Spatiotemporal heterogeneities

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

This is a review of Shiraz Minawalla's lecture on the 3rd of August, 2006. Was supposed to be up online on the website...never quite materialised. So here it is.

The ‘Lay’-ed Back Observer

Shiraz Minwalla’s seminar, 3rd August 2006 – NCBS lecture hall.

I had three batchmates at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai – two of them are heavily into strings, the other does quantum field theory (whenever he is not too drunk, dazed, or doped – or, probably when he is, some say). The string theorists have since then moved to HRI, Allahabad. Now, apart from a taste for hardcore physics, one other thing these guys shared was that, while they would enthusiastically discuss anything from Kurosawa movies, to chilly fries on Besantnagar beach, and other ‘expanders of consciousness’ that rockstars and theoretical physicists seem to need, they maintained a stoic silence about their science. This is much unlike biologists – for instance, you just need to ask me twice – the first time I would smile and mumble something under my breath, the second time I would launch into, “The DNA in eukaryotes is packed into…,” and stop after half an hour, or when you get up and leave, whichever is earlier. On a visit to Chennai, to get a basic view of things I picked a voluminous string theory text off my friend’s shelf, and much to my embarrassment, couldn’t make it past the first page.

So, no doubt string theory needs much demystification. On the 3rd of August, 2006 in NCBS, Shiraz Minwalla of the Harvard University, and of the theoretical physics division at TIFR, took a valiant attempt at that – at least, as valiant an attempt as one can make in an one-hour seminar (even if it stretched to two). I won’t put his CV here, for you can do a Google to find out what a supercool dude he is – and not because he looks young enough to be a summer-trainee, and appears for seminars in a RED t-shirt and shorts. That though is a refreshing change, even if we’re not too conservative people here at NCBS. He really has done a lot of fundamental work to unravel the nature of…things (everything, actually).

The basic import of his talk was about certain strange, near-voodoo similarities emerging between the two apparently disconnected disciplines of gravitational theories and non-abelian gauge theories, in the ‘string-framework’. And of course that meant that we talked about everything from the history of the universe at and before the Big Bang (how the gauge theory approach can overcome (or bypass/pass by) the singularity that causes Einstein’s theories of Gravitation to break down at that famous moment) to at the other end of scales, how a quark and antiquark might not go up in a Minwalla-like spurt of energy because not all their quantum states match. I am rather ill-qualified to go to into any detail, so here are a few random comments which remain in the mind after a week:

“The width of the strings in 4D ‘reality’ is just a projection from the 10D space, and depends on the 10D distance.”

“Ten dimensions are not anything we asked for…that’s how things seem to be.”

“A proton is a famous three quark system.”

“Supersymmetry. AdS5. S3.”

“At this point any questions…or comments?”

There’s nothing like a silly question – but sometimes I just feel so untrained. And of course, it’s not possible to do justice to deep physics where intuition breaks down, without the maths – for we (as in humans, not just biologists) are just not capable of getting ‘a feel if things’ there. ND Hari Dass’s seminar on the 15th of June this year comes to mind. There too many things were offered as axiomatic – Spin-2 theories can do just as well as the General Theory of Relativity at large distances – and you have to accept that. It irked the visiting TIFR physics students to walk out after a while, but there’s no way anyone could do any better in one hour. Until you get down to the maths you might as well know the postulates as axioms – that’s the best case that one can make in the defense of such huge gaps in languages.

Unlike what they thought at the end of the nineteenth century, and unlike what they perhaps thought after they worked out quantum mechanics and GTR to some extent, Theoretical Physics is far (FAAARRRR!!!) from over. When I came to NCBS after a bachelors in Physics – iBio hadn’t come to be in its concrete avatar – and for one year everyone’d ask me why the switch. After a while I developed a standard answer for that – “Oh…um…I want to do experiments…and some frontiers of Physics like String theory are so far out, that there doesn’t seem to be any experimental vindication coming in the next 100 years. And Biology offers such tangible possibilities.” Etc. etc. Now that was a mean thing to say. For, just because something is not tangible doesn’t mean we don’t touch it. Yes, there are limitations to our perception of ‘reality’ – but actually Reality (the thing with the capital R) has no need or knowledge of our lack of capability, and should not, cannot be expected to mould itself to our needs. But if the aim of Science is to unravel Reality, then we have to expand beyond our perceptions. In Shiraz Minwalla’s talk I got the sense that we’ve just about started to scratch the surface of theoretical physics. You see a thing here, and another there, and you’ve no idea why they look similar like two Amitabh Bachchans separated at Kumbh Mela. And you have to find out why. And already it’s way past our perception. Perhaps as we go on, things like string theory can be brought forward into the bachelor’s curriculum – so that one gets ample training, and time to think, before one gets past his prime and starts to run out of steam, or gets demoralized by the limitations of perception. Perhaps that’s the way we will push the frontiers forward. It will take some maths, well then we need to learn the maths. Remember what some one said about the shoulder of giants. Shiraz is doing his bit.
(Addendum: If you want a simple but insightful treatment of String Theory, do take a look at this link:

It is by Ashoke Sen, another stalwart of the field. Thanks to Professor Kalyan Banerjee for pointing this out to us.)


Blogger Tapur said...

was trying to deconstruct the strings, as a "lay" person. With some help from ur HRI friend. Completely agree with the silence of the theorists in thsi branch.

10:06 AM  

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