“A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the [Large Hadron Collider], might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one…” (The New York Times)
In 2008, the Large Hadron Collider short-circuited, infusing the soil under the border area between Switzerland and France with over a ton of helium, and thereby causing the largely cuckoo clock-making communities along the border to inhale toxic doses of the noble gas. Many clock-makers weren’t taken seriously for weeks, as cuckoo clocks are annoying enough, even more so when pitched by a salesman sounding like a “Kraftwerk” record at 78 rpm.
However, we should remember that scientific missteps have been with us since the dawn of time. Whether struggling against nature, God, or in the case of “Oog’s Club,” fierce beasts (in which a saber-toothed tiger ate Oog, his club, and the rest of the symposium attendees during a physics seminar circa 32,000 BC), scientists have persevered heroically in their efforts, through cunning and dedication, in an effort to triumph over the myriad daunting obstacles that come with trying to comprehend the universe while not on drugs. But it’s never been easy.
Albert Einstein once envisioned an interesting theoretical experiment in which a single light particle would be trapped and then released, allowing for the measurement of the relationship between mass and energy. The scientific community waited in nerdy anticipation while Einstein set to work on his box. Convinced he’d broken through, Einstein telegraphed Niels Bohr, “Come to Leiden this instant! I have captured a photon—seen it in all its fleeting glory from Alpha to Omega.”
“I’m right here,” replied Bohr from the adjoining room shaking his head and pouring another rum punch. Bohr trundled over to Einstein’s desk where he found his fellow physicist eating a slice of four-cheese pizza.
“God dammit, Al! That was the last piece.”
“Did you see the photon?”
“It must have hopped out of the box and onto the pizza.”
“A likely story.”
“Here Niels, you can have the box. Some gorgonzola and maybe a few photons are still left.”
“Keep your stupid box, Al.”
Bohr, as is well documented, abandoned science and returned to his job as a cheese monger in Copenhagen; while Einstein went on to have a distinguished scientific career, despite that hair.
A vehement critic of entropy, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell was known to have once knocked on every door in Edinburgh, inquiring of residents if they’d like to have their undergarments organized by magnetic flux density.” So opposed to the Second Law of Thermodynamics was Maxwell, that the eminent if not imminent scientist devised an experiment to prove it could be violated.
The experiment featured two vessels—possibly Einstein boxes—filled with gas. Straddling these boxes, and able to operate a tiny trapdoor between them, was a “demon,” a being that could “follow every molecule in its course.” The demon was expected to watch closely for speeding molecules, and then use the trap door to allow them to move them from one vessel to the next, demonstrating the fallacy of entropy. But the demon quickly tired of the task, uttering the immortal words: “Take this job and shove it, Jimmy.” Maxwell then undertook the job himself until a torn rotator cuff sidelined his work with molecules (it also changed the pitching rotation in the Glasgow Cougar’s bullpen). The demon, meanwhile, took a job haunting stray dachshunds, and so it comes as no surprise to learn that Maxwell would find himself more than once set upon by crazed wiener dogs on his daily constitutionals through the Cowgate. The demon was eventually lured back to work for Dr. Maxwell with the promise of health/dental benefits and the rest, as they say, is theoretical history.
One of the most famous experiments in the realm of quantum theory involves Schrödinger’s cat, “Snuggles.” Schrödinger had a volatile relationship with Snuggles, a rescue tabby from the Vienna Humane Society. Even after the scientist spent all of his grant money on scratching posts, catnip toys and audio-animatronic mice, Snuggles persisted in trying to suffocate his master by burying him in kitty litter. At wit’s end, Schrödinger devised a contraption (another box) in which he installed a Geiger counter that would trigger a hammer and break a vile of cyanide if it detected radiation in the area of the box, thereby rendering the recalcitrant Snuggles lifeless. However, knowing precisely when a radioactive atom is going to decay in a closed system is, according to Schrödinger, like “knowing when Ms. Schrödinger is going to come back from the opium den.” Thus, inside the box nobody would know whether Snuggles were dead or alive, making it, in Schrödinger’s words, “kinda both.”
Unfortunately for Schrödinger, his maid reported to the dean at Princeton that when the scientist put the cat in the box, “it was already so, so definitely dead.” In addition to the university authorities, PETA weighed in, and ultimately Schrödinger plead down to 150 hours of community service at a fire station, though he protested until his death that “if those assholes had known anything about psi functions, they would have written me a ticket and been done with it.”
Dr. Schrödinger gained special recognition, however, for a subsequent experiment known as “Schrödinger’s Wife,” although the accolades came primarily from the Vienna vice squad; the scientific community largely ignored the whole episode.