Monday, June 27, 2011

Sex, drugs, rock 'n roll and..."physics"

Charter members of the 'Fundamental Fysiks Group,' circa 1975. Standing, left to right: Jack Sarfatti, Saul-Paul Sirag, Nick Herbert; bottom corner: Fred Alan Wolf.

"Fun with Fysiks"


Peter Woit

July-August, 2011


In the United States, the job market for people with doctorates in physics collapsed around 1970, as the huge post-Sputnik expansion of American university hiring and military spending came to an abrupt halt. By the mid-1980s, things hadn’t improved much, and it seemed likely that my recent Ph.D. in theoretical physics would be of little use in finding conventional permanent academic employment. One possible career path that came to mind was to try to follow the example of a sizable group of physicists who lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1970s. They appeared to have managed to pursue scientific research by dropping out of academia and adopting a countercultural lifestyle that included soaking in hot tubs at Big Sur, engaging in Tantric sex, hanging out at North Beach cafes and taking psychedelic drugs. Some of them had gotten rich writing books that mixed physics with various kinds of mysticism. I wasn’t very interested in the mysticism part, but I figured I could handle the rest.

For better or worse, I did end up moving to the Bay Area for a year, but as a respectable post-doc in mathematics I saw little or no evidence of the continued existence of these countercultural physicists, and I wondered what had happened to them. David Kaiser’s entertaining new book, How the Hippies Saved Physics, does a wonderful job of recounting the twists and turns of the story of how the members of this group came together, interacted with one another and with the more conventional physics community, and then dispersed to various fates.

Kaiser takes as the center of his account the activities of Jack Sarfatti and other physicists who met from 1975 to 1979 at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, sometimes calling themselves the “Fundamental Fysiks Group.” The group, whose core members included John Clauser, Elizabeth Rauscher, Saul-Paul Sirag, Nick Herbert, George Weissmann and Fred Alan Wolf, was open to anyone interested in the interpretation of quantum theory. One subject that occupied its members was what is now known as Bell’s theorem, which shows that quantum systems are “entangled” in a rather counterintuitive way. Although it was a fringe topic at the time, in recent years Bell’s theorem has played a part in the active field of quantum information theory, which raises serious hopes that important new technology such as quantum computers may soon be within reach.

Many members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group had unconventional motivations for their research: Some were hoping to explain parapsychological phenomena, and others were trying find a scheme for faster-than-light communication. Sarfatti has continued this sort of search, supported by various patrons over the years, but more recently his attention has turned to unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and faster-than-light interstellar travel. Other members or associates of the group were responsible for wildly successful popular books, including Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics, 1975), Gary Zukav (The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, 1979) and Nick Herbert (Quantum Reality, 1985). Off and on, these books have even found their way into the syllabi of university physics classes.

Kaiser is a professional historian of science, and his account is exhaustively and carefully researched. He has uncovered a wealth of revealing detail about the various physicists involved, making for a very lively tale. One focus is on the significant interaction between the countercultural physicists and the more conventional physics community, and this is taken as evidence for an argument which, like many of those favored by the counterculturalists, is provocative but unconvincing. Kaiser maintains that World War II had led the conventional physics community to abandon philosophical engagement with quantum physics, a mistake only rectified starting in the late 1970s, in part through the impetus of the activities of the Fundamental Fysiks Group. Therefore, he argues, the hippies were responsible for saving the field that had quantum information theory as its future.

There are several problems with this argument. Kaiser makes much of the disappearance of philosophical discussion of quantum theory from physics textbooks and curricula after the war, but there were very good reasons for this. The birth of quantum mechanics in 1925 was followed by dramatic and important debates over the meaning of the formalism (the relationship between the mathematical equations and experiments), but by the war years it was clear that the formalism of quantum theory was sound and highly successful; an ad hoc but workable prescription for its relation to conventional experiment and observation was in place. The issue of how to understand the emergence of the classical world as an approximation was not resolved (and remains unresolved to this day), but it had become clear that for practical purposes the problem could be ignored. Only much later, as technological progress enabled the preparation of larger-scale coherent quantum systems, could experimental investigation of fundamental quantum measurement problems proceed, driving new theoretical work.

Quantum mechanics has generated a huge amount of pseudoscientific nonsense about its supposed relation to the question of consciousness and to parapsychology. Unfortunately, members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group were and are among those responsible for this nonsense, which has seriously damaged their credibility as scientists. In 2004 one of them, Wolf, played the role of Dr. Quantum in What the Bleep Do We Know!?, an atrocious but highly popular film, which argues that proper understanding of quantum physics allows one to make anything happen that one desires. Kaiser does make a good case that the process of debunking Nick Herbert’s proposals for using quantum mechanics for superluminal communication was one historical factor in the development of what is now known as the “no-cloning theorem,” on which quantum encryption technology is based. This, however, is a very long way from making Herbert responsible for saving physics.

To place the story Kaiser tells in context requires noting that, although the job situation in the 1970s was awful, it was during this era that the fantastically successful Standard Model of particle physics fell into place; the Standard Model is a quantum field theory based on fundamental symmetry arguments. But Berkeley was the center of a failed research program (“S-matrix philosophy”) that claimed such a thing couldn’t work. In The Tao of Physics, Capra argued extensively for the triumph of an allied S-matrix/Eastern mysticism point of view (as opposed to a symmetry/Western one), right at the moment that S-matrix philosophy lost the battle. Particle physicists during the 1970s were very busy working out the lessons of a new enlightenment and were not paying much attention to grandiose claims about quantum mechanics coming from a center of reaction.

One of the intriguing issues that the story of the Fundamental Fysiks Group raises, which Kaiser discusses, is what philosophers of science refer to as the demarcation problem. How do you decide what is science and what isn’t? You can’t just decide based on whether someone has a respectable academic position (Einstein didn’t in 1905). A continuum connects the solidest experimentally verified science with the rankest pseudoscience. Some of the work of the countercultural physicists clearly fell into the “legitimate science” portion of the continuum, and some of it just as clearly did not. The demarcation problem has recently reared its head again as debate rages about the scientific status of speculative ideas involving extra dimensions and a supposed Multiverse. This time one center of controversial research is across the Bay from Berkeley at Stanford University, and highly ranked academic figures are involved.

Kaiser’s fascinating book does make one other difference between the countercultural and conventional physicists very obvious: Whether they were doing science or pseudoscience, and whether they saved physics or not, the hippies were having a lot more fun.

[Peter Woit is departmental computer administrator and Senior Lecturer in Discipline in the Department of Mathematics at Columbia University. He is the author of Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law (Basic Books, 2006).]

"Hippie days"

How a handful of countercultural scientists changed the course of physics in the 1970s and helped open up the frontier of quantum information.


Peter Dizikes

June 27th, 2011

MIT News Office

Every Friday afternoon for several years in the 1970s, a group of underemployed quantum physicists met at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, in Northern California, to talk about a subject so peculiar it was rarely discussed in mainstream science: entanglement. Did subatomic particles influence each other from a distance? What were the implications?

Many of these scientists, who dubbed themselves the “Fundamental Fysiks Group,” were fascinated by the paranormal and thought quantum physics might reveal “the possibility of psycho-kinetic and telepathic effects,” as one put it. Some of the physicists cultivated flamboyant countercultural personas. In lieu of solid academic jobs, a few of them received funding from the leaders of the “human potential” movement that was a staple of 1970s self-help culture.

In short, the Fundamental Fysiks Group appeared to be just a bunch of eccentric, obscure physicists whiling away the Me Decade in the Berkeley Hills. But as MIT historian of science David Kaiser asserts in his new book, How the Hippies Saved Physics, published this month by W.W. Norton, the group’s members actually helped to steer physics in a new direction: They revived scientific interest in the puzzling foundations of quantum mechanics, provided new insights about entanglement, and laid the intellectual groundwork for the field of quantum information science, which today produces cutting-edge computing and encryption research.

“That’s a pretty good track record for a few years of zany, fun-loving, free-spirited and yet devoted research,” says Kaiser, head of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and a senior lecturer in the Department of Physics.

For whom Bell toiled

The intellectual beacon guiding the Fundamental Fysiks Group was a 1964 insight by Irish physicist John Bell, which strongly suggested that entanglement was real: Measuring the properties of one particle could influence the properties of another, distant particle. “This group was obsessed with Bell’s Theorem and wanted to wring out its implications,” Kaiser says.

In so doing, the group was returning to the physics tradition of inquiry about the structure of the universe. Famous prewar quantum theorists such as Erwin Schrödinger regularly tackled questions about subatomic strangeness, like the apparent particle-wave duality of matter. But after World War II, Kaiser notes, quantum physics became a much more pragmatic field, developing technologies such as the transistor; a popular mantra was “shut up and calculate.”

The few physicists left pondering the nature of reality were doomed in the sour academic job market of the 1970s, after Sputnik-driven education funding had dried up. “No field grew faster than physics after World War II, and no field crashed harder in the 1970s,” Kaiser says.

Still, one physicist in the Fundamental Fysiks Group, John Clauser, rigged an apparatus at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and conducted the first experiment testing Bell’s Theorem; it suggested entanglement was real. In 2010, this earned Clauser a share of the Wolf Prize, physics’ leading award after the Nobel Prize; back then, the experiment merely earned Clauser a little recognition.

“I think the field had gotten out of balance,” says Kaiser, who has PhDs in both physics and the history of science from Harvard.

Another mainstay of the group, Nick Herbert, concocted influential thought experiments about the uses of entanglement. One paper Herbert circulated, on something he called the FLASH scheme, described a possible way that entangled particles could influence each other faster than the speed of light — violating Einstein’s theory of special relativity. If proven true, Herbert thought, information could be transmitted instantaneously. Eventually other scientists concluded that the concept would not work, since devices cannot copy unknown properties of particles. This “no-cloning theorem” is the basis of quantum encryption: Codes based on quantum information cannot be replicated and thus cracked.

“The no-cloning theorem was discovered by three groups in response to Nick Herbert’s FLASH scheme,” Kaiser says. “It’s a new insight into the structure and meaning of quantum theory. That’s page one of our quantum information science textbooks today.”

The Tao of Physics makes waves

According to Kaiser, the Fundamental Fysiks Group also contributed to science education, by helping to renew interest in the philosophical dimension of physics. Largely ignored by academia, group members began writing for popular publication.

One physicist at large associated with the group, Frijtof Capra, wrote a quirky book in 1975 drawing links between quantum phenomena and Eastern religions. Surprisingly, The Tao of Physics became an international bestseller with millions of copies in print. Equally surprisingly, after decades spent ignoring quantum weirdness, professors began assigning Capra’s book, to draw students back into the physics classroom.

Herbert and others in the group would also write successful texts on quantum physics that were assimilated into the physics curriculum. “Today’s undergraduates at MIT learn about Bell’s Theorem in the first semester of quantum mechanics,” Kaiser says. “That simply wasn’t true for a long time. Questions about what it all means now have a place in the curriculum.”

‘These folks had to show people the goods’

Not every scientist in the Fundamental Fysiks Group could write a best-seller, of course. To gain attention, the group circulated mimeographed working papers, sent letters to prominent physicists such as John Wheeler, and sought coverage in alternative newspapers, as Kaiser documents.

“The book captures something that seems quite ephemeral, a moment in the history of physics when a lot of thinking was not recorded in traditional publications,” says Ken Alder, a professor of history and founder of the Science in Human Culture Program at Northwestern University. “David has done an amazing job of piecing together what was going on at the time.”

Though many of the physicists were attracted to entanglement because it suggested that the paranormal might be possible, Kaiser is careful to distinguish between their personal interests and the value of their technical work. “Virtually every member of the group had PhDs from very elite programs,” Kaiser says. “They weren’t just leaning back and saying, ‘Hey man, can you dig it?’” Instead, he says, “These folks had to show people the goods, pages of calculations in papers they submitted to peer-reviewed journals.”

The hippie physicists also represent a larger point about American history, Kaiser believes: The counterculture movement was not primarily an anti-scientific phenomenon, as many commentators have described it. “There was a rejection of a certain kind of militarized Cold War science, not a general rejection of science or technology,” Kaiser says.

Today, new technologies based on entanglement seem plausible; banks have demonstrated money transfers using entangled photons, and research into quantum computing is expanding. As much as the Fundamental Fysiks Group wanted to move away from applied physics and return to foundational questions, the two things are very much entangled.

How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival


David Kaiser

ISBN 978-0-393-07636-3


The surprising story of eccentric young scientists who stood up to convention-and changed the face of modern physics.

Today, quantum information theory is among the most exciting scientific frontiers, attracting billions of dollars in funding and thousands of talented researchers. But as MIT physicist and historian David Kaiser reveals, this cutting-edge field has a surprisingly psychedelic past. How the Hippies Saved Physics introduces us to a band of freewheeling physicists who defied the imperative to "shut up and calculate" and helped to rejuvenate modern physics.

For physicists, the 1970s were a time of stagnation. Jobs became scarce, and conformity was encouraged, sometimes stifling exploration of the mysteries of the physical world. Dissatisfied, underemployed, and eternally curious, an eccentric group of physicists in Berkeley, California, banded together to throw off the constraints of the physics mainstream and explore the wilder side of science. Dubbing themselves the "Fundamental Fysiks Group," they pursued an audacious, speculative approach to physics. They studied quantum entanglement and Bell's Theorem through the lens of Eastern mysticism and psychic mind-reading, discussing the latest research while lounging in hot tubs. Some even dabbled with LSD to enhance their creativity. Unlikely as it may seem, these iconoclasts spun modern physics in a new direction, forcing mainstream physicists to pay attention to the strange but exciting underpinnings of quantum theory.

A lively, entertaining story that illuminates the relationship between creativity and scientific progress, How the Hippies Saved Physics takes us to a time when only the unlikeliest heroes could break the science world out of its rut.

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