Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm

By Fred Pruyn

It must have been a daunting task to write the history of David Bohm (1917-1992), scientist and mystic, who believed that images always have a capacity to delude. However, this biography (1) by F. David Peat, one of Bohm's friends and colleagues, is not only very readable but also sympathetic and reliable.

David Bohm experienced a difficult childhood. Born in a Jewish family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, he was raised mainly by his father, a furniture store owner and assistant of the local rabbi. Bohm held a negative opinion of his father and received little encouragement from his mother, who often suffered from mental illness. As a result, he sought inspiration in his own world and, at an early age, showed the character of a genuine truth-seeker.

From the beginning of his scientific career, Bohm placed more faith in intuition as a way of arriving at solutions than in the more common way of mathematics. When he arrived at Caltech in 1939, he found the campus disturbingly different from what he had expected. He encountered a world of competition that left little room for creative thinking and real physics. Peat writes that Bohm's roommate "believed that Caltech students learned physics through the act of problem-solving itself. But for Bohm, understanding always involved probing deeper and deeper into underlying assumptions" (p. 34). By this time, Bohm was accustomed to regarding all phenomena as flowing from a deeper level of existence and periodically withdrawing into that same unknown world. He showed familiarity with the Hermetic axiom: as above, so below.

He also believed that by paying attention to his own feelings and intuitions, he should be able to arrive at a deeper understanding of the nature of the universe of which he was part. He saw the universe as infinite and ineffable; he developed a vision of an infinite number of hierarchies within hierarchies, which made up what he called the implicate order. He found confirmation of his mystic vision on television in the 1960s, when he saw a device made of two concentric glass cylinders, the space between them filled with colorless glycerin. The experimenter put a drop of ink in the glycerin, and then turned the outer cylinder. As a result, the droplet was drawn out into a thread, which gradually became thinner and thinner until it vanished completely; the ink had disappeared but still existed in the glycerin. When the cylinder was turned in the opposite direction, the ink reappeared from its enfolded, hidden existence. Bohm realized that there was no disorder or chaos, but, rather, a hidden order.

Bohm's profound concern was the foundations of physics and quantum theory; he did not shy away from taboos and stick to the safety of accepted science, as so many scientists did and still do. As a result, he did not have an easy career. On many occasions he found himself neglected; he published several books that to his disappointment were often ignored by colleagues. Nor did he become a Nobel laureate, though he was a worthy candidate. Bohm also suffered great distress when forced by McCarthyism to leave his home country in the early '50s on account of the Marxist views he held at that time. He found refuge in Brazil, but had a hard time far away from home without friends and colleagues, and was subject to bouts of depression. He again found himself threatened, this time by a group of Nazi sympathizers who tried to scare him off the campus. The situation became so serious that the head of the faculty called for the assistance of a good friend of Bohm's: Albert Einstein. Einstein wrote a letter intended for publication to the Governor of the State of Sao Paulo:

[Bohm] has become deeply interested in the following questions. Is it really necessary to assume that the processes in the molecular domain are governed by chance? Is it not possible to explain the present theory in such a way as to indicate that everything should proceed by necessity, so that chance is, in principle, eliminated. . . . 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. -- p. 148

Later, when living and working in Britain, Bohm suggested to his students that they experiment with a new language that consisted only of verbs, which he called the rheomode, in an effort to do justice to the transcendental nature of the world. He recognized that our earliest perceptions of the world are of transformation and flow, but that something happens to us by the time we reach adulthood; in his opinion, the culprit was language. Bohm's ideas on the rheomode are fascinating, but the response from many professional linguists was discouraging. However, in the last year of his life, he met with a group of Native Americans (Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Ojibwa, Micmaq, and Soto), and was struck by their strongly verb-based languages and their "process-based vision of the world."

In the 1970s Bohm met Krishnamurti and became involved in his movement. They had many discussions, and Bohm became trustee of one of his schools. However, his confidence in Krishnamurti was dented after the latter's death, when it emerged that, although he advocated celibacy, he had kept a mistress who had several abortions. These revelations contributed to the mental crisis Bohm was passing through at that time.

In the 1980s David Bohm and his wife, Saral, came in contact with the Dalai Lama, and they had several discussions. The Dalai Lama once joked that Bohm had become his physics teacher, although "when the lesson is over I forget everything" (p. 300). On one occasion, David Bohm fell ill and the Dalai Lama sent for his personal physician, who diagnosed Bohm's blood as too thick. The doctor said he would send to Dharamsala, India, for medication, but the Dalai Lama insisted that the treatment should begin immediately, and gave Bohm some special tablets to take. On another occasion he sent his personal physician to examine Bohm at his home in London.

David Bohm died in a taxi as he was being driven home from work. He had just been putting the finishing touches to a book on quantum physics, co-authored with his collaborator Basil Hiley. This book --The Undivided Universe (1993) -- marks the culmination of Bohm's life-long effort to develop an alternative interpretation of quantum physics, one which rejects the role of chance, and instead posits the existence of subtler forces acting from hidden, implicate levels of reality, in order to explain the sometimes puzzling behavior of the subatomic world. (2)

Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm is an inspiring book, well documented and illustrated. It presents a compelling picture of a great scientist, a man who dared to question orthodoxy and to introduce new and radical ideas into science, but who suffered neglect and misunderstanding, as so many truly great men have.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press)

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    1. David Peat, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1997; 360 pages, ISBN 0-201-40635-7, cloth, $25.00. (return to text)

    2. See "David Bohm and the Implicate Order," by David Pratt, Sunrise, February-March 1993. (return to text)