The Day the World Changed
September 26, 2012
This photograph fascinates me; for it is not often that you see in one frame a group of people whose explorations changed the world. The people in this photograph were twenty-nine individuals – twenty-eight men and one woman (Madam Curie), nine of them theoretical physicists, nine of them either Nobel laureates or soon to be.
They came together by invitation to the October 1927 Solvay Conference in Brussels, because each had made a fundamental contribution to quantum theory. It is said that if you wanted to tag a modern date with the moniker – The Day the World Changed – October, 1927 would be it.
For what those scientists came to explore was how quantum theory altered our vision irrevocably about the nature of the fundamental building blocks of matter – the atom and subatomic particles. And simply put, when you alter your views around the building blocks, you alter you views about that which they build.
This blog was originally written on the occasion of Albert Einstein’s birthday, March 14, and he sat front row center in the photograph. He had been brooding for over twenty years on the quantum problem, and his greatest work – the General Theory of Relativity – was twenty years old by that time. Niels Bohr, sardonically referred to as the “great Dane,” sitting in the second row, far right, was Einstein’s major sparring partner.
It wasn’t that Einstein towered over the others that he got major billing, but he brought the work that was most used as a backdrop against which to throw many of the observations people were trying to understand and eventually validate from this strange new vision of reality called quantum reality. As any writer knows in a group endeavor, it is far easier to edit than create, and Einstein’s relativity theory was that on-going reference point.
The work these men and woman did was extraordinary, not only because it was leading edge, but also because in doing it, they witnessed their lifetime understanding of this world and universe and in many cases their own prior work fall into discredit, as Newtonian physics came apart at the seams.
Those who would come closest to understanding this deeply disturbing experience these scientists endured would be those who have lost irretrievably something or someone that was their world. And though we are still a long way from grasping the implications of just how our worldview ended back in October 1927, what their investigations have left us with is a world of even fewer limits and greater possibilities. We owe them a great debt. From Dying to Know, my latest novel may I add:
Yet, the natural world continues despite this unimaginable degree of spontaneity and fluidity at the foundation of matter. Agreed, nothing yet looks different out the window to those exposed to quantum reality. For now, the significance lies elsewhere. It will be some time before the behavior of subatomic particles will suggest new dynamics in human interplay. Like bubbles of life-giving oxygen rising from the depths of the sea, that behavior holds great promise, but has a long way to travel, the slowest passage being through the dark, narrow rigidity of the human mind. But while we wait, others, backed up against their own seeming insurmountable walls, will continue to ask the same key question: Is there not another way? And perhaps the Callie Morrow’s of our world will be close enough to hear them and assure them there is.
Christina Carson is author of the touching novel, Dying to Know.