I ran into Andrei Linde a couple of weeks ago at the Breakthrough Awards* Symposium at Berkeley and engaged with him in a fascinating debate at dinner afterwards. Andrei Linde is a world renowned Theoretical Physicist and Professor of Physics at Stanford University. In 2004 he received, along with Alan Guth, the Gruber Prize in Cosmology for the development of inflationary cosmology. In 2014 he received the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics “for pioneering the theory of cosmic inflation”.
Andrei is a deep thinker, a pioneer in setting radical directions in science, and an engaging speaker with a great sense of humor. We talked in general terms about his work and where physics stands today – at the cusp of a paradigm shift, a new understanding of the way in which the universe works.
To my surprise, Andrei said he has always been inspired by Vedic thought and the profound ideas expressed by the ancient Hindus in contemplating the universe, how they were constantly speculating about its immutable laws and subtle interconnectedness – the oneness or non-duality of seemingly differentiated things.
Andrei’s invoking the Vedas made me look up the beautiful Hymn of Creation in the Rig Veda, which is much celebrated and has always been one of my most beautiful pieces of ancient Hindu poetry:
The Vedic “Hymn of Creation”Then even nothingness was not, nor existence,
There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it.
What covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping?
Was there then cosmic water, in depths unfathomed?Then there was neither death nor immortality
nor was there then the torch of night and day.
The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other.At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
All this was only unillumined cosmic water.
That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
arose at last, born of the power of heat.In the beginning desire descended on it –
that was the primal seed, born of the mind.
The sages who have searched their hearts with wisdom
know that which is kin to that which is not.And they have stretched their cord across the void,
and know what was above, and what below.
Seminal powers made fertile mighty forces.
Below was strength, and over it was impulse.But, after all, who knows, and who can say
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
the devas (gods) themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?
Whence all creation had its origin,
the creator, whether she/he fashioned it or whether she/he did not,
the creator, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
she/he knows – or maybe even she/he does not know.
Cosmologists today believe that the net energy in the Universe is zero! However, because of quantum fluctuations, a perfect zero state, such as a vacuum cannot exist. Matter (and antimatter) blinks in and out of existence. The universe exists – emerging out of nothing, which has seeds of non-nothing!
Also, the vacuum itself has a small but fluctuating “dark energy” which powers the waxing and waning of space-time. How well this is captured in the Vedic Hymn! Even nothing was not.There was neither existence nor non-existence! How can both existence and non-existence not be? That’s a head scratcher!
Well, we have a very similar concept at the heart of modern physics and cosmology – the vacuum is unstable, constantly jittering, and space-time at minute scales is frothy. It does not quite exist or non-exist. (Most physicists today go beyond Einstein’s space-time as a fundamental construct. The basic “reality” is quantum at the very core of being – a pulsation of possibilities at tiny scales – that gives rise to space-time as something derived, not fundamental).
The Creation Hymn takes on a deeper meaning. I’m sure that the Vedic intellectuals did not understand quantum theory as we know it today – as an experimentally verified, quantitative science with profound implications. But they had a sense of some overriding cosmic truth that unified all creation and pervaded everything at the minutest scale. (The Planck length?)
Also note the delightfully doubt-provoking last stanza.
Whence has the Universe arisen? The creator, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
only she/he knows – or maybe even she/he does not know!
Wow! No absolutism here. No fundamental declaration of an almighty Creator, omniscient, omnipotent, separate, ruling over what He created. God, instead, is not a omnipotent creator, separate from the created, but a part of it – undivided, non-dual (advaita in Sanskrit) and subject to all its uncertainties and unknowabilities.
This kind of thinking is being reflected in modern physics more and more, as the central question asked incessantly these days is: Why is there anything at all? Why is there something rather than nothing? Check out the science of this in this youtube video if you want to see a thought-provoking presentation of the World Science Festival on this.
Could it be that nothing and something are dual aspects of each other? So you can only have both in a well posed understanding of our Universe. It’s a stunning insight – something that the ancients somehow sensed!
*ABOUT THE BREAKTHROUGH AWARDS AND SYMPOSIUM
Stanford University, UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco jointly host the Breakthrough Awards Symposium each year. UC Berkeley held the daylong event of laureate talks and evening panel discussions on November 5th. Attending were giants of science and math, such as: Alan Guth, Steven Weinberg, Jennifer Doudna, …. The discussions are inspired by the idea of big questions in science and technology. Sponsored by well-known figures in the tech industry such as Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg, this year’s event was the seventh Breakthrough Prize Symposium to recognize the world’s top scientists by awarding prizes of $3 million to the recipients. It was my pleasure to attend, have dinner and chat with these superstars.
Also published on Medium.