A great concept, the foundation of many religions, and a very consoling notion in the face of loss is that of an eternal soul.
Perhaps this is the reason some people have become dissatisfied with leaving questions of the soul to faith and instead turned to science in an effort to establish the existence of the soul. You’ve probably heard the findings of one of these pretty peculiar investigations if you’ve ever heard that the soul weighs 21 grammes or if you’ve seen the 2003 movie “21 Grams,” which makes reference to this idea.
What weight does the soul actually have? The bad news is that nobody can definitively answer that. Scientists are unable to measure or establish the existence of the soul. But it’s worth hanging around for the odd story of one doctor’s attempt to do just that.
Beginning in the Boston neighbourhood of Dorchester at the turn of the 20th century. Duncan MacDougall, a renowned doctor, had an idea that bugged him: if people had souls, those souls had to occupy space. Additionally, since souls occupy space, they would weight something, right?
The Soul’s Weight
MacDougall reasoned that there was only one way to learn the answer. It seems more logical to me to think that the substance assumed in our hypothesis must be some form of gravitative matter, and therefore capable of being detected at death by weighing a human being in the act of death, he wrote in the scientific paper he also could eventually publish (opens in new tab) about this attempt in 1907.
MacDougall collaborated with Dorchester’s Consumptives’ Home, a non-profit medical center for people with last stage tuberculosis, which was then an incurable disease. A big scale that MacDougall constructed can accommodate a cot and a Tuberculosis sufferer who is near death. For this experiment, MacDougall chose tuberculosis as a suitable disease because patients passed away from it in “great exhaustion” and without any movement that would disturb his scale.
Case 4, involving a woman who was dying of diabetes, was rejected by MacDougall because the scale had not been properly calibrated, in part because of “a decent deal of interference by people who object to our work.” This decision raises some questions, which MacDougall did not show up particularly eager to explain in his write-up. Case 5 lost 0.375 ounce (10.6 grammes), however the scale afterwards developed problems, so those numbers are also in doubt. Because the patient passed away while MacDougall was still adjusting his scale, Case 6 was dismissed.
The studies were then carried out again on 15 dogs, and MacDougall discovered no weight loss, concluding, in his opinion, that not all dogs go into heaven.
In 1907, MacDougall published his findings in the American Medicine and Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research journals. He got an article in The New York Times as well (opens in new tab).
Soul Unexplained issues
Even at the time, MacDougall’s study’s results were inconsistent and its tiny sample size seriously called into question the idea that he examined the soul. To MacDougall’s credit, he acknowledged that additional measurements were required to confirm the soul’s mass. That hasn’t happened due to a combination of ethical concerns and the trials’ peculiar nature. As per Mary Roach’s book “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife,” a rancher in Oregon did make an attempt to repeat the soul-weighing experiment with a dozen sheep in the early 2000s (W. W. Norton & Co., 2005). The majority gained between 1 and 7 ounces (between 30 – 200 grammes), but the weight gains were sheep quickly reverted to their initial weights.
Dr. Gerry Nahum, a chemical engineer and medical professional who was attending the Duke University School of Medicine at the time, was also mentioned by Roach as having developed the theory that the soul, or at the very least, consciousness, must be connected to information, which is equivalent to a certain amount of energy. This energy might, in theory, be measured with precise enough electromagnetic instruments because the equation E = mc ^2 states that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared (thanks, Einstein). Nahum had not received funding as of 2007(opens in new tab) for experiments that would have shown whether he was correct. He is currently work for Bayer Pharmaceuticals.
The truth is that neither the existence of the soul nor its weight have been remotely determined by science. The area of religion will probably be left to resolve this problem.