I contrive no hypotheses. ~ Isaac Newton, discussing gravity in Principia Mathematica

Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest scientist who ever lived, did of course make many hypotheses about gravity. In fact, he developed an incredibly profound general theory of gravity that united such seemingly different phenomena as a falling apple and the circling of the planets around the Sun. His theory of gravity stood firm for over two centuries before Einstein argued convincingly that Newton’s theory was incomplete. (Einstein’s general theory of relativity renders Newton’s theory a “limiting case.”)

What Newton refused to do, however, was speculate about exactly how gravity works its magic. Gravity just is, and Newton apparently recognized that his era’s scientific knowledge was not sufficient to go beyond the equations that formed his theory of gravity. He contrived no hypotheses as to the mechanism behind gravity, but he recognized fully that it seemed to be some kind of “action at a distance” that operates quite differently than through direct contact, which is how the world around us operates more generally.

Tam Hunt

Cause and effect is what physics is all about, and science more generally. What causes what? Even though we can never make definitive statements about what caused what, we can probe correlations and make reasonable inferences.

The most familiar form of causation is the direct contact of push and pull. A billiard ball bounces directly away from the cue ball due to the direct contact of ball upon ball. The energy from the pool cue is transferred by the pool player’s arm to the cue ball and then to the second ball.

But even this extremely simple form of cause and effect is not as simple as matter pushing matter. Rather, the electromagnetic force that holds the molecules of the balls together is the intermediary for these actions. Electromagnetism is in fact the most important force at our scale of reality: It holds all molecules together and it allows us to see, hear, touch, etc. The billiard balls don’t actually touch. Rather, the electromagnetic forces generated by the molecules in each ball repel each other.

Gravity keeps us, as well as apples, on terra firma, and plays a very large role in the universe outside of the scale of human life. But it is electromagnetism that forms the basis for life and much of our existence as earth-bound organisms, due to its attractive/repulsive qualities at the molecular level.

What’s behind the various forces of nature?

Electromagnetism – the combination of electricity and magnetism, which we know now are different aspects of a single force – was described comprehensively by Maxwell and others in the 19th Century. These scientists developed what are now known as “Maxwell’s equations,” even though their modern form wasn’t actually Maxwell’s work. While we can describe electromagnetism quite well mathematically, and predict its workings based on these equations, there is still no consensus as to what electromagnetism actually is.

The photon is a massless particle that carries the electromagnetic force. Einstein stated around 1955, shortly before his death: “A full 50 years of deliberate brooding have not brought me any closer to the question: What is the [photon]? Today every clod thinks he knows it, but he deceives himself.” Einstein had for decades tried unsuccessfully to develop various field theories of electromagnetism and the other forces, but still couldn’t say what the photon really is. For Einstein, in his later work, fields were fundamental. Despite significant development of field theory since Einstein’s era, we’re not much closer today in understanding what the photon is.

Similarly, we still don’t know the mechanism for gravity with any certainty. Einstein’s general relativity suggests that matter and energy literally curve space, and gravity simply reflects the easiest path for matter and energy to follow as it moves through curved space. It’s a two-way street, then, with matter/energy curving space and curved space causing matter/energy to change its trajectory.

However, the Standard Model of particle physics, based on the other pillar of modern physics – quantum mechanics – suggests that gravity works through the exchange of “gravitons” (boson particles) between massive bodies. The Higgs Boson is yet another way in which today’s physics attempts to explain gravity, and it made big news in 2012 due to evidence suggesting it had actually been found by the Large Hadron Collider.

Reconciling these two different models, general relativity and quantum theory, is the objective of theories of quantum gravity, none of which are yet widely accepted. String theory is the most popular approach to quantum gravity, though it has yet to lead to any experimental verification, and it suggests, through its “brane cosmology” approach, additional ideas on gravity that go beyond both the quantum mechanical and general relativity notions of gravity.

So who’s counting? How many forces are there?

Anyway, my point is to show that our physical understanding of cause and effect is still quite nascent and always evolving. While there is a broad consensus that there are only four fundamental forces or interactions – gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear force – there are also serious efforts underway to explain key observations through additional forces.

For example, dark energy, which is thought to comprise the majority of the matter/energy in the universe (about 70%), would itself constitute a new force. Specifically, dark energy is posited as the force behind the accelerating expansion of our universe, and also of the very early inflationary period that saw our universe expand from minute dimensions to a sizeable fraction of its current size in literally millionths of a second.

Yet another possible new force or interaction is suggested by the strong evidence for quantum entanglement, which appears to operate far faster than the speed of light. In 2008, a Swiss team led by Daniel Salart showed that entanglement operates at, at the least, 10,000 times the speed of light. What’s behind this effect? No one really knows yet, but apparently it is not one of the traditional four forces.

So, even without getting very exotic in our survey of different physical theories (which is certainly a relative notion given the extremely broad array of theories in physics today!), we can make a good argument that there should be at least six fundamental forces. A seventh force is compound interest. Einstein declared that “the most powerful force in the universe is compound interest.” Okay, that’s a joke…

Action at a distance

Now, here’s where I’m going with all of this discussion about cause and effect, and forces of nature: While action at a distance, mediated by fields or force particles like the photon or graviton, is very much part of our mainstream physical and cosmological theories, action at a distance when it comes to human causation is far too often dismissed as impossible or as wacky “woo woo” science. And despite its wide recognition in physics, we still don’t know much about the actual mechanisms behind such action at a distance, for example, with respect to gravity or quantum entanglement.

In fleshing out a more complete understanding of the physical world, and the role of mind in the physical world, we are gathering substantial evidence that the human mind may have a broader causal role than has been assumed. It seems clear that human minds can directly impact more than just our immediate bodies. Dean Radin’s excellent book, Entangled Minds, surveys the field of what is known often as parapsychology or extrasensory perception.

The data in this field are certainly debatable and the effects are clearly subtle, if they are indeed real. If they weren’t subtle, there would be far less controversy surrounding them. However, there is one area of parapsychology that I’ve found pretty convincing, and I’ve now been personally involved with research in this area – I’m referring to work with random number generators (RNGs) and the influence of mass celebrations on the output of electronic RNGs.

This is a really interesting area of research but it takes a little background to explain it. Traditional random-number generators include dice, coins, shuffled cards or any physical device used to produce a random outcome. Modern RNGs, however, are small electronic devices that produce zeros and ones (bits) randomly (hence the name). They’re traditionally used in cryptography, gambling, and other areas by producing true randomness and thus foiling attempts to algorithmically discover passwords or predict outcomes. However, there is a more recent tradition of using RNGs to probe the impact of minds on matter, and the evidence produced is increasingly convincing that there is a causal link between mind and matter.

Probably the best way to explain this area of science further is to explain the experiments that I’ve been involved with recently. I’m a visiting scholar in psychology at UC Santa Barbara (under Professor Jonathan Schooler) and I’m also a regular Burning Man attendee (a “Burner” in the parlance of this sub-culture). I’ve met some very interesting people by being a regular at this massive celebration in the Nevada desert. About 50,000 people attend each year, celebrating music, art, and collaborative creation.

A few years ago I met Cassandra Vieten, the executive director of research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) in Petaluma, California. IONS focuses on frontier science, which includes working toward a better understanding of the relationship between mind and matter. IONS was founded by Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon. Mitchell was so inspired by a profound spiritual experience as he hurtled back to Earth that he wanted to re-direct some scientific attention to phenomena that are too often denied as impossible by mainstream science. IONS was the result.

Vieten, Schooler (another Burner), and I were chatting at the Burn in 2010 about the research that IONS does, and we decided it would be awesome and fun to do some RNG experiments at Burning Man. Many past experiments have shown a correlation between mass celebrations, like New Year’s Eve in Times Square, and a deviation from randomness in RNGs. The reasonable inference from these correlations is that there is a causal link between the mass focus on a single event, and whatever mechanisms produce the random events in the RNG.

The twist in our idea was that we decided to add a huge freakin’ laser to our experiment, connecting the output of the RNG to a laser in order to show, visually, any deviation from randomness. This would, we hypothesized, create a positive feedback loop and the effect would be enhanced.

We turned this idle talk into reality in 2012 by completing our first experiment on the Playa, which is where the Burning Man event is held each year. It worked! We obtained strong evidence of a correlation between the collective focus of thousands of minds on the burning of the Man (which happens on Saturday night every year), and the burning of the Temple (another major structure that is integral to the Burning Man celebration, on Sunday night), and the output of our RNGs.

Figure 1 shows the key result of our experiment: a strong spike in deviations from randomness during the burning of the Man, with a p value of 0.004. (A p value of 0.05, which means one-in-twenty odds of the result occurring due entirely to chance, is considered standard in most areas of science; a value of 0.004 is far more significant and means that the odds of our results occurring entirely due to chance were four in one thousand).

Unfortunately, our huge freakin’ laser wasn’t very huge and it didn’t function very well due to various technical problems. So we’re going back this year, in August, to repeat the experiment and use a really big laser, in collaboration with other more experienced laser technicians. We’re going to use a 30-watt laser rather than the one-watt laser we used last year. A 30-watt laser is easily visible across the whole Playa, so the positive feedback loop should be substantial. Yes, it’s huge!

But what does it all mean?

At the end of the day, what does all this mean? Who cares if there’s a tiny impact from mass celebrations on the output of zeros and ones from a little electronic device? Well, first, we think it’s just really cool and intriguing that this stuff works at all. It’s denied as impossible by many scientists today. Personally, I think the really powerful result of this research is to show that we could in theory, if we can amplify what are obviously very subtle effects, use just our minds to influence macroscopic events in the world around us.

There is an ironic convergence of traditional science and this frontier science, when we consider that “mind reading” using electromagnetic technologies is advancing quickly. Using various types of brain imaging, we can now tell what words subjects are thinking (from a pre-selected list only, at this point); and monkeys have used the power of their minds, implanted with electrodes, to control mechanical arms.

It may be the case that using electromagnetism alone will be the more fruitful path to manipulating macro events with thoughts alone. However, understanding that there may be other ways for mind to influence matter is really important for a more complete physical understanding of the universe, and it may give rise to more options for helping physically disabled persons to transcend their disabilities, allow us to create interesting new forms of entertainment, and perhaps help in many other human endeavors.

We’re in the middle of a crowd-funding campaign to pay for the laser and other equipment for round two of our RNG experiment at this year’s Burning Man. If you’re inspired by these ideas, please contribute something to our Indiegogo campaign or spread the word more generally:

Who knows – you may be helping to usher in a really exciting paradigm shift in how we understand physical reality. And maybe you too can one day control a huge freakin’ laser with your mind!


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