The Narlikar Interview

Several years ago, I interviewed Narlikar for the Kalachuvadu magazine.  My friend Penneswaran recorded it and later we transcribed it and sent it to Narlikar for his approval.  This is the version vetted by him. It covers an amazing range of subjects.

Krishnan: You spent your childhood in the lovely surroundings of the Banaras Hindu University where your father was teaching. The University at that time was perhaps a less frenetic place than it is today. It wasn’t in any case a haven of criminals that it later became. Tell me about those days. 

 

Narlikar:  It was indeed a lovely place.  It is lovely to look at, to live in, even today, but in the fifties the academic environment was not contaminated.  It was scholastic and serene.  Only towards the end of my days there did the troubles begin.  Even then these were exceptions rather than the rule.  Well, the deterioration has been rather steep all these years.  Everyone has contributed towards it.  BHU can’t after all isolate itself from what is happening in Uttar Pradesh.  My father used to tell me that during the Quit India movement the Governor of the then United Province wanted to send police inside the campus, but the then Vice Chancellor, Dr. Radhakrishnan put his foot down.  Today the University can’t be run without the active support of the police.

 

Krishnan: Your father was an eminent mathematician and your mother was a Sanskrit scholar. Was she also teaching in the University?

 

Narlikar:  No.  She didn’t, though she was a postgraduate in Sanskrit from the Bombay University.  It was she who taught my brother and me Sanskrit and instilled in us this abiding love for its literature.  She took tremendous interest in our studies and has made us what we are today.

 

Krishnan: You went to Cambridge in 1957. It must have been thrilling to study in a University that had had Newton occupying the Lucasian chair of Physics. How did you find life there?

 

Narlikar:  Newton was remote.  We had other living legends in Cambridge.  For instance, Dirac..

 

Krishnan:  P.A.M. Dirac?  One of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics?  He shared the Nobel prize with Schrodinger didn’t he?

 

Narlikar: He did.  The other giants of modern physics were all there. You could run across G.P Thompson during a walk, or bump into James Chadwick in a supermarket.  The place was thick with Nobel Laureates.  But I was talking about Dirac.  When I was in Cambridge he was occupying the Lucacian chair.  He was teaching us quantum mechanics.  So straight from the horse’s mouth.(laughs)..

 

Krishnan:  How was he as a teacher?

 

Narlikar: Very precise and to the point, like his books.  He wouldn’t make jokes but his clarity was amazing.

 

Krishnan:  Cambridge had a lively set of leftist academics during the fifties and the sixties who genuinely wanted to help the Third World countries.  The names of Professor Bernal and Dorothy Hodgkin come to mind. Were in any way influenced by them?

 

Nalrikar: During my days Oxford was more radical than Cambridge.  I did not come into contact with either Hodgkin or Bernal.

 

Krishnan: Your guru of course was Professor Fred Hoyle. How was he as a teacher and as a human being?

 

Narlikar:  As a teacher he was excellent.  I first attended his course on electromagnetic theory.  Normally one starts with Coulomb’s law and goes on to Maxwell’s equations.  He started with Maxwell’s equations and worked backwards.  His view was that these are fundamental equations and one should be able derive all that is basic connected with the theory out of them.  It was a novel way of learning physics.  As a man he was not very chatty, but one could sense that he was interested more in talking science than in dawdling.  He was our research supervisor.  He would suddenly pose a scientific problem and ask us our opinion.  We would of course feel honoured that the great man considered us worthy enough to be consulted and we would all work hard to find answer to the problem posed by him.

 

Krishnan:  Hoyle had a reputation of being an inveterate self-publicist. Was that reputation justified? 

 

Narlikar:  I don’t think this reputation is justified.  He had this knack of explaining science in simple terms and reporters naturally flocked to him to hear his views.  He also gave a series of lectures on the BBC on cosmology, which were immensely popular.  He was a great communicator and certainly not a publicity hunter.

 

Krishnan:  In their biography of Stephen Hawking, White and Gribbin narrate an episode concerning you, Hoyle and Hawking. Hoyle was using some of the mathematics you had worked through in a meeting of Royal Society of London. Hawking, they say, stood up and told Hoyle that the quantity diverged and this caused considerable embarrassment to the professor and later you had to bear the full brunt of the professor’s anger. Would you like to elaborate on this episode?

 

Narlikar:  Gribbin hasn’t been very fair to both Hoyle and me in this regard.  He should have checked with me before going into print..  During the lecture Hawking stood up and asked a question, but Hoyle didn’t quite understand him.  I too was present and I answered on behalf of Hoyle.  Later when Hoyle checked with me I explained to him what exactly was Hawking’s objection and what my answer to that objection was.  This was all that had happened.  There was no reason for Hoyle to be angry with me and it is incorrect to say that my mathematics was wrong.  But then Gribbin has always been like this.

 

Krishnan:  Did you write to Gribbin about this?

 

Narlikar:  Why should I?  But in a review of his book I have narrated what had actually happened.

 

Krishnan:  Your office was next to that of Hawking. Wasn’t it? Are you still friends, you and Hawking?

 

Narliakar:  It was in the same corridor.  I used to play table tennis with him.

 

Krishnan:  Table tennis?

 

Narlikar: Yes. His motor-neuron disease was not very perceptible then.  His speech was slightly affected but we thought he was putting on an accent.  As regards your other question, no, we are not in contact with each other.  Our paths have taken us in different directions.

 

Krishnan: Professor Hoyle and you were two of the most eminent scientists who advocated the steady state theory of Universe.  You are of course still advocating it.  Hoyle detested the alternative theory of spontaneous creation of Universe, which he once described as a party girl jumping out of a birthday cake – it was undignified and inelegant. Was it not he who coined the term “big bang” to deride this theory?  Nevertheless it is the big bang theory, which has now gained wide acceptance among the scientists. Would you Please explain these two contending theories in simple terms?

 

Narlikar: Modern cosmology began in 1917, with Einstein’s model of the universe, in which the universe was homogeneous and isotropic and also static}. The general belief in a static universe in which the galaxies etc., are at rest was so strong that when in 1922 Aleksandr Friedmann proposed expanding models of the cosmos, they were largely ignored by everybody, including Einstein. However, the first significant observational result in cosmology came in 1929 when Edwin Hubble announced the velocity-distance relation for galaxies, based on the redshifts observed in their spectra. This led people to the conclusion that the universe is not static but expanding.  And the Friedmann models became the recognized models for the universe. These models appeared to start from the state of infinite density, which was interpreted to mean a dense primodial `atom’. In modern jargon this is called the state of `big bang’. For a decade or so after World War II, George Gammow and others explored this supposed dense primordial state. They concluded that it was dominated by high temperature radiation and other subatomic particles moving at near-light speeds. They felt that this was ideally suited for nuclear fusion making all the chemical elements from protons and neutrons. However, they soon learned that this could not be done, because of the absence of stable nuclei at mass numbers 5 and 8.  In the 1940s, however, another new idea challenging the hot big bang evolved, and in 1948 three British astrophysicists, Hermann Bondi, Tommy Gold and Fred Hoyle, proposed the steady state model. It not only assumed the universe to be homogeneous and isotropic in space, but also unchanging in time. Thus there was no big bang, no hot phase; in fact the universe was essentially without a beginning and without an end.  It, however, steadily expanded}, thus creating new volumes of space which got filled up with new matter that was continually created.  Hoyle in fact proposed a slight modification of Einstein’s general relativity to account for matter creation out of a negative energy reservoir of energy.  As more and more matter got created, energy conservation required the reservoir to become more and more negative; but taking into consideration the fact that space was expanding, the energy density of this reservoir remained steady. Thus in the steady state theory there was no mystical event like the `big bang’ and no sudden appearance of all the matter into the universe in violation of the energy conservation law. Instead there was a steady expansion supported by a continuous creation of matter.  In the 1950s and the 1960s the debate between the big bang and steady state theories continued unabated. However, two events in the mid-1960s swung the argument in favour of the big bang cosmology. One was the realization that the observed abundance of light nuclei in the universe required their manufacture in a very hot dense stage. The other was the observation of the microwave background radiation which was quickly interpreted as the relic of the early hot era. Thus the big bang model acquired the status of the `standard model’ of the universe. However this reasoning may have been too simplistic.  Since 1993, we have been developing an alternative cosmology, beginning from an action principle by which we seek to explain how matter and radiation appeared in the universe. That is to say, the action principle includes the possibility that a typical world-line of a particle can have a beginning. The details involve a scalar field analogous to that which appears in popular inflationary models which are favoured by standard cosmology. As it does in the inflationary models, the scalar field exerts a negative pressure that explains the universal expansion. In our theory, the field also acts negatively in the creation process, balacing the positive energy of matter production. That permits new matter to appear in an already existing universe, instead of requiring the creation of the entire universe de novo, in a Big Bang. We regard the creation as being triggered locally in what we call mini-creation events or mini bangs, with the negative field component subsequently escaping from the region of creation, which has experienced an accumulation of positive energy. It is in this way, we argue, that black holes are formed – not through the infall of matter.

 

 

Krishnan:  You have said in one of your books that the sun will eventually swallow earth. This will happen after six billion years. By that time human beings will, in all probability, colonize one of moons of Jupiter. Should we have to wait that long to colonize the moons of other planets? Will it not happen in a human time frame?

 

Narlikar:  Of course it will happen in a human time frame.  It may even happen in this century.  Or the next.

 

 

Krishnan:  You belong to the great astronomical tradition that began at the Vedic times with the Vedanga Jyodisha of Lagadha and continued with such illustrious names as Aryabhata, Bhaskara, and Brahma Gupta.  Does this tradition weigh heavily on you? 

 

Narlikar:  I don’t look upon myself belonging to a tradition of this kind.  In my opinion, this tradition, the so called Siddhantic astronomy, that began with Aryabhata more or less ended with Bhaskara.  I belong to the school of telescopic astronomy started by Galileo.  We are all in a way his disciples.

 

Krishnan:  You came to Tata Institute of Fundamental research in 1972. How did you find the change?

 

Narlikar:  TIFR was run like all international research institutes and hence I was not out of place at all there.  But domestically we had come from a place of abundance to one of scarcity.  We had to wait for everything, for gas cylinder, for wheat.  On the other hand we had our relatives nearby and we didn’t feel the sense of isolation that we had felt in Cambridge.  We could also get some domestic help here that we couldn’t even dream of there.  There were some minuses and some pluses.  They sort of evened out.

 

Krishnan:  You are now associated with the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics. Does this centre attract the best brains? Is it popular?

 

Narlikar:  We had succeeded in getting persons working abroad to come back and work for us.  The best of the lot who join the science stream come to us.  Having said that I must also add that the best brains in the country no longer choose science as their career.  This will prove detrimental to the nation in the long run.

 

Krishnan:  It is understandable that we don’t have many eminent experimental physicists in the country. It is perhaps due to lack of facilities. But how do you explain the paucity of theoretical physicists of international repute? After all we had, during the colonial times, such great physicists as Raman, Saha and Bose.

 

Narlikar:  The main reason for this that we had allowed our Universities to run down.  The major research institutions are outside the university system and they have hardly any connection with the student community.  Bright students have no chance of watching top-notch researchers at work and hence they don’t get inspired.  The momentum that the universities had gained duirng the initial days of independence has dissipated.  How then do you expect good physicists from this system?

 

 

Krishnan:  Is astrology a science? Does it conform to the discipline of science? This is a very important question because the most crowded corners in major bookshops in Chennai are the ones stacking books on astrology.

 

Let us first examine the arguments that supporters of astrology make when astrology is rejected as a science.  These are usually of the following kind:

 

  1. Astrology makes use of the positions of planets obtained by scientific observations, just as astronomy does. So if astronomy is a science, why not astrology?

 

  1. There is always someone who has heard of an astrologer whose predictions have come true. At least the astrology practiced by that astrologer must be termed science.

 

  1. Look at meteorology and medicine. Weather forecasts do go wrong, medical diagnosis is known to fail, and may vary from doctor to doctor. If these subjects are considered sciences, why not astrology?

 

  1. Some astrologers fail because they are bad practitioners of the subject: it is unfortunate that there are charlatans in the field, whereas the subject itself is fully scientific.

 

  1. Scientists are an arrogant lot who have rejected astrology without studying it or testing it.

 

To deal with these objections it is necessary to spell out what is required of a subject to be called a ‘science’. Science has evolved over the centuries through a process of theorizing (T), experimentation (E) and observation (O). The process is ideally cyclical, rather like a winding staircase, where, one goes through the endless process and the rise denotes progress towards a better understanding of nature.  In practice there are many slips and wrong turnings.  The history of science is littered with falsified theories and misleading experiments or wrong observations. A scientist will be the first to admit this fact.  He will also admit that at no time can science claim to have solved everything.  Rather, experience has shown that when you progress up the staircase new questions come before you that you were unaware of previously simply because your understanding was not sufficient to grasp them as questions.  So what is the strength of what we call science?  It is its self-imposed discipline which works in the following way.  A scientific theory must clearly state its basic assumptions, and these must be consistent with the evidence to date.  Based on these it should present a logical framework of arguments leading to falsifiable predictions.  The theory should not indulge in tautology, nor should it change its basic tenets each time it is called upon to make a prediction.  In other words there is uniqueness about its assumptions.  The predictions are subject to tests, which require experiments and observations.  Now these have a built-in objectivity…it is not the case that only scientist X can find the required result, while  scientists Y,  Z, …can’t repeat his experiment or observations.  The experiment and observations should be designed in a controlled fashion so that their findings can be interpreted by statistical analysis.  And with all these safeguards, no theory can claim to be perfect.  Newton’s law of gravitation was improved upon by Einstein’s general relativity; but only after a large number of controlled experiments could this claim be acknowledged. Despite these successes no scientist today believes that relativity represents the last word on gravitation.  Quantum gravity lies as the next challenge to be surmounted by any theory claiming to improve on general relativity.

 

Let us now come to astrology.  Take (A) first.  Astronomy follows the rigorous discipline of science described above; does astrology do so? Are there a unique set of basic rules for astrology? Is there a logical set of rules for interpreting data that is fully objective and not depend on a specific astrologer?  Are failed predictions accepted as disproofs of the theory? The answers to all these questions is “No” .  Rather the attitude of supporters of astrology has been that their subject is perfect, and if it fails, it is because it is wrongly interpreted.  So does interpretation vary from person to person?  How then would you design textbooks for the proposed course or find teachers who agree upon a uniform approach?

 

Regarding (B), astrologers have probably not heard of Karl Popper, and if they have they choose to ignore what he said about a scientific theory.  The Popperian view is that a scientific theory has to be abandoned if it fails on a single prediction.  Thus successful predictions are necessary but not sufficient for the survival of the theory. If you ask that ‘someone’ how many unsuccessful predictions that astrologer made, he would not have the answer.

 

On (C), it is admitted that weather forecasts and medical diagnosis are not perfect; however, these subjects do follow the disciplines of science.  In weather forecasting a complex calculation of the various conditions in the atmosphere and even on the ground are involved, with the forces controlling them getting better and better understood. So are the observations of the atmospheric conditions by man made satellites. Even detractors of meteorology as a science will admit that the quality of weather forecasting has steadily improved because of more sophisticated theory and observations.  Medical science also does not claim to be perfect, but as with progress in biology and biotechnology, we understand the human body better, its diagnosis and treatment have consistently improved.  It is to be noted that whenever a new drug is put on the market, it is tested under controlled conditions, for several years if need be. Has astrology shown any improvement in its performance with inputs of science and technology?

 

(D) has already been considered. If the stand is that every time a correct prediction is made, astrology is a science, but a wrong prediction means that the astrologer is a charlatan, then there is no astrologer left who cannot be branded thus.  Is it not time that the practitioners of the subject take a critical look at what they preach?

 

The last criticism (E) is unfair to the considerable body of work that already exists in literature about how scientists have studied and examined astrology and how each and every study conducted to verify the correctness of astrological predictions has failed to give a positive result in favour of astrology.

 

Consider by way of example, the study conducted by Bernie Silverman, a psychologist at the Michigan State University to test the astrological claim that matching or compatibility of horoscopes of couples has any bearing on the success or otherwise of their married life.  The study picked 2978 couples who were happily married and 478 who were divorced.  Their horoscopes were given to two established astrologers (who were not informed as to whom these horoscopes belonged), to agree between themselves as to which of the horoscopes were compatible and which were not. Their selection and the factual situation had no significant overlap as judged by standard statistical tests.

 

Krishnan:  Still, astrology is enormously popular in our country.

 

Narlikar:  One of the important reasons why astrology has survived scientific debunking is that it is looked upon as a psychotherapeutic exercise, which brings solace to human mind when confronted with moments of decision making, sorrow, disappointment, etc. Rather than worry or brood upon difficult issues, it helps to delegate the responsibility to planets, or to someone who claims to interpret their effects. On such occasions logic is the last thing in one’s mind.

 

There is another psychological aspect that goes under the name Barnum Effect. When P.T. Barnum, the owner of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus was asked the secret of his success, he replied that his circus contained a diversity of acts and so even if different people in the audience liked different acts, everyone went away satisfied that he or she saw something worthwhile! Likewise, from the astrological ‘predictions’ the human mind picks up selectively those items that apply to the individual and ignores the discordant part. And astrological predictions are frequently worded in such a way that almost everything applies to anybody.

 

It could be argued that astrology will continue to exist and flourish, just because people seek solace in it and find it an aid to decision making.  However, if man wishes to lay claims to the title of a ‘rational animal’, then one needs to worry; for there has so far been no rational justification for astrological statements. Indeed promoting it as part of higher education and encouraging its decision making process for architecture, weather forecasting , stock market investments, etc. is a giant leap backwards in time. In the West, belief in astrology is more by way of fun, and does not enjoy the stamp of respectability. In our country, it is taken seriously in all walks of society and transcends all divisions with respect to caste, education, income, politics, etc. People consult astrologers for fixing marriages, for inducting ministries, for starting new businesses…  In a country, which is trying to catch up on the developed nations, a rational and efficient management of human resources is essential.  This could hardly be achieved by making them more superstitious.

 

Krishnan:  How do you explain some gurus materializing objects out of the air?

 

Narlikar:  I have no reason to disbelieve P.C. Sirkar who says that he can perform every act that a guru does.  Gurus have never performed under controlled conditions.

 

Krishnan:  There is this story about Neils Bohr.  He had at the entrance of his laboratory a rabbit’s foot hanging, which was supposed to be a good luck charm. When somebody asked Bohr whether he believed in such charms his reply was,“ no, I don’t. But they say it works even if I don’t believe in it.” Such stories are very amusing no doubt, but in our country superstitions have caused incalculable harm and hampered the intellectual and material progress of the people.  How do we fight this monster of superstition?

 

Narlikar:  It is very difficult.  At the one end you have people who believe in fancy shastras, like the Vaastu Shastra.   If we tell them that there is no scientific basis for it, their answer is may be there isn’t any, but then we don’t want to take any risk..  At the other end we have persons practicing horrifying rituals to propitiate deities.  The only way to combat them is through constant propaganda and education.  In Maharashtra, for instance, there is this people’s movement called Andha Shraddha Nirmoolan Samiti.  Its volunteers go from village to village and perform various acts of magic and explain to the people the principles behind them.  The idea is to explain to them that there is absolutely nothing supernatural about these acts.  They also offer to stay at night in houses that are supposed to be haunted.  But the battle against superstition should begin at the primary school level and teachers have a big role in it. In fact the school syllabus should also be restructured to include lessons on combating superstition.

 

Krishnan:  We have this infuriating inability to tell chaff from grain. This has caused incalculable harm to the almost inexhaustible storehouse of traditional knowledge that our country possesses- especially in the field of medicine. For instance there is a regular programme in one of the Tamil channels that has a person with funny degrees tailing his name grandly announcing every week that he has medicine for every disease known to mankind. How are you going to rescue such traditional skills from such sharp practitioners and subject them to scientific rigour?

 

Narlikar:  There are aspects that are excellent in the traditional systems and there are aspects that should be immediately discarded.  It is for the scientific community to undertake this exercise, subject traditional systems to scientific rigour, and separate grain from chaff.  This has to be done carefully, on a sustained basis, without alienating the true practitioners of these systems.  Charlatans will of course be there and only through constant education and effort can they be isolated.

 

Krishnan:  You speak of the story of Kukudmi from Bhagavatam in your book Seven Wonders of Cosmos and quote it as one of the oldest stories that you know of wherein the concept of time passing at different rates for different people or places plays a key role. For some people this information is just a short step to jump to the conclusion that our forefathers know Einstein’s general theory of relativity. There is a poem in Jivaka Chintamani – a Tamil Kavya – which speaks of Valavan Eva vanurdi – a sky chariot without a charioteer to guide it. (Actually this was from Purnanuru – I regret the mistake). I can bring before you a number Tamil scholars who will swear that this poem is ample proof that the Tamils had an advanced knowledge of aviation technology. Similar is the case with the astras that our heroes fire in our epics. How do you propose to educate such people?

 

Narlikar:  Every traditional society has this failing.  They seem to forget that it is one thing to imagine and quite another thing to make a scientific invention or a law out of that imagination.  It is not enough to state that earth attracts moon; one has to give a quantitative law to make a scientific principle out of the statement.  No scientific invention happens all of a sudden.  It is usually the culmination of a long struggle that might have taken years and used up the time of generations of scientists.  For instance take aircraft.  It would not have become a reality without a proper propellant, without a light metal, or without a thorough understanding of the principles of aerodynamics.

 

Krishnan:  In the last quarter of the nineteenth century many physicists believed that the end of physics was close at hand. Then came Planck. A few years ago there was this Fukiyama who spoke of the end of history. Will such branches of human knowledge ever end?

 

Narlikar:  Even Hawking made a statement about the end of physics. One always likes to think that the Final Answer will be found in his or her lifetime!  No, branches of human knowledge have no finite ends.

 

Krishnan: What are your attempts to popularize science? I understand if a school child sends you a post card with a scientific question you will personally reply that card.

 

Narlikar:  Yes. I receive a lot of postcards.  I wrote a book in Marathi titled ‘Cosmic Adventure’.  The Nehru Centre, Mumbai bought a thousand copies of the book and distributed them in the villages.  The rural children have been reading the book and asking questions.  So far more than fifteen thousand questions have been received.

 

Krishnan:  This is indeed wonderful.  Your book should be translated into other Indian languages.

 

Narlikar: If you find someone to do it in Tamil, I shall be happy to consider…(laughs)

 

 

Krishnan: Education in our country is in an advanced stage of decay.  Barring a few exceptions, Universities today produce graduates who are virtually unemployable.  Teachers in rural schools are barely literate.  The chasm between the colleges and schools in the metros on the one hand and those in the rural areas and the small towns on the other is widening so fast that it may become unbridgeable.  How are we to arrest this trend?

 

Narlikar:  The only way to arrest this trend is to bring the National laboratories and Institutes close to the Universities.  The scientists working there should interact regularly with the students and the students should be free to visit the laboratories and conduct experiments there.  This will motivate the students and in the long run you will get better teachers.  As regards primary and secondary education, the answer lies in training the teachers, paying them well, constantly interacting with them and updating their knowledge.  This should be taken up at the National level and sustained for a long period say, twenty or twenty five years.  The fruits of this effort will perhaps benefit our grandchildren.  But a beginning should be made today.  Of course education is inextricably linked with employment.  Educating people without finding them right vocation can’t be sustained at all.

 

Krishnan:  The general view among the academics in India is that it is a consistent practice in our Universities to stifle, kill or, at worst, ignore academic excellence. The system is structured in such a way that only charlatans rise up the academic ladder. What are your views on this? Why is that papers written by Indians find it very difficult to get into reputed academic journals? 

 

Narlikar:  This happens because even academic and scientific institutions follow the bureaucratic way of giving promotions without seriously considering the merit of the person.  They play safe and safety kills excellence.  The academics and scientists who have willingly embraced this system should be blamed for the state of affairs.  The universities and the scientific institutions should no doubt be untied from bureaucratic tethers but if this is attempted the academics and scientists will be the first to object because most of them are happy doing nothing and they have a vested interest in the present system to continue.

 

Krishnan:  The students are happy with a basic knowledge of the English language at the college level.  They are not aware of the immense joy that the world of literature can provide. They just don’t realise that good literature expands one’s frontiers of imagination. Don’t you think there is a need to give students a holistic education? Even to students of medicine and engineering?

 

Narlikar:  I agree that language skills are very important even for a student of science and these skills are acquired only through a study of the extant literature of that language.  Thus there is indeed a need to give the students a holistic education. Even to the students of medicine and engineering.

 

Krishnan: What was the medium of instruction when you were in the school?

 

Narlikar:  Hindi.

 

Krishnan:  Were you disadvantaged anyway because of this?

 

Narlikar:  No, I was not disadvantaged at all.

 

Krishnan: My medium of instruction was Tamil until I left the school. It was not a disadvantage at all in any way. On the other hand it connected me to my soil and my culture – a connection that I cherish and of which I am proud. I think my English flourished only because I had a sound knowledge of my mother tongue. But today there are English medium schools everywhere and the Government of Tamilnadu is not insisting on Tamil being the medium of instruction at the primary level. This I think is a sure recipe for disaster and will result in making our children vapid, intellectual cretins. What is the position in Maharashtra? Is Marathi being neglected there?

 

Narlikar:  The situation is unfortunately similar in Maharashtra.  Even parents from lower-middle class families spend a fortune to educate their children in ‘English medium schools’.  Most of these schools have teachers with dubious qualifications and the language they use for communication can hardly be called English.  But then it is the leaders of the society who are to be blamed for this state of affairs.  My parents were certain that I should study in a Hindi medium school.  They were proud of our heritage and were keen that their children should imbibe all that is good in it. Somewhere along the line we have lost our pride and keenness and our children are suffering for that.  I have no doubt in my mind that the medium of instruction at the school level should be the mother tongue.  English should be taught but as a second language.  The elite should take the lead in this regard; then others will follow.  I also agree with you that learning basic things in an alien language stifles one’s imagination.

 

Krishnan:  Do you believe in God?

 

Narlikar: The notion of ‘God’ is so variable from person to person that an answer of the yes/no type will be grossly misleading.  Is a scientist expected to ‘prove’ the existence of God by demonstrating how well ordered the working of the universe is?   Does it help him in understanding why there are laws of science?   Judged purely by scientific logic, a fresh postulate that simply justifies only what is already known is no advance in one’s understanding.  Surely the ‘God’ that the seers from different religions experienced was different from the above scientific postulate.  In other words, in my opinion putting the above question to a scientist — because he is a scientist — is unfair.

 

Questions like ‘Why is the universe governed by laws of science?’, or ‘What ‘agency’ decided that these and no other laws shall operate?’ are beyond the scope of science.  Simply postulating ‘God’ to answer these questions does not take us very far.  But the basic faith a scientist has, that keeps him/her in business, is that there are some basic laws governing nature and the declared aim of science is to find them.  Beyond that any other belief relating to ‘Is there God ?’ may be answered by the scientist not in the role of a scientist but as a human being.

 

Einstein says:

 

Though I have asserted that in truth a legitimate conflict between religion and science cannot exist, I must nevertheless qualify this assertion once again on an essential point, with reference to the actual content of historical religions.  This qualification has to do with the concept of God.  During the youthful period of mankind’s spiritual evolution, human fantasy created gods in man’s own image, who, by the operations of their will, were supposed to determine, or at any rate to influence, the phenomenal world.  Man sought to alter the disposition of these gods in his own favour by means of magic and prayer.  The idea of gods in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old conception of gods. Its anthropomorphic character is shown, for example, by the fact that men appeal to the Divine Being in prayers and plead for the fulfillment of their wishes.

 

 

Imagine the following everyday situation.  College student  A does not study regularly and as the examination approaches, he realizes that he cannot get the high percentage of marks that he needs for his future career.  So A goes to a temple and makes an offering to the deity so that he may get the requisite high marks.  Student B, who is in a similar predicament, is more down to earth.  He discovers who the examiners are, goes and bribes them so that he may score high marks.  Are the expectations of A about the morality of his God any different from those of B with respect to the examiners?  If God indeed fulfills the prayers of A is He not doing injustice to student C who has worked hard and prepared well for the examination ?  Why should  A get the same marks as C ?

 

Einstein had objections to a ‘God’ of this kind.  He urged :

 

In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests…

 

Instead, he hoped that religions would come forward to the aid of science as it searches further for the truth behind the regularity of the universe from the very microscopic level to the grandest level.  A great deal remains to be learnt to understand the mystery behind the observed rationality of the operations of nature.

 

However, not everything in our experience can be reduced to regularity and symmetry of scientific information.  The role of the perceiving individual cannot be altogether ignored.  Another great intellect of this century, Rabindranath Tagore describes his childhood experience when he came across a rhymed sentence loosely translated thus: ‘It rains, the leaves tremble’, in these words:

 

 At once I came to a world where I recovered my full meaning.  My mind touched the creative realm of expression…The rhythmic picture of tremulous leaves beaten by the rain opened before my mind the world which does not merely carry information, but a harmony with my being.  The unmeaning fragments lost their individual isolation and my mind revelled in the unity of vision.  I felt sure that some Being who comprehended me and my world was seeking his best expression in all my experiences, uniting them into an ever widening individuality which was a spiritual work of art…

 

These examples illustrate but by no means exhaust the differing perspectives on the question.  So, when someone asks me the question: “As a scientist do you believe in God ? I reply: “It is too difficult a question for me to answer; and even if I tried to answer the question, it might be misleading, for you will interpret my reply within your perception of God which may be totally different from mine.”

 

 

Krishnan:  You were one of the 1500 scientists worldwide who had signed a warning to humanity. I read excerpts from it:

 

“Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about. 

 

“We the undersigned, senior members of the world’s scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it, is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated. 

 

“Success in this global endeavour will require a great reduction in violence and war. Resources now devoted to the preparation and conduct of war-amounting to over $1 trillion annually-will be badly needed in the new tasks and should be diverted to the new challenges. A new ethic is required-a new attitude towards discharging our responsibility for caring for ourselves and for the earth. We must recognise the earth’s limited capacity to provide for us. We must recognise its fragility. We must no longer allow it to be ravaged. This ethic must motivate a great movement, convince reluctant leaders and reluctant governments and reluctant peoples themselves to effect the needed changes. The scientists issuing this warning hope that our message will reach and affect people everywhere.” 

 

There is another side of yours. You are also one of the defenders of India’s nuclear test. Don’t you see contradiction in assuming such mutually irreconcilable positions?

 

Narlikar:  Let me explain.  I am totally against nuclear weapons of all kind and I fully stand by the statement from which you have just quoted.  What I said after the Pokhran blast was that the test was a great technical achievement.  This can’t be twisted to mean that I am a defender of the nuclear test.  My congratulations were to the scientists for carrying out in an exemplary way the task assigned to them and not to the political class that took the decision to make the bomb.

 

Krishnan:  You were also one of the signatories – Baba Amte and Arundhati Roy were among them – to a petition that highlighted the misery caused in the lives of tribal peopleby the Sardar Sarovar dam across Narmada. The petition was ignored, wasn’t it? The urban India is blind to the misery of such rural victims of progress. Recently more than 200,000 workers lost their jobs in Delhi, which didn’t even cause a ripple in the newspapers. The rich are blind to the sufferings of the millions and millions of poor who inhabit this country. How will you make them see?

 

Narlikar:  I don’t know how effective such petitions are, but I think I should not shun away from signing such petitions merely on the premise that it may not achieve what it seeks to achieve.  Every small gesture counts in all such causes.  Yes, the urban India is blind to the sufferings of the rural India and the urban rich don’t bother about the urban poor.  It is therefore all the more important that persons whose voices will possibly be heard should highlight their causes.

 

Krishnan:  You have also written fiction in Marathi, English and Hindi. What is your experience?

 

Narlikar:  It is a highly rewarding experience.  I wish I had time to talk about it.

Krishnan:  Who is your favourite poet in Sanskrit?

 

Narlikar:  Undoubtedly Kalidasa.  My favourite work of his is Raghuvamsa closely followed by Shakuntala.

 

Krishnan:  I recently read your book “Seven Wonders of the Cosmos.  It was a brilliant book.  It tells us in a simple language the great strides that we have made in the field of cosmology without compromising the rigour and precision of scientific writing.  Will it be possible to write such a book in an Indian language?

 

Narlikar:  Let me tell you something interesting.  My book “Cosmic Adventure” was first written in Marathi.  It was later translated into English.  When I speak on science to the general public in Maharashtra I speak in Marathi.  In other regions of North India I speak in Hindi.

 

Krishnan:  St Augustine is supposed to have said: “I am in time.  I speak of time, but I know not what time is.”  Will mankind ever know what time is?

 

Narlikar: I don’t think it will ever know.

 

jayant@iucaa.ernet.in

2 thoughts on “The Narlikar Interview”

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