by Guy Lyon Playfair
Telepathy made the headlines at the end of September 2001. A whole page of the Daily Mail, half a page of The Observer and a sizeable chunk of BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme were all devoted to it. What could have attracted so much of the media’s attention to a subject they normally avoid like the Black Death?
It all began when the Royal Mail issued a set of stamps to mark the centenary of the Nobel prizes, together with a presentation set containing a brochure for which six British Nobel laureates were asked to write short pieces about their subjects.
One of these was Professor Brian Josephson, F.R.S., who won a Nobel prize for physics in 1973 for his work in solid-state electronics. His contribution ended:
“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 in which Britain is in the forefront of research.”
Something immediately hit the fan, the first handful being slung by Oxford physicist David Deutsch. “Utter rubbish,” he spluttered to The Observer (30 September). “Telepathy simply does not exist.” This opinion came from somebody alleged to be an expert on time travel, something for which there is no credible evidence at all, in contrast to the whole shelves of evidence for telepathy backed up by some pretty impressive statistics.
The paper’s science editor Robin McKie suggested patronisingly that Josephson had “gone off the rails” as other laureates had in the past when holding forth on subjects other than their own. The transistor pioneer William Shockley, for instance, gained well-deserved notoriety for his extremely offensive views on race. McKie seems not to have noticed that Josephson, (both a Cambridge physics professor and a longtime member of the Society for Psychical Research). was making a well- informed comment about his own field.
True to its tradition of scrupulously fair balance, the BBC confronted Josephson with psychologist Nicholas Humphrey and conjuror James Randi, neither of whom are Nobel laureates, Fellows of the Royal Society, or even physicists. Let’s hear it first from Mr. Randi:
“There is no firm evidence for the existence of telepathy, ESP or whatever we want to call it, and I think it is the refuge of scoundrels in many respects for them to turn to something like quantum physics, which uses a totally different language from the regular English that we are accustomed to using from day to day, to merely say oh, that’s where the answer lies, because that’s all fuzzy anyway.”
Humphrey was slightly more coherent:
“Well, I think the idea that quantum physics explains the paranormal is an unnecessary idea, because there’s nothing to explain. If Brian Josephson could produce the goods by showing that there is evidence for telepathy or psychokinesis, or metal bending, or anything else, then we have a problem, but we haven’t got any evidence.”
This came from a former holder of the Perrott-Warrick research fellowship in psychical research, who pocketed an estimated £75,000 without doing any noticeable research at all, and even managed to get shortlisted for the Koestler chair of parapsychology at Edinburgh.
Josephson, who must have felt he was trying to argue with somebody who insisted that the Earth was flat, explained patiently and in perfectly regular English that the concept of mind being linked to matter was “absolutely standard physics”.
He might have added the words attributed to his Trinity predecessor Isaac Newton when somebody made a silly remark about alchemy:
“Sir, I have studied the subject and you haven’t.”