Archive for Niels Bohr

Grave Thoughts Again

Posted in Biographical, History, Literature with tags , , , , on August 13, 2017 by telescoper

This is my last full day in Copenhagen before flying back tomorrow evening, so I decided to take care of some unfinished business by visiting the famous Assistens Kirkegård  in the Nørrebro district of the city. I went there five years ago (almost to the day) but on that occasion I didn’t find the memorial I was looking for, that of the great Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior.

I was surprised to find at the time that his name was absent from the main index, and still doesn’t appear on the maps displayed at the cemetery. Its location is however now on a guide you can find online so I had little difficulty locating it this time round. In case anyone is interested it is in section F, near the western end of the park. Lauritz Melchior was cremated, and his remains interred in a small family plot:

The small slab to the left marks the burial of Lauritz Melchior:

In fact this memorial is not far from that of another famous Dane I missed last time, pioneering physicist Hans Christian Ørsted:

The Hans Christian Ørsted Institute, part of the University of Copenhagen, is a short walk from the main buildings of the Niels Bpohr Institute. It houses Chemistry and Mathematical Sciences and some physicists of the Niels Bohr Institute.

You might think that a cemetery was a rather morbid choice of place to go for a stroll in the sunshine, but actually it’s not that way at all. It’s actually a rather beautiful place, a very large green space criss-crossed by pleasant tree-lined paths. These are poplars:

We British have a much more reserved attitude to cemeteries than the Danes seem to have, at least judging by  their behaviour in this place; joggers and cyclists pass through Assistens Cemetery at regular intervals, and many people were having picnics or just sitting and reading between the gravestones.  I find this matter-of-fact attitude to the dead rather refreshing, actually.

Part of the attraction of Assistens Kirkegård – the name derives from the fact that it was originally an auxiliary burial place, outside the main city, designed to take some of the pressure off the smaller cemeteries in the inner areas – is the large number of famous people buried there, many of whose graves I found last time. I didn’t however notice the large area devoted to common graves nor did I realise that there was a memorial to French and Belgian soldiers of World War 1. Most of these died in 1919, which puzzled me. It turns out that they had been prisoners of war and many of them were ill or injured and had been sent to Copenhagen to recuperate only to be struck down by the Spanish ‘flu epidemic of 1919.

It’s noticeable that some of the smaller graves are extremely well-tended whereas many of the more opulent memorials are in a state of considerable disrepair. I think there’s a moral in there somewhere. My ambition is to be forgotten as quickly as possible after my death so the idea of anyone erecting some grandiose marble monument on my behalf fills me with horror, but I have to say I do find graveyards are strangely comforting places. Rich and poor, clever and stupid, ugly and beautiful; death comes to us all in the end. At least it’s very democratic.


Jazz and Physics

Posted in History, Jazz, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on May 26, 2016 by telescoper

No time for a full post today, so I’ll just share this intriguing picture I found on the interwebs of two great figures from very different fields: Jazz trumpet legend Louis Armstrong and pioneering quantum physicist, Niels Bohr.


When I first saw this I assumed it had been photoshopped, but I’m reliably informed that the picture is genuine and that it was taken in Copenhagen in 1959. Other than that I know nothing of the circumstances in which it was taken. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows the full story!

Grave Thoughts

Posted in Biographical, History, Jazz, Literature with tags , , , , , on August 12, 2012 by telescoper

It being a lovely day in Copenhagen yesterday I decided to go for a long walk. My destination was the famous Assistens Kirkegård which is in the Nørrebro district of the city. You might think that was a rather morbid choice of place to go for a stroll in the sunshine, but actually it’s not that way at all. It’s actually a rather beautiful place, a very large green space criss-crossed by tree-lined paths. We British have a much more reserved attitude to cemeteries than the Danes seem to have, at least judging by yesterday; joggers and cyclists pass through Assistens Cemetery at regular intervals, and many people were having picnics or just sunbathing between the gravestones.  And of course there were many tourists wandering around, myself included. I found this matter-of-fact attitude to the dead rather refreshing, actually.

Incidentally, I was also surprised to see a number of Jewish burials among the Christian ones. I don’t know if this happens in British graveyards.

Part of the attraction of Assistens Kirkegård – the name derives from the fact that it was originally an auxiliary burial place, outside the main city, designed to take some of the pressure off the smaller cemeteries in the inner areas – is the large number of famous people buried there.  The cemetery is extremely large (about 25 hectares), and the maps don’t show the locations of all the famous people laid to rest there, but I did find quite a few.

Here for example is the memorial to one of the most famous Danes of all, Hans Christian Andersen

Going by the number of signposts pointing to it, this must be one of the most popular sites for visitors to the cemetery, along with the grave of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. One can also quite easily locate the memorial which marks the last resting place of Niels Bohr and various other members of his family:

But it’s not only Danes that are buried here. There’s a corner of one plot occupied by a number of famous American Jazz musicians, including pianist Kenny Drew and, most famously of all, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster whose gravestone is rather small, but clearly very well tended, no doubt by a Danish jazz lover:

Unfortunately, I was unable to locate one of the graves I wanted to find, that of the great Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior. I was surprised to find his name was absent from the main index. I know he was cremated and his ashes buried there, and I even found a picture of his memorial on the net, but the cemetery is so large that without further clues I couldn’t find it. I’ll have to go back on a subsequent visit after doing a bit more research.

It’s very interesting that some of the smaller graves are extremely well-tended whereas many of the more opulent memorials are in a state of disrepair. My ambition is to be forgotten as quickly as possible after my death so the idea of anyone erecting some grandiose marble monument on my behalf fills me with horror, but I have to say I do find graveyards are strangely comforting places. Rich and poor, clever and stupid, ugly and beautiful; death comes to us all in the end. At least it’s very democratic.

And after about three hours strolling around in the cool shade of the trees in Assistens Kirkegård the thought did cross my mind there still seems to be plenty of room…

Dragons and Unicorns

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on August 30, 2010 by telescoper

When I was an undergraduate I was often told by lecturers that I should find quantum mechanics very difficult, because it is unlike the classical physics I had learned about up to that point. The difference – or so I was informed – was that classical systems were predictable, but quantum systems were not. For that reason the microscopic world could only be described in terms of probabilities. I was a bit confused by this, because I already knew that many classical systems were predictable in principle, but not really in practice. I blogged about this some time ago, in fact. It was only when I had studied theory for a long time – almost three years – that I realised what was the correct way to be confused about it. In short, quantum probability is a very strange kind of probability that displays many peculiarities and subtleties  that one doesn’t see in the kind of systems we normally think of as “random”, such as coin-tossing or roulette wheels.

To illustrate how curious the quantum universe is we have to look no further than the very basic level of quantum theory, as formulated by the founder of wave mechanics, Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger was born in 1887 into an affluent Austrian family made rich by a successful oilcloth business run by his father. He was educated at home by a private tutor before going to the University of Vienna where he obtained his doctorate in 1910. During the First World War he served in the artillery, but was posted to an isolated fort where he found lots of time to read about physics. After the end of hostilities he travelled around Europe and started a series of inspired papers on the subject now known as wave mechanics; his first work on this topic appeared in 1926. He succeeded Planck as Professor of Theoretical Physics in Berlin, but left for Oxford when Hitler took control of Germany in 1933. He left Oxford in 1936 to return to Austria but fled when the Nazis seized the country and he ended up in Dublin, at the Institute for Advanced Studies which was created especially for him by the Irish Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera. He remained there happily for 17 years before returning to his native land at the University of Vienna. Sadly, he became ill shortly after arriving there and died in 1961.

Schrödinger was a friendly and informal man who got on extremely well with colleagues and students alike. He was also a bit scruffy even to the extent that he sometimes had trouble getting into major scientific conferences, such as the Solvay conferences which are exclusively arranged for winners of the Nobel Prize. Physicists have never been noted for their sartorial elegance, but Schrödinger must have been an extreme case.

The theory of wave mechanics arose from work published in 1924 by de Broglie who had suggested that every particle has a wave somehow associated with it, and the overall behaviour of a system resulted from some combination of its particle-like and wave-like properties. What Schrödinger did was to write down an equation, involving a Hamiltonian describing particle motion of the form I have discussed before, but written in such a way as to resemble the equation used to describe wave phenomena throughout physics. The resulting mathematical form for a single particle is

i\hbar\frac{\partial \Psi}{\partial t} = \hat{H}\Psi = -\frac{\hbar^2}{2m}\nabla^2 \Psi + V\Psi,

in which the term \Psi  is called the wave-function of the particle. As usual, the Hamiltonian H consists of two parts: one describes the kinetic energy (the first term on the right hand side) and the second its potential energy represented by V. This equation – the Schrödinger equation – is one of the most important in all physics.

At the time Schrödinger was developing his theory of wave mechanics it had a rival, called matrix mechanics, developed by Werner Heisenberg and others. Paul Dirac later proved that wave mechanics and matrix mechanics were mathematically equivalent; these days physicists generally use whichever of these two approaches is most convenient for particular problems.

Schrödinger’s equation is important historically because it brought together lots of bits and pieces of ideas connected with quantum theory into a single coherent descriptive framework. For example, in 1911 Niels Bohr had begun looking at a simple theory for the hydrogen atom which involved a nucleus consisting of a positively charged proton with a negatively charged electron moving around it in a circular orbit. According to standard electromagnetic theory this picture has a flaw in it: the electron is accelerating and consequently should radiate energy. The orbit of the electron should therefore decay rather quickly.

Bohr hypothesized that special states of this system were actually stable; these states were ones in which the orbital angular momentum of the electron was an integer multiple of Planck’s constant. This simple idea endows the hydrogen atom with a discrete set of energy levels which, as Bohr showed in 1913, were consistent with the appearance of sharp lines in the spectrum of light emitted by hydrogen gas when it is excited by, for example, an electrical discharge. The calculated positions of these lines were in good agreement with measurements made by Rydberg so the Bohr theory was in good shape. But where did the quantised angular momentum come from?

The Schrödinger equation describes some form of wave; its solutions \Psi(\vec{x},t) are generally oscillating functions of position and time. If we want it to describe a stable state then we need to have something which does not vary with time, so we proceed by setting the left-hand-side of the equation to zero. The hydrogen atom is a bit like a solar system with only one planet going around a star so we have circular symmetry which simplifies things a lot. The solutions we get are waves, and the mathematical task is to find waves that fit along a circular orbit just like standing waves on a circular string. Immediately we see why the solution must be quantized. To exist on a circle the wave can’t just have any wavelength; it has to fit into the circumference of the circle in such a way that it winds up at the same value after a round trip. In Schrödinger’s theory the quantisation of orbits is not just an ad hoc assumption, it emerges naturally from the wave-like nature of the solutions to his equation.

The Schrödinger equation can be applied successfully to systems which are much more complicated than the hydrogen atom, such as complex atoms with many electrons orbiting the nucleus and interacting with each other. In this context, this description is the basis of most work in theoretical chemistry. But it also poses very deep conceptual challenges, chiefly about how the notion of a “particle” relates to the “wave” that somehow accompanies it.

To illustrate the riddle, consider a very simple experiment where particles of some type (say electrons, but it doesn’t really matter; similar experiments can be done with photons or other particles) emerge from the source on the left, pass through the slits in the middle and are detected in the screen at the right.

In a purely “particle” description we would think of the electrons as little billiard balls being fired from the source. Each one then travels along a well-defined path, somehow interacts with the screen and ends up in some position on the detector. On the other hand, in a “wave” description we would imagine a wave front emerging from the source, being diffracted by the screen and ending up as some kind of interference pattern at the detector. This is what we see with light, for example, in the phenomenon known as Young’s fringes.

In quantum theory we have to think of the system as being in some sense both a wave and a particle. This is forced on us by the fact that we actually observe a pattern of “fringes” at the detector, indicating wave-like interference, but we also can detect the arrival of individual electrons as little dots. Somehow the propensity of electrons to arrive in positions on the screen is controlled by an element of waviness, but they manage to retain some aspect of their particleness. Moreover, one can turn the source intensity down to a level where there is only every one electron in the experiment at any time. One sees the dots arrive one by one on the detector, but adding them up over a long time still yields a pattern of fringes.

Curiouser and curiouser, said Alice.

Eventually the community of physicists settled on a party line that most still stick to: that the wave-function controls the probability of finding an electron at some position when a measurement is made. In fact the mathematical description of wave phenomena favoured by physicists involves complex numbers, so at each point in space at time \Psi is a complex number of the form \Psi= a+ib, where i =\sqrt{-1}; the corresponding probability is given by |\Psi^2|=a^2+b^2. This protocol, however, forbids one to say anything about the state of the particle before it measured. It is delocalized, not being definitely located anywhere, but only possessing a probability to be any particular place within the apparatus. One can’t even say which of the two slits it passes through. Somehow, it manages to pass through both slits. Or at least some of its wave-function does.

I’m not going to into the various philosophical arguments about the interpretation of quantum probabilities here, but I will pass on an analogy that helped me come to grips with the idea that an electron can behave in some respects like a wave and in others like a particle. At first thought, this seems a troubling paradox but it only appears so if you insist that our theoretical ideas are literal representations of what happens in reality. I think it’s much more sensible to treat the mathematics as a kind of map or sketch that is useful for us to do find our way around nature rather than confusing it with nature itself. Neither particles nor waves really exist in the quantum world – they’re just abstractions we use to try to describe as much as we can of what is going on. The fact that it doesn’t work perfectly shouldn’t surprise us, as there are are undoubtedly more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

Imagine a mediaeval traveller, the first from your town to go to Africa. On his journeys he sees a rhinoceros, a bizarre creature that is unlike anything he’s ever seen before. Later on, when he gets back, he tries to describe the animal to those at home who haven’t seen it.  He thinks very hard. Well, he says, it’s got a long horn on its head, like a unicorn, and it’s got thick leathery skin, like a dragon. Neither dragons nor unicorns exist in nature, but they’re abstractions that are quite useful in conveying something about what a rhinoceros is like.

It’s the same with electrons. Except they don’t have horns and leathery skin. Obviously.


A Little Bit of Quantum

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 16, 2010 by telescoper

I’m trying to avoid getting too depressed by writing about the ongoing funding crisis for physics in the United Kingdom, so by way of a distraction I thought I’d post something about physics itself rather than the way it is being torn apart by short-sighted bureaucrats. A number of Cardiff physics students are currently looking forward (?) to their Quantum Mechanics examinations next week, so I thought I’d try to remind them of what fascinating subject it really is…

The development of the kinetic theory of gases in the latter part of the 19th Century represented the culmination of a mechanistic approach to Natural Philosophy that had begun with Isaac Newton two centuries earlier. So successful had this programme been by the turn of the 20th century that it was a fairly common view among scientists of the time that there was virtually nothing important left to be “discovered” in the realm of natural philosophy. All that remained were a few bits and pieces to be tidied up, but nothing could possibly shake the foundations of Newtonian mechanics.

But shake they certainly did. In 1905 the young Albert Einstein – surely the greatest physicist of the 20th century, if not of all time – single-handedly overthrew the underlying basis of Newton’s world with the introduction of his special theory of relativity. Although it took some time before this theory was tested experimentally and gained widespread acceptance, it blew an enormous hole in the mechanistic conception of the Universe by drastically changing the conceptual underpinning of Newtonian physics. Out were the “commonsense” notions of absolute space and absolute time, and in was a more complex “space-time” whose measurable aspects depended on the frame of reference of the observer.

Relativity, however, was only half the story. Another, perhaps even more radical shake-up was also in train at the same time. Although Einstein played an important role in this advance too, it led to a theory he was never comfortable with: quantum mechanics. A hundred years on, the full implications of this view of nature are still far from understood, so maybe Einstein was correct to be uneasy.

The birth of quantum mechanics partly arose from the developments of kinetic theory and statistical mechanics that I discussed briefly in a previous post. Inspired by such luminaries as James Clerk Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann, physicists had inexorably increased the range of phenomena that could be brought within the descriptive framework furnished by Newtonian mechanics and the new modes of statistical analysis that they had founded. Maxwell had also been responsible for another major development in theoretical physics: the unification of electricity and magnetism into a single system known as electromagnetism. Out of this mathematical tour de force came the realisation that light was a form of electromagnetic wave, an oscillation of electric and magnetic fields through apparently empty space.  Optical light forms just part of the possible spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, which ranges from very long wavelength radio waves at one end to extremely short wave gamma rays at the other.

With Maxwell’s theory in hand, it became possible to think about how atoms and molecules might exchange energy and reach equilibrium states not just with each other, but with light. Everyday experience that hot things tend to give off radiation and a number of experiments – by Wilhelm Wien and others – had shown that there were well-defined rules that determined what type of radiation (i.e. what wavelength) and how much of it were given off by a body held at a certain temperature. In a nutshell, hotter bodies give off more radiation (proportional to the fourth power of their temperature), and the peak wavelength is shorter for hotter bodies. At room temperature, bodies give off infra-red radiation, stars have surface temperatures measured in thousands of degrees so they give off predominantly optical and ultraviolet light. Our Universe is suffused with microwave radiation corresponding to just a few degrees above absolute zero.

The name given to a body in thermal equilibrium with a bath of radiation is a “black body”, not because it is black – the Sun is quite a good example of a black body and it is not black at all – but because it is simultaneously a perfect absorber and perfect emitter of radiation. In other words, it is a body which is in perfect thermal contact with the light it emits. Surely it would be straightforward to apply classical Maxwell-style statistical reasoning to a black body at some temperature?

It did indeed turn out to be straightforward, but the result was a catastrophe. One can see the nature of the disaster very straightforwardly by taking a simple idea from classical kinetic theory. In many circumstances there is a “rule of thumb” that applies to systems in thermal equilibrium. Roughly speaking, the idea is that energy becomes divided equally between every possible “degree of freedom” the system possesses. For example, if a box of gas consists of particles that can move in three dimensions then, on average, each component of the velocity of a particle will carry the same amount of kinetic energy. Molecules are able to rotate and vibrate as well as move about inside the box, and the equipartition rule can apply to these modes too.

Maxwell had shown that light was essentially a kind of vibration, so it appeared obvious that what one had to do was to assign the same amount of energy to each possible vibrational degree of freedom of the ambient electromagnetic field. Lord Rayleigh and Sir James Jeans did this calculation and found that the amount of energy radiated by a black body as a function of wavelength should vary proportionally to the temperature T and to inversely as the fourth power of the wavelength λ, as shown in the diagram for an example temperature of 5000K:

Even without doing any detailed experiments it is clear that this result just has to be nonsense. The Rayleigh-Jeans law predicts that even very cold bodies should produce infinite amounts of radiation at infinitely short wavelengths, i.e. in the ultraviolet. It also predicts that the total amount of radiation – the area under the curve in the above figure – is infinite. Even a very cold body should emit infinitely intense electromagnetic radiation. Infinity is bad.

Experiments show that the Rayleigh-Jeans law does work at very long wavelengths but in reality the radiation reaches a maximum (at a wavelength that depends on the temperature) and then declines at short wavelengths, as shown also in the above Figure. Clearly something is very badly wrong with the reasoning here, although it works so well for atoms and molecules.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that physicists all stopped in their tracks because of this difficulty. It is amazing the extent to which people are able to carry on despite the presence of obvious flaws in their theory. It takes a great mind to realise when everyone else is on the wrong track, and a considerable time for revolutionary changes to become accepted. In the meantime, the run-of-the-mill scientist tends to carry on regardless.

The resolution of this particular fundamental conundrum is accredited to Karl Ernst Ludwig “Max” Planck (right), who was born in 1858. He was the son of a law professor, and himself went to university at Berlin and Munich, receiving his doctorate in 1880. He became professor at Kiel in 1885, and moved to Berlin in 1888. In 1930 he became president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, but resigned in 1937 in protest at the behaviour of the Nazis towards Jewish scientists. His life was blighted by family tragedies: his second son died in the First World War; both daughters died in childbirth; and his first son was executed in 1944 for his part in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. After the Second World War the institute was named the Max Planck Institute, and Planck was reappointed director. He died in 1947; by then such a famous scientist that his likeness appeared on the two Deutschmark coin issued in 1958.

Planck had taken some ideas from Boltzmann’s work but applied them in a radically new way. The essence of his reasoning was that the ultraviolet catastrophe basically arises because Maxwell’s electromagnetic field is a continuous thing and, as such, appears to have an infinite variety of ways in which it can absorb energy. When you are allowed to store energy in whatever way you like in all these modes, and add them all together you get an infinite power output. But what if there was some fundamental limitation in the way that an atom could exchange energy with the radiation field? If such a transfer can only occur in discrete lumps or quanta – rather like “atoms” of radiation – then one could eliminate the ultraviolet catastrophe at a stroke. Planck’s genius was to realize this, and the formula he proposed contains a constant that still bears his name. The energy of a light quantum E is related to its frequency ν via E=hν, where h is Planck’s constant, one of the fundamental constants that occur throughout theoretical physics.

Boltzmann had shown that if a system possesses a  discrete energy state labelled by j separated by energy Ej then at a given temperature the likely relative occupation of the two states is determined by a “Boltzmann factor” of the form:

n_{j} \propto \exp\left(-\frac{E_{j}}{k_BT}\right),

so that the higher energy state is exponentially less probable than the lower energy state if the energy difference is much larger than the typical thermal energy kB T ; the quantity kB is Boltzmann’s constant, another fundamental constant. On the other hand, if the states are very close in energy compared to the thermal level then they will be roughly equally populated in accordance with the “equipartition” idea I mentioned above.

The trouble with the classical treatment of an electromagnetic field is that it makes it too easy for the field to store infinite energy in short wavelength oscillations: it can put  a little bit of energy in each of a lot of modes in an unlimited way. Planck realised that his idea would mean ultra-violet radiation could only be emitted in very energetic quanta, rather than in lots of little bits. Building on Boltzmann’s reasoning, he deduced the probability of exciting a quantum with very high energy is exponentially suppressed. This in turn leads to an exponential cut-off in the black-body curve at short wavelengths. Triumphantly, he was able to calculate the exact form of the black-body curve expected in his theory: it matches the Rayleigh-Jeans form at long wavelengths, but turns over and decreases at short wavelengths just as the measurements require. The theoretical Planck curve matches measurements perfectly over the entire range of wavelengths that experiments have been able to probe.

Curiously perhaps, Planck stopped short of the modern interpretation of this: that light (and other electromagnetic radiation) is composed of particles which we now call photons. He was still wedded to Maxwell’s description of light as a wave phenomenon, so he preferred to think of the exchange of energy as being quantised rather than the radiation itself. Einstein’s work on the photoelectric effect in 1905 further vindicated Planck, but also demonstrated that light travelled in packets. After Planck’s work, and the development of the quantum theory of the atom pioneered by Niels Bohr, quantum theory really began to take hold of the physics community and eventually it became acceptable to conceive of not just photons but all matter as being part particle and part wave. Photons are examples of a kind of particle known as a boson, and the atomic constituents such as electrons and protons are fermions. (This classification arises from their spin: bosons have spin which is an integer multiple of Planck’s constant, whereas fermions have half-integral spin.)

You might have expected that the radical step made by Planck would immediately have led to a drastic overhaul of the system of thermodynamics put in place in the preceding half-a-century, but you would be wrong. In many ways the realization that discrete energy levels were involved in the microscopic description of matter if anything made thermodynamics easier to understand and apply. Statistical reasoning is usually most difficult when the space of possibilities is complicated. In quantum theory one always deals fundamentally with a discrete space of possible outcomes. Counting discrete things is not always easy, but it’s usually easier than counting continuous things. Even when they’re infinite.

Much of modern physics research lies in the arena of condensed matter physics, which deals with the properties of solids and gases, often at the very low temperatures where quantum effects become important. The statistical thermodynamics of these systems is based on a very slight modification of Boltzmann’s result:

n_{j} \propto \left[\exp\left(\frac{E_{j}}{k_BT}\right)\pm 1\right]^{-1},

which gives the equilibrium occupation of states at an energy level Ej; the difference between bosons and fermions manifests itself as the sign in the denominator. Fermions take the upper “plus” sign, and the resulting statistical framework is based on the so-called Fermi-Dirac distribution; bosons have the minus sign and obey Bose-Einstein statistics. This modification of the classical theory of Maxwell and Boltzmann is simple, but leads to a range of fascinating phenomena, from neutron stars to superconductivity.

Moreover, the nature the ultraviolet catastrophe for black-body radiation at the start of the 20th Century perhaps also holds lessons for modern physics. One of the fundamental problems we have in theoretical cosmology is how to calculate the energy density of the vacuum using quantum field theory. This is a more complicated thing to do than working out the energy in an electromagnetic field, but the net result is a catastrophe of the same sort. All straightforward ways of computing this quantity produce a divergent answer unless a high-energy cut off is introduced. Although cosmological observations of the accelerating universe suggest that vacuum energy is there, its actual energy density is way too small for any plausible cutoff.

So there we are. A hundred years on, we have another nasty infinity. It’s a fundamental problem, but its answer will probably open up a new way of understanding the Universe.