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From Issue Thirteen, August 2011 « Previous Article

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

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Ed. Note: The 1970s was a remarkably fertile period, giving birth to numerous progressive organizations in the field of consciousness studies, including IONS. One of the least recognized yet most influential was a group of rogue physicists and researchers in Berkeley who called themselves the Fundamental Fysiks Group. David Kaiser’s lively retrospective, rich in historical detail, is about the enduring impact that group and its network of colleagues and cage-rattlers had on what then was the rather staid field of physics. The following excerpt focuses on the breakthrough success of one of those colleagues, Fritjof Capra, and his seminal book The Tao of Physics, which masterfully described the intersection of Western science and Eastern philosophy and galvanized a new generation of truth seekers.

Members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group, catalyzed by Ira Einhorn and his contacts at major publishing firms, helped to launch a new type of popular book in the 1970s: accessible books that compared striking features of modern physics, such as Bell’s theorem and nonlocality, with staples of the counterculture and New Age revivals, from parapsychology to Eastern mysticism. Some of the books enjoyed critical acclaim, and many achieved commercial success. But the books served to do more than introduce members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group and their enthusiasms to new audiences. Several operated in multiple registers, blurring genres that usually remained distinct: both popular book for the masses and textbook for science students. Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, first published in 1975, remains the most emblematic and successful of the group’s efforts in this domain. Capra’s Tao exemplifies the hybrid nature of the new books and the diverse roles they came to play.

Capra had met key members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group in the course of his writing, including Elizabeth Rauscher, George Weissmann, Fred Alan Wolf, and Jack Sarfatti. Capra returned to Berkeley just as his book was coming out, long before it had become the runaway bestseller we know it as today. Still relatively unknown, Capra spoke about his book and its larger themes—the multiple parallels, as Capra saw them, between the worldviews of modern physics and Eastern mysticism—at the first sessions of the Fundamental Fysiks Group in May 1975. Capra helped to organize a follow-up series of discussions about the book and its larger themes at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory the next year, filled with regular members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group. He became a core member of the group, participating as well in various Physics/Consciousness Research Group activities and Esalen workshops.

The California Effect

Austrian-born Capra completed his PhD in theoretical particle physics at the University of Vienna in 1966 and moved on to a postdoctoral fellowship in Paris. There he witnessed the student uprisings and general strikes of May 1968, scenes that left a deep impression on him. He also met a senior physicist from the University of California at Santa Cruz who was spending some sabbatical time in Paris. The professor invited Capra to Santa Cruz for a follow-up postdoctoral fellowship, which Capra gladly accepted. He arrived in Santa Cruz in September 1968.

Capra broadened his horizons on many fronts in California. As he later wrote, he led “a somewhat schizophrenic life” in Santa Cruz: hardworking quantum physicist by day, tuned-in hippie by night. He continued his political education, already stoked by the Paris of 1968: he went to lectures and rallies by the Black Panthers; he protested against the war in Vietnam. He took in “the rock festivals, the psychedelics, the new sexual freedom, the communal living” that had become de rigueur among the Santa Cruz counterculture set. He also began exploring Eastern religions and mysticism—an interest originally sparked by his filmmaker brother—by reading essays and attending lectures by Alan Watts, a local expert on all things Eastern who had assisted Esalen’s Michael Murphy in his continuing investigations of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and the rest.

In the midst of these explorations, Capra had a powerful experience on the beach at Santa Cruz during the summer of 1969. Watching the ocean waves roll in and out, he fell into a kind of trance. As he later described it, the physical processes all around him took on a new immediacy: the vibrations of atoms and molecules in the sand, rocks, and water; the showers of high-energy cosmic rays striking the atmosphere from outer space; all these were more than the formulas and graphs he had studied in the classroom. He felt them in a new, visceral way. They were, he gleaned, the Dance of Shiva from Hindu mythology. He began to notice similar parallels between cutting-edge quantum theory and central tenets of Eastern thought: the emphasis upon wholeness or interconnectedness, for example, or upon dynamic interactions rather than static entities.

The Thirst for a New Worldview

The first edition [of The Tao of Physics] from Shambhala—20,000 copies—sold out in just over a year. Bantam brought out a pocket-sized edition in 1977 as part of its New Age series, with an initial printing of 150,000 copies. By 1983 half a million copies were in print, with additional editions prepared in a host of foreign languages. Twenty-five years later the book had achieved true blockbuster status: forty-three editions, including twenty-three translations—everything from German, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Greek, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian to Farsi, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean—with millions of copies sold worldwide.

Many factors seem to have combined to jolt the book into the sales stratosphere. For one thing, Capra enjoyed a firm command of the physics; he had been well trained. The fact that the physics-heavy portions of his book had begun as drafts for a textbook—and that those sections had benefited from careful readings by a towering physicist like Viki Weisskopf—surely helped Capra clarify just how he wanted to present difficult concepts such as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle or quantum nonlocality. Moreover, his incursions into Eastern thought, while sometimes belittled by specialists in religious studies, nonetheless sprang from a genuine earnestness. Capra had become a seeker, reading everything he could get his hands on. By the time he finished the book, he had spent years experimenting with alternate modes of encountering the world, always pushing to absorb the insights of the ancient mystical traditions. And then there was his impeccable timing. With the New Age rage in full force by the mid-1970s, conditions were ripe for a book like The Tao of Physics. Capra’s book capitalized on a tremendous, diffuse, untapped thirst, a widely shared striving to find some meaning in the universe that might transcend the mundane affairs of the here and now. The market for Capra’s book had been teeming like a huge pot of water just on the verge of boiling. The Tao of Physics became a catalyst, triggering an enormous reaction.

When Capra set out to promote the book, he seemed straight out of central casting. “Tall and slim with curly brown hair skirting the nape of his neck,” cooed one Washington Post reporter, “Capra, with California tan, shoulder bag, and a Yin Yang button pinned to his casual jacket, seems more a purveyor of some new self-awareness scheme than a physicist.” It soon became clear, however, that Capra was more than just a pretty face. He was on a mission not just to explore the foundations of modern physics but to alter the very fabric of Western civilization; “a cultural revolution in the true sense of the word,” as he put it in the book’s epilogue. As he saw it, modern physics had undergone a tremendous sea change in its understanding of reality, and yet most physicists—let alone the broader public—had failed to appreciate the consequences. The “mechanistic, fragmented worldview” of classical physics had been toppled by quantum mechanics and relativity, but Western society still carried on as if Einstein, Bohr, Bohm, and Bell had never lifted a pencil. “The worldview implied by modern physics is inconsistent with our present society, which does not reflect the harmonious interrelatedness we observe in nature,” he explained. A proper understanding of what modern physics had achieved—especially its “philosophical, cultural, and spiritual implications”—could help restore the balance before it was too late.

The new worldview of modern physics was not just out of step with Western traditions, Capra concluded; it had rediscovered the age-old sutras of Buddhism, Vedas of Hinduism, and I Ching of ancient Chinese thought. “The further we penetrate into the submicroscopic world, the more we shall realize how the modern physicist, like the Eastern mystic, has come to see the world as a system of inseparable, interacting, and ever-moving components with man being an integral part of this system.” Only in the twentieth century, in the wake of the great revolutions of modern physics, were physicists beginning to throw off the yoke of Cartesian dualism, the assumption that had reigned since the seventeenth century that mind and matter occupied separate realms, firmly cut off from each other.

Capra acknowledged that much good work had followed upon postulates of René Descartes and Isaac Newton such as reductionism, the dictum to study nature by breaking things down into their smallest parts and focusing on the mechanisms by which parts interact to become wholes. But the centuries-long trend of Western science had not been without its costs. “Our tendency to divide the perceived world into individual and separate things and to experience ourselves as isolated egos in this world,” Capra contended, had long been understood in Eastern traditions as a mere “illusion which comes from our measuring and categorizing mentality.” Western observers’ impressions of the physical world as pointillist and fundamentally cleaved off from human consciousness arose not from the nature of reality per se, but from the mental filters and habits we happened to have imposed upon our investigations. Three centuries after Newton and Descartes, quantum physicists had only just learned that “we can never speak about nature without, at the same time, speaking about ourselves”—a deep insight that Capra considered comparable to age-old Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist -teachings.

Tapping the Zeitgeist

The Tao of Physics succeeded in that rare category, the crossover hit. It held broad appeal for hundreds of thousands of readers who were not physicists or academics of any sort. Looking back a few years after its original publication, one reviewer marveled that Capra’s book had sold “amazingly well, not only to the usual Shambhala devotees of Eastern religion but also to engineers, Caltech grad students, and people of the general population who, a few years later, would be reading Carl Sagan.” Reviewers routinely touted Capra’s clear expository style. “He has a pleasing way of raising and answering questions,” proclaimed one. “The book is very exciting, and Capra is clearly in earnest,” cheered another; “I do not know of a better general introduction to the major concepts of modern physics.” Another emphasized that Capra “writes fluently, quotes charming haikus and Zen koans”; his presentation never suffered from the “ponderous” and “abstract” style so often adopted in popular treatments of modern physics. More than just a good read, the book received a great deal of serious, scholarly attention. Academic journals specializing in philosophy, history, and sociology carried reviews. The journal Theoria to Theory published a lengthy review section on the book, with detailed comments from three specialists in philosophy and religious studies. Sociologists and philosophers of science likewise devoted substantial articles to the book, picking through the claimed parallels and subjecting each to sustained critique.

Perhaps the most surprising response of all came from scientists. Some certainly responded as we might expect, downplaying the book as mere popularization and dismissing the countercultural overtones as just so much Zeitgeist pap. Famed biochemist and science writer Isaac Asimov, for one, bewailed the “genuflections” to all things Eastern made by “rational minds who have lost their nerve.” Jeremy Bernstein, Harvard-trained physicist and staff writer for The New Yorker, went further. He concluded his review of Capra’s book, “I agree with Capra when he writes, ‘Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science but man needs both.’ What no one needs, in my opinion, is this superficial and profoundly misleading book.”

These predictable responses, however, were by no means the norm. Mysticism aside, Capra offered a vision around which many physicists could rally. In his opening chapter he had noted the “widespread dissatisfaction” and “marked anti-scientific attitude” of so many people in the West, especially among the youth: “They tend to see science, and physics in particular, as an unimaginative, narrow-minded discipline, which is responsible for all the evils of modern technology.” Capra declared, “This book aims at improving the image of science”; the insights and joys of modern physics extended far beyond mere technology. Indeed, “physics can be a path with a heart, a way to spiritual knowledge and self-realization.” Few reviewers missed the point. Physics Today ran a review of the book by a Cornell astrophysicist. The review began by citing the profession’s litany of woes: the “anti-scientific sentiment” of the age, which distressed Capra and his critics alike, “manifests itself on all levels of our society, from a decrease in funding for basic research to a turning to Eastern mysticism and various forms of occultism.” Not an auspicious start for the volume under consideration. Yet the reviewer judged Capra’s book to be a great success. For one thing, the book got the physics right. (On this point, reviewers had far fewer complaints than with Gary Zukav’s otherwise-similar Dancing Wu Li Masters. Unlike the highly trained Capra, Zukav had no previous background in physics.) Even more important: The Tao of Physics integrated “the abstract, rational worldview of science with the immediate, feeling-oriented vision of the mystic so attractive to many of our best students.”

An Educational Makeover

Just as the review was going to press, Capra was busy teaching a new undergraduate course at Berkeley based on his book. He reported proudly to MIT’s Victor Weisskopf that one-third of the students were science majors, eager to learn about the foundations of modern physics: just the sort of philosophical material they were not receiving in their other physics classes. Soon the American Journal of Physics, devoted to pedagogical innovations in the teaching of physics, began carrying articles on how best—not whether—to use The Tao of Physics in the classroom. One early adopter began by citing the huge market success of Capra’s book. “This leads naturally to the question,” he continued, “how can a physicist utilize this interest by offering a course using Capra’s book?” A follow-up article commented matter-of-factly:

Anyone involved in physics education is likely to be asked to comment on parallelism [between modern physics and Eastern mysticism] at some stage. It would be easy to dismiss such ideas entirely, and in so doing possibly risk alienating a newfound interest among students. This field has the potential of appealing to the imagination and should perhaps be carefully explored and maybe even “exploited.”

With budgets falling and enrollments crashing, physicists could ill afford to turn their noses up at anything that might bring students back into their classrooms.

An early article in the American Journal of Physics illustrated one way forward. It described a successful course (“Zen of Physics”) that David Harrison, a physics professor at the University of Toronto, had offered two years in a row. Like Capra, Harrison had already been intrigued by parallels between quantum physics and other intellectual traditions, ranging from the ancient Greeks to Eastern religions. He was also plugged into the New Age community in and around Toronto. He conceived the course, he later recalled, as one way to bring these many facets of his life together. The new course felt like a liberation. For one thing, the intimate classroom setting allowed for in-depth discussion. Essays and “special individual projects” replaced problem sets and (he argued) fostered greater enlightenment and enthusiasm among the students—so much so that Harrison answered popular demand by offering a more advanced follow-up course, playfully dubbed “Son of Zen of Physics.” Within a few years, the original course had become so popular that he had to break it up into smaller tutorials (capped at twenty-five students each) to accommodate the expanding enrollments while retaining the discussion-based approach. He developed novel assignments as well, such as this one:

In 1969 [Lawrence] LeShan devised an interesting test. He collected 62 quotations, some from modern theoretical physicists and some from mystics. Below, we have randomly selected 20 of these quotations. . . . Beside each statement clearly mark a P if you believe it was made by a physicist and an M if you believe it was made by a mystic.

Examples: “It is the mind which gives to things their quality, their foundation, and their being”; or “Thus the material world constitutes the whole world of appearance, but not the whole world of reality; we may think of it as forming only a cross section of the world of reality.”

To Harrison’s delight, he soon found his course filling up with physics majors alongside nonscience students, just as Capra had found in his course at Berkeley. . . . By no means did courses like “Zen of Physics” swamp ordinary physics department offerings. All the same, the courses, and Capra’s book, clearly left their mark.

Excerpted from How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival by David Kaiser. Copyright (c) 2011 by David Kaiser. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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  • Anonymous Icon

    cougarB2010 Aug 10, 2011

    There has always, it seems, been a divide between pure research and applied research, and it should be no surprise to anyone that people want to apply the insights of quantum physics to daily life. In addition, there has always been a need to find a scientific point of view that is compatible with the chi energy and psi experiences many of us have; this is why we also need IONS and Dean Radin, among others.

    For many of us, scientists who provide us with a framework for our experiences give us permission to take additional steps in our own consciousness. Sometimes permission is all that is needed to grow. Unfortunately, in our society, with so many forces promoting the process of partitioning ourselves from each other, from nature, from the energy world, from our deeper selves, and from our intuition, permission is not sufficient for personal transformation of our consciousness. We also need training.

    This is why I also value IONS for creating an organizational link between quantum and psi scientists, and then between these scientists and the teachers that provide these practices and training.

    I am one who is devoted to transmitting these practices to the globe, and I've finally made several breakthroughs that I hope will soon become visible to a few people, and then to more and more. I will always be grateful for the people who have prepared the ground for the many shoots of transformation that are now growing--including the shoot that I'm responsible for.


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