Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics

By Edward Teller; Judith L. Shoolery | Go to book overview

EPILOGUE

IN THE HISTORY of physics, there have been three great revolutions in thought that first seemed absurd yet proved to be true. The first proposed that the earth, instead of being stationary, was moving around at a great and variable speed in a universe that is much bigger than it appears to our immediate perception. That proposal, I believe, was first made by Aristarchos two millennia ago at the Greek center of knowledge in Alexandria. 1 It took more than a millennium and a half before Copernicus offered a substantial proof, Galileo and Kepler further developed and enlarged the theory, and Newton turned it into a scientific fact. It has changed our outlook on the universe in a manner that is deep and thorough yet not deep enough.

The next two revolutions in thought occurred during my lifetime. In the early part of the twentieth century, the theory of relativity and the science of quantum mechanics came into existence. Relativity seems absurd because it challenges our idea of time; it points out that we can't talk about time independently of space. This concept goes far beyond our ability of immediate perception. The other novel development, quantum mechanics, disproves the mechanistic and predictive structure of our universe that was assumed true and concludes that in predicting the future, we can make statements only about probabilities.

Relativity and quantum mechanics have introduced the need for great revision in human thought. Thoroughly changing one's mind about the nature of the physical world requires considerable time and effort. Widespread recognition that our physical world is organized along the principles of relativity and

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1
Remarkably enough, the name Aristarchos in Greek means best beginning.

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