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Monday, November 21, 2011

Reading List: How the Hippies Saved Physics

Kaiser, David. How the Hippies Saved Physics. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011. ISBN 978-0-393-07636-3.
From its origin in the early years of the twentieth century until the outbreak of World War II, quantum theory inspired deeply philosophical reflection as to its meaning and implications for concepts rarely pondered before in physics, such as the meaning of “measurement”, the rôle of the “observer”, the existence of an objective reality apart from the result of a measurement, and whether the randomness of quantum measurements was fundamental or due to our lack of knowledge of an underlying stratum of reality. Quantum theory seemed to imply that the universe could not be neatly reduced to isolated particles which interacted only locally, but admitted “entanglement” among separated particles which seemed to verge upon mystic conceptions of “all is one”. These weighty issues occupied the correspondence and conference debates of the pioneers of quantum theory including Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Pauli, Dirac, Born, and others.

And then the war came, and then the war came to an end, and with it ended the inquiry into the philosophical foundations of quantum theory. During the conflict, physicists on all sides were central to war efforts including nuclear weapons, guided missiles, radar, and operations research, and after the war they were perceived by governments as a strategic resource—subsidised in their education and research and provided with lavish facilities in return for having them on tap when their intellectual capacities were needed. In this environment, the education and culture of physics underwent a fundamental change. Suddenly the field was much larger than before, filled with those interested more in their own careers than probing the bottom of deep questions, and oriented toward, in Richard Feynman's words, “getting the answer out”. Instead of debating what their equations said about the nature of reality, the motto of the age became “shut up and calculate”, and physicists who didn't found their career prospects severely constrained.

Such was the situation from the end of World War II through the 1960s, when the defence (and later space program) funding gravy train came to an end due to crowding out of R&D budgets by the Vietnam War and the growing financial crisis due to debasement of the dollar. Suddenly, an entire cohort of Ph.D. physicists who, a few years before could expect to choose among a variety of tenure-track positions in academia or posts in government or industry research laboratories, found themselves superbly qualified to do work which nobody seemed willing to pay them to do. Well, whatever you say about physicists, they're nothing if they aren't creative, so a small group of out of the box thinkers in the San Francisco Bay area self-organised into the Fundamental Fysiks Group and began to re-open the deep puzzles in quantum mechanics which had laid fallow since the 1930s. This group, founded by Elizabeth Rauscher and George Weissmann, whose members came to include Henry Stapp, Philippe Eberhard, Nick Herbert, Jack Sarfatti, Saul-Paul Sirag, Fred Alan Wolf, John Clauser, and Fritjof Capra, came to focus on Bell's theorem and its implications for quantum entanglement, what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”, and the potential for instantaneous communications not limited by the speed of light.

The author argues that the group's work, communicated through samizdat circulation of manuscripts, the occasional publication in mainstream journals, and contact with established researchers open to considering foundational questions, provided the impetus for today's vibrant theoretical and experimental investigation of quantum information theory, computing, and encryption. There is no doubt whatsoever from the trail of citations that Nick Herbert's attempts to create a faster-than-light signalling device led directly to the quantum no-cloning theorem.

Not only did the group reestablish the prewar style of doing physics, more philosophical than computational, they also rediscovered the way science had been funded from the Medicis until the advent of Big Science. While some group members held conventional posts, others were supported by wealthy patrons interested in their work purely from its intellectual value. We encounter a variety of characters who probably couldn't have existed in any decade other than the 1970s including Werner Erhard, Michael Murphy, Ira Einhorn, and Uri Geller.

The group's activities ranged far beyond the classrooms and laboratories into which postwar physics had been confined, to the thermal baths at Esalen and outreach to the public through books which became worldwide bestsellers and remain in print to this day. Their curiosity also wandered well beyond the conventional bounds of physics, encompassing ESP (and speculating as to how quantum processes might explain it). This caused many mainstream physicists to keep members at arm's length, even as their insights on quantum processes were infiltrating the journals.

Many of us who lived through (I prefer the term “endured”) the 1970s remember them as a dull brown interlude of broken dreams, ugly cars, funny money, and malaise. But, among a small community of thinkers orphaned from the career treadmill of mainstream physics, it was a renaissance of investigation of the most profound questions in physics, and the spark which lit today's research into quantum information processing.

The Kindle edition has the table of contents, and notes properly linked, but the index is just a useless list of terms. An interview of the author, Jack Sarfatti, and Fred Alan Wolf by George Knapp on “Coast to Coast AM” is available.

Posted at November 21, 2011 22:01