Go read How the Hippies Saved Physics

Wow, definitely a must-read for anyone who likes physics, history of science, and understanding why trends and fads in science come and go. (Read an excerpt at Scientific American.) Kaiser, a physicist and historian of science at MIT tells the story of a group of physicists who, finishing their PhDs in the late 60’s/early 70’s, emerged from graduate school into a job market whose bottom had just dropped out as the Defense Department funding for physics was sharply reduced from its earlier Cold War peak. Jobless and bored with the traditional questions of physics, these hippie physicists became obsessed with some non-traditional questions, and through a convoluted series of causal links, influenced the resurgence of interest in quantum entanglement and the emergence of the now billion-dollar business of quantum computing.

The post-WWII physics boom had been characterized by a ‘shut up and calculate’ attitude, as physicists focused on research questions that fell within or built upon the existing mainstream framework laid down in the 30’s and 40’s. Ignored were questions about the ultimate foundations of quantum mechanics that had long troubled Einstein. Students who showed an interest in such questions were quickly redirected.

Then along came Irish physicist John Bell and his theorem about nonlocality and entanglement, a theorem that could lead to honest-to-goodness, experimentally testable predictions about what Einstein thought were the spooky implications of the version of quantum mechanics embraced by the physics community.

Bell’s theorem was just the thing for a group of largely California physicists who, newly minted PhDs in hand, were not having much success in the job market, and who were bored by the traditional questions of physics. Kaiser explains how many of the physicists embraced all things New Age, merging hard thinking about Bell’s theorem with paranormal phenomena, Eastern mysticism, and LSD (Capra’s The Tao of Physics is a classic expression of these ideas). Kaiser traces the improbable links between this group of physicists obsessed with some clearly dopey ideas, and major advances in research that brought quantum entanglement into realm of real, experimental science.

This book is awesome for four reasons: the characters involved are as eccentric and colorful as any in the history of a field filled by bizarre and charismatic people; it tells an important story about the influence of non-scientific cultural trends on the kinds of questions scientists ask; it’s an illustration of what philosophers of science call the demarcation problem – it’s really hard to draw an infallible set of criteria that distinguish science from pseudoscience, and even if we could draw the line, we would find that many successful scientists frequently cross it; and finally, like James Gleick’s story about the Dynamical Systems Collective that led to the birth of the new field of chaos, How the Hippies Saved Physics contains an inspiring lesson on how critical it is for scientists to go after questions that fire up their imaginations, and to not just dutifully accept the research questions that are handed to them.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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