The Physics of Romance

Let me give you a physics lesson. During your high school days, you may have learned that an atom has a nucleus and a bunch of electrons. The nucleus has protons and neutrons, which are like the basic building blocks of matter along with the electrons, they told you. Well, they lied to you. Neutrons and protons are not basic; they have smaller building blocks within, called quarks, which have some electric charge. More importantly, they have another kind of charge, which physicists call color, for no particular reason.

These color charges have a weird property. As you pull them apart, the attraction between them increases, which is totally unlike electric charges. So, if you try to pull two quarks apart beyond a very small distance, you have to put in so much energy that you start creating new pairs of quarks (a quantum weirdness, which we will ignore for now). You will never see a naked single quark. You will never see its true color. This quirk of quarks has a fancy name: Quark or Color Confinement. On the other hand, when quarks get closer together, they have little effect on each other. This also has a fancy name – Asymptotic Freedom.

Neutrons and protons have three quarks each, which roam free within a tiny space, giving the impression of them (neutrons and protons) being fundamental particles, within the confines of which they (the quarks) act totally cool, and don’t even feel the presence of one another.  The moment you try to pry one out though, the system of three quarks resists fiercely. If you insist and try harder, you do pry something out. You never get one quark though, but a pair which soon becomes a big ugly mess. And, if you were into that kind of stuff (as my old friends at CERN are), you would spend the rest of your days trying to figure out what happened.

What does it all have to do with romance? Well, not much really. But you wouldn’t have read this far if I hadn’t put that word in the title, would you? It is just that certain developments in my personal life have made me look inward and think. Now, don’t get too inquisitive, don’t pry π

To me, any kind of thought process is best carried out through analogies and patterns, however contrived and tortured they may seem to normal people. Here is an example of such a desperate search for patterns, and another misanthropic one. And one about life itself. I think it is the sign of a true scientist, but then again, it is only my opinion – a rather self-serving one at that.

Back to romancing the quark – I think some people, maybe you, enjoy the same kind of relaxed ease or asymptotic freedom as long as the color force of romance is weak. This ease makes you romantically desirable. But the moment the romantic force begins to make itself felt, you tense up. Unholy thoughts and feelings, such as insecurity and jealousy, begin to pop up, much like the pair production when quarks try to escape their confinement. The descending darkness makes you dislike yourself. And of course, when you don’t like yourself, nobody else is going to like you either and you soon end up in your romantic singlet confinement, after having spawned a stable pairing or an unstable mess for the object of your affection. You are then free once again to enjoy your asymptotic ease, and the cycle continues. Such is the life of a quark, asymptotically free and universally desired, but eternally confined to singlet states devoid of color and romance. That, my friend, is the physics behind romance.

Disclaimer: This study was conducted with a sample size of one and no control group. Make of it what you will.

My Little Girl

My little speech when my little girl turned 21, and my little video, archiving on my blog. Apparently, these little things make most parents cry. Here’s hoping that some children also might find them touching. And give their parents a call, perhaps?

If I have learned one thing in the last 25 years or so, it is this: Never go right after or right before Kavita when it comes to public speaking. The comparison is never going to be good for me. π

But that lesson notwithstanding, this day is special, and I will take one for the daughter this time. Let me start by wishing my daughter, Anita of the house Thulasidas, the first of her name, a very happy birthday, and a year full of wonder and happiness ahead. Today marks your transition to adulthood, with all the independence and responsibilities that it entails. Yeah, it sucks, but you are going to love it. π

At this point, the father is probably supposed to recount cute stories. I have a nice video to do that. I made it for Anita when she turned 16, but as every year passes, it seems more and more appropriate. I will show it later.

As you know, I am educator now. So I educate; I pontificate; I profess. I would like to share a few words on parenting, for the young parents here, or those who plan to be, later in life. Parenting is a balancing act, an almost impossible one. You have to love your child, but not spoil them. You have to provide for them, which means work and time away from them, and you have to find the right balance. You have to foster the right values and character in them, which means strictness. Otherwise they may grow up unprepared into an unforgiving world. But not too much, or you will be robbing them of their childhood as well.

Of all these lessons of parenting, the hardest is this one right here. Your child will one day grow up, take wing and fly away. From your home, from your life. I did it. So has Anita. So will Neil. When that time comes, you will hold the door open for them, and step aside. If they don’t step out, you will have to kick them out. But when they leave, emptiness and pain will follow, through which you will smile. You will hope that, in time, your pride in their accomplishments will fill the void, assuage the pain, and bind and heal the cuts in your soul. I know it did for my father. So, if you do it right, when the time for this hard lesson comes in their life, at the very least, your children will remember you.

And you will hope that they will find their way back home. To your life. Someday. Again, I did it. So you will keep the door open, and leave the light on. And wait. And wait.

But today is not about the parent. It’s about the child. The child who as turned into a beautiful, intelligent, articulate, multi-talented and independent young woman. Lucky that you took after your mother, isn’t it? I just want to tell my little girl – how proud I am of you, and how much I love you. Though you think you already knowβ¦

Mud and Me

Life and death has been a recurring theme on my blog. Confronted with our mortality, a common stance we assume is one of anger. Hearing of such a stance recently, I thought I would expand on my notion of gratitude in this writeup, liberally paraphrased from Shelly Kagan’s lectures on this subject.

Gratitude is best described in mystical terms, where we have a generous, benevolent giver (namely God) and a receiver (such as ourselves). A mystic poem that Kagan quoted goes like this (paraphrasing again, of course): God was a bit bored, so he created the universe and all the beauty in it, like the sun and the stars, beaches and mountains, forests and lakes, snow and waterfalls, and so on. At the end of this creation, God wanted an audience. So he looked at some mud on the ground and said, “Sit up and see all this beauty that I have created.” And I sat up and looked. Then I saw. I saw the beauty, not only in love and life and pleasure and happiness and everything nice and great, but also in loss and grief and misery and struggles, in all things bad and mean as well.

I cannot even begin to tell you how grateful I am that I got to be the mud that sat up and saw it all. All this beauty. So much of it that it hurts if we allow ourselves to see it. I got to experience the pleasures and the pride, and the pangs and the anguish. I got a glimpse of God’s own thoughts, written in these immense volumes of beauty. Imagine, if my parents had gotten amorous a minute earlier or later, I wouldn’t have been, and all this beauty would have been lost to me. How can I be anything but grateful for this singular fortune, this supreme gift?

What does it matter that my awareness of all this beauty will cease in 20 or so years? Or tomorrow? I see it now. My experience at this point in time is etched in eternity. It is mine. For now. And for ever.

This little bit about eternity is my dim understanding of an old song, but it is also an oblique commentary on the different outlooks of life. The western outlook is that life is a gift to be appreciated, a container to be filled with as many great things that we can muster in this short blink during which it lasts.

But we, of the East, beg to differ. We view life as a burden or suffering (as in Buddhism), or as a difficult patch in the cycle of life and death. We deal with it by not getting too attached to life and its pleasures.

When I say “we,” I am not sure I include myself in it. Well, may be I do. I see the beauty in detachment as well, in actions performed devoid of any attachment to their fruits or glory, in kindness for its own sake, in a life lived to its fullest, but oriented toward a salvation that is the very antithesis of life. I see beauty in our petty fights and our noble gestures, in our worldly worries and our heavenly pursuits. In everything that adds a little piece to this grand collage, a little square to this magnificent Persian rug, a little shade to this dome of many-colored glass, staining the white radiance of eternity. And I am grateful that I get to see it all.

Life and Chess: Who’s playing?

All chess games have three stages: the opening, the mid-game and the endgame. And a chess game is a reasonably good metaphor for life.

Life is full of contradictions.

I am attending a research retreat on mindfulness and contemplative practices at the beautiful Garrison Institute. I am learning a lot of interesting things, and meeting a lot of like-minded and excellent people – the kind of people with whom I could have deep conversation about the unreal nature of reality, unlike most people from other walks of life would politely and tactfully excuse themselves when I get a bit unreal.

Twilight Years

At some point in our life, we come to accept the fact we are closer to death than life. What lies ahead is definitely less significant than what is left behind. These are the twilight years, and I have come to accept them. With darkness descending over the horizons, and the long shadows of misspent years and evaded human conditions slithering all around me, I peer into the void, into an eternity of silence and dreamlessness. It is almost time.

Driving in India

I have had the pleasure of driving in many parts of the world. Being fairly observant and having a tendency to theorize about everything, I have come to form a general theory about driving habits as well.

You see, each place has a set of driving norms, a grammar or a dialect of driving, if you will. In Marseille, France, for instance, if you switch on your turn signal on a multilane street, people will immediately let you in. It’s not because they are polite and considerate drivers (quite the contrary, in fact), but a turn signal indicates the drivers’ intention to change lanes, not a request to let them. They are not seeking permission; they are merely letting you know. You’d better let them in unless you want a collision. In Geneva (Switzerland), on the other hand, the turn signal is really a request, which is usually denied.

Internal and External Successes

Success can be internal or external. External success is easily measured in terms of money and material possessions. The internal one is measured in terms of less palpable yardsticks, like happiness, peace of mind etc. External success is related to extrovert qualities, like articulation, and depends on what others think of you. The internal one, on the other hand, depends on what you think of yourself. It is made up of things like duty, honor etc. Confusing one with the other leads to misconceptions like identifying money with happiness, for instance. You need one for the other, but they are definitely not the same.

How to be Successful in Life?

When I talked about the dimensions of success, I used the word dimension with an ulterior motive. I want to define success for you in a formal way. You see, an entity that has many dimensions is a space, similar to the three dimensional space we live in. When we have such a complex multi-dimensional space to define success in, we have to apply some good techniques from physics to do it right. Donβt worry, i am here to help.

Dimensions of Success

Money is only one dimension along which success can be defined. There are many others, such as sports, music, art, acting, politics, professions and even more abstract things like articulation, soft skills, philanthropy, wisdom, knowledge etc. Excellence in any one of them can be thought of us success. Success is easy to spot β look at any one of the celebrities and ask yourself why you know them. The answer is usually one of the dimensions of success β and fame its byproduct.

Excellence in any field can translate to money, which is what Eddie Felson in the Color of Money tells the younger pool player. This transformability often leads us to mistake money for the measure success, which, by the way, is the theme of the afore-mentioned movie. Towards the end of the movie, when Felson realizes that there is more to life than money, he says, βI just want your best game.β Ability to hang with the best game anybody can dish out in any field is excellence; and it has to be reckoned as success. This excellence is probably what the ancient Greeks called arete.