Final Issue: For a new generation of physicists, change was unwelcome

This piece was written for Egypt Independent’s final weekly print edition, which was banned from going to press. We offer you our 50th and final edition here.

The events depicted in this article are inspired by various real-life accounts and herein are recounted to examine the hypothesis that the young would be better off if they listened to their elders.

At the age of 16, Max Planck, the Nobel laureate in physics in 1918, decided to set aside his pursuit of music and start studying physics. He asked professor Philipp von Jolly at Munich University for advice but the professor’s response was disappointing.

Von Jolly told him not to study the subject, arguing that nothing remained to be discovered. Despite some depression provoked by his professor’s words, Planck studied physics, resigned to the fact that he wouldn’t be discovering anything new but satisfied with examining the basics of the science.

That was the spirit controlling many physicists by the end of the 19th century. Many believed they had discovered everything there was to discover and all universal phenomena could by explained through one of the three branches of the sciences: classical mechanics, electromagnetism and thermodynamics.

Physicists of that age, along with their colossal egos, killed new ideas, under the belief that they couldn’t possibly be true. Nature, however, was stronger.

By end of the 19th century, nature couldn’t bottle in all of its anger against the hubris of physicists, who believed they understood all of its laws, anymore.

A message in the form of black body radiation was sent their way. The phenomenon describes the emission of radiation from black bodies, which have the ability to absorb any radiation they are exposed to without reflecting it.

At laboratories, results referred to changes in the intensity of radiation emitted by black bodies, which were different from results found by equations explaining the same relationship. This represented a crisis of sorts between the worlds of experimental and theoretical physics.

Scientists occupied themselves for a long time with the possible reasons for the difference. Planck reconsidered the equations until he arrived at one that could explain black body radiation properly. Reaching the equation was a shock for him and other scientists, many of whom called his work a “mathematical fiction.”

But Planck’s theory opened the door for reconsidering energy and radiation. Scientists then believed energy could acquire any value. The new theory proposed that energy should take specific values.

A war of words soon erupted, as Planck’s theory, if proved correct, would destroy the idea that physicists could explain all physical phenomena. It would also open the door for reconsidering the basics of physics.

The elders of the field told their younger brethren, “You’re playing about with mathematics. We shall find in our physics the true explanation for this phenomenon.” And, so, the 19th century ended in controversy, with the old physics being threatened by a newer, more open-minded version.

Over the 20th century, the notion that “physics is finished” was destroyed, as Albert Einstein explained another physical phenomenon. His use of the principle of energy quantum by Planck opened the door for new methods of understanding the subject and ushered in the “new physics” revolution.

These developments ushered in a new scientific age, the effects of which can be seen now in smartphones, laptops and iPads.

Imagine, then, if Planck had listened to von Jolly’s advice and abandoned physics. Imagine if Einstein had surrendered to the same generational conflict. We might still be living in the era of steam trains and carrier pigeons.

This piece was translated from Arabic by Nehal Mustafa.

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