Pulling apart the quantum’s entanglement with the counter culture: How fysiks became physics
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David Kaiser, a historian of science with one foot in the physics camp—he has a PhD in theoretical physics and is a member of MIT’s physics department as well as its STS program—has written a wonderful romp about a group of renegade physicists who in the Spring of 1975 at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory formed the Fundamental Fysiks Group. Meeting around a table in a sprawling seminar room for 4 years, every Friday at 4 pm, the group intensely discussed the links between Bell’s Theorem at the foundations of quantum mechanics, consciousness, spirituality, and parapsychology. It was the Solvay conferences on acid.
The aim of the Fundamental Fysiks Group was to get back to the spirit of those encounters between Bohr and Einstein as they pondered the famous double-slit experiment. It is what Kaiser calls “big picture physics”, as opposed to the obsession with applications and calculations that came to dominate the cold war era and where interest in topics such as the foundations of quantum mechanics was seen as mere “philosophy” and not something worthy of a career physicist. Even the Irish physicist, John S. Bell, of Bell’s Theorem, pursued his interest in foundational issues almost as hobby while working as a nuclear and particle physicist at Harwell then CERN. Pioneering quantum physicists from an earlier generation such as David Bohm struggled to gain recognition. By 1975, the cold war bubble had burst and the time was ripe for something new as young PhD physicists contemplated lives and careers without certain jobs.
Unlike the Solvay conferences, the Fundamental Fysiks Group meetings attracted not only card-carrying physicists but also a following of spiritual nuts, new agers, and the odd hip capitalist. PhD physicist, Elizabeth Rauscher, who was one of the few women in the group and someone who actually taught early STS courses, was its founder. Other key members were Rauscher’s advisor, theoretical physicist Geoffrey Chew (of bootstrap fame) and staff scientist Henry Stapp who wrote lengthy exegeses on non-locality and Bell’s Theorem. Fritjof Capra, an Austrian physicist who was interested in links between physics and mysticism and who also worked with Chew, became part of the group after they read his early writings. The group was even blessed with the aura of real experimental physics by the presence of John Clauser, a hard-nosed, Columbia-trained experimentalist who conducted experiments searching for the remote correlations between separated particles, which Bell’s Theorem predicted. Jack Sarfatti and Fred Alan Wolf, who had both given up faculty positions in physics at San Diego State, played the role of merry pranksters and were anything but hard nosed. Sarfatti famously endorsed Uri Geller as being genuine only to retract his endorsement and then later retracted his retraction. Sarfatti and Wolf went on to found, with Saul-Paul Sirag and with the help of Werner Erhard’s funding, the Physics Consciousness Research Group based in San Francisco. Physics had never known anything like it. Well, after all it was the sixties which, as we all know, stretched into the mid seventies, especially in countercultural incubators such as the bay area.
Kaiser’s book falls into that recent genre, amplified by the career arc of Steven Jobs, of looking for the origins of current science and technology in the counterculture. The bay-area freaks, heads, politicos, and beatniks who were later known in the media as “hippies” (a term I wish Kaiser had avoided as I recall it was a term of abuse) were not anti-science or anti-technology in the Theodore Roszak The Making of the Counter Culture way; they actually loved certain bits of science and technology and nurtured and explored them in a hostile cold war world where sheer joy in science and technology had become almost alien. The World Wide Web, the electronic music synthesizer, and many aspects of cyber culture have been traced to their sixties roots in mind exploration, playfulness, transcendence, communal living, and a prankster irreverence toward standard institutions.
This group not only delved into new kinds of physics but came up with new institutional means of promoting their science, such as new alignments with the cash cow of new-age movements. They successfully supported themselves by writing best-selling books. Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics and Gary Zukav’s Dancing Wu Li Masters were typical of the genre. The exposition of counter-intuitive ideas in physics, particularly in Capra’s well-received book (which began life in London as a physics textbook), was serious and in general well done. Capra had had MIT physicist Victor Weisskopf read early drafts. “Zen guru of physics” became a new occupational type. There were rich pickings on offer from the growing human potential movement as spiritual and new-age self-realization gurus began to lace their hot tub conversations with the latest new drug—the mind boggling world of consciousness collapsing waveforms, Bell’s Theorem, and so on. Physics had become safe for new agers and they could not get enough of it. The setting and timing was also perfect with Uri Geller and his spoon bending antics regularly being performed in town or on TV. Down the road was the Stanford Research Institute with secret military money researching Uri Geller and setting up the spy-world ESP experiments, which later became known as “remote viewing”—one of the first experimental phenomena that the Fundamental Fysiks group set out to repeat (failing to do so).
The movement had its core in San Francisco but was an international movement with physicists in Europe involved too. At Imperial College London, where I was an undergraduate physicist in the early 1970s, we had a society called “Interaction” for the study of physics, LSD, and revolution. Fritjof Capra was briefly a member of our group.
But this modus operandi for doing physics, especially given the undisciplined, free-spirited sixties ethos, also had a down side. The careers of the key players at times descended into a catalog of intrigue, of who was “in” and who was “out” with particular new-age patrons. Attaching your projects to figures such as Uri Geller and his promoters or Werner Erhard, the former Philadelphia car salesman who changed his name from Jack Rosenberg and became the founder of est (Erhard Seminar Training), was never going to be easy and offer the security and stability of more traditional sources of support for physics careers.
One of the most amazing stories told by Kaiser is of Ira Einhorn, a Philadelphia drop out turned guru who actually befriended Thomas Kuhn—striking up a long and serious relationship with Kuhn at the very moment when The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was making its impact. Einhorn shared the Stewart Brand communitarian ethos, which Fred Turner has shown led to the Whole Earth Catalogue and later the World Wide Web (Turner 2006). Einhorn was a skillful networker and had powerful backers at Bell Telephones, which enabled him to send out at no cost packages of the latest findings of new-age physics reading carefully tailored to different recipients world wide—and all with the Bell logo on them. It was a novel way of distributing physics papers and enabled Einhorn to wield enormous influence as he linked the powerful executives at Bell Telephones to Uri Geller and the new physics gurus. But it all started to fall apart in 1979 when the decaying corpse of Einhorn’s girlfriend was discovered in a trunk in his apartment. Einhorn went on the lam for over 20 years in France. As his reputation collapsed so did his much vaunted preprint distribution system. He now sits in Federal prison claiming he is a victim of a government conspiracy because of his links with the clandestine world of military ESP research.
Kaiser sets the book up as a story of how sixties sandalwood became modern gold. The book opens in a bank vault in Vienna—chronicling the news media in attendance at one of the first bank transfers made by quantum encryption. If bankers and, as we later learn, Swiss voters are using quantum encryption then there has to be something to it. Bell’s Theorem in the hands of the Swiss may even have become boring! Kaiser points out though that the field of quantum information science is hot, hot, hot, with multibillion research programs and interest from venture capitalists and governments in exploring new ways of encrypting and transporting information. He traces the field’s origins to the renegades at Berkeley who while having fun with consciousness and quantum physics managed to “save physics”.
We’ll get to “saving physics” later, but the story of this group is worth telling in its own right and in Kaiser’s hands it is told well. He is good at chasing down loose ends, has a wonderful eye for detail and humor, and he has uncovered troves of new information. As one would expect he explains the mysteries of Bell’s Theorem beautifully. The heart of the book is a collective biography of the leading players.
They are fascinating figures—because people who set out to have fun and who often fail in conventional terms are much more interesting than those who succeed. “Had life, had wife, made a few small but worthy discoveries” does not compete with “gave up tenure track job, leapt into a hot tub at Big Sur, took LSD, became a quantum guru, hung out with rock stars and Francis Ford Coppola, built a machine capable of communicating with the dead, wrote a best-selling book, and lived life on the edge,” and that is only the beginning! But in the end, as Kaiser shows, the parallel universe of fund raising and career structures that this group encapsulated seems to have sat rather uneasily with conventional physics and its institutions.
The most chastening tale in the whole book for me was that of John Clauser. I once stayed with Clauser in the mid 1970s when I was working with Harry Collins on our own book on parapsychology and physics (Collins and Pinch 2010). Collins and I interviewed, participated with, and interacted with many of the same cast of characters whom Kaiser writes about. Not only was Clauser a generous host but he was the real deal: a brilliant experimental physicist; a no-nonsense nuts and bolts guy who loved to get down and dirty building equipment. He was as far away from a zen physics guru as one could imagine. Clauser, inspired by Abner Shimony, is one of the first physicists to realize that there were experimental pickings to be had in the quantum interpretation shell game. He carried out the first experimental confirmations of Bell’s Theorem—showing that indeed the polarizations of particles produced from one quantum system were correlated and that choosing to measure the polarization of one particle in one direction almost miraculously produced the opposite polarization instantaneously in the other. Clauser tenaciously pursued this experiment despite a total lack of interest and support. His reward? I was shocked to read he was never able to find a tenure-track position. Belated recognition by the award of the Wolf prize in 2010 just emphasized the sad fact that his career has obviously been a struggle.
Did the hippies really save physics? Kaiser is never fully convincing on this group saving physics, but it does seem that a key aspect of quantum information theory, known as the no-cloning theorem, arose as an off-shoot from concerns of the group with Bell’s Theorem and trying to find ways of passing information faster than light between the two separated quantum systems. Nick Herbert’s role in particular seems to have been crucial as he attempted to find novel ways to enable information to be passed between the two remote systems. By being pressed to find faults in Herbert’s schema, physicists were led to the new results showing why in fact such information could not be passed, thus bringing the two great achievements of twentieth-century physics, quantum mechanics and relativity, into a closer alignment.
Kaiser specifies three ways in which physics was saved. Firstly, the renegades encouraged the “big picture meaning” of physics to which the cold war had been hostile. This may be true, but thinking big is hardly the same as saving physics. Secondly, they revived the topic of Bell’s Theorem. Certainly, Bell’s Theorem was at the top of this group’s agenda, and it does seem that the necessary cultural context to preserve this shared understanding was provided by them. Indeed Kaiser shows convincingly that the only teaching material available on Bell’s Theorem came from the publications of the Fundamental Fysiks Group. One particularly interesting question is the role of the experiments on Bell’s Theorem in all this.
Bill Harvey in an early important science studies article on Clauser’s experiments argues that the very possibility of turning the debate over the interpretation of quantum theory into an experimental reality increased the “plausibility” of the whole area for physicists (Harvey 1981). By tracing the careers of two of the main experimentalists, John Clauser and Alain Aspect, Kaiser is able to show that the experiments alone did not drag the area back into respectability.
Aspect was tutored by two quantum physics mavericks, the French physicists Olivier Costa de Beauregard and Bernard d’Espagnat. Aspect’s impressive experiments, which interestingly cannibalized some of the very same equipment Clauser had used, closed a loophole whereby the actual polarization direction chosen for measurement was determined only after the particles had separated. His results were not published until 1982, and Aspect too met resistance to his interest in the foundations of quantum physics. His reward too was a hard career and a share in the 2010 Wolf prize. Kaiser shows from a citation analysis that even the new experiments were not enough to sustain interest in the area.
Kaiser’s argument is that, although the major breakthroughs which led to quantum information science stemmed as offshoots from the Fundamental Fysiks Group’s work on Bell’s Theorem, the group played a key role in keeping the candle alight as the mainstream burned large wattage bulbs in other areas of physics. It was the candle, the round table, and the renegades who provided the spur to what came later.
There always were, of course, mavericks willing to investigate the foundations of quantum mechanics: figures such as David Bohm, John Bell himself, the French quantum physicists, and the group in the Soviet Union. As we learn more about these different scientists and their relationships, we learn more about the different cultural contexts, which keep different forms of physics blooming. Paul Forman’s classic argument on quantum mechanics in the romanticist world of the Weimar Republic would surely be worth revisiting in the light of new historical understanding of how physics can flourish in diverse cultural contexts.
One important message from Kaiser’s book is that it hints at a different model for doing physics and a different way that science and society might be linked. And there were real consequences from the sixties for how society came to think about physics and physicists. One cannot imagine the popular acclaim of a Richard Feynman or even today a Brian Greene without the sixties countercultural influence on physics.
Kaiser shows not so much how physics was saved, but how physics is inescapably part of the wider social cultural milieu. The Fundamental Fysiks group offers a lens to an almost parallel world of physics and its institutions. Imagine physics, or perhaps fysiks, if all the conventional sources of funding dried up. Jack Sarfatti would have a Nobel Prize, which would be renamed an Erhard Prize, and Nick Herbert, who built that machine to communicate with the spirits of the dead, would be a consultant to Swiss bankers to prevent unwanted coherence developing in encrypted communications (unless the messages came from John Maynard Keynes!). The world would be a lot more fun perhaps, and the so-called hippies would have saved so-called physics after all.
- Collins, Harry and Pinch, Trevor. 2010. Frames of meaning: The social construction of extraordinary science (first published in 1982). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
- Turner, Fred. 2006. From counter culture to cyber culture: Stewart Brand, the whole earth network, and the rise of digital utopianism. Chicago: Chicago University Press.Google Scholar