Expanding the Frontiers of Knowledge

Despite the information overload, to which we are now subjected on a daily basis, it is always exciting to try to keep up with and follow what is happening in the world of science and technology, and this is even more so when the Nobel prizes are announced. The paradox – and difficulty – of knowledge is that as it gets vaster it also gets more fragmented: this no doubt makes it easier for the specialists in their respective fields, but can leave others in near-total ignorance of what is happening outside their own, narrowed down areas of interest. For that matter, even in a given field one can have specialists talking above each other’s heads!

This is certainly the case in medicine, as I found out soon enough, a couple of years after I had been back as a specialist more than thirty years ago. I asked my consultant colleague whether he could lend me his copies of the British Medical Journal after he’d read them, as I had known him to be receiving the journal regularly since he had had his whole training in England. I still remember his prompt reply: ‘Oh you know, I have stopped subscribing to the BMJ. I realized that apart from a few leaders in the front pages and the obituary section at the back where I would learn about the passing away, if any, of one or the other of my former teachers, I could hardly understand the stuff in between!’

For the scientifically literate layperson, the best he can do is to keep up with but a few spheres of particular interest to him over and above his own discipline. But there are some issues that command wider interest too, as they are expanding the frontiers of knowledge at a fundamental level, such as the origin of the universe and the origin of life. For example, one of the Nobel prizes announced this week, that for Physics, rewarded scientists whose work had led to an understanding of why the universe exists at all. It was awarded to two scientists who had postulated the existence of a particular subatomic particle, which has come to be known as the Higgs boson or ‘God’ particle because it is seen as being fundamental to the creation of the universe.

Nearly fifty years ago Peter Higgs of the UK, and Francois Englert of Belgium theorized about and on Tuesday last won the Nobel Prize for its discovery, with the official citation reading: ‘For the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the Atlas and CMS experiments at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider.’ This happened last year in Switzerland, where the LHC, a 17-mile long special tunnel, is located.

At that time, in an article on the event, I had summed up the lay understanding of the phenomenon as follows: ‘The Higgs boson accounts for why matter has mass – because if it didn’t, there would not be the universe, that means no stars, no planets, no us human beings. One question that physicists and cosmologists are still trying to answer is: why does the universe exist at all or, put another way, why is it that there is a universe rather than no universe? In fact cosmologists are theorizing that there are several universes instead of just one, what is referred to as multiverse.’ The quest continues to unravel further the deeper secrets of the universe, and Stephen Hawking the famed theoretical physicist has come up with his latest theory of ‘M-design’ which is not without its critics – but that is part of the game of pushing the ever enlarging horizon of knowledge.

On another front, the prize for Medicine was awarded to three American scientists who have worked out how the ‘bricks of life’, namely the cells that make up our body, transport materials (such as the hormone insulin that handles blood sugar) and deliver them to other cells where they are needed. Again, this is work carried out at the micro-level in the cell, that which is also not visible to the naked eye like the atomic and subatomic particles, but has to be theorized and then established through experimentation that can be daunting and requires much perseverance and patience, especially if one is in the queue for a Nobel.

In the majority of cases this invariably means practically one’s lifetime career being taken up with the chosen pursuit, and it is almost always towards or after the end of one’s career, or even posthumously that the Nobel prize is awarded. So it’s really a very great and well-deserved recognition of work that would already have had a huge impact either in terms of pure understanding, such as the Higgs boson and the Higgs field associated with it, or in terms of potential for use in applications, such as more targeted delivery of certain drugs as in the case of the Nobel in Medicine 2013.

These are all part of the material phenomena that we observe around us daily at the gross level, and that result from a complex interplay of forces at a subtle level, which eventually reduce to forms of energy. But where does that energy itself derive from, and what is its nature? And how does it lead to the multitude of concrete, material things both non-living and living – including ourselves – that are part of our individual and collective experience? Other than modern scientists, there are many thinkers who have pondered this conundrum of existence, and as Swami Vivekananda said over a century ago, in order to understand the gross and make any sense of it, we have to resort to the subtle.

This is done in science by theorizing and experimenting, and by philosophers and genuine spiritual seekers by turning inwards through a meditative process. Whereas the latter are certain about the fundamental unity of all existence, the former are gradually coming to the same conclusion in their own way. Their path is no less fascinating because it engages the mind differently, through intensive activity as compared to the silence of meditation. Who are we? What are we here for? And what happens to us afterwards, after death? The day that we find agreement on the answers to these three fundamental questions there will be peace around. May that day come sooner rather than later!

As a blog about the announcement of the Nobel prize for Physics commented: ‘CERN is a perfect example of what can be achieved with international co-operation and proper funding. It costs a fraction of what we spend waging war. Putting our resources into killing each other instead of working together is a form of madness which humanity may not survive. Through the collective pursuit of knowledge we could build a new and better era.’

May that era also dawn sooner rather than later! If we want to survive that is…

* Published in print edition on 11 October 2013

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