A chat with Nikolaj Sorgenfrei Blom: science adventurer, water bridger and quantum biologist
Back in February, Nikolaj delivered one of the most befuddling – and popular – talks of FoT2019. Water, he explained, is not as mundane as we might think. In fact, it’s downright mysterious.
During his talk, Nikolaj performed an experiment. He took two beakers filled with deionized water and placed them next to each other. He then inserted an electrode into each beaker. Moments later, the water had risen out of its position, forming a bridge suspended in midair, as if by magic. The audience gasped.
This is not a new experiment. It was first discovered in 1893 by Sir William Armstrong, an English engineer and aristocrat. Armstrong was a complicated figure. He designed cranes and bridges and built the first house to be lit using hydroelectricity. He also designed and built artillery weapons for the British army during the Boer war. In his spare time, he liked to tinker with amateur experiments. His water bridge became a novelty in the scientific community. But, eventually, it faded from memory. The thing is, there still isn’t a convincing explanation as to why it works.
Recently, there has been renewed interest in water’s weirder properties. Research is being carried out all over the world. The consensus is that we know less than we thought. Some scientists even claim that water could be made up of two different liquids. Here in Denmark, Nikolaj continues the investigation as senior researcher in the department of chemical and biochemical engineering at DTU. For him, it’s about more than just scientific curiosity. Wrapped up in this research are profound questions about the limits of scientific knowledge. It’s also part of a bigger personal philosophy, a worldview that frames life – and science – as an adventure. One that encourages us to explore the world with an open mind and heart. He also happens to be an FoT alumni.
You’ve described yourself as a science adventurer. What does that mean?
I’m very passionate about science – and life in general – being an adventure. And the idea that you should pursue your dreams and go out and discover things, whatever that means to you. I was like that when I was a child. Perhaps more of a dreamer than a doer. I got older and had a long period in my life where I did the normal thing: I got married, got a job, got a house, got an education. When I was in my late thirties, I had a moment where I thought, ‘Is this it?’ I had my first crisis.
Soon after, I had an opportunity to go on an expedition on a ship going around the globe. I went to Greenland, the North Pole, and Antarctica. The ship really sparked this feeling that science should be an adventure. From then on, I decided that I wanted to do something different. I was trained as a scientist, and I knew I still wanted to be involved in science, but I wanted to do something driven by this feeling for adventure. I wanted to be around people with that spark of adventure in their eyes. Since then, that has been my guiding star. I coined this motto for myself: adventure into science.
What lead you to researching water? And what did you do before that?
I had a more-or-less traditional career in genomics, working with DNA and sequencing and analysing the human genome. I was one of the pioneers in what is today called microbiomics. We studied microbial communities – like the ones found in the gut – but in the polar oceans. So, we looked at all the bacteria found 4,000 meters below the surface.
After a while, there came a period where, for me, genomics became less scientific and more technological. It was more about how much DNA we could sequence and how big our computers were. We couldn’t explain most of the human genome when we first got it. We called it junk DNA. And I was quite offended by that, because that kind of term has no function. Six years ago, I came across a scientist who’d got the Nobel Prize for discovering the HIV virus. After he got the Nobel Prize, he moved into a field that was quite controversial, but he made some discoveries about DNA, suggesting that it could also work as an antenna and emit and receive radio waves. He has some experiments. I thought this might be the clue to why we can’t explain all the DNA in our genome. Maybe some of it works in totally different ways than normal DNA.
It was such a strong call, that I just said, ‘Okay, I need to figure out what this is, and I need to work with it.’ And that took me to Italy to meet some people working in this area. It was crazy. They asked me to come down, so the next day, I got in my car and I drove to Rome. I was there two days later. They invited me into the lab and said, ‘This thing about DNA being a radio antenna and is all well and good, but first, you need to understand water.’ I immediately thought, ‘Water? What’s so special about water?’ I wanted to get down to the real, interesting stuff. ‘No,’ they said. ‘We have to talk about water.’ So, they took me to a big lab and showed me the water bridge.
What was it like seeing that for the first time?
It was an eye-opener. You can see that water has special characteristics that we can demonstrate, even if we don’t really understand what’s going on. After that, the ball started rolling. ‘Okay,’ I thought. ‘This could explain why living systems can interact with electromagnetic waves, because they consist of water. Water may be the medium that connects this wave thing and this particle thing.’ And that’s what I’ve been doing since then.
This water bridging experiment is a very clear example of something that we didn’t expect. Water has some properties that, some say, act like a liquid crystal. Liquid crystals can do magical things. You can make and control all sorts of pictures and colours with them. If water has some of the same properties, it could do some special things. Maybe the water inside our bodies is different from a regular glass of water. If we can start interacting with, or even manipulating these properties, maybe we can also interact with living systems, maybe find new treatments or cures.
Most of us have heard about quantum physics, but what is quantum biology?
For some, this field of looking at frequency and resonance is called quantum biology. I’ve been experimenting a little bit with using that term, though it can be confusing. So, for example, migrating birds navigate by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. They can, in some sense, see magnetic field lines. And that is a quantum effect, because it’s so weak that we can’t explain it with normal physics. But there are many other things, like photosynthesis in plants. The more you dig into it, the more you find out that it’s almost everywhere.
You mentioned earlier that you met one of our FoT colleagues during a meditation retreat, which makes me wonder about the link between science and spirituality and religion. Is that something you’re interested in?
Very much so. I would say that most of the people I meet who have an interest in this field are on a spiritual journey in some sense. I think a common denominator is often that they have an interest in meditation or some of the eastern philosophies.
Also, if you dig down into the history, people like Niels Bohr – who lived just down the street – and Einstein all had an interest in the spiritual world and eastern philosophies.
Today we see religion and science as two opposing things, but are they more linked than we think?
They’re much more linked. And I think that the next big leap in human development – and in technology – will come from the people who are able to merge those two things and see that they’re not separate entities.
If you think about understanding consciousness, for example, we cannot do that by just inventing better electrodes or optimising technology. I don’t believe that. We need to look into what it means to meditate or to alter your consciousness. We need people to experiment with that aspect.
What kind of texts have you read? What kind of thinkers are you into?
I just finished reading a book by Edouard Schure. It’s called The Great Initiates. It goes through many big historical figures, like Krishna, Hermes Trismegistus, Moses, Pythagoras, Plato, and Jesus. I’ve never read anything so profound as this. Pythagoras, for me, was always “just” a mathematician who contributed a lot to science, but, actually, he was also initiated into the mystery schools.
So, I’m not particularly bound to one philosophy. I practise Zen Buddhism, and I mainly do that because my wife does it, and she’s a very diligent student of Zen. That’s my way of getting my daily meditation. Sometimes I go to retreats. Personally, I feel that all religions draw from the same source, and there are different manifestations throughout different periods of history. What’s amazing for me is all the people I meet in these times, they all seem to have this interest in the spiritual, and it really gives me hope. It gives me a lot of hope.
Do you think mysticism or religious ideas have a place in society today?
We’ve witnessed maybe the lowest point in history when it comes to acceptance of the spiritual world. I think the tide will soon turn, because there’s no other way. We can’t believe that we can solve anything just with technology, with only technology. I’m not saying we should not use technology, but it should be a combination of technology, consciousness, and love. We’ve had so much success in the past 200 years by focusing exclusively on technology that we’ve forgotten about that other side of our lives. But it’s difficult to navigate in that space. If you’re a scientist and you say you believe in God, you’re immediately ridiculed.
Is that still the case in the scientific community?
I think most scientists are clever enough to not say it out loud. I’ve talked to several doctors who say they need to act in a certain way when they’re at work; they need to treat people according to protocol. But one doctor I spoke to said, “When the medicine doesn’t work, I heal. But I don’t tell anyone that”.
And, of course, doctors have always been healers. I’m sure there are a lot of people in his situation. If the dam could break open somehow, I think many people would feel similarly. But who takes the first step?
Do you think that science can accommodate at least the idea of God or maybe even explain the concept? Is that possible?
I think, at least with some of the technologies that I’m working with, we need to acknowledge that there’s something outside of our current paradigm, something we cannot explain with our current understanding. There’s an arrogance in science that says we understand everything, and, if we don’t, it’s just a matter of digging a little bit deeper. But much of the technology we use today would have been considered magic a hundred years ago. So, if we talk about something that sounds like magic today, a hundred years from now, it probably won’t be magic. It will be what we call technology or science.
I often think about the people who started quantum mechanics just down the road from here. Now we consider them heroes, and we celebrate them. But I’m sure that back then, they were really confused and in doubt. They didn’t know. They observed something like the double slit experiment, and they could not explain it with traditional physics.
At that time, many other scientists would simply reject something like that. They’d say, “No, we don’t even want to look at it. It’s not possible.” Being on the frontier is never easy. You never get a straight answer, and it’s never like everybody agrees. There will always be periods of time where uncertainty is high.
You participated in Founders of Tomorrow back when it was Dansk Ideer. How was it, and how did you apply all your experience at the bootcamp?
It was really a great experience. On one of the first days, we mingled and talked to each other, and I remember trying to keep a scientific tone. I explained how I was working with resonance and frequency modulation in biological systems, and, in the room, a few people were coming up to me and they just made the connection right away. It was amazing. They said things like, “Maybe this could explain something like acupuncture or eastern medicine.” I thought, “Wow, these people are so intuitive.” It made me really happy. And they were quite young. In my experience, older people often say things like, “Yeah, okay, so what can I use it for?” But they don’t see the bigger picture. And these young people did. And that was a really nice experience.
During the camp, I didn’t compete to win the prize. I just wanted to use my experience to support people in my group and make sure that everybody was being heard, not just the dominant ones. I was fascinated by the energy and enthusiasm that was present. I still don’t have a clear idea how they created that. If I had to reconstruct a camp like that, I don’t know how I would do it. When we come together with that sense of purpose and energy and passion, we can create big stuff. That’s what is needed right now. I want to find out how we do that and nurture it somehow. That’s why I support this initiative.
This year our theme was the 1.5°C Challenge. How hopeful do you feel about the climate crisis?
First of all, I’m not worried about Mother Earth. I think she will do well no matter what. So that leaves us humans. I think we will do well if we get our act together and unite. What makes me hopeful is that I’ve seen technologies out there that can make a lot of change quickly, if we adopt them. So, I’m quite hopeful, but the tide has to turn very soon.
It’s so hard not to panic and shout about all the bad things that might happen. It’s hard to remain calm and positive without being naïve. It’s such a delicate balance.