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World: Analysis From Washington -- The Day The Earth Dissolved

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 14 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- One hundred years ago today a German physicist published an analytic paper that called into question nearly universal assumptions about the nature of matter, thereby contributing to the scientific, philosophical, and political revolutions which have marked the last century.

On December 14, 1900, Max Planck published a paper in the German Physical Society papers arguing that atoms emit energy not in a continuous wave as scientists had maintained up until that point but rather in discrete packets which several years later he christened the quantum.

Planck's argument attracted relatively little public notice at that time, but almost by itself, it opened the path to the development of Neils Bohr's atomic theory, Albert Einstein's theory of relativity about the interrelationship of space and time, and Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle which argues that it is impossible to measure both the position and speed of a subatomic particle at the same time.

Their work in turn provided the foundation for the development of modern electronics including transistors, integrated circuits and computers that defined life in the last century and today.

But equally important, Planck's argument that energy comes in discrete packets rather than continuous waves undermined the certainties of the Newtonian conception of the world at least at the subatomic realm. That conception, which held that matter was irreducible and governed by mechanistic laws, had served as the metaphysical foundation of most social and political thinking in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

By shattering these certainties, Planck did two things, one of which has drawn a great deal of attention and another which has not but which may be of far greater moment. On the one hand, Planck contributed to the division between the world of physics theory in which mathematicians and scientists work and the physical world in which most people live.

For most people most of the time, continuing to assume that the Newtonian world is correct is fine. That mechanistic, cause-and-effect world works in day-to-day activities. For example, individuals can walk from one point to another without worrying about the curvature of space or the possibility than any particular particle can be in two places at one and the same time.

For scientists studying the nature of matter, the Newtonian principles simply are not adequate: They do not account for particles that are both here and not here at the same time and other phenomena such as unified field theory or space-time that scientists analyze but that laymen have little time for.

And in so doing, Planck contributed mightily to the separation of physics and the ordinary world that has increasingly marked modern science in ever more fields.

On the other hand, Planck's discovery and those of others who followed him have had the most serious consequences for social and political actors who may never have heard of Planck or had even the vaguest understanding of what he and his colleagues were talking and writing about.

By suggesting that the relationship between cause and effect was far less certain than the Newtonian world holds it to be, Planck's ideas contributed to a variety of philosophical schools that provided the foundation for a revolutionary attack on verities far removed from Newton or Planck.

Some thinkers seized on the complexities of the subatomic world to justify a retreat from the rational into the irrational, a shift that helped to energize both some strains of modern nationalism and the social and psychological ideas of Sigmund Freud.

Others viewed the new theories of the physicists as such a threat that their political leaders fought against them or even sought to suppress them. Vladimir Lenin attacked many of the new ideas precisely because he understood that they threatened the mechanistic world of Karl Marx.

If causality could no longer be assumed to be a philosophically and scientifically grounded principle, Lenin feared, then the arguments about the inevitability of history on which he built his party program could be called into question at any time.

And still others saw the complexity and uncertainty of the subatomic world that Planck provided one of the most important glimpses into as a reaffirmation of the sublimity of God and as an indication that nature itself provided support for radical individualism and human freedom.

It is unlikely that any of these consequences were on the mind of that German physicist a century ago, but these, far more than the specific features of his article, are likely to help shape the twenty-first century just as profoundly and in as contradictory a fashion as they did throughout the twentieth.