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David Kaiser: How the Hippies Saved Physics

David Kaiser: How the Hippies Saved Physics


The search for the Higgs boson is currently the hottest pursuit in modern science. Last week, scientists announced that they have probably discovered the “carrier of mass” which existence was already predicted by Peter Higgs 40 years ago. In 1964, he wrote the groundbreaking paper covering what is now known as the Higgs mechanism. Although its relevance to physics was questioned at first, nowadays, no one will deny the value of his ideas to arguably one of the most important findings in modern physics.

But Higgs is not the only scientist that has helped pave the way for today’s breakthroughs in quantum information science. Ten years after his now-famous paper was published, a group of eccentric young scientists was founded in San Francisco during the colorful mid-1970’s. In the book How the Hippies Saved Physics, David Kaiser shows how also their ideas have proven to have made lasting impact on modern physics.

Unusual physicists
The members of the ragtag discussion group discussed in his book called themselves the “Fundamental Fysiks Group.” They had earned Ph.D.s in physics from some of the most elite programs in the United States, but they had finished their training just as the job market for physicists hit its steepest decline in history. With few prospects for an “ordinary” job in physics, they bumbled along and each independently made their way to Berkeley, California. There they quickly found each other and discovered their shared passion for physics, and for the philosophical interpretation of strange features of modern physics, especially quantum theory.

Kaiser points out that a philosophical approach to physics wasn’t common at that time. “Worrying deeply about the interpretation or philosophical implications of quantum theory had once been a mainstream activity, extolled by the likes of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg during the 1920s and 1930s, but by the time members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group had been trained, that philosophical component had been almost entirely erased from physicists’ formal training.”

By returning focus to those philosophical-sounding questions, the group definitely stood apart from the physics mainstream of the day. In addition, they also distinguished themselves institutionally. According to Kaiser few had “regular” physics jobs because of the massive job crunch in the field, so they had to become quite creative and entrepreneurial. “They garnered donations from wealthy donors who also shared a hankering for the mysteries of quantum theory; some even received money from the US Central Intelligence Agency on the suspicion that abstruse quantum effects could have something to do with telepathy, and hence (so the government handlers hoped) for espionage. (The practice was jokingly referred to as “ESPionage”: using ESP to spy on the Soviets.)”

The fact that the group was based in the San Francisco area during the mid-1970s mattered a lot to the direction their discussions often took. Some members dove into topics such as parapsychology or Eastern mysticism, to explore possible intellectual links between these topics and ideas from quantum theory.

“The San Francisco area had emerged by the 1970s as a hotbed of open discussion and even enthusiasm about those very topics,” explains Kaiser. “Even members of the group who gave little credence to the topic were nonetheless awash in stories about mind-reading and the like.”

Some members teamed up with self-proclaimed parapsychologists to see whether they could account for what they took to be robust empirical results on mind-reading using what they knew about quantum theory, especially the idea of Bell’s theorem or quantum entanglement – what Einstein had famously dismissed as “spooky action at a distance,” on which members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group devoted the bulk of their attention.

How did the hippies save physics?
It seems clear that this group of young scientists chased different types of questions and did so with different patrons than most mainstream physicists. But in what way did they actually “save” physics with their merely philosophical and unconventional approach? Although the title of the book was meant to be ironic in tone – as it’s almost impossible for any small group of individuals to “save” an entire discipline – Kaiser found several real, enduring contributions that came from members of the group, all out of proportion to their sidelined professional stature.

First of all, Kaiser points out that they self-consciously made room again for openly philosophical discussion and debate about the ultimate implications of quantum theory. “That kind of interpretive engagement had once been a mainstay of physicists’ training, largely before World War II, but had been pushed squarely to the margins during the Cold War,” he explains. “Members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group refused to remain content that all the important questions had already been answered — and history has certainly shown that they were correct on that score.”

In addition Kaiser notes, that many of the earliest lesson plans about topics like quantum entanglement were composed by members of the group or by physicists whom they had inspired and with whom they were in contact. “Every one of the major textbooks on quantum theory that has been published in the past twenty years now includes some explicit material on the interpretation of quantum theory. Whole chapters now appear in the textbooks on philosophical implications of quantum theory where none had been for decades.”

Furthermore, some specific results about the nature of quantum theory, and its successful though uneasy relationship with Einstein’s relativity, came directly (and indirectly) from members of the group. According to Kaiser, the most important is known as the “no-cloning theorem”: “a deep result, unknown to Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, or John Bell himself, that only emerged from the back-and-forth playful exchanges between members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group and a handful of other physicists throughout the US and Europe.”

The importance of philosophy in physics
All together, these contributions are an impressive legacy for a group of physicists who were unemployed or underemployed for much of their careers. Due to their efforts, openly philosophical engagement has a place again at the table of mainstream physics, at least in certain sub fields.

“The field of quantum information science, now flourishing around the world, grew directly out of efforts to think deeply about the interpretation of quantum theory,” explains Kaiser.

Because many ideas that once seemed like “merely philosophy” have proven, time and time again, to have made lasting impact on “mainstream” physics, Kaiser expects this will continue in the future. “My crystal ball is no clearer than anyone else’s when it comes to predicting from whence the next important breakthrough in the field will come. But I do remain convinced by the number of examples from the recent past not to dismiss the continuing importance of paying attention to philosophical interpretation alongside the hard work of manipulating equations and designing experiments.”

How the Hippies Saved Physics” is available in the UA Library.

David Kaiser’s recent contribution to physics:

Kaiser, D., & Todhunter, A. (2010). Primordial perturbations from multifield inflation with nonminimal couplings. Physical Review DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevD.81.124037

Kaiser, D. (2010). Conformal transformations with multiple scalar fields. Physical Review DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevD.81.084044

Bettencourt, L., Kaiser, D., & Kaur, J. (2009). Scientific discovery and topological transitions in collaboration networks. Journal of Informetrics DOI: 10.1016/j.joi.2009.03.001

Find an overview of all his work here.

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Carian Thus
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