Knowing Where to Tap

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

There is an interesting anecdotal story that goes as follows: A giant ship’s engine failed. The ship’s owners tried one expert after another, but none of them could figure out how to fix the engine. Then they brought in an old man who had been fixing ships since he was young. He carried a large bag of tools with him, and when he arrived, he went to work immediately. He inspected the engine very carefully from top to bottom.

Two of the ship’s owners were there, watching this man, hoping he would know what to do. After looking things over, the old man opened his bag and pulled out a small hammer. With it, he gently tapped something.

Instantly, the engine lurched into life. He carefully put his hammer away. The engine was fixed!

A week later, the owners received a bill from the old man for 10 000 dollars (USD). What! exclaimed the owners, he hardly did anything! So they wrote the old man a note saying, ‘Please send an itemized bill.’

The man sent a bill that read:

  1. Tapping with a hammer — 2.00 USD
  2. Knowing where to tap   — 9998.00 USD

The owners quietly settled the bill…

Everyone would be familiar these days with the cliché ‘Knowledge is power.’ The explosion in information technology has accompanied and enhanced the relevance of what this cliché means, to wit that the possession of knowledge allows one to exert control over situations through the application of that knowledge. As the above anecdote shows, at the same time one can earn a living because one has knowledge, and such knowledge is then a trade-off or one could say it is transactional knowledge: it allows us to get on in the world and in one’s life by sharing or applying this knowledge as a practical solution to given problem(s).

However, there is also something which is, too, associated with a well-known saying amongst educated people: ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake.’ This is the kind of knowledge which special people pursue so as to understand things, and that does not have either an immediate or a foreseeable practical use at the time one is busy acquiring it, which can be called pure knowledge.

For example, most people would have heard of the discovery of the Higgs boson, which was announced last year in Geneva, Switzerland, and that aroused great excitement in the world of science. Nearly 50 years after its existence had been postulated by Scottish physicist Peter Higgs, this was confirmed by experiments conducted in a special tunnel called the Large Hadron Collider. With this discovery, physicists who seek to understand exactly why matter has mass – why does an object have a weight in common language – got the answer to their question.

This knowledge, as can be seen, has no practical bearing in the everyday life of the common man, and its possession would not make one earn a living. It’s the kind of knowledge that, on hearing about it, most people would shrug and say ‘huh! What has this got to do with me!’ But it is vital for scientists, physicists in particular, who want to understand what all objects in the world of matter, from the huge stars to the tiny microbes that we cannot even see with our eyes, are made up of. This world of matter naturally comprises all living things, and that includes us human beings too.

Whenever we think of matter, we imagine something that can be seen and touched. But this is not always the case. Take water, for example. We know from experience that when water is cooled to zero degree it turns into ice and becomes solid; when the same ice is warmed up it becomes water again, and on further heating under normal conditions it boils at 100 degrees, and then becomes steam. Steam can be visible – and invisible too: as soon as the water comes to the boil and the steam is emanating out of the kettle or whatever recipient, it is visible. But very soon, especially if there is a breeze about, it rises up and is carried away until only a wisp is visible – and then it is seen no more! But what has happened to it? Although we cannot see it, we know that the same steam can condense at cooler temperature and become water again.

So we see that matter is made up of various states: liquid, solid, gas, and these states can be interchangeable depending on the nature of the matter, as in the case of water. But how and why does this happen? It is because of the laws that govern matter, and knowledge of them is what is referred to as pure knowledge. Such as that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen in given proportions, and that the latter are gases that are made up of finer particles known as molecules which are themselves made up of atoms. And deeper study has shown that all matter – not only water – is made up of further and smaller particles, and that these particles are in fact packets of energy. Neither the energy nor the particles can be seen – and yet they have been shown to exist. Based on this knowledge, scientists, engineers and technologists derive practical applications.

But how does one acquire knowledge, all knowledge – that is the challenge that many scientists, especially psychologists and a group called neuroscientists are trying to find out using modern techniques. Much before them though, thousands of years ago, very enlightened people called rishis went about doing so, not by studying the world of matter/objects, but by looking within themselves, the internal world. And they made some wonderful discoveries. Which anyone of us can make for ourselves by methods which they have demonstrated, and in so doing gain serenity and peace of mind.

It’s the purest of the pure knowledge, and the quest is fascinating and exhilarating. But that’s another story altogether…

* Published in print edition on 19 April 2013

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