Bohmian Spat

Here’s a story from the boundaries of conventional physics of the sort I normally try to resist paying any attention to, but couldn’t quite help myself this time:

Last week I noticed amongst the e-mail from Jack Sarfatti that clutters my (and many other people’s) mailbox some forwarded messages about a kerfuffle involving the withdrawal of a conference invitation to Brian Josephson. Josephson is a Nobel Prize winner but, on the other hand, he seems to think that this sort of thing makes sense. In one of the messages, I noticed that Josephson defends himself by pointing out that his talks often don’t involve paranormal phenomena, giving as example a recent Hermann Staudinger lecture in Freiburg (Staudinger was a chemistry Nobelist, also my great-uncle).

This mini-scandal has now made it to a Times Higher Education story today, which starts off:

An extraordinary spat has broken out after a Nobel prizewinning physicist was “uninvited” from a forthcoming conference because of his interest in the paranormal.

Details of the conference in August for experts in quantum mechanics sounded idyllic. Participants were due to discuss “de Broglie-Bohm theory and beyond” in the Towler Institute, which is housed in a 16th-century monastery in the Tuscan Alps owned by Mike Towler, Royal Society research fellow at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory.

Last week, any veneer of serenity was shattered. Conference organiser Antony Valentini, research associate in the Theoretical Physics Group at Imperial College London, wrote to three participants to say their invitations had been withdrawn.

The current situation seems to be that Josephson, David Peat and Jack Sarfatti were un-invited, but now Josephson and Peat have been re-invited.

I had never heard of the Towler Institute before, but it sounds like a beautiful place, which physicist Mike Towler has admirably made available as a site for hosting small meetings and conferences. From the information on its web-site, this looks like the kind of place I’d find it very difficult to turn down an invitation to, no matter what the conference topic.

The conference at issue will be held at the end of the summer, and deals with what is known as “de Broglie-Bohm theory”. One can read about this many places, including this site of Mike Towler’s. The conference summary itself refers to the de Broglie-Bohm theory’s “fringe nature in modern physics”, and for more about why it is controversial see Towler’s lecture Not even wrong: Why does nobody like pilot-wave theory?.

After spending a little time learning about it many years ago, I quickly decided that I personally didn’t like pilot-wave theory, partly because it seems to me that it throws out all the deep, amazing and experimentally verified links between modern physics and mathematics that motivate what I love about the subjects, getting nothing much in return. I don’t see a good reason to believe that research in this area is going to lead to something interesting, but those who do have every right to keep trying. As they do so, they face serious problems in distinguishing crackpot from non-crackpot efforts, as this story makes very clear. Note that I have no intention of putting any time into this problem myself, so in this case I’m adopting a uniform policy of just deleting all comments arguing for or against de Broglie-Bohm. If that’s a topic you like to argue about, do it elsewhere.

There’s more here from Chad Orzel.

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16 Responses to Bohmian Spat

  1. willman says:

    Just to get a little clarification/enlightenment, I’ll try a question: do you dislike the GRW approach to quantum mechanics (and related “spontaneous collapse” approaches like Philip Pearle’s) as much as you do the de Broglie-Bohm approach, or do you find GRW’s work more palatable than that of pilot-wave theorists (and if so, why)?

  2. Anonymous says:

    I remember hearing a talk given by Brian Josephson on “Mind Matter Unification”. After the talk a student challenged Josephson with the question whether his theory is experimentally falsifiable. Josephson thought for a while, and answered, “The energy of the Universe may be different when mind is taken into account”. According to people who know him, Josephson lost interest in conventional physics soon after (or even before) he was awarded the Nobel prize, but he is a very smart person and he’s still doing integrals in his non-conventional research.

  3. Stephen says:

    The abstract of Brian Josephson’s paper (i.e. “this sort of thing”) starts “A model consistent with string theory is proposed for so-called paranormal phenomena such as extra-sensory perception (ESP)…”. Is there a hint of irony here?!

  4. Peter Woit says:


    In general I’m not much of a fan of attempts to modify the basic structure of quantum mechanics in order to deal with the measurement problem (precisely because this basic structure fits so well with basic structure in mathematics). From the little I know of them, the “spontaneous collapse” models have more modest goals and are less about replacing the whole QM formalism with something that I find radically less appealing, but I know very little about this.

  5. Bob Levine says:

    There seems to be a bit more to this story than the impression conveyed by the initial reports, on the basis of which Orzel asks the entirely reasonable question, what were the organizers thinking? A big part of the answer seems to be contained in Towler’s long post in response to the THE story and attendant correspondence—specifically, that Josephson and Sarfatti were NOT formally invited. According to Towler, they ‘they asked me if they could attend, which is very different.’ Indeed it is. A bit more information about what *actually* happened is probably warranted before any conclusions are drawn from all this.

  6. willman says:

    Thanks, Peter.

  7. milkshake says:

    They got worried about being lumped together with Esalen… I feel sorry for the organizers, they seem generous. Maybe they should look into bringing in younger people instead; summer workshop would be also a less conspicuous way to invite someone with fringe ideas

  8. Alex R says:

    The comments following the Times Higher Education story are not to be missed, for entertainment value at least, containing comments from Sarfatti, Josephson, and Towler among the usual anonymous suspects…

  9. John Baez says:

    That paper by Josephson may have been moved from the hep-th section of the arXiv to the general physics section — see his complaints here.

  10. Phil Warnell says:

    Dear Dr. Woit,

    As Antony Valentini was himself fated to existing for years outside the protected walls of the Ivory Towers, it is indeed curious to find him at the centre of all this. I would be the first to say such bickering as being completely unnecessary and yet also would insist that transparency should not be forsaken in situations where an opinion is rendered, by citing any which others may have to express as being irrelevant in respect to the topic.



  11. Antony Valentini says:

    I would like to make a public statement about this.

    The fuss stemmed from a private email that I wrote to Prof. Brian Josephson on the 19th April 2010, regarding a conference (about the de Broglie-Bohm interpretation of quantum mechanics) which I am co-organising with Dr. Mike Towler. The matter has recently erupted into the public domain with the publication of a rather misleading article in Times Higher Education.

    Conference organisers are sometimes required to make difficult judgements, and of course mistakes can and do occur. The email I wrote was an attempt to deal with a difficult and complex organisational problem internal to the conference. It was not intended as a literal statement of my views about the scientific status of research into the ‘paranormal’. Nor did the wording accurately convey the nature of Prof. Josephson’s early association with the conference.

    For the record, and contrary to what many are claiming: I am not in principle opposed to the careful and scientific investigation of alleged anomalies, whatever they may be. This view seems to me entirely obvious and uncontroversial.

    Some will ask why I wrote an email apparently ‘dis-inviting’ a participant. Normally, such a step would of course be a regrettable breach of basic etiquette, and the recipient could reasonably complain strongly (and in private) to the organisers. However, as many will have learned from Dr. Towler (who started planning the conference before I got involved), certain alleged ‘invitees’ were in fact never formally invited.

    Even so, some may ask why certain people became associated with a conference that is outside their domain of expertise, and which was never intended to be about the paranormal. Others feel driven to suggest that I was forced to write the email by a sinister power, and attempt to portray this episode as a bigoted attempt to suppress radical ideas. Some have simply concluded that there were probably good (if obscure) reasons for my writing the email, while others have seen fit to make comments without knowing the full (and private) facts behind the case.

    In my view, if I may say, these matters are the business of the conference organisers and not of anybody else.

    Prof. Josephson took the regrettable step of posting my email, in full and with author signature, on his website. (The author information and some of the text has now been removed.) This act encouraged a storm of protest from some of Prof. Josephson’s associates, partly in the form of a large volume of misleading emails sent to all the conference participants as well as to dozens of others (including journalists) and partly in the form of postings on various websites, including one that by any reasonable standard can only be described as deliberately defamatory.

    Private correspondence (whether by conventional or electronic mail) should be treated as private, and should not be placed in the public domain without the author’s consent. The internet is an evolving medium, and one can query the suitability of standard constraints in this context. However, I suggest that we all take a deep breath, and ask ourselves if it is wise to blur the distinction between private and public correspondence in this way.

    It is my view that a private matter between Prof. Josephson and myself has been brought into the public domain in a manner that is inappropriate and improper, as well as unhelpful and deeply misleading.

    Some will regard my attitude as old-fashioned. For the other side of the argument, I can recommend a book by Lee Siegel, whose title speaks for itself: ‘Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob’.

  12. csrster says:

    That’s a shame as the conference otherwise sounds like a Bohmian Rhapsody.

  13. Janne says:

    Theoretical physicists seem to have this strong paranormal ability to assess the mental health status of people they haven’t even met.

  14. M. Wang says:

    Dr. Woit, can you elaborate on “all the deep, amazing and experimentally verified links between modern physics and mathematics that motivate what I love about the subjects”?

  15. Peter Woit says:

    M. Wang,

    I’m referring to the close relationship between between representation theory and quantum mechanics, and the still not well-understood issue of how these work in the case of gauge symmetry and qfts like the Standard Model.

  16. Dave Miller says:


    I’ve been interested in Bohm-de Broglie theory since my undergraduate days (alas, more than three decades ago!).

    I share your aesthetic feelings that Bohm-de Broglie is unlikely to really give fundamentally deeper insight into the nature of QM. However, even granted that, I have always found it interesting that there does exist this mathematically consistent theory that reproduces all the results of standard QM. I think that this is worth exploring from the viewpoint of foundations, even if, as I suspect, it will not in the end, replace standard QM.

    I have also followed both Valentini’s and Sarfatti’s work over the years. Valentini’s work is normal physics: e.g., mathematical results are proved from clearly stated assumptions, etc.

    I think I can honestly and diplomatically say that a different characterization would be needed to describe Sarfatti’s work (Jack himself might even agree).

    These guys are engaged in different activities, very, very different activities. Trying to include those activities in the same conference would be like holding a joint conference on superstrings and digital signal processing (and I hope I didn’t just start a new string subfield!).

    All the best,

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

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