Thursday May 19, 2005
Talk about bad science
Who am I? Where do I come from? Why am I here? I want answers. Because with answers like these up my sleeve, I’d have solace and a bigger house. And what more could a boy wish for? But science is the last place I’d look.
So, this boring film, What the Bleep do we Know!? plays the new-age trick of mixing up quantum physics with the meaning of life, consciousness and healing. It includes the notion that saying nice things to water can alter its molecular structure. And they’re not the first.
Scientists routinely barge in on weird stuff, such as consciousness and quantum phenomena, and usually at the end of a career, once they’ve got your attention. If you ask me, it’s slightly grotesque.
Roger Penrose: brilliant maths, name made, Oxford, set up for life, then suddenly, big heave, out pops the book on quantum consciousness. Francis Crick, genius boy, discovers DNA, suddenly it’s 30 years later and he’s knocking out books on consciousness too.
Penrose and Hameroff’s hypothesis that microtubules might have something in them that precipitates a wave function collapse, and that this might have something to do with consciousness, is OK. It’s a nice idea. It smacks of the minimisation of mystery, the idea that quantum is weird, consciousness is weird, and we can’t have too much weird stuff going on in the universe so we’d better collapse the two together. It’s an indulgence, although to be fair it’s a fun one.
But compare Darwin and suddenly it all looks a bit trite. No nonsense for that boy. His last manuscript – contain your excitement – was called The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms.
So what’s the difference between Penrose shooting off about quantum consciousness and these cheap new-age quantum truth peddlers? Like all scientists, although he was shooting at the stars and having fun, he still had the decency to label, clearly and separately, what was evidence and what was conjecture.
And more than that, like Darwin, he knew his stuff, which is probably why he didn’t feel the need to go off on one about self-help spirituality.
Read the last chapter of Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman for the real story on the outrageous weirdness of quantum phenomena – the bit where the waves turn into particles is particularly scary – and I defy you to still be worried about your place in the universe.
There are much stranger and more important things going on out there, and it is a lot more interesting than making stuff up.