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The Rediff Interview/Professor Alladi Ramakrishnan

'Though we have enjoyed fifty years of freedom, our mind is not yet free. We still have slavery in our heads'

Take a pair of identical twins. Then make one travel faster than the other. After some time a sibling would have grown older. And presto! You have identical twins of different ages.

That's what Hendrik Anton Lorentz would have us believe. Or at least that's what the calculations based on the famous physicist's 'Lorentz transformation' point at.

If you are the laity, take heart, for the 'twin paradox' has baffled even the most reverend of the scientific priesthood. And to top it all it is not the only poser. The Lorentz transformation has led to more amazing conclusions like actions taking place before their causes and particles travelling faster than light. Here, the light part becomes stranger when you consider another outcome of the Lorentz transformation, Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity. Relativity specifically rules out the possibility of anything overtaking light!

Confusion ruled the world of physics yet no one could find a flaw in Lorentz's calculations. His mathematical view of the universe was absolutely perfect, whichever way you looked at it. That, despite the results continuing to defy the common-sense perspective and sometimes the more thought-out one...

Professor Alladi Ramakrishnan Then last year Professor Alladi Ramakrishnan figured out the whole sheebang.

A 73-year-old mind had finally answered a 90-year-old teaser. Ramakrishnan has simply made the world look at the Lorentz transformation in a different way. The idea and its three concepts of 'time dilatation', 'Lorentz contraction' and 'non-simultaneity' still remain as true as they were and yet the mystery they had generated over almost a century has suddenly disappeared.

Ramakrishnan is the founder of MATSCIENCE in Madras. He has also been its director. Recently, he presented his new work at the University of Texas at Dallas, United States, at the invitation of Professor Ervin Fenyves. It is to appear in the Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications, Academic Press Inc, California, in September.

Ramakrishnan is the son of Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy, who was involved in the creation of the Constitution of India. After following his father's career for some time, he found that his interest lay in the pursuit of scientific research.

He was very elated when Shobha Warrier met him at his ancient, palatial mansion, surrounded by huge trees and greenery, a rarity in Madras. He patiently explained his discovery and then entered his study to draw diagrams on the blackboard and illustrate everything he was talking about. Excerpts from the conversation:

It's being reported that you were introduced to the special theory of relativity by Sir C V Raman. How did you meet him?

When I was a physics student at the Presidency College it was my ambition to work under Sir C V Raman. My father used to spend his summer vacation in Bangalore and Sir C V Raman used to visit him there regarding certain legal matters.

Then my father told Sir C V Raman that I was anxious to work under him after the completion of my course. With characteristic frankness he immediately said "Ask this boy to read the book of Joos on theoretical physics, one of the best books on the subject. Let him tell me which chapter excites him. If nothing excites him, he can forget about a scientific career. If anything excites him, I will be able to say what type of research he should do."

So you read the book?

Yes, I read the book.

From where did you get the book? Was it easily available?

I bought it. It was not easily available as it was the most important book on the subject, used mainly in the United States. It was absolutely unfamiliar to the students in Madras at that time. I was the only one who read it and I was excited about the chapter on relativity, the Lorentz transformation. That is, the chapter on space-time unity.

When was it?

In 1941. I was 17. After reading the book my dream was to one day understand the space-time unity from a fundamental point of view.

Did you meet Sir C V Raman and tell him about the way you got excited about the Lorentz transformation?

No. I didn't go and tell him because once relativity interested me, my mind was drawn towards Dr (Homi) Bhabha, the theoretical physicist, and not Raman, the experimentalist. That's why I joined Dr Bhabha.

You said you wanted to know more about the Lorentz transformation. Did you consult any other scientist to clear your confusion?

No. This is a strange type of confusion. It is like you are operating a typewriter or a computer. You can never make a mistake if you follow the rules. In theoretical physics, if you follow the Lorentz transformation, you will have no problems. But understanding the process is different.

There are two aspects of understanding. One is, you calculate and come to the correct answer. Second is, really understanding. Let me ask you, how many people really understand what light is?

What exactly is the Lorentz transformation?

If two events are happening at two different points in space at different times what would be the space difference and time difference to an observer who is moving with respect to the first observer?

This is the famous Lorentz transformation. According to Newton, the time difference must be the same because time doesn't alter when a person moves. Only the space difference alters which is called the Newtonian law of the concept of velocity and change in positions.

But the Lorentz transformation mixes both space and time. Lorentz himself did not fully understand the significance of his own work. It was Einstein who interpreted it later, brought it into limelight and made it the special theory of relativity in 1905.

The three consequences of Lorentz transformation are: One; 'time dilatation' or dilation of time. It means that if a particle, say some entity, is leaving its place for a certain time, its lifetime is greater. It is the most spectacular consequence of relativity. Why does time change because an observer is moving? Why should the lifetime of a moving particle be much more when you consider it stationary? It is mind-boggling.

Two; contraction of length or 'Lorentz contraction'. This means that when a rod of certain length is moving, it looks contracted. Why should it look smaller just because it is moving? This is also a consequence of relativity.

Three; there is this concept that if two 'events' are happening at the same time but at different places, and there is a person who is moving and another stationary, they look as though they are at different times. How can simultaneous events look as if they are occurring at different times to another observer? If it is simultaneous, it should be simultaneous to everyone. But it comes out as different.

I was excited about this space-time unity. The most surprising aspect here is that people never cared or dared to connect these three concepts. They were kept as distinct consequences of Einstein's special theory of relativity. The result was tremendous confusion. But it did not affect the growth of physics at all because physics grows on formulae which are correct.

The confusion was more about understanding the 'events'. This led to paradoxes and confused experts as well as laymen. I pursued this problem for so many years because I believed that the Lorentz transformation is perfect and should not cause confusion.

What is the confusion that arises out of not seeing relations among the three consequences of the Lorentz transformation?

By treating 'time dilation' separately, they got into what is called 'twin paradox'. That is, twins can have different ages if one is moving and the other is not. It confused people though it did not affect physics.

The second concept also is confusing. And scientist wrote hundreds of papers on whether the contraction is real or illusory.

The third confusion arose when two events which are simultaneous are separated in time (the time separation can be either positive or negative). That is, there is no distinction between the past and future, and cause and effect. This is what is called non-causality. So, people started thinking of faster-than light particles, which is absolutely senseless.

Did you feel the same when you first read the book itself?

Yes. I knew that the three should be connected, but I did not know how to connect them.

Why is it that even after 90 years, no scientist could clear the confusion?

I will tell you why the confusion arose. That is because the word 'event' has not been defined at all. The great Einstein himself did not define 'event'. He just said something happens at a particular point in space at a particular time and that is an 'event'. The 'event' is defined by the space and time co-ordinate only. But nobody cared to explain what the 'event' was, because mathematically it is defined by 'X' and 'time' co-ordinates.

The Lorentz transformation explains how 'X' and 'T' change, so people all over the world thought why you should know what the 'event' is. It may be the birth of a particle or the death of a particle, it may be anything. That is the reason why they did not solve the problem.

How could you solve the problem, that too after 56 years?

Yes, I will tell you how I solved it. I have been thinking of this problem for 56 years. It was only last year that the solution came to my mind, that too in a flash. You may ask, why did it take 56 years? The answer is very clear. Because once you know the solution, you will understand why this has eluded me till now. See, it is like having a bunch of 10,000 keys and all of them are almost alike but one of them alone is the correct key. How would you trace it?

You have to try out all the keys one by one.

See, it is almost impossible, is it not? That is why it took 56 years for me. It also took a lot of time before I had the courage to say that by 'event' you always mean the crossing of two points. When one point is moving against another, the crossing of the points is what is called an 'event'. Any 'event' which you see in the world can ultimately be interpreted as the crossing of two points. After 92 years, for the first time the word 'event' has been defined as the crossing of the points.

Now, why do points cross? I added one more idea. That is, every point is the end of a rod. Therefore, the fundamental concept is the crossing of rods rather than crossing of points. Once you start in terms of rods which are crossing, we understand the changes and all problems are simultaneously solved.

How did you come to the conclusion that points are not just points alone but they lie at the ends of rods?

That is because a point is always included in a rod as it is the end point. But a rod concept is not included in a point. A rod is a much better concept because according to Einstein, a rod shrinks when it moves, the shrinking will not be there if you are only thinking of a point. So, you must think of the rod as a fundamental quantity and not a point.

What I did was, I took two rods, one stationary and the other moving. What I now say is, the moving rod has the same length as the stationary rod. This is the newest idea put forward in 92 years. Nobody in the history of physics has ever thought that a moving rod can have the same length as the stationary rod.

People know that when two rods of equal length move, they contract. But what they did not think of was a moving rod has the same length as a stationary rod. When such a crossing occurs, the end points are coincident simultaneously because the lengths are equal. But if you sit on the moving rod, that rod will look stationary while the other rod which was originally stationary now looks moving.

When you are sitting inside a stationary train, a train that is stationed next to you starts moving, but you feel that you are moving. Is it anything like that?

Yes, exactly the same. Likewise, if you are sitting on a moving rod, the stationary rod looks like a moving one. Then a remarkable thing happens. This rod which had a particular length when it was stationary now will have a longer length. So, the moving rod is now longer. The rod which had a particular length when it was moving now becomes shorter as you are sitting on the other one. So, there are two changes.

Out of the two rods which were of equal length, one becomes longer and the other becomes smaller and there is a gap. Therefore, the coincidence is disturbed. The end points are not coincident simultaneously. The small rod has to move before it can coincide.

When you calculate the difference in time, it is exactly what is predicted by the Lorentz transformation. The difference in time arises because two rods which are originally of equal length change their lengths. And the shorter rod has to move across the longer to coincide. The positive and negative nature depends on the direction of motion. So, it also explains the positive and negative nature of the time difference.

Now, the sheer absurdity of faster than light does not arise at all because what is moving is only the end point of the rod. The mistake they made was that they took the entire distance and divided it by the time taken for just crossing. Instead of taking the difference in distance and dividing it by time, they took the entire distance and divided it by time. It is like a long armed fellow touching one wall with the left arm and then touching the other side of the wall with his right arm and saying he has moved across from one wall to the other. It is as simple as the proof of a geometrical theorem.

Shall I ask you about the stationary train? Why do we feel that we are moving when we are actually stationary?

Nobody moves with respect to himself. So, when you are sitting in the train which is moving, you measure everything with respect to yourself. So, by definition, an observer does not move. He is the centre of the universe. When you go from Madras to Bangalore, Einstein would say, you are not going from Madras to Bangalore, but you are where you are and a rod called Madras to Bangalore is slipping under you. This is what happens when you are in an airplane. After the takeoff, you don't move. Suddenly you are told that you have landed in Delhi.

It is quite confusing. How do we know what is reality and what is not?

No, it is not confusing. It is a mathematical reality. It is not an illusion that you did not move. You measure all the distances from yourself. When you start from Madras, Madras is zero distance from you and when you arrive in Delhi, Delhi is zero distance from you. Mathematically, the observer is the point of origin and all the distance are measured with respect to the observer. See the Earth is moving at a terrible rate but we do not feel the motion because everything is with respect to ourselves.

Back to your new concept. How did the idea to use rods in place of points occur to you?

It occurred to me because I was always feeling that the rod was more a fundamental concept than a point. The point concept doesn't include a rod, but the rod concept always includes a point. Actually before the birth of relativity, scientists brought in the concept of 'ether', a fictitious fluid, and talked of an ether drag. Instead of calling it space-time unity, they wanted to give a physical explanation through ether drag. I can call my theory a revelation.

I must confess this idea should not normally occur to a person at the age of 73. It should occur to a person at the age of 21. But I had to put in 56 years of thought.

Was it very frustrating for you since you could not find an answer for such a long time?

Yes, in spite of all the work I did, I was disturbed. I thought I must solve this problem in my lifetime. But I couldn't get the solution. Now I consider this solution the most important event in my scientific life, more important than the directorship of MATSCIENCE for 25 years, more important than the 200 papers I have written. This is the way relativity will be taught to all children in the 21st century.

How did you feel immediately after your revelation?

I was sleepless the entire night. But I enjoyed every minute of those waking hours.

When did it happen?

Last year I was in Florida, staying with my son Professor Krishan Alladi. I used to walk at least a hundred times in the driveway in front of his house. It was then that the solution occurred to me. The idea of motion was there and space difference also was there, so I was always thinking of it. This solution is so simple that it can be taught in school. But the tragedy in our country is that we like to do satellite work, we like to do work based on other people's originality, and when it comes to our own thinking we are afraid to think for ourselves. Even the most gifted of our students suffer from this mentality.

In schools, they should have the courage to start relativity by this method. Though we have enjoyed fifty years of freedom, our mind is not yet free. We still have slavery in our heads. Every young man should think as if he is an Einstein, he may not become one but he should think for himself as Einstein did before he became famous.

Is it because our education system and the teachers do not encourage creative thinking that the students are also afraid to think differently?

It is because the atmosphere is not at all conducive to originality and achievement. We admire people who achieve things. Here they feel very satisfied with a local prize, they do not think of big prizes. His main object should be to work and solve a problem. This attitude is not there even in our research institutions.

We have heard that in India, most of our scientists are frustrated and they do not have the kind of freedom that their Western counterparts have. Is it true?

No. Freedom is not given to you by others. Freedom is in your mind. These scientists have lost their freedom voluntarily. They do not care to think of their own. The exceptions to these are Sir C V Raman, Dr Bhabha, Dr Chandrasekhar... only a few exceptions. But all great work is done under stress.

Why is it that many of our scientists move towards the West to work?

There the atmosphere stimulates. Here, if you have originality, you have to fight against all those who are deeply prejudiced against original work. A man who has a new idea goes abroad not for money but for excitement. Till today, only a Western magazine is willing to publish my work. Chandrasekhar succeeded in America. Bhabha succeeded in Cambridge. Ramanujan was discovered in England. The only exemption is Sir C V Raman, who worked in India alone.

How do you think the world will react to your work?

It will react very well. I am a practical man. I know it will take time. The reason it will take time is because people have lost interest in the problems of Lorentz transformation. Because the whole idea has become stale. It is like a cure for an incurable disease. It is also hard to believe that the solution is so simple.

Professor Ramakrishnan's photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj

EXTERNAL LINKS: The Lorentz Transformation

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