Sunday, September 27, 2015

Why I constructed a timeline of physicists

In a TED interview, notable inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk was asked about his secret behind being able to address diverse technological problems, from sustainable energy to space exploration. His answer can be paraphrased in two words, "Study physics." That's how important physics is. Even sciences like chemistry and biology, and most of engineering, are higher abstractions of underlying physics. It is the foundation on which all of science and technology, and hence all of society rests.   

Isaac Newton once said, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." He wasn't just being humble, he was being frank. In physics, as it is with all fields of human thought, the birth of every great idea happened in an environment of ideas that preceded it. At times, one scientist proposed a revolutionary idea that was completely at odds with the prevailing thought. At other times, a particular set of ideas facilitated a natural progression towards another set of ideas irrespective of the individuals involved so long as people were working on it.

To get a panoramic picture of the evolution of ideas in physics, I constructed a visual timeline titled '500 Years of Physics' (see tweet above). I hope teachers, students and enthusiasts of physics find it useful. Updated PNG and PDF versions of the file are now available and I intend to keep updating and enhancing the list.

The timeline consists of people who made key contributions in fundamental and applied physics. Each one on the chronological list is associated with certain key ideas, theories, and/or experiments. Not everyone on the list was a physicist, but all of them made significant contributions to the collective enterprise called physics. Each horizontal bar starts at the birth year of the corresponding personality, and ends at his/her year of demise. The list gives an idea of contemporaries and forerunners -- who came before or after whom, who worked with whom.

Reading physics from a textbook creates an illusion of a level field; everything -- all the laws, the equations, the theories -- comes on a platter. All the struggle behind, the times elapsed and the environment within which the ideas sprang up are hidden from the students. Superimposing other historical timelines on top of this timeline puts those struggles in perspective and will hopefully help reveal some of the stories behind the science. If you love physics, take a printout of the timeline and pin it near your work desk!