Helgoland: Understanding the Quantum Revolution. Carlo Rovelli. Penguin. Pages 175. Rs 759 (Kindle).
The “New Physics”, which dates back almost a century, is one of the best achievements of the human mind. It has fundamentally changed the way we see reality. There are countless books that tell non-physicists what the “new” physics is about. From this masterpiece The Universe and Dr. Einstein from Lincoln Barnett 1948 to The equation of God by Michio Kaku in 2021, the need to communicate the exotic reality revealed by relativity and quantum mechanics has produced the best in the genre of popular science literature.
Quantum mechanics (QM) has also sparked some intense philosophical debates. From the beginning, parallels were drawn between the worldview revealed by QM and that spoken in the Hindu-Buddhist-Taoist mystical traditions. Niels Bohr, Heisenberg and John Wheeler had spoken openly about their preoccupation with Eastern mystical philosophies.
Fritjof Capra not only made this connection popular, but also extended the concepts of networking and holism favored by QM to other areas such as biology and ecology. The discussions between the physicist David Bohm and J. Krishnamurthi are still considered to be an important milestone in this direction.
However, QM has also become a staple food for New Age cultists and quake gurus in popular culture. The misuse of the Q-word in the New Age market and in the corporate gurudom has indeed led many scholars to explore and use the parallels between Eastern philosophical traditions and the QM-generated view of reality.
In this context, Helgoland: Understanding the Quantum Revolution, written by the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, is like a gush of fresh air.
Helgoland is the small island on which the 23-year-old Heisenberg worked out one of the foundations of the quantum revolution in 1925. Rovelli amazes the reader from the start:
The author announces that the book is written ‘for those unfamiliar with quantum physics and interested in trying to understand it as much as possible, ‘and is also written’I think of my colleagues – scientists and philosophers who, the more they study the theory, the more perplexed they are… ‘. This is a tough endeavor – but for those reading the book, the flow is so natural and compelling that one forgets the difficulty in the accomplishment of this book.
QM has always excited physicists and philosophers. However, physicists have always disliked philosophers trying to create a single, complete picture of QM – as in the case of David Bohm’s “hidden variables”.
Just look how crisp Rovelli puts it for readers:
This passage is cited broadly to show how Rovelli explains difficult concepts to its readers. It is done in such a way that it is understandable for all those interested in QM without the material being watered down.
Rovelli’s own preferred view of QM is the so-called relational interpretation. Accordingly, the interactions and relationships between matter form what we experience as reality, from quarks to galaxies. That resonates with the legendary Indra’s network in a way – popularized in the context of modern science, albeit in a different but related field, by Douglas Hofstadter in his evergreen classic Gödel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid (1979).
Rovelli points out that when he talks about quanta at conferences, inevitably after the 3rd askapprox 19th century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. This is how Rovelli describes Nagarjuna’s ideas:
After that, the entire chapter becomes a poetic brooding, interwoven with the relational interpretation of QM. Perhaps UGC should consider adding excerpts from this chapter to our college students’ curricula – be it science, commerce, arts, or the humanities.
Rovelli also extends its approach to the subject of consciousness and tries to address David Chalmers’ ‘hard problem’. Here Rovelli presents a fascinating view. Is consciousness or the “I” an epiphenomenon of matter? He considers both “I” and “matter” to be “confused and misleading” concepts.
the Anatmavada Buddhism could not have been more precisely expressed for the modern mind. But there are problems. Often the Hindu-Buddhist dialogue of Atmavadin-anatmavadin is rephrased in the western mind as corresponding to the Cartesian substance. Of course, in this context the western mind turns to the Buddhist point of view.
Nevertheless, the book leaves a deep feeling of having made a pilgrimage.
This book is a must have for the current generation of college students, regardless of their field of study. This also makes an important void in popular science literature in India. It is struck either with glorification of the past or with patronizingly cultivating “scientific temperament”. Both alienate the general population from modern science. This gives way to quackery, pseudoscience and politicization of science.
Think about it. Santiniketan came to Heligoland. Fritjof Capra records:
This is definitely self-gratifying. But we have to go beyond this comfort zone. This culture has a fluid view of existence. Look at a kolam that comes every morning. what is kolam but the connections between the points? What better tool to convey the wonder of all this relationship and connection existence than a kolam? One wonders how much could have been written to bring the wonders of QM with our own cultural traditions into our society. I am not saying that we knew everything, but that we can understand it better and internalize it more efficiently.
Atmanirbhar Bharat needs its own rovellis.