When Max Planck Stubbed His Honorable Big TOE


I’m thinking about pragmatism and its uses. Again, I think pragmatism is a genetic endowment, whose siblings are objectivity and skepticism (vs. gullibility and certainty). Returning to Einstein, great skeptic that he was, both his and his mentor Max Planck’s objectivity failed them later in their careers. Plagiarized from “Planck” in Wikipedia*, something both laughable and regrettable (in boldface, below):

* A note about Wikipedia: It is faddish in some near-intellectual grandees at the moment to disparage Wikipedia. Since I’m not an academician, however, I am not constrained from saying they can go to hell. Snobs. (The rule book also probably says that this footnote should appear somewhere other than where I choose to put it, and that I should refer to the quotation’s original source. But what I think is, you could look it up!)

“At the end of the 1920s Bohr, Heisenberg and Pauli had worked out the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, but it was rejected by Planck, as well as Schrodinger, Laue, and Einstein. Planck expected that  wave mechanis would soon render quantum theory—his own child—unnecessary. This was not to be the case, however. Further work only cemented quantum theory, even against his and Einstein’s philosophical revulsions. Planck experienced the truth of his own earlier observation from his struggle with the elders’ views in his younger years: ‘A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.’” – Wikipedia

 So Planck himself codified the rule about the ossification of seniors’ views (aphorized as “Science progresses one funeral at a time”); and then he and Uncle Albert both promptly fell into the trap he described. Their “philosophical revulsions” were because they could not stand the uncertainty in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Einstein spent the rest of his life in pursuit of the Theory of Everything (the Big TOE), or Unified Theory, which Heisenberg had said was impossible. When Einstein asserted that God did not play dice with the universe, it was this discomfort of his that he was addressing.

 As a rationalist I take certainties where I find them. I am a zealot about that; but at the same time, being old, I poke around in my own mind to see where I have become unreasonably rigid. Again, though, I suspect it’s like trying to see my own eyeball from inside of it.

 Max Planck’s story is a real puzzle. (BTW, “Vare-nare,” below, is my attempt at a phonetic spelling of “Werner” in Deutsch-speak.) Have a go!

 What’s so bad about arrogance? Here’s one thing, contained in a mournful tale of what I have elsewhere called irreducible narcissism, about Max Planck: He defined quantum mechanics, which made him famous. By and by he made up an aphorism – “Science progresses one funeral at a time,” because older physicists had once temporarily blocked his way.   His peers loved it: “Good one, Max!”

Max got old. Along came a smart-ass named Werner Heisenberg with an enhancement to quantum physics called the Uncertainty Principle. “Vare-nare, nein! Nein! Don’t touch my stuff,” cried Max, but the river of physics had broadened by then, so that Werner could go around Max, who was trying to dam it up. The river simply swept Max into an eddy, and went on into the future. Now nobody was laughing at Max’s aphorism – they were laughing at Max.

This is heavy irony, and the question of why Planck didn’t think his “funerals” lesson applied also to him fascinates me. One more perfidious mind; and do you and I suffer from this too? Of course we do.

My idea about irreducible narcissism has to do with our totalTOTALinability to picture ourselves as flawed. “I’m not just any old stubborn physicist. I am Max Planck, for God’s sake. Every single idea of mine is completely thought out, and besides, I own quantum mechanics. Don’t try and tell me!

I’m quite certain Planck also subscribed to the idea that’s accompanied the irrational exuberance of every investment bubble since the Tulip Bulb Frenzy: “THIS TIME IS DIFFERENT!”

What fools these mortals be/

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