Monday, November 8, 2010

The Great Simplicity

Found this in an article on India in the Times:

Interestingly, one of India’s top scientists, C.N.R. Rao, recently revealed how he managed to do exciting research in India, despite lacking state-of-the-art lab equipment. His technique was to work on new and interesting ideas and problems, where even crude measurements would work reasonably well. This way, assuming his findings made sense, others with more sophisticated equipment could measure and test out its validity.

It's worth looking up pictures of the astoundingly simple, economic apparatus used by such as Rutherford and Hahn to obtain key results. In an era of Large Hadron Colliders and satellite observatories, they seem wildly anachronistic. That, to some extent, emerges from the nature of the unanswered questions in current physical thought, the proposed solutions and the data one might need to distinguish them. But even recently, for instance, Penzias and Wilson turned cosmology upside down studying noise in microwave apparatus, and a reconsideration of long-standing observational data revealed dark matter/energy, or massive effects otherwise unexplained. As a semi-informed layman, I have to wonder if we should be asking different questions.

Jacob Bronowski, in considering Einstein in his 'Ascent of Man', said that his gift was asking simple questions, for which there were simple answers, in which you could hear the voice of God. As I learned this stuff, nothing has had more impact than the extraordinary simplicity of special relativity--it's all ninth grade math; you don't even need calculus--and Euler's equation e**(pi)(i) + 1 = 0, accessible via fairly elementary calculus. The universe, obviously, is under no obligation to be simple to understand. You can give yourself a hell of a shaving cut with Occam's razor, but it hasn't been used a lot lately. I wonder...

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