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Counterculture Scientists Who Dared to Explore Areas Where Physics and Philosophy Converge

Book Review: How the Hippies Saved Physics

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That “long strange trip” of the 1960’s was even stranger than you thought.  For many, it was a time of frivolity, protest against war, free love, and trying a galaxy of new drugs. But David Kaiser, in his entertaining and enlightening book How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival, shows that it was also a time of expanded thinking about the theories of physics. Particularly, the strange world of quantum physics, and of what happens to atoms, electrons, and their constituent parts at microscopic levels.

Kaiser discusses the free-ranging speculation and thought-experiments that physicists used to develop and hone the profound basic theories that undergird modern physics in the 1920s and ’30s: Einstein’s theory of relativity (the connection between energy and matter) and quantum mechanics (how those particles and energies interact at microscopic levels). After the war, there was a tremendous push to develop new students of physics in response to the Cold War, but the new physics training was aimed not at speculation but at practical applications of formulas. Indeed, as Kaiser demonstrates, the thought experiments of the past and speculation on what the physical world means were discouraged and largely ignored in mainstream universities and government. Such speculation was considered unscientific.

Then, with the flowering of the counterculture in the mid-1960s also came a decrease in federal funding for general physicists. Jobs became scarce. But a small contingent of physics students started gathering on the University of California Berkeley campus, almost in secret, on late Friday afternoons to pursue new ideas generated from 1960’s-style experimentation with alternative realities and religions. They explored questions like, could physics explain such psychic phenomena as mind-reading and future visions? The group dubbed itself the Fundamental Fysiks Group and latched upon some of the truly strange aspects of quantum mechanics as a way to explain psychic events. Group members began putting out their own detailed papers, largely unpublished but widely distributed by snail mail, examining physical theories that had long been ignored by the scientific community. And after a time, the scientific community began to listen and respond.

According to Kaiser, the “hippies” of Berkeley not only influenced a revival of the ferment of pre-Second World War speculation and thought-experiments that deepened scientists’ understanding of quantum mechanics, but helped spark a trend in applying quantum mechanics to real-world practical applications, such as sending encrypted messages using quantum codes (the messages cannot be stolen because, once intercepted, the quantum structure falls apart, making the encryption effectively fool-proof).

A very colorful cast of characters inhabits Kaiser’s book, and quite a few icons of the 60’s crop up, like Wavy Gravy (still going strong in Berkeley, by the way) and Dr Timothy Leary. But the real heroes are the Berkeley students and their little club that dared to look into areas where physics and philosophy converge, who in the process managed to influence the entire scientific world.

David Kaiser is a great guide to this wild period of scientific expreimentation, proving adept at both conveying the antics and thinking of the individuals involved and explaining the arcane world of particles and energies. The hippies, he shows, saved physics from the doldrums, and they had a pretty good time while at it.

Mark J. Palmer
Mark J. Palmer is Associate Director of the International Marine Mammal Project.

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