NPR logo How the Hippies Saved Physics: Curious Contributions To Quantum Theory


How the Hippies Saved Physics: Curious Contributions To Quantum Theory

Dear 13.7 readers, today I'm very happy to introduce you to Prof. David Kaiser, who is the head of the Program in Science, Technology, And Society (STS) at MIT. He is an accomplished historian of modern physics and is a research cosmologist. Dave has a new book coming out exploring the unlikely roots of the "new" quantum mechanics, the one dealing with the brave new world of entanglement and quantum computing. I highly recommend it! —Marcelo Gleiser

Back in high school I stumbled upon Fritjof Capra's book The Tao of Physics. The book had first been published in 1975; by the time I found it, it had long since become an international bestseller.

I remember being captivated by the book's discussion of modern physics: the strangenesses of relativity and quantum theory, the subtle dance of subatomic particles. Capra's earnest discussions of Eastern spirituality left far less of an impression on me. But his great joy and excitement about the deep mysteries of modern physics were hard to miss.

I went to college determined to study physics, inspired by some marvelous high school teachers and also by books like Capra's. There I became fascinated by Bell's theorem and quantum entanglement: an elegant demonstration, first published by physicist John Bell in 1964, that quantum particles could share some kind of connection across arbitrary distances.

Article continues after sponsorship

Tickle a particle here, and its partner should instantly dance, no matter how far away it had traveled. Today, Bell's theorem is at the heart of everything from quantum computing and quantum teleportation to quantum encryption and more. Yet the beguiling, instantaneous connections sit rather uneasily with Einstein's relativity, which stipulates that nothing can travel faster than light.

While pursuing my Ph.D. in physics a few years later, I got a chance to conduct a bench-top experiment to test quantum entanglement. Only later did I learn that the experiment had first been conducted in Berkeley, California, in the early 1970s by John Clauser, who had been one of the charter members of a spirited, informal discussion group known as the "Fundamental Fysiks Group." (Decades later, Clauser shared in the prestigious 2010 Wolf Prize in Physics for his contributions.) It turns out that Fritjof Capra had also been an active member of the group.

Between Clauser's experiment and Capra's book I was hooked, and I wanted to know more. After several years of research, the product of that digging has just been published: How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival (W. W. Norton, 2011).

The young physicists who founded the Fundamental Fysiks Group in the 1970s threw themselves into topics like quantum entanglement with great passion, even as several of them struggled just to make ends meet. Despite holding Ph.D.s from some of the nation's most prestigious physics departments, they entered the field just as the job market for physicists crashed — and crashed hard — leaving them scrambling to carve out some alternate ways to support themselves, pursue their work and share their findings.

They had each made their way to Berkeley along different paths. But once they arrived, they found themselves sitting smack-dab in the middle of a burgeoning counterculture. Mainstream newspapers reported on everything from mind-reading experiments to tests of extra-sensory perception and other, equally bizarre-sounding, phenomena.

Several members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group began to wonder whether Bell's theorem — with its spooky, long-range interconnections between particles — might help to explain these reports. Perhaps it could even open up a new understanding of human consciousness.

Some members of the group sought cash from unlikely sources to pursue their quest, ranging from the Central Intelligence Agency to self-made entrepreneurs in the California "human potential" movement. And they set up shop in that hotbed of New Age enthusiasm, the Esalen Institute in beautiful Big Sur, California. They circulated preprints in an extensive, underground network, and broke into the popular-book market with bestsellers like Capra's Tao of Physics and Gary Zukav's Dancing Wu Li Masters.

Along the way, they produced some fascinating work that, stripped of its original packaging, has entered the mainstream today. Some highlights include:

— Fundamental Fysiks Group members dominated worldwide publications on Bell's theorem and quantum entanglement, recognizing their groundbreaking importance years before most physicists began to pay attention to the topic.

— Every single demonstration that quantum entanglement could be compatible with Einstein's relativity came either directly from members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group or as direct responses to their calculations and thought experiments.

— In the process of refuting a particularly clever thought experiment by group member Nick Herbert, three separate groups of physicists — Wojciech Zurek and Bill Wootters; Dennis Dieks; and GianCarlo Ghirardi and Tullio Weber — discovered the "no-cloning theorem," a fundamental feature of quantum theory that no one had ever recognized before. The no-cloning theorem stipulates that it is impossible to make exact copies or clones of an unknown quantum state. In short order, the no-cloning theorem became the linchpin of the first protocol for quantum encryption.

— Herbert's thought experiment likewise instigated the first-ever demonstrations of a fundamental quantum limit on amplifiers like lasers: their behavior at the single-quantum level departs significantly from their ordinary operation, as only became clear in the process of tackling Herbert's intriguing challenge.

— Books and articles by group members provided some of the earliest resources for teaching Bell's theorem — and were actually picked up for use in physics classrooms across the country — well before ordinary textbooks began to include that material.

And so we come to my book's title, How the Hippies Saved Physics. As I discuss in the book's introduction, the title is meant to be partly tongue-in-cheek. I don't believe that any small group of scientists could possibly "save" an entire discipline on their own (hippies or otherwise). Moreover, as I detail in the book, members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group interacted with several other physicists around the world, including great leaders like John Wheeler, Richard Feynman, and Eugene Wigner. Those interactions sparked some beautiful and lasting insights into the deepest questions of space, time, and matter.

The playful title is meant to signal that some serious work was going on amid the antics of the time, and to highlight the remarkable gap between group members' intellectual ambitions and the humbleness of their professional platform.

Even more interesting for me is the question of how a wider context can shape scientific work. It mattered a great deal that most members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group had been well-trained in leading universities. It also mattered that they were pursuing their work outside the usual institutions, sitting amid the blossoming New Age and counterculture movements of the 1970s San Francisco Bay area.

That combination of out-of-left-field curiosity with carefully disciplined skills proved potent. Not a bad legacy for a bunch of bright, fun-loving, and underemployed young hippies.