How the Hippies Saved Physics

A review that I wrote of David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics is now available at American Scientist. A quick summary is that I think it’s a marvelous book, telling in well-researched and entertaining fashion a story I’ve always wanted to know more about. I’m not convinced though by the main argument of the title, that this group of people “saved physics”, rescuing it from an oppressive “shut up and calculate” ideology by showing the way towards the importance of Bell’s theorem and helping start the field of quantum information theory. Perhaps the author though is just emulating his subjects, known for their playful outlandishness.

There are quite a few interesting things I learned from the book that didn’t make it into the review. One example is the story of Werner (of EST fame) Erhard’s theoretical physics conferences of the late 70s and early 80s, organized in collaboration with Sydney Coleman and Roman Jackiw. Among the factors that brought these events to an end was the advent of string theory: it was felt that no string theory conference without Witten attending would be taken seriously, and by then Witten wanted nothing to do with EST and its founder (although he had attended, with the likes of Feynman and Weinberg, the earliest conference in the series back in 1977).

If you find this subject at all interesting, I highly recommend the book.

For another take on the same subject, from one of its main participants, Jack Sarfatti’s memoir Star Gate is available for free these days in a pre-publication version here.

I’m afraid that my own description of where the physicists described in Kaiser’s book ended up would not be the field of quantum information theory, but the much larger swamp of dubious claims about quantum physics that is still very influential. For example, this week at the AAAS meeting in San Diego there’s a session on Quantum Retrocausation, see this listing from the World of Parapsychology.

Update: I should also mention that Chad Orzel discusses the book here and here.

This entry was posted in Book Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to How the Hippies Saved Physics

  1. Dave Miller says:


    EST has metamorphosed into “Landmark Education,” which seems to be basically the Rosenberg family business and which has developed a rather unique “business model.” (“Werner Erhard” was really Jack Rosenberg – supposedly the “Werner” came from Werner Heisenberg and the “Erhard” from Ludwig Erhard.) I won’t go into details about Landmark (I have some friends deeply involved in it) except to say that it is not to my taste nor, I suspect, to the tastes of most of your readers and that Googling Landmark turns up a lot of interesting sociological information: it’s a hobby of mine to follow groups like Landmark, the David-Deutsch movement, etc.

    I myself am old enough to remember the transition when people started to recognize that John Bell was right and that von Neumann had made an error in his “proof” of the “impossibility” of hidden-variables theories: I wrote a term paper on the topic during the ‘74-’75 academic year. I suppose that all this did help open the floodgates to all the “quantum” nonsense (can we do anything about Deepak Chopra, please?), but the underlying physics is interesting and it was good to correct von Neumann’s error, even if almost none of us are really convinced that any hidden-variables theory is correct. (I’ve done some unpublished work in the field, and, no, I do not have any pet theory that I believe is true.)

    Do you know if there is anything to the “retrocausation” stuff that is even remotely physics or is it all just gobbledygook? Bell’s theorem does seem to hint at faster-than-light connections of some sort, which of course should violate relativity, except that in all the hidden-variables theories the very dramatic violations of relativity are guaranteed to be completely undetectable experimentally. I’ve long wondered if some sort of retrocausation could be used to model this – faster-than-light should of course allow signaling into the past according to relativity. However, I’ve never seen anyone come up with any serious proposals along those lines, nor have I come up with anything myself.

    Yet, I still have this nagging feeling that “Bell’s theorem” is trying to tell us all something we do not yet get.

    Of course, a major problem is that the signal-to-noise ratio on this subject is so low that it is hardly worth following even the papers in the arXiv on the subject. But, I’m still not convinced that “shut up and calculate” is the final word.

    Thanks for your post: I guess I need to get the book.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  2. Yatima says:

    They are not taking prisoners here..

    genuine retrocausal phenomenon

    But these claims are never operational in an engineering sense…

    I would think at the claimed significances, world and dog would know about this and the NSA would be working around the clock to open up the unrivalled frontiers of closed timelike loop computation, faster-than-light signalling and massive entropy reduction going forward in time. The abstract alone raises doubts about the authors being able to keep QM “retrocausation” (certain to be misinterpretation of mathematics) and “foreknowledge of future events” (quite likely to be misinterpretation of statistics and psychology) well apart. Sigh.

  3. Roger says:

    You are way to easy on this book. It is crackpot stuff.

  4. Chris Oakley says:

    The S-matrix approach is a rather mundane attempt to get something for nothing, and arguably the least trippy thing to come out of the theoretical particle physics mainstream in the last 60 years. Had these hippy physicists had Superstrings and 11-dimensional Calabi-Yau manifolds to contemplate with the aid of proscribed substances, their brains would probably have exploded.

  5. martibal says:

    Nice review Peter,

    could you – or somebody else – explain why believing in the S-matrix approach aims at claiming something like the standard model could not work (or maybe there is a precedent post about that) ?
    That S-matrix and SM are two different views on qft is one thing, but I did not realize they were mutually exclusive.

  6. Tim van Beek says:

    Dave Miller said:

    Bell’s theorem does seem to hint at faster-than-light connections of some sort, which of course should violate relativity, except that in all the hidden-variables theories the very dramatic violations of relativity are guaranteed to be completely undetectable experimentally. I’ve long wondered if some sort of retrocausation could be used to model this – faster-than-light should of course allow signaling into the past according to relativity. However, I’ve never seen anyone come up with any serious proposals along those lines, nor have I come up with anything myself.

    It is possible to show that correlations that are described by Bell’s inequalities do not violate relativistic causality, in axiomatic quantum field theory.
    See, for example:

    * Stephen J. Summers: “Yet More Ado About Nothing: The Remarkable Relativistic Vacuum State” (<a href=";).

    An example of a theorem that describes “action at a distance” is the Reeh-Schlieder theorem (see the nLab page). People have written papers about how the Reeh-Schlieder theorem shows that the axiom of locality in AQFT is wrong and needs to be replaced, without noticing that this axiom is not used in the proof of the theorem (ouch!).

    Anyway, “action at a distance” aka correlations of states that are spacelike separated, does not necessarily imply that Einstein causalitiy is violated.

  7. Chris Oakley says:


    They are not mutually exclusive. Far from it. S-matrix theory takes the operator that connects initial and final states in a scattering experiment (the S-matrix) and infers a surprising amount about it just from very general considerations (relativity, etc.) Its conclusions are not invalidated by quantum field theory it is just that it does not tell one enough in order to classify as a replacement.

  8. I’ve read only the first couple of chapters but I agree that so far it’s a marvelous book.

    I graduated with a PhD in 1973, the year in which the production of physics PhD students maxed out, and the author’s description of the sociology of physics and its job market in those days is very accurate. And yes, “Shut up and calculate” was the strict attitude of faculty. I knew grad students who wanted to do research on quantum mechanics rather than on particle physics, and they were strongly discouraged. One prof at Columbia, a nice guy, said cynically “Leave that for when you’re old.”

    I’m always struck, in conversations with biologists and amateur and professional neuroscientists, how naive they are about physics and matter. Spinoza wrote that the body can do many things which the mind doesn’t understand at all, and yet many people put their faith in the idea that matter is simple, and that everything follows from that.

  9. Peter Woit says:


    I wrote quite a bit about this in my book. The S-matrix philosophy was that symmetry arguments, quantum fields and a specific choice of Lagrangian to determine the dynamics could never explain the strong interactions. The discovery of QCD and asymptotic freedom conclusively showed this was wrong in 1973. In 1975 Fritjof Capra, one of the members of the group discussed in this book, published “The Tao of Physics”, promoting exactly this philosophy, just after the point at which it had conclusively failed.

    Of course the S-matrix and its properties is a crucial thing to study in particle physics. What Chew and others had hoped though, that general properties of the S-matrix would be enough to determine the theory, turns out to just not be true.

  10. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    So, String Theory came out of LSD trips?

    More seriously, is the book claiming that modern physics as we know it is a product of the social revolutions of the 1960s? Is it the case that physics underwent a radical break from its past in the 1970s, as profound as that seen in other social and cultural spheres? If so this is a very substantial claim, which may have had profound influences on the way physics is researched and understood in the present day.

  11. Peter Woit says:


    The book isn’t making claims about most of modern physics, including the Standard Model, string theory, etc. That’s just not its topic.

    The book is mainly about the story of a group of “countercultural” physicists active in the mid-seventies at Berkeley, and their unorthodox claims about quantum mechanics (that it might have something to do with para-psychology, for instance). They were quite interested in issues like entanglement and Bell’s Theorem, topics ignored by the conventional physics establishment at the time, but which now have become quite hot topics in the field of quantum information theory (NOT in string theory or particle physics). One could argue about what effect their interest and activities had on the later movement of these topics into the mainstream.

  12. Eu says:


    Emanuel Derman, thanks for writing “My life as a quant”.

  13. David Bailey says:

    Perhaps the best retrocausation experiment, is that devised by Dean Radin himself, known as ‘presentiment’.

    Subjects are shown a succession of calm images on a computer (landscapes, etc), with the occasional violent or erotic image randomly inserted. The subjects are monitored using skin conductance to measure their state of arousal. The claim is that the subjects begin to show a response to the disturbing images for about 1 second before they have been displayed, and indeed before they have been selected by the computer! The effect achieves statistical significance over a relatively short test period.

    This experiment has been around for many years, with a number of independent confirmations.

    I’d say it is time someone determined exactly where this anomalous result arises – it just seems wrong to me that such a bizarre result is just left hanging in the air.

  14. Peter Woit says:


    I just remembered that I’ve been exposed to Dean Radin before, see here

    He’s behind the “Institute for Noetic Sciences”, and makes an appearance in “Down the Rabbit Hole”, the extended Director’s Cut version of the appalling “What the Bleep”.

    I’m afraid he is a good example of what was wrong with the “counter-cultural physicists” and their interest in parapsychology and pseudo-science. The same nonsense about parapsychology and quantum physics that they were pursuing 35 years ago continues to be pursued by a huge group of people, with not the slightest sign of anything you could call scientific progress. I’m sure they’ll be at this long after I’m dead. In the meantime, paying attention to them is just a waste of time, so please don’t encourage it here. Those who want to discuss this kind of thing can find dozens of other places devoted to it.

  15. Bugsy says:

    There’s nothing wrong with mysticism per se, in fact I think that mixing science and mysticism can do a disservice to both.

    That said, at their best, what both can have in common is to help awaken our sense of wonder.

    Then again, for some people what does the trick is fresh pesto on pasta…

  16. Anon says:

    David, if this were a real phenomenon, surely someone would have used it already to make a fortune on the stock market by converting, e.g., upticks into erotic and downticks into neutral images. A second of foreknowledge is a long time in today’s markets. I would like to see someone put their actual money where their mouth is.

    There is no such thing as retrocausation in known Physics (despite some speculation on future boundary conditions in gravity). There is certainly no such thing in Quantum Mechanics, and a Physicist pretending that there is some such thing is either ignorant or dishonest.

  17. Roger says:

    Advocating retrocausation is either ignorant or dishonest? I am inclined to agree, but surely the same is true about the hippie physics of this book.

  18. Perhaps you could write a blog entry on the irony of the Berkeley hippies giving rise through their idiosyncratic views to the now burgeoning orthodoxy you now find resident in the redwoods of Stanford.

  19. Peter Woit says:


    I don’t think multiverse mania can be blamed on the Berkeley hippies. They were guilty of all sorts of nonsense, but not that one. The string theory establishment came up with it on their own, with little to no help from hippies, hot tubs and psychedelic drugs..

  20. I am reporting from the AAARP USD Retrocausality Conference.
    Intellectually honest theoretical physicists will first read Bem’s paper before casting stones – especially if they are string theorists.

    Here are a few scattered notes from the meeting.

    From: Dean Radin
    Date: June 14, 2011 8:42:39 PM PDT
    Subject: Re: AAAS Retrocausality Meeting at University of San Diego

    So Art dreamt that he fired a revolver, you dreamt that a revolver was aimed at you, and I spontaneously decided to tell that story and show the photo of the gun to illustrate presentiment in real life? A genuine three-way entanglement through time. That’s a first even for me!

    Best wishes,

    Dean Radin
    Senior Scientist
    Institute of Noetic Sciences

    On Jun 14, 2011, at 8:33 PM, JACK SARFATTI wrote:

    I was with Henry Stapp today and he and I see eye to eye on the same page.
    Henry said he changed his mind in past few months because of Daryl Bem’s data.
    Henry never even heard of Antony Valentini BTW – he independently now says that Bem’s data (and Radin’s, Bierman’s …) show violation of “orthodox quantum theory” i.e. what I call “signal nonlocality” and that messages can be decoded nonlocally in the past as I have been arguing.
    Do! ug Hofstatder wrote that Bem’s results turn physics upside down. Bem today said he was not the Copernicus of the new paradigm alluding to Bierman, Radin, Libet … but I say he is the Michael Faraday of the new paradigm.
    Also Russell Targ & Fred Alan Wolf as well as A. Elitzur.
    Elitzur agrees with me that Hawking was right the first time and should not have caved in to Gerardus ‘Hooft and Lenny Susskind. Like me, Elitzur does not believe in unitarity as absolute. Indeed, I told Stapp and Elitzur at lunch today at USD that “unitarity prohibits novelty” i.e. “novelty” as in Henri Bergson as used by Henry Stapp. Elitzur concurred saying “I’ll buy that.”
    Ibison and I had good discussion on the de Sitter boundary issue – we are converging more.
    Before I forget – the Bologna cold fusion and Moddell-Haisch zero point battery patent do not look good – this from a reliable source.
    Bem should collect the $1,000,0000 from James Randi who I am told keeps changing the rules and is not honest about his “prize.”

    Now here is the kicker. I woke up this AM with a dream that I had been shot in the face with a revolver. I almost missed Dean Radin’s talk. I came in on the end. Dean told the following story shortly after I came in. “My friend collected guns. He was loading a double action revolver. Something told him not to load the sixth bullet – leaving one empty chamber. Several weeks later one of his drunk friends went berserk and picked up that revolver on the table – pointed it at Dean’s friend’s face at close range pulled the trigger and of course the gun did not fire since the barrel turned to the empty chamber – that’s Novikov loop in time inside a Novikov loop in time. Also, Art Altschuler a retired physics teacher told me and Fred Alan Wolf that he dreamed last night that he fired a revolver at close range into someone’s face – i.e. a loop within a loop within a loop.

    Andrew Jordan (AJ) University of Rochester
    mentions negative pressure from Phys Rev editors re: retro-casual interpretation
    Tollaksen is here BTW but Nauenberg did not make it – too bad.
    Menas Kafatos also here
    ABL 1964 both past and future boundary condition of pre & post-selection – time symmetric
    weak value have both pre and post selection constraints.
    See my Journal of Cosmology Vol 14 April 2011 paper for the math – free online (edited by Penrose and Hameroff)
    weak value WV can exceed eigenvalue range (i.e. negative probabilities weighting the eigenvalues) and need not not be real number, can be a complex number
    Stern-Gerlach test of WV actually carried out at University of Rochester with DARPA & NSF funding.
    weak splitting in z
    strong splitting in x
    post-selection in x
    record the z-delection

    / = weak

    If —> 0 you exceed eigenvalue range but with small probability

    weak measurement experiments in solid state quantum hall effect relevant to quantum computers
    also optical systems

    Optical telecom for super internet can use weak measurements with value added.

    There is technological spin-off not just idle theory. Obama gave Yakir Aharonov a medal for this work.

    Spin Hall Effect of Light via Weak Measurements – spintronics

    Weak measurement technology/protocol way of measuring tiny signals in large noise fields.

    Ultrasensitive beam deflection measurement via interferometric weak value amplification.

    Nature 463 Feb 2010 Aephraim Steinberg “Light Touch”

    Sagnac effect weak measurement – which path photon took CW or CCW on rotating interferometer?

    this can measure very small shifts in optical parameters using both pre and post-selection technique.

    560 femto-radian deflection signal i.e width of human hair on Moon can be seen from Earth

    So for GPS Drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan – amazing resolution for military operations against terrorists for example.

    Also for seeing exo-planets in 100 year Star Ship Study (NASA/DARPA)

    Weak value precision phase measurements! For Kip Thorne’s gravity LISA/LIGO detectors of big bang inflation physics.

    pico-radian measurements with only few hours of integration time.

    They have a patent!

    Measurement Contextual Values (MCV aka POVM) – new interpretation of QM. PRL 104, 240401 (2010) avoids negative probabilities – more palatable for orthodox thinkers

    get averages of operator moments, also find conditioned averages

    include post-selection and any measurement interaction strength

    weak measurement is a practical tool for precision measurements in optical, solid state et-al systems


  21. Yatima says:

    > I am reporting from the AAARP USD Retrocausality Conference.

    Jesus Christ! This is like reading random dispatches from free association experiments.

    On the same page with Stapp:

  22. David Bailey says:

    “I’m afraid he is a good example of what was wrong with the “counter-cultural physicists” and their interest in parapsychology and pseudo-science.”

    Finding out exactly how those experiments produce the result they do, would be a far more effective repost than calling them pseudo-science.

    At the very least such research would expose a problem in an experimental technique that is widely used in conventional psychological experiments.

    At the very most………….

  23. Giotis says:

    “The string theory establishment came up with it on their own”

    Peter, if you accept inflation (which by now is incorporated in the standard model of Cosmology) then you must admit that eternal inflation and thus the multiverse is at least very plausible regardless if String theory is valid or not. So no String theory ‘establishment’ came up with this idea. In fact it is quite old. But it happens these two major developments of modern Physics from different starting points to combine and point in the same direction. This deserves people’s attention to say the least.

  24. Peter Woit says:


    This result can be accommodated with a non-zero mixing angle theta_{13}, somewhat below the previous experimental bounds, right? If so, very interesting and impressive measurement, but the Standard model still remains unchallenged.

  25. Mark says:

    Jack Sarfatti,

    With respect to Bem’s study, every single attempt to replicate his results has failed. The analysis of his data has been heavily criticized by Wagenmakers et al. and there is clear, unequivocal evidence that Bem performed more trials than he reported, which brings his entire credibility into question.

  26. Mark Hillery says:

    For a nice, short history of the no-cloning theorem, see the beginning of the review article by V. Scarani, S. Iblisdir, and N. Gisin quant-ph/0511088 or Rev. Mod. Phys. 77, 1225 (2005). It includes a nice discussion of some missed-opportunities that could have resulted in the theorem being discovered earlier.

  27. One totally unexpected thing I learned from this book was how closely straight-and-narrow physicists like Jackiw and Coleman were involved with the Erhard meetings. I never knew about it at the time. Was it opportunism, open-mindnesness, or both?

  28. Henry says:

    Leonard Susskind came up with the no-cloning theorem independently while thinking about black hole complementarity. However, he also attended the EST seminars and had a similar background…

  29. David Gladstone says:

    Peter Woit-“The same nonsense about parapsychology and quantum physics that they were pursuing 35 years ago continues to be pursued by a huge group of people, with not the slightest sign of anything you could call scientific progress.”
    Your comments reveal your negative bias as well as your ignorance of what is scientific progress, which is so easily available to any reader in the content of your missive is laughable at this point, given Bell, Clauser, Aspect, etal.
    The S-Matrix theory was an idea worth exploring then, the fact that we know it’s not a theory now, just as the Standard Model is not a theory now, just a model, means at worst they are equally fallacious. The Standard Model of physics has no explanation for its own success and no clue about consciousness either. It seems clear that Johnson in his review in the Times, wants to hold retroactive thought crimes trials for these people, and saves his final barb for the sexual enthusiasms of some, which is mere prudishness, but that doesn’t hold water when discussing the search for truth. As for retro causality, the anecdotal evidence is astounding at least, compared with the same kind of evidence for UFOs or God and that should eliminate at least the public hectoring of researchers who try to find the there there.

  30. Peter Woit says:

    David Gladstone,

    The Standard Model doesn’t need to have “an explanation for its success”, it just needs to be a success and it is (unlike the S-matrix program).

    Like a large number of people, I’m on Jack Sarfatti’s mailing list, so can see for myself that, bless his soul, he’s still trying to do the same kind of things this group was trying to do in the 70s. Claims for experimental evidence about things like retrocausality remain, 35 years later, at the same “anecdotal” level of that time.

    As for Johnson’s “physics porn” comment, I’ve some sympathy for Nick Herbert’s point of view that that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But Johnson is making a more serious point that this stuff is in the category of “exciting” but not real, solid science, and that’s an accurate point to make.

  31. David Gladstone says:

    Two things, Peter, need clarifying.
    First given the problems with the Standard model already well-known and articulated, should Johnson have made it it such a key point of his attack in his review? It seems he was just looking for a club to use as a weapon. Understandable, perhaps, but not logical or compelling.
    The physics porn comment was nothing but a cheap shot, larded with nastiness. Admittedly the title of the book is tendentious, purposely so, it seems clear from Kaiser’s video talks. I can see why Johnson trots out all the old buzz words people use when the word hippie is uncloaked. It’s just so easy to respond that way if you don’t challenge yourself, as Johnson clearly didn’t, and it certainly doesn’t shed any light. Yes, we can all see the derision literally dripping off the pages of the Times, but that’s about all that’s there and readers should and do expect more from the old ‘Gray Lady’!

  32. Peter Woit says:


    Actually I thought it was a good review, and Johnson an excellent choice of reviewer. He’s someone with a deep knowledge of the history of this subject, as well as a real sympathy for non-hard-nosed, more mystical take on it. I just took the use of “porn” as in “cheap thrill”. Nothing wrong with cheap thrills, but there is something more satisfying out there…

  33. David Gladstone says:

    Clearly you thought it was a good review, he agrees with you and vice versa! Quel Surprise!:] He is clearly holding a disapproving mirror up to these guys ( and more importantly to us, the public masses), as if saying ‘you cannot be serious enough to think you have anything new to say! ‘ We professionals all have things perfectly well in hand, thank you very much , now move along…! It seems like many people, have a love-hate relationship with this new physics stuff and all the spooky action at a distance effects Einstein himself was afraid of decades ago. The eminent scientist Heinz Pagels, was someone was so enraged by the temerity of people like Jack (actually it’s more honest to say it was just Jack who could drive him to distraction), he’d literally chew the carpet and yet he felt compelled to listen to what he had to say (through me) and contest every thought he’d ever have with incredible personal emotional heat. You’d think we were talking about global warming. Wheeler would just throw Jack’s mimeos and letters in the circular file, he (JAW) told me that himself, btw.
    But I see some of what’s wrong with physics right here on this blog in the attitudes of a number of people, a pretty fair number btw, who will never accept this stuff and what it really means till the Angel Gabriel blows his horn on American Idol.
    The Palestinians and Israelis will kiss and make up before that ever happens, imo.

  34. David Gladstone says:

    Peter, allow me to say one more thing about this:
    But I do believe there are greater concerns at work here, I do not believe it’s a theoretical discussion that has no temporal or mundane urgency, it has. The very existence of of just one of the spooky effects, say telepathy, poses grave questions concerning our national security, and our near term futures, that few have addressed, with the exception of people like Martin Reese and Stephen Hawking. The fact is if just one of those things is real, they’re all real, because related and what they mean for humanity has hardly ever been addressed and the withholding of recognition, just like in the middle east, will continue to keep us from delving farther into what we’re facing, which is a grave mistake, imo. We are a species in denial.


  35. Dave Miller says:

    Tim van Beek wrote to me:
    >It is possible to show that correlations that are described by Bell’s inequalities do not violate relativistic causality, in axiomatic quantum field theory.

    Yes, I think we all know this: it is a very, very old result. In fact, I first saw it proved by Lenny Susskind (!) in a class back in the mid-70s.

    But that is not what is bothering a lot of us: *of course* the predicted and observed violations of Bell’s inequalities do not result in observed violations of relativity. Nevertheless, Bell’s inequalities (which do not assume determinism) do seem to follow necessarily from “locality” in the common-sense meaning of the term. Their (expected) violation by quantum mechanics does seem to me to be telling us there is something here we do not understand.

    In fact, a similar point can be made more easily in QFT: the VEV of a product of fields with space-like separation often does not vanish. I find that puzzling, even though I of course know that, as long as the appropriate (anti) commutators vanish for space-like separations, then no violation of relativity will be observed experimentally.

    I have no axe to grind here: I am not an advocate of any particular alternative to orthodox QM, not even such now-popular alternatives as decoherence or many-worlds.

    I am merely puzzled. It seems to me that sometimes a willingness to be puzzled is a good thing.

    Dave Miller

Comments are closed.