Sometimes when I have come across claims of exotic phenomena at the far-out edge of the field of BSM physics based on branes and string theory (like time travel, or brane-world explanations of the bad OPERA result), my initial reaction has been “Are these people on drugs?” A new book out from Harvard University Press, The Perfect Wave, by theorist Heinrich Päs explains that yes, some of this particle theory activity has its intellectual roots in psychedelic drug consumption.
The book opens with a short chapter about surfing in Hawaii, but then turns to a long chapter about LSD, the author’s experience with magic mushrooms, and the cult of Eleusis in ancient Greece. Supposedly this cult revolved around consumption of a psychedelic brew called “kykeon”, and we’re told that this was of great influence on Plato. The discovery of atoms is also attributed to a drug trip:
Moreover, the perception of smallest details during a drug trip may have affected the atomism of Democritus, who first assumed that the world should be built up of indivisible elements.
The next chapter goes on to discuss quantum mechanics from this point of view. Starting with Heisenberg’s claims of inspiration from Plato’s Timaeus, Päs moves on to Heisenberg’s student von Weizsäcker and his ideas about quantum mechanics and Plato’s Parmenides:
In summary, Weizsäcker arrives at an amazing conclusion, that the notion of complementarity has its source in ancient Greece: “We find … the foundation of complementarity already foretold in Plato’s Parmenides.” We actually can recover the feel of what the ancient Greeks experienced in their mystery cults in modern twentieth-century physics!
From there the book moves to the multiverse and Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of QM, telling us that:
It is actually possible to recognize the multiverse — the collection of all of Everett’s parallel universes — directly as Parmenides’s primeval One: the unity of the world the ancient Greeks felt thay had lost in the charted modern world, and for whose reunification with the individualized ego they looked in the ecstasy of their mystery cults, in their Dionysian arts, or in the flush induced by psychedelic drugs.
The main part of the book then begins with chapter four, which starts out:
Physics is like surfing. Or like an LSD trip.
The final chapter closes with an invocation of Nietzsche and a return to the multiverse of the many-worlds interpretation, with this now providing the Dionysian vision of science that he desired:
For Nietzsche, science thus was the original cause for the ancient Greek’s suffering from the separation of subject and object. And for modern humanity being torn from the integral unity of nature.
Only if science were reconciled with the Dionysian tragedy, with art and music, only if Socrates would start to make music, only then could science grant humanity with a deep metaphysical benefit, could establish a true meaning of life.
In view of this, it is probably most amazing that science itself, with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, leaves some room for an entire multiverse of alternative realities beyond our immediate experience — a multiverse mirroring the unity of Parmenides’s philosophy, as well as the egolessness of Aldous Huxley under the influence of psychoactive drugs, and a Dionysian creative moment bursting open all boundaries.
In betwen the first few chapters and the last one, there’s a short 200 page book about neutrinos. This is the field of the author’s expertise, where he started out as a theory student working with the Heidelberg-Moscow double beta decay experiment. Claims from this group that they see a signal have been challenged by recent (too recent to be in the book) results from GERDA. The GERDA results are here, Heidelberg-Moscow’s response here. Neutrino physics is a complicated and fascinating subject, and one can certainly make a good argument that it’s now the part of HEP where there are things we don’t understand and promising avenues to explore using existing technologies (you don’t need TeV-scale accelerators).
Unfortunately what most interests Päs is the far-out part of the subject, specifically ideas like using neutrinos to travel in time by hopping between branes. In the foreword to the book he does give a warning:
Warning up front! The book deals with established scientific insights and with wild speculations… I highly recommend that the reader be alert to this difference.
and then briefly notes which topics he will cover are extremely speculative, but then ends with an inspirational quote from Glashow:
The wild ideas of yesterday quickly become today’s dogma.
These warnings are quickly left behind, and it requires a careful and well-informed reader to sort through which of the material on neutrinos has some sort of relation to reality, and which is just baseless and wild speculation.
When I bought this recently released book in the local bookstore (Book Culture, if you’re interested…), at the same time I acquired another very recently released book, which I’ll write more about here soon. The odd thing is that both of these books come from Ivy League university presses, and both end with a stirring and enthusiastic invocation of the multiverse as providing a Neitzschean answer to rationalistic Western science. There’s definitely a trend here… For the Päs book in particular, I’m rather mystified why Harvard University Press decided this was something they should publish.
In the next to last chapter, Päs shows some awareness of why rationalistic science is so important:
But useful application is not the point of neutrino physics. Rather it is a quest for a better basic understanding of the universe, thereby ultimately contributing to a solid foundation for the an incorruptible, rational world view. At times when intolerance, religious fanaticism, gut instincts, and irrational esotericism are flourishing, this is an effort whose importance should not be underestimated.
I’m not sure that “irrational esotericism” is any more of a widespread problem in the culture at large now than it has ever been. If it is though, I don’t see how promoting over-the-top groundless speculation, the multiverse, and the idea (attractive as it may be) that fundamental physics should be a Dionysian activity based on psychedelic drug consumption is really going to help…
Update: Heinrich Päs sent me the following. It addresses a few things in the review that could easily be misunderstood, providing very helpful clarifications and some of his point of view.
thanks for your extensive review of my book. If you allow, I would like to comment on a few points though which might be misunderstood:
Your review may give the impression that the wild speculations in this book are not clearly identified. However, the preface you are citing identifies GUTs, supersymmetry and cosmic inflation as speculations which nevertheless represent “the present hopes… of most of the scientists working actively in these fields”, marks string theory and extra dimensions as “wilder” speculations, admits that shortcuts in extra dimensions are “speculations squared” and that time travel in extra dimensions may be considered as “speculation to the power of 1,000″. Also later on in the book I put some effort into saying clearly when I talk about textbook science and when I discuss scientific (and other) speculations, and I always motivate these speculations. For example, I mention your very own criticism of string theory as being “not even wrong” and I actually agree with you that scientific theories should make testable predictions. Of course this is one important difference of science and religion (or esotericism). However – and I hope you didn’t take that personal – I continue by arguing that it is more useful and pragmatic to try to find out whether some ideas of string theory could actually lead to testable predictions – what people like Antoniadis, Arkani-Hamed, Dvali, Dimopoulos, Randall and Sundrum have started – than to condemn it.
And this is another important difference of science and religion: textbook theories can be questioned. Without speculation there would be no relativity and quantum mechanics, there would actually be no science at all.
You also mention the controversial result of the Heidelberg-Moscow group and the wrong OPERA result. Let me clarify that I’m not an author or advocate of the Heidelberg-Moscow result, and that I always have emphasized that the OPERA result is most probably due to a mistake in the experiment. The results are mentioned in the book as what they are: controversial and wrong, respectively. And while the GERDA result is not in the book, the somewhat earlier result by EXO which also challenged the Heidelberg-Moscow result with a comparable sensitivity is discussed.
Having said this, I actually like your review. It transmits the correct idea that this book takes you on the wild trip through neutrino physics, and may some of your more intellectually adventurous readers actually motivate to buy it.
Kind regards, Heinrich