How I came to meet Lady Marley, Ulrich Mohrhoff and other extraordinary people

A blog post by a theoretical physicist who (for the time being at least) wishes to remain unnamed.

This is the story of how I got to the philosophy department at […] University in the UK and how I came to meet and know about some very clever people.

I had an interest in science since a very young age. I used to build incredibly complicated and highly useless electrical devices, the idea was to create something complex that happened to have a function, the functionality was secondary, my main concern was to have as much stuff as possible without making the whole structure fall apart.

For example, there was a kind of “robot” which incorporated a weather station, a fan, a lamp and a cassette rewinder, among other things. The weather station only detected if it was raining or not, the problem was that instead of looking at this damn thing to see if the “raining” indicator was on, it was always easier to pull back the curtains and see it for yourself. The cassette rewinder allowed you to save on batteries, but on the other hand, you had to extract the cassette from the walkman, cycle back home, put the cassette in the rewinder till you thought you have reached the song you wanted to listen to, put it back in the walkman to check it, and so fort, so the whole business was utterly pointless. That’s how realism ruins an otherwise brilliant idea.

I had a respectable collection of live spiders and lizards, and I enjoyed building temperature controlled environments for my beloved reptiles. I was creating one of those comfy homes when I got seriously electrocuted and almost died. I was very surprised to find out years later that Richard Feynman had the same type of hobbies when he was a kid. The only difference is that he was brilliant and I almost killed myself, so that must mean something.

I decided to study physics for the same reason as everyone else: nature, the ultimate knowledge and all that stuff. To get there you first have to do some sacrifices, overcome obstacles, prove yourself, travel a long way, etc. So I did all that, and finally here comes the big day. First day of class at this multimillion investment building opening for the first time, sitting in the brand new auditorium, fully packed with 180 first-year students of physics, the biggest generation in the history of the faculty. Mauricio, who was the Dean at that time, had the honour of giving the welcoming speech. Using an impressive minimalist surround audio system he starts by saying, in perfectly clear Spanish:

“You have not come here to dedicate your life to the study of nature and the laws of physics, a 2% of you may follow that road; the rest of you have come here to become something quite different. In a few years time you will be working in the IT industry or in Wall Street. Nowadays there are physicists working in banks all around the world, developing dynamical models, understanding complex economic systems, programming software…”

With hindsight, now I understand that had I had a minimum of criteria or integrity I should have walked away at that point and never looked back. But for one reason or another I decided to stay there and after five difficult years I was among the handful of guys that came through the exit door with a degree in theoretical physics… ready for the IT market!

It may be because of that that I was not at all surprised when ten years later I read that a group of mathematicians and physicists working with derivatives in Wall Street had been made partially responsible for the worst economic crisis in the last century, ruining the lives of a few million people. It was the same as with those monstrous devices I used to build when I was a boy, it didn’t fit the purpose. Putting those guys to do that job was a risky move, too complex and artificial to be considered safe.

Coming back to my senses, I realized that the profession of physics had become too narrow and specialized, I was missing the big picture, so I decided to study philosophy. After paying a considerable amount of money (which is what you, or somebody else, has to do if you want to get into philosophy) I ended up studying Philosophy of Science at […]. Finally I had the chance to leave behind those narrow minded, boring physicists and meet some wonderfully smart people, people capable of saying at least two meaningful words in any social environment.

The main incentive for me was that I was going to be able to learn, first-hand, from one of the top-notch professors in the area of philosophy of physics and quantum mechanics, which was my main interest at the time. Her name was Lady Marley and there was a lot of fuss in the department whenever she moved around. When she asked a question in the middle of a talk, the background murmur would die away all of a sudden. When she entered a room, people would turn around and start inadvertently clapping with their ears. So I had to figure out what was all this admiration about. It turned out that it had something to do with her “genius”, of which her extensive work and knowledge of the subject was an inextricable part.

She had big smelly feet, which a Lady is not supposed to have, I know, but unfortunately that was the case here. So when you would get into the half-light of her office, hardly being able to walk between piles of books that reached to the ceiling, she would lay down in a sofa and take off her shoes, resting her big smelly feet in a heap of dispersed books and listening to you very carefully, not saying much, just to be able to measure the scope of your stupidity.

I was very close to getting into that same flattery mood when by sheer luck I came to read about this guy, one of those German physicists that happen to be born from time to time, his name was Ulrich Mohrhoff. No one knew anything about him or had the least idea of the issues he was trying to highlight in quantum mechanics. To me, everything he said seemed TREMENDOUSLY important, so I studied his work quite a lot, I read everything he wrote about physics and the few critical notes on his work that were published at the time. It was something groundbreaking and exciting. Exciting is the right word, here is a guy who is saying something really new and meaningful about a very old problem, and he publishes it in Foundation of Physics, so he’s not a nut case. What can be more important?

I was wrong, food is more important.

Lady Marley was very conscious about the nature of her job, she would ring up the BBC to defend the argument that government cuts in areas like philosophy of science could damage future discoveries in unrelated fields. While some crazy guy on the other side of the line would say just the opposite, that the world is made of things (extensive things) and we should try to live with what we can afford.

So after listening very carefully to Lady Marley’s lectures, I came to her first seminar, knowing, after studying Mohrhoff, Mermin and others, that there were at least a few very worrying issues on what she had presented as objective “facts” of the microscopic world. She started talking again about the wave function and I took the first opportunity that presented to ask her where was she extracting the physical content of that function from, whether it was just a mathematical apparatus to calculate probabilities or an element of the real world. She looked at me in the same way as Hudig looked at Willems* the day he fired the bastard from his post, and added with a pitiful laugh: “oh, you are an anti-realist!”

That was the beginning and the end of it. From then onwards there was no chance to discuss anything other than the usual waffle and fancy stuff, which is a mixture of science fiction and wishful thinking, all the standard tricks and transpired formalities of main stream philosophy of science. The rest of the people there were as lively as the reflection of the light in the totem permitted them to be. They shared some of that warmth and lived by it.

I didn’t find the openness or the opportunities I was expecting to find, but I did meet a very nice fellow with a strange Japanese surname which did philosophy of biology. He was unaffected and lovable. Sadly, I already had a bad experience with the natural world and didn’t want to get electrocuted twice.

* Two characters in Joseph Conrad’s “An Outcast of the Islands”

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 […]