The Nobel-prize-winning physicist Brian Josephson has studied the brain and the paranormal for 30 years. He tells Edwin Cartlidge that most physicists have an irrational prejudice against unorthodox areas of research.
It's no surprise when entering the office of a physics professor to find that space is at a premium, with books and research papers piled high on every available surface. In that respect, the office of Brian Josephson on the top floor of the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge is no exception. But it would be wrong to conclude that Josephson is a typical physicist, and a quick glance at those books reveals why. With titles such as Consciousness explained and Clairvoyant reality, it is apparent that he is interested in subjects well beyond the scope of the average physicist.
Josephson is best known for his pioneering theoretical work on superconductivity, which led to the invention of the Josephson junction and earned him a share of the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physics. Josephson junctions are the key components in superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDs). which are widely used to make extremely sensitive measurements of magnetic fields. But these days, Josephson is the director of the "Mind-matter unification project" at the Cavendish. He spends his time thinking about how the brain works, investigating topics such as language and consciousness, and pondering the fundamental connections between music and the mind. Most controversially, as far as physicists are concerned, he carries out speculative research on the nature of paranormal phenomena, a field known as parapsychology.
Beyond quantum theory
Josephson's current work is based on the belief that quantum mechanics is not the ultimate theory of nature. "Future science will consider quantum mechanics as the phenomenology of particular kinds of organised complex system," he says. "Quantum entanglement would be one manifestation of such organisation, paranormal phenomena another. As yet, our understanding of such matters is very qualitative, but application of the skills of the physicist to such situations can be expected to yield more precise theories in due course."
Needless to say Josephson's views are not universally acclaimed in the physics community. Indeed, physicists were highly critical of a short passage that Josephson wrote to accompany a special set of stamps published by the Royal Mail to mark the 100th anniversary of the Nobel prize last year: "Quantum theory is now being fruitfully combined with theories of information and computation. These developments may lead to an explanation of processes still not understood within conventional science such as telepathy -- an area where Britain is at the forefront of research."
In an article in The Observer newspaper published at the time, David Deutsch, a quantum physicist at Oxford University, described Josephson's claim as "utter rubbish" and went on to say there is no evidence that paranormal phenomena actually exist. Asked by Physics World whether the paranormal might become a respectable area of research, Deutsch was still highly dismissive "One day Santa Claus might turn out to be a respectable area of research. All one can say is that there is no better evidence for the one than for the other."
Josephson, however, believes that such views stem from ignorance. He says that there is now strong evidence for the existence of parapsychological phenomena, pointing out that a number of trials designed to investigate telepathy -- communication between minds using means beyond those of the known senses -- have produced positive results. These include experiments [details of methodology] in which one person is asked to mentally "transmit" one of four photographic or video images to a second person. According to Josephson, the receiver correctly identifies the image about one third of the time, not a quarter of the time as would be expected through chance alone.
"The trouble is that the scientific community is not aware of these results because very little of this work is published in journals like Nature and Science," says Josephson. And the work is often ridiculed when it is published in respectable physics journals. He cites the example of a paper on quantum mechanics by Henry Stapp of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that contained a reference to parapsychology. Although this paper was published in Physical Review A in 1994, it was subsequently criticized in the letters pages of Physics Today. Josephson believes that the landmark 1935 paper by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen setting out a hypothetical thought experiment in quantum mechanics was just as conjectural as Stapp's paper.
"Physicists have an emotional response when they hear anything connected with parapsychology," he says. "Their opinion of parapsychology research is not based on evaluation of the evidence but on a dogmatic belief that all research in this field is false."
Josephson believes the same is true of other unorthodox areas of research, such as cold fusion or homeopathy. The scientific community, he maintains, has been highly influenced by the views of the chemist Irving Langmuir, who argued that phenomena which are difficult to reproduce are not real. On the contrary, says Josephson, phenomena may legitimately be difficult to reproduce, such as those associated with neutrinos.
Brian Josephson was born in Cardiff in 1940 and carried out his Nobel-prize-winning work at the age of just 22 while studying for his PhD at Cambridge University. He predicted that a superconducting current can tunnel through an insulating junction, even when there is no voltage across it, and that the current will oscillate at a well-defined frequency when a voltage is applied. His calculations were published in Physics Letters forty years ago this July and were confirmed experimentally within nine months.
But Josephson was no one-hit wonder. As an undergraduate he published a paper in which he calculated a thermal correction to the Mössbauer effect that reconciled previously different measurements of gravitational red shifts reported by teams in the US and UK. According to one eminent physicist who knows Josephson, but who prefers to remain anonymous: "For a few years Josephson produced a number of very important papers, and he would have had a place in the history of physics even if he had not discovered the Josephson effect."
So what caused Josephson to abandon his conventional and highly fruitful line of research? After a year doing postdoctoral work at the University of Illinois in the mid-1960s, he returned to Cambridge where he started to think about how the brain works. He says he found this more fascinating than anything in physics at the time. He then became interested in Eastern mysticism and parapsychology, attending a conference in Toronto at which, he says, a psychic called Matthew Manning demonstrated paranormal spoon bending. "I began to sense that conventional science is inadequate for situations where the mind is involved, and the task of clarification became a major concern of mine," he recalls.
Josephson's interests moved away from mainstream physics research at about the time he won his Nobel prize. There was also, he says, a period in the 1970s when his ability to concentrate and do science was seriously disturbed, and that he was scientifically unproductive at the time. He took up meditation, which he now practises on a daily basis ever since, and says that this helps to him deal calmly with his critics in the physics community, and to clear away mental obstacles when trying to solve scientific problems. He adds that he believes his critics are misguided and narrow-minded, and points out that he has recently received two awards for his work on brain mechanisms, and has also been invited to present his ideas at prestigious conferences on information sciences and complex systems.
Pursuing the paranormal
Although parapsychology is not taken seriously by most physicists, it has become more respectable in the wider academic world, especially in psychology departments. About 50 people at universities in the UK have been awarded PhDs in parapsychology, and 15 of these have gone on to obtain permanent academic positions in university departments, according to Bernard Carr, a cosmologist at the University of London. Two years ago Carr, Josephson and others organized a conference entitled "Rational perspectives on the paranormal" in Cambridge (Physics World May 2000 p5).
"Even if one regards the probability of extrasensory perception being real as small, its significance if established would be so immense that it is surely worth investing some effort into studying it," says Carr.
Indeed, Josephson has no doubt about the importance of investigating the brain. "Ultimately," he says, "my work on the brain is more significant than my Nobel-prize winning research." Others would no doubt disagree.
Reprinted with permission from
Physics World, May
2002, pp.10-11. Some links have been added to the original text.