For most readers of history, science progresses at a steady pace, but the truth of the matter is sometimes otherwise. At the University of California at Berkeley, physics seemed to be taking a siesta during the early seventies. Severe funding cuts and faculty inertia threatened permanently to slow advanced research. This precipitous descent into doldrums was halted by a motley crew of eccentric, imaginative, highly energized group of hippy physicists. What they did to transform a departmentand the world of physics is the subject of this fascinating book. History of science at its most entertaining and accessible.
How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revivalby David Kaiser
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.
An enthusiastic account of a coterie of physicists who, during the 1970s, embraced New Age fads and sometimes went on to make dramatic discoveries.
In his first book, Kaiser (Physics/MIT) paints a gloomy portrait of his field during that decade. The golden age of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli et al was history. The Cold War and increased government support had vastly increased the number of physicists, including many who yearned to explore Einstein-style paradoxes and the nature of reality but were bored by classes which stressed mundane practical applications. In 1975, Berkeley graduate students took matters into their own hands, organizing an informal "Fundamental Fysiks Group." They attracted like-minded hip doctorates, so discussions mixed quantum theory with the latest counterculture delights from LSD to Eastern mysticism to ESP. They received generous media attention, including a Time cover story and produced a flood of publications about the "new physics" including bestsellers such as Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics. With financial support from unexpected sources such as the CIA (worried about possible Soviet PSI weapons) and various young millionaires including Werner Erhard, they explored complex, hitherto ignored areas such as Bell's theorem and quantum entanglement while annoying the establishment by exploring their links to the paranormal. The end result was a transformation in cutting-edge physics and major discoveries in quantum information science, now a thriving industry.
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.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Meet the Author
David Kaiser is an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he teaches in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society and the Department of Physics. He and his family live in Natick, Massachusetts.
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This explains why physics became so much abstract dreamstuff that is only demonstrable if one indugles in very unscientific practices. And it explains why, after graduating from college, I became an engineer.