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Radiance from Halcyon: A Utopian Experiment in Religion and Science by Paul Eli Ivey (review)
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Radiance from Halcyon: A Utopian Experiment in Religion and Science. By Paul Eli Ivey. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Pp. 328. $75.

When a splinter group of the Theosophical Society established its own utopian settlement named Halcyon on the central California coast in 1903, it created a community that held in balance the “intuition of religious teachings and the rationality of science” in the search for “material and spiritual progress” (p. 2). Under the early leadership of Dr. William Dower and its first visionary Francia LaDue (also known as Blue Star), the Temple of the People shared a life based on agriculture, craft production, healing, and a belief in the material and spiritual worlds. Paul Eli Ivey draws on an [End Page 754] impressive array of archival material to detail the history of the Temple of the People and the expression of its beliefs in its architecture, music, and art in Radiance from Halcyon. As Ivey compellingly argues, Halcyon offered an alternative model for understanding the relationship between religion and science: science can reveal spiritual forces, and religion can offer fruitful paths to scientific discovery.

This book is a natural successor to Ivey’s Prayers in Stone: Christian Science Architecture in the United States, 1894–1930 (1999) in its focus on an esoteric American religious group concerned with healing. Christian Science provides a useful counterpoint to theosophical thought, one Ivey invokes often. Whereas Christian Scientists believed in the spiritual over the material and privileged prayer over medicine, the theosophists believed in a unifying duality of the physical and spiritual worlds, and the Temple of the People appealed to both in their healing activities. William Dower, a medical doctor who also believed in occult, or hidden, science, called the early twentieth century the “Age of Radiance” with its great advances in Xray technology and understanding of electrons (p. 8). Dower and other Temple members became “preoccupied with electricity as the core link between the spiritual and the material world” (p. 239). At the Halcyon Hotel and Sanatorium, Dr. Dower and his staff used X-rays and machines like the Oscilloclast to treat physical and mental diseases and addiction, based on the now-discredited electronic theories of Dr. Albert Abrams. These electronic therapies were part of a panoply of options including healthful eating, exercise, and chiropractic, color, and music therapies. Ever present was the idea that healing operated on both the physical and spiritual planes.

Whether or not the Temple of the People’s techniques could be characterized as medical “quackery” (p. 163), “science fiction, or pseudoscience” (p. 235), Ivey’s most important argument in the book is that Halcyon proved fertile ground for applied physics because of its experimentation with electricity and vibration. As he writes, “the contexts for discovery in science are not always based in the traditional rationalist and empiricist scientific method. Sometimes scientific discovery is constituted by breaks in logic, defined by personal contexts, intuition, and even irrational leaps of faith” (p. 8). Russell and Sigurd Varian, sons of Temple member and poet John Varian, attended Stanford University after living in Halcyon. In the 1930s, they invented the klystron, a vacuum tube that amplified radio waves, an important device that had applications in microwave communications, radar, satellite communication, and radiation therapy. In the field of music, Temple member and experimental composer Henry Dixon Cowell created the Rhythmicon, an early electronic rhythm machine, in 1931.

This book relies heavily on the biographies of Halcyon residents (including MIT physicist George Russell Harrison and Irish poet Ella Young) to position Halcyon as an “an unexpected source and generator of significant [End Page 755] cultural change” (p. 239). Whereas Ivey’s Prayers in Stone interrogated the large-scale architectural program of the Christian Scientists to claim just how influential Christian Science was, Radiance from Halcyon cannot claim the same widespread influence of the Temple of the People in its architecture or even in the number of its members. The group’s Blue Star Memorial Temple of Science, Philosophy, and Religion (1924), a convex triangle in plan and vaguely neoclassical in style, is one of the few theosophical temples in the United States. Ivey locates the...