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Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - Weight Problems: an enquiry into scales and justice

20th June 2016, 16:30 to 18:30, Dining Hall, St Cuthbert's Society, Professor Massimo Leone, University of Turin

Abstract

In 1901, Dr. Duncan “Om” MacDougall (c. 1866 – October 15, 1920), a physician from Haverhill, Massachusetts, devised an experiment to ‘determine’ the weight of the soul. He weighed six terminally ill patients just before death, and then he measured again immediately after they had deceased. He found that each of the patients had lost exactly 21 grams after passing away. He repeated the experiment with fifteen dogs, finding out that they would lose no weight through death. He therefore deduced that the human soul must weigh 21 grams.

Scientists had no hard time in debunking Dr. MacDougall’s experiments, although his measurements of the “weight of the soul” stayed in popular culture (in 2003, Alejandro González Iñárritu directed a popular movie entitled 21 Grams; Dan Brown mentions MacDougall’s experiments in The Lost Symbol, etc.).

Yet, the idea that the soul weighs and that its weight must be measured through appropriate scales is not new, but dates back at least to ancient Egypt. The lecture will retrace the cultural and visual history of these metaphysical measurements, seeking to show their ideological implications across cultures and epochs.

Details about Professor Massimo Leone

Directions to Dining Hall, St Cuthbert's Society

Map - St Cuthbert's Society is denoted as building No. 16

Contact enquiries.ias@durham.ac.uk for more information about this event.