Planck's Constant The Number That Rules Tec…

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Planck’s Constant: The Number That
Rules Technology, Reality, and Life
By James Stein on Mon, 24 Oct 2011

In 1878—before Einstein was born, before quantum
mechanics, before we knew that our galaxy was one
among many—a well-known physicist named Phillip von
Jolly told young Max Planck, a student aspiring to a
career in physics, “In this field, almost everything is
already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few
unimportant holes.”

Little did von Jolly realize how seriously he had
underestimated the depth and quantity of those
“unimportant holes,” and he certainly had no idea that
Planck was to play a vital role in helping to fill them.
Fortunately for us, Planck was not turned off by Jolly’s
remark, and replied that he was not so much interested
in discovering new things as in understanding what was
known. This might sound unusual, as most scientists are
motivated by a combination of two things: a desire to

What if energy worked the same way? What if there were a smallest unit of energy. In order to resolve an underlying problem in the theory of energy distribution. So what is this smallest unit of energy? Planck hypothesized the existence of a constant. which links a wave or particle’s frequency with its total energy. and our understanding of life itself.” was fundamental to the development of quantum theory.understand. Planck wondered. Planck’s career was ultimately characterized by the discovery of something truly new. and as science moves forward. Today. Discovery and understanding go hand-in-hand. our understanding of reality. just as there is a smallest unit of water? The idea that energy could be expressed in discrete units. and any container of water consists of a staggering number of identical water molecules. integrated circuits. but Planck’s constant is every bit as important. or h. and chips that have revolutionized our lives. Planck’s constant has also enabled the construction of the transistors. something which would lead to a deeper understanding of perhaps one of the great questions in all science: how the universe enables life to exist. Indeed. . Chemistry tells us that the smallest amount of water is a water molecule. together they move science forward. we know that h = 6.6262 x 10-34 Joule⋅second Planck’s constant has had profound ramifications in three important areas: our technology. or “quantized. the quality of our lives improves. Of the universal constants—the cosmic numbers which define our Universe—the speed of light gets all the publicity (partially because of its starring role in Einstein’s iconic equation E = mc2). coupled with the urge to discover. you might say that Planck put the “quanta” in quantum mechanics. now known as Planck’s constant.

In the process. It requires a great deal of heat to enable hydrogen to fuse to helium. everywhere at once. and the hydrogen . That’s not much.7% is known as the efficiency of hydrogen fusion. the discovery of Planck’s constant advanced the realization that. when we probe the deepest levels of the structure of matter. bizarrely. but there is so much hydrogen in the Sun that it has been radiating enough energy to warm our planet for more than four billion years—even from a distance of 93.More fundamentally. Planck’s constant tells us how the universe is numerically fine-tuned to permit life to exist. they are. Carl Sagan. A “thing”—like a moving car—has a definite location and velocity. This 0. we are no longer looking at “things” in the conventional meaning of the word. approximately 0. velocity. and our understanding of it is one of the consequences of Planck’s investigations.000. Reconciling the probabilistic subatomic world with the macroscopic everyday world is one of the great unsolved problems in physics—a not-so-unimportant hole that even von Jolly would have recognized as such. Finally. The fundamental nuclear reaction eventually leading to the explosion of a supernova is the fusion of four hydrogen atoms to produce a single atom of helium. was fond of saying that “We are all star stuff”—the chemicals which form our bodies are produced in the explosions of supernovas.7% of the mass is converted to energy via E=mc2. Electrons do not exist in the sense that cars do. a car may be 30 miles south of Los Angeles heading east at 40 miles per hour. but much more likely to be in some places than in others. and even existence itself blur at the atomic and subatomic level. The concepts of location.000 miles—and will continue to do so for another five billion years. one of the great popularizers of science.

7% efficiency of hydrogen fusion is what is sometimes referred to as a “Goldilocks number.6%. and maybe life could evolve—but not ours.8%.7% efficiency of hydrogen fusion is “just right” to permit the emergence of life as we know it. the neutron and proton would not bond to each other to form a deuterium atom. In this case. the 0. Planck’s quantization of energy was an essential step on . If the efficiency of hydrogen fusion were as low as 0. they are insufficiently hot to fuse. but without water life as we know it would not exist. much like cars on a freeway move at different speeds. high-temperature ballet. if hydrogen fusion had an efficiency of 0. and there is a small fraction of hydrogen atoms moving at sufficiently high speeds to fuse to helium. The first step of this reaction produces deuterium. it would be much too easy for helium to form.” Like the porridge that Goldilocks eventually ate. The slower-moving hydrogen atoms just bounce off each other. mean higher temperatures. but just right. The 0. causing one of the protons to shed its electrical charge and metamorphose into a neutron. Higher speeds. which was neither too hot nor too cold. The hydrogen in the stars would become helium so quickly that there wouldn’t be much hydrogen left to form the molecule most essential for life—water. two protons slam into one another.atoms in the sun are moving at different speeds. Star stuff would be produced. an isotope of hydrogen whose nucleus consists of one proton and one neutron. In this process. the first step on the road to creating the elements necessary for life. On the other hand. we’d still have stars —huge glowing balls of hydrogen—but no star stuff would ever form because the porridge would be too cold to create helium. Maybe something else would take the place of water. though. The process of hydrogen fusion is an intricate high-speed.

Harlow). The Right Decision (also a Scientific American Book Club selection). Facebook. His list of publications includes: How to Shoot from the Hip Without Getting Shot in the Foot (with Herbert L. and probably even Philipp von Jolly would recognize that as an important hole in our knowledge of the universe that desperately needed to be filled. and How Math Can Save Your Life. But perhaps the greater lesson is this: The very moment when it feels like “almost everything is already discovered” may be the moment that the universe is about to yield up its biggest surprises—if you’re not afraid to dig in to a few holes. Science hasn’t filled in all the pieces of the puzzle of how life actually evolved. but quantum mechanics did begin to answer the question of how the pieces got there in the first place. He lives in Redondo Beach. Tell us what you think on Twitter. Stone and Charles V. or email. California. His latest book is Cosmic Numbers: The Numbers That Define Our Universe. How Math Explains the World (a Scientific American Book Club selection).the road to the theory of quantum mechanics. which is critical to our understanding of stellar evolution. Other posts from this contributor . He has been a guest blogger for Psychology Today and his work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times. Stein is a past member of the Institute of Advanced Studies and is currently a professor of Mathematics at California State University (Long Beach). James Stein James D.

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