How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival by David Kaiser

In his introduction Professor Kaiser states that there are three ways in which the west coast hippies have benefited the development of Physics; they opened up deeper speculation into the fundamental philosophy behind quantum theory, they latched on to a crucial theorem of Bell, about what Einstein termed spooky interactions between particles at a distance. This might otherwise have been totally neglected. Thirdly they propounded a key idea which has become known as the no-cloning theorem. Kaiser tells a lucid account as might be expected from the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and department chief in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s program. Incidentally he also provides an engaging insight into the American industrial-military complex and associated institutions like the University of California at Berkeley.download

After a brief survey of the thirties golden age of European physics, including the theories of Born, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger and of course Einstein, we are introduced to the wacky and hirsute figures of Jack Sarafatti and his good chum, Fred Alan Wolf. This pair were to travel around Europe discussing theories, including the interrelation of consciousness and quantum physics. On the way we are introduced, sometimes with rather scrappy diagrams, to the concepts and key experiments that formed an important new area of Physics, quantum information theory. This has led to technological developments via special encryption that mean that data can be securely sent along optical fibres and is of great importance in finance and to the military. These are contexts where security of transmission is of paramount importance.

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The Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’s Fundamental Fysiks Group founded in May 1975 contained many interesting and eccentric characters. Kaiser’s account of their work is sometimes as bending of the mind as is his description of Geller’s experiments with flexing spoons! Elizabeth A. Rauscher, for instance, emerges as a particularly interesting woman who had to wear tweedy dresses and have her hair cut short to gain serious acceptance in a male-dominated environment. Only 2 per cent of Physics PhDs in the States, were being awarded to women at this time. With a certain feistiness and interest in everything from multidimensional Universe explanations to crucial problems, as well as brain waves and psychic healing, she must have been a wonderful participant guiding the wilder dreams of the so-called Fysiks group. Two other major figures that the Professor reminded this reader about were Thomas Kuhn and David Bohm.

Kuhn’s work testified to a fruitful interaction between the Philosophy of Science and Physics itself. It emphasises that the development in knowledge often requires a huge change, one might even say a quantum leap, to which the prevailing orthodoxy presiding over the subject are resistant. In his account there is no smooth progression involved but a shift, a paradigm shift required to explain new experimental results. Kuhn had to defend his account against charges of relativism but it has the advantage of opening up the teaching of the subject and helping students realise that the study of Physics requires imagination and creativity. David Kaiser draws on these ideas and gives a lively account of the correspondence and vigorous exchange of ideas between the extraordinary Ira Einhorn who was eventually to be convicted of the first degree murder of his own wife and Thomas Kuhn.

Professor David Kaiser- The Author
Professor David Kaiser- The Author

David Bohm also possessed a brilliantly analytical mind and whilst by no means a hippie he shines forth as a deep, unconventional thinker who pondered the foundations of quantum mechanics. He came to Britain and finally taught at Birkbeck College in London, having been forced out of America by McCarthyism at its height. This was despite having made a huge contribution to the Los Alamos development of the Hiroshima bomb. In 1959 he demonstrated with his student Aharanov that a previously purely theoretical quantity, called magnetic vector potential, could yield a measurable experimental effect. Kaiser shows how he proved an inspiration to younger physicists and how he investigated Geller’s unusual phenomena. In addition to this work he was interested in the philosophy of mind and explaining consciousness. Kaiser deserves praise for weaving such original thinkers as Kuhn and Bohm into his narrative.

Bohm's Key Text
Bohm’s Key Text

According to Professor Kaiser another, way out figure that should be thanked for his accidental and unintended contribution in 1967 to developing this new area of Physics was Republican Governor of California, Ronald Reagan. Upon taking office he cut the budget of the University in the state by 30 per cent in a drive to lower taxes. Such policies and later the realignment of Cold War policies in the Pentagon, led to a situation where Physics graduates had more time on their hands to explore the deeper roots of equations that had previously been used as mathematical tools in a pragmatic but unexamined way. Kaiser is as interesting on this although the exact interaction between the military and the hippies remains an undisclosed parameter.

This is an interesting book with copious background notes and some well-written passages. I liked the one about the modern ouija board made by Herbert from a supposedly random radioactive thallium source connected to a metaphase typewriter. Wheeled out in March 1974 on Houdini’s 100th birthday to make contact with him on the other side, it did manage to sputter out ungrammatically, aninfinitime.

Feynman's Introduction to  Quantum Electrodynamics
Feynman’s Introduction to Quantum Electrodynamics

If you are an armchair hippy interested in aspects of ESPionage and the CIA, or laser beam splitters and paradoxical particle counters then a harmless trip with this book may well be for you!

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