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The art of reading science like a poem

To deny ourselves the languages that help us understand great moments in science is like denying ourselves the ability to understand great works of art

columns Updated: Feb 15, 2016 01:35 IST
Granvitational waves,Nasa,Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory
An artist's rendering of an outburst on an ultra-magnetic neutron star, also called a magnetar is shown in this (REUTERS)

Let us leave everything aside. It appears that there might be things called gravitational waves after all, and that they are probably passing through us at this very moment, changing our masses and slowing time. Their effects are so small that they are imperceptible, but if they constitute a nature of reality is it not extraordinary? Why are we not in absolute, hypnotic awe?

Last Thursday, a group of scientists announced that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory situated in the United States had, in September, detected gravitational waves.

No one, at least on Earth, knows what gravity exactly is. No one knows what gravity is made of, and how it works, why it appears to behave differently in large objects and in subatomic particles, or how is it that the effect of gravity between objects is immediate. Didn’t Albert Einstein tell us that nothing can travel faster than light? How is it then the gravity appears to ‘travel’ between bodies in no time at all?

Einstein suggested that space and time were parts of the same taut thing, and that an object in the thing would bend the thing, like a child standing on a trampoline would cause a dent in the material. Gravity, according to him, is a dent in space that affects other dents. He also suggested, though he was not always very sure, that there were gravitational waves radiating from cataclysmic cosmic events. For decades believers in gravitational waves have been trying to detect them. Last year, it appears, some believers found the waves, and they spent months verifying the results before they made the announcement.

It was major news for a day because experts and science journalists recognised it as so, but most of the world has since moved on. To be captivated by the apparent discovery, even for a week, a layperson would have had to be a regular consumer of the stream of magic realism emanating from theoretical physics and the rest of science. Most of the best-informed lay people have not developed the habit. There is, of course, considerable interest in the branches of science that deal with health, or with political issues like climate change or with utility technology, but large swathes of science do not draw general interest.

That is odd because most people are interested in the entertainment of philosophy and the most entertaining philosophy today is in the realm of science. Without first checking with science, even popular science, many of the philosophical questions that we have borrowed from literature would seem naïve. Often, it would appear, if I may quote a fictitious character, ‘Philosophy is a bunch of dim questions asked too early in the life of science.’

Purely as an act of leisure, consuming the theories and pursuits of popular science is rewarding, and it does not require exceptional intelligence. Yet, such fans are a small niche, especially in India. Some of the fans dream of a day when they would have acquired enough knowledge, including maybe a bit of maths, to read a piece of pure science or the great historic efforts, like Einstein’s or Newton’s proofs, and fully understand why scientists call such works beautiful. As an intellectual activity it would be on a par with reading a great poem. To deny ourselves the special languages that would help us understand great moments in science is surely the same as denying ourselves the language that helps us understand great works of art.

It is true that even art, forget theoretical physics, struggles to be popular these days. It appears that almost everybody who reads poetry is also an overt or secret poet. This may be true for something called ‘literary novels’, too. Several writers have wondered aloud whether there are any readers left who are not writers too. A misfortune of science is that nobody finds it odd that most of the most passionate patrons of science are scientists themselves. In a richer world, science would have the reach of at least art if not vampire tales.

Science is not inconvenienced by all this. Over the years, at least in the West, science has become more sophisticated and probably better-funded than any other sphere of human activity. Some branches of science are so specialised that to challenge their assertions would require exceptional knowledge that only a few hundred on the planet might possess. Outsiders cannot take them on, and the insiders have a professional stake in not challenging the dominant ideas or claims of their fields.

Take the detection of the gravitational wave, for instance. The effect of the wave that the researchers registered is based on a measurement that is a thousandth the diameter of a proton. Almost anything, apart from a gravitational wave, could have caused this. The lab did take a number of precautions to ensure that it was not misled but those precautions were confined to factors known to man. The fact is that the claim of the discovery of a piece of nature is predicated on such a minuscule measurement. Also, the gravitational wave that is said to have arrived on Earth in September is believed to have been created by a collision of two black holes billions of years ago. Black holes, even though they are very popular like beneficial gods, have never been detected. Yet, there is an intriguing consensus in the scientific community that humans have indeed stumbled upon something new, and not the vibration of a passing truck. (The history of human search for extraterrestrial intelligence, though, is filled with hilarious false alarms. That another day.)

But that is exactly where the charm of modern science lies for a lay person who is interested in its magical parts. Some claims are fantastical, but he does not know enough to challenge them. In science alone he can surrender to a higher authority and just believe in wonderful things. If it sounds like religion, that is because science is.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People

Twitter: @manujosephsanThe views expressed are personal

First Published: Feb 15, 2016 01:26 IST