Month: January 2017

The Bizarre World of Quantum Mechanics

The Bizarre World of Quantum Mechanics

`Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English)  

— Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.

– Richard Feynman

FUN FACT : How do you embarrass a physicist? Just ask her casually, “What is your opinion about the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics?” Then sit back and happily watch her mumble-stumble-mutter-stutter and say something like, “Gosh, is that the time? Have to run!” I am exaggerating of course, but not as much as you would think. Quantum mechanics is weird and physicists are uncomfortable with it. It’s like that one image that won’t resize no matter what.

This has been known in popular culture for some time now and more often than not it has resulted in people reaching all the wrong conclusions. Of course, headlines like “BREAKING : Scientists Don’t Understand How Nature Works!!” don’t help. There are specific problems with quantum mechanics that science has not been able to answer yet. In no way does this mean that science does not work.

The fact that polio has been eradicated from most of the world means vaccines work. That we can land on Moon and Mars with precision means Newtonian mechanics works. And this sentence that you are reading on your screen right now means that quantum mechanics works and works beautifully. Even though we don’t understand how it works, there has not been a single experiment that has proved quantum mechanics wrong.

So what is the problem? It’s to do with interpretation. If you keep your head down and do the calculations – no questions asked – quantum mechanics will give you all the right answers. Alas, scientists rarely do that. They are not satisfied with getting the right answers. They have to know the hows and the whys.

And therein, as the Bard would tell us, lies the rub.

To understand this mystery, first we have to get familiarized with how things work in the quantum world. Let us say we have two kinds of apples – red and green. The colour of the apple is analogous to the spin of an electron. Since the concept of spin is a bit complicated, we can bypass that and work with apples with no significant loss of clarity.

Alice and Bob have two apples, packed in two boxes. These apples will always have opposite colours. They cannot both be red or green. This is because the apples have been prepared in a special way. In case of electrons, we say that they are entangled. Alice opens her box and discovers that the apple is green. Instantaneously, the colour of Bob’s apple will turn red, even if Bob is at the other end of the galaxy. It’s as if one apple has somehow communicated its colour to the other apple without us knowing about it.

You might say, what’s the big deal? Since each apple can be either red or green, the apples already had that colour. This is where the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics comes in. It says that before we open the box and see, each apple was both red and green. It did not have one definite colour. The moment you check the colour, it becomes red or green. And even more strange is the fact that it forces the other apple to be of opposite colour, regardless of the distance between them.

This aspect of quantum mechanics has troubled many a great minds, including perhaps the greatest mind of them all, Albert Einstein. In 1926, in a letter to physicist Max Born, Einstein wrote, “I am at all events convinced that He does not play dice.” Einstein vehemently opposed the Copenhagen interpretation. Einstein along with Podolsky and Rosen wrote a paper famously known as the EPR paper that discussed the paradoxical nature of the problem.

Erwin Schrödinger, father of quantum mechanics who proposed the fundamental equation called Schrödinger’s equation, read this paper and reframed the problem in a simpler way. This is famous Schrödinger’s cat experiment. You put a poor cat in a box along with a radioactive material that emits radiation. When the radiation is emitted it activates a switch that releases poisonous gas and the cat dies. The amount of matter is so small that in one hour it may emit radiation or it may not. You leave the cat inside for an hour and then ask the question, “Is the cat alive or dead?”

Since radioactive emission is a quantum mechanical phenomenon, we can only give probabilities if the atom has emitted radiation or not. But this means that we also have to carry over these probabilities to the cat’s well being. Simply put, this means that unless you open the box, the cat is both alive and dead.

In an article this month in The New York Review of Books, Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg states that the Copenhagen interpretation is now widely unacceptable. But the alternatives are not satisfactory either. One is the multiverse theory in which the cat is alive in one universe and dead in another. Stephan Hawking is one of the proponents of this theory.

Elon Musk firmly believes that we are living in a simulation – one in a billion chance that we are not! But even so, he does not stop following science. And that’s the way it should be. Simulation or not, the rules work perfectly. Unless we find a better alternative, we have no choice but to follow science.

Unlike Neo, we cannot ignore gravity just because it’s a simulation.

For a fun introduction to relativity, quantum mechanics and other exotic stuff, one of the classic books is George Gamow’s Mr Tompkins in Paperback.

Unsolvable Problems

Unsolvable Problems

Mathematics is notorious for being one of the most difficult subjects. Here’s a confession. Even with my physics background, I find maths quite difficult. I know enough to get by in tests but it’s a struggle all the way through. This is the reason why I left the field of astrophysics after completing my masters in it. Many areas of astrophysics are full of difficult mathematics. Looking back, I can find one major reason for my difficulties in maths. I did not have good teachers. I realized this after getting tutored by a fabulous teacher who made difficult maths a piece of cake. This was during my college years and the teacher was Prof. H. D. Moogat. May his soul rest in peace. Prof. Moogat was a mathematics wizard and he loved to teach. He would sing, dance, crack jokes in the class and while doing all that teach us the most abstract mathematical theorems. His classes would look like sold out cinema halls because students from all over the city would attend them. They would sit in windows, on the floor or stand for two hours, trying to absorb the magic that was Prof. Moogat. If I had teachers like him in my school, I would probably be a person with a different expertise and certainly better at mathematics. Having teachers who love teaching is the best thing that can happen to a child.

Later on I realized that there are problems that even Prof. Moogat would have been unable to solve. These are real life problems where millions of lives are stake. I consider myself very lucky that I am not a lawmaker or a judge where I have deal with such problems everyday.

For instance, should death penalty be abolished? I understand the arguments for abolishing it. Law is not about revenge. It is most probably not a deterrent for violent crimes. At the same time, I would be lying if I don’t confess to a feeling of ‘justice being done’ when I see a mass murderer getting the death penalty. Maybe this is because some remnants of our hunter-gatherer ancestors still reside in me. This is a battle between my logical mind and my emotional mind. I have no idea how to resolve it.

Should abortion be legal? I am like the proverbial deer staring into headlights when I try to answer this question. Carry a living thing inside me for nine months? I cannot even imagine what women go through when they are pregnant.  I don’t think I will ever be able to form an opinion on this. It’s for women to decide.

Next question is a rather hotly debated one in India. Should censorship be abolished? On one hand is the opinion that there should be no censorship as long as the audience are adults. I mostly agree with this view. But then these same people are outraged when movies show patriarchal behaviour or show women in a secondary role. This is confusing. If you are in favour of no censorship, it must also include movies that show stereotypical behaviour. I have not seen Dangal but I have read too many reviews criticizing Aamir Khan’s typical patriarchal role.

One argument made in favour of no censorship is that movies do not affect our behaviour. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are affected by movies everyday and this includes not just the blockbuster movies but also the critically acclaimed ones. Robert De Niro based his cop roles on some of the NYPD officers at the time. These roles in turn were an inspiration for the next generation of NYPD. On the Youtube video of Kenny Loggins’ song Danger Zone from the movie Top Gun, someone had commented, “I became a fighter pilot because of this song.” Movies do affect our behaviour both in good and bad ways but this does not mean we should curtail the freedom of our artists. What’s the solution, then?

I have no idea.

Even on topics that seem less complicated, it is becoming difficult to form an opinion. Take for instance, the recent decision of the Indian government to demonetize the currency. I have read plenty of articles severely criticising the decision. And I have read few saying that it has helped immensely in combating fake currency that was used by terrorists from across the border. Both points of view are from well known news agencies. It’s certainly true that the common Indians and small and large businesses have suffered a lot due to this decision. Was it worth the trouble if it reduced the terrorist activities considerably? I don’t know.

Today’s world places high value on finding answers and for good reason. That’s the key to all the progress that we have made. Saying that ‘I don’t know the answer’ is not very popular in any culture. But some problems do not have neat solutions. How do we deal with such problems? This itself could be an unsolvable problem – or a problem with more than one solution.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

When I wrote the last post on western classical music, this is the post that I meant to write but it quickly evolved into a how-to post so I decided to make two posts. I wanted to talk about art and what it means – very broad and complex topic that people have written whole books on. I don’t claim to have all – or any – answers. But the nice thing about art is you can always say something about your own experience with it.

When I encounter a new art form, the thing I look for most is goosebumps. It need not be an earth shaking experience but you should feel something. And that is the reason why I am not interested in cerebral art that intentionally avoids this experience. Take for instance, the infamous composition 4’33” by John Cage. What Cage and the musicians did for four minutes and 33 seconds on stage was – nothing. They sat in silence and the only sounds that were produced were made by the audience, like someone coughing. Now I get that this is a brilliant way to turn the whole artist-audience concept on its head but what after that? I cannot play 4’33” like I play the Mozart G minor Symphony. Clever art makes its point and you appreciate it but that’s the end of it. It’s a protest.

My background is physics, a field that is often regarded as too dry and mathematical. But even in physics, you find an inherent symmetry and beauty that a certain Dr Feynman talks about. When I switch over from science to arts, I try to look for the same sense of beauty and grandeur. It’s not just physics or science that you can find beauty in. Software programmers have the same experience when they see a code that is elegant, efficient and beautiful.

I saw Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes. I am not going to comment on the politics of it. Like everyone on Earth, I have strong opinions on everything but I don’t see any point in expressing them everyday. What’s relevant here is Ms Streep’s comment on what is or is not art. She said, “And if we kick them all out you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts”. Frankly, I was astounded to see that such a critically acclaimed artist can have such a narrow view of arts. I am not an avid football fan, I watch it every four years during the World Cup and I always support Brazil. But even I can sense something extraordinary when I watch old clips of Pelé or Maradona. They have taken their skills to such a level that it has become an art. You may point out that Meryl said ‘arts’ and not ‘art’ but for me they are the same. I get the same tingling sensation when I see Pelé scoring a goal or when I watch Danial-Day Lewis playing Abe Lincoln.

Art is everywhere.

One of the main reasons why I watch my favourite sports is to look for these ethereal moments when the players transcend technique and it becomes art. Look at the beauty and elegance when Sachin Tendulkar plays his straight drives. I am breathless when I see the 15… Bc5 move in 2013 Tata Steel chess game between Levon Aronian and Vishy Anand. Even in a sport as violent as boxing, when I watch Mohammad Ali dancing all over the ring, his opponent trying and failing to connect, that’s art for me.

I am even more astounded when I see art where I expect it the least. Enter Jiro Ono.

Jiro Ono is a Japanese chef and owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a sushi Restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo, Japan. I came to know about Jiro when I saw the amazing documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Jiro is 91 years young and he still makes sushi for all his customers. The thought of retiring does not enter his mind.

When Jiro was younger, he used to see new ways to make sushi in his dreams when he slept at night. He has invented many new methods of making sushi. At his restaurant, there are only ten seats available and you have to book a month or two in advance. Every fish is carefully selected and even the rice is prepared in a special way. The menu for each day is planned by Jiro himself. While doing this, Jiro takes into account how each dish will affect your taste. He takes care to place mild tasting dishes first and there is progression in taste as the meal advances. The documentary compared each course to a movement in a symphony. I have not tasted Jiro’s sushi but I am sure his customers get the same pleasure from his sushi that listeners of western classical music get from a Mozart symphony.

Jiro has devoted his whole life to sushi. He is the personification of the hard working Japanese culture that strives perfection in everything they do.

Jiro has transformed sushi making into a fine art.

How to Train Your Ear for Western Classical Music

How to Train Your Ear for Western Classical Music

The conventional notion of what constitutes art is often quite narrow – going to museums to stare at paintings or dressing up and going to the opera. In India, the latter is replaced by concerts of Indian classical music. It’s supposed to be something so exotic that only few chosen ones can experience the magic of it. Sadly, this misguided notion is often perpetrated by the same people who engage in such rituals. Hence the artificial divide between the so called high-brow and low-brow art. Interestingly, what is considered high-brow often changes with time. When the opera started in the Baroque era (1600 – 1750) in Italy, it used to be a very popular affair, much like the blockbuster movies of today. In Venice alone, one season would produce as many as fifty new operas. The concerts of Mozart or Beethoven were also an informal affair. People talked during performances and often clapped in the middle of a movement as well. The etiquettes that are observed today in classical music performances came about in the nineteenth century when music composition came to be regarded as a work to be revered with silence.

The concept of abstract art is often strongly associated with abstract paintings, so much so that people are often unaware that other forms of abstract art also exist. I have seen people studying so hard to understand abstract paintings as if they are preparing for a test and then often getting disappointed if they don’t ‘get it’ as the connoisseurs say they should. I think if you have to try so hard to understand an art form, then that means that it is not for you. Certainly, paintings are not my cup of tea. I discovered this rather accidentally when I saw the Mona Lisa for the first time from a distance of few feet and my first reaction was, “Is that it?” Paintings don’t do anything for me – with exceptions like the Sistine Chapel but then that’s a special case. There is the grandeur of the Vatican, genius of Michelangelo and so much of history associated with it that you cannot help but be enthralled. Exceptions like these aside, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan makes me more introspective about war than Picasso’s Guernica.

Paintings do not hold a monopoly over abstract art. Some music scholars consider instrumental music as the most abstract of art forms. A painting is static, fixed in space. A piece of music is dynamic, dependent on time and changes every time you hear it, depending on the musicians, conductor etc. That’s why there are so many interpretations of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – maybe he is raging against destiny because he was going deaf or maybe he is extolling the virtues of freedom and equality.

It takes time and effort to get acquainted with any form of abstract art. The thing to look for is if it speaks to you. Fortunately, there is an easy way to find this out in case of western classical music. The first thing to do is get your ear used to the sounds. We are bombarded by all kinds of exotic sounds today and if you want to appreciate music that was played two or four hundred years ago, then you need to hear it as people did in those times.

So here’s what you do. Prepare a playlist of tracks. For instance

  • Mozart, Symphony No 40, first movement.
  • Vivaldi, Four Seasons (Pick your favourite season, mine are Spring and Summer.)
  • Mahler, Symphony No 1, third movement.
  • Tchaikovsky, Violin concerto, first movement.
  • Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, first movement.
  • Beethoven, Symphony No 7, second movement.

This list is not written in stone, feel free to add or subtract. You cannot go wrong with Mozart, Bach or Beethoven. Once you have prepared a list, listen to it in background while you are cleaning the house or cooking. Keep the volume loud enough so that you can hear every note clearly but not so loud that it interferes with your thought process. And then stop thinking about it. Let your ears and your subconscious brain do the work for you.

If this is the right art form for you, then in a few days a wonderful thing will happen. In a totally unexpected moment – when you are going somewhere or talking to someone – your brain will play a wonderful melody in your head. Here’s the most interesting thing about it. We all get annoyed when a song gets stuck in our heads. But have you ever been irritated because a melody got stuck in your head? I would think not. A song has words so the brain latches onto them and repeats them in an out-of-control loop. With a melody, the brain has nothing to hold on to and it just flows freely through your head. My guess is that with a song the logical part of the brain is active while with a melody it is the creative part. When I first went on a diet of western classical music, I had beautiful violin and piano melodies flowing through my head. It felt as if my musical palate had been cleansed. It also had a remarkable soothing effect.

Finally, if any of this does not happen then that’s fine too. It means that this is not the right art form for you or maybe it’s not the right time. Maybe your natural inclination is for Classic Rock or Manga Musical.

There are enough art forms for all of us.