R. A. Watters

From RationalWiki
Jump to: navigation, search
It's fun to pretend
Icon ghost.svg
Fails from the crypt

R. A. Watters was a physicist and director of the William Bernard Johnston Foundation for Biophysical Research in Reno, Nevada who is most well known for his experiments in the 1930s which claimed to have proven the existence of the soul for animals and insects.


Watters was a physicist and X-ray technician who developed an atomic hypothesis of the soul. He proposed that souls (human or animal) existed in a limbonic state within the "intra-atomic" space between the atoms of cells. For his experiments to test his hypothesis of the soul, he used a Wilson cloud chamber (a particle detector used normally by physicists for detecting ionizing radiation). Watters believed the chamber system would show the observation of a soul departing a living organism at the moment of its death.

His experiments consisted of an airtight glass container surrounding a test chamber, inside of which he placed animals which could be guillotined or gassed. He killed the animals and immediately took a picture of the hermetically sealed enclosure. He claimed that on the photographs, there appeared a nebulous cloud around the animals in the container. Watters asserted that the image did not appear until the animal died. He wrote that he had successfully photographed "souls" of insects and mice etc. at the moment of death, however tests by other scientists to verify his research were unproductive.

Watter carried out hundreds of experiments and sometimes used different methods, so some reports of his experiments differ in detail.

According to a description of his experiment:

A large grasshopper was placed in the chamber and dispatched with ether. At the precise moment of death, expansion of the water vapor occurred which in turn triggered a camera and a photograph was taken of the condensation figure. In all, around 40 experiments were carried out using frogs and white mice. According to Watters, in all the tests where the creature permanently died, even after eight hours of observation, a "shadow phenomenon" appeared in the chamber coinciding with the shape of the creature. However, if the animal revived, no condensation figure would appear on the photograph.[1]

Watters wrote regarding his experiments with the Wilson cloud chamber, "New experimental evidence that identifies a form of energy which is lost to the physical body at the moment of actual death; not only a form of energy which we have been able to predict because of physical evidences, but an 'immaterial body' which at the moment of death, makes its escape from the physical body, and is made visible by the medium of water vapour."[2]


Those interested in evidence for life after death supported the work of Watters and have written it as evidence to support the vitalistic school of thought against the materialist one by proving that something leaves the physical body at death.[3]

The skeptic Milbourne Christopher has discussed the history of the experiments in detail and has written that the cloud-like formations observed have naturalistic explanations.[4] Richard Wiseman in his book Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there (2011) has written that the results of Watters were based on a combination of dust and wishful-thinking:

[Watters] administered lethal doses of anaesthetic to various small creatures (including grasshoppers, frogs and mice), then quickly placed them into a modified cloud chamber. The resulting photographs of the dying animals did show cloud-like forms hovering above the victims’ bodies. Even more impressive to Watters was the fact that the forms frequently seemed to resemble the animals themselves. Not only had he proved the existence of a spirit form, but he had also shown that frogs' souls, remarkably, are frog-shaped. His surviving photographs, now stored in the archives of the Society for Psychical Research in Cambridge, are less than convincing. Although the images do show large blobs of white mist, the shapes of the blobs would only resemble animals to those with the most vivid of imaginations. Once again, it is a case of the human mind seeing what it wants to see.[5]

Wiseman also wrote:

The ambiguous nature of the blobs proved the least of Watters’ problems. Several critics complained that it was impossible to properly assess his spectacular claims because he had not described his apparatus in sufficient detail. Others argued that the images could have been due to him failing to remove dust particles from the chamber. The final nail in Watters’ coffin came when a physics school teacher named Mr B. J. Hopper killed several animals in his own specially constructed cloudchamber and failed to observe any spiritual doubles.

Despite the criticism of Wiseman and others, some new agers and parapsychologists still continue to claim the experiments have proven the existence of the soul.[6]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]