Hemning Sternberg (moonshadow) wrote,
Hemning Sternberg

How the Hippies Saved Physics, a summary

I was really rather gratified by the responses to my post about the lecture the other night. So, here is a summary of what the lecture was like.

This was the fourth and last Cambridge Science Festival event I attended this week. To me that seems like a lot but I have been having a really good time. The event was hosted by the MIT Museum, which I had visited for free as my second CSF jaunt.

When I arrived wearing my I <3 Nerds shirt there were about ten people there. However, as we moved closer to the beginning of the presentation - and even into it - the event filled up and more chairs needed to be brought. In the end there were probably fifty or sixty people there.

The first thing I want to tell you is that the title of the talk is also the title of the new book coming out from David Kaiser, the speaker. So we will all have the opportunity to enjoy that when it is ready, though amazon.com does not yet promise a date. The audience was mostly middle-aged folks, and mostly men, though some women were there with their partners.

The speaker was introduced, and he got down to brass tacks immediately. First, he started by telling us a bit about the early history of the field of quantum physics. He explained that many of the founding members of this discipline had approached it philosophically, fitting what they knew of physics with what they knew of cosmology, but that this fell out of vogue shortly thereafter in what he described as a rush to be concrete, to measure waves and so on. He also described kind of a speculation bubble in physics that was connected to the Cold War - new advances and World War 2 caused huge increases in the number of physics degree holders and in the numbers of physics jobs. Then, the degree holder numbers continued to increase while the number of physics jobs declined rapidly. There were several charming charts demonstrating this. The result is that some unemployed smart and capable physics graduates wound up hanging out together and pursuing some areas of quantum mechanics interpretation that were being rejected by mainstream science. Of course this happened in Berkeley.

The folks didn't have to worry about losing their position or status within the mainstream community, because they didn't have any. What they had instead were curiosity, playfulness, and some surprising resources. The surprising resources included funding, publication, and seminar space from New Age places like Esalen and human potential places like Est. We think of counterculture as being anti-science but there were a lot of people at that time who believe that quantum theory was going to explain mysteries of the unknown, such as ESP. The group members published or were connected to pretty much all of the QM papers that were released in the US for some years. The presenter was clear that most of these papers were wrong in their thinking but also that most of what is published in science is wrong, period, and that one of these papers led to a major breakthough called the non-cloning theorem that is a key part of how we understand physics today. I thought it was adorable that he referred to the folks as "my physicists" a couple of times.

There was a question and answer period. Some of the answers I even understood. Overall it was a really fun event and I'm glad I went. Those of you who are local that missed the Cambridge Science Festival should definitely check it out next year.
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