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Monday, June 27, 2011

How the Hippies Saved Physics

David Kaiser's How the Hippies Saved Physics is a reminder of the unexpected influence a bunch of freewheeling 1970s physicists had on fundamental theories
IT'S certainly a provocative title, but for the life of me I could not recall an era to which How the Hippies Saved Physicsmight have applied. Things made more sense, though, on reading David Kaiser's mention of two other books, both of which had left a big impression on me: Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics and Gary Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters.
In this pair of bestsellers, published 30-odd years ago, Capra and Zukav presented quantum theory in an engaging and exciting way. But the principal reason the books were so popular was their attempts to link the ideas of modern physics with eastern mysticism.
What I had not realised until I picked up Kaiser's book was that Capra and Zukav were satellites of a small group of freewheeling physicists who, for four years from May 1975, met regularly in an office at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. "The Fundamental Fysiks Group" was open - perhaps too open - to everything from LSD-tripping, to remote viewing via ESP, to contacting the dead. Its core members, which included physicists Jack Sarfatti, Fred Alan Wolf and Elizabeth Rauscher, even persuaded the great Richard Feynman to attend discussion sessions at the Esalen Institute on the spectacular rocky coast of northern California - though, according to Kaiser, Feynman admitted a big attraction was the "naked co-ed hot-spring baths".
Kaiser sees the group as a connection with the past. The pioneers of quantum theory such as Niels Bohr and Wolfgang Pauli had worried endlessly about the meaning of quantum theory and its hints at an observer-created reality. With the second world war and the need to build practical devices such as atomic bombs, the "shut up and calculate" branch of physics had prevailed. The Fundamental Fysiks Group, with their interest in the mind and consciousness, were merely returning to the preoccupations of the founding fathers.
One important outcome of the meetings was that the group identified something from an obscure 1964 paper by the Irish physicist John Bell that was of key significance to what quantum theory was saying about the nature of reality. What came to be called Bell's theorem maintained that, if quantum theory were correct, there would be unexpectedly large correlations between the properties of widely separated subatomic particles. Such spooky action at a distance was indeed observed in a dramatic experiment carried out in Paris by Alain Aspect in 1982.
Bell, though pleased his paper was attracting discussion, never actually visited the Fundamental Fysiks Group. Neither did Feynman's former supervisor, John Wheeler, dubbed by some "father of the H-bomb", although one of his realisations did influence the group. He saw that because the history of a quantum particle is undetermined until a measurement is made, so in some sense the experimenter's decision propagates back through time. The idea inspired the group's Nick Herbert to publish ingenious schemes for transmitting messages that "arrived before they were sent". All the schemes failed. But other physicists, in identifying the far-from-obvious flaws in Herbert's schemes, discovered the "no-cloning theorem", which today is crucial in enabling quantum cryptographers to transmit secure signals.
Towards the end of his entertaining book, Kaiser compares the Fundamental Fysiks Group to the Olympia Academy, the group of friends, including the young Albert Einstein, who 70 years before met regularly in Bern, Switzerland, to discuss life, the universe and everything. That may be pushing it; but this is certainly a curious and largely forgotten episode in the history of physics.
Marcus Chown is the author of We Need to Talk about Kelvin: What everyday things tell us about the universe, shortlisted for the 2010 Royal Society prize for science books

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