“A university student attending lectures on general
relativity in the morning, and on quantum mechanics in the afternoon, might be
forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or that they haven’t
talked to each other for at least a century.” Physicist Carlo Rovelli wrote
that in his recent book, Reality is not what it seems. “In the morning,
the world is a curved space-time where everything is continuous;
in the afternoon, the world is a flat one where discrete quanta
of energy leap and interact” [emphasis in original]. Einstein’s physics and
quantum mechanics perceive the same reality differently. Yet both hold good in
scientific models. Both are true though they are contradictory to each other!
“With every experiment and every test,” Rovelli goes
on, “nature continues to say ‘you are right’ to general relativity, and
continues to say ‘you are right’ to quantum mechanics as well, despite the
seemingly opposite assumptions on which the two theories are founded. It is clear
that something still eludes us.”
Science accepts its limits and limitations. Science also
knows that there aren’t too many ultimate truths. Truth has to be discovered at
each turn on the way. And truth can be bizarre sometimes. A thing can be a
particle and a wave at the same time! Yes, science does tell us that. You need
to know a bit of quantum mechanics to understand that.
The most knowledgeable scientist knows that his
knowledge is not ultimate. A lot of things remain elusive, beyond the
understanding of science. “This acute awareness of our ignorance is the heart
of scientific thinking,” Rovelli says. Science is a perpetual quest, an endless
search for truth. Einstein can disprove Newton, Heisenberg can disprove
Einstein, and the process goes on. Truths are not fixed and sacrosanct in
science. Science is open to any given reality, open to understand reality in
new ways, open to accept new aspects.
That openness is the basic quality of any seeker of
truth. “To learn something,” in the words of Rovelli again, “it is necessary to
have the courage to accept that what we think we know, including our most
rooted convictions, may be wrong, or at least naïve: shadows on the walls of
There is a fundamental humility in the way science
works. Science does not trust anything with the blind hubris that often
accompanies religions. Even the greatest of all scientific geniuses can be
disproved at any time. The accumulated wisdom of our fathers and grandfathers
is not so sacred that they cannot be questioned. “We learn nothing if we think
that we already know the essentials, if we assume that they were written in a
book or known by the elders of the tribe.” That’s Rovelli again. The scientist
asserts boldly that faith in given truths kept people ignorant for centuries.
Religious faith, for example, prevented people from learning new truths, from
advancing on the way of knowledge.
Science is a quest for truth, a perpetual quest. But
it is not only science that can discover truths. The scientific approach is one
way of discovering and understanding truths. We can understand truths in other
ways too. The Romantic poets of the early 19th century believed that
imagination was the best means for understanding truths. Imagination and
intuition can help us discover truths. The Christ and the Buddha and the
Mahatma did not use scientific methods to arrive at their truths, and their
truths were as profound as, if not more so than, the ones given by quantum
The quest has to be sustained. That is what matters.
We should keep our hearts and minds open to new truths instead of clinging rigidly
to a few pet ones. No one who is open to new truths can be a killer for gods.
Every crusader, every militant bhakt, every jihadist, has a heart and a mind
that died long ago clinging to pet truths like barnacles clinging to rocks.
PS. This is powered
in this series: Paradigm