Quantum theory can’t explain all of life’s mysteries

There's a principle in pseudo-science where, if you have two things you can't explain, you can often put them together and convince yourself they might solve each other. Separately, you've still got two mysteries, but shackled together they suggest there's an answer in there somewhere. It's known as the "conservation of mysteries", because it gets you nowhere.

The central pillar here is usually quantum theory. Experiments show that the fundamental particles of nature, which follow the laws of quantum theory, are able to do seemingly ridiculous things. They can, for instance, exist in two places at once. In certain situations, widely separated particles - which can be on opposite sides of the universe - are also able to influence each other without any physical link, a phenomenon known as entanglement.

Though strange, these abilities are well established, confirmed in experiments. They are forming the basis of a new generation of computing and cryptography tools, and giving us profound insights into the laws of physics.

They are also a godsend for anyone who is stuck for a good explanation. Because these strange quantum effects don't fit in with our everyday experience of the world, they have been invoked to resolve myriad things we don't yet understand, such as supernatural phenomena. Quantum theory has also been used as an explanation for how water could form memories of the substances that have been dissolved within it, a useful idea for homoeopaths.

Then there is consciousness. Many good scientists are researching consciousness with due diligence, and they should have been protesting outside the Aula Magna Hall of Stockholm University during the first week in May as scientists, doctors, poets and mystics gathered there for the annual "Towards a Science of Consciousness" conference.

Virtual reality

Science has struggled to explain our conscious experience of the world; that is why quantum conservation of mysteries seems such a promising route. In Stockholm, Deepak Chopra explained how "consciousness is the ultimate reality", citing quantum entanglement as the phenomenon that links everything in the cosmos and thus creates consciousness. Or something. In his book Quantum Healing, Chopra suggests that an understanding of "quantum reality" can unlock the potential to defeat cancer, heart disease and ageing. If only we knew what quantum reality was.

Even very respected scientists get seduced by the "mystery" side of quantum theory. Also on the bill in Stockholm was Luc Montagnier, who won a Nobel Prize for elucidating the link between HIV and Aids. He has since claimed that DNA uses quantum tricks to teleport itself into neighbouring cells, using electromagnetic signals.

Most disappointingly of all, on 6 May, the eminent mathematician Roger Penrose gave the keynote talk, arguing that we will need to invoke "new physics and exotic biological structures": rewriting quantum theory to make sense of consciousness. Penrose is one of our great minds, but he legitimised the obfuscation of scientific inquiry. Untestable quantum solutions to life's mysteries might be enticing, but they are not science, and no one should be allowed to claim otherwise.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.