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Think that artisanal cheesemakers represent the ultimate rejection of science? Think again.

Groovy Science: Knowledge, Innovation, and American Counterculture

David Kaiser, W. Patrick McCray
University of Chicago Press
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Long-haired surfers catching waves on handcrafted shortboards at Laguna Beach. Women practicing home births as a form of “spiritual midwifery” on the famous Tennessee commune, The Farm. Psychologist Timothy Leary, “the most dangerous man in America,” imploring us to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” These are quintessential images of American counterculture. But Groovy Science will make the reader see them in a surprising new way: as significant scenes of encounter between counterculture and science.

By yoking together the words “groovy” and “science,” editors David Kaiser and W. Patrick McCray refute three durable notions about science in the 1970s: that the counterculture was antiscience, that science was languishing in a rather moribund phase during this period, and that mainstream researchers lived and worked apart from the counterculture that seemed to spurn them. Instead, the 12 essays that make up Groovy Science demonstrate that people and groups strongly ensconced in the counterculture also embraced science, albeit in untraditional and creative ways.

Groovy science was hardly a singular, coherent movement, but the book’s four sections create some conceptual order around the ways that people connected science and counterculture. In “Conversion,” neurophysiologists, chemists, and physicists recast Cold War science by simultaneously rejecting “the megamachine” and adapting its “resources and forms of knowledge … toward new ends.” Those engaged in “Seeking”—the book’s second section—pursued science as a path to countercultural virtues such as authenticity, cooperation, and environmentalism. The “Personae” in part three—Immanuel Velikovsky, Timothy Leary, and Hugh Hefner—seized mass media to fashion themselves as science-minded iconoclasts. And in “Legacies,” we discover the unacknowledged influence of groovy science on contemporary commonplaces such as sustainability, innovation, and organic food.

In “Blowing Foam and Blowing Minds: Better Surfing through Chemistry,” Peter Neushul and Peter Westwick dramatize the period’s “shortboard revolution,” when surfers resisted mass-produced surfboards and extolled handmade, customized boards. The movement may have been fueled in part by psychedelic drugs, but as Neushul and Westwick show, it also wouldn’t have been possible without polyurethane foam, polyester resin, and fiberglass: cheap products of industrial-scale chemistry.

Despite its rejection of mainstream values, the counterculture was intertwined with the seemingly antithetical force of consumerism. In “When Chèvre Was Weird: Hippie Taste, Technoscience, and the Revival of American Artisanal Food Making,” Heather Paxson shows that although the rise of artisanal chèvre may have been inspired by a desire for natural products, even hippie cheesemakers were creating a product to sell. Moreover, their handcrafted goods relied on scientific resources, including acidometers, pH probes, bacterial cultures, and coagulants.

Scientists were also shaped by countercultural concerns, including environmentalism, antimilitarism, and nonconformity. In “Santa Barbara Physicists in the Vietnam Era,” Cyrus C. M. Mody tells the story of three public-spirited physicists—Philip Wyatt, David Phillips, and Virgil Elings—who founded start-ups to explore new interdisciplinary collaborations and lines of research in areas that had been neglected during the focus on defense research during the Cold War.

Chèvre isn’t weird anymore. Start-ups are conventional. And rallying for environmental causes through science seems all but natural. Even in this age of technoscience, perhaps we’re still groovy after all.Amer

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA.