Talk 23.10.2017 - 15 h

Speaker: Douglas Hofstadter
Indiana University, Bloomington, USA

Title: An Einsteinian Analogy Sheds Light on Light

Where does deep insight in physics come from? For those who view physics as a highly rational science grounded in strict mathematical deduction, it is tempting to think that great physics comes only from the purest and most precise of reasoning, following ironclad laws of thought that compel the clear mind completely rigidly. And yet the truth is quite otherwise. One finds, when one looks closely at any major discovery in physics, that the greatest of physicists are the most daring and are constantly being guided by blurry, instinctive, nearly irrational mental forces. Albert Einstein ideally exemplifies this thesis.
In this talk, I will begin by discussing the eternal mystery of light, which, over the course of millennia, was puzzled over, pondered on, and slowly worked out by a series of great minds, and finally, in the nineteenth century, was definitively settled with clarity and rock-solid certainty. And yet one day in the early spring of 1905, quite out of the blue, came an absurd-seeming new suggestion from one Albert Einstein, an unknown Swiss patent clerk (third class), clashing violently with that rock-solid piece of collective wisdom about the nature of light. I will describe the subtle analogy that led the brazen-seeming patent clerk to come up with this extremely daring idea, how his idea was received by the physics world, and what its eventual fate was. I will conclude by discussing what we can learn about the workings of the human mind (especially the minds of physicists) from this story.