Shattering The Old Paradigms

There are times when existing methods of explaining phenomena prove themselves to be inadequate.  What is then required is for some brave soul to step forward, smash the old idols, and propose new ones.  The act is a singular one, requiring courage and an independent will.  These virtues, of course, are not found in abundance among the masses of men, who generally fear what is unfamiliar.  But paradigm-smashing has its place in history.  It cuts through, it clarifies, and it directs the progress of the mind in new directions.

One such example can be found in the career of physicist Max Planck, who is generally acknowledged as the founder of twentieth century quantum theory.  Planck came from a conservative academic family based in the Holstein region of Germany.  Born in 1858, he showed early precocity in music and mathematics, and eventually decided to devote himself to physics.  He was initially advised not to do so, since (as one teacher explained) “nothing more would be discovered in the field [of physics].”  It is a familiar admonition.

He received an appointment as a professor at the University of Kiel in 1885.  Several years later he received a full professorship in Berlin.  And it was here that he made the discoveries that would revolutionize physics.  He was by nature a conservative man, open-minded and tolerant, and every bit a gentleman; there was nothing in his make-up that would lead one to imagine him a careless proposer of radical theories.  Yet he had an unerring faith in himself, and trusted his observations.  He also had the courage to swim against the prevailing currents, when this was deemed necessary.  And this was enough.

Planck in Berlin began to study the problem of “blackbody radiation” in earnest.  Insofar as this writer can understand such physical theories, he will attempt to explain them.  A blackbody, by definition, is a perfect absorber of radiation.  Planck was concerned about the relationship between the intensity of the radiation emitted by such a body, and its other mathematical characteristics (e.g., frequency).

The early twentieth century was a period of great ferment in the world of the physical sciences.  There was a sense that existing theories–many of them dating back centuries–were inadequate to explain the strange new technological world that European society found itself in.  Planck was exposed to such currents, but firmly believed that experimentation should be the basis of any new theoretical construct.  Wild speculation had no place, he believed, in the life of a conscientious scientist.

But this view was about to be radically shattered.

Planck’s study of the blackbody problem produced something that could be called a intellectual crisis.  He had been reared on the classical physics, and assumed that the laws of thermodynamics would be able to explain, or at least contribute to, the issues surrounding the blackbody problem.  But they did not.  No matter how much poor Planck tried to make the data square with his existing “paradigm” (i.e., classical physics), it would not fit.  The energy figures did not make sense using the existing models.

And here is where we see one of those key moments in the history of thought:  that moment, almost born of desperation, where some brave soul ventures on a new theory.  Planck proposed that the energy emitted by a blackbody would square with the data if it were assumed that the energy was not emitted “evenly”, but rather in “packets” or “quanta” of energy.  These “quanta” had to take the form of the multiple hv, where h = a constant and v (the Greek letter nu) = the frequency of the energy.  In other words, E=hv.  The constant “h” soon came to be named after Planck.

It is difficult now to state just how revolutionary this proposal was.  No one had ever contemplated anything like it.  But Planck had faith in his observations, and published them accordingly.  It was 1900.  It was a new century, and it fittingly ushered in the quantum age.

It is a great tragedy that this heroic figure was stricken by an unbroken series of personal tragedies. His first wife died tragically.  One son was taken prisoner in the First World War, and another was killed.  He was forced to stand by helplessly as the German academic establishment was co-opted by an anti-intellectual regime that took power in Germany in the 1930s.  His son was executed by the Gestapo at the end of the Second World War for alleged involvement in an anti-government conspiracy.  Planck himself died in 1947, having seen his beloved homeland in ruins at the end of a catastrophic war.

Yet he remains one of the revolutionary figures of modern thought.  A deeply pious man, he tried to reconcile religion with the science, and satisfied himself that this was possible.  Seeing the old idols perched on wobbling bases, he–after considerate deliberation–gave the final push to overthrow them.  He was a great man, as well as a good one.

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3 thoughts on “Shattering The Old Paradigms

  1. I’ve always wondered what was responsible for the incredible number of brilliant men in the physics world in the first half of the last century, people like Heisenberg, Von Neumman, Planck, Dyson, Einstein, and even lesser known names like Shannon. At one point in one of his books, theoretical physicist Richard Feynman describes giving a lecture concerning a new theory of quantum physics to a room full of these men. Einstein was there, half-asleep and barely paying attention, and so were many other names that anybody who’s had a science education will recognize. When the time came for questions, Einstein and Dyson both mumbled some reason why the theory was flawed, but Feynman couldn’t quite hear them. It says in the book that Feynman spent years afterwards working on that theory, only to give it up. The great men had seen in minutes what took Feynman (A noble prize winner, and a genius in his own right) years to see.

    Why so many very smart people, in one field, in such a short amount of time? Was it something in the zeitgeist that encouraged the brightest minds to go into the field? Some method of education, now lost, that produced a bumper crop of brilliance? Random coincidence? Or is it maybe that we’re in the same position as Planck’s 19th century teacher, and we think there’s nothing left to find. Maybe when the next paradigm shift occurs, the geniuses will appear again.

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  2. I think it has something to do with the conditions being right. Great men are always out there. But they can only flourish in certain period of history, or when there is a definite need. For example, the founding fathers of the US. Or the scientific geniuses of the early 20th century.

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