Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Is There Life After Death? – Tony Peake ***

Don’t ignore this book because you think it’s not about science – it is, and that’s why it’s here. Tony Peake is not in the business of peddling religion, but examines the possible impact of the strangest aspects of quantum theory and modern concepts of consciousness to see if there’s a scientific way of looking beyond our normal idea of a 70 year lifespan. In a sense the title of his book is misleading (I don’t think he chose it) – it’s not so much about life after death, as life outside of the conscious existence we all familiar with.
What is really interesting about this book is the way that Peake uses legitimate (if not always mainstream) scientific theories to weave a beguiling picture of what we might be, as beings that live in a very different universe to the one we perceive (we know our perception of the world is a construct of the brain). Inevitably it brings in the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory, but also many other ideas to make a powerful and exotic suggestion of how Peake believes we can exist outside of our apparent earthly life. It’s unfortunate that he brings in “data” from pseudo-science from Nostradamus’s predictions to hypnotism, but that doesn’t stop there being a lot of very interesting ideas here. To make his case, Peake has to combine scientific theory with subjective stories, which means ignoring that excellent quote “data is not the plural of anecdote” – but that doesn’t stop this being a genuinely interesting excursion into “what if?”
The biggest concern I have about this book is not the topic itself, which is fascinating, or even the anecdotal evidence, but rather the way that the whole edifice is built on shaky foundations. There are a number of errors in the basic science at the start of the book that make it worrying just how safe the rest of the conclusions are. For instance, early on we are told that Einstein called the particles of light he dreamed up photons. Unfortunately it was Planck, not Einstein, who came up with the idea of quanta, and Einstein didn’t call them photons – the name was devised by chemist Gilbert Lewis. We are also told that according to quantum theory, matter is nothing more than a probability wave – this is a rather odd interpretation. The probability wave describes the chances of a particle being in a particular position, but this doesn’t mean the particle is a probability wave. There is also some doubtful inclusion of woffly philosophy among the science. For example, Peake asks us where the redness of a red coat resides, given it doesn’t look red in moonlight, so the red nature can’t reside in the coat. This is a doubtful interpretation. The redness is a property of the chemical constituents that decide which frequencies that it will emit and which it will absorb. The fact that it doesn’t look red in some lights or absence of light is irrelevant – redness is a property of the chemical components that is revealed by using certain lights and that’s an end to it unless you want to play philosophical games.
Perhaps most worryingly, the whole basis of Peake’s argument is that according to quantum theory there needs to be a conscious observer to make the waveform collapse and the world to be become real. While some have argued this, it certainly isn’t a view held by most physicists, whichever interpretation of quantum theory they subscribe to – most would assume that an “observation” can be as little as an interaction with another particle. Just to be clear that I’m not being picky, here’s an example of fundamental scientific errors on just one page. We are told “most gamma ray primary particles are photons” – gamma rays are electromagnetic radiation: they are entirely made up of photons. A little later we are told “these primary particle photons carry so much energy they can travel at 99.9999999 percent of the speed of light.” No, photons are light – they travel at 100% of the speed of light. A little later there’s talk of time dilation and photons. “A clock moving alongside this particle would tick at one hundred billionth of the rate of a clock on Earth.” Unfortunately, the whole basis of special relativity is that nothing can move alongside a photon. However slow or fast you move alongside a light beam, it always comes at you at the same speed. A little later: “usually charged objects such as photons will be deflected by our galaxy’s magnetic field.” Unfortunately, photons aren’t charged particles.
Overall, then, this is a fascinating book and a great subject, well worth reading if only to see if you are inclined to argue with the author or agree with him. There is some doubt about the fundamental physics – perhaps there are one or two leaps of imagination too far – yet it doesn’t stop in being a book that should be on many more people’s shelves.
Review by Brian Clegg

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