Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Einstein Wrote Back

My Life in Physics

Enter the bare-knuckle world of battling theoretical physicists, whose cartoonlike antics emulate “the antisocial behaviour of the electron.”

Author John Moffat is a self-taught theoretical physicist who was admitted to a doctoral program at Cambridge without having previously attended university.

In the course of his unorthodox career he met some of the biggest names in 20th century physics, including Bohr, Dirac, Pauli, Salam, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, Higgs, Gell-Mann – Nobel winners all – as well as Hoyle, Penrose, Oppenheimer, and others.

The first thing he learned from these giants was that rude, boorish, and abrasive behaviour was acceptable. Schrodinger called Einstein an old fool and Bohr accused him of being an alchemist. Hoyle despised the Big Bang theory, Pauli openly jeered at other physicists, Gell-Mann planted his big feet on Moffat’s knees under a restaurant table, Oppenheimer tried to poison his supervisor at Cambridge, and Dirac was scolded by his wife: “Paul, you are so stupid! You can’t even put on your own trousers.”

But it's not just a gossipy narrative. Moffat pays tribute to the many physicists who helped further his unusual career, and explains in simple terms how his life’s work bucked the “herd instinct in physics” by developing theories that did not invoke dark matter, dark energy, or the Higgs particle.*

Perhaps most shocking of all is his “heretical suggestion” that the speed of light is not constant.

Remarkable Childhood

The opening chapters are among the best in the book. He grew up in Great Britain during the war and narrowly escaped death during the blitz. A peripatetic upbringing resulted in his attending 13 schools with instruction in two different languages – English and Danish. When tested for his suitability to attend university, he failed miserably.

After highschool he worked at a number of deadend jobs until he developed an interest in abstract painting and spent a year in Paris being tutored by Serge Poliakoff. On returning home in Copenhagen a couple of popular science books led to an infatuation with physics and “strange visions of the structure of the universe and the fabric of spacetime.”

In a single year he taught himself enough math and physics to find what he considered a flaw in Einstein’s quest for a unified field theory. When he gave a talk about it at the Niels Bohr Institute, he was ridiculed for his choice of topic. Stung, he wrote to Einstein, whose response provided the title for this book. He was only 19 years old.

Canadian Connection

After working in England, the US, and at CERN in Europe, he came to Canada and lived in Toronto for 40 years while working in the U of T physics department. He is currently Professor Emeritus there, as well as Adjunct Professor of physics at the University of Waterloo, and a member of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, where he now lives.

Einstein Wrote Back
came out in 2010 and was shortlisted for the Lane Anderson Award for the best science writing in Canada. It includes eight pages of photos, mostly of his famous colleagues.

* Two years after the book was published, the Higgs boson was finally found by CERN's Large Hadron** Collider.

** Not Hardon, as Maclean’s and other media sources reported, to the delight of many.