David Bohm (1917–1992)
I have had in the past the greatest confidence in Dr. Bohm as a scientist and as a man, and I continue to do so.
David Bohm is a hard man to describe. He saw life as one whole, one total movement, and therefore never limited his inquiries to any particular field of study.
Bohm was best known as a gifted physicist and a truly original thinker. He made numerous contributions to quantum physics while challenging its orthodoxy (for which he was marginalized). He may yet become known for establishing a new kind of science with a new form of order at its foundation. For a comprehensive overview of Bohm’s scientific work, consult the biography David Bohm: A Life Dedicated to Understanding the Quantum World by Olival Freire Junior. Bohm’s last book, which was published after his passing, and which was co-written with physicist Basil Hiley, also provides an overview of Bohm’s physics.
In the philosophy community, Bohm was misunderstood by most and admired by some. Much like how Bohm explored novel directions in physics, his philosophical inquiries went beyond the existing knowledge and theories. The best overview of Bohm’s philosophy is found within the book Mind, Matter and the Implicate Order by Paavo Pylkkänen. There is also a paper titled “The Philosophical and Scientific Metaphysics of David Bohm” that covers some aspects of Bohm’s philosophy.
The subjects Bohm studied were inextricably linked to human perception and psychology, as well as linguistics, neuroscience, metacognition, and the methodologies of science. Thus his inquiries and insights often were interwoven with these elements. Perhaps the best example to this is in the 56-page appendix of his book The Special Theory of Relativity that goes into great depth on the subject of perception and abstraction and how it has affected the development and understanding of physics.
The esteemed neuroscientist Karl Pribram, who was an emeritus professor of psychology and psychiatry at Stanford University, found Bohm’s work, particularly his theory of the implicate order, highly relevant to neuroscience. Pribram stated the following:
I was exuberant. Bohm held the answers which I had been seeking. I had for years maintained that part of the puzzle of brain functioning, especially the distributed aspects of memory storage and the transformation into the spatial frequency domain, resembled the process by which holograms are constructed. My hunch that perhaps the physical input to the senses shared this transform domain seemed to be sufficiently realistic to be shared by one of the major contributors to theoretical physics.
As Bohm’s work was so foundational and had implications for many different fields, Bohm found himself in communication with artists, biologists, philosophers, spiritual figures, and more.
The depth of Bohm’s explorations even led him to question the whole of human thought and the very language we use to describe reality.
Bohm was always interested in the state of affairs in human culture. He studied the rise and fall of civilizations and he lived through the Great Depression and World War II. He experienced much incoherence in the educational settings he attended as well as in the general culture he partook in, including in his family home. But it was his relationship with Jiddu Krishnamurti, an exceptionally unique philosopher and spiritual figure, that catalyzed Bohm’s concerns with the future of humanity. Bohm and Krishnamurti would remain in close contact for almost a quarter of a century.
Bohm put forward a radical new vision of dialogue as a way to inquire into and begin to understand both the general incoherence in culture and the manner in which thought is generated and sustained. The problem of communication is inevitable wherever people interact and until we find a way to really listen to each other without the interference of incoherent cognitive processes we will not be able to understand each other or truly work together.
We’re still unraveling and trying to understand the extraordinary scientific and humanistic legacy Bohm left us. His inquiry into the root cause of the problems of humanity and the crises we all face is unparalleled and by his own admission more important than his work in physics. In fact, Bohm questioned if he would go into science again if he could start over as the products of science are used incoherently by the greater society. And of what meaning will our scientific achievements be if the human race succumbs to its own incoherence? Bohm proposed that sustained attention to thought as a process was necessary for us to begin to see the origins of human conflict and irrationality.
Notable Dates in Bohm’s Life
- 1917: Born on December 20th in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
- 1939: Completes a BS degree from Pennsylvania State University.
- 1939: Attends the California Institute of Technology to begin his PhD.
- 1940: Meets J. Robert Oppenheimer.
- 1940: Completes significant work that helped to create foundations for the modern theory of plasma.
- 1941: Joins Oppenheimer’s Berkley group.
- 1943: Obtains PhD from University of California, Berkeley.
- 1943–1945: Works at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory.
- 1947–1951: Works as Assistant Professor of Physics at Princeton University. Has numerous interactions with Albert Einstein.
- 1949: The House Un-American Activities Committee summons Bohm to testify because of his previous ties to unionism and suspected communists.
- 1950: Indicted on the charge of contempt of Congress and arrested for refusing to testify against his peers. Princeton suspends Bohm only to later reinstate him (they ultimately did not renew his contract).
- 1951: Publishes Quantum Theory.
- 1951: Submits a paper titled “A Suggested Interpretation of the Quantum Theory in Terms of ‘Hidden’ Variables” that would be published in 1952. This would begin a four-decade exploration of an alternative approach to quantum mechanics.
- 1951: Leaves the USA for Brazil on account of political persecution. Called to attend the USA Consulate in Brazil at which his passport was seized.
- 1951–1955: Professor of Physics, University of São Paulo.
- 1954: Obtains a Brazilian citizenship and passport.
- 1955: Moves to Israel.
- 1955–1957: Research Fellow at Technion in Israel.
- 1956: Marries Saral Woolfson.
- 1957: Publishes Causality and Chance in Modern Physics.
- 1957: Meets Neils Bohr in Copenhagen.
- 1957: Moves to England.
- 1957–1961: Research Fellow at the University of Bristol.
- 1959: Aharonov–Bohm effect discovered, a feat for which Bohm and his graduate student would receive rewards and accolades.
- 1959: Encounters a book by the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, noticing immediate parallels between his scientific work and what Jiddu Krishnamurti is saying.
- 1961–1987: Professor of Theoretical Physics, Birkbeck College.
- 1961: Meets Jiddu Krishnamurti, a man he would end up in dialogue with for a period spanning three decades.
- 1965: Publishes The Special Theory of Relativity.
- 1971: Puts forward his theory of the implicate order.
- 1980: Publishes Wholeness and the Implicate Order.
- 1990: Elected Fellow at the Royal Society.
- 1992: David Bohm dies on October 27th in London.
- David Bohm’s World: New Physics and New Religion by Kevin J. Sharpe (1993)
- Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm by F. David Peat (1996)
- Mind, Matter and the Implicate Order by Paavo Pylkkänen (2007)
- Insights into Immensity: Krishnamurti and David Bohm in Dialogue 1961–1986 by Heikki Peltola (2015)
- An Uncommon Collaboration: David Bohm and J. Krishnamurti by David Edmund Moody (2017)
- David Bohm: A Life Dedicated to Understanding the Quantum World by Olival Freire Junior (2019)
- Emergent Quantum Mechanics: David Bohm Centennial Perspectives edited by Jan Walleczek, Gerhard Grössing, Paavo Pylkkänen, and Basil Hiley (2019)
- Whole and One: Seeing and Being the World by Heikki Peltola (2020)
- Infinite Potential: The Life & Ideas of David Bohm directed by Paul Howard (2020)