Probing the Universe

David Gelman. Newsweek. March 12, 1979.

They build machines that explore the distant planets and engineer cataclysmic collisions between subnuclear particles. They aim their telescopes at the farthest galaxies and peer through their microscopes at the incredibly diminutive world of the atom. They wrestle with space that curves, particles that appear as waves and black holes that are inherently invisible. Physicists aim at nothing less than understanding creation in all its diverse forms, and in recent years they have amassed an astonishing record of success.

Cosmologists confidently believe that they know how the universe started, and are now examining how it will end. Elementary-particle physicists have burrowed deeply enough into the heart of matter to identify the entities that are, quite possibly, the basic building blocks of everything that exists. Theorists working with computers and calculators are halfway toward the holy grail of physics—a set of equations that would link the fundamental forces of nature in a single grand design.

All of these advances have come at a propitious moment in the history of science. This month, from Princeton to Peking, physicists, publishers and public officials will take time out to honor the century’s pre-eminent scientist, Albert Einstein. The occasion is the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s birth, on March 14, and the event is being celebrated with a combination of scholarship and showmanship—books, symposiums, television specials and commemorative stamps. The unassuming professor would have been appalled by the global fuss, just as he was by attempts to lionize him in his lifetime. Yet it was Einstein, virtually alone, who pointed the way to a new age of discoveries, from nuclear energy to laser beams.

The centennial has prompted physicists to assess the state of their science in the wake of the Einsteinian revolution. Their report is mixed. Though their achievements have been stunning, they are facing ever more stringent political restraints. Budgetary screws are tightening even as the costs of research zoom upward. The red tape of grantsmanship is nearly choking academic scientists, and the government’s emphasis on “accountable” research that provides quick returns in technology is driving them away from the sort of basic research by which Einstein wrought his wonders.

But for the moment, the scientific mood is celebratory. Every major physics journal has an appreciation of Einstein’s work slated for some time this year, and physical scientists are straining their already overloaded calendars to accommodate Einstein seminars. One major gathering of physicists, including nineteen Nobel laureates, will take place this week at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, N.J., Einstein’s last academic home. Over the weekend, some of the scholars will fly to Bern, Switzerland, where Einstein worked as a patent clerk during his most creative years, while others will mark the anniversary in Jerusalem. “You’ll have to travel faster than the speed of light to hit all three meetings,” quips Brandeis University professor Stanley Deser, relatively speaking.

A Controversial Tribute

For the public, the Smithsonian Institute opened a major exhibition on Einstein last weekend, Paris’ Beaubourg museum is staging a similar program, and New York’s American Institute of Physics has mounted an Einstein road show that will visit every state. At least three television films on the man and his works will be aired this year. Publishers, including two in China, are releasing a mini-library of fresh Einsteiniana, plus a special centennial edition of his autobiography.

A more controversial tribute is the 12-foot-high bronze of Einstein to be unveiled by the National Academy of Sciences on its Washington grounds next month. Critics grouse not only at sculptor Robert Berk’s “bubble gum” style and the astronomical cost of his opus (around $1.6 million), but at its astrological overtones: it shows the seated Einstein gazing down at a starry replica of the heavens as they appeared on the night of his birth.

Much as the posthumous hullabaloo might have distressed him, the professor would have been enormously pleased by the achievements being reported in centennial symposiums. They suggest that today’s physics is as vigorous intellectually as at any time since the heady 1920s.”In the past few years we have made islands, at least, in the jigsaw puzzle of physics,” says Abraham Pais of Rockefeller University. “We feel that we are closing in on a greater element of synthesis.”

Einstein’s legacy is apparent in four major enterprises of physics (following stories):

Experts in gravitation are testing his general theory of relativity to increasingly accurate limits. They are encountering in the process such astonishing objects as black holes—collapsed stars whose gravitational pull is so strong that not even light can escape them.

Cosmologists are questioning whether the expansion of the universe, itself foreseen in the general theory, will continue forever or whether the cosmos will contract back into the dense, hot conditions of the primal big bang.

Theorists are making impressive progress in a venture that finally defeated Einstein, linking the four forces of nature—gravitation, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces—in a single, all-embracing set of equations.

Philosophers and physicists are arguing Einstein’s stubborn conviction, which separated him from the main body of physicists, that the behavior of atoms and elementary particles is determined by rigid laws of causality rather than chance.

Physicists are also closing in on clues that may tell them, in the next decade or so, whether the exotic little entities called quarks are the basic building blocks of atoms, or whether something even tinier is at the heart of matter. Superpotent atom smashers, now being built in the U.S. and elsewhere, will undertake the quark quest in the 1980s. In less abstract fields, efforts to harness the enormous heat and energy of hydrogen fusion are moving apace. And solid-state physicists continue to miniaturize the size of electronic components so spectacularly that home computer terminals seem likely to be as common as television sets by the end of the century.

But the very advances Einstein made possible have also made physics horrendously more complex and costly. The two 1919 eclipse expeditions that confirmed the bending of starlight by the sun (as predicted by general relativity) cost about $4,600. The team that last December reported tentative evidence of gravity waves (another consequence of relativity) used a radiotelescope costing $17 million to build. The only practical source of such largesse for U.S. scientists is the Federal government. During the past decade, however, Federal funds have not only been limited but bureaucrats and congressmen have begun demanding more for the taxpayers’ money than a succession of vague cosmic apercus.

Destruction and Underutilization

The clampdown has squeezed sciences across the board. The budget of the National Science Foundation, the arm of government that funds basic research, has stayed below the 1968 figure in constant dollars for a decade, although the Carter Administration’s proposal for the next fiscal year pushes it above that peak. Still, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Jerome Wiesner, the cuts have already led to “the destruction of many research teams … the underutilization of important facilities and, in some cases, their premature demise.”

The profession is also feeling the impact of sheer size. In his day, Einstein probably knew all the world’s physicists—and all there was to know about physics. But, by one calculation, the number of physicists, papers, journals and the like has doubled every twelve years since the turn of the century. The science itself has fractionated into such cross disciplines and sub-specialties as astrophysics, biophysics and particle physics. Experts find it difficult enough to keep up with their own specialities, let alone others’. “We have no idea what the fellow next door is doing,” laments Princeton University physicist Eugene Wigner. Scientists are also buffeted by a paper-storm of expanding administrative work. Some estimate they devote at least 20 per cent of their time to grant proposals, and another precious chunk of time to speechmaking and fund raising.

On top of that, the ecology and consumer movements, with their legitimate concerns about environmental pollution and carcinogenic additives, have helped exacerbate the public’s underlying mistrust of science. There are growing pressures for public participation in resolving science-policy issues and increasing demands that research be “targeted” toward studies that can obviously benefit people. All of it adds up to a rejection of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. “Einstein might be horrified by the driving need for application, rather than the sheer excitement and intellectual reward of understanding,” says National Science Foundation director Richard Atkinson.

Frontier Prospecting

Indeed, some scientists wonder whether a freewheeling outsider like Einstein could flourish at all in today’s “big science,” with its result-oriented teams of researchers and its dependence on esoteric hardware. Yet, in an important sense, physics has not changed fundamentally since Einstein’s time.

“Observation and analysis and generalization are still the ground rules,” explains James Krumhansl, who oversees NSF physics funding. “What has happened is that the phenomena physicists continue to discover lie in a frontier that is further and further removed from day-to-day experience.”

Can such frontier prospecting be justified to a suspicious public? Yes, declare the physicists, both on the cultural level of “elegant” Einsteinian theories that help explain the universe and on the mundane level of eventual, if not short-term, payoffs. One 1974 study by the National Science Board, for instance, concluded that basic research had contributed substantially to 179 major technical advances between 1950 and 1973. “Basic breakthroughs have an impact no one can foresee,” agrees Russell Peterson, who heads the Office of Technology Assessment, the scientific-research arm of Congress. “It takes faith in science to invest money in basic research.”

Despite public hostility, physicists see increasing signs of that faith, especially among key congressmen like Florida Democrat Don Fuqua, the new chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee.”Basic research must take its place in the budget,” Fuqua asserts, and the proposed 1980 Carter budget in fact calls for 9 per cent increase over the current figure to $4.6 billion.

Thus, the year of Einstein gives physicists at least some cause for optimism. They believe the fundamental problems of the universe are responding to their probing. They see no let-up in the supply of the most gifted graduate students. They even manifest enough confidence in themselves and their vastly aggrandized support systems to predict that any latter-day Einstein would still be spotted and nurtured. To be sure, there are still doubters who think that brilliant researchers may get lost in the labyrinths of paperwork, gadgetry and specialization. But others are certain that genius will find a way. In any case, observes Philip Handler, head of the National Academy of Sciences, the really creative moments in the life of a scientist come down to about two minutes—”to the moment of understanding. The rest is a silent milling and sorting process.” Professor Einstein himself, no doubt, would silently agree.