Science on (and over) the edge – Three geniuses with guts

Taking a breath

Recent weeks have taught me a few things about this blog. First, there are so many very good BDN food blogs – healthy eating, great recipes, hunting and gathering, you name it – that for me to try to elbow in with a quick cheese casserole recipe seems unnecessary (it’s also not very good for you). Second, the attention given to my tick-borne Powassan virus post this past week told me readers are hungry for reporting on things that otherwise don’t get much ink. When a post gets 50 times as many views in one week as my next most popular piece, you rear up and take notice.

So I’m going foodless: I’ve concocted a new subhead in my banner, footloose explorations of intriguing stuff while cooking, which is as broad and enabling as I could make it. It’s going to poke into some corners of science and public health and climate change and other things I find fascinating while I’m whisking pan gravy with a capful of Marsala, with an occasional lapse into humor and stories from Henry and Margaret, who are usually standing by. But if you’ve been coming here mostly for a good chuckle, you may have to be patient.

I want to launch Phase II of my blog with stories of three celebrated scientists and thinkers who became heroes of mine for their pure chutzpah, risking their reputations and careers to advance ideas, theories, and research that many of their colleagues considered pure balderdash. I think of them as –

Three Geniuses with Guts

and it starts with -

 Sir Francis Crick: how life got here

(Note: this article – and this entire blog – is not for the 42% of Americans who think humans first appeared on Earth 10,000 years ago. Sorry.)

Molecular biologist Francis Crick (1916-2004) was the co-discoverer, with James Watson, of the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953, and was a co-Nobelist with Watson in 1962 for that achievement. In 1973, Crick published a slim volume, Life Itself: Its Origins and Nature, which was the culmination of years of work figuring out exactly what life was and how it started here on Earth some 3.5 billions years ago. The first half of the book – in a way that’s highly readable and accessible – comes to the conclusion that the chances for an evolutionary leap from inorganic matter to the most rudimentary building blocks of life were infinitesimally small (the old a tornado-assembling-a-747-from-a-scrapheap idea).LifeItself

Now Crick drops his bomb: life, he says, came here on a spaceship from another planet. Throughout the halls of science around the world, jaws dropped and tongues wagged.

An avowed opponent of Creationism, he lays out what I thought (when I read it in 1973) was a credible argument for directed panspermia, purposeful seeding of life on one world from another. But I recall a New Yorker review of this book that, while heaping praise on the first half, deemed his spaceship theory totally bizarre and absurd. Others followed suit. Fortunately, Crick had both a thickish skin and some esteemed company in this theory, including Carl Sagan.

Bruised but not beaten, Crick surged back with fresh pursuits in related microbiology study, including seeking to develop a solid science of consciousness itself. No mean feat.

Some years after the book, Crick retreated somewhat from his earlier thinking about panspermia, saying new discoveries about proteins made it slightly more plausible that life originated right here on our home planet. But only slightly.

David Bohm and “everything is in everything else”

Pennsylvania-born David Bohm (1917-1992) had cojones like no other theoretical physicist I know, and you may have gathered by now I’m a bit of a physics nut. Because of Communist leanings as a kid, he was targeted by the McCarthyist House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949, hauled before it to testify against colleagues, pled the 5th, was arrested and indicted for contempt, but was acquitted a year later. Regardless of his acquittal, he was fired by Princeton, where he’d been teaming with a big fan of his, Albert Einstein. He relocated to Sao Paulo, Brazil, then to Israel, and finally to England where he spent most of the the rest of his career.

(photo c Karol Langner)

(photo c Karol Langner)

Bohm was nearly alone among mid-20th century physicists for his reluctance to accept the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, which said, in essence, that a particle isn’t anything until observed or measured – it’s merely a swarm of possibilities. Bohm believed instead that a particle was objectively real, observed or not. He adopted the “hidden variables” view, that a particle had some internal structure or properties that we just didn’t know about, and that’s what caused our inability to grasp its odd behavior (like, being in several places at once). This was extremely gutsy, and ultimately very wrong. But he went that route because, unlike almost all other particle physicists, he was driven to understand quantum mechanics at its deepest level. He wanted to answer the question: how can it be?

Bohm knew that particles were entangled – that paired particles “talked” to each other instantaneously across time and space, no matter how distant (this has been proven time and time again, and is worth a post in its own, sometime later). Reverse the spin of an electron here on Earth, its partner in the Andromeda galaxy instantly reverses its spin. In his widely read book, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, he laid out the notion that the universe operated like a kind of monstrous hologram.

david_bohm_wholeness_and_the_implicate_order_2

[Quick aside: if you take a holographic image on a 4X4 sheet and cut it into four 2X2 sheets, the smaller sheets display the same complete holographic image. Do it again, down to 1X1 squares, the entire image is still there on each small sheet, and so on. The quality degrades each time, but the basic information is retained.]

In Bohm’s universe, everything communicates with everything else, frantically, instantaneously, enormously. It jibed hugely with Buddhism, with pantheistic religions, with cerebral New Agers who embraced Bohm as an iconic hero, and it was all, at its root, borne out by quantum mechanical equations.

He didn’t stop there. In his effort to accommodate the impossible strangeness of quantum theory to our limited brains, he pursued new philosophies of thought and language that would make it easier for us to deal with it, which led him (like Francis Crick) to investigate a new science of consciousness. No mean feat.

John E. Mack and “extraordinary experience”

If David Bohm had his huevos to the wall, John E. Mack laid his neck on the block.

John Mack M.D. (1929-2004) was a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a biography of T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), A Prince of Our Disorder, and a prominent voice among Physicians for Social Responsibility, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

JohnMackPic

John E. Mack, M.D.

As a practicing psychiatrist treating both adults and children, Mack began to hear accounts from some of his patients that they’d had half-remembered encounters with alien beings. At first, he suspected mental illness as the cause, but the more he probed their stories the more convinced he was that something extraordinary was happening. From the late 1980s into the early 1990s, he had amassed several dozen cases, 13 of which he presented in his 1995 book, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens. With this and a subsequent book, Passport to the Cosmos, Mack’s focus wasn’t on whether or not aliens exist in our material reality, but more on how the experiences were affecting the people having them.

aliendiscussionsIn 1992, Mack, along with MIT physicist David Pritchard and others, hosted a 5-day, invitation-only Abduction Study Conference at MIT featuring researchers, scientists, people who wanted to share their experiences, and others. Though the conference came to no specific conclusions, it was regarded as a watershed event in giving the abduction phenomenon a slight gloss of scientific legitimacy, and was well covered by author/journalist C. D. B. “Cort” Bryan in his book Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind.

 

But for Mack there was more to do. In 1993, he launched PEER, the Program for Extraordinary Experience Research, which held regular evening gatherings of researchers and “experiencers” at a hall in Harvard Divinity School. At these meetings, Mack continued to espouse the need for new ways of thinking about the nature of reality and knowledge in order to make better sense of what was going on.

So: here was a highly esteemed Harvard professor and prize-winning author investigating UFO abduction cases. How did Harvard Medical School feel about all this?

They hated it. In 1994, The Dean of the school rounded up a group of Mack’s peers and launched an open-ended, unpublicized (read: secret) investigation of Mack’s behavior, with the unstated aim of piling up enough evidence to dismiss him. When news of this secret panel leaked out, Mack’s supporters – including law professor Alan Dershowitz – cried foul. As pressure mounted against the panel, they finally relented (after 14 months), and reaffirmed Mack’s freedom “to study what he wishes.” But for Mack it was a long, enervating, and costly battle to keep his professorship.

John Mack’s final major project was the investigation of a reported daytime UFO landing in Ruwa, Zimbabwe, witnessed by more than 60 schoolchildren, ages 5-12, at the Ariel School. The children observed the landing, and several of them say they saw two alien figures up close. A film crew joined Mack in Zimbabwe as he spent days interviewing both children and teachers (YouTube video). This event helped cement Mack’s conviction that on some level of reality that we don’t well understand, the phenomenon is valid.

John Mack was killed by a drunk truck driver in London in 2009. Mack’s family declined to press charges against the man, believing that’s what Mack would have wanted.

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It’s possible you’ve detected a common theme with these three men: each devoted his wits and energies to matters that barely cling to the outer edges of what science purports to be. And each believed that the weakest link in the system of embracing such wild ideas was the human mind and its limited ability to understand a reality that is almost certainly broader in scope than we’ve assumed it to be. So, my hat’s off to these guys, their courage, their genius, and how much their work has fascinated me over the years.

That’s all for now…

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Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is an author, photographer, crossword constructor, humorist, traveler through 49 states, and an avid cook. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.