Farewell to a giant of psychical research

Archie Roy at Glasgow UniversityGLASGOW. Earlier today I joined a gathering in Glasgow University Chapel that included the Astronomer Royal of Scotland, Professor John Brown, and cosmologist Bernard J. Carr, professor of mathematics and astronomy at Queen Mary, University of London.

But the intricate workings of the Universe were not the reason I and over 100 people had gathered in the chapel. We were there to pay tribute and express appreciation for the life of Archie Roy, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy at Glasgow University and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, who died, aged 88, on 27 December, 2012. He was a man who dared to allow his considerable intellect to explore not only outer space but also inner space, or consciousness, and the possibility of life after death (This picture of Archie shows the Chapel in the background.)

After a difficult childhood, including spending two of his teenage years hospitalised with tuberculosis, Archie developed a passion for space travel and exploration. In a tribute to his father, one of his three sons, Ian, revealed to the congregation that he had found declarations in Archie’s early diary entries that “astronautics is my life” and it was “the goal I have set myself”. So it was fitting that in 1986 he even had an asteroid – 5806 Archieroy – named after him.

As Scotland’s Astronomer Royal explained, Archie was a profound thinker who was “pushing at the boundaries of ideas” throughout his life.

This was particularly true of his keen interest in psychical research. He once explained in an interview how he had stumbled on psychical research accidentally.

“I lost my way in the old university library and found shelves of books on Spiritualism and psychical research. My first ignorant reaction was ‘What is this rubbish doing in a university library?’

“But curiosity made me open some of the books. I was surprised to recognise some of the authors of this ‘rubbish’, such as Sir Oliver Lodge, Professor William James, Professor Sir William Crookes, and so on. My balloon of ignorance was punctured by the needle of my scientific curiosity and I found myself called up to a new career.”

He became an indefatigable investigator of the paranormal; sitting with mediums, encountering poltergeists and analysing reports of hauntings. The Scottish media often referred to him as a “ghost-buster”, which greatly amused him and his family.

Typically, Archie never hid his interest in psychical research – quite the opposite. He happily discussed his research during regular contributions to BBC Scotland’s radio and TV programmes.  The founder president of the Scottish Society for Psychical Research, which came into being in 1987, Archie continued as honorary president until his passing. He was also president of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) – from 1993 to 1995 – a position, incidentally, also held by cosmologist Bernard Carr who, as already mentioned, was among those at the memorial service.

The SPR was formed 105 years earlier than Archie’s Scottish society by, among others, one of his heroes – Frederic H. Myers, author of the two-volume Human Personality and its Survival of Death (1903). Whilst many of his colleagues may not have shared Archie’s interest in or enthusiasm for the paranormal, his impressive academic credentials left them in no doubt that he would treat the subject with the same scientific rigour as archeo-astronomy, rocket propulsion and celestial mechanics.

For those who chose not to accept the evidence that has accumulated over more than a century, Archie Roy – writing in Archives of the Mind – was adamant: dismissing this “Cinderella science” in general terms was not acceptable. Sceptics or critics, he said, could only do so by “pointing out in detail enough flaws in the evidence to vitiate the case or by demonstrating unjustified deductions made by the investigator”.

For Colin Wilson, who wrote the Preface to Archie’s book, it was “one of the most powerful and convincing books on the paranormal that has been written since Myers”. So it must have been a particular highlight when, in 2004, Archie was awarded the SPR’s Myers Memorial Medal, in recognition of his outstanding contributions to psychical research.

Thousands of students benefitted from his teaching skills for the best part of 60 years, and for half that period he also taught psychical research as an extra-mural subject, assisted for much of that time by fellow psychical researcher Patricia Robertson.

Together, they also embarked with others on an impressive study of mediumship. Named PRISM (Psychical Research Involving Selected Mediums) it involved collaboration between Spiritualists and scientists, the results of which were published over three issues of the SPR’s Journal.

These triple blind – and sometimes quadruple blind – experiments brought impressive results. Designed to ensure that the medium was receiving neither visual nor auditory clues from sitters, and checked against control samples, their statistical analyses put the odds against chance at a million to one.

I’m not sure what the odds were when Archie went into a William Hill betting shop in 1964 and placed a £20 bet on man landing on the moon by 1977 but it paid off handsomely. He collected £1,200 in winnings when the first Apollo astronauts set foot on the lunar surface in 1969.

Speaking to the BBC, soon after his Archie’s passing, his son David said his father was “fascinated by life in general” and his interest in subjects as diverse as astronomy and the paranormal was a source of amusement to the family, adding:

“But he was equally as proud of both his achievements within academia and astronomy as well as his innovative work looking for scientific evidence of the paranormal.

“I remember as a small child him talking about the greatest area of discovery was still the human brain. He was just fascinated by knowledge and by extending knowledge and hopefully education, which ultimately, I think, was his real passion.”

Proof of this is to be found in the 20 books he authored, ranging from academic textbooks to thrillers. His six works of fiction, usually with paranormal themes, included Deadlight (1968), The Dark Host (1976) and Devil in the Darkness (1978).

Archie’s non-fiction, on the other hand, ranged from The Dynamics of Small Bodies in the Solar System: a Major Key to Solar Systems Studies (edited with Bonnie A. Stevens, 1998) and the Oxford Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Universe (ed., 1992), to three books on the paranormal that should be required reading for anyone intending to become (or claiming to be) a psychical researcher. They are: A Sense of Something Strange, Investigation Into The Paranormal (1992), Archives of the Mind (1996) and The Eager Dead (2008), which explores the evidence of the famous mediumistic cross-correspondence messages.

I had many enjoyable encounters with Archie in his home city, Glasgow, over the years as well as participating in an SPR Study Day in London at which we were both contributors. He was great company, a gifted storyteller, and his encyclopedic knowledge of psychical research and mediumship was astonishing.

This giant of inner and outer space will be sadly missed, but his research, theories and writings will continue to influence people well into the future. And, as Archie himself clearly believed, an aspect of that brilliant intellect will undoubtedly have survived his death in some form – not just as an asteroid but as a conscious entity eager to expand his knowledge of the universe even further. Always the humorist, he liked to joke: “If I don’t survive death, I’ll be very surprised”

Archibald Edminston Roy passed away on 27th December and is survived by his wife Frances and three sons, David, Archie and Ian.

One comment

  • James Ward
    July 20, 2013 - 18:17 | Permalink

    What a beautiful tribute – I am happy that this is the first piece I have read here. Thank you for providing the titles of some of Professor Roy’s books, which I shall follow up with interest, and thank you especially for sharing such friendship and kind thoughts for a sincere explorer of the universe.

    James Ward
    Santa Ana, California

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