Deepak Chopra attends The Chopra Well Launch Event at Espace on July 18, 2012 in New York City. Photo: Getty Images
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Deepak Chopra doesn't understand quantum physics, so Brian Cox wants $1,000,000 from him

Sometimes, when it feels like putting your money where you mouth is feels like it can't fail, it's worth stepping back and reconsidering. Just in case.

Last week something of a kerfuffle broke out on Twitter between physicist-slash-TV presenter Brian Cox and self-help guru Deepak Chopra over the issue of quantum physics. Chopra made a particularly ill-advised offer of a large amount of money to anyone who could prove his understanding of the issue was incorrect, to the delight of those who are well aware that his understanding of the issue has long been incorrect.

For those unfamiliar with Chopra, he is one of the world's best-selling authors - a respected endocrinologist who, in the 1980s, discovered mysticism, and philosophies of healing and consciousness. He has authored dozens of books, founded his own "Centre for Wellbeing" and, after appearing on Oprah with his friend Michael Jackson, became a bona fide celebrity in his own right. His acolytes think him a genius, or even a prophet; his detractors believe him to be a danger to public health for pushing alternative medicine (with no experimental proof of effectiveness beyond the placebo effect) as an option for dangerous diseases like cancer or Aids.

The former magician James Randi has made debunking paranormal and pseudoscientific claims - which he calls "woo" - into a career, and famously offers a $1m prize for anyone who comes forward with such claims so they can be proven under experimental conditions. Since it began in 1996, hundreds have entered, and nobody has won. To that end (and fed up of what he sees as disrespect towards the world's ancient belief systems from "militant atheists"), Chopra issued his own "one million dollar challenge to the skeptics" last month:

Before you go around debunking the so-called paranormal, please explain the normal. How does electricity going into the brain become the experience of a three-dimensional world in space and time? If you can explain that you get a million dollars from me. Explain and solve the hard problem of consciousness in a peer-reviewed journal, offer a theory that is falsifiable and you get the prize."

He also penned a column for the Huffington Post, going into more detail about his issue with Randi and his "cronies":

Skepticism, as a gadfly movement, consists of angry people who play "gotcha," adopt an air of smug superiority, and generally alienate anyone who comes close to them.  So why confront them in the first place?

As one of the major confronters, I'd say that my primary goal is to defend the truth of spirituality. The world's wisdom traditions are just as precious as science. To lump them together as arrant charlatanism (as if Buddha and Jesus stand on the same level as a stage magician or con man) is grossly misleading. To dress up this hostile attitude as scientific and rational only deepens the deception. In the familiar metaphor of Elmer Gantry, the fire and brimstone preacher who was a greater sinner than those he preached to, the skeptical movement is much more close-minded and blindly irrational than anyone they expose.

...

Sane people stay away from dogfights, and for years I stayed away. But it turns out that a positive good can be achieved by going after the skeptics. Let's leave aside the whole question of God, faith, miracles, and the so-called supernatural. These things have been incendiary for a long time and arouse stubborn resistance on both sides. The real issue is exactly what my offer focuses on: What is consciousness, how does it create reality, and how far does this reality extend?

It is worth stating here that I actually agree with Chopra when it comes to big-A Atheism, which has become more than merely a rational response to a culture of evangelical anti-science Christianity - instead it is now a vociferous and furious anti-religious movement, and often a home for those with anti-Semitic and Islamophobic views. I also, as an atheist, do not deny that there is value in spiritual belief and practice.

But come on, you're fooling nobody here.

Chopra's long believed that the universe as we perceive it is really just a manifestation of consciousness. That is, consciousness existed before anything else, and it creates reality through the act of seeing. He calls it "Cosmic Consciousness", and it comes about because Chopra is fervently anti-reductionist - he believes that reducing human brains to their constituent cells, or even atoms, and understanding their structure and how they interact, does nothing to explain the mind. It is a dualist approach, a separation of body and soul, spirit, mind, whatever you wish to call it. We could build a computer that recreates the physical reality of a human brain exactly, but it would not be simulating consciousness because that is an essence that is anti-material.

Descartes had this problem in the 17th century, settling on philosophical dualism because he refused to accept the impossibility of the non-existence of the Christian soul; Chopra, similarly, believes that consciousness creates matter because it then means that consciousness is a thing beyond the physical world, and therefore a belief in the paranormal and the mystical can be justified. He's written in defence of this belief many, many times - as in a follow-up column in HuffPo:

If the materialists are correct, there has to be a way for matter to learn to think, which has never been proven. If the consciousness camp is right, mind has to find a way to create molecules. The reason that the second position makes sense is that our thoughts are creating molecules all the time - the chemical makeup of the brain is altered with every thought, feeling, and sensation. That is indisputable. But the bias in favor of materialism is strong, upheld mainly by inertia. Why bother to re-examine the entire creation when it's obvious, we are told, that we live in a physical universe?

The answer is this: We don't live in a physical universe as defined by rocks, trees, mountains, and Chinese porcelain. The quantum revolution long ago unmasked the illusion of physicality, proving with exact mathematical certainty that matter consists of waves in an infinite quantum field. How these waves transform into material objects remains one of the two greatest questions facing physics. (The math is there, but not the actual process.) The other great unsolved mystery is to find the biological basis of mind.

Or here, on his own website, when defining Cosmic Consciousness:

Quantum theory has reached the point where the source of all matter and energy is a vacuum, a nothingness that contains all the possibilities of everything that has ever existed or could exist. These possibilities then emerge as probabilities before “collapsing” into localized quanta, manifesting as the particles in space and time that are the building blocks of atoms and molecules.

...

The entire universe is a matter of transformation whereby something is available to be turned into perception. We’ve proposed that consciousness is that something - if there’s another candidate, we’re not aware of one that can pass the acid test: Make it turn into thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations. Science isn’t remotely close to turning the sugar in a sugar bowl into the music of Mozart or the plays of Shakespeare. Randomness will not give you any of that. Your brain converts blood sugar into words and music, not by some trick of the molecules in the brain, since they are in no way special or privileged. Rather, your consciousness is using the brain as a processing device, moving the molecules where they are needed in order to create the sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell of the world.

Quantum physics's observer effect - whereby observing an event at the quantum level changes the outcome of the event - is taken by Chopra to be proof that he's right about consciousness, and in turn that then lets him get away with describing lots of other banal phenomena as imbued with mystical meaning. He looks at a brain, sees molecules being moved and changed during thought, and interprets it as consciousness "turning into" thought; quite why he thinks that thought couldn't just be what happens when molecules move around inside the brain is never interrogated. By his definition, food breaking down in the stomach and intestines is also consciousness manifesting as mind - though of an altogether different sort.

Which brings us to Brian Cox, who couldn't stand by and say nothing as Chopra tweeted about #CosmicConsciousness last week:

Eternal inflation is one of many theories that seek to explain the Big Bang, its cause and its aftermath. Cox is well aware that Chopra is cobbling together a nonsense belief system from half-understood fragments of actual science, and that there is science out there that explains what Chopra considers to be a mystery.

Eventually Cox gets bored, and goes for the coup de grace:

...which Chopra studiously ignores, instead switching tactic and going for Cox's ego, passive-aggressively retweeting a funny video and asking him to come speak at his upcoming conference:

Eventually, Cox and Chopra left it - or so it seemed, because today Chopra couldn't help but get one final subtweet in:

...and neither could Cox:

Chopra will probably be able to get out of paying Cox any money because, technically, what the physicist did was show that the premise of the question was incorrect, not provide a solution - but it would be cute to see him try.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Photo: Getty
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Your life's work, ruined – how storms can wipe out scientific research in an instant

Some researchers face the prospect of risking their own lives to save valuable scientific research that could benefit future generations.

Before the autumn of 2012, if you went into the basement of New York University's School of Medicine in Manhattan, you would find a colony of more than 3,000 live mice. This was the collection of Gordon Fishell, the associate director of the NYU Neuroscience institute, which he had spent more than 20 years building up, and which he was using to discover how neurons communicate with other cells.

As Hurricane Sandy began to approach New York State, Fishell and his colleagues, like others in the city, made preparations for the onslaught. This meant leaving extra food and water for their colonies, and making sure that emergency power was on.

But no one anticipated the size and intensity of the hurricane. On the day it finally arrived, Fishell was forced by the weather to stay home, and to his horror he saw that his lab was now in the path of the storm. As he wrote later in Nature magazine: "We were done for. It was obvious that our labs were in great danger, and there was nothing I could do." All of Fishell's mice drowned. Furthermore, scientific equipment and research worth more than $20m was destroyed.

In seeing years of academic work wiped out by a storm, Fishell and his colleagues at the School of Medicine are not alone. In 2001, Hurricane Allison, a tropical storm turned hurricane, had caused similar devastation at Texas Medical Centre, the world's largest such research centre, inflicting at least $2bn in damages. In 2011, the Japanese tsunami hit Tohoku University’s world-renowned Advanced Institute for Materials Research and destroyed some of the world’s best electron microscopes, as well as $12.5m in loss of equipment.

Such stories used to be seen as unique and unfortunate incidents. But the increasing incidence of extreme weather events over the last 20 years has highlighted the dangers of complacency.

Not only do facilities affected by natural disasters lose decades of irreplaceable research, but many contain toxic chemicals which could be potentially deadly if released into the water or food supply. During the 2007 floods in the UK, a foot and mouth outbreak was traced back to a lab affected by heavy rain. In Houston, during the recent Hurricane Harvey, leakages from industrial facilities contaminated the floodwater. 

Gradually, university deans and heads of research facilities in the United States have realised that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is badly prepared for this kind of problem. "They had never thought of how to deal with a research loss," Susan Berget, the vice president of emergency planning at Baylor College of Medicine told Nature in 2005. "To them, transgenic mice are a foreign concept."

It therefore falls on universities, local communities and regional governments to ensure they are adequately prepared for disasters. A common complaint is the lack of guidance they receive. 

Often, researchers who choose to save valuable scientific research are putting their lives at risk. One particularly harrowing story was that of biochemist Dr Arthur Lustig, who spent four days in his Tulane university laboratory before being evacuated to a shelter. Despite his tenacity, he lost more than 80 per cent of his work on yeast strains, carried out over 20 years, to flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Other than the immediate, heartbreaking effects of losing research, natural disasters also pose a threat to future investment. If a region is increasingly seen as not disaster resilient, it reduces the amount of federal and private funding for groundbreaking research, as well as applications from prospective researchers.

A recent report in the journal of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine quantified this link. It found that varius tropical storms led to as many as 120 researchers losing their livelihoods. In one instance, a psychology internship for high schoolers was discontinued. 

Disasters like hurricanes and tropical storms are usually thought of as high risk but low probability events. As Bill McKibben noted in the Guardian, Hurricane Harvey was a once in 25,000 years kind of storm, but the “normal” measurements of incidence cannot necessarily be held as true anymore. Just like the rest of us, researchers will have to be prepared for every possibility.