Physics is a complicated business – but, fortunate for the bluffer, no one really understands it.
However, if you’re ever in a situation where you’re up against someone that actually seems to know what they’re talking about – and you’re unable to blind them with science – try to blind them with scientists instead.
Here are some of the major players in new physics – and some top bluffing facts to ensure you remain one step ahead of the game.
John Bardeen (1908–1991)
John Bardeen is the only person in history to have received two Nobel Prizes in physics. Bardeen should be far more famous than any number of loud-mouthed scientific hype-meisters, but ‘Whispering John’ simply did his work and never bothered with boasting. At Bell Labs in New Jersey, the golf-crazy Bardeen and Walter Brattain, with contributions from William Shockley, succeeded in creating the first transistor.
Maximum Bluffing Value (MBV): In 1956, just before his first Nobel ceremony for that work, Bardeen had to borrow a shirt, his own being deemed unsuitable for a major occasion. To make things worse, when King Gustav of Sweden presented the award, he scolded Whispering John for leaving his children behind on such an important occasion.
In 1972, Bardeen won his second Nobel Prize for being in the group that pioneered work in the field of superconductivity. That time he brought the kids.
David Bohm (1917–1992)
Recording chats with the Dalai Lama and Krishnamurti, Bohm was one of the holiest of the holists, and you need to be aware of him. He was sure that there is an underlying unity to all physical, psychological and spiritual experiences. This unity is as yet indivisible; he spoke often of ‘hidden variables’ – a notion that is gaining popularity among physicists.
For him, waves and particles were not always evident but were always present, the waves somehow guiding the particles. Bohm’s calculations in the early 1950s led to later proofs of subatomic non-local quality, but then he lived a non-local life in the USA, the UK, South America and the Middle East.
MBV: Bohm spent long periods of time living among the Blackfoot people in what reductionists call Canada. On an entirely different note, Einstein and Bohm, despite their age difference, were known to go out on double dates. (The best-known story of their love lives involves two sisters.)
Niels Bohr (1885–1962)
A family man, happily married for 50 years to Margrethe. They had six sons. One died in childhood; one died in a boating accident; the other four went on to success in medicine, engineering, law and physics. The lawyer played hockey for Denmark and the physicist, Aage, won the Nobel Prize in 1975.
Bohr led the group of physicists who developed one of the greatest theories of all time – at his home. Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Fermi and many others came to stay with him and his family in Copenhagen, wore down the floor at either end of the ping-pong table, wrote letters home, munched on sandwiches and ran around with his laughing children.
Bohr, who was a member of the Danish underground during the Second World War, had a portentous walk with his German friend and colleague Heisenberg in 1941.No one knows exactly what was said, except that Bohr was extremely shocked and the friendship with Heisenberg ended there and then.
Possibly Heisenberg told Bohr of the Germans’ plans for an atom bomb. Within months Bohr had contacted the Americans and was whisked to the USA. As a direct result of Bohr’s alarm, work on the atom bomb was stepped up at Los Alamos.
MBV: Bohr had an unfortunate way of speaking. Einstein’s comment about Bohr’s lack of ability to allow words to come out of his mouth properly was: ‘He utters his opinions like one perpetually groping and never like one who believes himself to be in possession of the definite truth.’ A fellow physicist once drew a cartoon of Bohr talking to a friend who is bound and gagged. Bohr is saying ‘Please, please may I get a word in?’
Max Born (1882–1970)
Known as ‘The Probability Man’, the Polish-born Born was already pretty nifty with the old physics before he made his vast contribution to quantum theory by sorting out the mathematical formulations and practicalities of the ideas of Heisenberg and Schrödinger. You should say that it is his technique – the Born approximation – which is used by working physicists far more than the philosophical speculations of Heisenberg and Uncertainty.
You should also be scandalised that Born did not win the Nobel Prize until the day before he turned 72, and even then had to share it. It’s worth mentioning that Einstein’s famous statement about quantum mechanics – ‘I cannot believe that God would play dice with the universe’ – was made in a letter to his great friend Born.
MBV: Born was Olivia Newton-John’s grandfather.
Paul Ehrenfest (1880–1933)
Einstein’s great friend, Ehrenfest had tears rolling down his cheeks during Einstein’s debate with Bohr. He forcefully reminded Einstein not to be as rigidly against quantum mechanics as people had been against relativity. Yet he himself called the quantum theorists ‘Klugscheisser’ – clever excrement.
Many have felt overwhelmed by quantum mechanics, but Ehrenfest’s was an extreme case.
MBV: The letter he sent before he committed suicide began: ‘My dear friends Bohr, Einstein [and others]. In recent years it has become ever more difficult for me to follow developments [in physics] with understanding. After trying, ever more enervated and torn, I have finally given up in DESPERATION.’
Albert Einstein (1879–1955)
Einstein was married twice (to Mileva and to his cousin, Elsa). His first child with Mileva was born before their marriage, and had to be given away because they were too poor to provide for it. His second son spent most of his life in a mental hospital.
Einstein worked alone. People who knew him well said that he was somehow always ‘apart’. He said: ‘I am not much good with people…I feel the insignificance of the individual and it makes me happy.’ It is not surprising that he kept insisting that subatomic particles had to be thought of as separate entities – ‘discrete’.
MBV: Einstein died in the USA, far from his place of birth in Germany. Reporters jostling around the nurse who had been the only person present when he died were told that, yes, the great sage had spoken as he took his last breath. What did he say? ‘I’m sorry,’ said the nurse, ‘I don’t speak German.’
Enrico Fermi (1901–1954)
Born in Rome, Fermi was rare in that he actually did his own experimental dirty work, even in the USA. The Fermi Award for innovation is still much coveted by physicists. Fermi built the first nuclear reactor.
MBV: When he established the first chain reaction, Fermi made a phone call to a military colleague, saying calmly and in code, ‘The Italian navigator has landed in the new world.’ New world indeed.
Richard Feynman (1918–1988)
Feynman’s work on light and matter perfected what is possibly the most accurate theory ever developed in science. His famous diagrams show quantum interaction.
You should always stress that although there is so much probability in quantum mechanics, there is also accuracy and precision.
Feynman (it rhymes with lineman) was a hugely popular figure, as much for his personality as for his mathematical wizardry. His diagrams were controversial because no one knew how he managed to derive them, but few are willing to argue for long about a drawing that saves hundreds of pages of algebra.
MBV: A brilliant lecturer, Feynman enjoyed doing sums on paper napkins at nightclubs and was an accomplished picker of locks which, if you are dealing with atomic secrets and one of your best friends is the spy Klaus Fuchs (who gave US atomic secrets to the USSR), is a pretty risky business. Feynman had his kookier moments, such as his refusal, for some months, to brush his teeth or to wash his hands after urinating because of his ideas about germs.
Late in life he became famous all over again for explaining why the Challenger space shuttle disaster happened: sealing rings became less resilient and were subject to failures at ice-cold temperatures in space.
Murray Gell-Mann (1929–)
Gell-Mann had an office across the way from Feynman at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in the 1950s, and was judged the more urbane of the two.
He sprinkled his scientific work with literary and classical references, and ordered particles into arrangements or families which he called the eightfold way in honour of the Buddha.
Gell-Mann himself is not known for his tranquility. Indeed, he is a renowned curmudgeon. He hasn’t begun to consider the notion that fools could be suffered and would find it unthinkable that anyone might do so gladly.
MBV: Gell-Mann’s most famous contribution is the ‘quark’ which he both discovered and named – insisting that it be pronounced ‘quork’, to rhyme with pork, after a line in Finnegans Wake by James Joyce: ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark!’ (Quarks, like sailors in old musicals, go around in threes. But understanding Mark’s relevance to the whole thing needs more enthusiasm than anyone can muster.)
Stephen Hawking (1942–)
Hawking (together with Sir Roger Penrose) proved that the beginning of the universe was a ‘singularity’, a mathematical point of infinite density, the explosion of which was the Big Bang. Hawking fathered a subject whereby, instead of wrestling to bring all the forces together, the quantummechanical implications for gravity alone are studied. It’s called quantum cosmology.
MBV: Hawking loathes the idea of parallel universes. He once said, ‘When I hear the words “Schrödinger’s cat”, I reach for my gun.’
Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976)
Famous for his uncertainty principle (published around his 26th birthday), Heisenberg is also notorious for having gained some advancement during the Hitler years in Germany. But no one quite understands what his role was because plans for a German atom bomb were abandoned by order of the Führer.
MBV: Heisenberg’s musings about the observer and the observed have been exploited far beyond his intentions, and you should scoff at the cavalier use of the word ‘uncertainty’, which is not an excuse to avoid marriage or filling in tax returns.
Peter Ware Higgs (1929–)
It was with others that Higgs proposed the mechanism by which particles are endowed with mass by interacting with a field, which is carried by bosons. So it is truly remarkable – and an indication of the way science and our culture operates – that, famously, the mechanism is called the Higgs mechanism, the field is called the Higgs field, and the bosons are called Higgs bosons.
MBV: His father was a sound man at the BBC.
Lise Meitner (1878–1968)
Meitner was an Austrian, later Swedish, physicist who worked on radioactivity and nuclear physics. Meitner was part of the team that discovered nuclear fission, an achievement for which her colleague Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize. Meitner is often mentioned as one of the most glaring examples of women’s scientific achievement overlooked by the Nobel committee.
MBV: Meitner was taught by the legendary nineteenth century physicist Ludwig Boltzmann and then by Max Planck, who until then had rejected any women wanting to attend his lectures. After one year, Meitner became Planck’s assistant. Otto Hahn was also working for Planck.
Wolfgang Pauli (1900–1958)
At the age of 20, Pauli wrote a 200-page encyclopaedia entry on the theory of relativity. It was his ideas that led to the discovery of the neutrino, but he is best known for his exclusion principle.
Pauli was excluded many times from bars for being pixillated. Even when sober, he had no trouble speaking his mind. To one student he said, ‘Ach, so young and already you are unknown’; to another, ‘That isn’t even wrong’.
He even put Einstein down for not seeing the difference between mathematics and physics. It was to Pauli that Bohr made the legendary remark: ‘Your theory is crazy, but it’s not crazy enough to be true.’
MBV: Pauli, an Austrian, was also fascinated by subatomic particles and consciousness, collaborating for some time with psychologist Carl Jung, whose patient he was for a while. Their association may not have proved much, but it probably made them feel better.
Pauli, along with Feynman, had an obsession with the number 137, which is important in physics and in the ancient wisdom of the Kabbalah – the real thing (not Madonna’s idea of Dolce and Kabbalah). The universe is 13.7 billion years old, the number 137 refers to the absorption of light by matter and – if you use a little mathematical magic – unites the electron charge, the speed of light and Planck’s constant. In ancient tradition, 137 unites wisdom and prophecy as well as the spiritual and the material. When Pauli was taken ill in Zürich with pancreatic cancer in 1958, he was convinced his time had come when he was put in hospital room number 137. He was right.
Max Planck (1858–1947)
Famous for Planck’s constant: the energy of a light wave is always proportional to its frequency. The mathematically minded marvel at the strange relationship between Planck’s constant and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
By multiplying Heisenberg’s two uncertainties you actually get Planck’s constant. Truth is stranger than fiction. Planck’s constant is represented by h, which has the value of 6.63 times 10 to the power of minus 34 Js (joule second). It is always 6.63 x 10 to the power of minus 34 Js, and the energy of a photon is h – or 6.63 times 10 to the power of minus 34 Js multiplied by f, where f is the frequency of the wave. It should be clear by now why jokes about being thick as a Planck are not such a great idea.
He could never come to terms with quantum mechanics, of which he himself was a pioneer.
MBV: Planck’s son Erwin was executed in 1945 for attempting to assassinate Hitler.
Ernest Rutherford (1871–1937)
Rutherford was a New Zealand-born physicist who sang ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ loudly and out of tune all day and every day for the whole of his life. His loudness was legendary and his own researchers manufactured an electrical sign in their lab which read, ‘TALK SOFTLY PLEASE’. Rutherford set down the groundwork for the development of nuclear physics by discovering the alpha particle, the nucleus and the proton. He was also wise enough to employ Niels Bohr, as well as Hans Geiger, who developed the Geiger counter as a result of sitting in the dark and totting up flashes of radiation.
MBV: Rutherford contributed to the atom bomb by speaking so loudly and firmly against it that he infuriated a young Hungarian physicist called Leó Szilárd. Within the decade Szilárd was a leader of the Manhattan Project.Rutherford used to say, ‘In science there is only physics; everything else is stamp collecting.’ In 1908, when he won the Nobel Prize, it was for chemistry.
Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961)
A brilliant physicist who stands out because of his extraordinary intellectual versatility, Schrödinger’s numerous contributions to science include an extremely useful wave equation, and a handy and profound book about quantum physics and genetic structure.
MBV: In 1944 Schrödinger published a landmark book, What Is Life? Both James D Watson and Francis Crick, co-discoverers of the structure of DNA, credited Schrödinger’s book with presenting an early theoretical description of how the storage of genetic information would work. The great physicist had become a pioneering molecular biologist. Such a love of nature shouldn’t lead you to think that, despite the fact that he is most famous for a dratted cat, he would actually own one.
For more quantum leaps of faith, observe the Bluffer’s Guide to the Quantum Universe®