[1987 – 2017] – Physics Remembered
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It is the easiest of times for Physics. You have the largest collider, you have huge army of physicists, mathematicians, engineers, computer people, data scientists, PR machine, model like writers and media reporters, fantastic wordsmiths (God’s Particle) and 2500 years of work behind of some of the greatest minds and brains our genes are capable of producing. You also have a very awed and believing public when someone finds that one sees in front (in person or in screen) someone who has produced equations of such beauty and concise elegance that this can be written in a T-shirt and what are these ? These are the mind of God, written in mathematical symbols.
It is the hardest of times for Physics. So hard that barrier of entry of a theory will be zero as the most-advanced theories now declare that there can be any number of laws, theories and universes (multiverse). Cutting edge physics reads and looks like hieroglyphic scrolls with a benign, dreamy man speaking something which is closer to “faith based initiatives.”. There is no answer or admission of not having an answer or a tragic grandeur of utter failure against Olympian odds but speculation and defense of not calling a speculator a speculator. This while coming from scientists of European origin would have brought a blush of shame in the cheek of Hellas of antiquity. Physics may survive everything, including Quantum Theory but it will not survive the current trend of “celebrity scientists” or whose only claim and contribution may be becoming a celebrity.
Some 30 years back, I was a 17 year old boy and was mesmerized by the charm of Physics. I wanted to devote my Life to the subject and become a humble servant in the search of the truth in the inner sanctum of Nature. It was a very high ambition but it was physics and works of physicists like Feynman, Planck, Schrodinger, Dirac that was radioactive enough to instill such a fire inside a 17 year old boy in a muffsil town in North East India.
I did take an elaborate preparation and devoted myself totally and even getting myself admitted to a prestigious college as a regular student. On my own and guided by these giant mentors, I did progress to String Theory, starting from classical physics. It was a great, enjoyable, hard adventure as we must remember that unlike Europe where Classical Physics was taught in colleges since 1700s, whereas in India it started in 1860 with the establishment of Calcutta University in 1857.
I felt some instinctive disgust (at that time I was not sure why my soul was rebelling and matured people thought of this as some adolescent instability or imbecility) and left Physics for good. Being steeped in Indian mysticism, metaphysics, spirituality and cosmology, my “soul” perhaps felt that the progress through String theory, Tao of Physics, Dancing Wu Li Masters is surely towards the same half-lit, half-shaded, unabashed and carefree world of “holy speculation” and creating priests and attendant believers.
Classical Physics was developed by a wholly aristocratic age. We may justly regret the brutal critic who could not estimate the hidden greatness in the poetry of Keats but one good thing they did was to filter out the statistical averages and mere adventurers. It was a brutal method but it achieved one thing for sure : except the highest talent, nobody was ready to pay the price. Physicists of those age did not make money. There was relatively little funding for their work and many did earn their livelihood by humbler professions – tutoring, text-book writer, teacher (not tenured professors writing grant applications for projects that appears more and more like faith based initiatives written in mathematical language which handfuls understand but belief must be ensured to attract the money from the un-initiated)
String Theory was developed in liberal democracies. In a democracy, one of the greatest dangers is that a man’s only identifier in the cosmic drama is the job he does. Hence, in a democracy, the responsibility becomes diffused. This is clear from the public building projects in an aristocratic age and democratic age. The general quality difference is clear to naked eyes. This is because, in an aristocratic age, the leaders who commissioned this project were not dependent neither for their income nor for their social reputation on the financial outcomes of these projects. In a democracy, since the man’s only social relationship is money and fame vis-a-vis equal and equally felt fellow-citizens, the primal objective is to ensure continuation of the status quo.
One of the greatest attraction for young Indians for Physics for the first generations was the direct antithesis of world-view it presented against the prevalent one. It was noted by an Englishman while addressing a Convocation of the Calcutta University in the 1880s. India produced some luminaries and real greats in the domain in addition to a constellation of talented scientists. The confluence of mathematics and physics charmed the synthesis minded Indian, especially the initial irradiated ones.
The decline followed thereof. A race or nation responds to a new stimuli with an intensity much higher than the successive ones unless and until the stimuli is not proportionately either of higher intensity or of higher frequency or both. Since 1950s, the “peacocks and leopards”of the European and American Physics bade adieu save an endangered species like Feynman remained and then started the “Dance of Hindu, Chinese, Mayan, Egyptian gods”. 1970s witnessed some kind of democratization of cannabis Indica and Physics – a synthesis, founding fathers would have found arrant degradation of the highest level.
Nothing really happened in this period. Nothing significant.It was a halting – there were talents who “managed” but there was no genius and all the avenues were carefully blocked. As the best were few and were lacking conviction, the worst rose with passionate intensity and the age of celebrity physicist arrived. We, the old lovers watched with horror how no such celebrities talk of the hard path, the fight to death between idea and representation, the elation and heart-break. The great joy and the great fear and forewarning in print and lifestyle to all the young ones. It is very soon we shall be gifted with “User Friendly Calculus” or “Social Media Rated accurate Maxwell Equations.“.
I remember Nietzsche’s bitter cry on democracy : “who will save Democracy from England and England from Democracy….?”
“Who will save Physics ?” Rather the question should be “What will save Physics ?”
When one grows old, one forgets the humiliation and the pain of the unrequited love and the past becomes mellow and instead of a pixel image, it becomes what impressionist paints – with more spaces and silences. The old man fills those silences and a new time-variant portrait emerges.
On a personal note, I left the orbit of Physics as it was then but occasionally checked the goings-on. Nothing changed, I mean what made me leave. Worse, I observe some of my countryman have discovered a kind of fused snake oil, made out of oversimplified physics and re-used Eastern mysticism. In a democracy like America as foretold by Alex de Tocqueville in a highly aristocratic prose the trends thereof, my countryman are doing good business. This is fine and one can take a hearty joy in success of such a venture. But this does little honour to the seminal fathers of Physics who did rage a life and death war against such intellectual short-circuiting.
I leave with a hope. May be in some eon, a genius will arrive in God’s own Time (not the invariant Time) and he will laugh at most of the wooly mish-mash and the genius will wash away the Agean filth accumulated over last 60-70 years and the Vita Nuova will be there again.
I cannot die even without this faith.