Can Upanishads help Physics take a Quantum leap?

Can Upanishads help Physics take a Quantum leap?

Submitted by Editor on Sat, 2016-04-30 18:31 For millennia, the philosophers, thinkers and scientists have struggled to make sense of this world around us. Theoretical physicists have consistently postulated about a reality which is purely materialistic. In other words everything in this universe is composed of electrons and other subatomic particles and there is no other dimension of existence. In their view life itself is a property of matter and has arisen from certain biochemical reactions at a certain time under certain conditions. Although they have not been able to create life in a laboratory yet; they insist that it would be possible to do so in future at an unspecified date. Only thing they need to do is to develop a better understanding of the physical processes and it was only a matter of time for those ideas to emerge. Theoretical physics came of age with the advent of Sir Isaac Newton in 17th and 18th centuries and he provided new insights in such diverse fields of physics, mathematics, philosophy and astronomy. Newton described with great precision the science of motion and also gave the world the concept of force of gravity. This force of gravity was the first force which humans studied and employed for rational explanation of natural phenomena such as planetary motions. Electricity and Magnetism were known to humanity since ancient times and were studied separately. Michael Faraday invented electric motor in 1821 without having a clear idea of the nature of interaction of these two forces. It was James Clerk Maxwell who in 1862, definitively linked these two forces and called it electromagnetic force and gave mathematical equations to describe it. The long quest to understand the internal structure of an atom attained some finality when Neils Bohr, in about 1920, came out with Bohr model and postulated that electrons revolved in stable and well defined orbits around positively charged nucleus. All protons, with positive charge and all neutrons with no charge were packed in a small nucleus in the centre of the atom. At this stage, question which begged to be answered was that if like charges repelled each other, there must be a separate force stronger than the force of repulsion, to hold the nucleus together. This force was defined as strong nuclear force. In Particle Physics, the fundamental particles like quarks continuously mutate in to other types of particles. Certain radioactive elements emit energy and eventually decay. Both these processes are mediated by another type of force called weak nuclear force. By early 1960s, theoretical physicists had these four fundamental forces to work with and explain the nature of ultimate reality. If there has been one Holy Grail of physics, it is finding a theory of everything. “A simple elegant equation which explains everything”, a favourite quote of Stephen Hawking. This obsession actually dates back to the days of Newton. Albert Einstein too was very fond of the idea of finding a unified theory combining electromagnetic and gravitational forces. This quest, however, has remained unfulfilled till now. Early days of the 20th century were full of euphoria for the physicists. Einstein had just given his theory of general relativity which had revolutionised the understanding of actual working of Newtonian gravity. Theorists were now able to make startling predictions about motion of celestial bodies. Einstein had become an international celebrity and theoretical physics was on a roll. Two experiments were conducted during this time which literally halted the juggernaut of classical theoretical physics. In one experiment when a gas was heated in a test tube and its spectrum analysed, it was found, to the astonishment of all, that the spectrum was not a continuous band of light as expected; but a series of distinct lines. As per the existing physics, it was just not possible. As mentioned earlier, Neils Bohr solved this problem by proposing orbits of predefined energy levels and any jump of an electron from a higher orbit to a lower one releasing a packet of fixed energy. This packet of energy was called a quantum. The lines on the spectrum were, therefore, pertaining to the quanta of energy released by electrons jumping from higher orbits to lower ones. Second experiment was, however, more devastating. Electrons were fired on a screen having two very narrow slits parallel to each other and electrons which could pass through the slits were captured on another screen kept behind the first screen. Logic dictated that since electrons were particles, it would be normal to expect that electrons which pass through first slit shall show a grouping behind the first slit and electrons which pass through second slit to show a grouping behind the second slit. The results were both astounding and confounding. Instead of two groupings, the screen showed a series of vertical stripes spread across the screen. This was clearly a wave interference pattern. Electrons were somehow behaving like waves. Countless number of experiments confirmed and reconfirmed the same result. Theorists were shocked. Classical Physics was at its wits end. This, however, was the beginning of a very bizarre and unbelievable science called Quantum Mechanics. Above experiment, called Double Slit Experiment, also gave some more bizarre findings. Electron behaved as a wave only if it was not being observed and if it was being observed it behaved like a particle. Further, if the observation was done just before the final screen, the electron somehow sensed it, travelled back to the slit, came out as a particle and showed the grouping instead of an interference pattern. There was no way to explain this behaviour with classical tools available at that time. It was as though the electron had a mind of its own and detected that it was being seen and so decided that it must behave in a certain fashion. The implication of this premise was huge. The electron was somehow conscious of being observed. After a number of experiments, classical theorists grudgingly admitted that the behaviour of electron was indeed real, though strange. Bohr continued his research and was helped by two famous scientists namely Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger. The main question at that time was of practical construction, a wave was a wave and a particle was a particle and it was difficult to imagine how a particle could suddenly become a wave and vice versa. Was a particle somehow stretching itself to become a wave? A wave is nothing but a disturbance in a medium, the medium doesn’t travel, disturbance does. So how a particle can become a disturbance? Heisenberg postulated that in all wave like systems, uncertainty in measurement of certain properties, was an inherent feature. Schrodinger gave an equation called particle wave equation and suggested that this wave at quantum level was different from traditional wave, and it was not in nature of disturbance in a medium. Instead it was a wave of potentiality expressing the probability of finding a particle at various points in the wave. That meant the particle was present at more than one places at a time and there was no way of knowing the exact location without observing it. But the mere act of observation resulted in collapse of wave function and we observed it as a particle. We can, therefore say that an act of observation itself transformed a fuzzy probability in to solid matter. In other words it was conscious observation which created physical reality. Objective reality doesn’t exist independent of observation. Classical theorists led by Einstein were horrified; their consistent view being that physical reality existed independent of observation. There was a running feud between Einstein and Bohr and Einstein once famously remarked “God does not play dice” in response to the suggestion that universe was governed by probability. Even though quantum theory has been the most successful theory in history of physics, it doesn’t tell us why universe behaves in this fashion? Why, at the level of fundamental particles, reality becomes obscure, a nebulous non-existence? Is it because the ultimate reality doesn’t want to reveal itself? There is another process related to quantum theory, called quantum entanglement. If two particles are related in their origin, they become entangled, meaning their properties like spin etc are connected. If spin of one particle is changed in direction, the spin of other particle shall also change instantaneously. Now let us take these two particles away from each other say by a million light years and then change the spin of the first particle. In experiments conducted time and again it was proved that the spin of the other particle changed instantaneously, irrespective of distance between the two. Theory of relativity provided that speed of light was constant at 3 lac km per second and that was the maximum speed which could be attained by anything. Nothing in this universe could travel faster than light. Then how was it possible for particles to communicate with each other instantaneously across a distance which light itself will take 100 million years to cross? How these two particles were connected without any apparent communication? This was another aspect of quantum theory which baffled the theorists. Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance”. Physicists have not been able to untangle this entanglement even today. Meanwhile, efforts to construct a theory of everything have continued. Latest theory is called M Theory, which is an improved version of a theory called String Theory. It postulates that all matter is basically composed of tiny vibrating strings and frequency of vibration of these strings imparts a particular character to a fundamental particle. M theory, however, has a fantastic prediction. It says that there are 11 parallel universes to our universe and the idea has been named as Multiverse. No one knows where those universes are. There is another aspect to the process of wave function collapse. We have seen that all matter has a wave function and it collapses when the matter is observed. Two probable explanations have been given for this. First interpretation is that there is something special about the consciousness, in this case of the observer, which makes the wave function collapse. Another explanation which is more fascinating is that by observing one probability the observer becomes part of that observed universe and for observer who makes a different observation, a different universe is created. It means there are an infinite number of universes corresponding to infinite number of probabilities, out there somewhere, and all of them are as real as the one we live in. This is called many Worlds Theory. We can see that physics, over the last century, has moved from simple to complicated, from comprehensible to obscure, from real to virtual, from observation to imagination and from theory to fairy tale. Either the physical reality refuses to reveal itself or we are missing a vital piece of the puzzle. The deeper we go in to our investigation of reality, more and more layers of shroud seem to be covering it. We can keep on breaking matter to the smallest particle possible, to understand the basic building blocks of reality. Where do we end up? We end up in a sea of probabilistic nothingness and when we see where we are we construct our own reality. We see what we want to see and not what is there, because there is nothing, only a metaphysical potentiality. Matter takes shape only when it is observed and there is no template for matter to take shape. Template comes from observer’s world view. A universal physical reality is, therefore, a myth, all reality is subjective. This is the essence of quantum physics. Roughly two and a half millennia before the advent of quantum physics, in the forests of Aryavrata, present North West India, one rishi Uddalaka asked his son Svetaketu to break a seed of a fruit to know what was inside it. After breaking the seed again and again svetaketu finally couldn’t see anything. “What do see”? The father asked. “Nothing” the son answered. Uddalaka then explained to the son that as he couldn’t see the essence of a tree which was present in the seed and in the same way essence of this universe cannot be seen, but only experienced. True being itself was the essence of reality. This parable is taken from a book called the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Upanishads are part of ancient Hindu literature known as Shruti. Shruti literature mainly consists of four Vedas, each of them is further divided in to four parts namely Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka, and Upanishad. The Upanishads are the last part of each Veda and are also called Vedanta, meaning end of Vedas or end of knowledge. There are a few hundred Upanishads known to Hindus; but only about 18 are available in manuscript form. Out of these 18, only 13 are considered important by the scholars and have been the subject matter of discussion and discourse. Adi Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhvacharya, great thinkers of medieval India, wrote commentaries on these Upanishads which gave rise to three schools of Hindu thought namely Advaitha, Vishisht Advaitha and Dvaitha, respectively. These schools are also known as Non Dualism, Qualified Non Dualism and Dualism. Knowledge sought to be imparted through Vedanta, does not aim at material or intellectual fulfilment; but attempts at spiritual enlightenment of the subject ultimately leading to Moksha. Discussions here are more philosophical in nature and focus on understanding of true nature of reality. The protagonist in many of the Upanishads is sage Yajnavalkya, and through his teachings, complex and esoteric ideas are sought to be conveyed. The most important idea is of Brahman and Atman and their mutual relationship. Brahman is the universal spirit, the ultimate reality, pure consciousness; the only existence, the absolute, one unchanging reality amidst and beyond the world and which cannot be exactly defined. Atman is the same as Brahman but is an attribute of human existence. According to Adi Sankara, the only purpose of Vedanta is to establish the reality of Brahman and unreality of physical universe. Unreality here means perishability. Brahman is devoid of attributes and is timeless, spaceless, omnipresent, unlimited, uncaused, the biggest and the smallest at the same time, and immortal. Brahman is all pervading and is manifest in all physical reality. All humans have Brahman; but they don’t know this because of ignorance. With true knowledge that we are but a part of universal spirit all shrouds are lifted; then unskilful behaviour goes; next desire ceases and all misery disappears. This will only happen when I know that God and I are one. Atman is self and Brahman is supreme self. Purpose of all existence is realisation of the self. “Self realisation is, knowing that we are part of god and we don’t need to pray to go near him. We just need to know this fact a little better”. Quantum conception of the reality is of a sea of a vibrating flux of energy, which is all pervasive and cause all reality to exist. The universe at its very basic is a sea of waves. All elementary particles are existing only as waves of probability. Quantum physics does not tell us as to why and how this physical universe emerged from the wavy universe. For matter to come in to being it needs to be observed by someone. Who observed the universe for it to come in to existence? Presently, physics has two sets of theories, to explain the working of the universe. Theory of relativity given by Einstein, very beautifully explains the phenomena of the very large and very far like stars and galaxies. Quantum physics has most successfully explained the behaviour of the very small and very near like electrons and photons. Each theory, however, breaks down as it crosses its domain. Science of physics seems to have hit a dead end. Theory of everything is nowhere in sight. Vedanta perhaps has answer to all these riddles. If we accept an eternal uncaused existence of Brahman, then it was Brahman which observed the universe in to existence. Vedanta divides existence in to two parts: subtle and gross. Subtle can only be imagined and gross can be seen and felt. Wavy universe is then the subtle part of reality and physical universe being gross. Brahman, a universal spirit also explains quantum entanglement as being a simple activity of cosmic brain, which is nothing but Brahman itself. Two of the pioneers of quantum physics, Heisenberg and Schrodinger, were very well aware of the theory of Vedanta at the time they did their research. In fact, Schrödinger was hugely impressed by Vedanta and his biography written by Moore brings out this fact very clearly. Heisenberg had reportedly said,” Quantum theory shall not seem strange to anyone who has read Vedanta”. So here we are. Physics does need an inspiration to move forward and what better inspiration than the Upanishads? Author: Amrit Paul   The author is an IPS officer and views expressed are his own