30 Sep 2013
This article is supplement to:Higgs boson opens world beyond standard physics

Out of left field

The weirdness of fields offers rich pickings for pseudoscience.

Rupert Sheldrake is best known for his "morphic resonance" concept.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1980s English plant biologist Rupert Sheldrake thought they might explain some of the mysteries of biological form, particularly how a mass of cells sculpts itself into an embryo.  In a series of highly speculative books he argued that every kind of natural structure has its own “morphogenetic field”. Pigeons, orchids, insulin molecules and termite colonies generated fields just as sub-atomic particles do. These morphic fields travel through space and influence matter around them.

Sheldrake also proposed that these fields might explain a supposed coincidence in the formation of crystals in widely separated laboratories. He recently wrote: “There is, in fact, good evidence that new compounds get easier to crystallise all around the world.” For example, turanose, a kind of sugar, was considered to be a liquid for decades, until it first crystallised in the 1920s. Thereafter it formed crystals everywhere. The American chemist C. P. Saylor remarked it was as though “the seeds of crystallisation, as dust, were carried upon the winds from end to end of the earth”.  
Sheldrake’s theories have long exasperated the scientific community. In 1981 John Maddox,  then editor of Nature magazine wrote an editorial titled “A book for burning?”, referring to Sheldrake’s first book A New Science of Life: The hypothesis of morphic resonance. And a recent TEDx talk was removed after its Science Board decided, “we feel a responsibility not to provide a platform for talks which appear to have crossed the line into pseudoscience”.

For many scientists fields may be weird but not that weird.