I heard David Kaiser talk about the history of quantum foundations work back in 2008 at the Perimeter Institute, and while I didn’t agree with everything he said, I found it fascinating. So when I heard that he had a book coming out about this stuff, How the Hippies Saved Physics, I jumped at the chance to get a review copy.
This is, in essence, a book-length argument that I owe Frijtof “Tao of Physics” Capra, Gary “Dancing Wu Li Masters” Zukav, and even J*ck S*rf*tt* a beer.
The book expands on things that Kaiser said in that PI talk (which was really good– you could do worse than to spend an hour watching it) about the teaching of foundational issues in quantum mechanics, which was originally considered an essential part of the subject. During the early days of the Cold War, though, physics reinvented itself in a relentlessly application-driven format, and pushed most of the foundational questions out of textbooks. This was partly a response to Cold War government largesse– the defense department wanted technology, not philosophy– and partly a practical matter– the vast increase in the number of students taking physics made essay questions about interpretations inordinately difficult to grade. As a result, quantum foundations became a somewhat disreputable topic, one not pursued by mainstream departments.
Of course, fundamental quantum questions are now a very important part of physics, with topics like quantum computing and quantum cryptography consuming significant resources, and commanding a fair bit of prestige. So, how did we get from the situation that prevailed in the Cold War to now?
Kaiser’s argument is that the crash in the physics job market in the early 1970’s left a bunch of young physicists stranded on the margins of the profession. With few respectable prospects, a number of them began to take up foundational questions again, pursuing a wild mix of fundamental quantum physics and “bits and pieces of whatever eastern philosophy would drift through my transom,” in the immortal words of David St. Hubbins. While they never did succeed in using quantum entanglement to explain telepathy or provide superluminal communications, the “Fundamental Fysiks Group” that started at a national lab in Berkeley kept pushing on these questions, and kept interest in them alive until they became respectable topics once more.
The Fundamental Fyziks Group certainly contained some colorful characters, most notably Nick Herbert, Saul-Paul Sirag, and Jack Sarfatti, whose collective persistence in trying to concoct faster-than-light communication systems from EPR-type entanglement Kaiser credits with spurring more respected physicists to look more closely at these issues, if only to disprove them, an effort which indirectly led to much of the current quantum bonanza. Herbert, Sirag, and Sarfatti carry most of the narrative, exploring wild ideas about consciousness through the generosity of a string of somewhat eccentric benefactors, among them the controversial self-help pioneer Werner Erhard and hippie-networker-turned-international-fugitive Ira Einhorn. Their innovations include a bunch of paper Institutes, the cultivation of private funding outside normal academic channels, and a series of workshops at a sort of New Age spa in California, complete with nude seminars in hot tubs. And, most importantly for Emmy and me, they incidentally created a market for pop-science books about weird quantum phenomena through the breakout success of The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu Li Masters, written by people who were not exactly members of the Group, but were unquestionably fellow travelers.
Lots of Big Names in physics make appearances in one form or another. John Archibald Wheeler exchanged letters with many of them in the early days, though he later became an ardent opponent of parapsychology. John Bell was a great inspiration for many of their activities, and Alain Aspect and Anton Zeilinger turn up late in the story, conducting experiments improving upon the Bell Inequality tests done by Group member John Clauser (who shared the Wolf Prize for this research with Aspect and Zeilinger not long ago). Famous particle physicist Sidneyt Coleman shows up, wryly organizing workshops lavishly funded by Werner Erhard (a sequence with some echoes in today’s arguments about the Templeton Foundation). And you didn’t really think there could be a story involving naked people talking physics in hot tubs without Richard Feynman making an appearance, did you?
Kaiser does a very nice job laying out the physics issues at the core of the Group’s interests– I had seen a version of the Bell’s Theorem chapter a while back– and the colorful anecdotes are very well told. The various biographical sketches show clearly the way that post-crash marginalization helped drive physicists like Fritjof Capra to combine physics with their other interests, and there are interesting parallels to be drawn between the chain of eccentric benefactors that Sirag, Herbert, and Sarfatti enlist to support their activities and current operations like the Perimeter Institute and the FQXi.
I don’t agree with all the particulars– I still think Kaiser underemphasizes the role of technological development in making these issues more accessible experimentally, though things like the development of parametric down-conversion sources that generate entangled photons almost effortlessly– but this was definitely a thought-provoking read. There are a couple of aspects in particular that I’ll break out into another post, for those who won’t necessarily read all the way through a book review.
The book won’t be released until the end of June– I’ll try to remember to post a reminder when it does come out. If you’re interested in fundamental questions about quantum mechanics– and you know you are– you should pick up a copy. It’s a fun and engaging story about a highly colorful and shamefully underreported chapter in the history of physics.
(Full disclosure: I got an advance electronic copy of this from the publisher. I’m also thanked in the acknowledgements and cited in the footnotes. If you think that’s likely to impair my objectivity, well, I’m sorry you feel that way.)
(I’m vaguely dreading what will happen in the comments, particularly since I’ll be too busy to read them let along moderate them today…)