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William Coblentz and the Superphysical World April 20, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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In developing ACAP, I’ve picked up a broad and eclectic, albeit still superficial, knowledge of the American physics community.  I now want to start filling in some parts of this general picture for refereed publication, but there are other bits and pieces that I don’t think I’ll ever publish, and I thought this might be a good forum for “tossing them out there”.  So, taking a cue from a recent post on paranormal phenomena at Heterodoxology, I’d like to talk about an unexpected run-in I had with the history of paranormal research while collecting information on a physicist who worked at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), of all places.

Coblentz, photo by Harris and Ewing for the National Bureau of Standards, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

William Coblentz (1882-1962) was a reasonably high-level figure in the pre-World War II American physics community.  Raised in rural Ohio, he went on to receive a PhD from Cornell in 1903, and, following two years of postdoctoral research there, he moved to the new NBS (est. 1901) where he would spend his career.  He was a key figure in the development of spectroscopy techniques for measuring heat, which he applied in fields ranging from astrophysics to physiology, and he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 1930.  He quasi-retired in 1945 and published his memoirs, From the Life of a Researcher, in 1951.  Today you can become a member of the Coblentz Society, whose mission is “to foster the understanding and application of vibrational spectroscopy”.  You can even buy a Coblentz Society t-shirt declaring that “spectroscopists do it with frequency and intensity”.

A proper biographical treatment of Coblentz would have to center around his professional work, but I want to concentrate here specifically on his investigations of paranormal phenomena.  Though a side interest, Coblentz took these phenomena seriously, and maintained a lifelong study of them. He included a chapter on his “investigations of psychic phenomena” in his autobiography, and in 1954 finally published his collected research and memoirs on the subject as Man’s Place in a Superphysical World through the Sabian Publishing Society, which he dedicated to another scientist and investigator of psychic phenomena William Crookes (1832-1919).  (The Sabian Assembly was founded in 1923 based on the astrology of Marc Edmund Jones, a fascinating story in itself; they’re still around.)

Coblentz recalled in his memoirs that his earliest knowledge of paranormal phenomena was derived from his childhood experience with the folk  interpretation of dreams using the Bible as a guide, but which he also learned about through “the almanacs issued by makers of patent medicines,—as I recall it, ‘Hood’s Stomach Bitters’ or perhaps it was ‘Perry Payne’s Painkiller’; also a little booklet on ‘Dreams and their Interpretation'” (Life, 192).  He also reported, “By the age of eighteen years I had come into close association with people who could move chairs without touching them, through what is known as telekinesis” (Man’s Place, vi).

He took various paranormal phenomena to be transmitted as a form of radiation, and he saw a direct connection between his work at NBS and this outside research: “As a specialist in selective radiometers for the interception and measurement of thermal radiant energy, my interest during all these years has been in finding the organic receptor of cerebral radiation that, in the exceptional case, permits clairvoyance” (Man’s Place, viii).  He allowed that there was still no means of instrumentally intercepting psychic transmissions, and so admitted that a fully satisfactory study remained for the moment impossible.  But he held out hope that continued expansion of investigatory techniques, as part of a general “expansion of the mind will enable man to comprehend his soul” (Life, 146).

Aware of experimental difficulties, which he referred to in terms of the “complexity” of the phenomena and the difficulty of differentiating the “personal from the extra corporal” (Man’s Place, 5), Coblentz was committed to ensuring the quality of his investigations. In his memoirs, he recalled an early sobering experience: “Early in my post-graduate work at Cornell, I was impressed with the then widely proclaimed discovery of ‘N rays,’ and I made an extensive bibliography of literature on the subject.  Soon thereafter it was shown to be an optical illusion” (Life, 179).  He was dismissive of scientific cranks, remembering inquiries to the NBS about one “fellow who claimed that ‘perpetual light, perpetual heat and perpetual motion are one and the same thing'” and another “fellow who had definite proof that ‘there was no rainbow before the Flood.'” (ibid).

In the realm of paranormal research, he was likewise wary of fraud, and became a student of its variations.  He was glad to gain “entrée to a wider or perhaps more esoteric circle of people and [to meet] those who had more genuine mediumistic powers and represented a different brand of individual than the public mediums who have to make a living by catering, as one ex-shoesalesman did, to a clientele interested mainly in how soon money would be inherited and whether husbands or sweethearts were faithful” (Man’s Place, 8).  He conducted optical and electromagnetic experiments during seances, and attempted to develop and monitor his own clairvoyant faculties, which he had detected in himself.  He was also unwilling to state that he had ever found any fully compelling proof that consciousness survived death, though he did view it as a distinct “possibility” that the dead communicated through processes related to psychic abilities.

While he understood psychic and spiritual phenomena to be physical in nature, Coblentz consciously kept his investigations into these phenomena separate from his NBS work.  William Meggers, another NBS physicist, wryly wrote in his NAS memoir of Coblentz (pdf), that “during our forty years of friendship preceding the publication of his book, he never once mentioned this subject in my presence.  This might be explained by saying that he ‘extrasensed’ my skepticism of so-called occult phenomena, but it is also likely that, because of his sensitive nature, he restricted discussion of such controversial subjects to known believers or followers.”  (I am, by the way, using Meggers’ personal copies of these books; he was a major donor to AIP’s collections.)

Coblentz himself recalled, once, “when I mentioned an interesting experience to a colleague in the National Bureau of Standards, he condemned the whole subject, apparently because of his religious beliefs.  Whereupon I asked whether he had had any personal experience, and was surprised to learn that he had never even read any authoritative discussion of the subject.  That cured me of all missionary impulses” (Man’s Place, 5).  For him, investigation of the paranormal was indeed science, but he saw it as dangerous to force it, either intellectually or socially, into contact with mainstream work.


1. easprem - April 20, 2010

Interesting post. Should look a bit closer at Coblentz when time permits.

2. Blogs - April 26, 2010

The Weekly Smörgåsbord #8…

It must be a busy time of the year, or perhaps I’m projecting. Nonetheless, some of the blogs that have consistently offered excellent reading seem to have fallen largely silent the past few weeks. As a result, this week’s Smörgås…

3. Giants’ Shoulders #29: Esoteric Science Special « Heterodoxology - November 16, 2010

[…] An older post, but well worth revisiting: Will Thomas writes about the American physicist William Coblentz, an expert in spectroscopy with – in the best tradition from Crookes – a developed passion for things paranormal. Read more on Coblentz’  ideas on Man’s Place in the Supraphysical World at Ether Wave Propaganda…. […]

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