Skip to main content

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. The author 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.

Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Patricia Fara - Four Way Interview

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She was the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), has been translated into nine languages. An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programmes. She also contributes articles and reviews to many popular magazines and journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary SupplementHer new book is Erasmus Darwin.

Why history of science?
I read physics at university, but half-way through the course I realised that had been a big mistake. Although I relished the intellectual challenge, I was bored by the long hours spent lining up recalcitrant instruments in dusty laboratories. Why was nobody encouraging us to think about the big questions – What is gravity? Does quantum mechani…

The Idea of the Brain: Matthew Cobb *****

Matthew Cobb is one of those people that you can’t help but admire but also secretly hate just a little bit for being so awesome. He is professor for zoology at the University of Manchester with a sizable teaching load that he apparently masters with consummate skill. He’s a scientific researcher, who researches the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots; I kid you not!  He’s also an attentive and loving family father but he still finds time and energy to write brilliant history of science books, three to date. His first, The Egg and Sperm Race, describes the search for the secret of human reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is one of my favourite history of science books, on the period. His second, Life’s Greatest Secret is a monster, both in scope and detail, description of the hunt to decipher the structure and function of DNA that along the way demolishes a whole boatload of modern history of science myths. The most recent, and the subject of this review, is

The Search for Life on Mars - Elizabeth Howell and Nicholas Booth ***

From the book’s enticing subtitle, ‘The Greatest Scientific Detective Story of All Time’, I was expecting something rather different. I thought the authors would kick off by introducing the suspects (the various forms life might take on Mars, either now or in the past) and the kind of telltale traces they might leave, followed by a chronological account of the detectives (i.e. scientists) searching for those traces, ruling out certain suspects and focusing on others, turning up unexpected new clues, and so on. But the book is nothing like that. Continuing with the fiction analogy, this isn’t a novel so much as a collection of short stories – eleven self-contained chapters, each with its own set of protagonists, suspects and clues.

Some of the chapters work better than others. I found the first three – which despite their early placement cover NASA’s most recent Mars missions – the most irritating. For one thing, they unfold in a way that’s at odds with the cerebral ‘detective story’ na…