28. Words of Berry

Michael V. Berry is a distinguished theoretical physicist. He has made outstanding contribution towards classical and quantum physics, including optics (Pancharatnam-Berry phase, caustics, etc.).  Berry is also a prolific writer and commentator on science and its pursuit. Recently, I came across a foreword published on his webpage, that I think is provocative but worth reading..here is a part of it :

“At a meeting in Bangalore in 1988, marking the birth centenary of the Nobel Laureate C V Raman, I was asked to give several additional lectures in place of overseas speakers who had cancelled. During one of those talks, I suddenly realised that underlying each of them was one or more contributions by Sir George Gabriel Stokes. Understanding divergent series, phenomena involving polarized light, fluid motion, refraction and diffraction by sound and of sound, Stokes theorem (I didn’t know then that he learned it from Kelvin)…the list seemed endless.

My enthusiasm thus ignited, I acquired Stokes’s collected works and explored the vast range and originality of his physics and mathematics (separately and in combination). Paul Dirac was certainly wrong in his uncharacteristically ungenerous assessment (reported by John Polkinghorne), dismissing Stokes as “… a second-rate Lucasian Professor”. On the contrary, in every subject he touched his contributions were definitive, and influenced all who followed. Perhaps Dirac failed to understand, as we do now, that discovering new laws of nature is not the only fundamental science: equally fundamental is discovering and understanding phenomena hidden in the laws we already know…………..”

An important takeaway is that fundamental science can also evolve as a consequence of existing laws applied to new boundary conditions or systems. In an essence, Berry’s comment also resonates with PW Anderson’s argument on emergence, which laid a philosophical foundation and integrated science of condensed matter. Undoubtedly, Stokes made some profound discoveries in physics, and a recent book illustrates his science and life (Berry’s foreword is from the same book).

post script:  in the year 2000, Berry shared the IgNobel prize, with Andre Geim, for magnetic levitation of frogs. As you may know, Geim went on to win the  Nobel prize in Physics (2010) for his groundbreaking work on graphene.

Will Berry get a Nobel prize in 2020 ? He is certainly a deserving candidate…we will see on 6th Oct…

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