Bill Curtsinger/National Geographic Creative
IT HAPPENED before, of course. At the end of the 19th century, Victorian spiritualists challenged the strictures of science, driven by the hope of establishing a richer fabric of reality. The leavings of that movement – N-rays, mitogenetic rays, Joseph Banks Rhine’s newly minted extrasensory perception, and many others – are patently pathological, but all, in the first heady days, represented legitimate pathways of enquiry.
At least as much can be claimed for the “groovy science” that held sway a generation later. Think of John Lilly’s attempt to(with its obligatory diversion through LSD), the parapsychology studies of physicist Peter Phillips, and Immanuel Velikovsky’s “catastrophism”.
This, at any rate, is the argument of Groovy Science, though the task of evaluating the intellectual and cultural worth of these escapades is anything but easy. While the military-industrial complex is entertaining (and funding) experiments in sensory deprivation, dolphin training and space colonisation, we may as well abandon any attempt to distinguish between the establishment and its counterculture. Indeed, look hard and you will find that there is no counterculture – only a loose overlapping of opposed subgroups, each with its own expectations, each interacting rather warily with the others. Psychologist Abraham Maslow lectured at Esalen, a retreat in Big Sur, California, but kept away from the New Age movement that Esalen spawned; psychedelia’s champion Timothy Leary and space-colonisation prophet Gerard K. O’Neill shared almost nothing beyond their avid readership.
The explorations and experiments discussed here hardly rivalled the mainstream breakthroughs of the time (recombinant DNA, the quark model, the creation of buckminsterfullerene) – but their prevailing ethic of curiosity and iconoclasm had a historical influence that this volume, unexpectedly, sells rather short. There is, to pick the most glaring example, no discussion of the homebrew computing scene, which appeared in the early 1970s and led to the development of the personal computer.
“We may as well abandon the distinction between the science establishment and its counterculture“
Less obvious, but equally odd, is the way the book satirises the picture of the scientist as “a white-coated man in a laboratory, bald, tired, and unfit to marry”, but then singularly fails to celebrate very many non-white non-males. Yes, there are cameos about natural childbirth and cheesemaking, but given the huge societal changes taking place at the time – the women’s liberation movement, the Black Panthers, Stonewall – I expected more. If these huge segments of society were really not involved in “groovy science”, their wholesale absence might well be the subject for another, as-yet-unwritten book.
Reading Groovy Science leaves the reader enthused, but daunted at the work still to be done. The authors’ chosen focus on the US leaves whole traditions of “groovy science” unexamined. (Explorers Thor Heyerdahl and Michel Siffre are conspicuous by their absence.)
This compendium of individual scholarly articles is a trove of information, and the references are useful and exhaustive. But the prose of several of these pieces wobbles uncertainly between the academic and the popular, as if a community of scholars was not quite ready to distil its research into a mainstream account.
That account is, for my money, well worth looking forward to. In the meantime, we have this frustrating but always enthralling archaeological travel guide to an epoch that, although only 40 years old, already feels like an alien continent.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Revolutionary, and wrong”
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