If You Think Science is Out of Control, Tesla is a Weird Person to Quote

Dr. Eben Alexander came to UVA last Friday to give a talk. While the name might not sound familiar, you have almost certainly heard of his recent book, Proof of Heaven. The talk seemed to go through many of the ideas and experiences described in the book. One theme that Dr. Alexander seemed to touch on was an idea that science was out of control, both in terms of its assumptions (“radical materialism” leaving no room for meaningful exploration of consciousness) and as a social institution (he mentioned weapons and massive pollution).  Near the end of his speech, he argued that quantum mechanics should disprove reductive materialism because early quantum theorists felt that quantum mechanics agreed with certain mystical/religious ideas (basically arguing for a mystical meaning to the Copenhagen interpretation). And then he quoted Nikola Tesla in some way to support an “expanded” science. (I do not remember the quote, unfortunately, but will post if I find out)

The quantum argument for mysticism is kind of common in fringe science. (Look up “quantum woo” to see common abuses of quantum mechanics) It’s also kind of misleading to mention that early quantum theorists looked into mysticism when the whole history is more complicated than that. And there’s a group of physicists pushing back against any idea of the Copenhagen interpretation.

But what really threw me for a loop was the Tesla quote. It wasn’t the content so much as the fact that Dr. Alexander seemed completely comfortable quoting Tesla despite his previous characterization of modern science. My main description to people after the presentation was “You’re concerned about science making too many weapons, but look up to a man who tried to auction building a death ray to multiple countries?” It also seems to kind of kill the argument for quantum mysticism, when Tesla seemed to think general relativity was too mystical to be scientific (Tesla said saying space has properties would be like saying God has certain properties). Also, although discussion of Tesla seems to pop up a lot in many New Age and mystical circles, the only people who seem comfortable calling Tesla a mystic are the modern mystics, and they are certainly not a disinterested party. And if you’re concerned about the role of science in society, Tesla isn’t really a role model for accountable research since he was basically allowed to do whatever he wanted in Colorado Springs. This might not be a big deal in some research fields, but when you’re studying wireless power transmission, you can end up affecting a large area. And Tesla’s experiments are known to have burnt out transformers in Colorado Springs and caused sparking of metallic objects throughout the town. It’s not that Tesla is a bad person; it’s just that he doesn’t really represent the science Dr. Alexander seems to envision.

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