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As part of my research for a blog post on the quacky history of the quantum mind, I am reading David Kaiser's How the Hippies Saved Physics. This book is used by quantum mystics to legitimize their kooky ideas since it prominently features the Fundamental Fysiks Group (FFG), an informal discussion group that went on to produce some of the crankiness quantum mind pseudo-scientists.

Kaiser seems primarily concerned with telling a highly romanticized underdog story of how this unlikely bunch saved modern physics and allowed quantum information theory. He believes in three ways the FFG saved physics:

1. Re-invigorated the focus on big-picture and philosophical questions in physics.
2. Rescued Bell's theorem and entanglement from falling into obscurity.
3. Instigating major breakthroughs, in particular the no-cloning theorem.

I am a little bit skeptical of this. After the rapid post-WW2 expansion of physics, philosophical discussion has always remained secondary in physics -- it still is. One of the pieces of advice I heard as a graduate student was: "don't worry about foundations until after tenure." Quantum mechanics is now a sophisticated and well developed field, unlike the 20s and 30s when it was being born. In an established field, it is natural to expect student to prove their worth but working on objectively hard problems before being encouraged to wander off into the never ending debates of philosophy.

I am not sure what obscurity Kaiser is talking about with respect to Bell's theorem. The theoretical result was published by Bell in 1964, and by 1969 papers were coming out that had showed experimental violations of the Bell inequality. The super-luminal signalling that FFG concerned themselves with based on Bell's theorem is pure hokum, and one of the most obvious and common mistakes regarding entanglement. I don't understand how promoting misinformation counts as rescuing an idea from "obscurity", unless you commit the common mistakes while writing silly comics about cats:

http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1828

The no-cloning theorem is a relatively simple result in linear algebra (which one usually proves on a first homework assignment in a QIT class), and it was first noticed and its importance stressed in 1982 by Wooters & Zurek and independently by Dieks. All three were legitimate physicists with academic positions, and not quantum mystics or FFG members. The only connection to FFG that I can see, is that if you want a simple (but of course, incorrect) protocol for superluminal communication then you can make one by violating the no-cloning theorem. I am not sure that having an idea's consequence show that your approach was silly gives you any credit over the development of the idea. Holding a common misconception does not give you credit over work that explains why such misconceptions are wrong.

However, maybe Kaiser can sway me, I have only started reading. The book is very well researched, and is indirectly teaching me things that I didn't know before. In particular, figure 1.6 is pretty amazing.

At the start of the 70s there was a Big Crunch in physics funding which lead to many physics PhDs without potential employment as physicists. This prompted some to become hippies and mystics, but it also drove more legitimate scientists into nearby academic fields. Around this time, there is a big influx of physicists into biology, computer science, ecology, and economics. I had always assumed that the beneficial part of this was driven by the inherent generality and applicability of physics training to other disciplines, but could it have just been market forces of too much supply and a desperation to adapt to other jobs when physics employment dried up?

/cc +Piotr Migdal, +Abel Molina, +Sina Salek


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You can see more recent versions of those graphs here: http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/physgrad2008.pdf

I've been curious about this book for a while, probably due to having a generally more positive opinion of "hippies and mystics" than you have, but probably will never read it. Would probably find most of what they say stupid, but be happy that at least they are exploring the topics. Clauser seems like the most interesting one I guess, he got to do all the fun hippie stuff, and then he did some more rigorous things as well. Re: physicists doing other stuff, it's probably indeed a mix of having a decent chance of saying non-trivial stuff about other areas, and also having incentives to do so.
 
That is a cool report. I found the large number of international students surprising, while the demographics still remained mostly white: 41-55% (PhD vs Masters). I would have expected physics departments to be more diverse. I wonder what +Theresa Liao has to say about that. Also, how does this compare to more biological fields?

+Abel Molina the book is alright so far. The discussion of Bell's theorem didn't make me want to cry, which is impressive for popular literature :P. However, I am only on chapter 3.
 
+Artem Kaznatcheev I am not surprised by the large number of international students. Do remember that 1. this is data from the States and 2. a large proportion of students is classified as non-US, so "diversity-wise" that will need to be taken into consideration.

I am not sure how Canada has been in keeping data about its physicists (I spend a lot of time looking for data re: female physicists in Canada and failed to find recent data, but perhaps I was looking for something specific, and what you are asking here is quite broad). Even though I am friends with many grad students in my dept, I know the more "active" students in the dept (haven't met much of the rest) so cannot provide much insight.

The influx of physicists into other fields is interesting. I only know that many physicists found careers in Finance (not sure if this was in the 70s or 80s) and created derivatives...
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