Infinite Potential

the Life and Times of David Bohm

(Extracts from the biography of David Bohm written by David Peat)

(Extract starting on page 35):

Despite these displays of brilliance, Bohm realized by the end of the first semester that he could never fit into the Caltech atmosphere or benefit from what the institute offered. The constant problem-solving depressed him, and the pressures of quarterly examinations seemed oppresive. Possibly he may even have suspected that he was out of step with the mainstream of physics and was destined to become a maverick, a loner, at odds with the current trends in physics. As such, Bohm was really a throwback to an earlier age, in which physics involved deep and quiet contemplation of nature; when it was more concerned with discovering the underlying order of cosmos than with making predictions and solving practical problems. When he thought back to the golden age of Planck and Einstein, or even earlier, to the age of Newton, Bohm could not help feeling that physics had become small and the concerns of its practioners petty.

To a physicist of the caliber of Richard Feynman, an area of physics was interesting only if he could find a problem in it, and he raised his art of problem-solving almost to the level of genious. While occasions arose in his own research when Bohm was forced to solve technical problems, he always distrusted abstract mathematical proofs. After all, he would say, there are always unexamined assumptions in any piece of mathematics, and the more complicated the mathematics, the easier it is for undetected errors to creep in. Rather than proceeding in a relatively mechanical or logical way, he preferred to feel out the answer and see it in his mind before setting down the necessary mathematical steps. It was as if his problem-solving ability were guided less by logic than by a combination of imagination and intuition.

While he was at Penn State, for example, he had been trying to understand the theory of the gyroscope, the toy that intrigues children because of its ability to remain in balance. Normally when an object is pushed, so that its center of gravity moves outside the point of balance, it falls. A gyroscope, however, does not fall. Instead, its axis of rotation moves - that is, it precesses. Try to push a gyroscope in one direction, and it will react by moving in a direction at right angles.

Faced with explaining gyroscopic motion, most physics students learn the various formulae, involving conservation of angular momentum, and produce an explanation in a relatively mechanical and formulaic fashion; but Bohm needed a direct perception of the inner nature of this motion. Once he was walking in the country, he imagined himself as a gyroscope, and through some form of muscular interiorization, he was able to understand the nature of its motion. In this way he worked out, within his own body, the behaviour of gyroscopes. The formulae and the mathematics would come later, as a formal way of explaining his insight.

From very early on in his scientific career, Bohm trusted this interior, intuitive display as a more reliable way of arriving at solutions. Later, when he met Einstein, he learned that he too experienced subtle, internal muscular sensations that appeared to lie much deeper than ordinary rational and discursive thought.

Without explictly knowing it at the time, Bohm had returned to that ancient maxim "as above, so below", the medieval teaching that each individual is the microcosm of the macrocosm. Bohm himself strongly believed himself part of the universe and that, by giving attention to his own feelings and sensations, he should be able to arrive at a deeper understanding of the nature of the universe.

This particular skill remained with Bohm throughout his professional life. His colleague at Birckbeck College, Basil Hiley, once remarked, "Dave always arrives at the right conclusions, but his mathematics is terrible. I take it home and find all sorts of errors and then have to spend the night trying to develop the correct proof. But in the end, the result is always exactly the same as the one Dave saw directly".

And another quote from a passage starting on page 68:

...That ability to touch preverbal processes at the muscular, sensory level remained with him all his life. It was not so much that Bohm visualized a physical system as that he was able to sense its dynamics within his body: "I had the feeling that internally I could participate in some movement that was the analogy of the thing you are talking about."

To give another example; the spin of an electron is far from the spin of a ball in our everyday world. The ball is able to spin at different speeds, but the electron, spinning about an axis that points vertically up from the floor, can spin only in one of the three states - called +1, 0, and -1. Quantum mechanics does, however, allow for linear combinations of these spin states.

Common sense dictates that two spin states - say, spinning in opposite directions around a vertical axis - will combine to produce an intermediary spin around the same upwards-pointing axis. Qunatum theory, however, indicates that the resultant spin will point in a new direction - spinning around a horizontal axis, for example. The notion is so counterintuitive that physics students either apply the formulae by rote or else visualize the electron in terms of mathematical manipulations of equations, without reference to anything physical. Bohm, however, found that he was able to experience feelings within his body about the way two spin components could combine into something that moves in a new direction.

"I can't really articulate it," he once said. "It had to do with a sense of tensions in the body, the fact that two tensions are in opposite directions and then suddenly feel that there was something else. The spin thing cannot be reduced to classical physics. Two feelings in the mind combine to produce something that is of a different quality...I got the feeling in my own mind of spin up, spin down, that I was spinning up and then down. Then suddenly bringing them together in the x direction (horizontal)... It's really hard to get an analogy. It's a kind of transformation that takes place. Essentially I was trying to produce in myself an analogy of that, in my state of being. In a way I'm trying to become an analogy of that - whatever that means." Again Bohm sensed himself as the microcosm of the macrocosm and believed that he contained the laws of nature within his body.

This page was produced by William van den Heuvel. Email:
Update 1998-06-11.