Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Jackson Pollock...physicist?

"Jackson Pollock, artist and physicist?"

June 28th, 2011

Harvard University

At a glance, a painting by Jackson Pollock (1912 - 1956) can look deceptively accidental: just a quick flick of color on a canvas.

A quantitative analysis of Pollock's streams, drips, and coils, by Harvard mathematician L. Mahadevan and collaborators at Boston College, reveals, however, that the artist had to be slow—he had to be deliberate—to exploit fluid dynamics in the way that he did.

The finding, published in Physics Today, represents a rare collision between mathematics, physics, and art history, providing new insight into the artist's method and techniques—as well as his appreciation for the beauty of natural phenomena.

"Our article is mainly an invitation to think about some aspects of art from a scientific perspective," says Mahadevan, who is the Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and a Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) and of Physics.

Crossovers between art and science are nothing new; consider, for example, Leonardo da Vinci's botanical sketches, proportional studies, and flying machines (or, for that matter, the culinary artistry of today's molecular gastronomists).

"My own interest," says Mahadevan, "is in the tension between the medium—the dynamics of the fluid, and the way it is applied (written, brushed, poured…)—and the message. While the latter will eventually transcend the former, the medium can be sometimes limiting and sometimes liberating."

Pollock's signature style involved laying a canvas on the floor and pouring paint onto it in continuous, curving streams. Rather than pouring straight from the can, he applied paint from a stick or a trowel, waving his hand back and forth above the canvas and adjusting the height and angle of the trowel to make the stream of paint wider or thinner.

Simultaneously restricted and inspired by the laws of nature, Pollock took on the role of experimentalist, ceding a certain amount of control to physics in order to create new aesthetic effects.

Mahadevan, collaborating with art historian Claude Cernuschi and physicist Andrzej Herczyn'ski, both at nearby Boston College, took an interest in Pollock when his colleagues suggested that the artist may have exploited the same aspects of fluid dynamics that Mahadevan has studied in the past.

Instabilities in a free fluid jet can form in a few different ways: the jet can break into drops, it can splash upon impact with a surface, or it can fold and coil, as when a stream of honey lands on a slice of toast. The artist Robert Motherwell produced drips and splashes by flicking his brush; Pollock's technique, on the other hand, is defined by the way a relatively slow-moving stream of paint falls onto the canvas, producing trails and coils.

In a sense, the authors note, Pollock was learning and using physics, experimenting with coiling fluids quite a bit before the first scientific papers on the subject would appear in the late 1950s and '60s.

Quantitative explanations for what are now termed inertial, gravitational, and viscous coiling regimes are relatively recent findings, elucidated only within the last few decades. Mahadevan himself has studied the coiling of honey, nanofibers, and rope, and the behavior of a dripping faucet, among many other aspects of soft matter physics.

Mahadevan and his coauthors examined the black and red painting Untitled 1948-49 and demonstrated mathematically that the only way Pollock could create such tiny looping, meandering oscillations was to hold his brush or trowel high up off the canvas and let out a flow of paint that narrowed and sped up as it fell. To create tiny loops rather than waves, he likely moved his hand slowly, allowing physics to coauthor his art.

(This video ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMYISqxS3K4 ) from the University of Toronto demonstrates how coiling motions can be predicted and manipulated when the "canvas" is the object in motion.)

The artist, of course, must have discovered the effects he could create through experimentation with various motions and types of paint, and perhaps some intuition and luck. But that, says Mahadevan, is the essence of science:

"We are all students of nature, and so was Pollock. Often, artists and artisans are far ahead, as they push boundaries in ways that are quite similar to, and yet different from, how scientists and engineers do the same."

Pollock's work and physicists' modern understanding of natural phenomena blur the line between art and science.

The authors wonder whether a quantitative understanding of fluid dynamics could inspire a new style of art that takes Pollock's medium a step further. Using a can of paint with a thin slit in one end, they suggest, an artist could paint with a film of pigment rather than a jet, creating new aesthetic effects.

"There are interesting quantitative questions everywhere in art," says Mahadevan. "One that currently fascinates me is inspired by the Chihuly exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, not only because of the beauty of the glass blowing forms, but also because it presents analogies to problems in biology and physics that span scales from the cell (in the context of cell shape) to the whole Earth (in the context of magma and lava flows)."

"Of course, another, much harder, problem," he adds, "is the notion of 'beauty' in art or science, which we all can recognize but find hard to quantify."

Deceased--Christiane Desroches Noblecourt

Christiane Desroches Noblecourt
November 17th, 1913 to June 23rd, 2011

The Associated Press...

Christiane Desroches Noblecourt, a pioneering French Egyptologist who prodded Gen. Gamal Abdel Nasser to help salvage Nubia's vaunted antiquities, has died. She was 97.

Desroches Noblecourt died Thursday at a hospital in Epernay, east of Paris, where she had been taken after a recent stroke, said Anne Francoise, treasurer of a retirement home in the nearby town of Sezanne where Desroches Noblecourt lived the last few years.

Born Nov. 17, 1913 in Paris, Desroches Noblecourt developed an early passion for Egypt after reading about the discovery of King Tut's tomb in the early 1920s. She later studied at the Louvre and the Sorbonne.

After an initial trip to Egypt in the late 1930s, she became the first woman to be put on a stipend with the Cairo-based French Institute of Oriental Archaeology - cracking a male-dominated world of Egyptology.

In a statement, President Nicolas Sarkozy paid tribute to Desroches Noblecourt as the " grande dame of the Nile," who blended scientific rigor with the qualities of "the most passionate of educators."

After Egyptian officials began planning the Aswan High Dam project on the Nile in 1954, Desroches Noblecourt met Nasser to air concerns that 32 ancient temples and chapels in southern Nubia were facing submersion.

In an interview with Le Monde newspaper in 2007, she recalled how she told him "let me handle it, I'll go talk to UNESCO on your behalf," she was quoted as saying. "He trusted me and let me do it. He was brilliant."

Paris-based UNESCO then helped mobilize nearly 50 countries for a vast project in the 1960s to dismantle, move and reconstruct the antiquities - including massive statues of Pharaoh Ramses II at Abu Simbel, which were broken down into 1,000 pieces and rebuilt over four years.

Desroches Noblecourt helped organize a Louvre exhibit in 1967 about King Tut's treasure that drew more than 1 million visitors.

During World War II, Desroches frequented some members of the French Resistance and was arrested in December 1940. "I thought I was done for," she told Le Monde. "I told them what I thought of them, and I don't know why, they let me go after two days."

Christiane Ziegler, a former curator at the Louvre's Egyptology department, called Desroches Noblecourt "very dynamic, but also very tiring: she wanted everything done in a minute! She had a lot of charisma and spoke well, and really cared for the greater public."

Desroches Noblecourt wrote dozens of books, including "The Fabulous Heritage of Egypt" that was a best-seller in France in 2004 and 2005.

A funeral was planned Monday in the nearby town of Mondemont-Montgivroux, according to Francoise, of the retirement home. She is survived by a son.

Christiane Desroches Noblecourt [Wikipedia]

Barbarism revisited--"flogging"

"Should Flogging Be an Alternative to Prison?"


Adam Cohen

June 27th, 2011


Flogging someone with a cane causes intense pain and permanent bodily damage. An Australian who was flogged for drug trafficking in Malaysia in the 1970s recalled that the cane "chewed hungrily through layers of" his "skin and soft tissue" and "left furrows" on him that were "bloody pulp."

It's tough stuff and generally considered a barbaric punishment that the 21st century Western world would and should never consider. That makes it a bit startling to find a new book by a serious U.S. academic arguing that the U.S. should start flogging criminals. Peter Moskos' In Defense of Flogging might seem like a satire — akin to Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," an essay advocating the eating of children — but it is as serious as a wooden stick lashing into a blood-splattered back.

Despite what you may think, Moskos is not pushing flogging as part of a "get tougher on criminals" campaign. In fact Moskos, who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, begins not by arguing that the justice system is too soft on criminals, but the opposite. So before you accuse him of advocating a cruel and unusual form of punishment, he offers this reminder: in the U.S., there are 2.3 million inmates incarcerated in barbaric conditions. American prisons are bleak and violent, and sexual assault is rampant.

And, Moskos points out, imprisonment is not just cruel — it is ineffective. The original idea for the penitentiary was that criminals would become penitent and turn away from their lives of crime. Today, prisons are criminogenic — they help train inmates in how to commit crimes on release.

Flogging, Moskos argues, is an appealing alternative. Why not give convicts a choice, he says: let them substitute flogging for imprisonment under a formula of two lashes for every year of their sentence.

There would, he says, be advantages all around. Convicts would be able to replace soul-crushing years behind bars with intense but short-lived physical pain. When the flogging was over, they could get on with their lives. For those who say flogging is too cruel, Moskos has a simple retort: it would only be imposed if the convicts themselves chose it.

At the same time, Moskos says, society would benefit. Under his proposal, the most dangerous criminals would not be eligible for flogging; the worst offenders, including serial killers and child molesters, would still be locked up and kept off the streets. But even so, he guesses the prison population could decline from 2.3 million to 300,000. That would free up much of the $60 billion or more the U.S. spends on prisons for more socially useful purposes.

We associate flogging with authoritarian nations like Singapore and Malaysia. The practice, however, has deep roots in America. The "lash" was used brutally against slaves, of course, but common criminals were also flogged throughout the 1800s. And it took a long time to die out: as recently as 1952, Delaware administered 20 lashes to a convicted burglar.

Flogging could have more of a chance for a comeback than some might think. In fact, there could be a surprising amount of grass-roots support. In 1994, an American teenager named Michael Fay was famously convicted of spray-painting cars in Singapore and was flogged as part of his punishment. Fay's ordeal received intense media attention — the number of lashes was reduced from six to four after President Clinton appealed — much of it critical of Singapore. But as Moskos notes, a newspaper poll in Dayton, Ohio, where Fay's father lived, found that respondents supported the punishment by a 2-1 margin, and at a time of rising juvenile crime, many Americans seemed to echo that sentiment.

There would be legal issues, of course, but Moskos believes flogging would pass constitutional muster. He notes that the Supreme Court upheld corporal punishment in schools in 1977, rejecting a claim that it violated the Eighth Amendment bar on "cruel and unusual" punishment. Moskos also argues that the fact that convicts would be choosing it for themselves should remove the constitutional question.

Moskos insists there would be no "slippery slope," that flogging would not lead to amputations or stonings of criminals. But once we make inflicting pain on people an option, it seems likely or at least possible that states and localities would come up with their own ghoulish variations. Not long ago, another academic wrote a book arguing that we should use electric shocks to punish criminals.

As for the remedy that most legal observers are pushing for rather than flogging — i.e., making our current prisons less barbaric — Moskos is dismissive of that happening anytime soon. Certainly the federal and state governments could focus on reducing overcrowding and violence in prisons, putting in place effective drug treatment and educational programs, and getting serious about alternatives to incarceration and helping prisoners re-enter society when they are released. But, in the eyes of Moskos: "Prison reformers — and I wish them well — tinker at the edges of a massive failed system."

Reading In Defense of Flogging is a lot like reading Woody Allen's classic "My Speech to the Graduates," in which he declares, "More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

Moskos would have us believe that there are only two alternatives for dealing with crime: the prolonged cruelty of incarceration or the briefer but more intense cruelty of flogging. But there has to be another way, doesn't there?

[Cohen, a former TIME writer and a former member of the New York Times editorial board, is a lawyer who teaches at Yale Law School. Case Study, his legal column for TIME.com, appears every Monday.]

In Defense of Flogging


Peter Moskos

ISBN-10: 0465021484

ISBN-13: 978-0465021482

Trouble in "rhymeland"?

Poetry Review editor Fiona Sampson [left] with Judith Palmer in 2009.

"Poetry Society riven by mysterious divisions"

No explanation for string of resignations at senior level


Richard Lea

June 28th, 2011


Like a summer storm, the row that has engulfed the Poetry Society seems to have come out of a cloudless sky. Membership is up, audiences are up and the society has been one of the big winners from Arts Council England's most recent round of funding, with grants increased 30% to £360,000.

But after a month which has seen the society's president Jo Shapcott, its director Judith Palmer, and its financial officer Paul Ranford, all hand in their resignations, some members are demanding that the society's board be called to account.

And with the final funding agreement with the Arts Council England (ACE) yet to be settled, the fallout could put the society's financial plans in jeopardy.

The writer and society member Kate Clanchy is assembling a list of members calling for an extraordinary general meeting.

"We need to know why Jo Shapcott – who's amazing – and Judith Palmer, who as far as I could see was doing a great job, have resigned," she said.

Is it a clash of personalities, a disagreement over artistic priorities, an argument over spending or a failure of management? With the eye of the hurricane still whirling over the society's Covent Garden headquarters, the reasons for the disturbance are cloaked in mystery.

Both sides seem keen to scotch suggestions that the trouble started with a battle between Palmer and Fiona Sampson, the editor of the society's magazine Poetry Review.

After a "very difficult decision to step down", Palmer said she was "taking legal advice as to how much I can say about what has happened", but was keen to stress that the society "has been enjoying a period of great success" and that the current turbulence has nothing to do with personal disputes.

"I've been dismayed to read reports of some kind of falling-out with the editor of our magazine," she said. "Certainly, nothing like that happened."

This is a declaration echoed by Sampson.

"I have not picked a fight with Judith Palmer," she said, "and I'm not interested in picking a fight with Judith Palmer."

Sampson also rejects recent suggestions that she wanted to focus more on high-profile poets, citing 13 years working in arts education and statistics which show that 20% of the poets published in Poetry Review have yet to publish a book – a proportion she described as "astonishingly high".

"My express policy is to honour the slush pile," she said, "because I always came out of the slush pile myself."

But Sampson declined to explain whether the dispute centres on the allocation of the recent ACE funding, as alleged in one report, saying that the spate of resignations is something that she has "no interest in, and no power over".

"It has never been the case that the editor has had any role in steering the society as a whole," she said, "and I haven't been."

Neither Palmer nor the society's board have been able to confirm or deny reports that the board wanted to change the distribution of the funds, or that meetings were arranged without the director's knowledge.

In a statement, the board said that they accepted Palmer's resignation "with regret", adding that, "In light of ongoing discussions with Judith, the board deems it inappropriate to comment on Judith's reasons for resigning."

For the poet Lemn Sissay, who admits to being baffled by recent developments, the storm has been brewing for some time.

"This goes back much further than the resignations of Judith Palmer and Jo Shapcott," he said. "People have been leaving the Poetry Society for some time now. If all your people are leaving ship, it shows there's something going wrong."

Meanwhile signatures keep coming in from the society's 4,000 members. Clanchy says she's nearly halfway to collecting the 10% required to trigger a meeting, but she's heard "not a smidgeon" from the society.

"They need to hold a meeting in the next four weeks," she said, "because this needs sorting out."

And the outlook remains unsettled, with ACE saying it would remain "in close contact" with the society while they "work to resolve their current difficulties".

In the most recent round of ACE funding awards, the Poetry Society was the biggest winner the poetry world, with the Poetry Book Society losing all its support, provoking outrage in poetry circles. The publisher Enitharmon also had its funding axed.

But the payout has yet to be finalised. "All our offers of funding are subject to negotiating a final funding agreement," said ACE. "These negotiations will take place between the Arts Council and all our new funded organisations between now and the autumn."

All cats are green...alien encounters in 20 years

All cats are green makes just as much sense and as relevant as...

"Alien encounters 'within twenty years'"

A top Russian astronomer say he expects humans to encounter extraterrestrial civilisations within the next two decades

June 27th, 2011


Russian scientists expect humanity to encounter alien civilisations within the next two decades, a top Russian astronomer said on Monday.

"The genesis of life is as inevitable as the formation of atoms ... Life exists on other planets and we will find it within 20 years," said Andrei Finkelstein, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Applied Astronomy Institute, according to the Interfax news agency.

Speaking at an international forum dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life, Finkelstein said 10% of the known planets circling suns in the galaxy resemble Earth.

If water can be found there, then so can life, he said, adding that aliens would most likely resemble humans with two arms, two legs and a head.

"They may have different colour skin, but even we have that," he said.

Finkelstein's institute runs a programme launched in the 1960s at the height of the cold war space race to watch for and beam out radio signals to outer space.

"The whole time we have been searching for extraterrestrial civilisations, we have mainly been waiting for messages from space and not the other way," he said.

In March a Nasa scientist caused controversy after claiming to have found tiny fossils of alien bugs inside meteorites that landed on Earth.

Richard Hoover, an astrobiologist at the US space agency's Marshall space flight centre in Alabama, said filaments and other structures in rare meteorites appear to be microscopic fossils of extraterrestrial beings that resemble algae known as cyanobacteria.

Writing in the Journal of Cosmology, Hoover claimed that the lack of nitrogen in the samples, which is essential for life on Earth, indicated they are "the remains of extraterrestrial life forms that grew on the parent bodies of the meteorites when liquid water was present, long before the meteorites entered the Earth's atmosphere."

A larger piece of Pi--Tau

"'Tau day' marked by opponents of maths constant pi"


Jason Palmer Science

June 28th, 2011

BBC News

The mathematical constant pi is under threat from a group of detractors who will be marking "Tau Day" on Tuesday.

Tau Day revellers suggest a constant called tau should take its place: twice as large as pi, or about 6.28 - hence the 28 June celebration.

Tau proponents say that for many problems in maths, tau makes more sense and makes calculations easier.

Not all fans of maths agree, however, and pi's rich history means it will be a difficult number to unseat.

"I like to describe myself as the world's leading anti-pi propagandist," said Michael Hartl, an educator and former theoretical physicist.

"When I say pi is wrong, it doesn't have any flaws in its definition - it is what you think it is, a ratio of circumference to diameter. But circles are not about diameters, they're about radii; circles are the set of all the points a given distance - a radius - from the centre," Dr Hartl explained to BBC News.

By defining pi in terms of diameter, he said, "what you're really doing is defining it as the ratio of the circumference to twice the radius, and that factor of two haunts you throughout mathematics."

The discrepancy is most noticeable when circles are defined not as a number of degrees, but as what are known as radians - of which there are two times pi in a full circle. With tau, half a circle is one-half tau.

Dr Hartl reckons people still use degrees as a measure of angle because pi's involvement in radians makes them too unwieldy.

He credits Bob Palais of the University of Utah with first pointing out that "pi is wrong", in a 2001 article in the Mathematical Intelligencer .

But it is Dr Hartl who is responsible for the Tau Manifesto - calling tau the more convenient formulation and instituting Tau Day to celebrate it.

Kevin Houston, a mathematician from the University of Leeds, counts himself as a convert.

"It was one of the weirdest things I'd come across, but it makes sense," he told BBC News.

"It's surprising people haven't changed before. Almost anything you can do in maths with pi you can do with tau anyway, but when it comes to using pi versus tau, tau wins - it's much more natural."

Dr Hartl is passionate about the effort, but even he is surprised by the fervent nature of some tau adherents.

"What's amazing is the 'conversion experience': people find themselves almost violently angry at pi. They feel like they've been lied to their whole lives, so it's amazing how many people express their displeasure with pi in the strongest possible terms - often involving profanity.

"I don't condone any actual violence - that would be really bizarre, wouldn't it?"

It is still difficult to comprehend--the universe

"For the Universe, Size Matters"


Michael D. Lemonick

June 28th, 2011


Astronomers have used all sorts of tricks over the years to try to convey the mind-boggling scale of the universe to us ordinary folks. If you could drive your car from here to the nearest star at 60 m.p.h., they've told us, it would take 11 million years. If the Sun were a beach ball sitting on a football field's goal line, the Earth would be a pea on the 50-yard line. And so on.

Things got a little more sophisticated with the extraordinary 1968 film Powers of Ten [below], which zooms out from a bucolic scene in a Chicago park to encompass ever-wider panoramas until it captures an artist's rendering of the entire visible universe, then zooms back down into the hand of a sun-bather lying on the grass, probing the ever-tinier world of the microscopic, atomic and subatomic.

But now comes the latest attempt to put the cosmos in perspective, and it may be the most effective yet — even though it takes the retro form of a physical book. Most coffee-table astronomy books are simply collections of gorgeous images, and Sizing Up the Universe (National Geographic; 248 pages, $35.00) is certainly that. But it's more too: it also conveys the relative sizes and distances of cosmic objects in so many different and ingenious ways that becomes a little dizzying — in the best possible sense.

In the first chapter, for example, titled "The Shape of the Sky," co-authors J. Richard Gott and Robert Vanderbei, two Princeton University professors, show how large celestial objects actually look to us — or would, if some of them weren't too faint to see. Because the Moon is so close, it appears relatively huge in the sky, while the giant star Antares, many times bigger than our own Sun but hundreds of light-years away, looks to us like a pinpoint. Gott and Vanderbei put the two side by side on a page to show that the way our eye sees things, you could place Antares on the surface of the moon and it would barely cover the Apollo 11 landing site — which itself was smaller than a baseball field. One page later, they use the Moon again to show that if you put the silhouette of the nearest star, Proxima Centauri (much smaller but much closer than Antares) on our satellite's surface, it would cover not the entire landing site, but just Buzz Aldrin's footprint.

In another section, the authors compare the actual sizes of planetary features — Lake Michigan vs. the hydrocarbon lakes on Saturn' moon Titan, with real images at comparable scales (Lake Michigan is a lot bigger); or the giant Olympus Mons volcano on Mars set against the comparatively puny Mauna Kea, in Hawaii; or Hurricane Katrina against Jupiter's Great Red Spot — in that contest, the mighty Katrina looks positively puny — or the embarrassingly minuscule Grand Canyon superimposed on Mars' gaping Valles Marinaris. And then, just for the heck of it, they throw in side-by-side images of a sunset on Earth and a sunset on Mars. No particular science lesson there: it's just exceedingly cool.

The genius of Sizing Up the Universe comes direct from the co-authors' fertile brains. Gott is an eminent astrophysicist, an expert on general relativity who wrote the popular book Time Travel in Einstein's Universe in 2001. He's long been fascinated with trying to visualize cosmic concepts — so much so that he created a richly illustrated timeline of the universe, from the modern Earth all the way back to the Big Bang, on a logarithmic scale that allows the whole thing to fit into the fold-out centerpiece of the book. His Princeton colleagues were impressed enough to have it woven into carpeting that runs down the hallway of the astronomy department.

"Rich," one of them once said, with deep admiration, "is perhaps the most genuinely eccentric person I know."

Vanderbei, meanwhile, comes from the esoteric computer-science discipline known as operations research; he got into astronomy the old-fashioned way — as an amateur. They both have an equally powerful passion, though, for trying to bring the cosmos to the masses — preferably in ways nobody else has thought of. "My interest in astronomy started when I was eight," says Gott, "and I think of all the objects we couldn't have put in this book at that time because we didn't know they existed — black holes, neutron stars, quasars, extrasolar planets and more. It really strikes me how far we've come."

It may strike readers, meanwhile, that the authors must have conjured up some sort of Einsteinian space warp to get so much information, in such a variety of vivid, gorgeous and conceptually brilliant forms, into a single book. You can pretty much open to any page and have an "aha" moment that will embed itself in your brain.

And over time, without even noticing, you may even begin to grasp the true immensity of the universe.

Sizing Up the Universe: The Cosmos in Perspective


J. Richard Gott and Robert J. Vanderbei

ISBN-10: 1426206518
ISBN-13: 978-1426206511

The Powers of Ten


The tarnished saint--Al Gore

"Al Gore, Press Critic"

A washed-up politician finds a new venue for his ideas.


Jack Shafer

June 27th, 2011


A big howdy and welcome to Al Gore, who with a 7,200-word feature ("Climate of Denial: Can Science and the Truth Withstand the Merchants of Poison?") in the new Rolling Stone has joined the press-critic racket.

Although the primary target of Gore's piece is the press corps, his pen wanders, giving his article the flow of several op-eds about separate topics stitched front-to-end like the victims of The Human Centipede. Gore begins complaining about press coverage of global warming but then marbles his essay with a couple of history lessons and sections complaining about campaign-finance regulation, the economic crisis, the number of hours people watch television, and the "powerful special interests" who have "rigged" the political game. I needed two cups of strong coffee and a tap from a cattle prod to finish it: Your dosage may vary.

Assuming you witnessed the 2000 campaign, I don't have to reprise Gore's views about those powerful special interests that have rigged the political game. Nor do I need to summarize his ideas about global warming, seeing as his Oscar-winning documentary and best-selling books have flooded the public consciousness. But Gore's media criticism deserves a second look—and pointers—should he decide to join the ranks of the press critics permanently.

Pointer No. 1: Vilify your enemies by name.

Gore's criticism is hopelessly vague. He blames the press for covering global warming like a professional wrestling referee—working from a script to boost viewership—but then gives no examples. He bitches about "extremist ideologues" but names none. He denounces "large carbon polluters" who finance "pseudoscientists" but doesn't name either.

The entire piece names just one corrupt news organization: the Fox News Channel. Yes, it's always fun to cane the Fox News Channel for its crimes, but Gore doesn't have the goods. Instead of citing a "refereed" news story broadcast by Fox, he quotes from an email from a Fox News Washington Managing Editor Bill Sammon, which Media Matters uncovered in December. In the email, Sammon instructed his reporters to question the "veracity of climate change data." Elsewhere, Gore maintains Fox News was one of the "hyperactive cheerleaders" for the Iraq War. (He names no others.) That's it!

The only other news organization named—the New York Times—gets a brownie point when mentioned. In 1991, the Times published a leak from a coal-industry planning document describing the industry's scheme to "reposition global warming as theory" and not fact. Gore doesn't provide a link to the piece. Here it is.

Pointer No. 2: If you're going to champion "science and reason," something Gore does repeatedly in his piece, you must not avoid inconvenient truths (sorry!) that challenge your thesis.

For example, Fox News Channel's corporate parent, News Corp., boarded the let's-stop-global-warming bus four years ago and now claims to be carbon-neutral. So what does it mean that Fox News opposes the global warming argument but the company that owns Fox News—and its CEO, Rupert Murdoch—embraces it?

Pointer No. 3: If you're going to cite survey results, put them in context.

Gore writes, "The average American, meanwhile, is watching television an astonishing five hours a day. In the average household, at least one television set is turned on more than eight hours a day."

Those numbers sound horrific, as if the news twisters are pouring garbage into viewers' brains one-third of every day. But how many times have you walked into a room in which a television was playing to no audience at all? How often have you walked into a TV room and found the one person sitting paying no attention to the set? Nielsen tabulates those televisions as "watched." For many people, a steadily humming television fills the background, not the foreground. Nielsen provides a less scary TV statistic from a 2009 study in this PDF : In 2009 the average primetime viewership was a mere 1 hour and 12 minutes a day for individuals. And that includes time-shifted viewing via a DVR or other device.

Pointer No. 4: Never bring up Fox News without noting how relatively small its audience is.

Yes, Fox News attracts the largest audiences of any news network. On June 21, for example, O'Reilly attracted 3 million viewers and Hannity 2.1 million, winning their time slots in cable news (source: Nielsen via Mediaite). But in a country of 330 million, that audience is small potatoes. (Sidebar: Edward Jay Epstein reports in Adweek that every Fox News rating success benefits CNN because "more cable systems need to retail CNN for a semblance of balance.")

Pointer No. 5: Never call the kettle black.

If you're going to be a press critic and a press mogul simultaneously, you should probably mention this in your press criticism. Gore, chairman of the lefty-liberal news channel Current, doesn't mention this fact in the body of his Rolling Stone piece.

Gore recently hired Keith Olbermann, who moved his Countdown news and talk show from MSNBC to Current. I like Olbermann as much as the next guy. He's fun to watch and he knows how to write. But Olbermann is an opinion journalist who donates to Democratic campaigns. If you called Olbermann an ideologue, as David Carr does, you'd be right. I have no problem with ideological journalists. I watch a lot of ideological television and read from an assortment of ideological journals. Nor do I have problem with Gore being an ideologue. But he's at a severe handicap if he wants to denounce ideologues for being ideologues at the same time he's an ideologue.

Pointer No. 6: Make sure your quotations are accurate.

In his Rolling Stone piece, Gore quotes a "philosopher" who wrote, "The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false."

The quotation from Theodor W. Adorno, a Frankfurt School Marxist, reads in its entirety, "The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power, a process that truth itself cannot escape if it is not to be annihilated by power, not only suppresses truth, as in earlier despotic orders, but has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false." [The text Gore dropped is set in italics.]

This quotation is one of Gore's favorites. It appears—properly abbreviated with an ellipsis—in his book Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis. (I approve of recycling favorite quotations. It always helps me hit my deadline.)

Pointer No. 7: If you have something to say, say it well.

If Gore hopes to impress readers, he had better start writing better than he does in "Climate of Denial." Give a look at this flabby sentence:

The best available evidence demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that the reckless spewing of global-warming pollution in obscene quantities into the atmospheric commons is having exactly the consequences long predicted by scientists who have analyzed the known facts according to the laws of physics.

I really like that last bit, "according to the laws of physics."

Say, maybe Al can persuade Keith to give him writing lessons!

Monday, June 27, 2011

One toke to write another line...pothead Shakespeare?

This is not justification to exhume Shakespeare's remains.

"Exhumation of Shakespeare to determine cause of death and drug test"


Deborah Braconnier

June 27th, 2011


Director of the Institute for Human Evolution, anthropologist Francis Thackeray has formally petitioned the Church of England to allow him to exhume the body of William Shakespeare in order to determine the cause of his death.

Thackeray is best known for his controversial suggestion nearly a decade ago which pointed to the possibility that Shakespeare had been a regular cannabis smoker. Utilizing forensic techniques, Thackeray examined 24 pipes which had been discovered in Shakespeare’s garden and determined that they had been used to smoke the drug.

Citing that even after 400 years, Shakespeare is still one of the most famous people in history, Thackeray hopes to be able to end the question of how he died and establish a health history. With new state-of-the-art computer equipment he hopes to create a three dimensional reconstruction of Shakespeare. The hope is to be able to determine the kind of life he led, any diseases of medical conditions he may have suffered from and what ultimately caused his death.

The new technology, nondestructive analysis, will not require the remains to be moved but will instead scan the bones. They are also hoping to collect DNA from Shakespeare and his wife and sister, all who are buried at Holy Trinity Church.

Thackeray also hopes to find evidence to back his controversial claims years ago regarding Shakespeare’s marijuana smoking. Examining the teeth could provide the evidence they need. If they are able to discover grooves between the incisor and canine teeth, it could show them he was chewing on a pipe.

This plan however goes against the final wishes of Shakespeare himself who had the following words engraved on his tomb: “Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare, To dig the dust encloased heare, Bleste be the man that spares thes stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.”

The Church of England denies that any requests have been made to exhume Shakespeare’s body but Thackeray and his team hopes to gain approval in time to be able to make the determination before the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016.

An interview with I. Newton

An amusing narrative...

Some years ago I happened to be listening to a lecture given by Gregory Chaitin on what he called as ”digital philosophy.” In the following night, just before falling asleep, I was lying on my bed wondering what Isaac Newton, the discoverer of calculus and arguably the greatest physicist of all times, would have said about Chaitin’s ideas. Gradually, my thoughts took a form of a firm decision: I would go and see Isaac Newton in person and ask from himself.

"Is Reality Digital or Analog?" by Jarmo M¨akel

Violent videos is OK for minors

1st Amendment rights would be violated. Well, what about pornography? Maybe you don't need to be 21 anymore.

"Supreme Court lifts limits on sale of violent video games to minors"

California's restrictions on the sale of violent video games to minors violate the 1st Amendment, the Supreme Court says in a 7-2 ruling. Five justices rule that under no circumstances can the government be allowed to protect children by limiting violence in the media.


David G. Savage

June 27th, 2011

Los Angeles Times

The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a California law that limited the sale of violent video games to minors, ruling the restriction violated the free-speech principles in the 1st Amendment.

"Like books, plays and movies, video games communicate ideas," said Justice Antonin Scalia. "The most basic principle of 1st Amendment law is that government has no power to restrict expression because of its content."

The ruling came on a 7-2 vote.

Scalia spoke for five members of the court who ruled that under no circumstances could the government be allowed to protect children by limiting violence in the media.

"There is no tradition in this country of specially restricting children's access to depictions of violence," Scalia said in the courtroom. "Certainly, the books we give children to read -- or read to them when they are younger -- have no shortage of gore. Grimm's Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed." Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined his opinion.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., applauded California's effort to deal with a "serious social problem: the effect of exceptionally violent video games on impressionable minors." But they too voted to strike down the state's law because it did not spell out clearly enough the limits that the gaming industry must follow.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer filed separate dissents. Thomas said minors had no free-speech rights. Breyer said he thought the law was constitutional as is.

The decision comes as a relief to the entertainment industry, which worried a decision upholding the California law could trigger similar measures across the country.

Old theater restoration...Palace Theatre [Orpheum] in Los Angeles

This is a remarkable civic project. It is an expression of opulence and experience of "going" to a theater for fine entertainment. Theaters today are sterile and missing the "experience". In my city there have been two similar projects...the Empire and Uptown theaters. For the most part the old buildings are demolished. There was one that should have been preserved...the Isis Theater. [See the images after this article.]

"Palace Theatre marks 100th anniversary with $1-million restoration"

The newly renovated Los Angeles theatre pays homage to its history by replicating the original color scheme and featuring a live circus-burlesque show in late July.


Bob Pool

June 26th, 2011

Los Angeles Times

The crowds who filed into the Palace Theatre in downtown Los Angeles may have felt like they were stepping a century back in time.

The polished marble near the entrance gleamed, and the gold leaf around the giant pastoral murals that flank the theater's stage glistened. Eleven hundred brand-new red velvet seats awaited theatergoers there to watch Billy Wilder's 1950 classic, "Sunset Boulevard."

Sunday's three sold-out screenings marked the 100th anniversary of the venerable theater at 630 S. Broadway, which first opened its doors on June 26, 1911, as a vaudeville house.

They also showcased the $1-million restoration of the hall whose 40-foot stage has spotlighted entertainers ranging from Fred Astaire to Harry Houdini to Sarah Bernhardt.

The theater was called the Orpheum when it opened; it was renamed the Palace in 1926 when a larger Orpheum theater was built down the street.

"At first, we thought we would just do a little light renovation for its centennial," said Shahram Delijani, whose family owns the Palace and three other historic downtown theaters. "But then we decided to really restore it."

One part of the theater is different from the original, however: its third-level balcony.

When the theater opened, the upper "gallery" level was earmarked for non-white theatergoers. Reportedly designated "Negroes Only," it featured bench seating, had separate restrooms and could be reached only through an outside entrance. Historians have noted that such an arrangement was unusual in a city that, in those days, was more tolerant than other places.

Delijani said he has his own plans for the upper level.

"I'm going to flip it. I'm going to turn it into a VIP area," he said.

Craftsmen in charge of the theater renovation stripped away as many as seven layers of paint from walls and original hardwood wainscoting. They uncovered the hall's original wallpaper, and Delijani was able to replicate it, along with the original color scheme.

"Returning this to its original condition is a heartwarming experience," said Los Angeles artist Teale Hatheway, who restored a fireplace mantel in a hallway leading to a restroom area. "It's nice to be part of something that will be here for many years to come."

The theater was built well to begin with, added artist Debi Cable, who helped restore its marble work. "This building's bones are spectacular," Cable said.

Designed by architect G. Albert Lansburgh, the theater sported a Renaissance revival facade with decorative panels depicting the muses of vaudeville — music, song, dance and drama — created by Spanish sculptor Domingo Mora.

Its interior featured a French look, with garland-draped columns, hand-painted murals on the ceiling and a row of electric lights that outlined the balcony and called attention to its 1911 modernity.

Because it initially had no sound system, Lansburgh paid close attention to the theater's acoustics and seating arrangement; no seat is farther than 80 feet from the stage.

Lansburgh, who is said to have been influenced by a devastating Chicago fire, which killed more than 600 theatergoers in 1903, designed the Palace to have 22 fire escape exits and one of the city's first interior sprinkler systems.

During the theater's early years, vaudeville stars appearing on its stage included Al Jolson, W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers and Will Rogers. After the live shows were moved to the new Orpheum theater in 1926, the Palace became a silent movie theater that screened newsreels and shorts. In the 1930s, it became a first-run movie house for features with sound.

Those familiar with the Palace describe its renovation as spectacular.

"When you came in here before the restoration, you didn't want to stay," theater expert Ed Kelseysaid. "There was a mildew smell, the seats were worn out, and paint was peeling."

Sunday's 100th anniversary event benefited the Los Angeles Conservancy, a preservation group that, for 25 years, has organized screenings in historic downtown theaters through its Last Remaining Seats program.

Seats were also featured at the theater's original 1911 opening, when they were "auctioned" as a fundraiser that benefited a Los Angeles organization called Associated Charities.

Delijani said regular programming at the Palace will begin July 28 with an appearance by the Lucent Dossier troupe, which will stage a live circus-burlesque show.

He said the Palace, along with the Los Angeles, State and Tower theaters, are his father's gift to the city. Developer Ezat Delijani is an immigrant from Iran who was forced out of his country by the 1970s revolution.

Now 34, Delijani said he grew up "running around and playing" in the ornate Los Angeles Theatre after his father saved it from the wrecking ball in the 1980s.

"My dad was so thankful to this country for taking us in," he said. "These four theaters are my Dad's legacy."

Isis Theater

Sex, drugs, rock 'n roll and..."physics"

Charter members of the 'Fundamental Fysiks Group,' circa 1975. Standing, left to right: Jack Sarfatti, Saul-Paul Sirag, Nick Herbert; bottom corner: Fred Alan Wolf.

"Fun with Fysiks"


Peter Woit

July-August, 2011


In the United States, the job market for people with doctorates in physics collapsed around 1970, as the huge post-Sputnik expansion of American university hiring and military spending came to an abrupt halt. By the mid-1980s, things hadn’t improved much, and it seemed likely that my recent Ph.D. in theoretical physics would be of little use in finding conventional permanent academic employment. One possible career path that came to mind was to try to follow the example of a sizable group of physicists who lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1970s. They appeared to have managed to pursue scientific research by dropping out of academia and adopting a countercultural lifestyle that included soaking in hot tubs at Big Sur, engaging in Tantric sex, hanging out at North Beach cafes and taking psychedelic drugs. Some of them had gotten rich writing books that mixed physics with various kinds of mysticism. I wasn’t very interested in the mysticism part, but I figured I could handle the rest.

For better or worse, I did end up moving to the Bay Area for a year, but as a respectable post-doc in mathematics I saw little or no evidence of the continued existence of these countercultural physicists, and I wondered what had happened to them. David Kaiser’s entertaining new book, How the Hippies Saved Physics, does a wonderful job of recounting the twists and turns of the story of how the members of this group came together, interacted with one another and with the more conventional physics community, and then dispersed to various fates.

Kaiser takes as the center of his account the activities of Jack Sarfatti and other physicists who met from 1975 to 1979 at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, sometimes calling themselves the “Fundamental Fysiks Group.” The group, whose core members included John Clauser, Elizabeth Rauscher, Saul-Paul Sirag, Nick Herbert, George Weissmann and Fred Alan Wolf, was open to anyone interested in the interpretation of quantum theory. One subject that occupied its members was what is now known as Bell’s theorem, which shows that quantum systems are “entangled” in a rather counterintuitive way. Although it was a fringe topic at the time, in recent years Bell’s theorem has played a part in the active field of quantum information theory, which raises serious hopes that important new technology such as quantum computers may soon be within reach.

Many members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group had unconventional motivations for their research: Some were hoping to explain parapsychological phenomena, and others were trying find a scheme for faster-than-light communication. Sarfatti has continued this sort of search, supported by various patrons over the years, but more recently his attention has turned to unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and faster-than-light interstellar travel. Other members or associates of the group were responsible for wildly successful popular books, including Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics, 1975), Gary Zukav (The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, 1979) and Nick Herbert (Quantum Reality, 1985). Off and on, these books have even found their way into the syllabi of university physics classes.

Kaiser is a professional historian of science, and his account is exhaustively and carefully researched. He has uncovered a wealth of revealing detail about the various physicists involved, making for a very lively tale. One focus is on the significant interaction between the countercultural physicists and the more conventional physics community, and this is taken as evidence for an argument which, like many of those favored by the counterculturalists, is provocative but unconvincing. Kaiser maintains that World War II had led the conventional physics community to abandon philosophical engagement with quantum physics, a mistake only rectified starting in the late 1970s, in part through the impetus of the activities of the Fundamental Fysiks Group. Therefore, he argues, the hippies were responsible for saving the field that had quantum information theory as its future.

There are several problems with this argument. Kaiser makes much of the disappearance of philosophical discussion of quantum theory from physics textbooks and curricula after the war, but there were very good reasons for this. The birth of quantum mechanics in 1925 was followed by dramatic and important debates over the meaning of the formalism (the relationship between the mathematical equations and experiments), but by the war years it was clear that the formalism of quantum theory was sound and highly successful; an ad hoc but workable prescription for its relation to conventional experiment and observation was in place. The issue of how to understand the emergence of the classical world as an approximation was not resolved (and remains unresolved to this day), but it had become clear that for practical purposes the problem could be ignored. Only much later, as technological progress enabled the preparation of larger-scale coherent quantum systems, could experimental investigation of fundamental quantum measurement problems proceed, driving new theoretical work.

Quantum mechanics has generated a huge amount of pseudoscientific nonsense about its supposed relation to the question of consciousness and to parapsychology. Unfortunately, members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group were and are among those responsible for this nonsense, which has seriously damaged their credibility as scientists. In 2004 one of them, Wolf, played the role of Dr. Quantum in What the Bleep Do We Know!?, an atrocious but highly popular film, which argues that proper understanding of quantum physics allows one to make anything happen that one desires. Kaiser does make a good case that the process of debunking Nick Herbert’s proposals for using quantum mechanics for superluminal communication was one historical factor in the development of what is now known as the “no-cloning theorem,” on which quantum encryption technology is based. This, however, is a very long way from making Herbert responsible for saving physics.

To place the story Kaiser tells in context requires noting that, although the job situation in the 1970s was awful, it was during this era that the fantastically successful Standard Model of particle physics fell into place; the Standard Model is a quantum field theory based on fundamental symmetry arguments. But Berkeley was the center of a failed research program (“S-matrix philosophy”) that claimed such a thing couldn’t work. In The Tao of Physics, Capra argued extensively for the triumph of an allied S-matrix/Eastern mysticism point of view (as opposed to a symmetry/Western one), right at the moment that S-matrix philosophy lost the battle. Particle physicists during the 1970s were very busy working out the lessons of a new enlightenment and were not paying much attention to grandiose claims about quantum mechanics coming from a center of reaction.

One of the intriguing issues that the story of the Fundamental Fysiks Group raises, which Kaiser discusses, is what philosophers of science refer to as the demarcation problem. How do you decide what is science and what isn’t? You can’t just decide based on whether someone has a respectable academic position (Einstein didn’t in 1905). A continuum connects the solidest experimentally verified science with the rankest pseudoscience. Some of the work of the countercultural physicists clearly fell into the “legitimate science” portion of the continuum, and some of it just as clearly did not. The demarcation problem has recently reared its head again as debate rages about the scientific status of speculative ideas involving extra dimensions and a supposed Multiverse. This time one center of controversial research is across the Bay from Berkeley at Stanford University, and highly ranked academic figures are involved.

Kaiser’s fascinating book does make one other difference between the countercultural and conventional physicists very obvious: Whether they were doing science or pseudoscience, and whether they saved physics or not, the hippies were having a lot more fun.

[Peter Woit is departmental computer administrator and Senior Lecturer in Discipline in the Department of Mathematics at Columbia University. He is the author of Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law (Basic Books, 2006).]

"Hippie days"

How a handful of countercultural scientists changed the course of physics in the 1970s and helped open up the frontier of quantum information.


Peter Dizikes

June 27th, 2011

MIT News Office

Every Friday afternoon for several years in the 1970s, a group of underemployed quantum physicists met at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, in Northern California, to talk about a subject so peculiar it was rarely discussed in mainstream science: entanglement. Did subatomic particles influence each other from a distance? What were the implications?

Many of these scientists, who dubbed themselves the “Fundamental Fysiks Group,” were fascinated by the paranormal and thought quantum physics might reveal “the possibility of psycho-kinetic and telepathic effects,” as one put it. Some of the physicists cultivated flamboyant countercultural personas. In lieu of solid academic jobs, a few of them received funding from the leaders of the “human potential” movement that was a staple of 1970s self-help culture.

In short, the Fundamental Fysiks Group appeared to be just a bunch of eccentric, obscure physicists whiling away the Me Decade in the Berkeley Hills. But as MIT historian of science David Kaiser asserts in his new book, How the Hippies Saved Physics, published this month by W.W. Norton, the group’s members actually helped to steer physics in a new direction: They revived scientific interest in the puzzling foundations of quantum mechanics, provided new insights about entanglement, and laid the intellectual groundwork for the field of quantum information science, which today produces cutting-edge computing and encryption research.

“That’s a pretty good track record for a few years of zany, fun-loving, free-spirited and yet devoted research,” says Kaiser, head of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and a senior lecturer in the Department of Physics.

For whom Bell toiled

The intellectual beacon guiding the Fundamental Fysiks Group was a 1964 insight by Irish physicist John Bell, which strongly suggested that entanglement was real: Measuring the properties of one particle could influence the properties of another, distant particle. “This group was obsessed with Bell’s Theorem and wanted to wring out its implications,” Kaiser says.

In so doing, the group was returning to the physics tradition of inquiry about the structure of the universe. Famous prewar quantum theorists such as Erwin Schrödinger regularly tackled questions about subatomic strangeness, like the apparent particle-wave duality of matter. But after World War II, Kaiser notes, quantum physics became a much more pragmatic field, developing technologies such as the transistor; a popular mantra was “shut up and calculate.”

The few physicists left pondering the nature of reality were doomed in the sour academic job market of the 1970s, after Sputnik-driven education funding had dried up. “No field grew faster than physics after World War II, and no field crashed harder in the 1970s,” Kaiser says.

Still, one physicist in the Fundamental Fysiks Group, John Clauser, rigged an apparatus at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and conducted the first experiment testing Bell’s Theorem; it suggested entanglement was real. In 2010, this earned Clauser a share of the Wolf Prize, physics’ leading award after the Nobel Prize; back then, the experiment merely earned Clauser a little recognition.

“I think the field had gotten out of balance,” says Kaiser, who has PhDs in both physics and the history of science from Harvard.

Another mainstay of the group, Nick Herbert, concocted influential thought experiments about the uses of entanglement. One paper Herbert circulated, on something he called the FLASH scheme, described a possible way that entangled particles could influence each other faster than the speed of light — violating Einstein’s theory of special relativity. If proven true, Herbert thought, information could be transmitted instantaneously. Eventually other scientists concluded that the concept would not work, since devices cannot copy unknown properties of particles. This “no-cloning theorem” is the basis of quantum encryption: Codes based on quantum information cannot be replicated and thus cracked.

“The no-cloning theorem was discovered by three groups in response to Nick Herbert’s FLASH scheme,” Kaiser says. “It’s a new insight into the structure and meaning of quantum theory. That’s page one of our quantum information science textbooks today.”

The Tao of Physics makes waves

According to Kaiser, the Fundamental Fysiks Group also contributed to science education, by helping to renew interest in the philosophical dimension of physics. Largely ignored by academia, group members began writing for popular publication.

One physicist at large associated with the group, Frijtof Capra, wrote a quirky book in 1975 drawing links between quantum phenomena and Eastern religions. Surprisingly, The Tao of Physics became an international bestseller with millions of copies in print. Equally surprisingly, after decades spent ignoring quantum weirdness, professors began assigning Capra’s book, to draw students back into the physics classroom.

Herbert and others in the group would also write successful texts on quantum physics that were assimilated into the physics curriculum. “Today’s undergraduates at MIT learn about Bell’s Theorem in the first semester of quantum mechanics,” Kaiser says. “That simply wasn’t true for a long time. Questions about what it all means now have a place in the curriculum.”

‘These folks had to show people the goods’

Not every scientist in the Fundamental Fysiks Group could write a best-seller, of course. To gain attention, the group circulated mimeographed working papers, sent letters to prominent physicists such as John Wheeler, and sought coverage in alternative newspapers, as Kaiser documents.

“The book captures something that seems quite ephemeral, a moment in the history of physics when a lot of thinking was not recorded in traditional publications,” says Ken Alder, a professor of history and founder of the Science in Human Culture Program at Northwestern University. “David has done an amazing job of piecing together what was going on at the time.”

Though many of the physicists were attracted to entanglement because it suggested that the paranormal might be possible, Kaiser is careful to distinguish between their personal interests and the value of their technical work. “Virtually every member of the group had PhDs from very elite programs,” Kaiser says. “They weren’t just leaning back and saying, ‘Hey man, can you dig it?’” Instead, he says, “These folks had to show people the goods, pages of calculations in papers they submitted to peer-reviewed journals.”

The hippie physicists also represent a larger point about American history, Kaiser believes: The counterculture movement was not primarily an anti-scientific phenomenon, as many commentators have described it. “There was a rejection of a certain kind of militarized Cold War science, not a general rejection of science or technology,” Kaiser says.

Today, new technologies based on entanglement seem plausible; banks have demonstrated money transfers using entangled photons, and research into quantum computing is expanding. As much as the Fundamental Fysiks Group wanted to move away from applied physics and return to foundational questions, the two things are very much entangled.

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


David Kaiser

ISBN 978-0-393-07636-3


The surprising story of eccentric young scientists who stood up to convention-and changed the face of modern physics.

Today, quantum information theory is among the most exciting scientific frontiers, attracting billions of dollars in funding and thousands of talented researchers. But as MIT physicist and historian David Kaiser reveals, this cutting-edge field has a surprisingly psychedelic past. How the Hippies Saved Physics introduces us to a band of freewheeling physicists who defied the imperative to "shut up and calculate" and helped to rejuvenate modern physics.

For physicists, the 1970s were a time of stagnation. Jobs became scarce, and conformity was encouraged, sometimes stifling exploration of the mysteries of the physical world. Dissatisfied, underemployed, and eternally curious, an eccentric group of physicists in Berkeley, California, banded together to throw off the constraints of the physics mainstream and explore the wilder side of science. Dubbing themselves the "Fundamental Fysiks Group," they pursued an audacious, speculative approach to physics. They studied quantum entanglement and Bell's Theorem through the lens of Eastern mysticism and psychic mind-reading, discussing the latest research while lounging in hot tubs. Some even dabbled with LSD to enhance their creativity. Unlikely as it may seem, these iconoclasts spun modern physics in a new direction, forcing mainstream physicists to pay attention to the strange but exciting underpinnings of quantum theory.

A lively, entertaining story that illuminates the relationship between creativity and scientific progress, How the Hippies Saved Physics takes us to a time when only the unlikeliest heroes could break the science world out of its rut.