Nobel prize-winning physicist defends the paranormal


Dec 12, 2006

Cambridge-based Nobel prize winner Professor Brian Josephson has always been keen to champion the paranormal and he does so again in New Scientist (9 December) in its special “Lone Voices” feature which profiles or interviews scientists with views that differ from the mainstream.

In an interview with Alison George, he discusses, among other things, his views on the paranormal and cold fusion, revealing: “There are in fact a lot of scientists who believe telepathy exists, but they keep quiet about it.”

Prof Josephson was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1973 for research which showed how some superconducting materials could operate as extremely fast electronic switches. The “Josephson Junction”, which has many scientific and technical applications, is the legacy of that research.

Since then, however, he has focused on other subjects and is now director of the Mind-Matter Unification Project of the Theory of Condensed Matter Group at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge. This is concerned primarily with the attempt to understand, from the viewpoint of the theoretical physicist, what may loosely be characterised as “intelligent processes in nature, associated with brain function or some other natural process”.

Prof Josephson’s interest in the paranormal, which dates back to the 1960s, made headlines five years ago when he was one of six Nobel Prize winners – one from each of the categories – chosen by the Royal Mail to contribute comments to a booklet that was included in a commemorative pack with a set of stamps to mark the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize.

The six contributors, regarded as the world’s greatest thinkers, discussed their respective disciplines. But it surprised many that Prof Josephson used the opportunity to talk about the paranormal.

“Quantum theory is now being fruitfully combined with theories of information and computation,” he explained. “These developments may lead to an explanation of processes still not understood within conventional science, such as telepathy – an area in which Britain is at the forefront of research.”

Michael Hanlon, writing in the Daily Mail at the time (October 2001), said another physicist, David Deutsch of Oxford University, had accused the Royal Mail of being “hoodwinked” by Prof Josephson. But Josephson was adamant that some of the strange behaviour of sub-atomic particles might explain much of the paranormal, including telepathy, seeing at a distance and psychokinesis.

“Claiming ‘some limited’ psychic ability for himself, he says that these powers will always be at the fringe of human activity,” Hanlon wrote.

In his interview with New Scientist Prof Josephson reveals: “It’s assumed that if a person believes in this kind of thing then his views are not worth considering. It has led to certain people being very prejudiced against me and assuming that there’s something wrong with anything I do. I don’t have the kind of support network that researchers normally have.”

He also discusses “pathological disbelief” in some scientists, whose attitude can be summed up in the statement: “Even if it were true I wouldn’t believe it”.

Prof Josephson has spoken out against various sceptics and their pronouncements on paranormal research, notably “the propagandising activities of the anti-paranormal organisation CSICOP” and specifically its investigation of the apparent medical diagnostic abilities of Natasha Demkina, the girl with “X-Ray Eyes”. CSICOP judged her a failure because she did not achieve four hits out of seven. But Prof Josephson points out that the probability of getting such a score by chance is less than two per cent and “is hardly in step with normal scientific practice”.

Another of the New Scientist’s Lone Voices was Harry Collins, a distinguished research professor at the school of social sciences of Cardiff University, who pointed out that even after a hundred years “no one has absolutely proved the non-existence of extra-sensory perception,” adding: “If anything, the findings run very slightly in its favour.”