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Physics: Quantum outsiders

This article has been updated

Hugh Gusterson enjoys a history of the quirky group that pursued quantum physics when it was unfashionable.

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

W. W. Norton: 2011. 372 pp. $26.95, £19.99 9780393076363 | ISBN: 978-0-3930-7636-3

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.

Kaiser, a historian of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, seeks to understand why a set of mind-bending ideas developed in the 1920s and 1930s by European physicists — including Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Max Born and Wolfgang Pauli — were largely barred from discussion in mainstream US physics after the Second World War. At the heart of quantum mechanics lie these challenging ideas: that electrons behave like waves and particles; that one can know a particle's precise location or momentum but not both; that the act of observing a particle changes its behaviour; and that particles seem to communicate with one another across great distances — the phenomena of nonlocality and entanglement that Albert Einstein derided as “spooky action at a distance”.

In the 1970s, Jack Sarfatti, Saul-Paul Sirag, Fred Alan Wolf and others in the Fundamental Fysiks Group opened up discussions of quantum mechanics. Credit: COURTESY OF F. A. WOLF

These radical concepts led to the field of quantum information science and the emergence of ultra-secure technologies, based on quantum encryption, for transferring money or electronic votes. Such concepts were also, in ways that Kaiser does not explore, influential beyond physics. Their critique of reductionism and emphasis on the effects of observers led to the rise of 'post-structuralist' thinking in the humanities. But during the cold war, the profound philosophical issues raised by quantum mechanics were seen by many in physics as an unnecessary distraction.

Tracing shifts in university lecture notes and textbooks after the Second World War, Kaiser argues that the fundamental strangeness of quantum reality was drained out of academic physics by the “high-throughput pedagogy” that accompanied a sixfold increase in PhD student numbers. Pressure to produce gadgets to change the course of the cold war left little time for philosophizing.

This meant that some of the key work in quantum mechanics in the 1970s and 1980s was done by a motley crew of young physicists, who worked largely outside universities and published in obscure journals such as Epistemological Letters — “a hand-typed, mimeographed newsletter”. They included Elizabeth Rauscher, Jack Sarfatti, Fred Alan Wolf, Saul-Paul Sirag, John Clauser and Fritjof Capra. The centre of their intellectual universe was the San Francisco Bay area. Many were associated with the Fundamental Fysiks Group, an open discussion group about quantum mechanics that started meeting in 1975 at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California.

Unable to secure professorships in the shrunken job market of the time, some of the group lived on the edge of destitution. The luckiest was Fritjof Capra, whose book The Tao of Physics (Wildwood House, 1975) was translated into 23 languages and brought him financial security. Other Fysiks members cobbled together eccentric funding sources: George Weissmann founded a company selling a Tibetan herbal remedy until the US Food and Drug Administration banned his product. And others secured funding through the Pentagon to see whether quantum mechanics might explain the apparent spoon-bending abilities of psychics such as Uri Geller and to investigate telepathy.

Three New Age guru–entrepreneurs were even more colourful. Werner Erhard, founder of the Est movement for self-transformation, sponsored opulent conferences on quantum mechanics at his San Francisco mansion. Members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group and Nobel laureates both enjoyed Erhard's patronage despite some physicists' concerns about Est’s practices. Michael Murphy, founder of the Esalen retreat on the California coast, sponsored workshops at which physicists alternated their hot-tub discussions of quantum mechanics with massages and, in some cases, LSD trips.

A third New Age activist and impresario, Ira Einhorn, somehow persuaded senior executives at Bell Telephone that the company should copy and mail the latest papers on quantum mechanics to some 300 people — an early postal version of an e-mail distribution list. This arrangement came to an abrupt end when the police discovered the decomposing body of Einhorn's girlfriend in a trunk in his apartment.

Interspersing entertaining anecdotes with explanations of concepts in quantum physics, Kaiser's book can be read on many levels. At its most challenging, it is an intellectual history of quantum mechanics. But it is also a yarn about an eccentric group of physicists who refused to be defeated by their marginalization within their own discipline. And, as social history, it offers a window onto one of the most colourful periods of twentieth-century US history.

The book makes important observations about the social dynamics of physics in the United States during the cold war. Kaiser argues that, even as military patronage pumped massive financial resources into physics, the discipline's horizons shrank. University physicists disdained the philosophical questions that had enlivened pre-war European physics and developed a narrowly instrumentalist pedagogy that sometimes became a straitjacket.

Kaiser describes some students holding secret meetings to discuss quantum mechanics behind their advisers' backs, having been warned that “thinking seriously about foundations was a waste of time and a detriment to one's career”. He also notes that the editor of Physical Review banned articles discussing interpretations of quantum mechanics; a brilliant experiment on Bell's theorem by John Clauser was scarcely cited because of the prevailing orthodoxy. Clauser was told that his experiment was not “real physics”, and he had a terrible time on the job market. By contrast, the heroes of Kaiser's story “strove to expand the physics profession's collective mental space”. This is an equally apt description of Kaiser's approach in this illuminating book.

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  • 05 April 2012

    This review suggested that the book said that Nobel laureates and members of the Fysiks group attended the same conferences and that it described Est as a cult. The text has been amended to remove these erroneous implications. This has been corrected in the HTML and PDF versions online.

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Correspondence to Hugh Gusterson.

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Gusterson, H. Physics: Quantum outsiders. Nature 476, 278–279 (2011).

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