Book review: How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival

09 Sep

David Kaiser brings a whole new perspective to the concept of history of science in his book “How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival” (or maybe we should call it journalism of science, because almost all of the heroes of this wonderful book are alive). One of the central themes of the book revolves around the classical question of “what is the line between science and pseudoscience?” and others such as “do people move between categories, and if they do, does that lead to any scientifically valuable results?”. hip

For the reader who thinks science ‘progresses’ (whatever that progress means) in a linear, stepwise manner, the book is definitely full of surprises: expect the unexpected from a turbulent period of intellectual history throughout 60s and 70s, reaching to 90s and well to the 21st century. You will meet heroes such as Feynman (in very interesting settings), as well as the names probably you haven’t heard before, and you will learn that inspirations for scientific ideas can come from very unexpected domains.

Another important point of the book is the fact that science, physics in this case, is a very humane activity, and a very institutionalized one at that! The book strikingly shows that even the strong names such as John Stewart Bell (now famous for Bell’s theorem) was very careful in aligning himself with the established physics institution and securing a permanent position, therefore being forced to the economic realities of science. Having said that, he is not the only example of scientists struggling for freedom and having a hard time being constrained by the socioeconomic environment they are embedded in.

All in all Kaiser’s work is a very solid and lively piece of science writing, weaving a lot of layers seamlessly and resulting in a page turner, which is not an adjective that can be easily attached to a history of science book.

I recommend this book not only to the casual, curious reader of history of science, but very much to the modern ‘managers’ of science, as well as the potential benefactors: The creative human mind craves for the challenges posed by the fundamental questions of nature, and unless you are ready to support the most crazy ideas (coming from not so run-of-the-mill scientists) and entertain contradictory points of view, aiming at discovery in the long run, then what you will get is the unexciting little progress that is the characteristic of many human institutions, leaving no room for real experimenting and high risk taking. Now go and decide what and whom you’ll fund for the next very long 4-year research project, but beware, you’ve been warned.

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Posted by on September 9, 2013 in Books, Science


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