, techniques, instruments and the very boundaries of their fledgling discipline. Physicists argued with each other and with individuals close to and well beyond the emergent discipline over such questions as the ultimate nature of matter, electricity and the ether; the virtues of mechanical force and energy as fundamental concepts of the science; the techniques, instruments and standards of physical measurement; and the relationships of physics to medicine, engineering and religion.Footnote 31

A more nuanced picture of nineteenth-century physics is critical to the way Physics and Psychics seeks to develop more satisfactory understandings of the psychical forays of physicists and practitioners of related physical sciences. Uncertainties about the ‘material’ constitution of atoms and ether posed a serious threat to the materialistic philosophy, and lent plausibility to myriad psychical phenomena that could not easily be explained in terms of matter and motion. These uncertainties were partly prompted by experimental researches on matter, ether and electricity undertaken by our protagonists themselves.

This experimental work had two other kinds of ‘psychical’ significance for our protagonists. First, it gave them many of the investigative skills and material resources for probing such obscure phenomena as telekinesis, magnetic sensitivity and materialised spirits. Second, the troubles that they encountered bringing physical experiments to successful conclusions made them particularly tolerant of the more notorious difficulties of psychical investigation. In 1909, Lodge denied that Crookes’s investigations into spiritualism could be sharply contrasted with the same scientist’s work on the discharge of electricity through rarefied gases because there was a time when the latter ‘scientific’ enterprise had many of the qualities of the former ‘unscientific’ one: it too had been a “mistrusted region, full of danger, and strewn with the bones of former explorers”.Footnote 32 It was partly because they remembered times when experimental work in other purely physical subjects – for example, telegraphic signalling, spectro-chemical analysis, sensitive flames and the detection of electromagnetic waves – had been ‘mistrusted regions’ that Lodge, Crookes and others were more sympathetic than most scientists of their era to the problems of communicating between this world and the next, observing ghostly effects in seances and of managing the wayward nature of those major psychical instruments: spiritualist mediums.

The status of physics during much of the nineteenth century as an emergent, rather than an established, scientific discipline creates other interpretative possibilities for this book. The most pragmatic is that the study of ‘physics and psychics’ needs to embrace scientific practitioners other than just physicists. Until late in the century there was no fixed training regime or career path for physicists, and the science was open to contributions from individuals from a range of scientific backgrounds including astronomy, analytical chemistry, practical electricity and medicine. It is from this wider pool of subjects that the discipline of physics was put together and, accordingly, this is the pool from which our cast of characters has been drawn.Footnote 33

The fluidity of the boundaries of physics, and especially those with physiology, medicine and psychology, are important here because they serve as important contexts within which physics was pushed into the domain of psychical investigation. By the 1870s, physics was being defined as a science that formally sidestepped questions of life and mind, but this hardly stopped research into the borders of physics with physiology, medicine and psychology. Many physicists shared with medical doctors, electrical engineers and physiologists a preoccupation with using physical concepts (notably electricity and energy) and instruments in developing new understandings of and therapies for the human body. As we shall see in this book, some physicists saw the use of physical concepts and instruments in studying startling bodily phenomena of spiritualism and psychical research as extensions of this process.

Among those who applied energy physics to the human body were proponents of scientific naturalism who held that the domain of physics could be extended still further – to the mind. In a period when architects of psycho-physics and physiological psychology used the instruments of physics to study sensation and perception, scientific naturalists saw physics as offering the kind of material, mechanical, and empirically based explanation of mental processes that they believed a true science of psychology demanded. Based on an assumed close parallelism between neural and psychological states, this proposed connection between physics and psychology posed a serious threat to the strongly held belief in free will that in Victorian Britain could also undermine the basis of Christian morality.Footnote 34

One of the fiercest critics of this argument was the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who, in the 1870s, denied that the natural sciences per se, let alone the physics of molecules and energy, could be legitimately applied to questions of volition and consciousness.Footnote 35 Along with William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Peter Guthrie Tait and others, Maxwell represented a formidable opposition among late-Victorian physicists to scientific naturalism, and in particular its materialistic readings of those subjects where physicists claimed particular authority: the nature of matter and energy. As academically trained practitioners heading specialised research and teaching laboratories, Maxwell and others symbolised the professionalised science championed by secular scientific naturalism. But these physicists were also devout Christians who maintained that professionalised physics could fulfil the religious purposes that the sciences had carried for centuries: to evidence a cosmos designed and ruled by divine agency.Footnote 36

The dispute between theistic physics and scientific naturalism focussed partly on the same issue that had been, and would continue to be, pursued by the physicists, electrical engineers and others in this book: to what extent could the theories and practices of physics be applied phenomena associated with mind? As we shall see in the following chapters, some types of psychical phenomena were at least as ‘physical’ as ‘mental’ in nature and lent themselves more easily to this kind of intervention. Our protagonists interpreted the faint luminosity allegedly seen around magnets, the movement of untouched objects by the power of thought, and the materialisation of otherwise disembodied spirits as partly magnetic, optical and mechanical puzzles requiring the skills and resources that had already proven successful in physical detection, isolation, control and measurement. But even less physical and more mental types of psychical phenomena were not closed to their interventions: for example, telepathy and the mechanisms by which spirits interacted with the material world seemed legitimate areas of physical theorising.

The protagonists of this book complicated rather than resolved the conflict between theistic physics and scientific naturalism. In some ways their forays led them to a position closer to Maxwell and other theistic physicists whose scientific work they generally revered. Their psychical forays helped evidence the apparent capacity of mind to exist independently of the material brain, which challenged the psycho-physiological link upheld by scientific naturalists. Many of them saw this as an argument against materialism and for the credibility of beliefs long associated with Christian theism, such as the divine guidance of the cosmos and the efficacy of prayer. But their forays also testified to the ascendancy of scientific naturalism over theistic science.Footnote 37 Many of the individuals studied here accepted that secular scientific methods, rather than metaphysics and religious belief, were the most reliable tools for studying all phenomena coming within human experience, including psychological phenomena previously studied under the rubrics of morality, philosophy and religion. Their attempts to extend theories of physics to telepathy, the afterlife and other psychical realms certainly transgressed Maxwell’s limits and put their work closer to the materialism and pantheism often associated with scientific naturalism than to theistic science.

The foregoing discussion demonstrates the tantalising convergences now existing between the historiographies of the alternative sciences and physical sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and which encourage a more nuanced study of ‘physics and psychics’. As historians of alternative sciences uncover more ways in which the physical sciences mattered to interpretations of mesmerism, spiritualism, modern Theosophy and psychical research, so historians of the physical sciences acknowledge the psychical and ‘occult’ implications of the ideas and practices in these enterprises. Building on and moving beyond this literature, Physics and Psychics argues that these implications were taken much more seriously than we have acknowledged. An entangled cultural history of physical and psychical sciences, it returns us to a period when our boundaries between these areas of enquiry were absent or only partially formed; when exchanges between these areas were both possible, desirable and even fruitful; and when some of the most distinguished physicists, electrical engineers, chemists and astronomers of the day regularly locked horns with psychologists, conjurors and spiritualists over the legitimacy, meanings and uses of a physical science of psychical phenomena.

This book is organised chronologically and thematically. Covering the period from around the 1770s to the 1860s, Chapter 1 explores the trajectories of spectacular new areas of what we label psychical investigation (mesmerism, the human sensitivity to magnetism, and spiritualism) and the emergence of physics as a scientific discipline boasting formidable resources for understanding and controlling the natural world. Not surprisingly, the same period saw the construction of some of the most important early arguments for the relevance and utility of physics to the study of psychical phenomena, arguments that would intensify from the 1870s. The identity of the scientific practitioners who took these arguments seriously is one of the principle burdens of Chapter 2. Covering the period from the 1780s to the 1930s, it analyses the complex and often radically different reasons why individuals that we collectively refer to as ‘physical–psychical scientists’ studied different kinds of psychical phenomena and why their attitudes to the subject changed.

Many of the physical–psychical scientists identified in Chapter 2 did not leave particularly illuminating insights into the relationships between ‘physics and psychics’, but those that did form the main subjects of analysis in the remainder of this book. Chapters 35 take a more thematic approach and consider three complementary perspectives on the reasons why confidence in the relationships between physical and psychical investigation reached a zenith in the period from the 1870s to the early 1900s. One reason was a host of concepts and theories in physical sciences that made psychical effects plausible, or at least challenged arguments against their impossibility (Chapter 3); another was that the physical sciences embodied material resources and skills that promised more effective solutions to the investigative problems that had beleaguered psychical investigation for decades (Chapter 4). Yet another equally striking reason examined in Chapter 5 is that physical–psychical scientists believed that their long experiences of the vicissitudes of physical experiment gave them a patient and altogether more ‘scientific’ attitude to the difficulties of doing psychical research, which they felt was lacking in conjurors and other kinds of psychical investigators who were among their most redoubtable adversaries.

None of the approaches to psychical phenomena examined in Chapters 35 proved as successful as physical–psychical scientists hoped. Taking the story forward to the late 1930s, Chapter 6 analyses the implications of these disappointing outcomes and shows that while the leading (and ageing) physical–psychical scientists turned increasingly from doing to writing about ‘physics and psychics’, a host of younger scientific practitioners explored other ways of realising and surpassing the original experimental ambitions of the older generation of physical–psychical scientists. The conclusion surveys the real and imagined connections that have been made between physics and the study of psychical, parapsychological and paranormal effects since the 1930s and considers the continuities and discontinuities with the period on which this book is principally focussed.


1 [Anon.], ‘Second Thoughts’, Punch, vol. 157 (1919), p. 333. Throughout the main body of the text, I have used double quotation marks for quoted text and single quotation marks around words or phrases whose problematic nature I wish to emphasise.

2 See, for example, Oliver Lodge, Beyond Physics or the Idealisation of Mechanism (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1930), pp. 19 and 114.

3 The Nobel laureates were Marie and Pierre Curie, the Third Baron Rayleigh and J. J. Thomson; the Royal Society presidents were William Crookes, Rayleigh and Thomson; and the British Association presidents were Rayleigh, Thomson and Arthur Rücker.

4 [Anon.], ‘The Society for Psychical Research: Objects of the Society’, PSPR, vol. 1 (1882–3), pp. 36, pp. 34.

5 The Oxford English Dictionary suggests many alternatives to ‘psychical’ as collective terms relating to spiritualistic and related phenomena. ‘Psychic’ had been used to refer to such phenomena since the 1870s, while ‘psychics’ and ‘psychic research’ were used in the 1860s and 1880s respectively to refer to the study of such phenomena. ‘Psychic science’ came into common use as an alternative to ‘psychical research’ in the 1920s, partly to reflect the claimed scientific status of the enterprise. For the purposes of clarity this book will generally adopt the terms ‘psychical’ for the phenomena and ‘psychical research’ or ‘psychical investigation’ for the study of the phenomena.

6 The historical literature on modern Theosophy is enormous but see Bruce F. Campbell, Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980); Joscelyn Godwin, The Theosophical Enlightenment (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994); K. Paul Johnson, The Masters Revealed: Madame Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994).

7 This is evident in Oliver Lodge, ‘In Memory of F. H. W. Myers’, PSPR, vol. 17 (1901–3), pp. 112, p. 4; Frederic W. H. Myers, ‘The Subliminal Consciousness’, PSPR, vol. 7 (1891–2), pp. 298355 and vol. 8 (1892), pp. 436–535, on vol. 8, p 465. For recent historical overviews of occultisms see Egil Asprem, ‘Science and the Occult’, in Christopher Partridge (ed.), The Occult World (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), pp. 710–19; Wouter Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2012), esp. chapter 3.

8 For example, William F. Barrett, Psychical Research (London: Williams and Norgate, 1911), pp. 1114; Oliver Lodge, My Philosophy Representing My Views on the Many Functions of the Ether of Space (London: Ernest Benn, 1933), pp. 300–1.

9 [Anon.], ‘Objects of the Society’, pp. 4–5.

10 Examples of this attitude are in Georges Charpak and Henri Bloch, Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis, other Pseudoscience (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004); Robert Park, Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud (Oxford University Press, 2000), and issues of Skeptical Inquirer, which publishes reports by professional scientific and other members of the American-based Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

11 The most important studies are Egil Asprem, The Problem of Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse 1900–1939 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 208–25; Peter J. Bowler, Reconciling Science and Religion: The Debate in Early-Twentieth-Century Britain (Chicago University Press, 2001), pp. 89101; William H. Brock, William Crookes (1832–1919) and the Commercialization of Science (Farnham: Ashgate, 2008), chapters 7–8 and 10–11; Geoffrey Cantor, Michael Faraday: Sandemanian and Scientist (London: Macmillan, 1991), pp. 146–54; Patrick Fuentès, ‘Camille Flammarion et les force naturelles inconnues’, in Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Christine Blondel (eds.), Les savants face à l’occulte, 1870–1940 (Paris: Éditions la Découverte, 2002), pp. 105–21; Michael Gordin, A Well-Ordered Thing: Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table (New York: Basic Books, 2004), chapter 4; Franz Ferzak, Karl Freiherr von Reichenbach (Munich: Franz Ferzak World and Space Publications, 1987), pp. 62152; Jeff Hughes, ‘Occultism and the Atom: The Curious Story of Isotopes’, Physics World, September 2003, pp. 31–5; Mark S. Morrisson, Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Albert E. Moyer, A Scientist’s Role in American Culture: Simon Newcomb and the Rhetoric of Scientific Method (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992), chapter 10; Michael Nahm, ‘The Sorcerer of Cobenzl and His Legacy: The Life of Baron Karl Ludwig von Reichenbach, His Work and Its Aftermath’, Journal of Scientific Exploration, vol. 26 (2012), pp. 381407; Richard Noakes, ‘Telegraphy Is an Occult Art: Cromwell Fleetwood Varley and the Diffusion of Electricity to the Other World’, British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 32 (1999), pp. 421–59; Richard Noakes, ‘“The Bridge Which Is Between Physical and Psychical Research”: William Fletcher Barrett, Sensitive Flames and Spiritualism’, History of Science, vol. 42 (2004), pp. 419–64; Richard Noakes, ‘Cromwell Varley FRS, Electrical Discharge and Spiritualism’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, vol. 61 (2007), pp. 521; Richard Noakes, ‘The “World of the Infinitely Little”: Connecting Physical and Psychical Realities circa 1900’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 39 (2008), pp. 323–34; Richard Noakes, ‘Making Space for the Soul: Oliver Lodge, Maxwellian Psychics and the Etherial Body’, in Jaume Navarro (ed.), Ether and Modernity: The Recalcitrance of an Epistemic Object in the Early Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 88106; Janet Oppenheim, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in Britain, 1850–1914 (Cambridge University Press, 1985), chapter 8; Courtenay Grean Raia, ‘From Ether Theory to Ether Theology: Oliver Lodge and the Physics of Immortality’, Journal of the History of the Behavioural Sciences, vol. 43 (2007), pp. 1943; Klaus B. Staubermann, ‘Tying the Knot: Skill, Judgement and Authority in the 1870s Leipzig Spiritistic Experiments’, British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 34 (2001), pp. 6779; David B. Wilson, ‘The Thought of Late-Victorian Physicists: Oliver Lodge’s Ethereal Body’, Victorian Studies, vol. 15 (1971), pp. 2948; Brian Wynne, ‘Physics and Psychics: Science, Symbolic Action and Social Control in Late Victorian England’, in Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin (eds.), Natural Order: Historical Studies of Scientific Culture (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1979), pp. 167–87.

12 Exemplary here is Victor Stenger, Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990), chapter 7.

13 See, for example, Gordon Smith, Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Case for Supernatural Phenomena in the Modern World (London: Coronet, 2018), chapter 1; Lynn G. De Swarte, Thorson’s Principles of Spiritualism (London: Thorson’s, 1999), pp. 4 and 7.

14 For critical historical studies of ‘pseudo-science’ see Roger Cooter, ‘The Conservatism of “Pseudoscience”’, in Patrick Grim (ed.), Philosophy of Science and the Occult (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), pp. 156–69; David J. Hess, Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers and American Culture (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993); Seymour H. Mauskopf, ‘Marginal Science’, in R. G. Olby, G. N. Cantor, J. R. R. Christie and M. J. S. Hodge (eds.), Companion to the History of Modern Science (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 869–85; Daniel P. Thurs and Ronald L. Numbers, ‘Science, Pseudo-Science and Science Falsely So-Called’, in Massimo Pigliucci and Maatern Boudry (eds.), Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago University Press, 2013), pp. 121–44. Many recent historical approaches to science and pseudo-science owe a debt to Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch’s classic sociological study of parapsychology. This understood the conflict between parapsychologists and their scientific adversaries as one between rival and incommensurable forms of scientific method, rationality and expertise, rather than between science and pseudo-science: H. M. Collins and T. J. Pinch, Frames of Meaning: The Social Construction of Extraordinary Science (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982).

15 This is well captured in Arne Hessenbruch (ed.), The Readers’ Guide to the History of Science (London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000). A critical assessment of ‘alternative science’ is Shiv Visvanathan, ‘Alternative Science’, Theory, Culture and Society, vol. 23 (2006), pp. 164–9.

16 The classic accounts are Roger Cooter, The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organisation of Consent in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge University Press, 1984) and Alison Winter, Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (Chicago University Press, 1998). For analysis of the ‘boundary work’ involved in demarcating scientific from non-scientific enterprises see Thomas F. Gieryn, Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line (Chicago University Press, 1999).

17 On alternative sciences and ideas of natural law see Asprem, Problem of Disenchantment, esp. chapter 7; Bret E. Carroll, Spiritualism in Antebellum America (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997), pp. 6084 and Richard Noakes, ‘Spiritualism, Science and the Supernatural in Mid-Victorian Britain’, in Nicola Bown, Carolyn Burdett and Pamela Thurschwell (eds.), The Victorian Supernatural (Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 2343.

18 Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989); Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (London: Virago, 1989); Marlene Tromp, Altered States: Sex, Nation, Drugs and Self-Transformation in Victorian Spiritualism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006); Logie Barrow, Independent Spirits: Spiritualism and English Plebeians, 1850–1910 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986); Bret E. Carroll, ‘“A Higher Power to Feel”: Spiritualism, Grief and Victorian Manhood’, Men and Masculinities, vol. 3 (2000), pp. 329.

19 Asprem, Problem of Disenchantment; Alan Gauld, The Founders of Psychical Research (London: Routledge, 1968); Oppenheim, Other World; Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (Chicago University Press, 2004); Frank M. Turner, Between Science and Religion: The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974).

20 The classic work on Victorian scientific naturalism is Turner, Between Science and Religion. Turner’s other writings on the subject were collected in his Contesting Cultural Authority: Essays in Victorian Intellectual Life (Cambridge University Press, 1993), chapters 5–8. Recent perspectives are consolidated in Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman (eds.), Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity (Chicago University Press, 2014).

21 Bernard Lightman, ‘Victorian Sciences and Religions: Discordant Harmonies’, Osiris, vol. 16 (2001), pp. 343–66, p. 346.

22 M. Brady Brower, Unruly Spirits: The Science of Psychic Phenomena in Modern France (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010); Deborah J. Coon, ‘Testing the Limits of Sense and Science: American Experimental Psychologists Combat Spiritualism, 1880–1920’, American Psychologist, vol. 47 (1992), pp. 143–51; Adam Crabtree, From Mesmer to Freud: Magnetic Sleep and the Roots of Psychological Healing (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993); Alan Gauld, A History of Hypnotism (Cambridge University Press, 1992); Reginé Plas, Naissance d’une science humaine, la psychologie: Les psychologues et de ‘le merveilleux psychique’ (Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2000); Graham Richards, ‘Edward Cox, the Psychological Society of Great Britain (1875–1879) and the Meanings of an Institutional Failure’, in G. C. Bunn, A. D. Lovie and G. D. Richards (eds.), Psychology in Britain: Historical Essays and Personal Reflections (Leicester: British Psychological Society, 2001), pp. 3353; Andreas Sommer, ‘Psychical Research and the Origins of American Psychology: Hugo Münsterberg, William James and Eusapia Palladino’, History of the Human Sciences, vol. 25 (2012), pp. 2344; Andreas Sommer, ‘Normalizing the Supernormal: The Formation of the “Gesellschaft fur Psychologische Forschung” (“Society for Psychological Research”), c. 1886–1890’, Journal of the History of Behavioural Sciences, vol. 49 (2013), pp. 1844; Eugene Taylor, William James on Consciousness Beyond the Margin (Princeton University Press, 1996), esp. chapter 4; Elizabeth R. Valentine, ‘Spooks and Spoofs: Relations between Psychical Research and Academic Psychology in the Interwar Period’, History of the Human Sciences, vol. 25 (2012), pp. 6790; Heather Wolffram, The Stepchildren of Science: Psychical Research and Parapsychology in Germany, c. 1870–1939 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009).

23 Carroll, Spiritualism in Antebellum America, chapter 4; Susan J. Douglas, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), pp. 4054; Jill Galvan, The Sympathetic Medium: Feminine Channelling, the Occult, and Communication Technologies, 1859–1919 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010); Laura Otis, Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2011), chapter 6; Roger Luckhurst, The Invention of Telepathy 1870–1901 (Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 135–47; Simone Natale, ‘A Cosmology of Invisible Fluids: Wireless, X-Rays and Psychical Research Around 1900’, Canadian Journal of Communication, vol. 36 (2011), pp. 263–75; Pascal Rousseau, Cosa mentale: Art et télépathie au XXe siècle (Paris: Gallimard, 2015); Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), esp. chapters 1–2; Jeremy Stolow, ‘The Spiritual Nervous System: Reflections on a Magnetic Cord Designed for Spirit Communication’, in Jeremy Stolow (ed.), Deus in Machina: Religion, Technology and the Things in Between (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), pp. 83113.

24 For photography and spiritualism see Clement Chéroux et al., The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); David Harvey, Photography and Spirit (London: Reaktion Books, 2007); Jennifer Tucker, Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), pp. 159–93. For X-rays, spiritualism and other forms of occultism see Clement Chéroux, ‘Photographs of Fluids: An Alphabet of Invisible Rays’, in Chéroux et al., Perfect Medium, pp. 114–25; Allen W. Grove, ‘Röntgen’s Ghosts: Photography, X-Rays and the Victorian Imagination’, Literature and Medicine, vol. 16 (1997), pp. 141–73; Linda D. Henderson, ‘Vibratory Modernism: Boccioni, Kupka, and the Ether of Space’, in Bruce Clarke and Linda D. Henderson (eds.), From Energy to Information: Representation in Science and Technology, Art and Literature (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 126–49.

25 The classic study of nineteenth-century ether physics and psychical research is Wynne, ‘Physics and Psychics’. Wynne argued that for late-Victorian Cambridge-based physicists, ether physics and psychical research were both forms of a “displaced, tacit moral discourse” (p. 168). The immaterial world evinced in these enterprises supported the “ineffable spiritual and transcendent basis of social reality” enshrined in the predominantly Anglican, Tory and aristocratic institutions cherished by a Cambridge intellectual elite – institutions threatened by scientific naturalism’s “atomic nihilism” and the excessively individualistic and utilitarian values underpinned by this worldview (pp. 174 and 180). Wynne’s argument for Cambridge physicists is deeply flawed, but his general hypothesis regarding the ether’s psychical and spiritual significances remains provocative and is explored later in this book. For a critique of Wynne’s argument see Richard Noakes, ‘Ethers, Religion and Politics in Late-Victorian Physics: Beyond the Wynne Thesis’, History of Science, vol. 43 (2005), pp. 415–55.

26 Mark Blacklock, The Emergence of the Fourth Dimension: Higher Spatial Thinking in the Fin de Siècle (Oxford University Press, 2018), chapters 4–5; Linda D. Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art (Princeton University Press, 1983), esp. pp. 186–93 and 245–55; K. G. Valente, ‘“Who Will Explain the Explanation?”: The Ambivalent Reception of Higher Dimensional Space in the British Spiritualist Press, 1875–1900’, Victorian Periodicals Review, vol. 41 (2008), pp. 124–49. On occultism and radioactivity see Egil Asprem, ‘Pondering Imponderables: Occultism in the Mirror of Late Classical Physics’, Aries, vol. 11 (2011), pp. 129–65; Asprem, Problem of Disenchantment, pp. 444–80; Morrisson, Modern Alchemy.

27 Oppenheim, Other World, chapter 8.

28 For an incisive synthesis of historical studies of this process see Iwan Rhys Morus, When Physics Became King (Chicago University Press, 2005).

29 Jed Z. Buchwald, The Creation of Scientific Effects: Heinrich Hertz and Electric Waves (Chicago University Press, 1994); Graeme J. N. Gooday, ‘Instrumentation and Interpretation: Managing and Representing the Working Environments of Victorian Experimental Science’, in Bernard Lightman (ed.), Victorian Science in Context (Chicago University Press, 1997), pp. 409–37; Graeme J. N. Gooday, The Morals of Measurement: Accuracy, Irony and Trust in Late Victorian Electrical Practice (Cambridge University Press, 2004); David Gooding, ‘In Nature’s School: Faraday as an Experimentalist’, in David Gooding and Frank A. J. L. James (eds.), Faraday Rediscovered: Essays on the Life and Work of Michael Faraday, 1791–1867 (London: Macmillan, 1985), pp. 105–35; Myles W. Jackson, Spectrum of Belief: Joseph von Fraunhofer and the Craft of Precision Optics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000); Frank A. J. L. James, ‘The Study of Spark Spectra, 1835–1859’, Ambix, vol. 30 (1983), pp. 137–62; Frank A. J. L. James, ‘The Practical Problems of “New” Experimental Science: Spectro-Chemistry and the Search for Unknown Chemical Elements in Britain 1860–1869’, British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 21 (1988), pp. 181–94; Iwan Rhys Morus, Frankenstein’s Children: Electricity, Exhibition and Experiment in Early-Nineteenth-Century London (Princeton University Press, 1998); Chitra Ramalingam, ‘Natural History in the Dark: Seriality and the Electric Discharge in Victorian Physics’, History of Science, vol. 48 (2010), pp. 371–98; Simon Schaffer, ‘Where Experiments End: Tabletop Trials in Victorian Astronomy’, in Jed Z. Buchwald (ed.), Scientific Practice: Theories and Stories of Doing Physics (Chicago University Press, 1995), pp. 257–99; Otto Sibum, ‘Reworking the Mechanical Value of Heat: Instruments of Precision and Gestures of Accuracy in Early Victorian England’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 26 (1995), pp. 73106; Richard Staley, Einstein’s Generation: The Origins of the Relativity Revolution (Chicago University Press, 2008), esp. chapters 3 and 6; Andrew Warwick, Masters of Theory: Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics (Chicago University Press, 2003).

30 For literary and other performative strategies in Victorian physics see Bruce Clarke, Energy Forms: Allegory and Science in the Era of Classical Thermodynamics (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2001); Jill Howard, ‘“Physics and Fashion”: John Tyndall and his Audiences in Mid-Victorian Britain’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 35 (2004), pp. 729–58; Morus, Frankenstein’s Children; Iwan Rhys Morus, ‘Worlds of Wonder: Sensation and the Victorian Scientific Performance’, Isis, vol. 101 (2010), pp. 806–16; Greg Myers, ‘Nineteenth Century Popularizations of Thermodynamics and the Rhetoric of Social Prophecy’, Victorian Studies, vol. 29 (1985), pp. 3566; Staley, Einstein’s Generation, chapter 4.

31 Conceptual and theoretical problems are explored in Jed Z. Buchwald, From Maxwell to Microphysics: Aspects of Electromagnetic Theory in the Last Quarter of the Nineteenth Century (Chicago University Press, 1985); Olivier Darrigol, Electrodynamics from Ampère to Einstein (Oxford University Press, 2000); Sungook Hong, ‘Controversy over Voltaic Contact Phenomena, 1862–1900’, Archive for History of Exact Sciences, vol. 47 (1994), pp. 233–89; Bruce J. Hunt, The Maxwellians (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991); Crosbie Smith, The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain (London: Athlone, 1998), esp. chapters 9–10; Crosbie Smith and M. Norton Wise, Energy and Empire: A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin (Cambridge University Press, 1989), esp. chapters 11–13.

Experimental problems are analysed in Matthias Dörries, ‘Balances, Spectroscopes and the Reflexive Nature of Experiment’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 25 (1994), pp. 136; Gooday, Morals of Measurement; Sungook Hong, ‘Efficiency and Authority in the “Open Versus Closed Transformer Controversy”’, Annals of Science, vol. 52 (1995), pp. 4976; Bruce J. Hunt, ‘The Ohm Is Where the Art Is: British Telegraph Engineers and the Development of Electrical Standards’, Osiris, vol. 9 (1994), pp. 48–63; Bruce J. Hunt, ‘Scientists, Engineers and Wildman Whitehouse: Measurement and Credibility in Early Cable Telegraphy’, British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 29 (1996), pp. 155–69; Simon Schaffer, ‘Late Victorian Metrology and its Instrumentation: A Manufactory of Ohms’, in Robert Bud and Susan E. Cozzens (eds.), Invisible Connections: Instruments, Institutions, and Science (Bellingham, WA: SPIE Optical Engineering Press, 1992), pp. 2356; Simon Schaffer, ‘Accurate Measurement Is an English Science’, in M. Norton Wise (ed.), The Values of Precision (Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 135–72; Loyd Swenson, The Ethereal Aether: A History of the Michelson-Morley-Miller Aether-Drift Experiments, 1880–1930 (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1972).

On physics and medicine see Iwan Rhys Morus, Shocking Bodies: Life, Death and Electricity in Victorian England (Stroud: History Press, 2011) and Iwan Rhys Morus, ‘Physics and Medicine’, in Jed Z. Buchwald and Robert Fox (eds.), Oxford Handbook of the History of Physics (Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 679–97. On physics and engineering see Graeme J. N. Gooday, ‘Teaching Telegraphy and Electrotechnics in the Physics Laboratory: William Ayrton and the Creation of an Academic Space for Electrical Engineering in Britain 1873–1884’, History of Technology, vol. 13 (1991), pp. 73111; Hunt, Maxwellians, chapter 7; Hunt, ‘Scientists, Engineers and Wildman Whitehouse’; Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, chapters 9, 12–13, 19–20. On physics and religion see Smith, Science of Energy, chapter 12; Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, chapters 15–18; Matthew Stanley, Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon: From Theistic Science to Naturalistic Science (Chicago University Press, 2015); David B. Wilson, Kelvin and Stokes: A Comparative Study in Victorian Physics (Bristol: Adam Hilger, 1987), chapters 4–5; Ursula DeYoung, A Vision of Modern Science: John Tyndall and the Role of the Scientist in Victorian Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), chapter 3.

32 Oliver Lodge, ‘The Attitude of Science to the Unusual: A Reply to Professor Newcomb’, Nineteenth Century, vol. 65 (1909), pp. 206–22, p. 212.

33 This point is discussed in Morus, When Physics Became King, pp. 280–5.

34 Lorraine Daston, ‘British Responses to Psycho-Physiology, 1860–1900’, Isis, vol. 69 (1978), pp. 192208; Roger Smith, Free Will and the Human Sciences, 1870–1910 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2013), chapters 1–2.

35 Stanley, Huxley’s Church, pp. 222–41.

36 The historical literature on the religious functions of the sciences is vast, but see especially John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 1991) and Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago University Press, 2015).

37 Stanley, Huxley’s Church, chapter 7. They represent what Asprem has called the ‘open-ended naturalism’ of psychical research, which sought to apply scientific methods to metaphysical and religious questions sidestepped by agnostic scientific naturalism: Asprem, Problem of Disenchantment, pp. 299–306.

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  • Introduction
  • Richard Noakes, University of Exeter
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  • Introduction
  • Richard Noakes, University of Exeter
  • Book: Physics and Psychics
  • Online publication: 27 September 2019
  • Chapter DOI:
Available formats