We often come across the ‘q-word’ in fields unrelated to quantum physics. In the realm of pseudoscience, quantum physics terms are used to explain everything from an ability to influence our reality, read minds, and heal ourselves. The average educated scientist may scoff at these claims and never think anything of them. However, professor of physics Philip Moriarty argues that, from Wigner to Pauli, expert physicists have long since engaged with quantum-inspired mystical claims, and thus, along with the general rise of pseudoscience and misinformation, physicists too had a historical role to play in the promotion of quantum ‘woo-woo’.
“Our bodies and our universe aren’t solid things at all. They’re patterns of energy. By influencing the frequency of energy in and around your body, you can change your physical reality."
So says John Amaral, self-styled energy healer, life coach, and guru to a gamut of celebrities so famous that surnames are superfluous: Gwyneth, Meghan, Harry – you can probably guess the others on the list. (Surprisingly, however, Oprah isn’t one of Amaral’s clients. In this universe at least.) Amaral’s Energy Flow Formula is in intense demand in the rarefied heights of A-lister communities. He claims that by influencing the “energy fields” around our bodies he can, and I quote, “heal physical injuries, reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, and reach and sustain new levels of energy, clarity, and fulfilment so [his clients] can feel and live better.”
What do those energy fields comprise? Where do they originate? How is it possible to influence them to the extent that even physical injuries can allegedly be healed? Because of quantum physics, of course. According to Amaral, the double slit experiment – a cornerstone of quantum physics – “proves, without a shadow of a doubt, that our consciousness actually shifts or alters, in some way shape or form, physical reality.”
Spoiler: it doesn’t.
The web comic xkcd has some especially salient advice for those who encounter the ‘q-word’ in the wild: “Protip: You can safely ignore any sentence that includes the phrase ‘According to quantum mechanics’ ”. Given that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool experimental physicist for whom quantum mechanics plays a central role in my professional life, you will not be entirely surprised to hear that I share xkcd’s deep cynicism. And I could spend the rest of this piece carefully dissecting and lampooning just how “quantum energy healers” like Amaral mangle the fundamental physics underpinning quantum mechanics. But there’s a rather less obvious, and much more intriguing, story to be told here about physicists’ deep culpability when it comes to the rise of quantum mysticism.
Woo, meet Goop
Although the healer John Amaral and I are poles apart when it comes to our views on the role of quantum mechanics in big, bad world around us, I have enjoyed corresponding sporadically with Amaral over the last few years. We’ve exchanged a number of emails and had an hour-long Zoom conversation during one of the pandemic lockdowns that was, at least from my perspective, engaging, productive, and not infrequently fascinating. This is hardly the traditional reaction of a physicist to quantum woo, I know, but, as with any experiment in physics, we can only draw conclusions based on the empirical evidence in front of us. Let me explain.
A signature feature of quantum mysticism is its misappropriation of physics terminology in a wider, every-day context
I first heard from Amaral shortly after a video entitled “Physics professor watches “The Goop Lab”” was uploaded to the Sixty Symbols YouTube channel in early 2020. Sixty Symbols is a longstanding collaboration between the video journalist Brady Haran and academics in the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Nottingham. Since 2009, we’ve made short videos with Brady Haran on a very broad range of topics in physics, spanning everything from “What happens if I put my hand in the beam of the Large Hadron Collider?”, “Why is glass transparent?”, and “Why do the Brazil nuts in my box of cereal always rise to the top?” to black holes, rainbows, and the elusive nature of dark matter and dark energy. Various aspects of quantum mechanics are also covered regularly on Sixty Symbols, including a couple of not-entirely-restrained critiques of the mythology surrounding quantum woo.
The Sixty Symbols video that drew Amaral’s attention was specifically targeted at his role in Gwyneth Paltrow’s widely derided Goop Lab series for Netflix. Episode 5 of The Goop Lab focussed on energy and was therefore an especially appropriate choice for a reaction video for the physics-loving Sixty Symbols audience. Energy is, after all, the bedrock of the physical universe. And Brady certainly did his best to provoke a reaction by playing devil’s advocate throughout. Weren’t physicists just being closed-minded? How are we to know that there aren’t effects outside of our understanding that justify Amaral’s (and other quantum healers’) claims? Isn’t it that physicists’ arrogance is blinding them to a universe of other possibilities outside their tired, traditional, establishment worldview? We paused the Goop Lab episode after virtually every sentence to discuss, debate, and dissect the claims made by Amaral, Paltrow et al. on the subject of energy fields, quantum mechanics, and biochemistry.
A signature feature of quantum mysticism is its misappropriation of physics terminology in a wider, every-day context. There is no better example of this than the exploitation of “energy” (although the misuse of “frequency” runs a very close second.) In physics, and in science in general, energy is typically defined as the ability to do work. Work, in turn, is the integral (along the appropriate path) of the dot product of the force and displacement vectors. Or it’s the subject of a Dolly Parton song -- two distinct contexts, two distinct meanings.
Here’s how John Amaral describes energy at his website – he said very similar things during The Goop Lab episode:
“Energy also affects how others experience us. Have you ever felt someone staring at you from across the room and looked up to discover you were right? Have you ever sensed a good or bad “vibe” from someone? These phenomena might eventually be attributed to some kind of subtle energy. How aware we are of the energy within and around us, can impact our lives on virtually every level.”
That paragraph sums up arguably the defining problem at the heart of all quantum mysticism: the assumption that the colloquial and formal meanings of a term from physics – “energy”, “frequency”, “resonance”, etc. – are equivalent. When we say that someone has positive energy, it’s of course a statement regarding their personality, mood, and social engagement. It’s not an appraisal of their gravitational potential energy, nor their kinetic energy, nor does it refer to the acoustic, or infrared energy that they radiate. Amaral, like fellow quantum enthusiasts Deepak Chopra and Rhonda Byrne before him, is overloading the meaning of the word “energy”, imbuing it with an entirely spurious physics connection when used in an every-day context.
This is not a niche semantic, sociological, or philosophical argument. Quantum mysticism is a microcosm – or perhaps that should be nanocosm -- of a much broader societal problem: the rise of misinformation and the rejection of expert opinion and advice. Tom Nichols’ essential 2017 book, “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters” addresses this point at length. I won’t rehearse the arguments here – you should read Nichols’ book if you haven’t already. All I will say is that the “science doesn’t know everything” refrain that was once the province of New Agers keen to sell the virtues of crystal energy is now the clarion call of every contrarian out there, be they a flat-earther, anti-vaxxer, and/or quantum healer.
But we can dismiss these all as fringe views, right? Wrong. By quite some margin. When it comes to quantum mysticism, we’ve already seen that Amaral moves in, and influences, social circles at the highest levels. But that’s small stuff compared to the afore-mentioned, and wildly influential Deepak Chopra (3.1M Twitter followers and counting). Here’s how the start of his bio reads over at the Simon & Schuster website: “Deepak Chopra, MD, has gained worldwide acclaim as a teacher and writer in fields as diverse as mind-body medicine, Ayurveda, the nature of God, and the path to success. Time magazine called him one of the 100 icons of the twentieth century, “the poet-prophet of alternative medicine.”” Alongside that accolade from Time, Chopra has been a media darling for decades, his quantum healing career kickstarted by a 1993 appearance on, as you may have guessed, The Oprah Winfrey Show. (Oprah’s audience allegedly bought 100,00 copies of Chopra’s latest book on the day of his appearance.) Winfrey’s endorsement continued throughout the nineties and noughties, culminating in what can only be described as the truly unique “Deepak and Oprah’s 21 Day Meditation Experience”.
Chopra, along with John Amaral and Rhonda Byrne, author of the woo-laden, 30-million-selling, The Secret (which was also promoted heavily by Oprah Winfrey), argues that quantum physics allows us to control our destiny simply by thinking the right thoughts. So too do very many other less celebrated, but well-remunerated, quantum life coaches out there. It’s a lucrative industry because the message is so wonderfully compelling: we can think ourselves to success because we’re all part of one great interconnected universal wavefunction. Consciousness and reality are inherently entwined, quantum physics tells us, so if we just think good thoughts, good things will happen to us.
Now where could they have gotten such a ludicrous idea?
There’s a multiverse of woo out there and we physicists have played a central role in its creation
Physicist, Heal Thyself
In a scathing and entertaining critique of a movie that combines all the very worst of woo -- “What the #$!% do we know?” -- the New York Times writer Dennis Overbye traced a direct line from Deepak Chopra back to the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner (1902 - 1995):
Half a century ago … Wigner ventured that consciousness was the key to this mysterious process. Wigner thereby, and inadvertently, launched a thousand New Age dreams. Books like "The Tao of Physics" and "The Dancing Wu Li Masters" have sought to connect quantum physics to Eastern mysticism. Deepak Chopra, the physician and author, has founded a career on the idea of "quantum healing"…
While Wigner must take his fair share of the blame for ushering in the woo age, he was certainly not the first to argue for a direct link between consciousness and quantum physics. As Juan Miguel Marin discusses at length in ‘Mysticism’ in quantum mechanics: the forgotten controversy (Eur. J. Phys. 30 (2009) 807–822), the otherwise uber-rational Wolfgang Pauli, a pioneer of quantum physics, and another Nobel Prize winner (for his eponymous principle), was already promoting a form of quantum mysticism decades before Wigner:
I do not believe in the possible future of mysticism in the old form. However, I do believe that the natural sciences will out of themselves bring forth a counter pole in their adherents, which connects to the old mystic elements.
He even argued that an ultimate Grand Unified Theory would necessarily incorporate consciousness and psychology:
Inattentively realized as is the matter which the margin contains, it is nevertheless there, and helps both to guide our behavior and to determine the next movement of our attention. It lies around us like a ‘magnetic field’, inside of which our centre of energy turns like a compass needle, as the present phase of consciousness alters into its successor.
If you’re struggling to make sense of that paragraph, you’re not alone. Fascinatingly, it reads exactly like the type of convoluted, vacuous word salad that Deepak Chopra regularly tweets out: substance-free but suitably “deep” sounding to suggest that the author has insights into the workings of the universe that are far beyond what we mere mortals could ever hope to attain.
Wigner and Pauli are but two of many renowned physicists who have popularised the quantum-consciousness connection, each time on the basis of zero empirical evidence. Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, cosmologist, and astrophysicist even had this to say in a New Scientist article back in 1987: “In the beginning there were only probabilities. The universe could only come into existence if someone observed it. It does not matter that the observers turned up several billion years later. The universe exists because we are aware of it.”
Can we really blame Amaral, Byrne, Chopra, et al. for claiming that it’s possible to influence the cosmos with our consciousness when physicists themselves have proposed exactly that? From my interactions with Amaral, it’s difficult to write him off entirely as a charlatan, huckster, or snake-oil salesman, peddling quantum woo to the gullible to make an easy buck. ($2500 per hour-long session seems to be the going rate). John has a genuine and strong belief that he has discovered a method of interacting with human energy fields – whatever those might be – and cites physicists of the stature of those discussed above to back up his claims. There’s a multiverse of woo out there and we physicists have played a central role in its creation. We reap what we sow.
This article is produced in partnership with the University of Nottingham.