Wednesday, 7 December 2011

How the Hippies Saved Physics – David Kaiser ***

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 in itself. It’s interesting if true, but not something you should shape history to try to prove.
Much of the book is concerned with two things: quantum entanglement, and an obscure group of US scientists who called themselves the ‘Fundamental Fysics group.’ I’m sorry, but every time I saw that ‘Fysics’ it made me cringe and want to dunk someone’s head in a toilet and flush it. That kind of spelling is just about acceptable if you are selling doughnuts, but not if you want to be taken seriously.
Having written a book about quantum entanglement (The God Effect, which I’m delighted to see was in the author’s bibliography) I was interested to learn more about this group’s contribution. I think it’s fair to say, in the words of the great Paul Daniels it was ‘not a lot.’ But, to be fair, some of it was quite entertaining, if only in a kind of ‘weren’t those hippy types funny’ way. In fact by far the most interesting and absorbing part of the book (and it is a significant part) is the story of the lifestyles and strange goings on from nude discussion groups to murder.
The author also gives us quite a lot about entanglement, especially on the Bell inequality which was used to demonstrate that entangled particles really do seem to act non-locally, instantly communicating at a distance. Mostly this is fine, and provided significantly more details than many popular science accounts. This is important physics and deserves to be well covered. The only slight disappointment is a misunderstanding of the original EPR paper that started the whole quantum entanglement business.
This paper deals with two entangled particles, looking at their position and momentum. A lot of people misinterpreted it, thinking because it refers to these two properties that it’s about violating Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, suggesting it’s possible to measure both accurately and simultaneously (something the uncertainty principle forbids). David Kaiser falls into this trap. But Einstein (the E of EPR) was dismissive of this idea. He said of the use of both position and momentum ‘Ist mir Wurst!’ (literally ‘it’s sausage to me’), meaning ‘I couldn’t care less.’ The intention was to show you could do this with position or momentum – there is no suggestion in the paper that you would attempt to do both simultaneously and undermine uncertainty.
In the end, Kaiser doesn’t make a great case for the Fysics (ugh) group contributing anything significant to our knowledge of physics – they’re always on the fringe. He certainly doesn’t justify the book’s title as anything other than very cheeky hyperbole. But it is a mildly entertaining oddity in the history of science – and as this can be a little dull sometimes, it’s not at all a bad thing that it has been covered.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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