What do parapsychology and cognitive politics have in common?

Nobel laureate Brian David Josephson studies both. He has quite a bit to say in this interview about modern science and his career.  Photo: Josephson electron pump

FLORIDA, July 12, 2012 — The cutting edge of modern science, for most of us, is a place of mystery and wonder, a twilight zone where the present meets an incomprehensible future.

For Brian David Josephson, however, it is pretty much the norm.

The British physicist and now-retired Cambridge University professor captured the world’s attention in 1973, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. This was due to his discovery of the eponymous Josephson Effect, which is far too complex for a mere social journalist such as myself to even begin to describe.   

Thankfully, Dr. Josephson is able to help out. He also has a bit to say about parapsychology, which is the study of seemingly paranormal events. Many academics have been quick to dismiss the field as quackery, but might there be more to it than they believe?

Quantum theory is a cornerstone of physics. However, Josephson has stated that it does not account for all of nature’s complexities. Should this be the case, then, how might nature be explained?

What about politics? Over the years, it has been said that a great deal of one’s views are rooted in cognitive factors. In his research, has Josephson found any evidence to substantiate this?

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Joseph F. Cotto: Virtually everyone knows about the study of physics. Not all, however, are acquainted with the Josephson effect, for which you became a Nobel laureate in 1973. What is this, exactly? Why is it of such great importance to understanding the world around us?

Dr. Brian Josephson: Superconductors are somewhat similar to lasers in that they contain a kind of coherent (low noise, roughly) wave. The interest lies in the fact that this wave is very sensitive to influences such as magnetic fields or voltages, which have a number of practical applications, e.g., something like EEG, prospecting for minerals. There are also more fundamental applications such as measuring the constants of nature and testing quantum mechanics.

Cotto: Your research about the human cognitive process led to the Mind-Matter Unification Project. Has this been a productive endeavor? Have you discovered anything especially interesting about how our brains function?

Dr. Josephson: We have a number of papers, on subjects such as explanations for paranormal action at a distance, the aesthetics of music, the organisation of language function (but not in brain function). Currently my main activity involves developing an idea of John Archibald Wheeler to the effect that observation is a creative mechanism. 

Cotto: Quantum theory is a cornerstone of physics. However, you have stated that it does not account for all of nature’s complexities. Should this be the case, how, then, can nature be explained?

Dr. Josephson: We shouldn’t think we can explain everything. But people are working in understanding complexity, and developing general theories applicable to biology. 

Cotto: Over the years, it has been said that a great deal of one’s sociopolitical views are rooted in cognitive factors. In your research, have you found any evidence to substantiate this?

Dr. Josephson: I’m not working on that directly, but in my work I have come across many cases of what I call Pathological Disbelief, for example with Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (cold fusion), where there is a complete disconnect between what is generally believed (‘fiasco of the century’) and the facts, namely that there is abundant experimental confirmation of the phenomenon.

Cotto: For several decades, you have been a tremendously important figure in parapsychology. Needless to say, many are quick to dismiss this as pseudoscience. What attracted you to such a field?

Dr. Josephson: Initially, through discussions with a colleague of mine at Trinity College, Dr. George Owen.

Cotto: Near death experiences, past life regressions, and telepathy have captured public attention in recent years. Generally speaking, do you believe that there might be a valid scientific basis for any of these? 

Dr. Josephson: I should think so, eventually.

Cotto: Should parapsychology earn parity with mainstream psychology, how do you believe that it will impact the medical and academic worlds alike?

Dr. Josephson: It should; for example paranormal influences probably are important in connection with some kinds of personal relationship and intuition. And much needs to be added to conventional medical theories to get the complete picture.

Cotto: In the past, you have mentioned that many academics allow emotion to trump reason when foreign, possibly groundbreaking ideas are presented. Can this sort of reactionary behavior be explained?

Dr. Josephson: Ask the psychologists!

Cotto: What would you describe as the most rewarding aspect of being a physicist? Is it one specific thing, or perhaps a collection of them? 

Dr. Josephson: Explaining our world is an interesting activity.

Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering exactly how it was that you came to be one of the world’s foremost physicists. Tell us a bit about your life and career.

Dr. Josephson: Thinking ‘outside the box’?

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What a novel concept. It is one that, dare I say, should be emulated by more than a few in the scientific profession.

Many today do not really strive to think out of the box. New ideas are increasingly ridiculed rather than given even a cursory glance of consideration. I have written in the past that politics is becoming a religion, and it seems that science is primed to follow suit.

Fortunately, there are still thinkers like Dr. Josephson keeping the marketplace of ideas bustling with new energy and insight. During a time like ours when purchasing boxes is all the rage, thinking outside of one deserves special commendation.    


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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