Whether they were doing science or pseudoscience, the hippies were having a lot more fun…


Charter members of the ‘Fundamental Fysiks Group,’ circa 1975, Fred Alan Wolf (via)

From American Scientist:

In the United States, the job market for people with doctorates in physics collapsed around 1970, as the huge post-Sputnik expansion of American university hiring and military spending came to an abrupt halt. By the mid-1980s, things hadn’t improved much, and it seemed likely that my recent Ph.D. in theoretical physics would be of little use in finding conventional permanent academic employment. One possible career path that came to mind was to try to follow the example of a sizable group of physicists who lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1970s. They appeared to have managed to pursue scientific research by dropping out of academia and adopting a countercultural lifestyle that included soaking in hot tubs at Big Sur, engaging in Tantric sex, hanging out at North Beach cafes and taking psychedelic drugs. Some of them had gotten rich writing books that mixed physics with various kinds of mysticism. I wasn’t very interested in the mysticism part, but I figured I could handle the rest.

For better or worse, I did end up moving to the Bay Area for a year, but as a respectable post-doc in mathematics I saw little or no evidence of the continued existence of these countercultural physicists, and I wondered what had happened to them. David Kaiser’s entertaining new book, How the Hippies Saved Physics, does a wonderful job of recounting the twists and turns of the story of how the members of this group came together, interacted with one another and with the more conventional physics community, and then dispersed to various fates.

Kaiser takes as the center of his account the activities of Jack Sarfatti and other physicists who met from 1975 to 1979 at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, sometimes calling themselves the “Fundamental Fysiks Group.” The group, whose core members included John Clauser, Elizabeth Rauscher, Saul-Paul Sirag, Nick Herbert, George Weissmann and Fred Alan Wolf, was open to anyone interested in the interpretation of quantum theory. One subject that occupied its members was what is now known as Bell’s theorem, which shows that quantum systems are “entangled” in a rather counterintuitive way. Although it was a fringe topic at the time, in recent years Bell’s theorem has played a part in the active field of quantum information theory, which raises serious hopes that important new technology such as quantum computers may soon be within reach.

Many members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group had unconventional motivations for their research: Some were hoping to explain parapsychological phenomena, and others were trying find a scheme for faster-than-light communication. Sarfatti has continued this sort of search, supported by various patrons over the years, but more recently his attention has turned to unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and faster-than-light interstellar travel. Other members or associates of the group were responsible for wildly successful popular books, including Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics, 1975), Gary Zukav (The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, 1979) and Nick Herbert (Quantum Reality, 1985). Off and on, these books have even found their way into the syllabi of university physics classes.

“Fun with Fysiks”, Peter Woit, American Scientist