Tags: evariste galois | grigori perelman

Politics, Money Can Obstruct Pursuit of Scientific Truth

Politics, Money Can Obstruct Pursuit of Scientific Truth
A general view of MEDICIS which is under construction during a behind the scenes tour at CERN, the World's Largest Particle Physics Laboratory on April 19, 2017, in Meyrin, Switzerland. (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

By Monday, 01 May 2017 10:40 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Scientists at CERN are crunching protons together at close to the speed of light at the most massive atom smasher on Earth. They’re looking for hints to construct a Grand Unified Theory, a “theory of everything,” that would unite the infinitesimally small world of quantum mechanics with the mind-boggling vastness of a cosmos governed by the physics of relativity. Twenty-seven kilometer long linear accelerators are certainly useful in this endeavor, but if history is any guide the tool that will more probably than not crack this hardest of nuts will be something far more powerful: mathematics. The hunt for the clues leads to a branch of math that deals with symmetry and supersymmetry — and some astonishing answers to everything we think we know about the four fundamental forces, matter and anti-matter, and what was happening in the first second after the Big Bang.

This powerful mathematical tool is the legacy of quite an unusual benefactor: a young, revolutionary loud mouth, a soap-box firebrand who couldn’t govern his feelings for a pretty girl, or control his tongue concerning an over-arching king, and wound up getting himself shot down in a duel before his twenty-first birthday. Evariste Galois is the discoverer of the eponymous Galois field theory. It turns up in the most arcane places where the cutting edge of science is probing. That Galois was a great genius is now apparent. In the 1820’s, however, he could have been tabbed for a different title: Unluckiest Man in France.

His paper submitted to the great mathematician Augustin Cauchy at the French Academy of Sciences was lost. When he re-submitted it a second time, Cauchy, quite unbelievably, lost it — again! Given a final chance by Simeon Poisson, who actually read it, the result was no better. Poisson responded that the paper was “incomprehensible.” Galois’ luck was up. Whether it was some untoward incident involving a love interest, a public insult to the king uttered in a drunken toast, or some combination thereof, Galois found himself on the field of honor at dawn, and if the blurry history of this affair is correct, facing one of the greatest marksmen in France, one Pescheux d’Herbinville.

What seems certain is that the night before the duel, Galois realized he was going to die. He gallantly spent the night foregoing any sleep and penned three mathematical manuscripts along with farewell letters to his street-fighting, revolutionary brethren. The next morning he was shot through the stomach, abandoned by his seconds, and left to die in the field where he fell. A passing farmer found him and gave aid but Evariste Galois expired the next day.

Two hundred years later there are some who question whether Galois’ selfless devotion to his math — over his own life — has been exaggerated. That may be so; and yet, perhaps not.

A few years ago an astounding event took place, one to rival the story above. Poincare’s conjecture, a problem that had gone unsolved for a century and earned a place on the Millennium Problems, was finally cracked. The genius who disentangled what everyone had thought was insoluble was the Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman, who was awarded $1 million, the incomparable Fields Medal, and was showered with media requests for interviews from the most prestigious news fonts on the planet. To the astonishment of everyone, Perelman turned down the million dollars, declined to accept the Fields Medal, refused to speak to the first journalist and basically told everyone — one and all — to find the nearest lake, and to jump into it. He retired from mathematics, went to live with his mother in St. Petersburg, and hasn’t been heard from since.

There are more than a few great cosmologists who believe that it’s quite plausible that our universe is the three-dimensional surface of a four-dimensional hypersphere. The Poincare conjecture asked a very basic question concerning whether loops on the surface of a hypersphere could be shrunk and tightened until finally disappearing into a single point, just as with loops on normal three-dimensional spheres (making them topographically homeomorphic, in math terms). Thanks to Perelman, we now know that they can. What that says or doesn’t say about the real shape and properties of the cosmos is anyone’s guess. But, if such information isn’t judged worth a million dollars, there is at least one mathematician in St. Petersburg who obviously agrees with that observation.

Evariste Galois and Grigori Perelman both seem to have been cut from the same cloth, even though one was a rabble-rouser and hot-head and the other a reclusive hermit. They share what all great discoverers possess: an indomitable non-conformity. That is something that scientists today — cowed by politics, money, fame and peer pressure — might do well to remember.

David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is www.earthquakepredictors.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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Scientists at CERN are crunching protons together at close to the speed of light at the most massive atom smasher on Earth.
evariste galois, grigori perelman
Monday, 01 May 2017 10:40 AM
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