Start with Noam Chomsky, Deepak Chopra and a robot that loves you no matter what. Add a knighted British physicist, a renowned French neuroscientist and a prominent Australian philosopher/occasional blues singer. Toss in a bunch of psychologists, mathematicians, anaesthetists, artists, meditators, a computer programmer or two and several busloads of amateur theorists waving self-published manuscripts and touting grand unified solutions. Send them all to a swanky resort in the desert for a week, supply them with lots of free coffee and beer and ask them to unpack a riddle so confounding that it’s unclear how to make progress, or where you’d even begin. Then just, like, see what happens.

The cover of the programme for the Science of Consciousness conference, which was held in Tucson in April, shows a human brain getting sucked into (or perhaps rising from?) a black hole. That seems about right: after a week of listening to eye-crossingly detailed descriptions of teeny, tiny cell structures known as microtubules, along with a lecture about building a soundproof booth in order to chat with the whispery spirit world, you too would feel as if your neurons had been siphoned from your skull and launched deep into space.

I thought George Mashour would counter the naysayers. Mashour, a professor of anaesthetics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and director of its Center for Consciousness Science, first went to Tucson back in the late 1990s when he was a graduate student, and he credits Hameroff for “creating a home for this field”. This year, he co-chaired the event. So, surely, he would vigorously defend it, right?

Nope. He did note the quality of the genuinely thought-provoking plenary sessions, such as the panel on psychedelic drugs and the one on anaesthesia (which, in affecting consciousness, might shed light on the phenomenon itself). But he called the poster presentations “ridiculousness”, and was distressed by the talks that were mostly conjecture mixed with spirituality and a dash of the quantum. Still, he thought, it could have been even worse: he battled with Hameroff behind the scenes over the more extreme proposals. “That was me putting my fist down and saying we cannot accept this craziness,” Mashour says. “We don’t want the field to be marginalised because of some of the unrigorous fringe elements that show up.”

Read the full article at The Guardian.