by Ben Dehner
In his many books published between 1927 and 1957, Dr. Wilhelm Reich presented a unique cosmology which, among other things, was intended to unite the physical and biological sciences. This cosmology posited the existence of a universal energy field responsible for all physical phenomena, including the spontaneous generation of life. A practicing psychiatrist, Reich advocated novel medical treatments based on these theories, which eventually brought him in to conflict with the United States' Federal Food and Drug Administration. Reich was arrested, and his books were burned by court order. Reich eventually died in prison in 1957. While the treatment of Reich during this period by the federal agencies was contemptible, this is not relevant to the merit of the ideas he presented. The attempt at censorship of his ideas was unsuccessful, as his writings are still available today.
In his works, there are many similarities to between Reich and Immanuel Velikovsky, a contemporary of Reich. Like Reich, Velikovsky was a psychiatrist who advocated a novel view of the cosmos based on his understanding of human consciousness. Velikovsky also ran afoul of the scientific establishment; the presentation of his works embroiled him in controversy which, through various phases, lasted until his death in 1977, and to some extent still continues today.
As psychiatrists, students of human behavior and thinking, Reich and Velikovsky both believed that they had found some subtle truth of nature, something that had been missed by generations of scientists due to some mental inhibition or predisposition. Velikovsky believed he had found common themes in human myth and religion, pointing to natural events which had left an indelible mark on the human consciousness. Reich, in his discovery of "cosmic orgone energy", believed he had found something that scientists were psychologically incapable of discovering. For example, in Ether, God, and Devil (hereafter abbreviated EGD, p 77), Reich questions biological research methods in the following passage:
The reaction of hatred that came to the surface were the same that one encounters in ordinary relations with physicists and physicians regarding the orgone. Our clinical experience may be generalized : it is the fear of autonomic organ sensations that blocks the capacity to observe orgone energy.
It is an interesting aside that individuals such as Reich and Velikovsky often accuse the scientific "establishment" being closed minded toward theories that are unorthodox or do not originate from within "established" science. Perversely, however, we see that Reich is guilty of this crime to a far greater level. He claims that no one is able to judge the value of orgonomy unless they are psychologically capable of understanding, and only Reich is capable of making the determination of who is "capable"
Nevertheless, I will attempt to address the scientific value of Reich's work, especially the cosmology he describes in Cosmic Superimposition (hereafter abbreviated CI). I will look at two specific explanations forwarded by Reich. First, his description of gravitational phenomena, which Reich states stem from cosmic streams of orgone energy; second, his discussion of spiral galaxies, which are created by mergers of these cosmic orgone energy streams. However, before delving into Reich's theories, I would like to present an admonition from Reich, in CI (p 184):
I will return to this point again and again within this exposition; this is chiefly because the explanatory power of a scientific theory is measure with its ability to make specific, quantifiable predictions. If one accepts Newtonian physics, then the interaction and motions of the planets can be explained with four simple laws -- Newton's three laws of motion plus the description of gravity. These interactions are not simple to compute, to be sure, but they are computable. Reich, on the other hand, gives no such assurance. Instead, Reich replaces an unknown (gravity) with something even more mysterious, since he does not give a single, quantifiable property of his orgone energy field. Thus, the explanatory power of his theories is nil in comparison with more accepted methods and theories.
GRAVITY AND ORGONE ENERGY STREAMS
Reich postulates that the entire universe is filled with a vast field of "cosmic orgone energy". In EGD, Reich describes (p 139) this energy as follows:
According to conventional physics, the force of gravity can be described by Newton's law of gravity. This states that the gravitational force is proportional to the product of the masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance, i.e., goes like F ~ Mm/r2. Now it is possible that conventional physics is incorrect in adopting this prescription. However, what cannot be denied is that planetary interactions certainly act as though they are governed by such an inverse square force, Therefore, any mechanism which purports to explain gravitational phenomena must, at some level, predict this behavior. Whether the gravitational "force" is cause by gravity waves, exchange of graviton particles, or superimposition of orgone energy streams, the resulting behavior of the planetary systems is that of an inverse square force proportional to the product of the masses.
Yet nowhere is this behavior detailed by Reich. Reich describes the overall qualitative behavior of the orgone energy flows, but never provides a quantitative description. Could Reich propose some cosmic energy field and rigorously demonstrate the specific phenomena of (an apparent) inverse square force, most physicists would accolade Reich's discovery. Similarly if Reich had predicted the nonstandard behavior of Venus and Uranus. However, not only does Reich fail to present such a quantitative description, in his admonition above he specifically excuses himself from ever presenting any such rigor.
If the planetary motion is governed by an inverse-square force such as gravity, then it can be shown, albeit with some difficulty, that the resulting motion will follow conic sections, such as circles, ellipses, parabolas, or hyperbolas. In the case of the planets, this is the well-known elliptical orbits. Reich, however states describes that the planets will follow a complex spiral pattern as they are carried along by the movement of converging orgone energy streams. There is no "attraction" between the objects in the solar system. He explicitly states (CI, p257)
Finally, Reich makes his understanding of mechanics and gravity abundantly clear in the following passage, (CI pp. 273-4)
Reich's other fallacy in this statement is in his mention of centrifugal force. Centrifugal force is never, never, considered to be a "real" force in any circumstance. It is a convenient fiction often introduced to simply physical calculations. Yet, when he states "it only complicates things by introducing an additional unknown", Reich obviously does consider centrifugal force to be a real force, introduced as an external factor.
Reich, then, demonstrates very fundamental misunderstanding of some of the most basic physical principles. While this does not per se invalidate his theorems, it does cast a large doubt on his claim to have discovered any phenomena unknown to other physical sciences, since he seem to have little understanding of the basic principles of other disciplines. Yet it is on the word of this intrepid explorer that we are too abandon physical understanding as we know it in favor of his "sweeping generalization".
GALAXIES AND COSMIC SUPERIMPOSITION
A second aspect I would like to address is Reich's concept of cosmic superimposition. This is the concept that matter is spontaneously generated when cosmic streams of orgone energy merge; it is this process that is responsible for the formation of stars and galaxies. As Reich states in CI (p 225),
In order to support this notion, Reich draws an analogy with the spiral forms of galaxies, and the "spiraling together" of orgone energy flows. As general support for this idea, Reich claims the spiral form of the galaxies is consistent with merger of two orgone energy stream; further, Reich also believes that the spiral motion of the galaxies is also consistent with the merger of these streams. Presenting a picture of the spiral galaxy NGC 5457, Reich claims that (CI, p227)
Reich also equates the formation of galaxies to the formation of stars and planetary systems. He states (CI, pp. 228-9)
Reich's case for galactic formation by cosmic superimposition, then, becomes one of analogy, based on observation of spiral galaxies and circular motion, and a qualitative description of the "spiraling together" of orgone energy streams. Given the complete lack of any quantitative support, this makes a weak case at best. Further, there are several particulars, especially with respect to galactic motions, that Reich is simply incorrect.
In his writings, Wilhelm Reich proposed a universal energy field, unifying all of physics, biology, medicine, and most other fields of scientific understanding. This energy field was to revolutionize study in all of these fields. Reich justifies previous ignorance of orgone energy by claiming that scientific researchers were psychologically unsuited to observe this phenomena. This assertion then distracts any discussion of the science into an evaluation of the scientists.
This inability to discuss the particulars is further accentuated by Reich's qualitative description. There is no measurement that he predicts, no quantity to be measured, since Reich avoids giving any such particular. The true tests of a scientific theory are explanatory power and predictive ability. Since Reich gives no quantitative description of his "orgone energy", the explanatory power of his themy is nil. Since he has not defined any quantitative value, it is thus impossible to make any measurable prediction. Without these quantitative measurements, it is also impossible to determine whether Reich's theories are any improvement over more orthodox scientific theories. Using the Newtonian prescription for dynamics and gravitation has allowed scientists to predict the positions of planets and put satellites in orbit; what improvement does Reich have to offer? Or, if Reich is correct, why does the Newtonian description seem to be so correct? By the principle of Occams Razor, it would seem simply that the Newtonian physics is correct.
There are also many specific examples where Reich's qualitative description seems wrong. Not all planets rotate in the same direction; planetary system do not show spiral forms like galactic system; spiral galaxies do not demonstrate spiral motion. If these are problems with Reichian theories, they should be addressed forthrightly; if they are problems with convention science, then specific quantified criticism should be given. Instead, Reich "leaves the confirmation or refutation to others", passing the burden of proof.
In summary, Reich theories are perhaps a footnote in the history of science; they offer no new insights, and explain nothing. While the treatment of Reich at the hands of government authorities was deplorable, this is irrelevant to the validity of his theories. Unfortunately, his theories do not have any merit to them; they are at best vague and ambiguous, and completely descriptive in nature, based mostly on analogy and qualitative behavior. Where this qualitative behavior can be compared with observation, there are many errors in Reichs description.
If Reich's medical practices were of a similar nature to his scientific investigations, in my estimation they would border on quackery. It would then be no wonder that he attracted the ire of government agencies. Since these agencies are responsible for oversight of medical practices, such practices would outrage any responsible medical professional as his scientific theories would outrage any astronomer. While the treatment of Reich can never be sanctioned -- indeed, the burning of books is an outrage -- perhaps these actions can better be understood as those of humans reacting to human concerns and, as are we all, prone to human error.
W., 1949, Ether, God, and Devil
Reich, W. 1951, Cosmic Superimposition
Zelik, M & Smith, E. 1987, Introductory Astronomy and Astrophysics, CBS College Publishing, Philidelphia