I don’t know about you. But like more than 99.9725% of the physicists out there, I too had my Einstein epiphany type II moment not too dissimilar to Sheldon’s brief encounter with Dennis Kim in Episode 12 of Season 1 of The Big Bang Theory. To me the Einstein epiphany type II is the first definitive moment in a physicist’s career that the said physicist realizes firmly that there is basically no way in hell that he can ever compete with or excel against one of his peers, much less one junior to his experience. The moment is often followed by a sensation of alternating awe and despair, denial and anger, and perhaps even humility and humiliation. The last one may not occur as some physicists are not capable of humility. 🙂
The day before my first oral exam in my graduate school days, I had attended a lecture given by one rather shy and youthful looking Professor Edward Witten at the Strings ’95 conference at the University of Southern California. Around that time, the superstring community was already super excited (no pun intended) about a paper that Dr Witten and Dr Seiberg had written recently that dealt with some exact solution of an esoteric gauge theory called N=2 supersymmetric Yang Mills, something about some topological invariant that was crucial in proving the concept of “duality”. So before the talk, I was all expected to learn about this new invariant and the so-called Seiberg-Witten equations. And I was sure that it was going to be something that would go way over my head and subsequently bore me to sleep and therefore once again allow me to dismiss string theories as a super waste of time.
But Professor Witten didn’t talk about his famed equations. Not at all. Instead, Professor Witten simply started the lecture by telling the audience in his shy and sheepish voice that just last night, he was thinking about why we live in a 4-dimensional spacetime. Why do we observe the Universe around us macroscopically as a smooth 4-dimensional spacetime manifold he asked. He then went over to the slide projector (no, we didn’t have laptops back then!) and started dribbling down his thoughts methodically. He started introducing all the five candidates of superstring theories. He argued with clarity and matter-of-factly why each one of them can be viewed as a valid description of nature. And then Professor Witten proceeded to demonstrate (and convinced me!) that these theories are all “dual” to one another. In other words, with the right set of surgical transformation rules and procedures, you can turn one theory into the other. See, they are all but different aspects of the same thing! But then there are five of them! That can’t be right?! Which one of these rules supreme?! We must be missing something, Professor Witten argued. Ah, all these theories are 10-dimensional (except for one actually but that’s minor detail). No, no, no, to complete the picture, we need to introduce an extra dimension, Professor Witten said in his now confident and god-like voice. Bingo! The sixth and unifying theory must be a 11-dimensional theory. It must be. Couldn’t be anything else. Mystery of the mysterious theory solved! Ladies and gentlemen, I assure you that nobody in the distinguished audience had a clue of what Professor Witten was going to talk about before he stepped up to the podium that day. Boy, right in front of my eyes, on the day before my first oral exam on the topic of string tension and the Chern-Simon susceptibility in the comparatively child-like 3-dimensional SU(2) world, I witnessed the birth of M-theory and the genesis of what we now refer to as the second superstring revolution.
Anyways, that was my Einstein epiphany type II moment. I promise you that it was a hell of a lot worse than my type I moment. As a result, I am now an Oompa Loompa of Science in Silicon Valley.