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. 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.
Also on Kindle:  
Also in paperback (Sep 2012):  
Also on audio CD:  
Also as audio download:  
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…