March 14, 2006
Far Out, Man. But Is It Quantum Physics?
By DENNIS OVERBYE
Can physics save your soul?
Two years ago, a movie with the unpronounceable title "What the #$!%* Do We Know!?" became an underground new-age phenomenon, raking in $11 million out of midnight screenings and word of mouth, spawning an industry of books, tote bags, clothing, DVD's and "biofield" jewelry.
It purported to argue, based on the insights of modern quantum physics, that reality is just a mental construct that we can rearrange and improve, if we are enlightened or determined enough. Science and spirituality have tied the knot, and the world is your infinitely deformable apple.
This winter an expanded version, "What the Bleep, Down the Rabbit Hole," began to play to audiences who say that the movie confirms what they already thought about the cosmos, some vibe they had that it is a slippery, woo-woo-woo kind of place. The movie just finished a two-month run in New York and is to be shown in May at the Quest for Global Healing Conference, in Ubud, Bali, with luminaries like Walter Cronkite and Desmond Tutu attending.
Like its predecessor, this film features a coterie of talking heads: physicists with real Ph.D.'s, biologists, philosophers and a woman who claims to be channeling a 35,000-year-old spirit warrior from Atlantis. It tells the story of a sourpuss photographer played by Marlee Matlin who learns to love herself and take a chance on life.
Like its predecessor, the film touts the alleged power of meditation to affect the crystalline structure of water, as revealed in photographs by Masaru Emoto, a doctor of alternative medicine in Japan. Love and gratitude make for symmetrical and intricate crystals, according to the film, while hatred produces an ugly mess.
If thoughts can do this to water, imagine what they can do to humans, who are, after all, mostly water — at least so runs the mantra repeated several times in the film.
When I first heard that Marlee Matlin had made a movie about quantum theory, I was excited. (Total disclosure: Ms. Matlin once bought an option on the film rights to an essay of mine about Albert Einstein and his wife.) What could be more deserving of wide-screen cinematic treatment than the weirdness and mystery of the laws that sculpture our space-time adventures?
But hours and hours spent watching the two films and navigating their splashy Web site have tempered my enthusiasm. These films and the quantum mysticism industry behind them raise a disturbing question about the muddled intersection between science and culture. Do we have to indulge in bad physics to feel good?
The "rabbit hole" in the title refers to the philosophical muddle that the contemplation of quantum mechanics, the paradoxical laws that govern subatomic life, can lead to. And it is a legitimate and maddening one. Quantum physics proclaims, for example, that an electron (or any object, elementary particle or not) is both a particle and a wave before we look at it, a conundrum neatly illustrated by a cartoon featuring "Dr. Quantum" in the new film.
Physicists have been at war for the last century trying to explain how it is that the fog of quantum possibilities prescribed by mathematical theory can condense into one concrete actuality, what physicists call "collapsing the wavefunction." Half a century ago the physicist and Nobel Prize winner Eugene Wigner ventured that consciousness was the key to this mysterious process.
Wigner thereby, and inadvertently, launched a thousand New Age dreams. Books like "The Tao of Physics" and "The Dancing Wu Li Masters" have sought to connect quantum physics to Eastern mysticism. Deepak Chopra, the physician and author, has founded a career on the idea of "quantum healing," and a school of parapsychology has arisen based on the idea that things like telekinesis and telepathy were a result of probing minds' manipulation of the formless quantum potential. And now the movie.
All of them promote the idea that, at some level, our minds are in control of reality. We are in charge of the holodeck, as one of the characters in "Down the Rabbit Hole" says. And if it doesn't work for you, it's probably because you don't believe.
So what's wrong with that? Like everyone else, I am inspired by stories of personal change. The ideas that consciousness creates reality and that anything is possible make for terrific psychology.
We all know that self-confidence breeds its own success. I wish I were a member of that club. But physics has moved on. It has been decades since anybody took Wigner's idea seriously, said David Albert, a professor of philosophy and physics at Columbia, who has the dubious honor of being one of the talking heads in both "What the Bleep" films and is not pleased with the results.
Many physicists today say the waves that symbolize quantum possibilities are so fragile they collapse with the slightest encounter with their environment. Conscious observers are not needed. As Dr. Albert pointed out, Wigner framed the process in strict mathematical and probabilistic terms. "The desires and intentions of the observer had nothing to do with it," he said.
In other words, reality is out of our control. It's all atoms and the void, as Democritus said so long ago. Indeed, some physicists say the most essential and independent characteristic of reality, whatever that is, is randomness. It's a casino universe.
Not that there is anything wrong with that. There's a great story to be told about atoms and the void: how atoms evolved out of fire and bent space and grew into Homer, Chartres cathedral and "Blonde on Blonde." How those same atoms came to learn that the earth, sun, life, intelligence and the whole universe will eventually die.
I can hardly blame the quantum mystics for avoiding this story, and sticking to the 1960's.
When it comes to physics, people seem to need to kid themselves. There is a presumption, Dr. Albert said, that if you look deeply enough you will find "some reaffirmation of your own centrality to the world, a reaffirmation of your ability to take control of your own destiny." We want to know that God loves us, that we are the pinnacle of evolution.
But one of the most valuable aspects of science, he said, is precisely the way it resists that temptation to find the answer we want. That is the test that quantum mysticism flunks, and on some level we all flunk.
I'd like to believe that like Galileo, I would have the courage to see the world clearly, in all its cruelty and beauty, "without hope or fear," as the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis put it. Take free will. Everything I know about physics and neuroscience tells me it's a myth. But I need that illusion to get out of bed in the morning. Of all the durable and necessary creations of atoms, the evolution of the illusion of the self and of free will are perhaps the most miraculous. That belief is necessary to my survival.
But I wouldn't call it good physics.