Lee de Forest (1873-1961)
It was known before 1900 that electric current flows from anode to cathode in a vacuum tube if the cathode is heated. In 1906, de Forest put a grid between them and found out the grid voltage can change the current. This device could amplify weak signals and opened the way for electronics. You may be interested to know how this discovery led to present-day consumer electronics. Click here for a story.
If de Forest changed this world this much, why didn't he get a Nobel
prize in physics? The immediate answer to this question could be that
he did not have a PhD degree in physics. He received his degree in
electrical engineering. This cannot not be the answer because Dirac and
Wigner had engineering degrees. While this question is just a curiosity
to us, it was a life-or-death issue to de Forest himself. He spent many
years to campaign for the prize. There is a theory that he spent his final
years in Hollywood to advertise himself through film industry. I remember
seeing a film strip portraying him as the father of vacuum tubes and the
grandfather of electronics.
Yes, he was also interested in making money from his inventions. However, whenever he started a business, he failed after bitter legal battles. While in business, he had to spend one half of his time in the court. Apparently, he had some personal problems, but this is not the issue we want to talk about.
We are interested in his style of research which affected us all. He worked, worked, and worked in the tradition of Thomas Edison. If not in court, he spent all of his time in his laboratory. He obtained more than 180 patents by doing this and doing that in his lab. Does this mean that his work habit is applicable only to experimentalists? No. I am talking about theorists. I am a theorist. I start writing papers if I do not have ideas. How else can you write? While I write this and that, I find something to publish if not new ideas. If this sounds crazy, how do you write your papers these days?
When you write books or review papers, you will note that those who write too many papers are likely to produce more significant results than whose who insist on publishing only prize-worth results. We complain often that acute competition drives young physicists to publish and publish these days, but this has a virtue from the point of view of finding new ideas in physics.
We usually call this kind of approach "Edisonism," and we say that Edison
worked without philosophy. I disagree. I think Thomas Edison was the best
American philosopher. Don't talk too much. Just try this and and try that
until you find something. But, according to Karl Marx, philosophers do not
change this world, but only play a background role for those who change the
world. It is generally agreed that
Immanuel Kant was Einstein's philosopher. Then there comes the question of who was the philosopher behind Thomas Edison?
On this marble plate at the entrance of Humboldt University
(Berlin), Karl Marx says "Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden
interpretiert; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu veraendern." |
In English -- Philosophers interpret this world in various ways. There comes the question of changing the world.
I came to the United States in 1954 after my high school graduation with a strong Christian background. The first American missionary to Korea was Horace Underwood from New York, and he went to Korea in 1885. My grandfather was one of his trusted Korean friends. Here is my photo with his grandson taken in 2003. Underwood's elder brother was one of the pioneers in American typewriter industry. Until 1960, there used to be many Underwood typewriters throughout the world.
For this reason, I have a tendency to go back to the Bible whenever I have difficult questions. I also have a keen interest in how the Bible was written and edited. It was fascinating to find that there was a strong Greek influence when the New Testament was written. That means Greek philosophers represented by Jesus. Thus, it is not unreasonable to try to find Edison's philosopher from the New Testament. The above table tells us what this philosopher said.
On the other hand, my Eastern background forces me to think also in the way Easterners used to think. I can list many examples, but let us choose just one. Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified Japan 400 years ago, and the Osaka Castle is dedicated to him. Since he came from the lowest social class in Japan, there are many jokes about him. According to one of them, he looks like a monkey if humans look at him, but he looks like a human being when monkeys look at him.
This is a typical joke in the Taoist tradition in which the opposite side exists whenever there is one side. This is also in the tradition of Kantian philosophy where things depend on how observers look at them, or observers' state of mind. Indeed, there is a resonance frequency in Eastern way of thinking tuned to Kantianism. I did some research along this line.
I became interested in this aspect of Kantianism because I frequently become frustrated when I communicate with my American colleagues, even though I am very proud of my American educational background. I got both undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States, and have been teaching American students since 1962. I had a great difficulty with my colleagues when I was talking about bound states using localized wave functions, while my colleagues were insisting on poles of the S-matrix in complex energy plane in the 1960s. I was looking at the bound states from two different view points using both wave functions and S-matrices, while my colleagues were insisting only one way: the S-matrix way. This is illustrated in my Dashen-Frautschi page.
I continued having this kind of problem whenever I inserted my own view in my papers. I then came to a suspicion that Einstein could not communicate well with American physicists because of his Kantian background. According to his relativity, things depend on observers' Lorentz frames. Of course, I am inflating myself if I say my problem is similar to that of Einstein, but I was interested in finding a concrete evidence to support my allegation. This is precisely why I made a trip in 2005 to Kaliningrad to study the origin of Kantianism. Kant spent 80 years of his entire life in an East Prussian city of Koenigsberg which in 1945 became a Russian city called Kaliningrad.
While there, I went to the Kant museum twice. There was one room for the books written about Kant and his philosophy. There were many books written in German and many in Russian. There are also many books in Japanese, while there are no books written in English. This was a surprise to me, but not a surprise to me according to my experience with English-speaking people in the United States. If you speak English, you do not have to worry about Kant. If you speak Japanese, you become keenly interested in Kant. I was not born in Japan, but Japanese shares the same philosophical base as Koreans.
Even though I claim myself to be a Kantianist like Einstein, there is one important difference. Einstein was big enough to ignore American physicists, but I cannot and I do not. I like American lifestyle and research style. I start writing papers whenever I do not have ideas, just like most, if not all, American physicists. I enjoy quarrels with my colleagues. Perhaps, I made an adventure to Kaliningrad because I am an American physicist.
I have an on-going quarrel with my colleagues on what the Lorentz boost is. Let us look at this figure consisting of a circle and an ellipse. This figure is often used as the logo for an optics conference widely known as ICSSUR. But it originally came from my 1973 paper with Marilyn Noz on Lorentz boosted hadrons. The circle is for the hadron at rest, and the ellipse is for the same hadron viewed by an observer moving with velocity 0.8c. The same thing may look differently depending on the Lorentz frame where the observation is made, according to Einstein. However, there are still many papers using the circle for Lorentz-boosted hadrons. Perhaps those authors may find something new by going around the circle. It is fun to be in the physics world.
copyright@2006 by Y. S. Kim, unless otherwise specified.