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No. 1547:
Ripe for Revolution

Today, let's reclaim mystery. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I was doing a program on another scientist when I discovered he was born the same year as Einstein, 1879. On a hunch I went to the dictionary to check some of the people around them. Niels Bohr was born just six years after Einstein, and Schrödinger four years before. Since these people had redirected human thinking in remarkable ways just after 1900, I looked further. Picasso was born two years after Einstein, James Joyce three years after, Schönberg four years before. The Wright Brothers were only a decade older.

Now it's perfectly obvious that the great minds at any date will've been born around the same time. Nothing interesting there. But I wondered about the world that'd made this particular set of people. What did it say to them when they were young? How did it send them off to wreak such radical change?

I think it was because we'd grown complacent. The problems of science were yielding, left and right, to new instruments, new math, and new physical theory. Only a few nagging problems lingered: the inexplicably constant velocity of light, and our failure to predict how the energy of light and heat varies with wavelength.

The art of the day was Salon Art: extraordinarily realistic images of larger-than-life romantic unreality. Like physics, art had nowhere to go. Nor did the rich, overblown music of the late Romantics. How were you supposed to take it further! Transportation had run to the end of its tether. At a hundred miles an hour, railroad trains could go no faster, and the Clipper Ship had topped out at fourteen knots. It was a world filled with vast accomplishments. But it was also a world of technological ceilings, social ceilings, scientific ceilings.

Just when our revolutionaries were young adults, beginning to make their marks, Henry Adams wrote that the great blind spot at the end of the nineteenth century was our denial of mystery.

So geniuses born in the 1870s and '80s would have to find mystery once again. For mystery is the one thing we cannot do without. Einstein gave us the mysterious neverland of relativity. Schrödinger reduced the contradictions of quantum physics to that single mysterious hypothesis we call the Schrödinger equation. Picasso offered a vision of reality just as disorienting as relativity or quantum uncertainty. Schönberg declared freedom from the tonal hierarchies that'd bound music for five hundred years. James Joyce made mincemeat of prose as we'd expected it to sound.

But revolutions don't survive in their original forms. Music and art eventually regained contact with the people they serve. So did physics. The point becomes crystal clear in two other Einstein contemporaries: Lenin was born nine years before, and Stalin the same year as, Einstein. They made a muck of social revolution. The reason lay in the depths of their profound denial of the centrality of mystery. Without it, their revolution had no way of getting back to the mysterious reaches of human need.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Explanation of diffraction maximum in terms of wave interference

By 1927 we had so left the solid realities of 1879 behind as to describe electrons bouncing off a crystal lattice in the same way we would describe water waves reaching a pier. (Tien, C.L., and Lienhard, J.H., Statistical Thermodynamics. New York: Hemisphere Publishing Corp., 1979, pg. 99.)