Tuesday, September 21, 2004


One of my biggest and oldest loves is reading biographies and autobiographies of scientists, especially Physicists. Over the years, I have had a wonderful time reading about these doyens of the science which truly changed our world. Quantum Theory, Relativity Theory, Nuclear Physics and Particle Physics are just some of the gifts from this glittering tree of knowledge which inspired not only a new era of intellectual thought, but also a host of practical discoveries in Chemistry, Biology and Electronics which we take for granted today.
One of the adjuncts to this hobby involves reading and listening to interviews with scientists in books, magazines, and on the internet. In these interviews, almost all of the scientists talked to are characteristically modest, reserved, and even politically correct. At best they are reverent to an excess, at worst they are cautiously critical. This is most and expectedly so during Nobel Prize interviews, where they represent the human face of science and have an image to maintain.

The most outstanding example of the frank scientist which I have ever come across is of course the inimitable Richard Feynman. In his many biographies and his autobiography, he has repeatedly appeared as the apotheosis of the fearless inquisitor, the irreverent explorer, the man who would tell the Pope that his ideas are 'baloney', if he really felt they were. He has battled it out with such stalwarts as the great Niels Bohr, the Princess of Sweden (at the Nobel Prize ceremony), and fellow Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe. Countless others who would make a show of pomposity or would put on would get the classic Feynman treatment. But behind this candor was an intense, almost obsessive desire to get to the heart of issues as honestly as possible, to simplify matters as much as possible, and most importantly as he would always emphasize, to accept Nature as she is. For a long time, I never thought I would again hear or read about someone like that.

That's why I was completely bowled over after listening to Martinus Veltman's interview on the Nobel Prize website. No one can take Feynman's place, but he came close. A particle physicist who has made fundamental contributions to the most abstract fields of theoretical physics, he has been one of those people who are most at ease performing mathematical gymnastics in obscure reaches of their mind. Veltman won the prize along with his student Gerardus T'Hooft in 1999. His interviewers were both Swedish, a dignified young lady, and an equally dignified elderly man. The lady's countenance was calm, and the posture in which she sat on the chair, with one hand on her lap and the other one on top of it, reminded me of formal upper class New York ladies posing for the camera around the turn of the 19th century. Across the table was the subject of their interview, the heavily bearded Veltman, who reminded me of Professor Challenger from Doyle's 'The Lost World'. One of the peeves I have with the Nobel Prize proceedings is the fluency of the interviewers. I think that these people are seldom well versed in the art of asking elegant questions. Most of them are Swedish. This in my opinion, hampers the quality of the interviews, because frequently, the interviewers do not make themselves absolutely clear and eloquent. Perhaps it is part of the effort of the Nobel Committee to keep it all in the family only by including their own people in all events.

The interview started with the interviewers asking Feldman about the difference between the European way of learning and the American one, and between old and new ways of learning. Veltman replied that in the old days, it was much less disciplined, with students given the freedom to discontinue their studies if they wished and to return back to them some time later. Today, with tight research budgets and the image of graduate students as 'customers', things are quite constrained. The point which Veltman made, made an impression on me. He said that sometimes, students are simply not mature enough to carry through their research. They have to take time off, grow as a thinker in whatever way they deem fit, and then return back armed with prudent knowledge. This is simply not possible today, and I felt that it is an unfortunate reality.
Then came the salvos. When the woman asked him about other interests, he frankly replied that he had none as such. He said that from that point of view he was 'a professional idiot'. When they asked him if he believes that the twenty-first century would be one of biology, he simply said that he had no opinion about that. But his answer made sense. He said that if someone would have asked a physicist in 1899 about future progress in Physics, could he have ever have been able to predict the wonderful and earth shaking discovery that Max Planck was going to make at the turn of the century? Or the harrowing truths about space and time that Albert Einstein was going to arrive at in a few years? In that respect, prediction is futile. Good point. Veltman looks like the most impassive scientist of the time. But actually it's simple. If he does not know something, he does not proffer thoughts on it. We need such people, but I could not help but think that Feynman would have been infinitely more interesting in such a situation. I was realising that Veltman's candor was unsettling to the interviewers. Especially the woman seemed hesitant, even scared to ask him further questions.

But the most revealing answer was yet to come. One of the most frequently asked questions to physicists today, is whether they would discover a 'unified theory of everything' that would combine all the laws of physics that we know. Top notch scientists like Stephen Hawking have given much impetus to popular public conception of this idea. It turned out that a few weeks before Veltman's interview, an article had been published in Scientific American in which the brilliant and well known physicist Steven Weinberg had said that progress towards a unified theory would be made on a concrete basis till about 2050. Weinberg won the Nobel Prize in 1979 for working in an area similar to Veltman's field, and over the years, through his books and writings, has also become a popular expositor of physics. When Veltman was asked what he thought of this, his reply was, "I find it annoying if not stupid. There is nothing in Physics which suggests that Unification is a must. If it's a part of Nature, fine. If not, fine too. Let's not tell Nature how she should be. The only reason Unification has caught on is because the Physicists want to sell it. Also, they are all blindly following something only because Mr. Einstein said it should be so, and because he had made it his life's work".

Apart from Veltman's candid comments on Weinberg and other contemporary physicists, what struck me was the catch phrase. Let's not tell Nature how she should be. Vintage Feynman. Or Bohr for that matter. I was led back to the time of famous discussions between Bohr and Einstein. Einstein used to pontificate extensively on God. "God does not play dice". "God is subtle but not malicious". Bohr's simple reply: Einstein, do not tell God what to do. Feynman used to say that his goal is not to discover some deep philosophical question about the Universe, but to simply find more about it. He used to say, "That's the way the Universe is. You don't like it? Go someplace else. To a different Universe where the laws are simpler!". I think it's quite a humbling thought. Many times, our solipsistic minds are so clouded by preconceived notions that we forget the much greater power that Nature wields on us. Divisions of Science into various fields of study, employment of specific experimental techniques, even casting of the laws of Nature in mathematical form, represent nothing but a kind of inability on our part to understand it any other way. It's our convenience. If it works, it works. Nature is indifferent. It's a hard reality that we have to contend with. You don't like it? Shop somewhere else...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

RYC: "Prurient pablum" eh? Well, for one, none of the canonical myths (falling in the Purana category of Smriti literature) have any 'prurient pablum' regarding Ganesh's birth that I know of. If however you know any, I would be happy if you can pass on the references so that I can look into it.

I see little reason to regard Courtright's (thats the guy right?) book as canonical for Hinduism.

As to knowing the truth? Dude, I am agnostic about truth itself! So while you say 'no one knows what the truth is', I go beyond and say 'no one CAN know what the truth is'. ALL 'knowledge' and all schools lean on certain axioms - that includes science. The funny thing about science is that it does not make axiomatic truth claims, it uses axiomatic truth criteria.

10:51 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home