Olival Freire Junior: A teller of controversial stories

A historian known for his account of the development of quantum mechanics from the 1950s to the 1990s discusses the important role of dissent for the advancement of scientific knowledge

Olival Freire Junior’s interest in science budded at an early age. During high school in Salvador, Bahia, he became fascinated by mathematics, physics and chemistry and began doing experiments outside the classroom, such as building a small rocket with some of his classmates, a project they were never able to complete. “It took so long to get the guncotton fuel that when the rocket was ready we had to settle for how far we had gotten and move on to other things,” recalls Freire, now a researcher and respected historian of science in Brazil.

His love of the exact sciences led him to pursue an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, the most math- and physics-intensive program at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) in 1972. Two years later, the keen interest he took in physicist Benedito Pepe’s lectures led him to switch from engineering to physics. The cultural activism that he had cultivated since childhood in Jequié, his hometown, and the political situation in the 1970s led Freire to join student activist movements and underground organizations within the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), of which he remains a member, although without engaging actively in party activities.

In 1984 he was arrested for participating in a demonstration against the defeat of a constitutional amendment restoring direct elections for president in Brazil. Eventually realizing he was less than enthusiastic about party politics and holding public office, he gradually steered a new course in life. He applied for a master’s degree at the University of São Paulo (USP) Institute of Physics and, under Amélia Hamburger, devoted himself to investigating a subject that had intrigued him since he earned his bachelor’s degree: the controversial interpretations of quantum mechanics, the theory that describes the behavior of atomic particles.

During his doctoral studies under Brazilian physicist and historian Shozo Motoyama and French physicist and philosopher Michel Paty, Freire delved deeper into the subject and investigated the contributions from American physicist David Bohm—who lived for a short period in Brazil—to interpretations of quantum mechanics. The disputes and controversies that permeated the field between 1950 and 1990 are detailed in his most important book, The Quantum Dissidents, published in 2015 by Springer.

History of physics
Earned a bachelor of science degree in physics in 1978 from the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), and a master’s in physics (1991) and PhD in social history (1995) from the University of São Paulo (USP)
Federal University of Bahia (UFBA)
Approximately 70 scientific articles and three books, among them The Quantum Dissidents. Advised dissertations and theses
Today, Freire again finds himself immersed in the controversies surrounding the foundations of quantum mechanics as he writes a new biography of David Bohm. Toward the end of December, before traveling to the US for a three-year term as (the first South American) council member at the History of Science Society (HSS), the oldest such society in the world, Freire held an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP in his office at the UFBA Office of the Dean of Research, Creation and Innovation. He spoke about Bohm, the quantum dissenters and the importance of dissent for the advancement of science and for an understanding of how science works. Read selected excerpts from the interview below.

What is the current state of the history of science as an undergraduate discipline in Brazil?
I would say it is much less in the mainstream than it should be. It can be difficult to convince scientists about the need to teach science history, but one cannot be thought to have a good cultural foundation without some knowledge about literature, music, and science. The role of the history of science is to demonstrate how science is the product of society and develops in a pattern of advances and retreats, of controversies and disputes, until the products of science eventually crystallize. The history of science can help to humanize science, which is particularly important given the current trend of discrediting the role of science.

Could you elaborate further?
Just look at what has happened in the US. Donald Trump’s administration has treated scientists’ overwhelming evidence that human activity is the primary cause of recent global climate change as a matter for debate. This has led the US to abandon international ​​climate agreements. These conceptions reveal ignorance of how science works. If Trump gets sick, the doctor will not give him a diagnosis the way someone demonstrates a mathematical theorem. There are elements of uncertainty in the diagnosis, but no one would think of dispensing with doctors and treating themselves instead. The same is true of climate change. It is the best conclusion reached by the best science that this civilization has produced. Science tells us, with all the uncertainty inherent to dealing with complex systems, that the anthropogenic factor is what most affects climate change on a global scale. The increasing disbelief in science is also illustrated by the anti-vaccination movement, which has led to a resurgence of previously eradicated diseases in some areas.

Where is the history of science strongest as a discipline?
In the early twentieth century it was particularly strong in Europe. After World War II the US became the new nexus for the history of science as with other disciplines. A former president of Harvard University, chemist James Conant [1893–1978], played an important role in the development of the history of science in the US. He worked on the Manhattan project [which developed the atom bomb] and was the first US ambassador to West Germany after World War II. He was one of Harvard’s most innovative presidents. Conant invited physicist Thomas Kuhn [1922–1996] to lecture on subjects for a more general audience. These lectures led Kuhn to reflect on the nature of science and were the subject matter for The Copernican Revolution and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Conant believed the history of science should be a component in the general education of every American college student.

“The role of the history of science is to show that science develops in a pattern of advances and retreats, of controversy and disputes”

There are currently only a handful of history of science groups in Brazil.
Exactly. When USP was founded in 1934, its founders were influential in advancing the history of science as a field of study. The History and Development of Physics was included as a course in the university’s physics program as in the European model, which attached importance to learning about the history of a discipline and receiving training in the philosophy of science. In the 1950s, sociologist and educator Fernando de Azevedo [1894–1974] organized the two volumes of As ciências no Brasil [Science in Brazil], published in 1956, both of which placed the history of science center stage. Another important development at USP was led by lawyer and historian Eurípedes Simões de Paula [1910–1977]. During the university reform in the late 1960s, he championed the decision to have a chair for the history of science at USP, which was first held by Shozo Motoyama and later by Maria Amelia Mascarenhas Dantes. They had both been students under physicist and art critic Mario Schenberg [1914–1990] at the USP Institute of Physics. 1983 saw the creation of the Brazilian Society for the History of Science. Other groups would soon follow in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in the 1980s. Chemist Simão Mathias [1908–1991] supported the creation of a group that is now based at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo [PUC–SP] and headed by physicist and historian Ana Maria Goldfarb. In Rio, a key figure was Carlos Chagas Filho. Interestingly, during Brazil’s redemocratization in 1985, a document by Chagas, Simão Mathias, and Schenberg supported the newly created Ministry of Science and Technology [now the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communications, MCTIC] in creating an institution dedicated to the history of science, the Museum of Astronomy and Related Sciences [MAST].

How has the field evolved?
We have picked up good momentum. In the last ten years I would say the field has reached a certain level of maturity. In July 2017, Rio de Janeiro hosted the International Congress of History of Science, the foremost event in the field, for the first time in the Southern Hemisphere. The future president of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology will be a researcher from Rio, Marcos Cueto of Casa de Oswaldo Cruz at Oswaldo Cruz Foundation [COC-FIOCRUZ]. We have graduate programs in the history of science at USP, PUC and UNICAMP, in São Paulo, and at COC-FIOCRUZ, MAST and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, in Rio. There’s a program at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, ours at UFBA and another at the Federal University of Santa Catarina.

History has a way of creating superhuman characters. Is it the same with the history of science?
More so than you might imagine. For example, physics has in Galileo [1564–1642] a myth. Every young physicist believes Galileo was right in everything and Aristotle, his antipodean, always wrong. I enjoy challenging students’ preconceptions because I think they learn from it. An essential part of my Introduction to the Copernican Revolution is dedicated to demonstrating that Aristotelian physics and cosmology made sense at that time and were internally coherent. Galileo played a crucial role in the development of science, but he also advanced arguments that did not stand the test of time. Newton is an example of a complex character—a genius in physics and mathematics, but with personality and character traits that were less than praiseworthy. Knowing this, we learn that the best science, done by the best minds, has traits in common with humanity.

What other prejudices does science reinforce?
In the scientific community there seems to be a notion that science is done by white, male geniuses. Science ultimately reflects society’s long-held prejudices. And while there are now efforts to increase women’s participation in science, they will only come if they are made to feel welcome. And that includes celebrating both notable women scientists, such as Marie Curie [1867–1934], and those who have not gained deserved visibility, such as the black women who did calculations at NASA and were portrayed in the recent movie Hidden Figures. Contributions from African descendants, both in the US and Brazil, have tended somewhat to be erased from memory. Few Brazilians know that one of our greatest psychiatrists, Juliano Moreira [1873–1932], who introduced Freud’s theories in Brazil, was a black descendant of slaves [see page 90]. When we created our graduate program in Teaching, Philosophy, and History of Science at UFBA, mathematician Ubiratan D’Ambrósio said the initiative would, if nothing else, be helpful in showing São Paulo how Rebouças avenue and Teodoro Sampaio street were both named after two black engineers from Bahia. I must have been about 45 years old at the time, but what he told me was entirely new to me. African contributions have a way of becoming invisible.

Freire with French physicist and philosopher Michel Paty, in Salvador, 2005Imagem: Personal archive

What are your research interests today?
I have long had a passion for the history of quantum mechanics and the debates around its foundations. Since earning my degree, I have been intrigued by the realization that quantum mechanics was surrounded by controversy, that Einstein [1879–1955] never took to the theory and that some Soviet scientists had criticized it. I could understand there being controversy between the ideas of Aristotle [384–322 B.C.] and Galileo, but that was a thing of the past. The fact that something as current as quantum mechanics could be beset by controversies piqued my interest, but not so much as to make it a research interest. After I graduated, I attended a lecture by Cesar Lattes [1924–2005] in 1981, in Bahia, in which he claimed he had results demonstrating Einstein’s special relativity had been violated. Lattes was revered as a mythical character by physics students in Brazil, but a short while after another great Brazilian physicist, Jayme Tiomno [1920–2011], showed that Lattes had made a mistake in his calculations. When I decided to pursue a master’s degree, I wanted to study the controversies of science, especially those concerning the foundations of quantum mechanics. I started my master’s in 1988 at USP under Amélia Hamburger [1932–2011]. During my subsequent doctoral studies, I researched the ideas of David Bohm [1917–1992], an American physicist who had spent a number of years working in Brazil. When I completed my PhD, I thought I would never touch the subject again.

Robert Oppenheimer [1904–1967] invited Bohm to work on the Manhattan project, didn’t he?
David Bohm was considered one of the most promising young physicists in the United States. But because of his communist convictions, he was driven out of the country by McCarthyist hysteria. While he was not included in the Manhattan project due to political restrictions, his work was used toward developing the atomic bomb. When, on one of my first trips to the US, historian Paul Forman asked me if Bohm had been a Trotskyist, I startled in surprise at the notion and said no. He was an orthodox Communist. What prompted Forman to suspect of Trotskyism was the fact that in physics Bohm had challenged orthodoxy. It was clear to me that Bohm was heterodox in quantum theory and orthodox in politics. I left the conversation determined to write about it in English and, around 2002, I began to publish a series of articles on the controversy over the foundations of quantum theory. These were later compiled and better articulated in The Quantum Dissidents, published in English only [see Pesquisa FAPESP, issue No. 233].

I understand Bohm spent a few years at USP, where he is said not to have been very productive.
He lived in Brazil from 1951 to 1955. Amélia Hamburger and her husband, Ernst, were well connected in the US and at one point she was shown a master’s thesis by a young historian named Shawn Mullet. What Mullet wrote made Hamburger furious. He said Bohm had not done much science during his stay in Brazil “because science could not be done in a vacuum.” What he said was as prejudiced as could be. We responded to the provocation in an article published in 2005 in Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences. We showed that an important part of the controversy over quantum fundamentals developed while he was in Brazil.

Has quantum mechanics generated controversy since inception?
Between 1925 and 1927 there were those who adopted a causal interpretation, such as the French physicist Louis De Broglie [1892–1987] and Einstein himself. In 1927 they all threw in the towel. De Broglie returned to France more or less a convert to Niels Bohr’s [1885–1962] so-called complementarity principle. Einstein remained a holdout, but most scientists thought it was because of his age. Unaware of previous work by De Broglie, David Bohm took the same clues the French physicist had relied upon, solved what De Broglie had been unable to solve and presented the results in a couple of articles published in Physical Review in 1952 [Bohm revived the idea that quantum theory was strictly causal, i.e. a cause produces an effect, as in classical mechanics, unlike Bohr’s view of quantum mechanics as a probabilistic theory, in which an action has a certain probability of producing a given effect]. This hit the scientific community like a bomb. At the time there was thought to be mathematical proof—Von Neumann’s proof—that such an alternative interpretation was not possible. Bohm presented an alternative interpretation that challenged a mathematical proof and was consistent. Physicist Wolfgang Pauli [1900–1958], one of the great critics of this interpretation, at one point recognized: “It’s consistent, but it’s a check which cannot be cashed.” One could speculate about the future of this interpretation, but not determine it was wrong. When Bohm arrived in Brazil in 1951, he had just written these articles and would publish them the following year.

At a general meeting in the early 1980s; Freire was a representative of Bahia’s university professorsImagem: Personal archive

What happened next?
While Brazil was not the ideal setting for this battle, it would be wrong to say it was infertile for developing ideas. While here, Bohm had the opportunity to debate with a number of leading physicists. In São Paulo, Argentinean physicist Mario Bunge and French physicist Jean-Pierre Vigier [1920–2004] came to work with him. Belgian physicist Léon Rosenfeld [1904–1974], who had been Bohr’s right-hand man and was in England at the time, came to São Paulo to debate with Bohm, who had brought American physicist Ralph Schiller [1926–2016] as his assistant. Many of these scientists were funded by either USP or CNPq. Bohm coauthored articles with Tiomno in which he further developed the causal interpretation. Here he also had in Mario Schenberg a formidable critic of the causal interpretation. The notion that Brazil was a vacuum made little sense. After reading my papers and the criticism from Amélia Hamburger, Mullet eventually changed his mind.

How were the controversies resolved?
The subject was considered a problem more within the realm of philosophy than of physics. After Bohm, a new generation of physicists took up the subject and began to question the ideas proposed by the early founders of quantum mechanics. Experimental developments in the 1980s enabled more sophisticated tests to be performed to evaluate these ideas.

What have the experiments shown?
All the strangeness predicted by quantum theory has been confirmed. The Irish physicist John Bell [1928–1990] once said “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” in a subtle play of words alluding to Danish Bohr’s interpretation and the famous line from Hamlet. Bell’s expectations are yet to be confirmed and quantum mechanics has emerged from these experiments healthier than ever before. On invitation from Springer, I am now writing a biography about Bohm.

What do you intend to write about?
Soon after he died, in 1992, a biography of Bohm, Infinite Potential, was published by his friend, physicist and science writer F. David Peat. Many physicists, however, took issue with its superficial coverage of scientific aspects. In 1998, at a symposium at USP, Basil Hiley, a former assistant of Bohm’s, suggested that I write a biography about him, but at the time I was engrossed in the ideas that I would write about in The Quantum Dissidents. Bohm, one of those dissidents, became known largely for his alternative interpretation to Bohr’s and for establishing dialogue with Eastern thinkers, especially Jiddu Krishnamurti [1895–1986], but he was much bigger than that. He produced a wealth of contributions that make him one of the great physicists of the twentieth century. These include a system of collective coordinates deriving from his work during World War II. He and two students, Eugene Gross [1926–1991] and David Pines, then published three articles in the late 1940s that have been widely cited by other authors. They developed a model that was incorporated in the papers on nuclear physics that earned Aage Bohr—Niels Bohr’s son—Ben Mottelson, and Leo Rainwater the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1975. There is also Bohm’s work with Yakir Aharonov, in which they describe the Aharonov–Bohm effect. I also intend to discuss another aspect that was barely touched upon in Peat’s biography: Bohm lived for almost 30 years as Brazilian citizen, carrying a Brazilian passport. When he arrived in Brazil, the US consulate confiscated his passport and said it would only be returned if he were to return to the US. Bohm feared he would be arrested if he went back. It was at the height of the Cold War. The one place Bohm did not want to go to was the US, but he wanted to travel the world and debate his interpretation of quantum mechanics.

“In the scientific community there seems to be a notion that science is done by white, male geniuses”

How was the problem solved?
Why, the Brazilian way. Bohm had Brazilian friends who were well connected to the political world: José Leite Lopes [1918–2006], Schenberg, João Alberto Lins de Barros [1897–1955]—Getúlio Vargas’ right-hand man—and Admiral Álvaro Alberto [1889–1976]. They arranged for Bohm to acquire Brazilian citizenship in record time—just two or three months. One thing that is not explored in Peat’s book is that the US consulate kept trying to get information about Bohm’s citizenship from the São Paulo police, but unsuccessfully, until eventually the police had no choice but to confirm his status as a Brazilian citizen. US authorities promptly stripped him of his US citizenship and from that point on Bohm lived as a Brazilian citizen. He broke with the communist party following the 1956 invasion of Hungary and news of Stalin’s crimes [1878–1956]. In England, he made plans to return to the US as McCarthyism began to recede. To grant his visa, the US consulate handed him a statement proclaiming he was no longer a communist, which he promptly signed. When they then said he would need to make a public statement, Bohm refused because he did not think it ethical. He was only able to obtain short-term visas to visit the United States, but eventually reclaimed US citizenship, although he made the decision not to go back and live there. For 30 years, on his application forms for grants, he would scratch out “American” and write “Brazilian.”

You spent a number of years in politics. What was your first passion, science or politics?
Science came first. I was already fascinated by mathematics, physics, and chemistry, which was why I chose electrical engineering. I only got involved in politics after I entered university in 1972 because of my own cultural restlessness and because of the student movements. I joined PCdoB in 1973 and remained an active member during my time at the university. My political involvement peaked in Camaçari, a working-class city in which PCdoB had gained a strong presence. With the end of the dictatorship and the introduction of direct elections, Luiz Caetano was elected mayor and I became chief of staff, but left before my term had ended. Around 1986, I realized I was less than enthusiastic about party politics and decided to pursue a master’s degree. At first I divided my time between academic and political activities. I served as president of PCdoB in São Paulo and participated in political campaigns. Gradually I realized that my interest in science was greater. In 2004, I was invited to work at the then Ministry of Science and Technology, but I was about to win a scholarship in the US and declined. In 2010, I was appointed to a post at the Office of the National Council for Science and Technology, or the Conselhão, as it was called. I spent two years there and then decided to leave. Since then my interests have essentially been in the history of science.