(Roughly) Daily

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”*…

A curious thing happened at the end of the 19th century and the dawning of the 20th. As European and American industries became increasingly confident in their methods of invention and production, scientists made discovery after discovery that shook their understanding of the physical world to the core. “Researchers in the 19th century had thought they would soon describe all known physical processes using the equations of Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell,” Adam Mann writes at Wired. But “the new and unexpected observations were destroying this rosy outlook.

These observations included X-rays, the photoelectric effect, nuclear radiation and electrons; “leading physicists, such as Max Planck and Walter Nernst believed circumstances were dire enough to warrant an international symposium that could attempt to resolve the situation.” Those scientists could not have known that over a century later, we would still be staring at what physicist Dominic Walliman calls the “Chasm of Ignorance” at the edge of quantum theory. But they did initiate “the quantum revolution” in the first Solvay Council, in Brussels, named for wealthy chemist and organizer Ernest Solvay.

“Reverberations from this meeting are still felt to this day… though physics may still sometimes seem to be in crisis” writes Mann (in a 2011 article just months before the discovery of the Higgs boson). The inaugural meeting kicked off a series of conferences on physics and chemistry that have continued into the 21st century. Included in the proceedings were Planck, “often called the father of quantum mechanics,” Ernest Rutherford, who discovered the proton, and Heike Kamerlingh-Onnes, who discovered superconductivity.

Also present were mathematician Henri Poincaré, chemist Marie Curie, and a 32-year-old Albert Einstein, the second youngest member of the group. Einstein described the first Solvay conference (1911) in a letter to a friend as “the lamentations on the ruins of Jerusalem. Nothing positive came out of it.” The ruined “temple,” in this case, were the theories of classical physics, “which had dominated scientific thinking in the previous century.” Einstein understood the dismay, but found his colleagues to be irrationally stubborn and conservative…

For more– and a complete list of attendees in the photo above: ““The Most Intelligent Photo Ever Taken”: The 1927 Solvay Council Conference, Featuring Einstein, Bohr, Curie, Heisenberg, Schrödinger & More.”

* Max Planck (second from the left in the first row of the photo above)


As we ponder paradigms, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Edward Williams Morley; he was born on this date in 1838. A chemist who was first to precisely determine the atomic weight of oxygen, he is probably best remembered for his collaboration with the physicist Albert A. Michelson. In what we call the Michelson–Morley experiment (actually a number of experiments conducted between April and July in 1887), they attempted to detect the luminiferous aether, a supposed medium permeating space that was thought to be the carrier of light waves; their method was the very precise measurement of the speed of light (in various directions, and at different times of the year, as the Earth revolved in its orbit around the Sun). Michelson and Morley always found that the speed of light did not vary at all depending on the direction of measurement, or the position of the Earth in its orbit– the so-called “null result.”

Neither Morley nor Michelson ever considered that these null results disproved the hypothesis of the existence of “luminiferous aether.” But other scientists began to suspect that they did. Almost two decades later the results of the Michelson–Morley experiments supported Albert Einstein’s strong postulate (in 1905) that the speed of light is a constant in all inertial frames of reference as part of his Special Theory of Relativity.


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