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Friday, June 14, 2024
Dr. Brown: Physics, physicists, beautyand a Theory of Everything

Of the three Nobel prizes in science awarded each year, my hands-down favorite is physics.

Physics covers the really big stuff, such as the origins of the universe, the life cycles of galaxies, stars and planets, the origins and nature of black holes, the genesis of the elements, and in the atomic and subatomic universe, the nature, and relationships among a dizzying array of particles and elementary forces.

In the years 2017 to 2020, Nobel prizes in physics were awarded for the detection of gravitational waves generated by the collision of pairs of black holes (and later pairs of neutron stars), finding potentially life-friendly planets (exoplanets) within the Milky Way, strong evidence for a gigantic black hole at the centre of our galaxy (and probably the centre of other galaxies), proof for the existence of the Higgs particle, capturing neutrinos in deep spaces and using laser beams as “light tweezers” to manipulate the tiniest of objects.

All of which leaves plenty of questions to be resolved and physics prizes to be won. For just what happened in those first few seconds following the Big Bang, or what about solving the nature of dark matter and dark energy, given that together they constitute 95 per cent of the universe, and answering the question of whether the standard models for the quantum world and the universe, will hold up.

Physics is unique compared to chemistry and the biological and medical sciences because there is a division between theoretical and experimental physicists. Among theoretical physicists, most famously were, Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Born, Dirac, Feynman, and more recently Weinberg, Hawking and Penrose, all of whom won a Nobel prize, except for Hawking.

Theoretical physicists are primarily concerned with developing hypotheses using data that already exists. Einstein was justly famous for his “thought experiments” and talent for seeing relationships others missed. This was most evident in his theories for special and, later, general relativity or perhaps most impressive in my books was his theoretical study of Brownian motion for proving the existence of atoms and the way he dealt with chaos.

On the other hand, experimentalists such as Rutherford and the husband-and-wife team of the Curies, and later teams of particle physicists, were more concerned with developing experimental evidence for fundamental particles and forces using in recent decades, high-powered particle colliders in the U.S. and Europe.

More recently other experimentalists searched for evidence for gravitational waves and exoplanets. Of course, the lines between the two groups of physicists were not so precisely drawn: some physicists were hybrids and capable of playing in both camps.

There’s another aspect to physicists, especially the experimentalists. Some, like Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene and Steven Weinberg, wrote books for the general public, which helped demystify an area of science that is often off limits to the public because of the underlying complexity of the mathematics and strangeness of some of the concepts. Many were regular contributors to Scientific American and leading national newspapers.

Which brings me to another aspect of theoretical physics, the relationship between beauty and theories. For example, Weinberg made the point that Einstein’s theory of general relativity won acceptance with many physicists long before most of the evidence was in, because the theory was so beautiful in the way it described the relationship between space-time and mass: mass shapes space-time and space-time dictates where mass moves.

It was all so symmetrical and so is the underlying equation, which states those relationships.

This obsession with the notion that simplicity and symmetry are at the heart of the universe has been and continues to be a commonly held view by many theoretical physicists who aren’t comfortable with messy math and relationships.

It’s not hard to see why some theoretical physicists such as Einstein, Schrödinger, and most recently Penrose, seemed to enjoy speculating about the nature of consciousness and even God.

This year’s Nobel prize in physics is a departure from quantum mechanics and the universe. The prize was awarded to Syukuro Manabe of the United States and Klaus Hasselmann from Germany for their achievements in laying solid scientific foundations for the study and analysis of climate change.

And given the extraordinary complexity of climate and the weather as we experience it, the award was shared with Giorgio Parisi from Italy for his singular achievement in bringing sense to chaos.

The Nobel series offered through the library began on Nov. 8, with five weeks to go. If you’ve interested, sign up with the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library for this Zoom program, held Mondays at 11 a.m.

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the InfoHealth series at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.  


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