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...
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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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