Sir William Crookes (June 17, 1832 – April 4, 1919) was an English chemist and physicist who attended the Royal College of Chemistry, in London, and worked on spectroscopy. He was a pioneer in the development of vacuum tubes, inventing the Crookes tube, and was controversial in his advocacy of research into psychic abilities and other paranormal phenomena.
Address to the Society for Psychical Research (1897)
- Address as President to the Society for Psychical Research (29 January 1897), published in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. XII (March 1897), p. 338
- The task I am called upon to perform today is to my thinking by no means a merely formal or easy matter. It fills me with deep concern to give an address, with such authority as a president's chair confers, upon a science which, though still in a purely nascent stage, seems to me at least as important as any other science whatever. Psychical science, as we here try to pursue it, is the embryo of something which in time may dominate the whole world of thought. This possibility — nay, probability — does not make it the easier to me now. Embryonic development is apt to be both rapid and interesting; yet the Prudent man shrinks from dogmatizing on the egg until he has seen the chicken.
- The most helpful quality which has aided me in psychical problems and has made me lucky in physical discoveries (sometimes of rather unexpected kinds) has simply been my knowledge — my vital knowledge, if I may so term it — of my own ignorance.
Most students of nature sooner or later pass through a process of writing off a large percentage of their supposed capital of knowledge as a merely illusory asset. As we trace more accurately certain familiar sequences of phenomena we begin to realize how closely these sequences, or laws, as we call them, are hemmed round by still other laws of which we can form no notion. With myself this writing off of illusory assets has gone rather far and the cobweb of supposed knowledge has been pinched (as some one has phrased) into a particularly small pill.
- I am not disposed to bewail the limitations imposed by human ignorance. On the contrary, I feel ignorance is a healthful stimulant; and my enforced conviction that neither I nor anyone can possibly lay down beforehand what does not exist in the universe, or even what is not going on all round us everyday of our lives, leaves me with a cheerful hope that something very new and very arresting may turn up anywhere at any minute. … I shall try to utilize this temper of mind today by clearing away, so far as I can, certain presuppositions, on one side or on the other, which seem to me to depend upon a too hasty assumption that we know more about the universe than as yet we really can know.
- I will point out a curious, inveterate, and widespread illusion — the illusion that our earthly bodies are a kind of norm of humanity, so that ethereal bodies, if such there be, must correspond to them in shape and size.
When we take a physical view of a human being in his highest form of development, he is seen to consist essentially of a thinking brain, the brain itself, among its manifold functions, being a transformer whereby intelligent will power is enabled to react on matter. To communicate with the external world, the brain requires organs by which it can be transported from place to place, and other organs by means of which energy is supplied to replace that expended in the exercise of its own special functions.
- The human creature represents the most perfect thinking and acting machine yet evolved on this earth, developing through countless ages in strict harmony with the surrounding conditions of temperature, atmosphere, light, and gravitation. The profound modifications in the human frame, which any important alteration in either of these factors would occasion, are strangely unconsidered. It is true there have been questionings as to the effects that might be occasioned by changes in temperature and atmospheric composition, but possible variations in gravitation seem almost to have escaped notice. The human body, which long experience and habit have taught us to consider in its highest development as the perfection of beauty and grace — "formed in the image of God " — is entirely conditioned by the strength of gravitation on this globe. So far as has been possible to ascertain, the intensity of gravity has not varied appreciably within those geologic ages covering the existence of animated thinking beings.
- It is curious that the popular conceptions of evil and malignant beings are of the type that would be produced by increased gravitation — toads, reptiles, and noisome creeping things — while the arch fiend himself is represented as perhaps the ultimate form which could be assumed by a thinking brain and its necessary machinery were the power of gravitation to be increased to the highest point compatible with existence — a serpent crawling along the ground. On the other hand, our highest types of beauty are those which would be common under decreased gravitation.
The "daughter of the gods, divinely tall," and the leaping athlete, please us by the slight triumph over the earthward pull which their stature or spring implies.
- Popular imagination presupposes spiritual beings to be utterly independent of gravitation, while retaining shapes and proportions which gravitation originally determined, and only gravitation seems likely to maintain.
When and if spiritual beings make themselves visible either to our bodily eyes or to our inward vision, their object would be thwarted were they not to appear in a recognizable form; so that their appearance would take the shape of the body and clothing to which we have been accustomed. Materiality, form, and space, I am constrained to believe, are temporary conditions of our present existence. It is difficult to conceive the idea of a spiritual being having a body like ours, conditioned by the exact gravitating force exerted by the earth, and with organs which presuppose the need for food and necessity for the removal of waste products. It is equally difficult, hemmed in and bound round as we are by materialistic ideas, to think of intelligence, thought, and will existing without form or matter and untrammeled by gravitation or space.
- A view of the constitution of matter which recommended itself to Faraday as preferable to the one ordinarily held appears to me to be exactly the view I endeavor to picture as the constitution of spiritual beings. Centers of intellect, will, energy, and power, each mutually penetrable, while at the same time permeating what we call space, but each center retaining its own individuality, persistence of self, and memory. Whether these intelligent centers of the various spiritual forces which in their aggregate go to make up man's character or karma are also associated in any way with the forms of energy which, centered, form the material atom — whether these spiritual entities are material, not in the crude, gross sense of Lucretius, but material as sublimated through the piercing intellect of Faraday — is one of those mysteries which to us mortals will perhaps ever remain an unsolved problem. My next speculation is more difficult, and is addressed to those who not only take too terrestrial a view, but who deny the plausibility — nay, the possibility — of the existence of an unseen world at all. I reply we are demonstrably standing on the brink, at any rate, of one unseen world. I do not here speak of a spiritual or immaterial world. I speak of the world of the infinitely little, which must be still called a material world, although matter as therein existing or perceptible is something which our limited faculties do not enable us to conceive. It is the world — I do not say of molecular forces as opposed to molar, but of forces whose action lies mainly outside the limit of human perception, as opposed to forces evident to the gross perception of human organisms. I hardly know how to make clear to myself or to you the difference in the apparent laws of the universe which would follow upon a mere difference of bulk in the observer. Such an observer I must needs imagine as best I can.
- It can scarcely be denied that the fundamental phenomena which first led mankind into chemical inquiries are those of combustion. But, as we have just seen, minimized beings would be unable to produce fire at will, except by certain chemical reactions, and would have little opportunity of examining its nature. They might occasionally witness forest fires, volcanic eruptions, etc.; but such grand and catastrophic phenomena, though serving to reveal to our supposed Lilliputians the existence of combustion, would be ill suited for quiet investigation into its conditions and products. Moreover, considering the impossibility they would experience of pouring water from one test tube to another, the ordinary operations of analytical chemistry and of all manipulations depending on the use of the pneumatic trough would remain forever a sealed book.
- If a possible — nay, reasonable — variation in only one of the forces conditioning the human race, that of gravitation, could so modify our outward form, appearance, and proportions as to make us to all intents and purposes a different race of beings; if mere differences of size can cause some of the most simple facts in chemistry and physics to take so widely different a guise; if beings microscopically small and prodigiously large would simply as such be subject to the hallucinations I have pointed out, and to others I might enlarge upon, is it not possible that we, in turn, though occupying, as it seems to us, the golden mean, may also by the mere virtue of our size and weight fall into misinterpretations of phenomena from which we should escape were we or the globe we inhabit either larger or smaller, heavier or lighter? May not our boasted knowledge be simply conditioned by accidental environments, and thus be liable to a large element of subjectivity hitherto unsuspected and scarcely possible to eliminate?
- Let me specially apply this general conception of the impossibility of predicting what secrets the universe may still hold, what agencies undivined may habitually be at work around us.
Telepathy, the transmission of thought and images directly from one mind to another without the agency of the recognized organs of sense, is a conception new and strange to science. To judge from the comparative slowness with which the accumulated evidence of our society penetrates the scientific world, it is, I think, a conception even scientifically repulsive to many minds. We have supplied striking experimental evidence; but few have been found to repeat our experiments, We have offered good evidence in the observation of spontaneous cases, — as apparitions at the moment of death and the like, — but this "evidence has failed to impress the scientific world in the same way as evidence less careful and less coherent has often done before. Our evidence is not confronted and refuted; it is shirked and evaded as though there were some great a priori improbability which absolved the world of science from considering it. I at least see no a priori improbability whatever. Our alleged facts might be true in all kinds of ways without contradicting any truth already known. I will dwell now on only one possible line of explanation, — not that I see any way of elucidating all the new phenomena I regard as genuine, but because it seems probable I may shed a light on some of those phenomena. All the phenomena of the universe are presumably in some way continuous; and certain facts, plucked as it were from the very heart of nature, are likely to be of use in our gradual discovery of facts which lie deeper still.
- Ordinarily we communicate intelligence to each other by speech. I first call up in my own brain a picture of a scene I wish to describe, and then, by means of an orderly transmission of wave vibrations set in motion by my vocal chords through the material atmosphere, a corresponding picture is implanted in the brain of anyone whose ear is capable of receiving such vibrations. If the scene I wish to impress on the brain of the recipient is of a complicated character, or if the picture of it in my own brain is not definite, the transmission will be more or less imperfect; but if I wish to get my audience to picture to themselves some very simple object, such as a triangle or a circle, the transmission of ideas will be well-nigh perfect, and equally clear to the brains of both transmitter and recipient. Here we use the vibrations of the material molecules of the atmosphere to transmit intelligence from one brain to another.
- These rays, as generated in the vacuum tube, are not homogeneous, but consist of bundles of different wave-lengths, analogous to what would be differences of colour could we see them as light. Some pass easily through flesh, but are partially arrested by bone, while others pass with almost equal facility through bone and flesh.
It seems to me that in these rays we may have a possible mode of transmitting intelligence which, with a few reasonable postulates, may supply a key to much that is obscure in psychical research. Let it be assumed that these rays, or rays even of higher frequency, can pass into the brain and act on some nervous center there. Let it be conceived that the brain contains a center which uses these rays as the vocal chords use sound vibrations (both being under the command of intelligence), and sends them out, with the velocity of light, to impinge on the receiving ganglion of another brain. In this way some, at least, of the phenomena of telepathy, and the transmission of intelligence from one sensitive to another through long distances, seem to come into the domain of law and can be grasped. A sensitive may be one who possesses the telepathic transmitting or receiving ganglion in an advanced state of development, or who, by constant practice, is rendered more sensitive to these high-frequency waves. Experience seems to show that the receiving and the transmitting ganglions are not equally developed; one may be active, while the other, like the pineal eye in man, may be only vestigial. By such an hypothesis no physical laws are violated; neither is it necessary to invoke what is commonly called the supernatural.
- It may be objected that brain waves, like any other waves, must obey physical laws. Therefore, transmission of thought must be easier or more certain the nearer the agent and recipient are to each other, and should die out altogether before great distances are reached. Also it can be urged that if brain waves diffuse in all directions they should affect all sensitives within their radius of action, instead of impressing only one brain. The electric telegraph is not a parallel case, for there a material wire intervenes to conduct and guide the energy to its destination.
These are weighty objections, but not, I think, insurmountable. Far be it from me to say anything disrespectful of the law of inverse squares, but I have already endeavored to show we are dealing with conditions removed from our material and limited conceptions of space, matter, form. Is it inconceivable that intense thought concentrated toward a sensitive with whom the thinker is in close sympathy may induce a telepathic chain of brain waves, along which the message of thought can go straight to its goal without loss of energy due to distance? And is it also inconceivable that our mundane ideas of space and distance may be superseded in these subtle regions of unsubstantial thought, where "near" and "far" may lose their usual meaning?
- I am impelled to one further reflection, dealing with the conservation of energy. We say, with truth, that energy is transformed but not destroyed, and that whenever we can trace the transformation we find it quantitatively exact. So far as our very rough exactness goes, this is true for inorganic matter and for mechanical forces. But it is only inferentially true for organized matter and for vital forces. We can not express life in terms of heat or of motion. And thus it happens that just when the exact transformation of energy will be most interesting to watch, we can not really tell whether any fresh energy has been introduced into the system or not. Let us consider this a little more closely.
- The production of motion, molar or molecular, is governed by physical laws, which it is the business of the philosopher to find out and correlate. The law of the conservation of energy overrides all laws, and it is a preeminent canon of scientific belief that for every act done a corresponding expenditure of energy must be transformed.
No work can be effected without using up a corresponding value in energy of another kind. But to us the other side of the problem is even of more importance. Granted the existence of a certain kind of molecular motion, what is it that determines its direction along one path rather than another?
- The clock runs down. I lift the weight by exerting the proper amount of energy, and in this action the law of conservation of energy is strictly obeyed. But now I have the choice of either letting the weight fall free in a fraction of a second, or, constrained by the wheelwork, in twenty-four hours. I can do which I like, and whichever way I decide, no more energy is developed in the fall of the weight. I strike a match; I can use it to light a cigarette or to set fire to a house. I write a telegram; it may be simply to say I shall be late for dinner, or it may produce fluctuations on the stock exchange that will ruin thousands. In these cases the actual force required in striking the match or in writing the telegram is governed by the law or conservation of energy; but the vastly more momentous part, which determines the words I use or the material I ignite, is beyond such a law. It is probable that no expenditure of energy need be used in the determination of direction one way more than another. Intelligence and free will here come into play, and these mystic forces are outside the law of conservation of energy as understood by physicists.
- Molecular movements strictly obey the law of conservation of energy, but what we call "law" is simply an expression of the direction along which a form of energy acts, not the form of energy itself. We may explain molecular and molar motions, and discover all the physical laws of motion, but we shall be far as ever from a solution of the vastly more important question as to what form of will and intellect is behind the motions of molecules, guiding and constraining them in definite directions along predetermined paths. What is the determining cause in the background? What combination of will and intellect outside our physical laws guides the fortuitous concourse of atoms along ordered paths culminating in the material world in which we live?
In these last sentences I have intentionally used words of wide signification — have spoken of guidance along ordered paths. It is wisdom to be vague here, for we absolutely can not say whether or when any diversion may be introduced into the existing system of earthly forces by an external power.
- An omnipotent being could rule the course of this world in such a way that none of us should discover the hidden springs of action. He need not make the sun stand still upon Gibeon. He could do all that he wanted by the expenditure of infinitesimal diverting force upon ultra-microscopic modifications of the human germ.
- I see no good reason why any man of scientific mind should shut his eyes to our work or deliberately stand aloof from it. Our Proceedings are, of course, not exactly parallel to the Proceedings of a society dealing with a long-established branch of science. In every form of research there must be a beginning. We own to much that is tentative, much that may turn out erroneous. But it is thus, and thus only, that each science in turn takes its stand. I venture to assert that both in actual careful record of new and important facts, and in suggestiveness, our society's work and publications will form no unworthy preface to a profounder science both of man, of nature, and of "worlds not realized" than this planet has yet known.
Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1898)
- Inaugural address as President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, published in Nature No. 1506, Vol. 58 (8 September 1898), p. 438
- No incident in my scientific career is more widely known than the part I took many years ago in certain psychic researches. Thirty years have passed since I published an account of experiments tending to show that outside our scientific knowledge there exists a Force exercised by intelligence differing from the ordinary intelligence common to mortals. This fact in my life is, of course, well understood by those who honored me with the invitation to become your president. Perhaps among my audience some may feel curious as to whether I shall speak out or be silent. I elect to speak, although briefly. … To ignore the subject would be an act of cowardice — an act of cowardice I feel no temptation to commit.
To stop short in any research that bids fair to widen the gates of knowledge, to recoil from fear of difficulty or adverse criticism, is to bring reproach on science. There is nothing for the investigator to do but to go straight on; "to explore up and down, inch by inch, with the taper his reason; "to follow the light wherever it may lead, even should it at times resemble a will-o'-the-wisp. I have nothing to retract. I adhere to my already published statements. Indeed, I might add much thereto. I regret only a certain crudity in those early expositions which, no doubt justly, militated against their acceptance by the scientific world. My own knowledge at that time scarcely extended beyond the fact that certain phenomena new to science had assuredly occurred, and were attested by my own sober senses and, better still, by automatic record. I was like some two-dimensional being who might stand at the singular point of a Riemann's surface, and thus find himself in infinitesimal and inexplicable contact with a plane of existence not his own.
I think I see a little farther now. I have glimpses of something like coherence among the strange elusive phenomena; of something like continuity between those unexplained forces and laws already known. This advance is largely due to the labors of another association, of which I have also this year the honor to be president — the Society for Psychical Research. And were I now introducing for the first time these inquiries to the world of science I should choose a starting point different from that of old. It would be well to begin with telepathy; with the fundamental law, as I believe it to be, that thoughts and images may be transferred from one mind to another without the agency of the recognized organs of sense — that knowledge may enter the human mind without being communicated in any hitherto known or recognized ways.
- All the phenomena of the universe are presumably in some way continuous, and it is unscientific to call in the aid of mysterious agencies when, with every fresh advance in knowledge, it is shown that ether vibrations have powers and attributes abundantly equal to any demand — even to the transmission of thought.
- The structure of brain and nerves being similar, it is conceivable there may be present masses of such nerve coherers in the brain whose special function it may be to receive impulses brought from without through the connecting sequence of ether waves of appropriate order of magnitude. Röntgen has familiarized us with an order of vibrations of extreme minuteness compared with the smallest waves with which we have hitherto been acquainted, and of dimensions comparable with the distances between the centers of the atoms of which the material universe is built up; and there is no reason to suppose that we have here reached the limit of frequency. It is known that the action of thought is accompanied by certain molecular movements in the brain, and here we have physical vibrations capable, from their extreme minuteness, of acting direct on individual molecules, while their rapidity approaches that of the internal and external movements of the atoms themselves.
Confirmation of telepathic phenomena is afforded by many converging experiments and by many spontaneous occurrences only thus intelligible. The most varied proof, perhaps, is drawn from analysis of the subconscious workings of the mind, when these, whether by accident or design, are brought into conscious survey. … This is not the place for details, but the vis medicatrix thus evoked, as it were, from the depths of the organism, is of good omen for the upward evolution of mankind.
- A formidable range of phenomena must be scientifically sifted before we effectually grasp a faculty so strange, so bewildering, and for ages so inscrutable as the direct action of mind on mind. This delicate task needs a rigorous employment of the method of exclusion — a constant setting aside of irrelevant phenomena that could be explained by known causes, including those far too familiar causes, conscious and unconscious fraud. The inquiry unites the difficulties inherent in all experimentation connected with mind, with tangled human temperaments, and with observations dependent less on automatic record than on personal testimony. But difficulties are things to be overcome even in the elusory branch of research known as experimental psychology.
- It has been said that "Nothing worth the proving can be proved, nor yet disproved." True though this may have been in the past, it is true no longer. The science of our century has forged weapons of observation and analysis by which the veriest tyro may profit. Science has trained and fashioned the average mind into habits of exactitude and disciplined perception, and in so doing has fortified itself for tasks higher, wider, and incomparably more wonderful than even the wisest among our ancestors imagined. Like the souls in Plato's myth that follow the chariot of Zeus, it has ascended to a point of vision far above the earth. It is henceforth open to science to transcend all we now think we know of matter and to gain new glimpses of a profounder scheme of Cosmic law.
- In old Egyptian days a well known inscription was carved over the portal of the temple of Isis: "I am whatever hath been, is, or ever will be; and my veil no man hath yet lifted." Not thus do modern seekers after truth confront nature — the word that stands for the baffling mysteries of the universe. Steadily, unflinchingly, we strive to pierce the inmost heart of Nature, from what she is to reconstruct what she has been, and to prophesy what she yet shall be. Veil after veil we have lifted, and her face grows more beautiful, august, and wonderful with every barrier that is withdrawn.
Quotes about Crookes
- When Crookes moved on into the crowd, a professor of physics told an anecdote of the last meeting: when a motto on the wall of one room, reading Ubi Crookes, Ibi Lux, had been altered to Ubi Crookes, Ibi Spooks. Wonder was expressed that a man of Crookes's attainments should believe in ghosts. "I'm not so sure," Conan Doyle said unexpectedly, "there is nothing in Crookes's belief."
- John Dickson Carr, in The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1975), p. 222
- At the time of his death Crookes was called the greatest of British scientists in the realm of exact knowledge. Knighted in 1897, he also received the Order of Merit in 1910; the Royal Society elected him president from 1913-15. Ubi Crookes ibi lux!
- Orrin Elmer Dunlap, in Radio's 100 Men of Science : Biographical Narratives of Pathfinders in Electronics and Television (1944), p. 70
- Sir William Crookes was a great experimenter. His material discoveries are of lasting and fundamental value, though his theoretical speculations have not stood the test of time so well. While it is true that all scientific theories serve primarily only for the suggestion of further research, it must be admitted that Crookes's analytical power hardly equalled his gift as an investigator of new facts. His excursions into psychical research have been strongly criticized, and they certainly led him into some very curious situations, but they show that he thought all phenomena worthy of investigation, and refused to be bound by tradition and convention. He was a man of science in the broadest sense, an influential personality, and a doyen of his profession.
- Cyril Norman Hinshelwood, in Dictionary of National Biography (1927)
- Crookes received the high British distinction of the Order of Merit in 1910, and in 1913 he was elected President of the Royal Society. Crookes was esteemed not only in scientific circles but by the general public, and the tag Ubi Crookes, ibi lux reflected popular feeling.
- Eric John Holmyard, in British Scientists (1951), p. 61
- Sir William was a member of the Society for Psychical Research from its founding in 1883 and served as president of the society from 1896 to 1899. During his investigations, Crookes discovered that a very successful spirit medium, Mary Rosina Showers, was a fraud, but said nothing and reported nothing about his discovery.
He and spirit medium Daniel Dunglas Home were on a very close personal basis, and his endorsement of Home's powers has always been a strong point made by the spiritualists to support their claims about Home. However, Crookes has been shown to be a dupe of such other mediums as Florence Cook and others exposed or confessed as fakes, so his validation of Home is highly suspect.
- James Randi, in his profile of Crookes in An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural
- Ubi Crookes Ibi Lux.
- Where Crookes is, there is light.
- Latin caption to a caricature of Crookes by Leslie Ward in Vanity Fair (21 May 1903); the Latin motto is said to have been first applied to him by a German scientist after an address.
- Profile at NNDB
- In Memoriam. The Last Letters of John Philip Edwin Crookes (1868) by William Crookes
- Diamonds : On Treatments, Physical and Chemical Properties of Loose Diamonds (1909)
- "William Crookes : A Victorian Man of Science" (1927) by Cyril Norman Hinshelwood
- Profile at An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural
- Works by William Crookes at Project Gutenberg
- The Cathode Ray Tube site
- Photo of gravesite