“It seems to me that there is room—one might even say a long unfelt want—
for what might be called the ‘tall’ science-fiction story.
By this I mean stories that are intentionally unbelievable:
not, as is too often the case, unintentionally so.”
–Arthur C. Clarke, preface, Tales from the White Hart
I don't normally engage
in scientific discussions via Facebook posts. They're not
super-conducive to critical thought, mostly serving to reinforce
people's existing beliefs. This is partly due to their length, which
makes it hard to do anything other than summarize a complex idea, and
partly due to self-selection. FB is not helping by basing its feed
algorithms on what people want (those little click-hits of
dopamine) rather than what democracy needs (having our
personal preconceptions challenged by reality).
I will now
hypocritically use this space to respond to some random Facebook
post. Actually, the article
linked from the post is an excerpt of a book, which is designed to
look like a college textbook, with plenty of color illustrations,
sidebars, and an impressive index. There are a lot of ideas
here, among them:
is subtle energy? Underlying physical reality are subtle, or
indiscernible, energies that create and sustain all matter. The
so-called real world—the one you can touch, smell, taste, hear,
and see—is constructed entirely from these energies, which are
imperceptible through the five senses. The Subtle Body,
Introduction, p. xx.
anatomy relies on charts that say, 'The liver is there.' Cut into the
body, and the liver is there. The East might track the liver
through charts locating liver energy in a toe. Both are true;
the physical liver does lie under the ribcage, and its subtle
energies do flow into the toe. (p. 6)
subtle energies actually do occupy a negative time-space continuum,
move faster than the speed of light, and have no mass, we can
determine that we do not currently have the equipment needed to
measure them. This does not mean that what is invisible does not
exist. (p. 8)
energies, rule breakers that they are, can stretch—and
sometimes completely ignore—time and space, change form at
will, and occupy many places at once. (p. 9)
And that's not even the
end of Chapter 1. Many of these seem to be exactly what Pascal Boyer
described as supernatural in his 2003
review paper. They are logical possibilities that go
against common experience and the scientific method. Find something
that appears to be a rule of nature or culture, and break it—a
fine old tradition in science fiction. According to Boyer, these
violations actually make the ideas they are attached to more
memorable, and thus more likely to spread through the meme pool.
As a quick aside, the
basic theoretical model for much of this stuff seems to come from one
William A. Tiller, who took this perfectly sensible diagram,
function ↔ structure ↔ chemistry ↔ electromagnetic fields
for which there is much evidence, and extended it into this,
(from the Foreword of Gerber, 2001)
the inspiration for
which seems to me to be a search for some kind of symmetry. The upper
left path is the one Western science has focused on, and the lower
right path is based on—I don’t know what. Tiller's ideas
about Eastern philosophy?
We are all elements of spirit, indestructible and eternal, and
multiplexed in the divine. We contain a unique mechanism of
perception which is mind. In my theoretical modeling, mind consists
of three levels—the instinctual, the intellectual, and the
spiritual—and mind is postulated to function in a
six-dimensional space lattice. Vibrational Medicine, p. 15.
Tiller has published
on these ideas in fringe journals, and a whole series of white
papers on his nonprofit Tiller Institute’s
website. A gold mine of SF ideas.
Anyway, what I want to
do this month is take one—just one—aspect of that
Facebook-linked article, the “morphic field” that Rupert
Sheldrake proposed as an explanation for the shapes of bodies in the
suggested that there is a field within and around a morphic unit—the
physical development unit of what later becomes a tissue or
organ—that forms it. All living organisms—from cells to
people—that belong to a certain group tune in to the morphic
field and through morphic resonance develop according to the programs
within that field. (p. 145)
For the moment, let's
ignore the words “resonance” and “program,”
both of which appear to be used somewhat metaphorically (we'll return
to resonance in a later column). What purpose does the morphic field
felt that there wasn't enough information in a DNA molecule to
specify the architecture, or something like that. Which is true—by
itself, a DNA molecule is not capable of doing anything interesting.
It's just a long, relatively inert chemical thread, braided around
itself to hold itself together. In fact, that lack of reactivity is
precisely what makes it a good storage molecule. To grow, or copy
itself, or communicate with other DNA molecules, it needs a vast and
intricate cellular infrastructure composed mostly of proteins, more
specifically a structural cytoskeleton and mobile protein nanobots
called enzymes that move around and perform chemical reactions. The
only place a cell can get this full package of infrastructure is from
its mother cell, because in the current highly evolved form, the
infrastructure is too complicated to assemble from scratch. Our
current corrosive oxidizing atmosphere makes the prospect practically
simulations of this molecular infrastructure are really cool to
Life, narrating the passage of a white blood cell
through the wall of a blood vessel, is inaccurate in one specific
way, in that it spreads the components out so that you can see them.
There isn't nearly this much empty space inside a cell. A newer, more
realistic example is here.
But all models are wrong in that same way. If it were completely
accurate, it wouldn't be a model; it would be a cell.
The idea of morphic
fields (or, to up the technobabble ante, morphogenetic fields)
was apparently popular with a certain community and led to more
specific logical predictions.
Ann Brennan, an expert on the human energy field, states that the
subtle energy structure sets up a matrix for cellular growth; it is
therefore present before cells grow. (p. 8)
Note that this is a
perfectly good logical prediction. It is consistent with the theory.
Unfortunately, good logic is not enough for good science. Hypotheses
should be testable, preferably with current technology. However, I
don't want to get into a methodological
pissing match, which is what professional
skeptics seem to enjoy above all else. I would much
rather just point you towards the cool science that has already been
shown to work, experimentally.
Since the 1980s,
developmental biologists have worked out some of the devilishly
complicated signaling that cells use to build bodies. Cells talk to
one another chemically and electrically as they are building, and
complexity emerges out of the specific content and timing of
their communication, with no need for a complete top-down blueprint,
energetic or otherwise. It's enough to specify the basic rules of the
process, rather than the end product. If something goes terribly
wrong, that cell or organism-to-be dies, and we see natural selection
Watch the video
tutorial. Follow up with some reading
The point here is NOT
that the biochemical mechanisms prove that morphic fields are
imaginary. Proving a negative is notoriously impossible, using
science’s form of inductive logic. The point is that if the
biochemical mechanisms are shown to be necessary and sufficient, then
we don't need a magic morphic field to explain our observations. We
can provisionally give up the assumption that there must be a
complete blueprint. Science likes its theories to be as simple as
they can be. Rules are simpler than a complete blueprint.
Science fiction, on the
other hand, likes its theories to be as cool as possible. Never mind
that the phrase “laser sword” makes no sense whatsoever.
It sounds cool, and looks even cooler, and that emotional aspect is
at least as important in attracting young scientists (and
young-at-heart science geeks) as the facts of how lasers work. This
is why I'm telling you, as an SF author, about these wacko cool
theories. SF is a game we play with our readers, or at least it can
be. Try putting some of this stuff into your next story, and inviting
your readers to poke holes in it, or to logically extrapolate from it
and suggest the next thing you write for them.
Randall Hayes is
apparently a six-dimensional being, which is one more dimension than
Mxyzptlk, who is, like, the 76th
greatest comic book villain of all time. But then, so is everybody
else, so that’s kind of disappointing.
from a comment by Aquilius: “I’ve heard that’s why catholics make the sign of the cross—it’s really to cut your energy in half, then half again when they 'greet' you.”
That is awesome. I'm totally going to start doing that, and I'm not even Catholic.
Dale, Cyndi (2009). The Subtle Body: An Encyclopedia of Your Energetic Anatomy. Sounds True, Inc. Boulder, Colorado.
This is a fantastic book (in at least two senses of the word). The publisher's name is just great.
Gerber, Richard (2001). Vibrational Medicine: The #1 Handbook of Subtle-Energy Therapies, third edition. Bear & Company, Rochester, VT.
An older book, still using a foreword written in 1987 by William Tiller.
This is where I actually got the GIF.
I should emphasize that Tiller states that his ideas are testable, and therefore science.
Michael Shermer, “Rupert's Resonance,” Scientific American, November, 2005, 19.
Rupert Sheldrake (1995). A New Science of Life. Park Street, Rochester, VT.
I have not read this. It’s just here in case you want to follow up.
From RIKEN in Japan.
Bubbles! Who doesn’t love bubbles?
This one is less detailed but browseable, with tutorials, including the one on morphogens above.
This free text is searchable but not browseable, so you have to know what you’re looking for.
Read more by Randall Hayes