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How The Hippies Saved Physics

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How The Hippies Saved Physics By David Kaiser

How the Hippies Saved Physics David Kaiser

What happens when you mix the foundations of quantum mechanics with hot tubs, ESP, saffron robes, and psychedelic drugs? the perfect guide to this far-off and far-out era of scientific wackiness. Seth Lloyd, author of Programming the Universe

Who knew that the discipline that brought us the atom bomb had also glimpsed Utopia? Amazing. Fred Turner, author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture

What do the CIA, Werner Erhards est, Bay Area Hippie explorations, and the legacy of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger have in common? It turns out, as David Kaiser shows, quite a lot. Peter Galison, author of Einsteins Clocks, Poincarés Maps

How the Hippies Saved Physics gives us an unconventional view of some unconventional people engaged early in the fundamentals of quantum theory. Great fun to read. Anton Zeilinger, co-winner of the 2010 Wolf Prize in Physics and author of Dance of the Photons

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

How the Hippies Saved Physics is published by W. W. Norton.

How The Hippies Saved Physics Part 3

The usual narrative about the development of quantum theory begins with Planck’s famous 1901 hypothesis of quantized behavior of light, goes through to Einstein’s famous criticism of quantum mechanics in 1935, and then unabashedly skips forward to the work of John Bell in the 1960s and its experimental realizations some time after that. If you’re lucky, the narrative will include at least minimal explanation as to this three-decade gapusually along the lines of the following: “After the 1930s, interpretational questions were deemed too ‘philosophical’ and fell out of fashion. Then along came Bell .” The span of years from World War II to the Cold War’s end has often been presented in this way as a sort of historical black box. Black box no more, thanks to David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics.

Another lesson to be found in Hippies is a warning against naive perceptions of science as objective and value-free. Science is an incorrigibly human endeavor. The story of the hippie physicists is a reminder, at once funny and poignant, that entire personstheir worldviews includedshape science, for better and for worse. We cannot fail to acknowledge the existence of such influences, and yet to uphold science as purely objective is to do just that.

Elise Crull is a research fellow at the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Aberdeen.

Copyright © 2012 Books & Culture. for reprint information.

How The Hippies Saved Physics: Science Counterculture And The Quantum Revival

This book excerpt traces the history of quantum information theory and the colorful and famous physicists who tried to figure out “spooky action at a distance”

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Editor’s Note: Reprinted from How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revivalby David Kaiser. Copyright 2011 by David Kaiser. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Click here to see a Scientific American video that explains quantum entanglement.

Bohm’s papers fired Bell’s imagination. Soon after discovering them, Bell gave a talk on Bohm’s papers to the Theory Division at Harwell. Most of his listeners sat in stunned silence: why was this young physicist wasting their time on such philosophical drivel? Didn’t he have any real work to do? One member of the audience, however, grew animated: Austrian émigré Franz Mandl. Mandl, who knew both German and von Neumann’s classic study, interrupted several times the two continued their intense arguments well after the seminar had ended. Together they began to reexamine von Neumann’s no-hidden-variables proof, on and off when time allowed, until they each went their separate ways. Mandl left Harwell in 1958 Bell, dissatisfied with the direction in which the laboratory seemed to be heading, left two years later.

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How The Hippies Saved Physics

A review that I wrote of David Kaisers How the Hippies Saved Physics is now available at American Scientist. A quick summary is that I think its a marvelous book, telling in well-researched and entertaining fashion a story Ive always wanted to know more about. Im not convinced though by the main argument of the title, that this group of people saved physics, rescuing it from an oppressive shut up and calculate ideology by showing the way towards the importance of Bells theorem and helping start the field of quantum information theory. Perhaps the author though is just emulating his subjects, known for their playful outlandishness.

There are quite a few interesting things I learned from the book that didnt make it into the review. One example is the story of Werner Erhards theoretical physics conferences of the late 70s and early 80s, organized in collaboration with Sydney Coleman and Roman Jackiw. Among the factors that brought these events to an end was the advent of string theory: it was felt that no string theory conference without Witten attending would be taken seriously, and by then Witten wanted nothing to do with EST and its founder .

If you find this subject at all interesting, I highly recommend the book.

For another take on the same subject, from one of its main participants, Jack Sarfattis memoir Star Gate is available for free these days in a pre-publication version here.

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