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Cross-Check: A Free Journal

This journal is free in two senses: you can read it for free, and I am free to say whatever I like.

Seeing the Miracle of Existence in the Darkest of Times

Photo by Skye Horgan

I wrote the essay below for The New York Times in 2002, when my children were still children and I was still married. –John Horgan


Soon after nightfall on Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, I pulled on my coat and boots and tramped into a field near my home. Near a clump of skeletal trees on the field's far side, I found a circle of stones enclosing a heap of sticks, which my wife and two children gathered when it was still light. With a chunk of artificial kindling and a dozen matches, I got the sticks burning just before three lanterns came bobbing toward me out of the darkness.


We sat around the fire for only a half hour or so. The night was thumpingly cold, and smoke kept blowing in our faces. My six-year-old old son Mac and four-year-old daughter Skye were more interested in jabbing the fire with sticks than in listening to their parents' makeshift stories about the Man on the Moon and other celestial beings. My wife kept telling Skye not to get too close the fire, and when she singed her hair and melted the tip of a mitten, Mac laughed.


Glancing up at the stars and Moon, I was suddenly overcome with…


Actually, no word captures the feelings that flooded me, but awe will suffice. As a science journalist, I know that scientists don't have a clue how our universe sprang into being billions of years ago, or why it took this particular form out of countless other possibilities, including nonexistence. Nor does anyone know how inanimate matter on our little planet coalesced into living creatures, let alone creatures like us, who possess this strange thing called consciousness. Science, you might say, has discovered that our existence is infinitely improbable, hence a miracle.


It is one thing to know intellectually that life is a miracle. It is quite another to see it. Saints and poets aside, most of us rarely do. Our pinched perception stems from two deep-rooted cognitive tendencies, instrumentality and automatization. Instrumentality is our compulsion to view life as a series of tasks that advance our selfish interests. Automatization is our propensity to learn chores so thoroughly that we perform them with little or no conscious thought.


These traits have undoubtedly helped our species survive. Automatization is an especially handy cognitive feature, because it allows us to carry out more than one task at the same time--pondering a drop in our stock portfolio, say, while watching our kids sing in a Christmas concert. The downside of instrumentality and automatization is that we end up sleepwalking through life.


Every now and then, if we're lucky, we stop seeing the world as something to be manipulated for our ends. We simply see it, undistorted by our desires and fears. This form of perception is the goal of all contemplative spiritual traditions. When an aspirant asked the 15th-century Zen master Ikkyu to write down a maxim of the highest wisdom, Ikkyu wrote: Attention. The dissatisfied aspirant asked, Is that all? And Ikkyu wrote: Attention. Attention.


Art, poetry and music can help us pay attention. And so can spiritual rituals, which might explain why so many people who aren't otherwise religious--including agnostics like me--still celebrate holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah. We especially need these rituals in this most benighted of seasons, when we are prone to dwelling on life's darker aspects.


The bugbear haunting Christianity and other faiths is the problem of evil. If a loving God created us, why is life often so cruel? But sitting with my family in that circle of stones on Winter Solstice helped me see that birth, beauty, love and laughter also pose problems. If there is no God, and we are here through sheer happenstance, why is life so wonderful? It's a mystery, which no theory or theology can possibly dispel. I don't know whom or what to thank, but I'm thankful.

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Can Mass Curses Topple Tyrants?

I recently received an email from the Templeton Foundation about whether prayer works. The email gave me an idea for ridding the world of tyrants like Putin.


Here's the backstory. The Templeton Foundation, a nonprofit created decades ago by John Templeton, a savvy stock-picker and devout Christian, seeks greater harmony between science and spirituality. As the foundation's website puts it: "We fund research and catalyze conversations that enable people to create lives with purpose and meaning." The multi-billion-dollar foundation has been generous to me, even though I have said mean things about it.


The foundation has long supported research on whether prayer works. Prayer might work in a non-controversial way. Let's say you are recovering from heart surgery. If you believe in a deity who answers prayers, your prayer might aid your recovery via the placebo effect, the tendency of hope to be self-fulfilling. Anything can serve as a placebo: a homeopathic pill, rosary beads, a physician exuding optimism. Research suggests that the placebo effect accounts for much if not all of the efficacy of many treatments, notably antidepressants.


But if you pray for someone else, like a friend recovering from an operation, will your prayer help? Sure, if she knows you are praying for her, then your prayer might activate her placebo effect. But can your prayer help your friend if she doesn't know you are praying for her? That outcome would be remarkable indeed, because it would suggest that prayer works via a mechanism that eludes conventional science, such as a deity's intercession or telekinesis, the mind's paranormal ability to move matter. I know smart people who are open-minded about telekinesis, including spoon-bending, but I'm skeptical.


Back in 2006, believers in "intercessory prayer," defined as asking God to help others, were dealt a setback by a Templeton-funded study. A group led by Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at Harvard open-minded about mind-body links, studied the effect of volunteers' prayers on patients recovering from heart surgery. Prayed-for patients fared no better than non-prayed-for ones. In fact, patients who were prayed for, and knew it, fared slightly worse than those who were prayed for and didn't know it, or those who weren't prayed for at all!


But the Templeton Foundation has not given up its hopes for intercessory prayer. According to the official who emailed me, Templeton-funded scientists continue to study prayer with approaches "more nuanced" than the Benson study, which was "flawed." Frank Fincham, a psychologist at Florida State University, claims to have found tentative evidence that intercessory prayer works, albeit in subtle ways. See his report here.


I asked the Templeton official if anyone has looked at the efficacy of cursing, in the sense of wishing someone ill. I meant it as a joke, but the official responded that another Templeton grantee, psychologist Kevin Ladd of Indiana University South Bend, has examined the possibility that prayer can lead to harmful outcomes.


That got me thinking. The evil twin of the placebo effect is the nocebo effect, the tendency of our fears to be self-fulfilling. Cursing someone, wishing him ill, might work if he knows you are cursing him, via the nocebo effect. Cursing might also work on oblivious targets via divine intercession or telekinesis. You should probably let your target know, just to cover your bases.


Then I thought of a way to test whether cursing works while also, possibly, making the world a better place: Convince opponents of tyrants to wish them ill at the same time, which would presumably amplify the effect. We could start with a mass curse of Putin organized on social media. If you are morally squeamish, you might wish for a calamity that disables Putin rather than killing him. Putin is reportedly superstitious; perhaps he suspects that his pal Trump lost the 2020 election because witches hexed him. The prospect of a global curse might freak Putin out, triggering a nocebo effect.


I could see @elonmusk getting behind organized mass curses, which could boost engagement on Twitter. Putin and his admirers would probably call for a counterstrike of prayers for the Russian tyrant and curses against his enemies. All these prayers and curses might cancel each other out, leading to no net effect--an outcome that is of course consistent with prayers and curses not working at all. 


But imagine if something bad happens to Putin after the organized mass curse! Even if it's just a coincidence, that outcome could turn Twitter into a hellscape of curses and counter-curses. Wait, that's pretty much what Twitter is like already. Hmm. I need to think through this cursing idea more carefully. I should apply for a Templeton grant.


Synchronicity: Argentina and France are playing in the World Cup final tomorrow, and The New York Times reports that Argentinian brujas, or witches, are casting spells for their team and against the French team.


"Praying hands" by Albrecht Durer. Or are they cursing hands?



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Physicists Teleport Bullshit Through Wormhole!

By now, you might have heard that physicists have created a wormhole, which heretofore has existed, as far as we know, only in the imaginations of physicists and science-fiction writers. The story begins with a paper titled, "Traversable wormhole dynamics on a quantum processor."


The paper's abstract invokes terms like entanglement, teleportation, holography, qubits, quantum gravity and spacetime geometry. A clever AI-bot, you might suspect, generated this buzzword salad after scanning papers by cranks. But no, the paper was written by physicists at Caltech, Harvard, MIT, Fermilab and Google, and it was published in the prestigious journal Nature on November 30.


On that same day two top-notch physics reporters, Dennis Overbye of The New York Times and Natalie Wolchover of Quanta, posted articles spelling out the paper's significance. Although Overbye's article is far more skeptical, he and Wolchover both suggest that the Nature authors "created" an actual wormhole. A leader of the research, Maria Spiropulu of Caltech, makes this same claim in a 17-minute video, "Wormhole in the Lab," released by Quanta. The wormhole produced by her group is "traversable," she announces. "It opens, you really can go through."


Here's the problem. According to qualified critics, Spiropulu's group created only a crude simulation of a wormhole based on highly speculative, untested theories. Peter Woit, a physicist at Columbia and long-time critic of untestable speculation in physics, calls the claim that physicists created an actual wormhole "complete bullshit" and a "publicity stunt."


Scott Aaronson, a quantum-computing expert who often debunks extravagant claims made for quantum computers, told Overbye, the Times reporter: "If this experiment has brought a wormhole into actual physical existence, then a strong case could be made that you, too, bring a wormhole into actual physical existence every time you sketch one with pen and paper." Aaronson says on his blog that the wormhole episode "risks damaging trust in the scientific process itself." 


Below is my attempt to make sense of the controversy. The "traversable wormhole" work is the latest wrinkle in physicists' quest to unify Einstein's theory of gravity, general relativity; and quantum theory, which accounts for electromagnetism and the nuclear forces. The two theories are mathematically and conceptually incompatible.


Physicists hope a unified theory—also called a quantum-gravity theory, final theory or theory of everything—will provide a compact and yet complete description of the cosmos. Leaders of the quest have described it in hyperbolic terms. Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg said the final theory might reveal how our universe came to be, and why it takes a form that allows for our existence. Stephen Hawking claimed a final theory might help us know "the mind of God."


This grand quest, which drew me to science journalism in the 1980s, has spawned fantastical conjectures involving infinitesimal strings and extra dimensions and parallel universes. Although these ideas are mathematically compelling (or so proponents assure us), they cannot be tested; the strings and extra dimensions and universes are experimentally inaccessible. The unification quest hasn't lived up to its hype, not even close, but hope dies hard.


One recent stab at unification involves entanglement, a quantum effect whereby particles influence each other at faster-than-light speeds. Einstein, who had a hard time accepting entanglement, famously derided it as "spooky action at a distance." But entanglement has been empirically verified; this year's Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to three physicists for experiments on entanglement.


A decade ago, Juan Maldacena and Leonard Susskind, leading quantum-gravity theorists, proposed that entanglement might be mediated by wormholes. Their conjecture is based on a speculative notion called the holographic principle, which postulates deep mathematical linkages between relativity and quantum theory.


Like black holes, wormholes are a hypothetical consequence of general relativity. Science fiction writers love wormholes, just as they love multiverses; wormholes let you whisk a spaceship from one universe to another instantaneously. But whereas there is circumstantial evidence for black holes, there is none for wormholes.


Back to the claims of Spiropulu et al. What distinguishes their work from most quantum-gravity speculation is their use of a quantum computer. Called Sycamore and built by Google, the computer carries out computations with particles nudged into superposition, meaning that the particles, like Schrodinger's cat, occupy more than one state at the same time. Superposed particles serve as the basis of qubits, which encode more information—and hence can carry out more computations--than ordinary bits in ordinary computers.


The Nature group performed its experiment with a nine-qubit version of Sycamore. Nine qubits is a modest number; Sycamore can't compute anything beyond the range of a conventional computer. The researchers nonetheless used Sycamore to construct a cartoonishly simple mathematical model of a "wormhole" connecting "black holes" in a "spacetime" based on a simple version of the holographic principle. The researchers say they "teleported" information through the "wormhole" in a manner consistent with the Maldacena-Susskind conjecture. Teleportation is a term used to describe certain interactions between entangled particles.


I can see only one way in which Spiropulu et al. could claim they have created an actual as opposed to simulated wormhole. Quantum computing exploits entanglement as well as superposition. If you assume the Maldacena-Susskind conjecture is true, you could claim that the entangled particles in your quantum computer are linked by actual wormholes.


The problem with this argument is that it assumes what it purports to prove; it is a spectacular example of begging the question, or circular reasoning. Also, by this logic, any physicists who produce entangled particles, in a quantum computer or elsewhere, could claim they have "created a wormhole." And physicists can make this claim without constructing a simulation of a wormhole based on an untested quantum-gravity theory. The simulations are unnecessary—unless of course your intention is to obscure the line between what is simulated and what is real.


On his blog, Peter Woit notes that I warned in my 1996 book The End of Science that the quest for a unified theory was dragging physics into a "speculative post-empirical mode." Woit suggests that the wormhole incident bears out my prediction. Yes, I suppose it does, and I appreciate Woit's hat-tip. The irony is that I have recently become more optimistic about physics, and science as a whole, because of advances in quantum computing.


Two years ago, as part of my attempt to learn quantum mechanics, I read a little book called Q Is for Quantum, which gave me a better understanding of quantum computing. I subsequently had email and zoom exchanges with the author, Terry Rudolph, a quantum theorist and co-founder of the quantum-computing company PsiQuantum. Rudolph's optimism about quantum computing rubbed off on me.


In April 2021 I wrote a column, "Will Quantum Computing Ever Live Up to Its Hype?", that channeled the views of Rudolph and Scott Aaronson. After noting the over-the-top claims made for quantum computers, I ended my column on a hopeful note. If quantum computing "gives scientists more powerful tools for simulating complex phenomena," I wrote, "and especially the quantum weirdness at the heart of things, maybe it will give science the jump start it badly needs."


I still hope quantum computing leads to exciting advances, both practical and theoretical, that propel physics forward. But those advances might be hard to spot beneath all the bullshit and publicity stunts that quantum computing enables. And I no longer believe that physicists will ever find a true unified theory, which tells us how we came to be. That belief, I've decided, was always delusional.


Update: On his blog Not Even Wrong, Peter Woit notes that the "wormhole publicity stunt just keeps going." He points out that The New Yorker just published an article about Google's quantum-computing program, which played a key role in the wormhole stunt.


Update: Some commenters on this column say all the physicists including Einstein are wrong about quantum mechanics and other stuff. We in the business call these commenters "cranks." I decided not to enable cranky comments, but then I felt like a hypocrite, because I can be pretty cranky myself. So I'm enabling a few.


This is not a wormhole.


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