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Thomas Samuel Kuhn is arguably the most influential scientific philosopher to have lived in the twentieth century. Kuhn upended received wisdom permeating scientific thinking by introducing the notion of a paradigm shift. According to him, the progress of scientific thought is a perpetual revolution, a revolt even, driven by the unrelenting force of paradigms. Science initially progresses on entrenched assumptions that is the prerogative of a particular scientific community. A slight shift takes place when one/few intrepid mind/s detect an ‘anomaly’ in the rooted assumptions. This anomaly then assumes momentum and soon becomes a dogmatic assumption itself till such time it is in turn uprooted by a courageous anomaly. This process continues in perpetuity.
A commonly accepted paradigm in the astronomy is the Big Bang Theory and the origin of the universe. Scientists have believed, and continue to believe that the universe originated from a singularity that began expanding with the Big Bang. If there was to be an absence of this singularity –the Big Bang may never have happened. This paradigm was almost accepted as the universal truth. Until along came a brilliant brain that thrived on cigarettes, classical music and cosmology – not necessarily in that order.
Laura Mersini-Houghton never considered any challenge to be insurmountable, let alone one that stemmed from cosmology. No stranger to setbacks, her initial upbringing in the persecutorial communist regime in Albania, was nothing short of an existential crisis. The daughter of a Professor of Econometrics (who was repeatedly exiled for his knowledge – an invitation from Oxford University to discuss a new algorithm devised by him being one reason for a lengthy bout of banishment) and an employee at the Albanian League of Writers & Artists, Laura was influenced both personally and professionally by her astute parents.
Goaded by a set of ever encouraging parents, Laura became the first Albanian to get a Fulbright scholarship and found herself making a long and lonely journey that had as its destination, the University of Maryland. After completing her M.Sc., she headed to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to pursue her Ph.D. in theoretical physics. Her main motivation to choose theoretical/quantum physics was a gnawing problem which seemed totally bereft of solutions. British mathematical physicist and Nobel Laureate Roger Penrose in collaboration with one of the greatest ever cosmologists, Stephen Hawking had birthed what was popularly known as the singularity theorem. This theorem implied that scientists could never explore the actual moment of the Universe’s creation because absolutely nothing existed before creation.
For her dissertation, Laura could either opt to do research toeing the conventional line or she could attempt to buck the traditional trend. However, bucking the trend could have disastrous consequences as the unfortunate experience of the mercurial theoretical physicist Hugh Everett III illustrated. In 1957, Everett defended his dissertation titled ‘On the foundations of Quantum Mechanics’ at Princeton and received his PhD. However, Everett’s brilliant thesis contradicted the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, one of whose pioneers Niels Bohr happened to be the mentor of Everett’s PhD advisor, John Archibald Wheeler. Later, in 1959, Wheeler invited Everett to meet Niels Bohr. The meeting, however, was an unmitigated disaster. Everett’s ‘relative-state theory’, now known as the ‘many worlds theory’, was rejected by Bohr, and subsequently, the entire Physics community. Everett himself described the meeting as “hell.” Wheeler then withdrew from Everett’s theory personally, not wanting his name associated with it, and even publicly denounced it after Everett’s death.
Laura knew the consequences of being ‘bold’. But the girl who watched many of her friends climb the walls of various embassies in Tirana to seek asylum abroad, but stood resolute in her resolve to complete her education was built to last. For her dissertation, she presented the theory of the origin of the universe from the multiverse, and made a series of predictions, including The Giant Void, that was able to test her theory. A sudden burst of epiphany assailed Laura while she was sipping coffee in a café. Immediately she wrote down the edifice constituting her flash of thinking: ‘Quantum mechanism on the landscape of String Theory’. The rest as the cliché goes, was indeed history.
In an epochal study, undertaken in tandem with Rich Holman of Carnegie Mellon University, Laura discovered that infant universes that started at very high energies were the most likely universes to be produced out of a quantum landscape. Thrillingly, the origins of the universe could be calculated and derived! Her predictions were successfully tested by the Planck satellite experiment.
When Laura’s father became eligible as the top ranked student in his class for a scholarship to study in Moscow, the medal of honour was snatched away just as it was about to be placed around his neck, by an influential member of the Albanian Communist Party who had some grouse with the student’s family and their libertarian values. That regret never left Nexhat Mersini. However, his heart would have filled with unbridled filial pride to see his beloved daughter progress from stealthily & surreptitiously poring over banned Western literature at the library of Albanian League of Writers and Artists, to sitting next to Roger Penrose in a Turkish restaurant that was just about to close for the night and hold forth on the principles of cosmology deep after midnight!
The autobiography of this stellar Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, might just be a paradigm waiting to be embraced, adulated, supplemented or even supplanted by another intrepid mind in future, another Laura Messini perhaps!
(Before the Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe and What Lies Beyond by Laura Mersini-Houghton is published by Mariner Books and will be available for sale beginning 19th July 2022. Thank you Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy).