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

David Kaiser
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 27, 2011 0340782005 978-0393076363 First Edition

Named one of the Top Physics Books of 2012 by Physics World

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. 46 black-and-white illustrations

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Editorial Reviews


“Starred Review. An enthusiastic account of a coterie of physicists who, during the 1970s, embraced New Age fads and sometimes went on to make dramatic discoveries…Readers will enjoy this entertaining chronicle of colorful young scientists whose sweeping curiosity turned up no hard evidence for psychic phenomena but led to new ways of looking into the equally bizarre quantum world.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“Starred Review. Science has never been more unpredictable—or more entertaining!” (Booklist)

“It is hard to write a book about quantum mechanics that is at once intellectually serious and a page-turner. But David Kaiser succeeds in his account of a neglected but important group of physicists who brought together quantum mechanics, Eastern religion, parapsychology and the hallucinogen LSD. … Illuminating.” (Hugh Gusterson - Nature)

“Exhaustively and carefully researched. [Kaiser] has uncovered a wealth of revealing detail about the physicists involved, making for a very lively tale. … Fascinating.” (American Scientist)

“This entertaining, worthwhile read is as much about the nature of society at the dawn of the New Age as it is about quantum physics.” (Choice)

“Kaiser’s style is engaging, which makes this history of the time when physics left the short-sleeved white shirts, skinny ties and plastic pocket protectors behind one of the best science books of the year.” (Sacramento News & Review)

“Meticulously researched and unapologetically romantic, How the Hippies Saved Physics makes the history of science fun again.” (Matthew Wisnioski - Science)

How the Hippies Saved Physics takes readers on a mind-bending trip to the far horizons of science—a place where the counterculture’s search for a New Age of consciousness opened the door to a new era in physics. Who knew that the discipline that brought us the atom bomb had also glimpsed Utopia? Amazing.” (Fred Turner, author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture)

From the Back Cover

Advance Praise for How the Hippies Saved Physics:

“This book takes us deep into the kaleidoscopic culture of the 1970s—with its pop-metaphysicians, dabblers in Eastern mysticism, and counterculture gurus—some of whom, it turns out, were also physicists seeking to challenge the foundations of their discipline. In David Kaiser’s hands, the story of how they succeeded—albeit in ways they never intended—makes a tremendously fun and eye-opening tale. As the physicist I. I. Rabi once remarked: ‘What [more] do you want, mermaids?’”—Ken Alder, author of The Measure of All Things and The Lie Detectors

“At first it sounds impossible, then like the opening line of a joke: What do the CIA, Werner Erhard’s EST, Bay Area hippie explorations, and the legacy of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schroedinger have in common? It turns out, as David Kaiser shows, quite a lot. Here is a book that is immensely fun to read, gives insight into deep and increasingly consequential questions of physics, and transports the reader back into the heart of North Beach zaniness in the long 1960s. Put down your calculators and pick up this book!”—Peter Galison, author of Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps

“What happens when you mix the foundations of quantum mechanics with hot tubs, ESP, saffron robes, and psychedelic drugs? How the Hippies Saved Physics chronicles the wild years of the 1970s when a group of largely unemployed physicists teamed up with LSD advocate Timothy Leary, EST founder Werner Erhard, telekinesist Uri Geller, and a host of other countercultural figures to mount a full-scale assault on physics orthodoxy. David Kaiser’s masterly ability to explain the most subtle and counterintuitive quantum effects, together with his ability to spin a ripping good yarn, make him the perfect guide to this far-off and far-out era of scientific wackiness.”—Seth Lloyd, author of Programming the Universe

“David Kaiser shows us the wonder, mystery, and joy of the scientific pursuit that helped define, and inspire, a particular moment within the counterculture. Some have seen and long appreciated these resonances, but no one has stated the case this authoritatively, this fully, and this colorfully, particularly from the science side of things. Clearly, this book signals, like the entangled photons with which it begins and ends, a fantastic new world of possibilities—historical, human, and scientific.”—Jeffrey J. Kripal, author of Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 372 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (June 27, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0340782005
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393076363
  • ASIN: 0393076369
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.5 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #519,677 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Kaiser is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he teaches in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society and the Department of Physics. A Fellow of the American Physical Society, he received the History of Science Society's Pfizer Award for his book 'Drawing Theories Apart,' which traces how Richard Feynman's idiosyncratic approach to quantum theory entered the mainstream. He and his family live near Boston.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
113 of 119 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Putting the filosophy back into fysiks June 18, 2011
Does philosophy have a place in serious science? Many of the founders of modern physics certainly thought so. Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrodinger were not just great scientists but they were equally enthusiastic and adept at pondering the philosophical implications of quantum theory. To some extent they were forced to confront such philosophical questions because the world that they were discovering was just so bizarre and otherworldly; particles could be waves and vice versa, cats (at least in principle) could be alive and dead, particles that were separated even by light years appeared to be able to communicate instantaneously with each other, and our knowledge of the subatomic world turned out to be fundamentally probabilistic.

However, as quantum theory matured into a powerful tool for calculation and concrete application, the new generation of physicists in general and American physicists in particular started worrying less about "what it means" and much more about "how to use it". American physicists had always been more pragmatic than their European counterparts and after World War 2, as the center of physics moved from Europe to the United States and as the Cold War necessitated a great application of science to defense, physicists turned completely from the philosophizing type to what was called the "shut up and calculate" kind; as long as quantum mechanics agrees spectacularly with experiment, why worry about what it means? Just learn how to use it. Yet this only swept epistemological questions under the rug.

Curiously, there emerged in the 1970s a quirky and small group of physicists in the Bay Area who tried to resurrect the age of philosopher-scientists.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
So--basically man--these stoners got heigh on Heissenberg, and heard John Bell ringing the universe with superluminal messages. Sure, we all did that back in the early 70s, but these freaks could speak fysiks out of one side of their mouths and the tao out the other. And, the way Kaiser lays it down, these weedwhackers weren't just blowing smoke in the Esalen hot tubs and talking to Leary--and friggin' dead Houdini too--they were also talking to some serious Physics profs embedded in the Ivy League. And one freak came tickling-close to having his experiment that tested Bell's entanglement theorem against psychokinesis published in a super-high Science journal worshiped by Physicist Straignts, and signed off on by Straights. The Straights were already teetering on the brink of Everything-We-Know-is wrong; and they were listening. So was the CIA, which feared the Ruskies were lightyears ahead of us on psychic research. The espionage agencies wanted to transmit messages to spooks in the field telepathically. What were they smokin'? Anyway, the phys-hippies didn't bring us faster-than-light communications, but they stimulated the thinking that brought us other weird technologies, such as quantum effects in computer chips, and quantum encryption of bank transactions. Thus spake Kaiser. A fun read that contains decent science explanations along the way.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars To understand physicists today - you need this book! August 3, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As with any endeavor, to understand where you are headed you have to understand where you have been. David Kaiser gives us insights as to how physics has come to where it is today.

I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to understand the backstory of physics over the last several decades. It may inspire many young physicists of today.

It is a story of the possible. How a group of people with so little, in a time where the odds were against them, have made such great contributions to society and their fellow human beings.

This was a great read. I highly recommend reading it.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
"It's tempting to picture a bunch of long-haired ruffians turning the particle accelerators on themselves in David Kaiser's new book, even if the eponymous "hippies" were just a group of scientists slightly apart from mainstream physics." -- Ellen Wernecke

Scientific inquiry in an established field of study as physics, when departs significantly from mainstream theories, may be classified in the 'fringes' of a credible mainstream academic discipline. According to Fringepedia, "The term fringe science is sometimes used to describe fields which are actually pseudo-sciences, or fields which are referred to as sciences, but lack scientific rigor or plausibility. Scientists have also coined the terms voodoo science and cargo cult science to describe inquiry lacking in scientific integrity." Such concepts are considered highly speculative, hardly supported by mainstream scientists. Though there are examples of academia scientists supporting maverick ideas within their own discipline of expertise, many fringe science ideas are advanced by individuals without an academic science training, or by scientists straying outside the mainstream of their own disciplines.

This history of science book sounds weird; it recounts an eccentric and interesting story, which explores how quantum physics, considered to be fringe science became accepted as a mainstream discipline. The book focuses on a group called the Fundamental Fysiks Group which held sessions at the University of California Berkeley. Berkeley is famous for its counterculture, let alone eccentricity. The Fundamental Fysiks Group was instrumental in making quantum mechanics an accepted science.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Some interesting history on quantum physics but a bit tedious
As a scientist I found the early chapter interesting and enlightening, but then the author goes into the personalities and relationships of the players, which became boring very... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Dee German
3.0 out of 5 stars To many info on who met whom and when, and too little on actual ideas...
Maybe it was just not what I expected, but it's more about history... Could not read the whole book, after some time you get lost in "that guy from that university met those... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Dmitry Sarkisyan
5.0 out of 5 stars You couldn't imagine a story this good.
How in hell Kaiser could pick apart and reassemble this kaleidoscope of characters, times and places is beyond me. The research for this tale must have been a migraine. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Don Bethel
3.0 out of 5 stars Recent history on the foundations of quantum physics
A good book on the history of Physics of a few decades ago, nicely written. From the paradoxes of quantum mechanics and the revealing doubts raised by the theorems of John Bell,... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Claudio Orzalesi
5.0 out of 5 stars Little about hippies a lot about the early days of quantum physics
This has little to do with hippies and more to do with the history of quantum physics. However, I recommend it for those who have an interest in starting to learn about quantum... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Roberto Dias Leme
4.0 out of 5 stars Incredible scholarship
The author has put together a masterful work of scholarship to track down this history of quantum physics and how it has gone through the politics and leading stories of our times... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Ruth Angela
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb work of history of science
David Kaiser brings a whole new perspective to the concept of history of science, or maybe we should call it journalism of science, because almost all of the heroes of this... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Emre Sevinc
4.0 out of 5 stars more dense than I expected and because of that I wish they had chosen...
Audiobook review - I very much enjoyed the content of this book. It was more dense in its actual physics discussions than I expected - and I'm fine with that. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Audiobook Addict
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, though a bit overblown.
Interesting historical anecdotes about interpretation of quantum mechanics. Take some of the claims of importance of "hippie" contributions with a grain of salt.
Published 16 months ago by Henry R. Feldman
5.0 out of 5 stars Introducing the Fundamental Fysiks Group
I have often thought of Gary Zukav as a nut. Even though we are contemporaries, just off by a few years and even in the war at the same time same places (I might have met him and... Read more
Published 18 months ago by bernie
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