Nagoya Writes

May 19, 2008

My Father-in-law and Funerals by Ernest Schaal

Filed under: Issue: 2008,Prose,Schaal — usbengoshi @ 12:39 pm

My father-in-law doesn’t go to funerals any more. He used to, but he stopped. He also doesn’t go to graveyards, or crematoriums, or anyplace else where there may be dead people. His reason for this is that the dead give him headaches.

When my wife told me this, she stated it as a fact, not questioning its validity. I don’t know if it is true or not, but I am no longer so eager to dismiss such talk as mere nonsense.

When I was a teenager, I emphatically believed that there were no ghosts. I thought that anyone believing in them belonged back in the Middle Ages, when people burned witches and thought that the Sun revolved around the Earth.

I figured that if ghosts really existed, some physical evidence of their existence would have already been discovered, measured, and verified. The absence of that evidence convinced me that ghosts were merely figments of people’s imagination, encouraged by horror films and stories told around campfires.

In college, I earned two science degrees and discovered that some of the things that I learned in high school were not quite accurate. For instance, some of Newton’s laws are not valid as particles approach the speed of light. Also, atoms don’t merely contain just the three basic elements I learned in high school: protons, electrons, and neutrons. They also contain quarks and other things. These discoveries didn’t shake my belief in science. They simply showed that science isn’t as simple as what they taught in high school physics. It is a lot more complicated, and full of uncertainty.

This uncertainty is shown in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: which states that the uncertainty in the position of a particle, times the uncertainty in its speed, is always greater than a quantity called Planck’s constant, divided by the mass of the particle. In other words, even in the best of all possible circumstances, there is a physical limit to what we can know.

In the following years, as a graduate student, as a research engineer, and then as a patent attorney, I learned more and more about those uncertainties. There is so much that we don’t understand, partly because we cannot perceive it and partly because we cannot measure it.

As a patent attorney, my favorite patent was U.S. Patent No. 5,040,414 that was possible only because of improvements of instrumentation and the ability to see patterns in what otherwise would be consider instrument noise. It was for a method for determining a component of a response of a reservoir to tidal forces. Basically it involved measuring over time a variable (such as pressure) that is responsive to the tidal forces within the reservoir, determining the theoretical earth-tide values for the same time period, and comparing the actual measurements with the predicted values to determine components of that response to tidal forces. Those components can be used to help determine a host of things, like the quantity of oil in a reservoir or whether or not two reservoirs are connected.

What was really cool about this invention is that valuable information is found by looking for patterns in what otherwise would be considered noise in measurements. Of course, it is important to know what to look for.

In 1989, when that patent application was filed, it was a major change in the paradigm of how to explore for oil, but it was something that wasn’t even possible ten years earlier, because earlier there wasn’t a way to make measurements precise enough to see those variations in the response to tidal forces.

Despite what I emphatically believed in high school, I now wonder if we have the instrumentation necessary to measure whether or not ghosts exists. More importantly, I wonder if we even know what to measure. Even if we knew what to measure and had the necessary instrumentation, I wonder if we would be able to recognize the necessary patterns in the noise of instrumentation.

I don’t necessarily believe in ghost, but I don’t disbelieve either. I realize that the absence of scientific proof of their existence is not proof of their nonexistence. I lack the certainty of my beliefs that I had as a youth, not only because I now know the limitations of our scientific understanding, but also because I know of some antidotal evidence from people I trust.

For instance, there is an American professor I know in Nagoya who lived in a house haunted by a beautiful Japanese woman. Visitors to his house had noticed the ghost long before he did, and it had scared off some of his lady friends. He told me that after moving away to a bigger house, he missed her because he felt she was protecting him.

And then, there is an American lawyer I know living in Mexico whose dead mother sometimes visited her.

And then, there is my father-in-law. He started sensing the dead after he had spiritual training to combat arthritis. The training cured the arthritis, but it left him sensitive to the presence of the dead. The dead apparently realized that he could sense their presence, so they started nagging him to do things for them, and their nagging gave him headaches.

Often he didn’t know what they wanted, but in one case he was pretty sure he did. After her death, his sister wanted him to get her children to honor her wishes on the inheritance of her estate, but he didn’t want to get involved in family squabbles, so she nagged.

I don’t think I have personally ever seen or felt a spirit of the dead, but then I don’t know if I would have recognized it if I did. I am not sensitive to that type of thing. On the other hand, my father-in-law is. He knows that there are spirits of the dead, because they nag.

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