Psychic Powers Part II

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  • Communication with the dead
  • Psychometry
  • Levitation
  • Teleportation

Yesterday I went into the conceptual structure of what might be termed the more prosaic psi abilities, and although I did stray into the area of anecdotal evidence and the assertion that they exist, I was more focussed on what they amount to. I do believe they exist, of course, but what I’m saying here should, I hope, not depend on a commitment to their reality. This is more about the idea of psi than their existence.

Some of the ones I’m left with amount to what are called siddhis in Yoga, that is, supernatural abilities, and are considerably more radical than the ones I’ve mentioned before. They’re more “showy”, sometimes literally in the sense that they might be faked as part of a stage show and would impress an audience. Yogis warn people against using them (which simply suggests they believe they exist) because of their showiness and because they “are powers in the worldly estate”, i.e. the temptation exists to use them for one’s own material gain, which if you believe in reincarnation for example is hazardous. Buddhists believe that if a human is reincarnated as a deity, the chances are they will succumb to the temptation to use their powers for selfish ends and end up in Hell in their next incarnation. A similar attitude exists among Christians, who often see these powers as real, but as dangerous for the person using them as they’re Satanic in origin. Other Christians see them as abilities humans would have had if sin hadn’t entered the world.

Communication with the dead is a controversial topic. For instance, dreaming of people who have passed away could be understood this way, and happen involuntarily. If it is as it appears to be, it seems to rely on consciousness and identity both surviving death, and therefore on the existence of a soul as an entity with a substance which exists in the same sense that a physical body exists but of different essence. However, it’s also conceivable that information is being obtained in another way. Anyone who’s seen ‘Black Mirror’ will be aware of the idea that a dead person can be simulated convincingly from their online behaviour, but that this will run the risk of eventually becoming unbearably creepy, and in our own interactions with each other we do build up sophisticated models of how our loved ones behave and who they are. If we are communicating with mere simulacra, the question arises of one’s own integrity and authenticity in one’s own life, in that if one wishes to live on in such a manner, for it to be an accurate copy of oneself one will need to conduct onself honestly towards others.

I would actually broaden the concept of communing with the dead here to a wider set of phenomena also including apparent past life memories and hauntings, and would further suggest that these are not all the same thing, some being much more amenable to naturalistic explanations than others. In what I’m reluctantly forced to call “ghost hunting” in the absence of a more dignified and Latinate-sounding term, a distinction may be made between genuine hauntings by spirits and something more akin to traces of events being played back by “stone tape”, as it came to be known. I find the latter more convincing than the former, and although a process whereby that could take place is hard to identify, I have discussed this in the post on the Chronovisor. It’s a well-established fact that traces of incidents are left in inanimate objects in various ways, such as exposure to daylight or heating, which can be “played back”, and there are very clear traces of events left in the form of such things as footprints and fossils.

The Tanakh is quite clearly opposed to the idea of communicating with the dead although it also seems quite inconsistent as it has practically nothing to say about what, if anything, follows death. The so-called “Witch Of Endor” incident is the only reference I’m aware of the dead communicating with the living, where it’s specifically stated that Samuel speaks to Saul from beyond the grave. The story is recounted in 1 Samuel 28, and there’s no suggestion that the medium is being deceitful. Elsewhere it says that the dead are conscious of nothing at all, or know nothing, in Ecclesiastes 9:5. Hence this appears to be inconsistent. What I understand to be the standard Christian view, and to some extent probably also the Jewish one, is that when people die, they cease to be conscious until the Day of Judgement, at which point they are brought back to life in a living body. Consequently in a Jewish or Christian setting the idea of communicating with the dead is right out, but in the case of Christianity the emphasis on Satan as a personification of evil means that demons or the Devil are likely to be seen as a likely source of apparent information from the dead, and that it’s a case of deception and impersonation for manipulative purposes.

Outside the Judæo-Christian context, and for once it seems justified to talk of a joint tradition while noting the rather more negative connotations in Christianity, there is ancestor-worship and the elevation of status of elders into that of deities. It makes sense to suppose that the perceived increasing wisdom of the old will continue to increase after death until they have a superhuman status. However, there’s also the attitude that the dead who do communicate with us have unfinished business on this plane of existence which it would be best to resolve. Since I’m not particularly well acquainted with Spiritism or Spiritualism, I feel I’m venturing onto unfamiliar territory here and would actively welcome someone’s input on this. Spiritism differs from Spiritualism in that the former asserts that reincarnation occurs but the latter is agnostic on the issue. They believe that spirits of the dead maintain their identity and continue to influence the physical world, in other words telekinesis. Some scientists took Spiritism seriously and it could be said to have been founded by scientists in the first place, notably Emmanuel Swedenborg. Everyone in the Spiritist Universe is gradually making progress towards moral perfection, and nobody is ever reincarnated into a lower form of life. Spiritism is also theistic or deistic (I’m not sure which), and is associated with the Brazilian/Afrikan religion Umbanda.

Spiritualism, unlike Spiritism, initially had no sacred texts, and had a strong liberal strand, in which many of the people involved in it supported votes for women, the rights of indigenous peoples and the abolition of slavery. It was much-criticised in the late nineteenth century due to a large number of mediums being accused of fraud, but it occurs to me that there is a tide away from belief in spirits towards a more materialistic belief system, perhaps in more ways than one. I honestly don’t know how sincere mediums were at the time, but I don’t really see any reason to suppose that the majority weren’t acting in good faith whether or not they were actually able to do what they claimed. I could compare it to complementary medicine. Whether or not it’s efficaceous, the majority of practitioners either believe that it is or that it’s of benefit to their clients. Why would the same not be true of Spiritualism?

Spirits of the dead are said to be inclined to communicate with those who are still alive, and to be evolving spiritually. The movement was also associated with the Quakers in the nineteenth century, although judging by the Quakers here in England I know today there must surely have been a drastic divergence in beliefs, because I can’t imagine any of them entertaining such a world view. The “Indian spirit guide” can be seen as an abiding awareness of the genocide practiced against the Native Americans and perhaps a recognition of the unearned mercy some of them might show post mortem. Although there is something of a loose system around Spiritualism, people completely outside any such tradition often claim to be in contact with the dead, and in fact that would include me, as I believe I at least meet an accurate representation of my father-in-law and one of my grandfathers in my dreams. However, I’m not convinced that identity survives death. I think perhaps individual experiences move around and enter the minds of others, and because they are always first person experiences they are labelled as happening to the person reporting them by their consciousness. However, I’m not going to say flat-out that it’s impossible to communicate with the spirits of the dead. I’m not sure what I think about EVP either, although I experimented with it as a teenager.

EVP is “Electronic Voice Phenomenon”, which is the perception of voices in static. It was said to have provided the inspiration for the Chronovisor, although in that case the voices were interpreted as coming from the past rather than being spirits. In a way, EVP is rather like divination such as reading tea leaves, where some kind of arbitrary, pseudo-random process is used as the basis for extracting apparent information, which may in fact be pareidolia. Static on TV has been suggested for the same purpose, and it’s even been said that the digitalisation of media is part of a conspiracy to close off a potential channel of communication with the spirit world, although this sounds seriously paranoid to me, but perhaps almost nostalgically so. In 1959, a Swedish film producer made recordings of bird song. When he played them back, he claimed to have heard the voices of his dead parents. I don’t know the details of this incident, but there is sometimes “print-through” on tape recordings, where a previous recording made on the same tape can still be faintly heard. Actually that isn’t print-through apparently, but it does happen (print through is where nearby tape on a reel induces faint audio patterns in the currently played portion of tape). Also, it’s interesting that once again the more spiritualistic interpretation is made of the phenomenon, that it was the current spirits of his parents he heard rather than a relic of the past when they were still alive. I don’t know how to choose between these alternatives. Is it time travel or paranormal? Both are very marginalised views. I don’t remember how I got the idea to do this. It would’ve been in about 1981 and it followed on from listening to things like numbers stations, over the horizon radar, jamming and Morse signals a couple of years previously. It doesn’t seem to have been learned from anyone else’s experiments with it. I found that I got vivid visual images in my imagination and could hear music after a few minutes of listening to white noise. In 1985, the book ‘The Ghost of 29 Megacycles’ was published, claiming that a particular frequency was particularly liable to this.

An interesting experiment conducted in 1972 involved the invention of a fictional ghost and a gradually induced séance atmosphere, and as this was increased, participants began to experience a sense of presence. I’m afraid that’s all I know about that.

Psychometry, a word which I think is correct but which I’m attempting to recall from reading it once about four decades back, seems to refer to the idea that a personal object in someone’s presence becomes charged with their energy and personality, as if it’s been magnetised. I was vividly aware of this idea when I visited a herb garrett in Bermondsey, where a surgeon’s saw for removing legs was on display. It had been used on numerous occasions to remove limbs which would otherwise have guaranteed the patient’s death, without anæsthetic of course. Although my rational mind said one thing, it was almost impossible to believe in the heat of the moment that that saw had not been imprinted with the immense quantity of agony it must’ve caused. However, on making this observation to a friend who was also there, he suggested the opposite. This tool had saved hundreds of people’s lives. This is the kind of thinking involved in the idea of fetishism in the religious sense, or perhaps for some in the sexual sense. More specifically, relics of saints and the cross carry a similar idea. In the realm of mediums and readers, as I might call them, the idea is that you can hold a personal effect and psychically reconstruct a person’s life and identity from the psychological impression you receive from it. Once again, like a chronovisor, it’s based on the idea that there are natural recording properties in objects which have been in close proximity to certain events or perhaps just generally, and to me at least this idea has immense emotional appeal. I know I’m not alone in the idea that I wanted to save every written note my mother left me as a child because destroying it would be like killing her. This has an obsessive-compulsive element but is probably quite common and needn’t be medicalised. In the late nineteenth century some people believed that psychometry would prove to be as important a branch of science as the study of electricity. It’s just hard to believe that the physical world really is as indifferent as it apparently is, and although disbelief in this is fine and probably correct, the emotional element is important, and we are emotional beings living in an emotional world. Few people would consider the possessions of a loved one to be completely insignificant, and if they were to dispose of them all after their death the chances are that they would be motivated by grief and not wishing to be reminded of their loss rather than lack of sentiment. This is also where the urge to hoard originates. As with several other alleged psionic abilities, mediums have been enlisted to use psychometry to investigate crimes and missing persons. The presence of DNA on such items means that today a similar kind of significance can actually be rigorously pursued with a high degree of confidence.

I’ve been into teleportation previously on this blog, so I’ll only cover it briefly here. There are a number of supposèd incidents of teleportation recorded, notably one which is said to have occurred between Manila in the Philippines and Mexico City in 1593. A soldier guarding the governor’s palace in Manila felt dizzy and faint, and leant against a wall, closing his eyes. When he opened them a few seconds later, he found himself in Mexico City. He was aware of the recent assassination of the governor of the Philippines before the news was able to reach the city, was jailed for desertion and then released when it turned out several months later that this assassination had indeed occurred. This is of course said to be a tall tale. Another incident involved a nun referred to as the Lady In Blue, whose real name was María de Jesús de Ágreda, who was said to teleport regularly from her abbey in Spain to the land of the Jumanos in present day Texas and New Mexico, between 1620 and 1623. When visited by missionaries in 1629, the Jumanos were said to have been very eager to be baptised because of her proselytism. There are a number of other examples, and Qephitzat Ha-Derekh is the Hebrew name for the phenomenon. Most teleportation today would be considered to be a science fiction device like the transporters in ‘Star Trek’, and teleportation is a bit different from the other examples of psionic powers because scientists have succeeded in relocating the information of a microscopic object’s quantum state without using any kind of physical signalling mechanism or moving the object itself. However, teleportation of the Qephitzat Ha-Derekh kind is another matter entirely, and a common question asked about teleportation is of whether it amounts to death followed by the creation of a clone in another place with intact memories or is a genuine method of transportation.

Finally, there is levitation, famously promoted by the Natural Law Party in the 1992 General Election here and also elsewhere in the world. I could dilate on the political party, which is associated with George Harrison and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and has actually won some elections, but will confine myself to making the observation that levitation in the context of the NLP is considered a Siddhi in the Yoga tradition and the party itself was the target of considerable outrage from my ex at the time. Levitation is another example of something which is practically achievable without paranormal involvement in some situations, as with superconducting magnets and high-intensity sound waves. It’s also said to occur by some Hindus and Christians, in the latter case sometimes but not always being seen as demonic. Levitation is practiced as a trick in some situations, where it seems to involve certain kinds of muscle control enabling someone to “plank” from beside a hand-held staff placed on the ground.

To conclude, then, this has been an attempt to survey psionic abilities, some of which haven’t even been mentioned. Although I have my own beliefs, I’m more attempting to describe what they are than advocating for their possibility or impossibility. I was hoping also to investigate philosophically the intelligibility of the claim that there can be supernatural explanations for phenomena, but unfortunately I’ve run out of time so it’ll have to wait.

The Chronovisor – A Porthole Into The Past

No, that isn’t a typo. The chronovisor was not a portal into the past, with all the causal paradoxes that appears to raise, but more like a viewing window into the past. Of course the other thing is that it stretches credulity near breaking point to accept that it existed, in spite of everything. Nonetheless, fictional versions of the device have been used many times in SF, and in one case the story was acclaimed as Asimov’s best work. When I get onto that I will post spoiler warnings, but before that I’m going to mention Ian Watson’s novel ‘Oracle’.

To me, Ian Watson is a very odd author, or at least my reaction to his writing is peculiar and distinctive. There are, incidentally, probably spoilers in this bit, so if you don’t want to know the score, look away in the next paragraph. He’s a critically-acclaimed English New Wave sci-fi author whose short stories are usually nothing short of marvellous. For instance, he’s responsible for ‘Slow Birds’ and ‘Mistress Of Cold’, both of which satirise Margaret Thatcher and the Cold War, but on the whole he isn’t a satirist. Most of his stories are based on thought experiments on the nature of perception, and although he does sometimes venture in the direction of what appears to be erotica in a manner I find disturbing, and that may be my issue, on the whole his short stories are masterpieces. I don’t want to give examples because they’re such a stimulating pleasure to read. Okay, just two. He considerably developed J W Dunne’s idea that dreams are the afterlife and occur outside time in two stories. In one of them, the key to immortality turns out to be swapping waking and dreaming experience so that waking experience becomes an interval over which one has no control and is moved from room to room in a kind of luxurious prison but dreams have continuity to them and are where life actually happens. In another, whether one is in Hell or Heaven is determined by whether one is able to dream lucidly or not, and an invasion of Hell is mounted by lucid dreamers to liberate the damned. The really odd thing for me, and I’ve never experienced this with any other author, is how I find his novels. He’s apparently best known as a novelist, which is news to me because I find his short stories much more prominent, and I’ve read a few of his novels and have one on the go at the moment, and oddly I find that I can’t persist with them, but in a strange way where I give up somewhere around the penultimate chapter. It isn’t a case of getting bored or irritated with his writing and giving up early on, which happens a lot. As a slightly similar author, Christopher Priest’s ‘The Affirmation’ I found easy to persist with even though I felt the author was too sympathetic to the idea of living in your head and too indulgent of what seemed to me to be malignant daydreaming, but there was no problem with sustaining my interest, and other books I’ve just found too heavy-going, boring, hard to relate to and so forth, but this would normally lead to me giving up early on or near the halfway point. That isn’t the problem with Ian Watson’s novels for me. The issue is, for some reason, that I can easily get most of the way through all of them but find myself giving up near the end. I can accept that some authors are simply better at short stories, and the fact that his writing is so strongly idea-based would suggest that that’s so for him, but I’d expect that to lead to novels which are either episodic because they consist of short stories stitched together, as it were, or ones which spread the initial idea out too thinly. Watson doesn’t do either of these things. It’s just a bit mysterious, and I get the feeling it says more about me than him, but I don’t know what it says. It doesn’t seem to link to the ADHD for example as that would lead to me giving up on them a lot earlier.

Anyway. . .

Spoilers for ‘The Oracle’ follow

RIght. Marcus, a centurion fighting against Boudicca in the year 807 AUC suddenly finds himself transported down into the late 1990s of the Common Era and is encountered by an Irish Republican, who takes him home to Milton Keynes and accommodates him with his also Irish Republican sister. He initially believes him to be a reënactor who has become delusional but it quickly emerges that he’s the real deal and that he was pulled forward into our time by what I would call a Chronovisor operated by MI-6, which can view both the past and the future, but needs to do both at the same time and is being used to view and prevent violent attacks by the likes of the IRA. It’s also, unusually for science fiction, substantially set in Belgium, and the question arises of whether viewing the future creates paradoxes and in fact causes the attacks in question, and it also turns out that Marcus was a young private in Judæa at the time of the Crucifixion and reports a very different story than that recounted in the Gospels regarding the death of Jesus, and that he visited an oracle in the ninth Roman century who told him what was eventually going to happen to him in our day, but he treated it with scepticism because he didn’t believe in oracles at the time.

Spoilers for ‘The Oracle’ over

This book is probably unique for me in being the only Ian Watson novel I’ve been able to finish, so he must’ve done something right this time. I mention it here because of its use of a chronovisor.

The other story which sticks in my mind involving a chronovisor is Isaac Asimov’s ‘The Dead Past’, which is, frankly, awesome.

Spoilers for ‘The Dead Past’ follow

A professor of Ancient History whose daughter died in a house fire some years previously asks a physicist the use of his chronovisor, which can view any location on Earth in the past, in order to prove that the Canaanite god Moloch, to whom babies were sacrificed by burning them alive, was made up by the Israelites to malign the Canaanites. He isn’t supposed to do this because he’s living at a time when demarcation between academic departments is strongly enforced. While the two are engaged in this clandestine project, they become aware that they are being spied upon by the CIA or NSA, and it turns out that the professor’s real motive is to prove to himself that he didn’t accidentally start the fire by leaving a cigarette burning. It then emerges that the secret police’s motives are benign. They have realised that if the chronovisor is set to view a location only a fraction of a second in the past, it constitutes a device for spying on anyone anywhere, and in developing and publicising the device they have destroyed privacy forever, and the agency were trying to prevent this. It’s an unusual story for Asimov, because of his theme of criticising authoritarian paternalism, at least in his earlier works, and unusual in general in that the clandestine government agents are for once unequivocally on the angels’ side, although it seems to me that they could just as well have wanted to keep the chronovisor to themselves in order to spy on people. It also, like his other most acclaimed story ‘The Ugly Little Boy’, has quite a bit of emotional engagement in it, which is again unusual for him.

Spoilers for ‘The Dead Past’ over

Asimov also uses a chronovisor in his time travel story ‘The End of Eternity’, although there it’s just a practical device for spying on timelines which would lead to undesirable consequences for humanity and altering them for our benefit and doesn’t constitute a major part of the plot. Regarding ‘The Oracle’, the chronovisor is similar in some ways to the device in Watson’s early story ‘The Very Slow Time Machine’, which works by sending someone an equal interval into the past as the time into the future they are supposed to reach in the end, and they are forced to live backwards over that period. This also may or may not create paradoxes, but the story ends before the protagonist in question reaches his destination. This is similar to the chronovisor in that it involves a kind of equal and opposite reaction idea, where you have to slide back in time to leap forward. The question of paradoxes is for once not explored fully in this story, although it is mentioned and they seem inevitable.

They’ve cropped up elsewhere of course, for instance in both the film and written versions of Philip K Dick’s ‘Paycheck’ and various other places. It’s notable that in both stories mentioned above and the PKD story, chronovisors are associated with espionage. In a sense, a chronovisor is indeed a form of surveillance but it still seems odd that they so often seem to have this association, as archæology, history and palæontology seem to be about the same basic idea and are not particularly associated in my mind with spying, although there is definitely a sense in which they invade privacy. For instance, as far as I know the first recorded event in human history took place at Laetoli in modern-day Tanzania about 3 700 000 years ago, when a woman and a man Australopithecus afarensis were walking side by side near an active volcano, the woman apparently carrying a baby on her hip, and wandered off to one side for a bit before returning to the man’s side. They left footprints in volcanic ash which was then covered by a layer of lava. The individuals in question were fully bipedal. I don’t know, does that seem like an invasion of privacy to you? Does it make a difference that they weren’t Homo? I’ve no idea what to think. On an earlier occasion, about two million years previously on Crete, a bipedal primate left footprints near the village of Trakhilos, but it isn’t clear whether they were closely related to us because there seems to have been some convergent evolution with humans in that region at the time, which is actually pretty intriguing and was, slightly strangely, alluded to in Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Last Men In London’, published in 1932 in spite of them not being discovered until decades later. It also took place during the Messanian Salinity Crisis, during which the Med completely dried up into a vast salt flat with a possible surface temperature of 80°C, so the primates concerned may have been confined to the plateau which became Crete.

Footprints are of course a long-lasting trace of activity which tend to preserve soft parts and activity better than other kinds of fossils, or potential fossils. England is known for its ghost stories, having more ghosts per unit area than any other country. I’m aware, for example, of three places in Leicester where acquaintances of mine claim to have seen ghosts, in two cases when they were previously unaware of an established reputation that a particular place was haunted. I do actually believe in ghosts, although I don’t believe they’re conscious or spirits. There are a number of examples of phenomena which were not accepted as real by scientists or natural philosophers for a long time until it was finally firmly established that they were real, including meteorites, ball lightning and ignis fatuus. There are also, of course, numerous instances of apparent phenomena which are now completely refuted. The difficulty is often that they’re difficult to reproduce in controlled conditions. In any case, I conjecture that when people see ghosts, they are sometimes experiencing something which is not just subjectively observable. A ghost is like a footprint or a natural recording of an event, perhaps impressed in some way on the material present in the vicinity at the time, and possibly reinforced by repeated similar events, in my opinion, and yes, I could be wrong. This is, for instance, why they seem to walk through walls – those were built after the events took place. They’re more like three-dimensional video recordings which occur in accidentally ideal circumstances than the spirits of the departed, but they do exist. If you want to build either a “holographic” recording and display system or perhaps a chronovisor, you need to study the phenomenon of haunting, is my hunch.

Back to the chronovisor then. One of the really weird things about time travel, and for a moment here I’m talking about travel back in time, is that although practically all scientists in relevant fields would completely reject the possibility, in spite of thoroughly established and detailed theories about space and time, it always seems impossible to rule it out. This is despite the fact that if it is possible, it would seem to wreak havoc with cause and effect and mess up the Universe. It’s been suggested as a solution to the Fermi Paradox of why we don’t have observable evidence of aliens in spite of the Universe appearing to be a hospitable place for them. It could be that before they begin to visit other solar systems, aliens stumble across time travel, use it and their timelines get “pruned” due to being destroyed by paradoxes, so at any one time there are loads of fairly advanced technological civilisations which will shortly discover time travel and turn out never to have existed as a result. However, that’s travel back in time, and most people do in fact consider that impossible. A chronovisor which can be used to view the past is not subject to these major problems or paradoxes because it’s simply a porthole into the past, and we come across information from the past all the time without that causing any major headscratchers arising from the mere fact that it happened. There is no apparently absurd barrier to the invention of a chronovisor even though there is also no known set of principles which could be used as the basis for building one.

It’s rumoured, though probably not in any reputable sources, that such a device has existed. The French Roman Catholic priest and writer François Brune has made this claim. I should mention that there are in fact two authors by this name, the other using it innocently as a pseudonym. Anyway, Brune has made the claim that a Benedictine monk called Pellegrino Ernetti had managed to construct a device resembling a CRT-based television set which he used to view the Crucifixion and the Passion, a speech by Cicero to the Roman Senate, the performance of a lost play in Rome called ‘Thyestes’, and also, and this is a hard one to take, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Ernetti was a respected physicist and musicologist as well as a monk and claimed to have assembled a team of scientists, mainly anonymous but including the Nazi rocket scientist Werner von Braun who was involved in the US space program, and the top physicist Enrico Fermi (the second time I’ve mentioned him today). At this point, it’s tempting to conclude that he was lying, because he mentions Sodom and Gomorrah, and it’s hard for most people to believe that that event actually happened, unless it was, for example, a volcanic eruption. Let’s deal with that then.

It follows from the story itself that traces of the cities concerned would be poor or absent, which makes it difficult to verify. According to the Ancient Greek historian Strabo, i.e. an independent source, they were the largest cities in the vicinity of the Dead Sea. One hypothesis is that an earthquake in the vicinity caused tar to cover them, and there is a rift valley along the Jordan. Hence it is possible, whatever spin is put on it, that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed in a manner similar to the way specified in the Tanakh, and the homophobic interpretation put on it recently doesn’t appear to have been how it was interpreted earlier, when it was seen as to do with lack of hospitality. Later interpretations in the Tanakh itself attribute the cause to the sins of pride, adultery and lack of charity, but the Rabbinical interpretation is unequivocally homophobic. Therefore although the event does seem far-fetched at first, it could’ve been a natural disaster which was interpreted morally either at the time or later, and in fact from my own theist perspective, although I have a major problem with the idea that it was a punishment for the “Sin of Sodom”, I can accept that there were divine reasons for it to happen such as lack of hospitality, but you don’t have to be theist or consider it a punishment if you are in order to accept that it’s a plausible description of their destruction.

Once again, back to the subject of the Chronovisor! I don’t even have secondary sources regarding Ernetti’s account on the matter, but I have managed to glean the following bits of possibly very inaccurate or falsified information. Ernetti made the claim to Brune in the 1960s that the Chronovisor had existed. He later retracted that claim. Brune then claimed that the retraction was made under pressure from the Vatican, and on his death bed, Ernetti once again claimed that the Chronovisor was real. Nowadays many people would be prepared to accept that the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy is not an entirely marvellous organisation, but that can lead to a lot of spurious mud being flung at it, not all of which sticks. That said, the Church did issue a rather remarkable proclamation in 1988 CE explicitly forbidding the use of any device able to view the distant past under pain of excommunication. This seems at first to be an odd thing to do until you remember that it also has a policy on first contact with aliens, which doesn’t imply that they know extraterrestrials exist. The trouble is, once you hear an account where the Vatican is involved in hushing something up it feels like you’re in Dan Brown territory, although certain people found hanged under bridges come to mind here too, along with the death of Pope John Paul I. It also sounds like the Vatican has got something to hide about events as recorded in the Bible, whether or not such a machine existed or is possible. It suffices that they believed it to be possible for this to be significant, although it’s oddly specific as well.

How reliable are death bed confessions though? Under US Law, deathbed confessions are admissible as evidence and are considered more than mere hearsay, which is the reporting in court under oath (or affirmation I presume – do they have that in America?) of a statement by another party which was not made under oath (et cætera?). The trouble is that not only is there a question of lucidity, but also that the point at which a person is near death is quite possibly that point when their memories are the most confabulated, unless perhaps they have recovered from a psychotic episode in earlier life. Therefore the simple fact that Ernetti made this statement in those circumstances is not enough to base a reliable hypothesis on.

This is a summary of Ernetti’s claims as reported by Brune. In the 1960s, Ernetti, a respected physicist, monk and musicologist (you’ll see why that’s important in a moment) with a reputation for honesty, is said to have told Brune that there was a machine called the Chronovisor which he had personally designed and built in conjunction with a team of scientists including Von Braun and Fermi, on which he had been able to view and hear the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Passion and Crucifixion and a scene from the life of Napoleon, among other events. It was said to have been developed thus. Ernetti and his colleague Gemelli were attempting to clean up old recordings of Gregorian chants by removing certain harmonics, and in the process of doing so, Gemelli claimed that the voice of his dead father became audible despite it not being on the recording of the chants. Clearly thermodynamics requires that energy is never destroyed, and that sounds as if it means that sound and light will continue forever, but in fact they seem to be rapidly swamped by thermal noise once they get sufficiently dim or quiet unless some kind of technological intervention is made to preserve them, such as laying them down on photographic emulsion or wax cylinder. Ernetti’s claim appears to be that photons always bear identifiable information regarding their time of origin, and by selecting the photons which came into existence at a specific time, scenes from that time can be recreated. Most visible light on this planet is of course from the Sun, but also reflected off various surfaces after it hit us. Even so, such light would usually have been expected to have travelled about two thousand light years since the time of Jesus, though not necessarily in a straight line. That doesn’t imply that it’s now two thousand light years away. Otherwise this account would appear to suggest that only directly emitted photons created at the time would be detectable, but that is actually still possible. It just means that the image of Jesus gained would be like a heat map rather than a visible light photograph, and again the moment of his death would be detectable as the point at which his body started to cool.

At this point it’s starting to sound like that bit in ‘The Vicar Of Dibley’ where Jim Trott suggests that the reflection of a stained glass window off a dog’s eye in a photo would be enough to reconstruct a picture of said window, except a lot worse because in that case less than a microsecond would’ve passed since the sunlight had reflected off the glass. However, there’s a bit of a caveat here because of a certain technique called luminescence dating used in archæology and geology where it’s possible to determine when an object was last exposed to sunlight or considerable heating. Radioactivity in the soil causes subterranean objects to lose electrons which are then trapped in defects in the crystal lattice. These can then be detected according to how much light the object gives off when heated. Hence there is at least a way of detecting how long it’s been since an object was exposed to daylight.

Ernetti further claimed that the Vatican ordered the machine to be dismantled in order to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands, and at this point one might be forgiven for wondering what they meant by “wrong”, since they probably didn’t mean themselves. The idea was that an oppressive régime could exploit it as a means of spying on people’s past. Clearly this machine is more like Asimov’s version than Watson’s, because Watson’s can only detect local events but Asimov’s has global range. Since light can travel 40 000 kilometres in less than a seventh of a second, it isn’t entirely silly to suppose that this is possible but the question of being swamped by entropy and the likelihood that the photons concerned would have long since dissipated into deep space seem to make the whole idea completely impractical, although if that was the principle it’s based on, it isn’t actually less impractical for it to work for any location on Earth, and perhaps even beyond it. It was further claimed, and we’re back with Dan Brown now, that although the machine was dismantled, the Vatican built another one and it’s now hidden in their secret archives.

It’s also been claimed that the Nazis attempted to construct a Chronovisor, although it also seems that this could act well as a form of propaganda at the time which would make people feel even less secure about what they were getting up to earlier. Nowadays of course many people have social media records catching up with them which do the same job. However, one interesting thing about that claim is that it nicely fits Von Braun being involved, because he was also said to be involved in the Nazi attempt to do the same thing.

Of course, the mere fact that this doesn’t seem to have a ring of truth about it doesn’t mean such a machine isn’t possible. We have only had photography for almost two hundred years and have deliberately recorded sound for rather less long, and prior to those inventions it might have seemed impossible. We can also now retrieve audio information from the more distant past. For instance, the formation of grooves on a wet pot before firing with a trowel might have led to sound being recorded in a very similar manner to a wax cylinder. This idea turns up in the ‘X Files’ episode ‘The Lazarus Bowl’. In the 1970s, the Ariadne column of ‘New Scientist’ suggested jokingly that sound might have been recorded in prehistoric caves because of stalactite formation preferentially crystallising magnesium or calcium carbonate from water due to variations in air pressure, and went on to suggest that since drops of water were involved, it would probably largely consist of complaints about the weather. The ceramic idea is not taken seriously by most people, but there is a much older example which does in fact work.

165 million years ago in the Jurassic Period, a katydid, belonging to the order also containing crickets and grasshoppers and like them known for making noise by rubbing their legs against their wings, was fossilised unusually well, to the extent that the organs used for stridulation were almost perfectly preserved, and it was possible to reconstruct the sound they made. Unlike today’s katydids, whose noise is ultrasonic in order not to be heard, perhaps by bats, the noise made by these Jurassic insects was only at six kilohertz, which as a fifty-three year old human with fairly average hearing I have no trouble hearing. It’s also possible to work out what noises non-avian dinosaurs were attuned to hearing by examining the shapes of their cochleæ. For instance, Brachiosaur hearing peaked at 700 Hz and they couldn’t hear sounds higher than 2.4 kHz and Allosaurs’ peaked at 1.1 KHz and they were unable to detect anything above 3 Hz. T. rex is thought to have made deep, rumbling menacing sounds. Meanwhile, the ornithopods with their elaborate entubulated headgear like trombones also have predictable voices based on those, which would’ve been deep and loud, and also vary according to species. Another sound would’ve been the loud cracks produced by the sauropods’ whip-like tails.

As far as anyone can tell, none of this has been recorded. It’s also not true that any kind of telescope could be used on a distant planet or in space to image how objects as small as that would’ve looked in the distant past. Certain things are in theory possible but not to that degree of resolution. Consequently, I don’t believe the Vatican has a chronovisor or anyone else, but I do think the possibility of them being invented one day can’t be ruled out. They don’t violate causality the way visions or sound from the future would seem to, whether or not that’s possible (and I think it is but that’s for another time), although entropy is a major obstacle. It also seems less likely that they could be used to image distant events. Nonetheless, it doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility that one might some day exist, which means that even what we’re doing right now might be visible to our descendants. I find this a little disconcerting.