musical milliner

May 10, 2010

Strani eventi: Physics of Precognition or Just Fuzzy Logic?

(At left, the Carina Nebula. Photo courtesy of

A few days ago, I had a metaphysical discussion with an old friend, Claude Plymate. Claude is an astronomer. A real astronomer who has spent his life massaging a very special observatory, the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope atop Kitt Peak outside of Tucson. Claude has cred. His wife, Teresa Bippert is also an amazing astrophysicist who does crazy things with optics at the University of Arizona- things I can’t begin to understand. Both attended undergraduate school with me. Just so you know:

“The McMath-Pierce solar telescope is the world’s largest solar telescope, and the world’s largest unobstructed-aperture optical telescope with a diameter of 1.6 meters. Permanent instruments include a dual grating spectrograph capable of extended wavelength coverage (0.3-12 microns), a 1-meter Fourier Transform Spectrometer for both solar and laboratory analysis, and a high-dispersion stellar spectrometer.

Important discoveries include: detection of water and isotopic helium on the Sun; solar emission lines at 12 microns; first measurement of Kilogauss magnetic fields outside sunspots and the very weak intra-network fields; first high resolution images at 1.6 and 10 microns; detection of a natural maser in the Martian atmosphere.” (  Smart folks, these friends of mine.

For me, our chat was a flashback to the days when a group of about eight to twelve of us undergrads sat around a large round table, drinking coffee and arguing and speculating over the Big Questions late into the night. We studied different disciplines, but among the many other things we had in common was one biggie: we were night owls. Students of astronomy & related sciences, writers and musicians. And there was the campus radio station in which we criss-crossed at various times.  People who were up awaiting  a celestial event, or the quiet in which to think, or the need to burn off energy from a rehearsal or performance. These were the people I loved most, and after all these years, know that I still do.

I got into the subject of precognition with Claude. Just like the old days. I told a story of an experience I had some years ago. I was on our sailboat, pre-kid era. We had dropped anchor and slept in Clipper Cove between Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island, near where we berthed. In the early morning, I looked up at the Bay Bridge nearby, and pondered aloud to my spouse, “Do you see the ramp on the lower deck (eastbound) of the bridge by the bottom of the cantilever? It looks like one of those ramps kids use to launch their skateboards. Wouldn’t it be weird if a car drove up it and flipped into the Bay?”  The guy looked at me cock-eyed. He had learned by then that sometimes I say weird things that come true.

We had a lovely sail, tied up the boat and headed to the clubhouse to use the facilities. Walking up the dock, we heard sirens. Lots of sirens, and a Coast Guard helicopter zoomed over us to the south side of the bridge. We noticed traffic stopped on the lower deck.  We thought, “Oh shit. Bridge accident. Might as well go fix a drink and hang out until the thing is cleared.”  True, we were going back home into the City on the upper, western deck, but a serious accident will occasionally slow the whole structure.

In the clubhouse, actually “shack” was a more fitting description of the Treasure Island Yacht Club back then,  nobody was around. We turned on the television to see if there was information available.

Yes, there was.  A car had driven off  the little ramp, gone over the side of the bridge and into the Bay. There were fatalities. Spouse performed a double cock-eye at me. Meanwhile, I was trying to wrap my head around the big picture. Someone later asked me if I felt responsible. That never entered my mind.  Just absurd. I may practice certain spiritual rituals,  but overall I embrace empiricism. I have no explanation for this experience, or any of  the others. No way to prove or disprove. So I just let it be.

But Claude, being grounded in empiricism and the scientific method wrestles with these questions every day. Claude and I talked about my story and a few related matters, and this is what he wrote. It is used by Claude’s permission.

“I’d like to apologize from the start for the new-agey, pseudoscientific tone of this. Recently, I’ve been hearing about some experiments that appear to show test subjects responding stimuli a fraction of a second BEFORE receiving the stimulus! It is easy to ignore or discard such anomalous results as bad experimental technique or analysis. But what if the results are revealing a real effect? What if there is reproducible laboratory results showing people have some precognitive abilities? Is there any way we might concoct a reasonably conceivable physical explanation for such phenomena? Perhaps what some refer to as the “quantum foam” might provide some insight.

On the smallest scales, the so-called Planck length of around 10^-36 m (trust me, that’s REALLY small), space is expected to deviate from the smooth continuum we’re used to. The contour of space becomes rough or bumpy, changing randomly at each instant. This is where it gets its name quantum foam. In other words, our concept of position becomes fuzzy and even completely breaks down at the very smallest spatial scales. Presumably, time is equally distorted and fuzzy near its smallest divisions. The sizes of these deviations are randomly distributed but heavily weighted toward the smallest scale distortions. However, larger distortions in space/time must also occasionally occur. In this way, it is just conceivable that every once in a while some bit of information will pass from a moment in the future, into the present or even into the past! (Likewise, information from the past could find itself thrust into the future. This, however, would be of less interest and indistinguishable from the normal flow of time and causality.)

Such time/space distortions are happening continuously at every point in the Universe. Larger, even discernibly large, variations in time and/or space are statistically extraordinarily improbable but must occasionally happen. Now consider the brain – it’s made of a whole lot of neurons that are made of lots and lots of quanta. Every once in a while, some of these improbably events must happen in our brains. Could a brain neuron occasionally be triggered by an event that has yet to occur? If so, it would be expected that such occurrences would happen much more frequently for events from the very near future (small fractions of seconds) as apposed to from farther into the future. The ability to reacting to future events would clearly represent a strong survival advantage and would be very strongly selected for. Even if developing precognitive abilities were biologically expensive and/or quite difficult but just possible, evolution would demand that we developed the capability! Might it even be that evolution could have fine-tuned emotions to play the role of filtering out random noise while amplifying important signals? Perhaps this is why precognition tends to be associated with emotionally charged events”

(c) GoshGusMusic (ascap) 2010

For a better, very cool view of the Carina Nebula, check this link from Kitt Peak ‘s website:



  1. Isn’t anyone going jump on my case for so casually extrapolating from the scale of quantum weirdness all the way up into the macroscopic world? That’s a fairly major sin I just committed in physics. How many orders of magnitude did I cavalierly jump over in my statement that “larger distortions in space/time must also occasionally occur?” There are some major holes I left here for all you to either fill or rip to shreds! Come on, if you can’t have fun with the Universe, what’s the point???

    Comment by Claude — May 20, 2010 @ 9:22 am

  2. P.A. says he is mulling over something to write.
    Having only mastered Mr. Wizard level physics, I am bitterly unqualified to respond. I have to trust the mad scientist.

    Comment by Musical Milliner — May 20, 2010 @ 9:34 am

  3. Twila Peck
    Love it! All “wibbly-wobbly Timey-wimey”!
    This used to be a good question to start discussions, back in our younger days when we were all immortals: Is time a river or a wheel?
    15 May at 11:39
    Twila Peck
    I am not young enough to know everything.
    Oscar Wilde… See more
    Irish dramatist, novelist, & poet (1854 – 1900)

    Kinda miss those days, right?
    15 May at 11:40
    Musical Milliner
    I am interested in the fact that I’ve had a huge number of hits for this post, yet no comments. My stats collector shows lots of hits from Tucson and Australia. Maybe, Claude, you should post your comment about your remarks in the comments section on my blog? See if it generates response.
    Tuesday at 17:52 ·
    Paul L. Avellar
    What? er…a…Oh. How dare you Claude. You should be ashamed of yourself.(makes the ‘shame on you’ hand movements) Turn in your physics card this very minute. . .

    There. feel better?

    Oh. Gotta go. My phone’s about to ring. teeheehee
    Yesterday at 10:49
    Claude Plymate
    Sorry I’ve been off radar for the past few days due to letting work stuff getting a bit out of control. I originally thought that I was posting it to your blog. I apparently still don’t grok some of the subtle nuances of facebook. It should be posted there now.
    10 hours ago
    Musical Milliner
    I approved your comments (Ah! The power of moderating. At least one thing over which I have control.)
    10 hours ago ·
    Mary Wilson Farkas
    Amo this thread. 🙂
    46 minutes ago
    Musical Milliner
    I can paste the thread in my comments section, but I have to go one at a time. Can’t highlight everything at once. If someone knows the shortcut, do tell.
    16 minutes ago ·
    Mary Wilson Farkas
    somebuddy build us an ap!
    3 minutes ago
    Write a comment…
    Older Posts

    Comment by Musical Milliner — May 20, 2010 @ 8:07 pm

  4. Okay, how about I take a stab at pointing out just a couple of the problems with the concept of time travel myself? It is almost trivially easy to “prove” time travel cannot exist. Let’s try a simple thought experiment:

    Imagine you are a researcher who has come up with a concept for a time machine and after much labor, you’re just about finished with your first test prototype. This prototype is only large enough to send something about the size of a shoe back in time precisely one day. You decide that the first test subject should use some inanimate object like an old shoe. Tomorrow the machine should be ready for its initial test run. To prepare, you go to your closet, find an old shoe and set it next to the machine. Suddenly an identical shoe slides out of the back of the yet unfinished device! Absolute proof that it’s going to work! You excitedly continue work on the final details.

    The grand day finally arrived; your time machine is ready to go. You look down at the two identical shoes sitting there and realize that the initial test has to be successful since your shoe already appeared from the machine yesterday. Why, you think to yourself, do I need to send the old shoe through as my first test since I already know that test was successful. So, you decide instead to skip ahead to the second test – sending a live subject through. You take a lab rat from its cage and drop it into the machine.

    Hold on, what just happened? Let’s think about this for a moment. You just substituted the rat for the shoe! Where did the shoe that appeared yesterday come from and where did the rat just disappear to? Did you just vaporize the rat? Did the shoe simply appear out of nothing?? Did the rat turn into a shoe??? These are causality paradoxes that obviously can never happen! (So far, this is really just a variation of the infamous “grandfather paradox”.)

    Now imagine that you realize these paradoxical questions shortly before dropping the rat into the machine. You hesitate then put the rat back feeling that you MUST put the shoe through to avoid these irrational problems. There is still the problem of a shoe appearing yesterday out of nothingness but you think perhaps the Universe can handle a temporary anomaly such as this so long as it’s paid back in due time, in this case by dropping the shoe into the machine and erasing it from the future timeline. Yes, there seemed to exist two copies of the shoe – but only for one day.

    But now you’re not sure which shoe is which! If you drop the wrong shoe into the machine, you’re created yet another paradox. The shoe that appeared yesterday could be the shoe that you put into the machine today. In this case, where and when was that shoe created? It would have popped into existence out of nothing for one day and then simply vanished from the Universe. Another interpretation is that the shoe is stuck in an infinite time loop – appearing out of the machine, being dropped into the machine, going back to appear out of the machine, etc. forever. Just one more paradox without a rational solution! You hesitate again wondering what you should do. You ponder the conundrum until you realize that it too late. It’s now more than a day since the shoe came tumbling out of your time machine. You stand there with a shoe that apparently just came into being out of nothing…

    In this scenario the Universe just gained mass in the form of an old shoe. To our understanding, this cannot happen! We know there is a set amount of mass/energy in the Universe that came out of the Big Bang. That’s all we get – no more, no less. (Keep in mind that mass and energy are equated through the handy expression e=mc^2.) A shoe could only appear at the cost of some other mass/energy. Here, the shoe simply appeared. This just can’t happen; there really is no such thing as free lunch in this Universe. (And just in case you missed it, that was a clue.)

    Comment by Claude — May 21, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

  5. [quote]In this scenario the Universe just gained mass in the form of an old shoe. To our understanding, this cannot happen! We know there is a set amount of mass/energy in the Universe that came out of the Big Bang. That’s all we get – no more, no less. (Keep in mind that mass and energy are equated through the handy expression e=mc^2.) A shoe could only appear at the cost of some other mass/energy. Here, the shoe simply appeared. This just can’t happen; there really is no such thing as free lunch in this Universe. (And just in case you missed it, that was a clue.) [/quote]

    erm… knowing that all things are made of smaller thing and taking into consideration that universe mass is constant, one would assume that that machine has nothing to do with time travelling, implying that – its possible to “make” something “out of thin air” (because only thing you need is building blocks in same universe)

    I would suggest looking at DNA and molecules examples.

    I’m really astonished by amazingly large amounts of assumptions in your logic. I.e how did you know that shoe was from future? Did you ran the test?

    Comment by bers power — June 3, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

  6. You make a valid point. It is an assumption that the shoe came from the future. All that is truly known is that a shoe – identical in every way to the shoe you intend to put into the machine tomorrow – appeared. Is it possible that the shoe didn’t materialize out of nothing but was assembled out of mass that already exists? Sure. Since subatomic partials of the same type are considered to be perfect copies of each other, there is no way of telling if this is in fact the same shoe or a perfect replica.

    I suppose that one could try testing the age of each shoe through something like carbon dating to see if the shoe that appeared was a day older than the original. The argument could still be made, however, that the shoe was somehow assembled out of just the right isotopic carbon ratios to make it appear as if it was a day older than the original shoe.

    Comment by Claude — June 3, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

  7. Yah well, you cant test shoe for carbon, since it only works with “living” matter(was it real leather? ;0), but in any case, this example is waaayy too flawed 🙂 too many “what if’s”, and “how”. I believe that totally hijacked the thread. Here you discussed the premonition effect, and I was looking for term describing something we all felt, when someone is about to say something and you kinda “read their” mind and know what word for word they going to say. So was looking for analytical examples of this kind of stuff.

    Btw I seem to go with another “why there is no time travel” 🙂 It mostly based on – there is no time, only perception of time, remove the perception and you wont find way to “go back”. Also if you think of time as line then any going back will just create alternative reality of thing which looks like they from past but really its present. Something like overwriting from certain point. But linear timeline is just so 1980 😛

    Comment by bers power — June 4, 2010 @ 8:42 am

  8. OK. Done mulling. Consider that causality is, at best, just a theory, and at worst, just an assumption — essentially, just wishful thinking. Totally unprovable. A convenient fiction so that we needn’t try to explain the things which don’t happen to fall in line with the view which describes 99.999% of our other “normal” experiences. Perceptions would be a better choice of word. Maybe we just don’t “see” the 0.001% of occurences which don’t fit our “view” because we are not expecting them. Or maybe they’re just too hard to explain or even to report. Or too hard to acknowledge because they are just too frightening. Or, or, or . . . Perhaps people aren’t “built” to perceive in a way that “catches” “backward” events. Doesn’t mean they’re not happening all around us all the time. Or suppose one considers the possibility that all that physics which we “know” is only 0.01% of all the physics that exists. With more work on science I feel sure we will keep learning more about science. Perhaps with a different brain/mind we could easily see that there is so much more to know, (but we have what we have to work with don’t we). Poor choice to assume that what we know is all there IS to know. It’s not using Occam’s razor, but improbable doesn’t mean impossible. (And please don’t use Occam’s razor to slit my throat, friends, but its not an imperative. It’s a suggestion about how one might deal with a dilemma.)
    And hey, who said that catching a glimpse of the future is the same thing as time travel anyway? In the subatomic world with a very slight change of interpretation of the exact same data, a large percentage of the particle interactions could be said to be running “backward in time”. I don’t have to have a shoe fall out of nowhere into my lap to see the future. I just need a signal of some sort — essentially a thought to pick up. Who knows that every event in spacetime doesn’t create signals that go every possible “direction” in spacetime — forward, backward, and every flavor of sideways. We usually just don’t catch them, can’t catch them, or ignore them unless we somehow train up to learn how.
    Causality. Phui. (Phuee? Fuie?) Just because those two shoes are an embarrassment to have to explain, doesn’t mean they can’t both be there. Causality is an assumption, not a law. And then there is “The Many Worlds” hypothesis. (You knew that was coming didn’t ya? See, starting to be prescient already.)
    In one version of the Many Worlds hypothesis, every time there is an A or B (or more) choice of event the timeline or universe splits and A happens in one timeline, and B happens in the other. Obviously, this results in a gazillion timelines. (Kind of a problem for the energy/matter can be neither created nor destroyed law.) In timeline A Claude puts a beatup old hiking shoe into the time machine, BUT in timeline B I grab the old leather hiker and run off (timeline splitting in two …RIIIP), and all that’s available (over there in the corner) is a woman’s bright red, open toed pump with a broken, four inch black heel (and the faint smell of whiskey — well, that’s why the heel is broken). So into the time machine it goes! Back at yesterday, there is one scenario with two dusty old hiking shoes and Claude plotting to foil causality, and another (in the [?] newly about to be-was created timeline) where a stumble drunk crossdresser has just angrily tossed his formerly fabulous broken-heeled, red pump into the corner and ran out of the lab only moments before Claude walks in for his experiment — and finds one dusty old hiking shoe on his table. And he’s thinking about how much he likes his comfortable old shoe, when across the room he catches a flash of red …etc…etc…etc.
    Ugh! It’s late and I’m (obviously) very tired, and personally I really HATE the Many Worlds hypothesis. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. So the real explanation is that sometimes people see a little way into the future or catch it coming ‘back’ a little way at them. “It’s a mystery!” Sh*t happens. Get used to it!

    Sorry about this.

    (Oh. and I have conducted a little experiment myself, but so far no ‘older’ me has shown up for one of my birthdays yet … or still … or whatever. –P)

    Comment by Paul (P. A.) — October 19, 2010 @ 5:47 am

  9. Hey various Dormavores. I recently blogged about relationships, and I got to use the word “mucilage.” Yes, there is a point to this!
    My assertion was that when two people join a new “persona” forms, one that has two faces, but are like the image on a postage stamp and the glue on the reverse – without one, the other has no purpose.
    Using mucilage in a sentence is a once in a lifetime event, unlike all night coffee house conversations, which seem to never end.
    Paul, I am so glad you know where my open toed red pump went!

    Comment by Mary W. Farkas — October 19, 2010 @ 11:42 am

  10. (M, I thought for sure it was Dwayne’s pump. Did you loan it out?)

    Comment by Musical Milliner — October 19, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

  11. Hi Paul! Now we’re having fun. I guess I should have “known” you wouldn’t be able to resist responding to my musings. I have to agree in that I’m not a fan of the multi-universe interpretation (MUI). As someone who does like conservation laws (they do help to impose some order on the Universe), I find the MUI just a bit too expensive. Creating an ENTIRE universe every time I flip a coin is a little too much for me. That’s a whole lot of matter & energy to pop into existence for such a mundane action; talk about violation of conservation laws!

    I don’t have a big problem with very minor, temporary violations of conservation so long as they are quickly put right. For example, I can accept a bit of excess energy/matter coming into existence seemingly out of nowhere so long as that excess is promptly (~10^-35 sec) paid back. Even though the Universe’s accounting must eventually balance out, there’s still room for some small quickie loans.

    Comment by Claude Plymate — October 19, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

  12. Kids! Playtime has recommenced!

    Comment by Musical Milliner — October 19, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

  13. Actually, I think the sun’s up and it’s time for breakfast. Omelet, anyone?

    Comment by Mary W. Farkas — October 19, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

  14. But remember M, we all share a striking similarity. We are all nocturnal…breakie at noon?

    Comment by Musical Milliner — October 19, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

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