Wednesday, September 18, 2013

My Dinner with John and Mary Bell

Dinner Party chez Pierre and Mary Noyes: March 1988
In his best-selling book How the Hippies Saved Physics, MIT professor David Kaiser describes how the members of an informal, outside-the-mainstream research group in Berkeley (Elizabeth Rauscher's Fundamental Fyziks Group) were able to make significant advances in a then-unfashionable field (quantum foundations) which has since become a respectable and flourishing part of physics.

However, Kaiser failed to mention that along with Berkeley's FFG, a like-minded group at Stanford (ANPA West, founded by Stanford professor Pierre Noyes), was also enthusiastically exploring the once disreputable field of quantum foundations. ANPA (an acronym for Alternative Natural Philosophy Association) was organized by Cambridge physicist Ted Bastin and his friends. The "bible" of ANPA was a collection of essays edited by Bastin Quantum Theory and Beyond which featured papers by David Bohm, Yakir Aharonov, Geoffrey Chew as well as lesser-known quantum-edge explorers). ANPA East was centered in Cambridge while its Western focus was Pierre's group at Stanford.

ANPA West meetings took place mainly in buildings in and around Stanford with an occasional trip into the redwoods to David McGoveran's house in Boulder Creek. The main focus of ANPA West was "bit-string physics"-- the world viewed as a computer program -- and attempting to calculate the value of fundamental constants via a technique called "combinatorial hierarchy". But a glance at the ANPA West Journal (a kitchen-table-top production by Tom Etter and Suzanne Bristol) shows that ANPA West members were also interested in other foundational topics including new quantum logics and Bell's Theorem. [Computer graphics wizard Dick Shoup has scanned and posted all these journals here.]

Physicist Henry Stapp (a prominent FFG member) has called Bell's Theorem "the most profound discovery in science". But despite its alleged profundity, this theorem was dismissed by the majority of physicists as "mere philosophy" and research into its implications was considered to be a "career breaker". For instance, John Clauser's advisor warned him, in effect, that he would never achieve an academic physics position if he persisted in doing a Bell's theorem experiment regarded at the time as an exercise in "mere philosophy".

Clauser's advisor was right -- John never did get an academic post -- but when Bell's theorem finally became fashionable in wider venues than Big Sur's Esalen Institute, Stanford's ANPA West and Berkeley's Fundamental Fyziks Group, John Clauser's trail-blazing work was belatedly recognized with one of the physics profession's highest honors.

Although I had corresponded with John Bell at CERN while writing Quantum Reality, I had never met the author of "the most profound discovery in science". I had one chance to meet Bell in 1982 when Saul-Paul Sirag and I invited him to Esalen Institute in Big Sur to receive (along with John Clauser), The Reality Prize, funded by Charles Brandon, one of the founders of FEDEX. It pleases me no end that of all the awards John Bell has since received (including a Nobel Prize nomination shortly before his untimely death in 1990 at age 62) our Esalen Reality Prize was the very first to publicly honor this extraordinary man. John Bell, however, did not come to Big Sur but instead sent a colleague, Bernard D'Espagnat, to accept the Reality Prize.

John Stewart Bell was my hero. I had spent a lot of time reading his papers, arguing with colleagues about his work and even developing my own bare-bones, stripped-down version of Bell's famous theorem. So you can imagine my delight when Pierre Noyes invited me to his home in the Stanford foothills for a seminar by John Bell and a few days later to a dinner party with John and his wife Mary Ross Bell, also a physicist. (This was in March 1988, only a few years before Bell's death.)

I recall very few details of that dinner in '88, except that for me it felt like sitting in an extra chair at Jesus's Last Supper. In John Bell's presence, I felt that close to holiness. One of the most charming aspects of John and Mary Bell was their Irish accents which lent a particular sparkle to their speech. Both John and Mary were brilliant, witty and entertaining. Our table talk was further enhanced by many many glasses of fine wine produced by Pierre's son David (proprietor of David Noyes Wines in Sonoma). Thank you, Pierre and Mary Noyes, for greatly enriching Nick and Betsy Herbert's lives.

Here's my favorite Bell story from those meetings. It took place in Pierre's living room in Bell's seminar a few days before the luminous dinner. In front of the black board, John Bell was arguing a particular point when a Stanford physicist loudly objected:

"But how can that be, John? Isn't such-and-such true?"

To which Bell replied (and you've got to imagine this delivered in a sparkling Irish accent):

"So ye believe such-and-such, do ye? Well. in three minutes, I'll have ye believin' the opposite."

And then, in less than three minutes,  John Bell proceeded to make good his boast.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Hanger for the Cloak of Night

Location of the Coathanger asterism-- from APOD

All praise to Allah the Maker
of the Sky, the Desert and Sea.
For tonight in the Fox
with seven/fifty binocs
I first saw the Cluster
of abd al-Rahman al-Sufi.

Ibn al-Haltham -- contemporary of abd al-Rahman al-Sufi

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Coathanger Club

The al-Sufi Cluster resembles a clothes hanger
During these warm summer nights Nick has been sleeping out doors in his tree house and taking this opportunity to get acquainted with the night sky. Surrounded by redwood trees I am limited to observing one slice of the Southern sky: every two hours another sign of the Zodiac appears, beginning (in early September at latitude 35 degrees North) with Sagittarius at 9 PM, Capricorn at 11 PM and Aquarius at 1 AM. But in addition to spotting prominent landmarks such as the signs of the Zodiac I am learning a lot (from both books and observation) about arcane features of the night sky that are known and appreciated by only a few deep sky fanatics.

For instance, in the year 964, the Persian astronomer Abd al Rahman al-Sufi (known as al-Sufi) published a new map of the heavens that improved on the classic Ptolemaic picture. Al-Sufi was the first to record galaxies outside the Milky Way--the Large Magellanic Cloud (visible from Yemen) and the Andromeda Galaxy which is the most distant object (2 million light years) visible to the naked eye.

He also recorded a tiny asterism known today as al-Sufi's cluster or Brocchi's cluster (after an amateur astronomer who studied it 1000 years later than al-Sufi). It is also called the Coat Hanger--well--because it looks like a coat hanger.

Get out your binoculars for a small but memorable non-drug experience under the night sky.

From the wonderful Astronomy Picture of the Day site, here's a picture of the Coathanger.

Which of you will be the first to spot the "Coathanger Asterism"?  initially discovered 1000 years ago by a Muslim astronomer living in Isfahan in what is now called Iran?

The easiest way to spot the al-Sufi Cluster is to locate the Summer Triangle, which is almost directly overhead in the early fall and consists of the three bright stars Vega, Deneb and Altair (all named, like so many other stars in the sky, by words derived from Arabic). The Coathanger lies about 1/3 of the way along a straight line from Altair to Vega, appearing as a bright patch in the Milky Way. Binoculars will be needed to resolve its coathangerish nature.

The al-Sufi Cluster lies in the minor constellation Vulpecula (Latin for Little Fox).

The world is divided into two categories of people, those few who have seen the Coathanger (al-Sufi's Cluster) with their own eyes (pictures don't count) and the majority who will never experience this little star thrill.

Members of the elite Coathanger Club are rumored to greet one another by exchanging the esoteric gesture that identifies a Viewer of the al-Sufi Cluster--a closed fist placed above the back of an out-stretched palm.

Nick has not yet joined the secret society of Coathangers. It's cloudy right now in Boulder Creek. But on the next clear night he intends to leave the rabble behind and to become a member of the society of "Those Who Have Seen the al-Sufi Asterism."

Will you join me in the Coathanger Club? Or will you choose to remain an Outsider?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Letter to St. Charles

St. Charles Borromeo (1538 - 1584), Bishop of Milan
To Louis Fabro, Director of Alumni Affairs, St. Charles Borromeo Preparatory School, Columbus, Ohio.

As a 1954 St. Charles Borromeo alumnus who moved to California in the 60s, I have been enjoying reading in your newsletters about the changes taking place at my old high school.  After all the new construction, I'm sure I would not recognize the place. A lot of changes have occurred in 60 years including the new pedestrian bridge across Alum Creek near the site of the Mary Grotto where some of us--not me--would sneak behind to smoke cigarettes. Is there still a seminary on the grounds where boarding-school students would steal beer from the novitiate's refrigerators? I remember assisting as an altar boy at morning mass in the chapel when I came early to school. And being castigated by Monsignor Galen in math class which was not so unusual: Msgr. Galen's standards were high and few of us escaped this brilliant man's good-natured criticism.

Responding to your request for material for your Alumni News, here's what's been happening to Nick.

After graduating from St. Charles, I got a BA in physics from Ohio State and a PhD in Physics from Stanford.

I held various jobs in industry during the 60s and 70s, then dropped out of the mainstream to home school my son Khola and do physics at home--a decision which introduced me to many other independent researchers working at the edges of conventional science. During this time I wrote three books, the best-selling Quantum Reality, still in print and ebook, Faster Than Light, and Elemental Mind, a book about consciousness. In the late 70s, I was invited to teach and lead seminars at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA on the implications of Bell's Theorem, a new mathematical proof by Irish physicist John Stewart Bell, concerned not merely with experiments, nor with theories but with "reality itself". Two of my achievements in this area were the shortest proof of Bell's theorem and a thought experiment (called FLASH) which led directly to the discovery of the quantum No-Cloning Rule, a fundamental fact of nature that sets limits on the behavior of quantum computers. My work was recently publicized in MIT professor David Kaiser's popular book How the Hippies Saved Physics and in Supernature, a soon-to-be-released feature-length film by Jeffrey Kripal and Scott Hulan Jones dramatizing the 50-year history of Esalen Institute. I live in Boulder Creek, CA with my cat Onyx, work out twice a week, have published two books of quantum-erotic poetry and am learning to play the Irish whistle. Not such a bad life for a boy both of whose grandfathers were immigrants from the Ukraine who worked as coal miners in South-eastern Ohio. See what a difference a St Charles education can make!

Nick Herbert, St Charles Borromeo, Class of 1954