William Crookes

Highly distinguished physicist and chemist. Discovered the element thallium. Elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1863, Royal Gold Medal 1875, Davy Medal 1888, Sir Joseph Copley Medal 1904, knighted in 1897 and the Order of Merit in 1910. Invented the radiometer, developed the Crookes tube, invented the cathode-ray tube, pioneered research into radiation effects, contributed to photography, wireless telegraphy, electricity and spectroscopy. President at different times of the Royal Society, the Chemical Society, the Institution of Electrical Engineers, the Society of Chemical Industry, the Society for Psychical Research (from 1896-1899) and the British Association. Founder of the Chemical News, editor of Quarterly Journal of Science.

Researches into the Phenomena of Modern Spiritualism

Sir William Crookes addresses the British Association

 - William Crookes -

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At the annual assembly of that most representative body, the British Association, at Bristol, in 1898, Sir William Crookes again declared himself upon the subject of his researches.

Since his first utterance, in 1874, many doubters had arisen who had declared that the scientist had swerved from his former course and no longer believed in the genuineness of the manifestations witnessed. His words before the British Association leave no doubt in the mind. He said:

          NO INCIDENT in my scientific career is more widely known than the part I took many years ago in certain psychic researches. Thirty years have passed since I published an account of experiments tending to show that outside our scientific knowledge there exists a Force exercised by intelligence differing from the ordinary intelligence common to mortals. This fact in my life is, of course, well understood by those who honoured me with the invitation to become your President. Perhaps among my audience some may feel curious as to whether I shall speak out or be silent. I elect to speak, although briefly. To ignore the subject would be an act of cowardice - an act of cowardice I feel no temptation to commit.

I have nothing to retract. I adhere to my already published statements. Indeed, I might add much thereto. I regret only a certain crudity in those early expositions which, no doubt justly, militated against their acceptance by the scientific world. My own knowledge at that time scarcely extended beyond the fact that certain phenomena new to science had assuredly occurred, and were attested by my own sober senses, and, better still, by automatic record.

I think I see a little farther now. I have glimpses of something like coherence among the strange elusive phenomena; of something like continuity between those unexplained forces and laws already known. This advance is largely due to the labours of another Association of which I have also this year the honour to be President - the Society for Psychical Research. And were I now introducing for the first time these inquiries to the world of science I should choose a starting point different from that of old. It would be well to begin with telepathy; with the fundamental law, as I believe it to be, that thoughts and images may be transferred from one mind to another without the agency of the recognized organs of sense - that knowledge may enter the human mind without being communicated in any hitherto known or recognized ways.

If telepathy takes place we have two physical facts - the physical change in the brain of A, the suggester, and the analogous physical change in the brain of B, the recipient of the suggestion. Between these two physical events there must exist a train of physical causes. Whenever the connecting sequence of intermediate causes begins to be revealed the inquiry will then come within the range of one of the Sections of the British Association. Such a sequence can only occur through an intervening medium. All the phenomena of the universe are presumably in some way continuous, and it is unscientific to call in the aid of mysterious agencies when with every fresh advance in knowledge it is shown that ether vibrations have powers and attributes abundantly equal to any demand - even to the transmission of thought. It is supposed by some physiologists that the essential cells of nerves do not actually touch, but are separated by a narrow gap which widens in sleep while it narrows almost to extinction during mental activity. This condition is so singularly like that of a Branly or Lodge coherer as to suggest a further analogy. The structure of nerve and brain being similar, it is conceivable there may be present masses of such nerve coherers in the brain whose special function it may be to receive impulses brought from without through the connecting sequence of ether waves of appropriate order of magnitude. Roentgen has familiarized us with an order of vibrations of extreme minuteness compared with the smallest wave with which we have otherwise been acquainted, and of dimensions comparable with the distances between the centers of the atoms of which the material universe is built up: and there is no reason to suppose that we have here reached the limit of frequency. It is known that the action of thought is accompanied by certain molecular movements in the brain, and here we have physical vibrations capable from their extreme minuteness of acting direct on individual molecules, while their rapidity approaches that of the internal and external movements of the atoms themselves. 

Confirmation of telepathic phenomena is afforded by many converging experiments, and by many spontaneous occurrences only thus intelligible. The most varied proof, perhaps, is drawn from analysis of the sub-conscious workings of the mind, when these, whether by accident or design, are brought into conscious survey. Evidence of a region below the threshold of consciousness has been presented, since its first inception, in the "Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research;" and its various aspects are being interpreted and welded into a comprehensive whole by the pertinacious genius of F. W. H. Myers.

A formidable range of phenomena must be scientifically sifted before we effectually grasp a faculty so strange, so bewildering, and for ages so inscrutable, as the direct action of mind on mind. This delicate task needs a rigorous employment of the method of exclusion - a constant setting aside of irrelevant phenomena that could be explained by known causes, including those far too familiar causes, conscious and unconscious fraud. The inquiry unites the difficulties inherent in all experimentation connected with mind, with tangled human temperaments and with observations dependent less on automatic record than on personal testimony. But difficulties are things to be overcome even in the elusory branch of research known as Experimental Psychology.

It has been said that "Nothing worth the proving can be proved, nor yet disproved." True though this may have been in the past, it is true no longer. The science of our century has forged weapons of observation and analysis by which the veriest tyro may profit. Science has trained and fashioned the average mind into habits of exactitude and disciplined perception, and in so doing has fortified itself for tasks higher, wider, and incomparably more wonderful than even the wisest among our ancestors imagined. Like the souls in Plato's myth that follow the chariot of Zeus, it has ascended to a point of vision far above the earth. It is henceforth open to science to transcend all we now think we know of matter, and to gain new glimpses of a profounder scheme of Cosmic Law.

An eminent predecessor in this chair declared that "by an intellectual necessity he crossed the boundary of experimental evidence, and discerned in that matter, which we, in our ignorance of its latent powers, and notwithstanding our professed reverence for its Creator, have hitherto covered with opprobrium, the potency and promise of all terrestrial life." I should prefer the apophthegm, and to say that in life I see the promise and potency of all forms of matter.

In old Egyptian days a well-known inscription was carved over the portal of the temple of Isis: "I am whatever hath been, is, or ever will be; and my veil no man hath yet lifted." Not thus do modern seekers after truth confront Nature - the word that stands for the baffling mysteries of the Universe. Steadily, unflinchingly, we strive to pierce the inmost heart of Nature, from what she is to reconstruct what she has been, and to prophesy what she yet shall be. Veil after veil we have lifted, and her face grows more beautiful, august, and wonderful, with every barrier that is withdrawn.

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Contents | Preface | Foreword | Modern Science | Experimental Investigation | Psychic Force | Notes of an Enquiry | Florence Cook | Spirit-forms | Katie King | Address to the BA | Reality of Katie King | Independent Testimony | My Spirit Child

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