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New University Seeks 'Theory of Everything'

Trying to decide between Harvard or Yale? For about the same tuition, physicist John Hagelin hopes to attract you to his new university in Kansas, the Maharishi Central University, where you can obtain "total knowledge" through transcendental meditation, study his unified superstring theory, and learn how to levitate.

The university is slated to open in August, although it's unclear whether there are any buildings or faculty yet. Press conferences have been held. But the official Web site, still with a ".org" domain, is a little hazy on the details and offers only cartoon drawings of the facilities with rainbows and doves.

Nevertheless, you can be in the first graduating class of '11—where eleven refers to both the year and, if Hagelin is lucky, the number of students willing to sign up. Hagelin's challenge is attracting students smart enough to understand unified field theory yet foolish enough to think that this will enable them to fly. Brain power

Maharishi Central University is an offshoot of Maharishi University of Management in Iowa, founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, famed guru to various 1960s pop stars and creator of transcendental meditation, or TM. This first university, where the "management" refers to managing life, has about 900 students who earn legitimate degrees in the arts and sciences. Hagelin is a leading faculty member there.

Hagelin was once a moderately respected Harvard-trained physicist but is now largely a running joke among scientists because of belief in levitation, among other things. He has run for president three times with his Natural Law Party, on the platform of defending America with positive brain waves of levitating yogis. He pops up in the news occasionally with claims that mass TM gatherings can reduce violence, most famously with a 1993 eight-week demonstration in Washington, D.C., which actually corresponded with a peak in the murder rate.

Maharishi Central University promises much of the same as the other Maharishi U, but the focus is on Hagelin's unified field theory, his solution to the long-sought goal in modern physics of a "theory of everything" to unify the principles of general relativity and quantum mechanics.

Not only as Hagelin figured it out, he can teach you how to use this theory to attain total knowledge of just about everything, including how to fly without a machine, a trick called yogic flying.

Meditate on it

None of this would be so bad if Hagelin and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi didn't have lots of followers willing to surrender their money. Maharishi turned TM into a multi-billion-dollar empire. One needs to learn TM from a certified instructor, and the price is $2,500. The name TM, in fact, is trademarked. TM is no poor-man's yoga.

And none of this would be so bad if TM provided any health benefit over other forms of meditation, which one can learn for basically free, such as tai chi or numerous ancient Asian forms of mindful meditation and breathing. What separates TM from the rest are the mantras, or chants words, that one must purchase.

TM devotees include director David Lynch, who hopes to raise a billion dollars to fund yogic flyers for world peace, and Howard Stern, who would be perhaps more verbally violent without TM.

A 2005 analysis commissioned by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of hundreds of meditation studies found that the studies were of such poor quality that no conclusions could be drawn about mediation's affect on health. At best the meta-analysis revealed that meditation in general could help reduce stress and lower blood pressure.

Lessons learned

The Web site for Maharishi Central University is quite educational, a lesson in how to recognize quackery. First is the try-hard and bizarre description of Hagelin himself. Obviously bios tend to highlight one's accomplishment, but Hagelin's bio refers to him as the "pride of the human race," "unique among scientists," and "at the pinnacle of achievement among the elite cadre of physicists in the world today who have fulfilled Einstein's dream of a 'theory of everything.'"

Next is an association with Einstein and also with other "world-renown" researchers who in reality are unpublished and unknown, such as the mysterious "preeminent neuroscientist" Dr. Nader Raam, with whom Hagelin demonstrated "the equivalence of the self-referral Unified Field of physics with the self-referral unified field of consciousness... shown to be at the basis of human physiology." (Raam, if you're wondering, is the "First Ruler of the Global Country of World Peace" who won his weight in gold for something or other.)

Finally, there are equations—lots and lots of equations—masquerading as real science to look impressive on the university's introductory page.

Hagelin and Maharishi say that lasting world peace can come if more of us practice TM. Funny they feel the need to charge so much for it.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books “Bad Medicine” and “Food At Work.” Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on Live Science.

Christopher Wanjek
Christopher Wanjek is the Bad Medicine columnist for Live Science and a health and science writer based near Washington, D.C.  He is the author of two health books, "Food at Work" (2005) and "Bad Medicine" (2003), and a comical science novel, "Hey Einstein" (2012). For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he occasionally opines with a great deal of healthy skepticism. His "Food at Work" book and project, commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization, concerns workers health, safety and productivity. Christopher has presented this book in more than 20 countries and has inspired the passage of laws to support worker meal programs in numerous countries. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University. He has two Twitter handles, @wanjek (for science) and @lostlenowriter (for jokes).