On Physics and Hinduism

At the entrance to the Centre for European Nuclear Research (CERN) stands a 2 metre tall statue of the Hindu deity, Nataraja (see above). To the unaware, it looks like something out of place: something that does not belong in one of the world’s largest scientific research institutions. But it is only one instance of the compatibility between physics and Hinduism.


On Physicists and the law: how society has misplaced its views of science and its community

While I have often said that the community of physicists works for the common gaining of knowledge and to derive infinite mental pleasure out of that, I have also asserted that little is done towards blindly implementing it—that is what engineers are for: the Engineering – this is where the semi-skilled workers realize the work of better minds… [The] Oompah-Loompahs of science, as Sheldon Cooper puts it.

But, fun apart, my argument has always been struck, perhaps even beheaded many a time in the past. And today, I learned the height of it all—although I was quite late in finding out. Perhaps the greatest opponent to my belief is social paradigm. Non-scientists (who are the ones supposed to understand this in the first place) fail to catch on to the fact that a scientist has so much on their hands that to conform to complicated social ways becomes terribly troublesome. And, needless to mention, it is quite meaningless to hold them legally responsible for it.

Dr Adlène Hicheur

Today I read the editorial on a recent issue of Nature (Oct. 13, 2011) about the singular case of the French-Algerian physicist Dr Hicheur, which reminded me of the villain from Iron Man 2 (he is a physicist.) As it happens, the French think that Dr Hicheur, a high-energy physicist from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Laussane, was plotting terrorist attacks in France.

Whether his work was so alien to the (forgive me for saying this, but) incompetent authorities who captured him on this account, that it appeared to them like a diabolical plot to blow up France; or whether they just needed a reason to feel safe and so decided to catch somebody and call him a criminal, is beyond me. Either way, Dr Hicheur has been in jail since 2009. Yes, he missed the LHC experiments altogether.

As nature rightly put it, the continued imprisonment of the French-Algerian physicist highlights the need for scientists to defend the human rights of all colleagues.

Speaking of human rights, as the Nature Editorial rightly points out, although holding a person for so long without trial is legal under France’s anti-terror laws, it is a clear violation of the physicist’s human rights.

I seem to be borrowing heavily from Nature, but here is a small paragraph that says it best, that this is nothing new: “Persecution of scientists, and physicists in particular, is nothing new. During the cold war, researchers on both sides of the iron curtain suffered for their political views. In the United States, Robert Oppenheimer’s career was ruined by rumours of communist sympathies. And Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov spent much of the 1980s in internal exile for his outspoken views on human rights and arms control.”

Apparently, Dr Hicheur—whose online exchanges are being blocked by authorities—has been quite forgotten until recently when his defenders helplessly confessed that he can be held another 12 months before the French courts come to a decision on whether to go ahead with his trial or not.

The L’Aquila Earthquake

What prompted me to write this article was not Dr Hicheur’s case alone. Just last month six Italian physicists were jailed and are now standing trial for the manslaughter of 300 citizens for failing to predict an earthquake in the town of L’Aquila.

While that sounds like a line right out of a fairy tale, it is, sadly, true. As ABC News reported it, back in March of 2009, the panel of scientists and a local official, Bernardo di Bernardinis (who is the seventh man charged,) had a meet and the scientists declared that there was no danger then. Six days later, the earthquake struck, understandably killing many (around 309) and making as many as 7,000 people homeless.

Stating that the community was misinformed and misled, the very able community, which can take care of itself, at L’Aquila, has lodged a case of manslaughter against the six scientists. And the naive court (which in an idealistic world is supposed to have a mind of its own) has now brought them to trial, successfully hindering scientific growth.

Who was to blame when Mt Vesuvius temporarily wiped out Sicily from the face of the earth? Who is to blame every time the San Andreas fault crack open? It is nature. Nature decides, nature goes ahead with it. And as people living in such places, they ought to expect such things and be prepared with it. One does not pull the trigger at the bidding of another’s mind. It is one’s own that rules our actions.

Why did the people not look to the gods they so deeply believe in? Do they then consider physicists worthy replacements? If physicists indeed could prevent such calamities and rightly predict it every time, why would they be on Earth? They would rather fancy exploring the remainder of the universe.

Why is the weatherman not blamed everyday he reports faulty weather (which is every other day)? Because people understand. But with dead kin on their hands, man’s logical reasoning centre seems to spontaneously shift from his head to his chest.

Looking on the brighter side, unlike hardly anybody coming to Dr Hicheur’s aid (and CERN even looking the other way,) the reaction to this outrageous incident has been rather good—although more ought to be done. Soon after this shocking incident (it quite sent me staggering backwards in disbelief) about 5,000 physicists have signed a petition condemning this unprecedented court action. This is well reflected in a Nature article from July this year (2011,) on human-rights issues among scientists and in scientific collaborations.

While Dr Hicheur stays hopeful of walking free soon, the seven Italians, if convicted, face 12 year jail terms. And physicists will expectedly cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.

In the meanwhile, if you choose to do the right thing and support the physicists mentioned in this article and probably many others who are not, then speak out on your social networking profiles and like or +1 or share this article. You can also add your views as comments below.

Astronomy lecture-workshop — Day 1

As one of my three-part series on the The Science Academies’ three-day lecture workshop on astronomy—which I am attending presently—here are the proceedings of the inaugural first day.

The Science Academies

Convenor R Srinivasan speaking at the start of the functionThe three day workshop focusing on undergraduate and graduate students of physics was convened by Dr R Srinivasan, a Fellow of The Science Academies—an association of the three leading science academies in India: the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore; the Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi; and the National Academy of Sciences, Allahabad.

The Science Academies conducts regular Three-day Lecture Workshops all over the country, focusing on various disciplines; and this particular one was organised by the physics department of Yuvaraja’s College in Mysore, under the University of Mysore.

The speakers

Eminent physicists will be taking part in the event, with Professors G Srinivasan and Biman Nath of the Raman Research Institute delivering four lectures on the first day. They will be continuing onto the second day when Prof Uday Shankar, also from the Raman Research Institute, and Dr Sreekumar from the Indian Space Research Organisation [ISRO] will be joining them.

Prof Srinivasan is scheduled to deliver a four lecture series on the birth and death of stars and Prof Nath is to speak on contemporary understanding of the universe. Prof Uday Shankar will be speaking on Radio Astronomy and Dr Sreekumar on X-ray astronomy.

Prof Srinivasan is a contemporary of the likes of Fermi and Chandrashekhar which necessarily makes it a privilege to interact with him. He is an alumnus of the University of Chicago and has worked at the IBM lab in Zurich and the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge.

The start of the day

A little more had to be scheduled, understandably, on the first day because of introductory and inaugural speeches and formalities. While that took away a whole hour of what would otherwise have been scheduled as lecture time, it did not seem much because the entire event was started on the dot, at the strike of ten, as planned.

One particular statement in Prof Srinivasan’s introductory statement that appealed to me was his retelling of Rachel Carson’s words when Carson was asked in an interview what he would like to be born as if he were to be reborn:

“[If I were born again] I wish to be born with a sense of wonder.”

—Rachel Carson

Four lectures were in for schedule today and they went on beautifully. The first was a lecture detailing the life of stars—their birth being still a debated, but unsettled issue, he did not want to begin by treading on softer paths. Titled ‘What are the stars?’ like his first book in his series, The Present Revolution in Astrophysics, the lecture began with man’s first look at the night skies. How we figured stars to be piercings in the sky and how we had but little idea about it until the 19th century. The common (and rather silly, as I thought) notion that it is the nature of things that one will never know what stars were.

A sort of history-of-physics-approach was taken, sprinkled with mathematics, all the way from Fraunhofer’s discovery of the solar spectrum in 1817 to Kirchoff’s laws of radiation to measuring the temperature, density and other physical parameters associated with the sun—indirectly—all the way to Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington’s explanation of how gravity exactly balances out the ideal gas and radiation pressures to stabilise a ball of gas: the first successful, scientific description of a star. Thus began the first part of our day.

Why even Superman cannot see inside a star

Prof G Srinivasan delivering his introductory speechThen he discussed the Virial theorem and how one could use it to calculate the temperature of the sun without any experimentation whatsoever. Having detailed how the large temperature would push all electromagnetic phenomenon inside the sun towards the X-ray region, making it invisible to man, he put forth a rather interesting hypothesis: even Superman—who has X-ray vision—would not be able to see inside a star.

By this I mean, he cannot see anything; not even the tip of his nose. Prof Srinivasan then discussed Thomson scattering and how the high temperature would ionise the particles inside the sun, giving rise to an opportunity for the fine Thomson scattering which would in turn scatter particles so much (large scattering can occur even during the time period in which the X-rays strike the nose and reach your eyes) that it would be impossible for him to see even the tip of his nose!

The talk then entered the areas of luminosity and how it depended—almost strangely—solely on the mass and not even on the radius. Then he moved on to Eddington’s proposition of fusion inside a star a full decade before the idea came out prominently; the reasons why it is impossible to manually fuse two (let alone four) protons; the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution; and George Gamow’s brilliant discovery of quantum tunneling. He ended on a historically peaking note, detailing Hans Bethe’s famed 1938 paper detailing—as he put it—the ‘start and end’ of the entire problem of proton fusion and its complete solution/explanation.

The expanding universe

In a knowledgeable second session that seemed to last shorter than an hour, but really went well past it, Prof Biman Nath went on to introduce the attendance to the comparisons of the cosmic scales he was about to delve into. From light minute distance between the Sun and earth to light hours to Neptue to light years between stars to billions of light years across the observable universe, Prof Biman Nath dedicated a lot of time into making the cosmic size apparent.

Then he proceeded to mathematically detail a homogeneous, isotropic universe of all possible curvatures (zero, negative, positive) sans gravity and one at the centre of which an observer was and then corrected all these assumptions to arrive at a more practical situation without involving too much of Einstein’s General Relativity. The final result was the astounding proof of how Hubble’s constant—in an expanding universe which Hubble himself proposed—would not really remain constant!

To burn or not to burn? That is the question

We broke to luncheon but spent more time admiring—and buying—books (at discounted rates) from a small stall hosted by Universities Press showing well-researched, almost revered books, in the subject. Having gone past schedule by half-an-hour owing to extensions in the lecture times, the lot of us decided to spend as little time as possible in filling our stomachs and, in its stead, head back to exercise our minds with a lot more physics.

Prof Srinivasan’s second lecture on the principles of statistical mechanics—designed to prepare the audience for the third and fourth lectures—took off from where the first talk ended: the contraction hypothesis. He explained how the apparent perpetual expansion-contraction/heating-cooling phenomenon that was the strange hypothesis could be dealt with and then introduced the formation of heavier elements and its consequences.

Walter Adams’ problem of the density excess in the Sirius binary star system was next on hand and a deviation towards statistical mechanics was necessary. From here on he explored Fowler’s examination of the Eddington paradox and alongside this, explained the basics of quantum mechanics such as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Pauli’s Exclusion Principle and the basic differences between the classical and quantum universes.

Having gone through Maxwell’s velocity distribution, zero-point motion, spin angular momentum, bosons and fermions, and once again—and this time more convincingly—re-examined Eddington’s paradox and Fowler’s alternative explanation to it, Prof Srinivasan ended his last lecture for the day.

The Darkness out there

Prof Biman Nath speaking on CMBR in his second lectureThe last lecture for the day was Prof Biman Nath’s once again, and he spoke of the history of the universe. Linking it to his previous talk with the curvatures of the universe and its expansion/contraction instances, Prof Nath went on to derive the shocking relationship between the time period, the Universal Gravitational Constant and matter density. This relation—as Prof Srinivas later explained to us—is simply shocking because it also relates the time periods of a body left to oscillate through a tunnel dug across the centre of the Earth, of the Earth itself vibrating on being struck and so on!

Then he arrived at the present situation and how we are facing a problem as the experimentally observed rate of expansion seems unlike any of the previously seen/expected circumstances. The universe had to either expand and contract or expand at deceleration up to infinity. The observed situation, however, happens to be that the universe, after having slowed down in its expansion, is now once again accelerating!

This was unforeseen and has been attributed to a mysterious Dark Matter and its associated Dark Energy. The required amount being derivable from the know value (as we have seen before) of the ratio of the present density of the universe to its critical density; the value thus attributed to Dark Matter becomes a good 0.73, which, in a ratio, equals about 73% of all the known mass of the observable universe. More about this, he promised, would be discussed the following day.

The talk was ended with an extensive look into Cosmic Microwave Background Radiations and neucleosynthesis.

Preparing for tomorrow

After the fourth lecture, a small discussion was held lasting about half-an-hour. Important, recommendable books such as Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes were stated since we had just discussed close to the first two hundred seconds in complete detail.

The stage was set for tomorrow with the speakers inviting us an hour early for discussions before the actual lectures began. So my day would start at nine tomorrow and I will, perhaps, have more to share over the next two days.

Until tomorrow.

Drawing parallels between a tailor and a physicist

I remember seeing, once before, the anatomy of a pair of trousers drawn with chalk on a piece of cloth soon to become part of somebody’s wardrobe. The alien-looking design was nothing like I had expected and it was only then that the tailor appeared to me to have put on the cloak of genius. This genius-tailor image is in my mind to this day. How, I asked myself, can the man actually transform the two dimensional piece of cloth into a perfect-fitting three dimensional piece of clothing, all while planning a three dimensional object on a two dimensional surface?

This appeared to me to be remarkably similar to a certain analogy we have in physics that we call the Flatlanders. The cliched explanation goes thus: Imagine a world in two dimension, populated by flatlanders, people whose knowledge and imagination are limited to the two dimensions of their world; that is to say, while they understand the dimensions corresponding to length and breadth, they have no concept—and it is safe to assume they can never quite picture the concept—of up or down.

Let us suppose that a being from the three dimensional world of ours entered their world. We now have three questions: what would they picture it as? They will certainly be bewildered for they cannot explain what they are seeing. Which brings us to our second question: what do they really see?

For the sake of simplification, let us consider a sphere. They would not see a sphere itself (because they cannot picture a third dimension) instead they would see an enlarging and condensing circle as the sphere passed through the flat surface of flatland. This corresponds to what I like to call the instantaneous cross-section of the sphere.

Imagine a paper with a small hole. If you tried to stuff a large ball into it, the hole widens. Now if this paper also has the capability of, say, healing itself, then it would once again become narrow and return to its original radius. A flatlander, who can see only the hole and not the sphere, merely sees it widening and narrowing and, if he is inquisitive enough, scratches his head over it.

Now replace the two dimensional world with our three dimensional one and ask yourself: how would I give a physical picture of a fourth dimension? It is not a vague question for physics tells us higher dimensions can exist. Indeed it tells us that ten higher dimensions exist.

Our job (or at least that of physicists) is, therefore, to provide a physical, or imaginable, picture of the other six dimensions. (We have already realised that fourth dimension is time, but we are at loss as to the other six.)

The reason why I deviated from the topic for a fleeting moment was because I wanted to establish a parallel between the job of a tailor and a physicist. Silly as it may sound to many, both of them, at some point of time or other, wish to achieve a picture of a higher dimension from a lower one.

The only two differences being that the tailor works from two to three dimensions while a physicist works from four to ten; and that while the tailor has found his answer, the physicist is yet to arrive at a conclusion.

As for myself, I hope to join the latter league and assist in my own small way, in finding a suitable solution!