|Bantam, 209pp, $3.50|
Another Dave Langford review.
Here we go again, on the same old bandwagon which starts with a reasonably intelligent tour of problems at the roots of quantum physics and after one chapter is slithering uncontrollably downhill. By Heisenberg's principle, to observe a microscopic system is to change it, and some physicists emphasize this by saying 'participator' rather than 'observer': this, says Michael Talbot, shows that when Uri Geller apparently gimmicked a Geiger counter in 1974 he was using 'psychoenergetic means'. Individual observations on the quantum level mean little, since quantum mechanics is usually interpreted as making statistical rather than absolute predictions: this (says Talbot) proves that experimental results depend on the consciousness of the observer and aren't repeatable. Wheeler's 'geometrodynamics' of 1962 postulated countless spatial wormholes permeating and connecting every part of the universe: this (says Talbot) proves that our brains are linked to every portion of the cosmos and...
Let's pause a moment. Firstly, even under Newtonian physics our brains are linked to a good deal of the cosmos simply by gravity: this doesn't actually mean a lot Secondly, look at the dates again: 1962, or the 1967 of the book's geometrodynamics reference, is a long time ago in physics and especially in the physics of gravitation, general relativity and cosmology, which has leapt forward astonishingly over the last decade. Great play is made with Sarfatti's 1974-5 theories of omnipresent mini-black and mini-white holes which are constantly formed and destroyed (a swift calculation giving the associated energy as equivalent to the detonation of half a ton of TNT: gosh). The whole business of tiny black holes was effectively demolished by Stephen Hawking around 1975, but -- surprise! -- Talbot includes no reference to Hawking. Thirdly, although being out of touch with physics is not a capital crime, Talbot doesn't even seem to understand probability:
'... we have 100 hypothetical particles. Schrödinger's equation has enabled us to predict that 10% of these particles will strike in area A and the remaining 90% will strike in area B. As has already been stated, the behaviour of an individual particle cannot be predicted. Only the pattern of distribution of the entire group of particles follows predictable statistical laws. If we let the particles pass through the slit one by one we will notice that after 10% of the particles have struck area A, further particles passing through the slit seem to know that the probability has been fulfilled and shun the area.'
Cobblers! Utter cobblers! Schrödinger's equation makes a statistical prediction, just as I might predict that of a large number of tossed coins about 50% will come up 'heads'. Talbot apparently thinks that if you toss two coins and the first is 'heads', the second will 'know that the probability has been fulfilled', and ...
After subtle reasoning of this order, it's unsurprising to find Talbot at the favourite game of rummaging through mystical texts for anything vaguely resembling a scientific concept, and repeatedly exclaiming 'This proves it!' Sample: some neurophysiologists have suggested that brain functions may involve a kind of internal bioluminescence. 'This light inside the skull may be the very self-illumination that the Upanishads refer to.' One person suggests that the brain's pineal body may be the core of a holographic memory system. 'How appropriate, considering the pea-sized organ has long been regarded in the East as the "third eye" ...' One must give him credit for subsequently mentioning that excision of the pineal body has no effect whatever on memory storage or recall: but the mystical impression has been made, and which bit do you think a gullible reader is meant to remember?
Later it's proved that Tantric philosophy includes full knowledge of black holes: there is a Tantric concept called bindu, a mathematical point which is exactly the same shape as the singularity point within a black hole! Other Tantric/black-hole connections seem to fit 1975 but not 1981 hole theory -- oh, hard luck. This approach can only debase mystic writings, which after all are offering religious parables and not wiring diagrams.
Even more so than its predecessors, this book is made unbelievable by the way in which the author overplays his hand. The universe is stranger than we can account for; science does not have all the answers; it remains possible to acknowledge these facts without going overboard and being prepared to believe absolutely anything. But, good grief, it's 1981 and Talbot still believes in the inexplicability of Uri Geller....
|First published in Vector 102, June 1981.|
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