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How The Hippies Saved Physics [Hardcover]

David Kaiser
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

June 28 2011 0340782005 978-0393076363
Today, quantum information theory is among the most exciting scientific frontiers, attracting billions of dollars in funding and thousands of talented researchers. But as MIT physicist and historian David Kaiser reveals, this cutting-edge field has a surprisingly psychedelic past. How the Hippies Saved Physics introduces us to a band of freewheeling physicists who defied the imperative to shut up and calculate and helped to rejuvenate modern physics. For physicists, the 1970s were a time of stagnation. Jobs became scarce, and conformity was encouraged, sometimes stifling exploration of the mysteries of the physical world. Dissatisfied, underemployed, and eternally curious, an eccentric group of physicists in Berkeley, California, banded together to throw off the constraints of the physics mainstream and explore the wilder side of science. Dubbing themselves the Fundamental Fysiks Group, they pursued an audacious, speculative approach to physics. They studied quantum entanglement and Bell s Theorem through the lens of Eastern mysticism and psychic mind-reading, discussing the latest research while lounging in hot tubs. Some even dabbled with LSD to enhance their creativity. Unlikely as it may seem, these iconoclasts spun modern physics in a new direction, forcing mainstream physicists to pay attention to the strange but exciting underpinnings of quantum theory. A lively, entertaining story that illuminates the relationship between creativity and scientific progress, How the Hippies Saved Physics takes us to a time when only the unlikeliest heroes could break the science world out of its rut."

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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.

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5.0 out of 5 stars Introducing the Fundamental Fysiks Group Oct. 30 2013
By bernie TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
I have often thought of Gary Zukav as a nut. Even though we are contemporaries, just off by a few years and even in the war at the same time same places (I might have met him and not even realized it), I always consider him a fringe scientist with no basis in reality. This book helped me see the error of my ways and to find him a victim of "New physics" movement. Even if I do not agree I can see his prospective.

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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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  38 reviews
114 of 120 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Putting the filosophy back into fysiks June 18 2011
By A. Jogalekar - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Does philosophy have a place in serious science? Many of the founders of modern physics certainly thought so. Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrodinger were not just great scientists but they were equally enthusiastic and adept at pondering the philosophical implications of quantum theory. To some extent they were forced to confront such philosophical questions because the world that they were discovering was just so bizarre and otherworldly; particles could be waves and vice versa, cats (at least in principle) could be alive and dead, particles that were separated even by light years appeared to be able to communicate instantaneously with each other, and our knowledge of the subatomic world turned out to be fundamentally probabilistic.

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.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars stoned, tangential metaphysics and the quantum encryption of your bank transfer June 1 2012
By Stephen S. Muratore - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
So--basically man--these stoners got heigh on Heissenberg, and heard John Bell ringing the universe with superluminal messages. Sure, we all did that back in the early 70s, but these freaks could speak fysiks out of one side of their mouths and the tao out the other. And, the way Kaiser lays it down, these weedwhackers weren't just blowing smoke in the Esalen hot tubs and talking to Leary--and friggin' dead Houdini too--they were also talking to some serious Physics profs embedded in the Ivy League. And one freak came tickling-close to having his experiment that tested Bell's entanglement theorem against psychokinesis published in a super-high Science journal worshiped by Physicist Straignts, and signed off on by Straights. The Straights were already teetering on the brink of Everything-We-Know-is wrong; and they were listening. So was the CIA, which feared the Ruskies were lightyears ahead of us on psychic research. The espionage agencies wanted to transmit messages to spooks in the field telepathically. What were they smokin'? Anyway, the phys-hippies didn't bring us faster-than-light communications, but they stimulated the thinking that brought us other weird technologies, such as quantum effects in computer chips, and quantum encryption of bank transactions. Thus spake Kaiser. A fun read that contains decent science explanations along the way.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars To understand physicists today - you need this book! Aug. 3 2011
By Darryl J. Howard - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As with any endeavor, to understand where you are headed you have to understand where you have been. David Kaiser gives us insights as to how physics has come to where it is today.

I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to understand the backstory of physics over the last several decades. It may inspire many young physicists of today.

It is a story of the possible. How a group of people with so little, in a time where the odds were against them, have made such great contributions to society and their fellow human beings.

This was a great read. I highly recommend reading it.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Eccentric young scientists who changed the face of modern physics ! July 20 2011
By Didaskalex - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
*****
"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
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Kooky, but fun and enlightening. Kaiser manages a perfect mix of history, science and philosophy into a readable narrative. July 31 2011
By N. Kunka - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
How the Hippies Saved Physics is a fantastically kooky and zany history of the fringes of physics research in the 1960s and 1970s. The premise is certainly intriguing. Kaiser argues that the Second World War and the Cold War had relegated physics in America to number crunching and practical applications of theory (mainly in the defense industry) and that all previous notions of fundamental questions all but dried up. The timing couldn't have been less fortunate, as the war followed close on the heels of the heady days of the major physical discoveries that led to the formulation of quantum mechanics as a whole by luminaries such as Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrodinger in the 1920s and 1930s. This was a time when great philosophical questions concerning the nature of reality should have been asked, but the academic institutions of American were mainly concerned with churning out PhDs to compete with the Soviets. In short, if you weren't doing something practical in physics like producing better nuclear weapons or radar invisible materials, you weren't doing real physics. According to Kaiser, a select group of Hippy physicists centered in Berkeley called the Fundamental Fysiks Group provided a venue for physicists interested in fundamental questions to keep the burning questions at the heart of physics alive for a future, post-Cold War era.

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.
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