The Hippies that Saved Physics: "Wrong in productive ways"

How did we get to a world where quantum mechanics makes the covers of national magazines and popular literature? You might be surprised.

Kaiser begins his talk by tracing a massive public effort to recruit new students to physics and science in the 1940’s, ’50’s and ‘60’s. The peak, preceded by a dramatic and steep climb, occurred in 1970, and was followed by an equally steep decline in national enrollment. Suddenly, there were far more qualified science graduates than there were available jobs.

Shortly thereafter, a group of these disillusioned young physicists, which subsequently called themselves the “Fundamental Fysiks Group,” was formed. They quickly homed in on one new discovery.

“Bell’s Theorem” proposed some strange physics indeed. The basic idea: measuring the property of one entangled particle, let’s say Particle A, instantaneously affects the property of entangled Particle B. It’s sometimes called “spooky action at a distance,” or quantum entanglement.

The newly formed group focused intensely on that counterintuitive result. They were among the earliest to connect the results to popular culture, and were doing this at Berkeley, not in the staid redoubts of learning such as Cambridge or Princeton.

The Fundamental Fysiks Group ALSO began to wonder if there was a connection with mental telepathy, even arranging for Yuri Geller to be tested. Along the way they attracted patrons like the CIA and New Age Gurus like Werner Erhard.

The American Physical Society’s journal, Physical Review, was not amused, and refused at one point to publish more articles on Bells’ Theorem if it meant giving more ink to the Fundamental Fysiks Group.

But the group was succeeding in popularize a real physical phenomenon, no matter how counter-intuitive it seemed.

Despite the odd tangents the group took, it did, however, prove to the rest of its counterparts in physics departments that Bells’ Theorem did not violate principles of relativity worked out by Einstein decades earlier.

Kaiser on the “Hippies that Saved Physics:” They:

Conducted first experimental tests of Bell’s theorem
First proved that it was compatible with the earlier discoveries of relativity.
Helped bring foundational physics back into classrooms.

Let me be clear, Kaiser says, the members of the Fundamental Fysics Group “were wrong far more often than they were right, but they were wrong in productive ways.”

Image: Geoff Oliver Bugbee