Sunday, August 08, 2010

Who ARE these guys?

When nature has work to be done, she creates a genius to do it. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the items in today's news was about the latest inductees into the football hall of fame. When the inductees were announced a few days ago, it set in motion one of those trains of thought that I have which run off in very different directions from the originating idea or news. For some reason, this train led to from hall of fame players to all-stars to a memory of a photograph reprinted in Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson, which I read some time ago.

The picture is a group photo taken at the Solvay Conference in 1927. Now, group photos taken over 70 years ago generally only have a little curiosity or nostalgia value. This one knocked my socks off. In fact, this one will knock the socks off of anyone who has ever taken a physics course. This snap is the All-Time All-Stars-Hall-of-Fame of Physics.

Take a look at that fuzzy old image. Of course, in the center of the first row, even the most casual follower of things scientific will recognize Albert Einstein. But he is surrounded by a group of scientists whose work has led, for good or for ill, to the world we live in today. For the Solvay Conference of 1927 was called to discuss a crazy new idea: Quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics, of course, had been around for some years, kick-started in part by Einstein's paper on the photo-electric effect. But things were heating up, and a lot of ideas were being thrown around. Not only that, but Einstein himself made no secret of his distaste for quantum theory. So, at this conference, he was able to go toe-to-toe with quantum theory's heavy hitters. And what a bunch of hitters it was. At this one gathering, we find:

Max Planck, who some consider as the father of quantum theory;
Marie Curie, a two-time Nobel winner, who discovered the nature of radioactivity;
Neils Bohr, developer of the Copenhagen model of the structure of the atom.

That wold be impressive enough, but you also have:

Werner Heisenberg, creator of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, a fundamental theory of quantum mechanics;
Wolfgang Pauli, creator of the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which is a foundation of modern chemistry;
Erwin Schroedinger, creator of the Schoedinger Wave Equation, that defines the quantum probability function.

We're just getting started:

Paul Dirac, whose equations predicted the existence of anti-matter;
Hendrik Lorentz, whose equations would be used by Einstein in explaining the dimensional contraction in the direction of motion as velocity increases;
Louie deBroglie, who created wave mechanics, underpinning the wave-particle duality of matter.

Oh, and just for grins:

Sir William Bragg, father of x-ray diffraction crystalography;
C.T.R Wilson, creator of the cloud chamber, the distance ancestor of the modern particle colliders.

And that's just the names that are immediately recognizable.

There has probably never been a greater collection of minds in one place in the history of the planet. It's hard to understand what was going on in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that should generate so many minds of this caliber.

The other day, I saw an article where some current "geniuses" had determined there might be a loophole in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, based on some arcane mathematical model. Another couple of geniuses decided the the Pauli Exclusion Principle could be violated, based on their mathematical model (of course, it would take a time period longer than the universe has existed, but, it could happen).

This is what passes for discovery these days: Trying to prove tried-and-true theories wrong. It can pretty much be guaranteed that these "models' will gather dust on the same shelves where all the attempts to disprove Einstein's theories rest.

We've been pretty short of genius in the last 40 years. It's not that there aren't smart people around: Hawking, Thorne, and Guth ain't dummies. But, physics is bogged down in dark this-and-that (the proportion of the universe made up of dark matter and dark energy changes monthly) and string theory (the incredibly complex pile of mathematics that has yet to actually predict anything). In addition, physicists seem to be totally dependent on the LHC finding the Higgs Boson, without which they'll have lost one of the few new ideas in the last 30 years.

Perhaps it's the data overload. Experimentalists and observationalists have provided so much information that the theorists are overwhelmed. Orbiting observatories and particle colliders have gathered so much information, it sometimes takes years for someone to notice some wonderfully interesting data point.

Maybe that's the difference between Einstein, Planck, Bohr,, and the modern theorists. The new guys wait for something to fall out of the data. Often it seems modern sicientists are taking one observations and running all over the place with it, only to find that the observation isn't ever repeated.

In those olden days, they did the thinking first and then suggested the experiments. Now they do experiments and try to do thinking that will fit an observation or two. Worse, today they create computer models that generate an effect that may or may not actually be observable and crank out a theory to fit the model.

Maybe back then they put the cart and the horse in the right order.