Semyon Davidovich Kirlian, a Soviet electrician, was repairing some hospital equipment in his workshop near the Black Sea in 1939 when a spark jumped from his hand to a metal probe. Curious, he repeated the procedure, this time with his hand pressed against a photographic plate, a then developed the film. What Kirlian saw amazed him—a ghostly image of his palm and fingers, surrounded by a fain halolike “aura.” Kirlian had only the vaguest understanding of what he w looking at. A trained scientist might have begun a rigorous investigation of this phenomenon, but the electrician had no background as a researcher, and his mind gravitated toward the metaphysical possibilities of his discovery. Soon he declared that he had found a process for imaging the super-natural energy that animates all living things. In effect, he claimed, he had invented a way to take pictures of the soul. In truth, the human body radiates all sorts of energy at low levels. The nervous system generates electromagnetism. Mechanical processes, such as breathing and the beating of one’s heart, emit sonic vibrations. And since every one of our cells is a miniscule energy plant, our bodies also radiate heat. Each of these emanations can be measured (by galvano-meters, sonograms and infrared cameras, respectively) and used to create a spectral-looking image of the body. But none of the resulting visions are even remotely mystical. Kirlian believed his process captured something else, something metaphysical. When he photographed a leaf with electric current passing through it, its “life force” appeared in outline, just as with images of his hand. When he cut away a section of the leaf and photographed it again, part of the leaf was missing (as would be expected), but its aura inexplicably retained the shape and profile of the original. Now this was very interesting indeed—except subsequent researchers have been able to duplicate that result only when using the same photographic plate twice, which leads them to assume that the recurring image is the result of the residue of the first image on the plate, rather than invisible biological energy. After much investigation, several teams of scientists decided that Kirlian had stumbled upon a novel way to create images of electrical discharge, in much the same way that Van de Graaff generators create beautiful patterns of light when
they give off sparks of static electricity. But that was the end of the mystery. They refuted Kirlian’s claims about picturing the life force by demonstrating that almost any object, whether living or inanimate, could be made to glow in Kirlian photos simply by passing an electric current through it. Kirlian’s photographs captured imaginations, if not souls. The powerful idea that each of us projects emanations of various kinds has become a central tenet of a wide variety of New Age beliefs and therapies, many of them of questionable merit, if harmless. To a certain extent, the notion of the aura has replaced the notion of the soul in many New Age views of life; both are stand-ins for the ineffable spirit that resides within us. Whether that spirit is available for Kodak moments remains to be seen. By the late 196os and ‘7os, researchers had concluded that Kirlian’s discovery had no scientific merit. That judgment, however, turned out to be premature. In the 198os, engineers realized that the imaging technique Kirlian had invented could be used to detect internal flaws within the structural components of airplanes and spacecraft, as well as weaknesses within precision-tooled metal parts, like turbine blades—all without cutting them open and thus rendering them useless. Which means that even if Kirlian didn’t find a way to photograph souls, he did help save lives.
HAZED AND CONFUSED Semyon D. Kirlian believed his images showed the soul, but these recent Kirlian photos show that even coins will emanate a shimmering aura if charged with electricity