How It All Started?
Updated: Dec 20, 2022
I am Arpan Dey, an ordinary mortal and a student from India who aspires to pursue physics. From the very beginning, I liked thinking about the big questions, but my quest seriously began a few years back. At the time, I was fascinated by the human brain after I read the chapter on neuroscience in APJ Abdul Kalam and Srijan Singh’s book Reignited. When I was too young, I was fascinated by space as well, and wanted to pursue astronomy. As the fantasies of childhood faded away, I realized that I was constantly bewildered by human consciousness. Neural impulses between billions of nerve cells: that is no simple phenomenon. However, I still couldn’t see how this could give rise to emotions, feelings and sentience. I realized that this was not something I could learn in my textbooks. In fact, most neuroscientists around the world are pondering this problem.
Gradually, this became an obsession. It was no more a mere curiosity, but a disturbing fact lurking at the back of my mind. I started reading books on neuroscience. I learned a lot in the process. I was especially intrigued after reading David Eagleman’s book The Brain. The idea of consciousness as an emergent property was an appealing one to me. It promised to provide an explanation (even if not a very satisfactory one) as to how a system with simple parts, interacting in complex ways, can give rise to something greater. The next breakthrough came when I read Michio Kaku’s book The Future Of The Mind. For the first time, I began to doubt whether biology could give me the answers I wanted. Of course, medical science is a very practical and useful science – but I didn’t simply want to carry out brain surgeries. Kaku first seriously got me interested in physics. It became clear to me that physics must hold the ultimate answers. I wanted to study the subject at a much more fundamental level. Thus began my studies. I was to be found awake well after midnight, reading Kaku’s books on physics. The concepts of entropy, time, black holes, multiverse (etc.) caught my interest and imagination. But I was most influenced by quantum mechanics. It was not just a new set of ideas – but the greatest scientific revolution of the twentieth century. I used to reread the story of quantum physics – how Max Planck proposed the concept of quanta and how Albert Einstein generalized it to explain the photoelectric effect; how Niels Bohr proposed the new atomic model and attempted to explain line spectra; how Louis de Broglie introduced the concept of wave-particle duality and Werner Heisenberg discovered the uncertainty principle; how Erwin Schrödinger developed wave mechanics and Paul Dirac, reconciling the special theory of relativity with quantum mechanics, produced the first true version of a quantum field theory. Physics, today, is driven by the urge to achieve unification of all the four fundamental forces: the gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear and weak nuclear forces. Then, we could, in a single theoretical framework, describe all the possible interactions that can take place in this universe. I was deeply interested in the fact that Einstein couldn’t accept quantum mechanics as a complete theory and wasted the last three decades of his life trying to unify gravity with electromagnetism. I was indeed intrigued by Einstein’s philosophy against quantum mechanics. Night after night I lay awake, pondering if Einstein might have been correct. Einstein's philosophy struck me as the most reasonable one. I believe in an objective reality. And I think there is some underlying order. It is not random, deep down. Einstein's quest can be briefly summed up in Brian Greene's words: "Einstein was not motivated by the things we often associate with scientific undertakings, such as trying to explain this or that piece of experimental data. Instead, he was driven by a passionate belief that the deepest understanding of the universe would reveal its truest wonder: the simplicity and power of the principles on which it is based. Einstein wanted to illuminate the workings of the universe with a clarity never before achieved, allowing us all to stand in awe of its sheer beauty and elegance." I was also greatly inspired by another physicist, Schrödinger. Not only did he propose the revolutionary Schrödinger wave equation (on which modern quantum mechanics is based); but he was a great thinker as well. His book titled What Is Life? is so illuminating in so many ways. (This book, indirectly, inspired James Watson and Francis Crick in their work on DNA.)
But having done all this, my aim changed entirely – from neuroscience to physics. Yet, I remained loyal to my ultimate goal – to understand the big questions. I decided to pursue research in physics. Metaphysics has also interested me greatly, always. The reason I chose physics over metaphysics is that metaphysics is just speculation and somewhat useless, and I was intrigued by the story of physics, and felt that theoretical physics could answer really fundamental questions about our universe, possibly even about consciousness. (Please note that I am aware quantum physics has nothing to say about consciousness, and observation in the context of quantum mechanics does not imply consciousness. However, it may still be possible that further research on physics shed light on the emergence of consciousness.) But I have always been interested in the deep, philosophical and profound questions of physics. In short, I don't just want to "shut up and calculate!" In Our Mathematical Universe, Max Tegmark writes: "...studying the foundations of physics isn't a recipe for glamor and fame. It's more like art: the best reason to do it is because you love it. Only a small minority of my physics colleagues choose to work on the really big questions, and when I meet them, I feel a real kinship. I imagine that a group of friends who've passed up on lucrative career options to become poets might feel a similar bond, knowing that they're all in it not for the money but for the intellectual adventure." Anyway, back to my story. Then I started exploring quantum mechanics in more detail. I was no more satisfied by Kaku’s books, and a basic idea of quantization, the uncertainty principle, the EPR paradox etc.. From a very young age, I was mesmerized by Schrödinger’s equation. This equation has been universally recognized as one of the greatest achievements of modern science. The urge to learn Schrödinger’s equation was finally overwhelming. On my request, my chemistry and physics teachers (of my school) devoted over a month to teach me (a tenth standard student then) about quantum operators, the wave function and the Schrödinger equation, during recess time. I am really blessed to have teachers like them. On learning some advanced quantum physics, I thought of preparing some notes on quantum mechanics. Soon, my laptop was full of hundreds of Word files. Then, I decided to organize the notes and write a book on quantum mechanics. Initially, it was just about 50 pages in length. But soon, I began to add more concepts to the book. And soon, I had a 450 page long Word document. I added topics like radioactivity, particle physics, relativistic quantum mechanics and a huge chapter on (special and general) relativity. At the end, I also decided to include a discussion on modern science and chaos theory. I never intended the book to be a textbook, and a textbook it definitely is not. Nor is it a nonfiction aimed at a broad audience, for there is much technical content. It can, at best, be called a guide book, one that teaches the concepts in an accessible and unique manner.
One day, I had an insight while studying chemistry – what if I rewrite the periodic table in terms of quarks? I didn’t know much about quarks at that time, but the knowledge that a proton has two up and one down quark, and a neutron two down and one up, sufficed for the calculations. On expressing the atomic numbers in terms of the number of up and down quarks, I tried to come up with new formulas, wrong each time. Soon it was clear to me that I couldn’t be the only person to think of this. And it seemed impossible that there was anything new to be discovered. The more it seemed impossible, however, the more I reminded myself that the world is running so fast these days, that the one who declares something impossible to do is generally interrupted by someone doing it. It was this urge to do what has never been done before, the fear of being overtaken by one among the uncountable brilliant minds of the world that kept me going. But my effort didn't bear much fruit, initially. I was about to abandon all efforts, when I suddenly thought of isotopes. Then I began to collect data about isotopes (mass numbers, abundance percentages etc.) from the Internet. On much tiresome calculations, I found some patterns (which, in any case, is obvious). On much more investigation, I arrived at three formulas for three different categories of elements (categorized based on the number of isotopes etc.). Of course, I didn't discover anything of practical importance. But, it gave me one important thing: the happiness one gets from generalizing and simplifying a theory (although, a useless one in my case) in science. Only when a month or so passed did it become clear to me that I could actually write down a single formula, which would, under different circumstances, produce the three original formulas. For the first time, I felt the inexplicable joy of generalizing a set of formulas, unifying them into a single formula. Indeed, such a feeling as this deserves a struggle of three decades.
Then I wrote a paper on a modified de Broglie equation, and tried to derive Schrödinger's equation based on my modified result. I also wrote an article on improving take-off efficiency of airplanes, which is based on a special airplane wing model of mine. I wanted to get my articles published. I had to endure people (almost everyone except my parents, teachers and some of my relatives) laughing at me and insisting it was impossible to get published at my age. Once I was published in Young Scientists Journal, an international peer-reviewed scientific journal, and after I joined the YSJ as an editor, I had to endure people insisting that it was a waste of time and that I should focus on my education instead (as if I was learning nothing from the YSJ). Then I founded the Journal of Young Physicists, joined the New York Academy of Sciences as a young member, wrote Our Physics So Far and started writing songs and producing music among other things.
One more thing which I would like to mention here is that I have always put special emphasis on science popularization. Science popularization is the reason I write articles, books and upload videos to YouTube. I want to do science (physics, more precisely). But at the same time, I also want to popularize science. Do you know what makes me love Stephen Hawking so much? Of course, partly because he was able to do so much with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. But that's not the main reason. What I love the most about him is that he was both a scientist and a science popularizer. His book A Brief History Of Time has inspired countless laymen to study, or at least think about, the big questions in physics. I think science popularization is very important, especially in my country India. Only science, if properly used, can reform the world and make everyone's lives better. Doing science is important, but spreading awareness about science and developing a scientific mindset in common people is also very important. So from the very beginning, I have put a special emphasis on science popularization, and I will continue to do so in the future.
Anyway, that's basically my journey in life. And believe me, this journey wasn't smooth. Along the way, I had to fight with a lot of issues, which includes the death of my grandfather due to COVID (my grandmother died before my birth) and a lot of other issues. The pandemic, initially, proved to be a boon. I had a lot of extra time on my hands and could explore physics and stuff. But then things started to go downhill. My mother was diagnosed with a heart disease. She had to be hospitalized on the occasion, and her condition was critical (although she is much better now). All this affected me greatly. I increasingly began to feel that we are stranded in this world, within our biological bodies. And we are not really in control of our lives. My mental health was very poor at the time. It indirectly helped me write some really dark songs and explore music production. I released some of these songs with the help of some talented vocalists and producers. Anyway, this phase of my life has been really difficult to overcome. But now I'm alright, and I have learned some stuff about life on the way, some of which I will be sharing in some later blogs. So anyway, that's enough for today and that's my story in life so far.