Date: July 08 2012
YOU MUST understand, someone said once, that there is pure mathematics, and applied mathematics, and a subset of that called physics, the study of the mathematics of matter and motion. And then there is astrophysics. Beyond that, theoretical physics. Beyond that, speculation. And then there is rank speculation. And far beyond that we have cosmology.
Cosmology, boiled down, is the search for order about mass, energy and motion affecting the entire universe, turning mostly around theories of the Big Bang, but also containing amusing diversions such as the Black Hole discovered by John Howard, as well as the Douglas Adams Hitchhiker trilogy in five books, and Stephen Hawking's A short history of time, which no-one has ever had the time (or inclination) to finish.
At almost the opposite end of the spectrum is particle physics, the search for order, pattern and rules of behaviour of sub-atomic particles. It likewise sometimes seems in a realm of theories similar to when architectural drawings of skyscrapers are deduced from axe-marks on grains of sand, or handwriting is read by eye from 10 million kilometres away.
The general consensus of particle physicians, settled in the 1970s, is called the Standard Model, and posits an array of basic building ''blocks'' or energy packets of matter, including six ''flavours'' of quarks (bottom, top, up, down, charm and strange), six sorts of leptons (electrons, electron neutrinos, muons, muon neutrinos, tau, tau neutrinos) and up to 13 gauge bosons, or force carriers, including gravitons, photons, W and Z bosons of the weak force and gluons of the strong force. These combine in different ways to form electrons, hadrons (such as protons, neutrons, each called baryons) and mesons, like pions and kaons. Confused? So am I.
This week saw a major development in particle physics when the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland produced a particle thought most likely to be the Higgs boson.
Its finding seemed to confirm much of the theoretical basis of the Standard Model.
The Higgs boson really ought to be called the Higgs Boson, or even the Bose-Higgson, after the Bengali theoretical physicist who, in work with Albert Einstein, first speculated its existence, in about 1924. Satyendra Bose, like a near contemporary, Srinivasa Ramanujan, and an array of other Indian scientists going back 2500 years, are giants of mathematics, yet hardly known in the Western world built in part from their discoveries. Bose, in particular, should have received the Nobel Prize sometime before he died in 1974: any number of people who built on his work did.
This provides me with my biennial opportunity to call for the construction of a museum of mathematics, designed particularly to honour the contribution of Indian mathematicians to the world. It should be built in the space between the lake and the National Science and Technology Centre in front of the National Library.
My model of the museum would be based on building an exact copy of the Jaipur or Delhi Observatory, able, as with exhibits at Questacon and as at Jaipur and Delhi, to be clambered over by children as much as marvelled at by anyone with a respect for science, for patterns and for sheer genius.
These observatories, or Jantar, built in India's Moghul period about 400 years ago, include about 20 great fixed instruments, some 10 metres high, built in masonry, capable of telling time to within a minute or two, to predict eclipses, and the movements of the sun, the moon, and the planets, as well as the declinations and coordinates of the stars.
Even dedicated mathematicians, steeped in Archimedes, Pythagorus, Euclid and Ptolemy, and at best dimly aware of an Arab contribution to maths through algebra and (they think, Arabic) numbers are often ignorant of how eastern learning, in China as well as India, preceded and established much of the scientific knowledge of the West. Our Arabic numbers, for example, are Hindu numbers. And if you think we could easily do without them, try multiplying CDLXXXIII by CIXC.
Perhaps the most famous Indian discovery, which did not reach western Europe until about the 12th century, was the invention of the concept of zero in the 7th century AD. It has been likened to the invention of fire and the wheel in terms of how it potentiated an explosion of knowledge. Without zero and Hindu-Arabic numbers, we could hardly have had a Newton, a Euler or a Gauss, let alone an Einstein.
One does not have to rank the Indians with each other, or other great mathematicians, so much as recognise that when Isaac Newton said, ''If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,'' he would have admitted, had he known, that among those raising him up were people from east of the Hindu Kush.
There is nothing in Canberra - I sometimes think Australia - which represents either Australia's links and friendship with India or India's great contribution to science and civilisation. Within a short distance of where the Jantar should be is a gift of the Government of Japan (Questacon) and a gift of Great Britain (the Carrillon).
Perhaps it should be India - or some great Indian combine - which donates a Jantar to Canberra, perhaps as 100th birthday present, given that our city's fathers are so slow to do something to recognise the primacy of maths as an art and a science. There have been, over the years, temporary enthusiasms for the proposal, and some officials have even wandered over to have a look at the Jantar - which in Jaipur is a world heritage site. But no proposal has progressed. Apparently, there's no money these days.
If we leave the future of Canberra to the imagination of the leaders of the National Capital Authority, one imagines them designating the area for a theme car park, perhaps so as to enhance the view from ASIO's Lubyanka, the NCA's crowning architectural triumph, so classically with its windows facing south for environmental and security reasons. Nor could one confidently pass on the responsibility, on non-national land, to the ACT Government, particularly in election mode. For some reason or other Andrew Barr is itching to place a stadium somewhere near Civic, possibly at Braddon Oval, which should be incorporated in a major urban development along with the ABC Flats. That, alas, is another dream, if only because a demand for imagination might be beyond the local rent seekers, who might make life hot for our local Lilliputians.
I have suggested that if we must have a new oval, and it must be built at ratepayers' expense, Barr could resume the (refurbished but vacant) Catholic Archbishop's Palace on Commonwealth Avenue, given rent free and rate-free to the church 70 years ago so that a national cathedral could be placed there.
This material is subject to copyright and any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.
[ Canberra Times | Text-only index]