What is Kirlian photography? How is it that it captures on film an object that is no longer present? –J. Ramirez, Chicago

Let’s not jump to conclusions, Ace. The “phantom object” effect ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. But first some facts. On second thought, bag the facts. Let’s start with the fiction, which, as usual, is more interesting. A common feature of your typical New Age mystic’s understanding of the cosmos is that every living thing is surrounded by an aura, a cloud of energy radiated by your inner being, also known as your “life force,” “bioplasma,” etc. A psychic supposedly can scope out your aura and diagnose the state of your soul. Unfortunately, not all of us have the gift, and that’s where Kirlian photography comes in handy. The Kirlian effect enables the aura to be photographed. Presumably the photos can then be interpreted by any skilled aura analyst, psychic or not.

The apparatus used to make Kirlian photographs is a little complicated, but typically you start off with something called a Tesla coil, which emits a high-voltage (15,000 to 60,000 volts) but low-current (and hence harmless) electrical discharge. If you hook your Tesla coil to a big metal sphere set up on a stand, the discharge will be visible as lightninglike blue streamers radiating off into space. If, however, you instead hook the coil up to a piece of photographic paper and place an object in contact therewith (e.g., your finger, a leaf), you’ll notice a faint Saint Elmo’s fire-like effect around the object known as “airglow.” Develop the photographic paper and you’ll have a permanent record of the airglow. That’s a Kirlian photograph. Typically the airglow/aura appears as a dark cloud outlining the thing photographed.

At this point you’re probably thinking, what the hey, shoot a jillion volts into anything and it’ll have an aura, whether it’s living or not. Quite so–people have made K-photos of the auras of pennies, paper clips, and so on. Nonetheless the belief persists that Kirlian photos depict a purely biological essence. Scientists, trying to be nice guys about it, note that the size of a human’s aura is dependent on his skin moisture, among other things, so maybe a Kirlian photo does tell you something about a person, much as a lie detector does. But the whole thing seems too dumb to waste much time on.

“Phantom object” claims are slightly more interesting. Some Kirlian researchers assert that if you K-P a broken leaf, the resultant photo will show the missing portion of the leaf, supposedly proving that the aura lingers on even after the reality is gone. Unfortunately, most attempts to duplicate this in the lab have failed. The best guess is that phantom leaves are dust, sap, and whatnot from previously photographed leaves that oozed onto the photographic equipment and got onto subsequent photos. Nothing to lose sleep over.

I recently changed professions, and though I refer to myself as a “dancer” or “showgirl,” many people use the term “go-go dancer.” No one seems to know how, why, or where “go-go” originated. What’s the story? –Phoenix, Indianapolis

Glad to see you’re reading the Straight Dope, Phoenix kid; when you’re shaking your thang for those drunken conventioneers it helps to keep your mind on the higher things. “Go-go” entered the language in the mid-60s, and like so much else from that era now has a distinctly mildewed air. (Go ahead, try to say “mod,” “groovy,” or “hippie” without cringing. For that matter, did anybody ever say “fab gear”?)

“Go-go” derives from the French a go go, in abundance, galore, a term that was commonly applied to discotheques and later to dancers. One school of thought holds that the French in turn derived it from an older word agogue, merriment. But I doubt it. As I’ve previously pointed out, French is chock full of foreign neologisms such as le jazz hot. Expressions like “go/no go” have a long history in English and were in common use during the highly publicized space flights of the early 60s (e.g., “the mission is a go”). My guess is the French borrowed “go” from us and gave it their own twist, and we promptly borrowed it right back.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.