Monday, 2 August 2010

Lessons for today from the Golden Age of Physics

Norman Lewis posted this insightful piece at which I'm taking the liberity of reprinting here:

The call this week by Lord Browne, the former BP chief executive, for a sweeping review of the UK’s £4bn-a-year science budget to emphasise projects with the potential to bring short-term industrial benefits, has sparked a fury amongst scientists. (See ‘Common room clashes with boardroom on science budget’, Financial Times. This is precisely what we warned against in the Big Potatoes Manifesto where we argue in principle 4 ‘For Useless Research’ that research remains the bedrock upon which the flow of innovation ultimately depends – a bedrock that is increasingly being questioned and undermined in our short-termist recessionary times.

Lord Browne’s instrumentalism certainly makes re-stressing this point timely and urgent. But the correctness of this fundamental research proposition was forcibly driven home to me during my recent holiday when I had the luxury and sheer delight of reading Manjit Kumar’s tour de force Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality .

This is an absolute must for all those supporters of Big Potatoes. It describes in a remarkably entertaining and accessible fashion, the history of science’s fundamental revolution – quantum physics and mechanics – and the remarkable intellectual battle between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr and other brilliant young scientists who were at the heart of this inspiring story.

More importantly, it reveals some critical insights into the processes and interactions that led to a scientific revolution which gave rise to the innovations we now take for granted: the transistor, the computer, the World Wide Web, the communications revolution.

Kumar shows that when these great physicists formulated quantum mechanics from 1900 to 1930, they were trying to understand the fundamental laws of the universe, not invent something of great economic importance. Their quest was the sheer beauty of solving some of the most baffling and abstract theoretical questions. The implications of their quest were so far-reaching it impacted almost everything, transforming sister disciplines like chemistry, for example. Today, all chemists and material scientists are trained extensively in quantum mechanics. Biologists like Francis Crick, who won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of DNA, realized many years ago that the laws of physics and quantum mechanics ultimately govern even biology.

Quantum mechanics is necessary to engineer solid-state devices such as transistors, which are the building blocks of electronics and computers. Understanding semiconductors (the building blocks of transistors), or any material cannot be fully grasped with classical physics alone (i.e. physics known before the discoveries of quantum mechanics and relativity). Without quantum mechanics, the “information age” (and much of modern science) would not exist today. The inventions of the computer, the transistor, the World Wide Web and the laser used in fibre optics, (the basis for a global telecommunications industry) owe their existence to quantum mechanics and are worth trillions of dollars.

But to stress this point again, these were unexpected outcomes. The pursuit was science, the quest for purity and the beauty of an unassailable proof – and a closer approximation of reality.

There were three things about the book that really caught my attention, which are so germane to the debate we have started with the Big Potatoes Manifesto:

Kumar relates the story about Max Planck, the father of Quantum who at the age of sixteen enrolled at Munich University to study physics because of his burgeoning desire to understand the working of nature. Planck spent three years at Munich which were to have a big impact on him, mainly because he was advised to give up physics as ‘it is hardly worth studying physics anymore’ because there was nothing important left to discover. Planck went on to become the father of quantum mechanics because, as he discovered, there was certainly a lot more to discover about how the world works. Planck reacted against the narrowness and conservatism of his peers. He defied the attitude, which we seem to accept today, that mankind had somehow reached the limits to knowledge. Instead his openness and willingness to question existing orthodoxy unleashed a scientific revolution, the creation of new knowledge and ultimately, the development of remarkable innovations that changed life in the 20th century.

The second striking point Kumar brings out in his examination of the interaction of this extraordinary group of scientists was their willingness to engage each other as professionals in a common quest for truth. First, what united them was a belief in objective truth. Second, that despite different opinions (and often bitterly at odds) they were nevertheless united as pioneers committed to something greater than themselves.

This is illustrated by the example of Max Planck’s endorsement of Einstein for membership of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1913 despite fundamentally disagreeing with his position on light-quanta. Planck’s proposal contained the following paragraph: ‘In sum, it can be said that among the important problems, which are so abundant in modern physics, there is hardly one in which Einstein did not take a position in a remarkable manner. That he might sometimes have overshot the target in his speculations, as for example in his light-quantum hypothesis, should not be counted against him too much. Because without taking a risk from time to time it is impossible, even in the most exact natural sciences, to introduce real innovations’ (p52)

Not only do we see a remarkable willingness to recommend a fellow scientist despite disagreeing with him but the clear connection between disagreements and risk as critical to scientific advance.

What a stark contrast with today where contestation is regarded as a religious infraction against ‘truth’ (as in the ‘Climategate’ debacle) and where risk is consciously prevented by concentration on what we already know or what Lord Browne thinks can be safely developed. Planck reveals what science is really about in contrast with today’s instrumentalism and manufacture.

The third and final striking point in the book is the nobility of the young scientists involved in this rich period of scientific discovery. For them, as in the example of Ernest Rutherford, exploiting their research for financial gain was seen as a distraction from the really important goal of making a scientific reputation for themselves. Rutherford who had started working on the detection of ‘wireless’ waves (radio waves) chose instead to pursue his academic passion (in contrast to others working in this field like the Italian Guglielmo Marconi who amassed a fortune).

This is not to suggest that exploiting scientific discoveries were wrong or that the people who did were somehow flawed. Far from it. It highlights how the pursuit of science requires those types of individuals who regard it as a noble calling and are given the freedom to pursue it regardless of measurable outcomes (as we would have it in today’s crude management-speak). Kumar reveals how the young men at the centre of the quantum revolution were driven not only by their own self- belief (and no doubt, huge egos), but also by the pursuit of something greater than material wealth – a belief in scientific and human progress.

Of course that is precisely what is being questioned today, which is why the media concentrates its attention on the exploiters of science rather that present-day pioneers. So the founders of Google are feted for creating Google whereas in the past we would be looking for the scientific contribution they might have made towards humanity’s body of knowledge. Today we celebrate exploitation rather than the wonder of science underpinning these achievements.

The question this raises is how we will ever create a culture that places greater value in the pursuit of knowledge rather than on its results?

As the world discovered through Max Planck, everything had not been explained. Kumar’s book is a great reminder that there is no such thing as natural limits and that the worst dimension of a culture of limits is that it constrains the thing we have an abundance – human ingenuity, perseverance and the noble ability to rise above petty egos, jealousies and parochialism to benefit humanity as a whole.

Kumar’s book is definitely Big Potatoes and should be read widely.

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