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Richard Feynman — How 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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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 perceptions — the dog generates sound/odor, the sound/odor travels to you, you perceive the sound/odor.

But seeing (or touching) is a two place thing — the 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. It reminds me of those two guys lost while flying around in a hot-air balloon. Finally they see a man on the ground and shout,
“Hey, can you tell us where we are?”
The complete accurate and useless reply is,
“You are in a hot-air balloon about 100 ft above sea level.”
The guy on the ground must have been a philosopher.

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.

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My Life, My Way

After almost eight years in banking, I have finally called it quits. Over the last three of those years, I had been telling people that I was leaving. And I think people had stopped taking me seriously. My wife certainly did, and it came as a major shock to her. But despite her studied opposition, I managed to pull it off. In fact, it is not just banking that I left, I have actually retired. Most of my friends greeted the news of my retirement with a mixture of envy and disbelief. The power to surprise — it is nice to still have that power.

Why is it a surprise really? Why would anyone think that it is insane to walk away from a career like mine? Insanity is in doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Millions of people do the same insanely crummy stuff over and over, everyone of them wanting nothing more than to stop doing it, even planning on it only to postpone their plans for one silly reason or another. I guess the force of habit in doing the crummy stuff is greater than the fear of change. There is a gulf between what people say their plans are and what they end up doing, which is the theme of that disturbing movie Revolutionary Road. This gulf is extremely narrow in my case. I set out with a bunch of small targets — to help a few people, to make a modest fortune, to provide reasonable comfort and security to those near. I have achieved them, and now it is time to stop. The trouble with all such targets is that once you get close to them, they look mundane, and nothing is ever enough for most people. Not for me though — I have always been reckless enough to stick to my plans.

One of the early instances of such a reckless action came during my undergraduate years at IIT Madras. I was pretty smart academically, especially in physics. But I wasn’t too good in remembering details like the names of theorems. Once, this eccentric professor of mine at IIT asked me the name of a particular theorem relating the line integral of the electric field around a point and the charge contained within. I think the answer was Green’s theorem, while its 3-D equivalent (surface integral) is called Gauss’s theorem or something. (Sorry, my Wikipedia and Google searches didn’t bring up anything definitive on that.) I answered Gauss’s theorem. The professor looked at me for a long moment with contempt in his eyes and said (in Tamil) something like I needed to get a beating with his slippers. I still remember standing there in my Khakki workshop attire and listening to him, with my face burning with shame and impotent anger. And, although physics was my favorite subject (my first love, in fact, as I keep saying, mostly to annoy my wife), I didn’t go back to any of his lectures after that. I guess even at that young age, I had this disturbing level of recklessness in me. I now know why. It’s is the ingrained conviction that nothing really matters. Nothing ever did, as Meursault the Stranger points out in his last bout of eloquence.

I left banking for a variety of reasons; remuneration wasn’t one of them, but recklessness perhaps was. I had some philosophical misgivings about the rightness of what I was doing at a bank. I suffered from a troubled conscience. Philosophical reasons are strange beasts — they lead to concrete actions, often disturbing ones. Albert Camus (in his collection The Myth of Sisyphus) warned of it while talking about the absurdity of life. Robert Pirsig in his epilog to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance also talked about when such musings became psychiatrically dangerous. Michael Sandel is another wise man who, in his famous lectures on Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? pointed out that philosophy could often color your perspective permanently — you cannot unlearn it to go back, you cannot unthink a thought to become normal again.

Philosophy and recklessness aside, the other primary reason for leaving the job was boredom. The job got so colossally boring. Looking out my window at the traffic 13 floors below was infinitely more rewarding than looking at the work on my three computer screens. And so I spent half my time staring out the window. Of course, my performance dwindled as a result. I guess scuttling the performance is the only way to realistically make oneself leave a high-paying job. There are times when you have have to burn the bridges behind you. Looking back at it now, I cannot really understand why I was so bored. I was a quantitative developer and the job involved developing reports and tools. Coding is what I do for fun at home. That and writing, of course. May be the boredom came from the fact that there was no serious intellectual content in it. There was none in the tasks, nor in the company of the throngs of ambitious colleagues. Walking into the workplace every morning, looking at all the highly paid people walking around with impressive demeanors of doing something important, I used to feel almost sad. How important could their bean-counting ever be?

Then again, how important could this blogging be? We get back to Meursault’s tirade – rien n’avait d’importance. Perhaps I was wrong to have thrown it away, as all of them keep telling me. Perhaps those important-looking colleagues were really important, and I was the one in the wrong to have retired. That also matters little; that also has little importance, as Meursault and my alter ego would see it.

What next is the question that keeps coming up. I am tempted to give the same tongue-in-cheek answer as Larry Darrell in The Razor’s Edge — Loaf! My kind of loafing would involve a lot of thinking, a lot of studying, and hard work. There is so much to know, and so little time left to learn.

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Everything and Nothing

I once attended a spiritual self-help kind of course. Toward the end of the course, there was this exercise where the teacher would ask the question, “What are you?” Whatever answer the participant came up with, the teacher would tear it apart. For instance, if I said, “I work for a bank as a quantitative finance professional,” she would say, “Yeah, that’s what you do, but what are you?” If I said, “I am Manoj,” she would say, “Yeah, that’s only your name, what are you?” You get the idea. To the extent that it is a hard question to answer, the teacher always gets the upper hand.

Not in my case though. Luckily for me, I was the last one to answer the question, and I had the benefit of seeing how this exercise evolved. Since I had time, I decided to cook up something substantial. So when my turn came, here was my response that pretty much floored the teacher. I said, “I am a little droplet of consciousness so tiny that I’m nothing, yet part of something so big that I’m everything.” As I surmised, she couldn’t very well say, “Yeah, sure, but what are you?” In fact, she could’ve said, “That’s just some serious bullshit, man, what the heck are you?” which is probably what I would’ve done. But my teacher, being the kind and gentle soul she is, decided to thank me gravely and move on.

Now I want to pick up on that theme and point out that there is more to that response than something impressive that I made up that day to sound really cool in front of a bunch of spiritualites. The tininess part is easy. Our station in this universe is so mindbogglingly tiny that a sense of proportion is the one thing we cannot afford to have, if we are to keep our sanity — as Douglas Adams puts it in one of his books. What goes for the physical near-nothingness of our existence in terms of space also applies to the temporal dimension. We exist for a mere fleeing instant when put in the context of any geological or cosmological timescale. So when I called myself a  “little” droplet, I was being kind, if anything.

But being part of something so vast — ah, that is the interesting bit. Physically, there is not an atom in my body that wasn’t part of a star somewhere sometime ago. We are all made up of stardust, from the ashes of dead stars. (Interesting they say from dust to dust and from ashes to ashes, isn’t it?) So, those sappy scenes in sentimental flicks, where the dad points to the star and says, “Your mother is up there sweetheart, watching over you,” have a bit of scientific truth to them. All the particles in my body will end up in a star (a red giant, in our case); the only stretch is that it will take another four and half billion years. But it does mean that the dust will live forever and end up practically everywhere through some supernova explosion, if our current understanding of how it all works is correct (which it is not, in my opinion, but that is another story). This eternal existence of a the purely physical kind is what Schopenhauer tried to draw consolation from, I believe, but it really is no consolation, if you ask me. Nonetheless, we are all part of something much bigger, spatially and temporally – in a purely physical sense.

At a deeper level, my being part of everything comes from the fact that we are both the inside and the outside of things. I know it sounds like I smoked something I wouldn’t like my children to smoke. Let me explain; this will take a few words. You see, when we look at a star, we of course see a star. But what we mean by “see a star” is just that there are some neurons in our brain firing in a particular pattern. We assume that there is a star out there causing some photons to fall on our retina and create neuronal firing, which results in a cognitive model of what we call night sky and stars. We further assume that what we see (night sky and star) is a faithful representation of what is out there. But why should it be? Think of how we hear stuff. When we listen to music, we hear tonality, loudness etc, but these are only cognitive models for the frequency and amplitude of the pressure waves in the air, as we understand sound right now. Frequency and amplitude are very different beasts compared to tonality and loudness — the former are physical causes, the latter are perceptual experiences. Take away the brain, there is no experience, ergo there is no sound — which is the gist of the overused cocktail conundrum of the falling tree in a deserted forest. If you force yourself to think along these lines for a while, you will have to admit that whatever is “out there” as you perceive it is only in your brain as cognitive constructs. Hence my hazy statement about we are both the inside and the outside of things. So, from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience, we can argue that we are everything — the whole universe and our knowledge of it is all are patterns in our brain. There is nothing else.

Want to go even deeper? Well, the brain itself is part of the reality (which is a cognitive construct) created by the brain. So are the air pressure waves, photons, retina, cognitive neuroscience etc. All convenient models in our brains. That, of course, is an infinite regression, from which there is no escape. It is a logical abyss where we can find no rational foothold to anchor our thoughts and crawl out, which naturally leads to what we call the infinite, the unknowable, the absolute, the eternal — Brahman.

I was, of course, thinking of Brahman ( and the notion that we are all part of that major oneness) when I cooked up that everything-and-nothing response. But it is all the same, isn’t it, whichever way you look at it? Well, may be not; may be it is just that I see it that way. If the only tool you have is a hammer, all the problems in the world look like nails to you. May be I’m just hammering in the metaphysical nails whenever and wherever I get a chance. To me, all schools of thought seem to converge to similar notions. Reminds of that French girl I was trying impress long time ago. I said to her, rather optimistically, “You know, you and I think alike, that’s what I like about you.” She replied, “Well, there is only one way to think, if you think at all. So no big deal!”  Needless to say I didn’t get anywhere with her.

Bye Bye Einstein

Starting from his miraculous year of 1905, Einstein has dominated physics with his astonishing insights on space and time, and on mass and gravity. True, there have been other physicists who, with their own brilliance, have shaped and moved modern physics in directions that even Einstein couldn’t have foreseen; and I don’t mean to trivialize neither their intellectual achievements nor our giant leaps in physics and technology. But all of modern physics, even the bizarre reality of quantum mechanics, which Einstein himself couldn’t quite come to terms with, is built on his insights. It is on his shoulders that those who came after him stood for over a century now.

“Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers in the preceding generation. Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
— Richard Feynman

One of the brighter ones among those who came after Einstein cautioned us to guard against our blind faith in the infallibility of old masters. Taking my cue from that insight, I, for one, think that Einstein’s century is behind us now. I know, coming from a non-practicing physicist, who sold his soul to the finance industry, this declaration sounds crazy. Delusional even. But I do have my reasons to see Einstein’s ideas go.

[animation]Let’s start with this picture of a dot flying along a straight line (on the ceiling, so to speak). You are standing at the centre of the line in the bottom (on the floor, that is). If the dot was moving faster than light, how would you see it? Well, you wouldn’t see anything at all until the first ray of light from the dot reaches you. As the animation shows, the first ray will reach you when the dot is somewhere almost directly above you. The next rays you would see actually come from two different points in the line of flight of the dot — one before the first point, and one after. Thus, the way you would see it is, incredible as it may seem to you at first, as one dot appearing out of nowhere and then splitting and moving rather symmetrically away from that point. (It is just that the dot is flying so fast that by the time you get to see it, it is already gone past you, and the rays from both behind and ahead reach you at the same instant in time.Hope that statement makes it clearer, rather than more confusing.).

[animation]Why did I start with this animation of how the illusion of a symmetric object can happen? Well, we see a lot of active symmetric structures in the universe. For instance, look at this picture of Cygnus A. There is a “core” from which seem to emanate “features” that float away to the “lobes.” Doesn’t it look remarkably similar to what we would see based on the animation above? There are other examples in which some feature points or knots seem to move away from the core where they first appear at. We could come up with a clever model based on superluminality and how it would create illusionary symmetric objects in the heavens. We could, but nobody would believe us — because of Einstein. I know this — I tried to get my old physicist friends to consider this model. The response is always some variant of this, “Interesting, but it cannot work. It violates Lorentz invariance, doesn’t it?” LV being physics talk for Einstein’s insistence that nothing should go faster than light. Now that neutrinos can violate LV, why not me?

Of course, if it was only a qualitative agreement between symmetric shapes and superluminal celestial objects, my physics friends are right in ignoring me. There is much more. The lobes in Cygnus A, for instance, emit radiation in the radio frequency range. In fact, the sky as seen from a radio telescope looks materially different from what we see from an optical telescope. I could show that the spectral evolution of the radiation from this superluminal object fitted nicely with AGNs and another class of astrophysical phenomena, hitherto considered unrelated, called gamma ray bursts. In fact, I managed to publish this model a while ago under the title, “Are Radio Sources and Gamma Ray Bursts Luminal Booms?“.

You see, I need superluminality. Einstein being wrong is a pre-requisite of my being right. So it is the most respected scientist ever vs. yours faithfully, a blogger of the unreal kind. You do the math. :-)

Such long odds, however, have never discouraged me, and I always rush in where the wiser angels fear to tread. So let me point out a couple of inconsistencies in SR. The derivation of the theory starts off by pointing out the effects of light travel time in time measurements. And later on in the theory, the distortions due to light travel time effects become part of the properties of space and time. (In fact, light travel time effects will make it impossible to have a superluminal dot on a ceiling, as in my animation above — not even a virtual one, where you take a laser pointer and turn it fast enough that the laser dot on the ceiling would move faster than light. It won’t.) But, as the theory is understood and practiced now, the light travel time effects are to be applied on top of the space and time distortions (which were due to the light travel time effects to begin with)! Physicists turn a blind eye to this glaring inconstancy because SR “works” — as I made very clear in my previous post in this series.

Another philosophical problem with the theory is that it is not testable. I know, I alluded to a large body of proof in its favor, but fundamentally, the special theory of relativity makes predictions about a uniformly moving frame of reference in the absence of gravity. There is no such thing. Even if there was, in order to verify the predictions (that a moving clock runs slower as in the twin paradox, for instance), you have to have acceleration somewhere in the verification process. Two clocks will have to come back to the same point to compare time. The moment you do that, at least one of the clocks has accelerated, and the proponents of the theory would say, “Ah, there is no problem here, the symmetry between the clocks is broken because of the acceleration.” People have argued back and forth about such thought experiments for an entire century, so I don’t want to get into it. I just want to point out that theory by itself is untestable, which should also mean that it is unprovable. Now that there is direct experimental evidence against the theory, may be people will take a closer look at these inconsistencies and decide that it is time to say bye-bye to Einstein.

Why not Discard Special Relativity?

Nothing would satisfy my anarchical mind more than to see the Special Theory of Relativity (SR) come tumbling down. In fact, I believe that there are compelling reasons to consider SR inaccurate, if not actually wrong, although the physics community would have none of that. I will list my misgivings vis-a-vis SR and present my case against it as the last post in this series, but in this one, I would like to explore why it is so difficult to toss SR out the window.

The special theory of relativity is an extremely well-tested theory. Despite my personal reservations about it, the body of proof for the validity of SR is really enormous and the theory has stood the test of time — at least so far. But it is the integration of SR into the rest of modern physics that makes it all but impossible to write it off as a failed theory. In experimental high energy physics, for instance, we compute the rest mass of a particle as its identifying statistical signature. The way it works is this: in order to discover a heavy particle, you first detect its daughter particles (decay products, that is), measure their energies and momenta, add them up (as “4-vectors”), and compute the invariant mass of the system as the modulus of the aggregate energy-momentum vector. In accordance with SR, the invariant mass is the rest mass of the parent particle. You do this for many thousands of times and make a distribution (a “histogram”) and detect any statistically significant excess at any mass. Such an excess is the signature of the parent particle at that mass.

Almost every one of the particles in the particle data book that we know and love is detected using some variant of this method. So the whole Standard Model of particle physics is built on SR. In fact, almost all of modern physics (physics of the 20th century) is built on it. On the theory side, in the thirties, Dirac derived a framework to describe electrons. It combined SR and quantum mechanics in an elegant framework and predicted the existence of positrons, which bore out later on. Although considered incomplete because of its lack of sound physical backdrop, this “second quantization” and its subsequent experimental verification can be rightly seen as evidence for the rightness of SR.

Feynman took it further and completed the quantum electrodynamics (QED), which has been the most rigorously tested theory ever. To digress a bit, Feynman was once being shown around at CERN, and the guide (probably a prominent physicist himself) was explaining the experiments, their objectives etc. Then the guide suddenly remembered who he was talking to; after all, most of the CERN experiments were based on Feynman’s QED. Embarrassed, he said, “Of course, Dr. Feynman, you know all this. These are all to verify your predictions.” Feynman quipped, “Why, you don’t trust me?!” To get back to my point and reiterate it, the whole edifice of the standard model of particle physics is built on top of SR. Its success alone is enough to make it impossible for modern physics to discard SR.

So, if you take away SR, you don’t have the Standard Model and QED, and you don’t know how accelerator experiments and nuclear bombs work. The fact that they do is proof enough for the validity of SR, because the alternative (that we managed to build all these things without really knowing how they work) is just too weird. It’s not just the exotic (nuclear weaponry and CERN experiments), but the mundane that should convince us. Fluorescent lighting, laser pointers, LED, computers, mobile phones, GPS navigators, iPads — in short, all of modern technology is, in some way, a confirmation of SR.

So the OPERA result on observed superluminalily has to be wrong. But I would like it to be right. And I will explain why in my next post. Why everything we accept as a verification of SR could be a case of mass delusion — almost literally. Stay tuned!

Faster than Light

CERN has published news about some subatomic particles exceeding the speed of light, according to BBC and other sources. If confirmed true, this will remove the linchpin of modern physics — it is hard to overstate how revolutionary this discovery would be to our collective understanding of world we live in, from finest structure of matter to the time evolution of the cosmos. My own anarchical mind revels at the thought of all of modern physics getting rewritten, but I also have a much more personal stake in this story. I will get to it later in this series of posts. First, I want to describe the backdrop of thought that led to the notion that the speed of light could not be breached. The soundness of that scientific backdrop (if not the actual conclusion about the inviolability of light-speed) makes it very difficult to forgo the intellectual achievements of the past one hundred years in physics, which is what we will be doing once we confirm this result. In my second post, I will list what these intellectual achievements are, and how drastically their form will have to change. The scientists who discovered the speed violation, of course, understand this only too well, which is why they are practically begging the rest of the physics community to find a mistake in this discovery of theirs. As it often happens in physics, if you look for something hard enough, you are sure to find it — this is the experimental bias that all experimental physicists worth their salt are aware of and battle against. I hope a false negation doesn’t happen, for, as I will describe in my third post in this series, if confirmed, this speed violation is of tremendous personal importance to me.

The constancy (and the resultant inviolability) of the speed of light, of course, comes from Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, or SR. This theory is an extension of a simple idea. In fact, Einstein’s genius is in his ability to carry a simple idea to its logically inevitable, albeit counter-intuitive (to the point of being illogical!) conclusion. In the case of SR, he picks an idea so obvious — that the laws of physics should be independent of the state of motion. If you are in a train going at a constant speed, for instance, you can’t tell whether you are moving or not (if you close the windows, that is). The statement “You can’t tell” can be recast in physics as, “There is no experiment you can device to detect your state of motion.” This should be obvious, right? After all, if the laws kept changing every time you moved about, it is as good as having no laws at all.

Then came Maxwell. He wrote down the equations of electricity and magnetism, thereby elegantly unifying them. The equations state, using fancy vector notations, that a changing magnetic field will create an electric field, and a changing electric field will create a magnetic field, which is roughly how a car alternator and an electric motor work. These elegant equations have a wave solution.

The existence of a wave solution is no surprise, since a changing electric field generates a magnetic field, which in turn generates an electric field, which generates a magnetic filed and so on ad infinitum. What is surprising is the fact that the speed of propagation of this wave predicted by Maxwell’s equations is c, the speed of light. So it was natural to suppose that light was a form of electromagnetic radiation, which means that if you take a magnet and jiggle it fast enough, you will get light moving away from you at c – if we accept that light is indeed EM wave.

What is infinitely more fundamental is the question whether Maxwell’s equations are actually laws of physics. It is hard to argue that they aren’t. Then the follow-up question is whether these equations should obey the axiom that all laws of physics are supposed to obey — namely they should be independent of the state of motion. Again, hard to see why not. Then how do we modify Maxwell’s equations such that they are independent of motion? This is the project Einstein took on under the fancy name, “Covariant formulation of Maxwell’s equations,” and published the most famous physics article ever with an even fancier title, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.” We now call it the Special Theory of Relativity, or SR.

To get a bit technical, Maxwell’s equations have the space derivatives of electric and magnetic fields relating to the time derivatives of charges and currents. In other words, space and time are related through the equations. And the wave solution to these equations with the propagation speed of c becomes a constraint on the properties of space and time. This is a simple philosophical look on SR, more than a physics analysis.

Einstein’s approach was to employ a series of thought experiments to establish that you needed a light signal to sync clocks and hypothesize that the speed of light had to be constant in all moving frames of reference. In other words, the speed of light is independent of the state of motion, as it has to be if Maxwell’s equations are to be laws of physics.

This aspect of the theory is supremely counter-intuitive, which is physics lingo to say something is hard to believe. In the case of the speed of light, you take a ray of light, run along with it at a high speed, and measure its speed, you still get c. Run against it and measure it — still c. To achieve this constancy, Einstein rewrote the equations of velocity addition and subtraction. On consequence of these rewritten equations is that nothing can go faster than light.

This is my long-winded description of the context in which the speed violation measured at OPERA has to be seen. If the violation is confirmed, we have a few unpleasant choices to pick from:

  1. Electrodynamics (Maxwell’s equations) is not invariant under motion.
  2. Light is not really electromagnetic in nature.
  3. SR is not the right covariant formulation of electrodynamics.

The first choice is patently unacceptable because it is tantamount to stating that electrodynamics is not physics. A moving motor (e.g., if you take your electric razor on a flight) would behave differently from a static one (you may not be able to shave). The second choice also is quite absurd. In addition to the numeric equality between the speed of the waves from Maxwell’s equations and the measured value of c, we do have other compelling reasons why we should believe that light is EM waves. Radio waves induce electric signals in an antenna, light knocks of electrons, microwaves can excite water molecules and cook food and so on.

The only real choice we are left with is the last one — which is to say SR is wrong. Why not discard SR? More reasons than a blog post can summarize, but I’ll try to summarize them any way in my next post.

What is Unreal Blog?

Tell us a little about why you started your blog, and what keeps you motivated about it.

As my writings started appearing in different magazines and newspapers as regular columns, I wanted to collect them in one place — as an anthology of the internet kind, as it were. That’s how my blog was born. The motivation to continue blogging comes from the memory of how my first book, The Unreal Universe, took shape out of the random notes I started writing on scrap books. I believe the ideas that cross anybody’s mind often get forgotten and lost unless they are written down. A blog is a convenient platform to put them down. And, since the blog is rather public, you take some care and effort to express yourself well.

Do you have any plans for the blog in the future?

I will keep blogging, roughly at the rate of one post a week or so. I don’t have any big plans for the blog per se, but I do have some other Internet ideas that may spring from my blog.

Philosophy is usually seen as a very high concept, intellectual subject. Do you think that it can have a greater impact in the world at large?

This is a question that troubled me for a while. And I wrote a post on it, which may answer it to the best of my ability. To repeat myself a bit, philosophy is merely a description of whatever intellectual pursuits that we indulge in. It is just that we don’t often see it that way. For instance, if you are doing physics, you think that you are quite far removed from philosophy. The philosophical spins that you put on a theory in physics is mostly an afterthought, it is believed. But there are instances where you can actually apply philosophy to solve problems in physics, and come up with new theories. This indeed is the theme of my book, The Unreal Universe. It asks the question, if some object flew by faster than the speed of light, what would it look like? With the recent discovery that solid matter does travel faster than light, I feel vindicated and look forward to further developments in physics.

Do you think many college students are attracted to philosophy? What would make them choose to major in it?

In today’s world, I am afraid philosophy is supremely irrelevant. So it may be difficult to get our youngsters interested in philosophy. I feel that one can hope to improve its relevance by pointing out the interconnections between whatever it is that we do and the intellectual aspects behind it. Would that make them choose to major in it? In a world driven by excesses, it may not be enough. Then again, it is world where articulation is often mistaken for accomplishments. Perhaps philosophy can help you articulate better, sound really cool and impress that girl you have been after — to put it crudely.

More seriously, though, what I said about the irrelevance of philosophy can be said about, say, physics as well, despite the fact that it gives you computers and iPads. For instance, when Copernicus came up with the notion that the earth is revolving around the sun rather than the other way round, profound though this revelation was, in what way did it change our daily life? Do you really have to know this piece of information to live your life? This irrelevance of such profound facts and theories bothered scientists like Richard Feynman.

What kind of advice or recommendations would you give to someone who is interested in philosophy, and who would like to start learning more about it?

I started my path toward philosophy via physics. I think philosophy by itself is too detached from anything else that you cannot really start with it. You have to find your way toward it from whatever your work entails, and then expand from there. At least, that’s how I did it, and that way made it very real. When you ask yourself a question like what is space (so that you can understand what it means to say that space contracts, for instance), the answers you get are very relevant. They are not some philosophical gibberish. I think similar paths to relevance exist in all fields. See for example how Pirsig brought out the notion of quality in his work, not as an abstract definition, but as an all-consuming (and eventually dangerous) obsession.

In my view, philosophy is a wrapper around multiple silos of human endeavor. It helps you see the links among seemingly unrelated fields, such as cognitive neuroscience and special relativity. Of what practical use is this knowledge, I cannot tell you. Then again, of what practical use is life itself?

A Parker Pen from Singapore

During the early part of the last century, there was significant migration of Chinese and Indians to Singapore. Most of the migrants of Indian origin were ethnic Tamils, which is why Tamil is an official language here. But some came from my Malayalam-speaking native land of Kerala. Among them was Natarajan who, fifty years later, would share with me his impressions of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army of the forties. Natarajan would, by then, be called the Singapore Grandpa (Singapore Appuppa), and teach me yoga, explaining the mystical aspects of it a bit, saying things like, “A practitioner of yoga, even when he is in a crowd, is not quite a part of it.” I remembered this statement when a friend of mine at work commented that I walked untouched (kind of like Tim Robbins in the Shawshank Redemption) by the corporate hustle and bustle, which, of course, may have been a polite way of calling me lazy.

Anyway, the Singapore Grandpa (a cousin to my paternal grandfather) was quite fond of my father, who was among the first University graduates from that part of Kerala. He got him a Parker pen from Singapore as a graduation gift. Some fifteen years later, this pen would teach me a lesson that is still not fully learned four decades on.

My father was rather proud of this pen, its quality and sturdiness, and was bragging to his friends once. “Even if I wanted to break it, I wouldn’t be able to!” he said, without noticing his son (yours faithfully), all of four years then with only a limited understanding of hypothetical conditionals of this kind. Next evening, when he came back from work, I was waiting for him at the door, beaming with pride, holding his precious pen thoroughly crushed. “Dad, dad, I did it! I managed to break your pen for you!”

Heart-broken as my father must have been, he didn’t even raise his voice. He asked, “What did you do that for, son?” using the overly affectionate Malayalam word for “son”. I was only too eager to explain. “You said yesterday that you have been trying to break it, but couldn’t. I did it for you!” Rather short on language skills, I was already a bit too long on physics. I had placed the pen near the hinges of a door and used the lever action by closing it to accomplish my mission of breaking the pen. In fact, I remembered this incident when I was trying to explain to my wife (short on physics) why the door stopper placed close to the hinges was breaking the floor tiles rather than stopping the door.

My father tried to fix the Parker pen with scotch tape (which was called cellophane tape at that time) and rubber bands. Later, he managed to replace the body of the pen although he could never quite fix the leaking ink. I still have the pen, and this enduring lesson in infinite patience.

Two and half years ago, my father passed away. During the ensuing soul-searching, this close friend of mine remarked, “Well, now that you know what it takes, how well do you think you are doing?” I don’t think I am doing that well, for some lessons, even when fully learned, are just too hard to put in practice.

The Unreal Universe

The Unreal Universe

We know that our universe is a bit unreal. The stars we see in the night sky, for instance, are not really there. They may have moved or even died by the time we get to see them. This delay is due to the time it takes for light from the distant stars and galaxies to reach us. We know of this delay. The sun that we see now is already eight minutes old by the time we see it. This delay is not a big deal; if we want to know what is going on at the sun right now, all we have to do is to wait for eight minutes. We do have to “correct” for the delay in our perception due to the finite speed of light before we can trust what we see.

Now, this effect raises an interesting question — what is the “real” thing that we see? If seeing is believing, the stuff that we see should be the real thing. Then again, we know of the light travel time effect. So we should correct what we see before believing it. What then does “seeing” mean? When we say we see something, what do we really mean?

Seeing involves light, obviously. It is the finite (albeit very high) speed of light influences and distorts the way we see things. This fact should hardly come as a surprise because we do know that there is a delay in seeing objects like stars. What is surprising (and seldom highlighted) is that when it comes to seeing moving objects, we cannot back-calculate the same way we take out the delay in seeing the sun. If we see a celestial body moving at an improbably high speed, we cannot figure out how fast and in what direction it is “really” moving without making further assumptions. One way of handling this difficulty is to ascribe the distortions in our perception to the fundamental properties of the arena of physics — space and time. Another course of action is to accept the disconnection between our perception and the underlying “reality” and deal with it in some way.

This disconnect between what we see and what is out there is not unknown to many philosophical schools of thought. Phenomenalism, for instance, holds the view that space and time are not objective realities. They are merely the medium of our perception. All the phenomena that happen in space and time are merely bundles of our perception. In other words, space and time are cognitive constructs arising from perception. Thus, all the physical properties that we ascribe to space and time can only apply to the phenomenal reality (the reality as we sense it). The noumenal reality (which holds the physical causes of our perception), by contrast, remains beyond our cognitive reach.

One, almost accidental, difficulty in redefining the effects of the finite speed of light as the properties of space and time is that any effect that we do understand gets instantly relegated to the realm of optical illusions. For instance, the eight-minute delay in seeing the sun, because we can readily understand it and disassociate it from our perception using simple arithmetic, is considered a mere optical illusion. However, the distortions in our perception of fast moving objects, although originating from the same source are considered a property of space and time because they are more complex. At some point, we have to come to terms with the fact that when it comes to seeing the universe, there is no such thing as an optical illusion, which is probably what Goethe pointed out when he said, “Optical illusion is optical truth.”

More about The Unreal UniverseThe distinction (or lack thereof) between optical illusion and truth is one of the oldest debates in philosophy. After all, it is about the distinction between knowledge and reality. Knowledge is considered our view about something that, in reality, is “actually the case.” In other words, knowledge is a reflection, or a mental image of something external. In this picture, the external reality goes through a process of becoming our knowledge, which includes perception, cognitive activities, and the exercise of pure reason. This is the picture that physics has come to accept. While acknowledging that our perception may be imperfect, physics assumes that we can get closer and closer to the external reality through increasingly finer experimentation, and, more importantly, through better theorization. The Special and General Theories of Relativity are examples of brilliant applications of this view of reality where simple physical principles are relentlessly pursued using the formidable machine of pure reason to their logically inevitable conclusions.

But there is another, competing view of knowledge and reality that has been around for a long time. This is the view that regards perceived reality as an internal cognitive representation of our sensory inputs. In this view, knowledge and perceived reality are both internal cognitive constructs, although we have come to think of them as separate. What is external is not the reality as we perceive it, but an unknowable entity giving rise to the physical causes behind sensory inputs. In this school of thought, we build our reality in two, often overlapping, steps. The first step consists of the process of sensing, and the second one is that of cognitive and logical reasoning. We can apply this view of reality and knowledge to science, but in order do so, we have to guess the nature of the absolute reality, unknowable as it is.

The ramifications of these two different philosophical stances described above are tremendous. Since modern physics has embraced a non-phenomenalistic view of space and time, it finds itself at odds with that branch of philosophy. This chasm between philosophy and physics has grown to such a degree that the Nobel prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, wondered (in his book “Dreams of a Final Theory”) why the contribution from philosophy to physics have been so surprisingly small. It also prompts philosophers to make statements like, “Whether ‘noumenal reality causes phenomenal reality’ or whether ‘noumenal reality is independent of our sensing it’ or whether ‘we sense noumenal reality,’ the problem remains that the concept of noumenal reality is a totally redundant concept for the analysis of science.”

From the perspective of cognitive neuroscience, everything we see, sense, feel and think is the result of the neuronal interconnections in our brain and the tiny electrical signals in them. This view must be right. What else is there? All our thoughts and worries, knowledge and beliefs, ego and reality, life and death — everything is merely neuronal firings in the one and half kilograms of gooey, grey material that we call our brain. There is nothing else. Nothing!

In fact, this view of reality in neuroscience is an exact echo of phenomenalism, which considers everything a bundle of perception or mental constructs. Space and time are also cognitive constructs in our brain, like everything else. They are mental pictures our brains concoct out of the sensory inputs that our senses receive. Generated from our sensory perception and fabricated by our cognitive process, the space-time continuum is the arena of physics. Of all our senses, sight is by far the dominant one. The sensory input to sight is light. In a space created by the brain out of the light falling on our retinas (or on the photo sensors of the Hubble telescope), is it a surprise that nothing can travel faster than light?

This philosophical stance is the basis of my book, The Unreal Universe, which explores the common threads binding physics and philosophy. Such philosophical musings usually get a bad rap from us physicists. To physicists, philosophy is an entirely different field, another silo of knowledge, which holds no relevance to their endeavors. We need to change this belief and appreciate the overlap among different knowledge silos. It is in this overlap that we can expect to find great breakthroughs in human thought.

The twist to this story of light and reality is that we seem to have known all this for a long time. Classical philosophical schools seem to have thought along lines very similar to Einstein’s reasonings. The role of light in creating our reality or universe is at the heart of Western religious thinking. A universe devoid of light is not simply a world where you have switched off the lights. It is indeed a universe devoid of itself, a universe that doesn’t exist. It is in this context that we have to understand the wisdom behind the statement that “the earth was without form, and void” until God caused light to be, by saying “Let there be light.”

The Quran also says, “Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth,” which is mirrored in one of the ancient Hindu writings: “Lead me from darkness to light, lead me from the unreal to the real.” The role of light in taking us from the unreal void (the nothingness) to a reality was indeed understood for a long, long time. Is it possible that the ancient saints and prophets knew things that we are only now beginning to uncover with all our supposed advances in knowledge?

I know I may be rushing in where angels fear to tread, for reinterpreting the scriptures is a dangerous game. Such alien interpretations are seldom welcome in the theological circles. But I seek refuge in the fact that I am looking for concurrence in the metaphysical views of spiritual philosophies, without diminishing their mystical and theological value.

The parallels between the noumenal-phenomenal distinction in phenomenalism and the Brahman-Maya distinction in Advaita are hard to ignore. This time-tested wisdom on the nature of reality from the repertoire of spirituality is now being reinvented in modern neuroscience, which treats reality as a cognitive representation created by the brain. The brain uses the sensory inputs, memory, consciousness, and even language as ingredients in concocting our sense of reality. This view of reality, however, is something physics is yet to come to terms with. But to the extent that its arena (space and time) is a part of reality, physics is not immune to philosophy.

As we push the boundaries of our knowledge further and further, we are beginning to discover hitherto unsuspected and often surprising interconnections between different branches of human efforts. In the final analysis, how can the diverse domains of our knowledge be independent of each other when all our knowledge resides in our brain? Knowledge is a cognitive representation of our experiences. But then, so is reality; it is a cognitive representation of our sensory inputs. It is a fallacy to think that knowledge is our internal representation of an external reality, and therefore distinct from it. Knowledge and reality are both internal cognitive constructs, although we have come to think of them as separate.

Recognizing and making use of the interconnections among the different domains of human endeavor may be the catalyst for the next breakthrough in our collective wisdom that we have been waiting for.