The domain of modern physics, as opposed to classic or Newtonian physics, has an uncanniness about it. It is not because it is a complicated domain, which of course is true, but mainly because it veers away to some mysticism of sorts. Which is bewildering. This reminds me of Dr Fritjof Capra’s bestseller The Tao of Physics where he draws marvellous parallels between modern physics, especially Einstein’s relativity theory along with quantum mechanics (with which Einstein disagreed even as it was he who was instrumental in laying its grand foundations), and Eastern mysticism that essentially boils down to Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism of Chi, and Zen of Japan.
Dr Capra’s take on the subject can in fact be stated simply as I discovered about three years after I laid my hands on his book. As I saw it after much introspection as a diehard atheist given to mathematical rigour, I found that Dr Capra would see an Eastern mystic, who has perfected yoga in his search for Absolute Truth, in, say, Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum mechanics – one of the most revolutiory areas in modern physics that elimites the element of certainty from human observation.
Heisenberg is celebrated by physicists for his famous – and mystical, but yet so profoundly mathematical – Uncertainty Principle. To put in the layman’s language, this principle says that it is impossible to accurately locate a subatomic particle and at the same time determine its speed or momentum (speed multiplied by mass). That is, simultaneous calculation of its position and speed in the space-time continuum (to use Einstein’s interpretation of space and time) is impossible. If you are certain about one of these, the other one gets uncertain, and vice-versa! This is difficult to believe. But that is how things turn out in the probabilistic world of quantum mechanics.
Now, what is this probabilistic world? This precisely is the world where maverick quantum mechanics specialists roam around, searching for meaning in matter and energy. Take an atom, the smallest unit of matter in the general sense. This tiny stuff is an amazing creation (by God?) with three basic things in it – electrons that are negatively charged, and the nucleus comprising positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons. The initial ‘truth’ was about the electrons revolving around the nucleus in fixed orbits, just as planets go about the sun. Later, a genius called Neils Bohr hit the ground, saying a big No. He postulated that if it were to really happen, the electrons would spiral towards the nucleus and eventually the atom would collapse. So all matter would collapse. We would collapse. The End of the World! But would God bring about such cataclysm and play havoc with His own creation?
So what Prof Bohr came up with is this: electrons do move around the nucleus of an atom, but they do so by remaining in what he called ‘fixed energy states’ so that they do not lose energy as they revolve and so that our wondrous atom does not collapse. Was the Dutch physicist being too cunning as to forcibly make an atom stable? We do not know. But then a huge problem was resolved.
Physics, grounded on the rigours of pure mathematics, nonetheless, would not remain satiated. It must explore more. After all, the target was God. Later, when more sophistication came in with advances in quantum mechanics, the poor atom – not allowed to rest in peace as eccentric physicists hounded it from all sides – came up as a different piece of mystery. Electrons would now no longer be found inside an atom precisely where we were looking for them. They were a mystery in themselves. For, we then were talking about orbitals and electrons with a wave ture too! Total mysticism, this. Just think of a particle (electron here) that also exhibits wave ture. It could be found anywhere inside the poor atom. So, what this essentially meant was, and is: particles at the subatomic level have a dual ture – sometimes they would be matter, sometimes waves, but when, this would be circumstantial.
Those not introduced to the strange ways of particle physics and cosmology (right from the Einsteinian times to the legacy that Stephen Hawking has left behind) will be tempted to write such physics off, wondering how it could affect human life, the multitude of life issues, our development issues, our desire for comfort, and at the spiritual level, our yearning for peace of mind. But this precisely is the point too.
Take a simple case. Had physicists not decoded the secrets of the atom to the extent they have until today, we would not have known matter, or rather the character of matter – the persolity of matter if one may say so. And if that was the case, we would not have had all these wondrous technologies comforting us in myriad ways. Quantum electronics has made tremendous advances, bringing with it a gamut of physical comforts we would never jettison. These days, artificial intelligence (better known by its acronym AI) is the buzzword even in government circles. Why, has not the rendra Modi government allocated a good amount for AI research for development purposes in this year’s annual budget? Would any AI research take place without the knowledge of the persolity of the atom and its mysterious constituents – both matter and wave? Not at all.
Enters Stephen Hawking. This ingenious Cambridge don was not satisfied with the Einsteinian worldview as Einstein did not ratify the quintessence of quantum mechanics, famously as the latter had said, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” Hawking’s was an ambitious programme to fuse relativity and quantum mechanics, or what physicists would say ‘a quantum theory of gravity’. As he stumbled upon black holes – space-time entities borne out of extremely massive stars collapsing due to their own gravitation and that would be so strong gravitatiolly that even light, the fastest traveller in the universe, cannot escape from their grip – and then as one fine day his mathematical calculations took him to radiating or evaporating black holes, which was absolutely unbelievable, Hawking had a tough time. He puts all this in the layman’s language in his classic A Brief History of Time.
What was God doing then? And why? What interest did He have after all this work of creation? Hawking’s was a lifelong engagement with the God issue. So would be the case with many of his collaborators too. But then the real issue continues to stare at us, challenging we cannot solve it: the issue of gravitation, the least understood of all the four fundamental forces in ture, the other ones being electromagnetism, weak nuclear force, and strong nuclear force, but yet the force we all are so familiar with and yet what Einstein, while demolishing the Newtonian notion of gravitation, proved it to be not a force at all!
What did Einstein prove in his general theory of relativity? It is that gravitation is not a force at all, but rather a manifestation of space-time curvature. To put it simply, the space-time continuum is curved and hence things like our earth move around the sun. Which has been experimentally proved too, as light rays bend near massive stars.
But at the end of the day, questions remain. If there were an all-merciful God who had created this wonderful universe of ours, why would he make it so very complicated at the microcosmic level? What interest did he have? More on this next time.