My wife and I are reading a book about physics in the early 1900s. It’s half history of science and half biography of some of the most famous physicists, and it’s good fun. But it got me thinking about the state of physics 120 years ago.
What we’d now call classical mechanics was fully settled for quite a while, and even the mysterious electricity and magnetism had been recently put to rest by Maxwell and Heaviside. It seemed like there was nothing left to explain for a while. And then all the doors broke wide open.
As much as I personally like Einstein’s relativity work, I’d say the most revolutionary change in perspective, and driver of the most research in the intervening century, was quantum mechanics. And how did it all start? In the strangest of ways – with Niels Bohr worrying about why hydrogen and helium gasses gave off particular colors when ionized, which lead to his model of the atom and the idea of energy in quantum packets. Or maybe it was De Broglie’s idea that electrons could behave like waves or magnets, from slit and cathode-ray experiments respectively, that lead to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
Either way, the birth of the strangest and most profound physics revolution – quantum mechanics – came from answering some ridiculously simple and straightforward questions. Why does helium emit pink, and how do TVs work? (I know, they didn’t have TVs yet…) Nobody looking at these phenomena, apart or together, could have thought that answering them would have required a complete re-thinking of how we think about reality. And yet it did.
I can’t help but wonder if there are, in addition to the multi-bazillion dollar projects like the Large Hadron Collider or the James Webb Space Telescope, some simpler phenomena out there that we should be asking “why?” about. Are we in a similar quiet before the storm? Or is it really true that the way to keep pushing back the boundaries of our ignorance is through these mega-projects?