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Of Ghosts & Scientists


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.

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.

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