Skip to main content

The Paranormal Equation – James Stein ***

I  really wish I had my hands on a copy of mathematician’s James Stein’s book Paranormal Equation when I wrote my own Extra Sensory, as there is some fascinating material here taking a whole new slant on the supernatural that I have never seen before. It wouldn’t be too much to say that Stein has developed a whole new theoretical approach for dealing with supernatural phenomena (with a proviso), based on his mathematical background – and that is quite a feat.
Having said it would be useful, the two books are actually addressing almost unconnected areas of thought – ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ as Stephen Jay Gould might have put it. I deal with aspects of the paranormal that could have a natural explanation – I don’t cover the supernatural at all – where Stein is focussed on events that don’t have a possible natural explanation.
After giving us a fair amount of information as to how most paranormal events can’t happen, Stein provides a loophole with a fascinating conjecture that I’ve never seen before. Since the mid twentieth century, mathematicians have been aware that there are some propositions in the mathematical system we use that can never be proved. We think some of them are true, but it has been proved that they can’t be proved. This is a bit like a mathematical version of the logical knots that arise from dealing with the statement ‘This statement is false.’
The great Alan Turing came up with a similar concept to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem for computing – but Stein goes further. He considers the possibility that in an infinite universe (something that may well be the case), there could be a similar concept in physics. There could be phenomena that it is impossible for physics to explain. Ever. And these arguably would be supernatural by definition. This doesn’t mean, of course, that this makes telepathy, say, possible – and Stein doesn’t say this. But it is a truly fascinating bit of thinking on his part.
There are two reasons that this important book doesn’t have more stars. One is that much of it is more about the philosophy of science than science itself, and some of the content is as airy and difficult to pin down as a paranormal event. The other is that it isn’t the easiest of books to read, although it is well worth the effort. (And one or two of the facts quoted outside the main thrust of the book are a little iffy. Stein comments ‘It is certainly true that humans generally use about 10 percent of the brain.’ This is a myth so well established it has its own Wikipedia page.)
However this is without doubt the most original and fascinating book I have read about supernatural phenomena in many years and a highly recommended work for anyone who wants to take an open-minded scientific view of the paranormal.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…