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How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival
How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival
David Kaiser
W. W. Norton & Company, 2011
372 pp., $26.95

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Science in Focus: John Wilson

How the Hippies Saved Physics, Part 4

In the April 5, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson reviews Margaret Wertheim's Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything ."The fringe of physics," Dyson writes, "is not a sharp boundary with truth on one side and fantasy on the other. All of science is uncertain and subject to revision. The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove. The fringe is the unexplored territory where truth and fantasy are not yet disentangled."

Wertheim's book belongs on your shelf right next to David Kaiser's How the Hippies Saved Physics, the subject of this month's round of Science in Focus. In the past three weeks, we've featured responses to Kaiser's book from James Kakalios, professor of physics at the University of Minnesota; Andy Rundquist, professor of physics at Hamline University; and Elise Crull, research fellow at the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Aberdeen.

The three respondents emphasize different aspects of the story Kaiser tells. After a characteristically pithy quote from Richard Feynman—"No one understands quantum mechanics"—Kakalios concludes: "And yet, one of the most amazing aspects of this field is that you can use its results correctly and productively—even if you are confused by it. Good thing, too, for quantum mechanics is the foundation of solid state and semiconductor physics, the applications of which have come to define much of contemporary life, from cell phones to laptop computers to DVDs." Kakalios does not disdain the efforts of the Fundamental Fysiks Group to understand the counterintuitive results of experimental observations—on the contrary—but he makes the point that applications of quantum theory proceed apace even without such questions resolved.

Rundquist focuses on a different theme: the strongly collaborative work of the maverick physicists whose story Kaiser tells: "Want to find a place where your ideas, fantasies, desires, and questions can be explored? Then build a community. For me, that's the take-home message of How the Hippies Saved Physics. David Kaiser tells us the stories behind the people, logistics, and ramifications of the interlocking communities of physicists from the 1970s. The details range from the mundane to the astonishing, but the power of community rings through." Rundquist goes on to give two current examples of the power of community: first, his use of Twitter to improve himself as a physics teacher; and second, the online Global Physics Department, founded in February 2011.

Finally, Elise Crull (whose concerns overlap with Dyson's in the NYRB piece) reads Kaiser's book as a challenge to popular conceptions of what science is—and what it isn't. "Kaiser's analysis of the effects of Cold War hyperpragmatism," Crull concludes, "is especially pertinent in times of pressing economic concern like the present, when resources (financial and otherwise) for the arts and humanities as well as 'pure' sciences are slashed drastically in favor of more practical, economy-building pursuits. Though Kaiser rightly notes that adopting less traditional methods for conceiving of and practicing science does not in any way guarantee profound results, a world that refuses to allow for the possibility of pushing and prodding (or sometimes punching and kicking) the boundaries of science—as the hippies did—would be a dark and dull place indeed."

Your assignment? Consider these three responses together. How do they complement one another? Where do they overlap or conflict? What additional perspective would you suggest?

Next week: Part 1 of a new round, devoted to Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science, by Marjorie Caroline Malley.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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