How the Hippies Saved Physics

From a review by George Johnson of How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival by David Kaiser (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011). Titled What Physics Owes the Counterculture, it was published on June 17, 2011 in the NYT Sunday Book Review.

How the Hippies Saved Physics

“What the Bleep Do We Know!?,” a spaced-out concoction of quasi physics and neuroscience that appeared several years ago, promised moviegoers that they could hop between parallel universes and leap back and forth in time — if only they cast off their mental filters and experienced reality full blast. Interviews of scientists were crosscut with those of self-proclaimed mystics, and swooping in to explain the physics was Dr. Quantum, a cartoon superhero who joyfully demonstrated concepts like wave-particle duality, extra dimensions and quantum entanglement. Wiggling his eyebrows, the good doctor ominously asked, “Are we far enough down the rabbit hole yet?”…

Dr. Quantum was a cartoon rendition of Fred Alan Wolf, who resigned from the physics faculty at San Diego State College in the mid-1970s to become a New Age vaudevillian, combining motivational speaking, quantum weirdness and magic tricks in an act that opened several times for Timothy Leary. By then Wolf was running with the Fundamental Fysiks Group, a Bay Area collective driven by the notion that quantum mechanics, maybe with the help of a little LSD, could be harnessed to convey psychic powers. Concentrate hard enough and perhaps you really could levitate the Pentagon.

In “How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival,” David Kaiser, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, turns to those wild days in the waning years of the Vietnam War when anything seemed possible: communal marriage, living off the land, bringing down the military with flower power Why not faster-than-light communication, in which a message arrives before it is sent, overthrowing the tyranny of that pig, Father Time?

The hippies who save physics
Members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group, circa 1975; clockwise from left: Jack Sarfatti, Saul-Paul Sirag, Nick Herbert and Fred Alan Wolf

That was the obsession of Jack Sarfatti, another member of the group. Sarfatti was Wolf’s colleague and roommate in San Diego, and in a pivotal moment in Kaiser’s tale they find themselves in the lobby of the Ritz Hotel in Paris talking to Werner Erhard, the creepy human potential movement guru, who decided to invest in their quantum ventures. Sarfatti was at least as good a salesman as he was a physicist, wooing wealthy eccentrics from his den at Caffe Trieste in the North Beach section of San Francisco.

Other, overlapping efforts like the Consciousness Theory Group and the Physics/Consciousness Research Group were part of the scene, and before long Sarfatti, Wolf and their cohort were conducting annual physics and consciousness workshops at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur.

Fritjof Capra, who made his fortune with the countercultural classic “The Tao of Physics” (1975) was part of the Fundamental Fysiks Group, as was Nick Herbert, another dropout from the establishment who dabbled in superluminal communication and wrote his own popular book, “Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics” (1985). Gary Zukav, a roommate of Sarfatti’s, cashed in with “The Dancing Wu Li Masters” (1979). I’d known about the quantum zeitgeist and read some of the books, but I was surprised to learn from Kaiser how closely all these people were entangled in the same web […]