Wu Li = Nonsense?

"In the wide womb of uncreated night", it says in Paradise Lost, and what better description could there be of the formless potentiality of the quantum field? Ah, those masters of the seventeenth century knew a thing or two. The eighteenth, also: "When Britain first, at Heaven's command, Arose from out the azure main ..." Thus James Thomson, and taking Britain to be a particle-antiparticle pair, the azure main as the quantum field and Heaven as that omnipresent unifying principle we hear so much about these days, it's patently obvious that the formlessness at the roots of the new physics was foreseen by our wise Western ancestors. There's some corner of a quantum field that is forever England. Or, wait a minute, could the Thomson quote be predicting the action of plate tectonics ("Heaven's command")? Food for thought there.

It is fashionable – or such people as Fritjof Capra in The Tao of Physics and Gary Zukav in The Dancing Wu Li Masters say it is so – to see deep and meaningful significance in similarities not always as convincing as the above. Like Von Dänikens of the intellect (a basely unfair comparison, I admit), they assert that there's nothing new under the sun. The most popular connection is that between the mysterious cosmic energy ch'i of the Chinese neo-Confucians, from which all forms emerge, and the mysterious quantum field of similar habits. No doubt Bishop Berkeley would have preferred to equate the quantum field with the Mind of God, but God and Western religion as a whole are insufficiently fashionable today. In this general connection I can't help recalling another quotation, from Robert Benchley: "I think I am violating no confidence when I say that Nature holds many mysteries which we humans have not fathomed as yet. Some of them may not even be worth fathoming."

Not that I want to knock such a pleasant book as The Dancing Wu Li Masters (subtitled An Overview of the New Physics): I enjoyed it enormously for the clarity and zest with which it presented the magic-show of modern physics. It's the oriental connection which seems dubious, and the dubiousness starts in the very title. Wu Li, we are told, is Chinese for physics – literally, "patterns of organic energy", which seems rather a jolly thing to call it. But Zukav goes on to make great play with four "other meanings" ("nonsense", "enlightenment", etc.) which are spurious. First, they're not other meanings of the same phrase, but differently written and inflected phrases which happen to have the same Westernised spelling. Second, they've been carefully chosen from eighty-odd such "other meanings", making it not too hard to arrange the mysterious significances required. Far be it from me to point out the comment on Zukav's reasoning implicit in the fact that Wu Li sounds quite a bit like "woolly".

All right, this is just harmless gimmickry, like the oh-so-subtle numbering of each section and chapter as number 1 (recalling A.E. van Vogt's awful The Pawns of Null-A, supposedly inspired by Korzybski's General Semantics and having all 22 of its chapters called "Null-Abstracts"). Perhaps the numbering is meant to show that you can start anywhere, but the narrative is sufficiently linear that I wouldn't recommend it. Indeed, though both Capra and Zukav mutter about Zen shock-therapy, the only scientific book I've seen using the Zen method is Carl Linderholm's Mathematics Made Difficult, which lives up to its title by pitching you in at the deep end and then holding you under. As the blurb truthfully says: "As you read this book the ability to count, let us say, begins to haze out ..."

Most of Zukav's book is an excellent popular-science work, but time and again there comes a painful creaking as the author shoehorns in some more popular mysticism. The phrase "merger of physics and psychology" appears often. The creation and destruction of particles is called a dance so that it may be likened to that of Shiva, and that of Fritjof Capra. Superlight quantum connectedness has to be the same as telepathy because telepathy "often appears to happen instantaneously, if not faster". The time-reversed view of antiparticles must of course resemble the states of timelessness or time-distortion experienced by meditating gurus. The student of physics will necessarily find value in Buddhism, and vice versa.

All this interesting but unilluminating stuff adds up to a remarkably small portion of the whole. For me it lessens the charm, while increasing the mass and strangeness, of a well-written book. For many others, it will no doubt form a major part of the allure. The practical truth is that while once upon a time mysticism and the occult would often appear with a modicum of scientific support (remember biorhythms, Kirlian auras, bending spoons?), the fashions have lately changed, and mow it's science which needs support. Science today sells better when decked and tinselled with oriental mystery – so whether or not Wu Li means nonsense, the title The Dancing Wu Li Masters is a damned sight more commercial than An Overview of the New Physics.

I wonder whether we should be worried about that?