New Internationalist

Magical Mystery Tour

Issue 237

new internationalist
issue 237 - November 1992

Magical Mystery Tour

Illustration by JIM NEEDLE

Why should you embark on a journey to an unknown destination?
Chris Brazier tries to persuade a sceptical reader to get on board.

I thought I'd get back in touch with you, our most faithful reader, as I was planning to do something a bit different.

That would be nice. It seems to me you only wheel me on when you've come up against a boring subject and can't think of any other way of making it interesting.

I think I can safely say the subject isn't drab this time. We're taking a look at the paranormal...

The paranormal? Have you gone completely bananas? What's the NI doing wasting its time on that garbage?

Well, that's what I wanted to explain to you - some of the reasons behind our decision to give over a whole issue to this subject.

They'd better be good. When people are starving out there why should the NI give a platform to a bunch of charlatans, hucksters and self-deluding fools?

As always, you have an open mind.

Yeah man, open your mind to the positive vibrations, feel the power of the earth, open your inner spaces to the cosmic principle. I thought we'd left all that stuff behind with the hippies, yet here it is rearing up again. The New Age is just another way of distracting our attention from the political issues that matter.

If that's all the paranormal is, then maybe we'll find out by the end of the issue.

So now you're claiming you have an open mind. Hah! That's a good one. I bet you've decided exactly what you think before you even start work on an issue.

In the usual run of things there may be some truth in that. But in this case I genuinely don't know what I think or what the last page of this issue is going to contain. All I'm trying to do at the moment is explain why you and I are having this conversation at all.

Okay, why are we?

Well, one reason why the NI decided it was time to take a serious look at the paranormal is the mess that the 'normal' Western way of operating has made of the planet. We're much more aware of the environment now and of how much more attuned to it are the indigenous peoples whose very existence is still under threat. Those indigenous peoples have a distinctly 'paranormal' approach to their environment - they see it as a living entity, an aspect of their own relationship to the spirit world.

And we should be prepared to 'learn from them'. A predictable NI line.

Well at the very least we shouldn't assume that their ideas are primitive and that we have all the answers. Then there's the Gaia Hypothesis which is becoming ever more respectable and popular in environmental circles. It posits the idea of the planet as a kind of conscious, self-regulating entity which may one day take its revenge on polluting humans - and if that isn't 'paranormal' I don't know what is.

Is that it? Are those the only justifications you can come up with?

Far from it. I just thought I'd get the easy ones in first. From here on in it gets a touch more technical.

Uh-oh.

I'm sorry. But you've always been such a good listener before that I'm sure you can take it. The story starts with Isaac Newton and his apple. From the moment he watched that apple fall to the ground and worked out why, Western science assumed that it would ultimately be able to explain all physical phenomena - that we just had to be clever enough and wait long enough to work it all out. Newton, Descartes, Galileo. They established laws of physics which still hold sway today and which we all learned about in school.

'For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.' 'I think therefore I am.' All that stuff.

Quite. But in the twentieth century we've been able to look much more closely at the physical world than those early Western scientists ever could. Newton's perception of the laws operating on the world he saw around him was extraordinary; but he could barely dream about monitoring and assessing events at the subatomic level the way twentieth-century scientists can.

I'm not sure why that should have changed things. An apple is an apple, however you look at it.

You'd be surprised. Newton certainly assumed that once you got down to the subatomic level, to the particles that actually make up an apple, they'd follow exactly the same laws as he'd shown to operate in the visible world.

Einstein old and young: as the world remembers him; and as he was in his twenties, just before he formulated his theories of relativity.
IKARSH OF OTTAWA / CAMERA PRESS

But he was wrong?

Yes. The first dent in the model of classical physics came in 1900 when Max Planck discovered why a heated object emits red light According to all the laws of classical physics if you warm up an object it should emit the same kind of blue-white light that it does when it is extremely hot, just in lesser amounts. But instead if you heat an object moderately it turns red.

Red hot. Everyone knows that.

True, but it didn't make any scientific sense. Until, that is, Planck showed that if you excite the electrons of an atom by heating them up they absorb and discharge energy not smoothly and continuously, as had always been assumed, but in packets, jumping up or down from one level to another.

You're losing me...

I'm sorry, but bear with me a moment. All packets of red light are the same size and they're the smallest of all the visible colours, which is why they're the first to appear in the heating process. More intense heat liberates bigger energy packets of blue or violet light. Planck called these energy packets 'quanta' and thus became the parent of 'quantum mechanics'.

But why was all this so amazingly significant? It doesn't sound very earth-shattering to me.

Oh but it was. It was the first evidence that the subatomic world behaves according to completely different 'rules'. Eventually scientists were to discover that it doesn't actually operate according to rules at all, only according to 'probabilities'. It would have blown Isaac Newton's mind.

Hold on. I'm perfectly willing to turn my mind to a disquisition on the new physics or anything else - I sat through the NI's expeditions into economic theory, after all. But isn't all this rather a long way from the paranormal?

Not really. After all, things are only 'paranormal' because they don't fit into our idea of what is normal, which still reflects the traditional Western scientific view. Physicists may talk about an entirely new reality but they're not exactly the world's greatest popular entertainers so ordinary people tend to ignore them. Albert Einstein may be a household name but there aren't many people who read about his special theory of relativity for pleasure. Or if there are I haven't met them.

I suppose you're trying to tell me that if I sat down for a chat with a physicist and actually managed to understand what she said I'd find out she was a spoon-bender on the side...

Perhaps not. But you might have trouble telling whether she was a Western scientist or an Eastern mystic. These days they sound amazingly similar.

I find that very difficult to believe.

Okay, try this. Was it an Eastern mystic or a Western scientist who said this:

'The objective world simply is, it does not happen. Only to the gaze of my consciousness, crawling upward along the life line of my body, does a section of this world come to life as a fleeting image in space which continuously changes in time.'

It sounds like that Zen master in Kung Eu who used to call David Carradine 'Little Grasshopper'. But since you're asking me the question, I presume it must be a scientist.

Correct: H Weyl, writing about the Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science in 1963. How about this one then? 'Every attempt to solve the laws of causation, time and space would be futile because the very attempt would have to be made by taking for granted the existence of these three.'

Someone pretty mystical, I suppose. Michael Jackson?

Close: Vivekananda, in his 1949 book Jnana-Yoga. The point is that it's pretty hard to see the dividing line between physics and mysticism. When Einstein was asked how he had found his theories of relativity, he answered that it was because he was so strongly convinced of the harmony of the universe.

I've rather lost track of why these physicists have become so mystical: they certainly never seemed that way when I was flogging through experiments to prove Boyle's Law at school...

Patience. We were talking about Max Planck. His discoveries set the cat amongst the pigeons and set other people thinking and experimenting along the same lines. People like Einstein.

Him again. Are you going to explain the theory of relativity to me in a couple of sentences now?

Maybe next month. For now let's talk about his discovery that light is made up of particles of energy which he called photons: these bang against the electrons in any object they strike like billiard balls.

Again, so what?

This was a shocking theory because it contradicted what had already been proved a hundred years before and remains true today: that light is made up of waves.

Wait a minute, let me get this straight. Light is made up of waves (which can't be particles) and particles (which can't be waves). You can't have it both ways.

Ah, but you can. We've been trained by our whole cultural upbringing to expect science to deliver a single answer, the Absolute Truth. But in this case there isn't one. And what's even more confusing is that light is made up of whatever we want it to be.

Back to the mystical mumbo-jumbo...

No, we're back to tried and tested laboratory experiments. If you decide you want to show that light is made up of waves you follow Thomas Young's experiment from 1803. This shines light onto a wall through two thin vertical slits. If only one slit is open you get a round shape on the wall like this...

[image, unknown]

And if both slits are open you get a pattern like this...

[image, unknown]

This proves that light is made up of waves: when they go through a single slit as narrow as the light's own wavelength, they start spreading out like a fan; but when they pass through two slits they interfere with each other, cancelling each other out to create dark patches. Waves in the sea behave in the same way.

This is getting a bit too much like those old science lessons at school.

I know. I won't take this much further: you are supposed to be reading this for pleasure.

You're joking. It's just a question of how much pain I can bear each month.

You can prove the wave-like nature of light any time. But if you prefer to prove that light is made up of particles you can do that too (via Einstein's photoelectric experiment). You'll get the answer that you're looking for.

I can't accept that. There simply must be one answer.

The most able scientific minds of the century long ago gave up any attempt to find one. Just accept for a moment that light is also made up of photons (Einstein's name for the bullet-like particles of light) and consider the same two-slit experiment as before. A single photon can go through one slit and land in an area that would be dark if two slits were open. How does the photon know whether the other slit is open or closed?

I don't know. What's the answer?

Can't you guess? There is no answer. Nobody knows. But some scientists have speculated that photons may be conscious - in other words that the tiniest building bricks of the universe may be capable of conscious decision.

Oh sure. So when I lie in my bed at night all the atoms that go to make it up are consciously deciding to hold me off the ground?

Hardly. The real point is that it's a mystery how the photon knows instantaneously what is going on somewhere else. Or why if you alter the 'spin' of an electron, there is an instaneous equal and opposite change in the 'spin' of an electron elsewhere, with which it has no connection. Only the negative associations would stop us calling things like this 'paranormal' And then at the subatomic level you can't observe anything without changing it. The very fact of our looking at something exerts an influence on it. You might say it's like the feeling that you know someone is staring at your back.

Ah, at last! We're into real paranormal territory.

We are. I've given you the barest taster of the new physics, which gets a lot more complex and mind-bending. If you want to investigate quantum mechanics, relativity and their implications any further, try reading Gary Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which I've drawn from liberally.

But we're starting out on a different journey now, a genuine magical mystery tour to an unknown destination. The new physics doesn't prove the existence of paranormal phenomena like telepathy and psychokinesis (spoon-bending and the like). On the other hand no less a physicist than British Nobel laureate Brian Josephson argued recently that 'psychic phenomena may be both consistent with physics and conceivable in rational terms.'1 And if you accept that the normal laws of science don't apply as soon as you enter the subatomic world then dismissing all kinds of experiences on the grounds that they are 'paranormal' becomes a bit presumptuous.

Presumptuous I may be, but I'm still going to be sceptical.

And that's fine - provided you're open-minded too. Let's make this magazine a brief space in which we lay aside our pre-conceptions and look again at the paranormal to see if there's anything to it. And we'll start with a statement of the sceptical case against which everything that follows ought to be measured.

1 'Has psychokinesis met science's measure?'. Physics Today (July 1992).

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