Feeling the touch of science

November 27, 2006

Came across the following you-tube video by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Since, I’m not as eloquent as Tyson to describe what it feels like to be in science, I will fall back on one of my favourite poems by Tagore.

Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure.

This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again,
and fillest it ever with fresh life.

This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales,
and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.

At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart loses
its limits in joy and gives birth to utterance ineffable.

Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine.
Ages pass, and still thou pourest, and still there is room to fill.

Rabindranath Tagore

Salam

November 21, 2006

(Crossposted to BlogPhysica )
salam.jpg

Ten years ago, on 21st of Novomber, 1996, Abdus Salam, who was among the co-founders of the Standard Model died at his home at Oxford.

For those who don’t know him, he was one of the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics(1979) “for their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, including, inter alia, the prediction of the weak neutral current” in short, for what physicists call the Glashow-Salam-Weinberg Model (which along with Quantum Chromodynamics and Classical General Relativity form the foundations on which all physics stands).

Was just reminded of him as I was doing some calculation with the Salam-Strathdee Superfield Formalism in (Supersymmetric extension of) Glashow-Salam-Weinberg Model. It is amusing how pursuit of science brings back names from far away…

As Salam himself mused before beginning his Nobel Lecture

Scientific thought and its creation is the common and shared heritage of mankind. In this respect, the history of science, like the history of all civilization, has gone through cycles. Perhaps I can illustrate this with an actual example.

Seven hundred and sixty years ago,a young Scotsman left his native glens to travel south to Toledo in Spain. His name was Michael, his goal to live and work at the Arab Universities of Toledo and Cordova, where the greatest of Jewish scholars, Moses bin Maimoun, had taught a generation before.

Michael reached Toledo in 1217 AD. Once in Toledo, Michael formed the ambitious project of introducing Aristotle to Latin Europe, translating not from the original Greek, which he did not know, but from the Arabic translation then taught in Spain. From Toledo, Michael travelled to Sicily, to the Court of Emperor Frederick II.

Visiting the medical school at Salerno, chartered by Frederick in 1231, Michael met the Danish physician, Henrik Harpestraeng – later to be-come Court Physician of King Erik Plovpenning. Henrik had come to Salerno to compose his treatise on blood-letting and surgery. Henrik’s sources were the medical canons of the great clinicians of Islam, Al-Razi and Avicenna, which only Michael the Scot could translate for him.

Toledo’s and Salerno’s schools, representing as they did the finest synthesis of Arabic, Greek, Latin and Hebrew scholarship, were some of the most memorable of international assays in scientific collaboration. To Toledo and Salerno came scholars not only from the rich countries of the East and the South, like Syria, Egypt, Iran and Afghanistan, but also from developing lands of the West and the North like Scotland and Scandinavia. Then, as now, there were obstacles to this international scientific concourse, with an economic and intellectual disparity between different parts of the world. Men like Michael the Scot or Henrik Harpestraeng were singularities. They did not represent any flourishing schools of research in their own countries. With all the best will in the world their teachers at Toledo and Salerno doubted the wisdom and value of training them for advanced scientific research. At least one of his masters counselled young Michael the Scot to go back to clipping sheep and to the weaving of woollen cloth.

In respect of this cycle of scientific disparity, perhaps I can be more quantitative. George Sarton, in his monumental five-volume History of Science chose to divide his story of achievement in sciences into ages, each age lasting half a century. With each half century he associated one central figure. Thus 450 BC – 400 BC Sarton calls the Age of Plato; this is followed by half centuries of Aristotle, of Euclid, of Archimedes and so on. From 600 AD to 650 AD is the Chinese half century of Hsiian Tsang, from 650 to 700 AD that of I-Ching, and then from 750 AD to 1100 AD – 350 years continuously – it is the unbroken succession of the Ages of Jabir,Khwarizmi, Razi, Masudi, Wafa, Biruni and Avicenna, and then Omar Khayam – Arabs, Turks, Afghans and Persians – men belonging to the culture of Islam. After 1100 appear the first Western names; Gerard of Cremona, Roger Bacon – but the honours are still shared with the names of Ibn-Rushd (Averroes), Moses Bin Maimoun, Tusi and Ibn-Nafi-the man who anticipated Harvey’s theory of circulation of blood. No Sarton has yet chronicled the history of scientific creativity among the pre-Spanish Mayas and Aztecs, with their invention of the zero, of the calendars of the ‘moon and Venus and of their diverse pharmacological discoveries, including quinine, but the outline of the story is the same – one of undoubted superiority to the Western contemporary correlates.

After 1350, however, the developing world loses out except for the occasional flash of scientific work, like that of Ulugh Beg – the grandson of Timurlane, in Samarkand in 1400 AD; or of Maharaja Jai Singh of Jaipur in 1720 – who corrected the serious errors of the then Western tables of eclipses of the sun and the moon by as much as six minutes of arc. As it was, Jai Singh’s techniques were surpassed soon after with the development of the telescope in Europe. As a contemporary Indian chronicler wrote: “With him on the funeral pyre, expired also all science in the East.” And this brings us to this century when the cycle begun by Michael the Scot turns full circle, and it is we in the developing world who turn to the
Westwards for science. As Al-Kindi wrote 1100 years ago: “It is fitting then for us not to be ashamed to acknowledge and to assimilate it from whatever source it comes to us. For him who scales the truth there is nothing of higher value than truth itself; it never cheapens nor abases him.”

And by the way, do read the whole thing – if not for anything else atleast for the Pauli Stories 🙂

…The hut also contained Professor Villars of MIT, who was visiting Pauli the same day in Zurich. I gave him my paper. He returned the next day with a message from the Oracle;
“Give my regards to my friend Salam and tell him to think of something better”. This was discouraging, but I was compensated by Pauli’s excessive kindness a few months later, when Mrs. Wu’s, Lederman’s and Telegdi’s experiments were announced showing that left-right symmetry was indeed violated and ideas similar to mine about chiral symmetry were expressed independently by Landau and Lee and Yang. I received Pauli’s first somewhat apologetic letter on 24 January 1957.

Thinking that Pauli’s spirit should by now be suitably crushed, I sent him two short notes I had written in the meantime. These contained suggestions to extend chiral symmetry to electrons and muons, assuming that their masses were a consequence of what has come to be known as dynamical spontaneous symmetry breaking. With chiral symmetry for electrons, muons and neutrinos, the only mesons that could mediate weak decays of the muons would have to carry spin one.

Reviving thus the notion of charged intermediate spin-one bosons, one could then postulate for these a type of gauge invariance which I called the “neutrino gauge”. Pauli’s reaction was swift and terrible. He wrote on 30th January 1957, then on 18 February and later on 11, 12 and 13 March: “I am reading (along the shores of Lake Zurich) in bright sunshine quietly your paper…”
“I am very much startled on the title of your paper ‘Universal Fermi interaction’ …For quite a while I have for myself the rule if a theoretician says universal it just means pure nonsense. This holds particularly in connection with the Fermi interaction, but otherwise too, and now you too, Brutus, my son, come with this word. …”….

Although he signed himself “With friendly regards”, Pauli had forgotten his earlier penitence. He was clearly and rightly on the warpath.

… I must admit I was taken aback by Pauli’s fierce prejudice against universalism – against what we would today call unification of basic forces – but I did not take this too seriously. I felt this was a legacy of the exasperation which Pauli had always felt at Einstein’s somewhat formalistic attempts at unifying gravity with electromagnetism – forces which in Pauli’s phrase “cannot be joined – for God hath rent them asunder”….

There is something more to Salam’s Legacy than Electroweak Unification. And of course, I’m thinking of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) at Italy. And in a more subtle way, He also stands for a struggle – a struggle to provide the students from the third world(and in particular Pakistan) the joys of science…

To Quote Hoodhboy

In interacting with Salam, I could see that two strong passions governed his life. Physics research occupied him intensely; his mind would lock onto a problem making him oblivious to all else. He would engage only the most challenging and difficult problems of the field, problems that only the greatest can dare try. The elegance of his solutions were startling, as for example in his brilliant creation of what are called superfields. Without this powerful mathematical concept, physicists would have a very hard time to progress beyond a certain point in grappling with the basic laws of nature.

Salam’s other passion was Pakistan. I have never been able to understand why he was so dedicated to the country of his birth given that he was virtually ostracised there, being an Ahmadi. I can remember that when the members of the physics department at Quaid-i-Azam University sought to invite him for a lecture after he received the Nobel Prize, the idea was vetoed when the student arm of a vociferous religio-political party threatened to use violence if he came to the campus. In spite of this and much more, Salam was never embittered and he never gave up trying to do whatever he could for his country.

So on this day, let us wish that hundreds of years hence, let nobody speak of him the way Salam spoke of Jai Singh – let nobody say “With him .. expired also all science in ” Pakistan .

Madhur asks Was Einstein the only scientist ? Based on “Exaggeration and overgeneralization”, he concludes

1. Mathematics is extremely unpopular and/or unscientific. The only books present in the section are books which brush up your formulae from high-school algebra.
2. Chemistry does not exist.
3. Genome, black-holes and relativity are the “really cool” things.

to which I replied here.

I was reminded of it when reading yet another comment here by Micahel Nielsen complaining of lack of good popular science books on computer science. If you had noticed, that post by Scott Aaronson makes a bit more provocative claim

Judging from the evidence, it’s not that people have engaged the mysteries of P versus NP, randomness and determinism, one-way functions and interactive proofs, and found them insufficiently deep…. If you want to understand why our subject — which by any objective standard, has contributed at least as much over the last 30 years as (say) particle physics or cosmology to humankind’s basic picture of the universe ..

which he supports with a great follow-up post.(See also the nuggets here) Just to give you a taste

There’s a finite (and not unimaginably-large) set of boxes, such that if we knew how to pack those boxes into the trunk of your car, then we’d also know a proof of the Riemann Hypothesis. Indeed, every formal proof of the Riemann Hypothesis with at most (say) a million symbols corresponds to some way of packing the boxes into your trunk, and vice versa. Furthermore, a list of the boxes and their dimensions can be feasibly written down.

Now, why is it so difficult for non-comp-sci people like me to hear such stuff ? 🙂

Anyway, over at CV, you can see a cosmologist respond to that comparison between comp.sci. and cosmology .