Two Paradigm-Shifting Revolutions in Physics
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THE first quarter of the twenty-first century is showing many similarities with its immediately preceding counterpart (the twentieth century), especially regarding science in general, and elementary particle physics, and cosmology in particular; and regarding the latter, the literally earth-shaking discovery made by Edwin Hubble. His observations using earth-based telescope(s), of the “red shift” of light reaching us from the distant stars, showed that the universe is expanding! This has been confirmed and further examined, by probes sent into space as well as ground-based observations. Moreover, thanks to space exploration by a growing number of nations, probes have been launched for transmitting data on the cosmos from outer space, to avoid hindrance due to the earth’s atmosphere that otherwise, shields us quite effectively from harmful cosmic radiation from space.
Prior to this, despite being earthbound, American physicist Hans Bethe had proved quite early after discovery of the nuclear structure of the atom, that the source of energy for life on earth is nuclear fusion betweenhydrogen and helium nuclei. It is this very uninterrupted process that powers the stars, including our Sun (Ra of the ancient Egyptians); the one and only celestial that has been worshiped everywhere, without controversy, by the human species all over the globe, since time immemorial. And, remarkably, there has not been a single moment of “outage” during this entire period, when the process has ceased to work! Bethe was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1938 for this momentous discovery. Compare this with the attempts that are ongoing, for quite some time, to harness this same fusion energy for producing power on earth. About this, recently (2023), a claim was made that, forthe first time, 1MJ or mega joule (1 million joules) more energy had been generated than was spent (2MJ) for carrying out the fusion (of hydrogen and helium atoms)!
Also, there can be no doubt that the second revolution in science in the early twentieth century, outclassed the first one in the eighteenth century, presided over by Galilee Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton; it not only spread over several disciplines from physics and chemistry to biology and geology; but had also, covered all the continents. And, unlike the first, the colonised as well as the colonists participated in it! Among the most eminent Indian names, for example, in this scientific journey,are those ofSatyendra Nath (SN) Bose and SChandrasekhar. The former for elementary particle physics (Bose- Einstein statistics in contradistinction to Fermi-Dirac statistics) leading to the classification of elementary particles (of integer or zero spin) as “BOSONS” and those with half-integer (1/2, 3/2, etc.) spin ‘FERMIONS’, (after the legendary Italian American physicist Enrico Fermi), respectively. Likewise, the latter for astrophysics, has been enshrined in ‘The Chandrasekhar Limit’ on the mass of stars; viz. 1.2 times the mass of our Sun i.e., 1.2 “Solar Masses”: Stars with mass greater than this are fated to collapse into ’neutron stars’ or ‘black holes’.
Furthermore, in this context, how can we forget the path breaking experimental proof by the late CV Raman, who despite working in a relatively undeveloped and technologically backward pre-independence India under British yoke, experimentally proved the existence of the subtlest of interactions between light and molecular vibration, through his indigenous laboratory work. This achievement was given the richly deserved name of “Raman Effect” and for which he received the 1920 Nobel Prize that made India immensely proud.
These illustrate the gamut of contributions. Incidentally, in this, their association with the name of Albert Einstein, who straddledextremes of physics, from the microcosm to the macrocosm, is no mean achievement.
ESSENCE OF THE SECOND
Undoubtedly, the first scientific revolution (in Europe), was a definite and complete break with the past, as it brought all natural phenomena - including those pertaining to the “heavenly bodies” within the domain of scientific investigation the laws identical to those that governed the earthbound inanimate objects; moreover, the same underlying(mathematical) framework – be it Newtonian or Lagrangian, was shown to be applicable to the motion of planets around the Sun, as those that governed a projectile on the earth’s surface. It is said that, when Lord Rayleigh (then considered “the old bird” of physics) was asked about this unrivalled supremacy of Newton’s Laws, had noted that the “course was clear”, except for two specs in the sky: one in the realm of the very large, and the other in the domain of the very small scales.
What upset this uncritical extrapolation, was the experimental discovery of Radioactivity by Madame Marie Curie and Monsieur Pierre Curie that provided the first among decisive blows to this “mechanistic” worldview. Because, due to this discovery, the prevailing conception of “matter” simply evaporated! However, while the enemies of materialism, particularly the Neo-Kantian positivists, including Ernst Mach, Avenarius, and others celebrated this as the disappearance of “matter” generally;it was VI Lenin who took keen interest in these, then unfolding scientific discoveries, and demolished the Machian, positivist interpretation (vide Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism).
Exactly as Engels before him had debunked Kant’s agnosticism and “thing in itself”, even while upholding his nebular hypothesis for the solar system! Which, incidentally, had more than a grain of truth, as subsequent observations have shown (vide Dialectics of Nature, and current information on stellar evolution.).
During the post-quantum mechanics phase, there is an even greater need to combat, from the materialist dialectical standpoint the proponents of Mach and positivism as well as idealism and other obscurantist ideologies. Especially, because of the continuing stranglehold of Machian positivist thought, that got instilled through the venerated Niels Bohr and the ‘Copenhagen School’, particularly, among the western practitioners of advanced physics. The innate materialist instinct of the physicists instinctively counters it, as can be seen from the efforts made by Einstein and Erwin Schroedinger among the founders, to uphold the materialist viewpoint. But more needs to be done. In this, the process of Social, Economic and Technological developments; in other words, the material development of human societygreatly favors the (philosophical) materialist standpoint and has to be harnessed in this struggle. As also, the uncovering by biologists of the reliance on quantum phenomena by birds, plants, as well as bacteria in the flourishing of life on earth. Which make it evident that life (from its most rudimentary stage), and consciousness, originate in matter, and not the other way round.
Science has always been and continues to be, a battleground for philosophy. However, at the same time, its development is also intimately and symbiotically connected with the level of technology of the epoch and the two are interdependent. The vastly superior means of transport by land as well as sea, would have been inconceivable without the engineering feats that took place following the Newtonian era;added to the vastly improved land and sea transportwas the introduction of the third dimension of air travel, as well as exploration inter alia of and through the oceans over the entire globe.
This was instrumental in the colonization by European nations of peoples from the Americas to the eastern edge of Asia, including of course, the African continent from where humanity originally emerged from apes, and spread on foot across all the continents. It also determined the outcome of the Second World war, that saw the first ever deployment of nuclear weapons and their capacity for Armageddon-like devastation. At the same time, beyond the mastery over the inanimate world, the strides in genetics and biology vastly broadened humans’ horizons and appreciation of the diversity that prevails in nature, at least on the earth that we inhabit.
Thus, continuing in the tradition of Darwin and Lamarck, these strides teach us and conclusively show, that the spectacle of evolution of life on earth is so wondrous and unique, that no myth of creation presented hitherto by anyone, including any religion, can rival it. And it continues to astound us; Because even now, through the investigation of the skeletal remains of ancient humans, recently found in Siberia and researched using ultra-modern techniques, (such as examination of their DNA remnants,) altogether new branches on the evolutionary tree have now been proved to be part of our ancestors. And this year’s Nobel Prize in Anthropology has only recently been awarded to Prof. Savante Paabo, precisely on this score.
That should encourage us to win over greater numbers to the human centered scientific world-view.
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Returning to the inter-relation between science and technology: the former is the bedrock of the latter. Simultaneously, science, which is preponderantly conceptual and abstract, is made concrete / materialised by technology, ie, through its application and use, by and for us.
Just as steel factories, and their operations (that were vividly and tellingly captured by Charlie Chaplin wielding his pliers in “Modern Times”) encapsulated the tech of the Newtonian era together with its dehumanization of human labour; its 21st century counterpart underpinning the quantum-based knowledge-fabric is semiconductors that first enabled transistors and electronics; and have now spawned computers and networking developed with them. Also, with quantum computing having become a reality, not only the speed of computing, but also the range of things that can be done with it, has gone through the roof.
Added to this is the dimension of outer space, and its exploration and expropriation, truly removing the need of being grounded. Because, over the past century, exemplified by Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon, humanity has leaped from the age of rail, ships and automobiles to airplanes, to spaceships and auto-piloted probes, capable of sending back streaming photos as well as videos. And these are coming not just from the moon, and planets within our solar system; but even the outer reaches of our solar system, our galaxy, as well as distant galaxies and yonder; thereby, enormously expanding the vista of our knowledge and world-view.
ENIGMAS OF QUANTUM THEORY
Even among the all-time great physicists, who were also active in the creation of quantum theory and perfecting its use, such as Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman there was considerable discomfort with quantum mechanics. The latter is reputed to have declared to his students in a recorded video, that he “did not understand it”, while Einstein too, had serious misgivings. And, along with Boris Podolski and Nathan Rosen pointed towards its “spooky” characteristic through a thought experiment, with ”entangled” photons. This received wide publicity, and was christened “the EPR Paradox.”
Kishore Theckedath had delved into it at considerable length in his book titled Dialectics, Relativity and Quantum.
The matter has only recently been clinched by award of the 2022 Nobel Prize to John Clauser, Alain Aspect, and Anton Zellinger, precisely on the same subject, almost 60 years after Bell’s inequality and nearly 30 years after the experimental proof of entanglement, showing that this (Bell’s) inequality is not obeyed!
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