The year's most unexpected indie hit in American cinemas - a film about quantum physics - is about to open here. But how are ordinary mortals to judge its assertions about the nature of matter, mind, and the universe? We asked some of Britain's best scientific brains to give us their verdicts
A wedding photographer in a state of post-divorce triste, Amanda (Marlee Matlin), starts a search for meaning. But science keeps colliding with her spiritual quest as What the Bleep Do We Know!? - a film by William Arntz and Betsy Chasse - interrogates a range of talking-head savants about whether the physical world its heroine sees around her is quite what it seems, and whether mind and emotion can influence matter. Mysteries (and apparent miracles) of physics and neurology unfold: European explorer ships, it is said, were invisible to native peoples because they had never seen a ship before; a basketball lesson in the behaviour of matter is conducted by a precocious child called Reggie; and, most surprising, photographs of water crystals published by one Masaru Emoto of Japan are shown as evidence that the structure of water can be changed by good or bad thoughts.
This film is even more pretentious than it is boring. And it is stupefyingly boring - unless, of course, you are fooled by its New Age fakery, in which case it might indeed be - as many innocent dupes have stated - "life-changing". The one redeeming feature is the enigmatic charm of the deaf heroine, whose depressive journey down the rabbit hole of life is punctuated by gobbets of bogus sagacity from a dozen talking heads. But no amount of charm could redeem the unforgivable phoniness of the script.
Over-use of the word "paradigm" is a pretty good litmus for inclusion in the scientific equivalent of Pseud's Corner, and the film's "expert" talking heads score highly. Perhaps the leading one is "Ramtha", a dead warrior from Atlantis who addresses us (in a fake accent) through his "channeler", a woman called JZ (Judy) Knight, founder of the Ramtha Cult which sponsored the film. Thirty-five thousand years in the grave have not dulled Ramtha's business sense: he charges $1,000 per counselling session. Poor JZ has her work cut out.
The authors seem undecided whether their theme is quantum theory or consciousness. Both are indeed mysterious, and their genuine mystery needs none of the hype with which this film relentlessly and noisily belabours us. Not surprisingly, we get no enlightenment on either topic, nor on the alleged connection between them. Instead, we are told that indigenous peoples were "literally" unable to see early European vessels arriving off their shores - presumably because the ships lay outside their "paradigm". We are told that "All emotion is holographically imprinted chemicals"; that "Each cell has a consciousness"; and that "God is the superposition of all the spirits from all things".
What drives me to despair is not the dishonesty of the charlatans who peddle such tosh, but the dopey gullibility of the thousands of nice, well meaning people who flock to the cinema and believe it.
Bleep raises thought-provoking questions about science and its relationship to spirituality and metaphysics. Present thinking on neurology and addiction are covered in some detail but, unfortunately, early references in the film to quantum physics are not followed through, leading to a confused message. Scenes of the lad wanting to play basketball with Amanda may lead people to think that quantum properties, which describe matter at a very small scales, are equally applicable at large scales. In reality, quantum effects at large scales are extremely small and the motion of an object like a basketball is almost perfectly described by classical physics.
Masaru Emoto's photographs of water, which Amanda comes across after missing the underground train, are even more confusing. Pictures we are shown from his dark-field microscope are presumably of tiny frozen water droplets. These patterns are dependent on the complex structure of ice and are influenced by any suspended matter in the water so it is hardly surprising that he obtained lots of interesting shapes. The idea that he can change these by thought processes or by sticking messages on bottles is ridiculous though.
Another point I question is that Bleep seems to rule out the marrying of institutional religion with modern physics. In fact many religious people find that concepts of time and space, put forward by Einstein, support their religious beliefs.
Despite these caveats, this is a feel-good film with nice photography and super computer animations. I hope it develops into a cult movie in the UK as it has in the US. Science and engineering are important for our future, and anything that engages the public can only be a good thing. Take your friends and family to see the film and have fun yourself pondering the issues.
I have spent my entire working life either doing science or conveying its meaning and beauty to the public. Consequently, I despise What the Bleep Do We Know!?, because it distorts science to fit its own agenda, it is full of half-truths and misleading analogies, and some of its so-called scientific claims are downright lies. Worse still, having achieved cult status in America, this film has already duped millions into mistaking pure claptrap for something of cosmic importance.
For example, WTB explains how quantum physics implies a crucial role for the observer in any experiment - so far, so good, except it requires several years of study to appreciate the subtlety and true significance of this statement. However, WTB is not too bothered about the truth. The water experiment is junk pseudo- science of the worst kind and has never been replicated by a mainstream scientist. Nevertheless, WTB carries down its illogical path by suggesting that if observing water changes its molecular structure, and if we are 90% water, then by observing ourselves we can change at a fundamental level via the laws of quantum physics. Thanks to WTB, this kind of ridiculous balderdash is being peddled by the likes of Drew Barrymore on the David Letterman Show.
And if you are still considering going to see this film, then please bear in mind the credibility and motives of the interviewees in the film. John Hagelin, one of the PhD physicists, is from the Maharishi University of Management. Take my advice and do not see this film. I repeat, do not see this film. I repeat again, do not see this film. If you do, then you will leave the cinema misinformed, £8 poorer and having wasted two hours of your life.
Combinations of science and spirituality would be so much improved by simply dropping the science ... Such is sadly the case with this film, which is horrendously tedious even before we get to its substance. Its meat, alas, only makes matters worse. It would be unwise to condemn total lunacy; it has an important role in society, that of keeping us human. But to deliberately misquote science to gain credibility sounds desperate and badly backfires.
The list of examples is endless. You'll learn that God is a quantum superposition and our divine free will a quantum effect. And the collapse of the wave function is obviously the reason the paranormal works. That's why mass meditation was "scientifically" proven, according to the film, to have reduced crime in Washington DC. If you're still not convinced just look at the gleaming "micro-photographs" of water, with its molecular structure much improved by the blessings of a Zen Buddhist monk. It reminded me of an outbreak of diarrhoea at the Sanctuary of Fatima in Portugal that was eventually traced to pilgrims drinking blessed water.
Overall, if you manage to stay awake, you'll be exposed to such ludicrous extrapolations from microphysics that you may emerge expecting electrons to have vaginas.
One can see how the current US political situation came to exist (Ban guns to cut crime? Nah ... just say "Om"). And one can also understand why the political status quo has such a vested interest in suppressing quality education for the masses. America has long been the land of misinformation, ignorance and prejudice. This is abundantly confirmed by a film, which against all appearances, is actually very mainstream.
What the hell do we know? Please just give us unadultered old-style underground lunacy - it's so much more entertaining.
What the Bleep Do We Know!? is released on Friday.