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 »
What makes a revolutionary scientific or technological breakthrough by an individual, an organization or even a country possible? In his thought provoking book “Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases and Transform Industries”, physicist and biotechnology entrepreneur Safi Bahcall dwells on the ideas, dynamics and human factors that have enabled a select few organizations and nations in history to rise above the fray and make contributions of lasting impact to modern society. Bahcall calls such seminal, unintuitive, sometimes vehemently opposed ideas “Loonshots”. Loonshots is a play on “moonshots” because the people who come up with these ideas are often regarded as crazy or anti-establishment, troublemakers who want to rattle the status quo.
Bahcall focuses on a handful of individuals and companies to illustrate the kind of unconventional, out of the box thinking that makes breakthrough discoveries possible. Among his favorite individuals are Vannevar Bush, Akira Endo and Edwin Land, and among his favorite organizations are Bell Labs and American Airlines. Each of these individuals or organizations possessed the kind of hardy spirit that’s necessary to till their own field, often against the advice of their peers and superiors. Each possessed the imagination to figure out how to think unconventionally or orthogonal to the conventional wisdom. And each courageously pushed ahead with their ideas, even in the face of contradictory or discouraging data. Read more »
For me, a highlight of an otherwise ill-spent youth was reading mathematician John Casti’s fantastic book “Paradigms Lost“. The book came out in the late 1980s and was gifted to my father who was a professor of economics by an adoring student. Its sheer range and humor had me gripped from the first page. Its format is very unique – Casti presents six “big questions” of science in the form of a courtroom trial, advocating arguments for the prosecution and the defense. He then steps in as jury to come down on one side or another. The big questions Casti examines are multidisciplinary and range from the origin of life to the nature/nurture controversy to extraterrestrial intelligence to, finally, the meaning of reality as seen through the lens of the foundations of quantum theory. Surprisingly, Casti himself comes down on the side of the so-called many worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum theory, and ever since I read “Paradigms Lost” I have been fascinated by this analysis.
So it was with pleasure and interest that I came across Sean Carroll’s book that also comes down on the side of the many worlds interpretation. The MWI goes back to the very invention of quantum theory by pioneering physicists like Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger. As exemplified by Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle, quantum theory signaled a striking break with reality by demonstrating that one can only talk about the world only probabilistically. Contrary to common belief, this does not mean that there is no precision in the predictions of quantum mechanics – it’s in fact the most accurate scientific framework known to science, with theory and experiment agreeing to several decimal places – but rather that there is a natural limit and fuzziness in how accurately we can describe reality. As Bohr put it, “physics does not describe reality; it describes reality as subjected to our measuring instruments and observations.” This is actually a reasonable view – what we see through a microscope and telescope obviously depends on the features of that particular microscope or telescope – but quantum theory went further, showing that the uncertainty in the behavior of the subatomic world is an inherent feature of the natural world, one that doesn’t simply come about because of uncertainty in experimental observations or instrument error. Read more »
On a whim I decided to visit the gently sloping hill where the universe announced itself in 1964, not with a bang but with ambient, annoying noise. It’s the static you saw when you turned on your TV, or at least used to back when analog TVs were a thing. But today there was no noise except for the occasional chirping of birds, the lone car driving off in the distance and a gentle breeze flowing through the trees. A recent trace of rain had brought verdant green colors to the grass. An antelope darted into the undergrowth in the distance.
The town of Holmdel, New Jersey is about thirty miles east of Princeton. In 1964, the venerable Bell Telephone Laboratories had an installation there, on top of this gently sloping hill called Crawford Hill. It was a horn antenna, about as big as a small house, designed to bounce off signals from a communications satellite called Echo which the lab had built a few years ago. Tending to the care and feeding of this piece of electronics and machinery were Arno Penzias – a working-class refuge from Nazism who had grown up in the Garment District of New York – and Robert Wilson; one was a big picture thinker who enjoyed grand puzzles and the other an electronics whiz who could get into the weeds of circuits, mirrors and cables. The duo had been hired to work on ultra-sensitive microwave receivers for radio astronomy.
In a now famous comedy of errors, instead of simply contributing to incremental advances in radio astronomy, Penzias and Wilson ended up observing ripples from the universe’s birth – the cosmic microwave background radiation – by accident. It was a comedy of errors because others had either theorized that such a signal would exist without having the experimental know-how or, like Penzias and Wilson, were unknowingly building equipment to detect it without knowing the theoretical background. Penzias and Wilson puzzled over the ambient noise they were observing in the antenna that seemed to come from all directions, and it was only after clearing away every possible earthly source of noise including pigeon droppings, and after a conversation with a fellow Bell Labs scientist who in turn had had a chance conversation with a Princeton theoretical physicist named Robert Dicke, that Penzias and Wilson realized that they might have hit on something bigger. Dicke himself had already theorized the existence of such whispers from the past and had started building his own antenna with his student Jim Peebles; after Penzias and Wilson contacted him, he realized he and Peebles had been scooped by a few weeks or months. In 1978 Penzias and Wilson won the Nobel Prize; Dicke was among a string of theorists and experimentalists who got left out. As it turned out, Penzias and Wilson’s Nobel Prize marked the high point of what was one of the greatest, quintessentially American research institutions in history.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.