I studied physics because I was led to believe that physics would answer all my questions about how the universe worked. I was thrilled to learn about various kinds of motion, heat transfer, working principles of electrical gadgets, light propagation and optics, quality of sound and a host of other phenomena in our daily lives during my high school and college days.
It was many years later that I started to wonder if physics answered my questions about how the universe works. On the surface, it seemed that it certainly did.
However, when I thought about it, the explanations seemed superficial. We accepted them because we were too easily satisfied. If you repeatedly ask “why?” like a curious child, then at some point physics cannot answer and it says, “Well, that is the way it is. It is the law – the law of physics”.
I will give you one example. The sky is blue – why? Because sunlight consists of lights of all wavelengths but the air molecules more predominantly scatter blue wavelength towards us.
Why do air molecules scatter blue light more than red light? Because the scattering effect is inversely proportional to the fourth power of the wavelength and blue light has smaller wavelength than red.
Why is the scattering power inversely proportional to the fourth power of wavelength? That is the result of solving electromagnetic wave equations. Why do we have to solve electromagnetic wave equations? This is the point where physics says: well that is the way it is; it is the law.
When you think this way, physics just consists of the laws of physics and a whole array of brilliant mathematical deductions. When physics explains a phenomenon, it is really tracing it back to the laws of physics by some logical argument, but keep in mind we never explain the laws of physics.
We simply take them for granted. We could have as well said that laws of physics are valid because God said so. I concluded that physics did not explain anything; it is simply an analytical tool.
Many people credit physics and physicists for inventing all the devices and appliances from the light bulb to Pentium chip that made our life convenient and comfortable. Actually, it was the engineers. Most people put physicists and engineers in the same category.
The fact is that they are entirely different breeds. Physicists follow a precise track laid down by their education, laws of physics and the inherent discipline implied therein whereas engineers are more free-spirited, willing to try all kinds of things just out of curiosity to see where their efforts lead.
Even experimental physicists are restricted by discipline. Their experiments are set out in a certain way to prove certain theories or predictions and must be performed under controlled conditions.
In fact, most of the inventions and discoveries by physicists happened by accident. On the other hand, things that are practical and useful have been invented by engineers in a creative spirit of building something to make lives more convenient and without much thought about laws of physics.
While physics education does not give all the answers one seeks, it has a profound impact on the personalities of physics students. On the one hand, physics teaches one to be structured and logical, but at the same time it restricts one’s creative freedom and inhibits one’s spontaneity.
Students of physics are exposed to the subject during the most formative and impressionable period of their lives (from age twelve to 25). As a result, their personalities get shaped by physics. They lose their passion or, at least, the ability to express their passion.
Take passion for music as an example: how many physicists do you know who would hit the dance floor to the tune of a Bollywood bhangra song? When they try to write a letter or a short story, these end up looking like physics papers with objectives, postulates, explanations and conclusions instead of a spontaneous release of emotions and random thoughts.
How many physicists do you know who would want to do stand-up comedy in front of a crowd, improvise, be heckled and literally fools of themselves? How many physicists would take off with their romantic mate for Kashmir or Goa at a moment’s notice? No sir, they have to first search the internet and find out the best fare, most convenient schedule etc.
Physicists learn to become proper, logical, precise and consistent in their conversations and behavior. The worst of all is the fact that physics education takes them away from God presumably because existence of God cannot be proved from laws of physics.
They do not realise that physics in particular and science in general, is a closed self-serving prophecy in the sense that it claims human intelligence can explain everything including the origin of intelligence. As a result, physicists never learn things that can be learned by means other than intelligence – by faith, intuition and experience.
I certainly do not regret that I studied physics. If nothing else, it is a brilliant analytical tool – albeit a little mathematical. The most important thing I have learned from my education is the ability to look at a complex situation and analyze it to get down to root causes just like all physical phenomena can be explained on the basis of laws of physics. This ability has helped me both in my personal and professional life to cope with many adverse situations and prosper.
What I bemoan is the fact that physics has remained as a science of inert material objects. I sincerely believe that the laws of physics are just a small subset of much more generalised principles with much wider range of applications including not only the physical movements of living beings but the changes in their emotional state as well.
Physicists do have the intelligence and ability to unfold many mysteries beyond the material world by extending the laws of physics to a much wider arena.
As examples let us start with mechanics and Newton’s laws of motion. Words like “inertia”, “coasting”, “friction”, “push”, “pressure” already overlap between physics and everyday language and really signify similar concepts.
An idle person sitting on his rear-end would probably want to continue sitting unless forced to do something and a person can coast along if there is no obstacle or push along the way. It certainly requires larger push to overcome larger obstacles. You cannot kiss without being kissed. Are not these statements Newton’s laws in disguise?
In any organizational structure, activities of individual contributors revolve around their boss i.e. the department manager. The manager’s duties revolve around his boss, the director. The directors revolve around the Vice President and so on. Isn’t that a little like the solar system?
Entropy is a measure of disorder in a system and entropy of the universe always increases. We can easily correlate that with the fact that it is easier to create clutter than order. Perhaps it also implies that it is easier to be noisy and chaotic than calm and quiet and it is easier to hate than love.
We often associate anger with concepts from heat; we say things like “he is mad as hell”, “he is so agitated he could explode”, “he is boiling”, “let him cool down” etc and just like exchange of heat, we know that one could calm down by the influence from a “cool” person, like a pastor or a counselor.
Electromagnetic field (which is present everywhere) could just be a physical embodiment of God himself with the duality of electric field and magnetic field playing the role of Radha and Krishna – the eternal male and female aspects of God.
Successful predictions of astrology indicate that it could be some generalized version of quantum mechanics where the probability that a person’s life would evolve in a certain way depends on the “initial” conditions of the planets at the time of his/her birth.
People of opposite sex attract each other just like particles of opposite charge attract. On the other hand, gravitational attraction between neutral objects is similar to the non-sexual human bonding among all people.
I can go on and on. My point is that perhaps physicists are on the wrong track. Perhaps we should reconsider spending zillions of dollars in research to find the origins of the universe or build mega-energy colliders to find the structure within quarks or Higgs Bosons.
In our effort to chase extremities of the material world we may be missing out on understanding the mysteries of life which are much closer to our heart and existence.
The writer, a physicist who worked in academia and industry, is a Bengali settled in America.