Monday, May 19, 2014

How Physics Saved the Hippies

I am currently reading, with great pleasure and instruction, a recent book of David Kaiser, How the Hippies Saved Physics (2011).   The title rather put me off, as did the dust-jacket, featuring a naked man standing on his head;  but an excerpt on the Net proved excellent, and the work as a whole is proving even better, both from a scientific and even from a simply literary standpoint.

[Trigger Warning:  I tossed out the offending dust-jacket, but the sensitive reader must be steeled to encounter another affront, this one on page 55, where a physicist poses topless before a whiteboard, suitable for sexting.]
The title of the book, and that of this note, are both (as it might be) infinitely silly;  but their infinitudes are opposite in sign, or complementary.   Hence in posting this, so subject-lined, I may hope to usher in a welcome renormalization, in which the twin infinities  mutually cancel.

At all events, the canny author is well above the tawdriness of  his title, which turns out to be tongue-in-cheek (p. xii):

Hence the brashness of my title, How the Hippies Saved Physics.  Readers may well note a tinge of the same bravado, equal parts ironic and defiant, that animated Thomas Cahill’s well-known study, How the Irish Saved Civilization.  The similarity is by design.

I sympathize with such titular ludic thrusts, as the titles of several of my own efforts  attest:  An introduction to cinematic literacy;  Rootabaga exegetics;  A New Proof of the Existence of Coffee-Cups.

Despite the cheekiness of those he profiles, Kaiser’s book is by no means an example of “physics porn”, but is a work of solid journalism, and sociologically alert.  I was at Berkeley during the years of which he writes -- how well he captures the feel of it all!


Kaiser’s book, portraying American physics on the philosophical periphery, at a time of economic and academic retrenchment,  is a perfect pendant to Ann Finkbeiner’s engrossing history of American physics while it was feeling its financial and political oats:  The Jasons. 

[To be continued …]

[Update 16 Dec 2014]  This week's New Yorker has an informative article about the discovery and development of graphene, which might as well be titled "How the Hippies Saved Chemistry".

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