There was this Swedish voice on the phone. I knew it wasn’t Ikea.”I loved this droll comment from Adam G. Riess, one of the three physicists who won the 2011 Nobel Prize for physics. A smiling, balding 41-year-old from the John Hopkins University in Baltimore, the US, Riess was half awake because his 10-month-old son demanded his attention on Tuesday night. That’s when the competing voice from Stockholm told Reiss he was the latest awardee of the world’s pre-eminent prize in physics.
Ah, the little dramas and grand discoveries of Nobel time.
They inform us of humanity’s achievements, tantalize us with what could be, and remind us that science, above all, is a factory of the human imagination. This is a particularly good time to revisit its primary shop-floor, physics. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite who died in 1896 after establishing annual prizes for medicine, peace, literature, chemistry and physics, clearly had a soft spot for physics. His own research was tied to the subject, which during Nobel’s time was regarded as the foremost of the sciences.
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A quick look at the Nobel prize-winners for physics reveals the grand sweep of the discipline: Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen got the first Nobel physics prize (1901), for discovering X-rays; in 1903 Marie Curie got the prize for her pioneering work on radioactivity (she was also the only scientist ever to get another Nobel, in chemistry); in 1909 Guglielmo Marconi for radio transmission; in 1921 Albert Einstein for his discovery of the photoelectric effect; in 1922 Niels Bohr for explaining the structure of the atom; in 1938, Enrico Fermi, who built the first nuclear reactor; and don’t forget the two Indians, C.V. Raman in 1930 (for the scattering of light) and S. Chandrashekhar in 1983 (for explaining how stars collapse).
What would our world be without these discoveries, which together underpin every science and technology known to humanity, from the workings of the brain to the innards of the iPad? Ernest Rutherford, another Nobel winner and the man who first split the atom, observed: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”
Physics and its laws is still the pivot around which the world turns. The Nobel prizes of 2011 and 2010 vividly illustrate how the remit of modern physics extends from invisible atom to infinite universe, from creating new materials for science-fiction-like computers of tomorrow to predicting how the universe will end (in a time so distant that humanity would no longer be even a gossamer dream).
The 2011 physics prize has stunned the scientific world by upending the traditional view that the known universe would expand, slow and then collapse into itself, the inevitable result of gravity. Riess and his fellow awardees, Brian Schmidt and Saul Perlmutter, instead found the universe’s expansion was acting against gravity and accelerating. Their implication is that 75% of known universe is an unknown force called dark energy, which is probably behind the expansion. With dark matter, an equally mysterious component, dark energy constitutes 95% of the universe we can’t see. The remaining 5% is everything else we know—stars, galaxies, planets and all of us here on the third rock from our sun.
If the 2011 prize for physics reveals a grander-than-galactic scale, the 2010 prize demonstrated how deftly we now manipulate the smallest components of the universe.
The 2010 winners, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, of the University of Manchester, the UK, created the world’s thinnest, strongest and most conductive material, graphene. No more than one atom thick, graphene is transparent, yet so dense that even the smallest atoms of gas can pass through. Carbon, as we know, is the building block for all life on earth—further underscoring the empire of physics. At a time when no one thought such a thin material could be stable, Geim and Novoselov extracted graphene from graphite, the same material that goes into a pencil, by stripping its layers, using—this is serious—scotch tape.
From such a seemingly simple beginning, graphene could herald a new era of super-fast electronics and, when mixed into plastics, super-strong but thin, lightweight and elastic materials for future planes, cars, touch screens and more. Away from the Nobel spotlight, Geim and Novoselov continue their work. In August, writing in the journal Science, they revealed the equally exciting electronic properties of graphene’s slightly fatter cousin, bilayer graphene. Last week, the British government announced a £50 million investment to take their research from laboratory to factory floor.
The 2011 prize reminds us that a great deal of physics has no practical application. We study it to expand human knowledge, even consciousness. Max Born, the father of quantum mechanics (and, yes, a Nobel winner) said he was convinced that theoretical physics is actually philosophy. This explains why the physicist Fritjof Capra explored—in The Tao of Physics, his best-selling 1975 book (43 editions, 23 languages)—the parallels between modern physics and eastern mysticism. “Physicists do not need mysticism and mystics do not need physics,” Capra observed, “but humanity needs both.”
Samar Halarnkar is editor-at-large, the Hindustan Times and Mint. This is a fortnightly column that explores the cutting edge of science and technology. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org