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“Hidden Physics, Manifest Psychics: Rethinking the History of Science and the Occult”

aged photograph of a woman and a man

The nineteenth century witnessed a sharp growth in the authority and cultural profile of the sciences and the rise of many forms of occultism including Modern Spiritualism and Modern Theosophy. Historians have often characterized these occultisms as flights from scientific reasoning or reactions to the disenchantments of modernity. However, recent studies suggest a much more complex relationship between the sciences and occultisms and draw attention to the significant overlap between these discourses.   This lecture examines the nature of this overlap as manifested in the careers of Victorian physicists such as William Crookes and Oliver Lodge who achieved international notoriety for their investigations of psychic phenomena. Noakes will consider the ways in which these individuals studied the occult with established resources of physics and, more intriguingly, the extent to which the occult may have enriched developments in this relatively new branch of science. The lecture will conclude with some reflections on the historiographical lessons to be gleaned from these episodes.

Richard Noakes is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Exeter (UK). He has published widely on the history of various aspects of nineteenth century and early twentieth century sciences, including physics, psychical research, telegraphy and the periodical press. He is the co-editor of From Newton to Hawking: A History of Cambridge University's Lucasian Professors of Mathematics (2003) and co-author of Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical (2004). He is currently completing a monograph, Physics and Psychics: The Occult and British Sciences, 1870-1930.