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Tuesday 28 February 2012

Mathematics and physics

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February 12, 2012, 6:46 pm

The miraculous power of western physics based on western mathematics has enabled Prof. Nalin de Silva to respond on the 10th of February to my article on mathematics and physics published in The Island on the 9th of February. As Sir Arthur Clarke said, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic (Clarke’s 3rd Law). Having informed us that he went to the UK many moons ago by an airplane Prof. Nalin says that he is "much younger now" (sic) than he was then. I believe this was a slip i.e. a small unimportant mistake, and what he really meant to say is that he is now "much older", but with my friend Nalin you never can tell. From past experience I know that when he uses a word it means just what he "chooses it to mean, neither more nor less". That is why for years I have avoided arguing with him although I often read the lucubrations of his lateral-thinking mind.


In the present context because Prof. Nalin went to and returned from the UK by air to write a thesis on Relativistic gravitational effects in Astrophysics, I must bend over backwards to make sense of his claim that he is much younger after he came back than before he went. If I have got it right, according to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, the passage of time can be slowed down. If time can indeed be slowed down it is not intrinsically absurd to suppose that it might even be reversed. So Prof. Nalin’s claim that he is younger now than when he went to the UK can be understood in terms of the following popular limerick:

There was a young lady called Bright,

Who travelled much faster than light.

She set off one day

In a relative way,

And came back the previous night.


Leaving banter on one side, in his response to me, Prof. Nalin refers to a Bodhisatva, dukkha, anicca, and avidya. Obviously he is steeped in Buddhist thought and if he says that he prefers his understanding of Buddhist doctrine and cultural ethos to every other approach to life in this world, who am I to contradict him? For my part, my understanding of what the Buddha taught about the way to achieve well-being and happiness through the elimination of greed, hatred and delusion is quite compatible with my understanding of the modern scientific outlook. This implies that acceptance of my understanding of what the Buddha taught does not require the rejection of my understanding of the modern scientific outlook. In any case, my position has nothing to do with westerners having "imposed their needs on us through colonialism" as claimed by Prof. Nalin. I know that he genuinely believes that my position is due to my lack of sufficient intelligence to understand these matters in the way his first-class mathematical brain does. That is why when exasperated by what he regards as my invincible stupidity and intractable obstinacy, he occasionally calls me a matta (i.e. a dullard) to my face. Who knows, he may well be right!

Abstraction & Empiricism

Prof. Nalin’s answer to his question about the effectiveness of western physics based on western mathematics is their "abstractness". My view is that the effectiveness is the outcome of their concreteness and empirical nature. Sense perception (as opposed to abstract thinking) if not the sole legitimate source of knowledge, is critically the final court of appeal of the validity of modern science. For example, Einstein’s counter-intuitive claim about the relative nature of time, that is to say that the passage of time can slow down, was empirically tested in 1971. Four identical atomic clocks were sent on flights twice around the world, two eastwards and two westwards. Their times were compared with a matched clock on the Earth’s surface in the United States. It was found that the moving clocks had lost a fraction of a second compared with the grounded clock in accordance with the theory of special relativity. (See: 50 physics ideas you really need to know by Joanne Baker, Quercus, page 163.

Carlo Fonseka