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Diamonds Are Made Under Pressure: Great Scientific Achievements in the Unlikeliest of Circumstances

Tekst: Jake Eli Blake Gordin

There is this common misconception about the scientific process: Discoveries are made by a single person, in one grand moment of epiphany. This view is likely due to media representations of scientists – it makes for better storytelling, perhaps. But it is typically not the case that discoveries are made this way. Scientific progress is made incrementally, by collaboration, and often after many years of research and failure.

Nonetheless, there are exceptions. Two particularly famous examples are, unsurprisingly, two particularly famous physicists: Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. Newton wrote his treatise on his law of gravitation while stuck at home during the Great London Plague of 1666 (I certainly did not do anything like that with my 2020). Einstein, between finishing his undergraduate degree and being a professor, worked as an office clerk in a patent office. At the office he produced the work which led to his now famous equation, E=mc2 – while doing physics, essentially as a hobby.

There are also other, lesser known individuals across history who, despite working mostly or entirely alone – and without access to sufficient resources – have made great strides in the advancement of science. Here are three individuals who serve as remarkable examples of people pushing forward, despite the odds not being in their favour.

George Green
Green was born in Nottingham, England, in 1793. He lived a relatively short life, dying aged 47. His most notable achievement was the development of something called Green’s functions. The mathematical description is complicated, but almost everyone in the world is familiar with what they describe: The response of waves to a generating source. Sound waves when you shout, light waves when you turn on a bulb, water waves when you drop a stone in a lake – they can all be described by Green’s functions.

Green’s work, notwithstanding its impact on science, was remarkable in two other aspects.  Firstly, it was self-published. Green used his own money to print and distribute the work, feeling it was arrogant of him to assume his work would be accepted by an academic journal. The second is that his knowledge of mathematics was entirely self-taught.

Green’s family owned a corn mill, which they used to produce food and earn a living. Nottingham was one of the poorer areas in England, following a massive population increase as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Green attended school for only one year, at the age of eight. He had no formal education beyond this.

He also had very little time to do physics until his later years. Green spent almost all his time working at the mill until his father died in 1829. Additionally, there is a curious mystery as to where his knowledge came from. Green could only learn from the books he had available to him. Despite this, he also used a type of mathematical analysis that at the time was being championed in France, but was actively discouraged in England. It’s not known how Green would have even heard of such developments, let alone improve upon them.

The impact of his work on the world cannot be overstated. These functions are essential in the theory of electricity and magnetism that eventually led to the building of all electronic devices – and by extension, the modern world we live in today.

Karl Schwarzschild
Schwarzschild was born in Germany, in 1873. He is best remembered for providing a solution to what are called Einstein’s field equations. These equations describe how gravity behaves, and provide an update to Newton’s theory. Schwarzschild found a solution to the equations that describe spherical objects. This solution can be used to describe the gravity caused by objects, such as planets or stars. It can also, more interestingly, be used to describe black holes.

The most impressive thing is that he found the solution while fighting in World War I. Schwarzschild worked on physics while in the trenches. During the war, he started to suffer from pemphigus, which is a rare autoimmune disease. He succumbed to the disease several weeks later, but not before writing the paper detailing the solution he found.

Schwarzschild did of course require Einstein’s equations already to make his discovery. However, the Schwarzschild solution has the distinction of being the first exact solution to be found. Moreover, he discovered the solution that describes black holes – probably the most famous and enigmatic objects ‘out there’ in the universe, while dying in hospital.

Emmy Noether
Emmy Noether was born in 1882, also in Germany. She contributed to various fields of mathematics and physics, but her most groundbreaking discovery earned her a theorem with her name on it. Noether’s theorem tells us that for every symmetry of the Lagrangian, there exists a conservation law.

That last sentence introduced lots of fancy words, but the basic idea is quite easy to understand. A Lagrangian is something used in physics to describe any kind of physical system. This could be a planet going around a star, a ball rolling down a hill or a car driving past another car. A symmetry might be something like ‘It doesn’t matter if the car drives from the left or drives from the right’ – the physics stays the same. Noether’s theorem says that if you can find a symmetry in your description of nature, then something is conserved.

Moreover, he discovered the solution that describes black holes – probably the most famous and enigmatic objects ‘out there’ in the universe, while dying in hospital.

Her life was not impeded by being in a war or having limited access to educational resources. Noether had access to a university and lived in the culturally rich city of Nuremberg, and later in Göttingen. However, being female presented her with several barriers throughout her life.

She was unable to formally attend university. She could not officially take courses, and could attend lectures only with permission from the course’s lecturer. She eventually enrolled in a Ph.D. programme and found a supervisor who would take her on. Nonetheless, she worked for the University of Erlangen in Nuremberg for seven years without pay – aftercompleting her Ph.D.

Later she was asked by David Hilbert and Oscar Klein – two preeminent mathematicians of the time – to lecture at Göttingen University in 1915. Despite being respected by many ‘big-name’ colleagues, she nonetheless had to lecture under Hilbert’s name, as female lecturers were not usually allowed by European universities.

World War II also forced a change of circumstance. When the Nazis rose to power, they stripped all Jews of academic positions. Noether, being Jewish, left for the United States. In a rather cruel twist of fate – for someone whose being a woman presented considerable difficulties in pursuing a scientific career – she died aged 53 from an ovarian cyst.

Despite innumerable barriers to entry, both being Jewish and a woman, Noether remains one of the most accomplished and important physicists of the early 20th century. Her theorem is used today when building almost all modern physics theories and forms part of the conceptual foundation for how physics is understood in general.

“If they can do it, why can’t I?”
The year 2020 – and at least the start of 2021 – has been difficult for a plethora of reasons. What is often understated is how the combination of all the difficulties of what Covid-19 has done to society can cause what might be called existential ennui. One can acknowledge how difficult social isolation is, and be fully aware of how much constant online meetings and inability to leave the house takes its toll on one’s mental health, but may still miss how much one’s motivation to do anything has slipped out of the window. The normal lesson stories «Geniuses achieving despite all the odds stacked against them» are supposed to impart is one of ‘keep going, you can always do great things’.

I would caution against that last part. I don’t think expecting yourself to produce outstanding work in a pandemic will do you any favours; it would be less helpful to say “Well, if he did it while dying, why can’t I do anything?”.

I think the lesson really is that the conditions under which people create and discover new things are varied and often not at all apparent. It’s generally agreed that it helps to have your material needs met, access to a variety of resources, and a healthy working environment. The environment we all find ourselves in, is nothing short of suboptimal.

I don’t think about Green or Noether and say I can make the most of the worst situation (although if you can, then all the better). What I do take away from them is simply that they did keep going, and moreover, that they could keep going.

And if you keep going in any small way, whether it’s opening the Zoom meeting, working on what you need to – despite being at home with no face-to-face work environment, despite the uncertainty of when this all may be over – it’s enough. And if you, on some days, can’t do those things, that’s enough too – taking a break, trying to recharge, is enough. We only need to remember that we can keep going.