Relativity, Quantum, and the Internet

When Kate and I were walking Emmy last night, we were talking about the historical development of relativity. As one does, when walking the dog. I mentioned a couple of the pre-1905 attempts to explain things like the Michelson-Morley experiment, and how people like Lorentz and FitzGerald and Poincare were on the right track, but didn't quite get it all together.

Kate asked about what it would've been like to be a physicist working at that time, when both relativity and quantum mechanics were being born, trying out new approaches and not really knowing whether a given approach would turn out to be the revolutionary new discovery that would solve everything, or whether it would fail to pan out in some way. After thinking about it a little, I think the answer is "Like working with the Internet today."

I think it's a decent analogy, because everybody doing anything net-related seems to have an unshakable confidence that their particular favorite widget is going to Change Everything, and most of them are wrong. But in the space of the last twenty-odd years, everything really has changed, not so much by the individual efforts of any one genius, but the rapid accumulation of lots of not-quite-revolutionary-on-their-own steps.

For every really revolutionary development that panned out-- light quanta, matter waves, special relativity-- there are a bunch of not-quite-right things that are now largely forgotten. There was an "old quantum theory" in the years between the Bohr model and the Heinsenberg/ Schrodinger development of modern QM. Bohr spent a while pushing a wacky model that tried to avoid the quantization of light, at the cost of discarding conservation of energy. Lorentz and Poincare produced models that had most of the weird features of relativity, but tried to keep an aether-like privileged frame of reference. These failed models are basically the and Friendster of the history of physics.

To some extent, any active field of science has a little of this feel-- cold-atom physics in the 1990's was a pretty exciting subfield to be in, with all sorts of incredible new discoveries including but not limited to BEC. It's usually not that pervasive or prolonged, though-- the excitement is usually limited to a smallish area of science, and generally doesn't last that long. The early 20th century was an extended period of major ferment over a wide range of physics, and I don't think there's anything quite like it in science today.

In a broader cultural sense, though, I think the Internet phenomenon probably comes kind of close. It's nigh on twenty years, now, that everybody has been talking about how the Internet is going to change everything, and while most of the specific predictions have been wrong, everything is different. I do almost all of my non-technical reading in electronic form these days, I keep in touch with my friends and family through email and Facebook and Skype, I buy all manner of things from Amazon, a company that doesn't have any bricks-and-mortar stores anywhere.

I don't think there's much of a larger point to be drawn from this-- I'm not trying to equate Jeff Bezos and Niels Bohr, and I don't think that this analogy lends any extra weight to whatever brand of Internet triumphalism we're pushing this week. But I think that, if you want to know what physics felt like in the early 1900's, you probably already do.

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So Andrew Keen (ie. internet skeptic) is kinda like Albert Einstein (ie. quantum skeptic). There's something really wrong about that. Hopefully it's my understanding of quantum skepticism.

I think there's a key difference. I read maths at Cambridge in the late 70's, when quantum gravity was all the rage. The people who were doing it were teaching is, but all we knew about it was just how far we were from being able to comprehend the basics. In all of these revolutions, all of the people who were capable of understanding each other would comfortably fit into one room. (Well, except for Newton, Hook and Leibniz, obviously....)

The big difference with the Internet is that everyone can see what's going on, even more people than that feel constrained to comment on it, and the only bit that's difficult to grasp is human nature.

By Ian Kemmish (not verified) on 10 Sep 2010 #permalink

The big difference is that relativity and QM have both huge philosophical implications, internet has none.

Paul @3: You're saying that the concept of being able to have a multimedia conversation virtually instantaneously with anybody in the world no matter where (as long as both parties have a net connection) does not have philosophical implications? You're saying that the ability to fact-check politicians, pundits, and other snake oil salesmen does not have philosophical implications? And this is just a small fraction of the internet's capabilities.

It isn't just the technology that has changed, but a whole mindset on how to interact with the world. I am old enough, as is Chad, to remember the pre-internet world. A world in which, if you wanted to send somebody a written communication, you had to get an envelope and a stamp. A world in which, if you wanted to talk to somebody not in the same room, you had to not only pick up a telephone but hope that (s)he was somewhere near a specific telephone and able and willing to pick up that telephone. A world in which, if you wanted to share photos with somebody, you had to get physical copies made and send those physical copies to the intended recipient. Thanks to the internet (and a few other innovations like mobile phones), things that were scarce when I was an undergraduate are now abundant to anyone who has a net connection. This newfound abundance has important philosophical implications that our society (not least our legal system--think copyright law) has not fully absorbed yet.

I don't pretend to understand all of these philosophical implications, any more than I understand all of the philosophical implications of QM or relativity. But those philosophical implications are certainly there.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 10 Sep 2010 #permalink

... everybody doing anything net-related seems to have an unshakable confidence that their particular favorite widget is going to Change Everything

Sure, they say their invention will change everything because that's how you get mentioned on TechCrunch and drive some more traffic to your site, but in reality, most web entrepreneurs just think they can get more money doing something another company tried doing without being able to cash in on their property...

I agree with Greg, the problem with Internet now is the market inside it. And by using the word problem I don't criticize the market but ...When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail...

I think you are mixing up advances in science and engineering. A lot of the advances in physics in the early part of the 20th century were scientific and required keen insight of a revelationary sort. The developments of the internet are more akin to building a better car or a faster plane. The concept was put in place, and then people have been adding more and more features. That's engineering.