The greatest innovation in physics, and I think in all of science, was the discovery that important behaviour of natural objects can be described with mathematical precision. This was the centrepiece of the 17th century scientific revolution, after which we’ve never looked back. It sharply divides the sort of rough-and-ready intuitive semi-understanding that comes to us naturally, and even satisfied such powerful and such sophisticated minds as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, from today’s science.
All the subsequent ‘revolutions’, including electromagnetic field theory, relativity, and quantum mechanics, were inevitable after that discovery; as were the technologies of the Industrial and Information revolutions. You can’t find what you’re not looking for; but if you know what to look for, and it’s there, eventually you’ll find it!
Frank Wilczek is Herman Feshbach professor of physics Massachusetts Institute of Technology, joint recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of strong interaction.