Fritjof Capra’s Crackpottery

The decade of the sixties was a mixture of the good, the bad, and the nonsense.  The unpopularity of the American war in Viet Nam spread rapidly across campuses, into the streets, beyond borders and all the way to the four corners of the world.  The misconceived association of science with the war initiated an antiscience wave that propagated with unprecedented speed into all strata of human population, including the academia.  The antidote of science very naturally emerged as the folklore and tradition of the very peoples at which the atrocities of the war were aimed.

The oriental way of life became a panacea of the New Age.  The new generation of “revolutionaries” protested against everything rooted in western civilization, and strove to replace them with their eastern counterparts: scientific medicine gave way to Qi-gong, Ayurveda, and acupuncture; western philosophy was replaced by eastern mysticism; the mind-body exercises became increasingly popular. And, as he was sitting by the ocean one late afternoon in the summer of 1969, Fritjof Capra saw “cascades of energy coming down from outer space, in which particles were created and destroyed in rhythmic pulses; [he] ‘saw’ the atoms of the elements and those of [his] body participating in [a] cosmic dance of energy.”  With these words in the preface of his book The Tao of Physics, Capra starts to “establish” his claimed parallel between modern physics and Eastern mysticism.

Is Fritjof Capra a Theoretical Physics Researcher?

One of the tools that New Age authors use to validate their philosophy is emphasis on authority.  Not only do they take advantage of the scientific authority of great physicists to give credence to their anti-scientific philosophical statements, but also of the – often remote – background of the authors themselves. On the back cover of the fifth edition of The Tao of Physics, published by Shambhala Publications, Inc. in 2010, we read:

Fritjof Capra has done research in theoretical high-energy physics at the University of Paris; the University of California; Stanford University; and Imperial College, London. He holds a PhD from the University of Vienna.

When readers picks up a book at a bookstore, the first thing they look at is its cover. And if they find this blurb on the back cover, they will be immensely impressed by the prestige of those institutions and, by implication, the authority of the author. But is Fritjof Capra a physicist of the prestigious repute the blurb intends to imply? (N.B. My intention for writing these post is the refutation of the fallacious ideas advocated and promulgated by some authors. However, sometimes I have been forced to delve into the professional background of an author, especially if this background is used to strengthen the faulty point the author is trying to make. Therefore, the clarification of Capra’s scientific background in what follows is not an attack on his character, but an attempt at making my readers aware of the false impression the advertisement on the back cover of his book may give them.)

The stature of a professional physicist is measured by the quality and quantity of his/her publications in prestigious journals. In high-energy physics, the field in which Capra claims to have expertise, there are at most a dozen journals in which almost all articles are published. Out of these, four stand out, at least at the time that Capra was active: Physical Review, Physical Review Letters, Physics Letters, and Nuclear Physics. The readers may verify this by going to the website of the physics department of any major university, pick a few faculty members who do research in high-energy physics – or field theory, string theory, fundamental particle and fields – and (advanced) search Google Scholar for their publications in Physics, Astronomy, and Planetary Science during their active years. A typical high-energy physicist at a research university has several publications per year, most of which are in the four journals mentioned above. Thus, a faculty member who started his career in 1990 has over a hundred publications in major journals.

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