“The Greatest” defeated all opponents when the heavyweight division was its richest. Has any physicist done the same?
“The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” –Muhammad Ali
It might not seem that the most fundamental of sciences has that much in common with the sweet science, but the art of solving a complex, seemingly insurmountable problem elegantly and efficiently is a beauty at the core of both. Both require the development of a powerful and unique toolkit — different types of punches, evasions, defenses and goading in boxing; different types of formulations, mathematical tools and problem solving techniques in physics — to deal with the relentless onslaught of your opponent. And perhaps most importantly, they both demand that you coax the greatness out of whatever or whomever you face in order to magnify your own achievements. No one lauds Edward Arthur Milne for his empty Universe solution; no one lauds Trevor Berbick for his defeat of a way-past-his-prime Ali.
But the hallmark of the greatest champion at any endeavor is one who faces the greatest of all opponents, diverse and formidable in the challenges they pose, and finds a way to emerge victorious each time in the end. You face the best when they’re at their best, you find and expose their weaknesses, and you bring them down. We’ve seen flashes of that in physics and in boxing throughout history:
- Kepler bringing order to a chaotic Solar System, deriving elliptical orbits and giving the first improvement to celestial mechanics’ predictions in over 1000 years,
- Sugar Ray Robinson’s 91-fight unbeaten streak,
- Faraday deriving the law of magnetic induction, and creating electric currents without directly, forcibly moving a single charge,
- Rocky Marciano’s defeat of Joe Louis and perfect 49–0 career,
- Schrödinger’s discovery of the equation that governs the probabilistic dynamics of a quantum particle,
- or a young Mike Tyson, invulnerable to his opponent’s punches and with the power and speed to strike terror into the hearts of all who watched him fight.
But they all had flaws, too, and obstacles they either couldn’t face or faced to the best of their ability, but couldn’t overcome.
Kepler attempted to uncover the nature of planetary orbits, and claimed it was a giant magnetic force at the heart of the Sun driving it all. Robinson lost or drew a large number of fights, particularly after his 31st birthday, and wound up with 19 losses by time he retired. Faraday had no mind for equations, and could not figure out the physical or mathematical unification of electromagnetism that Maxwell would bring. Marciano had a tremendous combination of stamina and power, but only fought one truly elite fighter in his prime (Ezzard Charles), and retired rather than fight Floyd Patterson PDCO -0.15%. Schrödinger could never discover a version of his equation that worked near the speed of light, which (when discovered by Dirac) led to the development of modern quantum field theory. And Mike Tyson’s fury led down a self-destructive path, leading to losses, jail, and an inability to overcome his contemporary greats like Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis.
Ali was in a league of his own. At a time when the heavyweight division was stacked like never before — Liston, Patterson, Frazier, Norton, Foreman — Ali not only challenged them all, he challenged all of them to be the greatest versions of themselves. He wasn’t unbeatable, Joe Frazier spectacularly proved that, but he was unconquerable. His combination of speed, power, agility, defense, endurance, will, and the ability to coax his opponent towards defeat has never been replicated. His takedown of the seemingly-invincible George Foreman was a work of art still talked about as one of the greatest performances of all-time, but it was his trilogy with Frazier that elevated his greatness to unparalleled levels. Frazier, a pressure fighter, had a fighting style that was optimally suited to combatting Ali’s, bobbing and weaving to get inside and deliver tremendous punishment, most often in the form of a devastating left hook that knocked out almost everyone who faced him. Frazier gave Ali the first defeat of his career, including a knockdown from that famous left hook, and the greatest fight of his life in the Thrilla in Manila.
That fight was more than just a boxing match; it was Ali’s most dangerous opponent throwing his entire heart, soul, and life into that fight. Ali made Frazier hate him more than anything or anyone else, a game that Ali excelled at and that drew the full greatness of Frazier out of him. After four rounds having the advantage against Frazier, Smokin’ Joe found his rhythm and started to connect with both hands against Ali. But in the sixth round, he twice connected solidly with his left hook, but couldn’t bring Ali down. Frazier poured on the punishment near the end of the 8th round, landing a barrage of blows to the body and head, but still Ali wouldn’t go down. But somehow, in the 10th and 11th rounds, Ali began to rally. His punches were faster, his footwork was faster, and Frazier’s bobbing and weaving became ineffective. As Frazier’s eyes swelled shut, Ali tried to end it. The 14th round was perhaps the most courageous effort ever made by a fighter: Ali must have hit Frazier with 30 punches as hard as the one that knocked out George Foreman the year before, but Frazier refused to fall. Somehow, Joe was still trying to get inside, trying to land that counterpunch, still trying to win despite having fallen behind on all the judges scorecards. He had no chance; he was beaten; still he wouldn’t stop. His trainer, the legendary Eddie Futch, threw in the towel just before the bell for the final round. Ali said it was the closest he ever came to dying, that Joe Frazier quit one second before he did, and that Joe Frazier was the greatest fighter in history “after me.” It was Ali’s finest hour and the last moment of true greatness for both men; neither one was ever the same fighter after the Thrilla in Manila.
The two greatest physicists of all-time, if you ask almost anyone, were Einstein and Newton. Yet neither one of them achieved the greatness of Ali; neither one was able to conquer all the problems they took on in their days. Einstein’s miracle year of 1905 was spectacular, with the photoelectric effect, E = mc^2 and special relativity all coming out in that year. A decade later, he 1-upped himself with general relativity, still the undisputed theory of gravitation. But his inability to accept the quantum truths of our Universe, the inherent randomness on the smallest scales, or that electromagnetism and gravitation would never be unified in a classical framework were failures that haunted him throughout his life.
Newton’s derivation of mechanics, of gravitation, his development of calculus and his treatise on rays and optics were spectacular and revolutionary, and solved an incredible number of outstanding problems at the time. But Newton had a tremendous number of failures, too: he never gave up his pursuit of alchemy and his attempts to turn lead into gold, he never accepted (despite extraordinary evidence and the work of Christiaan Huygens) the wave nature of light or the phenomena of interference and diffraction, and his insistence until his death on active, divine intervention to keep planetary orbits stable over time. Both men’s tremendous successes outnumbered their failures, and their achievements deserve to be canonized, but neither one achieved that level of greatness of being indisputably above all others in their field.
Perhaps that’s for the best. Perhaps it’s a humbling and necessary lesson to learn that the full suite of secrets of the Universe will never yield to one mind alone. For all that we’ve learned about brought together, we’ve never had a single mind, no matter how brilliant — not Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Feynman, Hawking or Witten — solve more than a few of the greatest mysteries of their day. The best a theoretical physicist can hope for is the greatness of Joe Frazier: to devote their mind, their heart and their entire lives to fight the unbeatable foe, perhaps achieving a breakthrough moment or two of glory and victory. But the unyielding laws of nature will always have more mysteries to explore. As Kepler put it more than four centuries ago:
The diversity of the phenomena of nature is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment.
There’s no Muhammad Ali of physics because the Universe itself is the greatest of all-time. There’s no shame in that, but it’s a fact that should humble us all.