How the Hippies Saved Physics
is a fantastically kooky and zany history of the fringes of physics research in the 1960s and 1970s. The premise is certainly intriguing. Kaiser argues that the Second World War and the Cold War had relegated physics in America to number crunching and practical applications of theory (mainly in the defense industry) and that all previous notions of fundamental questions all but dried up. The timing couldn't have been less fortunate, as the war followed close on the heels of the heady days of the major physical discoveries that led to the formulation of quantum mechanics as a whole by luminaries such as Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrodinger in the 1920s and 1930s. This was a time when great philosophical questions concerning the nature of reality should have been asked, but the academic institutions of American were mainly concerned with churning out PhDs to compete with the Soviets. In short, if you weren't doing something practical in physics like producing better nuclear weapons or radar invisible materials, you weren't doing real physics. According to Kaiser, a select group of Hippy physicists centered in Berkeley called the Fundamental Fysiks Group provided a venue for physicists interested in fundamental questions to keep the burning questions at the heart of physics alive for a future, post-Cold War era.
it's an interesting argument, and Kaiser is quite even-handed in the weight he assigns to fringe physicists in important discoveries in spite of the grandiose title. Mainly, these physicists in their study of things like ESP and other elements of parapsychology and the connections between quantum mechanics (particularly the issue of nonlocality) were wrong more often than they were right. Their importance lay in the fact that they kept the torch burning for the pursuit of fundamental questions, and, Kaiser notes, their highly public mistakes and deviations paved the way for more mainstream thinkers to make advances in the field of physics - particularly in subfields like laser technology and quantum encryption and computing.
All in all, Kaiser has done his homework on the historical and scientific sides. More importantly, he can write! The story unfolds interestingly enough and he brings a touch of elliptical structure to the narrative that gives just enough ambiguity in the beginning for you to wonder, "How the heck are these flower-power-mystically-oriented 'physicists' going to actually contribute to cutting age science and technology coming into maturity today?" Along the way, Kaiser delves into the personal lives and scandals facing the members of the group, tracing the evolution of their lives as the field of physics changed around them. It's an intriguing and unlikely story presented from an innovative angle. I don't quite agree 100% that the Hippies literally saved physics in the sense that Kaiser seems to think they did. Mainstream physics was surely undergoing huge changes, particularly in particle physics and in the development of esoteric theories of everything like String Theory quite independent of the New Left movement. Brilliant minds like John Wheeler, Richard Feynman, Freeman Dyson, Ed Witten and Leonard Susskind were revolutionizing the field in America while maintaining quite a bit of distance from the core group of Hippies and their benefactors identified by Kaiser. Nor were the crew of the Fundamental Fysiks Group the only ones asking foundational questions about how to interpret quantum mechanics. While the Copenhagen Interpretation had its foundation in the 1920s and 30s, other interpretations and QM formalisms were still being developed - and in America nonetheless (Hugh Everett's Many Worlds Interpretation developed in the late 50s and popularized by Bryce DeWitt in the 60s and 70s being one of the most popular). This reinterpretation most certainly did not come out of the Hippy movement and does show that there were people out there interested in the big philosophical questions surrounding the New Physics. Nevertheless, it's a fun story and the bulk of Kaiser's argument is almost certainly correct. Plus, I don't think there's a work quite like it out there and if you're a child of the era or a fan of popular science in general, you'll be highly pleased with this book.