Once upon a time, physicists put a lot of thought into why physics worked the way it did.  Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger: they all wrote about the philosophy of physics.  It wasn’t just about what numbers proved, it was about why they proved it, and what could become of that knowledge.

Then the Cold War happened.  Physicists were focused on calculations, mostly for military uses.  Physics students were taught to memorize, not philosophize.  And the field moved forward — some of the math they came up with was well beyond what had come before — but “fringe” ideas like quantum physics weren’t worth considering by the mainstream.  Anyone interested in the nature of the universe would find themselves off the tenure track if they dared talk about it.  There were a few exceptions to this, people who quietly did thought experiments and wrote obscure papers.

And then, in 1975, a bunch of hippie physicists in Berkeley started holding weekly discussion groups.  They called themselves the Fundamental Fysiks Group, and they were fascinated by the things quantum physics implied.  For example, Bell’s theorem had proved that nonlocality was an essential part of quantum physics.  But what did that mean?  Questions like that were what drove the FFG’s conversations and research.

Being interested in the New Age movement as well, many members started looking into telepathy and Eastern mysticism even as they did research into straight quantum physics.  Books like The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, both bestsellers when they were released, were penned by FFG members, and started off a whole genre of physics books for the lay audience.  (Some, like The Tao of Physics, actually made their way into undergraduate physics courses.  Even if you weren’t interested in the mysticism, the theories were sound.)

The field of quantum mechanics as it stands now wouldn’t exist without the Fundamental Fysiks Group.  They were the first ones in decades to dig into the subject and see what could happen if 30-50 people put their minds to it. Thanks to their “fringe science”, quantum physics is now an actual useful field that continues to shape our worldview.

Note that the FFG wasn’t the only group of hippies working on physics problems in the 70’s.  For example, much of modern chaos theory came from a similar group in San Jose.  But the particular book I read — How the Hippies Saved Physics, by David Kaiser — focused on the FFG.

Random fact: In the seventies, it was difficult to find information about quantum physics.  In 1979, the two best sources of info were an unpublished CIA memo and a feature article in Oui magazine.  Oui was a Playboy spinoff.  Its article was more accurate than the memo.

Kaiser’s book had some interesting information in it, but the book (in my opinion) spent too much time on details of who met whom and when; I would have greatly preferred more information on the personalities of the FFG, and less about lunch meetings regarding project funding. I wouldn’t suggest the book to someone who wanted a lightweight, breezy history, but if you want lots of details then definitely pick it up.


Categories: HistoryScience


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