Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Opinion | Science and faith are not as different as we often think

Theoretical physics leaps from claim to claim with the ease of an ancient religion at its peak

I used to think that no one really believes in God because if people did, as they claimed, wouldn’t they be in a perpetual stupor, stunned by the existence of such a magical force? However, I don’t hold that view anymore after observing how people have responded to recent claims of extraordinary scientific discoveries that are almost as mystical as God and more photogenic. People marvel at the announcement for a few minutes, believe it completely, then they go back to hating or loving Kanhaiya Kumar.

Why don’t people faint and the traffic stop when scientists announce that they have proof that gravity alters time, that they now know where mass comes from, or that they have conclusive evidence of the existence of black holes—objects so dense that a whole star is compressed into a blob just a few hundred metres across and where the gravitational force is so strong nothing will ever escape it, not even light?

The last pronouncement, about visual evidence of the black hole phenomenon, occurred on Wednesday. A black hole is now a scientific truth because of three main reasons: One, people with great authority, who have monopoly over a narrow field of study, have said so after an arcane process that is widely believed to be very rigorous; two, other people like them have endorsed it; three, most people in the world, including scientists in other fields, do not have enough information to challenge the assertion. Also, the kind of people, such as journalists, writers and politicians, who usually seed doubt in the minds of people even in areas like genetics and climate do not believe they can challenge scientists on theoretical physics.

Theoretical physics thus also demonstrates qualities of medieval religion. In a world where everything has become political and every claim is questioned, many branches of science have not survived. But theoretical physics leaps from claim to claim with the ease of an ancient religion at its peak.

What I enjoy the most about science as a lay person is that it is a simulation of religion for me. I have no choice but to accept what is told to me by an authority who has the right halo. In every other sphere of knowledge, my reading is punctuated by constant arguments with ideas. But in the presence of scientific knowledge, even when I find it hard to believe in black holes, I cannot help but quieten my mind. The black hole has a familiar arc in the recent history of knowledge. First, an entertaining idea emerges from a mathematical equation; a purely theoretical structure is created when the variables in the equation are pushed to the extreme. Then a group of influential scientists believe it really exists in the physical world. They popularise its exotic properties by dumbing down language. The world is fascinated, including a whole generation of children. Artists then “render" stunning images. Some people then make films that feature the exotic phenomenon. Funds pour into the search for proof of the phenomenon. Eventually scientists find it, and it is remarkably almost exactly what they had hoped to find; it is very close to artistic renderings, too. And “a scientific truth" is born. Then it becomes religion. More powerful than conventional religion because it has the halo of knowledge, information, rationality and proof. Theoretical physics is probably one of the best funded religions.

Twenty-four hours after the news broke about the black hole in the heart of the Messier 87 (M87) galaxy, it was already blasphemous to ask, “But do black holes really exist?"

The idea of the black hole emerges from Albert Einstein’s equations that define his general theory of relativity. He never liked the idea. Even though his concepts led to much of today’s exotic science, he himself was suspicious of esoteric things. But in time scientists began to take black holes seriously.

Regular people, when they were not watching “sci-fi", did not care much about black holes. Even on Thursday what contributed to the transmission of the news was not the power of science but of politics—of feminism.

In 2016, the computer scientist Katie Bouman, who is a key member of the team that photographed the M87 black hole, delivered a TED talk on a technique she developed to take the image. But that technique was eventually not used in the mission. Yet, hours after the image of the black hole was revealed, she emerged as the face of the project. As The New York Times reported, “In their eagerness to celebrate her…many non-scientists on social media overstated her role in what was a group effort by hundreds of people, creating an exaggerated impression…"

It is not surprising that people can argue about the exact role of a young woman in a scientific breakthrough, but not the scientific phenomenon itself. The image was created by a technology that used an array of radio telescopes located in various parts of the Earth to form a virtual telescope that could, “read a newspaper in New York from a sidewalk café in Paris", according to an official release. The process is too complicated for lay people to challenge. Theoretical physics today is where most spheres of human intellect were just a few years ago: what a group of experts said was the truth.

It will be fascinating to watch what happens when one day theoretical physics, too, ceases to be a religion, and the amateur heretics are able to transmit their ideas widely. It would be hilarious if in the end cow urine turns out to be good for health, and there are no black holes.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist,most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’.