This is a story Ferran Macia told in Spanish at an event we ran with The Cervantes Institute last spring. If you like, you can listen to that version here, in addition to reading the English version. [soundcloud url="http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/68569258" params="auto_play=false&show_artwork=true&color=ff000b" width="100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]
When I was a kid I never believed in ghosts; I believed in nothing unless I saw it. The dark at night scared me before going to bed and I had to convince myself the room was reasonably safe. I checked closets, I checked drawers, I checked under my bed, and if I found nothing (I never did) then I could safely go to bed.
When I grew up I became a scientist. Someone told me once (and I loved the idea) I might have had other reasons to become a scientist besides my skepticism–passion for discovering and pleasure of understanding. Learning at school fascinated me as much as understanding things anywhere else. My passion for solving little puzzles encouraged my scientific career–and my disbelief.
Some time ago I started a job in the physics department at a university. Cloe was the person I had mostly been in contact with; she was the department administrator. If you grabbed all clichés your mind stores for a middle-aged university-department administrator you would picture Cloe precisely.
She talked slowly and worked quickly, she was efficient and well organized, and sometimes needed extra motivation to attend some matters. Cloe jumped into any foreigner who might look French enough to chat about the Impressionists or the wine in Bourgogne (whatever she’d learnt in her last French-for-beginners class).
Instead of an administrator feeling surrounded by mad scientists, a bunch of scientists felt they were being administrated by a mad woman.
She had something else though, something special: Cloe believed in ghosts and performed paranormal investigations at work. Imagine the situation: Instead of an administrator feeling surrounded by mad scientists, a bunch of scientists felt they were being administrated by a mad woman. Cloe helped me with everything I needed to settle into my new position and I was very grateful to her. At that moment I felt Cloe and I had something in common, though I was clueless as to what it may be.
I realized later that it may have been that we were both curious people. One day she showed up at the weekly department colloquium. There, world-renowned scientists came and talked about how good their work was and how important it would become for the rest of the humanity. Colloquia talks were quite technical and required advanced understanding of the topic and that day was not an exception. The topic was how light influences new architecture. The speaker talked about photons, diffractions, and interferences at the same time he presented a new project for a gigantic crystal structure to be placed in the hall of a tall building. The structure presumably captured light from top floors and brought it all the way down to the entrance. At the end of the presentation, questions were posed and a brief formal discussion began. That day Cloe raised a hand before anyone else did. The audience seemed uncomfortable and slightly insulted by the idea of Cloe asking a question–the old professors murmured to each other and exchanged awkward looks. She was handed the microphone; the room silenced and waited for her to ask what they knew would be the most stupid question. She said, “How will you clean such an enormous crystal structure? Dust changes light properties, doesn’t it?”
The speaker addressed the question carefully and agreed that dust would affect light properties of the crystal structure; he meandered before admitting they haven’t accounted for that–yet.
Cloe not only loved ghosts but also studied them. She was trying to detect paranormal signals. Cloe could usually be found in her office staring at a computer screen full of waving signals and listening carefully to who knows what. Such activity was common in most of other offices of the physics department, but Cloe, the department administrator, was the only person not supposed to be doing that.
I remember a colleague telling me Cloe must be nuts because she tried to investigate something that probably does not even exist and, what is worse, no one believes in it. Huh! These were the same words Luis (a lawyer friend of mine) had chosen to qualify my new project.
Cloe often told me she was doing interesting science. She always insisted that her research was as interesting as mine.
Cloe often told me she was doing interesting science. She always insisted that her research was as interesting as mine, and I always replied that my research was as uninteresting as hers. I lied, but that was just my way out of the conversation.
Once I was at Cloe’s office dealing with some paperwork and Cloe started again with the paranormal investigations business. “Did you know my science is as important as the rest of the science? Some people just don’t want to know more,” she said.
That time (I still wonder why) I changed my stance and replied with a friendly statement. “I’m sure your science is as important as mine, at least for the rest of the world.”
She detected my willingness for the conversation (and not the cynicism) and invited me to see some of her work: ghost records. I was unable to decline. She played three or four videos from her Facebook. The first one had a pond with a few shore plants moving and a sighing wind in the background; weak voices seemed to whisper something like, “We are heeeere. . . .” I hardly understood anything, although Cloe insisted it was clear.
“I have to deal with tons of data,” she said “And this is also science.”
Then I thought Cloe was right–well, she was partially right. Cloe could do science and research on the origin of those signals. She would have to construct a hypothesis first and try to test it by analyzing the “tons of” data and, most important of all, she would have to draw a conclusion at the end. That was indeed what she could do if she wanted to do science. I told her something totally different. I told her that understanding a message in the noise was one of the most common problems scientist cope with.
“I see, I see, that’s exactly what I need to do.” She nodded. “Do you think we can do that with my signals?” she asked.
“Yes, we can,” I replied without hesitation. I always get excited when opportunities to teach science are given to me.
Then we played a bit with a software application for audio signals until we managed to filter the unwanted noise of the sighing wind from the pond-with-shore-plants video; we clearly heard the words “We are here.”
Cloe had whetted her scientific appetite and she wanted more.
Cloe’s eyes were shining at that point. I did not know whether it was the result of our sound processing (although she presumably knew the words from the tape) or just the fact that she had finally worked “scientifically” with ghost signals. Cloe had whetted her scientific appetite and she wanted more. She asked me whether it would be possible to do the analysis with any sort of signal. I replied that we could indeed learn a lot more with signals and I explained that if there were hidden messages in the videos records we should be able to isolate them and hear them. We analyzed two more videos records; the messages we found were less mysterious. At that moment Cloe was willing to analyze as many ghost records as necessary to prove the existence (and the importance) of the messages she collected.
Then I told her we needed to go one step further to do science. I told her that what we did was a technical study of a sound track and that a scientific study might require something else. We needed to first define what we want to explain (from ghost appearances), then construct a hypothesis (ghosts sending messages to us) and finally dismiss other plausible explanations (such as the possibility that camera was tuning in to a radio station and picking up some words while recording).
I still wonder what suddenly crossed Cloe’s mind. She seemed disturbed or possessed (maybe by a ghost) and she told me: “You know what? Ghosts don’t like people listening to them; ghosts whispering only to me might be a sign that they wish to remain silent to other people.”
I realized that Cloe was not possessed by any ghost; Cloe did not want to use science or scientific language to understand voices’ origin in the video records. Cloe wanted to guess without probing; she wanted to essay without examination. Cloe wanted to play with her imagination, but Cloe did not want to do science. I think we both realized of it at the same time.
Some days later I went for a run at the Hudson River Park with my friend Luis. I loved doing exercise and I loved doing it outdoors; energy would flow through my body and help me to feel strong (both physically and mentally). I never timed or tracked my runs; I just ran and enjoyed it. Luis had started to run a few months before and he came fully equipped–heart rate monitor, stopwatch, GPS, headphones and energy gels. Luis barely glanced at me or at anything else but his phone during the workout. I just followed him. He had an application that indicated when to run fast, when to run slow, when to eat and when to stop—everything to maximize the training. He claimed he was following a training schedule a physician friend of his had made based on some recent scientific studies. It fascinated me; I always thought that pacing, stopping, eating or sometimes going slowly were elements to consider in a good and healthy run. I examined his schedule: times, paces, pauses, foods, everything Luis had to do along the week. I was quite surprised when I spotted the training schedule accounted for Luis sexual life as well. Luis perceived my enthusiasm and offered to ask his physician friend for a personalized training schedule for me. I thought of Cloe and felt disturbed, and I declined the offer. I told Luis I had my own ways to know when to run fast and slow, or when to stop and when to eat. Luis replied: “Your plan is not quite scientific, is it?”
It was not indeed.
Ferran Macià is a physicist and engineer originally from Barcelona.
Art by Zachary Garrett.