Monday, August 15, 2011

Did “The Hippies” Save Physics?

R.U. Sirius August 10, 2011

Back in the day, before Mondo 2000, I and my partners had a magazine called Reality Hackers (which evolved into Mondo). The notion that reality was a hackable system was very attractive to us proto-transhumanists. One one level, reality hacking implied all of the enhancement tropes that are fondly embraced by the H+ community — improved brains, awesome abilities, extended lifespans, wingspans… maybe an extra arm… you know the drill.

But two of the people who were hanging out in our midst that I enjoyed talking to the most were Nick Herbert and Jack Sarfatti because they liked to talk about the quantum physics and the possibilities of time travel. We asked Herbert to write a “Fringe Science” column for us, and when I asked him to write one about time travel, I discovered that he really viewed it as an intellectual exercise more than an actual potential reality hack. (The solution involved “complicated configurations of black holes,” among other things. I don’t think even Kurzweil expects us to get there in my lifetime.) Sarfatti, on the other hand, seemed dedicated to building the time machine (and seems to still be).

Sarfatti and Herbert are among the characters at the center of an engaging new book, How The Hippies Saved Physics.

The book might have better been called “How The Hippies Saved Theoretical Physics.” The narrative traces a line from the good old days when scientists like Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, David Bohm, Erwin Schrodinger and the like would argue endlessly about the nature of reality as reflected by the quantum realm. Then, physics — as a field of research and endeavor — was deeply concerned with the question of what it all meant. But as Kaiser shows, with the intervention of World War II and the Cold War, physics became intensely practical. In fact, theorizing… and the very search for meaning in university physics department was, in some cases, exiled, denounced, hunted down and eliminated.

Then came the “New Age” — the ’70s and the search for meaning. Physicists in and around Berkeley California — steeped in the psychedelic youth culture of that place and time — formed the Fundamental Fysiks Group (later the Physics/Consciousness Research Group) — and the taboo against thinking about what it all means began to lift.

This being the 1970s, the explorations leaned towards possible relationships between the quantum realm and psychedelic experiences, psychic explorations, mysticism, and a general sense that a sort of benevolent surrealism undergirded the apparent physical world. Best selling books like The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra popularized lots of correct information about what was known about physics at that time, even as many continue to argue with his mystical/ecological conclusions.

It’s not clear that “the hippies” saved physics. It is clear that hip young scientists in the 1970s broke through an extant taboo against exploring theoretical physics. And even if some may find their theories flakey in the extreme, we can thank them for busting open the exploration of big physics ideas.

Over the last decade or so, there have been a number of books and articles about how counterculturists were at the heart of the early days of digital technology — John Markoff’s What The Dormouse Said being the best known example. Of course, the freaky hackers around former underground newspaper editor Lee Felsenstein and Fred Moore’s Homebrew Computer Club — like Adam Osborne, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak — along with so many other young, hip and educated ’70s nerds made products and ultimately created an economic and cultural revolution that dominates the world today. My physicist friends have less of a material nature to show for their adventures, but then, that’s quantum reality for ya.

And who knows. Maybe Jack Sarfatti will yet build that time machine.

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