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Can Kirlian photography capture ghostly images?

Dear Cecil:

What is Kirlian photography? How is it that it captures on film an object that is no longer present?

J. Ramirez, Chicago

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Cecil replies:

Let’s not jump to conclusions, friend. The "phantom object" effect isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

First some facts. On second thought, bag the facts. Let’s start with the fiction, which is more interesting. A common feature of your typical New Age mystic’s understanding of the cosmos is that every living thing is surrounded by an aura, a cloud of energy radiated by your inner being, also known as your "life force," "bioplasma," etc.

A psychic supposedly can scope out your aura and diagnose the state of your soul. Unfortunately, not all of us have the gift, and that’s where Kirlian photography comes in handy. The Kirlian effect enables the aura to be photographed. Presumably the photos can then be interpreted by any skilled aura analyst, psychic or not.

The apparatus used to make Kirlian photographs is a little complicated, but typically you start off with a device called a Tesla coil, which emits a high-voltage (15,000 to 60,000 volts) but low-current (and hence harmless) electrical discharge. If you hook your Tesla coil to a big metal sphere set up on a stand, the discharge will be visible as lightninglike blue streamers radiating off into space.

However, if you instead hook the coil up to a piece of photographic paper and place an object in contact therewith (e.g., your finger, a leaf), you’ll notice a faint Saint Elmo’s fire-like effect around the object known as "airglow." Develop the photographic paper and you’ll have a permanent record of the airglow. That’s a Kirlian photograph. Typically the airglow/aura appears as a dark cloud outlining the thing photographed.

At this point you’re probably thinking, what the hey, shoot a jillion volts into anything and it’ll have an aura, whether it’s living or not. Just so–people have made K-photos of the auras of pennies, paper clips, and so on. Nonetheless the belief persists that Kirlian photos depict a purely biological essence.

Scientists, trying to be nice guys about it, note that the size of a human’s aura is dependent on his skin moisture, among other things, so maybe a Kirlian photo does tell you something about a person, much as a lie detector does. But the whole thing seems too dumb to waste much time on.

"Phantom object" claims are more interesting. Some Kirlian researchers assert that if you K-P a broken leaf, the resultant photo will show the missing portion of the leaf, supposedly proving that the aura lingers on even after the reality is gone. But most attempts to duplicate this in the lab have failed. The best guess is that phantom leaves are dust, sap, and whatnot from previously photographed leaves that oozed onto the photographic equipment and got onto subsequent photos. Nothing to lose sleep over.

Cecil Adams

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