Science and Energy

We live in a strange age; an age in which science and technology are providing us new knowledge and capabilities in many areas of endeavor but also an age in which a significant number of people are rejecting scientific thinking in favor of belief-based narratives. While the scientific process stems from observations leading to conceptual models that yield predictions testable by new observations, belief systems lack such constraints.

We have groups rejecting the concept that seven billion humans could change the Earth’s climate at the same time that we see from orbit a globe covered by the lights produced by human activities. We have people rejecting the concept of evolution at the same time that cancer researchers are seeking means to keep cancer cells from evolving to become immune to treatments. It is a time in which the mass-conferring Higgs Boson has been found and a time in which signs of post Big Bang inflation have been spotted in the cosmic background radiation. It is also a time in which some, particularly in several health care professions, resist letting go of a belief that humans can willfully emit (or invoke) some form of “subtle healing energy” — energy undetectable by scientific methods, that is undefined as to its nature, and not specified as to how it interacts with matter and specifically with human tissue.

What I’ve observed in numerous discussions is a combination of tossing in “quantum mechanics” as an all-explaining meme while also falling back on the vitalistic beliefs of past centuries. A “life energy” is either proposed to be transferred from person to person or taken as something that “knows what is needed”, an implicit invocation of supposed energy entities. It is a belief in a world filled by thought-directed magic, but with far less thought given to implications and consistency than was evidenced by Larry Niven and J.K. Rowling in the creation of their fictional worlds of magic.

This article is my push-back against the pseudo-science of energy beliefs; my thoughts collected over a number of months of online discussions. On a spiritual level one is entitled to whatever beliefs one wishes. It is not credible, however, to extend the practice of such beliefs into the domains of state-regulated health professions.

Everything is Not Energy

For me, an inevitable “eye-roller” is the statement “Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want”, often misattributed to Einstein as documented at Quote Investigator. This statement is generally trotted forth as justification for the idea that one’s thoughts affect the nature of reality, with energy being abstract and ethereal. In contrast, science has defined specific forms of energy.

It is true that everything was energy immediately after the Big Bang. It is still true that matter can be transformed into energy; in a nuclear reaction or when matter and anti-matter annihilate each other, the classic example being two 0.52 MeV gamma rays emitted when an electron and positron collide and destroy each other. It is also true that Einstein gave us an equation for the energy equivalent of matter and that de Broglie related such energy to the wavelength or frequency of a particle, a concept of wave-particle duality. Thus we have:

$$E = m c^2 = h \nu = h c / \lambda \textrm{,}$$

Where \(E\) is energy, \(m\) is mass, \(c\) is the speed of light, \(h\) is Planck’s constant, and \(\nu\) and \(\lambda\) are the de Broglie frequency and wavelength, respectively. Note that \(\nu\) and \(\lambda\) depend on a particle’s energy but not how you think about it. This is physics.

Matter can be transformed into energy, although it has proven difficult to do so in a controlled manner (i.e. in controlled fusion). Such conversion is what powers the sun (via the proton-proton chain reaction), although, even there, the mass loss between the reactant protons and the helium produced is a very small fraction of the mass involved.

A conversion from matter to energy is not symbolic. It destroys any material structure existing in the original matter. The results are also not healthy for those nearby. The annihilation of a mere 46 µg (millionths of a gram) of matter yields the equivalent energy of a ton of TNT. It is not conducive to a continued professional health practice to incinerate your clients or yourself; far better to leave matter as matter and stick with the energy released in the chemical reactions of metabolism.

Quantum Mechanics doesn’t Justify It

As a physicist, it’s sad to see the word quantum, stemming from the meaning discrete or countable (i.e. not continuous), take on the anything goes connotation of something magic; of something that allows one to “roll” your own cosmos as you wish. In the Quark and the Jaguar, Noble Laureate Physicist Murray Gell-Mann calls this move to pseudo-scientific word-salad “quantum flapdoodle“. Particle physicist Victor Stenger just stuck with rebutting it as quantum quackery.

It’s unfortunate that the use of the term “the observer” as one doing a measurement has led to over interpretation of the role of the observer and to a lack of focus on the process of measurement. Unlike experiments in the macro world, the observer of an experiment on the quantum scale, for example involving electron beams passing through a double slit, has no way of making an observation without disrupting what would have occurred otherwise. Richard Feynman provided a thorough discussion under Volume III, Chapter 1, Section 6 of the Feynman Lectures.

If a stream of (light) photons capable of localizing electrons is used, the electrons are perturbed and they act as particles. If the energy of the photons is decreased to where they don’t perturb the experiment, the wavelength (\(\lambda = h c / E\)) is too long to determine the electron path and wavelike behavior by the electrons is observed. It is not the thoughts of the observer that are important, but how or if the observer proceeds to make observations.

Feynman also addresses under philosophical implications that effectively having free will does require quantum mechanics, since even the classical world become unpredictable without absolute initial knowledge.

Of course we must emphasize that classical physics is also indeterminate, in a sense. It is usually thought that this indeterminacy, that we cannot predict the future, is an important quantum-mechanical thing, and this is said to explain the behavior of the mind, feelings of free will, etc. But if the world were classical—if the laws of mechanics were classical—it is not quite obvious that the mind would not feel more or less the same. … It is therefore not fair to say that from the apparent freedom and indeterminacy of the human mind, we should have realized that classical “deterministic” physics could not ever hope to understand it, and to welcome quantum mechanics as a release from a “completely mechanistic” universe. For already in classical mechanics there was indeterminability from a practical point of view.

If one wants to call upon quantum mechanics as a paradigm, it helps to learn something about it from reliable sources. One could do worse than Leonard Susskind’s The Theoretical Minimum. An introduction to quantum mechanics is one of the core courses and has an accompanying book.

Human Electromagnetic Fields aren’t “Out There”

Scientific research pretty much characterized EM fields and emissions from the human body. The dominant one is infrared radiation characteristic of temperature. We and all objects around us emit and absorb such (blackbody) radiation.

Because we contain water and water absorbs and emits in the microwave portion of the spectrum (used by atmospheric weather sensors), we also produce low level thermal emissions of microwaves.

We do emit a few biophotons in the UV-Visble (1-1000 \(photons\; cm^{-2} sec^{-1}\)), based on the presence of reactive oxygen species in our bodies and the electron energy-state transitions they undergo. Such photons are technically a form of bioluminesence. There have been proposals that such photons could be used as a health diagnostic. Imaging technology has also recently progressed to where such imaging is feasible in reasonable times. There are indications that emission of such photons may be reduced by meditation. There is no reason or research that I’m aware of that would suggest an ability of conscious control of the oxidative stress leading to such emissions. As noted in the articles above, formation of free radicals is one of the side effects of energy metabolism involving oxygen. Thus, you can forget anything you might read that says these are likely to be influenced by conscious mental processes.

We generate a very weak magnetic field in the immediate vicinity (i.e. near field) of our bodies because of small electric currents in our heart, long muscles, and brain. These are weak enough (at least 10,000 times weaker than ambient magnetic noise) that they require a shielded room and a cryogenic sensor (SQUID) to detect. These are also near-field, not EM wave emissions which require an oscillating charge to generate (think antennas and radio waves). Although it anthropomorphizes the universe a bit, this writeup on antenna basics discusses how accelerating charges are fundamental to EM far-field radiation. The human body is simply not equipped to be an oscillating charge generator.

David Cohen, a pioneer in human biomagnetic research, gave an overview of such research in his Jones Seminar presentation to the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth on 7 Nov 2008. The lecture is also available on YouTube. The following graph showing relative magnetic field strengths is taken from that lecture.

Cohen: Human Magnetic Field Strengths

Human Magnetic Field Strengths. Taken from David Cohen’s “Jones Seminar” at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth, 7 Nov 2008.

Magnetic fields result from electric currents. Looking at the figure, we see that the urban background magnetic noise is about 0.002 Gauss. We can estimate the current that would be required in the human body to generate a magnetic field that strong using the equation for a long wire.

$$B = 0.2 \frac{I}{r} \textrm{,}$$

where \(B\) is the magnetic field strength in Gauss, \(I\) is the current in Amperes, and \(r\) is the radial distance of the measurement in cm. If we measure at 10 cm, the field will be 0.002 G when the current is 0.1 A. That’s a current large enough to electrocute; simply not something that is going to be generated in the body. We aren’t electric eels. Compared to background noise, the magnetic fields generated by the human body are very small because the currents generating them are equally small. You do need the shielded room and cryogenic sensor to detect them.

All in all, we humans are well-equipped to communicate directly by sound (compression waves in air) and touch but direct communication in the electromagnetic spectrum is simply not a feasible part of human-to-human interaction, apart from nonverbal communication in visible light (i.e. gesture and body language). What we can do by the ingenuity of our minds to create technology is another matter.

References for Further Reading

Cohen, D, EA Edelsack, and JE Zimmerman. 1970. “Magnetocardiograms Taken Inside a Shielded Room with a Superconducting Point-Contact Magnetometer.” Applied Physics Letters 16:278-280. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.1653195.

Cohen, D, and E Givler. 1972. “Magnetomyography: magnetic fields around the human body produced by skeletal muscles.” Applied Physics Letters 21:114-116. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.1654294.

Cohen, D. 1975. “Magnetic fields of the human body.” Phys. Today 28(8):34-43. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.3069110.

Cohen, D, Y Palti, B N Cuffin, and S J Schmid. 1980. “Magnetic Fields Produced by Steady Currents in the Body.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 77 (3): 1447–51. URL: http://www.pnas.org/content/77/3/1447.abstract

The Implausibility of Something Unknown

It’s generally at this stage of the discussion that someone advances the thought that “science doesn’t know everything” or that “science hasn’t proven that some other energy doesn’t exist”.

It is true that science can’t explain all things, for example, “Why should one attempt to live life well?”. One can weigh costs and benefits of choices, but that never reaches the underlying philosophical question of the purpose. It is also true that there are many areas, for example in biology, that our knowledge is limited. However, as knowledge is slowly won, there is little likelihood of finding something that contradicts the well-established knowledge of chemistry and physics. That lack of contradiction is an important element of plausibility.

In contrast to biological matters such as networks of cell-signalling, areas of physics in fundamental particles, intrinsic types of forces, carrier particles, and types of energy, while not devoid of unknowns, are far simpler and far more evolved. Thus, the level of evidence required to contradict current theory is a lot higher.

It is also true that science cannot detect things that are purely spiritual beliefs or phantoms of our neurological system and lack external reality. This is not going to change in the future except in the ability of science to measure and analyze the processes occurring within our brains. In mentioning future abilities of science to analyze the processes occurring within our brains, I am thinking of this research on retrieving visual images from brain activity.

Science does not take on proving that something doesn’t exist. One would be forever chasing wild postulations and trying to nail down special contexts and situations. Instead, science asks if there is positive evidence that something does exist and, if so, under what conditions is it significant. Such proof has not been forthcoming; nor is it likely.

Nature is frugal in her use of available resources. If some other energy existed and interacted with living beings, we would expect to see multiple uses around us. That we don’t is a lack of internal consistency.

The lack of observations from other areas of life and the lack of evolution to specialize in use of any potential extra form of energy (nature is impartial – both negative and positive aspects would exist) is indicative that there is nothing there to detect (imagines spiders lulling/luring flies with … energy). Sci-fi writers tend to be much better at hypothesizing such self-consistency than health care providers, Chris Moore’s “The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove” comes to mind (comedy, sci-fi).

Finally, simply hypothesizing a new form of energy and leaving it at that is like placing a board in mid-air and expecting it to stay. Consistency demands support through multiple levels of existence. All the known forces depend on virtual particles to carry them (hence carrier particle) across space. For the electromagnetic force, the carrier particles are virtual photons. Electromagnetic radiation also is carried by photons. There has to be a physical means to to get from here to there. A proposed new form of energy, a form of energy that interacts strongly with matter (of which human tissue is an instance), would require such a carrier particle. Reorganizing particle physics to include a new energy and its accompanying particle presumes that something that should have been obvious was overlooked in all the particle experiments analyzed over the years. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

In the end, it is much more likely that what is experienced is consistent with Edzard Ernst’s comments on the effectiveness of Reiki.

The results of this study were impressive: reiki did, in fact, make the patients feel better. Specifically, it increased the comfort and wellbeing of the patients in comparison with those who received no such intervention. Intriguingly, however, the sham reiki had exactly the same effects, and there were no differences between real and sham reiki.

In short, whatever is experienced, it is far more likely to be a psycho-social effect than some undetected form of energy communication. The extraordinary evidence required for the latter supposition isn’t there. As humans, we are social animals. We do respond to attention, touch, and caring — no unknown energy required.

References for Further Reading

Lee, M. S., M. H. Pittler, and E. Ernst. 2008. “Effects of Reiki in Clinical Practice: A Systematic Review of Randomised Clinical Trials.” International Journal of Clinical Practice 62 (6): 947–54. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1742-1241.2008.01729.x.

Hartman, SE. 2009. “Why do ineffective treatments seem helpful? A brief review.” Chiropractic & Osteopathy 17:10. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/1746-1340-17-10.

5 Responses to “Science and Energy”

  1. Thank you so much for being a voice of reason and sharing your knowledge. You have a way of explaining things so that my non-scientific brain can get it. You are one of the people I admire the most in massage therapy.

  2. The Advantages of Reiki are boundless. It allows you to take an active part in your very own wellness, and accelerates your development on all levels.

    Hagemeier

  3. […] People have the idea that I am against energy work. I am not against it. I believe any time you place your hands on people in a compassionate, non-sexual, non-threatening, non-judgmental way, with the intention of soothing their pain, relieving their stress, easing their passing, or whatever, that’s a good thing, and you can do the work without needing some supernatural  narrative that violates the physical laws of the universe to go along with it. A good explanation from Keith Eric Grant, who might be the only physicist in the US who is also a massage therapist of many years, can be found here. […]

  4. How do your colleagues advocating CST respond to this? Do they try to heal your skeptical, scientific mind? (mime giggling)

  5. Interesting blog Laura! Thankyou for sharing your thoughts. I enjoyed reading it ! Keep up the good work!
    Blessings,
    Melissa

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