September 23, 2019

Review: How the Hippies Saved Physics by David Kaiser.

On sale now from Norton Books!

Few of us ever stop to think of how culture affects the history of science or vice versa, or the case of this week’s review, the impact of counter-culture on the same. We’re talking about How the Hippies Saved Physics by David Kaiser, out earlier this summer from Norton Books. A far-out trip back in space and time, Hippies is a fascinating look at the state of modern physics in the 1960’s, a time of upheaval for the country in general from which science was not immune. It’s like you can hear the Hendrix soundtrack complete with bad reverb, Man… (OK, that’s the last of the bad 60’s lingo!)  Epicenter for this new regime of thinking was Berkeley California, and a group of rebellious young minds known as the “Fundamental Fysiks Group.” The backdrop for this revolution in scientific thinking was born out of the Manhattan Project and the start off the Cold War, a time in the 1940’s and 50’s when the nation realized that they could ill afford to ignore the works of theoretical physicists, no matter how arcane. But this “shut up and calculate” mentality that prevailed soon gave way to quantum posturing and a return to many ideas and alleys that had been abandoned post-WWII for other avenues via defense contracts that offered glamorous funding. Ideas of telekinesis, ESP and remote viewing were not considered off-limits to the budding scientists, as an innocence of the era often led them into untested waters of the parapsychological. Hey, even the United States government got into the act, funding remote viewing studies to fill a perceived “ESP gap” between us and the Soviets… real “Men who stare at Goats” -type stuff! More bizarre tales abound, such as attempts to use radioactive decay output to contact the dead, and ideas for drug induction to promote telepathy… unfortunately, this naïveté also made these scientists easy prey for the counterculture gurus of the day such as Uri Geller, proof that intelligence and “street smarts” aren’t always one in the same…

Still, some real science emerged from the hey-day of experimentation pioneered by these young brash scientists. FLASH (a super sleek acronym for the First Laser-Amplified Super Luminal Hook-up), Quantum entanglement and Bell’s Theorem emerged from the cutting room floor, as ideas of “spooky action at a distance” and the wacky world of quantum physics became an experimental reality. As phone trees and snail mail list-sever groups gave way to email and the Internet, ideas for applying Bell’s theorem to quantum computing and encryption are now swiftly becoming reality. These days, “LSD”  tends to mean the Lloyd-Shor-Devetak theorem to these rebels-turned-establishment, as many have gone on to be successful scientists and cult figures commanding huge book royalties in their own right. Teleporters and Faster-Than-Light communications may be forever out of reach, but one wonders looking at the world of quantum physics and the concepts of non-locality if we just ‘might’ be able to pull such feats off one day… certainly, ‘teleport’ mode would be the ultimate smart phone app…

Do give How the Hippies Saved Physics a read to see the scientific process at both its messiest and most brilliant. A short moment existed in space and time continuum of the sixties when a revolution went from innocent exploration to a name-brand, and the pioneers of those halcyon days played no small role in seeding the sci-fi world we enjoy today!

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  1. [...] understanding of the wackiness of the subatomic world. For a fine pairing we would also suggest How the Hippies Saved Physics, Quantum Man (the biography of Richard Feynman) and Massive. It’s breathtaking to think that [...]

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