|By Akram Mohammed [ Published Date: March 30, 2012 ]|
Pics by Violet Pereira, Team Mangalorean
I first saw Dr Hans Peter Durr, professor emeritus at Max Planck Institute of Physics in Germany, with a bag clutched in his hands, containing a unique pendulum. He took his time arranging it in the Corporation Bank auditorium. He was going to deliver his last lecture in India before returning home in Germany. He wanted to describe non-linearity in all physical systems using the triple pendulum - a topic too far-fetched for the scope of this write-up.
He is one of the greatest minds in Physics in the world today and has worked with eminent personalities like Werner Heisenberg, the inventor of quantum mechanics, and 'The father of the Hydrogen Bomb' Edward Teller. So understandably I was enthusiastic about meeting and speaking to this man for a while. But there were fears that I would not be able to talk to him because of his busy schedule. And, to my great satisfaction, I got an opportunity to listen to the final talk he delivered on his tour to India and also to meet him for an hour at the hotel, before he left for Germany. His wife, Dr Hegde informed was worried as Dr Durr had left home without telling her where he was headed to.
Probability is a science of chances. A major part of his talk and the interview the following day revolved around it. Dr Durr says that with the growth in probability and quantum physics over the last century, determinism has become redundant. "We cannot be deterministic, or absolutely sure of the occurrences in a physical system, ranging from atoms to humans or the entire universe."
One of the few points I had jotted down while he spoke during the interview was, "Human brain is designed to survive. It is not designed for explanations." That explains why most of people can easily quench their curiosities, he said. The primary objective of the human brain is to aid survival in the middle of a stiff competition for resources in its eco-system. He says that sciences are rather recent discoveries of human history. That is why, he feels, a majority of the people find Mathematics, Physics and the like utterly incorrigible.
But, our brain can be trained to understand them, like Dr Durr himself has. Why would anyone want to be like him? The answer to the question is one of the valuable lessons to learn from his talks. Probability ensures that nobody, despite his best efforts, can be like Dr Durr or Isaac Newton or you or me. But, such 'uniqueness' is 'common'.
Most of what Dr Durr was saying had flown right above my head. That is a smart way of saying that most of the time I had no clue of what he was talking about. But the few sentences I did understand demanded a great deal of reflection and thought.
I will just quote a few gems from Dr Durr. Each of the sentences below can be explained in great detail. But, by that, this story runs the risk of running into the length of a novel.
"Basis of Reality is not Reality."
"We experience more than we can grasp."
"(Physical) Principles or laws of the world are in such a way that they can be mastered."
"Humans are trapped in a cognitive prison."
"World is too remote from ordinary experience to be merely imagined."
"We have to realize that despite our successes in particle physics, we are limited by our abilities of perception."
"We have a mindset of 19th century and technology of the 20th century, with challenges to face the 21st century."
Referring to the 'mindset of the 19th century', he explained that the discovery of quantum physics in the year 1900, changed the way in which people saw the world. A great deal of research in the topic by scientists like Erwin Schrodinger, Werner Heisenberg and Richard Feynman, not only resulted in the marvel of technology we see today, but it was also a blow to the deterministic view of the world. The world was indeterministic, he said and attributed a part of the indeterminism to the growing science of Chaos.
He, in his talk at the Corporation Bank, spoke for a while on what he considered to be a 'big problem'. It was the problem of the 'young people'. "Young people of today are our future," he said. They should know in what situation we are in. He pointed out that despite the 'Age of Information', knowledge of the young was unsatisfactory. That surely sent the alarm bells ringing for a nation that was the youngest in the world - India.
It is impossible to understand quantum physics or chaos without comprehending the power of probability. "When will people of the world appreciate and understand probability?" I asked. Dr Durr said, "Infinite." Maybe, infinite was the scientific way of saying 'never'.
The reason for this, he says, probability is a different language itself.
Dr Durr has also coined a new term, 'haps'. Haps is something that happens. Haps is an event at a particular instant of time. World itself is a hap. He also said that world was not matter, just haps. It is indeed confusing for an untrained mind to understand such 'preposterous' propositions. It does not mean quantum physics is wrong. Acclaimed quantum physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman even ventured to say that it was safe to believe that nobody understood quantum mechanics. Dr Durr was among the few who tried to make sense of this incongruity.
Yes, he did speak about love too. What is love? A question of a few million inspirations, stories, songs and, of course, suicides at its extreme. Dr Durr was firm that it was futile to try and find a definition for love. He said that the feeling of "a particular moment of time that occurs in our brain, to satisfy human instincts of survival and reproduction, cannot be expressed exactly by anybody." It was a very complex phenomenon. 'Complex', as the word itself suggests is not simple.
He asked a very interesting question. "Can peace be established with more weapons?" He referred to various multi-national business agreements to trade fighter planes, missiles, guns, aircraft carriers and submarines. Recently, India too bought a few fighter planes to maintain peace. Dr Durr, in his straight forward manner, said that peace and weapons do not go together.
Wars are consequences of competition for resources, primarily land and water by two powers. "Competition in Latin means 'finding solutions together'," he said. He is confident through and through that we humans are 'capable' of maintaining peace on Earth. Will we? Probably. Probably not.
During his interview, I had asked him about the 'Theory of Everything'. It is a theory that aims to fully explain and link together all known physical phenomena. It also aims to predict the outcome of any experiment that could be carried out in principle.
Dr Durr believes that it would be almost impossible to have such a theory or formula. One reason was the emerging science of 'Chaos'- the science of disorder and the second was that despite our best efforts, we cannot explain all characteristics of a system we are part of. It is due to our limitations in perception. Perception, he said, was an interesting thing to think about too.
I forgot to mention that Dr Durr was dressed for a cold weather in the boiling summer of Mangalore. He oozed innocence. Dr Hegde as always was 'surgically' careful with his instructions to Dr Durr on his journey back home. He listened intently and smiled back, with always a trace of mischief in his demeanour.
I say this with great respect that Dr Durr was enjoying childhood in his old age. It was as if his profound wisdom and impeccable logic had retrieved him innocence itself. It is hard to describe him, but it is for certain that one does not often meet people like him. After he was gone, there was a hangover on the questions he had raised, on how gentle he was, on how intently he listened to questions and on how eagerly he explained with a great deal of patience. It was definitely not easy for him to explain the complexities of the world, but he did try real hard.
He knew that he must make a full-fledged attempt to explain to a few about the complexities of the universe, the difficulties of uncertainty and indeterminism. Despite his efforts, he knew that he cannot be sure about succeeding in his attempt. He was sure that he cannot be sure of anything at all. Probably, he did succeed.
At the end of the interview, after which he rushed to the airport, he, with a firm shake of hands, said, "May you get answers to all the questions you have," as if he was confident that there were more questions than answers.
(It would be ungrateful to end without thanking Padmabhushan Dr B M Hegde, former vice-chancellor, Manipal University and his friend Jayaram Shetty, a senior engineer, for facilitating this interview.)