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Tachyons and Other Nonentities

Reality Check

Milton Rothman

Skeptical Briefs Volume 4.3, September 1994

Sliding (faster than a beam of light) across my desk recently came a copy of a full-page ad that had appeared in a journal called Pacific Spirit. The heading on this page is: “TACHYON: YOUR HEALTH AND FITNESS ARE IN YOUR HANDS.” It begins: “Subtle Energy That Relates to Your Body At Its Highest Level of Vibration. Tachyon comes from the Greek word tachy which means acceleration. The name refers to sub-atomic particles which travel faster than the speed of light. Because of its speed, Tachyon can exist everywhere.” There follow advertisements for Tachyon Mineral Water, Tachyon Space Fiber Head & Wristbands, Tachyon Jewelry Beads, etc., all of which are intended to enhance your state of well-being, both physical and spiritual. The prices are fairly modest.

What I like is the irrelevant logic. “Because of its speed, Tachyon can exist everywhere.” A non sequitur if I ever heard one. Before it can exist anywhere, a tachyon must exist somewhere. And there’s the rub.

About 25 years ago, a number of physicists suggested the possibility that there exist particles that normally travel faster than the speed of light. In order for this hypothesis to be consistent with relativity, the mass of such particles would have to be imaginary-that is, contain the square root of minus one. Gerald Feinberg gave this hypothetical particle the name “tachyon” and was most prominent in publicizing his brainchild, with the aid of an avid press corps. Mind you, the theory was a proper theory in the sense that it was mathematically consistent, and also because it predicted certain observable consequences-namely, that if tachyons existed they would emit a certain type of radiation (Cerenkov radiation) in a vacuum. This radiation was searched for, and none was found. So, after a flurry of excitement, physicists lost interest in tachyons and went on to more massive hypotheses, such as black holes. As far as physicists are concerned, tachyons do not exist. (But black holes do!)

However, that small fact does not deter the spiritualists of the Pacific Coast. To them, giving the tachyon a name is the same as proving its existence. They then expect the skeptics to prove that it does not exist. For this reason we must always remember the first rule of skepticism: Those who claim the existence of any object or entity have the responsibility of proving its existence.

Don't let the believers sucker you into thinking you have to prove the nonexistence of something that does not exist.

Pseudoscience in the media, Part II

In the last issue I related my experiences as an interviewee for a TV magazine show that dealt with healing by prayer (The Bulletin with Larry Kane, which aired on April 15 at 8:00 PM, on KYW-TV, an NBC affiliate). I was pleased at having a whole interview to myself, in my own office. It seemed a lot better than being part of a talk show with three psychics arrayed on the stage against little me.

When I finally saw the show, I realized that I had not counted on the mighty power of the editor. In the 15 minutes devoted to the topic of psychic healing, the only skeptic (me) got at most one minute. Brenda Dunne made the most of her prestigious connection with Princeton University. (Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne have spent many years in a laboratory at Princeton purporting to demonstrate that the mind can change the motions of electrons and the workings of random-number generators.) The fact that most of the faculty at Princeton considers this work an embarassment wasn’t mentioned. The program also gave much time to research I had never heard of showing that prayer improves the life of bacteria and earthworms, as well as humans.

I must say, however, that in my one minute of fame I sounded very good. All I said was that nobody had demonstrated the existence of psychic forces that allow one mind to directly influence things happening at a distance. As far as physics is concerned, these forces do not exist.

Once more we find ourselves dealing with the fundamental question posed in the paragraph above: If somebody says something exists, who is responsible for proving its existence? There is no physical evidence for any kind of psychic force. Yet a majority of people (even many scientists) believe that they exist. Belief without evidence is a symptom of a religious system. You can’t argue with that kind of belief, and I don’t want to. But as soon as you claim that scientific experiments give evidence for that belief, then scientists have the responsibility to examine that claim and to see if that evidence is truly valid. And as soon as you get into that area, the rigid rules of scientific research must be followed.

An article in the Buffalo News (March 27, 1994) comes with the headline “Time Travel into the Past is a Theoretical Possibility". Well, so it is, if you can find yourself a convenient black hole in the right position and manage to get through it without being destroyed, while ending up back on earth in the past or future. This author disposes of the various time-travel paradoxes by proposing that everytime there is a time-travel event the universe splits into two branches, so that after your temporal voyage you find yourself on a different branch and you can’t kill your grandmother after all. (Or, more precisely, if you kill a lady you think is your grandmother in this branch of spacetime you never get born; but your birth was in another branch.) Gee whillikers, I think the first time I encountered this idea was in a science-fiction story about 15 years ago. Let’s get with it, fellas.

A most fascinating notice recently came to my attention via Barry Karr. It is an announcement for an International Symposium on New Energy held in Denver on May 12-15. (Sorry this date has already passed.) The list of topics is exhilaratingly comprehensive: cold fusion, quaternions (a mathematical device of nineteenth-century origin), “N” machine, Perpetuum Mobile, Zero Point Energy, Casimire effect, Anti-Gravity, Space Power, Vacuum Triode Amplifier-Vacuum Triode Amplifier! I haven't seen one of those in 30 years. What are they doing with it now? Have they made one with an efficiency greater than 100 percent?

Sorry I couldn’t be at what must have been a very educational event, but I was spending the time posing as a target for 10-Mev X-ray machine, converting high energy photons into low energy electrons, positrons, and ions, with enough efficiency to burn my innards to a crisp. Ooh.

I am probably not the first person to entertain this thought, but it appears to me that the proposals described in the paragraphs above are examples of a general law of psychology called Conservation of Ideas. This law says that ideas cannot be destroyed-once an idea has been proposed it never goes away. Perpetual motion, cold fusion, tachyons, Elvis Presley, etc., all remain active somewhere no matter how many times they are killed. Even the idea of a a messiah, more than two thousand years old, remains powerful in spite of a total absence of material evidence in its favor. The recent death of Rabbi Schneeman will do nothing to change the beliefs of his followers.

Milton Rothman

Milton Rothman is a physicist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.