Spectrum | Dec. 18 5:21 pm EST
let's talk about science

What Planck can teach us about uncertainty during finals

frogthroat / flickr

In this new Spectrum series, readers submit their thoughts about things across the scientific spectrum (yes indeed) as they relate to Columbia students and faculty. In the first installment, a reader talks about how scientific discovery is often a matter of chance and uncertainty—and how you don’t have to be a genius to study the sciences. So if you’re cramming hard for that orgo final tomorrow, take hope from our old friend Planck. 

Dec. 14 this year marked the 113th anniversary of Max Planck’s lecture on energy quanta to the German Physical Society, an action that would spark a radical change in the world of physics, and kick off the quantum revolution.

It’s easy to imagine Planck, with his solemn mustachioed expression and conservative air of distinction, peering through his spectacles as he analyzes complex physical concepts, postulating clever hypotheses and orchestrating insightful experiments to validate them. The reality is probably more like what Columbia neurobiologist Stuart Firestein describes as “bumbling around in a dark room, bumping into things, trying to figure out what shape this might be, what that might be.”

Planck’s discovery resulted from his analysis of blackbody radiation—he had no intention of revolutionizing physics and was a firm believer in the principles of classical physics. Yet it was his discovery that energy was quantized that would completely rock the world of his discipline. Quantization meant that energy could only be gained or lost in multiples of quantity , where, ν represents frequency and h is a specific number now called Planck’s constant. Today this equation is known to describe the energy of a photon in terms of frequency, and it can be used to understand how light interacts with electrons in a molecule.

There was no well-designed plan ironed out to pave the way for a new theory of physics. There was no hypothesis in place that assumed the necessity of energy quantization. What Planck stumbled upon was radical, almost too radical—he was even reluctant to introduce it, and after doing so spent years looking for a way to connect it back to classical principles. The years that followed saw scientists such as Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger take Planck’s discovery and propel it forward, building upon it with new ideas that seemed to highlight a previously unrecognized characteristic of nature: uncertainty.

Graela / flickr

Graela / flickr

The scientific community needed a few years before it was able to accept these radical ideas. Planck may not have even known what he had come across when he presented his findings in 1900, and it would take him years to fully embrace the quantum revolution he had inadvertently started.

We would do well to keep that in mind this finals week, as we struggle to master difficult concepts and memorize equations, theories, and laws that took years to discover. Understanding takes time—so when you’re slogging through that problem set, keep perspective. Even the great scientists who we learn from and look up to often didn’t have a clue what they were doing.

Erwin Schrödinger, one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, once said, “In an honest search for knowledge, you quite often have to abide by ignorance for an indefinite period.”

Prospective scientists (and all students!) at Columbia should take comfort in this. The process of discovery is not easy—neither is failure nor ridicule—but if the origins of quantum physics are of any significance, then one thing becomes evident: Science is not about being a genius—it’s about a dedication to understanding what we are ignorant about, and a willingness to fumble about and screw up along the way.

Nina Michael is a General Studies student majoring in biochemistry. 




  1. Zoink • December 19, 2013 at 9:08 am • Reply

    Physics at Columbia = stripteasing professor

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  2. Doge • December 23, 2013 at 3:12 am • Reply

    Such finals. So Nina. How physics.

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