Ghost in the Lab

This is the first in a series of four blog posts on science and the “paranormal.” Happy Halloween!

The lab was haunted. Workers in the lab experienced cold shivers, feelings of being watched, and an overall feeling of depression. On one occasion a cleaner saw something upsetting. Discomfort in the lab was growing.

The lab was constructed out of two corrugated iron garages placed back to back. The width and length in feet was 10 by 30 with a door at one end and a window at the other. On the other side of the window was a cleaning bay. Three employees worked in the lab and they designed life support equipment.

Vic Tandy, an engineer in the lab, didn’t believe that the lab was haunted. He attributed the spooky experiences to wild animals or noises made by lab equipment. Hard-nosed engineers know better than to succumb to irrational fears.

You can pretty much guess what happened next. It’s a textbook ghost story: working alone at night; cold sweat; a feeling of depression and a sense that someone else was in the room. Tandy checked out the equipment to ensure that he wasn’t being exposed to some of the gases used in the lab. Nothing was left on. He returned to his work and then it happened. Tandy saw a grey figure slowly appear in his peripheral vision to his left. It was silent and moved like a person. When he turned to look at the figure, it disappeared. “It would not be unreasonable to suggest I was terrified,” said Tandy. He couldn’t explain what he had just seen, so he went home.

The following day Tandy returned to the lab to work on his fencing foil for a competition. He had all the equipment at home to work on his foil, but the vice at the engineer’s bench made his work easier. He put one end of the foil in the vice and then went searching for some oil. Tandy returned to a foil blade noticeably oscillating up and down. The previous night’s specter had returned. Not quite. The ghost had entered into Tandy’s field of expertise and the game was afoot.

Tandy knew that the foil required energy to vibrate and that energy was sound. In a rudimentary experiment to discover the characteristics of the wave, he slid the foil along the floor in a drill vice. He found that the foil’s peak oscillations were in the middle of the lab, at the location of his desk. Tandy did some quick calculations and discovered that a low frequency (19Hz), or infrasound, standing wave was the source of his foil’s movement. He also found that the long tubular shape of the lab contributed to the wave’s characteristics.

Tandy’s next questions were where was the standing wave coming from and what does it do to the human body? The first part was easy. He discovered that a new air extraction fan was slightly misaligned when it was installed in the cleaning bay. The ghost and the standing wave left when the alignment was corrected.

Tandy’s research into the effects of infrasound on the human body was consistent with what was reported in the lab including “smearing” of vision. According to research conducted by Birgitta Berglund and her team, infrasound has been linked to cardiovascular problems, sleep disturbance, annoyance and it can potentially exacerbate preexisting mental health issues. Tandy published his ghostly experience with co-author Tony Lawrence in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Their advice to paranormal researchers “is to be very wary of ghosts reported to haunt long, windy corridors!”

In 2000, Tandy tested his infrasound hypothesis in a reportedly haunted 14th Century cellar beneath the Tourist Information Centre in Coventry. The cellar was constructed of locally derived red sandstone and it would have originally been used to store trade items such as cloth and wool. Staff and visitors had reported feeling a presence, cold chills, and seeing apparitions in the cellar. Tandy placed sensitive sound equipment in the centre of the cellar in hopes that he would find a standing low frequency wave due to the tubular design of the cellar. Surprisingly, he found a 19Hz standing wave – the same frequency that vibrated his foil back in the lab – where witnesses reported their strongest feelings of a presence. Tandy repeated the experiment several times to confirm his findings and the 19Hz standing wave was still present. However, he was unable to determine the source of the wave. Tandy published his findings in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.

Vic Tandy died in 2005, but his work has inspired researchers to apply his findings to a variety of locations around the world. More recently, archaeologists have been investigating the acoustic properties of ancient sacred sites to determine if infrasound was associated with the sites’ selection and mystical properties. Researchers Paolo Debertolis and Niccolò Bisconti investigated the acoustic properties of two ancient sites: the Abbey of San Salvatore in Italy and Visoćica Hill in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both locations were shown to have naturally occurring infrasound or ultrasound signals. “This reaffirms the aura of legends that pervades these places, and modern technology is now able to give greater clarity to the origin of many interesting phenomena,” concluded the authors. Their research was published in the 1st International Virtual Conference on Advanced Scientific Results.

When it comes to hauntings and ghosts, I’m a skeptic. I don’t believe any of it. I believe that the people who have these supernatural experiences have had an experience, but I don’t believe it was supernatural. As infrasound has shown, we are susceptible to forces of nature that are sometimes beyond our control. Does infrasound explain everything? No, but it does show the power of the scientific method in providing a far more reasonable explanation than defaulting to Bronze Age thinking when experiencing what is perceived as an unexplainable event.

Rodney Steadman 14 October 2014

Works Cited

Tandy V, & Lawrence TR (1998). The Ghost in the Machine. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 62 (851).

Berglund B, Hassmén P, & Job R (1996). Sources and effects of low-frequency noise. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 99 (5), 2985-3002. DOI: 10.1121/1.414863

Tandy V (2000). Something in the Cellar. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 64.3 (860).

Debertolis P, & Bisconti N (2013). Archaeoacoustics in ancient sites: A new way to analyzing archaeological locations. 1st International Virtual Conference on Advanced Scientific Results, 306-310.

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