The Tao Lives On

This is a true story of one simple idea making its way across space and time.

The 1970s, USA

Aah the 70s. It was a good time to live in. In those good times, an Austrian-born American physicist called Fritjof Capra “struggled to reconcile theoretical physics and Eastern mysticism.” He adds “… was at first helped on my way by ‘power plants’ or psychedelics, with the first experience so overwhelming that I burst into tears, at the same time, not unlike Castaneda, pouring out my impressions to a piece of paper.” [1]

I am not exactly sure why you would want to reconcile differences between these two supposedly diverse fields, but then again I wasn’t alive in the 70s. Anyway, that resulted in a book called The Tao of Physics subtitled “An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism.”  The book is about the parallels of Eastern philosophies derived from Hinduism and Buddhism, and experimental results in quantum physics. It became a best-seller.

Image of Lord Shiva Overlaid on particle tracks in the bubble chamber

I quote from the book:

“For the modern physicists, then, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter. As in Hindu mythology, it is a continual dance of creation and destruction involving the whole cosmos; the basis of all existence and of all natural phenomena. Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The bubble-chamber photographs of interacting particles, which bear testimony to the continual rhythm of creation and destruction in the universe, are visual images of the dance of Shiva equalling those of the Indian artists in beauty and profound significance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art, and modern physics. It is indeed, as Coomaraswamy has said, ‘poetry, but none the less science’.”

The metaphor of Shiva’s dance symbolizing the creation and destruction of subatomic particles is very tempting to anyone with the slightest of religious inclinations. It does help one “reconcile” the differences between mysticism and quantum physics. But from a scientific point of view isn’t all this poetry still just poetry? You are not going to get those “patterns of cosmic dance” from just that image of Nataraja. It requires advances in maths, physics and engineering to get those patterns. The end result might help one feel more in sync with nature or closer to God but let us not for a moment forget that it was still philosophy.  This Capra understood well. He said “Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science, but man needs both.” That might also explain why his book was wildly popular.

But academics did warn the average reader to not get carried away. Leon M. Lederman said,“Starting with reasonable descriptions of quantum physics, he constructs elaborate extensions, totally bereft of the understanding of how carefully experiment and theory are woven together and how much blood, sweat, and tears go into each painful advance.”  More reviews[1].

The 2000s, Switzerland

On June 18, 2004, an unusual new landmark was unveiled at CERN, the European Center for Research in Particle Physics in Geneva — a 2m tall statue of the Indian deity Shiva Nataraja, the Lord of Dance. The statue, symbolizing Shiva’s cosmic dance of creation and destruction, was given to CERN by the Indian government to celebrate the research center’s long association with India. The Indian government acknowledged the significance of the metaphor of Shiva’s dance for the cosmic dance of subatomic particles, observed and analysed by CERN’s physicists. [2]

Statue of Lord Shiva at CERN

In fact, a proud moment for a number of Hindu Indians to see their God in front of the building where the greatest scientific minds are at work unraveling the mysteries of the universe. And what an ominous shadow it casts on the building behind! But the thing to keep in mind is that it was still a symbolic gesture, by no means a scientific evidence of a fact that the dance actually causes creation and destruction of sub-atomic particles.

The 2010s, India

The Internet age has reached India. The Tao has found its way back to where it all started. And people keep citing this book as a must-read if you are into “quantum physics and Hinduism” on Quora. Popular Facebook pages claim how the statue depicts the acceptance of quantum physicists of Lord Shiva’s role in the creation and destruction of sub-atomic particles. But as it happens in 30-40 years a lot has changed in quantum physics.

Joseph Wang(Ph.D. Astrophysics) answers on Quora,”The sad part is a lot of change has happened in quantum physics. It’s only use is as a historical guide to see how people in the 1970’s were trying to merge Eastern mysticism with particle physics.  The trouble is that the physics in the book is now known to be largely wrong.  This isn’t a problem with the author, it’s just we just know a lot more about QM(Quantum Mechanics) now than we did in the 1970’s.”  Peter Woit, a mathematical physicist at Columbia University, criticized Capra for continuing to build his case for physics-mysticism parallels on the bootstrap model of strong-force interactions, long after the Standard Model had become thoroughly accepted by physicists as a better mode.[1]

Interestingly, last year, Rajnath Singh, President of BJP, touched upon some ideas of Capra.

“Heisenberg learnt the Uncertainty Principle from the philosophy of Veda of this country. Heisenberg came to India in 1929 and met Rabindra Nath Tagore. In this meeting he discussed with Tagore different topics related to Vedic philosophy and theoretical physics. Assistant of Heisenberg and Austrian scientist Fritjof Capra has himself written in his book ‘Uncommon Wisdom’ on page no 42-43, “In 1929 Heisenberg spent sometime in India as the guest of celebrated Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, with whom he had long conversations about science and Indian philosophy. This introduction of Indian science brought Heisenberg great vision, he told me. 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. ‘After these conversations with Tagore’, he said, ‘some of the ideas that had seemed so crazy suddenly made more sense. That was a great help for me.”[3]

The purpose of this reference might have been to illustrate how the traditional knowledge contained in the Vedas (might) have helped Heisenberg get to the Uncertainty Principle. While that might be true but the Indian connect is on rather flimsy grounds. It definitely took a lot more than just Eastern philosophy for Quantum Mechanics to get where it is today. We can be proud of our scientists and be inspired by them. But what one shouldn’t take pride in is in the nationalistic ownership of scientific facts. There is a dearth of stories about current Indians in science and an abundance of stories of Indian (pseudo)science. That needs to change. May be one day we will be citing not the Vedas but modern Indian scientists in the context of nation building.

And as far as science is concerned, it is way cooler to play God than just be amazed. People are onto some really cool stuff. Like moving single atoms. Imagine moving an atom which is so small, there are about 5 million atoms in the period at the end of this sentence.[4]

It is interesting how the same idea came back to where it originated: India. Only now it’s remixed for the modern age. Isn’t this the same reason why old Hindi songs are remixed too? Time indeed is a flat circle.


References:

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tao_of_Physics

[2] http://www.fritjofcapra.net/shiva.html

[3] http://www.bjp.org/documents/national-executive-documents/2013/speech-sh-rajnath-singh-in-bjp-national-council-meeting-at-talkatora-stadium

[4] More on the science behind moving atoms: http://www.research.ibm.com/articles/madewithatoms.shtml#fbid=U1zTqCv33Oo

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