Tricksters who exploit crystal balls

New Age claims about the mystical power of crystals are a con,says Richard Dawkins.In this "missing chapter" from his new book,he argues that the science of these rocks is more amazing than ball-gazers could imagine.

The film star Shirley Maclaine "places four quartz crystal clusters in the four corners of her bathtub every time she takes a bath". This doubtless has some mystic connection with the following recipe,found on the World Wide Web,for meditation:
"Each of the four quartz crystals in the meditation room should be "programmed" to project gentle, loving, relaxing,crystalline energy towards all those present within the Meditation group.The quartz crystals will then generate a field of positive crystalline energy surrounding everyone in the room".

Language like this is a con trick.It sounds "scientific" enough to bamboozle the innocent."Programming" is what you do to computers.The word means nothing when applied to crystals. "Energy" and "field" are carefully defined notions in physics. There is no such thing as "loving" or "crystalline" energy,whether positive or no.
New Age lore advises placing a quartz crystal in your water jug.Another Web site states:"You will soon appreciate the sparkling purity of your crystal water".
See how the trick works?Somebody with no understanding of the real world could make a kind of poetic association with "crystal clear" water.But that is no more sensible than trying to read by the light of a ("bright as a ") button.Or putting ("hard as") nails under your pillow to assist an erection.
"Try the following experiment when you next suffer from flu: hold your personal quartz crystal and visualise yellow light radiating through it,then place your crystal in a jug of water and drink this water the next day;one cup of water at two - hourly intervals.You will be amazed at the result!"
Drinking water at two - hourly intervals is a good idea,anyway,when you have flu.Putting a quartz crystal in it will have no additional effect.In particular,no amount of "visualising" of coloured light will change the composition of either the crystal or the water.
Pseudo-scientific drivel like this is a disturbingly prominent part of the culture of our age. I have limited my examples to crystals because I had to draw a line somewhere. But "star signs" would have done just as well. Or "angels", "chanelling","telepathy","quantum healing","homeopathy","map dowsing".There is no obvious limit to human gullibility.We are docile credulity-cows,eager victims of quacks and charlatans who milk us and grow fat.There is a rich living to be made by anyone prepared to prostitute the language - and the wonder of science.
But isn't it all - crystal ball -gazing,star signs,birth stones,ley - lines and the rest - just a bit of harmless fun? If people want to believe in garbage such as astrology or crystal healing,why not let them? But it is so sad to think about all that they are missing.There is so much wonder in real science.The universe is mysterious enough to need no help from warlock,shamans and "psychic" tricksters.These,are,at best a soul-slapping distraction.At worst,they are dangerous profiteers.
The real world,properly understood in the scientific way,is deeply beautiful and unfailingly interesting.It is worth putting in some honest effort to understand it properly,undistracted by false wonder and prostituted pseudo-science.For illustration,we need look no farther than crystals themselves.
In a crystal like quartz or diamond the atoms are arranged in a precisely repeating pattern.The atoms in a diamond - all identical carbon atoms - are arrayed like soldiers on parade,except that the precision of their dressing far outsmarts the best-drilled guards regiment,and the atomic soldiers outnumber all the people that have ever lived,or ever will. Imagine yourself shrunk to become one of the carbon atoms in the heart of a diamond crystal.You are one of the soldiers in a gigantic parade,but it will seem a little odd because the files are arrayed in three dimensions.Perhaps a prodigious school of fish is a better image.
Each fish in the school is one carbon atom.Think of them moving in space,keeping their distance from each other,and holding precise angles,by means of forces that you can't see,but which scientists fully understand.But if this is a fish school,it is one that,to scale would fill the Pacific Ocean. In any decent -sized diamond,you are likely to be looking along arrays of atoms numbering hundreds of millions in any one straight line.
Carbon atoms can take up other crystal-lattice formations.To revert to the military analogy,they can adopt alternative drill conventions.Graphite (the lead in pencils) is also carbon,but is obviously nothing like diamond. In graphite,the atoms form sheets of hexagons like chicken wire.Each sheet is loosely bonded to those above and below it,and when impurities are present,the sheets slide easily against each other,which is why graphite is a good lubricant.
Diamond is not a lubricant.Its legendary hardness abrades the toughest materials.But the atoms in soft graphite and hard diamond are identical;if you could persuade the atoms in graphite crystals to adopt the drill rules of diamond crystals,you would be rich.It can be done,but you need colossal pressures and high temperatures - presumably the conditions that produce diamonds naturally,deep in the earth.
If hexagons make a sheet of flat graphite,you can imagine that interspersing some pentagons among the hexagons could make the sheet buckle into a curve.Place exactly 12 pentagons among 20 hexagons and the curve bends round into a complete sphere. Geometers call it a truncated icosahedron.This is exactly the pattern of the sewing seams in a football.The football is,therefore,theoretically a pattern into which carbon atoms might spontaneously fall.
Mirabile dictu,exactly this pattern has been discovered among carbon atoms.The team responsible,including Sir Harry Kroto [knighted for his discovery,when have any mystics been knighted for their contribution? LB],of Sussex University,won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.Called "Buckminsterfullerene", it is an elegant sphere of 60 carbon atoms,linked up as 20 hexagons interspersed with 12 pentagons.The name honours the visionary American architect Buckminster Fuller,and the spheres are affectionately known as buckyballs.They can combine together to make larger crystals.Like graphite sheets,buckyballs make good lubricants,probably because of their spherical shape;they presumably work like tiny ball-bearings.
Since the buckyball's discovery,chemists have realised it is just a special case of a large family of "buckytubes" [Science often works by generalising special cases-LB] and other "fullerenes".Carbon atoms can theoretically join up to form an Aladdin's cave of fascinating crystalline forms - another aspect of the unique property that qualifies carbon to be the fundamental element of life.
Not every atom has carbon's talent for joining copies of itself.Other crystals contain more than one kind of "soldier",alternating in some elegant pattern.In quartz crystals it is silicon and oxygen instead of carbon;in common salt it is electrically charged atoms of sodium and chlorine.Crystals naturally break along lines that betray the underlying regimental drill pattern.That is why salt crystals are square,why the honeycomb columns of the Giants' Causeway stand as they do,and why diamond crystals are,well,diamond-shaped.
All crystals "self-assemble" under locally acting rules.Their component "soldiers",floating free in solution,spontaneously plug themselves into "gaps" on the surface of the existing crystal,where they exactly fit.So a crystal may grow in solution from a tiny "seed" - perhaps an impurity like the sand grain at the heart of a pearl.There is no grand design of buckyballs,quartz crystals,diamonds or anything else.
This principle of self- assembly runs right through living structures,too.DNA itself (the genetic molecule at the centre of all life) can be regarded as a long,spiral crystal in which one half of the double helix self-assembles on a template provided by the other.Viruses self-assemble like elaborately complex crystal clusters. The head of the T4 bacteriophage (a virus that infects bacteria) even looks like a single crystal.
Go into any museum and look at the collection of minerals. Even go into a New Age shop and look at the crystals on display,along with all the other apparatus of mumbo-jumbo and kitsch con trickery.The crystals won't respond to your attempts to "program" them for meditation,or "dedicate" them with warm,roving thoughts.They won't cure you of anything,or fill the room with "inner peace" or "psychic energy".
But many of them are very beautiful,and it surely adds to the beauty when we understand that the shapes of the crystals,the angles of their facets,the rainbow colours that flash from inside them,all have a precise explanation that lies deep in the patterns of atomic lattice work.
Crystals don't vibrate with mystical,loving energy.But they do,in a much stricter and more interesting sense,vibrate.Some crystals have an electric charge across them which changes when you physically deform the crystal. This "piezoelectric" effect,discovered in 1880 by the Curie brothers (Marie's husband and his brother),is used in the styluses of record-players (the deforming is done by the groove of the turning record),and in some microphones (the deforming is done by sound waves in the air).The piezo effect works in reverse. [Something mystics would have trouble with,since this is a negative effect with respect to the former-LB] When a suitable crystal is placed in an electric field,it deforms itself rhythmically.Often the timing of this oscillation is extremely accurate.It serves as the equivalent of the pendulum or balance wheel in a quartz watch.
[Thence there is more magic and mystery in a digital watch then any mystics chanting at a stone-LB]
Let me tell you one last thing about crystals,and it may be the most fascinating of all.The military metaphor makes us think of each soldier as a yard or two from his neighbours.But actually almost all the interior of a crystal is empty space.My head is 18 centimetres in diameter.To keep to scale,my nearest in the crystalline parade would have to be standing more than a kilometre away.No wonder the tiny particles called neutrinos (even smaller than electrons) pass right through the earth and come out the other side as if it wasn't there (on average,one passes through you every second).
But if solid things are mostly empty space,why don't we see them as empty space? Why does a diamond feel hard and solid instead of crumbly and full of holes? The answer lies in our own evolution.Our sense organs,like all our bits,have been shaped by Darwinian natural selection over countless generations.You might think that our sense organs would be shaped to give us a "true" picture of the world as it "really" is.It is safer to assume, however,that they have been shaped to give us a useful picture of the world,to help us to survive.
In a way,what sense organs do is assist our brains to construct a useful model of the world,and it is this model that we move around in.It is a kind of "virtual reality" simulation of the real world.Neutrinos can pass straight through a rock;but we can't.If we try to,we hurt ourselves. [In fact,quantum physics allows a body such as that as a human to pass through solid matter,but it would take an immense amount of time,and would be infinitely unlikely-LB]
When constructing its simulation of rock,the brain therefore represents it as hard and solid.It is almost as though our sense organs are telling us: "You can't get through objects of this kind". That is what "solid" means.That is why we perceive them as "solid".[So much for "perception" then-LB]
In the same way,we find much of the universe,as science discovers it, difficult to understand.Einstein's relativity,quantum uncertainty,black holes,the Big Bang,the expanding universe,the vast slow movement of geological time - all these are hard to grasp.No wonder science frightens some people.But science can even explain why these things are hard to understand,and why the effort frightens us.
We are jumped-up apes and our brains were only designed to understand the mundane details of how to survive the Stone Age African savannah. These are deep matters,and a short article is not the place to go into them.I shall have succeeded if I have persuaded you that a scientific approach to crystals is more illuminating,more uplifting and also stranger than anything imagined in the wildest dreams of New Age gurus or paranormal preachers.The blunt truth is that the dreams and visions of gurus and preachers are not nearly wild enough.By scientific standards,that is.
[] Web sites:
© Richard Dawkins. Richard Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.His latest book,Unweaving the Rainbow:Science,Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder,is published by Penguin on October 22.The book has no chapter on crystals,but the author says that this is what it would have been like if he had thought of it in time.

Dear LISA,

With respect to your article today in the Metro about MAGICK. I would like to explain to you why this area of people's lives is objectionable and should not be given cudos and publicity.It is based on a highly ignorant view of life and propagation of it's ethos can only be damaging to human progress.

Pagan types or white witches believe they know more about the Earth and cycles than do scientists - this is not so.

I have many pages online to indicate just what is wrong with their point of view. I know first hand - because my ex-wife became involved with a pagan,a person who professed to be caring - but actually was very materialistic,ignorant and selfish. In part,she contributed to my marital breakdown and further - my ex-wife became pagan and became as selfish as her pen friend,subsequently marrying a pagan.

The history of these people is recounted in Black and White magic, where Jacob Bronowski explains how a culture of people came to be anti-science and believed they could influence the world. This I found to be true with my ex wives friend - who read the tarot and believed she could cast hexes on people - her whole world view was warped around this perception - her and her husband had complete scorn for science - and also failed to understand it.

Susan Blackmore explained in DOES SCIENCE MATTER - that she had tested the public and found that those most given to not be able make good judgements of probability - ie risk assess were also those who tended to believe in pseudo science and supernature - indeed this particular person who befriended my ex wife - thought she would force a pair of die to produce more double sixes than would be the norm. She never did - and also failed to understand my mathematical analysis of her attempts - she was highly ignorant.

Many of my pages which seek to educate people are at beliefs .

Richard Dawkins has been a big advocate of running down these pseudo science believers - and exlains that with the hole created by a lack of religion - many people lack meaning in their lives and search for "something more". As John Maddox explains, many people are actually out to do science and injury out of misplaced revenge.

A lot of advocates of pseudoscience presume that they know what they are talking about with respect to energies and auras - but in actual fact they are only scraping the surface of what science actually knows.

One supernature magazine or "magick" magazine actually tried to use the science of CHAOS THEORY to mock scientists.

Perhaps,if you read the Richard Dawkins article:

You will see that such things are not just a "bit of harmless fun" - nor is the new age and age for pagans and mystics - it maybe an age of Earth worshippers or Champions of the Environment - I am one myself - and I can certainly understand why people would look for alternative world views when materialism is failing them - but rejecting science is not the solution - and many who do - do so out of ignorance or because they feel their is a missing "something" in their lives. By lending credence to these con-men you are helping destroy society. The Metro has a good history of keeping science upheld in its letters column and centre pages as well as the MCOSM column - I would advise BODY MATTERS to steer clear of the spirit and stick to the body- Witches and pagans are not a new ethos - they are an old one trying to get in on the gap in the spiritual market - do not fall into their ignorant ways.

Lee Borrell


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