The improbable — the (thus!) surprising — in physics

Ashutosh Jogalekar, writing in the Curious Wavefunction blog, writes about some of the most surprising discoveries in physics since 1900. Reading that reminds us to remind you that “improbable” means “what you don’t expect”. Thus, here is some of the most improbable research in the modern history of physics:

Surprises in physics: From black bodies to the accelerating universe

Surprises rank high on the list of things that make science a source of everlasting delight….

The fact is that some discoveries in science are important, some are surprising and some are both. It is this third category that is the most memorable, and rare is the scientist who finds himself or herself the beneficiary of a discovery that is both surprising and important.

Thus it’s worth taking a look back and charting some of the most important surprises in science, those that either forced us to rethink a lot of our assumptions or, in rare cases, those that truly changed our view of the world….

1900 – Max Planck: The beginning of quantum mechanics – Max Planck’s solution to the thorny theoretical problem of blackbody radiation started what was surely the greatest revolution in physics since Isaac Newton’s time. Planck intended his solution as a mathematical fix and not a representation of reality, and it was only when Albert Einstein appeared on the scene that he realized the nature of the radical transformation in our view of reality that he had inaugurated. The age of the quantum had dawned….

1938 – Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman: Nuclear fission … Fission was thought to be so improbable that great theorists like Oppenheimer and Bethe had done calculations arguing against its existence. And yet here it was, an elegant theory demolished by an ugly, consequential fact….

(Thanks to investigator Frank Wilczek for bringing this to our attention.)