How the Hippies Saved Physics Book Review

[ReviewAZON name=”How the Hippies Saved Physics” id=”2″ display=”inlinepost” asin=”0393076369″ trackingid=”antoniocangia-20″ country=”us” width=”200px” float=”left” imagetop=”10px”]How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival
David Kaiser
W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2011
372 pages

How the Hippies Saved Physics is a history book about the origins of quantum information science, quantum computing, and quantum cryptography, currently hot, heavily funded fields in physics. Written by MIT science historian David Kaiser, it tells the tale of the Fundamental Fysiks Group, a loose-knit 1970’s era group of mostly out of work physicists in the San Francisco Bay Area who explored the foundations of quantum mechanics, parapsychology, LSD, and other exotic topics.

The Fundamental Fysiks Group included many colorful characters such as Fritjof Capra, author of the bestselling The Tao of Physics and an entire series of green/ecological/New Age books since the 1970s, Fred Alan Wolf, Nick Herbert, and Jack Sarfatti (to name only a few). Members of the group secured backing from such improbable sources as New Age human potential guru Werner Erhard and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). They also sponsored succesful workshops on their brand of quantum mechanics at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California complete with naked coed hot tubbing.

From a scientific point of view, the greatest accomplishments of the Fundamental Fysiks Group, at least to date, are probably John Clauser’s pioneering experiment demonstrating quantum entanglement and Nick Herbert’s articles proposing methods to transmit information faster than light using quantum entanglement. The so-called “no cloning” theorem and some other theorems of quantum information science were developed to refute Herbert’s clever proposals. Hippies discusses both of these developments, devoting an entire chapter “From FLASH to Quantum Encryption” to Herbert’s proposals and the development of the no-cloning theorem and quantum encryption in response to his proposals.

In quantum mechanics, two or more particles such as photons of light can be in an entangled state in which measuring a property of one particle such as the polarization of light instantaneously affects the measurement of a property of another particle in the entangled state no matter how far away that particle is. Quantum encryption is a way of sending information using an entangled quantum state so that any attempt to intercept the information is both detected and prevented: perfect data security — the Holy Grail of spies, banks, and gangsters.

Hippies is well-written, detailed, and appears well researched. I enjoyed Kaiser’s writing style, but some may find the book a bit scholarly and pedantic at times. While Kaiser does give a well written overview of the physics and mathematics of Bell’s Theorem and quantum entanglement, key elements of the story, this book is not the place to find a detailed discussion of the science or mathematics of these mysterious topics. Hippies is largely a serious history book about people, personalities, institutions, and society.

The title is intentionally over-the-top, a play on Thomas Cahill’s bestseller How the Irish Saved Civilization. The quasi-psychedelic cover illustration, which features a naked man standing on his head with his back to the camera and an atomic nucleus overlayed to keep the picture G or at least PG rated, has probably put off more than a few would-be readers. Despite the cover and title, the book is actually a detailed scholarly history of the Fundamental Fysiks Group which manages to combine a sympathetic attitude toward its subjects with a certain evident skepticism toward some of their beliefs and claims, notably regarding extra-sensory perception (ESP) and parapsychology.

A major theme of the book is the near total eclipse of philosophy and foundational issues in physics, especially in the United States, following World War II. The title of the first chapter is the infamous phrase “Shut Up and Calculate,” allegedly addressed to young physicists by their professors. Kaiser discusses how philosophical discussions of the meaning and foundations of quantum mechanics (and other parts of physics as well) were systematically eliminated from textbooks and training in physics in the United States during the 1950s. Many journals had either explicit or implicit policies of rejecting any papers discussing these issues. Thus, many key papers by Bell and members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group were originally published in obscure journals.

The members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group, on the other hand, wanted to understand the meaning and conceptual basis of quantum mechanics. The same appears to have been true of the late John Bell, the author of Bell’s Theorem. If quantum encryption and quantum computing prove practical, then the real world consequences of these philosophical questionings may prove great indeed. For the most part, however, the actual mathematics used to express these concepts is first and second year college algebra and calculus, nothing like the exotic mathematics of string theory or quantum field theory (QFT).

If the book has a major weakness, it is that the book is very cautious in addressing parapsychology, the occult, the involvement of the CIA and other intelligence agencies, and the many bizarre elements of the story, all of which overlap strongly. Kaiser appears to stick carefully to what he can clearly document and to avoid taking a definite position, let alone speculating, on the many controversial issues that arise during his book. His focus is the eventual impact on mainstream, public, unclassifed physics research today. It is perhaps worth noting that the National Security Agency (NSA) and other “members of the intelligence community” appear to be the principal sources of the downpour of funding for quantum information sciences, quantum encryption, and quantum computing, an amount of money far in excess of the few millions garnered by the research in the 1970’s that Kaiser discusses.

Readers interested in the foundations of quantum mechanics and related topics will probably find How the Hippies Saved Physics an interesting and fascinating book. Readers who have been entranced by the 2004 movie What the BLEEP Do We Know? (Fred Alan Wolf appears prominently in BLEEP) or similar New Age offerings will probably benefit from reading this book. The book is simultaneously an inspiring argument for restoring philosophy and conceptual analysis in physics as well as a cautionary tale about the dangers of getting lost in metaphysical pursuits.

Additional Resources

The Quantum Mystics


Quantum Catfight

David Kaiser Video: How the Hippies Saved Physics

David Kaiser Video II: How the Hippies Saved Physics

David Kaiser Interview on The Space Show: How the Hippies Saved Physics

David Kaiser on the Cold War Physics Bubble (Speaking at the Perimeter Institute)

© 2012 John F. McGowan

About the Author

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, Visual Basic, Mathematica, MATLAB, and many other programming languages. He is probably best known for his AVI Overview, an Internet FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on the Microsoft AVI (Audio Video Interleave) file format. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He can be reached at [email protected].


  1. Shecky R April 2, 2012
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    • austin April 3, 2012
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