I've always cast a jaundiced eye on the shenanigans of scientific fringe groups. But my eye is a little less yellow when I look at Wilhelm Reich. Reich claimed to have discovered a life energy he called "orgone" back in the 1930s. He made a device that supposedly accumulated the energy, the "orgone accumulator" (ORAC), and another that allegedly could manipulate it in the atmosphere called a "cloudbuster."
Some MDs who still subscribe to Reich's theories publish the Journal of Orgonomy. I remember one article claiming tomato plants grown inside an ORAC produce more and larger tomatoes. There's a meteorologist named James DeMeo who does research on the cloudbuster. Plus (and this is the ultimate evidence) Kate Bush sang a song about the cloudbuster on her Hounds of Love album. Seeing as you're the last word on subjects like this, what's the last word on orgone? Yes, no, or maybe?
Steven Stocker, Baltimore
No. Reich was a nut — an unjustly persecuted nut, it should be said, but still a nut. He claimed that (1) he had done battle with alien spaceships, (2) he could produce clouds and create rain with his cloudbuster, and (3) his orgone boxes could cure (or at least ameliorate) everything from cancer to the common cold. He believed living cells arose spontaneously from inorganic matter; that cancer cells are actually protozoa-like critters that have tails and can swim like fish; and that orgone energy is what makes the sky blue and causes heat shimmer.
Even his terminology was like something out of a bad science fiction movie. UFOs he called EAs, for Energy Alpha. The alien spaceships gave off DOR, for Deadly Orgone. The aliens themselves he called CORE men, for Cosmic Orgone Engineering.
Still, you have to give Reich some credit. He was an intelligent, charismatic man who had his share of admirers. He was a cherished associate of Freud in his early years and made some useful contributions to psychoanalytic theory.
But he seems to have had only the most tenuous grasp of reality. His ideas became more amd more eccentric over time and he was eventually expelled from the International Psychoanalytic Association. He wound up in the U.S. and from then on devoted all his time to the mad pursuit of the orgone.
Reich convinced a great many people, including a few scientists like the aforementioned DeMeo, who claims he ended a drought with a cloudbuster. To this day there are are several orgonomic societies. But the mainstream view has always been that Reich was a quack and that his ideas have no scientific basis.
Loony though Reich was, he did not deserve the shameful treatment he received at the hands of the government. From the early 1950s onward he was hounded by federal agents. His laboratory in Maine was raided, his equipment destroyed, and his books confiscated and burned. Reich did make exaggerated claims for the medicinal powers of his orgone boxes but he was hardly a major threat to the republic and there was no excuse for the ferocity of the campaign that was raised against him.
In 1956 Reich was convicted of shipping orgone boxes across state lines in defiance of a court order obtained by the Food and Drug Administration. He was sent to prison where he died of a heart attack in 1957. But his ideas, both good and bad, live on.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.