by David Pratt
Original article published in Sunrise,
The death of David Bohm on 27 October 1992 is a great loss
not only for the physics community but for all those interested in the
philosophical implications of modern science. David Bohm was one of the
most distinguished theoretical physicists of his generation, and a
fearless challenger of scientific orthodoxy. His interests and influence
extended far beyond physics and embraced biology, psychology, philosophy,
religion, art, and the future of society. Underlying his innovative
approach to many different issues was the fundamental idea that beyond
the visible, tangible world there lies a deeper, implicate order of
David Bohm was born in
Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1917. He became interested in
science at an early age; as a young boy he invented a dripless
teapot, and his father, a successful businessman, urged him to try to
make a profit on the idea. But after learning that the first step was to
conduct a door-to-door survey to test market demand, his interest in
business waned and he decided to become a theoretical physicist instead.
In the 1930s he attended Pennsylvania State College where
he became deeply interested in quantum physics, the physics of the
subatomic realm. After graduating, he attended the University of
California, Berkeley. While there he worked at the Lawrence Radiation
Laboratory where, after receiving his doctorate in 1943, he began what
was to become his landmark work on plasmas (a plasma is a gas
containing a high density of electrons and positive ions).
Bohm was surprised to find that once electrons were in a
plasma, they stopped behaving like individuals and started
behaving as if they were part of a larger and interconnected whole.
He later remarked that he frequently had the impression that the sea of
electrons was in some sense alive.
In 1947 Bohm took up the
post of assistant professor at Princeton University, where he
extended his research to the study of electrons in metals. Once again the
seemingly haphazard movements of individual electrons managed to produce
highly organized overall effects. Bohm’s innovative work in this area
established his reputation as a theoretical physicist.
Bohm wrote a classic textbook entitled Quantum Theory, in which he
presented a clear account of the orthodox, Copenhagen interpretation of
quantum physics. The Copenhagen interpretation was formulated
mainly by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the 1920s and
is still highly influential today. But even before the book was published,
Bohm began to have doubts about the assumptions underlying the
He had difficulty accepting that subatomic particles had no
objective existence and took on definite properties only when physicists
tried to observe and measure them. He also had difficulty believing that
the quantum world was characterized by absolute indeterminism and
chance, and that things just happened for no reason whatsoever. He began
to suspect that there might be deeper causes behind the apparently random
and crazy nature of the subatomic world.
Bohm sent copies of his
textbook to Bohr and Einstein. Bohr did not respond, but Einstein phoned
him to say that he wanted to discuss it with him. In the first of what was
to turn into a six-month series of spirited conversations, Einstein
enthusiastically told Bohm that he had never seen quantum theory
presented so clearly, and admitted that he was just as dissatisfied with
the orthodox approach as Bohm was. They both admired quantum theory’s
ability to predict phenomena, but could not accept that it was
complete and that it was impossible to arrive at any clearer understanding
of what was going on in the quantum realm.
It was while writing
Quantum Theory that Bohm came into conflict with
McCarthyism. He was called upon to appear before the Un-American
Activities Committee in order to testify against colleagues and
associates. Ever a man of principle, he refused. The result was that when
his contract at Princeton expired, he was unable to obtain a job in the
USA. He moved first to Brazil, then to Israel, and finally
to Britain in 1957, where he worked first at Bristol University and
later as Professor of Theoretical Physics at Birkbeck College,
University of London, until his retirement in 1987.
Bohm will be remembered above all for two radical scientific
In 1952, the year after his discussions with Einstein, Bohm
published two papers sketching what later came to be called the causal
interpretation of quantum theory, and he continued to elaborate and refine
his ideas until the end of his life. The causal interpretation, says Bohm,
’opens the door for the creative operation of underlying, and yet subtler,
levels of reality’. In his view, subatomic particles such as
electrons are not simple, structureless particles, but highly
complex, dynamic entities.
He rejected the view that their motion is fundamentally uncertain
or ambiguous; they follow a precise path, but one which is determined not
only by conventional physical forces but also by a subtler force
which he calls the quantum potential. The quantum potential
guides the motion of particles by providing ’active information’
about the whole environment. Bohm gives the analogy of a ship being guided
by radar signals: the radar carries information from all around and guides
the ship by giving form to the movement produced by the much greater but
unformed power of its engines.
The quantum potential
pervades all space and provides direct connections between quantum
systems. In 1959 Bohm and a young research student Yakir Aharonov
discovered an important example of quantum interconnectedness. They
found that in certain circumstances electrons are able to ’feel’
the presence of a nearby magnetic field even though they are traveling in
regions of space where the field strength is zero. This phenomenon is now
known as the Aharonov-Bohm (AB) effect, and when the
discovery was first announced many physicists reacted with disbelief. Even
today, despite confirmation of the effect in numerous experiments, papers
still occasionally appear arguing that it does not exist.
a remarkable experiment to test quantum interconnectedness was
performed by a research team led by physicist Alain Aspect in
Paris. The original idea was contained in a thought experiment (also known
as the ’EPR paradox’) proposed in 1935 by Albert Einstein,
Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen, but much of the later
theoretical groundwork was laid by David Bohm and one of his
enthusiastic supporters, John Bell of CERN, the physics
research center near Geneva.
The results of the experiment are said to have shown that subatomic
particles that are far apart are able to communicate in ways that
cannot be explained by the transfer of physical signals traveling at or
slower than the speed of light. Many physicists regard these
’nonlocal’ connections as absolutely instantaneous. An
alternative view is that they involve subtler, nonphysical energies
traveling faster than light, but this view has few adherents since most
physicists still believe that nothing can exceed the speed of light.
The causal interpretation of quantum theory initially
met with indifference or hostility from other physicists, who did not take
kindly to Bohm’s powerful challenge to the common consensus. In recent
years, however, the theory has been gaining increasing ’respectability’.
Bohm’s approach is capable of being developed in different directions. For
instance, a number of physicists, including Jean-Pierre Vigier and
several other physicists at the Institut Henri Poincaré in France,
explain the quantum potential in terms of fluctuations in an
In the 1960s Bohm began to take a closer look at
the notion of order. One day he saw a device on a television
program that immediately fired his imagination. It consisted of two
concentric glass cylinders, the space between them being filled with
glycerin, a highly viscous fluid. If a droplet of ink is placed in the
fluid and the outer cylinder is turned, the droplet is drawn out into a
thread that eventually becomes so thin that it disappears from view; the
ink particles are enfolded into the glycerin. But if the cylinder is then
turned in the opposite direction, the thread-form reappears and rebecomes
a droplet; the droplet is unfolded again. Bohm realized that when the ink
was diffused through the glycerin it was not in a state of
’disorder’ but possessed a hidden, or nonmanifest,
In Bohm’s view, all the separate objects, entities,
structures, and events in the visible or explicate world around us are
relatively autonomous, stable, and temporary ’subtotalities’
derived from a deeper, implicate order of unbroken wholeness.
Bohm gives the analogy of a flowing stream:
On this stream, one may see an ever-changing pattern of vortices,
ripples, waves, splashes, etc., which evidently have no independent
existence as such. Rather, they are abstracted from the flowing
movement, arising and vanishing in the total process of the flow. Such
transitory subsistence as may be possessed by these abstracted forms
implies only a relative independence or autonomy of behavior, rather
than absolutely independent existence as ultimate substances.
We must learn to view everything as part of ’Undivided
Wholeness in Flowing Movement’
Another metaphor Bohm uses to illustrate the implicate order is
that of the hologram. To make a hologram a laser light is
split into two beams, one of which is reflected off an object onto a
photographic plate where it interferes with the second beam.
The complex swirls of the interference pattern recorded on the
photographic plate appear meaningless and disordered to the naked eye. But
like the ink drop dispersed in the glycerin, the pattern possesses a
hidden or enfolded order, for when illuminated with laser light it
produces a three-dimensional image of the original object, which can be
viewed from any angle. A remarkable feature of a hologram is that
if a holographic film is cut into pieces, each piece produces an image of
the whole object, though the smaller the piece the hazier the image.
Clearly the form and structure of the entire object are encoded
within each region of the photographic record.
that the whole universe can be thought of as a kind of giant,
flowing hologram, or holomovement, in which a total order is
contained, in some implicit sense, in each region of space and time. The
explicate order is a projection from higher dimensional levels of reality,
and the apparent stability and solidity of the objects and entities
composing it are generated and sustained by a ceaseless process of
enfoldment and unfoldment, for subatomic particles are constantly
dissolving into the implicate order and then recrystallizing.
quantum potential postulated in the causal interpretation
corresponds to the implicate order. But Bohm suggests that the quantum
potential is itself organized and guided by a superquantum
potential, representing a second implicate order, or superimplicate
order. Indeed he proposes that there may be an infinite series, and
perhaps hierarchies, of implicate (or ’generative’) orders, some of
which form relatively closed loops and some of which do not. Higher
implicate orders organize the lower ones, which in turn influence the
Bohm believed that life and consciousness are enfolded
deep in the generative order and are therefore present in varying degrees
of unfoldment in all matter, including supposedly ’inanimate’
matter such as electrons or plasmas. He suggests that there
is a ’protointelligence’ in matter, so that new evolutionary
developments do not emerge in a random fashion but creatively as
relatively integrated wholes from implicate levels of reality. The
mystical connotations of Bohm’s ideas are underlined by his remark
that the implicate domain ’could equally well be called idealism, spirit,
consciousness. The separation of the two -- matter and
spirit -- is an abstraction. The ground is always one.’
As with all truly great thinkers, David Bohm’s philosophical ideas
found expression in his character and way of life. His students and
colleagues describe him as totally unselfish and non-competitive, always
ready to share his latest thoughts with others, always open to fresh
ideas, and single-mindedly devoted to a calm but passionate search into
the nature of reality. In the words of one of his former students,
’He can only be characterized as a secular saint’.
that the general tendency for individuals, nations, races, social groups,
etc., to see one another as fundamentally different and separate was a
major source of conflict in the world. It was his hope that one day people
would come to recognize the essential interrelatedness of all
things and would join together to build a more holistic and harmonious
world. What better tribute to David Bohm’s life and work than to take this
message to heart and make the ideal of universal brotherhood the
keynote of our lives.
David Bohm & F. David Peat, Science, Order &
Creativity, Bantam Books, New York, 1987, p. 88. See also
’Consciousness, causality, and quantum physics’.
David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Routledge
& Kegan Paul, London, Boston, 1980, p. 48.
Ibid., p. 11.
R. Weber, Dialogues with Scientists and Sages: The Search for
Unity, Arkana, p. 101.
J. Hiley & F. David Peat (eds.), Quantum Implications:
Essays in Honour of David Bohm, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987, p.