Michael Ray Taylor

The Caves of Neither Here Nor There

porterfieldJ4.jpg (60791 bytes)An experiment reported in the January 20 issue of Nature offers the latest in a series of recent scientific efforts to produce “spooky action at a distance.” Albert Einstein first coined the phrase in his attempt to denigrate one unavoidable consequence of quantum theory: Objects in a quantum state, the theory holds, are not “objects” at all until someone or something measures them. Photons and beryllium atoms and stuff are no more than percentages, fuzzy blobs of statistical probability, until someone looks at them and makes them real. Think of the Boy and the Velveteen Rabbit. Yet if one accepts that this notion describes how the universe actually works, as Max Planck and other contemporaries of Einstein argued, one must also accept that two or more entangled particles, identical not-yet-objects—twin unloved bunnies, if I may extend an unfortunately cute metaphor, sent hopping down disparate paths—will remain mere sets of probability until one is measured. At that moment the object becomes fixed in reality, and its distant twin simultaneously conforms to the measured value. Einstein didn’t like this. He called it spooky.

In the experiment reported in Nature, David Wineland and fellow researchers at the National Institute of Standards in Boulder, Colorado, caused a single beryllium atom in a vacuum to be in two places at the same time. After isolating the atom from heat, radio waves and other energy sources, Wineland’s team zapped it with a laser in a way that forced the atom’s single electron into two states of spin. Since the state of spin determined the atom’s whereabouts, it simultaneously existed in two places at once. Spooky. As soon as any kind of contact with the outside world was introduced to the atom, its quantum state “collapsed” and it became located in only one spot. The actions of the observer determined where the atom wound up, and this process could be reversed; that is, undo the observation, and the atom jumped back to being neither here nor there.

In an experiment performed in 1997 at the University of Geneva, Dr. Nicholas Gisin sent a pair of entangled photons down separate fiber-optic telephone lines toward destinations ten kilometers apart. Along the way the photons were forced to make random choices between different, equally possible pathways, each of which would impart a measurable characteristic to the individual particle. At the end of the two lines were measuring devices. In every case, measurement at one end forced the photon arriving at the other end to have made the same apparently random choices. I am not committing an error of verb tense. No choices were made by the unmeasured particle in actual time; rather, they were forced by the act of measurement to have previously occurred. Spooky.

In separate experiments conducted the same year in Austria and Italy, individual photons were destroyed and exact, paired replicas made to appear about three feet away. In reporting these, some press accounts compared the effect to that of a “Star Trek” transporter beam, quoting scientists who said the same result could indeed be achieved with larger objects, at least in theory. Meanwhile, at MIT, physicist David Pritchard built a machine that could revert a single, measured sodium atom to its fuzzy, unreal wave state, send the atomic wave through assorted grids, and then reassemble it as the same measured and very real piece of stuff on the other side. Spooky again.

Enough of that. I’m a journalist and a writer and don’t particularly care about particle physics, except as metaphor. Metaphorically speaking, contemporary society seems to have accepted journalists as reliable measurement devices. They pay us to perform spooky action at a distance. Metaphorically speaking, nothing exists until some journalist observes it, at which point all other journalists simultaneously observe the reality of whatever the thing is (Mad Cow Disease, sheep cloning, etc.) to have previously occurred. The trick for any particular journalist-as-photon-measurer is to find a meaty subject still in its wave state, a set of probabilities not yet frozen into reality by some other damn reporter.

By lucky circumstance, my hobby has prepared me for doing just that: I explore caves. [i] Mountain climbers scale a peak “because it’s there,” but we cavers continually put ourselves at risk seeking places which have, much like a particle in the wave state or Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, no there there—none, at least, until we slither through a crack and survey a newfound cavern’s thereness. We dream of breaking into bejeweled cathedrals beneath mountains of limestone, places virgin still to light and humanity. Sometimes, with extreme effort, we find our dreams. This can make cavers spooky to be around. Or so says my wife.

In 1982 Donald Davis, a respected caver and the author of a number of significant papers concerning cave geology and mineralogy, codified this spookiness in a masterpiece of spurious science. “The Dilation Theory of Cavern Development” has been reprinted in several American caving periodicals and translated for German, Swiss and Norwegian caving audiences; it has become the most far-reaching work of a distinguished (and otherwise legit) speleological career. Davis begins by proposing “that all previous investigators have been grossly in error in treating caves as geologic or hydrologic phenomena.” Instead, he suggests, “the mechanism of cave creation is parapsychological, or more explicitly, psychokinetic.” He continues:

My own recognition of this fact occurred during a trip with two geologist-cavers in the Grand Canyon. They were mapping a measured section through the Redwall limestone cliff along a steep fault ravine, while I was leading, deliberately examining the walls for caves. None of us saw any caves during the descent. On returning up the route, we again saw no caves until the last man suddenly saw to his left, 20 feet away and in plain sight, an entrance ten feet square behind a Douglas-fir trunk. It led to a cave with 2000 feet of passage. It had obviously dilated, or blinked into existence, at that final moment when the mental force of our party’s attention to the matter had built up to the intensity necessary to create the cave.     

Cave dilation evidently operates according to quantum-mechanical laws in which the cave flips instantly from “off” to “on” when the threshold energy input has been reached, with no intermediate state. This is why no one sees caves opening slowly as they watch. Since it is well known that psychokinetic forces operate independently of the inverse-square law that governs normal physical interactions, most caves will be dilated at distances out of sight of the creators, and the caves will appear to have been there for much longer than they really have.

After providing an example of another Colorado cave unquestionably created through dilation, the author proposes an operative mechanism:

Most caves are found in limestone, dolomite and gypsum because these rocks are associated with barren and unproductive landscapes whose inhabitants had little to entertain themselves but to relieve their boredom unconsciously by creating cavities underground. Once begun, the trend was self-accelerating by suggestion to others. When scientists then developed a wrong but superficially plausible explanation that water action caused the cavities, then caves dilated later (or even earlier, since psychokinesis may incorporate precognition) would tend to take on the features expected—a self-fulfilling prophecy.[ii]

The text continues in this wonderful vein, concluding with “Cautionary Notes” regarding the potential of widespread dilation research to precipitate black holes, by creating cave space which exceeds the volume of the planet.

Anyone who has done much caving recognizes the experience Davis describes—the cave that appears in plain sight only at the end of a long day spent looking for it, during which you passed the “obvious” entrance several times. And I’ve experienced and heard many others describe an oft-proven corollary for major expeditions to large caves in foreign lands. On the last day of a big trip, as unwashed explorers contemplate the return to jobs, spouses, running water, etc., someone in the team will find a new passage leading in an unexpected direction, an immense borehole inevitably broken after a short distance by a vertical drop. This pit will prove deeper than the longest rope available, insuring that the new passage will remain unexplored until some future expedition. The last-day pit is virtually assured in those cases when there have been no other major finds during the course of a lengthy and difficult trip, especially to equatorial jungles.

Perhaps the most significant American cave explored recent decades is Lechuguilla, located in Carlsbad Caverns National Park in southern New Mexico. The cave has grown from a known length of a few hundred feet in 1986 to over 100 miles today, and grows longer with every expedition. It is an ideal candidate for having been dilated into existence, not in the least because Donald Davis has been one of its principal explorers. (Those who have been there with Donald tell me that he will sometimes enter a newfound chamber and say in a demanding tone, “Dilate spaciously”; the cave often complies.) Lechuguilla’s single natural entrance was first observed in 1914 by John Ogle, a miner of bat guano who undoubtedly found himself inhabiting the barren and unproductive landscape with little to entertain himself. A shaft about 70 feet deep led to a pile of rocks from which a strong wind issued. In the early 1980s, a group of Colorado cavers became convinced that the source of the breeze was some vast unexplored cavern, and set about digging their way into it.

Over the course of several years, assorted small groups spent weekends poking at the rubble, and in 1986 a particularly determined party of four punched through to unknown miles of highly decorated cave passage. Because of the meandering nature of the cave tunnels, along with unusually high concentrations of gypsum and other minerals, Donald Davis and other speleologists concluded that Lechuguilla had been formed not by surface runoff, as was usually the case with limestone caves. Instead, they posited that the cave appeared to have been carved from the bottom up, by rising springs rich in hydrogen sulfide, which could react chemically to form sulfuric acid and dissolve rock at a rapid rate.

In the early 1990s, this theory attracted microbiologists to the cave. Other deep, dark environments rich in hydrogen-sulfide, such as mid-ocean volcanic vents, had proven to contain treasure troves of odd bacteria that drew energy from chemicals in rocks. The life in these “extreme” environments was built around a chemical food chain—as opposed to the more familiar food chain of the surface world, based on energy gathered from sunlight. Once again, here were a group of determined explorers looking for a thing unknown to science, yet a thing they could expect to find according to a reasonable, if novel, scientific theory. Naturally enough, they found what they sought in Lechuguilla. The cave contained thousands of species of previously uncatalogued microorganisms living in complex communities that redefined the concept of life “as we know it.”

These ecosystems attracted NASA investigators to Lechuguilla, astrobiologists hoping to support reasonable expectations for primitive life beneath the icy surface of Mars and other planets. Inevitably, the new cave, the new bugs, and the NASA interest in turn attracted journalists, among them me. In 1996 I spent four days camped underground in Lechuguilla’s nether reaches, assisting microbiologists in collecting rock-eating bacteria. Within a few months, I had landed a book contract and taken a course in microbiological lab procedures at the university where I teach.

Tradition in American journalism holds that the reporter must remain detached from his subject, a mere observer as opposed to participant. Yet there has always been a contrary undercurrent of “participatory journalism,” in which one does something exciting and writes about it. Moreover, quantum theory, I realized—or perhaps I should say rationalized—teaches us that the act of observation itself profoundly affects the observed phenomenon, to the point of determining its very reality. If this is so, journalistic objectivity becomes illusory at best.[iii]

To cut to the chase: I began looking for and finding my own cave bugs. Specifically, I became fascinated with a controversial subset of microbes from deep underground that had been given a different name by each of the three prinicpal researchers to study them: nanobacteria, nannobacteria, and nanobes. Until 1996, alleged discoveries of tiny bacteria up to 1/100th the size of more familiar microbes had been largely dismissed by the scientific establishment as impossible. The DNA molecule alone, the skeptics argued, was too large to fit in such a small package—never mind proteins, organelles, and all the other stuff of life. But in 1996, a group of meteorite researchers began looking inside carbonate minerals (chemically much like a common cave stalactite) that appeared to have been deposited by groundwater inside a volcanic meteorite. In that the meteorite appeared to have been blasted off the surface of Mars, and that minerals deposited by groundwater on Earth often contain fossils of dead bacteria, these researchers went prospecting for evidence of life. Using the finest measuring devices available, they magnified slices of the Mars rock to powers and degrees of clarity never before achieved with a mineral sample. The now famous—and still widely distputed—“worms” that Dave McKay of NASA and his colleagues found inside the meteorite Allen Hills 84001 appeared visually identical to “nanobacteria” claimed by earlier researchers.

One effect of the massive press surrounding the controversial claims made by McKay’s team has been a recent explosion in the scientific hunt for nanobacteria on Earth—in mineral deposits, seafloor sediments, industrial wastes, kidney stones, human arterial plaques, and a variety of other environments. While the existence of these tiny life forms remains hotly debated, several leading scientific journals have published evidence that nanobacteria can be cultured or killed, contain internal cellular structures, use nucleic acids to reproduce, and are otherwise alive and occasionally virulent. At the invitation of Carl Allen, one of McKay’s colleagues at the Johnson Space Center, I’ve been collecting fresh hot spring mineral deposits from a wet tunnel beneath Hot Springs National Park. When I drove the first sample down to Houston, where it was placed into an electron microscope powerful enough to magnify even the smallest bits of reality, I saw a mass of cell-like objects as small as those in the Mars rock. Clusters of rods and tiny balls were embedded in the stringy substance that microbiologists term biofilm. That was in 1997; I’ve now collected possible nanobacteria samples as well as dozens of definite bacteria samples from caves and hot springs that, according to scientific publications of previous decades, are “almost completely devoid of microbial life” and “naturally sterile.” I’ve collected and studied “snot-tites” from Cueva de Villa Luz in Tabasco, Mexico. Gooey wormlike cave formations that drip pure sulfuric acid, snot-tites appear to be comprised of hundreds or thousands of species of interdependent microbes living in a biolfilm matrix.

Almost every time I venture underground, I see new evidence of a pervasive subterranean biosphere extending deep into the planet. Or so says my wife, who has become increasingly suspicious of the things I put in our refrigerator. But I keep bringing the stuff home. I feel like a mage who has mastered the charm of making. I placed slides yesterday morning in yet another unstudied pool, this one steaming into a corner of the basement in the administration building of Hot Springs National Park. Today nanobacteria are either growing on them or not. Or growing on them and not—whatever lies there now lies within the quantum foam, part of a possible reality yet to be determined, possible news yet to be reported.

Like most members of the National Speleological Society, I prefer the term “caving” to the more recent “spelunking,” which was invented by a Massachusetts bookseller in 1938, and made real when a journalist friend of his used the word in an article in Life magazine.

Excerpt reprinted by permission of the author.

As a correlary in the field of literature, quantum flux might explain the popularity of the French school of criticism: deconstruct a text to its subatomic parts, and it will mean whatever you want it to mean.


(Photo by J. Porterfield)