Every Friday afternoon for several years in the 1970s, a group of underemployed quantum physicists met at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, in Northern California, to talk about a subject so peculiar it was rarely discussed in mainstream science: entanglement. Did subatomic particles influence each other from a distance? What were the implications?
Many of these scientists, who dubbed themselves the “Fundamental Fysiks Group,” were fascinated by the paranormal and thought quantum physics might reveal “the possibility of psycho-kinetic and telepathic effects,” as one put it. Some of the physicists cultivated flamboyant countercultural personas. In lieu of solid academic jobs, a few of them received funding from the leaders of the “human potential” movement that was a staple of 1970s self-help culture.
In short, the Fundamental Fysiks Group appeared to be just a bunch of eccentric, obscure physicists whiling away the Me Decade in the Berkeley Hills. But as MIT historian of science David Kaiser asserts in his new book, How the Hippies Saved Physics, published this month by W.W. Norton, the group’s members actually helped to steer physics in a new direction: They revived scientific interest in the puzzling foundations of quantum mechanics, provided new insights about entanglement, and laid the intellectual groundwork for the field of quantum information science, which today produces cutting-edge computing and encryption research.
“That’s a pretty good track record for a few years of zany, fun-loving, free-spirited and yet devoted research,” says Kaiser, head of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and a senior lecturer in the Department of Physics.
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