Any student of physics or chemistry cannot avoid Ludwig Boltzmann.
His contribution is such profound and wide at the same time. We would not have featured him in this series had he been only a brilliant scientist. He shares something striking with another genius of Europe and of humanity – Blaise Pascal . Boltzmann was also at the cross roads of two worlds of science and he was one of the few geniuses about whom it can be said : “Civilization is the story of those who hang their heroes”. Persecuted and ignored by his peers for his radical theories, redeemed by music, inspired by a rare kind of genius illuminating his work and relieved from the mental agony by suicide in an Italian resort while vacationing with his family.
Although this series of post does not describe the technical work in detail but for Boltzmann, an exception must be made. Boltzmann’s most important contribution was developing statistical mechanics for atoms. In his time, many reputed scientists considered atoms as a mental construct and not anything of reality. Symbolically speaking, Boltzmann not only understood the ghost-particles called atoms, he even wrote poetry about them in mathematics and which these ghosts completely liked, so much so that they obeyed it. It is no wonder that in his time his theories were considered phantasia (e.g phantom : an un-embodied being, a ghost)
Pessimism is natural : Boltzmann’s work with energy pointed out to a scenario where all natural processes tend to a direction of more disorder. In other words, our universe is passing from order to disorder and in ultimate analysis, this whole cosmic manifestation will be dead. There is no known law which says against. From the gases in a small box to the whole galaxies evolve in a way where disorder increases although total energy remains constant. It was Boltzmann who wrote universal pessimism in the famous equation below and provided us with a tool to measure disorder which he called entropy.
[ This fundamental law of matter remains engraved in his tombstone and no less beautiful or poetic than that is on Keats’ : “the name written on water”]
Contemporary time may be posthumous : It may so happen that your ideas – in whatever domain it is, may be way ahead of your time. Hence, trying to convince your contemporary time may be useless and sometimes the best way is to forgive. It is just like explaining the joy of coitus to a 4 year old…This person will, after 20 years realize this but there is a barrier of time and this cannot be tunneled. Boltzmann felt this at times but his genius was also of a self-destructive variety.
Price of Beauty is Loneliness : In his works, he was fanatic about Beauty. He believed with a passion that there is something called mathematical beauty and fundamental laws of nature are not only comprehensible but they are beautiful. When he looked at the four electromagnetic equations of Maxwell and exclaimed : “Was it a God who wrote this ?”. Search for this beauty – mathematical beauty, made him a loner. All seekers of beauty must pay the price in the currency of loneliness. Beauty is the most sensitive thing in existence and even a second will make it fly.
Boltzmann died in 1906 – in his lifetime, his work was mostly ignored. After few years of his death, his works on thermodynamics ( cold death of the universe as entropy increases) and statistical mechanics (where gas-particles do not have any velocity at all but only probable velocity) became a new orthodoxy.
His work teaches us to become humble and sane. It provides us with a deep respect for a new and austere kind of belief – a belief that there is an underlying Beauty in the fundamental working of natural processes and we are able to discover it.
On one hand, his works doomed certainty in the domain of atoms and molecules but on the other hand, his work provided with a grand certainty in terms of disordered death of the cosmic manifestation.
His suicide was poetic – his mortal coil was under tremendous stress from his genius – rare, delicate, deep and profound.
He lies everywhere in modern physics.