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IN QUEST OF INFINITY – 07

By Prof. G Venkataraman


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Previous Articles In The Same Series

Loving Sai Ram and greetings from Prashanti Nilayam. About six months have passed since this series was started, and while many readers have commented appreciatively, there are also others who are wondering where exactly am I taking the readers. Perhaps I should begin the present instalment of the series with a few remarks related to this question.

 

The Four C’s

You see, in today’s world which is so heavily interconnected and where man is able, through science and technology, to exert influence all across the globe and indeed into the biosphere, we have to enquire deeply into Nature, its existence, and man’s role in all this. To put it differently, more than ever before, it has become necessary for humans to reflect on what I would call the Four C’s. They are:

  • The Cosmic origin of man.
  • Man’s Cosmic connections.
  • Man’s Cosmic responsibilities, and
  • Man’s Cosmic Destiny.

Some of you who have followed my recent series of Musings talks over Radio Sai dealing with the Gita and Awareness would remember that I discussed this theme extensively over there. That said, many might still wonder: “What have these four C’s got to do with the so-called ‘search for infinity’?” Well, the answer is simple.

 
   

In a few simple words, the ‘search for infinity’ is all about the search for God. That is where the four C’s enter the picture, and what I am describing now is all a part of what we have to know about Nature. To put it differently, the present search/enquiry is a part of knowing something about our Universe, including the way it came into being – after all, we are a part of the Universe, and we have come into being as a part of the long evolution that the Universe itself is going through.

The Search for Infinity Within

Notwithstanding all this, some might continue to wonder and say: “Listen, I still don’t get it. You say we have to search for God. But are you not aware that God is here right now with all of us? How can you be so ignorant of a fact that is known even to Bal Vikas kids?” Good point, but then, if that is the case, why does not Swami simply say: “Listen, I am God and that is the end of the road for you”? Does He not give innumerable Discourses raising the question: “Who am I?” In other words, God comes in human form to remind man to stop being limited in his thinking and realise the following:

  1. God is Eternal.
  2. God is the Source of all that exists.
  3. In Creation, God pervades everything, that is to say, He is Omnipresent.
  4. To become one with God, man must broaden his vision, outlook and make his love pure as well as selfless.

To put it differently, even the smallest entity in the Universe has infinity within it! Not only that; it is all a part of the drama of different beings serving each other. Remember what Swami says about Creation? He says: “I separated Myself from Myself so that I could love Myself!” If we take all these factors into consideration, then that makes the search so difficult, does it not? In a way maybe, but it also makes it so very fascinating. In short, there is an end for the road we are now traversing; might not quite seem that way right now, but don’t worry, we will get there eventually. Meanwhile, I want you to appreciate that I am not exactly rambling but trying my very best to take you through the most fascinating tour you have ever undertaken. With that preamble, let me get back to business!

A Circular Issue

Last time, I said something about the four basic building blocks of inert matter and the four forces that mediate between them. I also pointed out that while today we talk of four distinct forces, when the Universe was born [through the Big Bang, of course], there was only one primordial fundamental force. However, most amazingly, within a fraction of a second, this one fundamental force became four, which, since then, have guided the further evolution of the Universe. In this instalment, I would like to begin by briefly referring to the two “directions” in which man has been journeying in his quest to understand the physical Universe, and then discovered that at the end of it all it is like going around a circle in two different directions!

This figure symbolically illustrates the point that when two people go round the circle in seemingly opposite directions, they eventually meet! That exactly is what has been happening recently in the world of Physics.

Let me explain what I mean by exploring the Universe by going round the circle in two directions. The best way of doing this is by using what is called the powers-of-ten approach. I guess you are aware that the number [1/10] can be written in different ways. In arithmetic, we often represent it as 0.1. In the same way, [1/100] would be written 0.01 and so on. This is one way of doing it. A more economical way would be to write instead, 10 -1, 10 -2 and so on. In this representation, a number such as [1/1000000] can be simply written as 10 -6 .When we get down to incredibly small fractions, this representation proves very convenient. Suppose you try to write 10-43 in the conventional way. Just try it, and then you would understand what I mean! Similarly, numbers like 100, 1000, 10000 etc., can simply written as 10 2, 10 3, 10 4 and so on. Keep all this in mind and get ready for a dizzying tour.

Let us start from some place on the surface of the earth, and go up. As we do so, we would start seeing more and more of the earth’s surface, though of course, the objects would start appearing smaller and smaller. The point is that if on the earth we can look at only a few kilometres around us, when we go up, we can see many more square kilometres of the earth than from the ground level. I am sure you would understand what I mean, if you have gone up a tall mountain or even a hill and looked down.

The Unity of the Microcosm and Macrocosm

What has all this got to do with the search for infinity? Simply this: Man has been exploring the Universe in two different ways. One is by examining the Universe on larger and larger scales of length, which he does by looking at the sky and using more and more powerful telescopes. On the other hand, he has also been looking at matter on smaller and smaller scales of length by peering through more and more powerful microscopes. I must caution that where microscopes are concerned, we have of course the optical microscope and the electron microscope that provides even greater magnification. Beyond that, we do not use microscopes in the traditional sense. However, using the powerful tools of modern physics, man can and has explored matter on very small scales of length, going down at present to as low as 10 -16 cm. The first kind of exploration is done by astronomers while the second kind of study and investigations are done by nuclear physicists and elementary particle physicists. While the astrophysicist explores the macrocosm, the particle physicist explores the microcosm. Figure 2 depicts this two-fold approach schematically. Table 1 conveys the same idea in more detail. Figures 3 and 4 which features movie stills from a popular science video presentation, convey the idea in a most understandable manner.

This figure illustrates schematically the interconnection between astrophysics and elementary particle physics. While the astronomer peers deep into space, the particle physicist looks deep into the atom. Through his investigations, the astronomer is able to look far back into time, which means he can get valuable clues relating to the early Universe. But the early Universe was small and that is precisely where the physics of matter at very small distances becomes very important. Thus it is that the astronomer/astrophysicist and the particle physicist have found new reasons to become very friendly!

 

 
 
 
This table calls attention to the size of various objects in the Universe;
physics deals with matter on all scales of length.
 

 


OK, all this is fine but what is the big deal? The big deal is this: Since the seventies of the twentieth century, it has become increasingly clear that the macro and the microcosm are intimately tied together; that is to say, physicists are discovering that the macrocosm is in the microcosm and vice versa! The tree is in the seed and at the same time, the tree contains thousands of seeds! But that precisely is what the sages of yore proclaimed and what the Vedas assert! I guess you are able to grasp [though perhaps only vaguely at present] that I am dragging you hither and thither in this amazing Universe merely by way of preparing you to journey beyond the physical universe!

Understanding Infinity

With that preamble, maybe I can get back to some more of popular physics. You would find at the end of it all, what an amazing Universe the Blessed Lord has created. This appreciation is very necessary for the next time we routinely say, “Oh Swami! You are the Creator,” and what not, we understand, at least in a rudimentary sense, what we are trying to say! Swami has a deceptively small form and acts very human, making us feel He is just one of us. In form and biological activity yes; but in terms of the awesome powers He commands, He is beyond description. Having said that, I must also point out that He has come in our midst with a deep purpose, and that purpose would be better understood, if we first get a feel for infinity – that really is the motivation for this series.

Revisiting the Big bang

Back to the physical Universe of which we all form a part, and let us now try to link it to what I have said thus far. You might recall that earlier I said that the Universe came into existence with an event called the Big Bang [see SFI – Part-2 ].

In the beginning, the idea of a Big Bang was mere speculation but it gained some strength after the discovery of the so-called Cosmic Microwave background [see SFI – Part 5]. Soon many questions arose, the most important of which were: 1) What was it that “banged”, and 2) how long ago was the Big Bang? It is these and such other questions that brought the astrophysicists and the particle physicists together [in an earlier era, they hardly said ‘hello’ to each other!].

 
 
The Big Bang!
 

The idea of the Big Bang, in a rudimentary form that is, was born around 1950, and in the years that followed, the following facts emerged:

Galaxies formed sometime after the Big Bang, and they began to fly away from each other [see SFI – Part 2].

  1. About 100,000 years or so after the Big Bang [give or take a couple of hundred thousand years!], radiation began to fill the Universe. As the Universe expanded, this radiation filled more and more space; in the process, it also became more ‘dilute’; in quantitative terms, the temperature of the background radiation steadily decreased. At one time it was tens of thousands of degrees; currently, it is very cold and the temperature is just about 3 degrees above the absolute zero of temperature [which, by the way, equals minus, yes minus, 273 degrees Celsius! That is a hell of a lot colder than the Antarctic!].
  2. The early Universe was a gaseous Cosmic soup of sorts, made up mainly by the light elements like hydrogen, helium and a bit of lithium may be, with hydrogen dominating all other elements.
  3. Lumps of this Cosmic soup gave birth to stars which acted like Cosmic cauldrons; and in these cauldrons, the higher elements were cooked, one by one [see SFI – Parts 3 and 4].

All the above has been put together from patient observations and analysis made by thousands of physicists all over the world. In the process, people realised that the closer we go to the Big Bang, the more we would have to know about physics at small distances in order to be able to reconstruct the history correctly – that is what brought particle physicists, cosmologists and astrophysicists into the same team.

As a result of all this, the eminent particle physicist Stephen Weinberg [who by the way won the Nobel Prize], put together a picture of what he called the First Three Minutes of the Universe. In fact, he wrote a book entitled The First Three Minutes, which became a runaway best seller and made more money for him than he earned as a professor, or got via the Nobel Prize!

Weinberg’s book, sensational though it was, did not take the story to times smaller than 10 -12 seconds, that is to say, Weinberg merely said: “Here is what happened between 10 -12 s after the Big Bang and say 180 s after the Big Bang. To know what happened before 10 -12 s, we must wait for particle physics to make further advances.” All that was in the late seventies and early eighties; since then, enormous progress has been made, and that has led to breath-taking discoveries; which is what I now intend to give a glimpse of.

The Convergence of Science

As I indicated earlier, during the last thirty years or so, astrophysicists, cosmologists and elementary particle physicists have started actively working towards the same goal, and as a result, there is quite a deal of convergence.

This figure shows schematically how astrophysicists, cosmologists and elementary particle physicists are all marching towards the same goal. The important thing is that they are not moving forward independently but in a highly co-operative manner. This inter-disciplinary co-operation is one of the most satisfying aspects of modern physics.

So what we have we learnt from it all? Several things and I shall try to list a few of them later. But first, I should give you an idea of the strategy behind the new approach. To explain that, let me first present an imaginary conversation between the great Sherlock Holmes and his good friend Dr. Watson.

There has been an explosion, and Sherlock is summoned to the site by London police; of course, the famous detective takes his friend along with him. When the two reach the site, Sherlock first asks a few questions of the policemen gathered there in substantial numbers. He then whips out his pocket lens and starts going round the explosion site. Once in a while, he goes on his knees and intensely examines the ground. At other times, he picks up a piece of something, a torn bit of paper, a metal fragment and so on and peers at them through his pocket magnifying glass. All along, Sherlock is mumbling to himself. Watson is watching all this, but cannot follow what exactly his friend is trying to do or is saying to himself. After a while, the following conversation ensues:

Sherlock says to his friend, “Watson, do you know what happened?”

Watson replies, “How can I? I was not there!”

“That is true but still, one can figure out what happened!”

“Are you serious?”

“Of course I am; you know, Watson, I am seldom given to jokes.”

“Right, but then how can you know because you too were not there!”

“Ah, my dear fellow, that is where observation, data collection, analysis, speculation, hypothesis testing etc., come into the picture. If we follow this iterative route, we can pretty well figure out what exactly happened.”

I shall not go on with this imaginary conversation any further but shall make two key observations that would enable us to proceed further. First is that this is almost always what all detectives do – they did this for example in the recent London bombing. Secondly, and this is more pertinent to us, this is what scientists do while trying to figure out what exactly happened during and after the Big Bang. Let us take all this one by one.

First, the strategy for reconstruction. Let us start with observations. Astrophysicists make observations about the Universe using their telescopes. If you look at the Sun right now, you would be getting an image of the Sun as it was eight minutes ago, for eight minutes is the time it takes for light to travel from the Sun to the Earth. If you look at say Neptune, your picture of the Neptune would be about a few hours old. But that is not bad. The point is that as telescopes get better and better, one is able to look farther and farther into space, which also means we are getting more and more information about things as they were a long time ago – billions of years in fact.

This is one side of the story. On the other side, physicists who are concerned with the Physics of fundamental particles, or the building blocks of matter if you prefer, are coming to grips with physics at extremely small distances. This is a very difficult and highly competitive subject by the way, where there is room only for the very smartest! Even so, an amazing amount of information has been gathered, all of which have deep implications for the history of the early Universe, in which, Cosmologists or people who study the Universe as a whole, especially its history and evolution, are very much interested. As a result of all these diverse and rapid developments, suddenly, the three tribes – the astrophysicists, the particle physicists and the cosmologists – have begun to actually collaborate with each other, instead of merely saying hello in the corridors as in earlier times.

Finding Common Ground

These days, their discussions, many a time conducted round a coffee table while consuming cup after cup of coffee, often goes like this:

Astrophysicist [Bob]: Listen guys, know what our team has found lately?

Cosmologist [Dick]: What is the earthshaking thing you fellows have discovered?

Bob: My dear chap, when you hear about it, you will not speak so dismissively!

Particle physicist [Tom]: Oh yeah? Then tell us about it.

 
   

Bob: We have been examining the spectra from galaxies that go really far, far back in time.

Tom: Like how long?

Bob: Like just two billion years after the birth of the Universe.

Tom: Two billion years? Listen, the real juicy part of the history of the Universe is all over in 10 -12 seconds and you are talking of two billion years! Who wants to hear about that?

Bob: Hold on to your chair buddy, for when you hear what I am going to say, you are going to fall down!

Dick: Oh yeah? Try me!

Bob: Well, here it comes! Our studies show that the three fundamental constants of Physics that we all use all the time were not the quite the same in the past as we measure them to be today. To be explicit, their values were different in earlier times than what we now measure them to be!

Dick: Bob, you can’t be serious.

Bob: No Dick, I am dead serious. Today, we all know that c, the velocity of light, is about 3 x 105 km per second. Two billion years after birth, it was substantially different.

Dick: My God! If this were true, then we have to recalculate the physics of the early Universe!

Bob: Well, Mr. Particle-physicist, I notice you are silent! What have you got to say?

Tom: Bob, if what you are saying is true, things could be even more different at very small times, and that could really change the whole ball game!

Dick: Of course Bob, you understand that what you have found is through one observation made by your group; it has to be confirmed by other observations by other independent teams.

Bob: Sure I understand that; I have been in this business long enough to know that. But what we must realise now is simply this: “What if this is true? In that case, where do we go from here?”

Dick: Bob, I tell you what. We need to do some serious thinking about this whole business of changing fundamental constants.

Tom: Absolutely, because physics in the early Universe could have been very different from what we presently imagine it to be, based on the idea that fundamental constants have the same value from the Big Bang all the way through evolution of the Universe. I agree with Dick about the need to do some serious thinking, and I suggest that next Thursday afternoon we have a small think-tank kind of session, bringing together a few sharp minds, from astrophysics, cosmology and particle physics.

Dick: I think it is a swell idea. I know some young cosmologists who are real sharp cookies. I think I can rope them in.

Bob: Well, let me see if I can get a few real smart astrophysicists I know to join us.

Tom: Good, I shall pitch in with some fellows from my crowd, and maybe we can have a big pile of sandwiches, cookies and of course lots of coffee to keep us going!

Dick: Sounds like a great idea, and I really look forward to this brain-storming session.

Well, that was no doubt a purely cooked up conversation but it does capture the current atmosphere when people of diverse interests come together to pool their expertise to deal with the greatest challenge in physics. Right now, we might not know very much about the early Universe but this much one can definitely say:

Infinity is somewhere in an infinite maze of infinite variety and infinite richness!

Yes, the Lord has His own way of playing games. The glory of the Lord cannot simply be described. At best, one can only use some representative words like Swami sometimes uses: Chitarambulu, Vichitrambulu ….. etc. I leave you to find out what they mean!

See you again next month. Meanwhile, have fun speculating about and searching for infinity! To spur your thoughts, let me present a picture that illustrates a remark of Sheldon Glashow [who along with Abdus Salam and Stephen Weinberg won the Nobel Prize for discovering the unity of the electromagnetic and weak forces]. Glashow pictures the unity of the micro and macrocosm in physics via the image of a snake swallowing its tail! See figure below!

See you later! All the best in the meantime!!

 

 


 

 

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Vol 5 Issue 08 - AUGUST 2007
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