[CICAP-HOTLINE] Garlaschelli sul Washington Post

05/nov/2005 16:02:39 Ufficio Stampa CICAP Contatta l'autore

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Esce oggi sul ''Washington Post'' un lungo articolo dedicato a Luigi
Garlaschelli e alle sue indagini nel campo del ''paranormale
religioso'' e del paranormale. Poiche' il sito del quotidiano
americano sembra avere problemi tecnici, ricopiamo di seguito
l'articolo per tutti gli interessati.

The Washington Post,

November 5, 2005

Exploring the Science of Miracles

By Daniel Williams

PAVIA, Italy

Such is the supply of miracles in Italy that if a month goes by
without one, it's, well, a miracle.

Weeping Madonnas, sacred blood that goes from solid to liquid and
back again, lottery numbers divined by gazing on a photo of a
deceased pope, sudden cures after contact with a holy relic: Miracles
are old, old phenomena in Italy, the land where Saint Francis tamed a
wolf and wild doves and a veil taken from Saint Agatha's tomb stopped
lava in its tracks.

But this is also the land of science par excellence, the home
ground of Galileo, da Vinci, Fermi and Marconi. So there are also
voices that say, "Hold on a minute."

Luigi Garlaschelli is a chemist who from his perch at Pavia
University skeptically eyes Italy's parade of miracles. He belongs to
a group called the Italian Committee to Investigate Claims of the
Paranormal, made up of Italian scientists, including two Nobel Prize
winners, who use science to try to explain the inexplicable.

"Miracles are just paranormal events in religious clothing," he
says. "I'm a chemist. I look for the substance behind things." He's
not trying to undermine people's religious beliefs, he says,
explaining: "We're just trying to study phenomena. If there's a non-
miraculous answer, we say so."

These days, he contends, it is more and more important to champion
scientific methods in the face of assaults from religious authorities
and fundamentalist believers. The attack on Charles Darwin's theory
of evolution in the United States by promoters of a rival explanation
known as intelligent design is a symptom of the danger, he said.
"Science should not be lethargic."

In his work he does not often tangle with the Vatican. Officials
there generally take a benign, arms-length stance toward the many
events traditionally celebrated as miracles in its churches, neither
questioning nor embracing them. "Some of these things are medieval in
origin. I stay away from them," said the Rev. Peter Gumpel, an
official at the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of the Saints,
which investigates reports of miracles by candidates for sainthood.

"Our belief, however, is that there is a personal God who
intervenes in history," he said.

Garlaschelli is a bearded man in a white lab coat who smokes a
pipe. He studies not only religious phenomena, but also plain
trickery. He has written a book about sorcerers and levitation and
one about an ancient Italian sword stuck in a stone that may be the
precursor of the King Arthur legend.

It's a far cry from his usual research, which produces academic
papers with titles such as "Recent Progress in the Field of N-
acylalanines as Systemic Fungicides." Garlaschelli recently completed
a periodic imitation of the miracle of San Gennaro, an event that has
been celebrated in Naples since the 14th century. The city's
archbishop pulls out a vial containing a maroon-colored solid
substance from a case, then rotates and shakes the container until
the contents liquefy.

The liquid is said to be the blood of San Gennaro, a pious bishop
who was beheaded in A.D. 305 by Diocletian, a Roman emperor.
Liquefaction promises a peaceful future for Naples -- a pledge
popular with residents of a city that sits in the shadow of Mount
Vesuvius. The shaking of San Gennaro's vial draws crowds of frenzied

Scientific studies of the composition of the substance have not
conclusively identified it as blood, though one purported to find
traces of hemoglobin. Keepers of the relic have not provided a sample
of the material for thorough testing.

Garlaschelli put together a cocktail of material available near
Naples -- which would have been obtainable in the Middle Ages -- to
try to replicate the miracle. His mixture of limestone powder, iron
and pigments was solid when left still, but turned fluid when stirred
or shaken. The process is called thixotropy. Ketchup is a thixotropic
substance, Garlaschelli explained.

In the 1990s, Garlaschelli took on one of the most revered relics
in Christendom, the Shroud of Turin. It bears an image of Jesus that
believers say was miraculously acquired when the cloth covered his
body after the crucifixion. Carbon dating found that the fabric dates
from around the 14th century, but defenders say the tests were
inaccurate because the cloth could have picked up pollutants in its
travels through various European cathedrals.

Garlaschelli runs experiments with a cloth of his own that he
thinks provide plenty of reasons for skepticism. For one thing, if
the shroud were wrapped around a face, the features should have been
distorted, much like the map projection of continents from a globe
onto a flat surface -- Greenland appears larger than South America,
though in fact it's much smaller. On the shroud, the face is in
perfect proportion.

To prove his point, Garlaschelli put a student in a bathing suit,
had him lie on a slab, cover himself with paint and then pull a
shroud over himself. The image left on the cloth looks similar to the
Turin shroud's, except that it has a distorted face.

Garlaschelli takes on newly minted miracles as well. For the past
decade, he has been grappling with reports of a plaster Madonna that
wept blood in Civitavecchia, a town north of Rome.

Garlaschelli has produced several weeping plaster figures. They are
based on the principle that red liquid can be filtered through glazed
plaster, flowing out only in the spot where the glaze is scraped
away. Another method is simply to add a little red dye beneath an
eye. Leave the statue out in the dew and the dye begins to run, like

Garlaschelli thinks that the blood on the Civitavecchia Madonna was
simply dabbed on. The person who reported discovering the blood
declined to provide some of his own for DNA sampling, he noted.

Gumpel, the Vatican official, said he had discussed the
Civitavecchia Madonna with the local bishop. But on the whole the
Vatican doesn't get involved in ruling on the authenticity of such
things, he said.

Gumpel distinguished between miracles attributed to objects and
those linked to candidates for sainthood, which overwhelmingly
feature individuals recovering from extreme illness. Such reports are
investigated by boards of physicians to see whether there is a purely
medical cause for the recovery.

"We don't ask physicians to declare a miracle. We ask them if there
is any other explanation for a cure," Gumpel said. But he cautioned:
"What seems like a miracle now may not be one in a hundred years.
Such are the advances of science. Declarations of miracles are not
infallible teachings."

To investigate every report of miracles like the Madonna of
Civitavecchia would require convening boards of experts for
expertises that might not exist, he added. "For practical reasons,
medical examination of miracles is on firmer ground. . . . . What
kind of boards for other reports of miracles would you need? They
would be infinite," he said.

For his part, Garlaschelli is philosophical about the popular
reaction to his investigations. People like miracles and are not
likely to be easily swayed. "You see these television shows. Even
when they investigate the paranormal, they leave a little room for
mystery. Drama requires a question mark," he said. "Still, I think
that science wins out in the end."

He is currently breaking new ground, so to speak. He is trying to
explain the phenomenon of the will-o'-the-wisp, the strange light
that appears in some cemeteries, particularly in Britain.
Garlaschelli has replicated the gaseous light in a flask by placing
various chemicals in gases that might be given off by rotting
corpses. "Of course, some people will always believe these are souls
floating over the graves. But at least I am offering an alternative,"
he said.

c 2004 The Washington Post Company

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