Reincarnation Reactions 

I am appalled that pseudoscience such as this is occurring at UVA and also appalled that Virginia Magazine would stoop so low as to promote this “research” as a cover story.

Many branches of pseudoscience are latching on to a gross misinterpretation of quantum mechanics as an explanation of their otherwise unscientific claims. But any physicist could point out the fallacies of these arguments and clear misunderstanding of the underlying phenomena. Professor Tucker might just as well rely on invisible unicorns as the mechanism for his research, but if he did, would he be allowed to continue at UVA?

This article and the “research” that it covers degrade the integrity of the University and the magazine and detract from the scientific literacy of the population.

Chris Becke (Darden ’92)
Williamsburg, Va.


There is an old saying in the legal profession: “When the facts are against you, argue the law. When the law is against you, argue the facts. When the facts and law are against you, pound the table and shout.” There were a number of readers who commented on the “Science of Reincarnation” story online saying, “I am appalled” that this research is being conducted at UVA. That is the sort of statement that die-hard skeptics resort to when they are unable to confront in a substantive way the evidence and the most reasonable explanation that flows from it; typically, they are so dismissive of anything that might challenge their cherished paradigm that they have not even examined the evidence. I am shocked—shocked, I tell you—that anyone would be appalled.

Lance B. Payette
Prescott, Ariz.


It is with grave concern that I write about the cover story “The Science of Reincarnation” in the Winter 2013 issue of Virginia Magazine.

Although I found the presentation of the work of the late Dr. Stevenson and of Dr. Tucker on child psychiatry and reincarnation fascinating, I deem most of the article’s statements about quantum physics fanciful, strongly misleading and incorrect.

The sleuthing work of Dr. Tucker to cross-check the information collected from children’s expressions of claimed memories of past lives against verified historical facts is, indeed, compelling. I found the concept of consciousness “surviving” human incarnation—and therefore being shared by many such—a moving and mind-enlarging hypothesis that can lead to a more profound sense of humanity, already advocated by traditions outside the Western world, such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

However, the article also makes very troubling statements, such as: “Scientists have long known that matter like electrons and protons produces events only when observed.”

As a physicist, I take exception to this statement, which is completely incorrect. I would be delighted to dwell at length on the questions of what can be construed as “events,” and “physical reality,” in the context of quantum physics and such experiments as the two-slit optical interference mentioned in the text. This has spawned a rich and interesting philosophical debate on the interpretation of quantum physics, but there is currently no scientific debate about what quantum physics means, and my main point here is about the demands of scientific rigor.

Quantum physics being an experimental science, we must bring forward that good old scientific method we all learned in school: once a hypothesis has been formulated, based on the observation of a natural phenomenon, it must be tested in further experiments that are well-defined (confined to a strictly defined set of parameters) and reproducible. Only then can conclusions be reached, which bear significance only in cases where experiments inform the hypothesis, for one can practically never prove a hypothesis (as one would have to check all possible cases), but one can easily disprove a hypothesis by way of a single counterexample.

In that sense, theoretical science is not a set of dogma but a perpetual work in progress, constantly put to the test by experimental research at all scales of size and complexity, from elementary particles to living organisms. Theories that withstand experimental scrutiny (such as quantum physics for almost a century) may then be relied on, within the domain of validity of these previous tests, and be further tested outside that domain.

Taking Dr. Tucker’s quote “Having direct positive evidence for a theory can have value, even if negative evidence against it is not possible” in the context of the scientific method makes it clear that the value in question cannot be scientific value, and we ought then not talk about science when speculations are made about quantum physics explaining consciousness.

Of course, one may (and should) make the argument that experimental tests might eventually be found and that reflection upon alternate theories is a worthwhile endeavor. We would then want to ponder how to test Dr. Tucker’s claim that “the physical world is affected by, and even derived from the nonphysical, from consciousness.” If consciousness is nonphysical, then how could we ever learn anything about it from a physical measurement? It is important to realize that quantum physics is, indeed, strictly restricted to the physical world.

Thus we ought to draw a clear line between intellectual speculation and the rigorous pursuit of science. The excellent quote from Robert Pollock in the article should be heeded: “Debates among physicists that center on the clarity and beauty of an idea but not on its disprovability are common to my mind, but are not scientific debates at all.”

Again, this is not a judgment on Drs. Stevenson and Tucker’s scientific investigations of reincarnation through the expressed memories of young children. I believe that this work can stand on its own merit with no need to seek further validation by quantum physics, validation for which no scientific basis exists.

Finally, maintaining extreme rigor and integrity about the nature of science as a scholarly endeavor is crucial to Virginia Magazine’s mission of scientific dissemination as the voice of a hard-core research university. Writing for a broad audience cannot imply fallacy.

Olivier Pfister
Physics professor, University of Virginia


Scientific investigations can reveal unknown phenomena in nature, and history testifies to it. Things like X-rays, radioactivity, etc., were totally unknown and even unthinkable before they were discovered. So any piece of scientific finding should not be discarded without proper and critical analysis. The same goes for Tucker’s research. Perhaps it is all bogus. But we need to dissect and understand what the flaws are. Who knows, physics may become so advanced in next 200 years that hitherto unknown physics theories could be formulated, validated and applied to things that we don’t know or understand now, such as rebirth? What if reincarnation exists and it is all perfectly explainable by physics and math?

For people who are ‘appalled’ by Tucker’s research, as some readers who left comments online said they felt, I would like to know your counterpoints to Tucker’s findings, in a scientific manner. Maybe you all are right. I am just curious.

As for quantum mechanics, it is well-known and proved that the act of observation does in fact affect the outcome of an event. I didn’t make it up. It is there. It has been proved experimentally in different labs across the world.

Digbijoy Nath
Postdoctoral researcher in electrical engineering, The Ohio State University


I am happy to add my voice to those who applaud the University of Virginia Magazine for featuring an article on this important work. Though I have not read his most recent book, I enjoyed Dr. Tucker’s previous book, Life Before Life. For those really interested in wading into the details, I suggest Ian Stevenson’s voluminous writings on the topic, especially his 2,500-page magnum opus, Reincarnation and Biology. Speaking of this masterwork, I am surprised that the article did not mention the birthmark cases where a child is born with a deformity or birthmark closely matching wounds usually associated with the previous personality’s death. (For example, a little boy who said he was shot in his previous life, and whose birthmarks matched the bullet’s entry and exit wounds, a fact corroborated by Stevenson using an autopsy report.)

Also, many of the detractors of the story have jumped on Dr. Tucker’s use of quantum mechanics. Despite the fact that I don’t think Dr. Tucker is claiming that quantum mechanics explains reincarnation, the interpretation that consciousness plays a role in the measurement problem is not a quack idea, even if it is a minority position among physicists. A recent book, Quantum Enigma, by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, physicists at the University of California, Santa Cruz, explores these issues in some detail. I should also add that Dr. Tucker and the Division of Perceptual Studies’ staff have research links with respected physicists like Quantum Foundations expert Henry Stapp and astrophysicist Bernard Carr. This is not to say that their interpretations of QM are correct, but they are certainly not Deepak Chopra-esque quantum babble.

Troy Tice
Doctoral candidate, Department of History, Princeton University


A UVA psychiatrist who correlates vivid childhood imagination and coincidence with reincarnation; the “not gay” chant in “The Good Old Song;” a talk-show alumna who promoted media cons who claimed to channel spirits of the dead; a No. 1 party school ranking by Playboy; a further dilution of the UVA Honor System, and topping the nonfiction bestsellers list at the campus bookstore, Bossypants? Embarrassed, I can only close my checkbook.

John L. Tindale (Darden ’77)
Pawleys Island, S.C.

Academic Snobbery?

In the Fall 2013 Virginia Magazine, I was interested in the interview with Professor Larry Sabato that explored his understanding of the Kennedy legacy. As I read, I found his thoughts intriguing until I came upon his comparison of Kennedy and Johnson’s intellectual capital. Sabato described Johnson as “opposite” of Kennedy: “a graduate of a small state teacher’s college in Texas, not Harvard.” The statement was disappointing and fed into the stereotype of academic and elitist snobbery. It did highlight a cultural trait that often appears in America’s discourse, that somehow economic privilege betters a select few in society and lessens the contributions and possibilities of the lower classes. I left the article asking, “How do we guard against biases in our work?”

Timothy L. Reynolds (Educ ’89, ’99)
Roanoke, Va.

Informed Retraction

After learning of last year’s changes to the University’s Honor Code, we wrote a letter published in the Summer 2013 issue pointing out the unintended consequences of Informed Retraction. We wrote that the logic behind Informed Retraction—simply assuming that reporting and forthright behavior will increase as a result of the amendment—is flawed. We believe that this modification will deteriorate the fabric of an institution that has been firmly embedded in the culture of the University since 1842.

Peter Pentz (Col ’78) in his letter in the Fall 2013 issue supports Informed Retraction; however, he mistakenly sees it as synonymous with the second part of a quote attributed to Mr. Jefferson: “For here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” We would say, and likely most would agree, that in the second part of this quote, Mr. Jefferson was not referring to matters of honor, but academic pursuits.

The Honor Code with its single sanction has always been viewed as an important Jeffersonian tenet. If anything, in today’s world, the Honor Code is more important than ever to University students’ critical moral values. Upon leaving the University, the mantra of having graduated with the “honors of Honor” (James Hays’ 1903 immortal words) remains a permanent part of the individual’s lifetime pursuits.

Harry R. Marshall, Jr. (Col ’61)
Chevy Chase, Md.
Whitney W. Johnson (Com ’11)
New York, N.Y.

Trying Out Coursera

This past fall, I took “Plagues, Witches and War,” a Coursera class on historical fiction offered by English professor Bruce Holsinger. I’d seen President Sullivan’s comment (Fall 2012 magazine) that UVA would be partnering with Coursera, but was a bit apprehensive about committing a lot of time to an online course.

Frankly, I needn’t have worried. Dozens of informative and entertaining video lectures and readings opened new windows for us onto the genre of historical fiction. Online seminars with authors gave us insight into the creative processes that weave together to produce a finished novel. (I should add that some Coursera participants also remarked appreciatively upon the thoughtful, probing questions asked by UVA students during the seminars.) And no matter where in the world we were, we could participate in lively online interactions with the professor, the authors and each other.

By the time it ended, the course had spawned ongoing debates, exchanges and reading groups on dedicated Facebook pages, and students were clamoring for Professor Holsinger to offer another class.

The class certainly put the University on the radar of intellectually curious people from many countries (20,000 people signed up for this class), and burnished its image by demonstrating the high quality of its professors and students. Bravo! What’s next?

Jeannine Johnson Maia (Col ’86)
Brussels, Belgium

The Early Days of the University

Additional light has recently been cast on the fate of Joseph G. Semmes [“Bad Boys,” Winter 2013]. He may have escaped to Texas immediately after his bail was paid, but that is only rumor. According to a recently located newspaper article, he committed suicide in July 1847, at the home of his brother, Paul G. Semmes. For details, see

Jean Cooper
UVA Librarian for Content Access and Research

Photo Correction

As several readers pointed out, the caption of this photo, “A rare tintype photograph of early University students, ca. 1850,” was incorrect. Although UVA’s Special Collections Library listed it as a photo of 19th-century UVA students, it is actually a photo of employees of R.C. Vandergrift & Son, Architects and Builders, Charlottesville, 1890. We regret the error.

Due Credit

The Sisters of Loretto were founded 201 years ago, in 1812, when three young women left the East Coast for Kentucky to escape discrimination against Catholics. In recent years the Sisters of Loretto, whose average age is 78, were rebuked by the Vatican for their “radical feminism.” “We think out of the box,” 80-year-old Sister Evelyn Houlighan told the Denver Post last year.

An illustration of their out-of-the-box thinking is the solar panel installation at the Loretto Spirituality Center, which served as the background for a photo of Jill Tietjen (Engr ’76), who in 2000, arranged to fund a scholarship at the Engineering School. Because Tietjen had assisted the Loretto Sisters with arrangements for the installation of the solar power system, they had granted her permission to use the photo with an advertorial about her charitable gift in the Fall 2013 issue of Virginia Magazine. Unfortunately, the promised photo credit for the Loretto Center was dropped from the Tietjen feature during the editorial process.

I would like to personally apologize to the Loretto Sisters for this omission, note my respect for their pioneering achievements over the past 200 years and express my best wishes for much success in the next century.

Charlotte Crystal
Senior Writer, UVA Office of Advancement