“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see” – Arthur Schopenhauer
If a keen observer of the physical universe like Albert Einstein insisted he saw a ghost, would you believe him? Or would you call him superstitious? Would you dismiss his experience as hallucinatory or as uncorroborated hearsay? Perhaps you would find a way to reconcile the fact that a man could revolutionize our understanding of physics and simultaneously be a little bit crazy. All those big-brained giants of science were a little off center, right? The beauty of doubt is that you can have it both ways. Men and women who pierce through millennia of confusion and push the boundaries of human knowledge are after all human, in their way just like the drunken West Virginian hillbilly who sees a UFO, or the Scottish octogenarian who spots a monster in Loch Ness. Plenty of undeniably smart people have believed in all manner of bizarre things. In every generation there are men of science who see our reality a little bit more clearly than everyone else, and these are the authors of scientific revolutions, the names that every school kid remembers, the intellectual titans that force every curious scientist that follows them to address their unique conception of our existence. The point is, if Einstein told you he saw a ghost you would probably have to believe him because (a) he is not only a natural scientist, but he is THE natural scientist par excellence, (b) he changed our world completely precisely because he applied himself to understanding the nature of reality, and (c) did I mention he happened to be a whole lot smarter than most of us on a number of levels. Breathe easier my skeptical friends. Einstein never claimed to encounter a ghost. Okay, breathe a little less easy now. Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778 A.D.) did.
If biology had an 18th Century version of Einstein, Carl Linnaeus was it. He laid the foundation for modern biological nomenclature, and is considered the father not only of biological taxonomy, but also of the field of ecology, publishing over 180 seminal works and papers on natural science, and was celebrated by the London Linnaean Society with the words, “He found biology a chaos; he left it a cosmos”. Check out the big brain on Carl. Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau sent him the message: “Tell him I know no greater man on earth.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: “With the exception of Shakespeare and Spinoza, I know no one among the no longer living who has influenced me more strongly.” He assembled one of the finest natural history collections known at the time, conducted extensive fieldwork, taught Botany for many years at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, and is considered one of the luminaries of the Enlightenment. Of course, we do like to tell tales about the bizarre things that happen to famous people and reinterpret them in whatever idiom serves our current purpose. Did George Washington have a confab with aliens at Valley Forge? Well, he never directly claimed this himself, but if you happen to be looking for alien influences in the great moments of history, narratives surrounding his supposed encounter are not hard to find and are more often than not attributed to our tendency to mythologize our cultural icons. But what about when famous scientists autobiographically report an encounter with the unknown? In Linnaeus’ own diary he briefly mentions a curious episode involving a ghost and a premonition of death.
On the night of July 12-13, 1765, toward midnight, my wife for a long time heard someone walking, with a heavy step, in my museum. She woke up. I also heard it, although I was quite certain that no one could be there, for the doors were fastened and the key in my pocket. Some days after, I learned that my very faithful friend, the commissary Karl Clerk, died precisely at that hour. It was certainly his step. I used to recognize Clerk, in Stockholm, merely by the sound of his footstep (Prince, 1928, p33).
Sometimes, even those of us who appreciate a good ghost story or monstrous encounter, are quick to write off otherworldly and inexplicable experiences as the fevered dreams of the trailer park, or the imagination of a child, or failing that, a deliberate hoax, or the ignorance of the poor, the undereducated, or otherwise disenfranchised. We obviously have a hierarchy of who we are willing to believe, a preconceived catalog of motivations that we can ascribe to certain cultures, particular social classes, not to mention distinct rankings of credibility that determine our conception of “good” evidence or “reliable” witnesses. I’m not suggesting you should believe everything you hear, just that next time a drink-addled redneck want to tell you about his alien abduction, maybe you should give him a listen. After all, Swedish botanical wunderkinds and heroes of the Enlightenment see weird stuff too.
Prince, Walter Franklin, 1863-1934. Noted Witnesses for Psychic Occurrences: Incidents And Biographical Data, With Occasional Comments. Boston, Mass.: Boston Society for Psychic Research, 1928.