All remembrances of college physics courses and physicists in general fly out the window when on encounters Fritjof Capra. Tall and slim with curly brown hair skirting the nape of his neck, Capra, with California tan, shoulder bag, and a Yin Yang button pinned to his casual jacket, seem more a purveyor of some new self-awareness scheme than a physicist.
He is a physicist, though, a high-energy theorist who spends most of his time at respected Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, Clif., observing the subatomic world of barium, meson and lepton particles. And that button with the Oriental characters of yin and yang on it has its significance.For if one looks closer, the two halves are made up of a black Buddha face on one side and a white side with a modern physics equation on the other Capra theorizes that there are parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism.
It all sounds pretty farfetched, but then again, how many of us ordinary folk know the ways of the leptons and mesons? So one lisens as Capra, who is the author of a book called "The Tao of Physics," which he is promoting here, explains that our everyday perceptions of reality aren't true.
"This ordinary perception works very well at the macroscopic, or visible level," he says. "We can understand things as separate physical entities, as a table, a chair, a cigarette, a person, whatever. Eastern mystics, however, would say that our conceptual separations are illusions.
"It's the same in modern physics. For at the microscopic level, the level of atoms and subatomaic particles of which everything is made, we find that the universe is an overall, indivisible process. There are no substances, no things, there are no small grains of sand or anything. There are only dynamic patterns of energy, and energy is not a thing, but a measure of activity."
It's an explanation that many of us heard in elementary chemistry and physics clases when the teacher took out the demonstration model of an atom that looked took out the demonstration model of an atom that looked like a planet with moons orbiting around it. But Capra takes the explanation farther by explaining that "Quantum theory forces us to see the universe not as a collection of physical objects but rather as a complicated wealth of relations between various parts of a unified whole" and that this view is almost identical to the views of famous Eastern philosophers.
He argues that modern physics shows that the whole universe is in ceaseless motion, a continual cosmic dance that is strikingly similar to tha t symbolized by the dance of Shiva, the Lord of Dancers, honored by ancient and modern Hindus, or the world view given by the Mahayan Buddhists or the Chinese Taoist.
"In physics we see this when we reach the subatomic dimensions. Eastern mystics see the same thing, they overcome our ordinary conceptions, through altered states of consciousness," he adds and one wonders whether Capra has altered his state of consciousness to reach his theory that Eastern mysticism and modern physics converge. Drugs, perhap?
He laughs and points to a visitors's cigarette. "You take drugs," he says. "I drink a little Scotch."
Still one wonders what the physics world thinks of Fritjof Capra, this physicist from the University of Vienna, who has propounded a blending of Eastern thought and Western science.
"They tolerate me," he says, adding that Geoffrey Chew, a well-respected theoretical physicist also at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, supports him."I do straight research in high-energy physics and I do a decent job. But an interesting thing happened when the book came out. The library bought one book, and there was a waiting list to read it. Then they bought another and another.I think some of my collegues may be coming around."
And Capra's book received a favorable review from Physics Today, the journal of the American Institute of Physics, which said that he had written a "pioneering book of real value and wide appeal . . . The infusion of an Eastern view of nature into modern physics could provide the paradigm shift that many claim is needed in physics in the last quarter of the 20th century."
And Capra believes that the holistic view of the world that the puts forward, if excepted in the physics world, will be the single most importan result of modern scientists because "it would change our whole outlook, our whole world view."
Capra says that Einstein's theory of relativity led to the atom bomb which changed modern man's view of himself and his environment; that quantum theory, the mathematical formulation of atomic physics, is the underpinning of modern industry.
A blending of Western science, like physics, with Eastern mysticism, says Capra, would change the way that modern medicine approaches healing.
"Traditional Western medicine treats the body as a machine made up of separate parts. When something goes wrong, there is physical intervention through surgery or chemical intervention through medicine," he says.
"With the acceptance of Eastern philosophies into modern science, he says "The body would be seen as a whole, as a dynamic whole that when it becomes ill is really out of balance with itself. This is the yin and yang in Chinese philosophy, something they have known for centuries. An acceptance of this world view would have a tremendous impact on Western medicine."
This is the reason that Capra called his book "The Tao of Physics" because "tao" means the way, and he hopes to show the way to "The unity and interrelatedness of the universe" to the Western world.