The nature of consciousness remains one of the great unsolved scientific mysteries. We have no clear handle on how consciousness manifests itself biologically or chemically or physically. We can’t even be certain that life, much less a functioning neural network, is a prerequisite for achieving that state. Panpsychism, the idea that consciousness is universal, has plenty of adherents and now one scientist with an unusual data set is saying that we need to take them seriously.

That scientist, Greg Matloff, is not a crank. He is a guy who listens to the data. No one is more surprised than he is that the numbers suggest stars are actively altering and adjusting their paths through the heavens.

Matloff, who spent most of his career working as a propulsion scientist for NASA, among other institutions, currently serves as an emeritus associate and adjunct associate professor of physics at New York City College of Technology. He’s a rocket scientist, but his interests stretch further afield. He’s made himself an expert on the search for extraterrestrial life, planetary defense, asteroid mining, and how consciousness could inform celestial physics. He has a good sense of humor about that last topic — “I don’t claim to be a consciousness physicist,” he says. “I got involved in this through the back door.” — but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take it seriously.

In a paper published this fall in the Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research, Matloff puts forth the case for that stellar momentum and velocity data collected from previous surveys of star movements illustrate instances in which stars do not move according to the current models we have to explain astrophysics. He thinks that if we take a step back, that data could actually be viewed as evidence that proto-consciousness can manifest itself in celestial objects as a way for the galaxy — and universe at large — to achieve a more elegant organization.

In this context, stellar consciousness is basically an alternative theory to dark matter, the leading explanation for why stars in the outer regions of spiral galaxies like the Milky Way move faster than they should. Sometime around 2011, just before Matloff retired from full-time teaching, a student told Matloff that with the search for dark stretching into a ninth decade, and with explanations from scientists strewn all over the place, he believed the concept of dark matter was “bunk.”

Star fields stretch on for billions of light-years.
Star fields stretch on for billions of light-years.

Matloff says that he first encountered consciousness theory in the work of physicist and parapsychologist Evan Harris Walker, who wrote about connections he saw between consciousness and quantum mechanics. Matloff found his ideas about a quantifiable version of consciousness inside the human brain intriguing.

According to Walker, a thought works because you have some type of wave function associated with some particle, probably an electron, bouncing around between two synapses.

“If you bounce around a physical object against a wall,” says Matloff, “it’ll never go through — even if you do it a gazillion times.”

But in the quantum world, there’s an infinite possibility that the thing would eventually tunnel through the wall. When it comes to the brain, this means that electron could eventually break through the synaptic walls and move into another part of the brain (or, perhaps, into to somebody else’s brain). That means a thought — or rather the base ingredient for a thought — can suddenly worm its way into different places. If this happens on a larger scale, the complexity of those interactions would give rise to what we call consciousness. At the quantum level, cells and tissue aren’t required for this to happen — just the interplay of particle physics.

Back to Matloff: He kept up with Walker and the various ideas of consciousness being debated even as he carried on with his work on interstellar travel and propulsion. Sometime around 2011, just before Matloff retired from full-time teaching, a student asked a question about dark matter, the leading explanation for why stars in the outer regions of spiral galaxies like the Milky Way move faster than they should. The student told Matloff that with the search for dark matter stretching into a ninth decade, and with explanations from scientists strewn all over the place, he believed the concept of dark matter was “bunk.”

“That stuck with me,” says Matloff. If dark matter wasn’t real, there had to be some other reason to explain why stars and galaxies move in such peculiar ways sometimes. If a dense object wasn’t causing a gravitational aberrance in space, then the stars’ motions were caused by something else perhaps something intrinsic to the stars themselves.

Twinkle, but only if that works for you.
Twinkle, but only if that works for you.

Matloff decided to attend a symposium at the British Interplanetary Society centered around science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon. According to Matloff, Stapledon had previously described the universe as a “cosmic dance” where the stars are “sort of flocking together. And maybe to stay inside the galaxy, to flock together like that, in some way — maybe it’s a sociability rather than survivability.” Stars would exhibit a primitive form of consciousness in order keep in step with the dance.

There are other ideas too. Steady State theory — which hypothesizes the density of the universe does not change in an expanding universe because matter is constantly created — falls in line with the idea that the universe is basically the same at all times. Stellar consciousness would be a method for engendering this stability. Of course Steady State theory is pretty much universally rejected amongst the scientific community, so that’s unlikely.

Regardless, the whole thing got Matloff thinking very seriously: “If the stars are conscious, if they’re moving in a volitional fashion, what brings consciousness into them?”

There could be no biological basis — neurons or tubulins — for the answer, which meant that it had to be molecules.

“Well, how could consciousness come into molecules?” Matloff wondered.

He developed what he refers to as his “toy model,” which essentially posits that the stabilized fluctuation in the universal vacuum from which the universe originates is also the source of consciousness (an idea that began with German astrophysicist Bernie Haisch.

Matloff thinks molecular consciousness could be possible through the Casimir Effect, which says not all of the bonding between atoms and a molecule is electromagnetic. Some of it, 20 to 30 percent or so, is due to vacuum pressure — not all vacuum fluctuations can fit in between the atoms in a molecule, and therefore you have the pressure from the vacuum holding the molecules together.

“If this was correct,” he says, “there had to be some difference in motion for stars with molecules and hotter ones that don’t have molecules.

Like any good scientist, Matloff had to hit the books and dig into past scientific literature to see if he was on to something. “I’d like to be able to tell you that I went to all of the libraries and I looked through back issues of Astronomy & Astrophysics, The Astrophysical Journal, The Astronomical Journal, Soviet Astronomy,” he says. “But no, I didn’t do that. I went and turned my computer on, I typed in Google, and I started doing searches on things like Wikipedia.”

It paid off.

What if a Large Megellanic Cloud was actually a large, megellanic crowd?
What if a Large Megellanic Cloud was actually a large, megellanic crowd?

“What I discovered blew my mind,” Matloff says. He came across something called “Parenago’s Discontinuity,” named after Soviet astrophysicist Pavel Parenago. In the 1940s and ‘50s, Parenago started to work on ideas about stellar astrophysics that ran counter to the predominant perspectives in astronomy. He knew he was doing something that was heresy to the extreme materialistic viewpoints of the Soviet authorities and he had to protect himself. So one of the things he did is he wrote a book — I forget which — and he dedicated it to the most highly evolved human being of all time, a guy named Joseph Stalin.”

“He did not go to a cold place,” Matloff adds dryly.

Thus, Parenago developed a concept called Parenago’s Discontinuity. It basically says that cooler stars, including the sun, move somewhat faster around the center of the galaxy than hotter ones.

Matloff decided to dig deeper and see if modern observations could provide support for Parenagos Discontinuity. One source was data collected by the Hipparcos European Space Observatory, which has observed movements for more than 100,000 stars. The other was what Matloff calls the Bible for astrophysics,” Allen’s Astrophysical Quantities. Matloff found that discontinuity in stellar movement was evident in stars that were of hotter spectral classes.

The easiest explanation for this would be that there are dense regions of matter located in the Milky Way’s spiral arms, and that one of these regions move through the galaxy a billion years ago to drag along cooler stars. But for various reasons, including analytical surveys of the same data conducted by other astronomers, Matloff explains this isn’t likely. Moreover, it was starting to look like this was not simply a phenomenon located in a specific region of the galaxy, but was happening all over.

The next thing Matloff needed to figure out was if stars indeed possessed a form of consciousness how did they get around? How can a star physically change its direction and speed in space?

Matloff has considered a few explanations, among them: radiation pressure, stellar jets, and even telekinetics and there are weaknesses and strengths to all of them. Radiation pressure is assumed to be isotropically pushed if the same in all directions. It might be directed in one direction more than another, and Matloff raises the possibility that an advanced alien civilization may have created a megastructure that could allow a star to push itself around sort of as a “very large, slow starship,” like in science fiction. But it’s unlikely so many stars would have hyper-intelligent extraterrestrials orbiting them and still unclear how radiation pressure could be naturally focused.

Stellar jets is a better theory, and indeed at least one paper finds that there unidirectional jets on some stars that push off more than 40 to 50 percent more in one direction than the other. But not enough data is available to confirm that could help a star accelerate in a single direction.

And finally, with telekinetics, you run into the issue of being unable to prove this is even possible (at least so far).

Nevertheless, its pretty clear that Matloff is taking a concertedly scientific look at the idea of stellar consciousness and how this could support the notion of panpsychism. I have basically proposed a hypothesis, I looked for supporting evidence, I found supporting evidence, I tabulated the evidence, and then I demonstrated what can be done to improve the evidence,” he said. “So I think what I’ve done is what might be the first step in taking panpsychism from the realm of deductive philosophy and find a way to empirically test for it.

The great jacuzzi of galactic consciousness.
The great jacuzzi of galactic consciousness.

How does Matloff intend to collect supporting evidence? The biggest thing is more data about the movements of stars. Luckily for Matloff, the European Space Agency is in the midst of assembling the most comprehensive map ever of the Milky Way’s stars, in its Gaia mission. “First of all, we need the Gaia results that illustrate redder, cooler stars all over the galaxy with molecules move generally faster around the center of the galaxy than stars without molecules. Gaia, the successor to the Hipparcos mission, will give us a real strong data set.”

In fact, the mission has already released its first set of data, with three more releases planned over the next five years. Unfortunately, Matloff says the first set did not touch on any Parenago data, though he’s looking forward to seeing the final data set in a few years. “The release is extensive and is a great first step. I hope that the kinematics people will dig into these results very deeply.”

If the final data is proof-positive that stars are capable and currently moving and accelerating in a very specific, concerted way, the consequences of course would completely rock not just the world of science, but the world of philosophy as well. Matloff’s ideas about panpsychism are strange, to say the least but at the very least, they inspire a very different way of thinking about our universe.

Photos via Marc Van Norden/Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

Neel is a science and tech journalist from New York City, reporting on everything from brain-eating amoebas to space lasers used to zap debris out of orbit, for places like Popular Science and WIRED. He's addicted to black coffee, old pinball machines, and terrible dive bars.