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The Spirit World

Science writer Philip Ball visits London’s College of Psychic Studies and discovers that science and technology have acted as a catalyst for belief in spirits and ghosts.

Science writer and broadcaster Philip Ball sets out on a quest to explore the peculiar world of the invisible, a mysterious realm where magic and science meet.

In this episode, Philip visits London’s College of Psychic Studies to meet archivist and historian Leslie Price. The college is a unique institution, dedicated to furthering research into the psychic arts for over 130 years. In a seance room, surrounded by spirit photographs, Leslie reveals that 19th century developments in communications technologies such as telegraphy had a profound impact on the popular religion of spiritualism. Spiritualists believed that it was possible to converse with the invisible dead and the discovery that we could communicate over vast distances with unseen figures using the telegraph seemed to offer their beliefs a form of scientific verification.

The invention of radio, which sent invisible messages through the air, appeared to lend some support not just to spiritualism but to a whole range of paranormal and psychic phenomena, such as telepathy and telekinesis.

Later, the discovery of invisible X-rays which could peer into our bodies, revealing images of our skeletons like a presentiment of death, was also fascinating to those who believed in the spirit realm. X-rays and radioactivity shattered the notion that the material world was impenetrable, all of a sudden atoms could be broken apart.

Philip explains that those who believed in invisible spirits were hugely stimulated by this scientific research that suggested there is far more to our world than meets the eye.

Presenter: Philip Ball
Producer: Max O’Brien
A Juniper production for BBC Radio 4

Available now

12 minutes