Of science, mysticism, and metaphysical chatter

How the Hippies Saved Physics:

Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival

In the early days of quantum theory, pioneers such as Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger vigorously debated the philosophical implications of their findings. They had formulated mathematical equations to describe the motions of subatomic entities, but what did those equations mean? The mathematics suggested that the smallest building blocks of physical reality are not solid, massy little particles but wavelike clouds of probability. That posed the ultimate ontological question—Does the material world really exist, or is everything we see and touch around us merely probable?—and the ultimate epistemological problem—If Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is valid, is it possible to know anything with certainty?

Their passionate philosophical disputes stimulated extraordinary progress in physics, but discussions of that sort came to a crashing halt in the post–World War II era. The Manhattan Project’s success in creating nuclear weapons had given birth to Big Science on an unprecedented scale.

Big Science required Big Money, most of which flowed from the US Department of Defense. The demands of “national security” and the immensity of the financial stake put pressure on the physicists to produce tangible results. The physics profession thus came under the command of a pragmatic bureaucratic elite who strongly discouraged what they saw as frivolous metaphysical chatter. Their watchword, David Kaiser says in How the Hippies Saved Physics, was: “Shut up and calculate.”1 Discussions about how to interpret the implications and meaning of the equations—and how they might contribute to understanding the world around us—were ruled out of bounds. Rank-and-file physicists rapidly became aware that expressing concern about the foundations of quantum theory would be fatal to their careers.

Kaiser argues that by suppressing the speculative spirit that serves as intellectual leaven to good science, the official physics establishment slowed scientific progress. The bureaucrats were leading the discipline into a blind alley by promoting a sterile physics based on mathematical models with ever more tenuous ties to physical reality. That is why, as Kaiser’s wonderfully provocative title suggests, physics needed to be “saved.” But who were the “hippies” he says did the saving?

A number of young physicists, strongly influenced by the youth radicalization that swept their campuses during the 1960s, found the prohibition against philosophical speculation intolerable. Telling them to “shut up” was like telling antiwar demonstrators not to protest. It only made them angry and more determined than ever to inquire into what fundamental truths relativity theory and quantum mechanics might yield. It was their doggedly persistent oppositional efforts, Kaiser tells us, which preserved and restored the honor of the physics profession by compelling the establishment types to shed their antiphilosophical blinders. The young rebels seized upon certain paradoxes and contradictions in the equations and eventually forced thorny theoretical issues onto the agenda. Their labors were later validated by a scientific breakthrough that today even ultrapragmatists must acknowledge as a genuinely valuable advance in physics.

Physics and mysticism

The oppositionists were not only influenced by the political radicalism of the era but were drawn into its strong current of counterculturalism, which is what prompts Kaiser to identify them as hippies. The counterculture was infatuated with Asian mysticism. Hundreds of thousands of young Americans read Zen koans and Taoist texts; a few joined cults, chucked their worldly goods, and moved into ashrams. This was undoubtedly a reaction to the hollowness of consumerism and the culture of popular fads, but, ironically, it was itself a major fad. In the frenetic search for novelty, the youth movement found a gold mine in the esoterica of Asian religions.

The young physicists chafing under the constraints of their conservative elders were not immune to the widespread fascination with mysticism. One result was the appearance of a rash of popular books attempting to reconcile modern physics with traditional Asian wisdom. Among the bestsellers were The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra (1975), The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav (1979), and The Eye of Shiva by Amaury de Riencourt (1979).

More than three decades ago I wrote a review essay of these three books.2 I labeled their authors “physics-mystics” and argued against their attempt to dissolve the achievements of modern physical science into mystical abstractions. The territory their books staked out was the borderline between what is known and what is not known about the physical world. These are realms beyond the reach of direct human perception—the microworld of subatomic entities and the gigantic stretches of intergalactic space measured in light-years.

The laws of nature on these levels of reality are far removed from our everyday experience. They are counterintuitive; they violate common sense. The physics-mystics attempted to dazzle their readers with this strangeness in order to argue that knowledge of the material world is unattainable. By denying the possibility of objective knowledge, they hoped to open the door to “scientific” support for the reality of paranormal and occult phenomena. A favorite citation from the Taoist texts is, “He who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know.” Genuine science, by contrast, is the pursuit of knowledge that can be spoken, shared, and put to practical use.

In spite of the strong odor of pseudoscience that permeates these books, I did not conclude that they were worthless. They are, I wrote, “not totally without redeeming value” because “the subject they deal with is certainly worthy of attention: What philosophical conclusions can be drawn from the revolutionary development of scientific knowledge that began at the turn of the [twentieth] century?”3

Kaiser’s analysis puts all of this into a broader context by demonstrating that these authors, and others of the same genre, were not simply pop-science writers exploiting a gullible readership but were in fact representatives of a genuine movement among trained physicists. That these physicists were not at the center of the physics profession but on its fringes was not due to a lack of talent on their part but to the dominance of a conservative elite over that era’s physics establishment. As for their explicit embrace of the paranormal and the supernatural, that lies outside the realm of scientific discourse. As Jonathan Swift wisely observed, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”4

“Hippie organization” may seem like an oxymoron, but the young physicists who refused to shut up did indeed organize themselves into a discussion club called the Fundamental Fysiks Group, which is the focus of Kaiser’s investigation. Two of its charter members and leading lights were Jack Sarfatti and Elizabeth Rauscher. Neither they nor any of the group’s other members gained any significant measure of recognition in the world of science; it is Kaiser’s mission to rescue them from obscurity.

Sarfatti earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of California, Riverside, and continued his studies and research at the Cornell Space Science Center, the UK Atomic Energy Research Establishment, the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich, and the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste. It was while working at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in the mid-1970s that he and a number of colleagues founded the Fundamental Fysiks Group. Sarfatti was enamored of paranormal and psychic phenomena and made explicit his desire to discover the physical basis of extrasensory perception (ESP) in quantum theory.

Elizabeth Rauscher “holds degrees in astrophysics, nuclear physics, engineering, chemistry, and physics from the University of California, Berkeley, and is a former researcher with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Stanford Research Institute, and NASA.”5 At a reunion of the Fundamental Fysiks Group in 2000 she declared her enduring faith: “Most of everything, I think, is spirit. . . . I believe in remote viewing, precognition, psychokinesis—because I did it . . . And I have to tell you the truth: ghosts are real.”6

Bell’s theorem and the Fundamental Fysiks Group

I will only describe Kaiser’s thesis in outline; readers who wish to comprehend the details should consult his excellent point-by-point explications. Quantum mechanics had produced a number of mind-bending paradoxes—wave-particle duality, Heisenberg’s indeterminacy, and so forth—but what really stimulated the imagination of the Fundamental Fysiks Group was a conundrum posed by Bell’s theorem, put forward by Irish physicist John Stewart Bell in 1964. The details are outside the scope of this review, but the essence of the problem it presented can be succinctly stated.

Bell derived his theorem not from experimental data but from the accepted mathematical formulae of quantum mechanics. If what he called “quantum entanglement” and “nonlocality” could be experimentally verified, it would present a paradox that would contradict the very foundations of Einstein’s relativity theories, which physicists had long considered to be on solid, experimentally confirmed ground.

In Einsteinian space-time, nothing—no object possessing mass, no quantum of energy, no bit of information—can travel faster than the speed of light. But if Bell’s quantum entanglement could be confirmed, it would be at least theoretically possible to transmit information instantaneously across vast distances of intergalactic space. Thus was born what Jack Sarfatti hailed as the Holy Grail of quantum research: the quest for “superluminal signaling,” which is another way of saying faster-than-light communications.

To understand Bell’s concept of quantum entanglement, consider this thought experiment: Start with a pair of conjoined (or “entangled”) subatomic particles. Imagine separating them and moving them a hundred light-years apart. Now imagine measuring the direction of the “quantum spin” of one of the particles. If Bell’s theorem is correct, you will simultaneously learn the quantum-spin direction of the other one, even though it would take a hundred years for a message traveling at the speed of light to bring that information to you. The equations of quantum mechanics seem to say this is possible, but is it? If it could be verified experimentally, superluminal signaling might become a reality.

Although Bell’s theorem undeniably represented an unresolved anomaly at the heart of quantum mechanics, the official physics establishment simply ignored it for more than two decades. Into that vacuum leapt the Fundamental Fysiks Group. Jack Sarfatti and Nick Herbert, in particular, became obsessed with the ambition to demonstrate quantum entanglement and nonlocality.

Sarfatti, Herbert, and others proposed a number of ingenious and sophisticated experimental procedures to put Bell’s theorem to the test. This in itself was a positive contribution to the progress of physics. But although some of Bell’s insights were experimentally confirmed, the possibility of superluminal communications was not.

In fact, it was the intense scrutiny of their proposed experiments, which appeared at first blush to support superluminal signaling, that led to the idea’s undoing. A new corollary of Bell’s theorem was established that came to be called the “no-cloning theorem” (because it stated that no arbitrary quantum state could be precisely duplicated, or “cloned”). In the thought experiment described above, separating the entangled particles would entail destroying them and replacing them with identical copies, but the no-cloning theorem rules that out.

If this seems arbitrary, keep in mind that all of these conclusions are derived from the mathematics of quantum mechanics, not from anything that really exists in the physical world. So what the no-cloning theorem “proves” is simply that Bell’s theorem contains a previously undetected mathematical flaw that undermines the possibility of faster-than-light communications. As Kaiser explains, the no-cloning theorem “was discovered at least three times, by physicists working independently of each other. But each discovery shared a common cause: one of Nick Herbert’s remarkable schemes for a superluminal telegraph.”7

The no-cloning theorem signified a bitter defeat for superluminal signaling’s true believers, but it turned out to have a silver lining. It “seemed to be about limitations: things that quantum theory will not allow,” Kaiser explains, but “in short order, that fundamental limitation had been transformed into an asset.” The no-cloning theorem gave rise to quantum encryption, “an encryption system for sending secret messages that could never be hacked, stolen, altered, or imitated.”8

In other words, the same breakthrough that disallowed instantaneous data transmission led to a way to greatly improve the security of the data in current modes of transmission. Quantum encryption has not merely been demonstrated in small laboratory settings but has also been used in “real-world” bank transfers and electronic voting, suggesting that it is well on its way to becoming a broadly useful technology. Kaiser concludes that “Jack Sarfatti’s and Nick Herbert’s tireless pushing on the matter of Bell’s theorem and the ultimate implications of entanglement was a mistake, but a wonderfully productive mistake.”9

Evaluating the “productive mistake”

Kaiser’s account of the Fundamental Fysiks Group’s “productive mistake” deals yet another blow to outmoded history-of-science narratives of straight-line, logical progression from ignorance to knowledge via the so-called scientific method. However, although his hippies may deserve credit for generally “saving physics” by forcing a reconsideration of philosophical fundamentals, I am not inclined to hail them as pioneers. After all, their own ideological blinders led them into an error that was resolved only by others who did not share their stubborn wrongheadedness.

Kaiser proffers a telling analogy by citing a comparison of Sarfatti’s and Herbert’s “determined quest for faster-than-light communications” to “the perennial hunt for perpetual motion machines” in the late nineteenth century.10 This, he writes, “was not meant to be a flattering comparison. Physicists often invoke perpetual motion machines as the ultimate hokum, the obsession of confused hacks, scheming charlatans, or both.” Nevertheless, it was “careful scrutiny of perpetual motion proposals” that “helped to elicit and clarify some of the crowning achievements in the study of heat, energy, and molecular motion.”11 Sarfatti and Herbert’s nineteenth-century analogues, then, were not the pioneers of thermodynamics but the cranks with perpetual-motion fixations.

Although the Fundamental Fysiks Group’s campaign to refocus attention on the foundations of quantum mechanics had positive consequences, the content of their muddle-headed philosophical critique did not. I have no reason to think Kaiser in any way buys what they were selling, but his gentle treatment tends to downplay the confusion to which scientists like Sarfatti and Rauscher contribute.

While the members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group may have been utterly sincere in their belief in parapsychology, it is clear that some of their closest allies were not. At the head of that list was the shameless charlatan Uri Geller, who claimed the psychic ability to bend spoons with his mind. No matter how often his fakery was exposed—including once on national television by Johnny Carson!—he continued to perpetrate his fraud, and the members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group continued to give him their endorsement. This is not a case of guilt by association; the point is that self-respecting scientists should have known better than to link their reputations to his by vouching for his “powers.”

In addition to Geller, others who played significant roles in encouraging and bankrolling the Fundamental Fysiks Group were the New Age guru Werner Erhard and the science-fantasy-based cult known as Scientology. Last but certainly not least among their enablers were espionage agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency, which funded their “remote viewing” experiments at the Stanford Research Institute. 

The bottom line is that David Kaiser has uncovered and brilliantly narrated an important chapter of the very tangled, very human story of the advance of scientific knowledge.

    [NB: The page numbers in the footnotes were derived from a Kindle edition of the book.] 

  1. David Kaiser, How the Hippies Saved Physics, 3. See also David Kaiser, “History: Shut up and calculate!” Nature, January 8, 2014, http://www.nature.com/news/history-shut-up-and-calculate-1.14458.
  2. Clifford D. Conner, “Science and Superstition: Materialism vs. the Mystical Physicists,” International Socialist Review, December 1981.
  3. Ibid.
  4. This aphorism is attributed to Swift in numerous dictionaries of quotations, but it is possibly apocryphal. A better-documented variant is: “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired” (Swift, Letter to a Young Clergyman, January 9, 1720).
  5. Kim Greenhouse, “Dr. Elizabeth Rauscher—Remarkable Woman in Science,” It’s Rainmaking Time, April 14, 2013, http://itsrainmakingtime.com/dr-elizabeth-rauscher-remarkable-woman-science.
  6. Kaiser, How the Hippies Saved Physics, 262. The Fundamental Fysiks Group reunion at which Rauscher made these remarks was held in San Francisco on November 18, 2000.
  7. Ibid.,196.
  8. Ibid., 225.
  9. Ibid., 236.
  10. Kaiser attributes this analogy to physicist Charles Bennett.
  11. Ibid., 234.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story