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Marcos Santander | IceCube | USA

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Men who stare at quantum

LSD trips, CIA agents, bank transactions, spoon-bending psychics, self-help books. All seemingly disconnected and far from common topics for a physics talk. However, Prof David Kaiser from MIT  managed to combine all these exotic ingredients into a very entertaining physics colloquium titled “How the hippies saved physics” that we had the opportunity to enjoy last week here in Madison. The talk revolved around the unlikely adventures of the members of the “Fundamental Fyziks Group” (FFG), an ensemble of about 10 physics PhD students based in Berkeley who got their degrees in the mid-seventies and are the main topic of Kaiser’s upcoming book.

In discussing the activities of the group, Kaiser warned us, one must understand the peculiar circumstances that physics in the US was going through at the time. Right around the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s, the physics community realized that it was producing far more physicists than the job market (both outside and inside academia) was able to absorb. The burst of this bubble left many highly qualified scientists without a place to continue research, forcing most of them to find jobs that were unrelated to their studies.

Some of the founding members of the Fundamental Fyziks Group: Jack Sarfatti, Saul-Paul Sirag, Fred Alan Wolfe, and Nick Herbert. Certainly not the usual physics lab crowd.

This was the case of most of the members of the FFG. With several of them having day jobs, they realized that they had enough time in their hands to discuss topics that they thought didn’t receive the attention they deserved in the physics education curricula of the day. The group would hold weekly meetings in a room in LBNL booked by those who were still enrolled as grad students there, and they would talk about their main topic of interest: the foundations of quantum mechanics.

Ever since the beginnings of quantum mechanics, the strange implications of the theory made some of its founding fathers (like Bohr, Heisenberg, or Pauli) wonder about its philosophical ramifications. This road was abandoned after those early days, probably because there was a lot of concrete work to be done with the new theory having so many predictions to test. This is precisely the road that the FFG wanted to retake, and to do that they focused on Bell’s theorem, fairly unknown at the time but directly related to very hot topics today, as are quantum entanglement and its applications.

Although today we have banks testing quantum encryption methods based in quantum entanglement, back in the day the topic was basically in the sidelines of physics, as it was seen by many as being “too philosophical” to be considered real science. The early discussions about Bell’s 1964 paper (today one of the most cited in history) happened during the weekly meetings of the FFG, and most of the early citations to the paper come from members of the group.

Using Bell’s theorem as a tool, the group tried to explain some “phenomena” that were even more bizarre than quantum mechanics itself, as you’ll see. You have to remember that these were crazy times to be living in the San Francisco Bay Area, with many things happening there: the hippie movement, the anti-war protests, the experimentation with LSD and other drugs, the practice of yoga and vegetarianism (mainstream today), and an overall search for spirituality. Not all scientists were immune to these phenomena, and some of them got involved in things like testing the psychic “powers” of  spoon-bender Uri Geller under not-so-strict laboratory conditions. This even led to an article in Nature where the scientists talked about the positive detection of a “Geller effect.”

This observation called for a theory to support it, and here’s where the FFG members enter the game claiming that these observations were related to Bell’s theorem. How the connection went I can’t say, you’ll probably have to read Kaiser’s book, but according to the group, there was a lot of room left in quantum theory to accommodate things that could not be explained, things like: telekinesis, mind reading, and so on. That, of course, if you assume that they could actually not be explained through much simpler means.

The members of the group, most of them outside academia, started looking for non-standard ways to fund their non-standard research in the connection between quantum mechanics and the paranormal, and surely enough they found it. They got funding from SRI (the same place where they tested Geller), they got funding from a branch of the CIA created to train “psychic spies”, and they even got a lot of money from self-help book author Werner Erhard.

Kaiser recounts some of the “remote viewing” experiments that were carried out by the CIA. One agent would go out on the field somewhere in the bay area and stare at an object while another agent back at the station would try to get their minds “entangled” and describe what the other person was seeing. Most of the times the agent back at the station would receive LSD as an “enhancer.” It is not hard to understand why these experiments involving a guy tripping on acid trying to read the thoughts of another guy miles away didn’t go too far.

Having secured the funding for their studies, they had to solve the problem of how to get the message out to the community, specially since most of the big journals had banned topics like Bell’s theorem and the foundations of quantum mechanics from appearing in their pages. Here too they had to rely on non-standard procedures to get things done. After some publications in an obscure Swedish journal, they found their communication channel in Ira Einhorn, a renown anti-war activist who was running a newsletter known as “the Unicorn preprint service.” These preprints were mainly hard-to-read photocopied copies of articles, many of them written by the FFG members, that were mailed to many prime physicists of the day (usually without asking about whether or not they wanted to receive these articles.) These publications came to a sudden stop when Einhorn fled the US while being tried for the the murder of her girlfriend (he’s still serving time for the crime.)

There’s no doubt that most of the discussion of the members of the group belonged to fringe science, but many of their points were extremely insightful, and that forced many “mainstream” physicists to take some of these topics seriously. According to Kaiser, some of the foundational papers of the today well-established field of quantum information science owe a lot to the activity of the FFG during those early days.

Today, Bell’s theorem is a mainstream topic again, and a discussion about it can be found in almost any grad level textbook on quantum mechanics. It has been a long and winding road back into academia but it certainly made it back. Even though this is a happy ending, an uneasy feeling remains: could we be discarding something vital as fringe activity today? In my opinion, even if we are skipping over some important idea, patiently evaluating and sorting through the overwhelming volume of crackpot theories that circulate today on the internet implies a price too high to pay.

We must also remember that the members of the FFG, regardless of their unorthodox study interests, were very smart and very well trained people,  with great control over the technical details of their research, no matter how far-fetched the implications of their claims were.

In the 2009 feature film “Men who stare at goats”, George Clooney plays a soldier who has been trained in the fine arts of “remote viewing”, telekinesis, and “phasing” the particles in his body into waves by a specially created branch of the army to be, well, a psychic spy. A legend at the beginning of the film reads: “More of this is true that you would believe.” Who knows if that also holds for some crazy ideas about physics out there.

PS: The video of Kaiser’s talk is not yet available on the UW website, but here’s a link to a video of a similar talk he gave some time ago.