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David Bohm, the Quantum Mechanics Rebel ‘Communist’ who was a Friend of Einstein’s and Taught at the University of São Paulo (USP)
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From BBC News Brasil in Londres 10 July 2021
February 3, 1954
Dear Professor Einstein,
Thank you very much for your letter. It contains a lot of good advice, but I fear that it will be nearly impossible for me to follow.
To obtain Brazilian citizenship I will have to stay here for another 20 months at least. And even so, it’s not guaranteed that I can. It all depends, crucially, on my contract with the university, which needs to be done before October.
Rumors are already circulating that I am a communist and these rumors will make renewal more difficult.
Thus begins the letter, handwritten, in English, on letterhead of the Faculty of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters of the University of São Paulo (USP), dated February 3, 1954.
It is one of several written by the American physicist and philosopher of science David Bohm to his friend and colleague Albert Einstein between October 1951 and January 1955, a period in which Bohm lived in São Paulo and worked at the USP Physics Institute.
What made one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century move to Brazil?
What were his contributions to science?
Why does the Dalai Lama call him ‘my scientific guru,’ and why is his name so often associated with that of the Indian thinker Jiddu Krishnamurti?
A multifaceted figure whose life allows us to trace the political history and great scientific achievements of the 20th century, David Joseph Bohm was born in 1917, in Pennsylvania. His father, a Hungarian immigrant, was a merchant.
Bohm suffered persecution from the American state for being a sympathizer of communism that was believed to have command of ‘nuclear secrets.’ He was also marginalized in the community of physicists, who didn’t accept his ideas.
Today, he is considered by his peers as one of the most brilliant physics theorists of the last century, with fundamental contributions to the science of Plasmas and Quantum Mechanics.
His legacy also includes philosophical contributions, where he uses the theories of physics to explain, for example, what human consciousness is.
Bohm died in London, United Kingdom, in 1992. Tragically, he did not get the recognition he deserves in his lifetime.
But why are we talking about David Bohm at this point? See how a biographer, a colleague of Bohm’s and a filmmaker each respond:
‘The global pandemic is revealing the vulnerability of our political, spiritual, economic and social structures,’ Irish filmmaker Paul Howard, director of a movie about Bohm, Infinite Potential, told BBC News Brasil last year.
‘Bohm shows us that we are all interconnected, he directs us to the Wholeness of the Universe. When we can understand this in a deeper way, we will realize that we should take better care of ourselves, each other and the home we all share—planet Earth.’
For physicist, historian and professor at the Federal University of Bahia, Olival Freire, author of the biography David Bohm: A Life Dedicated to Understanding the Quantum World, Bohm is relevant because his ideas continue to influence the science of today and the future.
‘Bohm was a pioneer. In the 1950s, he was the first great physicist to insist on the importance of a reinterpretation of Quantum Mechanics—contrary to orthodoxy. Then, he was the precursor of an area that in the last twenty years has exploded in the world: Quantum Information.’
And what is the importance of this?
‘It’s enough to see the dispute between Google and IBM today to see who will get to the first effective quantum computer.’
Freire says that Bohm’s pioneering spirit also pointed the way for physicists towards a great new frontier to be broken: the longed-for reconciliation between Quantum Mechanics and the Theory of General Relativity (now antagonistic) to create a unified theory.
And among the many scientists burning their neurons to piece this puzzle together is the man who worked with Bohm for the last three decades of his life, the 85-year-old physicist and professor emeritus at the University of London, Basil Hiley.
Why talk about Bohm today?
‘Because of the immense breadth of explorations he has made.’
‘He was a great man because, despite his understanding of physics, and having made very important contributions to physics, he was really interested in the larger context.’
‘If you take an undergraduate book in Quantum Mechanics today, you’ll see thousands of formulas without any discussion of their meaning. And [to understand] the meaning of life was motivation—it was almost Bohm’s reason for existence. He wanted to know: what is reality? What are we doing here? Who are we human beings? What is our thinking? Are we just neurons or is there something else?’
‘And his writings open everyone’s horizons to a way of thinking that’s not common,’ says Hiley.
Before saying goodbye, there was a request from the distinguished scientist to the reporter:
‘Please write a story that is faithful to David Bohm,’ says the physicist. ‘This story needs to be told.’
Let’s give it a try, Professor Hiley. In this article, with a ‘little help’ from Hiley and the historian Olival Freire, we introduce you to the various facets of David Bohm. The human being, the scientist, the philosopher and friend of the gurus, and the exiled professor at USP. And get ready to immerse yourself in the mysterious and intriguing world of Quantum Mechanics. You can’t understand David Bohm without it.
Bright Mind and Life Marked by Losses and Persecutions
Since World War II, many brilliant men have fallen victim to what we might call ‘the nuclear curse.’ Bohm would have been one of them. But in his case, some would say, perhaps we can speak of two curses—nuclear and communist.
The context is as follows: in 1942, a young David Bohm arrived at the University of California at Berkeley to do his PhD with physics theorist Robert Oppenheimer. The professor was also the head of the Manhattan Project for the construction of the American atomic bomb—which began that year.
As is common in situations like this, the advisor asks the student to solve a certain problem in Physics. While working on his thesis, Bohm and other Oppenheimer students came into contact with Communist ideologies. Some, like Bohm, decide to join the Party. Years later, Bohm would speak of the experience to colleague and friend Basil Hiley:
‘That was a curse on him,’ comments the physicist. ‘Do you know why he joined the Communist Party? Because he wanted to find people with whom he could talk about [the ideas of philosopher Friedrich] Hegel.’
‘I asked him, “David, how many people [in the Party] have you discussed Hegel with?”’
‘None, they didn’t know who he was,’ Bohm replied. Nine months later, disappointed, he reportedly canceled his membership.
Back to university studies.
Bohm solves the problem of Physics and delivers his thesis, but something unusual happens, explains historian Olival Freire.
‘Oppenheimer had formulated the problem. And since the solution to that problem had relevance to military studies, the thesis was immediately classified, considered secret.’
Bohm would never set eyes on the work again. He gets his Ph.D. degree, says Freire.
‘But this episode put Bohm on a problematic circuit’—as we’ll see later.
In July 1945, in New Mexico, the United States tests the first nuclear bomb in history. The test starts a frantic race among other powers with nuclear ambitions. Anyone who doesn’t master this technology needs to look around, and one of the weapons used in this MMA is espionage.
‘Any great book on espionage in the 20th century has to reserve a huge chapter to the problem of atomic espionage, with the kidnappings and murders of scientists involved in it,’ says Olival Freire. ‘Nuclear knowledge has become forbidden knowledge and therefore cursed.’
In August 1949, the Soviets test their first bomb. A mood of hysteria takes over the world.
‘Governments knew that the use of these nuclear arsenals could lead to the extermination of the human species,’ says Freire.
In the United States, the concern was: Had someone leaked nuclear secrets to the Soviets? Who could this ‘enemy among us’ be?
The McCarthy era begins in the country (personified in the figure of the politician Joseph McCarthy), a period in which many Americans are accused of treason and subversion for alleged links with communist ideologies. They suffer persecution, lose their jobs. Some are imprisoned.
David Bohm, at this point, is a young professor at the prestigious Princeton University in New Jersey.
A friend of Albert Einstein, he frequents the home of the distinguished physicist, who, in addition to offering dinner, also plays the violin for guests.
In his career, Bohm begins to show what he was there for. Invited to teach a course on Quantum Mechanics, he comes across a problem, says Hiley.
‘He taught the course and when he finished he thought, “There’s something in Quantum Mechanics I don’t understand… I know! I’m going to write a book.”’
‘So he wrote the book. And it was one of the best there was at the time. It was in the early 50s, and that book was called Quantum Theory. No other physicist approached [physics theorist Niels] Bohr’s ideas in that way. It was full of insight.’
Bohm is emerging as a new star in physics. But from that point on, the plot starts to get complicated. Several of the episodes narrated so far, apparently isolated, will combine and generate a chain reaction that will forever change the scientist’s fate.
His classified thesis and his passage through the Communist Party will make him a ‘dangerous’ figure.
‘He was suspected, in the eyes of McCarthyism, of being a Communist who mastered nuclear secrets,’ says Freire. ‘We know today that none of these secrets could lead to the bomb, but that wasn’t how it was thought of at the time.’
In 1949, Bohm is called to testify to the House Commission on Anti-American Activities. He refuses to say whether or not he is a member of the Communist Party and for that reason is arrested.
‘He was released on bail and later acquitted, but he didn’t feel safe,’ says Freire.
Shortly thereafter, Bohm loses his position at Princeton.
In 1950, in a case that would become emblematic of the Cold War, the couple Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are arrested, accused of espionage. In 1953, the two will be executed in the electric chair.
Fearful, Bohm uses his contacts. With the help of Brazilian physicist Jaime Tiomno, he obtained a position as a professor of Theoretical Physics at the Physics Institute of the University of São Paulo and went to live in Brazil.
Bohm cannot imagine that, four years later, he will leave Brazil as a Brazilian citizen, and that he will never return to live in the US. He also doesn’t know that this will be a double exile: his original way of thinking Quantum Mechanics will make him a ‘dissident’ among his fellow physicists as well.
In the Crosshairs of McCarthyism: David Bohm and Exile in Brazil
October 6, 1953
I have to apologize for not answering your last letter, but I’ve been tired and depressed, so I tend to leave the reply for later. I’m glad to hear you’re okay, and as happy as anyone can be at these times. (…)
As for me, I fear that Brazil and I will never be able to get right.
First, there is the climate, which is very hot for me (even in São Paulo, and especially in Rio), and which makes it very difficult for me to work. I could get used to the weather if there was an attractive offsetting factor, but there isn’t.
Bohm, as this letter, addressed to ex-girlfriend Hanna Loewy, reveals, is not happy in Brazil.
In addition to the heat, he complains about the noise of São Paulo and the food, and says that his health is not good (in the letter above, he comments that he suffers from constant diarrhea, which he associates with the food).
At the university, he is not enthusiastic about the students, who he finds ‘disinterested.’ He also complains about corruption.
But for Olival Freire, two factors prevent Bohm from evaluating his Brazilian experience in a balanced way.
First, the profound trauma of losing his country, his position at the university and socializing with friends and colleagues.
‘He had no plans to come to Brazil. In four or five months, he loses the life he had,’ says Freire.
The second factor is that, intimately, Bohm feels the constant threat of McCarthyism, and he fears being deported. This explains the letter that opens this article, written by him to friend and colleague Albert Einstein.
‘Part of the dissatisfaction [with Brazil] was due to his fear of American persecution,’ says the historian.
He arrives in São Paulo, the American consulate calls him for an interview and asks for his document. He hands over the passport and the consulate retains the passport. ‘They say that the passport will be returned when he wants to return to the United States,’ says Freire.
Bohm is effectively imprisoned in Brazil. He cannot participate in international conferences, essential to the life of any scientist. The only country he can travel to is the US.
‘But he was afraid to return. He carries this tension until the last days here,’ says the historian.
All this drama can be seen in the correspondence that Bohm maintains with friends during this period. Among them, one has a prominent role: Albert Einstein.
‘Einstein was extremely sympathetic to David Bohm throughout the McCarthyism process,’ says Freire.
In addition to advising Bohm on obtaining Brazilian citizenship, Einstein uses his personal influence to try to help his friend.
‘He wrote letters supporting Bohm. We have published here in Brazil a letter addressed to the president of the republic, Getúlio Vargas, to be used if there was a need to defend Bohm at some point,’ says the historian.
The letter, later published by USP’s journal Estudos Internacionais, dated May 24, 1952.
Dear Mr. President
Doctor Bohm, whom I have known for several years is, in my opinion, a very outstanding and original theoretical physicist. Professionally, he has contributed to the growth of our knowledge of Quantum Mechanics and, more recently, he has become very interested in the fundamental philosophical implications of that theory.
I believe you know that dr. Bohm had some political difficulties in the United States. I have no hesitation in stating that, in my opinion, those difficulties result from the tense post-war situation and have nothing to do with the moral character of Dr. Bohm. I have had in the past, and continue to have, the highest confidence in him, both as a scientist and as a person.
The card will not be used. Almost two years later, on August 24, 1954, Getúlio Vargas committed suicide. Three years after writing it, on April 18, 1955, Albert Einstein dies. His plan, however, is successful.
Four months before his friend’s death, Bohm leaves Brazil as a Brazilian citizen on his way to Israel, where he will live for two years. From there, he will travel to the United Kingdom, which will be his home until his death in 1992. He will retain his Brazilian citizenship for more than three decades.
But after all this, what did Brazil give to Bohm? And what did Bohm give to Brazil?
I would say that Brazil gave Bohm a port at a difficult time in his life, when he didn’t feel safe. He didn’t feel completely safe in Brazil either, but he spent three and a half years here undisturbed.’
‘And it was a safe haven within a physics department,’ he adds.
While many of his colleagues in the United States suffer harassment and lose their jobs, Bohm continues to work. He publishes articles with Brazilians Jaime Tiomno and Walter Schutzer. During this period, he met one of the most important theorists of physics in Brazil, the mathematician, art critic and politician Mário Schenberg.
‘He met Mário Schenberg here, with whom he had disagreements regarding the interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. But Schenberg had an influence on him. In the philosophical and scientific work of David Bohm we find the marks of Mário Schenberg’s influence.’
With funding from the CNPq (National Research Council), which had just been created, he brings other physicists to work in Brazil.
Bohm, in turn, contributes to the consolidation of the Physics Department at the University of São Paulo.
‘People who studied with him refer to the good courses he taught in Brazil.’
Some of these students, says Freire, will become great physicists.
‘I’m going to mention two or three names. Ernesto Hamburger, Newton Bernardes and Moysés Nussenzveig. Three of the best physicists we’ve ever had in Brazil. Moysés is still alive.
It is also during his exile in Brazil that Bohm will see his article published proposing a different interpretation of quantum theory. The publication, in January 1952, will confront Bohm with orthodoxy in the community of physicists.
Among his most vehement critics of the period was the man who had won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1945, Wolfgang Pauli. The scientist calls Bohm’s theory ‘artificial metaphysics.’
Bohm is also under attack for his contributions to the field of philosophy of science.
In a review in Physics Today about Bohm’s book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, published in 1980, physicist Martin Curd says: ‘His ideas are often expressed non-mathematically, through metaphors and partial analogies (…) and characterized by considerable imprecision and vagueness.’
Bohm will only be rehabilitated years later. In the opinion of some, too late.
‘It is a pity, it is very sad indeed, that he has not lived to see how his reputation has recently exploded. His interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is becoming respected not only by philosophers of science but by physicists as well,’ wrote Bohm’s friend Melba Philips in a letter to Infinite Potential co-writer and physicist David Peat, on October 17, 1994, two years after Bohm’s death.
In response to criticism, says Basil Hiley, Bohm said the following:
‘Basil, the way I approach Theoretical Physics is: I make proposals. They may be right, they may be wrong. But they are proposals.’
Fascinating, Mysterious, Bizarre: What is Quantum Mechanics?
David Bohm made fundamental contributions to several areas of physics, such as the science of plasmas, for example. But the field of physics that will challenge Bohm to the last day of his existence is called Quantum Mechanics. He dedicates his life to understanding it, suggests Freire in the title of his biography.
And looking closely, it’s not hard to understand what attracted Bohm.
See how physicist David Peat explains Quantum Mechanics in the film he co-wrote:
‘Quantum Mechanics tells us of a reality that cannot be understood in our everyday experience. It is a mysterious world, where there is neither space nor linear time. An undivided universe, where everything is interconnected, including ourselves. Everything that exists in the known universe it comes from that place and everything we are depends on it.’
(Peat, who died in 2017, was a friend of David Bohm and is the author of the physicist’s first biography, Infinite Potential—The Life and Times of David Bohm published in 1997.)
Now for a more detailed definition. What is Quantum Mechanics?
Quantum Mechanics is one of the great theories of physics. There are others, like the Theory of General Relativity, for example.
But while Relativity deals with the macroscopic Universe, with big things—the cosmos, space, time, gravity—Quantum Mechanics is interested in the smallest things in the Universe.
It describes the behavior of infinitely small particles like atoms, molecules, subatomic particles. And it describes the interaction of these particles with light (electromagnetic radiation).
Well, like every theory of physics, quantum mechanics has a mathematical structure.
We should remember that, in the case of Quantum Mechanics, the reality that the theory is describing is so infinitely small that humanity has no way of visually knowing it. A grain of sand contains more atoms than all the sand on every beach on the planet, says Peat in his screenplay.
Scientists cannot see the quantum world, but they express that world through mathematical equations.
And how do they know the equations are right? Because they predict certain physical phenomena, explains Olival Freire. These calculations led humanity to create, for example, the atomic bomb (created based on Quantum Mechanics and the theory of relativity), the transistor, the laser, nuclear magnetic resonance, and the electron microscope. Today, they are the foundation of billion-dollar industries such as cell phones and Tablets.
‘There is consensus among mathematicians, physicists and engineers on how you calculate and extract predictions from Quantum Mechanics. There is no doubt about how to connect two chips to produce a certain effect when you build, for example, the cell phone,’ says Freire.
Problems start to arise when scientists try to use equations as a starting point to say what reality is.
For example, they ask themselves: is reality made of particles or waves? (And why does it matter? —you might want to know. Because a point is in a definite place. But a wave is something spread out, it is in several places at the same time. That is, the difference between the two things is critical.)
In search of the answer, one of the instruments available to scientists is the double slit experiment, a classic of physics created in the 19th century for the study of light.
‘You illuminate two small holes very close together, pierced by needles. And what you will see on the other side are white bands, therefore illuminated, and darker bands, therefore not illuminated,’ explains Freire.
These patterns are the best evidence of the wave nature of light, he says, because only waves have the property to generate this kind of figure.
Quantum physicists then decide to redo this experiment. They fire electrons or photons towards the two slits. And they observe something very strange: the experiment brings two different answers.
When the scientist monitors the behavior of the electron, that is, when the scientist is ‘looking,’ the electron behaves like a dot and passes through one of the slits. So what you see on the other side is a single smudge, a blur. But when the scientist takes off the marker, that is, when he is ‘not looking,’ the electron behaves like a wave and passes through both slits at the same time. As a result, the image produced by the electron is a spot with bright and dark bands.
‘It is an iconic experiment because since 1927 it has been debated and an object of concern,’ says Freire.
‘Some, like the Dane Niels Bohr, for example, saw here a new philosophical, epistemological lesson. A dependence on what is observed in relation to the observer.’
It is at this point that the concept begins to emerge that, decades later, will allow for the unusual encounter between David Bohm and the thinker Jiddu Krishnamurti: the notion that the observer is the observed and the observed is the observer.
But let’s get back to the question that physicists cannot answer (is reality made up of waves or particles?). Faced with this impasse, the orthodoxy of physics decides the following: this issue cannot be resolved, we have reached as far as we can reach. Quantum Mechanics is solved, it works, right? Let’s leave this subject aside and move on to physics!
‘Other physicists, like Einstein, never liked this idea, they thought there was a shortcoming in the theory. This is the great split in Quantum Mechanics,’ says Freire.
Enter David Bohm. He’s going to advance Quantum Physics in a number of ways, but let’s focus on two. First, he will ‘fight’ with the orthodox, insisting that there are other ways to interpret those mathematical equations. Afterwards, he will help identify other oddities of Quantum Mechanics—the so-called Quantum Effects.
Let’s look at some of Bohm’s contributions.
Bohm’s Reinterpretation for Quantum Mechanics
David Bohm is of the same opinion as his friend Einstein. There’s something wrong with quantum theory, he thinks.
And in 1952, in exile in Brazil, Bohm published his (later famous) article on Hidden Variables, in which he proposed a different interpretation of the mathematical equations of Quantum Mechanics.
The new interpretation leads to the same effects, or, in Freire’s words, ‘it is empirically indistinguishable from the hitherto accepted interpretation.’ (In other words, based on it you can also build iPads and cell phones.)
‘In the interpretation of Bohm, the electron will always be a point and a wave. So the point passes through only one of the slits and the wave passes through both slits at the same time,’ explains the historian.
But how is this possible?
This idea is at the base of the concept of Totality, the notion that everything that exists in the Universe is interconnected, everything is one thing. We will return to it later.
From a personal point of view, Bohm’s reinterpretation of Quantum Mechanics comes at a high cost: the physicist, driven into exile by political persecution, becomes a ‘dissident’ among his colleagues as well. (This is, by the way, the title of another book by Freire, The Quantum Dissidents, which tells the story of several quantum rebels, including David Bohm.)
Try as they might, scientists cannot find errors in Bohm’s calculations, explains Freire.
‘But for decades, his interpretation of Quantum Mechanics has been treated with a mixture of indifference and sometimes even hostility by the physics community,’ he says.
Today, recognized as one of David Bohm’s great legacies to science, the theory is a starting point for researchers studying the so-called Quantum Cosmology—a branch of Physics that tries to combine Quantum Theory with Gravitation (ie, Quantum Theory with Theory of Relativity).
Another legacy of Bohm is his explorations of the so-called Quantum Effects. Strange, almost magical, they are capable of shaking the certainties of the most convinced.
Let’s explain one of them, the Aharonov-Bohm Effect, which Bohm describes with his student Yakir Aharonov in 1959, when already living in the UK. The article on this effect is the most cited by Bohm and earned the double nominations for the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Quantum Entanglement and the Aharonov-Bohm Effect: When Pure Science Looks Like Magic
Quantum Theory predicts phenomena that contradict the laws of our everyday life. It says, for example, that two subatomic particles that are spatially separated are instantly correlated. That is, if you interfere with one of them, the other, no matter how far away, will also be affected.
(You might think, I’ve seen this before. Isn’t that what a magnet does? No, says Freire. Because when you bring the magnet closer to a screw, for example, there will be a time lag before the magnet’s magnetic effect reaches the screw. In the case of the two subatomic particles, both are affected simultaneously.)
This effect at a distance, or, in Freire’s words, ‘this dependence that exists between two particles that are far apart,’ is called Entanglement.
Making an analogy, imagine we split an orange in half and put one half in the BBC News Brasil office in London and the other in our office in São Paulo. According to the entanglement effect, if a reporter moves half of the orange in São Paulo, the half in London will also move.
Another analogy: imagine that you, the reader touches your hair and, in another city, your mother feels someone caressing her.
Well, in the universe of infinitely small things described by Quantum Physics, something analogous to this is possible.
‘Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance,”’ explains Freire. ‘He rejected the possibility of these effects existing in nature, but the development of physics showed that they do.’
And here’s how Bohm interprets this strange effect predicted by Quantum Mechanics:
‘This entanglement between two distant particles for Bohm was not a problem because for him the two particles are particles and waves at the same time. So what is it that is interacting with each other? It’s the waves, not the particles,’ explains Freire.
Quantum Entanglement occurs between two particles. But Quantum Mechanics also predicts a dependence between a particle and a magnetic field, even if the particle is outside the range of that field.
Bohm and Aharonov decided to create an experiment to prove the existence of this effect. Olival Freire describes how the pair did it:
‘They took a kind of coil, which is a cylinder, with a wire going around the cylinder. When you put the electric charge there, to circulate on that wire, inside the cylinder you have a uniform magnetic field. And outside the cylinder the field is zero.’
‘So they took this cylinder, did the calculations and showed that a charged particle passing away from this coil would be affected by the magnetic field confined in the coil.’
These are some of David Bohm’s contributions to what Freire calls ‘the rocky terrain of science.’
Now, let’s get to know a little about the legacy of Bohm, the philosopher of science, to humanity.
Philosopher David Bohm’s ‘Audacious Flights’: Consciousness, Quantum Potential, Totality and Implied Order
Basil Hiley remembers well his last encounter with David Bohm.
‘The day he died, we were together at [Birkbeck] College. He always stopped by my office when he was in town.’
The two talk a little. ‘Routine stuff, nothing that caught my attention.’
Hiley decides to go home early and says goodbye to his friend. Shortly thereafter, Bohm calls his wife, Sarah. He says he’s going to take a taxi home. And adds:
‘It’s almost unbearable—I think I’m really, really close to something important,’ he would have said.
‘When I got home, I got the news that he was dead,’ says Hiley.
The physicist doesn’t know what went through his friend’s head that fall day in 1992, but he has an assumption.
‘He was interested in the relationship between mind and matter. At that time, we wondered if Quantum Mechanics would give us the key to understanding mind. A very difficult subject, one that occupied his life 24 hours a day in this final period.’
‘So I think he probably saw something related to consciousness.’
Bohm proposes that a theory that is a generalization of Quantum Mechanics will also lead us to explain the phenomenon of consciousness, says Olival Freire. ‘For him, consciousness is part of reality, not a separate realm.’
For the historian, this and others of Bohm’s philosophical proposals are ‘daring flights’ that represent the most conjectural aspect of his work.
Had Bohm, on the last day of his life, found the key that unlocked the mystery of human consciousness?
We will never know. But his ideas are still being investigated by scientists today. Among them is the 2020 Nobel Prize winner in Physics Roger Penrose, friend and colleague of David Bohm. Penrose discusses the question of consciousness in his book The Emporer’s New Mind.
Bohm’s other audacious flights are his concepts of Quantum Potential, Totality and Implied Order. Let’s go to them:
What is Totality According to David Bohm?
To develop the Reinterpretation of Quantum Mechanics in 1952, Bohm introduced a concept he called Quantum Potential.
‘It’s a mathematical function that instantly connects very distant particles,’ says Freire.
‘In the 1960s, when he was already in London, he formulated the hypothesis that both Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Potential would suggest an idea of Totality.’
Bohm discusses this concept with his collaborator Basil Hiley in a book the two wrote together, The Undivided Universe.
Here are some analogies, courtesy of Professor Hiley himself for BBC News Brasil:
‘In our reductionist philosophy, we assume that the whole can be analyzed as independent parts interacting with each other. The system is a gigantic clockwork in which all the gears can be separated and then put back together to make them work again. Now think of a system in which the properties of the parts are determined by the whole. You can’t take the parts off and “put them on the table” like sprockets. A simple example—eddies in a river. You can’t take the eddy and put it on a table. It’s the movement of the liquid that creates the vortex. The whole begets the parts.’
‘Living organisms are good examples. You can’t take a growing embryo, break it into pieces, put it back together and wait for it to grow.’
The idea of Totality takes on an almost mystical connotation when applied to us human beings.
‘You’re an observer, I’m another observer, and we’re talking like we’re independent people,’ says Hiley. ‘But actually, we’re not. And there are very few of us that are independent of each other.’
‘And what we see when we get to the very small things is that you can’t separate the particle from its environment. [Niels] Bohr was right. You can’t separate the observer from the observed.’
You, the reader, may be wondering: but then how is it possible that two people talk, and that I’m here reading this article?
To fit the human experience of reality into his conjectures about the quantum world, David Bohm introduces the concept of Order—the Implied or Implicit Order and the Explained or Explicit Order.
Bohm calls the world in which Professor Hiley converses with this BBC News Brasil reporter an ‘explicit’ or ‘explained’ order.
But that world is just the surface, proposes Bohm. There is something underlying this reality.
A deep order where everything is internally linked to everything else: the implied order. In this place, the subatomic world, of infinitely small things, there are no separate objects, but a process in constant motion. The reality we experience in our everyday lives results from this process, says Bohm.
David Bohm and Jiddu Krishnamurti—A 25-Year Dialogue
For those who like to philosophize, Bohm’s conjectures are an invitation to deep journeys of the imagination.
Respected physicists, Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, and renowned British sculptor Antony Gormley discuss some of them in the film Infinite Potential. But in the 1960s, when
Bohm worked on these concepts, most of his colleagues were not very interested. (Remember that, at this time, Bohm is a ‘dissident’ in the physics community.)
One day, by chance, Bohm’s wife finds in a library a book by an Indian thinker named Jiddu Krishnamurti that said: ‘the observer is the observed.
This chance discovery begins a dialogue that begins in 1960 and will last for 25 years. There are several books and videos available on YouTube today.
For many, there is also a question: how to explain this profound affinity between a scientist and an Indian thinker?
The Indian, Krishnamurti, was born in 1895 and died in 1986. He was educated according to the precepts of Theosophy as a spiritual leader of mankind, but he rejected this mission and walked his own path as a thinker.
For Basil Hiley, his friend’s dialogues with Krishnamurti were a kind of philosophical exercise.
‘No one in the physics community would talk to Bohm about the topics he discussed with Krishnamurti.’
‘Nobody, not even me,’ he admits.
‘Bohm’s ideas were being developed as he talked to people. And he needed someone who [just like him] understood the problem of the observer and the observed.’
‘[The dialogues] were an exercise in an area where he could not exercise his brain, except through this friendship with Krishnamurti.’
Olival Freire recalls that friendships between physicists and religious thinkers are not rare. ‘There are several cases,’ he says. ‘The point is: Quantum Mechanics leaves room for conjecture.’
But after studying Bohm’s life in detail, the historian suggests an additional motivation for this encounter: disappointed with the Soviet communist experience, Bohm would be looking for an alternative path to transform society.
‘That’s my interpretation,’ says Freire.
‘Until 1956, Bohm had deep Marxist convictions and this connection [with the Marxist ideal] was maintained in Brazil and Israel.’
But two events in 20th-century history would change that, says Freire. The accusations of Josef Stalin’s crimes and the invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union, both in 1956.
‘Bohm’s correspondence shows the immense impact of these events. For him, the world has ended,’ says the historian.
‘I interviewed the Brazilian physicist Jean Meyer, who was with Bohm in Paris in 1957, at the time of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. He told me that Bohm cried like a child after hearing the news.’
Olival Freire adds a reservation: ‘Bohm’s search for spirituality is not an individual search. It is a search for society. To elevate society through self-knowledge, through overcoming fragmentation among living beings.’
Nearly three decades after that last conversation with David Bohm, Basil Hiley admits that he still misses talking to him. Physicists are very conservative people, he says. Bohm was different.
‘He was a very open guy.’
In a flippant mood, Basil Hiley also regrets the case of champagne that, in his opinion, Bohm owed him. Bohm promised to give champagne to anyone who solved a famous physics problem, the Dirac Equation.
‘Well I solved that problem but he went to hide upstairs so he wouldn’t have to reach into his pocket and buy the champagne!’
The documents and letters from David Joseph Bohm included in this report were kindly provided by the Birkbeck Library, Birkbeck, University of London