Royal Mail's Nobel guru in telepathy row

Robin McKie, science editor
Sunday September 30, 2001
The Observer

It was meant to be a simple celebration of the world's greatest intellectual prize. But this week's issue of six special stamps to honour the 100th anniversary of the Nobel prize has dropped the Royal Mail into an unexpected, and decidedly bitter, scientific row.

Scientists are furious that a booklet, published as part of the stamps' presentation package, contains claims that modern physics will one day lead to an understanding of telepathy and the paranormal.

'It is utter rubbish,' said David Deutsch, quantum physics expert at Oxford University. 'Telepathy simply does not exist. The Royal Mail has let itself be hoodwinked into supporting ideas that are complete nonsense.'

Last week Royal Mail officials defended their actions by pointing out that the offending paragraphs had been written by a Nobel laureate, Cambridge physicist Brian Josephson. 'Yes, I think telepathy exists,' he told The Observer, 'and I think quantum physics will help us understand its basic properties.'

Professor Josephson won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1973 for proving that some materials could act as switches operating close to the speed of light, and could revolutionise computing and power transmission. He said he had deliberately used the booklet to redress a serious imbalance in reporting paranormal research work. 'I think journals like Nature and Science are censoring such research,' he said. 'There is a lot of evidence to support the existence of telepathy, for example, but papers on the subject are being rejected - quite unfairly.'

Josephson believes that psychics and telepaths may be able to direct random energy at sub-atomic levels for their own purposes, and in the commemorative stamp booklet writes that developments in information and quantum theories 'may lead to an explanation of processes still not understood within conventional science, such as telepathy'.

It is not a suggestion that has gone down well with fellow Nobel laureates, however.

'I am highly sceptical,' said last year's physics prize winner, Professor Herbert Kroemer of Santa Barbara University. 'Few of us believe telepathy exists, nor do we think physics can explain it.

'It also seems wrong for your Royal Mail to get involved. Certainly, if the US postal services did something like this, a lot of us would be very angry.'

For its part, the Royal Mail said it had merely asked a British winner of each of the six different Nobel Prize categories - physics, chemistry, medicine, peace, literature and economics - to write a small article about their award and the implications of research in their field. 'The trouble is that there are only a couple of British physics prize winners we could have asked, and we picked Josephson,' said a spokesman.

It was not a fortunate choice, many physicists now argue. Although they believe Josephson richly deserved his 1973 Nobel prize, few believe he has done work of any merit since, while some argue that his flirtation with transcendental meditation and the paranormal has been intellectually disastrous.

'The evidence for the existence of telepathy is appalling,' said Deutsch. 'If engineers or doctors accepted the level of proof that is accepted by paranormal supporters, bridges would be falling down round the country, and new medicines would be killing more than they cure.'

This view is backed by Bristol University physicist Robert Evans who said, in a Nature article, that he was 'very uneasy' about a Royal Mail booklet that said quantum physics 'has something to do with telepathy'.

The row sums up a problem in dealing with Nobel Prize winners. Those given awards are treated as modern gurus and their words acquire startling power and authority. Most retain an orthodox scientific respectibility, but a few go off the rails.

William Shockley, inventor of the transistor, caused outrage when he moved on to the study of inherited intelligence and claimed to have found significant racial variations in IQ.

Similarly, Kary Mullis, inventor of PCR - the technique that allows scientists to make mass copies of genes - caused outrage when he expressed doubts that HIV was the cause of Aids. In both cases, their views have been shown to be utterly wrong. Many believe Josephson will similarly fail the test of time.

As one leading scientist put it: 'The trouble with the Nobel prize is that it is given to a man or woman for making an individual discovery.

'It is not awarded as a recognition of their total, integrated contribution to science. That is why you can get unstuck.'

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001