Synopsis of YHouse Luncheon Talk 10/5/2017 by Smitha Vishveshwara

Title: Pathless Journey

On Thursdays at noon Yhouse holds a lunch meeting at the Institute of Advanced Study, in Princeton. The format is a 15 minute informal talk by a speaker followed by a longer open-ended discussion among the participants, triggered by, but not necessarily confined to, the topic of the talk.  In order to share I am posting a synopsis of the weekly meetings.


Present:  Piet Hut, Yuka Ishihara, Olaf Witkowski, Smitha Vishveshwara, Barnaby Marsh, Peter Roop, Michael Solomon

Preliminary Abstract: "The Universe at the quantum and cosmic scales instills wonder and exercises physical laws quite foreign to the human scale. Here, I share my three interconnected collaborative ventures that explore these two awe-inspiring realms through the arts. One concerns the writing of a popular book on quantum physics and Einstein's relativity in the format of letters between father and daughter. Another relates to science-art creations stemming from an interdisciplinary course,  Where the Arts meets Physics. The third involves devising a performance piece entitled Quantum-Cosmic Journeys."

The title of Smitha’s presentation was inspired by her quoting philosopher and educator J. Krishnamurti, ‘Truth is a Pathless Land’.  Piet christened her talk not only due to Smitha’s childhood schooling at The Valley School, founded by J. Krishnamurti, but also due to her meanderings and discoveries with fellow explorers through life and in this talk. In fact, constructing a synopsis of her talk was challenging in view of her abundant flight of ideas and her nonlinear presentation.  

Nevertheless, to give a summary of what she shared with regards to her personal journey, science, her current synergizing of art and physics, and the directions she opened up for inquiry: Smitha was born in Pittsburgh, but moved to India when she was one year old. Her mother is a Biophysicist and her father was an astrophysicist focusing on Einstein’s relativity and Black Holes; he predicted Quasi Normal Modes, ripples of space-time emerging from these super-dense objects even before they were called black holes.  The arts and music were also always part of her life, including through the violinist uncle who lived with the family and in watching her father script shows for a planetarium for which he was founder-director. (She recently worked with a composer and set a traditional Indian song to music for four voices.) Over the course of the years, she took up condensed matter physics as her main focus of research. One may understand single electrons or other individual entities such as grains of sand or even galaxies, but this field examines what happens when they are brought together as a strongly interacting unit.  For example, in the collective behavior of water molecules forming a fluid, super-conductors, and quantum phenomena at large scales.  Smitha has been on the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for over a decade as a condensed matter physicist, who is now bringing together physics and the arts. 

    Smitha described her three projects involving science-art synergies. The first is a book she is currently writing, entitled “Two Revolutions: Einstein’s Relativity and Quantum Physics”, written as letter between father and daughter. One of the last parts of the book involves the dream of detecting gravitational waves (the Nobel prize was awarded for this three days ago), a venture that began about fifty years ago in tandem with her father’s theoretical studies. The displacement caused by gravitational waves is a fraction of the diameter of a proton, and its detection has taken tour de force efforts.  The announcement in February 2016 was a moving and euphoric moment that her family shared. Her father unfortunately fell sick soon after and breathed his last in January; she is even more determined to finish the book. 
     She also described quantum physics aspects in her book noting that a modern day outcome of quantum physics is Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).  This technology looks at the spins of hydrogen nuclei in water in our bodies.  When you subject the body to strong magnetic field gradients and apply radio waves, the waves are absorbed in a very specific way by these spins and then released in a manner that depends on their location, concentration, and the medium they are in. You can measure these released waves and construct an image. The technology is transformative in medicine today.

     Her second project involves creating and teaching a course on Where the Arts meets Physics.  She assigns the students to look at the quantum world and at the cosmos and then to explore a concept of the student’s own interest.  The students are to use words, visual space, movement, or stage performances, or any other medium that draws them to tell their story in a captivating way.  As an example of what emerged through these explorations, she distributed a brochure from the Krannert Art Museum in Champaign, Illinois where her students from her project based course Phys498-Art exhibited their work in April 2017.  One exhibit involved a seven foot cube enclosure, the Cosmic Canopy, a space they had created in which they inserted fiber optics giving the feel of a starry night. Within, a ‘hoverogram’ they designed showed galaxy and black hole mergers set to music composed by one of the students.  She quoted her writing from the brochure, “The universe is an extraordinary place.  At the cosmic scale the universe expands, galaxies form and swirl around their centers, stars ignite into being and undergo fiery deaths, and massive objects set off gravitational ripples in space-time.”  
     Her third project involved performance art. In its original form, she envisioned a guiding spirit taking two explores through voyages of the cosmos and the quantum world, performed in epic style through theater, dance, and music. She is collaborating with dancer Kirstie Simson and theater maker Latrelle Bright. 
Barnaby Marsh has known Smitha since they were both undergraduates at Cornell and were matched as scholarly companions for their research experience as College Scholars. They have actively engaged in dialog on diverse topics through the decades.  He said they have worked on communication and particularly on the limits of words and verbal communication.  They have investigated the role of metaphor in many different disciplines. They have been investigating super-position and what role the observer plays in the quantum world.  They plan to embark on new concerted explorations bringing together physics, arts, rhetoric, wisdom, and compassion. 

Piet began the discussion starting with physics and asking if Smitha knew Yoshi (Yoshitsugu) Oono, a member of the same department of physics at Univ. of Illinois where Smitha works? Piet described him as one of the most original thinkers in physics he has known.  Dr. Oono had described the study of condensed matter by saying, “If you do violence to a piece of matter the wounds are atoms.” This differed from descriptions of matter as being composed of atoms and particles. Do we really know a piece of matter has atoms if you don’t wound it? It is only by manipulating the matter that we discover its constituents.  This is analogous to the MIT professor who reasoned that the way a computer works is that there is blue smoke doing the computations.  He knows this because whenever the computer breaks, blue smoke comes out and the machine stops working.

Smitha responded that sometimes the absence of something tells you about its presence; the nature of vacuum itself speaks of the incipient forms that can emerge from it.
 Q: Olaf noted that the same can be said of consciousness. Defects allow understanding the function sometimes. For example, the experience is the difference between what you expect and what you see.  It is often the lack of co-ordination between two patterns that draws your attention.
Q: Barnaby asked, “Is there a science of what is unknown?”
Olaf: In certain spaces if you know something then you cannot know something else, as in Uncertainty.
Peter suggested, “In machine learning when you hit a dead end, sometimes you must add error to move ahead.”
Olaf agreed.  “You need jumps to learn about the system.”
Smitha:  What you call error may be a new thing entirely that replaces the original entity.
Barnaby: That is true of evolution and genetic history.
Piet:  Progress in science is often discovery that a fundamental belief was wrong.
Smitha:  For instance, two great breakthroughs are quantum and relativity changing the Newtonian framework.
Peter:  In computer science if you have edges that cannot be reconciled you may need to integrate them in a new way.  Will relativity and quantum mechanics be integrated in a better theory in the future?
Smitha: Yes.  The Big Mystery still exists.
Piet: The role of Consciousness is important in identifying this Mystery.  Do we begin with the World or with Experience?  This is what Heidegger and Nishida are exploring.
Yuka: We usually start with “I am having experience”.  Nishida says we start with “Experience has you”. (Although somewhat enigmatic, this is a profound difference.)
Piet: That is analogous to the ambiguous duality of matter and time.
Yuka:  Nishida sees physics and art as two extremes of experience.  She asked Smitha, “How do you assess the student’s work in your class? When you combine art and science do you reach a new ground?”
Smitha:  Physicists can be subjective. She assesses, how did they understand the concept?  How did they expand their minds? How did they allow creativity and analysis to come together in what they constructed? 
Smitha then returned to the idea of super-position mentioned by Barnaby earlier, and spoke of Schrödinger’s cat. With super-position the cat is both dead and alive.  If you accept quantum precepts, then some very bizarre outcomes are possible.
Smitha then described her collaboration with improvisational dancer Kirstie Simson. They opened with the hymn of creation from the Hindu Veda and evolved into a passage from the Big Bang to the creation of the Earth in four minutes of dance.  The group began by chanting “OM” and finding Resonance in the voices.  Then Smitha began narrating – there was neither existence nor non-existence and the only One breathed breathless within Husk …and then, creation exploded. It is amazing how this ancient text presaged our present theories of the big bang.

We concluded our discussion here and continued in smaller groups.
Michael Solomon, MD