I don’t believe in ghosts, especially when it’s daylight and I’m surrounded by lots of people. I’d probably be a little less certain if I found myself in a deserted mansion in the middle of the countryside at midnight during a power cut with a thunder and lightning storm going on outside, which is why I endeavor to not place myself in such a situation.

Would you spend the night alone in this mansion?

I also don’t believe in precognition (from the Latin prae-, meaning “before,” and cognitio, meaning “acquiring knowledge”), which is the claimed psychic ability to see events in the future.

I do, however, believe in déjà vu (did somebody just say that?). Mainstream science rejects the explanation of déjà vu as precognition, explaining it instead as the feeling that one has lived through the present situation before.

The problem is that I also believe my mother. I’d be foolish not to, because — when I was a little lad — she told me that it simply wasn’t possible for mommies to tell fibs to their children, and you can’t argue with logic like that (it was unfortunate that, shortly thereafter, I discovered a disturbing fact about Santa Clause, but we’d best leave that snowball unturned).

The thing is that, when my grandmother passes away in 1961, my mom — who was 31 years old at the time — started to have repeated dreams about a certain house. It wasn’t a particularly large house, but it did have an unusual double staircase curving up each side of the foyer. My mother says that, in her dreams, she wandered through the house observing lots of architectural details.

About 20 years later, mom and her friend Betty decided to visit another friend called Mavis who had recently taken possession of a house in the country several hours away from Sheffield. Mom was driving and Betty was map-reading. Eventually, Betty said “turn in here.” When mom and Betty turned into the driveway, mom (according to Betty) went as white as a sheet and said, “I’ve been here many times before in my dreams; over the front door there will be a stone plaque with 1579 carved into it, then…” Mom proceeded to tell Betty about her dreams and about various architectural details in the house, including the unusual double staircase and the fact that there was another stone plaque with 1579 carved into it over the fireplace in the sitting room.

When they walked up the path to the house, there was the 1579 carved into the plaque above the door. When they entered through the front door, there were the two carved wooden staircases, exactly as mom had remembered them and described them from her dreams. Mom told Betty and Mavis about additional architectural aspects of the house that weren’t visible from the front door, then they went to look and observed that everything was as my mother predicted. What was particularly amazing was when Mavis told them that it was only one week earlier that she had got a contractor to remove the existing gas fireplace and surround from the sitting room (these had been added to the house at some stage), only to reveal the stone plaque with 1597 mounted on the wall above the original fireplace. Mom told me that she never had bad feelings about the house… but also that she would never spend the night there.

A 1901 depiction of ball lightning.

So, I don’t believe in precognition, but… I do believe in my mom. Also, I do believe in ball lightning. According to the Wikipedia:

Ball lightning is an unexplained and potentially dangerous atmospheric electrical phenomenon. The term refers to reports of luminescent, spherical objects that vary from pea-sized to several meters in diameter. Though usually associated with thunderstorms, the phenomenon lasts considerably longer than the split-second flash of a lightning bolt. Two reports from the nineteenth century claim that the ball eventually explodes, leaving behind an odor of sulfur.

The actual existence of lightning ball phenomena is not proven, but appears in a variety of accounts over the centuries. Until the 1960s, most scientists treated reports of ball lightning skeptically, despite numerous accounts from around the world. Laboratory experiments can produce effects that are visually similar to reports of ball lightning, but how these relate to the natural phenomenon remains unclear.

The reason I’m waffling on about this here is that my mom once told me that she had seen ball lightning (she’s managed to cram a lot of stuff into her life). I just emailed her and asked her to elucidate, and she replied as follows:

I’m not sure of the date, but I was sitting at the table doing my homework. My mum was sitting opposite, resting. I was at Grammar School so I would be around 14 years old, in which case it must have been sometime in 1944. Since I was doing my homework, we wouldn’t have broken up for the long summer holiday. Shirley had gone to bed, so I think it would be just before the 9.00 evening news (I would have been telling mum all about the news after that).

It had been a hot day and it was still very heavy, so we had the back door open to let in what air there was. I could hear the rumble of thunder in the far distance but there was nothing near. As I was pondering on what to write, I saw something odd coming round the back door. It was a ball of flames, about one and a half to two feet across, rolling slowly round through the outside door into the living room. It rolled in about three feet and, just as it was coming to me, it exploded with a huge bang.

I was completely deafened, and all the neighbors came running to see what was happened as there had been no sound of bombs dropping. The weird thing was that there was no damage to anything as there would have been had it been a bomb or a hand grenade. Just the smell of the explosion.

I was completely shell-shocked and unable to finish my homework so, for the only time, I had to take a note from my mother to school to say why I hadn’t done it.

Apparently, a few of these things appeared in Sheffield that night, but where they had come from, I just don’t know.

What all this says to me is that, although we know a lot of things, the things we know are just a “drop in the bucket” as compared to all the things that there are to know. As the William Shakespeare so presciently put it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Dare we wonder if the Bard was having a touch of precognition?