James Clerk Maxwell, whose theory of electromagnetism occupies the same physics pedestal as Newton’s theory of gravity, was by all accounts a good-humored and generous man, and a fairly confusing lecturer. Here is a story about Maxwell (admitted to be apocryphal in the math notes that recount it) that suggests something of his character:
Maxwell was lecturing and, seeing a student dozing off, awakened him, asking, “Young man, what is electricity?” “I’m terribly sorry, sir,” the student replied, “I knew the answer but I have forgotten it.” Maxwell’s response to the class was, “Gentlemen, you have just witnessed the greatest tragedy in the history of science. The one person who knew what electricity is has forgotten it.”
This anecdote—this joke—is improved for those who know Maxwell as the preeminent early theorist of electricity. After all, if Maxwell didn’t know how to define electricity, what hope was there for his students?
At risk of over-explaining it, this anecdote gestures toward a piece of insider knowledge. You don’t need to know everything to construct a mathematical theory, and mathematical theories can be more robust than the systems they have been constructed to describe. As I’ve written elsewhere, mathematical techniques that are useful in one area of science tend to be useful in in other areas, not as an exception, but as a rule. Read more »
Progress in science often happens when two or more fields productively meet. Astrophysics got a huge boost when the tools of radio and radar met the age-old science of astronomy. From this fruitful marriage came things like the discovery of the radiation from the big bang. Another example was the union of biology with chemistry and quantum mechanics that gave rise to molecular biology. There is little doubt that some of the most important future discoveries in science in the future will similarly arise from the accidental fusion of multiple disciplines.
One such fusion sits on the horizon, largely underappreciated and unseen by the public. It is the fusion between physics, computer science and biology. More specifically, this fusion will likely see its greatest manifestation in the interplay between information theory, thermodynamics and neuroscience. My prediction is that this fusion will be every bit as important as any potential fusion of general relativity with quantum theory, and at least as important as the development of molecular biology in the mid 20th century. I also believe that this development will likely happen during my own lifetime.
The roots of this predicted marriage go back to 1867. In that year the great Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell proposed a thought experiment that was later called ‘Maxwell’s Demon’. Maxwell’s Demon was purportedly a way to defy the second law of thermodynamics that had been proposed a few years earlier. The second law of thermodynamics is one of the fundamental laws governing everything in the universe, from the birth of stars to the birth of babies. It basically states that left to itself, an isolated system will tend to go from a state of order to one of disorder. A good example is how a bottle of perfume wafts throughout a room with time. This order and disorder was quantified by a quantity called entropy. Read more »
In November 1918, a 17-year-student from Rome sat for the entrance examination of the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy’s most prestigious science institution. Students applying to the institute had to write an essay on a topic that the examiners picked. The topics were usually quite general, so the students had considerable leeway. Most students wrote about well-known subjects that they had already learnt about in high school. But this student was different. The title of the topic he had been given was “Characteristics of Sound”, and instead of stating basic facts about sound, he “set forth the partial differential equation of a vibrating rod and solved it using Fourier analysis, finding the eigenvalues and eigenfrequencies. The entire essay continued on this level which would have been creditable for a doctoral examination.” The man writing these words was the 17-year-old’s future student, friend and Nobel laureate, Emilio Segre. The student was Enrico Fermi. The examiner was so startled by the originality and sophistication of Fermi’s analysis that he broke precedent and invited the boy to meet him in his office, partly to make sure that the essay had not been plagiarized. After convincing himself that Enrico had done the work himself, the examiner congratulated him and predicted that he would become an important scientist.
Twenty five years later Fermi was indeed an important scientist, so important in fact that J. Robert Oppenheimer had created an entire division called F-Division under his name at Los Alamos, New Mexico to harness his unique talents for the Manhattan Project. By that time the Italian emigre was the world’s foremost nuclear physicist as well as perhaps the only universalist in physics – in the words of a recent admiring biographer, “the last man who knew everything”. He had led the creation of the world’s first nuclear reactor in a squash court at the University of Chicago in 1942 and had won a Nobel Prize in 1938 for his work on using neutrons to breed new elements, laying the foundations of the atomic age. Read more »
There is a sense in certain quarters that both experimental and theoretical fundamental physics are at an impasse. Other branches of physics like condensed matter physics and fluid dynamics are thriving, but since the composition and existence of the fundamental basis of matter, the origins of the universe and the unity of quantum mechanics with general relativity have long since been held to be foundational matters in physics, this lack of progress rightly bothers its practitioners.
Each of these two aspects of physics faces its own problems. Experimental physics is in trouble because it now relies on energies that cannot be reached even by the biggest particle accelerators around, and building new accelerators will require billions of dollars at a minimum. Even before it was difficult to get this kind of money; in the 1990s the Superconducting Supercollider, an accelerator which would have cost about $2 billion and reached energies greater than those reached by the Large Hadron Collider, was shelved because of a lack of consensus among physicists, political foot dragging and budget concerns. The next particle accelerator which is projected to cost $10 billion is seen as a bad investment by some, especially since previous expensive experiments in physics have confirmed prior theoretical foundations rather than discovered new phenomena or particles.
Fundamental theoretical physics is in trouble because it has become unfalsifiable, divorced from experiment and entangled in mathematical complexities. String theory which was thought to be the most promising approach to unifying quantum mechanics and general relativity has come under particular scrutiny, and its lack of falsifiable predictive power has become so visible that some philosophers have suggested that traditional criteria for a theory’s success like falsification should no longer be applied to string theory. Not surprisingly, many scientists as well as philosophers have frowned on this proposed novel, postmodern model of scientific validation.Read more »
A rare and happy coincidence today: The birthdays of both John Archibald Wheeler and Oliver Sacks. Wheeler was one of the most prominent physicists of the twentieth century. Sacks was one of the most prominent medical writers of his time. Both of them were great explorers, the first of the universe beyond and the second of the universe within.
What made both men special, however, was that they transcended mere accomplishment in the traditional genres that they worked in, and in that process they stand as role models for an age that seems so fractured. Wheeler the physicist was also Wheeler the poet and Wheeler the philosopher. Throughout his life he transmitted startling new ideas through eloquent prose that was too radical for academic journals. Most of his important writings made their way to us through talks and books. Sacks the neurologist was far more than a neurologist, and Sacks the writer was much more than a writer. Both Wheeler and Sacks had a transcendent view of humanity and the universe, a view that is well worth taking to heart in our own self-centered times.
Their backgrounds shaped their views and their destiny. John Wheeler grew up in an age when physics was transforming our view of the universe. While he was too young to participate in the genesis of the twin revolutions of relativity and quantum mechanics, he came on stage at the right time to fully implement the revolution in the burgeoning fields of particle and nuclear physics. Read more »
The sun was setting on a cloudless sky, the gulls screeching in the distance. The air was bracing and clear. Land rose from the blue ocean, a vague apparition on the horizon.
He breathed the elixir of pure evening air in and heaved a sigh of relief. This would help the godforsaken hay fever which had plagued him like a demon for the last four days. It had necessitated a trip away from the mainland to this tiny outcrop of flaming red rock out in the North Sea. Here he could be free not just of the hay fever but of his mentor, Niels Bohr. Perched on the rock, he looked out into the blue expanse.
For the last several months, Bohr had followed him like a shadow, an affliction that seemed almost as bad as the hay fever. It had all started about a year earlier, but really, it started when he was a child. His father, an erudite scholar but unsparing disciplinarian, made his brother and him compete mercilessly with each other. Even now he was not on the best terms with his brother, but the cutthroat competition produced at least one happy outcome: a passion for mathematics and physics that continued to provide him with intense pleasure.
He remembered those war torn years when Germany seemed to be on the brink of collapse, when one revolution after another threatened to tear apart the fabric of society. Physics was the one refuge. It sustained him then, and it promised to sustain him now.
If only he could understand what Bohr wanted. Bohr was not his first mentor. That place of pride belonged to Arnold Sommerfeld in Munich. Sommerfeld, the man with the impeccably waxed mustache who his friend Pauli called a Hussar officer. Sommerfeld, who would immerse his students not only in the latest physics but in his own home, where discussions went on late into the night. Discussions in which physics, politics and philosophy co-existed. His own father was often distant; Sommerfeld was the father figure in his life. It was also in Sommerfeld’s classes that he met his first real friend – Wolfgang Pauli. Pauli was still having trouble attending classes in the morning when there were all those clubs and parties to frequent at night. He always enjoyed long discussions with Pauli, the ones during which his friend often complimented him by telling him he was not completely stupid. It was Pauli who had steered him away from relativity and toward the most exciting new field in physics – quantum theory.