This week’s Ask a ScienceBlogger question breaks a three-week string of topics I have no real opinion on:

If you could have practiced science in any time and any place throughout history, which would it be, and why?

I have two answers to this question: the true answer, and the answer they’re looking for (below the fold).

The true answer to this question is “Right now.” There’s never been a better time to be a scientist, and I’m not just talking about things like the availability of antibiotics to keep one from dying a miserable death from some sort of plague or another, which would be a real risk in any other era. We know more about everything right now than we have at any other time in the history of science, and we have tools for studying nature that were beyond the imagination of science fiction a generation ago. We can do more, and understand more today than ever before.

This is just the nature of the business, though. It’s always the best time ever to be doing science. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you’re working in science, and you don’t feel that there’s never been a better time to be a scientist, you need to change fields.

Of course, that’s not the answer the question is really after. What they really want is a past era that would be particularly interesting, because having everybody pick the present is sort of boring.

If we restrict it to some time in the past, I’ll say that the past era when I would like to be working in physics is the 1920’s in Europe. At that time, the people who now stand as titans of the field– Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg– were just beginning to put together the theory of quantum mechanics, and explore all the bizarre and utterly wonderful phenomena that entails. I don’t think there’s any other past era when it would’ve been quite so exciting to be studying physics, to have the classical understanding of the world crumbling away under your feet, while you help construct an entirely new and radical way of looking at the world.

If I could look in on one event in the past history of physics, it’d probably be the Solvay Conference in 1927 (or possibly 1930), to see the debates between Bohr and Einstein about the nature of quantum theory. It probably couldn’t hope to live up to the hype, but the descriptions I’ve read make it sound absolutely riveting.


  1. #1 Perry Rice
    July 21, 2006

    ah, physics in Europe in the mid 20’s, Gottingen say! Dirac said something like “it was a time when first rate work was done by second rate men”, there was so much going on. Course it would also have been a time of great confustion!

  2. #2 Uncle Al
    July 22, 2006,39020354,39278934,00.htm

    Wait until 2007 for quad cores and 65 nm AMD architecture. Meanwhile, the single diagnostic for when you want to live is wholly contained within a single word: dentistry. What direct representative of God, infinite universal knowledge, or studly omnipotence ever vouchsafed novocaine?

  3. #3 Anton Sherwood
    July 23, 2006

    For me, the best time to be doing science (or just about anything else) would be after really effective treatments for depression and insomnia become available.

  4. #4 UIrich Mohrhoff
    July 23, 2006

    I am convinced that the great times for doing science are over. No matter what the LHC will produce, it won’t answer the relevant questions. It’s time to sit back and reflect on what has been achieved. We still don’t know what quantum mechanics is trying to tell us about the nature of Nature. Getting this straight seems to me much more important than finding the “ultimate symmetry group”.

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