A Century of Physics

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A Century of Physics By the end of the nineteenth century after more than two thousand years of intellectual struggle that began with the Greek philosophers, physical scientists had reason to believe that they were beginning to understand the universe. Their theories of matter and energy, of electricity and magnetism, of heat and sound and light were confirmed in laboratories throughout the world with increasing precision. Experimentation was the method and mathematics the language of a powerful coherent body of knowledge called classical physics. For a few years before and after the turn of the century, the world was taking a breather from war and rebellion. The monumental achievements of science, technology, and industry such as the installation of a transatlantic telegraph cable, inspired hopes for a peaceful and prosperous future. But beneath the calm surface, in politics as well as in science, the roots of future turmoil were quietly gathering strength. Even the sturdy foundations of classical physics were developing alarming cracks. Some discrepancies were found when experiments clashed with theory. Perhaps the most unsettling of these was the failure to discover the ether. When their results plainly contradicted the ether hypothesis, physicists were dismayed. How could there be vibrations without something to do the vibrations? Other puzzles cropped up by accident. On November 8, 1885 the German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen stumbled upon a way to make strange rays with the power to penetrate black paper, and even living flesh. Since x is the unknown in algebra, Rontgen called them X rays. By December, he had used them to take pictures of human bones, and within a year their practical value wa... ... middle of paper ... ...ould we describe turbulence, the chaotic swirl of liquids and gases that has defied mathematical physicists for a century? If we knew, would we be able to predict weather patters and heart attacks? Can consciousness be explained in terms of electrical currents in neural networks, and possibly quantum mechanics, or is there more to it? For that matter, do we have to accept the strange laws of quantum mechanics without question, or will someone discover the clue that makes the quantum obvious, as Albert Einstein never stopped hoping? How did life begin? Are we alone in the universe? Until we can answer such questions with confidence, we cannot claim to have understood the world. Looking back we realize that we have learned much in this century, but of mysteries there is no end. The most impenetrable of them all is to predict what the next discovery will be.

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