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

California in the 1970s: LSD, seances...quantum mechanics? Chris Sachrajda takes a strange trip

March 15, 2012

How the Hippies Saved Physics tells the story of a group of physicists in Berkeley who began meeting in the late 1970s to discuss the implications of some very weird properties of quantum mechanics. What made the Fundamental Fysiks Group unusual was that the New Age culture of the era - especially prevalent in northern California - encouraged them to follow up their most speculative ideas, and in particular the possible connections between quantum physics and consciousness and parapsychology. While this quest sounds wacky and proved fruitless, along the way the group did contribute to our understanding of quantum physics.

The scientific focus of David Kaiser's book is trained on a particularly bizarre consequence of quantum mechanics. A suitably prepared state of two particles remains entangled so that measuring a property of one of the particles instantaneously alters the state of the other, no matter how far apart they are at the time. Einstein in particular found such "spooky actions at a distance" to be unacceptable. It seems much more intuitive instead to modify the theory and assume that the properties of the particles are fixed at their creation, even if they are hidden from observers until they are measured. In the mid-1960s, John Stewart Bell showed how to distinguish between the two cases, and subsequent experiments confirmed the non-locality present in quantum mechanics and demonstrated the inconsistency of the hidden-variable hypothesis.

The Fysicists were among the first to see that a truly deep issue had been raised by Bell's paper, and this formed the basis for their wide-ranging discussions. A key question concerned the implications of the "spooky actions" for our understanding of consciousness and psi (parapsychological) phenomena: telepathy, extrasensory perception, psychokinesis and so on. Kaiser discusses several such studies, including an enjoyable attempt to contact Harry Houdini on the centenary of his birth when, after celebratory drinking and the taking of psychedelic drugs, there were "no hard conclusions to the mysteries of quantum mechanics perhaps, but a good time was had by all".

Not surprisingly, it was difficult to obtain support for such investigations through the usual scientific funding agencies, so the group had to search further afield. The security agencies provided some support; nervous about the West's "psi gap" vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, they secretly funded the development of "ESP-ionage" in the hope of learning how to peer into enemy military establishments. There were also wealthy private patrons: those with a penchant for the possibilities that the weirdness of quantum physics might lead to included Werner Erhard, the founder of the "human potential" (self-improvement) movement. (Around that time, Erhard also funded a controversial series of physics workshops attended by such leading lights as Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking.) The Fysicists held regular workshops on quantum physics and consciousness at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, with their ideas inspired by its hot-spring baths and ocean views.

What is the legacy of the Fundamental Fysiks Group? Some contributions are easy to identify. Group member John Clauser's early experimental evidence for non-locality led to his sharing the prestigious Wolf Prize in 2010, with Alain Aspect (who performed the definitive experiment demonstrating non-locality in 1982) and Anton Zeilinger. Successful popular books by members of the group - including Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (1975) and Gary Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics (1979) - brought the ideas and excitement of quantum physics to a wider audience. And in Kaiser's view, Nick Herbert's very intricate, but ultimately unsuccessful, designs for exploiting entanglement to send information faster than light influenced fundamental ideas in quantum cryptography and other important aspects of quantum information theory.

But Kaiser also tries to make a stronger point when he argues that the Fundamental Fysiks Group, by asking questions about the interpretation of quantum mechanics, had a significant impact on the nature of future physics research. He appears to divide researchers into two camps: those studying the implications of Bell's theorem and thus asking deep fundamental questions, and those who were told by their bosses to "shut up and calculate" and thus denied the opportunity to ask such questions. Kaiser argues that the activities of the Fundamental Fysiks Group were key to the latter culture changing. However, these arguments are much less convincing.

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

By David Kaiser

W. W. Norton, 400pp, £17.99

ISBN 9780393076363

Published 17 January 2012

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