On the Offbeat

A legendary American miracle worker claimed to read books without opening them -- a trick researchers have just pulled off in the lab. Scott McLemee looks from inside a lattice of coincidences.

September 14, 2016
Edgar Cayce

Around this time 20 years ago, I met an elderly gentleman who’d had what sounded like an exceptionally interesting and unusual dissertation-writing experience. A couple of recent coincidences bring the encounter to mind and so inspired this little causerie.

His name was Harmon Bro, and he was in his late 70s when we met. He’d spent the better part of 50 years as an ordained minister and Jungian psychotherapist. If anyone ever looked the part of a Jungian archetype, it was Harmon, who personified the Wise Old Man. In 1955, the University of Chicago Divinity School awarded him a Ph.D. after accepting a doctoral thesis called “The Charisma of the Seer: A Study in the Phenomenology of Religious Leadership.”

It was based in part on work Harmon did in his early 20s as an assistant to Edgar Cayce, “the sleeping prophet.” Despite minimal education, Cayce, it is said, could give long, extemporaneous discourses in response to questions posed to him while he was in a trance state. Among these “readings” were medically sophisticated diagnoses of people miles or continents away, as well as detailed accounts of ancient history and predictions of the future.

Cayce died in 1945, but he left a vast mass of transcripts of his “readings.” By the 1960s, publishers were mining them to produce a seemingly endless series of paperback books extolling Cayce’s powers. Insofar as the New Age can be said to have founding figures, he was one of them.

Harmon was clearly a believer in Cayce’s miraculous powers. I was not (and am not) but have always enjoyed the legends by and about him. As a schoolboy, for example, he would put a textbook under his pillow and absorb its contents while asleep. He graduated (so to speak) to the Akashic Records -- an ethereal library documenting life on Atlantis and in ancient Egypt, and much else besides. He could also see into the future, but the track record is not impressive: China did not convert to Christianity in 1968, nor did Armageddon arrive in 1999. Cayce also predicted that an earthquake in the 1960s would cause California to sink into the Pacific Ocean. It remains attached to the continental United States as of this writing.

Harmon didn’t take skepticism as a threat or an insult, and anyway I preferred listening to arguing. He stressed how very improbable Cayce had been as a subject for serious scholarly attention in the 1950s -- at the University of Chicago, no less. It took three or four tries to get his topic approved; by the time the dissertation was finished and accepted, it felt like every faculty member concerned with the history and psychology of religion had weighed in on it. He happily lent me a copy (when anyone expresses interest in a decades-old dissertation, its author will usually have one of two responses: pleasure or horror), and from reading it, I could see that the scrutiny had been all for the best. It obliged him to practice a kind of methodological agnosticism about Cayce’s powers, and he demonstrated a solid grounding in the social-scientific literature on religion -- in particular, Max Weber’s work on prophetic charisma.

But by 1996, Harmon Bro was not at all happy with the institutions routinizing that charisma. The man he’d known and studied had an ethical message -- “love thy neighbor as thyself,” more or less. The New Age ethos amounted to “love thyself and improve thy karma.” You didn’t have to share his worldview to see his point.

The timing was fortunate: we grew acquainted during what proved to be the final year of Harmon Bro’s life. His obituary in the Chicago Tribune in 1997 made no reference to Cayce, but looking it up just now leaves me with a definite feeling of synchronicity: Harmon died on Sept. 13, which is also the date I’m finishing this piece. A message from Harmon, via the cosmic unconscious?

Probably not, although it was another and even more far-flung coincidence that reminded me of him in the first place. On Friday, the journal Nature Communication published a paper called “Terahertz time-gated spectral imaging for content extraction through layered structures,” which the science-news website EurekAlert kindly translates into laymanese as “Researchers prototype system for reading closed books.” Not by putting them under a pillow and sleeping on them, alas, but it’s impressive even so.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Georgia Tech Institute of Technology collaborated in developing a system that uses bursts of terahertz radiation (“the band of electromagnetic radiation between microwaves and infrared light,” says EurekAlert) to create images of the surfaces of individual pieces of paper in a stack. Ink in a printed letter absorbs the radiation differently from the blank page around it; the contrast between the signals reflecting back are fed into an algorithm that identifies the letter on the page. The prototype can “read” the surfaces of up to nine pages in a pile; with more work, reading at greater depths seems possible. The story quotes one of the researchers as saying, “The Metropolitan Museum in New York showed a lot of interest in this, because they want to, for example, look into some antique books that they don’t even want to touch.” The signal-sorting algorithm may yet enable spambots to defeat captchas. (Which arguably represents grounds for halting research right away, though that is unlikely.)

The train of association between breaking technological news from last week and the memory of one of the more generous and unusual people to cross my path is admittedly twisty and random. On the other hand, reading by terahertz radiation seems like another example of Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”


Back to Top