The Meeting of Minds
Nature.com, 23 March 2011
I first saw the photograph of those gathered at the fifth Solvay conference, which was held in Brussels from 24 to 29 October 1927, in a biography of Albert Einstein. This was in 1979, when I was just 16. I wondered what brought these people together, and soon learned that the picture included most of the key players involved in the discovery of the quantum, and the subsequent development of quantum physics. With 17 of the 29 invited eventually earning a Nobel Prize, the conference was one of the most spectacular meetings of minds ever held.
When I was 18, I was given a print of the above photograph as a present. Many years later I began to think about it as a possible starting point for a book about the quantum. In the photograph there are nine seated in the front row. Eight men, and one woman; six have Nobel Prizes in either physics or chemistry. The woman has two, one for physics, awarded in 1903, and another for chemistry, awarded in 1911. It could only be Marie Curie. In the centre, the place of honour, sits Albert Einstein. Looking straight ahead, gripping the chair with his right hand, he seems ill at ease. Is it the winged collar and tie that are causing him discomfort, or is it what he has heard during the preceding week? At the end of the second row, on the right, is Niels Bohr, looking relaxed with a half-whimsical smile. It had been a good conference for him. Nevertheless, Bohr would be returning to Denmark disappointed that he had failed to convince Einstein to adopt his Copenhagen interpretation of what quantum mechanics revealed about the nature of reality.
Instead of yielding, Einstein had spent the week attempting to show that quantum mechanics was inconsistent, that Bohr's 'Copenhagen interpretation' was flawed. Einstein said years later that:
This theory reminds me a little of the system of delusions of an exceedingly intelligent paranoic, concocted of incoherent elements of thoughts.
It was Max Planck, sitting on Marie Curie's right, holding his hat and cigar, who discovered the quantum. In 1900 he was forced to accept that the energy of light, and all other forms of electromagnetic radiation, could only be emitted or absorbed by matter in bits, bundled up in various sizes. 'Quantum' was the name Planck gave to an individual packet of energy, with 'quanta' being the plural. The quantum of energy was a radical break with the long-established idea that energy was emitted or absorbed continuously, like water flowing from a tap. In the everyday world of the macroscopic, where the physics of Newton ruled supreme, water could drip from a tap, but energy was not exchanged in droplets of varying size. However, the atomic and subatomic level of reality was the domain of the quantum.
Bohr discovered that the energy of an electron inside an atom was 'quantised'; it could possess only certain amounts of energy and not others. The same was true of other physical properties, as the microscopic realm was found to be lumpy and discontinuous. Not some shrunken version of the large-scale world that we humans inhabit, where physical properties vary smoothly and continuously, where going from A to C means passing through B. Quantum physics, however, revealed that an electron in an atom can be in one place, and then, as if by magic, reappear in another without ever being anywhere in between, by emitting or absorbing a quantum of energy.
By the early 1920s, it had long been apparent that the advance of quantum physics on an ad hoc, piecemeal basis, had left it without solid foundations or a logical structure. Out of this state of confusion and crisis emerged a bold new theory; known as quantum mechanics, with Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger, third and sixth from the right in the back row, leading the way. In 1927 Heisenberg made a discovery. It was so at odds with common sense that he initially struggled to grasp its significance. The uncertainty principle said that if you want to know the exact velocity of a particle, then you cannot know its exact location, and vice versa.
Bohr believed he knew how to interpret the equations of quantum mechanics; what the theory was saying about the nature of reality. Questions about cause and effect, or whether the moon exists when no one is looking at it, had been the preserve of philosophers since the time of Plato and Aristotle. However, after the emergence of quantum mechanics they were being discussed by the twentieth century's greatest physicists.
The debate that began between Einstein and Bohr at the Solvay conference in 1927, raised issues that continue to preoccupy many physicists and philosophers to this day; what is the nature of reality, and what kind of description of reality should be regarded as meaningful? 'No more profound intellectual debate has ever been conducted', claimed the scientist and novelist CP Snow. 'It is a pity that the debate, because of its nature, can't be common currency.'
When Einstein and Bohr first met in Berlin in 1920, each found an intellectual sparring partner who would, without bitterness or rancour, push and prod the other into refining and sharpening his thinking about the quantum. 'It was a heroic time,' recalled Robert Oppenheimer, who was a student in the 1920s. 'It was a period of patient work in the laboratory, of crucial experiments and daring action, of many false starts and many untenable conjectures. It was a time of earnest correspondence and hurried conferences, of debate, criticism and brilliant mathematical improvisation. For those who participated it was a time of creation.'
Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Born, Pauli, De Broglie, Dirac, the leading lights of the quantum revolution, are all there in that picture.