Advanced science, International, Technical

Cutting edge in Physics

Nobel Laureates

It is beyond dispute that the subject matter of physics demands high level of intellectual ingenuity, mathematical prowess and, above all, perseverance to muster the subject. It is not the subject matter that one can just browse through relevant books, learn by highlighting some key points and fill in the details later with creative flavour, as could be done in history or politics or sociology etc. Either you learn physics by hard graft or you are just monkeying around with it.

Physics had advanced a lot since late 19th century. There is a very interesting anecdote involving Max Planck, the pioneer of quantum mechanics. When Max Planck, an aspiring physics student in late 19th century, approached a professor of physics seeking advice on the prospect of a research career in physics, he was told by the respected professor that there was nothing more in physics to discover and any research work would only involve in better accuracy of known physical quantities to higher decimal figures. However, Max Planck doggedly pursued his physics career and in less than fifteen years of that advice laid the foundation of a new branch of physics, called the quantum mechanics, which is still being pursued most vigorously nearly 120 years later today.

From minutest particles called quarks in particle physics to the mind-boggling expanse of cosmology, universe and even multiverse and the theory of relativity, gravitational waves, dark matter and dark energy; physics is the field that excites the brightest minds of the world today. Theoretical studies and experimental works requiring billions of dollars are pushing forward this field at utmost vigour.

To get a glimpse of the cutting edges in physics, one may look at the advanced topics that the Nobel Committee had recently recognised and rewarded. The Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded 111 times, from 1901 to 2017, to 207 Laureates, with gaps in 6 years due to world wars and great depression. The list of Nobel Laureates from 2000 to 2017 are given below in reverse chronological order.

   Year                 Nobel Laureate(s)                                  Research topic

2017      Rainer Weiss, Barry C Barish      For the decisive contribution to the LIGO and                      Kip S Thorne                                   detector and the observation of gravitational                                                                                 waves

2016      David J Thouless, F Duncan M    For theoretical discoveries of topological phase                   Haldane and J Michael Kosterlitz  transitions and topological phases of matter

2015      Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B       For the discovery of neutrino oscillations                              McDonald                                        showing neutrinos have mass

2014      Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano  For the invention of efficient blue light- emitting                and Shuji Nakamura                     diodes which enabled bright energy saving                                                                                     white light sources

2013     Francois Englert and Peter          For theoretical discovery and  understanding  of                 W Higgs                                           origin of mass in subatomic particles, which was                                                                           confirmed in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider

2012     Serge Haroche and David J        For experimental methods enabling measurement               Wineland                                       and manipulation of individual quantum systems

2011     Saul Perlmutter, Brian P             For discovery of accelerating expansion of the                     Schmidt and Adam G Riess        Universe through observations of distant                                                                                         supernovae

2010     Andre Geim and Konstantin      For experiment on two-dimensional material                       Novoselov                                      graphene

2009     Charles Kuen Kao                         For work concerning transmission of light in                                                                                   fibres for optical communication                                             Willard S Boyle and George        For invention of imaging semiconductor                               E Smith                                            circuit – CCD sensor

2008     Yoichiro Nambu                           For the discovery of mechanism of spontaneous                                                                            broken symmetry in subatomic physics                                   Makoto Kobayashi and               For the origin of broken symmetry predicting                       Toshihide Maskawa                    existence of at least three families of quarks in                                                                             nature

2007    Albert Fert and Peter                    For the discovery of Giant Magneto resistance                      Grunberg

2006      John C Mather and George      For anisotropy of the cosmic microwave                                    F Smoot                                        background radiation

2005      Roy J Glauber                             For quantum theory of optical coherence                                  John L Hall and Theodor         For the development of laser-based precision                          W Hansch                                    precision spectroscopy

2004     David J Gross, H David              For the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the                       Politzer and Frank Wilczek     in the theory of strong interaction

2003      Alexei A Abrikosov, Vitaly L   For contributions to the theory of superconductors                Ginzburg and Anthony J Leggett  and super-fluids

2002      Raymond Davis Jr. and           For contributions to the detection of cosmic                                Masatoshi                                  neutrinos                                                                                            Riccardo Giacconi                    For contributions to the discovery of cosmic                                                                                   cosmic X-ray sources

2001      Eric A Cornell, Wolfgang       For Bose-Einstein condensation of dilute gases of                      Ketterle                                     alkali atoms and studies of the properties of the                                                                            condensates

2000     Zhores I Alferov and              For the development of semiconductor hetero-                           Herbert Kroemer                   structures used in high-speed opto-electronics                             Jack S Kilby                              Invention of integrated circuit

From a cursory glance at the table above, one can pick out some important points:

First, the mind-boggling expanse of the universe entailing cosmology and the minutest world of particle physics requiring quantum mechanics are the two most dominant fields of advanced physics. They may be at the two extreme ends of dimensional scale, but they are interconnected, as planets, stars, galaxies, black holes, quasars etc. are all made up of tiniest quantum particles and these giant astronomical bodies came into being due to quantum fluctuations at the very beginning of creation.

Secondly, there seems to be disproportionately large number of Japanese physicists, from a small country, who were successful in receiving Nobel prizes. This may be due to their value system, since WWII, where they concentrated on furtherance of knowledge than on military hardware or political dominance.

Thirdly, on religious grounds, Jews seems to be extremely successful in achieving highest accolades in physics. This is not only since the year 2000 listed above, but also from the very beginning of Nobel prizes. All the top quantum physicists, from Max Planck to Wolfgang Pauli, to Neils Bohr, Albert Einstein, Erwin Josef Schrodinger, Paul Ehrenfest and so forth were all Jews. No wonder, Hitler once dubbed quantum physics as the Jewish science! A tiny population of 16 million people worldwide, comprising less than 0.25% of world population, Jews received over 80 of 207 of Nobel prizes (nearly 40%) in physics!

As an aside, 1600 million Muslims comprising over 22% of world population received no Nobel prize in physics! Although one and only one Muslim, Prof. Abdus Salam, from Pakistan was awarded a physics Nobel prize in 1979, but Pakistan declared him non-Muslim as he belonged to an Islamic sect, Ahmadi, which Pakistan declared non-Muslim in 1974. Religion in Islamic countries overrides almost everything. In Islam, it is stated that all knowledge comes from Allah and it had been handed down in the religious book of Islam, called Quran, and individuals must derive knowledge from it. No wonder, there is a severe dearth of pioneering physics practitioners in the Muslim world leading to Noble prizes in physics!

A. Rahman is an author and a columnist.






Bangladesh, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political, Religious, Technical

Tagore’s philosophical views and quantum mechanics

Tagore , ca, 1930
Rabindranath Tagore, ca. 1930

Rabindranath Tagore (actual Bengali name: Rabindranath Thakur) (1861 – 1941), the great Indian philosopher, a Bengali poet and a polymath, lived during the transition period of Indian history in general and the Bengali culture in particular, when physics also went through revolutionary changes. Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), the most prominent physicist of the 20th century, was the pioneer of the modern physics who produced theories which advanced physics to unprecedented dimensions. Although Einstein produced the ‘the principle of photoelectric effect’ for which he received the Nobel Prize in physics and which was pivotal to the advent of quantum mechanics, he could not fully reconcile with the multifarious implications of quantum mechanics.

These two stalwarts of the first half of the 20th century met a number of times from 1926 onward. When Tagore visited continental Europe and then America in 1930, they met at least four times in Berlin and New York. The meeting at Einstein’s summer villa outside Berlin was of particular interest when they exchanged views and philosophical ideas extensively. That meeting was very poignantly described by Dmitri Marianoff, a journalist in the New York Times, as “Tagore, the poet with the head of a thinker, and Einstein, the thinker with the head of a poet” exchanged views on reality of nature.

Einstein held the view that the world and, for that matter, the whole universe is there independent of humanity. Tagore held the view that the world is a human world and hence without human, world is irrelevant and non-existent. Einstein persisted and queried that aren’t beauty and truth absolute and independent of human beings? Tagore disagreed and said that truth is realised through man and without man it does not exist. The whole conversation between these two stalwarts was absolutely fascinating – it brought out the mindset of a scientist seeking out nature as it exists and that of a poet observing nature through the eyes and minds of human beings.

Einstein’s commitment to reality of nature was absolute and that absolutism brought him in conflict with the quantum reality proposed by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and others. Einstein believed in the existence of causal, observer independent reality; whereas quantum mechanics considers reality is dependent on the act of observation. Bohr/Heisenberg proposed that a  subatomic particle like an electron is there only when it is observed. If it is not observed, it is not there; it could be anywhere only to be shown by quantum functional description. But Einstein would not accept that. He retorted by saying that the moon is there in the sky whether one observes it or not. Quantum mechanics states that an entity having unobserved presence cannot be claimed to be present with absolute certainty (with the probability of 1). Quantum mechanics tells us that the observer and the observed are entwined. The reality is not pre-ordained; reality is what is observed.

In 1928, Tagore received Arnold Sommerfeld, professor of theoretical physics at the university of Munich and a pioneer of atomic spectra, at Shantiniketan, West Bengal. Sommerfeld stated ‘Tagore is to India what Goethe (pronounced as Görta) is to Germany’. Sommerfeld’s student Werner Heisenberg visited India the following year.

Heisenberg was one of the principal architects of quantum mechanics and his ‘uncertainty principle’ is the corner stone of quantum mechanics. During the 1920s he along with Niels Bohr and others produced what is now known as the ‘Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics’, where multiple existence of an atomic particle at different locations with superposition of quantum states was considered to be the reality of nature.

Although quantum mechanics had enormous success and explained various physical phenomena, which classical physics was incapable of explaining, opposition of Einstein to quantum mechanical fundamental assumptions of probabilistic description was deep rooted. Einstein considered quantum mechanics as incomplete description of nature.

In 1929, when Heisenberg undertook a lecture tour around the world, he came to India. On 4 October 1929, he visited the University of Calcutta and in the afternoon he visited Tagore. In fact, he was taken to Tagore’s house at Jorasanko by the scientist Debendra Mohan Bose, a nephew of Jagadish Chandra Bose, and they had a number of conversations over the next few days. Heisenberg was very much impressed by Tagore’s philosophical views. Fritjof Capra in his book ‘Uncommon Wisdom’ wrote, “In 1929 Heisenberg spent some time in India as the guest of the celebrated Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, with whom he had long conversations about science and Indian philosophy. The introduction to Indian thought brought Heisenberg great comfort. He began to see that the recognition of relativity, interconnectedness and impermanence as fundamental aspects of physical reality, which had been so difficult for himself and his fellow physicists, was the very basis of the Indian spiritual traditions”. Heisenberg said, “After these conversations, some of the ideas that had seemed so crazy suddenly made much more sense. That was great help for me.”

Heisenberg’s comfort was to be seen in the context of great intellectual battle that had been raging at that time between Einstein and Bohr/Heisenberg on the reality of nature. Indian mysticism or more accurately, Tagore’s interpretation of Oriental (Brahma) philosophy, giving a support to the modern physics and quantum theory was undoubtedly a great comfort to Heisenberg. No wonder, Heisenberg even said after their conversations that Tagore reminded him of a prophet of the old days!

Tagore’s philosophy of viewing the world with human eyes may seem to conflict with Einstein’s observer independent reality, but these are two perspectives of the reality. But Tagore’s view of reality resonates very well with the quantum philosophy of observer dependent reality.

–  Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.