Excerpt from Thunderstruck by Erik Larson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Erik Larson

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  • First Published:
    Oct 2006, 480 pages
    Sep 2007, 480 pages

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Lodge had come of age during a time when scientists began to coax from the mists a host of previously invisible phenomena, particularly in the realm of electricity and magnetism. He recalled how lectures at the Royal Institution would set his imagination alight. “I have walked back through the streets of London, or across Fitzroy Square, with a sense of unreality in everything around, an opening up of deep things in the universe, which put all ordinary objects of sense into the shade, so that the square and its railings, the houses, the carts, and the people, seemed like shadowy unrealities, phantasmal appearances, partly screening, but partly permeated by, the mental and spiritual reality behind.”

The Royal Institution became for Lodge “a sort of sacred place,” he wrote, “where pure science was enthroned to be worshipped for its own sake.” He believed the finest science was theoretical science, and he scorned what he and other like-minded scientists called “practicians,” the new heathen, inventors and engineers and tinkerers who eschewed theoretical research for blind experimentation and whose motive was commercial gain. Lodge once described the patent process as “inappropriate and repulsive.”

As his career advanced, he too was asked to deliver Friday Evening Discourses, and he reveled in the opportunity to put nature’s secrets on display. When a scientific breakthrough occurred, he tried to be first to bring it to public notice, a pattern he had begun as early as 1877, when he acquired one of the first phonographs and brought it to England for a public demonstration, but his infatuation with the new had a corollary effect: a vulnerability to distraction. He exhibited a lofty dilettantism that late in life he acknowledged had been a fatal flaw. “As it is,” he wrote, “I have taken an interest in many subjects, and spread myself over a considerable range—a procedure which, I suppose, has been good for my education, though not so prolific of results.” Whenever his scientific research threatened to lead to a breakthrough, he wrote, “I became afflicted with a kind of excitement which caused me to pause and not pursue that path to the luminous end. . . . It is an odd feeling, and has been the cause of my not clinching many subjects, not following up the path on which I had set my feet.”

To the dismay of peers, one of his greatest distractions was the world of the supernatural. He was a member of the Society for Psychical  Research, established in 1882 by a group of level-headed souls, mostly scientists and philosophers, to bring scientific scrutiny to ghosts, séances, telepathy, and other paranormal events, or as the society stated in each issue of its Journal, “to examine without prejudice or prepossession and in a scientific spirit, those faculties of man, real or supposed, which appear to be inexplicable on any generally recognized hypothesis.” The society’s constitution stated that membership did not imply belief in “physical forces other than those recognized by Physical Science.” That the SPR had a Committee on Haunted Houses deterred no one. Its membership expanded quickly to include sixty university dons and some of the brightest lights of the era, among them John Ruskin, H. G. Wells, William E. Gladstone, Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain), and the Rev. C. L. Dodgson (with the equally prominent pen name Lewis Carroll). The roster also listed Arthur Balfour, a future prime minister of England, and William James, a pioneer in psychology, who by the summer of 1894 had been named the society’s president.

It was Lodge’s inquisitiveness, not a belief in ghosts, that first drove him to become a member of the SPR. The occult was for him just one more invisible realm worthy of exploration, the outermost province of the emerging science of psychology. The unveiling during Lodge’s life of so many hitherto unimagined physical phenomena, among them Heinrich Hertz’s discovery of electromagnetic waves, suggested to him that the world of the mind must harbor secrets of its own. The fact that waves could travel through the ether seemed to confirm the existence of another plane of reality. If one could send electromagnetic waves through the ether, was it such an outrageous next step to suppose that the spiritual essence of human beings, an electromagnetic soul, might also exist within the ether and thus explain the hauntings and spirit rappings that had become such a fixture of common legend? Reports of ghosts inhabiting country houses, poltergeists rattling abbeys, spirits knocking on tables during séances—all these in the eyes of Lodge and fellow members of the society seemed as worthy of dispassionate analysis as the invisible travels of an electromagnetic wave.

Excerpted from Thunderstruck by Erik Larson, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Devil in the White City Copyright © 2006 by Erik Larson. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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