Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 22, 2010

ESP/Psi Effects Are Faster than the Speed of Light?


Introduction

First, this is going to be a short post – more of a musing. Many times when listening to or reading material put out by the “alternative researchers,” I will come across the claim of a psi experiment that seems to defy the universal speed limits of light. Could this be possible?

Speed Limits

Anyone older than 5 years living in a place with roads is familiar with the concept of a “speed limit.” You’re not supposed to go faster than it. If you do and you are caught by law enforcement, you can be fined or incur more severe consequences. But it’s more of a, “You’re not supposed to go faster than this” rather than, “It is not physically possible for you to go faster than this.” If it were the latter, then no one would get speeding tickets because their vehicle, by definition, could not exceed the speed limit.

Such is one of the key concepts behind Special Relativity: There is a “cosmic” speed limit where one of the physical laws of the universe are that nothing can exceed the speed of light in a given medium. In “empty” space, this is roughly 300,000,000 meters per second (or 186,000 miles per second as it is more commonly expressed for those who don’t use metric). The purpose of this post is not to get into the finer points nor evidences for Special Relativity, so suffice to say for the moment that it is a theory in the scientific sense — it has withstood every experimental test.

The one possible exception is the idea of “quantum entanglement,” where if two particles (as in not people, people are not made of one single atom or sub-atomic particle) are entangled, and one’s state is changed, the other will change instantaneously, faster than Special Relativity would seem to allow. This is part of the reason why relativity breaks down at quantum scales, while quantum mechanics breaks down at relativistic scales, and why unifying the two is one of the great goals of physics today.

Anyway …

Size of Earth

Earth is about 6378 km in radius. Its circumference around the equator is 40,075 km (24,902 miles). My point here is that 40,075 km < 300,000,000 m (24,902 miles < 186,000 miles).

In fact, light can go around the entire planet about 7.5 times in a single second. This is one of the few things I actually remember from watching a video in 3rd grade.

Claims

The psi claim will often go along the lines of this example I just heard on an old 2006 Coast to Coast AM episode: “A mother and child are separated by a vast distance, about 100 km apart, and the child is induced with pain by pricking them with a pin repeatedly. Amazingly, the mother, who is hooked up to an EEG, shows a response to the child’s pain faster than the speed of light would allow!!”

Let’s see … 100 km apart, and light travels at 300,000 km per second. So it took light 0.33 milliseconds (0.00033 seconds) to go from the child to the mother — and that’s assuming that we’re talking about some form of light that can travel through buildings. And let’s actually assume that we are talking about something that really could break this speed limit imposed by Special Relativity.

In order for this claim to be true, the following conditions must have been met:

  1. The person or machine pricking the child must be timed to sub-millisecond accuracy, preferably microseconds, but at least on the order of 100 microseconds.
  2. The mother’s EEG must also have resolution on the order of 100 microseconds. Based on this article, the best EEGs have resolutions 10x worse.
  3. The clocks at the two locations must also be synced and have resolutions better than on the order of 100 microseconds.

What’s the likelihood of all these conditions being met? And then, what is the likelihood that there was not an experimental error, as opposed to overturning other very precise timing experiments that have been done that verify Special Relativity?

Final Thoughts

When listening to shows and reading articles where people talk about ESP/psi research, this claim crops of fairly frequently without any real justification nor details into how the experiment was done and the actual controls on the timing. People do not seem to have a concept for how quickly light really travels, for they seem to ignore that these experiments would require the effect to be timed down to the microsecond across significant Earth distances. If you’re talking about a similar experiment done in the same building (say, 100 m instead of 100 km), then you would need timing resolutions down to the nanosecond.

When you hear these claims, they may sound interesting, but be skeptical and search further to see if – for lack of a better way of putting it – the person knows what they’re talking about. And in many cases, find out if the alleged experiment even took place.

3 Comments »

  1. “nothing can exceed the speed of light in a given medium”… Hmm. Nothing can exceed the speed of light in a vacuum. Isn’t the whole point of Cherenkov Radiation that sometimes a particle moves faster than light in some medium?

    Comment by Lektu — January 4, 2011 @ 6:05 am | Reply

    • It’s a fine distinction, but phase velocity is not the same as the speed of light (Cherenkov radiation is when the particle exceeds the phase velocity in the medium, not the actual speed of light … Relativity still holds).

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — January 4, 2011 @ 2:40 pm | Reply

  2. Cool

    Comment by Edniv — January 23, 2011 @ 5:37 pm | Reply


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