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Transient Thoughts

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Regrets of a would-be physicist

Friday last, a senior physicist visited our company to talk about the Higgs Boson. It was a general talk, about how science's understanding of nature has been growing slowly, how physicists like to believe that all of nature would be based on a few, simple laws, the hunt after unifying theories, and the theoretical hypothesis behind the Higgs Boson. I don't think I understood enough to be able to converse intelligently about it. But my interest in physiscs was aroused enough to tell myself that if I were to get a million dollars I would quit my job and physics would be one of the subjects I would study, in addition to music. (I can't focus on one thing even while day-dreaming!). It seems like an interesting field. It must be magical to be able to deduce the existence of some particles - ultimate detective work - and then wait for other people to prove you right, not to mention pick up the Nobel prize. Videos of Stephen Hawking's students filling up entire green boards with complex equations for him to review, that I saw on TV sometime, were quite intimidating, and I am still scared of having to understand Maxwell's equations sometime though I am going to give it a shot one of these days. But according to the physicist who talked to us, apparently the quality-factor about physics theories is if you can explain them to seven-year-olds , which is encouraging for a lazy student. (I thought in Einstein's times it was five-year-olds, but I guess the poor blokes have cut themselves some slack recently).

My interest in Physics was last aroused about 10 years ago, when I found a two-volume Feynman's lectures in somebody's convenient collection.  I had started a daily post-lunch reading of a lecture a day. But I was a heavy luncher those days, and I don't think I even finished one lecture. That arousal was lost among other more uncontrollable ones.

I do a lot of introspection these days, so much so that there always seems to be a constant whirr in the back of my mind, with some introspection or other running in the background. Friday's talk also led to an introspection. I used to be curious person at one time, I mean one driven by curiosity. I remember having learnt calculus before it was taught in school, having learnt Boyle's and other gas laws from an encyclopedia, having finished the first few chapters of a history book before school began. But it was a kind of a spoon-fed curiosity. I was curious to learn what knowledge already existed, but I don't remember having new questions of my own. Could this second-had curiosity have blossomed into stuff physicists are made of, had my life not been subject to some other influences? I'll never know.

One of such influences was an acute self-conciousness that I developed through 11th and 12th class, when people started having opinions about me, and I started caring about these opinions. The second influence was porn, in college, which came soon after I had learnt to do unto myself. But the 'killer' influence was developing a strong aesthetic sense - of music, poetry, beauty...So overwhelmed was I by these influences that even while studying engineering, I was a reluctant knowledge seeker, seeking enough to do well in the exams, laying more emphasis on 'feeling' the world and the human condition rather than 'knowing' it. This attitude continued into my professional life too, unfortunately, perhaps led by the thought that I would be able to write a book some day, and only in the last few years have I succeeded in kindling in myself a real curiosity for my profession, though I am reasonably successful in what I do. On the other hand, I have explored the art world of my own quite a bit: Carnatic and Hindustani classsical music, Urdu poetry, Shakespeare, Van-Gogh. I realize now that given the amazing bandwidth of the brain, making a choice between the science and the art worlds is not a necessity.

On Friday, Physics seemed difficult but do-able. (After all, if you put an average physicist in one of our design-reviews I am sure he won't understand much.) Maybe if I had had a really good physics teacher my life might have been different.  Too late now, I will have to give Physics a pass for this lifetime.

Unless, I get that million dollars...