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Sources returnpage

Brewster, Sir David

Category: Scientist

Sir David Brewster KH PRSE FRS FSA(Scot) FSSA MICE (11 December 1781 – 10 February 1868) was a Scottish scientist, inventor, author, and academic administrator.  In 1807 [aged 26], the degree of LL.D. was conferred upon Brewster by Marischal College, Aberdeen; in 1815 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and received the Copley and Royal Medals; in 1818 he received the Rumford Medal of the society.  He obtained the Keith Prize from the Royal Society of Edinburgh and honorary degrees from Aberdeen and Oxford.

He was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1816 and in the same year, the French Institute awarded him one-half of the prize of three thousand francs for the two most important discoveries in physical science made in Europe during the two preceding years.

In 1821, he was made a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and in 1822 a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  In 1838, he was appointed principal of the united colleges of St Salvator and St Leonard, University of St Andrews.

Brewster was one of the founders of the British Science Association, of which he was elected President in 1849.   In the same year in which the British Association held its first meeting, 1832, Brewster received the honour of knighthood and the decoration of the Royal Guelphic Order.   In 1849, he was elected one of the eight foreign associates of the Institute of France in succession to J. J. Berzelius.  In 1855, the government of France made him an Officier de la Légion d'honneur.

Why is he on the site? 

Firstly his work on crystals holds great promise in establishing a universal theory of matter and spirit.  Secondly, he was involved in and witnessed levitation experiments, although controversy surrounded this, he witnessed the capabilities of D D Home .

The Strange Case of Daniel Dunglas Home – Andrew Lang

Sir David sent letters, forming a journal, to his family, and, in June (no day given) 1855, described his visit to Home. He says that he, Lord Brougham, Mr. Cox, and Home sat down

'at a moderately sized table, the structure of which we were invited to examine. In a short time the table shuddered and a tremulous motion ran up our arms.... The table actually rose from the ground, when no hand was upon it. A larger table was produced, and exhibited similar movements........................

And thirdly he had seen a ghost, in fact, more correctly a doppelganger.

The Strange Case of Daniel Dunglas Home – Andrew Lang

Sir David's daughter tells how that philosopher saw [a ghost] that of the Rev. Mr. Lyon, in St. Leonard's College, St. Andrews, a wraith whose owner was in perfect health.


Brewster was born at the Canongate in Jedburgh, Roxburghshire, to Margaret Key (1753–1790) and James Brewster (c. 1735–1815), the rector of Jedburgh Grammar School and ‘a teacher of high reputation’.  [The term rector can mean a member of the clergy who has charge of a parish, church or religious institution.  It can also mean the head of certain universities, colleges, and schools or a mixture of these things].

David was the third of six children, two daughters and four sons.  His brother: James (1777–1847), became the minister for Craig, Ferryden; his brother George (1784–1855) became minister of Scoonie, Fife; and his brother Patrick (1788–1859), became minister at the abbey church, Paisley.

At the age of 12, David was sent to the University of Edinburgh (graduating with an honorary degree in divinity), being intended for the clergy. He was licensed a minister of the Church of Scotland, and preached around Edinburgh on several occasions.  He was described as a ‘pious evangelist’ at the time.  But, David Brewster was the only one in this family not to become a minister, instead he became a Presbyterian scientist and a very devout one at that.  He ‘walked arm in arm with his brother on the Disruption procession which formed the Free Church of Scotland’.


Of a high-strung and nervous temperament, Brewster was somewhat irritable in matters of controversy; but he was repeatedly subjected to serious provocation.

He was a man of highly honourable and fervently religious character. In estimating his place among scientific discoverers, the chief thing to be borne in mind is that his genius was not characteristically mathematical. His method was empirical, and the laws that he established were generally the result of repeated experiment.

Brewster did not believe in the evolutionary hypothesis of the transmutation of species.  Much as many scientists do today, he happily accepted that adaptive changes took place, but stated categorically that one species cannot ‘evolve’ into another – nor, by extension, is any adaptive change a random one.   His opinion was that "science and religion must be one since each dealt with Truth, which had only one and the same Author." In 1845, he wrote a highly critical review of the evolutionist work Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, in the North British Review,  which he considered to be a ‘dangerous example of materialism’.

Scientific discoveries

In science, Brewster is principally remembered for his experimental work in physical optics, mostly concerned with the study of the polarization of light and including the discovery of Brewster's angle.

  • Kaleidoscope - Among the non-scientific public, his fame spread more effectually by his invention in about 1815 of the kaleidoscope.  Brewster was not a businessman at heart, his interest was in invention, and although Brewster patented the kaleidoscope in 1817, a prototype was shown to London opticians before the patent was granted. As a consequence, the kaleidoscope became produced in large numbers, but yielded no direct financial benefits to Brewster.  Nevertheless, it proved to be a massive success. Two hundred thousand kaleidoscopes were sold in London and Paris in just three months.
  • Stereoscope - was improved by Brewster, who suggested prisms be used for uniting the dissimilar pictures; and accordingly the lenticular stereoscope may fairly be said to be his invention.  It became the first portable 3D-viewing device
  • Lighthouse ‘illuminator’ - A valuable and practical result of Brewster's optical researches was the improvement of the British lighthouse system. Although Fresnel, who had also the satisfaction of being the first to put it into operation, perfected the dioptric apparatus independently, Brewster was active earlier in the field than Fresnel, describing the dioptric apparatus in 1812. Brewster pressed its adoption on those in authority at least as early as 1820, two years before Fresnel suggested it, and it was finally introduced into lighthouses mainly through Brewster's persistent efforts.
  • Photography – Brewster was an early pioneer in photography.  He was a close friend of William Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of the calotype process, who sent Brewster early examples of his work. Brewster was a prominent member of the Edinburgh Calotype Club, formed in 1843, and the first photographic society in the world.  Although the club was dissolved sometime in the mid-1850s; Brewster’s interest in photography continued, and he was elected the first President of the Photographic Society of Scotland when it was founded in 1856.  Brewster invented the ‘binocular camera’. 

He also invented two types of polarimeters, and the polyzonal lens.


Brewster became the public face of higher education in Scotland, serving as Principal of the University of St Andrews (1837–59) and later of the University of Edinburgh (1859–68).

  • Edinburgh Magazine  - Although Brewster's own discoveries were important, they were not his only service to science. He began writing in 1799 as a regular contributor to the Edinburgh Magazine, of which he acted as editor at the age of twenty.
  • Edinburgh Encyclopædia  - In 1807, he undertook the editorship of the newly projected Edinburgh Encyclopædia, of which the first part appeared in 1808, and the last not until 1830. The work was strongest in the scientific department, and many of its most valuable articles were from the pen of the editor.
  • Encyclopædia Britannica  - At a later period he was one of the leading contributors to the Encyclopædia Britannica (seventh and eighth editions) writing, among others, the articles on electricity, hydrodynamics, magnetism, microscope, optics, stereoscope, and voltaic electricity.
  • Edinburgh Philosophical Journal - In 1819 Brewster undertook further editorial work by establishing, in conjunction with Robert Jameson (1774–1854), the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, which took the place of the Edinburgh Magazine. The first ten volumes (1819–1824) were published under the joint editorship of Brewster and Jameson, the remaining four volumes (1825–1826) being edited by Jameson alone.
  • Edinburgh Journal of Science  - After parting company with Jameson, Brewster started the Edinburgh Journal of Science in 1824, 16 volumes of which appeared under his editorship during the years 1824–1832, with very many articles from his own pen.

He contributed around three hundred papers to the transactions of various learned societies, and few of his contemporaries wrote as much for the various reviews. In the North British Review alone, seventy-five articles of his appeared.

Brewster's position as editor brought him into frequent contact with the most eminent scientific men, and he was naturally among the first to recognise the benefit that would accrue from regular communication among those in the field of science.

 In a review of Charles Babbage's book Decline of Science in England in John Murray's Quarterly Review, he suggested the creation of "an association of our nobility, clergy, gentry and philosophers". This found speedy realisation in the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Its first meeting was held at York in 1831; and Brewster, along with Babbage and Sir John Herschel, had the chief part in shaping its constitution.

Matter and spirit

Bhakti Vijnana Muni, PhD ........................

Matter is the attenuation of consciousness.
When consciousness goes to zero it is called matter.
So it is consciousness which produces matter.
The German Philosopher Schelling speaks in “the history of self-consciousness” that Nature is fossilized intelligence .
Nature is spirit in hidden form.
Therefore Nature is not producing any intelligence. Rather when Intelligence becomes less it is called material nature. Darkness cannot produce light and similarly matter cannot produce intelligence.
When intelligence goes to zero it is called matter.
Matter has no ability to produce any consciousness. Therefore the Vedantic Philosophy is
Matter is the attenuation of Consciousness.
Matter cannot produce life or consciousness.

Matter is crystalline and few would dispute the verdict of James David Forbes, an editor of the eighth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica: "His [Brewster’s] scientific glory is different in kind from that of Young and Fresnel; but the discoverer of the law of polarization of biaxial crystals, of optical mineralogy, and of double refraction by compression, will always occupy a foremost rank in the intellectual history of the age."

The illusion of gravity

From Albert De Rochas D'Aiglun - Levitation of the human body

When we pick up a stone, it seems to us that a kind of activity emanates from this stone, which it makes as an effort to get closer to the ground by pressing on our hand, it is this feeling that we express by saying: "The stone is heavy". We think we are referring to the nature of the stone in this way. This feeling has become so widespread that each of us believes we are allowed to say: "All bodies are heavy". This is another expression against which the scientist should protest; for, taken in itself, a body is not heavy; it only seems to become so when it is in the vicinity of another body that attracts it.

Since the earth attracts the stone held in the hand (we disregard the reciprocal attraction of the stone on the earth, for greater simplicity), the stone seems to be heavy, but this is only an appearance; if we could remove the earth, it would be easy to see it; only then would the true nature of the stone appear and it would be shown without weight. If we were to replace the earth near the stone, its natural state would be altered; this is what we call gravity. In short, the word gravity indicates a relationship between two bodies.

In 1831, Brewster published the Life of Sir Isaac Newton, a short popular account of the philosopher's life, in Murray's Family Library, followed by an 1832 American edition in Harper's Family Library; but it was not until 1855 that he was able to issue the much fuller Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, a work which embodied the results of more than 20 years' investigation of original manuscripts and other available sources.

As we can see from the observations, Brewster was involved in and witnessed levitation experiments.  Through these, along with his work on the detailed biography of Newton and later his examination of the papers in Newton's collection of manuscripts, notes, correspondence, and so on, left behind when he died, Brewster came to realise that levitation and gravity were connected; that ‘gravity’ is a universal law of attraction, and ‘levitation’ is a law of repulsion.


Brewster married twice. His first wife was Juliet Macpherson (c. 1776–1850). They married on 31 July 1810 in Edinburgh and had four sons and a daughter.  Brewster married a second time in Nice, on 26 (or 27) March 1857, to Jane Kirk Purnell (b. 1827). Lady Brewster famously fainted at the Oxford evolution debate of 30 June 1860.  Brewster died in 1868, and was buried at Melrose Abbey, next to his first wife and second son. The physics building at Heriot-Watt University is named in his honour.

Sir David Brewster – in a review of Murchison’s Siluria

More glorious creatures might lie beneath the earth, beings …. More lovely, more pure, more divine than man, may yet read to us the unexpected lesson that we have not been the first, and may not be the last of the intellectual race

And he was quite probably right

Lyall Watson – Dreams and Dragons – from The Success of Failure

… the Skeleton Coast, whose history is written in its sun-bleached bones.  Walk here, as I did as a child, and you can read every line……………..

I was fifteen when I found it. Just a skinny kid, burned dark by the sun, curious and solitary, very happy on my own. I loved that dry country and knew something of the richness in the wrinkles of its skin. I was familiar with the midden mounds. The fragments of shell shone like beacons, visible from a great distance all along the old raised beaches. But I knew nothing of those who had made them, except that they were sometimes called Strandloopers'--Afrikaans for "the beach walkers."

Then, ankle deep in sand one day, I stubbed my toe, dug down, and found a bone. Another tiny fragment in the land, but rather different from the rest.  I cleared the area carefully, finding more bones, leaving them in place, and keeping on excavating until I had a hole the size of a large suitcase. And in it, the body of a man.

He was small, smaller than I, with a huge head. He lay on his left side in a fetal position, with his knees drawn up and one hand raised to pillow the great dome of the skull. I had been a little afraid when I first realized that the skeleton was human, but all fear disappeared as I exposed the figure fully and could see how frail and vulnerable it was.

The limbs were weak and spindly and the ribs no thicker than paper. Bur the head was incredible. Beneath the high arch of the forehead, the face was straight and small with delicate jaws and tiny teeth. It was a child's body, with a childish face, driven by a gigantic brain.

I learned later that his people are known to science as Boskopoid, after the site in South Africa where they were first discovered, and are regarded as interesting if somewhat meaningless freaks, having a cranial capacity 30 percent larger than ours. They are also thought to be ancestral to the Bushmen who still eke out a precarious existence in the Kalahari.

But I have my doubts about both of these assumptions………………..

We have prolonged our adolescence and our lives and changed the whole direction of our evolution toward greater reliance on brain than brawn. It seems inevitable that this process will continue…. And given a hundred thousand years, we might end up looking exactly like that gentle being with his huge brain who sat on a remote African beach and watched the ice age coming in.

The man of the future may already have arrived, and lived, and died.



Brewster’s daughter by his first wife, wrote a book on Brewster, which is considered the most comprehensive description of his life.  As well as his many scientific works and biographies of notable scientists, Brewster also wrote

  • The History of Free Masonry, Drawn from Authentic Sources of Information; with an Account of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, from Its Institution in 1736, to the Present Time, published in 1804, when he was only 23. The work was commissioned by Alexander Lawrie, publisher to the Grand Lodge of Scotland,. The book has become one of the standard works on early Scottish freemasonry. Wikipedia insists “ there is no evidence that Brewster was a freemason at the time he wrote the book, nor any that he became one later”.
  • Notes and Introduction to Carlyle's translation of Legendre's Elements of Geometry (1824)
  • Letters on Natural Magic, addressed to Sir Walter Scott (1832)
  • The Martyrs of Science, or the Lives of Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler (1841)


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