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On the Internet

Reality Check

Milton Rothman

Skeptical Briefs Volume 6.3, September 1996

Some time ago, when I was new to computer networking, I subscribed to Prodigy and spent many bemused hours corresponding with denizens of their physics bulletin board (see Foibles and Falicies from the December 1994 Skeptical Briefs). While many of the correspondents were serious students interested in discussing real science, a large number of them had notions of science derived from watching Star Trek and other science fiction films. Their idea of a good time was inventing theories about traveling faster than light by the use of tachyons. The idea that physics textbooks were more reliable than the more interesting fantasies of the future was a ludicrous thought worthy of nothing but derision.

At that time I thought that these were merely adolescents playing around with their imaginative notions of science. In time, as they went to school and learned real science they would grow out of it. So I thought. However, my hopes were shattered when I graduated to America Online and discovered the Internet. There I found the same fantasies, masked by more sophisticated homepage techniques, created by adults, some with Ph.D.'s.

A very elaborate homepage is called the Internet Science Education Project (ISEP), a California non-profit 501(3c) corporation. (For those who are not familiar with the Internet, a homepage is a page that appears on the screen, created by some interested person, and accessed by a specific address — one of those lengthy strings starting with “http://". From the homepage you can jump to other pages, from which you can jump to other pages. This is what we do when searching or surfing the web.) On the ISEP homepage we are greeted by a picture of a ravishing beauty who claims to be Lt. Alexandrova from Space Force Academy at the San Francisco Presidio in the year 2196. She is communicating with us by advanced quantum waves from the future. (In physics an advanced wave is a solution of a wave equation that lies in the future light-cone of space-time. At present there is no physical interpretation to this wave.)

Clearly somebody is having fun. The person in charge is Jack Sarfatti, Ph.D., "President of the Corporation.” Dr. Sarfatti uses the Science Education Project to publicize his advanced ideas, which he calls post-modern physics. At the bottom of the homepage we find a logo for the Space Force Academy which we click to reach the next level (the next page). Here we find a large number of choices: Muse Magazine, PSI Wars, Quantum Mind & Microtubules, Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Animation, UFOs: Fact or Fancy?, Quantum Teleportation, to name a few.

Examining some of the pages, and accumulating a large pile of printouts, we are able to distinguish the pattern of post-modern physics. It is an interlocking set of theories centered on the non-locality of quanta — that is, on the observation that within a single quantum (wave packet) a particle such as an electron or photon can appear to be in two places at the same time. It is also deeply concerned with quantum gravity and its possible uses.

The post-modern enthusiasts claim that recent work in “anomalous cognition,” teleportation, and the relation between quantum gravity and consciousness presages a revolution in physics analogous to the quantum-relativity revolution that took place at the end of the nineteenth century. It certainly would if true.

Reading the theories found on these Internet pages we find certain technical terms used repeatedly: quantum gravity, Bohm pilot waves, microtubules, qualia, etc. A typical sentence: “The qualia [i.e., subjective mental experiences] are excitations in the macroscopic coherent quantum Bohm mental ‘pilot wave’ attached to the material vibrations of ‘Frohlich collective modes’ of electric dipoles in the microtubules inside living cells.” Or, look at this one: “The Mind of God hangs suspended in the Hilbert raum of Wheeler’s superspace guiding the evolution in time of the three-dimensional space geometry of our Universe — at least in Bohm’s pilot wave theory of quantum gravity that, according to Penrose and Nanopoulos, form the substratum of our consciousness.”

Here we see a concatenation of perfectly legitimate physical concepts (and physicists) to form a string of words that convey very little meaning to my impoverished brain. Quantum gravity is a theory that combines quantum mechanics (the theory of small objects) with general relativity (the theory of gravity and the curvature of space). Many of the greatest physicists have worked on this, with a variety of results. Pilot waves were proposed by David Bohm to explain certain mysterious phenomena stemming from the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox. (Bohm was a great quantum theorist in the old days — I read his quantum mechanics textbook from cover to cover back in 1952.)

An example of an incomprehensible observation that relates to pilot waves is an experiment I did myself in 1976. (It’s a rather simple experiment that can be done in any optics laboratory.) In this experiment, a beam of light is passed through a half-silvered mirror inclined at 45° to the beam. Cut down the intensity of the light so that just one photon wavepacket passes through the mirror at one time. Quantum theory tells us that half of each wavepacket is reflected while the other half is transmitted. We know that this happens because if you bring the packets together in an interferometer, you do get interference fringes, showing that both transmitted and reflected waves go around the interferometer. But if you detect the photons with two photodetectors (A and B), you find that if the reflected wave is detected in one location by phototube A, the transmitted wave is not detected at the same time by phototube B, and vice versa. How does one detector (A) know not to trigger when the other (distant) detector (B) does trigger, even though both are being hit by exactly the same wave? This is very hard to explain by classical quantum concepts. To make sense out of this paradox, Bohm proposed that inside each quantum was a “pilot wave” that hid within one of the split wavepackets and determined which detector was going to trigger. For many years physicists believed that pilot wave (hidden variable) theories were untenable, but later came to believe they were not so untenable. As a result, the use of pilot waves is a possible way of explaining the observations associated with the above experiment, just one of the many experiments that have a bearing on the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox.

Quantum gravity theories are legitimate theories; the only problem is that so far no one has figured out how to test any of these theories. But there is always hope. The mischief arises when you take a theory that has no visible consequences and apply it as an explanation of a phenomenon such as consciousness. The post-modern physicists do this by stringing together a bunch of legitimate terms like beads on a string, piling conjecture on top of conjecture. It’s great entertainment, but is it science?

My fundamental objection to the use of quantum-gravity pilot waves to explain consciousness is this: the authors of these theories provide no mechanism to explain how the sub-sub-microscopic entities control what happens in the brain. What happens to pilot waves when a person dies? Do they disappear, or are they effective only when interacting with a brain that has a certain type of organization? And what were they doing during all the billions of years before human brains came on the scene? Are we to assume that the pilot waves cause consciousness only when they meet a brain with a certain kind of organization? Perhaps it is the organization that causes consciousness, and quantum-gravity pilot waves are simply a bit of poetry.

On another web page we find the breathless news of a new breakthrough in space propulsion. Listen carefully: ” . . . the quantum potential Q found in Bohm’s hidden variable version of quantum mechanics is able to transform ordinary protons into virtual ‘faster-than-light’ tachyons. This would permit the construction of a new type of rocket engine that would enable low-cost highly fuel-efficient practical interstellar flight for large manned spacecraft.” Using tachyons as the propellant, a large spaceship could be pushed to velocities approaching the speed of light, using a relatively small amount of energy.

My question is: how much energy does it take to generate a stream of tachyons? To provide a reasonable amount of thrust, the tachyon beam must have a certain amount of momentum. The relativistic relation between momentum and energy is surely the same for tachyons as it is for other particles. And the mass-energy of the spaceship approaches infinity as the ship approaches the speed of light. So from where do we get this high energy efficiency? (Besides, nobody has seen a tachyon yet.)

AFTERTHOUGHT: It occurs to me that Scarfatti’s Internet Science Education Project with all its scientific double talk makes perfect sense if we consider it to be parody. It is an education project in the sense that it forces the reader to examine what he knows and decide whether the writing makes sense or not. If the writing is intended to poke fun at the new-age, post-modern physics, it succeeds admirably. If it is really supposed to be serious, well, then . . . . Personally, I hate it when I can’t tell whether a writer is serious or not. It goes back to the time fifty years ago when I wrestled with John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, who presented a new loony idea in each issue of his magazine. I hated to think that such a talented, intelligent person might be a bit less than totally sane.

To save our sanity, true skepticism may be found on the Internet. Set your web searcher to look for “skepticism,” and you will find a large number of items, most of which I have not yet looked at. One useful item is an annotated bibliography of books on skepticism, with one-paragraph reviews. It is very expert and knowledgeable. There is also a list of skeptical journals.

CSICOP has its own homepage (, and past issues of Skeptical Briefs and Skeptical Inquirer can be found therein. Congratulations to CSICOP for joining in the fun. (And now I can e-mail this article to Barry Karr. In about a thousand years I will have saved enough postage to pay for my computer.)

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Milton Rothman

Milton Rothman is a physicist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.