How the hippies saved physics
August 23, 2013 5:59 AM   Subscribe

A recent book by David Kaiser tells the story of the Fundamental Fysiks Group of Berkeley, California during the 1970's. Here is a one hour oral presentation from the November, 2012 Cambridge Science Festival. Kaiser describes the book's title as tongue-in-cheek, but he does argue that the physics outsiders made a substantial contribution.

The main characters: Nick Herbert, Jack Sarfatti, Fred Alan Wolf, and Saul-Paul Sirag. Supporting cast includes Fritjof Capra, Gary Zukav, Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ. Cameo appearances by self-help guru Werner Erhard, psychic Uri Geller, and political activist / murderer Ira Einhorn. The book is mainly a story but it includes actual data; first, he has a plot of the number of American physics Ph. D.'s awarded by year with a sharp peak in 1970 resulting in all these talented people squeezed out of real physics jobs; second, he has a citation history for John Bell's physics papers; for 1964 - 1979 there were only 160 citations. Ultimately Bell became one-in-ten-thousand most cited, so this was a slow start. During those fifteen years three quarters of the Bell's Theorem paper citations are in papers authored by members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group. This is Kaiser's capsule-sized evidence their contributions were authentic despite the apparent bedlam.

You may be familiar with Fred Alan Wolf from the movies, including an animated appearance in What the Bleep! Down the Rabbit Hole - Quantum Edition.
posted by bukvich (5 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Len Susskind discusses the Erhard sessions a bit in his book Black Hole War...

It is true that some of these folks have added to our understanding, and while some, I think, do contribute (in particular, I think Nick Herbert has done some actual less "woo" quantum work), yeah - I do wonder how many actually had many contributions (our library had Capra and Zukav and Herbert's book when I was growing up (along with more traditional quantum fare)).
posted by symbioid at 6:36 AM on August 23, 2013

Cool! I went to graduate school with Dave Kaiser. One blisteringly hot summer evening we decided for some odd reason to see the truly abysmal Keanu Reeves physics thriller Chain Reaction. I fully expect his next book to be ...And How Keanu Reeves Killed it Off Again.
posted by googly at 6:58 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I found What the Bleep! to be little more than eye-roll-inducing mumbo-jumbo with scientific flavor packets added to make hippies feel vindicated, but who knows, I'm not a quantum physicist.
posted by Mooseli at 8:02 AM on August 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Aha! So this must be where Robert Anton Wilson got his obsession with Bell's Theorem?
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 9:04 AM on August 23, 2013

Unfortunately, not such a good book on the topic, at least on the physics part. More of an uninspired fact-dump that gets mired in the pop-culture of Esalen et al. Far from the level of Fritjof Capra's or Douglas Hofstadter's or Gary Zukav's classics.

If you could find it at all, Toben and Wolf's heavily-illustrated 1975 book Space-Time and Beyond is much more straight-from-the-horse's-mouth.
posted by Twang at 7:16 PM on August 23, 2013

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