Science history: The man attempting to merge physics and the paranormal
Nobel laureate Brian Josephson is a controversial figure in quantum circles. Jeff Glorfeld reports.
In 1962, Brian D. Josephson, a 22-year-old graduate student at England’s Cambridge University, born on January 4, 1940, in Cardiff, Wales, predicted that electrical current would flow, or tunnel, between two superconducting materials – things that at low temperatures lack electrical resistance, even when they are separated by a non-superconductor, or insulator.
In quantum physics, matter can be described as both waves and particles. Emerging from this is the phenomenon of tunnelling, which sees particles pass through barriers that according to classic physics should be impassable.
Josephson’s tunnelling theory was later confirmed, and in 1973 he was one of three scientists who shared the Nobel Prize in physics. (The others were Leo Esaki and Ivar Giaever)
This tunnelling phenomenon is today known as the “Josephson effect”, an important piece of evidence in the ongoing development of superconductivity.
He went on to make several other discoveries, including those leading to the development of the “Josephson junction switch”, which allows extreme high-speed switching on the molecular level. The junctions are the key components in superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDs), widely used to make extremely sensitive measurements of magnetic fields.
As an example of Josephson’s unique character, in a January 2013 article in the Cambridge University publication CavMag, commemorating the 50th anniversary of his tunnelling discovery, colleague John Waldran recalled: “In 1973 Brian was awarded his Nobel Prize, and of course we asked him what he was planning to do with the money. He thought for a little while and said he planned to upgrade his bicycle.”
In the late 1970s, Josephson’s work took a turn that was looked upon unfavourably by some peers. He began to focus on the human brain and links between quantum physics and parapsychological or paranormal phenomena such as telepathy and extra-sensory perception.
He became director of the Mind-Matter Unification Project of the Theory of Condensed Matter Group at the Cavendish Laboratory, within Cambridge University. Josephson’s homepage describes it as “a project concerned primarily with the attempt to understand, from the viewpoint of the theoretical physicist, what may loosely be characterised as intelligent processes in nature, associated with brain function or with some other natural process”.
He told an interviewer from the Physics World journal in 2002 that, “physicists have an emotional response when they hear anything connected with parapsychology. Their opinion of parapsychology research is not based on evaluation of the evidence but on a dogmatic belief that all research in this field is false.”
He’d started to think about how the brain works and found this more fascinating than anything in physics at the time. He became interested in Eastern mysticism and parapsychology.
"I began to sense that conventional science is inadequate for situations where the mind is involved, and the task of clarification became a major concern of mine,” he said.
“Ultimately, my work on the brain is more significant than my Nobel-prize winning research.”
Josephson’s vocal support for many fringe theories – such as cold fusion and the idea that water possesses memory – has seen him shunned by many other scientists. In 2010 organisers withdrew an invitation for him to attend a conference on the de Broglie–Bohm theory, an approach to quantum physics. However, it was soon reinstated after several other attendees complained.
He continues to be very active, and defiant. On his university homepage he describes his work as “concerned primarily with the attempt to understand, from the viewpoint of the theoretical physicist, what may loosely be characterised as intelligent processes in nature, associated with brain function or with some other natural process.”