Vol. XLI No. 44 October 29, 2017

Nature’s Latest Grand Spectacle Reaffirms its Dialectical & Materialist Character

S M Paranjape

THE world’s scientific community, especially astronomers and cosmologists, is abuzz about the signals from a mega event that rang, quite literally, not only around the globe but also beyond it. This was the “sighting” of a collision between two neutron stars 130 million light years away! What was so significant about it that it took the scientific community by storm and led to unprecedented messaging and tweeting all across the globe? It yet again confirmed the truth of gravitational waves that Albert Einstein had predicted in his celebrated paper on General Theory of Relativity, published in 1914. One of its predictions -- the bending of light by large astronomical masses such as the Sun – had been confirmed within five years of its publication in 1919, during a total eclipse!


Nevertheless, the old adage, ‘seeing is believing’, had in the past severely limited our knowledge of the cosmos in a number of ways. For obvious reasons, only such phenomena that occurred in the night-sky (with the exception of the period of total solar eclipse, as above) were accessible to humans for direct observation. Even so, supernova bursts were recorded in diverse lands from antiquity. Yet, in spite of the amazing ingenuity displayed by the Egyptian, Aztec, Mayan to Chinese, Indian and later on, Islamic civilisations, apart from the observations of recurring cyclical patterns of constellations and their correlations with floods or other terrestrial phenomena, systematic knowledge of the cosmos could not progress due to the then rudimentary stage of social and technological development. Nor was there any possibility of sharing and coordination of their efforts, significance of which is of the essence today. As is well known, the situation became far worse during the dark ages that engulfed Europe with a complete stranglehold of the Church whose dogma held sway. Precisely the opposite scenario is unfolding today.


In the interregnum, the advance of optics during the renaissance including invention of the telescope by a lens maker, that was utilised by Kepler, Tycho Brahe and Galileo to meticulously record planetary motion, ushered in the era of modern astronomy that transformed the very meaning of “seeing”, vis-a-vis the cosmos; constraints of the visible night-sky notwithstanding.


Tremendous strides in observational techniques that have taken place in the last hundred years, that make full use of the entire electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves to gamma rays and unshackle dependence on the visible part of the spectrum; and now added to it, gravitational waves as a new observational tool together with the deepening of the theoretical understanding both of the microcosm as well as the macrocosm and their interrelationships have collectively made possible present day observations as well as the appreciation of their significance.


Just as crucial has been the positioning of these hi-tech observation gadgets across all continents, as also in orbits around the earth and even beyond it, together with their syncing. This helps overcome the partial and one-sided nature inherent in any localised device or set of devices: Something that would have been impossible heretofore.

What Is All the Clamour About?


I quote below a lucid description of the details of this event by Dennis Overbye, that appeared in the New York Times (16 October, 2017):

“Astronomers announced on Monday that they had seen and heard a pair of dead stars collide, giving them their first glimpse of the violent process by which most of the gold and silver in the universe was created. The collision, known as a kilonova, rattled the galaxy in which it happened 130 million light-years from here in the southern constellation of Hydra, and sent fireworks across the universe. OnAug. 17, the event set off sensors in space and on Earth, as well as producing a loud chirp in antennas designed to study ripples in the cosmic fabric. It sent astronomers stampeding to their telescopes, in hopes of answering one of the long-sought mysteries of the universe.


Such explosions, astronomers have long suspected, produced many of the heavier elements in the universe, including precious metals like gold, silver and uranium. All the atoms in your wedding band, in the pharaoh’s treasures and the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and still threaten us all, so the story goes, have been formed in cosmic gong shows that reverberated across the heavens. This gong show happened when a pair of neutron stars, the shrunken dense cores of stars that have exploded and died, collided at nearly the speed of light. These stars are masses as great as the sun packed into a region the size of Manhattan (or Mumbai) brimming with magnetic and gravitational fields.”


It is pertinent to point out that although the search for gravitational waves or g-waves had begun in the mid-sixties of the previous century, its first conclusive detection happened only last year (2016), with the elaborate and sprawling device called Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO. India too has announced that it will initiate a similar project on its soil. The team of the original LIGO is the recipient of this year’s Nobel in Physics!


Ironically, last year’s Nobel-winning discovery that involved two colliding black holes, and hence could detect little else, has become a mere tool and a footnote, with the show having been stolen by this year’s spell-binding and dazzling sky-show.

One burning question is what happened to the remnant of this collision. According to the LIGO measurements, it was about as massive as 2.6 suns. Scientists say that for now they are unable to tell whether it collapsed straight into a black hole, formed a fat neutron star that hung around in this universe for a few seconds before vanishing, or remained as a neutron star. We may never know!


Dialectics of Nature

1.     However, one thing is certain. The broad contours outlined by Friedrich Engels in his work “Dialectics of Nature” are playing out before us today. When Engels wrote this pamphlet, the vice grip of Newtonian physics and its attendant static cosmology held sway. Everything will remain in this state until compelled to change by an external “force”. The planets will continue to orbit the earth, and the Sun will eternally provide from its position the energy for their sustenance. The revolution of thought that had come with a nascent bourgeoisie had ossified into a static, changeless conception in the shape of Newtonian gravitation being the glue of the universe.

It is in this context that Engels’ dialectical mind wholeheartedly embraced the “Nebular Hypothesis” advanced by Immanuel Kant (even though he had roundly criticised Kant’s agnostic approach in philosophy) when it came to description of “heavenly” bodies. Because it emphasised that the Earth, Sun, Moon and indeed all heavenly bodies originated in nebular forms, and would eventually have an end, too! This, based as it was on conjecture and not observation, was nevertheless prescient. And can be excused because “cosmology” of the day did not even have the ‘swaddling clothes’ that Engels ascribed to the biology of the period.

What is important to take away from it is that the core of Dialectics: “Coming into being and passing away” expounded across the world from Greeks to our own Buddha is now being reasserted through the gamut of astronomical advances during the last 100 years including the most recent events of 2016 and even more dramatically the cataclysmic collision of two neutron stars ‘seen’ this year.

The other aspect of Marxist philosophy, viz. materialism in the philosophical sense also rings through loud and clear.

2. Both the events detected by LIGO, whether the collision of black holes or that of the neutron stars, had occurred hundreds of million years ago, and have only been detected now by sentient beings. To ascribe to them an existence solely due to the consciousness of this or that being or an immutable idea aka Hegel may be insisted on by die-hard idealists. But it is unlikely to find even a few takers among the army of scientists from all nations working on these discoveries and inventing newer techniques and theories to understand them!

3. Even the positivistic approach which gained currency during the early days of Quantum Mechanics due to Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, who advanced the thesis that the quantum event comes into its own only after being “observed” by an “observer” (presumably sentient) is of no avail here. To claim that the collision happened “only when and because” the gadgetry at LIGO “observed” it, would be the height of absurdity; separated as they are by over a hundred million years in time and equal number of light years in space from LIGO!

4) What is also most remarkable about both these cosmic mega events is that no devout believer in God or its equivalent is making a bid to claim their creator’s hand in it! This is very much unlike the patently human-made event two years ago, involving the Higgs boson in the giant storage rings of CERN in Geneva. Using ‘God-particle’ and other epithets for the newly discovered particle predicted in the 1960’s, the idealists as well as other foes of Marxism made unsuccessful attempts to hijack it.

The truth of materialistic and dialectical view of Nature is manifest here. For, as Vladimir Lenin had emphasised, philosophically speaking, “Existence independent of consciousness is the sole determining attribute of matter.” And here we have it, in the most pristine form: be it the rotating black holes or the pair of crashing neutron stars. Neither required the crutches of consciousness either to come into being or pass away!