Beyond The Imagination

February 13, 2004
Through collaborations with the world's top physicists, Bennie F.L. Ward is working on quantum corrections to Sir Isaac Newton's discoveries.
research-5Ward, who came to Baylor last fall as the new Distinguished Professor of Physics and chair of the physics department, approaches his research with an unshaken faith that its importance someday will become clear.
"If you had gone back to 1860 when [James Clerk] Maxwell was trying to formulate his equations, his work was on the cutting edge of physics research and, at that time, it was completely useless," Ward says.
Maxwell's four elegant equations explained electromagnetism, enabled the invention of telephones and computers and now are considered the ABCs of physics. Yet, if anyone had told him his equations would be the cornerstone of technology in 2004, he would not have believed them, Ward says.
"We're formulating these things and proceeding with the same spirit that Maxwell did, with the idea that we can't even imagine what the ultimate impact will be on the lives of our children and great-grandchildren. We know from history that it will be beyond anything we could try to imagine or describe," he says.
Maxwell was a genius who published his first work at age 14 and got his physics degree from Cambridge at 19. Ward's interest in the early space program led to an undergraduate degree in both math and physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the fastest-ever physics doctorate (two years, four months) from Princeton University. Like Maxwell, Ward has earned distinction among both theorists and experimentalists.
Currently, he is working on a project using the enormous new atomic collider at CERN, the high-energy physics lab in Geneva, Switzerland. Scheduled to be turned on in 2007, the project involves the interaction of two high-energy protons at 14 TeV, the highest such colliding beam of total energy in the history of the world. Ward is doing the calculations on the amount of a certain kind of energy produced and also will do theoretical calculations to understand what the result of those collisions implies about the laws of elementary particle physics, he says.
But why improve on Newton's laws? Haven't they worked just fine for 300 years? "What always pushes the change in the laws (of physics) is what one can observe in the laboratory, what one sees. Physics is an empirical science. It's based on observations," Ward says.
After the Industrial Revolution, scientists were able to observe things that went beyond Newton's ideas -- things that have changed the way average people live, such as nuclear energy, which depends on the probability that a certain number of nuclei in a given quantity of atoms will decay. Because such probability finds no place in Newton's deterministic system, scientists cannot predict the amount of energy generated by a nuclear plant using only Newton's laws.
Ward describes his work as the union of the ideas of Niels Bohr, father of quantum mechanics, and of Albert Einstein, best known for his theory of relativity, which was grounded in Newtonian physics. In Newtonian mechanics, everything is deterministic, whereas Bohr's quantum mechanics is probabilistic. Einstein's work helped pave the way for the quantum revolution, yet he believed the unpredictability of a probabilistic universe suggested the incompleteness of the theory. Hence, Einstein's famous quote that "God does not play dice."
Althought sought by many other institutions, Ward says he chose Baylor for reasons perhaps few in his discipline would appreciate: "I came to Baylor because it represented a special opportunity to carry out the type of research investigations which excite me in the context of an openly Christian environment," he says.
Ward is interested in both the unification theory and string theory, two hot areas of physics. There seems to be a real possibility that strings are a phenomenological model of a more fundamental theory in which quantum gravity is actually a finite theory, he says. "This more fundamental theory, the ultimate theory (TUT), which really unifies all known forces, is the subject of some of my recent research," he says. "It hopes to understand what truly underlies string theory."
Although comparisons to Maxwell are apt, Provost David Lyle Jeffrey prefers to compare Ward to Einstein. "Dr. Einstein, you know, was famous for challenging the paradigms of earlier research in physics. He said, 'You cannot solve problems with the same thinking that created them.' Dr. Ward is, in a sense, very much in line with that kind of thinking."
Ward is confident his work will benefit future generations, but Jeffrey says some of the beneficiaries are already on campus: "This is not a man who teaches out of a textbook. He teaches out of his immediate research."

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