David Bohm silenced by his colleagues

By David Peat October 13, 2013

One of the most shocking things about David Bohm’s life is the way he was silenced by the scientific community in the shape of J. Robert Oppenheimer. While in was in California Bohm became a member of Oppenheimer’s group and came to see Oppenheimer as a father figure. He attended Oppenheimer’s lectures and learned how the physicist has spent time with Neils Bohr in Copenhagen and discussed the meaning of the quantum theory.

When Bohm moved to Princeton he became a friend and neighbor of Einstein and continued to discuss quantum theory with him. He also decided to write a text book “Quantum Theory” that would present Niels Bohr’s approach in a clear way. But when the book was published Bohm began to have second thoughts. He now seemed to him that Bohr guilty of a degree of mystification? Rather than making the ultimate level of reality clear it had become in Bernard d’Espagnat’s words “a veiled reality”.

Bohm therefore set out to create a realistic and causal interpretation of the quantum theory which he called “hidden variables”. Finally he sent off his paper for publication in the scientific journal, Physical Review. He anticipated that when it appeared in print it would unleash a vast storm of controversy, with physicists arguing for and against the theory. And that was exactly what Bohm wanted: to open up the whole question of the nature of quantum reality and so trigger a debate within the scientific community.

A few months later Bohm was forced to leave the United States to take a position in Brazil were he waited with baited breath for his paper to appear. Finally it appeared in 1952 in volume 85 of Physical Review. And the result was—to Bohm’s considerable shock—a resounding silence

But why should this be?

Unknown to Bohm, when he was exiled in Brazil Oppenheimer had called a meeting in Princeton of leading physicists with the intention of finding a hole or error in Bohm’s paper. But after several hours Bohm’s argument still held and so Oppenheimer announced to the group “if we cannot disprove Bohm we can all agree to ignore him”.

And so word went out and the scientific community remained silence. In other word Bohm’s former father figure had silenced Bohm. I experienced this wall of silence when I first went to work with Bohm. Older physicists would tell me “But Bohm is wrong”. I would reply, “I’m really interested, would you show me the error.” The answer was always the same. “Oh I’ve not read Bohm’s paper, I just know it’s wrong.”

But now, decades later the wall of silence as lifted and physicists are expressing a renewed interest in Bohm’s approach.