Faraday

Compared to mathematics, physics is extremely well-funded. For example, I have attended many talks by Nobel Laureates compared to Fields Medalists. (Locally, I have attended talks by Serre, S.T. Yau and Pierre Louis Lions. I somehow missed talks by Smale and Ngo Bao Chao. Overseas, I have heard Bhargava and Tao lecture.) But back to physics, in addition to the Nobel Lauretes, there have been many public talks on quantum mechanics, cosmology and particle physics, in relation to the LHC.

The latest was on 25th August by David Gross. He mentioned that Faraday, as an answer to the question what was his discovery good for, was said to have answered “you will be able to tax it.” A quick search on the web would reveal that this story is probably apocrypha, but still a good story. It was only a day later via a tweeter feed (it’s GMT +8 here) that I noted Faraday passed away on 25th August 1867, 150 years ago to the day!

It was certainly not the first time I heard the Faraday joke and conceivably I might have heard it from the same speaker but it also triggered my memory of another similar story. Through the modern marvels of ipad-photography (I took a quick snap of the slide and the photo had the date), google calendar and the internet I tracked it down to a talk by John Ellis on 19th Jan 2012 on the LHC. (A few months before the Higgs boson was observed.) The conversion with M. Thatcher and Ellis as follows:

Thatcher: “What do you do?”
Ellis: “Think of things for the experiments to look for, and hope they find something different.”
Thatcher: “Wouldn’t it be better if they found what you predicted?”
Ellis: “Then we would not learn how to go further!”

This rings well with David Gross’ own take;”The most important product of knowledge is ignorance.”

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