How the Hippies Saved Physics

Written by David Kaiser
WW Norton, £17.99

Reviewed by jjSchaer

In How the Hippies Saved Physics, David Kaiser charts the rise and fall of the Fundamental Fysiks Group, a collective of bohemian scientists who held weekly discussion sessions at Berkley University in San Francisco during the 1970s. Sharing a love of quantum physics, they aimed to further understanding of the subject, pioneered groundbreaking techniques and managed to renew interest in a field which had been abandoned in favour of Cold War engineering projects. Kaiser argues that the group made some major breakthroughs and their legacy is still apparent decades later.

Initially founded by two scientists working at Berkley University, Elizabeth Rancher and George Weissman, they started by attracting a small cluster of students, but their numbers quickly grew to include a variety of off-beats from the local area – much to the chagrin of the university security staff. Other leading members included Jack Sarfatti, Fritjuf Capra, Saul-Paul Sirag and Nick Herbert.

Kaiser juxtaposes the group with the forefathers of the craft. Where Einstein, Schrodinger and Heisenberg were heavily influenced by classical philosophy and music, t he Fundamental Fysiks Group took their lead from trends growing in the counter-culture of the time – psychedelic drugs, Eastern mysticism and the growing belief in psychic abilities. Inspired by Bell’s Theorem, they began exploring speculative and philosophical theories in physics that had long been abandoned. Believing that as matter can affect consciousness, with the ingestion of LSD for example, then surely the reverse must be possible and somehow provable.

Kaiser goes into detail to explain how the individuals that made up the group branched out and used their specific skill sets to explore theories discussed in the weekly sessions. Saffratti was inspired by Uri Geller and used him as a test subject to explain psi-phenomena and burgeoning cognitive abilities being displayed in humans. Despite some positive results, Geller’s defrauding scuppered the serious work. Members of the group even accepted CIA funding to try and develop psychic warriors able to read the minds of Russian scientists across the globe… And presumably failed.

Some of the bigger success’ came from publications from group members. Amongst them, Fritjof Capra’s Tao of Physics (1975) and Gary Zukan’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters (1979), both blended physics and Eastern philosophy to make the subject more palatable for the masses.

Along the way they managed to rise to the status of minor celebrities, with a little help from Francis Ford Coppola. But, like everything in their field, entropy eventually took hold and the group disbanded within a four year period.

Kaiser picks an interesting subject for the period and moves away from the usual Leary-esque tedium – though it must be said that he does make an appearance or two. It is also a good book for someone with a limited knowledge of the subject; Kaiser takes time to chart the movements in the world of quantum physics throughout the twentieth century and breaks down the major ideas into easily understandable blocks. The book does jump around decades as Kaiser tries to explain the movements of the group members and at times becomes disjointed, but it was an interesting read nonetheless.

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Comment left by sandra gibson on 30th October, 2012 at 10:14
You have inspired me to read this book. Thank you.