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Even Nobel Laureates can be wrong!

In 1972 something extraordinary happened. A young Pakistani scientist, working as a Don at Kings College, Cambridge University, disproved the joint work of 3 giants in chemistry, one of whom (Sir Robert Robinson) was a Nobel Laureate. The other two were Sir W.H.Perkin (after whom two of the top British chemistry journals, Journal of Chemical Society Perkin 1 and Journal of Chemical Society Perkin 2 are named)  and Prof. R.H.F. Manske. The work involved the chemical transformations of a compound (harmaline) occurring  in the seeds of a local plant “harmal”. The work of these 3 giants of chemistry had been accepted as correct for almost 50 years till it was disproved by the young Pakistani scientist, whose paper was ironically published in the same top British chemistry journal (Journal of Chemical Society Perkin 1, page 736, 1972) named after the British scientist whose work was being disproved. The Pakistani scientist was later to become Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society (London) and invited to sign the 360 year old book of the Royal Society with a feather pen, once signed by Sir Issac Newton and Charles Darwin. Lesson: Even Nobel Laureates can be wrong — so never believe the printed word blindly but always adopt a questioning approach. Guess who was the Pakistani scientist?


Faster than light?

Scientists working at CERN laboratories in Switzerland have recently fine-tuned and repeated their earlier findings of September last year in which they found that neutrinos could travel at a speed slightly faster than light. Interestingly they obtained the same results. The discovery, if substantiated by others, will shake the understanding of modern physics and show that Einstein’s theory of relativity and the ideas on which modern physics is based were built on incorrect foundations. Scientists at Fermi labs in USA and KEK labs in Japan are preparing to investigate the stunning results of the scientists at CERN. If the results are reproduced, then the present understanding of modern physics will be turned upside down.

According to Jeff Forshaw a professor of particle physics at Britain’s Manchester University, if the results are correct, then time travel will become possible and information could be transmitted to the past.


What Are We Made Up Of?

What are we made up of? Some may answer “flesh and bones”. Others may say that we are made up of atoms. Both are right. But what are the absolute fundamental building blocks —- in other words, what are atoms made up of? At one time it was thought that atoms were made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. That was it. It soon turned out that there were far more mysterious forces at work. From 1960 onwards a large number of other sub-atomic particles were discovered, and now there are hundreds of such particles known. A set of rules that describe how these sub-atomic particles behave and interact with each other is known as the “quantum theory”.

Things start becoming even more fascinating as we delve deeper. In the 1980s a new theory was developed that envisages that we are all made up of infinitely small pieces of dancing strings! These strings have only one dimension, length but the other two dimensions (height and width) are absent. The strings are not stationary but exhibit exotic dances (vibrations), and it is the manner in which they vibrate that determines how they are seen by us—- as matter, light or gravity. Thus all matter or energy is an exhibition of the vibrations of these tiny dancing strings. This became known as the “string theory”.

There is a further twist to this fascinating tale. We are familiar with the three dimensions of length, width and height, and the fourth dimension, time. According to the string theory there are further 7 dimensions, although we cannot sense them directly. Five major string theories were developed depending on how the strings behaved (whether they vibrated as open loops, closed loops etc.). Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and other researchers finally developed the M-theory (“M” standing for membrane) thus unifying the 5 string theories under one banner. The M-theory hopes to explain everything —- the ultimate riddles of our existence, and is therefore often described as “Theory of Everything”. It considers that the tiny dancing strings that we are all made up of are really one-dimensional slices of a two-dimensional membrane, which are dancing in 11-dimensional space!

This all now starts sounding like a fairy tale as at present the technology does not exist to prove its correctness, and it may never will. In his latest book entitled “The Grand Design” the famous Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking and co-author Leonard Mlodinowhave considered the above theories and virtually given up. They now think that science offers incomplete windows to a common reality.

However the next time you have an urge to dance when music is placed, just shrug your shoulders and accept it as just natural. After all modern science tells us that we are all — at least in theory — made up of these tiny strings which are dancing perpetually!

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