Today's Editorial

25 January 2017

Einstein should have stuck on as a patent examiner



Source: By Basab Dasgupta: The Statesman



I was reading a news report that 550 students gathered at a New Delhi science fair last month dressed as Albert Einstein in order to establish a Guinness record for the largest gathering of Einstein lookalikes at one place. It made me think about Einstein's work. While Einstein was certainly a genius and an ideal role model for any aspiring physics student it is interesting to look at his work from a totally different perspective.


Physics has always been considered to be a difficult subject to study because of the abstract concepts and underlying mathematics. However there are two distinct phases in the evolution of physics as far as this difficulty is concerned: the pre-Einstein period and the post-Einstein period.


During the pre-Einstein phase, which spans the period from the time of ancient philosophers to the beginning of the twentieth century, physics, though difficult, was a very practical science. Whether one wanted to study motion of a steam engine or craft lenses for an eye-glass or insulate one’s home from the extreme temperatures of the outside environment or simply wonder how an apple fell from the tree, physics provided a very logical and precise framework to analyse everything in a coherent way.


Even if you did not understand the underlying mathematics, predictions based on physics made sense; they agreed with our intuitive feeling. With Einstein coming into the picture with his special and general theories of relativity and explanation of photoelectric effect, physics was gradually elevated to a whole different level.


Explanation of Photoelectric effect got physicists starting to think in terms of quantisation of light and eventually led to the formulation of quantum mechanics. His famous, E = MC2 certainly revealed the enormous energy hidden in just a fraction of a microgram of matter and inspired scientists to device the atomic and nuclear bombs.


The mere conceptual difficulties, not to mention the complicated mathematics involved in understanding theories of relativity and quantum mechanics had two major consequences: i) they created a special elite group of scientists, mainly the theoretical physicists, who were amazed not only by the brilliance of these new concepts but also at their own abilities to comprehend them and expand upon them and ii) physicists as well as other scientists who were influenced by physics started to genuinely believe that science could do anything and certainly could explain everything. There was no need for an old foolish concept like “God”, which was merely a “crutch” for all those uneducated people who did not understand physics.


Relentless pursuit of the Unified Field Theory ensued. The elite physicists dazzled themselves as well as others by unfathomable concepts like “parallel universe”, “theory of everything”, “god particle”, "dark matter" which were only understood by them. Scientists like Stephen Hawking started to even explicitly declare that existence of God was not necessary in order to explain the origin of the universe and perhaps considered themselves to be at the same level as God, if not higher.


They were able to convince the governments of the developed countries to pour in zillions of dollars in fundamental research with the "carrot" that it would lead someday to the understanding of how the universe worked and how it was created, even though their very limited results were meaningless to more than 99.99 per cent of the population! I have no hesitation in confessing that even though I have a PhD in theoretical physics with more than 40 published papers, I do not understand any of these ideas either conceptually or mathematically.


This acceptance of an authority having a capability equal to or exceeding that of God is similar to embracing the “Empire” of Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” movies. This misguided authority then leads to destructive forces hiding behind an illusion that its activities are “beneficial” to society. It created “superpowers”, those having nuclear capabilities and these superpowers did not hesitate to use that implicit power to dictate how other nations should be run; this led to more conflicts and more exploitation of the poorer nations by the wealthier nations.


Even “peaceful” applications like nuclear reactors carry a risk of catastrophic consequences as evidenced by incidents at Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island to a lesser extent. The San Onofre nuclear power plant near my home was decommissioned several years ago but the experts still cannot decide what the best way to dispose of the spent fuel rods is.


I would like to argue that if Einstein continued his job as an examiner in the patent office and did not create the theory of relativity and introduce the concept of quantization of light, the world would be a better place today. Most of the useful materials and gadgets including automobiles, radios, televisions, refrigerators, semiconductors, transistors, computer chips, internet etc that made our lives more comfortable and convenient would have been invented anyway by engineers and experimental physicists because those inventions did not need theories of relativity and even quantum mechanics.


The knowledge of pre-Einsteinian physics could have been spread quickly throughout the world with many more useful applications instead of physics being hoarded as a mysterious esoteric subject beyond the reach of common people. Billions of dollars that have been poured into fundamental research in an attempt to solve all mysteries of the universe could have been used to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless.


It is also significant that it was Einstein who started the quest for a unified field theory. Inability of Einstein and physicists as a whole, to formulate a unified field theory is the confirmation of the idea that physics was, after all, not above God. A reference to Indian philosophy is helpful in emphasizing this point. Search for a unified field theory is similar to search for Brahman, the omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal universal consciousness – the all-unifying answer to all questions.

Hindu philosophers have been saying for centuries that life and this materialistic world are just illusions. We will eventually merge into Brahman, but only when we would be able to realize this illusion and that would happen after hundreds, if not thousands of reincarnations!

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