Notes on Science: Let There Be Light!: An Irreverent and Incomplete Narrative of Physics in 610 words

Everything is a process at some level.

– Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen in The Science of Discworld

With this post I intend to initiate—what I hope will become—a recurrent theme in this blog: the crystallisation of the narrative threads embedded in all that humans do, be it engineering, science, and mathematics or literature, art, music, and cooking even. Everything is a process at some level. So too, everything is a narrative at some level. In fact—as David Mitchell points out—“There’s food, water, protection from exposure–that’s one level. And then the next—sex, stories…” We have been telling ourselves stories since time immemorial. Science–the very human effort at understanding the universe–is in a sense only an extension of this primal urge to tell stories; only this time around it’s about the mechanics of the world we inhabit. The annals of scientific investigation are rife with instances of scientists imbuing their understanding of a problem—some exotic corner of the universe—with not only their personalities and myriad styles, but also their narrative sensibilities.

Newton’s Principia endowed scientists with a very concrete vision of the universe; one filled with particles, forces, and actions at a distance. Isaac Newton was wave-blind; his universe was particle-filled. While it was apparent to many scientists that nature was filled with not just particles, but waves as well, it was Newton’s personality and his wave-hostile narrative sensibility that prevailed, thus initiating the particle-centric (or ‘corpuscular’ as Newton would have called it) narrative phase of physical science. And suddenly, the world was jostling with particles that affected one another at a distance. In their Newtonian-particle-induced-delirium scientists imagined particles and forces everywhere from the Solar system down to the atom.

Michael Faraday marched into this jungle of particles armed with nothing more than an electric cell, a switch, a tightly wound doughnut-of-a-coil of thick wire, and a compass. He flicked the switch, noticed the compass twitch, and declared the unity of particle driven currents and the as yet intangible magnetic field. He dreamed of a space and a universe filled with fast-moving electric and magnetic waves. Along came James Clerk Maxwell, shuffling the equations, swirling the existing symbols, and peppering the theory with a few new ones. And then he said “Let there be Light!” And Light was no longer particles, or corpuscles, but a wave; an electromagnetic wave.

1905: a year of miracles. Albert Einstein, a dashing young patent office clerk, not the lionised and shaggily leonine old man who stuck out his tongue at American reporters, published a series of five papers striking hard at the very foundations of theoretical physics. In one fell swoop after another, he proved the existence of atoms, showed that space and time are relative (on the assumption that light is a wave), proved the equivalence of matter and energy, and explained the photoelectric effect (on the assumption that light is composed of particles called quanta). Einstein said, “Light is a wave, but at times it behaves like a particle!” and unleashed a symphony of ideas which—like Beethoven’s Eroica—shook heaven and earth and over time would come to haunt Einstein’s dreams. Little did he realise that physicists would go on to fill the world with particles again. The universe can no longer be broken down into protons, neutrons, and electrons—there’s an entire zoo of subatomic particles to contend with!

Note: This is not intended to be an absolutely accurate history of science. Readers must keep in mind that the lines of this narrative were drawn from the perspective of my reading, my memory, and, more importantly, my narrative sensibilities!

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