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How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, And The Quantum Revival Hardcover – Jun 28 2011
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Starred Review. An enthusiastic account of a coterie of physicists who, during the 1970s, embraced New Age fads and sometimes went on to make dramatic discoveries…Readers will enjoy this entertaining chronicle of colorful young scientists whose sweeping curiosity turned up no hard evidence for psychic phenomena but led to new ways of looking into the equally bizarre quantum world. — Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Science has never been more unpredictable—or more entertaining! — Booklist
It is hard to write a book about quantum mechanics that is at once intellectually serious and a page-turner. But David Kaiser succeeds in his account of a neglected but important group of physicists who brought together quantum mechanics, Eastern religion, parapsychology and the hallucinogen LSD. … Illuminating. — Hugh Gusterson (Nature)
Exhaustively and carefully researched. [Kaiser] has uncovered a wealth of revealing detail about the physicists involved, making for a very lively tale. … Fascinating. — American Scientist
This entertaining, worthwhile read is as much about the nature of society at the dawn of the New Age as it is about quantum physics. — Choice
Kaiser’s style is engaging, which makes this history of the time when physics left the short-sleeved white shirts, skinny ties and plastic pocket protectors behind one of the best science books of the year. — Sacramento News & Review
Meticulously researched and unapologetically romantic, How the Hippies Saved Physics makes the history of science fun again. — Matthew Wisnioski (Science)
How the Hippies Saved Physics takes readers on a mind-bending trip to the far horizons of science—a place where the counterculture’s search for a New Age of consciousness opened the door to a new era in physics. Who knew that the discipline that brought us the atom bomb had also glimpsed Utopia? Amazing. — Fred Turner, author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture
About the Author
David Kaiser is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he teaches in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society and the Department of Physics. He lives near Boston.
Top Customer Reviews
The book its self is designed similar to "How the Irish Saved Civilization." In that it explains exactly what the title implies and I get a better understanding of the people involved. It sort of makes you thing that you may have missed something important in life. Most of the story of the evolution of physics is generic and recognizable. It is nice to have a book tell you want you know but look at it from a different angle. And somehow I completely missed the Fundamental Fysiks Group. Looks like I have a little catching up to do.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
However, as quantum theory matured into a powerful tool for calculation and concrete application, the new generation of physicists in general and American physicists in particular started worrying less about "what it means" and much more about "how to use it". American physicists had always been more pragmatic than their European counterparts and after World War 2, as the center of physics moved from Europe to the United States and as the Cold War necessitated a great application of science to defense, physicists turned completely from the philosophizing type to what was called the "shut up and calculate" kind; as long as quantum mechanics agrees spectacularly with experiment, why worry about what it means? Just learn how to use it. Yet this only swept epistemological questions under the rug.
Curiously, there emerged in the 1970s a quirky and small group of physicists in the Bay Area who tried to resurrect the age of philosopher-scientists. In "How the Hippies Saved Physics", David Kaiser wonderfully tells the very engaging story of this "Fundamental Fysiks" group and how it kept alive some of the deep philosophical questions that had haunted the founding fathers. The "Fysicists" came from a variety of backgrounds, but all of them had been dissatisfied, both by the dismal job market for physicists after the Cold War craze and more importantly by the purely practical approach toward physics which they learnt in graduate school. They amusingly combined their deep questions about physics with the emerging hippie counterculture of the 60s and 70s and it's pretty clear from the book that they had great fun doing this. Discussions of physics concepts blended seamlessly with Eastern mysticism, forays into LSD-induced mind experiments, New Age workshops at the Esalen Institute in California and meanderings into telepathy, consciousness and parapsychology. Books like Fritjof Capra's "The Tao of Physics" which compared modern physics to Eastern mysticism only helped the movement. The small group of physicists was also fortunate to get funding from some unlikely sources, including self-help guru Werner Erhard and even the CIA who was interested in possible connections between ESP and physics. Not surprisingly, mainstream physicists often ignored and sometimes actively condemned such activities
However, as Kaiser describes in this fascinating volume, this ragtag group of countercultural philosopher-scientists achieved at least one crucial goal; they kept questions about the philosophical implications of quantum theory alive at a time when most physicists eschewed and disdained such questions. Gradually, they managed to get a handful of mainstream physicists interested in their philosophizing. Much of the connection of this philosophy to real physics centered about a remarkable result called Bell's theorem which essentially reinforced the spooky properties of quantum systems by showing that information in quantum systems can flow instantaneously between particles. Remarkably, this seemingly otherworldly idea of "quantum entanglement" (which gave some of the founding fathers heartburn) now lies at the foundation of some of the most cutting-edge areas of modern physics, including quantum computation and the new discipline of quantum information science. What was considered far-flung by mainstream physicists and kept alive by the Fundamental Fysiks group is now serious physics for many. In fact, at least a few physicists who put Bell's theorem to experimental test are regarded as candidates for a Nobel Prize (these especially include John Clauser, Alain Aspect and Anton Zeilinger who shared the prestigious Wolf Prize- often a forerunner to the Nobel Prize- in 2010).
In the end Kaiser wants to make the case that by keeping such once-disparaged philosophical concepts alive, the Fundamental Fysicists "saved physics". I am a little skeptical of this claim. They certainly managed to nurture and publicize the concepts, but it was the harnessing of these concepts by "real" physicists who were involved with the nuts and bolts of calculation and experiment that actually saved the concepts and kept them from turning into a purely philosophical mishmash. In addition, a lot of concepts that the New Age physicists bandied about belonged squarely in the realm of pseudoscience so it was difficult to separate the signal from the noise. Unfortunately the line between science and non-science can be thin and one of the most intriguing discussions in Kaiser's book is this so-called "demarcation problem". How does one know if today's philosophy is tomorrow's cutting edge science or just noisy mumbo-jumbo? It's not always easy to say.
Nonetheless, I think Kaiser and the Fysicists make a really great general case for why philosophical questions in science have their own place and should not be rejected. For one thing, they are always fascinating in themselves and demonstrate the endless human quest for meaning and reality; as recent discussions indicate, the philosophical conundrums in physics have been far from answered and continue to be explored through even more bizarre ideas like parallel universes and multiple dimensions. And as this wonderful book shows, at least in some cases these discussions may lead to key advances by influencing mainstream physicists who validate them by subjecting them to the ultimate arbiter of truth in science- hard experiment.
I would very warmly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history and philosophy of science.
it's an interesting argument, and Kaiser is quite even-handed in the weight he assigns to fringe physicists in important discoveries in spite of the grandiose title. Mainly, these physicists in their study of things like ESP and other elements of parapsychology and the connections between quantum mechanics (particularly the issue of nonlocality) were wrong more often than they were right. Their importance lay in the fact that they kept the torch burning for the pursuit of fundamental questions, and, Kaiser notes, their highly public mistakes and deviations paved the way for more mainstream thinkers to make advances in the field of physics - particularly in subfields like laser technology and quantum encryption and computing.
All in all, Kaiser has done his homework on the historical and scientific sides. More importantly, he can write! The story unfolds interestingly enough and he brings a touch of elliptical structure to the narrative that gives just enough ambiguity in the beginning for you to wonder, "How the heck are these flower-power-mystically-oriented 'physicists' going to actually contribute to cutting age science and technology coming into maturity today?" Along the way, Kaiser delves into the personal lives and scandals facing the members of the group, tracing the evolution of their lives as the field of physics changed around them. It's an intriguing and unlikely story presented from an innovative angle. I don't quite agree 100% that the Hippies literally saved physics in the sense that Kaiser seems to think they did. Mainstream physics was surely undergoing huge changes, particularly in particle physics and in the development of esoteric theories of everything like String Theory quite independent of the New Left movement. Brilliant minds like John Wheeler, Richard Feynman, Freeman Dyson, Ed Witten and Leonard Susskind were revolutionizing the field in America while maintaining quite a bit of distance from the core group of Hippies and their benefactors identified by Kaiser. Nor were the crew of the Fundamental Fysiks Group the only ones asking foundational questions about how to interpret quantum mechanics. While the Copenhagen Interpretation had its foundation in the 1920s and 30s, other interpretations and QM formalisms were still being developed - and in America nonetheless (Hugh Everett's Many Worlds Interpretation developed in the late 50s and popularized by Bryce DeWitt in the 60s and 70s being one of the most popular). This reinterpretation most certainly did not come out of the Hippy movement and does show that there were people out there interested in the big philosophical questions surrounding the New Physics. Nevertheless, it's a fun story and the bulk of Kaiser's argument is almost certainly correct, especially when it comes to popularizing Bell's Theorem and focusing on the issue of nonlocality as part of the future of physics. Plus, I don't think there's a work quite like it out there and if you're a child of the era or a fan of popular science in general, you'll be highly pleased with this book.
"It's tempting to picture a bunch of long-haired ruffians turning the particle accelerators on themselves in David Kaiser's new book, even if the eponymous "hippies" were just a group of scientists slightly apart from mainstream physics." -- Ellen Wernecke
Scientific inquiry in an established field of study as physics, when departs significantly from mainstream theories, may be classified in the 'fringes' of a credible mainstream academic discipline. According to Fringepedia, "The term fringe science is sometimes used to describe fields which are actually pseudo-sciences, or fields which are referred to as sciences, but lack scientific rigor or plausibility. Scientists have also coined the terms voodoo science and cargo cult science to describe inquiry lacking in scientific integrity." Such concepts are considered highly speculative, hardly supported by mainstream scientists. Though there are examples of academia scientists supporting maverick ideas within their own discipline of expertise, many fringe science ideas are advanced by individuals without an academic science training, or by scientists straying outside the mainstream of their own disciplines.
This history of science book sounds weird; it recounts an eccentric and interesting story, which explores how quantum physics, considered to be fringe science became accepted as a mainstream discipline. The book focuses on a group called the Fundamental Fysiks Group which held sessions at the University of California Berkeley. Berkeley is famous for its counterculture, let alone eccentricity. The Fundamental Fysiks Group was instrumental in making quantum mechanics an accepted science. MIT David Kaiser, recalls those waning years of the Vietnam War, overflowing with war dogs, rip-off joint smokers, sex-industry addicts, and peace demonstrators. In those wild days everything seemed possible: communal marriage, living off the land, bringing down the military with flower power. Why not faster-than-light ( FTL) communications refer to the propagation of information faster than one Mach, the speed of sound communication, reaching the speed of light, the message arrives before it is sent, overthrowing the absolute power of Time!
By the time the hippies were in school, physics textbooks had all but abandoned the disarray and confusion of meaning. Ultimately the futile attempts to apprehend something beyond language and maybe beyond intellect. More specifically, Kaiser argues that the hippies, with their lofty failures, contributed to a cutting-edge technology called quantum cryptography. Quantum physics worked, with the message to 'Shut up and calculate'. I remember the letdown. I thought for a while that I wanted to be a physicist. I was rejoicing to read here that philosophizing, to speculate or theorize about physics, has made a revival in university classrooms. Without the enthusiasms of the radical Fysiks Gang, Kaiser speculates, the inquisitive spirit might never have a comeback. The Fundamental Fysiks Group, was a Bay Area collective driven by the notion that quantum mechanics, maybe with the help of a little LSD, could be harnessed to convey psychic powers. Concentrate hard enough and perhaps you really could levitate the Pentagon.
Consciousness Theory Group and the Research Group were part of the scene, and before long Sarfatti, Wolf and their associates were conducting physics and consciousness workshops at the Esalen Institute annually. This is a fascinating history about an unusual topic which many people have a hardship to understand. The author expounds a process where fringe science becomes accepted science. The story is very engaging and outright eccentric to the point of becoming funny. It is composed in a biographical mode, focusing on the characters behind the story. While the writing style is very fine, the book utilizes clear diagrams, and includes many black and white photographs. I found it to be a delightful read, that on occasion tickles your curious bone.
Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness
For the reader who thinks science 'progresses' (whatever that progress means) in a linear, stepwise manner, the book is definitely full of surprises: expect the unexpected from a turbulent period of intellectual history throughout 60s and 70s, reaching to 90s and well to the 21st century. You will meet heroes such as Feynman (in very interesting settings), as well as the names probably you haven't heard before, and you will learn that inspirations for scientific ideas can come from very unexpected domains.
Another important point of the book is the fact that science, physics in this case, is a very humane activity, and a very institutionalized one at that! The book strikingly shows that even the strong names such as John Stewart Bell (now famous for Bell's theorem) was very careful in aligning himself with the established physics institution and securing a permanent position, therefore being forced to the economic realities of science. Having said that, he is not the only example of scientists struggling for freedom and having a hard time being constrained by the socioeconomic environment they are embedded in.
All in all Kaiser's work is a very solid and lively piece of science writing, weaving a lot of layers seamlessly and resulting in a page turner, which is not an adjective that can be easily attached to a history of science book.
I recommend this book not only to the casual, curious reader of history of science, but very much to the modern 'managers' of science, as well as the potential benefactors: The creative human mind craves for the challenges posed by the fundamental questions of nature, and unless you are ready to support the most crazy ideas (coming from not so run-of-the-mill scientists) and entertain contradictory points of view, aiming at discovery in the long run, then what you will get is the unexciting little progress that is the characteristic of many human institutions, leaving no room for real experimenting and high risk taking. Now go and decide what and whom you'll fund for the next very long 4-year research project, but beware, you've been warned.
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