by Andre on 15 June 2007
At its best, the scientific method can reduce profound questions about our universe to their barest essence and answer them compellingly with simple observations. The greatest experiments achieve the most complete distillations because of the principles and theories that guide them and the knowledge that has already been well established. Once this context is internalized, even grainy images or barely visible spikes in a line of noise can become moving pieces of art.
Here’s the image that got me thinking about this most recently:
It’s a postcard that Walther Gerlach sent to Niels Bohr after Gerlach’s experiment seemed to confirm Bohr’s prediction about the magnetic moment of atoms. The caption says “Attached [is] the experimental proof of directional quantization. We congratulate [you] on the confirmation of your theory.” According to the delightful Physics Today article where I found this figure, at the time these results were considered “among the most compelling evidence for quantum theory.” This is an amazing distillation. Magnetic field off, no splitting. Magnetic field on, splitting. Magnetic moment is quantized. For background, some complications, and to learn about how cigar smoking in the lab played a crucial role in this discovery you’ll have to read the article.
I don’t want to talk about the details of the experiment here though. Instead I want to ask for other great scientific distillations. There must be excellent examples of this from the early days of molecular biology. Something like: this spot is radioactive, this spot is not, so DNA is the molecule of inheritance. Let’s see your nominations. Include a link to an image if you have one.
How far can this go? In theoretical physics, people often discuss reducing all of physics to a single theory, maybe something you could fit on a t-shirt. But why must the universe on a t-shirt be represented by an equation? With such a theory in hand, could there be a simple representation of an elegant observation that, in context, encapsulates the nature of the universe?