The 13th Floor

Five Famous Scientists Who Dabbled in the Occult

Casual skeptics are annoying.

They rarely know enough about whatever phenomenon they’re “debunking” to have a worthwhile opinion on it, basing their dismissal of other people’s experiences on a half-read Wikipedia article, an old episode of PENN & TELLER’S BULLSHIT, and a pathological need to feel smug.

The next time one of these joyless dinks tries to tell you there’s no such thing as ghosts, point out that some of the greatest scientific minds in human history were avid occultists… and unless he’s smarter than Marie Curie or Sir Isaac Newton, he should probably shut his trap.

You can use the five scientific giants below as evidence; these people shaped human history through their devotion to the scientific method — but they were also devoted believers in the paranormal.


Thomas Edison’s Ghost Phone

Thomas Edison created the modern world. He invented the phonograph, the movie camera, and the practical electric light bulb, but even more importantly, Edison revolutionized Scientific Progress itself through creating the first industrial research laboratory.

He also invented a telephone to talk to the Dead.

In 1920, during the height of the Spiritualism craze, Edison announced that he was working on a machine to communicate with the spirit world.

“I have been thinking for some time of a machine or apparatus which could be operated by personalities which have passed on to another existence or sphere,” Edison told a reporter.

Edison offered few concrete details of how his machine worked, saying only that it is “in the nature of a valve, so to speak. That is to say, the slightest conceivable effort is made to exert many times its initial power for indicative purposes.”

Edison said that one of the men who was working on the machine had recently died, and he was hoping the man would be the first to place a collect call from The Other Side.

After an initial couple of interviews, Edison never again mentioned the ghost machine publicly. No prototype was ever found. No schematics located. The Edison Estate even redacted Edison’s writing on spiritualism from his diary, and the documents were hidden for 50 years.

So what happened? Was Thomas Edison embarrassed by the failure of his machine? Was he cagily hiding its existence from his competitors to capitalize on the monetary possibilities? Or did Edison’s conversations with the spirit world reveal something so dark, he tried to hide it away forever? We’ll find out after we die, I imagine.


Sir Isaac Newton’s Occult World

While he’s revered as the greatest scientific mind in history for his description of a rational universe bound by mathematical laws, Sir Isaac Newton was as steeped in esoteric belief as he was in reason. A sorcerer as much as a scientist, Newton actively sought a way to transmute base metals into gold, predicted the date of the apocalypse based on Biblical numerology, and published a recipe for a material he believed would lead to the Philosopher Stone, and thus eternal life.

Spirituality and the esoteric drove Newton’s discoveries, and he saw no conflict between the rational and the divine. While his scientific and mathematical research is still studied everywhere, Newton’s writings on the occult and the spiritual are generally ignored. But does it really make sense to dismiss Newton’s ardent interest in Biblical Numerology, Astrology, and Alchemy out of hand? Newton was probably the most intelligent person who ever lived, so maybe he was onto something we don’t have the capacity to understand.


Pierre Curie and the Best Medium In History

French physicist Pierre Curie was a Nobel Prize winner and a pioneer in crystallography, magnetism, piezoelectricity and radioactivity. He was also convinced that Italian medium Eusapia Palladino could talk to the dead.

Pierre and his wife Marie regularly attended séances held by Palladino, who would cause tables to levitate, manifest ghostly ectoplasm, and move distant objects.

Pierre regarded the séances as scientific research and took copious notes, carefully observing Palladino’s sittings for signs of fraud. He found none, and excitedly wrote to a friend, “There is here, in my opinion, a whole domain of entirely new facts and physical states in space of which we have no conception.”

Pierre invited scientist friends to come for a session with in Palladino, and these learned men left largely convinced that the medium was able to manifest otherworldly power, but only sometimes. Curie’s friends and other investigators/debunkers throughout her career conceded that Pallandino faked some of her manifestations, but that others were genuine.

Pierre Curie died unexpectedly in 1906, still largely convinced of the medium’s powers. Pallandino continued to perform séances for both believers and skeptics alike until her death in 1918. She left behind a perplexing track record. While many of her manifestations were thoroughly debunked, other phenomena have never been fully explained.


Nikola Tesla and his Pigeon Girlfriend

The prototypical mad scientist, Nikola Tesla invented the modern alternating current electricity supply system, the first remote control, and invented a radio years before Marconi. His later research, while not explicitly supernatural, was so fantastic, it bordered on magic.

Tesla believed he’d received radio transmissions from Mars; he invented a “death ray,” and said he could destroy the entire earth with a compact “earthquake machine.” Sadly, Tesla’s most fantastic inventions don’t actually seem to exist or work, and they may have sprung from a combination of a deteriorating mental state and a penchant for self-promotion. But still… a death ray? Amazing!

Maybe Tesla’s most colorful non-scientific belief, though, was in inter-species romance. He’d always been a fan of pigeons, spending hours feeding them and caring for them, but then he met that special bird and decided to settle down. Of his pigeon girlfriend, Tesla wrote: “I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.”

Sadly, pigeons don’t have the lifespan of humans, and Tesla outlived his beloved, leading to severe depression. “When that pigeon died, something went out of my life,” Tesla wrote, “Up to that time I knew a certainty that I would complete my work, no matter how ambitious my program, but when that something went out of my life, I knew my life’s work was finished.”

Nikola Tesla: Inventor. Pioneer. Pigeon fetishist.


The Conversion of Robert Hare

Robert Hare was a world-renowned chemist and inventor who came to the occult through rationality. He originally set out to disprove the tenants of spiritualism in the mid 1850s, but ended up fully convinced of its reality.

In his book Experimental Investigation of the Spirit Manifestations, Hare lays out his case. Mediums of the time were eager to show off their supernatural communication, but rarely were tested under controlled conditions, so Hare set out to check their claims scientifically. He created a series of machines he called “Spiritoscopes,” elaborate Ouija-board-style devices in which the medium was not able to see the letters the spirits were delivering or manipulate the test in obvious ways.

In spite of the limits to their sight and mobility, the mediums reported facts about Hare’s family that he said they could never have known. Hare was soon fully convinced in the reality of their spirit communications, believing they were  “A deliberate effort on the part of the inhabitants of the higher spheres to break through the partition which has interfered with the attainment, by mortals, of a correct idea of their destiny after death.”

After the publication of his book, Hare became a laughingstock. He was kicked out of academic societies, and shunned by his uptight Science friends. Later skeptics pointed out huge holes in his methods too; he didn’t seem to have adequately accounted for deliberate trickery of mediums, and many of the seers that “passed” his test were later shown to be frauds by others.

Through it all, though, Hare held onto his belief in Spiritualism until his death in 1858. And seriously, he was smarter than you are.