Can we think differently?

We have heard about ‘nothing succeeds like success’: any success enrobes us in its magic, raises the dopamine level in our brain and gives us that wonderful feeling that success leaves in its trail.

It paves the way to more successes, sort of triggering a multiplier effect which gives that sense of exhilaration. And here is another such soothing axiom, unfortunately not meant for us common mortals, ‘Even for geniuses, blunders are triumph in disguise.’

That’s the opening sentence to a short scientific anecdote which traced the disappointment expressed by Einstein who thought of having committed ‘the biggest mistake in his life’. In 1917, the universe was conceived as a non-expanding entity; he thought that the cosmos was stable and non-inflating. So he worked out one formula to describe that space-time steady state, with geometric terms on the left and the energy factors on the right of the equation. He forced himself to include a constant on the left (geometrical) side so as to balance the equation. This constant would conveniently explain why the universe is stationary, and give credit to a stable one. That would be his famous cosmological constant.

At that time his friend Erwin Schrodinger, the quantum physicist, was corresponding regularly with him and they had been toying with all sorts of formulae to describe space-time. Now, as historian Alex Harvey of New York University looked at the correspondence between these two geniuses, he found that Schrodinger had manipulated Einstein’s formula by shifting the cosmological constant from the left to the right (energy) side of the equation. When the latter read about it he wondered and replied as to whether that new energy factor was just nothing or whether it was after all ‘a non-observable negative density in interstellar spaces’.

In physics it is known that a mass in space with density will attract other such masses closer, hence there will be contraction of that space. But Einstein had qualified that density as negative – which means it will repel the masses, hence cause the space around to expand! But as he was convinced that the universe was not expanding, he had cheekily looked down upon Erwin’s suggestion.

Just a decade later, in 1929, Hubble proved that the universe was really expanding, much to the embarrassment of Albert, which prompted him to exclaim his famous ‘biggest mistake of my life’.

And seventy years later in 1998, to confirm that expansion, the concept of dark energy was introduced to explain the rapid inflation of the universe which Hubble had talked about! Just to say that both Einstein and Schrodinger were already at it in the twenties, by manipulating mathematical formulae, but they missed the boat because they had to make those formulae fit the observations of their time which were themselves wrong.

They had blundered, yet they had done it logically and beautifully, and unconsciously predicted something like dark energy!!

Other bright ideas

Similarly there have been other intelligent people who, through some luck and observations, have come up with new ideas or inventions. Well known to us is Fleming who forgot his sandwich in his lab and after two days or so discovered the fungus invading his lunch and went on to discover penicillin. It seemed that the French blue cheese was discovered in a similar way. A shepherd forgot his bread and cheese in a cave; a few days later he remembered it and went to see and lo! there was the cheese invaded by fungus coming from the bread. That inspired him to seed his cheese with blue fungus.

Someone else saw how the lid on the boiling water container below was being moved by the escaping vapour. That inspired him with the idea that he could use vapour to move things, and thus came the steam engine. Another one who saw a flying sheet of paper falling to the floor wondered: why did it not fall straight like other objects but rather glided on the floor? – and went on to invent the principle of a hovercraft. In 1921 CV Raman, travelling by ship, was impressed by the intense blue sea of the Mediterranean and asked himself why that colour? Back home, he worked with an instrument worth 200 rupees at that time and discovered the Raman effect, obtaining the Nobel Prize for it in1930!

Another example is the phone, which we ‘always’ had at home; we never asked how could we force them to communicate between themselves by using a typewriter and a screen in between. In the 60s someone (in the American Army) did just that, and invented the precursor to internet.

So happy are those who are gifted with a good power of observation, intelligence and luck that they come up with new inventions. Sometimes they are at the right place, at the right time.

Most probably they are down-to-earth people, who observe and still could have a sense of dreaming differently.

Thinking differently

Think of the following: let’s dam the Atlantic ocean at the Strait of Gibraltar – the tides in the Mediterranean will fall gradually; Venice and the Nile will have less floods; as the sea dries up, more land will be available for people! Or let’s dam the Indian Ocean at the Strait of Hormuz – Iraq and Iran, as the sea between them dries up, will have more land! How about building a bridge between Siberia and Alaska? the Chinese do not like the idea because of too bad weather over the ocean; so they suggest building an undersea tunnel to connect the two continents (like the Channel Tunnel)!

The fresh water from the Amazon is going wasted in the Atlantic; why not bring it through big pipes under that ocean to Africa to irrigate the Sahara? How about bridging the gap between India and Sri Lanka — by pouring sulphuric acid on the soda lime making the present sea bed; the resulting substance will swell four times its size will rise and provide a bridge much to the glee of Ramayana’s enthusiasts!!

If we think that all these are just figments of imagination, we would be mistaken. Serious people, like engineers and other experts, are submitting their projects concerning the same – as outlined in a ‘New Scientist’ edition. Some may materialize like the Chinese project; but some may never.

Our university must supply the right atmosphere and curriculum to stimulate thinking differently. Some of these institutions abroad have blackboard in their corridors so that the inmates can write down their inspired ideas, and others can follow suit and improve upon them to finally make innovations or new discoveries. In the UK, an Isaac Newton’s Centre has such blackboards even in the bathrooms and toilets!!

Could we afford to think like them? Maybe, but we may not have the facilities, motivation or incentives to follow through.

For example, some of us may ask why is the banana fruit never found to be infected by worms or other microbes; is it the thickness of the peel? These days the plant or peel are being affected but as to the fruit – not yet. What secret lies there? Can we discover it?

Everyday we see files of cars and vehicles; but we always consider them as discreet indifferent individuals moving without any relationship to each other. If only they could be made to act as a coordinated whole by means of sophisticated communications transmitting useful road messages maybe we could have less road jams. If we can know what the driver ahead is doing with his right foot accelerating, resting or braking, we, behind, could react well in advance and avoid accidents. And we could ask ourselves why do our fast lane, at peak hours, move slower than the slow lane! Where is the problem?

Why must we deviate our gaze to look down at our dash board while driving and trigger accidents; what prevent us from having a reflection of that dash board on our windscreen? How? Let’s have the dashboard’s monitors on TOP of it. Try a white sheet of paper and see how nicely and faithfully it gets reflected.

Some of us may be asking why do parachutes fall so violently to the ground? Yet can we attach an apparatus using the Venturi Principle on top of it to diminish pressure above the parachute and improve it? One wonders.

Of course, we cannot expect to have the right logical process of thinking every time. Think of the following: why do plants become taller and thinner when put indoors? We know that they are drawn towards the sunlight above and outside. But what makes them grow taller? Is it possible that they sense a lesser effect of gravity in the shadow of the house? Is there a cause and effect principle between shade and gravity? Is it possible that’s why people in temperate and colder climates are taller than the people in the tropics where there is much more sunshine?

Biologists faced with such far-fetched, unheard of hypotheses will be pulling their hair. Yet, maybe this is the way we must go about asking questions even when they sound naïve or stupid; one day we may hit dirt. The main idea is to make the right associations between observations and ideas and to have the facilities and determination to prove them.

Can our university educational system, particularly at university level, inspire the new generation to think differently? Can we?

  • Published in print edition on 24 July 2015

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