Brainy Quote of the Day

Friday, June 27, 2014

Insania Gigantum...

Einstein and Oppenheimer: Both men in their later years dismissed black holes as anomalies, unaware that they contained some of the deepest mysteries of physics (Image: Alfred Eisenstaedt, LIFE magazine)

For those of you whose Latin is crisper than mine: roughly "the folly of giants"...

On September 1, 1939, the same day that Germany attacked Poland and started World War 2, a remarkable paper appeared in the pages of the journal Physical Review. In it J. Robert Oppenheimer and his student Hartland Snyder laid out the essential characteristics of what we today call the black hole. Building on work done by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Fritz Zwicky and Lev Landau, Oppenheimer and Snyder described how an infalling observer on the surface of an object whose mass exceeded a critical mass would appear to be in a state of perpetual free fall to an outsider. The paper was the culmination of two years of work and followed two other articles in the same journal.

Then Oppenheimer forgot all about it and never said anything about black holes for the rest of his life.

What happened? Oppenheimer’s lack of interest wasn’t just because he became the director of the Manhattan Project a few years later and got busy with building the atomic bomb. It also wasn’t because he despised the free-thinking and eccentric Zwicky who had laid the foundations for the field through the discovery of black holes’ parents – neutron stars.

Thus for Oppenheimer, black holes, which were particular solutions of general relativity, were mundane; the general theory itself was the real deal. In addition they were anomalies, ugly exceptions which were best ignored rather than studied. As Dyson mentions, unfortunately Oppenheimer was not the only one affected by this condition. Einstein, who spent his last few years in a futile search for a grand unified theory, was another. Like Oppenheimer he was uninterested in black holes, but he also went a step further by not believing in quantum mechanics. Einstein’s fundamentalitis was quite pathological indeed.

History proved that both Oppenheimer and Einstein were deeply mistaken about black holes and fundamental laws. The greatest irony is not that black holes are very interesting, it is that in the last few decades the study of black holes has shed light on the very same fundamental laws that Einstein and Oppenheimer believed to be the only thing worth studying. The disowned children have come back to haunt the ghosts of their parents.

"If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst forth at once in the sky,

It would be like the splendor of the Mighty One.
[I am Mighty, world-destroying Time.]
Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."

The Bhagavad Gita, the last sentence quoted by Oppenheimer reflecting on scientists' reactions when the atomic bomb was successfully tested.

Scientific American:
Oppenheimer's Folly: On black holes, fundamental laws and pure and applied science, Ashutosh Jogalekar

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