Science for the Scared 3: Max Planck and the Granular Universe

1 Jan




Max Planck in 1878, looking rather dishy in his whatever you call those things he’s wearing–bionicles? from Wikimedia Commons. 

“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.” –Max Planck (1858-1947)


The founding date for quantum physics is a matter of debate—after all, any scientific field is birthed by many fathers (and mothers). But many credit German scientist Max Planck with developing the underlying concept in the year of 1900. What a beautiful way to start a new century.


Quantum physics is one of the most amazing of all scientific fields. It measures and tries to predict what the tiniest particles in the universe will do—particles that are not just particles, but are also waves (and even these descriptions are only very approximate). Because Quantum Physics involves things that are too tiny to see, the only two ways to make sense of it are 1. Mathematical equations that will make predictions about the likelihood or probability of these tiniest bits of matter behaving in a certain way; or 2. Using metaphors and visions to try to make sense of them. It is no mistake that the way certain scientists describe these particles in ways that echo many cultures’  creation myths, which begin with a formless void. But information is not just information. Information is fact mixed with the human ability to comprehend a fact. The ways humans understand abstract concepts is often through metaphor.


Max Planck first used the term “quantum” in 1900 to describe what he and other scientists were working on. Quantum means the tiniest amount of a type of matter involved in an interaction. It comes from the Latin for “How much.” Take an electron, for instance. It is constantly on the move, dancing around the protons and neutrons that make up the nucleus of an atom. Why does it move the way it does? What does it mean that instead of smoothly orbiting the nucleus, it sometimes moves out further and further from the center in tiny jumps, to the different shells that surround it? For some time, scientists had known that the more excited an atom was, the more energy the electrons would show. But they assumed that the movement of electrons was smooth. It wasn’t. That doesn’t sound like much of a big deal—that electrons jump, rather than glide.. The strangeness meant something singular: that our entire universe is not smooth. It is granular. It is full of tiny jumps, rather than smooth motions. It is lumpy, not smooth. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT.


One thing that (probably) delighted and (definitely) terrified the earliest discoverers of quantum science was that it did not obey the laws of physics as they had been commonly understood since the brilliant Isaac Newton had laid out many of the laws of physics which still work on the everyday scale of a car or a ball tossed out a window or a planet orbiting around the sun.


Working with these tiny “I’ll be a wave if I feel like it and I’ll be a particle if I damn well don’t,” quanta was like herding alley cats. Mean ones. Not like poor Schrodinger’s cat!  (Maybe I’ll write about him/her later if I don’t cry). But Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg, and other brilliant scientists started a revolution that is still reverberating today.


Bonus read:


Writing Prompt: Did you ever have an idea that scared you?


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