The meaning of life (or a load of old quantum?)

'What The Bleep Do We Know?!' - scheduled for release in UK cinemas this Friday - has become one of the biggest grossing documentaries in the US. Jonathan Margolis examines its bizarre appeal
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A wet Saturday night in Vancouver on Canada's west coast last year, and a last-minute decision to see a late film. There are 18 movies showing at the multiscreen, but none my son and I fancy. In a kind of alpha state of non-expectation, we buy tickets for something we've never heard of with a poster that's almost entirely blue and mystical looking and carries ultra-edited endorsements from The Los Angeles Times ("Mind Bending!") and Time magazine ("A sleeper hit, Moviegoers are enthralled!").

A wet Saturday night in Vancouver on Canada's west coast last year, and a last-minute decision to see a late film. There are 18 movies showing at the multiscreen, but none my son and I fancy. In a kind of alpha state of non-expectation, we buy tickets for something we've never heard of with a poster that's almost entirely blue and mystical looking and carries ultra-edited endorsements from The Los Angeles Times ("Mind Bending!") and Time magazine ("A sleeper hit, Moviegoers are enthralled!").

The film, as far as we can make out from the funny typography, which is full of mathematical signs, is called What The Bleep Do We Know?! and is some sort of exploration of (sigh) the meaning of life. There follows an odd and mesmerising cinema experience. The film is a dramatised documentary on quantum physics. The drama bit stars Marlee Matlin, the deaf actress from The West Wing and Children of a Lesser God. The documentary element is a series of unidentified talking heads discussing this abstruse area of science.

Though strangely appealing, the drama is quite badly done, and having seen What The Bleep Do We Know?! twice, I still couldn't tell you what it's about, other than that Matlin plays a photographer who doesn't like her life and frowns a lot, but, in some way which involves quantum physics, sorts it out and begins smiling smugly a lot.

The documentary majority of the film, meanwhile, is fascinating but frustrating because you have no idea who the 13 people speaking in Greek chorus fashion are - most importantly whether they are actors or real people. What they have to say is pretty challenging. Their assertion is that, due to the nature of quantum physics at the subatomic level (see box for a summary of what quantum is), what we call reality is actually the construct of our minds. This is to say, our lives are not the subject of random fate, but we can manipulate our bodies and the material events and emotions around us by thinking positively.

The revelation at the end is a bit of a triumph, when we discover who we have been listening to in this hotchpotch of spirituality and science. Just as we are becoming convinced they were all actors, four of the talking heads are identified as professors of physics at decent American universities, another turns out to be a professor of anaesthetics, another an assistant professor of radiology, another a psychiatrist, another a physician, another, a prominent doctor of pharmacology. There is also a chiropractor, a professor of theology and an American woman who believes she channels the thoughts of a 35,000-year-old warrior called Ramtha.

After the credits rolled in Vancouver came another uncommon cinematic experience. As the audience trailed off in the early hours, they were all quietly talking to one another, discussing what they had seen and heard. Intrigued as I was by What The Bleep Do We Know?!, three things nagged at me. The first was an uneasy feeling that there had to be a cult involved in this film, even though the clearly nutty Ramtha woman had been surprisingly funny and un-earnest. The second was that, whatever the credentials of the scientists, the film would be slaughtered if it ever left the credulous Pacific Rim and opened in sceptical old Britain.

The third was the most troubling concern for me. I once wrote a biography of the spoonbending Israeli psychic Uri Geller. While researching it, I interviewed a large number of physicists and medics, Nobel Laureates among them, who took "the Geller effect" seriously and put his metal bending and mind bending powers down not to conjuring but to some kind of non-local quantum phenomenon. The problem was that I also met a large number of complete flakes who, without any knowledge of science, sprayed the word quantum about as if it automatically verified their beliefs merely by being uttered.

Now if things were as simple as this - that in the quantum field there are simply those who know, to whom you should pay heed, and those who don't, who must be laughed off - then assessing the scientific veracity of What The Bleep Do We Know?! would be easy.

But the Geller book taught me that there is no reliable borderline between flakes and scientists. Scientists are capable of talking as much junk as the rest of us - unreasonably sceptical junk and unreasonably credulous. They often resemble nothing so much as religious lunatics. They talk as much emotionally loaded rubbish as the rest of us, are as superstitious as the rest of us and they lie and exaggerate as much as normal people. And they are never more poisonous to one another than with something as intrinsically baffling as quantum physics, a field where there is little unambiguous experimentation to be done and research consists of thinking hard and doing hard sums to demonstrate what you thought was correct. So just because someone is a professor with publications and peer-reviewed articles, as are many of the film's participants, there will always be equally qualified colleagues happy to call him an ignorant cretin - and who may be right or wrong in that assertion, especially in the field of quantum theory, which as even its most celebrated proponents admit, nobody understands.

A few minutes on Google confirmed my first worry about What The Bleep, as the film is known to its New Age aficionados. Its producers and directors are members of the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, a sect whose believers look for guidance and wisdom to the utterances of Ramtha, via his "channeler", the brassy 58-year-old woman in the film, who is called J Z Knight and operates from Yelm, a village in Washington state. The Ramtha school has included Shirley MacLaine and the Dynasty star Linda Evans among its followers.

Another hideous embarrassment easily turned up, but strangely missed in the film's publicity, is that the featured professor of theology, a golden-tongued Catholic priest called Miceal (sic) Ledwith, was in a parallel quantum universe (Ireland) chased out of his presidency of Maynooth College in 1994 after paying a substantial cash sum to a man who said he was sexually abused by him. But these, as Dr Ledwith would doubtless say, are trivial, Earthly matters. What about What The Bleep's central issues of quantum and the meaning of life?

The beauty, and attraction of quantum physics, is that its fuzziness can be used to explain practically everything weird - consciousness, time travel, teleportation, the paranormal, meditation, coincidence, synchronicity, ESP, metal bending, remote viewing, clairvoyance, UFOs, poltergeists, prayer, life after death, ghosts, healing, spirituality, psychokinesis, Gaia - and that this leads inexorably to the appearance of a scientific rationalisation of God, which a lot of scientists (though far from all) would rather not entertain.

One part of the world where, unsurprisingly, spirituality and science get on OK is the Pacific north-west and California, and the independently financed, piddling-budget What The Bleep has been a sensation there. Opening at one cinema in rural Washington state early last year (in Yelm, funnily enough), it has just beaten Super Size Me by taking $13m (£7m) at the US box office and become one of the biggest grossing documentaries ever. The film is also attracting eccentrics like moths to a lamp; one fan claims to have seen it 50 times.

This month it opens in Britain, having also picked up along the way the poison chalice of celebrity endorsements, whose damaging potential in the British milieu seems not to be understood by the film's distributors. If any film I'd sweated over had been complimented by Madonna as "incredibly thought-provoking and inspiring" I think I would have resorted to a High Court gagging order to shut her up.

You have to hand it to the distributors; it was brave putting on a preview the other night at Imperial College in London, a temple of straight, white-coated science as opposed to what might be called beardy science, and is somewhat over-represented in What The Bleep. The college cinema was full, with about a 70/30 split between students and staff and New Age fans. It was received with a mix of open-mouthed horror and ecstatic approbation, the approbation winning out, but coming mostly from what seemed to be committed fans. There were mumbles of "bullshit" from one or two clumps of students.

The highlight was a question-and-answer session with Dr Fred Alan Wolf, one of the film's stars, owner of a splendid array of Einstein hair and a CV (including being professor of physics at San Diego State University for 12 years) that should be enough to silence sceptics, but wasn't. Dr Wolf is not a member of the Ramtha School, but is one of quantum's more respected advocates, and, as a Discovery Channel presenter, is also a skilful turner of explicative phrases. "The ultimate secret is not to be in the know, but in the mystery," he says in the film. "We're mostly made not of atoms, but of mind." "Whatever you think you are isn't you," (this is followed by a round of applause). "It's all true. There are just different levels of truth," (a slogan that Tony Blair could have used lately). And, "There is no out there independent of what's going on in here," (this indicating the brain).

Dr Wolf got a bit testy when a science said, "I find the science very disturbing, full of half half-truths and misrepresentations. And I suspect the majority of working physicists will find the film offensive." Seeming to believe Dr Wolf was an actor, the voice went on to bet him £10,000 that no scientist would back What The Bleep. Dr Wolf countered by explaining as modestly as possible that he has written 11 books on quantum and counter-bet that 10 years from now, his interlocutor will believe things he currently regards as preposterous.

Dr Wolf said he wasn't surprised by the robust response at Imperial College. "I'm more surprised at how accepting people are of this stuff," he said. "Darwin and Newton are so strongly embedded in the architecture and the substructure of educational policies that you would think anybody that says God, spirituality or consciousness plays a role in the Universe would be crucified.

"What's interesting," he concluded, "is how vehement people who respond in that way seem to be. I don't think I've had a book published without being attacked with axes ... These guys are almost religious in scientific dogma. But the real big brains like Stephen Hawking and Sir Roger Penrose. They don't have any problem with this kind of thing, so why should pipsqueaks?'

Mind, matter and a 'nutty' branch of physics

Quantum physics, regarded as the most powerful theory known to mankind, studies how matter behaves at the atomic and subatomic level. And when you get that deep into the structure of stuff, it starts to behave very oddly. There seems to be an opposite, non-common-sense world operating right under, and in, our noses.

Subatomic particles can be in two places at the same time. They can exist in two times and places simultaneously yet remain intimately connected, even if they are at different ends of the universe ("non-locality"). They can also pop in and out of existence at random, and can travel effortlessly from the future to the present - which suggests that matter is as much influenced by its future as by its past.

Because matter is so fickle, quantum finds it hard to view the world as real. So when an observation isn't made, a thing doesn't technically exist - it's just a wave, or a possibility. But this means human beings take on a near-magical role of making things exist. It suggests that at some level, you can see what you want and observation can influence matter.

Mathematically, quantum theory all works out beautifully, but it is alien, illogical, bizarre and completely counter to Newtonian physics or classical mechanics. Many quantum theorists believe that once observed, possibilities collapse into one reality, whereas others believe with equal passion (and equations) that possibilities divide up into an infinite number of parallel universes, where everything that can happen, happens.

No wonder the late Richard Feynman, the physicist's physicist, called his field "nutty" and insisted: "Nobody understands quantum theory." Even he talked about the "mystery" of quantum, which should be anathema to scientists - as is the view, held by many respectable theorists, that there's no point trying to work out how it works - we just have to accept that it does.

This is the one area of science where it's acceptable for what you think to be guided by taste or "belief". A lot of quantum pioneers, most notably Einstein, have come to despise the field because its unpredictability runs counter to traditional scientific conventions and its weirdness is red meat to eccentrics.

How quantum affects consciousness - the central assumption behind What The Bleep Do We Know?! - is the biggest question of all. It could be that there's no connection. Or that thoughts are made of stuff, and this stuff obeys the weird quantum ways. Or that thoughts are made of some special stuff not yet discovered, but that this interacts with the material world. Even some of the greatest minds in quantum, however, believe there is a mind/matter connection.

Most importantly, though, whatever nonsense it appears to be, quantum works, and is the mechanism which has made possible, among other things, all of our electronic gadgetry.

"What The Bleep Do We Know?!" opens on 20 May in the UK. Website: See also and, if you must,