Category Archives: Physics

Physics was my first love. This category contains the posts closest to my heart. Twenty years from now, if this blog survives, this category will probably hold my most enduring insights. And two hundred years from now, if I am remembered at all, it will be for these insights; not for the kind of person I am, the money I make, nor anything else. Only for my first and last love…

9/11 Conspiracy

Some people are more susceptible to conspiracy theories than others. I am one of them. But even to me, the 9/11 conspiracy theories sounded ludicrous at first. I couldn’t see any possible motivation for anyone to go and murder 3000 people, nor any possible way of getting away with it. But there were things that could not be explained in the way the buildings came down, especially the World Trade Center Building 7, WTC7. So I went through as much of the conspiracy literature, and their debunking as I could. After a month or so of casual research, I have to say that a conspiracy is plausible, and even likely. I thought I would share my thoughts here, with apologies to anyone who might find this line of thinking offensive.

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Atheism and the Morality of the Godless

In the previous post, we considered the cosmological argument (that the Big Bang theory is an affirmation of a God) and a teleological argument (that the highly improbable fine-tuning of the universe proves the existence of intelligent creation). We saw that the cosmological argument is nothing more than an admission of our ignorance, although it may be presented in any number of fancy forms (such as the cause of the universe is an uncaused cause, which is God, for instance). The teleological argument comes from a potentially wilful distortion of the anthropic principle. The next one that Dr. Craig puts forward is the origin of morality, which has no grounding if you assume that atheism is true.

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AtheismChristian God, or Lack Thereof

Prof. William Lane Craig is way more than a deist; he is certainly a theist. In fact, he is more than that; he believes that God is as described in the scriptures of his flavor of Christianity. I am not an expert in that field, so I don’t know exactly what that flavor is. But the arguments he gave do not go much farther than the deism. He gave five arguments to prove that God exists, and he invited Hitchens to refute them. Hitchens did not; at least, not in an enumerated and sequential fashion I plan to do here.

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Richard FeynmanHow Much Can We Know?

We open our eyes, we see the world, we discern patterns. We theorize, formalize; we use and rationality and mathematics to understand and describe everything. How much can we really know, though?

To illustrate what I mean, let me use an analogy. I wish I had the imagination to come up with it, but it was Richard Feynman who did. He was, by the way, quirky enough to compare physics with sex.

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Pride and Pretention

What has been of intense personal satisfaction for me was mydiscoveryrelated to GRBs and radio sources alluded to earlier. Strangely, it is also the origin of most of things that I’m not proud of. You see, when you feel that you have found the purpose of your life, it is great. When you feel that you have achieved the purpose, it is greater still. But then comes the questionnow what? Life in some sense ends with the perceived attainment of the professed goals. A life without goals is a clearly a life without much motivation. It is a journey past its destination. As many before me have discovered, it is the journey toward an unknown destination that drives us. The journey’s end, the arrival, is troublesome, because it is death. With the honest conviction of this attainment of the goals then comes the disturbing feeling that life is over. Now there are only rituals left to perform. As a deep-seated, ingrained notion, this conviction of mine has led to personality traits that I regret. It has led to a level of detachment in everyday situations where detachment was perhaps not warranted, and a certain recklessness in choices where a more mature consideration was perhaps indicated.

The recklessness led to many strange career choices. In fact, I feel as though I lived many different lives in my time. In most roles I attempted, I managed to move near the top of the field. As an undergrad, I got into the most prestigious university in India. As a scientist later on, I worked with the best at that Mecca of physics, CERN. As a writer, I had the rare privilege of invited book commissions and regular column requests. During my short foray into quantitative finance, I am quite happy with my sojourn in banking, despite my ethical misgivings about it. Even as a blogger and a hobby programmer, I had quite a bit success. Now, as the hour to bow out draws near, I feel as though I have been an actor who had the good fortune of landing several successful roles. As though the successes belonged to the characters, and my own contribution was a modicum of acting talent. I guess that detachment comes of trying too many things. Or is it just the grumbling restlessness in my soul?

Pursuit of Knowledge

What I would like to believe my goal in life to be is the pursuit of knowledge, which is, no doubt, a noble goal to have. It may be only my vanity, but I honestly believe that it was really my goal and purpose. But by itself, the pursuit of knowledge is a useless goal. One could render it useful, for instance, by applying itto make money, in the final analysis. Or by spreading it, teaching it, which is also a noble calling. But to what end? So that others may apply it, spread it and teach it? In that simple infinite regression lies the futility of all noble pursuits in life.

Futile as it may be, what is infinitely more noble, in my opinion, is to add to the body of our collective knowledge. On that count, I am satisfied with my life’s work. I figured out how certain astrophysical phenomena (like gamma ray bursts and radio jets) work. And I honestly believe that it is new knowledge, and there was an instant a few years ago when I felt if I died then, I would die a happy man for I had achieved my purpose. Liberating as this feeling was, now I wonderis it enough to add a small bit of knowledge to the stuff we know with a little post-it note saying, “Take it or leave it”? Should I also ensure that whatever I think I found gets accepted and officiallyadded”? This is indeed a hard question. To want to be officially accepted is also a call for validation and glory. We don’t want any of that, do we? Then again, if the knowledge just dies with me, what is the point? Hard question indeed.

Speaking of goals in life reminds me of this story of a wise man and his brooding friend. The wise man asks, “Why are you so glum? What is it that you want?”
The friend says, “I wish I had a million bucks. That’s what I want.
Okay, why do you want a million bucks?”
“Well, then I could buy a nice house.
So it is a nice house that you want, not a million bucks. Why do you want that?”
Then I could invite my friends, and have a nice time with them and family.
So you want to have a nice time with your friends and family. Not really a nice house. Why is that?”

Such why questions will soon yield happiness as the final answer, and the ultimate goal, a point at which no wise man can ask, “Why do you want to be happy?”

I do ask that question, at times, but I have to say that the pursuit of happiness (or happyness) does sound like a good candidate for the ultimate goal in life.

Summing Up

Toward the end of his life, Somerset Maugham summed up histake-awaysin a book aptly titledThe Summing Up.I also feel an urge to sum up, to take stock of what I have achieved and attempted to achieve. This urge is, of course, a bit silly in my case. For one thing, I clearly achieved nothing compared to Maugham; even considering that he was a lot older when he summed up his stuff and had more time achieve things. Secondly, Maugham could express his take on life, universe and everything much better than I will ever be able to. These drawbacks notwithstanding, I will take a stab at it myself because I have begun to feel the nearness of an arrivalkind of like what you feel in the last hours of a long haul flight. I feel as though whatever I have set out to do, whether I have achieved it or not, is already behind me. Now is probably as good a time as any to ask myselfwhat is it that I set out to do?

I think my main goal in life was to know things. In the beginning, it was physical things like radios and television. I still remember the thrill of finding the first six volumes ofBasic Radioin my dad’s book collection, although I had no chance of understanding what they said at that point in time. It was a thrill that took me through my undergrad years. Later on, my focus moved on to more fundamental things like matter, atoms, light, particles, physics etc. Then on to mind and brain, space and time, perception and reality, life and deathissues that are most profound and most important, but paradoxically, least significant. At this point in my life, where I’m taking stock of what I have done, I have to ask myself, was it worth it? Did I do well, or did I do poorly?

Looking back at my life so far now, I have many things to be happy about, and may others that I’m not so proud of. Good news firstI have come a long a way from where I started off. I grew up in a middle-class family in the seventies in India. Indian middle class in the seventies would be poor by any sensible world standards. And poverty was all around me, with classmates dropping out of school to engage in menial child labor like carrying mud and cousins who could not afford one square meal a day. Poverty was not a hypothetical condition afflicting unknown souls in distant lands, but it was a painful and palpable reality all around me, a reality I escaped by blind luck. From there, I managed to claw my way to an upper-middle-class existence in Singapore, which is rich by most global standards. This journey, most of which can be attributed to blind luck in terms of genetic accidents (such as academic intelligence) or other lucky breaks, is an interesting one in its own right. I think I should be able to put a humorous spin on it and blog it up some day. Although it is silly to take credit for accidental glories of this kind, I would be less than honest if I said I wasn’t proud of it.

Why Do We Drink?

We get in trouble or at least embarrass ourselves once in a while because of our drinking. Why do we still do it? Ok, it is fun to have a drink or two at a partyit gives you a buzz, loosens your tongue, breaks the ice etc. But most of us go way beyond that. We almost always end up regretting it the next morning. But we still do it.

Alcohol actually tastes bad, and we have to add all kinds of sodas and fruit juices to mask it. It is a depressant, so if we drink it when we are sad, it makes us sadder. It is toxic to our liver, kills our brain cells and makes us do silly things like puke and generally make an ass of ourselves. But, by and large, most people who can get their hands on it, drink it.

I am not talking about alcoholics who have trouble controlling their urges (although I believe most of us are budding alcoholics). I am not even talking about why we start drinkingthat could be because of peer pressure, teenage dares, curiosity etc. I’m talking about those of us who continue drinking long after that sweet buzz that alcohol used to give us is history.

I do have a theory why we drink. But I have to warn youmy theory is a bit looney, even by the generous standards of this Unreal Blog. I think we drink because it alters our sense of reality. You see, although we don’t usually articulate it or even consciously know it, we feel that there is something wrong with the physical reality we find ourselves in. It is like a tenuous veil surrounding us that disappears the moment we look at it, but undulates beyond the periphery of our vision giving us fleeing glimpses of its existence in our unguarded moments. Perhaps, if we can let our guard down, may be we can catch it. This vain and unconscious hope is probably behind our doomed attractions toward alcohol and other hallucinants.

Although the veil of reality is tenuous, its grip on us is anything but. Its laws dictate our every movement and action, and literally pull us down and keep us grounded. I think our minds, unwilling to be subjugated to any physical laws, rebel against them. Could this be behind our teenagersinfatuation with Stephenie Meyer’s vampire stories and Harry Potter’s magic? Isn’t this why we love our superheroes from our childhood days? Do we not actually feel a bit liberated when Neo (The One in Matrix) shows that physical rules don’t apply to him? Why do you think what we worship are the miracles and the supernatural?

Well, may be I am just trying to find philosophical reasons to get sozzled. Honestly, I’m feeling a bit thirsty.

Seeing and Believing

When we open our eyes and look at some thing, we see that damn thing. What could be more obvious than that, right? Let’s say you are looking at your dog. What you see is really your dog, because, if you want, you can reach out and touch it. It barks, and you can hear the woof. If it stinks a bit, you can smell it. All these extra perceptual clues corroborate your belief that what you are seeing is your dog. Directly. No questions asked.

Of course, my job on this blog is to ask questions, and cast doubts. First of all, seeing and touching seem to be a bit different from hearing and smelling. You don’t strictly hear your dog bark, you hear its sound. Similarly, you don’t smell it directly, you smell the odor, the chemical trail the dog has left in the air. Hearing and smelling are three place perceptionsthe dog generates sound/odor, the sound/odor travels to you, you perceive the sound/odor.

But seeing (or touching) is a two place thingthe dog there, and you here perceiving it directly. Why is that? Why do we feel that when we see or touch something, we sense it directly? This belief in the perceptual veracity of what we see is called naive realism. We of course know that seeing involves light (so does touching, but in a much more complicated way), what we are seeing is the light reflected off an object and so on. It is, in fact, no different from hearing something. But this knowledge of the mechanism of seeing doesn’t alter our natural, commonsense view that what we see is what is out there. Seeing is believing.

Extrapolated from the naive version is the scientific realism, which asserts that our scientific concepts are also real, eventhough we may not directly perceive them. So atoms are real. Electrons are real. Quarks are real. Most of our better scientists out there have been skeptical about this extraploation to our notion of what is real. Einstein, probably the best of them, suspected that even space and time might not be real. Feynman and Gell-Mann, after developing theories on electrons and quarks, expressed their view that electrons and quarks might be mathematical constructs rather than real entities.

What I am inviting you to do here is to go beyond the skepticism of Feynman and Gell-Mann, and delve into Einstein’s words — space and time are modes by which we think, not conditions in which we live. The sense of space is so real to us that we think of everything else as interactions taking place in the arena of space (and time). But space itself is the experience corresponding to the electrical signals generated by the light hitting your retina. It is a perceptual construct, much like the tonality of the sound you hear when air pressure waves hit your ear drums. Our adoption of naive realism results in our complete trust in the three dimensional space view. And since the world is created (in our brain as perceptual constructs) based on light, its speed becomes an all important constant in our world. And since speed mixes space and time, a better description is found in a four dimensional Minkowski geometry. But all these descriptions are based on perceptual experiences and therefore unreal in some sense.

I know the description above is highly circular — I talked about space being a mental construct created by light traveling through, get this, space. And when I speak of its speed, naturally, I’m talking about distance in space divided by time, and positing as the basis for the space-time mixing. This circularity makes my description less than clear and convincing. But the difficulty goes deeper than that. You see, all we have is this cognitive construct of space and time. We can describe objects and events only in terms of these constructs even when we know that they are only cognitive representations of sensory signals. Our language doesn’t go beyond that. Well, it does, but then we will be talking the language, for instance, of Advaita, calling the constructs Maya and the causes behind them Brahman, which stays unknowable. Or, we will be using some other parallel descriptions. These descriptions may be profound, wise and accurate. But ultimately, they are also useless.

But if philosophy is your thing, the discussions of cognitive constructs and unknown causations are not at all useless. Philosophy of physics happens to be my thing, and so I ask myself — what if I assume the unknown physical causes exist in a world similar to our perceptual construct? I could then propagate the causes through the process of perception and figure out what the construct should look like. I know, it sounds a bit complex, but it is something that we do all the time. We know, for instance, that the stars that we see in the night sky are not really there — we are seeing them the way they were a few (or a few million or billion) years ago because the light from them takes a long time to reach us. Physicists also know that the perceived motion of celestial objects also need to be corrected for these light-travel-time effects.

In fact, Einstein used the light travel time effects as the basis for deriving his special theory of relativity. He then stipulated that space and time behave the way we perceive them, derived using the said light-travel-time effects. This, of course, is based on his deep understanding that space and time are “the modes by which we think,” but also based on the assumption that the the causes behind the modes also are similar to the modes themselves. This depth of thinking is lost on the lesser scientists that came after him. The distinction between the modes of thinking and their causation is also lost, so that space and time have become entities that obey strange rules. Like bent spoons.

Photo by General Press1

Deferred Satisfaction

The mother was getting annoyed that her teenaged son was wasting time watching TV.
“Son, don’t waste your time watching TV. You should be studying,” she advised.
“Why?” quipped the son, as teenagers usually do.
“Well, if you study hard, you will get good grades.”
“Yeah, so?”
“Then, you can get into a good school.”
“Why should I?”
“That way, you can hope to get a good job.”
“Why? What do I want with a good job?”
“Well, you can make a lot of money that way.”
“Why do I want money?”
“If you have enough money, you can sit back and relax. Watch TV whenever you want to.”
“Well, I’m doing it right now!”

What the mother is advocating, of course, is the wise principle of deferred satisfaction. It doesn’t matter if you have to do something slightly unpleasant now, as long as you get rewarded for it later in life. This principle is so much a part of our moral fabric that we take it for granted, never questioning its wisdom. Because of our trust in it, we obediently take bitter medicines when we fall sick, knowing that we will feel better later on. We silently submit ourselves to jabs, root-canals, colonoscopies and other atrocities done to our persons because we have learned to tolerate unpleasantnesses in anticipation of future rewards. We even work like a dog at jobs so loathesome that they really have to pay us a pretty penny to stick it out.

Before I discredit myself, let me make it very clear that I do believe in the wisdom of deferred satisfaction. I just want to take a closer look because my belief, or the belief of seven billion people for that matter, is still no proof of the logical rightness of any principle.

The way we lead our lives these days is based on what they call hedonism. I know that the word has a negative connotation, but that is not the sense in which I am using it here. Hedonism is the principle that any decision we take in life is based on how much pain and pleasure it is going to create. If there is an excess of pleasure over pain, then it is the right decision. Although we are not considering it, the case where the recipients of the pain and pleasure are distinct individuals, nobility or selfishness is involved in the decision. So the aim of a good life is to maximize this excess of pleasure over pain. Viewed in this context, the principle of delayed satisfaction makes sense — it is one good strategy to maximize the excess.

But we have to be careful about how much to delay the satisfaction. Clearly, if we wait for too long, all the satisfaction credit we accumulate will go wasted because we may die before we have a chance to draw upon it. This realization may be behind the mantra “live in the present moment.”

Where hedonism falls short is in the fact that it fails to consider the quality of the pleasure. That is where it gets its bad connotation from. For instance, a ponzi scheme master like Madoff probably made the right decisions because they enjoyed long periods of luxurious opulence at the cost of a relatively short durations of pain in prison.

What is needed, perhaps, is another measure of the rightness of our choices. I think it is in the intrinsic quality of the choice itself. We do something because we know that it is good.

I am, of course, touching upon the vast branch of philosophy they call ethics. It is not possible to summarize it in a couple of blog posts. Nor am I qualified enough to do so. Michael Sandel, on the other hand, is eminently qualified, and you should check out his online course Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? if interested. I just want to share my thought that there is something like the intrinsic quality of a way of life, or of choices and decisions. We all know it because it comes before our intellectual analysis. We do the right thing not so much because it gives us an excess of pleasure over pain, but we know what the right thing is and have an innate need to do it.

That, at least, is the theory. But, of late, I’m beginning to wonder whether the whole right-wrong, good-evil distinction is an elaborate ruse to keep some simple-minded folks in check, while the smarter ones keep enjoying totally hedonistic (using it with all the pejorative connotation now) pleasures of life. Why should I be good while the rest of them seem to be reveling in wall-to-wall fun? Is it my decaying internal quality talking, or am I just getting a bit smarter? I think what is confusing me, and probably you as well, is the small distance between pleasure and happiness. Doing the right thing results in happiness. Eating a good lunch results in pleasure. When Richard Feynman wrote about The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, he was probably talking about happiness. When I read that book, what I’m experiencing is probably closer to mere pleasure. Watching TV is probably pleasure. Writing this post, on the other hand, is probably closer to happiness. At least, I hope so.

To come back my little story above, what could the mother say to her TV-watching son to impress upon him the wisdom of deferred satisfaction? Well, just about the only thing I can think of is the argument from hedonism saying that if the son wastes his time now watching TV, there is a very real possibility that he may not be able to afford a TV later on in life. Perhaps intrinsically good parents won’t let their children grow up into a TV-less adulthood. I suspect I would, because I believe in the intrinsic goodness of taking responsibility for one’s actions and consequences. Does that make me a bad parent? Is it the right thing to do? Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?