Planck – Driven by Vision, Broken by War

  J. C. ignited my (very healthy) obsession in quantum computing about half a year ago. In the past few months, I have read some technical materials, but have been craving for more and more about the origin and the development of quantum physics, and the giants behind it.  

Sadly Richard Feynman’s books are still in one of many unlabelled boxes of books. I have not had the right frame of mind to open and sort them. My profound dislike of shopping means that I still do not have proper bookshelves after giving away my old shelves during our last move. Indeed I am terribly lazy in some parts of life and I am not ashamed of that.

In the blissful absence of the books I own, I went further back to Max Planck and Erwin Schrödinger who originated and contributed substantially to quantum theory. This Memorial Day weekend blessed me with Max Planck’s wonderful company through Brandon R. Brown’s book: Planck – Driven by Vision, Broken by War.

I have long had a very warm impression of Max Planck thanks to the fact that a few wonderful friends of mine did their doctoral studies in Max Planck Institutes in Germany and spoke highly of their time there. Besides that and Planck’s fame as a very influential theoretical physicist, I did not know much about him at all before reading this book.

It goes without saying that the book discusses Planck’s achievements in the theoretical physics world, recognising and mentoring the very gifted (such as Albert Einstein and Lise Meitner) who might otherwise have been neglected by the masses. Meitner remained a lifelong friend of Planck and his family. Although Planck admitted Meitner to his lectures when women were typically barred from Prussian universities at that time and later tirelessly advocated for her over decades, Planck’s views on academic women were rather following the mainstream at the time: in general it can not be emphasized strongly enough that Nature itself has designated for woman her vocation as mother and housewife, and that under no circumstances can natural laws be ignored without grave damage.

Most of the correspondences quoted in the book probably are translated to English from German. If so, the English translations are of the finest quality, in my opinion. In his late years, Planck recollected his childhood to a cousin: days and weeks that not only stay in our thoughts but grow in glory… as we become conscious of the incredible good luck that surrounded us, and how deeply greatly we must be for what we took for granted then.

When being told that physics was nearing its natural conclusion and there was nothing left to do (thanks to the success of Isaac Newton’s mechanics, James Clerk Maxwell’s electricity and magnetism, and the new and nearly complete field of thermodynamics), by Professor Philipp von Jolly, Planck said that he did not mind if his life’s work would be largely an end in itself, for further and deep edification.

Albert Einstein wrote this preface for a book of Planck’s essays around 1929 or 1930:

Many kinds of men devote themselves to Science, and not all for the sake of Science herself. There are some who come into her temple because it offers them the opportunity to display their particular talents. To this class of men science is a kind of sport in the practice of which they exult, just as an athlete exults in the exercise of his muscular prowess. There is another class of men who come into the temple to make an offering of their brain pulp in the hope of securing a profitable return. There men are scientists only by the chance of some circumstance which offered itself when making a choice of career. If the attending circumstance had been different they might have become politicians or captains of business. Should an angel of God descend and drive from the Temple of Science all those who belong to the categories I have mentioned, I fear the temple would be nearly emptied. But a few worshippers would still remain – some from former times and some from ours. To these latter belongs our Planck. And that is why we love him.

After Planck passed away, Einstein wrote to his widow Marga:

….His gaze was fixed on the eternal things, and yet he took an active part in all that was human and he lived in the temporal sphere. How different and better the human world would be if there were more such unique people among the leaders….

Planck lived through Second Schleswig War, the First and Second World Wars, lost beloved family members to illness, war, and to execution, and lost his home to allied bombing. His optimism as reflected through his writings persisted. In fact, his lifelong motto was “one must be an optimist”. A great amount of content in this book shows me the catastrophic impact of the WWII on the prominent scientists in Germany. I cannot help wondering what if Planck’s notes and journals were not destroyed by the war, how much more we would know of the man.

The book contains multiple letters written by Lise Meitner to Planck and others. It also noted that Lise Meitner collaborated with Otto Hahn for decades, but was left out in his Nobel Prize in Chemistry award for nuclear fission in 1944. How unjust! (That is my view.)

I leave you with this piece of writing from Planck:

For it is just this striving forward that brings us to the fruits which are always falling into our hands and which are the unfailing sign that we are on the right road and that we are ever and ever drawing nearer to our journey’s end. But that journey’s end will never be reached, because it is always the still far thing that glimmers in the distance and is unattainable. It is not the possession of truth, but the success which attends the seeking after it, that enriches the seeker and brings happiness to him.

Q Is For Quantum

Recently I read Q Is For Quantum by Prof. Terry Rudolph and had the very good fortune of meeting Terry in person. The book itself is absolutely hilarious and thought provoking at the same time. If you frown upon classical physics and fear quantum physics, I recommend giving this book a go for the sheer joy of reading. You will be fascinated by Pete box and misty states after reading the first chapter and question your own sanity by the end of the book for not majoring in quantum physics. I did.      

Over the last decade, a couple of occasions induced me to sink into this eternally self-questioning mode because I did not invest my youth in those fields. One was during an academic conference in Germany some years ago. The keynote speaker, a prominent neurosurgeon, presented how neurosurgery had improved the cognitive functions of Alzheimer’s patients. My presentation was after his keynote. In my typically brutal honesty, I confessed right away in front of many audience that I deeply regretted that I was not trained to be a neurosurgeon to help people in that miraculous and direct way; in contrast, being a computer scientist researching biomarkers to help with the early diagnosis and treatment for Alzheimer’s, my contribution to mankind seemed so miniscule. My wonderful PhD advisor Daniel Rueckert was among the audience. He took it very well. Reading Terry’s book and other related materials, meeting a few extraordinarily talented physicists including Terry recently, have opened up a whole new world for me. I want to learn more about quantum physics and quantum computing.

 

I read the book before I met Terry. I could not imagine who on earth would be able to write about Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computing in such a readable form. The writer must be a genius to accomplish this. I read from front to back once first, then revisited many passages that were tagged in the first pass, added new tags iteratively. In my view, you can read the book with varying depths of thought. A 10 year old could understand probably all of the experiments and the discussions in the first two chapters. At the same time, Terry’s writing also intrigued me to ask a lot of “why”, “how”, “what-if” and”what-about” questions (for that reason I have so many tags in the book now). From there, there is no limit to how deep and how far you can explore. The History, Context and Further Reading chapter provides further guidance, most importantly with Terry’s honest and direct opinions.

 

The book has three major parts: Q-Computing, Q-Entanglement and Q-Reality. The way to read this book is to take it slowly and think. If you come across a passage that after some mental wrestling is still not crystally clear to you, give yourself permission to carry on reading and go back to revisit it. To me (with an advanced degree in a science & engineering field), unfortunately thanks to a lot pre-programming, at the beginning of my first read, I was not very comfortable with the games (with characters) initially but read it with much joy nevertheless. A few pages onwards, I was amazed by Terry’s superb storytelling skills in describing the very frontier of quantum computing with such simplicity, clarity and humor. The Q-Reality chapter provoked no less discomfort than The Theory of Everything by Stephen Hawking. Terry was very kind to assure me that I am not alone and even quantum physicists are struggling with whether, for example, to view the misty state as a real physics property or a state of knowledge. There is no point in reading a book and feeling 100% comfortable with it. Where is the stimulation? Through discomfort, my thinking expands.

 

We know what we know and what we do not know, or at least we hope we do. Q Is for Quantum opened up a new terrain with beautiful experiments and theories that I did not know that I did not know before and helped me to gain some understanding of that previously unknown world. Many questions remain for me. This is why I read. This is why you should read this book too.

 

I am very grateful to Terry for the enlightening conversation. Professors like Terry Rudolph, Daniel Ruckert and Paul Kelly make me really proud to be an Imperial graduate and to encourage prospective students to study in Imperial College London. Not only for their own brilliance as highly accomplished scientists, but for their humility, generosity, patience, encouragement and inspiration. We learn far more than just knowledge from these giants. Terry gave an amazing inaugural lecture in 2014, available below on YouTube.

 

The Theory of Everything

During the holiday break, I read Stephen Hawking’s The Theory of Everything. Reading this book was excruciatingly agonising. If not for the awesome Christmas dinner my friends Marilena and Kostas cooked for our big group of Greek friends, and the wonderful Yorkshire Bettys tea and Christmas cake supplied, along with plates, teacups, classical music and a comfy sofa, by dear friends Angela and John, and many miles of hiking, running and biking, I might have lost sanity a little bit. This book stirred up so many questions in me about black holes, the universe, God(s?), our existence and so on. You could almost insert a why question after every single sentence in this book. That is how I pleasantly suffered through reading it.

Can there really be a unified theory of everything? Or are we just chasing a mirage? There seem to be three possibilities:

  • There really is a complete unified theory, which we will someday discover if we are smart enough.
  • There is no ultimate theory of the universe, just an infinite sequence of theories that describe the universe more and more accurately.
  • There is no theory of the universe. Events cannot be predicted beyond a certain extent but occur in a random and arbitrary manner.

I am most inclined to argue for the second and third possibilities. Perhaps this has something to do with my own resignation that if the first possibility is true, there may be no meaning of my own work and existence if not towards that ultimate quest of finding that unified theory and I am neither a physicist nor an mathematician. I had to repeatedly seek comfort in hiking in the woods to think and to reconcile what I could do with my minuscule amount of knowledge and time on the earth (relatively speaking, totally negligible at the grand scheme of the universe).

This is how 2017 ended and 2018 started: with a very long hike in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the thoughts provoked by two great books The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Theory of Everything, and the question what challenges to set for myself next.