The American theoretical physicist David Bohm (1917-1992) is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s most original thinkers. Over the course of a distinguished career that spanned more than 50 years of teaching and writing, Bohm participated vigorously in the international scientific debates surrounding the overthrow of classical physics by the twin but apparently irreconcilable theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. Along the way he made important contributions to the study of the basic properties of the physical world, such as the theory of the plasma, a fourth state of matter in addition to the solid, liquid, and gaseous states. Eventually the reach of Bohm’s ideas went beyond the traditional boundaries of physics and cosmology and came to influence the fields of philosophy, language studies, psychology, and the arts. In his later years he became convinced that the phenomenal world, including time and space, is no more than the surface appearance of something much deeper, the ultimate ground of being in which even the distinction between mind and matter could be resolved. As Bohm observed, not only had Einstein’s theory of relativity shown that a sharp distinction between space and time cannot be maintained, but also quantum theory implies that elements separated in space and moments separated in time are noncausally related projections of a higher-dimensional reality, a reality that is, moreover, enfolded in consciousness. The universe, according to Bohm, is an unbroken, flowing, unified whole.
Born in the coal-mining town of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where his father owned a small furniture store, David Bohm later recalled his first encounter, at age 10, with a science fiction magazine, which fired his imagination with tales of space travel and distant planets. An absorbing interest in science led to his serious study of physics as an undergraduate at Pennsylvania State University. Following a year of graduate study at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Bohm arranged to meet with J. Robert Oppenheimer, founder of a school of theoretical physics at the University of California, Berkeley, that was attracting many of the brightest young scholars in the nation. Evidently impressed, Oppenheimer invited Bohm to join his team of research students, and in 1941 Bohm moved to Berkeley and entered the vanguard of nuclear physics, where his creativity began to flourish. Against the background of World War II, however, the implications of basic research into the nature of the atom had taken an ominous turn. By the end of the 1930s scientists in both Europe and the United States had recognized the possibility of constructing a nuclear weapon, and in 1942 the U.S. government secretly enlisted Oppenheimer to head an international group of top physicists in developing an atomic bomb. The code name for their efforts was the Manhattan Project, and the extreme concern with security surrounding their work was to have a profound effect on the future of many of the scientists affiliated with the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley.
Although Bohm was not directly involved with the Manhattan Project and in fact was ignorant of its very existence, his sympathy with socialism and his association with members of the American Communist Party placed him, and other scientists who held similar views, under a cloud of suspicion; Oppenheimer himself was under close surveillance. The fear that the Soviet Union, then a U.S. ally in the war against Germany, would succeed in developing a nuclear weapon before the United States generated an atmosphere of mistrust that lasted long after American warplanes had dropped atom bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Awarded his Ph.D. in 1943, Bohm was invited after the war’s end to join the faculty of Princeton University in New Jersey, where he became friends with Albert Einstein, at that time a Fellow of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. At Princeton, Bohm wrote his first major work, Quantum Theory, which upon publication became a widely adopted textbook for physics students. Although acceptance of quantum theory had become all but universal among physicists, Einstein maintained strong reservations about the theory’s insistence that, at the smallest scale, chance and probability were absolute and irreducible properties of the physical world. Taking Einstein’s objections seriously, Bohm began formulating his concept of the “quantum potential,” which would allow even the more bizarre aspects of quantum reality to be explained causally and as manifestations of the holistic nature of the universe. The implications of this idea would occupy Bohm’s imagination in various ways for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, the cold war with the Soviet Union had given rise to near-hysterical fears of communist domestic subversion. The House Committee on Un-American Activities had launched investigations of scientists formerly associated with the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley, and David Bohm, among others, was called to testify. Indicted but subsequently acquitted of all charges of wrongdoing, Bohm was nevertheless denied a renewal of his contract by Princeton, which had come under political pressure to “put its house in order.” Now unsure of his prospects for academic employment in the United States, Bohm applied to the physics department of the university in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with recommendations from both Einstein and Oppenheimer, and in October 1951 he began a period of voluntary exile that lasted, except for periodic visits, until his death.
Later, Bohm taught at the Israel Institute of Technology (Technion) and then in England, first at the University of Bristol and then at Birkbeck College, London, where he remained until his retirement as professor emeritus. Throughout these years, he continued to develop, expand, refine, and publish his ideas, some of which deeply influenced others, such as John Bell, whose eponymous theorem established the essentially nonlocal character of the quantum world. Among those with whom Bohm maintained collegial and personal relationships were Einstein, Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, and the philosopher of science Karl Popper; his many correspondents included Werner Heisenberg, Louis de Broglie, Wolfgang Pauli, Maurice Wilkins, and the historian of science Thomas Kuhn. He also maintained friendships with several notable figures outside the realm of science, such as the Dalai Lama and the philosopher Jidda Krishnamurti.
Near the end of his life, Bohm’s growing conviction that the material world and consciousness together form an unbroken whole was given full expression in his theory of the implicate order; namely, that what we take to be reality (the explicate order), in which separate and distinct particles are observed to interact, is an abstraction derived from a deeper, implicate order in which time and space are no longer the dominant factors that determine relationships of dependence or independence of separate elements. Physicists’ efforts to reveal the ultimate “building blocks” of the universe by analyzing it into ever-smaller constituents fail to address this issue. And yet, not only has the mechanistic view of reality already been superseded but, according to Bohm, both relativity and quantum mechanics are likely to be revealed in the future as abstractions from still more general laws. To illustrate how the implicate order may be enfolded within the explicate, Bohm uses various metaphors, including that of the hologram: Just as each point in a holographic image encodes information about the whole image, so is the entire universe enfolded within any given point in spacetime. As for consciousness, Bohm’s intuition was that, far from being purely local, merely an epiphenomenon of electrochemical processes in the brain, mind is a universal quality and that, at the deepest level, matter and consciousness cannot be separated.
See also Becoming and Being; Consciousness; Albert Einstein, Thomas S. Kuhn; Karl R. Popper; Quantum Mechanics; General Theory of Relativity; Special Theory of Relativity; Spacetime Continuum; Relativity of Time
Bohm, D. (1951). Quantum theory. New York: Prentice Hall.
Bohm, D. (1957). Causality and chance in modern physics. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.
Bohm, D. (1980). Wholeness and the implicate order. London: Routledge.
Bohm, D., & Hiley, B. (1993). The undivided universe: An ontological interpretation of quantum theory. London: Routledge.
Bohm, D., & Peat, F. D. (1987). Science, order, and creativity. New York: Bantam.
Peat, F. D. (1997). Infinite potential: The life and times of David Bohm. New York: Basic Books.