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No place for the paranormal at physics conference

A strange case of physics vs the paranormal has surfaced via the pages of the Times Higher Education newspaper.

A Nobel Prize winning scientist was left fuming after he and two others were invited to a workshop, only to have their invitations withdrawn due to their occasional dabbling in the paranormal.

The workshop in question was entitled ‘21st-century directions in de Broglie-Bohm theory and beyond’, to be hosted by the Towler Institute, a very pretty looking building in Tuscany owned by University of Cambridge researcher Mike Towler.

According to a posting on the website of Brian Josepheson, head of the ‘Mind-Matter Unification Project’ at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and a Nobel laureate, he was disinvited by a letter from conference organiser Antony Valentini of Imperial College London that read (current page, cached page with full letter):

It has come to my attention that one of your principal research interests is the paranormal. … Nothing personal, of course. It is a purely intellectual matter.

Science writer David Peat and theoretical physicist Jack Sarfatti were also disinvited on similar grounds, says the Times Higher, under the headline He didn’t see that coming, or did he? Although Peat and Josepheson have been re-invited after a bit of email bantering, Sarfatti is still persona non grata at the Casa del Towler.

On his website Josephson writes of the affair:

These letters [to himself and Peat] illustrate well the defensive, paranoid attitudes of members of the scientific community such as those who pressed for this action to be taken; for such people, science equates to ‘closed minded enquiry’, in the light of which their action is in no way surprising.

The real mystery is how the invitations were extended without the conference team being aware of Josephson’s interest in the paranormal, given that his website clearly outlines his interest in the topic.

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  1. Report this comment

    Jack Sarfatti said:

    Although Towler had a general intent to hold such a Bohm conference I was the instigator catalyst that collapsed his wavefunction so to speak. Here is the true story that Towler has been busy re-writing. I have the e-mails to prove my version for any historians of physics interested.

    I caught wind of Towler’s excellent on-line lectures on Bohmian physics in which he cites my idea of “back-action” that I gave in two talks at Stuart Hameroff’s Tucson Conferences on Consciousness in the late 90’s – published in their abstracts. The idea is that Shimony’s “passion at a distance” the detente between entanglement and no signaling across spacelike intervals is understood in Bohm’s theory as the fragility of the quantum potential Q. This means that Q pilots the trajectory of the hidden variable but the hidden variable does not directly back-react on Q. In other words, this is the “test particle” approximation for the hidden variable similar to the situation in General Relativity. In terms of the de-Broglie-Bohm-Vigier stochastic approach this is sub-quantal thermal equilibrium of the hidden variables. Therefore, my idea anticipates Antony Valentini’s “signal nonlocality.” I proposed in Tucson that all living matter has such direct back action (no action without direct reaction so to speak). Obviously, living matter is not in thermal equilibrium in the key degrees of freedom but are dissipative structures in Prigogine’s sense. I then suggested that our inner conscious qualia is the effect of this self-organizing creative two-way spontaneously self-organizing feedback control loop. Furthermore, as shown by Roger Penrose in his semi-popular books (e.g. Emperor’s New Mind) discussing Libet’s presponse, there is an element of retro-causality consistent with the old Wheeler-Feyman idea.

    Towler cites me for the above in his Cambridge lectures as a “celebrity nut job” that I took with good humor. He later wrote that his colleagues call him a “nut job” – presumably because of his interest in Bohm.

    Well I contacted Towler by email and by August of 2009 we were talking about having a meeting on Bohm in 2010 and I contributed to bouncing around some rough ideas with him before Valentini was even in the picture.

    I stayed at Trinity College Cambridge for a week in September 2009 where Towler and I met and discussed the idea further with Josephson. Towler was on his way to Perimeter Institute where he said he would discuss the idea with Valentini. I also said that I would try to get some funding for the meeting – there was never a quid pro quo that my attendance was contingent on me getting money for Towler. Also I told Towler that I was mainly interested in listening not talking at that workshop. My main interest was Valentini’s idea of signal nonlocality, which in Valentini’s words, could be used for “espionage” and breaking quantum cryptography security. I am an informal “senior advisor” to Dr. Ronald Pandolfi, of the Science & Technology Directorate of the CIA and the MASINT program. Indeed, I was Pandolfi’s guest at a JASON meeting at General Atomics in June 2008 in La Jolla. Therefore, for Towler to tell the Times Higher Education Supplement that I thought Towler was in the pay of the CIA was blatantly false and I had previously admonished Towler not to spread that false story to the press.

    So that’s how it started the rest is history. Of course both Towler and Valentini were aware of our unconventional views from the beginning. Updates on this situation are at my stardrive.org blog.

  2. Report this comment

    Alchemipedia said:

    This physics workshop, entitled ‘21st-century directions in de Broglie-Bohm theory and beyond’, is about interpreting quantum theory.

    Spin is a fundamental characteristic property in quantum mechanics.

    It is probably not such a mystery why the conference team invited Josephson.

    The conference has obtained a great deal of publicity using good old ‘media spin’ – all news is good news.

  3. Report this comment

    Antony Valentini said:

    I would like to make a public statement about this.

    The fuss stemmed from a private email that I wrote to Prof. Brian Josephson on the 19th April 2010, regarding a conference (about the de Broglie-Bohm interpretation of quantum mechanics) which I am co-organising with Dr. Mike Towler. The matter has recently erupted into the public domain with the publication of a rather misleading article in Times Higher Education.

    Conference organisers are sometimes required to make difficult judgements, and of course mistakes can and do occur. The email I wrote was an attempt to deal with a difficult and complex organisational problem internal to the conference. It was not intended as a literal statement of my views about the scientific status of research into the ‘paranormal’. Nor did the wording accurately convey the nature of Prof. Josephson’s early association with the conference.

    For the record, and contrary to what many are claiming: I am not in principle opposed to the careful and scientific investigation of alleged anomalies, whatever they may be. This view seems to me entirely obvious and uncontroversial.

    Some will ask why I wrote an email apparently ‘dis-inviting’ a participant. Normally, such a step would of course be a regrettable breach of basic etiquette, and the recipient could reasonably complain strongly (and in private) to the organisers. However, as many will have learned from Dr. Towler (who started planning the conference before I got involved), certain alleged ‘invitees’ were in fact never formally invited.

    Even so, some may ask why certain people became associated with a conference that is outside their domain of expertise, and which was never intended to be about the paranormal. Others feel driven to suggest that I was forced to write the email by a sinister power, and attempt to portray this episode as a bigoted attempt to suppress radical ideas. Some have simply concluded that there were probably good (if obscure) reasons for my writing the email, while others have seen fit to make comments without knowing the full (and private) facts behind the case.

    In my view, if I may say, these matters are the business of the conference organisers and not of anybody else.

    Prof. Josephson took the regrettable step of posting my email, in full and with author signature, on his website. (The author information and some of the text has now been removed.) This act encouraged a storm of protest from some of

    Prof. Josephson’s associates, partly in the form of a large volume of misleading emails sent to all the conference participants as well as to dozens of others (including journalists) and partly in the form of postings on various websites, including one that by any reasonable standard can only be described as deliberately defamatory.

    Private correspondence (whether by conventional or electronic mail) should be treated as private, and should not be placed in the public domain without the author’s consent. The internet is an evolving medium, and one can query the suitability of standard constraints in this context. However, I suggest that we all take a deep breath, and ask ourselves if it is wise to blur the distinction between private and public correspondence in this way.

    It is my view that a private matter between Prof. Josephson and myself has been brought into the public domain in a manner that is inappropriate and improper, as well as unhelpful and deeply misleading.

    Some will regard my attitude as old-fashioned. For the other side of the argument, I can recommend a book by Lee Siegel, whose title speaks for itself: ‘Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob’.

  4. Report this comment

    Jack Sarfatti said:

    Both Towler’s and Valentini’s replies are not true. Detailed email records are available to those interested. In particular I did not send hundreds of emails in a week to Towler about this. It was about a dozen and a half. I never used “foul language”, never accused him of being in the pay of the CIA – indeed I am a senior advisor to a top officer in the CIA, so such an allegation is completely ridiculous. More recent updates are in Google using key words and on my website http://stardrive.org.

    From my recent email to Brian Josephson on his return from China:

    re: http://physicsworld.com/cws/event/15126

    Obviously persons unknown, The Hidden Variables, forced Valentini into writing those three letters on April 19, 2010 when allegedly Towler was en-route in a car from Italy to UK and was not consulted? I have very friendly emails from Towler up until very close to that time on logistical details on where to stay etc. There was a very sharp abrupt inflationary phase transition to a hot Big Bang! 😉

    So the question is, who is really responsible for this shocking breach of academic freedom, intellectual honesty, decency, good manners and demonizations, e.g. Towler’s false accusations of my use of “foul language”, “hundreds of emails in a week” etc.

    Note, also never has there been any mention of specific ideas in physics held by me, or you, or Peat that are objectionable. If there were, Towler et-al knew of them before I ever got to Cambridge in Sept 2009 because, at least in my case, he mentions my back-action on the quantum potential idea with my name in his Bohm lectures. In any case, it’s clear that he knew of my allegedly heretical crank ideas like signal nonlocality violating no-cloning prior to any initial discussions by email and in person at Cambridge.

  5. Report this comment

    Mike Towler said:

    Hi Jack,

    Allow me to correct just a couple of mistatements.

    “In particular I did not send hundreds of emails in a week to Towler about this. It was about a dozen and a half.” [Jack Sarfatti]

    Here is a list of the emails in my ‘jsarfatti’ folder from the week after your so-called ‘disinvitation’, essentially all of which concern this issue:

    http://www.tcm.phy.cam.ac.uk/~mdt26/js.html

    I make that precisely 100 emails, and those are only the ones I bothered to save (you actually sent considerably more).

    “I never accused [Towler] of being in the pay of the CIA – indeed I am a senior advisor to a top officer in the CIA, so such an allegation is completely ridiculous.” [Jack Sarfatti]

    The document from which the Times Higher Education Supplement took that quote from me was a private email to the conference participants, in which I stated:

    “Jack in particular seems to have written something like 100 emails in the last four days, many of them suggesting that we are in the pay of the CIA or whatever; I can assure you this is not the case.” [Mike Towler]

    The ‘or whatever’ – which the THES omitted in their story – is important, since it leaves open the possibility that your multiple references in the above 100 emails to the involvement of ‘intelligence agencies’ were references to my being in the pay of SIS, the KGB, Mossad, SPECTRE, SMERSH or similar. I am nevertheless quite happy to accept that your high-up position in the CIA allows you to state with confidence that this particular agency was not involved.

    As for the ‘foul language’, I am happy to clarify that you merely circulated emails containing foul language written by your associates to the many hundreds of people on your mailing list, stating that they were ‘hilarious’ and ‘very appropriate’. As the foul language in question made direct reference to both me and Valentini, I felt justified in mentioning the fact in my comment on the THES site. You did not author the foul language yourself, nor did I ever say that you did.

    I hope this clarifies some of the matters you raised above.

    Best wishes,

    Mike Towler

  6. Report this comment

    Jack Sarfatti said:

    I am not aware of circulating any “foul language” – I would like to see examples of what Towler thinks is “foul language”? Certainly what Valentini and Towler did could understandably elicit “foul language”. I do recall some funny appropriate jokes from Colin Bennett suggesting that I pour beer on Valentini’s head after Valentini wrote that he would enjoy meeting me at a Pub. Is that what Towler means? In any case it he is quibbling – a tempest in a teapot.

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    Charlie Mitton said:

    I have to declare an interest in all of this since I have recently written a book concerning Jungian synchronicity and had been in touch with David Peat on this matter.I had been interested in the off the wall notion that the number 23 attracts acausal events after ideas found in William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson.

    When I found out about this ‘disinvitation’ business I googled ‘David Peat’ and ‘disinvited’ into respectively the ‘exact words’ and ‘all these words’ boxes of the advanced google search engine. A 23 came up immediately and it referred to a site authored by Josephson.

    The 23 from Burroughs is actually in a literal sense a pilot wave. I could say more but this would seem to be demonstrating non-local connections derived from a far-from-equilibrium dissipative system. My own work references Sarfatti, Josephson and Peat.

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