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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Brainiacs Included

"You listen to really smart audiobooks," my wife told me.

I had just finished The Future of the Mind and had started into The Elegant Universe. The chapter on string theory was playing when she used my truck.

"It doesn't mean I understand it," I replied.

I had a chemistry class in college. This was the late 80s. The professor was this stuffy Alfred Hitchcock doppelganger that lectured with authority to an auditorium of 300+ undergraduates. If he caught you talking he'd hold up his piece of chalk and ask with a booming voice, "Do you want to teach? Mmm? Do you?"

And he'd hold that piece of chalk up until all 299 undergrads were staring at the offender. The silence would drag out and then he'd say, one more time, "Do you? Mmm?"

I never talked again.

But this professor taught us that atoms operated like billiard balls, bouncing off each other. And the more energy they had, the faster they collided. Seemed easy enough, until I learned somewhere else that the billiard balls metaphor had been disproved decades ago.

Someone forgot to tell Alfred.

In the 70s and 80s, we learned that protons, neutrons and electrons were the fundamental components that made up reality. Turns out that's not even close. Now there are gluons and quarks and gravitons. In fact, the smallest fundamental particle is debatable, although string theory suggests that the fundamental particles aren't point particles but strings. Tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny tiny strings.

The crazy thing is that the laws of physics operate differently on this tiny ass fundamental scale than they do on the macoscopic, or universal, scale. Einstein's theories didn't apply to the microscopic, one the reasons he didn't buy into quantum mechanics. But physicists continue to create theories that are bridging the differences.

But here's my second level of fascination when listening to brainy audiobooks: physics isn't just for calculators. To most of us, it seems like physicists are nothing more number crunchers with minds that process faster than Deep Blue. But intelligence shouldn't be measured only by one's ability to calculate. Creativity is an essential ingredient, to imagine, to see beyond our constraints, to fearlessly open ourselves to the unknown. Many of Einstein's groundbreaking work started as thought experiments.

That means he dreamed them up.

There are physicists that spend an entire lifetime cooking up theories to explain reality. These theories have to be mathematically sound and, if possible, experimentally verified. If the theory warrants enough attention, it will be dragged through a gauntlet of criticism, of peers poking and prodding and doing everything to tear down their creation. If it's still standing after the last bullet is fired, then maybe--maaaaaaybe--it'll be accepted. In the beginning, Einstein was scalded for casting doubt on Newton's gravitational theory, a theory that had been a cornerstone of physics for hundreds of years.

Turns out Einstein was right.

But that's not always the case. Watch Particle Fever on Netflix. It's a documentary on the Geneva particle collider. You'll see a community of off-the-charts brainiacs behaving like middle America does on a Sunday afternoon. Instead of rooting for touchdowns, they're placing bets on bosons and upquarks and shit that resembles fireworks. The results of these historical experiments could verify theoretical physicists ideas. Or disprove them.

Imagine a lifetime of work, everything you've conceived of, your legacy, proven wrong beyond-a-doubt in one fell swoop of the particle accelerator. There's no consolation prize for 30 years of effort. And yet physicists work this way, a lifetime effort they may never live to see realized. Einstein was still working on theories on his deathbed because creativity exists only in this moment.

Brainiacs included.

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