By Ben Hoffman
2005 marks the one hundredth year since Albert Einstein took our collective breaths away by publishing three papers that revolutionized physics, the then stagnant branch of science. Fear had previously been descending that Sir Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell had perfectly stated everything there was to know about physical reality, that with a regimented dose of kinematics and electrodynamics, any soluble question could be answered.
The long and short of it is that we were completely wrong. We know now that if Newtonian mechanics governed small particle interactions, there could be no such thing as chemistry, that if light were a simple wave, like Maxwell said, atoms could not interact. Einstein started us on the path to seeing all this, and so much more.
Einstein–the name is etched into our collective unconscious. Arguably the most lovable thing physics ever spawned, the man was not only a genius, but he was a humanitarian and oh-so-quotable. It is challenging to find a classroom where Einstein’s grinning mug isn’t on a poster delivering a quote about life, learning, or thought–a quanta of inspiration, he might have preferred.
What is not so wonderful is the state of post-Einstein physics. In a world where even our philosophy is telling us to “deconstruct meta-narratives,” physics seems like an ever-increasing- ly esoteric pursuit. Why should we seek black and white in a world that is so frightfully composed of overlapping shades of gray? Physicists still find fascinating truths about the nature of the universe on a near-daily basis, but the state of the public perception of physics has decayed into a stark dichotomy: we either link the somewhat nonsensical findings of modern physics to fruity holistic theories, or dismiss them as unimportant.
So, why physics? If its theories are inaccessible or just plain whimsical, what reason do we have to build devices like the kilometres-wide particle accelerator Large Hadron Collider at the Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire, a device which eats money to produce pictures of little itty-bitty particles smashing into each other? Why should we strive any farther than ScrÃ¶dinger’s equation, which provides a rich and practical theory off which we may base many theories?
These are all difficult questions to answer, and the answers lie outside the realm of public (mis)perceptions of what physics is. It is the words of Keats that best outline why physics continues to thrive despite a poor image: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty–that is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” Physics is nothing more or less than a search for the ink with which our world is written, a search for beautiful truths behind what is immediately visible; and art has shown us time and time again that if something is beautiful it is worth pursuing–even if it is somewhat impractical.
So before you think to wax critical about physics, try to stop and smell the polar flowers: 2005 also marks the U.N.-sanctioned World Year of Physics. We stand here at the threshold of the centennial of the birth of the new physics’ paradigms, those wonderful insights given to us by Einstein that reality is worth looking at not only to answer questions, but also to find beauty. All are invited to join in the festivities; indeed you should visit http://www.wyp2005.org to find out more. Now is the time for a celebration of beauty, a time for all of us to see what physics is truly worth.