Portraying ancient knowledge system as an alternative to science could lead to disaster, says Einstein prize awardee

Hindustan Times | By, Mumbai
Oct 25, 2018 06:39 PM IST

Indian-born theoretical physicist Abhay Vasant Ashtekar was awarded for “numerous and seminal contributions” to the field of gravitational physics.

Indian-born theoretical physicist Abhay Vasant Ashtekar on Tuesday received the prestigious Einstein prize conferred by the American Physical Society. Born in Shirpur, Maharashtra, Ashtekar was awarded for “numerous and seminal contributions to general relativity, including the theory of black holes, canonical quantum gravity, and quantum cosmology”.

The 69-year-old is the founder of loop of quantum gravity.(HT photo)
The 69-year-old is the founder of loop of quantum gravity.(HT photo)

The biennial Einstein prize of $10,000 recognises outstanding accomplishments in the field of gravitational physics. Ashtekar is likely to spend $10,000 of his prize money to contribute to scientific societies or support travel expenses of young scientists to conferences. Ashtekar holds many titles at the Pennsylvania State University – physics professor, Evan Pugh Professor, Holder of Eberly Family in Physics, and director of the Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos.

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The 69-year-old who completed his undergraduate studies at the Institute of Science, Mumbai, is the founder of loop of quantum gravity – which is based on Ashtekar variables – that aims to merge quantum mechanics with the theory of general relativity postulated by Albert Einstein. In an email interview with the Hindustan Times, Ashtekar talks of his decision to choose general relativity, cosmology and quantum physics and his mentor, pros and cons of scientific community using social media, and science in ancient India.

Your reaction on receiving the Einstein Prize?

Fifteen years ago, American Physical Society awarded its first Einstein prize jointly to Peter Bergmann and John Wheeler. They introduced general relativity to universities in the US by creating the first research groups in this area. Perhaps because the first award often sets the tone, subsequent prizes have come to recognize `lifetime achievements’ rather than a single discovery. So I assumed that the award was given in the same spirit.

What attracted you to work in the areas of general relativity, cosmology, quantum physics, and gravitational waves?

When I had to decide which universities in the US to apply to for my Ph.D, I decided on general relativity, cosmology and quantum physics because that is where the most fundamental questions about space, time and the nature of the physical universe lie. My interest in gravitational waves came a bit later when I transferred from University of Texas at Austin to Chicago to work with my Ph.D. advisor Professor Robert Geroch in the group that was headed by professor S Chandrasekhar, the pre-eminent astrophysicist of the 20th century. There are two facts that attracted me. First, gravitational waves are ripples in the very fabric of space-time and the theoretical tools to identify them are subtle, elegant and deep. Second, because of these subtleties, there was confusion for several decades on the basic question of the physical reality of gravitational waves. For example even (Albert) Einstein thought in 1936 for a while that they do not exist in full general relativity! So I started thinking about the deep conceptual issues associated with gravitational waves. The field turned out to be extremely fertile and there are still open problems my group is pursuing.

What is your message to Indian students pursuing basic sciences since it is still not considered as attractive as applied sciences?

I have always believed that one should do what one is passionate about. It is not so easy to completely ignore material rewards but that should not be the primary driving force. Because of its universal nature, science transcends boundaries of nations, cultures and, even times. Every educated person has heard of (Isaac) Newton and (Albert) Einstein because they were able to discover fundamental laws of Nature, transcending the artificial boundaries human societies create. To pursue pure science, and do well in it, one has to be consumed by fundamental mysteries and tremendously focussed. Rewards should not be the primary concern –they come in due time if one’s primary interest lies in solving these mysteries.

Who were your role models, and what did you learn from them?

I was extremely fortunate to have great mentors who also became my role models. The most lasting influence came from three role models: Robert Geroch, S. Chandrasekhar, and Roger Penrose, my post-doctoral advisor at Oxford University. From Bob Geroch, I learned how to think clearly, incisively and develop my own, fresh perspectives. From Roger Penrose I learned the art of `dreaming’ --the mysterious process by which one gropes in the dark and grasps the key structures even before they have come into light. And from Chandra –as we all called him—I learned what the `inner, moral fiber’ of a scientist should be. Above all, two lessons stood out. First, what distinguishes great scientists is that while good scientists can solve very difficult problems, the great ones know which problems to solve. Second, scientists can make monumental contributions and yet be rather poor human beings. Scientific success alone does not suffice to select good role models. One has to also have a strong moral fiber.

Work on a basic mega-science project such as LIGO-India is making rapid progress. But the India-based Neutrino Observatory is staring at a 10-year delay. Is there a disconnect between public outreach and scientific establishments and research institutes?

Success of mega-projects requires a fortunate confluence of many factors. I was involved in LIGO-India right from the start, both on the Indian and US sides. It is on track because senior policy makers saw the multifaceted advantages, both for forefront science and technology, of this major international facility on the Indian soil; the central government was supportive from the start; and, the Indian scientific community worked in cohesion. The Inter University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, in particular, worked astutely with local officials and government bodies. It required the sort of astuteness and human interaction skills that is not commonly found in the scientific community. LIGO-India has been fortunate to have young scientists with all these skills, in addition to the scientific ones, in its leadership ranks. I do not know the details about the neutrino observatory to comment on what happened. But I would think that the delay is because some of these factors did not come together as seamlessly as is necessary.

How do you assess India’s progress and contribution in science and collaboration on big-ticket science experiments? Where and what does the country lack?

India has made many significant contributions to international projects, such as those in CERN, and also had very successful missions such as Chandrayaan and Astrosat. LIGO-India is on track to become a major international facility. In my somewhat limited understanding, challenges to doing significantly more are the following. We need to develop a large body of well-trained, young scientists, who can extract maximum science from these large facilities. Second, we need more active interaction between research institutes and universities for training and research, and between lead institutes and industry to create efficient and appropriate technologies. Third, even when funding agencies make resources available and scientists are all fired up to expand scientific groups, the goals are often not met as fast as they could be because of the hierarchical structure in which even smaller decisions require multiple steps and approval from unnecessarily high echelons. Finally, the mindset has to change from a self-protective attitude to `avoid blame’, to acceptance of responsibility and appropriate risk.

An increasing number of scientists today use social media (Twitter, for instance) to communicate science, their research work, and achievements. What are the pros and cons in this style of outreach?

This is an important issue that has not drawn due attention. Thank you for raising it. Social media help scientists disseminate latest advances to a much larger fraction of the society. This is a big plus. However, precisely because of the ease of contributing on social media, there is also a huge amount of misinformation and inaccuracies –some deliberate, and some out of carelessness or blatant ignorance. It is very difficult –even impossible--for general public to know which blogs to trust and which to ignore. Even among scientists we now have `professional bloggers’ whose words carry much more weight than those of researchers who have thought about issues much more carefully. This does more harm than good because the merit of the detailed argument of a good, thoughtful scientist can be undermined by a superficial evaluation by a blogger who is much less qualified, but has a large number of followers. A strong reason for me to go into science was the `objective value’ of one’s work, where mathematical consistency, conceptual coherence and Nature are the ultimate judges. I very much regret that this is now changing. It is really important that scientific communities develop a standard –like the one used in professional journals—also for discussion of scientific issues on blogs and other social media.

In January, Minister of state for Human Resource Development Satyapal Singh said Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is scientifically incorrect. Recently, the All India Council for Technical Education has approved a new elective course called Ancient Knowledge Systems. Your thoughts.

There are excellent examples of first-rate science in ancient India. For example, Aryabhatta and Brahmagupta were mathematicians and astronomers at the forefront of science of their time. Aryabhatta’s trigonometric insights are truly remarkable. But it is simply not true that we had a continuous and strong scientific tradition that can provide an alternative to the mainstream science. Secondly, rejection of Darwin’s theory of evolution also undermines genetics and the one who does this, strictly speaking, should not use any modern medicines whose discovery rests on these ideas. I doubt that many who reject Darwinism would do this in face of a serious medical issue. I do not know enough about the `Ancient Knowledge Systems’ elective course, to comment in detail. However, if that system is portrayed as an alternative to well established science, we would be embarking on a dangerous path that can only lead to disaster in time. It would be like considering the `creationism’, based on a literal interpretation of Bible, as an alternative to Darwin used in some conservative Christian circles. In Germany under Hitler, in China under Mao, and in the Soviet Union under Stalin, politics interfered with science, rejecting some well-founded, deep ideas in physics and biology and set those countries behind for decades. I hope we don’t embark on that reckless path for short-term political gains.

Any plans on how you plan to use the prize money?

It is a relatively small amount and so I cannot do much. In the past I have used honoraria and prizes to contribute to scientific societies, e.g. to the International Society on General Relativity and Gravitation to support travel expenses of the `Young Scientist Gold Medal’ winners, to the triennial international conferences of the Society. I will do something similar.

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    Snehal Fernandes is senior assistant editor at Hindustan Times, Mumbai. She writes on science and technology, environment, sustainable development, climate change, and nuclear energy. In 2012, she was awarded ‘The Press Club Award for Excellence in Journalism’ (Political category) for reports on Goa mining scam. Prior to HT, she wrote on education and transport at the Indian Express.

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