It would be nice to think that wisdom comes with age. I wish! But some lucky souls bear out the adage. Nick Herbert comes to mind. He is a co-founder of the Fundamental Fysiks Group, a band of counter-culture physicists who, beginning in the 1970s, defied the “shut up and calculate” ethos and asked daring questions about quantum mechanics. Just how weird is it? Does “spooky action at a distance” (Einstein’s phrase) have anything in common with mystical doctrines of Hinduism and Buddhism? Does it allow for faster-than-light communication? Extrasensory perception? Astral projection? In the marvelous book How the Hippies Saved Physics, historian David Kaiser traces current advances on quantum computation and encryption back to the Fysiks Group’s shenanigans. Herbert, now 82, is a key character in the book. His 1982 paper on superluminal communication, while flawed, inspired deep insights into the quantum realm. I have never met Herbert, but reading his blog “Quantum Tantra” makes me feel like I know him. In a post celebrating the blog’s 10th anniversary, Herbert says his goal is “to father a brand new physics (Quantum Tantra) which will connect us all with Nature in a more direct and intimate way.” Herbert’s musings are smart, funny, sexy and, well, wise. Our email exchange follows his poem “Quantum Reality.” –John Horgan
Shall I look at Her?
Or shall I not?
If I look.
If I don't.
Hard particle and soft wave: both?
and spread-out everywhere: both?
Lonely separate yet deep connected: both?
Some day You gotta show me
How You do that.
Horgan: How did you end up as a physicist?
Herbert: I grew up in an immigrant neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, consisting mainly of Italians, Irish and Slavs.
My parents were both raised in coal mining towns in southern Ohio and met in the Lorain steel mill community along Lake Erie. My parents spoke Slovak and Ukrainian and my father was a self-taught motor, radio, TV and refrigerator repair man and ham radio operator (W8UTD) who never graduated from high school.
I was smart in school and, wanting to use my intelligence for something noble, I studied for the priesthood at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic prep school, but upon graduation chose studying physics at Ohio State as an easier way into the mystery.
Horgan: How did you end up as a hippy?
Herbert: A “Sputnik scholarship” relocated me from Ohio to California in 1960. My first LSD trip in 1963 showed me how ignorant I was about the nature of the mind I so much prized. With Betsy Rasumny (who later became my wife), an improv dancer with Ann Halprin in San Francisco, I was lucky to be able to explore the Haight-Ashbury phenomenon from its very beginning. Betsy lived on Stanyan Street right across from Golden Gate Park.
In Palo Alto, I smoked dope with Ken Kesey and made friends with Stanford people such as Jim Fadiman and Willis Harman who were experimenting with psychedelics in a scientific context.
Horgan: You were in the right place at the right time. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from psychedelics?
Herbert: How many radically different kinds of consciousness can a person experience (including ego loss) without actually dying? That consciousness is a more fundamental mystery than physics, if one were only smart enough to ask the right questions.
For instance, I once experienced with absolute certainty the fact that everything was made entirely of mind. Then the acid wore off.
Horgan: Yeah, I’ve had trips like that. What's your favorite memory from the Fundamental Fysiks Group era?
Herbert: "If atoms are conscious, then what are the ethical implications of atom smashers?”: Elizabeth Rauscher, in the shadow of the Berkeley Bevatron.
Horgan: Do you still have hope that faster-than-light communication is possible?
Herbert: No. But we still might learn some new things about nature by trying to overcome this prohibition.
Horgan: What’s your favorite interpretation of quantum mechanics?
Herbert: I don't favor any of them, but Zurek's decoherence program seems to be the most fruitful, that is, generates more new calculations.
Horgan: Is quantum mechanics the key to explaining consciousness?
Herbert: No. I believe that quantum mechanics is just a warm-up for studying the question of consciousness, in the sense of showing us how inhumanly beautiful a style the universe has employed to generate mere matter. For the structure of mind we should expect a no less extravagant style of explication. And even more imaginative strategies for its exploration.
For my part, for better understanding the mind, I have suggested falling in love with Nature, a research strategy I call "quantum tantra".
For more quantum tantra, see “No More Safe Science.”
Horgan: Did you ever take extrasensory perception seriously? Do you still?
Herbert: I do not consider myself at all “psychic.” But my life seems to have been full of so many improbable and fortunate coincidences that I'm inclined to believe that explicit psychic phenomena (which are amply documented) are just the “froth” on some deeper psychic connectedness.
What do you think about St. Joseph of Copertino, the flying monk? Wouldn't it be great for science if another guy like him showed up in Palo Alto?
See The Man Who Could Fly by Michael Grosso
Horgan: I’ll check it out. Looking back, does the analogy between quantum mechanics and eastern mysticism hold up?
Herbert: For many years physics held the distinction as "the subject everyone hated in high school," but Fritjof Capra's Tao of Physics made the subject sexy again and paved the way for such bestselling quantum physics popularizations as Heinz Pagels's Cosmic Code and my own Quantum Reality.
However I am sorry to say that despite immersing myself deeply in the quantum paradoxes and less deeply in meditation and mindfulness, I find them both profoundly mysterious but having little in common.
Horgan: Do you believe in enlightenment? Have you ever met anyone who struck you as enlightened?
Herbert: When you meet a guru, whatever your belief, you are supposed to be able to directly sense his high energy field. I have met many holy men and ordinary people who “walk their spiritual talk” but the closest Nick ever got to actually feeling “shaktipat” was at a public lecture by J. Robert Oppenheimer at Stanford, but I suppose that could be chalked up to this man's “charisma” rather than to his “enlightenment.”
Horgan: Will we ever figure reality out, or is it just going to get weirder?
Herbert: I'm with Newton on this one: the wider the island of knowledge, the larger the ocean of ignorance.
Horgan: What’s your view of physics these days?
Herbert: Still lots of mystery: mostly in cosmology. Glory days of Solar System exploration. And also still: what is quantum mechanics really saying about reality?
Horgan: When I interviewed David Bohm, he predicted that in the future the boundary between science and art will dissolve. What do you think?
Herbert: If quantum tantra ever really hits pay dirt, artists will no doubt be the first sorts of people to mine this new psychophysical resource.
Horgan: I suspect you're right. You seem, based on your blog posts, like a genuinely joyful person. What’s your secret?
Herbert: Good genes.
My maternal grandparents, who barely spoke English, were able, after hard labor in Black Diamond, to buy a small dairy farm in Medina, Ohio, where they worked from dawn to dusk raising cows, chickens, corn and making their own wine. Grandpa's right hand was missing a few fingers from a mining explosion but he could still milk a cow. Grandpa and grandma were the happiest people I've ever known. They were not complainers.
Nor am I. I am immensely grateful to be able to use my mind and body to explore life's mysteries among such a rich assortment of friends.
Although I never actually perceive it, I suspect that somewhere deep inside, there's a little voice whispering: that no matter how painful life might seem to me at the moment -- it sure beats moving rock in a coal mine.
For more joy see my poem “Happy YIDD.”
Horgan: What’s your utopia?
Herbert: In sociology, I am utterly ignorant.
My favorite poet Robinson Jeffers (Shine, Perishing Republic) held a dim view of human progress. Perhaps we are now living in the Last Golden Age before the Decline of the West. Whatever the case, Nick offers these words as a guide to rightly living in this odd complexity:
Love this well
ere it perish.
And thank you
for your mystery
which I almost entirely
do not understand.
See also Q&As with physicists Scott Aaronson, David Deutsch, George Ellis, Marcelo Gleiser, Sabine Hossenfelder, Garrett Lisi, Priyamvada Natarajan, Martin Rees, Carlo Rovelli, Lee Smolin, Paul Steinhardt, Steven Weinberg, Edward Witten, Peter Woit and Stephen Wolfram.