Quanta Magazine

By now you’ve probably heard the original quarantine-genius story: Isaac Newton, having fled the plague, revolutionized mathematics and reinvented physics. In a pandemic-afflicted year like 2020, it’s natural to hope for some parallel silver lining. Maybe another prodigy’s ideas are being given the time and space to gestate, and who knows what wonders await.

The dour among us might point out that such parallels can only go so far. In Newton’s era, quarantine meant a profound isolation, with little but an apple tree to keep one company. Before Zoom, focus may have been more easily achieved.

But even more important, science itself has changed entirely since then. Until around a century ago, an isolated thinker had a chance of touching off a sweeping intellectual upheaval. Now the biggest questions — even the theoretical ones — tend to give way only under the assault of global teams of scholars.

Still, it is striking that in this year, two such teams have made profound progress on ideas that could bring about the next revolution in physics. These researchers have chipped away at the most tantalizing and recalcitrant problem in theoretical physics: Stephen Hawking’s black hole information paradox. Just as Newton eventually showed that the gravity that pulls at the apples on a tree is the same as the force that holds the moon in orbit, these scientists dream of uniting Albert Einstein’s ideas about gravity with the particles and fields of quantum mechanics. And while that goal might still take a while to achieve, it also took Newton over 20 years to publish his masterwork the Principia. It’s not crazy to hope that the intellectual seeds sowed in this pandemic year — information and entanglement, cross-bred with wormholes and holograms — will one day bear glorious fruit.

 

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