FEEL THE POWER—SUPERHEROES AND PHYSICS
Admit it. At some time in your life you have probably wished that you had superpowers. There is something particularly appealing about being special, having something above and outside the ordinary, being able to go far beyond the conventional capabilities of a human being. As a kid, I certainly did a fair amount of running around with one arm stuck out in front of me, playing Superman, pretending that I could fly.
Even as an adult, the idea of having such paranormal abilities appeals. You may try to conceal the delight in a cloud of sophistication, but you have to be totally lacking in imagination not to get a frisson of excitement at the thought of having such talents—and the continuing box-office success of superhero movies shows that the public at large can’t get enough of the vicarious enjoyment of the feats that are possible with superpowers.
Unfortunately, when we drop the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy such a movie and examine superheroes through the scientific microscope, most superpowers fall away like discarded spiderwebs. They could never be real, as they routinely break the laws of physics. Take a simple example—in the movie Spider-Man 2, our hero stops a speeding train by standing on the front of it and spraying out spiderwebs, which attach to the buildings alongside the track, bringing the train to a halt. Leaving aside the biological discomfort that comes from realizing that Peter Parker shoots his webs from where spiders have their sex organs, not their spinnerets, the way this works is just wrong.
In the process, the spiderwebs are stretched for what seems like about half a mile—yet the fibers never get any thinner. Not only is there no material that could stretch that many times its original length, it would be impossible for the strands not to get thinner. Where is all the extra substance coming from? More worrying still, either the attachment points of the web to Peter Parker’s wrists would break, the brick skin on the front of the building would peel off, or Parker himself would be torn in two by the amount of force being applied to him by the sheer momentum of many tons of speeding train. You could imagine a mechanism where the webs would work—repeatedly attaching between the train and buildings webs that stretch and snap, gradually slowing the train down over many miles—but the scene as played out is physically impossible.
Similarly, Superman’s powers are a collection of nonstarters packaged up in blue tights and red shorts. When he flies up into the air, something has to be pushing back on either the air around him or the earth beneath using some kind of action at a distance—it’s basic Newton’s third law stuff—but what is it that does the pushing? Where is the force coming from? We are told he gets his powers from our yellow sun because his home world has a red sun. How? What physical forces are behind this ability? This doesn’t even come close to being science fiction—it is pure fantasy. Or, if you prefer it, magic.
Now it might seem cruel to overanalyze our superheroes in this way. Notice the f word in science fiction—it’s only a story. In the end, the science in science fiction is much less important than telling a good tale. And in most cases, worrying too much about the plausibility of the science is like breaking a butterfly on a wheel. Yet the point of making this unfair examination is that the restrictions and limitations we have to place on superheroes are due to issues with the physics. When movie directors want something dramatic to happen, they don’t worry about what would physically be viable, they just do what looks good. In searching for real superpowers we don’t have that luxury.
However, finding problems with superheroes’ physical abilities leaves open the possibility of paranormal mental skills. Is there a loophole here that would make a form of superpower possible? The mind is much more mysterious than the straightforward laws of Newtonian physics. It’s remarkable when you think about it—we know much more about how our galaxy, the Milky Way, works than we do about the functioning of the human brain. We learn more every year, but neuroscience has a long way to go to catch up with the other sciences.
It’s hard not to wonder whether it would indeed be possible to go beyond normal human capabilities using the powers of the mind. There are some questions to ask, though, before we all don capes and tights. Do such paranormal mental capabilities even exist? Are there good physical explanations for talents like telepathy and telekinesis? Or are the many reported cases of such abilities just the result of wish fulfillment, every bit as much as classic superhero powers? Are all these examples of supernormal capabilities nothing more than fraud or self-delusion?
It is true, as we will see, that we can conceive of scientific explanations for at least some of these so-called psi or ESP (extra sensory perception) abilities. Such mental powers could work within the bounds of physics, which surely makes them worthy of examination. But is there any real evidence to back up the existence of these talents, or are they nothing more than fantasy?
We should certainly not follow the lead of some skeptics and dismiss such powers out of hand. Science must always be open-minded (in this case, quite literally). To dismiss an observation without looking into it is totally unscientific. Admittedly a lot of effort has been put into the area in the past eighty years and it is hard to point to good, reproducible, incontrovertible evidence of the kind of psi abilities that we come across in anecdotes. But that doesn’t excuse taking a stance based more on belief than on evidence.
All too often, scientists have a mindset that considers anything outside the currently accepted worldview as not being science at all. This is a sad mistake, because it demonstrates a deep misunderstanding of what science really is. As Professor Stuart Firestein points out in his book Ignorance, “working scientists don’t get bogged down in the factual swamp because they don’t care all that much for facts. It’s not that they discount or ignore them, but rather that they don’t see them as an end in themselves. They don’t stop at the facts; they begin there, right beyond the facts, where the facts run out.”
The point of Firestein’s remark is not that we should ignore the facts and make science up as we go along, but rather that science is primarily about reaching out into the areas where we are ignorant. He likens the activity to searching for a black cat in a pitch-dark room, when the cat may not even be there. Although more aware of this aspect of science than the general public, scientists do still have a tendency to reject possibilities because they feel wrong or run counter to their personal beliefs, going along with the current majority view, even though this may mean missing out on vast swaths of juicy ignorance ripe for examination.
The late, great astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, writing about an alternative to the big bang theory in cosmology, used a picture of a flock of geese, all hurrying in one direction, to illustrate the tendency that scientists have to stick with the herd (or in this case, flock). The caption reads, “This [photograph] is our view of the conformist approach to the standard (hot big bang) cosmology.” There’s a balance, of course. It isn’t possible to investigate every fringe idea and concept. Not all ignorance is equal in its value to science as potential fresh ground for exploration. But it is also true that science has to develop by taking a look at new possibilities, moving away from the flock of geese and taking a new viewpoint. We need to take the first steps into what is currently ignorance. The best scientists are able to leave their skepticism behind, even if they personally believe that something is highly unlikely, and really look at the evidence.
This is why it is still worthwhile examining the psi field even when many scientists say that there is no point, because there is nothing to examine. As sociologist Harry Collins points out, when a discipline is at the edge of understanding and the very existence of the phenomenon is doubtful, it is not at all uncommon for scientists to make outrageously ignorant statements along the lines of “There is no evidence whatsoever” or “Why investigate something that has no possibility of being real?” As we will see, there is evidence of something behind claims of ESP—but the knee-jerk reaction is to manufacture criticisms based on personal prejudice. We need to take a step back and not prejudge.
The physicist John Bell, who made huge contributions to the field of quantum entanglement, an aspect of physics that some feel could describe a mechanism by which telepathy might work, put things very fairly when responding to a letter from a parapsychology researcher. Bell said that he was reluctant to criticize the problems of psi research. One big issue is repeatability. If scientific evidence is to be believed it should be repeatable in any appropriately equipped laboratory. This can be a problem with many aspects of psi research. But Bell had an interesting parallel.
Apparently, as a student in Northern Ireland, Bell was unable to reproduce standard experiments that demonstrate the expected response for electrical attraction and repulsion. These are basic physical experiments that have been accepted as the way things are since Michael Faraday’s work in the nineteenth century. Bell said that he came to the opinion that “electrostatics could never have been convincingly discovered in my home country—because of the damp.” Bell concluded that good scientists should certainly keep an open mind, as physicists had been surprised by seemingly impossible phenomena several times in the past.
Although there is no doubt that many who claim psi abilities are frauds, and no one has yet won James Randi’s $1 million prize for demonstrating ESP under controlled conditions (see here), we still have a Nobel Prize winner suggesting a mechanism for telepathy, and serious scientists who have researched the field in major university projects like the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory who appear to have produced positive results of something above and beyond random chance. What’s the verdict? Can we put any faith in the experiments that have been undertaken? That’s the point of Extra Sensory.
Most books on psi veer to one extreme or the other. Some accept any “evidence,” however flimsy the proof or however poor the controls. Others are based purely on attempting to show that everything in the field of study is bunk, the product of fraudulent practitioners and incompetent researchers. What I want to do is to go into this exploration open-mindedly, to examine the evidence, consider possible physical mechanisms, and come up with an educated view on the main fields of paranormal ability. I hope you are prepared to be equally open-minded, to decide on the evidence, not on your personal prejudices. There is a tendency sometimes to show that one particular aspect of the paranormal is totally worthless and to use that to dismiss all possible psi abilities. What we will do is take each potential ability and treat it in its own right.
Another problem that is often faced is defining just what is meant by psi, parapsychology, or the paranormal. All too often a whole mashup of psychic and paranormal concepts are bundled together as if they were in some way connected. The media have traditionally made few distinctions among all kinds of weird and wonderful phenomena. So you might see UFOs and abductees alongside psychic mediums who claimed to contact the dead alongside demonstrations of telepathy. I have endeavored to keep this book to topics that could have a physical explanation and that don’t require a belief in spirits, fairies, or little green men. It’s not that I am dismissing these possibilities (although I find many of them unlikely), but rather that I want to concentrate on the potential capabilities of the human brain—so not strictly paranormal, though definitely extra sensory—even though the claims for such mental powers are sometimes no less remarkable than the exploits of Spider-Man and Superman.
Some scientists are scornful, claiming that it’s all over for paranormal abilities. They point out that traditionally many things that were once considered supernatural we now know to be either imaginary or the product of perfectly normal, natural phenomena. The supernatural aspects were first dismissed by science, and that dismissal has gradually been accepted by the general public. So, for instance, lightning was once seen as an unearthly force, quite possibly propelled by the wrath of the gods. Although there are technical aspects of the way that lightning is produced that we still don’t understand, there are few people indeed who don’t accept that lightning is a purely physical phenomenon, an electrical effect on a tremendous scale. It may be quite unlike the kind of thing that comes out of the socket at home, but it’s electricity nonetheless.
If you look back at the remarkable summaries of thirteenth-century proto-science produced by natural philosopher and friar Roger Bacon in books like the Opus Majus, there are plenty of travelers’ tales that we would now dismiss out of hand and wouldn’t consider to be serious descriptions of the real world. You will find accounts of tribes of wild Amazon female warriors and mysterious devices for seeing at a distance that go beyond even the capabilities of a telescope. There are many marvelous, if unlikely, examples that were thought to be part of nature. For example, in his Letter Concerning the Marvelous Power of Art and of Nature and Concerning the Nullity of Magic, Bacon tells us
that the Basilisk kills by sight alone, that the wolf makes a man hoarse if he sees him first, and that the hyena does not permit a dog to bark if he comes within its shadow.… Aristotle tells in the book De vegetabilibus that female palm trees mature ripe fruit through the odour of the males; and mares in certain countries are fertilized by the smell of horses.
These were all serious beliefs back then, as close to science as anything came. But these beliefs have joined leprechauns and fairies in the ranks of ideas that were not just incorrect observations of nature but totally fictitious. Just as these misinterpretations and fictions have disappeared from everyday life, it is argued by some skeptics who can’t even be bothered to examine the evidence that telepathy, remote viewing, telekinesis, and the like have also reached a stage where they should no longer be considered anything more than a fantasy or a historical misunderstanding.
I would suggest that we have not reached that stage while there are so many people who still think that there is something to be investigated, and while a host of experiments have thrown up evidence that at least needs careful examination. We ought to take a look at that evidence with fresh eyes, biased neither by enthusiasm for the topic nor by scientific blindness that refuses to even look at the evidence because we “know” there is nothing to see.
Let’s make our first steps into the unknown and take on ignorance.
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Clegg
BRIAN CLEGG holds a physics degree from Cambridge and has written regular columns, features, and reviews for numerous magazines. He lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and two children.