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Is Fritjof Capra a Theoretical Physics Researcher?

Fritjof Capra 2292714One 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.

When I did an advanced search in Google Scholar for Capra between 1960 and 2011, I retrieved a list of 24 entries in the Physics, Astronomy, and Planetary Science category, of which 20 were either his book or citations thereof, and one was the announcement of a conference in Physics and Philosophy. That left only three articles in physics journals. Two of these were published in the American Journal of Physics, which, according to its own mission “is devoted to the instructional and cultural aspects of physical science.”  And the titles of these two articles reflected that mission: one was a review, which Capra published when he was at Berkeley, and the other was called Bootstrap and Buddhism, which seems to have been published during his visit to Imperial College. Thus, we have to conclude that, while – based on Google Scholar – other high-energy physicists publish several articles per year in major journals, Capra has published only one article on high-energy physics in his professional lifetime! (N.B. This article was published in 1969-70 – when Capra was visiting Stanford University – in Lettere Al Nuovo Cimento, which was indeed a credible journal in the 1960s and 70s.) When I asked my librarian to expand the search as far as possible, she found several more articles, mostly on the now-defunct topic of S-matrix theory, concentrated between 1967 and 1969. (N.B. S-matrix and the related bootstrap were popular during the 1960s. However, they were abandoned by all but a handful of “believers” for the more promising quantum chromodynamics.)

Therefore, the question is not whether Capra has done research in theoretical high-energy physics at the University of Paris, the University of California, Stanford University, and Imperial College, London, but how long ago was this research done, how often he published when he was at these institutions, and what the quality and content of those publications were. Then it becomes clear that he is no longer a physics researcher, and has not been for the past forty years.

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