URDU LITERATURE: Towering physicists

14 Feb, 2010

URDU LITERATURE: Towering physicists
Reviewed by Shahid Kamal

Jadeed Tabiyat Kay Bani is a collection of portraits of nine Nobel Laureates in physics who changed the way we understand the world. Mujahid Kamran, a professor of physics at the Punjab University and its current vice chancellor, beautifully presents the mix of ideas and personalities, captivating the reader and exciting his scientific curiosity.

In the first quarter of the 20th century, physicists developed two theories which transformed physics. These theories, relativity and quantum mechanics, are 'the two pillars' upon which modern physics was built.

Albert Einstein developed the relativity theory almost single-handedly, revolutionising the concepts of space and time and discovering a deep relationship between them. The theory of relativity, however, is classical in the sense that it is, like Newtonian physics, causal in nature. (Classical physics refers to physics developed before the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.)

On the other hand, quantum theory, stunningly strange but highly successful in explaining the world of the atom, owes its creation, in two stages, to a generation of brilliant physicists.

Between 1900 and 1925, Max Planck, Einstein and Niels Bohr led the way. From 1925 to 1927, the development of quantum theory was dominated by Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger, Paul Dirac, Max Born and others. (There is no separate essay on Born in the book.)

Kamran's depiction of both scientific triumphs and human frailties of the scientific luminaries in his book is exceedingly balanced. He ably points out, throughout his narrative, that it was not sheer genius which brought honours and fame to these men from diverse family backgrounds. Despite their brilliance and luck, they had to burn the midnight oil to discover the charms and secrets of nature.

It was Rutherford, and his colleague Soddy, who caused a stir in 1902 by first reporting that the atom is not indestructible.

Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which he developed at the age of 26 and which killed the idea of determinism in physics, had the great Einstein shaking his head saying, 'God does not play dice with the cosmos.'

'Sweet-tempered' Bohr, once a reserve goalkeeper in Denmark's national football team and Einstein's greatest rival in sorting out the philosophical implications of modern physics, was obsessed with rewriting proofs of his scientific papers. Once, when he had received the 13th proof of one of his papers which was only three pages long, he decided to start all over again.

We learn about Dirac, known for his 'deep reticence' and ranked, by Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam, with Einstein in having 'had such a decisive influence in such a short time [1925-27] on the course of physics' in the 20th century.

The author tells us about Einstein's and Schrodinger's tremendous passion for women; the pain and agony Planck suffered due to the deaths of his first wife and all of his four children; and, Rutherford, an experimentalist physicist himself, who did not give a hoot about theoretical physicists, including Einstein, and whose 'uncontrollable excitement' sometimes caused chaos for his students.

The book is a testament to the human spirit and determination. the author tells us of Enrico Fermi, who had great command both of theoretical and experimental physics, using, as he lay dying of cancer at the 'young age' of 53, a stop watch to measure the quantity of drops passing through a tube used to feed him.

Louis de Broglie failed a university exam in physics but later went on to win, for his discovery of the wave nature of electrons, the 1929 Nobel Prize in physics, just a year after his mother went to her grave thinking her son was a failure. Kamran presents scientific ideas and their significance with great clarity, making it easy for both students of physics and laypersons to understand them. His prose is beautiful and at times, even poetic. Consider the following example. 'Rutherford encompassed within himself the mightiness of a flowing river, the thunder of clouds and the gaiety of a brook. Perhaps engrossed in his work in the heavens also, his booming laugh still reaches us across space and time, mixed with thunder and brilliant flashes, for Rutherford was, quite simply, an elemental phenomenon.'

By writing this book, Kamran has put to rest doubts about writing great science books in Urdu. (Here I must mention Abdul Hameed Askari who first, generations ago, wrote in Urdu on western and Muslim scientists. His books, it seems, have been long out of print.)

Jadeed Tabiyat Kay Bani reminds us of Europe's glorious leadership in sciences in the not too distant past. All but one founders of modern physics hailed from Europe (Rutherford was born and raised in New Zealand), studied in Europe and won Nobel prizes for work done in Europe.

At the time, rising stars in physics from the United States and Soviet Union would travel to Europe, especially Germany, to study physics with the greats. Starting in the 1930s, when militant extremism in the form of Nazism and fascism was raging in continental Europe, illustrious scientists including Einstein and Fermi migrated to the United States.

Each of the nine essays can be read on its own, and not necessarily in the order that it appears in the book. But taken together, the essays tell the story of the birth of modern physics and its significance with clarity and verve.

The book's nine appendices capture, at a glance, the lives of the nine physicists. The book also contains some interesting photographs (the publisher could have done a better job in terms of the quality of their printing), a bibliography and an index. Footnotes or endnotes citing the exact page number and source of the quotations the author uses would have been useful.

Jadeed Tabiyat Kay Bani is not simply a collection of portraits of nine towering geniuses who changed the world forever. It is also a love song to physics and its luminaries by a physicist who has devoted a lifetime to the study and teaching of physics. On every page of this book, the author's mastery of the subject and his brilliant writing shine through.

Jadeed Tabiyat Kay Bani
By Dr Mujahid Kamran
Sang-e-Meel Publications
ISBN 969-35-0809-2
327pp. Rs450

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