Speaker: Fritjof Capra

From Tao of Physics to Systems View of Life

Scientists … are responsible for their research not only intellectually but also morally….[T]he results of quantum mechanics and relativity theory have opened up two very different paths for physicists to pursue. They may lead us—to put it in extreme terms—to the Buddha or to the Bomb, and it is up to each of us to decide which path to take.” -- Fritjof Capra, from The Turning Point

Fritjof Capra, Ph.D., is an Austrian-born American physicist and systems theorist.  He is author of the 1975 best-seller The Tao of Physics, which explored the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism, and how modern physics was changing our mechanistic worldview to a holistic and ecological worldview. Four decades later, The Tao of Physics is still in print in more than 40 editions worldwide.

Recognizing the significance of this emerging worldview for social as well as scientific systems, Capra regards the paradigm shift in modern physics as a precursor to transformation in our cultural and social paradigms as well.  As he said on “Voices” in London in 1984: “For the modern physicist, the material world is no longer a mechanic system made of separate objects, but rather appears as a complex web of relationships that include the human observer and his or her consciousness. There is no material substance in the subatomic world; it’s a world of dynamic patterns, continually changing into one another.”  Over the past three decades, he has been engaged in a systematic exploration of the social and cultural implications of this transformation.

Inspired at age 18 by the book Physics and Philosophy by Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum physics, Capra realized early on that quantum physics implied a whole new worldview. After receiving his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of Vienna in 1966, Capra spent 20 years conducting research in high energy physics at universities in Europe and the U.S. and  teaching. In 1968, after two years in Paris, Capra came to work at the University of California in Santa Cruz, where he encountered the counter-culture hippie movement and became interested in meditation and Eastern philosophy. Almost immediately, he saw the connection between ancient Eastern philosophy and modern physics.

One late summer afternoon, when Capra sat on a Californian beach watching the waves and feeling his breathing, he suddenly became aware of his entire surroundings, the sand, rocks, water, and air, as being engaged in a gigantic cosmic dance. What he learned in high-energy physics through graphs, diagrams, and mathematical theories suddenly came to life, as he “saw” and “heard” the Dance of Shiva. Being trained in detailed analytical thinking, Capra was so overwhelmed by this transformative experiential insight that he burst into tears.

In 1971, when he worked at the Imperial College in London, Capra made a photomontage of particle tracks in bubble chamber with the Dancing Shiva. When he showed it to an Indian physicist in his office, his Indian colleague, who had distanced himself from his Indian tradition in order to study physics, cried at the sight of this profound unifying image. After publishing three articles addressing the connections between Eastern philosophy and modern physics, Capra began to write his first book The Tao of Physics.

Capra’s later books include: The Turning Point (1982), Uncommon Wisdom (1988), The Web of Life (1996), The Hidden Connections (2002), The Science of Leonardo (2007), and Learning from Leonardo (2013). The movie Mindwalk (1990) is loosely based on his book, The Turning Point. All his books connect conceptual changes in science with broader changes in worldview and values in society. In 1991, Capra co-authored Belonging to the Universe with Brother David (David Steindl-Rast), a highly regarded Benedictine monk, to explore parallels between new paradigm thinking in science and in theology, and how these new paradigms offer remarkably compatible views about the universe.

As a young child, Capra had direct contact with nature and learned to farm. Born in 1939 in Vienna, Capra lived on his grandmother’s farm for 10 years when his whole family took refuge in the countryside after World War II. By necessity, his extended family and war refugees found a way to live on the farm self-sufficiently as a community. They grew vegetables, baked bread, and raised animals. He saw women taking sunflower seeds off the sunflowers to make sunflower oil under the lamp light in the evening. Everything was recycled and reused on the farm.

Those early years planted in Capra the seeds of ecological awareness and sense of community. Today, over 60 years later, he can still draw a detailed map of the farm after it was long gone. Knowing deeply the significance of taking children out to nature or school gardens, in 1995, Capra co-founded the Berkeley-based Center for Ecoliteracy, which is dedicated to advancing ecology and systems thinking in primary and secondary education. He co-authored EcoManagement and Green Politics.

Over the past thirty-five years, Capra has given management seminars to top executives in Europe, North and South America, and Japan. Currently, Capra serves on the faculty of the Amana-Key executive education program in São Paulo, Brazil, and is a fellow at Schumacher College, an international center for ecological studies in the UK. He also serves on the council of the Earth Charter Initiative.

His recent book, The Systems View of Life (2014), which he co-authored with Pier Luigi Luisi, Professor of Biology at the University of Rome, explores the new systemic conception of life at the forefront of science and its application in economics, management, politics, design, medicine, and law. It presents a grand new synthesis of Capra’s work—integrating the biological, cognitive, social, and ecological dimensions of life into one unified vision. Several critics have suggested that The Systems View of Life is destined to become another classic.

Capra is now in transition from active research and writing to teaching and sharing knowledge. He no longer gives workshops or seminars, and has reduced his travels and lectures to concentrate fully on Capra Course, his new online course, based on the textbook The Systems View of Life. During the 12 online lectures, participants from around the world join the discussion on systems thinking with Capra. This course is the realization of a dream that Capra had for many years. It will provide the participants the conceptual tools to understand the nature of our systemic problems and to recognize the systemic solutions that are being developed by individuals and organizations around the world. He hopes that Capra Course will serve as a model for similar multidisciplinary courses at universities, colleges, and other institutions of learning.

The alumni of the Capra Course stay connected online and in person around the world, sharing ideas and collaborating on emergent social projects, such as BARRIO SOLAR, a new organization formed in 2017 through the Capra Course alumni network in response to the devastation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

Capra holds deep gratitude for his mother, a poet, who brought literature into his life, and his father, a lawyer by trade and a philosopher at heart, who ushered him to the world of philosophy at an early age.

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