Thursday, October 20, 2016

Paranormal, Not Supernatural

I post from time to time that while I believe in the paranormal, I don't believe in the supernatural. Some of that is axiomatic on my part - generally speaking, I believe that everything that exists is part of nature, and therefore natural. So you won't find me bad-mouthing science on this blog, because I think science is the best tool we have at our disposal for understanding the natural world. I just think there are phenomena out there that pose particular difficulties to the formal scientific method, or that mainstream science just hasn't caught up with yet.

Recently, I came across this story from the American Civil War. After the Battle of Shiloh, a particularly bloody battle that was fought in 1862, medics on both sides were completely overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Some of the wounded were left on the muddy battlefield for as many as two days. But then, a miracle seemed to occur.

All told, the fighting at the Battle of Shiloh left more than 16,000 soldiers wounded and more 3,000 dead, and neither federal or Confederate medics were prepared for the carnage.

The bullet and bayonet wounds were bad enough on their own, but soldiers of the era were also prone to infections. Wounds contaminated by shrapnel or dirt became warm, moist refuges for bacteria, which could feast on a buffet of damaged tissue. After months marching and eating field rations on the battlefront, many soldiers’ immune systems were weakened and couldn’t fight off infection on their own. Even the army doctors couldn’t do much; microorganisms weren’t well understood and the germ theory of disease and antibiotics were still a few years away. Many soldiers died from infections that modern medicine would be able to nip in the bud.

Some of the Shiloh soldiers sat in the mud for two rainy days and nights waiting for the medics to get around to them. As dusk fell the first night, some of them noticed something very strange: their wounds were glowing, casting a faint light into the darkness of the battlefield. Even stranger, when the troops were eventually moved to field hospitals, those whose wounds glowed had a better survival rate and had their wounds heal more quickly and cleanly than their unilluminated brothers-in-arms. The seemingly protective effect of the mysterious light earned it the nickname “Angel’s Glow.”

If this happened in a movie or on a television program, it would fit right in with a common paranormal trope - the wounds begin to glow, and then are healed rapidly, as if by magick.

For a long time the stories of "Angel's Glow" were dismissed as folklore - until, as the article explains, two enterprising high school science students set up an experiment and figured it out. The culprit turned out to be a bioluminescent bacterium called Photorhabdus luminescens, combined with the unique circumstances of the battle.

P. luminescens does not thrive at human body temperature. However, the conditions at Shiloh were wet and cold and brought on hypothermia. This lowered the body temperatures of some of the soldiers to the point that the glowing bacterium found their wounds hospitable. This particular bacterium also secretes natural antibiotic compounds that kill other nearby bacteria, so the effect would have been similar to administering early antibiotics like penicillin. Finally, once the soldiers were treated and their body temperature returned to normal, the remaining P. luminescens was killed, producing an infection-free wound.

The effect was never reported again, as it was "paranormal" in the sense of being caused by a very unusual combination of factors that to our knowledge, has never been repeated again. This is the sort of thing that I think we generally are dealing with whenever we confront "the paranormal." Magick involves consciousness, which is a factor that we still don't entirely understand or even are able to measure, but as I've laid out in my ongoing series on magical models, I don't believe that will be the case forever. That's why until then, I recommend that we take as scientific an approach as we can to magical phenomena.

It may be that a simple physical mechanism is just on the horizon, and the better we keep track of our data today, the easier that mechanism will be to recognize when it finally presents itself.

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