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When Einstein Met Owsley

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Dancing with the particles

Fun lecture of the day: the MIT physicist and historian of science David Kaiser on "How the Hippies Saved Physics." The title is tongue-in-cheek, but not entirely tongue-in-cheek. Kaiser looks back at that juncture in the '70s when the counterculture collided with the sciences, and he argues that, along with various pop-culture artifacts you might remember—The Tao of Physics, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, various articles attempting to link quantum mechanics to parapsychology—the results included real theoretical and technological advances that we now take for granted. I'll have to read Kaiser's book (not out yet, alas) before I decide how much of that causal argument I accept. In the meantime, though, his lecture is an absorbing tour through a singular cultural moment.

[Hat tip: Bryan Alexander.]

NEXT: Peter Schiff Qualifies for Primary, Still Lags Behind Wrestling Queen

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  1. OK that actually makes a lot of sense dude.

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  2. Certainly makes a lot of sense to me dude

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  3. OK that makes a lot of sense dude

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  4. OK that is making a lot of sense dude.

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  5. Now that is what I am talking about

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  6. Thats actually making a lot of sense dude

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  7. With the BP example of how well the private sector works, libertarian hacks are casting a wide net for safe topics.

    1. WHAT A DEEPLY PROVOCATIVE STATEMENT, YOUNG EDWARD! YES, YOU ARE CORRECT. TIME TO SHUT DOWN HIT & RUN AND CAPITALISM FOR GOOD. NICK, HIT THE LIGHTS PLEASE!

      1. With the Spviet example of how well The State works, Max is narrowcasting blah blah blah, ah forget it.

          1. The Soviet Union / Warsaw Pact nations were an ecological paradise.

  8. The reefer deserves most of the credit.

  9. I want to see Max ride the lightning.

    1. Ignore the troll. This could have been an interesting thread until shithead showed up.

      1. It can still be interested, but not listening to the lecture makes it hard to discuss. And by the time I do tonight, the thread will be dead.

        1. True. Too bad Thoreau doesn’t post anymore. He was a practicing physicist. Would love to hear what he has to say about this. Instead, we have Edward. Joy.

          1. The lecture is long as hell. Really interesting, though. I’m about 20 minutes into it.

  10. I’m curious if my science-hero Feynman gets a mention. He experimented with lots of drugs and banged a lot of his students, so he might be counterculture enough.

    1. I read Feynman’s book on quantum electrodynamics. Really good stuff and it’s amazing how lucidly he could explain his ideas to the laity (although I’m somewhat suspicious of physicists who cannot do so).

      1. That’s how you know that modern philosophy is utter horseshit.

        I really enjoyed Feynman’s lectures on computation. The bit about the thermodynamics of computation blew my mind a little.

        1. “That’s how you know that modern philosophy is utter horseshit.”

          Yup. And modern lit crit to.

        2. Oh, man…that sounds really interesting. I think I need to read/listen to more Feynman.

          I’d say the most damning indictment of much modern philosophy is how a person isn’t noticeably impoverished intellectually by ignoring much or most of it.

          1. ?

            sorry didn’t catch that, was too busy proving completeness

      2. I love that book. Even though he is a great writer, it is still a slog. I re-read it periodically because I quickly forget all the nuances of the theory.

        I think his biography is fabulous. There are so many nuggets of wisdom in there about life. And his famous Cargo Cult graduation speech ought to be required reading in every high school in America.

    2. He did a little experimenting but quit pretty early in life. Most of his life he didn’t even drink. He said he loved thinking and didn’t want to risk destroying his mind.

      And he was also married from about 60 or so on. I have never heard what kind of husband he was. But I have never heard bad things. I think he defied category. He definitely wasn’t a hippie. But the guy also loved to hang out in a local strip club. So he was hardly typical for the day.

      1. Ahh, physicist as rock star. Rock stars and physicists are often quite eccentric. Not necessarily in a bad way.

        1. Some physicists ARE rock stars, literally: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_May

          “Strange-bottomed quarks, you give the rockin’ world its spin! (Get on your LHC and collide!)”

      2. He did his drugs after he quit drinking, I believe. There’s a chapter in one of his books about his adventures with isolation tanks and ketamine and such in the 60s or 70s.

        1. I remember that. But I distinctly got the feel that he did it a few times but never made a habit of it.

          1. Sounds like he wasn’t an addict. It seems like from what you’ve said Feynman saw benefits to drug experimentation but he obviously had a lot more going on in his life than drugs (obviously a good thing).

            1. Oh, he was certainly never an addict, Art.

          2. Yeah. Also, rumor has it that he did LSD a few times but never wrote about it because he was ashamed.

    3. Feynman was great. I read one of his autobiographies (and have read some of his physics publications) and was very impressed. A little off the reservation, but that’s true of most brilliant people.

      He could break into safes, too.

    1. That’s a good essay. Since it mentions Esalen, I should note that that’s where Feynman makes his cameo in the Kaiser lecture. There’s nothing about observing nude massages, though.

      1. Feynman was the man every guy should want to be.

        1. Agreed. He was able to think deeply and rationally. And he accepted whatever conclusion the evidence supported, regardless of personal preference or prejudice. No doubt that’s why he was an atheist.

    2. An absolutely invaluable statement on the philosophy of science.

    3. Thanks for that essay Warty, that was brilliant.

      Place climate-gate and Global Warming in the context of that essay and look at your result.

      It makes you wonder if scientific progress is still occuring or if Feynmans worst fears are becoming realized. Are we turning in to a Cargo Cult society?

      It also is fascinating to review the essay through the context of Stossel’s evolution as a journalist- do enough people actually care when journalists call out Cargo Cult scientists?

      Great essay, thanks Warty.

  11. Wasn’t The Dancing Wu Li Masters why Sagan coined his “wooly thinking” phrase? (And did Sagan coin it?)

    1. No, I think the phrase’s provenance lies in a mammoth think tank.

      1. [groan]

        1. Okay, yeah, that was bad even by my standards.

  12. I’m curious if my science-hero Feynman gets a mention.

    Twice, in the context of naked hot-tubbing. You know the story already.

    It’s not a very good listen. MIT guy doesn’t make a case for his title, which he roundaboutly confesses is there to sell books to soft-heads.

    Summary: Ira Einhorn and Werner Erhard got a few serious quantum-related papers (and a bunch of mystical shit with impertinent math stuck on it) published when the Man was still Einsteinian, and The Tao Of Physics was a hit among profs who couldn’t make physics interesting to soft-heads without it.

    Saved you an hour, I hope.

  13. Stay thirsty, my friends

  14. Feynman seemed to have a certain fondness for hippies. Perhaps it was his own ingrained anti-authoritarian streak he claimed his father instilled in him. He spent lots of time at Esalen. Sometimes giving lectures on principals of physics (although there are none so blind as those who will not see. During a the Q&A after one talk he was asked “Can these ideas be used to invent an anti-gravity device?” Feynman:”That pillow you’re sitting on will support you for quite some time”). He also personally befriended the thick headed artist Jirayr Zorthian.

    As noted abov, Feynman dabbled with drugs but would come to eschew them as he feared they’d diminish his cognitive ability.

    As forgiving Feynman could be with laymen, he was highly critical of colleagues. The injection of mysticism into science was something he found particularly offensive.

  15. Summoned from beyond the deeps of time I am! Strangely enough, I was lurking in the Cathy Young thread and delurked when it got into the issue of things said at freshman orientation. And now my presence is requested here. This sort of coincidence strongly implies a mystical quantum entanglement.

    Just kidding.

    I’ve met a few people who are big in quantum information, and while I don’t know them well enough to say whether they had a lot of fun in the counterculture of the 1970’s, I can say that quantum information theory is way more rigorous than the New Age portrayals of quantum mechanics. If anything, a colleague remarked that before Quantum Information Theory became big a lot of people spent a lot of time discussing and debating what all the weirdness really means. Usually not from a New Age perspective, but that really didn’t make it any more productive. Once Quantum Information Theory became a field, especially a field with experimental implementation and practical applications (the Swiss are now using quantum cryptography for their elections and some of their banking) people became less interested in “What does it all mean?” discussions because there were more productive avenues of inquiry. And by “productive” I don’t just mean the engineering applications. Even on the fundamental research side of things, they found questions that could actually be answered.

    Yeah, there are people still discussing “What it all means” but not as many as there were, according to observers older than me. If anything, as a sympathizer of Bohmian mechanics (not to be confused with sympathy for anything and everything the man ever said) I find that a bit of a shame.

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