Friday, 24 February 2012

How the Hippies Saved Physics

How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival by David Kaiser 

Financial Times, 14-15 January 2012

Quantum teleportation may sound like science fiction, but in 1997 a team led by Austrian physicist Anton Zeilinger turned it into a scientific fact. A single particle was transported, not physically but through transferring its quantum properties to a second particle, thereby effectively teleporting it from one place to another. Although not as dramatic as Captain Kirk being “beamed up”, it was nonetheless a stunning demonstration of a process deemed impossible just a decade earlier.

Even more remarkable is the fact that quantum teleportation and – for example – the ideas that underpin quantum-encrypted bank transfers have their origins in the hazy, drug-fuelled excesses of the 1970s New Age movement. As David Kaiser, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains in How the Hippies Saved Physics, many of the concepts at the heart of today’s science of quantum information can be traced back to a freewheeling circle of young physicists involved in an informal discussion group founded in May 1975 at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

Calling themselves the “Fundamental Fysiks Group” (FFG), they met weekly for nearly four years as they sought to recapture the excitement and mystery that had attracted them to physics in the first place. Members came and went as the group organised workshops and conferences on everythingfrom LSD to extrasensory perception, clairvoyance, psychokinesis and eastern mysticism with a heavy dose of quantum physics – the science of the atomic and sub-atomic levels of reality where mind-bending, counterintuitive ideas are the norm. This heady cocktail was already being sipped in the very first meeting, as Fritjof Capra spoke about his then new book The Tao of Physics, in which he argued that parallels existed between quantum theory and eastern mysticism.

Kaiser, too, sees an interconnection between the FFG, quantum pioneers such as Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, and the debate over what quantum physics reveals about the nature of reality. Einstein admitted to having spent a hundred times longer thinking about quantum physics than his theory of relativity and believed there was “a real world existing independently of perception”. Bohr, meanwhile, maintained that there was no objective reality but only an “abstract quantum description”.

By the time Capra and FFG members began studying physics in the 1960s and 1970s, the cold war imperative to find practical applications meant that such philosophical engagement had fallen out of fashion in favour of a “shut up and calculate” approach.

John Bell
What fascinates Kaiser is the mismatch between the FFG scientists’ “soaring intellectual aspirations and their modest professional platform” as they rescued Bell’s theorem – one of the great achievements of 20th-century physics – from a decade of obscurity. In 1964 John Bell managed to discover what had eluded both Einstein and Bohr: a mathematical theorem that offered a way of deciding between their opposing world views. Bell’s theorem stipulated that quantum objects that had once interacted with each other would retain a strange connection. Nudge a particle here and its partner would instantaneously dance over there – they remained “entangled” regardless of whether they were nanometres or light years apart.

Entanglement, for the likes of Capra, was akin to the eastern mystics’ emphasis on holism. Not everyone may have followed him there, but as the FFG grappled with Bell’s theorem it forced more conventionally minded physicists to pay attention. Today only the provenance of its successes would raise an eyebrow. Like so many of their peers, the hippies who “saved” physics have been absorbed by the mainstream.