Supergravity

Clunk. That’s the sound of my head hitting my desk. Because the $3m special breakthrough prize has just been awarded to the “discoverers” of supergravity. Yes folks, that’s one of those mathematical “discoveries”. It isn’t like discovering America or penicillin. It’s the sort of “discovery” that people peddle when they’re hyping a hypothesis for which there’s no evidence at all. The prize was awarded to Sergio Ferrara, Daniel Freedman, and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen for an “Influential Theory Combining Gravity with Particle Physics”. Only it isn’t influential…

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The neutrino

The neutrino was proposed by Wolfgang Pauli in 1930 to account for the conservation of energy and spin angular momentum in beta decay. You can find his original letter to Lise Meitner and others on the Fermilab MicroBooNE database, along with the English translation: Pauli later said “I have done a terrible thing. I have postulated a particle that cannot be detected”. He was wrong about that. He was wrong about some other things too. He talked about a particle that travels slower than light, and…

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What the proton is not

The proton was discovered by the great Ernie Rutherford in 1917. He used alpha particles to convert nitrogen into oxygen, and in doing so detected hydrogen nuclei. He’d previously done experiments with alpha particles and hydrogen, so he was confident they were hydrogen nuclei. This confirmed William Prout's hypothesis which dated back to 1815. Prout had observed that the atomic weights of other elements were integer multiples of the atomic weight of hydrogen. So he came up with the idea that the hydrogen atom was a…

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A detective story

So why isn't the future what it used to be? I think it’s something of a detective story, one where you have to look back at the history. In 1831 Michael Faraday was doing his ground-breaking experiments, showing how electricity and magnetism were interrelated. Then in 1865 James Clerk Maxwell developed the theory, and in 1880 we had light bulbs courtesy of Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison. In 1905 Einstein gave us E=mc², saying there was an awful lot of energy in matter. Then in 1934…

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