Four great physics road trips

In 2009, I went on a physics-themed road trip (and wrote about it). I didn’t know it then, but I was participating in a grand tradition. Here are four great road trips from physics history.

On the road with Robert Oppenheimer, left, and Ernest Lawrence in 1932. Photo courtesy of the American Institute of Physics.

1. Ernest Lawrence goes West, 1928. After finishing his Ph.D. at Yale and spending a few years there as an assistant professor, Ernest Lawrence hopped in a Reo Flying Cloud and headed west to a new job at UC Berkeley. Once there, he invented the world’s first particle accelerator, founded the country’s first National Laboratory, planted the seeds for American Big Science, and put the U.S.’s experimental physics program on the scientific map. (His theoretical counterpart Robert Oppenheimer arrived at Berkeley one year later in a gray Chrysler.)

2. Glenn Seaborg gets on a train with most of the world’s plutonium, 1943. Seaborg’s team isolated the first tiny sample of plutonium on August 20, 1942 at the Met Lab in Chicago. About a year later, he shipped a 200-milligram sample of element 94 to Los Alamos, where it was used in an experiment that proved it could sustain a chain reaction. Seaborg soon followed his precious sample to New Mexico to spend his well deserved summer vacation lurking around Santa Fe with his wife and most definitely NOT visiting the secret Manhattan Project laboratory up on the mesa. Headed back to Chicago at the end of July, he offered to take the speck of plutonium he had loaned to the war effort with him. Robert Wilson made the hand off before dawn in a Santa Fe restaurant, arriving, according to Richard Rhodes, “in a pickup armed Western-style with his personal Winchester .32 deer-hunting rifle to guard a highly valuable but barely visible treasure.” The less flamboyant and decidedly unarmed Seaborg simply put the sample in his suitcase and caught the train home. Soon, much larger quantities of plutonium and enriched uranium would begin arriving at Los Alamos from the production facilities in Hanford, Washington, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

3. Richard Fenyman ditches Freeman Dyson to chase a girl, 1948. After World War II ended, many physicists who had devoted themselves to the technical challenges of building an atomic bomb finally had a chance to tackle some of their science’s lingering theoretical problems. One of these was an inconsistency in quantum electrodynamics, the quantum field theory that described photons and electrons. Richard Fenyman published a solution to the problem in 1947, but his explanation was seemingly at odds with the work of two other scientists, Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, and no one was quite sure how to move forward. In the summer of 1948, Fenyman and his friend Freeman Dyson took a road trip from New York to Albuquerque (what can I say, physicists ❤ New Mexico), picking up hitchhikers, getting speeding tickets, and staying in at least one brothel along the way. (Ian Sample assures us “they sought only shelter.”) When they arrived in Albuquerque, Fenyman took off in search of a girl, leaving Dyson to aimlessly travel the Southwest on a series of Greyhound buses. He eventually boarded one that would take him back to New York and, somewhere in the middle of Nebraska, suddenly saw that the three competing theories about quantum electrodynamics were actually one and the same. Quantum field theory was saved.

4. Gerry Guralnik and Dick Hagen drive to Germany to be insulted by Werner Heisenberg, 1965. In the early 1960s, the question of how particles acquired mass was just beginning to be discussed. A handful of physicists scattered across the U.S. and Europe more or less independently worked their way toward a preliminary answer, describing a field that permeates space and gives mass to some particles but not others. Gerry Guralnik, Dick Hagen, and Tom Kibble were working on this problem at Imperial College in London, publishing their first paper a bit behind the other teams in 1964. Guralnik and Hagen planned to give talks on their work the next summer at a conference hosted by Werner Heisenberg in a town outside Munich. Since they were both Americans and wanted to see more of Europe, they decided to make a vacation of it and picked up a cheap car in France. After encountering artichokes for the first time in Paris, they made their way to Bavaria, where, much to their chagrin, their work was met with “almost uniform disbelief,” according to Guralnik. Heisenberg himself called their theory “junk,” causing Guralnik to doubt his future as a physicist. If scientists at the LHC find the Higgs boson, Guralnik and Hagen will finally be proved right.

Sources: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes and Massive by Ian Sample.


Physics on the Fringe

I have a review of Margaret Wertheim’s wonderful new book Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything up today at Bookforum. Wertheim has been collecting examples of outsider theoretical physics for fifteen years, and in Physics on the Fringe she considers what drives people to try to piece together the laws of the universe entirely on their own. As she follows the life and work of the “fringe theorizer” Jim Carter, who, like many outsider physicists, rejects math-heavy field theory in favor of his own home-spun ideas, she examines the professionalization of physics, the rise of abstract mathematics, and the oft-ignored question of who has been left behind as we march toward a “theory of everything.” One of my favorite parts the book that I had to leave out of the review is Wertheim’s discussion of Michael Faraday. [Edited to add: a version of my discussion of Faraday is now included in the Bookforum review as well.]

Michael Faraday, experimentalist extraordinaire. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Michael Faraday, the experimental physicist who did pioneering work on electromagnetism in the early nineteenth century, walked the fine line between insider and outsider in a way that is nearly impossible to do today. Faraday grew up poor and began his scientific career as a bottle washer in a laboratory in London’s Royal Institution. Like Carter, he had no university education and puzzled through the mysteries of the universe largely on his own. Unlike Carter, he was eventually regarded as a genius and recognized as one of the greatest experimental scientists of all time. In fact, it was Faraday who first developed field theory after sprinkling iron filings near a magnet and observing the predictable patterns they formed. “Ironically,” Wertheim writes of Carter, “the one major figure in the history of physics whose life story in some respects paralleled his own had been the source of an idea he could not stomach.”

Faraday lived at a time when the boundaries between amateur experimentalist and professional scientist weren’t quite as rigid as they are today, but he, too, felt the sting of being ignored by the academy. It wasn’t until the more respected physicist James Clerk Maxwell turned the results of Faraday’s experiments into differential equations that the physics community embraced field theory, setting the stage for the industrial revolution, the telecommunications industry, home electricity, and quantum mechanics. Ironically, Faraday’s lack of a formal education meant that he couldn’t understand Maxwell’s equations; Wertheim tells us that he “died a hero, but an alien in the world he had helped create,” and it’s easy to imagine him sympathizing with Carter and the other outsider physicists who still feel left out of that world today.

Click here for more information about Physics on the Fringe. Margaret Wertheim also runs the very cool Institute for Figuring here in Los Angeles.