Wednesday, March 02, 2005

A little knowledge ...

... can be a dangerous thing. I am certainly aware of this maxim, since on many subjects I have only a very little knowledge, yet I persist in having opinions about them which may or may not be valid.

But I'm not the only one. Recently I was reading a book by Deepak Chopra called How To Know God - a bestseller, like all his books - when I came across a fairly common example of a little knowledge that has been inflated into a big (but probably wrong) conclusion.

Chopra writes,

[Y]ou could never capture [an] electron anyway, since it too breaks down into energy vibrations that wink in and out of existence millions of times per second. Therefore the whole universe is a quantum mirage, winking in and out of existence millions of times per second....

You and I exist as flashing photons with a black void in between each flash.... In other words, we are being created, over and over again, all the time.

I have encountered this image in other books, notably Michael Talbot's The Holographic Universe. Since Chopra has read and often recommends Talbot's book, he may have found this alleged datum of quantum physics there. The trouble is, it's probably not true.

The confusion stems from the fact that there are two kinds of subatomic particles - real particles and virtual particles. The virtual particles do wink in and out of existence all the time; they have no stability, and persist only long enough to carry out energy transfers between the real particles.

The real particles, on the other hand, do persist over time. They don't wink on and off like the lights on a Christmas tree. Electrons and photons, the two examples Chopra cites, are real particles. When Chopra says that these particles are winking, blinking, or flashing, he is probably just wrong.

Why do I say "probably"? Because it is always possible that the real particles are winking also, but at a rate so fast we can't measure it. This option can't be ruled out, but as far as I know, there's no evidence for it.

Thus, the universe is probably not winking on and off millions of times each second, and does not have to be perpetually re-created. The gigantic conclusion Chopra draws from his premise is wrong, because the premise itself is wrong.

This doesn't invalidate the rest of his book, which is interesting and provocative, but it does show that we must take pronouncements on science by non-experts with a grain of salt.

A warning that definitely applies to any science-related posts you read in this space ... including, of course, this one.


Blogger Brins said...

Here's something I noticed at the 'Survival Society' a while ago:

I don't know all that much about Physics, but what would you make of Mr. Pearson's theory? It comes across to me as a bit far out, but he has a lot to say about it.

It seems strange to me that the society - made up of such figures as Montague Keen - would advocate this theory unless he at least made some good points.

March 04, 2005 5:33 AM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

I'm not competent to assess Pearson's theory, but I know that Brian Josephson, a Nobel-prize-winning quantum physicist who teaches at Cambridge, and who is very open-minded about the possibility of life after death, has looked at it and found it faulty. Josephson says that Pearson, who is not a physicist but (I think) an electrical engineer, made elementary errors that no trained physicist would make. Sorry I can't be more specific, but the issues are technical and I don't claim to understand them.

My guess is that it is too early for any all-encompassing theory of psi and that more data are needed - not necessarily to prove the existence of the phenomena, but to understand them better. This position has been taken by Charles Tart, one of the most sensible parapsychologists, and I think it's correct.

Still, if psi could be integrated into mainstream physics, this would go a long way toward promoting acceptance of the paranormal. The chief obstacle to acceptance is not lack of evidence but lack of a theory or paradigm in which the evidence makes sense. It's an illustration of the old saying: "They'll see it when they believe it!"

March 04, 2005 11:33 AM  

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