Sunday, September 30, 2012

Not so fast

Maxwell's equations describe the otherwise recondite interplay of electricity and magnetism. The first two of these gems due to Gauss, deflate many a proof dealt by Newton during his tryst with gravity. Michael Faraday labored the third by toil of experiment and Ampere envisioned the fourth in similar fashion. Maxwell finished the job by unabridging each of the last two and encircling the lot in his famous paper of 1861. It was an unprecedented attempt at relating abstract fields to physical quantities, the speed of light its eau de vie. Responsible for inspiring generations of scientific artificers (most notably Albert Einstein), the equations continue to enthrall physicist and fool(read engineer) alike (less notably me).

In seeking to solve for the electric and magnetic fields, the  quaternity's elegance lies in content rather than structure. As anyone in possession of that cellulose pulp of attestation we've come to call a B.S. degree knows, six variables(3 for each of the fields) need six relations to be solvable. Not four! But as anyone worth their cellulose pulp will leap to point out, "Maxwell's equations are entangled!" They are, by virtue of their grandeur, messed up. One must first rethink the field in terms of potentials, before mindfully employing a so called gauge and carving the set with equalities to separate source and sink. This is not to say that solving these equations is any less rewarding. On the contrary, solving them for the first time to derive that spookily omnipresent wave equation, was emphatically liberating for me. In fact, it is that enduring memory, hauled around the recesses of my brain by mechanisms explained by those very equations, which prompts this apology, hitherto mistakable.

When I first started typing on archaeopteryx87, I was craving an intelligent audience. A cry for attention by a piece that belonged to a different jigsaw puzzle. I enjoyed writing but felt lonely perambulating the blogosphere with all but a pocketful of ideas and a limited vocabulary. Although Nikhil and I went to the same school for 6 years, we connected only after we'd separated from our junior heritage. I saw a brain in him that could fire that rifle of reason with the kind of irreverence only a gaunt, begoggled geek could possess. He was perfect. Together we would write and save the world from the perils of dogma and bullshit.

It was only a matter of time until my scientific pursuits and misanthropic views broadened in tandem, bringing my brief, if not non-existent, writing career to a halt. He was more determined and continued the struggle single-handed, literally, to eventually get much better at writing and even managed a publication in the famed Chicken Soup series. This only weakened any remaining resolve I had to write and we thus grew apart as an unintended consequence of our initial excitement.

My recent visit to India was the most sentimental time I had spent at home. Hailing from Los Angeles had only served to frightfully amplify my perceptions of the squalor of the slums, the attention deficit media, the demagogic religious leaders, the indifferent working class and the overall unenlightenment movement (the nation was preoccupied with the appropriateness of cartoons in history textbooks). Bestirred with a feeling of abandonment, I suggested to Nikhil that his passion for writing is better suited for fiercely vocal(yet dithering) forums like reddit instead of the trafficless serenity of the blog. He readily acceded, an indication that he too was losing hope in the efficacy of writing; an eerie personification of an alternate Partha deserted by his Sarathi.

Upon returning to the diametrically opposite City of Angels, a series of events necessitated a second scrutiny of my decision to stop writing. As if to convince myself of the default failures of confrontation, I turned strident, arguing issues considered to be outside the realm of science, defending gay rights, women's rights, death penalties, national science funding, and challenging religion, superstition, dogma (especially that invincible subject of Indian devotion , Mohandas Gandhi). These arguments invariably descended into a noisy, passionate fact-free-fist-fest which gave me lush opportunity to behold how poorly constructed and articulated my own opinions were. Even if some of those stances could be fundamentally right, I felt foolish shaking my fist and stuttering injunctions of equality, justice, liberty and reason without the slightest invocation of context and history. I had become the very uneducated man I was preaching to!

If you think about it, writing is the best way to deconstruct your own dogmas and inconsistencies to lay them bare for analysis. Where do your facts/beliefs/morals/principles really come from? Were you instructed by an authority, a myth, a news channel or by reason? How well can you defend your ideas without sounding like an idiot?

And that old adage of being a good reader before being a good writer is certainly true. The sixteenth century  priest, George Herbert admonished: "Woe be to him, that reads but one book!", reminding us that erudition transcends monotheism . The Nickelodeon neo-youth can recall Will Smith imploring his audience to "run and read" at the 2005 Kids' Choice Awards. That advice is all the more a stringent injunction to my peers who, worryingly, haven't taken note of their social-networking narcissism, not to mention their distended abdomens.

Reading and writing, apart from being self-instructive, are the reins of argument and the virtues of a healthy democracy, a truth that stood naked and defenseless with us that day at The Fruit Shop on Greams Road(on Kilpauk Garden Road). I clearly did not bother to consult my faculties, specially that diminished voice of poetry, when I pronounced my cease and desist to Nikhil. But the dark cynicism is bathed in light now and I apologize. I know of only one way I can defend humanity and it is through this blog. Just as much as reason must prevail, so to must her defenders.

And as I snuggle myself for a tranquil pondering on the Bohm-Aharanov effect, I'm convinced that a lack of readership is the least effective deterrent. Never, while exercising science, do I even once think of an audience, although I must admit that communicating  it effectively takes a certain amount of theater. The last thing on any respectable scientist's mind is an audience. His work, until publication at least, has nothing even remotely to do with the censorious, cacophonous and catachrestic profiles of his audience. Neither is any serious artistic endeavor the product of servitude to admirers. The equations of Maxwell are indeed artistically equivalent to a Shakesperean sonnet or a composition by Bach. The obvious overlap in these traditions is, as Oscar Wilde discerns from Aristotle:

"Scientifically speaking, the basis of life-- the energy of life, as Aristotle would call it--is simply the desire for expression, and Art is always presenting various forms through which this expression can be attained."

I cringe at the thought of Maxwell rethinking electrodynamics because someone wasn't pleased or too busy to leave a comment. One can be honest only by disengaging from the fancies of one's audience. Irreverence takes a respectable amount of honesty.

P.S. I secured Nikhil's forgiveness before I started to write this, and he has agreed to join me in my quest for clarity. We're not going anywhere. Not so fast.


Nikhil Rajagopalan said...

Ah,FOCUS. I used to curse the heavens for being trapped in the biology session while you were set free by 5pm. You and Arind were my only solace in those dark days of uncertainty. It's nice to be back. We may be diamonds in the rough, but we're diamonds nonetheless. Let's make this partnership last another term!

4 more years!
4 more years!

prateek mathur said...

Welcome back!
And btw, its 5 more years in India..I will wish for that :)

Seeker of Truth said...

As my late friend Christopher Hitchens used to say, "When you meet a flat-earther or a creationist, it can be useful to be made to remember just why you think the Earth is round, or whether you're capable of making the case for Natural Selection." - Ian McEwan at the 2015 commencement speech at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania