Last Tuesday morning (27th December 2016), I listened to the Christmas Special edition of The Infinite Monkey Cage, a ‘witty, irreverent look at the world through scientists' eyes’ (as it declares on the webpage).
The topic was Ghosts, and after the initial introductions, Brian Cox had this to say: ‘Before we ask the first question, I want to make a statement. We are not here to debate the existence of ghosts because they don’t exist. If we want some sort of pattern that carries information about our living cells to persist, then we must specify precisely what medium carries that pattern and how it interacts with different matter particles out of which our bodies are made. We must in other words invent an extension to the standard model of particle physics that has escaped detection at the Large Hadron Collider. That’s almost inconceivable at the energy scales typical of the particle interactions in our bodies. And so we need not discuss this further. Does anybody object to this at all? No? Excellent. Carry on.’
A few moments later Neil deGrasse Tyson, guesting on the show, asked: ‘Brian, if I understand what you just declared, you just asserted that CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear research, disproved the existence of ghosts.’
Brian Cox: ‘Yes.’
Now, I know it is a humorous show, so it wasn’t surprising to hear Brian Cox make his statement at a pace that overwhelmed our capacity to register the details. It’s sort of funny to do that. It’s also a naughty debating tactic. Overwhelming pace can easily be mistaken for overwhelming evidence.
So let’s slow down and have a think.
First of all, is it scientific to be certain about anything? Once certainty creeps in, investigation ceases, and science comes to a stop. For example, how many scientists are seriously investigating Near Death Experiences, Out of Body Experiences, historical case files of the Society for Psychical Research, ‘impossible’ reincarnation ‘memories’ amongst small children, etc, etc? How many would dare, bearing in mind the likely funding issues?
Secondly, is it philosophically feasible to prove a negative? In a closed system, yes. For example, we can be reasonably sure there is no elephant in the room. But can we be 100% sure there is no monster in Loch Ness? (99.9% perhaps, but 100%?)
Now, to exclude any sort of interaction between ghost ‘reality’ and physical reality would require an elephant-in-the-room level of certainty. Brian Cox thinks he has it because he knows, via CERN, everything there is to know about particle interactions in the Standard Model (perhaps).
But are those the only possible interactions? Here come two exceptions. Quantum entanglement allows instantaneous interactions between charged particles at cosmic distances, a phenomenon so unlikely that Einstein famously dismissed it as 'spooky action at a distance'. Nonetheless it works and is the basis for quantum computers.
Another weird phenomenon is gravity, originally dismissed, pre Newton, as an occult force, and for the same reason. It appears to be action at a distance, without any connecting medium. However, post Einstein, it is understood to result from the curvature of space. Oh yes, and what is space? Well, mostly emptiness. Nothingness. So gravity is a curvature of nothing. And that’s how the Earth makes the Moon go round it. By curving nothing.
And so, encouraged by these two non-CERN interactions, let us see what might be a candidate for the link between ghost ‘reality’ and physical reality. Step forward please Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York and CUNY Graduate Centre, and let us quote from his February 2013 YouTube article, ‘A Universe is a Free Lunch’: http://bigthink.com/videos/a-universe-is-a-free-lunch
‘The leading candidate for dark matter today is called the sparticle. The sparticle is the next octave of the string. Now look around you. Everything around you, we think, is nothing but the lowest vibration of a vibrating string, the lowest octave in some sense. But a string, of course, has higher octaves, higher notes. We think that dark matter could in fact be nothing but a higher vibration of the string. So we think that 23% of the universe, which is the dark matter's contribution to the universe, comes from a higher octave of the string. Now, the standard model, which we have ample verification of, only represents four percent of the universe. So the universe of atoms, protons, neutrons, neutrinos – that universe only represents four percent of what there is. 23% is dark matter, which we think is the next vibration up of the string, and then 73% of the universe is dark energy.’
Let’s not get into Dark Energy: it’s too weird to contemplate. But Dark Matter, ‘a higher octave of the string’? Can anyone see the possibilities there?
Let’s put it this way. Anyone who plays a stringed instrument, say a guitar or a piano, knows that a note vibrating at one octave can set the same note vibrating at a different octave. For instance, hold down a middle C on a piano – don’t play it, just hold it open – then play a C one octave below. Bingo, the middle C sounds even though you haven’t played it.
So here is an idea to play with. Perhaps ghosts inhabit some sort of dark matter. There’s plenty of the stuff (even more than Michio Kaku says, 26.8 % according to the 2013 Planck probe). Thus when a ghost moves within its own ‘octave’ it sets up a resonance in our ‘octave’ which some of us may detect.
How would we detect it? Because arguably we all have – as the saying goes – a ‘ghost in the machine’. That is our bodies, and brains, might be very clever machines, but we drive them with our minds (our ghosts). And when we die, our ghosts (souls, spirits, astral bodies, dark matter selves, whatever) continue functioning in their ‘octave’ – only there’s no physical matter distracting them any more.
This can be so scary that some ghosts immediately refocus on the physical world and get round to a bit of haunting. (Think films like ‘The Others’ or Patrick Swayze’s ‘Ghost’.)
Obviously there can be numerous objections to all this. For instance, the vibrating piano strings need a connecting medium – air – ‘In Space No One Can Hear You... Play the Piano’, so what would be the medium between one octave of the string and another? (The string itself perhaps?)
And how can we test the way that Dark Matter interacts with Physical Matter? Answer: we can’t. That’s why we call it Dark Matter. Because we can’t detect it – except at vast gravitational scales. Therefore, it remains hidden, undetected, occult. (Go on, check it in a thesaurus: that sort of ‘dark’ means, amongst other synonyms, ‘occult’.)
And how do we know whether there’s much, or any, Dark Matter in our vicinity? We can’t. It’s dark. There may be oodles. There may just be spitty little bits. We don’t know.
And why should we believe Michio Kaku and his String speculations? No reason. Just so long as we don’t go trusting Coxy cos he looks good on a mountain in jeans. Let the scientists fight it out – but they’ve got to play fair and not try inflicting any naughty unscientific certainties on us.