Interviewing a hero: Sir Oliver Lodge


“If you could go back in time and interview anyone in history, who would it be?”

That question was put to me by a friend over a cup of coffee not long ago. When I first chose Jesus of Nazareth, my friend asked me to limit it to the last thousand years. It didn’t take me long to mull it over and choose Sir Oliver Lodge, the distinguished British physicist, inventor, and psychical researcher. He edged out Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and President Harry Truman as my first choice.

My friend was a bit taken aback as he didn’t even know who Lodge was. I provided him with a little history. Born in 1851, Lodge received his doctorate in 1877, going on to teach physics and mathematics at University College in both London and Liverpool. In 1900, he became principal of Birmingham University, remaining there until his retirement in 1919. Knighted in 1902 for his scientific work, Lodge was known primarily as a physicist, especially for his work in electricity, thermo-electricity, and thermal-conductivity. He perfected a radio wave detector known as a “coherer” and was the first person to transmit a radio signal, a year before Marconi. He later developed the Lodge spark plug. He authored more than 40 books on scientific subjects. He transitioned to the spirit world 70 years ago this August at the age of 89. His obituary in The Times read, in part:

Always an impressive figure, tall and slender with a pleasing voice and charming manner, he enjoyed the affection and respect of a very large circle…Lodge’s gift as an expounder of knowledge were of a high order, and few scientific men have been able to set forth abstruse facts in a more lucid or engaging form… Those who heard him on a great occasion, as when he gave his Romanes lecture at Oxford or his British Association presidential address at Birmingham, were charmed by his alluring personality as well as impressed by the orderly development of his thesis. But he was even better in informal debate, and when he rose, the audience, however perplexed or jaded, settled down in a pleased expectation that was never disappointed.

My interest in Sir Oliver is primarily a result of of his work in psychical research. He investigated many mediums, including Leonora Piper of Boston, Mass., Gladys Osborne Leonard of England, and Eusapia Paladino of Italy. Through his investigations, he came to accept the reality of mediumship and to believe in the survival of consciousness at death. Much to the dismay of many of his materialistic colleagues in science, Sir Oliver made his beliefs public. While many of his peers in the scientific world sneered at such a distinguished man taking an interest in what they saw as nothing more than fraud and superstition, Lodge was no wimp, as so many others have been when it comes to stating a belief in a non-mechanistic world. He courageously stood his ground and often reasserted his beliefs based on empirical evidence.

Although I couldn’t find a time machine in which to go back and visit Sir Oliver, I did manage to “interview” him. Taking his words from his books now in the public domain, I formulated some questions. Here is my “interview” with Sir Oliver:

Sir Oliver, how did a dedicated physicist become interested in studying mediums?

“For myself, I do not believe that physics and psychics are entirely detached. I think there is a link between them; neither is complete without the other. A study of the material world alone may be a narrowing influence. It leaves untouched the whole ‘universe of discourse’ apprehended by artist, philosopher, and theologian. To emphasize the importance of one part of the universe we need not decry or deny the remainder.”

Prior to getting into psychical research, what were your views of survival?

“It did not seem to me possible that a man could survive the death of the body. I did not think that we could ever know the truths about things of that kind, and was content with whatever destiny lay in store for us, without either inquisitiveness or rebellion. I felt that our knowledge would not make any difference, and that we had better leave questions of that kind to settle themselves in due course.”

So what changed your mind?

“The verification of the fact of telepathy, indicating obscurely a kind of dislocation between mind and body, was undoubtedly impressive, so that it began to seem probable, especially under (Frederic) Myers’s tuition, that the two –mind and body – were not inseparably connected, as I had been led by my previous studies under Clifford, Tyndall, and Huxley to believe they were. I began to feel that there was a possibility of the survival of personality.

“Then came the revelation, through the mediumship of Mrs. Piper, in the winter of 1889, not only that the personality of certain people could survive, but that they could communicate under certain conditions with us. The proof that they retained their individuality, their memory, and their affection, forced itself upon me, as it had done upon many others. So my eyes began to open to the fact that there really was a spiritual world, as well as a material world which hitherto had seemed all sufficient, that the things which appealed to the senses were by no means the whole of existence.”

But so many of your scientific colleagues have denied things paranormal.

“Science is incompetent to make comprehensive denials about anything. It should not deal in negatives. Denial is no more fallible than assertion. There are cheap and easy kinds of skepticism, just as there are cheap and easy kinds of dogmatism.”

How did you rule out telepathy with Mrs. Piper?

“That was not an easy matter, as is obvious when you come to think of it. But I decided to invite Mrs. Piper to my house at Liverpool, and make the attempt. Suffice it to say that the attempt was successful. I got into ostensible touch with old deceased relatives of whose early youth I knew nothing whatever, and was told of incidents which were subsequently verified by their surviving elderly contemporaries. I also investigated many other faculties that she possessed, such as the reading of an unopened letter applied to the top of her head, a phenomenon which had already been testified to by Kant and Hegel, though by them it was called ‘reading with the pit of the stomach.’ At any rate, it was reading without the use of the sense organs, and therefore represented another obscure human faculty commonly called ‘clairvoyance.’”

Would you mind summarizing your conclusions relative to death and the afterlife?

“I tell you with all my strength of the conviction which I can muster that we do persist…I say it on distinct scientific grounds. I say it because I know that certain friends of mine still exist, because I have talked with them.

“Death is not a word to fear, any more than birth is. We change our state at birth, and come into the world of air and sense and myriad existence; we change our state at death and enter a region of – what? Of ether, I think, and still more myriad existence; a region in which communion is more akin to what we here call telepathy, and where intercourse is not conducted by the accustomed indirect physical process; but a region in which beauty and knowledge are as vivid as they are here, a region in which progress is possible, and in which ‘admiration, hope, and love’ are even more real and dominant. It is in this sense that we can truly say, ‘The dead are not dead, but alive.’”

You say that with so much conviction.

“I am as convinced of continued existence on the other side of death as I am of existence here. It may be said, you cannot be as sure as you are of sensory experience. I say I can. A physicist is never limited to direct sensory impressions; he has to deal with a multitude of conceptions and things for which he has no physical organ – the dynamical theory of heat, for instance, and of gases, the theories of electricity, of magnetism, of chemical affinity, of cohesion, aye, and his apprehension of the ether itself, lead him into regions where sight and hearing and touch are impotent as direct witnesses, where they are no longer efficient guides.

“I shall go further and say that I am reasonably convinced of the existence of grades of being, not only lower in the scale than man but higher also, grades of every order of magnitude from zero to infinity. And I know by experience that among these beings are some who care for and help and guide humanity, not disdaining to enter even into what must seem petty details, if by so doing they can assist souls striving on their upward course. And further it is my faith – however humbly it may be held – that among those lofty beings, highest of those who concern themselves directly with this earth of all the myriads of worlds in infinite space, is One on whom the right instinct of Christianity has always lavished heartfelt reverence and devotion.”

Some have said that the death of your son, Raymond, during the war has affected your objectivity. What do you say to them?

“It must not be supposed that my outlook has changed, appreciably, since [Raymond’s death]. My conclusion has been gradually forming itself for years, though undoubtedly it is based on experiences of the same sort of thing. But this event has strengthened and liberated my testimony. It can now be associated with a private experience of my own, instead of with the private experience of others.”

You had the opportunity to observe many types of mediumship. Which type impressed you the most?

“The direct-voice seems the clearest intermediate phenomenon – a voice produced in the air independent of the medium’s normal mode of utterance, and saying things outside his or her normal knowledge. From one point of view it is physical – there are undoubtedly vibrations of the air that might be recorded on a gramophone; from another point of view it is psychic, as the if the utterances were produced by some person, dead or alive, but, anyway, not present in the flesh.”

It has been suggested that survival research is outside the scope of science, that there are things not explained by science and that never can be explained. What do you say to that?

“I should myself hesitate to promulgate such a markedly non-possumus and ignorabimus statement concerning the scope of physical science, even as narrowly and popularly understood; but it illuminates the position taken up by those savants who are commonly known as materialists, and explains their expressed though non-personal hostility to other scientific men who seek to exceed the boundaries laid down, and investigate things beyond the immediate range of senses.”

Why do you think mainstream science object so to psychical research?

“The aim of science has been for the most part a study of mechanism, the mechanism whereby results are achieved, an investigation into the physical processes which go on, and which appear to be coextensive with nature. Any theory which seems to involve the action of Higher Beings, or of any unknown entity controlling and working the mechanism, is apt to be extruded or discountenanced as a relic of primitive superstition, coming down from times when such infantile explanations were prevalent.”

Is there any way to overcome such a mindset?

“It is not easy to unsettle minds thus fortified against the intrusion of unwelcome facts; and their strong faith is probably a salutary safeguard against that unbalanced and comparatively dangerous condition called ‘open-mindedness,’ which is ready to learn and investigate anything not manifestly self-contradictory and absurd.”

What would you tell some materialistic but open-minded students?

“The material side of a picture is canvas and pigment, nothing else would be detected by a microscope; but to such an examination there is no ‘picture,’ the ‘soul’ or meaning – the reality – has evaporated when the material object is contemplated in that analytical manner. So it is with our bodies; dissected they are muscle and blood-vessel and nerves – a wonderful mechanism; but no such examination can detect the soul or mind.”

Considering the negative reaction of some your fellow scientists, do you have any second thoughts about having gone public with your views on spirit communication and survival?

“I should be willing to face the stake rather than be unfaithful to so vital and pregnant a truth – a conclusion so illuminating in our understanding of the meaning of existence, so instructive in relation to the scheme of the universe, and so vitally affecting the hopes and aspirations of man. I do not even feel tempted to succumb to either ecclesiastical or philosophical censure concerning the initial stages of what may be described as the scientific discovery of the soul, as a verified and persistent entity.”

Some have suggested that we can get too hung up on investigating and confirming survival to the detriment of fully living our lives now? Would you agree?

“It is no doubt possible, as always, to overstep the happy mean, and by absorption in and premature concerns with future interests to lose the benefit and training of this present life. But although we may rightly decide to live with full vigour in the present, and do our duty from moment to moment, yet in order to be full-flavoured and really intelligent beings – not merely with mechanical draft following the line of least resistance – we ought to be aware that there is a future, a future determined to some extent by action in the present; and it is only reasonable that we should seek to ascertain, roughly and approximately, what sort of future it is likely to be.

“Inquiry into survival, and into the kind of experience through which we shall all certainly have to go in a few years, is therefore eminently sane, and may be vitally significant. It may colour all our actions, and give a vivid meaning both to human history and to personal experience.”

The scientific world doesn’t seem to be any more accepting of the research done by you and other pioneers of psychical research now than it was 100 years ago. Do you see any point in continuing with it?

“Experience must be our guide. To shut the door on actual observation and experiment in this particular region, because of preconceived ideas and obstinate prejudices, is an attitude common enough, even among scientific men; but it is an attitude markedly unscientific. Certain people have decided that inquiry into the activities of discarnate mind is futile; some few consider it impious; many, perhaps wisely mistrusting their own powers, shrink from entering on such an inquiry. But if there are any facts to be ascertained, it must be the duty of some volunteers to try to ascertain them: and for people having any acquaintance with scientific history to shut their eyes to facts when definitely announced, and to forbid investigation or report concerning them on pain of ostracism, is to imitate a bygone theological attitude in a spirit of unintended flattery – a flattery from which every point of view is eccentric; and likewise to display an extraordinary lack of humour.”

Thank you, Sir Oliver, do you have any closing thoughts?

“I rejoice in the opportunity of service, and am thankful for the kindly help and guidance always forthcoming, though not always recognized at the time. Forward, then, into the unknown!”