Science, Scientists and Us Mortals

‘The mystery of the universe is that it is comprehensible’ said, Albert Einstein. Indeed, humans have come a long way in understanding the cosmos for a long time. Isaac Newton was one great Scientist/Philosopher of nature for whom as Einstein would describe that the secrets of nature were like child’s play. Poet Alexander Pope who was a contemporary of Newton wrote, ‘God said let there be light and Newton was born’. Newton did contribute to our deep understanding of the dynamics of our universe. Who can forget the apple falling on his head which gave us the theory of gravity? Newton though arrogant and selfishly conscious of his own achievements did humbly accept the contribution of those who came before him when he said, ‘I saw far because I stood on the shoulders of giant’. Newton did have his critiques. Thus, for instance, William Blake writes in his poem, ‘ God saves us from Newton’s sleep’. Newton was trying to find regularity, order and patterns in the universe while there was also disorder in the in the universe to which he did not pay any attention. Galileo, Johannes Kepler and Newton being founders of modern Science contributed vastly to science and yet left some areas for the future generation of Scientists. Copernicus and Galileo demonstrated that the earth is not the centre of the universe. Although their take that sun was the centre of the universe is mistaken, we can condone them because they did not have powerful telescopes to discover the vastness of our intergalactic universe. Kepler discovered the elliptical shape of the orbits of the planet around the sun. It is always left to the scientist who will come in the future to discover the great mysteries of our universe.

At the beginning of the 20th century, we had Max Plank who grappled with black body radiation (a black body absorbs all light and becomes invisible) and almost in desperation gave up the common sense understanding that was prevailing at that time that energy was released or absorbed like tap water flowing continuously and embraced a radically new vision that thought that energy was released or absorbed in packets of energy that he called quanta. This gave birth to what we called the quantum theory. Albert Einstein contributed to it and gave us a photo-electric effect for which he was given the Nobel prize. He showed that when a wave of light consisting of photons (the light particles) was bombarded on a thin silver foil, we have a shower of electrons on the other side. This new finding puzzled the scientific world which at that time had set aside Newton’s corpuscular theory of light and was promoting the wave theory of light by Huygens (Huygens wave theory). The new discovery of Einstein showed that light sometimes behaved like a particle and sometimes like a wave. Physicists steadily seem to have lost touch with reality. Electrons, protons and several other particles were later found to be behaving as light particles and waves depending on how one had arranged the experiment. Nature that we thought was transparent at the macro-scale began to show itself as opaque at the micro-level and answered only the question we posed. Thus, if we look for particles, particles will pop up. If we look for waves, waves will spread.

While quantum theory developed through the collaboration of several scientists like Max Plank, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Luis de Broglie, Schrodinger, etc., Albert Einstein single-handedly gave us both the special theory of relativity and the general theory of relativity. The special theory of relativity dealt with uniform motion and the general theory of relativity dealt with accelerated motion. The special theory of relativity assumed that the special case of uniform motion is the constancy of the speed of light. The speed is given by the distance travelled in time. Hence, both time and space (distance) are somehow adjusted to keep the speed of light the same. Thus, Einstein demonstrated that the speed of light being constant means space and time are interlinked. This means we do not have absolute space and absolute time which worked like a container for the drama/ dance of the universe to occur but what we have is a participating spacetime into the drama or the dance of the universe. The next big contribution of Einstein is the general theory of the universe. Like Newton who gave us a thought experiment to understand his theory of gravity, Einstein also offers us a thought experiment. Newton invited us to think of cannon mounted on a hill that fires a cannonball in the sky. He thought us that the cannonball will fly into the sky and once the force of impetus is diminished, it reaches a critical point and begins its fall. Newton understood that gravity was a property of massy bodies that is directly proportional to the masses of the two bodies and indirectly proportional to the distance between them. Einstein did not like this notion of spooky action at a distance between two bodies. So he decided to revisit this theory of gravity. He presents us with a thought experiment. He invites us to imagine a very very tall skyscraper and says that there is a lift on top of it and there are scientists in the lift that is in freefall. When the lift is falling down the scientists are doing some experiments. One of them lets his pen out while the other lets his key chain out. Lo and behold! We have both the pen and key chain hanging in the year. This phenomenon is working against gravity and the low equivalence of bodies in freefall discovered by Galileo on the proverbial Tower of Pizza. Then, Einstein invites us to imagine that the lift is on the ground floor and is accelerated upwards. The scientists repeat the same experiment. This time both the pen and the key chain fall on the ground. Einstein says that the scientists in the lift cannot discern when they are in freefall or whether they are under gravity. Hence, Einstein proposes his own theory of gravity. He teaches that gravity is a property of a single body to disturb the spacetime continuum. Thus, gravity becomes a geometric property of a single body. This was later proved during a solar eclipse (which is a great natural experiment) by that light bends in the presence of mass by Scientist Arthur Eddington.

Soon after the discovery of the general theory of gravity, Astronomer Edwin Hubble showed through his observations that we are living in an expanding universe. All the stars and galaxies are running away from each other. This thinking went against Einstein who is afraid of an unstable universe that might collapse upon itself and had introduced a constant lambda in his equation of general gravity. A catholic diocesan priest George Lemaitre in consultation with a Russian Mathematician decided to remove the constant lambda or reduce its value to zero and thus he arrived at the primaeval atom that exploded to give us the universe. He said the running away energy of the universe is more than the inward force as a result it is not collapsing. This theory that positions a point T=0 as the origin of the universe seem to indicate God the creator. Several scientists did not like this proposal of priests. Scientist Fred Hoyle ridiculed the theory as a Big Bang. The name struck and we know this theory as Big Bang even today. Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold and others had prosed the steady state theory which proposed a continuous creation of hydrogen to account for the expansion of the universe. George Gamow a great scientist said that if the Big Bang is true then we should be able to discover a leftover relic of that massive event. This relic was called the cosmic background radiation which was later discovered by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson who later discovered it and earned the Nobel prize for their discovery. Hawking quantized time and showed that there is imaginary time before t=0. This is before the Big Bang. Big Bang is, therefore, a subsequent development of the universe.

This short summary of our scientific journey has left several important contributions of the Scientists. We have not discussed the discovery of the working of the nucleus of an atom. Thus contributions of Ernest Rutherford Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron and the contributions of several others are not mentioned here. What we tried to lay out here is to enable us to understand the journey of science. The journey that we have understood reveals a lot about our Universe, Humanity and God. Let me pen some of these revelations here:
1. Nature is rational
2. Nature is open to our efforts of understanding it
3. Nature appears to be written in a mathematical language ( Galileo)
4. We seem to have passed the age of genius in isolation like Newton and come to Scientists in collaboration
5. There is more to know about nature… more we discover more remains to discover
6. There is room for us to become Scientists and contribute
7. There is room for belief in God in today’s Science

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao