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He didn't see that coming, or did he?

Nobel laureate's interest in paranormal leads to conference rejection, writes Matthew Reisz

An extraordinary spat has broken out after a Nobel prizewinning physicist was "uninvited" from a forthcoming conference because of his interest in the paranormal.

Details of the conference in August for experts in quantum mechanics sounded idyllic. Participants were due to discuss "de Broglie-Bohm theory and beyond" in the Towler Institute, which is housed in a 16th-century monastery in the Tuscan Alps owned by Mike Towler, Royal Society research fellow at Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory.

Last week, any veneer of serenity was shattered. Conference organiser Antony Valentini, research associate in the Theoretical Physics Group at Imperial College London, wrote to three participants to say their invitations had been withdrawn.

The physicist and science writer David Peat, biographer of David Bohm (co-founder of de Broglie-Bohm theory), was considered tainted because of his books on "Jungian synchronicity" and "connections between Native American thought and modern physics".

Brian Josephson, head of the Mind-Matter Unification Project at Cambridge, was rejected on the grounds that "one of his principal research interests is the paranormal".

Professor Josephson, who shared the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on superconductivity, has long been one of the discipline's more colourful figures.

In 2001, he attracted derision from some of his peers when he discussed telepathy in his contribution to a booklet issued to celebrate the centenary of the Nobel prizes.

Recent developments in quantum theory, theories of information and computation "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", he wrote.

Speaking this week, Professor Josephson said: "I was keen to attend the conference and would have concentrated on the theoretical ideas and touched on the paranormal as only one aspect. I thought it would be an interesting opportunity for cross-fertilisation."

News of the exclusions led to what Dr Towler described as a "great email storm".

Even spoon-bending psychic Uri Geller joined in, and on 24 April Dr Towler "renewed the invitation" to Dr Peat and Professor Josephson but not to the third rejected participant, American theoretical physicist Jack Sarfatti. Dr Towler claimed Dr Sarfatti had "written something like 100 emails" since his invitation was withdrawn, "many ... suggesting that we are in the pay of the CIA".

Dr Peat agreed to participate while Professor Josephson was considering his position.

Editor's note:

Jack Sarfatti has contacted Times Higher Education to clarify the content of his emails to Mike Towler. He said that references to the possible involvement of “intelligence agencies” were not references to the CIA. THE is happy to clarify that Dr Sarfatti does not believe that Dr Towler was in the pay of the CIA.

Readers' comments (1)

  • 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'.

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