Extreme Physics

There is little collegiality in the serious pursuit of science.

The first talk given by physicist John Moffat, back in 1953, was a fiasco. Only 19, he had not expected his audience to be hostile to someone trying to extend Einstein’s unified field theory. Alone and distraught by the condescending reaction of his audience, the young Moffat impulsively decided to write to Albert Einstein himself. “I have today held a talk on my work with regard to your theory at the Niels Bohr Institute, Copenhagen,” explained Moffat, lamenting that for his audience there “the main purpose was to undermine my personal confidence.” He did not expect Einstein to answer. Moffat was an unknown Danish message boy with no university training who had taught himself modern physics in his spare time. Einstein had no reason to write back. But he did. Encouraging Moffat to continue his research, Einstein added about the unsuccessful talk, “I can understand very well that your work has not found a favourable reception in Bohr’s circle … For every individual and every study circle has to retain its own way of thinking, if he does not want to get lost in the maze of possibilities.”

Einstein’s claim was far from being an innocuous encouragement to a deserving young man and its ramifications are deep and troubling for a society like ours that values forbearance and conciliation. As I understand him, Einstein was telling Moffat that the reaction of the Niels Bohr Institute’s physicists toward a theory that attacked their most fundamental assumptions about the world was not only normal or healthy, but it was also vital to the very process of science.

As Einstein knew from experience, theories are 13 to a dozen: for any set of data, it is always possible to develop more than one. Which is the correct one? To find out, the scientific community must split itself into competing groups—so as to leave no stone unturned—and simultaneously explore the different possibilities until only one remains. This, in turn, implies that physicists truly devoted to the development of science must attempt to develop the theory they find most promising and also try to demonstrate that the competing views defended by other scientists are unpromising dead ends. To progress, science demands unending conflicts, fierce battles and uncompromising opposition. The irony, Einstein pointed out to Moffat, is that “nobody is sure of having taken the right road, me the least.”

Hostility toward one’s views, Einstein was warning the young Moffat, is not only to be expected; it must be welcomed. As Moffat’s autobiography, Einstein Wrote Back: My Life in Physics shows, intellectually accepting this fact does not make it easier to bear. Could physicists not work in concert? Should they not collaborate? Should they not try to help one another rather than undermining each other’s work? Unfortunately, Einstein Wrote Back offers few insights into physics or into Moffat’s evaluation of the scientific community. However, it does provide a rare insider’s look at the world of physics and many of its most famous figures while offering many fascinating stories from Moffat’s life. And what an exceptional life it has been.

Nothing apparently predisposed Moffat to a life in academia. The child of a Scottish trumpet player and a Danish chorus girl who got married before knowing each other’s languages, Moffat grew up in World War Two Britain. His first chapter offers a vivid and terrifying description of the life of children during the Battle of Britain. Childhood, for Moffat, meant the recurring nightmares and panic attacks caused by the morning walks to school amid the ruins of buildings destroyed by incendiary bombs after terrifying night raids. It was the classes held in air raid shelters and the horrifying German propaganda pamphlets showing pictures of maimed children. For Moffat, childhood was also synonymous with the repeated family moves that followed his father’s numerous assignments during the war. And, finally it meant Denmark, where he entered high school without speaking the language.

After a traumatic childhood, 13 different schools and two languages, it is not surprising that Moffat failed the entrance exam to the gymnasium, the Danish university-preparatory program. The verdict of his examiner was without appeal: “Moffat, I can guarantee that you will never become a mathematician.”

Yet Moffat does not lament these early hardships. He even remarks in one of the rare self–reflective comments of the book that they may not only explain the self-confidence and strong motivation he demonstrated later in life, they may also explain his unusual talent for physics.

Indeed, only a few years after leaving high school and after a year in Paris studying abstract painting with Serge Poliakoff, the impoverished Moffat discovered that he could instinctively picture in colours the fabric of space-time. In two weeks he taught himself calculus. After a few months, he had not only taught himself undergraduate physics and mathematics; he had started to criticize and improve Einstein’s unified field theory and was presenting his results to the unsympathetic physicists of Bohr’s institute.

Even if Moffat’s presentation was not well received at the institute, his mathematical abilities impressed Niels Bohr, who wrote a letter to the British consulate on Moffat’s behalf. The rest of Moffat’s life is something of a physicist’s fairy tale populated by outrageous fairy godfathers. With a candour reminiscent of that displayed by James Watson in The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, Moffat introduces us to a wretched Erwin Schrödinger who generously writes in support of Moffat’s university career, but interviews him in his bedroom, while his wife and mistress are noisily waiting in the kitchen. He also acquaints us with the career-maker Dennis Sciama, who admits Moffat to Cambridge without a prior undergraduate degree, and with the indifferent Fred Hoyle, who nonetheless accepts to nominally stand as Moffat’s thesis supervisor. He brings us to his meeting with a socially inept Paul Dirac, who cannot even dress himself, and to the lunch he has with a drunk and obnoxious Wolfgang Pauli, who embraces Moffat for shouting at him.

The rest of Moffat’s life is academia’s happily-ever-after. Einstein Wrote Back takes us through Moffat’s career, from his research positions in the United States and at CERN (the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) near Geneva to his prediction of a new particle, to his tenured teaching position at the University of Toronto (a somewhat scary prospect for Moffat, who had never officially enrolled in a university course himself) and, finally, to Moffat’s last academic home, Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute.

Despite his successful career and the acknowledgement of what he owes to those who helped him out through his eventful life, Moffat is still clearly disappointed by academia. He admits Einstein was right that science demands opposition: “It is almost a given that new ways of seeing nature face severe opposition. This is not entirely a bad thing because a paradigm in science should not be changed until a new one has been thoroughly tested over time and survives. There’s a built-in conservative attitude in scientific research, which is as it should be.” But it is apparent throughout the book that this intellectual acknowledgement does not remove his ambivalence about how he was often treated as a person by academia. Was the indifference, abusive behaviour and self-interest displayed by many of the great physicists he encountered necessary to their success in physics?

This, unfortunately, is the question Moffat never had the opportunity to ask Einstein, who died before the two had a chance to meet: how do we marry our values of respect and conciliation with the gloves-off approach to criticism demanded by science? Moffat’s book provides no answer. Perhaps because he wants us to find it for ourselves? If so, I am sure Einstein would have approved.