How the Hippies Saved Physics, by David Kaiser
Modern theoretical physics owes its survival, in part, to the counterculture movement of the 1960s and ’70s.
From the days of Albert Einstein’s nonconformist youth forward, we’ve come to understand that the brilliant minds wrestling with quantum mechanics are pretty far out there compared with the rest of us. Frankly, many physicists seem to delight in their public personas as outlying oddballs who dwell in the spacey clouds of other worlds. But the notion that modern theoretical physics owes its survival, in part, to the counterculture movement of the 1960s and ’70s? Really?Skip to next paragraph
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David Kaiser’s new book, How the Hippies Saved Physics, paints a carnival atmosphere of psychedelic imagery. Kaiser writes of a generation of physicists – latter-day disciples of Einstein, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrodinger, and others postulating the significance of black holes, time travel, and the concept of entanglement – who did their best work while mixing it up with tripped-out contemporaries of Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and Ken Kesey.
Picture the Young Turks of theoretical physics, who laid the groundwork for today’s concepts like string theory and nanotechnology, contemplating the most arcane of mathematical equations even while holding forth on ESP and UFOs. Picture scuzzy geniuses and rebels with high IQs behaving like ski bums, yet rubbing shoulders with adoring, Nobel Prize-winning elders.
Yes, it actually happened. Kaiser’s narrative takes shape along a curving line of events extending from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It also reveals how and why – for a time – many of America’s math whizzes were recruited by the likes of the CIA to work on encryption, the space race, and national defense during the cold war.