Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Do We Finally Know It All? by Dr. Thomas Butts

In a new biography titled "Einstein" Walter Isaacson refers to a remark made by the revered scientist, Lord Kelvin, when he was addressing the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1900. He counseled young men not to go into the field of physics because: "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurements." Hmmm.

Even as he spoke a fuzzy headed, non-conformist, 21 year old Jew by the name of Albert Einstein, who had just graduated near the bottom of his class at Zurich Polytechnic College had strange new ideas about the structure of reality buzzing in his brain. After two desperate years of looking for a job, he was finally hired as a 3rd class technician at the patent office in Bern Switzerland. While working 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, and juggling a chaotic personal life, he came up with a scientific theory of Special Relativity which turned the world of physics on its ear. The famous equation E=MC2 came from Einstein’s 1905 paper on special relativity. It overturned long-held concepts in Isaac Newton’s "Principia Mathematica," such as the idea of absolute time. Newton, who had reigned supreme for over 200 years, was no longer infallible.

Lord Kelvin’s pronouncement that no thing new remained to be discovered was a colossal misjudgment. Everything old had to be re-examined and a whole new world of physics was opened up. When Albert Einstein died 55 years after Lord Kelvin’s pronouncement that everything new had been discovered, the whole world tipped their hat to this strange, imaginative, impertinent patent clerk who had become "the mind reader of the creator of the cosmos and the locksmith of the mysteries of the atom and the universe.

As the bright new age of the modern world dawned, Lord Kelvin was not the only person to think we knew just about all there was to know. In 1899, Charles Duell, Director of the U.S. Patent Office, urged President William McKinley to abolish the Patent Office. He told the President that "Everything that could be invented had been invented." But, even as he spoke two sons of a Methodist Bishop by the names of Wilbur and Orville Wright were toying with ideas of flight that would eventually revolutionize travel.

During the Great Depression in the 1930s my brother and I walked two miles on Saturday nights to hear the "Grand Ole Opry," being broadcast from Nashville, Tennessee, on a battery operated radio. In 1941, my father ordered a Silvertone radio from Sears Roebuck for $15.00 so we could listen to the "war news." As we listened to voices from thousands of miles away speak in our own living room, I thought this was as good as it gets. Surely there was nothing more that could be invented in the field of mass communication. Somebody, somewhere, said there was a strange new invention called television on the drawing board that could send real-time live pictures. What a crazy idea. I certainly did not believe it.

In this first decade of the 21st Century we have advanced instruments of technology that Lord Kelvin and Charles Duell would never believe possible. I scarcely believe it possible myself.
Surely by now "everything that can be invented has already been invented!" Shall we close the Patent Office? Hmmm.

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