It set the stage for his new afterlife contest, seeking the best available evidence of survival of consciousness, with prizes of $500,000, $300,000 and $150,000 for first, second and third place. The winners will be announced on Nov. 1.
Entrants must qualify as serious researchers by Feb. 28, with a record of at least five years of study of the field and preferably an affiliation with groups like the Society for Psychical Research in Britain. Submissions of up to 25,000 words are due by Aug. 1, to be judged by a panel of specialists. Mr. Bigelow said he had an idea what that best evidence might be, but “it would be prejudicial to say.”
The Bigelows’ interest in consciousness grew after the 1992 death by suicide of their 24-year-old son, Rod Lee, father of a baby son and as-yet-unborn daughter. (That son, Rod II, grew up to struggle with drug addiction and would also die from suicide at 20 in 2011. His sister, Mr. Bigelow’s granddaughter, Blair, has worked with his aerospace and realty companies and may eventually take them over, Mr. Bigelow said.)
Seeking comfort after their son’s death, the Bigelows held sittings with the renowned medium George Anderson. Did their son make contact? “Not really,” Mr. Bigelow said, “but what I got out of the readings, I think, was that his spirit existed and that he was O.K.”
Finding few researchers seriously studying afterlife experiences, the couple in 1997 endowed the Bigelow Chair of Consciousness Studies at the University of Nevada Las Vegas with a $3.7 million gift. Charles T. Tart, a spiritually inclined transpersonal psychologist, and Raymond Moody, an author who popularized the study of near-death experiences, became the first two chairs, but Mr. Bigelow shut down the program after several years. “Sadly, we just couldn’t make enough progress in research aspects,” he said.