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Many years ago, I read an article that has stayed with me about a doctor who tried to determine if the soul had weight. Over the years, I have seen that same story retold in various contexts: religious, scientific and New Age pseudoscientific.

You may have seen a film  21 Grams whose title refers to the early 20th-century research of physician Dr. Duncan MacDougall. He attempted to show scientific proof of the existence of the immortal human soul by recording a loss of body weight immediately following death. His hypothesis was that if any small amount of weight was lost at the moment after death, it was due to the departure of the soul.

MacDougall only had six patients in his experiment and the result he selected from one of them was that there was a loss of “three-fourths of an ounce.” That was, to him, the “weight of the soul” and it has since been popularized through the film and online as “21 grams.”

Though MacDougall’s results were published in the peer-reviewed journal American Medicine, his experiment has met with mostly criticism as sloppy research or even pseudoscience.

First off, MacDougall assumed that any weight loss was an indication of the soul, which is not the territory of science. When I first read about this experiment, my own thought was that since energy cannot be created or destroyed and since the living body does create and hold an electrical charge that can be measured, where does that charge go after death?

Talking about this with a friend, he suggested (only part jokingly) that the energy leaves the body at death and joins “The Force” (as in Star Wars) and becomes part of a larger energy field.  I found later that he is not alone in his belief in The Force as a kind of global soul or energy field that can be tapped by all of us – if we know how. In the Star Wars series, The Force is used for both good and evil, but it is never explained as being the soul. Anima mundi is the concept of a “world soul” connecting all living organisms on planet Earth.

I have done further reading over the years about all this and asked a few real scientists that I taught with at NJIT and it seems like a reasonable answer to my question and my friends answer is that the electrical charge gets grounded.

Our bodies generate electricity and that allows your nervous system to send signals to your brain and control the rhythm of your heartbeat, the movement of blood around your body and more.

The Earth also carries an enormous negative charge and our bodies connect with the Earth’s energy. Without getting too New Age, when you put your bare feet on the ground, you absorb large amounts of negative electrons (those are the good ones) through the soles of your feet. This effect maintains your body at the same negatively charged electrical potential as the Earth. This simple process is called “grounding” or “earthing,” and it is viewed as an antioxidant effect.

Dr. MacDougall was pretty careful for his time. He recorded patient’s exact time of death, total time on the bed, used the most precise scales available, recorded any changes in weight that occurred at the moment of death. He thought about other explanations for weight loss (bodily fluids like sweat and urine, and gases like oxygen and nitrogen) and factored that into his calculations.

The only modern experiments I have ever come across about finding the soul or the energy were using a kind of photography that could see energy fields and attempted to see the energy leaving the body. Those were inconclusive. I just recently found that MacDougall did another experiment in 1911 attempting to photograph the soul when it left a body.

He said (and it was reported in The New York Times then, that doing a dozen experiments, he photographed “a light resembling that of the interstellar ether” in or around patients’ skulls at the moments they died.

Science still has no interest in this line of soul research. I doubt that any research was done using a much larger sample size. There is even some controversy as to when the precise “moment” of death occurs. Is it cellular death, brain death, physical death or heart death?

Maybe the soul, if it exists, has no physical form that can be measured.

Dan Brown even references MacDougall’s experiments in his novel The Lost Symbol. A scientist character placed a dying man in an air-tight capsule, fitted with very sensitive micro weight detectors, and after his death showed a difference in weight “though microscopic, is quite measurable.” The novel’s experiment has some of the same flaws as MacDougall’s experiment.

But wouldn’t it be comforting to prove that we each have a souls that lives on after we die?

We have been considering this idea of a soul for a very long time. Religious, philosophical and mythological traditions often view the soul (perhaps by a different name) as  essence of a living being and it can be mortal or immortal.

In Judeo-Christianity, only human beings have immortal souls. Thomas Aquinas attributed soul/anima to all organisms but argued that only human souls are immortal. Hinduism and Jainism hold that all biological organisms – your pets and the flea on your dog – have souls. Aristotle also believed that. In some philosophies (animism), even non-biological entities – rivers and mountains – have souls.

Science still isn’t interested. I have read that functional neuroimaging has mapped every function once associated with the soul to specific regions and structures of the brain.

Physicists have mapped the connections between subatomic particles and need no spiritual explanations. But they have also said that dark matter makes up more than 80 percent of the universe’s mass, but we haven’t actually seen a single atom of it. That requires at least some non-religious faith.

I agree with Hamlet that still “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”


I think it is pretty safe to assume that everyone has heard of Galileo Galilei. Not as well known is his eldest daughter.

Galileo was born on February 15, 1564, in Pisa, Italy. A mathematics professor, he made observations with implications for the future study of physics. He constructed a telescope (did not invent it) and made significant improvements to it. He supported the Copernican theory of a sun-centered solar system and so was accused twice of heresy by the Catholic church.

He had three children, but was closest to his eldest, Virginia. He saw her as much like himself in intellect, sensibility, and with an always-seeking spirit.

Virginia was born of his illicit affair with Marina Gamba of Venice. Her birth was in the summer of a new century – August 13, 1600.

That year was also when a Dominican friar, Giordano Bruno, who believed the Earth traveled around the Sun, was burned at the stake.

On her thirteenth birthday, Virginia entered a convent and remained there for the rest of her short life. She was devout but loved her father and remained in constant correspondence with him.

I learned about her when I read back in 1999 Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel which used whatever surviving letters (never published in translation) between them as a major source. It is a good tale of that divide and connections between science and spiritual belief that still exists.

Virginia became Maria Celeste as a nun. We can surmise that Celeste might be a celestial nod to her father. In the convent, she was the apothecary – a kind of science of that time. She sent her father herbal treatments. She asked her father for financial help for the convent. She may have helped him prepare some manuscripts.

It is not really clear how father and daughter reconciled his heresy and her devotion. But they did. Love conquers all?

Galileo was not an atheist. He remained a Catholic and believed in the power of prayer.

Unfortunately, though letters from Maria Celeste were discovered among Galileo’s papers, his responses to her have been lost. Maria Celeste’s letters are published as Letters to fathertranslated and edited by Dava Sobel.

We remember Galileo mostly for the telescope, which he found out about in 1609. It was a Dutch gadget and initially known as a spyglass or eyeglass. It was curiosity that made faraway objects appear closer and they were being sold in Paris. Galileo saw it as a device of use in the military and promoted it as that to the Italian government.

He improved the design, as others were also doing in other countries, grinding and polishing lenses himself. The Venetian senate was so amazed and obsessed with using it to look for distant ships from bell towers of the city, they renewed his contract at the University of Padua for life, and Professor Galilei’s salary jumped to 1000 florins per year (a 500% raise from his starting pay).

That telescope cause a huge shift in the way we perceive the world we live in and the universe beyond or world.

Galileo used his improved telescope to make detailed drawings of the Moon’s phases, and he discovered 4 of Jupiter’s 67 moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto), though he considered them to be planets. In a 1610 letter, Galileo commented on them and said “I render infinite thanks to God for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries.”

He reminds me of Charles Darwin in that both had a hard time with their discoveries knowing that this new knowledge would clash with existing religious beliefs. Galileo wrote a famous letter about science and religion and that conflict obviously concerned him – and his daughter, and probably some of you reading this today.

Galileo at age 42.
Galileo at age 42, when Virginia was 6, in a portrait by Domenico Robusti.

krista-tippettI have been listening to Krista Tippett on her radio program, Speaking of Faith, since back in 2003. Though it changed its name in 2010 to On Being, the program has the same focus and appeal.

Like many programs, movies and books that I admire, it often features people who I have never heard of, and who I would probably never have encountered – but I trust her choices enough to listen, and I am usually rewarded by insights from her and the guest.

She has written several books, but her new one is Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.


“I’m a person who listens for a living. I listen for wisdom, and beauty, and for voices not shouting to be heard. This book chronicles some of what I’ve learned in what has become a conversation across time and generations, across disciplines and denominations,” says Krista.

In the early days, her show did have more of an outright focus on religions. But it has always had an interest in how scientists relate to religion, faith and being. Those programs have been amongst my favorites.

For example, my own fascination with Albert Einstein seems to be shared by Tippett who has done multiple programs about Einstein. She has also written Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit. Einstein is a good example of that strange Venn diagram that many of us have where religion, God, faith, belief, and spirituality overlap. Albert Einstein did not believe in a personal God. One of the many Einstein quotes you find online is “God does not play dice with the universe.” That seems to be a clear statement of belief, but it was about quantum physics, not the God of religion. But Albert certainly spent a significant amount of his life doing thought experiments about the relationship between science and religion. How could he not wonder? Any thinking person must wonder.

I believe all of us have the same interest as Einstein (although he may have taken it further than most of us) in trying to discover the order deeply hidden behind everything. Tippett notes Einstein’s self-described “cosmic religious sense” is very compatible with twenty-first-century sensibilities.

But On Being and her new book includes the ideas of theologians from many faiths, but also poets, activists and others.

I call this post “Becoming Wiser” (as opposed to Tippett’s book title Becoming Wise)  because I know I am wiser for having listened to Krista’s programs and read her books, but they also remind me how much further I need to go to be Wise.

This is not a book review but a preview because I haven’t read this book yet, but I am confident that it will continue to help equip me “to meet the world where it really is, and then to make it better.”


other books

Further Reading:
Amazon is getting much better with its recommendations. When I pre-ordered Becoming Wise, Amazon suggested a group of books that do belong on the same shelf. There were  four that I have already read, and the others are all books I would like to read. It included the obvious choices of her other books: Einstein’s God  and her earlier Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters–and How to Talk About It.  It also suggested Rising Strong by Brené Brown,  Felicity: Poems by Mary Oliver,  The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favorite Bible Passages by Andrew Blauner,  Gratitude by Oliver Sacks  A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals, and Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James R. Doty. there are others I would add to that list – for example, guests from her programs, such as Parker J. Palmer and Karen Armstrong.

The universe is big, but if you’re feeling crowded for space luckily there are probably many universes  scattered through time and space.

I have read that it might be that every time I make a choice a new universe opens. In one of these worlds, I am writing this; in another, I am climbing Mt. Fuji.

This certainly is the stuff of science-fiction, but physicists think the multiverse could be real.

We do love those“what if” questions. What if I had made the other choice? Better, worse, or just different? What if  the road not taken was taken? What if you actually took both roads, but one was in another universe?

Before you leave this post and head into one of those multiple universes, let me alert you to some of the theories. Try searching on “the quilted multiverse,” “the inflationary universe” and “the ultimate multiverse.”

This is not such a new idea.

“The idea of multiple universes is about 2,500 years old,” says Mary-Jane Rubenstein, a professor of religion and philosophy at Wesleyan University. Before people with advanced degrees were theorizing, the Atomist philosophers, of ancient Greece were considering it 2500 years ago. “The Atomists believed that it was not the case that some anthropomorphic god or gods made the universe so it was perfect, but that our world was one of an infinite number of other worlds. Worlds were the product of accident, of particles colliding with one another, and an infinite amount of space to play in.”

Leucippus and his pupil Democritus proposed that all matter was composed of small indivisible particles called atoms. That was their way of reconciling two conflicting schools of thought on the nature of reality. On one side was Heraclitus, who believed that the nature of all existence is change. On the other side was Parmenides, who believed instead that all change is illusion.

If you think multiverses are confusing, then consider good old Parmenides. He rejected sensory experience as the path to an understanding of the universe in favor of purely abstract reasoning. He believed there is no such thing as “void” and therefore “if the void is, then it is not nothing; therefore it is not the void.”

In an interview, Rubenstein reminds us that even when Copernicus knocked us out of the center of the solar system, and Darwin knocked us out of Eden, we were still sure we were running the show on Time and other big things in this universe.

Oh, and this definitely leads to theological problems. Not that scientists care. Rubenstein brings up that in a Christian framework, you would have to wonder about those inhabitants of those other universes. Did they also Fall? Did Christ redeem them? Is He moving from universe to universe to get incarnated, teach for 30 years, and then die?

I’m just wondering what I’ll be doing in this universe this year. It hurts my brain to wonder what I will be up to in parallel Paradelles.


Last week I walked a labyrinth.

In Greek mythology, the Labyrinth was an elaborate structure designed and built by Daedalus for King Minos. Its function was to hold the Minotaur eventually killed by the hero Theseus. Daedalus had so cunningly made the Labyrinth that he could barely escape his own labyrinth after he built it.

There has been a resurgence of interest in the labyrinth as a symbol and a revival in labyrinth building. The labyrinth is a model or metaphor for life.

Ancient labyrinths are believed to have been built to trap malevolent spirits. In medieval times, the labyrinth symbolized the difficult path to God. The center represented God and the entrance symbolized birth.


I have heard many versions of what the labyrinth represents and also how to walk it.

It can be seen as a symbolic pilgrimage. You walk the path to salvation or enlightenment. For those who could not travel to holy sites and lands, the labyrinth was a substitute.

You can find them in parks and at churches, monasteries and places of worship. Most are not very large or elaborately built. The last one I walked was painted on a church parking lot. But even in a painted one, you can lose track of direction and of the outside world, and it can quiet your mind.

Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral.JPGLabyrinth at Chartres Cathedral

Though there are many Christian uses for the labyrinth, it does not have to be a religious walk.
In the labyrinth, we don’t know where the path will take us. We don’t foresee the twists and turns ahead. There is one way in and one way out. (Though I have seen people get lost in them.) Eventually, if you continue, you will arrive at the center.

You meet others along the path. Sometimes you meet people face-to-face and step aside to let them pass. Some catch up to us and pass us, and we pass others along the way.

When you reach the center, you can rest, watch others, pray, stay a long time or leave quickly.

There are no rigid rules. At the church last week, I was told to ask God a question upon entering and then listen for an answer during the walk. When I walked a labyrinth in the woods a few years ago I was told to be open to a question emerging. Each time I came to the edge of the circle, I should pause and take note of the direction I was facing and focus on what question was in my mind at the moment, if any. The answer would come when I exited.

Though I have never found THE answer in a labyrinth, I have found answers there.

You may be able to locate one near you with this labyrinth locator website.

Ecliptic path

The Earth in its orbit around the Sun causes the Sun to appear on the celestial sphere moving over the ecliptic (red), which is tilted on the Equator (white)


This year the autumnal equinox is on Wednesday, September 23.  The Harvest Moon is the Full Moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox and that arrives 4 days later.

The equinox is all about balance – specifically balancing day and nightEquinox is from the Latin words for equal and for night. We know now that this day is not exactly equal with 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness, but on both equinoxes (autumn and spring), the very center of the Sun sets 12 hours after it rises.

Of course, we commonly think of the start of the day as the sunrise when the upper edge of the Sun peaks over the horizon a bit ahead of the Sun’s center. Conversely, the clock and human adjustments to it can say what they will, but in our heads night arrives when the entire Sun disappears at that opposite horizon. This we share with the ancients who were much more interested in and followers of the celestial dance.

We call the equinox this week the start of autumn, and in the Southern Hemisphere they will be entering spring.

This year it occurs on a Wednesday and that got me thinking about balancing the week.  Wednesday picked up in modern times the nickname of “Hump Day,” an unfortunate dubbing connected to getting over the middle of the work week and taking the slide to the weekend.

According to international standard ISO 8601 adopted in most western countries, Wednesday is the third day of the week. In countries that use the Sunday-first convention, Wednesday is defined as the fourth day of the week. Actually, many computer-based calendars (such as those connected to email) allow you to set for yourself what day begins the week. I am surely not alone in thinking of Monday as the start of the week with the weekend being its own little two-day holiday hanging off the end.


Odin the Wanderer (1896) by Georg von Rosen

For English speakers, Wednesday is derived from Old English Wōdnesdæg and Middle English Wednesdei, “day of Woden.” This is what is known as a calque of dies Mercurii “day of Mercury”.  A calque is a word or phrase borrowed from another language by literal, word-for-word or root-for-root translation.

Good ol’ Woden is in Germanic mythology, the god Odin (from Old Norse Óðinn).  In Norse mythology, Odin is associated with healing, death, royalty, the gallows, knowledge, battle, sorcery, poetry, frenzy, and the runic alphabet. He was married to the goddess Frigg. In wider Germanic mythology and paganism, Odin was known in Old English as Wóden.

I like the simple illustration of him I included here where he looks less godlike and more of the old wandering wise man.  J.R.R. Tolkien’s wizard Gandalf was surely influenced by Odin, especially Odin in his “Wanderer” guise. There are many works of art and literature over the centuries that have used Odin. The comic book character Odin was created in 1962 by Stan Lee and as in the Norse mythology, he is the father of Thor.

My own favorite modern incantation of Odin is in a novel by Douglas Adams – an author I very much miss having on the planet. His Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (Dirk Gently Book 2) finds Odin in our modern world. The lead character of the book is a “holistic detective” named Dirk Gently who believes that gods are created by humans’ necessity and desire for them. They were once worshipped by man, but when that fell away they didn’t disappear but remain on Earth forever. Because nobody worships them, many of them became destitute and depressed. In the novel, Dirk encounter and works with Odin and his son Thor. I like that Odin, like all the gods, is naïve and quite literally unworldly. In this telling, the gods’ world exists in parallel with our own – and the St. Pancras railway station is their Valhalla.

This all sounds quite silly, but I never saw the book that way. The title is a phrase which had appeared earlier  in Adams’ novel Life, the Universe and Everything (the third book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a trilogy that was expanded to a pentalogy ) to describe the wretched boredom of being immortal.

It is also a reference to the theological treatise Dark Night of the Soul, by Saint John of the Cross which was a book I read in a college religion class that made a deep impression on me. It is a poem written by the 16th-century Spanish poet and Roman Catholic mystic and the treatise he wrote later that comments on the poem. The term “dark night of the soul” is used in Roman Catholicism for a spiritual crisis in a journey towards union with God. Though much of the serious study I did then is lost to me now, “Dark Night of the Soul” also refers to the ten steps on the ladder of mystical love, described earlier by Saint Thomas Aquinas who in turn built from ideas of Aristotle.

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