Kaiser, David and W Patrick McCray (eds), Groovy Science: Knowledge, Innovation and American Counterculture

David Kaiser and W Patrick McCray, eds, Groovy Science: Knowledge, Innovation and American Counterculture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2016) 416 pp. $25.00 Pb, $75.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780226372884

Groovy Science: Knowledge, Innovation and American Counterculture examines the boom of American scientific and technological advancement between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. However, rather than focusing on mainstream experiments of the time, editors David Kaiser and W. Patrick McCray have compiled essays that draw attention to the ways in which embracing science during the height of the Cold War became an aspect of American counterculture.

The book is divided into four sections, each of which highlights a particular aspect of America’s countercultural or ‘groovy’ science.

Section One, Conversion, covers how scientists first began to break away from conventional experimentation and into new and unusual areas of research. D. Graham Burnett begins the section with ‘Adult Swim: How John C. Lilly Got Groovy (and Took the Dolphin with Him), 1958 – 1968’, providing a fascinating insight into the connection between Lilly’s background as a military researcher into mind control and ‘brain washing’ and his later experiments; both on dolphins (an attempt at interspecies communication) and himself (using LSD and sensory deprivation chambers). In a similar vein, ‘Blowing Foam and Blowing Minds: Better Surfing through Chemistry’ by Peter Neushul and Peter Westwick examines the role of Californian aerospace engineers in enhancing the American surfing culture by introducing polyurethane foam, previously used by the US military to fill cavities in nuclear submarines, as an alternative material for building surfboards. This chapter highlights the interesting irony that a material originally designed for military use came to benefit the ultimate ‘anti-military’ group: drug-taking hippy surfers. Section One concludes with ‘Santa Barbara Physicists in the Vietnam Era’ by Cyrus C M Mody. Thoroughly researched and extremely well-detailed, Mody’s essay charts the experiments of a small group of Santa Barbara scientists at a time when funds for scientific research were mostly being absorbed by federal spending on the Vietnam conflict. Instead of more expensive ‘conventional’ experiments, the group adapted their research towards topics of countercultural youth interest, such as environmental and biomedical science, and parapsychology.

Section Two, Seeking, analyses groovy science as a ‘kind of secularised, quasi-spiritual quest’ for an unconventional kind of academic enlightenment (4). In ‘Between the Counterculture and the Corporation: Abraham Maslow and Humanistic Psychology in the 1960s’, Nadine Weidman explores the uneasy relationship between the founder of humanistic psychology Abraham Maslow and the academic establishment which celebrated him. Weidman also provides an interesting account of Maslow’s time spent at the Esalen Institute, a Californian retreat centre where visitors in the late 60s would experiment with drugs and sex, and his efforts to explain scientifically the hippie counterculture of the late 1960s. ‘A Quest for Permanence: The Ecological Visioneering of John Todd and the New Alchemy Institute’ by Henry Tim looks at the symbiotic relationship between the NAI, which rejected the notion of ‘pure nature’ and used science in conjunction with nature in an attempt to achieve ecological harmony, and the Establishment foundations that funded the Institute. Rounding off Section Two, Wendy Kline takes a revealing look at the influence of the 1975 book Spiritual Midwifery in ‘The Little Manual that Started a Revolution: How Hippie Midwifery Became Mainstream’. The chapter is an intriguing discussion of the origins of both the manual and the hippie community that spawned it, known as The Farm. Kline explores how the new age midwives successfully combined existing medical practice with spiritual and ancient tribal rituals such as home birthing in a way that managed to capture the imaginations of the wider American public and influenced numerous women to follow suit.

Section Three of the book, Personae, focuses on leading figures within the American counterculture of the period, and how they often found themselves the centre of cult followings. In ‘The Unseasonable Grooviness of Immanuel Velikovsky’, Michael D. Gordin analyses the unprecedented popularity of Velikovsky – an independent scholar whose controversial works offered a reinterpretation of ancient history – amongst rebellious American college students, in what was seen as a ‘rejection of rationality’ in favour of scientific scepticism (207). W. Patrick McCray follows this with ‘Timothy Leary’s Transhumanist SMI₂LE’, a stark account of how the former Harvard professor and ‘LSD advocate’ Timothy Leary ‘abandoned the protocols of mainstream psychology’ in order to gain notoriety as the creator of the SMI₂LE (Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension) program (238-9). The SMI₂LE program promoted the idea that space travel, use of psychedelic drugs, and life extending technology was to be the idyllic future of mankind. McCrary’s thorough and captivating essay sheds light on a sometimes maligned yet also misunderstood figure who believed that humankind could benefit from its own counterculture. Taking a rather different angle of discussion, Erika Lorraine Milam chooses cultural entrepreneurs such as Hugh Heffner as her subjects of research in ‘Science of the Sexy Beast: Biological Masculinities and the Playboy Lifestyle’. Milam’s essay draws an interesting connection between the history of Playboy magazine and emerging discussions about the nature of human sexuality in an era of groovy science.

The book’s final section concerns Legacies, arguing that many mainstream trends of the modern era emerged from countercultural roots that have gone largely unrecognised. ‘Alloyed: Countercultural Bricoleurs and the Design Science Revival’ by Andrew Kirk claims that Buckminster Fuller, a so-called ‘”crazy scientist” uncle for hippies’ was the initial inspiration for today’s interest in sustainability and architectural design (306) Matthew Wisnioski’s essay, ‘How the Industrial Scientist Got His Groove: Entrepreneurial Journalism and the Fashioning of Technoscientific Innovators’, traces the modern day heroism of technological innovators back to the Cold War, focusing on scientists and engineers in the late 1960s who began utilising the media as a way of carving new names for themselves amid the societal backlash against their work within the military and government. Finally, Heather Paxson explores the countercultural origins of artisanal food in ‘When Chèvre Was Weird: Hippie Taste, Technoscience, and the Revival of American Artisanal Food Making’. Paxson rounds off Groovy Science with an enlightening look at how artisanal and organic foods – now associated with American middle-class consumerism – were once regarded as the product of hippies and others attempting to move away from middle-class consumerism.

Obviously, Groovy Science cannot hope to encompass the entirety of the American countercultural movement. This is, however, addressed by Kaiser and McCray in the introduction, where they state that their intention is to ‘lay a foundation for addressing the shifting practices and cultural valences of science and technology during this recent and unexplored period’ (3). This is something the book does very successfully, with topics that have clearly been carefully chosen and meticulously researched in order to produce an interesting and informative collection. Overall, Groovy Science provides an original look at an era in American scientific and cultural history that has been largely overlooked until now and would undoubtedly be a captivating read for anyone interested in American counterculture during the Cold War .

Caroline King, University of Hertfordshire