One of the great achievements of modern science in the last century is Quantum Physics. While confusing to many, counter-intuitive and disruptive of the traditional Newtonian world-views, it has, nonetheless, liberated modern thought from limitation of senses and common logic. To realise that the Universe at the sub-atomic level is no longer made up of discrete particles and that location of these ‘particles’ is dependent on probability is a revolution in understanding.
My personal encounter with Modern Physics began in the 11th grade, as we were introduced to Maxwell and Planck, Heisenberg and Bohr. I must say that the fascination has only grown. As the insights began to sink in and continue to do so,(yes, even after more than three decades, it grows on one), it became a fascinating story to try to follow and understand.
What happened along the way was that physics that had been boring and Cartesian became alive and resplendent with poetry. Gazing at a table in front of me became as awe-inspiring as gazing at distant stars in the night. While I chose a career in Biology and Medicine, Physics remained a life-long journey of exploration and discovery. However, I must confess that there was still a gap somewhere. It just did not register fully- the monumental realization of what had happened. Until I read Carlo Rovelli and his two books, ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics’ and ‘Reality Is Not What It Seems’.
With a lucidity that I have not come across in any of the books on Physics yet, he details how Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity were a tremendous leap of imagination. Einstein’s understanding that gravity and space are not two separate entities, but one and the same, transformed the way we see the world. Space is not emptiness pervaded by a gravitational field but space is gravity. And I was spaced out.
Similarly, when Heisenberg says that ‘he imagined that electrons do not always exist; they only exist when someone or something watches, or better, when they are interacting with something else’, changes our understanding of how electrons function. Thus, the world is not built of ‘things’ as our common sense might surmise. How then does this probabilistic transformation affect the natural world we live in, still needs to be further investigated and understood. How does our DNA, for example, get affected by such uncertainty, needs to be ‘quanta-fied’.
Physics continues to search for the Holy Grail, the Unified Field Theory. Various approaches have been tried; the Superstring Theory, the S Matrix, and now the Loop Gravity Theory. Rovelli even tries to understand the self or consciousness in terms of Physics and to this he devotes his last lesson in his “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics’. And this is where he seems to flounder.
For understanding consciousness in terms of physics would be like trying to investigate organic life by investigating inorganic matter or trying to explain mind by explaining organic life. The principles can’t be encapsulated in the older frames of reference. To understand organic life in terms of matter would be a cardinal error and one would have to step out of the frame of reference of matter, evolve new modes of studies and modelling to begin to approach the phenomenon of life.
Consciousness may not be a by-product of quantum phenomenon. It may not be explicable by the Standard Model of elementary particles. Nor are its terms in the realm of thought or physical experiment. Consciousness has to be tackled and studied in entirely different paradigms, determined by its very own nature and characteristics.
Nonetheless, Rovelli’s books are definitely a step forward in higher education. Every student of science, art or humanities would do well to understand the implications of Quantum Physics. It is sad, that even after nearly a hundred years after Quantum Physics was accepted as a valid model to explain the events of the atomic world, its impact on religion, philosophy, theology and other sciences has been minuscule. Religions continue their indoctrinations with Cartesian paradigms. Philosophy has struggled after existentialism, Wittgenstein and deconstruction. And theology still sees a God outside the Universe sitting mightily as a judge or schoolmaster measuring our sins and good deeds for further reward or retribution.
An understanding of Quantum Physics leads to thought more grounded in reality and subtilizes the gross manner in which our sciences and humanities are expounded. I hope that such books are shared with students in high schools everywhere, whether they belong to arts or non-physical sciences. If not, it would be akin to limiting Beethoven’s concertos or Picasso’s art only to students of music or painting.