A Skeptical Scrutiny of the Works and Theories of WILHELM REICH

As related to

The Orgonoscope

By Roger M. Wilcox

Last modified 22-September-2003

The orgonoscope was a lensed hollow tube that Reich claimed could make orgone radiation "objectively" visible.

Before Reich invented the complete orgonoscope, he used a much simpler apparatus to look for atmospheric orgone radiation:

"We construct a metal tube 1 to 3 feet long and 1 to 2 inches in diameter, with a dull black interior.  We look through it at the walls in the day time and the sky at night.  The tube isolates a circle which appears brighter than the area around it.
["Appears" is the key word here.]
Keeping both eyes open and peering through the tube with one eye, we see a dark-blue night sky within which is a disk of brighter blue.  Within the disk itself we perceive, first of all, a flickering movement, then, unmistakably, delicate dots and streaks of light appearing and disappearing.  The phenomenon becomes less distinct in the immediate vicinity of the moon; the darker the atmosphere in the background, the clearer the phenomenon."
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. IV, sec. 2 (p. 101, 1973 trans.) [emphasis in original]
Thus far, it sounds like Reich's eyes were just playing tricks on him.  I can make all sorts of spots appear before my eyes if I press a hollow tube down on one of them hard enough.  But Reich thought of that in the next paragraph:
"Are we perhaps this time victims of an illusion?  To find out we insert a plano-convex eyepiece with a magnification of approximately 5x in the viewing end of the tube and look through.  The bright circular field is now broader; the dots and streaks of light appear larger and more distinct.  It is impossible to magnify subjective light impressions; therefore, the phenomenon must be objective."
It looks as though Reich was either indeed seeing something real, or fooling himself into thinking that the light effects appeared larger and more disctinct with the magnifying lens in place.  He didn't say whether he tried this magnification experiment both while looking at a wall in the daytime and while looking at the sky at night.  If he only did it at night, and he wasn't imagining the magnification effect, then there is a straightforward explanation.  Near the end of my critique of orgone radiation, I pointed out that Reich did most of his experiments in either Oslo, Norway or Rangeley, Maine.  Both of these cities are very far to the north.  So far, in fact, that the Aurora Borealis is visible.  This means these locations are subjected to rather high doses of cosmic rays.  And cosmic rays can and do interact with the atmosphere by producing the occasional bright flash or streak of light.  These effects are too faint to be seen in broad daylight, but if Reich didn't perform the magnification experiment during the daytime, we have every reason to suspect that the phenomena he saw while staring at a wall through his metal tube were just subjective illusions.

Not only did Reich not indicate whether he had tried his magnification experiment in the daytime as well as at night, Reich made no mention of having others try the experiment for themselves.  The right way to tell would be to take a group of experimental subjects, select one half of them at random, and have that half compare views through the tube with and without the magnifying lens, and have the other half compare views through the tube with and without a plain glass lens but tell them it's a magnifying lens.  If the percentage of subjects in the magnifying-lens group that saw a difference was significantly higher than the percentage of the subjects in the flat-glass-lens "control" group, Reich would have been right to conclude that the effect was not subjective and was something "real."  Or Reich could have taken photographs or movies on highly light-sensitive film through the tube, with and without the magnifying lens in place, and compared the results.  But Reich's own say-so, by itself, is insufficient to conclude that he was seeing something "real" being magnified, and not just imagining the effect as appearing magnified because that was what he was expecting to see.

And there's another problem.  A magnifying lens can only magnify things clearly if they are within a few inches of the lens.  Anything farther away will be blurred.  Normal refracting telescopes have two lenses, a convex (magnifying) objective lens and a concave eyepiece, for just this reason.  If Reich were seeing light effects in the air several miles or even several feet away, the magnifying lens should have made them more blurry and therefore less distinct (unless Reich were farsighted).  Therefore, if Reich was magnifying any real phenomenon in that tube at all, said phenomenon would not have been more than a few inches away from the convex eyepiece.  The fact that this phenomenon was more visible when staring away from the moon may have simply been due to the fact that moonlight is relatively bright and tends to wash out other light in the same field with it.

Reich soon added more and more trinkets to his orgonoscope, until he had produced the object diagrammed in Figure 8 of The Cancer Biopathy, chapter IV, section 2 (p. 102, 1973 trans.).  Here is what Figure 8 looked like:

Figure 8 - the orgonoscope
C: cellulose disk, exterior surface dull
WM: wire mesh, on both sides of disk
M: metal cylinder, about 4" long, 2" wide
L: biconvex lens, about 10x, focused on disk
T: telescopic tube, 1' to 2' long, about 2" wide
EP: eyepiece, 5x, for additional magnification
FIGURE 8.  The orgonoscope
In some orgonoscopes, the cellulose disk was just plain, untreated, translucent cellulose ester; but in other orgonoscopes Reich coated the inside of the cellulose disk with calcium sulfide or zinc sulfide.  (C.f. American Odyssey, p. 57.)  Both calcium sulfide and zinc sulfide are phosphorescent.  They are, in fact, the most common phosphorescent ingredients in luminous paint.  These substances are also fluorescent, that is, they can glow at visible wavelengths when hit by higher-frequency invisible light (ultraviolet light, X-rays, or gamma rays) or high-energy charged particles such as cosmic rays or the electrons in a TV picture tube.  Silver-activated zinc sulfide is in fact one of the two phosphor materials used to coat the inside of a typical black-and-white TV picture tube's front glass.  It glows blue when electrons, fired from the electron gun at the back of the picture tube, strike it.

Reich did not say whether the orgonoscope he used in The Cancer Biopathy had a plain cellulose disc or a phosphor-coated cellulose disc.  If the screen Reich used in his orgonoscope was indeed fluorescent, it would show flashes of light not only when hit by visible light phenomena, but also whenever it was hit by ultraviolet light or cosmic rays.  This would produce an effect markedly different from the visible-light phenomena of dots and streaks Reich saw with his unaided eyes.

Reich also did not say which end of the orgonoscope its user is supposed to "point" at the object to be observed, and which end its user is supposed to look at.  If we are to assume that the "eyepiece" in Figure 8 really does go in front of the user's eye, then that would mean the end with the cellulose disk and wire mesh on it should be pointed at the object the user is trying to observe.  Which would mean that both magnifying lenses would be magnifying light-effects from the surface of the cellulose disk.

Not content with the 10x "objective" lens and the 5x plano-convex eyepiece of the orgonoscope pictured above, Reich aimed the cellulose-disk-end of his orgonoscope at the dark night sky and the eyepiece-end at the mirror on the base of a microscope, presumably to send whatever light phenomena were already being amplified by the orgonoscope through the full magnifying power of the microscope as well:

"We point our tube toward the dark night sky in front of the mirror of a good microscope equipped with apochromatic lenses.  We use a 10x object lens and a 5x eyepiece.  Our eyes need to be accustomed to the dark for about twenty-five minutes.  The microscope reflects the light phenomena in the sky with total clarity.
[Reich had no way of knowing whether the light phenomena were indeed "in the sky," particularly if his orgonoscope was capped by a phosphor-covered cellulose disk.]
Every single flash of light is clearly discernable.  We remove the eyepiece from the tube.  Now the flickering is seen in smaller scale, but it is more intense; we are no longer able to distinguish individual flashes of light."
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. IV, sec. 2 (p. 102, 1973 trans.)
Reich did not specify the microscope's magnification.  Nevertheless, it sounds odd that Reich was able to see individual flashes of light without a microscope, through a plain hollow tube with or without a single 5x eyepiece, but was unable to see individual flashes of light through a 10x objective lens and a high-powered microscope when the 5x eyepiece was removed.  One possibility is this: Reich was not using the cellulose disk in this experiment, i.e. he had only a hollow tube with a 10x objective lens and a 5x eyepiece, and there were a couple of stars in his orgonoscope's objective field.  Since Reich made no mention of how (or if) he mounted the orgonoscope so as to hold it steady relative to the microscope mirror, he may very well have simply been holding it up in one hand.  The microscope would have magnified not only the starlight, but also the vibrations in the table it was standing on, the vibrations of Reich's hand holding up the orgonoscope, and the "twinkling" effect of the starlight shining through the air.  Any one of these instabilities would have been enough to make the stars "streak" past the microscope's field so quickly they wouldn't even look like stars.

If the phosphor-coated cellulose disk was in place over the orgonoscope's objective end, however, the "hypermagnified starlight" explanation no longer applies.  However, a few cosmic rays hitting the phosphor and lighting it up could have produced effects equally as unstable in the microscope field, especially if Reich was holding the orgonoscipe up to the microscope mirror by hand.  In either case, removal of the eyepiece from the orgonoscope would have changed the focal distance, and if Reich had not re-adjusted the microscope's focus to compensate he would have certainly lost detail resolution.

And of course, Reich could have imagined seeing a difference between the microscope images with and without the orgonoscope's eyepiece when in fact no difference existed, just as he could have imagined the eyepiece magnifying the empty-tube light phenomena even if it did no such thing.  Without photographs, or motion-picture films, or blind "placebo" trials on multiple experimental subjects, there is no way to tell.  (And given Reich's skill with photographing his bions through the microscope, it's surprising that he didn't take any photos of the microscope field from this experiment.)

Reich was convinced he was seeing orgone radation in the orgonoscope.  He may have even added the wire mesh on each side of the cellulose disk because of its supposed analogy with the metal walls of an orgone accumulator, i.e. to reflect and contain orgone energy within the vicinity of the cellulose disk.  (He may also have put it there as a kind of Faraday cage to keep out "all other non-orgone radiation" so that only orgone energy would be present, although in actuality a Faraday cage will only keep out radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation and will not hinder cosmic rays.  Reich did not mention the wire mesh anywhere outside the caption to figure 8 above, so we can only guess his purpose for putting it there.)  He went on to say that the flickering phenomena were weak or non-existent when looking "through" the orgonoscope at a foggy or hazy night sky, and weakened whenever the humidity went above 50% — effects he attributed to his hypothesis, which he had gained through his electroscope observations, that moisture "absorbs the radiation in the atmosphere, just as it absorbs SAPA radiation."  He claimed that the light phenomena were more intense when pointing the orgonoscope at soil than at asphalt, when pointing it at leaves than at their surroundings, and when pointing it at flower blossoms than at the flowers' stalks.  He made no mention of whether the cellulose disk was in place when making these observations, and if not, what the color differences between these objects were (perhaps the light phenomena appear more pronounced against dark backgrounds than light ones, or vice-versa; we'll never know now).

There is little that Reich's orgonoscope adds to our understanding of the visible orgone radiation phenomena Reich claimed to see.  Sometimes it had a phosphorescent cellulose disk blocking the view, sometimes it had an untreated cellulose disk blocking the view, and sometimes it had no disk blocking the view — and Reich didn't mention which of these setups he was using when he described his observations.  It had a convex eyepiece lens that may or may not have magnified the light phenomena Reich reported.  And Reich never mentions testing it with other observers.

In fact, the orgonoscope would hardly be worth mentioning, except that on 13 January 1941, Reich managed to cajole Albert Einstein into seeing a demonstration of it in Princeton, New Jersey.

Most of Reich's visit to Albert Einstein concerned the orgone accumulator and Reich's attempts to demonstrate a temperature difference between the air inside an accumulator and the air outside it.  A small fraction of Reich's meeting with Einstein near the beginning, however, dealt with the orgonoscope:

"Reich had brought with him a device through which the flickering phenomena could be could be observed and, in a darkened room, they made their observations.  Einstein was amazed at what he saw, but then queried: 'But I see the flickering all the time.  Could it not be subjective?'"
    — Myron Sharaf, Fury on Earth, ch. 21, pp. 285-286
Princeton, New Jersey is farther south than Rangeley, Maine.  The Aurora Borealis can be seen from such low latitudes — soldiers at the Civil War battle of Fredericksburg reported seeing the Aurora, even though Fredericksburg is even farther south than Princeton — but such sightings are rare.  While cosmic rays do strike just about every part of the globe, they would be much sparser this far south of the the geomagnetic north pole.  Thus, it's unlikely Einstein was seeing naturally-luminous cosmic rays streaking through the atmosphere.  But he may have been seeing cosmic rays interacting with the phosphorescent coating on the cellulose disk.  But he hardly appeared to "need convincing" that any light phenomena were present:
"He [Einstein] immediately saw the scintillations in the orgonoscope, said 'Yes,' then — as if shocked — 'those must be subjective light phenomena.'  I explained the fact that the scintillations differ according to the object and that they cannot be seen when the metal covering disc is put in place."
    — American Odyssey, p. 55 [emphasis in original]
At least, this was how Reich described Einstein's reaction.  Perhaps his "shock" was an expression of sudden disappointment as he realized that Reich wasn't showing him anything "real."  No mention was made as to whether Einstein tried looking through the orgonoscope with the metal covering disc in place, so we don't know if Einstein verified Reich's claim that the light phenomena were absent when the orgonoscope was covered.

Even if Reich's statements in the above paragraph are true, however, the light phenomena could still be subjective.  If you pay close attention to a bright surface or a bright daytime sky, you can sometimes see little dots whizzing or squirming around.  But these are not caused by orgone radiation.  They are just as visible when looking at a bright fluorescent lamp as they are when looking at a sunlit sky.  Some of these dots are cells moving about on or near your retina.  Others are the photoreceptive cells of your retina firing nonuniformly, simply because the human eye is not perfect.  This effect is most pronounced against a brightly lit or light-colored object, and can appear at reduced intensity or even in slightly different forms against a dark background.  It disappears entirely when there is no light.  Assuming the existence of orgone radiation is neither necessary nor useful to explain this phenomenon.

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