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How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival

3.45 of 5 stars 3.45  ·  rating details  ·  350 ratings  ·  76 reviews
The surprising story of eccentric young scientists who stood up to convention-and changed the face of modern physics.

Today, quantum information theory is among the most exciting scientific frontiers, attracting billions of dollars in funding and thousands of talented researchers. But as MIT physicist and historian David Kaiser reveals, this cutting-edge field has a surpris
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published June 27th 2011 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published June 1st 2011)
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Paul Kieniewicz
"How the Hippies Saved Physics" took me back to my undergraduate days, by first two courses in Quantum Mechanics. Like the protagonists of Kaiser's book, I wanted to understand quantum mechanics. But the profs had their line that always closed off any inquiry ---"Shut up and calculate!" The maths works, the theory works --- why are you wasting your time in trying to figure out the Schrodinger wave function, wave particle duality, which slit an electron passes through in Young's double-slit exper ...more
David Kaiser has done a remarkable service by bringing an objective eye to an era that is stilled mired in controversy. Scholars and people in general take pains to distance themselves from anything tainted with associations with drugs or, God forbid, sex, no matter the genuine significance of the music, science or other discipline sincerely investigated. Yes, at times these folks were partying and on occasion were, yes, naked. Let's get over it! This lifestyle is in fact compatible with serious ...more
"The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine." JBS Haldane's words never ring so true as when the quantum world is discussed. At this subatomic level, all our intuitions about space, time, causality, even what a thing is, go out the window. In their place we have equations, and by dint of difficult calculation we can make predictions about how this miniscule world works. But there's no use trying to understand it, to form a mental picture, to ask what it ...more
Mar 17, 2015 Adam marked it as to-read
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Impossible to resist. Must read. Are you kidding me? So the relationship between physics and hippies doesn't just consist of deranged new age cults abusing ideas from quantum physics? So hot tubs, nudity, and shroom parties were genuinely part of the scientific process for actual physicists? And these tripping explorers were the folks who helped physics move beyond the orthodox silence concerning quantum weirdness? And, wait, the guy who wrote this thing teaches at MIT?!

I don't care if it's bull
James Piper
Am I convinced hippies saved physics? Not a chance.

I was surprised by the efforts some put into paranormal research. It seems like bunk to me, but others don't believe so. It all stems from the bizarre ability to transport information in ways that aren't easily explained. Fascinating. Bizarre. Is there an answer?

Quantum mechanics is counter intuitive. Here's a thoughtful analogy. Take twins. Put one in a restaurant in Europe and the other in one in Canada. Twin A is offered a choice of fish or s
This book starts out overstated from the title itself, and proceeds to inflate the importance of a particular social movement in the history of modern physics. Kaiser is aware of this, at least, but it doesn't stop him from vastly over-reaching. Add to that the tedium and endless repetition of information (how many times does he think characters need to be introduced?) and what would be an insightful magazine article becomes a poor book. It was also a shame to see the almost unquestioning accept ...more
Gina Briganti
One of the greatest values of this book is the richness of the bibliography. I will be reading from that list for years to come.

The hippies in question were doing a lot of interesting experimentation, and expanding on ideas that cold war physics had left behind in favor of developing weapons. They may not have "saved" physics, per se, but they did bring the romance back to it.

It was interesting to learn that a number of the Essalen group went on to be involved in IONS. The research being done th
Robert Wilson
A superb explanation of how a prejudice against "foundational" thinking about quantum physics in the 40's and 50's led to a wildly freethinking philosophical and scientific countermovement involving, at some points, ESP, faster-than-light communication, and Uri Geller -- and which, after all the dross and lunacy was cleared away, gave us the first serious investigation of Bell's Theorem and, ultimately, the science of quantum encryption. As a bonus, Kaiser's explanations of the scientific questi ...more
Once again, an opportunity to explain how psychedelics actually influenced decision-making and experimental creativity dashed on the rocks of the feel-good aesthetics of Esalen Institute and est. Interesting in many respects, since it deals (a small bit) with the eminence grise of all this, Ira Einhorn (aka, "The Unicorn'), the self-styled and self-promoting feel-good Philadelphia "hippie guru-leader" who murdered his girlfriend, but other than that, reading about some of these people just begs ...more
Dean Hamp
It's got hippies. It's got physics. But 'Saved' is nowhere in sight. It should truthfully be entitled, "How Hippie Physicists Tried Everything They Could Think Of To Prove Paranormal Phenomena Exists And Failed Utterly, But Did Prove One Quantum Phenomena From Their Decades Of Failure, With a Side Story About A Deranged Hippie Murderer"
Ps. Oddly, I 'got' the title before reading the book, because I recall "How the Irish Saved Civilization" came out just after I'd written my Honors thesis on a si
John Kaess
I found the book interesting, but I'm kind of an odd duck. It focuses mostly on physicists in the 60's and 70's who took to heart the implications of Quantum Mechanics and particularly, Bell's Theorem about Quantum Entanglement and posited that this theory opened the door to many psi types of experiences. Remember that this is also when our own government CIA and military were also focusing on the paranormal (and drugs) as tools. Of all the people and things covered in the book, I found the most ...more
The history angle of this account is plenty interesting: counter-culture hippie physicists bucking the staid world of old, boring scientists to plunge into the philosophically weird aspects of quantum entanglement, thus leading, eventually, to quantum computing, cryptography, and so on.

But the thesis, that these folks 'saved' physics, is kind of a stretch. Yes, they dug deeply into quantum weirdness when no one else would, but they did so while trying desperately to link it with all sorts of par
I gave up and returned this book to the library without finishing it. I did skip through and could see no evidence that this group "saved" physics. The author spent way too much ink on est and Uri Geller. Maybe the book is better if you plow through it without skipping around, but I doubt it.
Ossian Ekman
Since quantum physics challenges our intuition and basic physics laws alike, it's no wonder most of what went on around this group of countercultural freethinkers had to be played out on the fringes. They advocated contemplation and philosophy against an all too goal oriented/rational take on knowledge and Kaiser is very convincing in pointing all this out.
How the Hippies Saved Physics is a great read and a passionate reminder that "pointless" speculation sooner or later can bear fruit. It is a
Patrick Di Justo
An interesting read about how a bunch of hippie PhD theoretical physicists -- with judicious use of blackboards and chalk, magic mushrooms, co-ed nude hot tubs, the New Age human potential movement, and an illicit postal network run out of Bell Labs -- kept some of the most vibrant ideas about quantum mechanics alive during the post Cold War funding drought, when any examination of the "meaning" of quantum weirdness was officially discouraged.

While they were trying to find a connection between q
An interesting story making explicit that sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between 'real science' and pseudoscience. And that science is a fascinating process, not only a polished end product.

However, the whole story tries to imply that quantum information wouldn't be there if it hadn't been for some hippies asking questions on the nature of quantum world. However, even a quick glimpse at shows that also in Eastern Europe people started asking
Mary-Jean Harris
This book was pretty interesting...INTERESTING, I said, not GREAT, because although there were a lot of neat things in here and parts were fun to read, there was a lot of really tedious parts that gave these details about dates and people publishing papers and things like that which aren't things I really wanted to read about. As someone who is studying physics now, I found it illuminating to learn how our understanding of quantum mechanics and such has developed in the decades before I was born ...more
A very interesting chronicle of quantum mechanics in the middle of the 20th century. While the book deals with pseudo-science, it does a good job of presenting the rises and falls of the psi research of its subjects without supporting it. The personalities and minor cults -- not to mention lots of money -- that fed fundamental research physics at this time represent a very strange model when viewed from today's Academia/Industry/Government triad model. Although most of the reasons for public int ...more
I enjoyed this book for a couple of what I imagine to be fairly idiosyncratic reasons: (1) the description of the post-Cold War shifts in the politics and economics of science research and education and the implications for the direction of the field of physics in general and the careers of individual scientists, and (2) the description of the evolution of scholarly communication in the face of advances in communication technology and biases of mainstream disciplinary organs regarding certain ty ...more
Kaiser takes a line similar to that of his New Age protagonists: he's trying to sell you something. Here it's the idea that a quirky assemblage of Berkeley grad students, the Fundamental Fysiks Group, precipitated the Quantum Information Age by stepping outside the Cold War Funding Machine and taking seriously the interpretation of the equation-laden quantum theory, specifically, Bell's no-go theorem for local hidden variable theories. It is, in principle, a tricky argument to make: what is evi ...more
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Kristi Thielen
In the early decades of the 20th century, physicists like Heisenberg, Bohr and Einstein saw their discipline as one that was about big, philosophical questions. Following WWII, the Cold War ushered in a time when most physicists worked for the military complex, and were expected to "shut up and compute" as they made high tech gadgets.

With budget cuts in the 1970's, many physicists found themselves without positions and dissatisfied with what physics had become. This interesting and charming boo
Matt Heavner
A very enjoyable listen (I did the audiobook). I've read several books along these lines -- a "history of physics" which is very people driven. This isn't bad, and this book freely admits to being focused primarily around a group of people (those in the fundamental fysiks group). I very much enjoyed this book, and finding out much more details of the history -- a bit of how the hippies got me into physics! I remember reading the Dancing Wu-Li Masters both in High School and again in undergrad, a ...more
Tyson Hazard
I finished this book in 2 days which for me is fast, this not being a novel, and containing some technical terms although not too many to be scary.

In the first chapters, I found myself thinking, "no matter how well put together this book might turn out to be, does the subject matter really merit a book's worth of research?" The actual influence of the Fundamental Fysiks Group seemed dubious by the initial descriptions. One the book delved into simple explanations on the work of Einstein, Podols
Brian Clegg
I have to be honest here, the approach taken by the author is not one I was totally comfortable with. He expresses regret that physics moved from requiring students to write philosophical essays about the interpretation of quantum theory to concentrating on the physics and maths. I have to say this doesn't strike me as a problem. Similarly he is very enthusiastic, working very hard to find something good scientifically coming out of the counter culture. Again I don't think this should be an end ...more
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 ...more
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How The Hippies Saved Physics, Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival by David Kaiser

David Kaiser is a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This book is a history of science book. It is also a popular science book. The book describes how quantum physics which many considered to be fringe science became accepted science. It is a very strange, eccentric, and interesting story.

The book focuses on a group called the Fundamental Fysiks Group which held sessions at the Univers
Heather Denkmire
I'm awfully close to choosing 4 stars on this because I did "really like it." But I didn't "really like it" because of the book itself, but because of how it ties into so many other things I've learned and thought about in the last couple years. I felt like I was learning about part II of the quantum mechanics story and it was amazing. After all the time I've spent with the Einstein/Bohr/Heisenberg, etc. up through Bell it just didn't occur to me that things didn't keep going and expanding (gett ...more
Ruth Angela
I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It was historical and really showed the story of how we ended up being so stuck in the Newtonian era. I live in the Bay Area and was fascinated to find out many of these key players in developing the new physics lived here, visiting the very same cafes and institutions that still exist. Some of the people from this Fysics group were authors of books I have read and enjoyed. I was surprised how it kept my interest all the way through. I think the author d ...more
Who better to plumb the depths of quantum weirdness than a group of weird hippies? Interesting biopic of some of the personalities involved in the revival of fundamental inquiry in serious physics, using science to address philosophical questions. Their lives overlapped and included odd pursuits like self-help seminars, acid trips, and spoon bending. But they relentlessly probed the meaning of the well-tested and highly successful but little understood equations of quantum mechanics. Their thoug ...more
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David Kaiser is an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he teaches in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society and the Department of Physics. He and his family live in Natick, Massachusetts.
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“the earliest battles flared between himself and fellow physicist Leonard Susskind over whether quantum mechanics implied that information could leak out of black holes.” 0 likes
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