About the SA Blog Network

Guest Blog

Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American
Guest Blog HomeAboutContact

Too Hard for Science? Freeman Dyson–ESP

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

What does the scientist who talked about enclosing stars with globes think might be too hard for science?

In "Too Hard for Science?" I interview scientists about ideas they would love to explore that they don’t think could be investigated. For instance, they might involve machines beyond the realm of possibility, such as particle accelerators as big as the sun, or they might be completely unethical, such as lethal experiments involving people. This feature aims to look at the impossible dreams, the seemingly intractable problems in science. However, the question mark at the end of "Too Hard for Science?" suggests that nothing might be impossible.

I asked famed physicist Freeman Dyson, who came up with the notion of the Dyson sphere, a globe surrounding a star to capture as much of its energy as possible, what he thought might be too hard for science.


Dear Charles Choi,

Thank you for your message. I have nothing original to suggest for your column. The obvious subject that has resisted attempts to investigate it with the tools of science is ESP, Extra-Sensory Perception. As you know, these attempts have a long and sad history. For two hundred years, experiments on humans have failed to produce convincing evidence of ESP. Humans are too smart, too much emotionally involved in the outcome of the experiment, and too good at cheating. Recently Rupert Sheldrake did some interesting experiments on ESP in dogs. Dogs are much better than humans for such experiments. Dogs are dumb, they are not interested in the outcome of the experiment, and they do not cheat. Unfortunately Rupert Sheldrake is not a dog. He is human, and his essential role in his experiments makes his results questionable. What is needed is an experiment conducted entirely by dogs without any participation of humans. I propose this as a possible topic for your column. Rupert Sheldrake would be the best person for you to interview.

Yours sincerely, Freeman Dyson.

Image of Freeman Dyson from his Web page.


If you have a scientist you would like to recommend I question, or you are a scientist with an idea you think might be too hard for science, e-mail me at

Follow Too Hard for Science? on Twitter by keeping track of the #2hard4sci hashtag.

About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow him on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 18 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. violinner 12:07 pm 05/13/2011

    I believe that the human race is starving for a definitive answer to ESP. I suggest that one or more simple group experiments be conducted using a million/millions of people over the internet. This experiment would be understandable to the vast majority of the participants, absolutely transparent, un-hackable within the time frame of the experiment, and repeatable at any scale. Humans are starving for the answer, because the answer is un-knowable without a proper test.


    Link to this
  2. 2. strubie 12:10 pm 05/13/2011

    The parapsychology field is never going to be plowed under, because too many people "want to believe," and that’s why I personally that science should just leave it alone; at least until some verifiable, repeatable evidence compels us to do otherwise. Maybe we should let dolphins have a crack at it.

    Link to this
  3. 3. violinner 12:18 pm 05/13/2011

    If I am a drug maker, and the industry proves my drug is snake oil, I have to pull it from the market. It is time to make this determination with ESP.

    Link to this
  4. 4. canovac 1:17 pm 05/13/2011

    Rupert Sheldrake did a fascinating series of television/recorded videos on VHS. For me, it WAS a bit "woo-woo" but it featured different scientific minds; one is Stephen Gould is all I can remember. It was a fun watch! Some intriguing experiments include birds that communicate the existence of milk containers from miles away and crossword puzzles proving a shared knowledge across distances.

    Link to this
  5. 5. drjayvee 2:42 pm 05/13/2011

    Very funny :)

    I would think that ESP is impossible by definition! Whatever you use to perceive some aspect of your environment is called a "sense" organ, right?

    Link to this
  6. 6. zstansfi 9:44 pm 05/13/2011

    Doggy ESP… brilliant!

    Let’s be honest though, this hardly needs disproving. Until someone steps forward and demonstrates such an ability in a controlled environment there is no reason for any scientific analysis of the "evidence".

    Link to this
  7. 7. denysYeo 11:32 pm 05/13/2011

    Dogs may already have done the experiment! But, they couldn’t communicate this to people because the same bias problem, that has dogs doing the experiment in the first place, would apply!

    Link to this
  8. 8. darter115 2:52 am 05/14/2011

    Of course, wholly mental phenomena are not amenable to research by the physical sciences. The physical sciences can only devise and test phenomena that are physical in nature (I think that may be a pun). The problem with ESP is that it is a mental phenomenon and not bound by the laws of physics. ESP operates in the realm of metaphysics. By definition, metaphysics is above physics. The lower rules can never explain the higher rules. From the standpoint of arithmetic, algebra is magic with no explanation possible in the terns of arithmetic but algebra has no problem explaining arithmetic.
    There are not even any theories about what rules ESP obeys. Even the ESP researchers have not determined a mechanism for the phenomena. This doesn’t mean that research shouldn’t be done on ESP. Newton was able to document and calculate gravity without understanding the mechanism. Continental drift was heresy when I took my first geography classes. At the same time, navel captains would keep their sonars running as they made long treks across large ocean basins and gathered the data that validated the theory.

    Link to this
  9. 9. zstansfi 4:00 am 05/14/2011

    "Of course, wholly mental phenomena are not amenable to research by the physical sciences…The problem with ESP is that it is a mental phenomenon and not bound by the laws of physics."

    … Man, I hope you are joking. I’ll translate your statement: imaginary things cannot be studied by science. Hey, tell me something I didn’t know.

    (Oh, and by the way, I’m not really sure what definition of "mental" you are using here. I think you mean "fantastical", "ethereal" or perhaps "nonexistent".)

    Link to this
  10. 10. rogerlbagula 11:38 am 05/14/2011

    Link from a friend’s blog:

    Link to this
  11. 11. hungry doggy 12:34 pm 05/14/2011

    There may be a fundamental flaw in the testing for ESP. The experiments all seem to assume that we are all more or less equally gifted with ESP abilities. But what if ESP exists and is a rare human ability – similar in rarity to say a child like Mozart being born with great musical ability or a genius like Leonardo DaVinci or Albert Einstein? Just for the sake of discussion, how likely are you to find the rare individual with ESP ability if you test a random sample of the general population?

    And just for the sake of discussion, what if the rare individual with such a gift – say a guy like Warren Buffet (hypothetically) – decides to just keep his mouth shut and make enormous amounts of money with his gift?

    If you want to find ESP, don’t test the general population. Test the people who are wildly successful. Test the people who win multi-million dollar lotteries, the people who quietly and unobtrusively make millions of dollars on the stock market, the people who on a sudden hunch change airplanes just before a plane crash, the people who in all likelihood would refuse to be tested.

    Just a thought for discussion.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Wayne Williamson 7:25 pm 05/16/2011

    Hungry Doggy..I love the idea of esp…but the end result is what can you observe/document/confirm/reproduce…nada….

    Link to this
  13. 13. Carolina 6:45 pm 05/18/2011

    I have had dreams that came true. I once had a lover who I could go out and find anytime I wanted to–it freaked him out. When I was living with my club-going older son, I’d regularly wake up in the middle of the night and go to the apartment window just as he was pulling up in a taxi below. These are just a few examples. Could I replicate them under laboratory conditions? Unlikely, because it’s all about intuition, which evaporates under stress. But just because something happens sporadically doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Every so often a little magic, a little wonder, passes through my life, and I’m grateful for it.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Carolina 10:27 pm 05/18/2011

    Another case: I also used to be able to make parking spaces happen and taxis appear. My friends loved going out with me! Then at some point I decided that I might be missing something by controlling my life that way, so I made a vow to stop. However on a snowy day in SoHo (back when it was deserted, before taxis even knew where it was) I had a high fever, needed to go to the doctor, and thought it would be okay just this once if I manifested a cab. I went downstairs, and lo and behold there was a taxi turning up Greene Street from Canal. When I got in I asked the driver what made him decide to turn just then and he said, "Lady, when you’ve been in this business as long as I have, you just know where the fares are."

    Link to this
  15. 15. Raghuvanshi1 12:50 am 05/19/2011

    I think we must reverse the question of ESP from search outside in nature to search in our brain. We know very little about working of brain.This we can test from Borca~s research on separate part on each language in brain and story of Peter Harcose. he was helper once working on upper flower he was tumbled and was unconscious,with brain injury when he became conscious he can predicate accurately man`s future.Another example I want to give this I personally experienced.Long long ago great palmist Ciro
    wrote that hand and brain have very deep relationship.What commotion happen in our unconscious mind,how our unconscious mind control our conscious mind our whole future is guided by our unconscious mind that one reflected on lines of our palm. Expert palmist studying palm and its mounts can predicate the future.I went through this experience. When I was 28 year old one expert palmist told me some future predication they all accurately came true.We all know every man`s lines of palms are different. I think we must do further research on this topic we may find answer on secrete of ESP

    Link to this
  16. 16. bucketofsquid 5:08 pm 05/20/2011

    None of that has anything to do with ESP. Your experiences show an unusual awareness of oportunities but nothing particularly paranormal. I used to answer the phone before it rang when certain friends called. There was nothing psychic about it. I just knew when they were likely to call based on prior experience.

    Link to this
  17. 17. Carolina 9:55 pm 05/20/2011

    Nice try. Except that my son could come home anytime between midnight and 4:00 a.m.–or not come home at all, in which case I didn’t wake up. I never understood this phenomenon, since I was not aware of having any worry about him. As for my boy friend…I was new to the area and didn’t know where he hung out; regardless, the places I ran into him were not at all logical, sometimes places neither of us had been to, which is what made it so spooky. I thought it meant he was the love of my life, which he was not. The synchronicity thing actually interfered with our relationship, made him a little afraid of me. It wasn’t anything I was trying to do–I’d just think of him and he’d be there.

    In both cases these were not things I was encouraging–in fact I would rather not have had them (who likes to wake up in the middle of the night? And I didn’t want my boy friend to think I was stalking him). Also when I had dreams that came true, it was very disconcerting, and then I would worry whenever I had a negative dream. I no longer remember my dreams, and now, writing this (I haven’t thought about this stuff for a long time) I wonder if I could be blocking them because of those experiences.

    Link to this
  18. 18. xarlem 10:18 pm 10/4/2011

    I believe science has developed a web based ESP experiment that is totally random and the results are interesting.
    Also, new evidence from the field of quantum physics would indicate that the expectation of an observer affects the results.
    Anyway, I have posted a link to the experiment on my blog if you want to try it out. Maybe you can interview the people behind this experiment for a future column.
    Here is the direct link on my blog:

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article