The terms “hippie” and “physicist” don’t make for an obvious fit. But David Kaiser is coming out with a new book that not only demonstrates a link but also says hippie-era physicists actually helped set the stage for some of the field’s most exciting new directions.

Kaiser is professor of the History of Science in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and is himself a theoretical physicist. The focal point of his book, How the Hippies Saved Physics, is a renegade band of young physicists who got together in the Bay Area starting in the early 1970s.

It was a tough time for the field, mainly because the Defense Department was cutting back sharply on its previously lavish support of graduate physics education. “Many fields were hit,” notes Kaiser, “but physics fell fastest, hardest, deepest.”

Kaiser’s hippies, some 10 in number, were graduates or soon-to-be-graduates of top universities. These young scientists, who aspired to academic careers but faced serious odds against realizing that dream, began to meet informally. “They called themselves the Fundamental Fysiks Group,” says Kaiser, “and they gathered at Berkeley nearly every week for about four years.”

The group’s special interest was “entanglement,” one of those phenomena that give physics a reputation for trafficking in the mysterious and bizarre. (Einstein himself described the idea of entanglement as “spooky actions at a distance.”) Among the reasons for entanglement’s then-questionable reputation is that it seemed to imply interactions between various types of particles — including the electrons that keep our lamps lit — that were not just faster than the speed of light but, in fact, instantaneous.

Not all particles are entangled in this sense. But once two particles, including electrons, develop such a bond, they’re truly wedded.

The basic idea, says Kaiser, is that “your measurement of entangled particle A over here will instantly, and at arbitrary distances, affect what you find when you measure particle B over there.”

Stranger still, entanglement suggests that quantum particles don’t even have definite values for various properties, like their spin along a particular axis, until someone actually measures this property. In fact, if you assume that entangled electrons A and B each have their own values of spin along the x axis in the absence of such a measurement, you’ll be in direct conflict with what both quantum theory and many convincing experiments tell us. In other words, the properties of each particle of an entangled pair are in effect up for grabs until those properties are specifically measured. And here’s the kick: entangled electron B’s spin is instantaneously fixed once A is measured — and no matter if B happens to be, say, half-a-galaxy away from A.

Kaiser’s hippies elaborated on quantum entanglement. Group member John Clauser, meanwhile, contributed the world’s first measurements of entanglement in a lab, proving that its implausible implications are real. “He did a series of quite ingenious experiments,” notes Kaiser, adding parenthetically that “even so, he could never get an academic job.”

In the heady atmosphere of the ‘70s Bay Area, entanglement seemed to offer a key to understanding a lot of non-physics phenomena as well as events in quantum physics. For example, some of the young physicists, says Kaiser, “thought entanglement didn’t just sound like mental telepathy but might actually be the explanation for telepathy.”

Not surprising

It may not be surprising, then, that the hippies found allies among West Coast New Agers. One was the owner of the high temple of New Ageism, the Esalen Institute, 150 miles south of San Francisco. “The longest-running seminar series at Esalen wasn’t on yoga or acid,” notes Kaiser, “it was on quantum physics.”

The hippies also spread the word through a kind of parallel publishing universe. An eccentric advocate circulated Xeroxed, entanglement-oriented preprints and clippings to a selective physics readership. Certain members of the group, meanwhile, cracked the book-publishing world — in some cases, in spectacular style.

Fritjof Capra, for example, wrote a popular book on quantum theory and its purported similarities to Eastern mysticism. Put out by a niche publisher, it seemed unlikely to make a splash. In fact, over the succeeding decades The Tao of Physics sold millions of copies. “It’s been published in 43 editions and 23 languages,” notes Kaiser.

In the end, the hippies found their way in the world. Aside from those who became writers, there were a few who got on a standard academic track. Others became lab researchers, entrepreneurs, or consultants.

Whatever their career paths, Kaiser is in no doubt of their influence. In fact, he sees the group as having helped to bring careful study of quantum weirdness back into mainstream physics. And that in turn has enabled explorations of how to put emerging quantum discoveries to work.

The main consequence of the efforts to apply these findings is quantum information science (QIS), which has promise in areas from keeping sensitive communications completely secure to building ultra-fast computing systems.

MIT is on the front lines of this new field. Its faculty ranks include several of the world’s experts in quantum computing. And it recently got a $3 million federal grant to launch a brand-new graduate program in this frontier realm.

But QIS isn’t just about research. “It’s now a multibillion-dollar industry worldwide,” notes Kaiser, adding that “today’s thriving field is a far cry from its humble hippie origins.”