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. Continue reading “Go read How the Hippies Saved Physics”

Gleick, master of science writing

The NY Times has a review of James Gleick’s new book, The Information:

“The Information” offers this point-blank characterization of its author: “James Gleick is our leading chronicler of science and modern technology.” This new book goes far beyond the earlier Gleick milestones, “Chaos” and “Genius,” to validate that claim…“The Information” is so ambitious, illuminating and sexily theoretical that it will amount to aspirational reading for many of those who have the mettle to tackle it. Don’t make the mistake of reading it quickly.

Chaos and Genius are on my list of all-time greatest science books. If The Information is in their company, then this is going to be _the_ science book to read this year. I’m not sure what “aspirational reading” means, but The Information is sitting on my desk and I’m ready to savor it.