O'Neill's Electronic Museum

Penn Valley California


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The task I am called upon to perform today is to my thinking by no means a merely formal or easy matter. It fills me with deep concern to give an address, with such authority as a president's chair confers, upon a science which, though still in a purely nascent stage, seems to me at least as important as any other science whatever. Psychical science, as we here try to pursue it, is the embryo of something which in time may dominate the whole world of thought. This possibility-nay, probability-does not make it the easier to me now. Embryonic development is apt to be both rapid and interesting; yet the Prudent man shrinks from dogmatizing on the egg until he has seen the chicken.

Nevertheless, I desire, if I can, to say a helpful word. And I ask myself what kind of helpful word. Is there any connection between my old-standing interest in psychical problems and such original work as I may have been able to do in other branches of science?

I think there is such a connection-that the most helpful quality which has aided me in psychical problems and has made me lucky in physical discoveries (sometimes of rather unexpected kinds) has simply been my knowledge-my vital knowledge, if I may so term it- of my own ignorance.

Most students of nature sooner or later pass through a process of writing off a large percentage of their supposed capital of knowledge as a merely illusory asset. As we trace more accurately certain familiar sequences of phenomena we begin to realize how closely these sequences, or laws, as we call them, are hemmed round by still other laws of which we can form no notion. With myself this writing off of illusory assets has gone rather far and the cobweb of supposed knowledge has been pinched (as some one has phrased) into a particularly small pill.

I am not disposed to bewail the limitations imposed by human ignorance. On the contrary, I feel ignorance is a healthful stimulant; and my enforced conviction that neither I nor anyone can possibly lay down beforehand what does not exist in the universe, or even what is not going on all round us everyday of our lives, leaves me with a cheerful hope that something very new and very arresting may turn up anywhere at any minute.

Well, it was this attitude of a mind "to let" which first brought me across Mr. D. D. Home, and which led to my getting a glimpse of some important laws of matter and energy of which I fear many of my fellow physicists still prefer to be un cognizant.

1Address by the president, William Crookes, to the Society for Psychical Research, January 29, 1897. Reprinted from Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, London, Vol. XII, March, 1897, pp. 338-355.

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