Poltergeist Physics!


Matt D., a former Part III colleague, brought to my attention a paper that is two months late for being an awesome Halloween arXiv submission.

arXiv:0801.0382 (physics.gen-ph)

Some conjectures about the mechanism of poltergeist phenomenon
P. Brovetto, V.Maxia

Poltergeist accounts concern at least four kinds of strange spontaneous manifestations, such as burning of materials, failures of electric equipments, rapping noises and movements of objects. A simple analysis of phenomenology of these disturbances shows that they might have a common origin, that is, a reduction in strength of molecular bonds due to an enhancement in polarization of vacuum which decreases the actual electron charge. Arguments based on Prigogine’ nonequilibrium thermodynamics are proposed, which show how transformations in brain of some pubescent childs or young womans [sic] might be the cause of these effects. [Emphasis mine.]

The PACS categories, by the way, include QED, entropy, molecular biophysics, and nonequilibrium thermodynamics. The focus on `pubescent children’ and `young women’ appear to be motivated by a grand total of four anecdotes, including one of the authors’ experiences on a date as a teenager.

I briefly skimmed the paper and don’t think it’s necessarily crack pottery, but rather a light-hearted (I hope) attempt to use physical principles to explain `supernatural’ phenomena. The paper, however, does contain some rather suspicious crack-pottish phrases, like, `The theory is rather complex and we do not dwell on this matter.’ Also, the paper appears to fail to make suggestions about how these models can be tested. (Even the silly hep-ph papers propose further experiments.)

On the one hand, I think slightly silly papers like this are all in good fun. On the other hand, one worries that such papers end up being `enablers’ for crack-pots and people who like the X-Files a bit too much for their own good. 🙂

The general approach appears to be to use statistical and quantum mechanics to sweep apparent impossibilities under the rug by saying that quantum fluctuations or a highly improbable (but possible) distribution of molecules caused a macroscopic phenomenon.

I am especially amused by the argument that puberty causes a decrease in the entropy of the brain, hence requiring an increase in the entropy in the surroundings. This increase in entropy can (however improbably) cause poltergeist-like phenomena. The argument mentions Maxwell’s Demon, which is also a cute idea worth looking at if you’re not familiar with it. By the way, the proposal that brain entropy decreases during puberty is absolutely contrary to the personal experiences of just about everybody I know.

I have to say, however, that I’m not sure its fair to just handwave and say quantum\statistical uncertainty causes everything we can’t explain. Roger Penrose had a similarly speculative theory of consciousness based on quantum fluctuations in the microtubules of neurons.

Further, scientists outside the physics community appear to already be doing a good job explaining some paranormal occurences. Check out the prologue of This American Life Episode 319, where the only poltergeist in a `haunted house’ was a carbon monoxide leak causing hallucinations in its inhabitants.

I’ll provide one more anecdote I heard from a cultural anthropologist, who remaked upon the pan-cultural prevalence of the incubus myth where individuals awaken from sleep to find themselves paralyzed with the feeling of a `demon’ sitting on their chests. The explanation turns out to be sleep paralysis, a condition now well understood by modern science:

Physiologically, it is closely related to the paralysis that occurs as a natural part of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is known as REM atonia. Sleep paralysis occurs when the brain awakes from a REM state, but the bodily paralysis persists. This leaves the person fully aware, but unable to move. (Source: Wikipedia)

See the list of cultural references in the Wikipedia article for a rather fascinating account of just how wide-spread this myth is amongst very different cultures.

Anyway, I think the bottom line is that while this is all nice and fun, there are plenty of weird and unexplained things to think about from quantum gravity to dark energy. And if you still want to be a little speculative, then the Pioneer anomaly. (Maybe the Pioneer probes underwent puberty and the resulting decrease in environmental entropy gave them a boost?)


3 Responses to “Poltergeist Physics!”

  1. 1 hwasungmars

    You got that one! I was thinking of bloging about it, too!!

  2. 🙂 I frequently find that Bee and Stefan from Backreaction will blog about something that I had been planning on writing about myself.

  3. 3 Steffen

    What’s the fuzz about. It’s rubbish and that has always existed. It’s just easier to make it accessible to everyone nowadays.

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