The Perfect Wave

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.

Dear Peter,

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

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23 Responses to The Perfect Wave

  1. Visitor says:

    “Are these people on drugs?”

    They might be. Carl Sagan certainly was. (I am going to presume that you are aware of that being a factual statement.)

  2. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Kary Mullis claims frequent use of LSD helped him conceive of polymerase chain reaction (for which he won a Nobel), so there you go. My own brief period of experimentation with psychedelics leave me somewhat skeptical of that assertion. Dropping acid is way more fun than doing PCR, for one thing. If brane-world cosmology is a closer rival, I now wish I could do high-level maths more than ever.

  3. RalphB says:

    I’m retired from an industrial lab and was driving home last night after teaching my community college physics course. One of my usual FM stations was cutting in and out with others, but suddenly a woman was talking about the “mind-blowing reality of quantum physics” with its “infinite number of universes.” I was told that every decision she makes leads to a splitting of the universe. This splitting also happens when she dreams. And it also happens when her cat makes decisions.
    I teach respiratory therapy students, some psychology majors, some very bright high school students. I was tired last night. And feeling like I am now swimming upstream against the current.

  4. I have not read this new book of Rubenstein’s but I have read a few of her presentations and papers. The most relevant is this one:

    Rubenstein is a learned, articulate, and evidently very intelligent author. What I read was extremely interesting and I learned a great deal (try her lecture on Heidegger, At the same time, she left me a bit uneasy. I feel she has multiple agendas, perhaps not always on the surface. I wonder if she is interested in natural science for its own sake, or only as an instrument in her various theological and scholarly discourses.

    In the paper I cite, Rubenstein’s core argument is that “creation from nothingness” is an idea born of ecclesiastical political dialectic, which cannot obscure the fact that founding documents of Western religion discuss no such thing and leave the “primordial waters” (not God as pure “spirit and truth”) firmly in place as the actual fount of physical being. (This is not MY argument!) And she equates these “primordial waters” with the quantum fluctuations of eternal inflation. Then, by virtue of the anthropic principle, WE appear as the conscious face of those waters.

    I don’t think Rubenstein actually “gets” science in spite of her competent and very insightful recaps of recent physics and cosmology. She is suspicious of the drive to “oneness” that motivates science, and sees it as a political (I read: patriarchal) move that ends up sucking the life out of actual existence.

    My own view is that, be that as it may, the undeniable progress of science lends considerable weight to the philosophical presuppositions (rarely discussed as such) of science. It may be that those presuppositions are not coherent. If so, some work is needed to make intelligible that undeniable progress.

    It would be great if you could engage Professor Rubenstein directly in your review.

  5. Luca Ambrogioni says:

    What is your opinion about many world interpretation Peter? I have the feeling that once you open that door there is a lot of pseudoscience that can enter. Ok maybe it is coherent with the mathematical structure of quantum mechanics (but I do not see any sign of “splitting” in the quantum formalism, for me it replaces the collapse with something equally mysterious), but it is still a wild extrapolation. Besides what is your opinion about the relational interpretation? I think that it takes the good parts of the many-world interpretation without accepting its metaphysical burden.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Michael Gogins,
    Thanks, before commenting more about the Rubenstein book I need to actually read it. It’s clear though she’s not a scientist, and coming at this with an agenda and set of interests which don’t have to do with the science.

    Luca Ambrogioni,
    I don’t want to get into a serious discussion of QM interpretations here, since that’s a very complex subject, one I’m not expert in, and the context is not conducive to an intelligent discussion of this. One thing to say about many-worlds though is that in its simplest form it’s just the unsurprising statement that you can apply the standard QM formalism to arbitrarily large systems, including the entire experiment including the observer. The difficult questions then are how classical behavior emerges, the role of decoherence, and a host of other thorny issues. These are quite interesting, but very difficult and poorly understood topics. I don’t see how going on about your cat causing splitting of worlds, or the joys of psychedelic drugs helps understand anything here.

  7. CIP says:

    @Luca –

    I personally am of two – or actually, of infinitely many – minds on the many worlds interpretation. I am pretty sure they aren’t interfering constructively.

  8. Nex says:

    People are easily carried away by the eureka-euphoria of making dubious connections in their minds.

    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” -RPF

  9. Dave Miller in Sacramento says:


    The two main technical problems with many-worlds are often referred to as the “preferred-basis problem” and the “measure problem”: The first refers to why the multiverse is sliced up into worlds in which you have definite experiences rather than superpositions of experiences. The second refers to how you get probabilities out of an infinite number of branches of the quantum multiverse. From time to time, someone (e.g.,, David Deutsch) convinces a few people he has solved these problems. Then people look more carefully and decide not. And so it goes, for decades now.

    If you want to look into the technical details of decoherence (i.e., not philosophical mumbo-jumbo), see Schlosshauer’s Decoherence and the Quantum-to-Classical Transition. In my judgment, these technical details in the decoherence program are very informative in understanding quantum phenomena, but I am doubtful that decoherence resolves the longstanding philosophical issues.

    You’ll note that neither Peter nor I have told you whether or not we think “many-worlds” or any other approach is right. At least in my case, that is because I do not know (and I frankly doubt anyone does).


  10. Mark Thomas says:

    There is a similar claim of the influence of psychedelia on the information age, Silicon Valley and its creative revolution. However, their claims don’t go back to the ancient Greeks but the newly invented chaotic psychedelic light/music shows fostered by Syd Barrett in Cambridge and down the road with the Beatles in 1967 with Sgt. Pepper. Lots of borders were crossed.

  11. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Dave,
    I second the Schlosshauer recommendation. But also still want to discourage discussion here of QM interpretational issues. Maybe someday a good new book on that topic will come out…

  12. John R says:

    Peter, when you ask, “why Harvard University Press decided this was something they should publish,” the answer doesn’t hinge on the veracity of the many-worlds hypothesis. The answer is grounded in this here and now. The profit-potential from a book like this enables the publication of some really good books that cost more than they make. It may just boil down to the bottom line.

  13. Fredf says:

    The use of psychedelics goes back forever. And it is typical of users to claim enhanced creativity as a result of their use.
    Most studies, however, suggest that the creativity is more assumed that realized…that is to say that in reality there isn’t much creativity to come out of drug use, whatever may be the impression of the user.
    Whatever its import for physics is, it’s not as a basis for new theory!

  14. Dom says:

    Nice update from the author and he is correct, I may well buy it now.

  15. JohnB says:

    Speaking of Carl Sagan and Plato: There’s an incredibly good section from one of his documentaries here, outlining how Plato and the Pythagorians, snuffed out science in favour of gibberish – analogous to the topic at hand:

    A quote (which I believe is from this) on Wikipedia (doesn’t do the few minutes of the video justice mind):
    “Science and mathematics were to be removed from the hands of the merchants and the artisans. This tendency found its most effective advocate in a follower of Pythagoras named Plato.” and “He (Plato) believed that ideas were far more real than the natural world. He advised the astronomers not to waste their time observing the stars and planets. It was better, he believed, just to think about them. Plato expressed hostility to observation and experiment. He taught contempt for the real world and disdain for the practical application of scientific knowledge. Plato’s followers succeeded in extinguishing the light of science and experiment that had been kindled by Democritus and the other Ionians.”

    When physicists fail to ground their theories with observation and evidence, preferring just to play with their ideas and presently-inapplicable (in the sense of being applied to experiment) mathematical abstractions instead, how long can this go on – crowding out resources from other areas of research – before they become much like Plato and the Pythagorians?

  16. JohnB says:

    Note: That I apply that comment mainly to string theorists, not to physicists in general.

  17. Nietzsche introduced the idea of perspectivism: in the final analysis, all we really have is a manifold of interlocking perspectives. For example, consider the following toy model. If humans are small finite, represent each possible human perspective by a small non-empty subset of {1,…,n} where n is a large natural number. Then, there are minimal perspectives, but no maximal human perspective. Still, there is an ideal finite perspective which sees everything! If n=infinity, then there is still an ideal infinite perspective which sees everything! (God’s eye-view!) If one accepts the standard quantum logic then one has a manifold of perspectives which cannot-by Gleason’s Theorem-be embedded into any single perspective! There are now maximal perspectives, but no universal perspective! (Theologically, this requires accepting polytheism!! Alternatively: Even God suffers from cognitive dissonance!!)

  18. Tim May says:

    Thanks, Peter, for the review and/or calling out of the book. I just ordered a copy.

    I’ve never used recreational drugs, save for alcohol, and never noticed any of my physics colleagues or Intel colleagues (I was there from 1974-86) influenced by drugs, but I’ve read a lot of Nietzsche, Heidegger, etc. Not as it relates to physics or math, but in general. (And some of the pre-Socratic stuff from Heraclitus et. al. has resonances with “process” over “object,” and perhaps thus to the operator/transformation or category theory point of view.)

    I got exposed to the “many worlds” thing through Bryce DeWitt’s book, circa 1971, and of course through the fiction of Borges, Niven, et. al., but I didn’t let it warp my hard science career. As you point out, there are a bunch of aspects of QM which are interesting….I won’t add my two cents here.

    — Tim May

  19. M. Anderson says:

    Literally every sentence of the Wikipedia quote above concerning Plato (the second quoted section, beginning ‘He (Plato)’) is either flat inaccurate, sloppily worded (so sloppy as to be misleading), or grossly exaggerated.
    The Mysteries at Eleusis did not “revolve” around the ingestion of a drug, and though Plato was indeed fascinated by, and perhaps even influenced by, the Mysteries, there is no evidence that he had any interest in or experience with psychedelics (maybe he did, but there is no evidence either in the dialogues or the ancient testimony).
    There is also no evidence of this in the case of Democritus.
    This all reads very much like the sloppy use many humanists make of half-digested, and thus misunderstood, science–only in reverse.

  20. M. Anderson says:

    Nietzsche later rejected the version of Dionysianism developed in The Birth of Tragedy (in which appears the notion of “humanity being torn from the integral unity of nature”); his “science” (Wissenschaft) means “scholarship” (as in his own early discipline of philology) as much or more than it means science in our sense; of course he did not believe in a “true meaning of life,” probably not even in BT; and there is simply no way to tell what he would think of the multiverese; his idea of the music making Socrates and notion that science will eventually develop into a new need for myth (also in BT) stesses a different sort of art than the “art” of evidence-free theories of physics.
    Again, sloppy interpretations, wild leaps of association, lack of concern with evidence–is there a trend here.

  21. Mozibur Ullah says:

    I’m fascinated by the beginnings of philosophy and physics in classical times. Does Heinrich provide any solid evidence for his claims about Democritus & Plato being on ‘drugs’?

    I don’t think it being entirely outside the bounds of possibility that hallucinations – drug-induced or otherwise might give some impetus to thinking about the realness of reality. But, most people have these without having to take drugs – they’re called dreams.

    And we have solid evidence in the 20C for artists have used dreams & hallucinations as a subject for their work – I’m thinking of surrealism here. But this doesn’t mean of course that technique can be dispensed with. Dali was a very good painter in the classical western tradition.

    Of course, art is not science. But one gathers that the boundaries between what counted as religion, science, art & philosophy in Antiquity would be more fluid than is the case now.

    Wasn’t Kekule inspired by a dream of a snake eating its tail – which actually is a mythological motif – to think of structure of Benzene? Or is that also a myth?

    Possibly one might consider the wilder speculative moves in cosmology and physics – multiverses, firewalls, landscapes, as part of that same mode of thinking in the 20C – as a kind of esoteric science, to be considered in conjunction with and apart from exoteric science – science that is properly evidence based in the classical sense.

  22. Peter Woit says:

    Mozibur Ullah,
    No, not much detail about drugs and Democritus or Plato.

    Yes, lots of the multiverse stuff fits in well with traditional “esoteric science”. Another name for “esoteric science” among physicists of course is “crackpot science”…

  23. nasren says:

    I second M. Anderson’s comment about Plato. Not only Wikipedia but also the Carl Sagan quote are full of inaccuracies about Plato, the Pythagoreans and Greek science in general. I’m particularly tired of hearing that the discovery of incommensurability “wrecked” the Pythagorean philosophy and that they killed the man who discovered it. Complete rubbish, but repeated ad nauseam in popular accounts. Also the idea that any Greek philosophers or scientists had any acquaintance with psychedelic drugs is pure invention: there isn’t a single mention anywhere.

    What we seem to have in these books is the eternal recurrence of Fritjof Capra — it keeps repeating like indigestion.

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