The Life of Sir William Crookes

Many had already critiqued his past works in the scholarly journals, mocking his “simplistic” views. But he was not concerned that his work was being critiqued, so much as that the Victorian approach to science was being critiqued. There was already an established background of biased thought, a progressive epidemic of erroneous doctrine. “If a new fact seems to oppose what is called a’law of Nature,’ it does not prove the asserted fact to be false, but only that we have not yet ascertained the laws of Nature. or not learned them correctly. And if you find a fact, then avow it fearlessly, as by the everlasting law of honor you are bound to do so.”

He fully intended on thwarting the proliferation of this doctrine by throwing a few simple facts into the group mind. Any convincing polemic in the Victorian tradition would stand to confront the new and alienating quantitative science. The well-organized machinery might be disrupted by an experiential form of sabotage. He would attack their dead view of the world by giving them such an irrefutable experience of his realm so as to haunt the Hall and its annals for a century if necessary.


When his work with electrostatic discharges in vacuum was first brought forth, it was immediately wrangled into a theory of particles and quanta. For Sir William, his experiments with ultravacuum began as an extension of experiments performed by Baron von Reichenbach. His intention was to test those early experiments by which the Baron discovered a luminous emanation exuded by magnets in vacuum. Sir William’s thought was to extend this principle to an exploration of the electrostatic field in vacuum. Would the electrostatic field reveal a new world of Light when the vacuum was very high? But that noble name of Reichenbach was forgotten by his colleagues, buried along with Mesmer and Galvani. The work of each of these legends, in their study of vital force, had somehow managed to offend the intellectuals. Their scientific approach had no place for vital energies.

“New forces must be found, or mankind must remain sadly ignorant of the mysteries of Nature. We are unacquainted with a sufficient number of forces to do the work of Universe.” The only recognized forces consisted of gravitation, magnetism, electrostatics, and the new nuclear force. Theories which might as much as intimate the existence of soul, spirit, or vital force were very much despised. Sir William had long championed the notion that the qualities of matter were not sourced in their “atomic focal points.”

In these experiments with ultravacuum tubes, Sir William had consistently observed that matter was possessed of a whole and continuous nature, bearing qualities which emerged into our world from a “fourth state.” The process of allowing matter to expand in an ultravacuum seemed to reveal these qualities in the complete absence of inertia. Had he found an experimental means for proving the existence of Platonic Solids? His classic work with vacuum discharges was concerned with the deep mysteries of space, of a peculiar black radiance, of radiant matter, a fourth state, of force, and of light. In their ultimate implications, Sir William intended to instruct on certain aspects of the human aura, the world of ectoplasm… the world of matter in the fourth state, of intimations concerning the luminiferous aether, and of consciousness.

Tonight he hoped to again clarify and disentangle the singular distinctions of his original thesis from all the confusion which had transpired in the intervening decades. Those younger and more discourteous appointees had already been taught to reject Vitalism without so much as a breath. The rejection was becoming automatic, easy. It was unbefitting for scientifics to refuse skeptical examination before repudiation. For them, the gentlemanly figure was merely an silvery antiquated curiosity who was satisfied to delve in dubious and unscientific realms of research. Worse. For some, the legendary name of Sir William Crookes had already been “tainted” because of his willingness to explore psychokinesis and other paranormal forces, as did Baron von Reichenbach before him. Many did not therefore wish to hear Sir William speak at all. ”

But he had longtime experience of the audacious accusations levelled against him for this research on the paranormal. Sir William had already prepared himself against this prejudicial atmosphere, and fully intended on dispelling the many intolerant presumptions in the audience. And yet he managed an unearthly jolliness! He was not vindictive, but was rather soft in approach. He would summon all the magic in his delightful devices, his arsenal of marvels, to reach these darkened minds.

In addressing the Royal Society he hoped to haunt the whole world of Science with a deeper view of natural reality. A vitalistic view. Toward this end, he would use one weapon: sensation. Direct, tactile, and irrefutable. Sensation would work with him, achieving some new reawakening.

“The kindness of your late secretary, Mr. Spottiswoode, placed at my disposal his magnificent induction coil, not only for this lecture, but for some weeks past in my own laboratory; thus enabling me to prepare apparatus and vacuum tubes on a scale so large as to relieve me of all anxiety so far as the experimental illustrations are concerned.” His face shone, a childlike willingness to share what he had learned. This brotherly nature and merry mood was a birthright which he inherited from living in a large extended family. He was fun to watch! As he began, a mercurial levity filled the hall, and the mere mention of each supportive discovery in his theme filled the many diverse listeners with an enthralled sense of mystery. While he spoke, the august assembly was silent.

“Anomalies may be regarded as the fingerposts along the high road of research, pointing to the byways which lead to further discoveries. Now these residual phenomena, these very anomalies, may become the guides to new and important revelations.” He was always sensitive to atmospheres and vibrations. In surveying the Hall, he was now also sure that his audience had lost all awareness of his principle reasons for conducting those first experiments in high vacuum electrical discharges. But he was energized by the prospect and, having brought forth his now classic tubes from their dusty old glass cases, was fully ready to command the scene. Surrounded by his now-famous collection of large vacuum globes and specially designed Ruhmkorff Coils, his eyes twinkled with delight.

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