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“What the Bleep Do We Know!?,” a spaced-out concoction of quasi physics and neuroscience that appeared several years ago, promised moviegoers that they could hop between parallel universes and leap back and forth in time — if only they cast off their mental filters and experienced reality full blast. Interviews of scientists were crosscut with those of self-proclaimed mystics, and swooping in to explain the physics was Dr. Quantum , a cartoon superhero who joyfully demonstrated concepts like wave-particle duality, extra dimensions and quantum entanglement. Wiggling his eyebrows, the good doctor ominously asked, “Are we far enough down the rabbit hole yet?” All that was missing was Grace Slick wailing in the background with Jorma Kaukonen on ­guitar.

Dr. Quantum was a cartoon rendition of Fred Alan Wolf, who resigned from the physics faculty at San Diego State College in the mid-1970s to become a New Age vaudevillian, combining motivational speaking, quantum weirdness and magic tricks in an act that opened several times for Timothy Leary . By then Wolf was running with the Fundamental Fysiks Group, a Bay Area collective driven by the notion that quantum mechanics, maybe with the help of a little LSD, could be harnessed to convey psychic powers. Concentrate hard enough and perhaps you really could levitate the Pentagon.

In “How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival,” David Kaiser, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, turns to those wild days in the waning years of the Vietnam War when anything seemed possible: communal marriage, living off the land, bringing down the military with flower power. Why not faster-than-light communication, in which a message arrives before it is sent, overthrowing the tyranny of that pig, Father Time?

That was the obsession of Jack Sarfatti, another member of the group. Sarfatti was Wolf’s colleague and roommate in San Diego, and in a pivotal moment in Kaiser’s tale they find themselves in the lobby of the Ritz Hotel in Paris talking to Werner Erhard , the creepy human potential movement guru, who decided to invest in their quantum ventures. Sarfatti was at least as good a salesman as he was a physicist, wooing wealthy eccentrics from his den at Caffe Trieste in the North Beach section of San Francisco.

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Category: Science