Friday 24 October 2014

Newton, Einstein and the quest of The Holy Grail

There is a striking analogy between the later years of two of the greatest scientists of the world, Isaac Newton ( 1642-1726 ), and Albert Einstein ( 1879-1955 ). Starting from brilliant scientific discoveries in their younger days, both wasted several decades of the later years of their lives in fruitless, quixotic work, which can only be called the quest of the Holy Grail, i.e. useless endeavours.

Isaac Newton the creator of classical physics, is renowned for his great discoveries of the laws of motion and the law of gravity. In his later years,however, he spent most of his time on alchemy, a pseudo-science, which claimed to know how to transform the base metals into gold, on finding the ' elixir of life ', a substance which can ensure permanent youth and life. and a ' philosopher's stone ', and on occult, which was all humbug.

  Albert Einstein, too, had a similar phase in his life. After his brilliant discovery of the photo-electric effect ( for which he got the Nobel Prize ), the Special Theory of Relativity ( 1906 ) and the General Theory of Relativity ( 1919 ), he went on his fruitless quest of creating a Unified Field Theory, which would present all the forces in the Universe as one..

 In the 1920s two forces were known in the world, electro-magnetism and gravity. Later, two more forces became known, strong nuclear forces and weak nuclear forces.

 Strong nuclear force is what keeps the nucleus together. In a nucleus within the atom there are several protons ( except in the hydrogen atom, which has only one proton in the nucleus ). Protons are particles having positive electricity. Now positive electricity repels positive electricity, so theoretically if an atom has several protons ( which all atoms have except the hydrogen atom which has only one proton ), the nucleus should blow apart, due to the repulsion of the protons with each other, but the fact that it does not means that there is a strong force keeping them together. This is the strong nuclear force.

 Weak nuclear force is the force responsible for beta decay.i.e. emission of radiation by radioactive substances.

 Thus it is now accepted broadly that there are four forces in the Universe. Einstein suggested that all these four forces are really different features of one single force, and for the last 30 years of his life he pursued the quixotic goal of creating a Unified Field Theory, because he strongly felt as an intellectual need that all of nature must be run by a single field theory.

  Einstein's downfall came because he could not accept new ideas, e.g. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, ( though Heisenberg had demonstrated it mathematically ), and his grave doubts about the correctness of the principles of quantum mechanics. Having himself been an original and seminal thinker when he propounded the Theory of Relativity, Einstein later seemed unable to accept the new, radical ideas of quantum mechanics.
 The Quantum Theory of Max Planck said that light could be conceived of as discrete packets of energy ( which Einstein called photons ). This was in contrast to Huygen's theory that light consisted of waves.

 Quantum mechanics, as propounded by De Broglie, and as developed by Heisenberg, Dirac, Schrodinger, Pauli, etc, on the other hand, said the reverse. It said that particles ( e.g. electrons, protons, neutrons, etc) can be conceived of as waves, since they undergo diffraction, interference, and polarization, which are qualities peculiar to waves.

Einstein split with mainstream physics at the height of his career, because he could not accept these new ideas. In 1927, when all the top physicists of the world were gathered at a conference in Brussels, he dismissed quantum mechanics as if it were a pseudo-science, and clashed with Niels Bohr ( see the Einstein-Bohr Debates online ).

As a result, Bohr, who was ordinarily a very soft spoken man, told Moffatt in an  interview " As far as I am concerned, EInstein has become an alchemist. In  search of a transcendental theory ( the Unified Field Theory ), he has lost touch with experimentation, and drifted off into the field of metaphysics ".

When Moffatt met Schrodinger, a great physicist and renowned for the famous Schrodinger's Equation in quantun mechanics, and mentioned Einstein, the latter got very angry and remarked :  "Einstein is a fool ".

 Both Newton and Einstein were victims of their own success. What went wrong with them in their later years ? It is difficult to say. May be they became arrogant because of their early success, and arrogance is the death of a scientist. Perhaps they started regarding themselves as gods, and any new idea coming from anyone except themselves was nonsense.

 Also, Einstein seems in his later life to have become a Platonist.

 In science, theory must conform to facts. The Greek philosopher Plato, however, believed that facts must conform to theory.

  Plato relied mainly on reason, and did not give much importance to knowledge acquired by the senses. On the other hand, his disciple Aristotle, laid equal importance on reason and knowledge acquired by the senses, i.e. by experimentation.

 True scientific knowledge is that which comes from a combination of both.

1 comment:

  1. Your command in the history of science is awesome and truly praiseworthy .


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