Every night, amateur ghost-hunting groups across the country head out into abandoned warehouses, old buildings and cemeteries to look for ghosts. They often bring along electronic equipment that they believe helps them locate ghostly energy.
Despite years of efforts by ghost hunters on TV and in real life, we still do not have good proof that ghosts are real. Many ghost hunters believe that strong support for the existence of ghosts can be found in modern physics. Specifically, that Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientific minds of all time, offered a scientific basis for the reality of ghosts.
A recent Google search turned up nearly 8 million results suggesting a link between ghosts and Einstein's work covering the conservation of energy. This assertion is repeated by many top experts in the field. For example, ghost researcher John Kachuba, in his book "Ghosthunters" (2007, New Page Books), writes, "Einstein proved that all the energy of the universe is constant and that it can neither be created nor destroyed. ... So what happens to that energy when we die? If it cannot be destroyed, it must then, according to Dr. Einstein, be transformed into another form of energy. What is that new energy? ... Could we call that new creation a ghost?"
This idea shows up — and is presented as evidence for ghosts — on virtually all ghost-themed websites as well. For example, a group called Tri County Paranormal states, "Albert Einstein said that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change from one form to another. When we are alive, we have electrical energy in our bodies. ... What happens to the electricity that was in our body, causing our heart to beat and making our breathing possible? There is no easy answer to that." [6 Paranormal Videos Debunked]
In fact, the answer is very simple, and not at all mysterious. After a person dies, the energy in his or her body goes where all organisms' energy goes after death: into the environment. When a human dies, the energy stored in his or her body is released in the form of heat, and transferred into the animals that eat us (i.e., wild animals if we are left unburied, or worms and bacteria if we are interred), and the plants that absorb us. If we are cremated, the energy in our bodies is released in the form of heat and light.
When we eat dead plants and animals, we are consuming their energy and converting it for our own use. Food is metabolized when digested, and chemical reactions release the energy the animal needs to live, move, reproduce, etc. That energy does not exist in the form of a glowing, ghostly ball of electromagnetic energy, but rather in the form of heat and chemical energy.
Many ghost hunters say they can detect the electric fields created by ghosts. And while it's true that the metabolic processes of humans and other organisms actually do generate very low-level electrical currents, these are no longer generated once the organism dies. Because the source of the energy stops, the electrical current stops — just as a light bulb turns off when you switch off the electricity running to it.
Most of the "energy" that any dead person leaves behind takes years to re-enter the environment in the form of food; the rest dissipates shortly after death, and is not in a form that can be detected years later with popular ghost-hunting devices like electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors. Ghost hunters who repeat the claim that Einstein's theories provide a sound basis for ghosts reveal less about ghosts than they do about their poor understanding of basic science. Ghosts may indeed exist, but neither Einstein nor his laws of physics suggests that ghosts are real.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries." His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.