Epistemological Letters

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Epistemological Letters  
Discipline Physics
Language English
Edited by Abner Shimony, among others
Publication details
Association F. Gonseth, Institut de la Méthode (Switzerland)
Frequency Thirty-six or thirty-seven newsletters, 1973–1984
Standard abbreviations
Epistemol. Lett.

Epistemological Letters was a hand-typed, mimeographed, "underground" physics newsletter about quantum physics that was sent out to a private mailing list, or what physicist John Clauser called a "quantum subculture," between 1973 and 1984.[1]

Distributed by a Swiss foundation, the newsletter was created because mainstream academic journals were reluctant to publish articles about the philosophy of quantum mechanics, especially anything that implied support for issues such as action at a distance.[2] Thirty-six or thirty-seven issues of the Epistemological Letters appeared, each between four and eighty-nine pages long.[3] Several well-known scientists, including the Irish physicist John Bell (1928–1990), the originator of Bell's theorem, published their material there.[2] According to Clauser, much of the early work on Bell's theorem was published only in Epistemological Letters.[4]

Interpretations of quantum physics[edit]

Physicist Andrew Whitaker writes that a powerful group of physicists centred on Niels Bohr (1885–1962), Wolfgang Pauli (1900–1958) and Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976) made clear that "there was no place in physics – no jobs in physics! – for anybody who dared to question the Copenhagen interpretation" (Bohr's interpretation) of quantum theory.[5] Clauser writes that any inquiry into the "wonders and peculiarities" of quantum mechanics and quantum entanglement that went outside the "party line" was prohibited, in what he argues amounted to an "evangelical crusade."[4] Samuel Goudsmit (1902–1978), editor of the prestigious Physical Review, imposed a formal ban on the philosophical debate; he issued instructions to referees that they should feel free to reject material that even hinted at it.[2]

Alternative publications[edit]

Those articles were therefore distributed in alternative publications, and Epistemological Letters became one of the main conduits.[2] The newsletter was sent out by the Association F. Gonseth, Institut de la Méthode, which had been established in honour of the philosopher Ferdinand Gonseth (1890–1975).[2] It described itself as "an open and informal journal allowing confrontation and ripening of ideas before publishing in some adequate journal."[6] According to Clauser, it announced that the usual stigma against discussing certain ideas, such as hidden-variable theories, was to be absent.[4]

The newsletter's editors included Abner Shimony.[6] Several eminent physicists published their material in it, including John Bell, the originator of Bell's theorem.[2] Clauser writes that much of the early work on Bell's theorem was published only in Epistemological Letters.[4] Bell's paper, "The Theory of Local Beables" ("be-able," as opposed to "observ-able"), appeared there in March 1976. Shimony, John Clauser and Michael Horne published responses to it, also in the Letters.[7] Henry Stapp was another prominent physicist who wrote for the Letters.[8] H. Dieter Zeh published a paper in the Letters on the many-minds interpretation of quantum mechanics in 1981.[9]


  1. ^ For 1973, see "Epistemological letters", Amazon, 1 January 1973, and "Epistemological letters", Abe Books.
    • Andrew Whitaker gives the dates as 1974–1984. See Andrew Whitaker, The New Quantum Age: From Bell's Theorem to Quantum Computation and Teleportation, Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 145.
    • For "underground" and "quantum subculture," see John F. Clauser, "Early History of Bell's Theorem," in R.A. Bertlmann and A. Zeilinger (eds.), Quantum (Un)speakables: From Bell to Quantum Information, Springer, 2002, p. 62.
  2. ^ a b c d e f David Kaiser, "How the Hippies Saved Physics" (lecture), School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, MIT, 2010, from 37:39 mins.
    • David Kaiser, How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival, W. W. Norton & Company, 2011, pp. 121–122.
  3. ^ For 36 issues, see "Epistemological letters", Abe Books. For 37 issues and the number of pages, see Whitaker 2012, p. 145.
  4. ^ a b c d John F. Clauser, "Early History of Bell's Theorem," in R.A. Bertlmann, and A. Zeilinger (eds.), Quantum (Un)speakables: From Bell to Quantum Information, Springer, 2002, p. 62.
  5. ^ Whitaker 2012, pp. 1–2.
  6. ^ a b Whitaker 2012, p. 145.
  7. ^ Whitaker 2012, p. 181; Bell, J.S. "The Theory of Local Beables", Sixth GIFT seminar, Jaca, 2–7 June 1975, reproduced in Epistemological Letters, March 1976.
    • A. Shimony, M. A. Home, and J. F. Clauser, "Comment on 'The Theory of Local Beable," Epistemological Letters, 13, 1976, pp. 1–8.
  8. ^ Henry Stapp, "Colloquium on Bell's Theorem," Epistemological Letters, 1081, June 1979.
  9. ^ "The Problem of Conscious Observation in Quantum Mechanical Description" Archived 27 December 2013 at the Wayback Machine., Epistemological Letters, 63, 1981.

Further reading[edit]