[This review was published in the April 1990 issue of Universitas, the national publication of University Professors for Academic Order, p. 2.] 

 

Book Review

 

Modern Day Don Quixote… or Upholder of True Science? 

Whetsel Challenges Quantum Theory

 

By Dwight D. Murphey

 

            Not long after I became editor of Universitas a year ago, I received a book in the mail, Modern Theoretical Physics: Did Orwell See It Coming?, by a certain Howard Whetsel, a chemist in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  The book is a stinging criticism of “the mind-twisting power of post-1927 theoretical physics—Statistical Quantum Mechanics and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.”

            Whetsel’s criticism is, in effect, threefold: (a) that quantum theory adopts an opposition to causality, repudiating a basic premise of science; (b) that it unnecessarily mathematizes physics, “suggesting erroneously that abstract mathematics and highly imaginative geometry” can replace a strictly causal, reality-oriented approach to understanding nature; and (c) that, since ideas in the physical sciences affect society’s worldview, the repudiation of causality is socially and culturally damaging.  A cosmology teaching that we live in a random-action universe encourages the development of random-action personalities and societies.  Hence Whetsel’s reference to Orwell in the title.

            I probably should have returned the book with a note saying I don’t know anything about quantum mechanics and hence can’t judge the book’s thesis.  Instead, I have chosen to take the book seriously—maybe because I am so used to doubting the premises of prevailing opinion that I’m not shocked when somebody does it in physics.  Or maybe because I see a possible analogy between Heisenberg’s acausality and John Watson’s goofy behaviorism that denies the existence of human consciousness.  Could it be that quantum mechanics, like behaviorism, has tended to absolutize a methodology, claiming an exclusive validity that leads it to deny important avenues to truth?

            Intrigued by the book’s thesis, I sent the book to two physicists who were graciously willing to review it: Dr. H. Kent Moore of James Madison University, and UPAO’s own Bob Clack, now emeritus at Kansas State University.

            Moore reported that “my main impressions of the author’s ideas are largely negative… I am led to the conclusion that Mr. Whetsel has, at best, only a superficial grasp of what quantum physics is about.  Also, I am suspicious of his seeming obsession with an imagined cabal of Germans led by Werner Heisenberg who, he believes, set out in the 1920’s to impose a world-as-irrational philosophy on the rest of us.”

            Dr. Moore defended quantum mechanics “as a means of accounting for a number of experimental observations that classical theory could not explain.”  He says that Whetsel’s argument that independent theorists see little value in the theory “ignores a long list of scientific and technological developments of this century which are undergirded by quantum theory.”

            Bob Clack’s critique is similar.  He argues that “Whetsel’s assertions to the contrary, the random, or acausal, nature of atoms is abundantly demonstrated in the radioactive decay of unstable nuclides… It can be strongly inferred in certain weather phenomena, sports events and behavior in the stock market.”  Clack says that, whatever may be said about the origins of the theory, “The stature of modern physics rests upon its utility and its predictive power.  Both of these features are substantial and, so far as known to this reviewer, unmatched by any alternative perspective.”

            It isn’t my intent to draw these friends into a protracted debate.  But intelligent letters keep arriving from Whetsel, now a UPAO member, providing what sounds like plausible rebuttal.  Most recently, he notes that both nuclear fission and “cold” nuclear fusion were discovered by chemists—not by physicists, in whose domain they belong.

            Having solicited Moore and Clack’s good-faith opinions, I probably should accept them and consider the matter resolved.  Neither of them, however, would object, I imagine, to our saying to Whetsel: “Welcome to UPAO.  You may or may not be right, but you’re among friends.”