The Big Picture: A Physicist’s Perspective on Purpose
For thousands of years, a human being has been questioning the mysteries of nature and himself. Who am I? How did I get here? Who created this world, when and how? What is life? What is the purpose and meaning of (my) life? Even a casual look at the sky, shining with stars and constellations on a new moon night, awakens the curiosity with many thoughts & questions and makes us forget the rest. Whether sages of the Upanishad era, poets like Rabindranath Tagore, musicians like Kumar Gandharva and Kishori Amonkar, philosophers like J Krishnamurti, environmentalists like Jane Goodall and James Lovelock, saints like Tukaram, painters like Vincent van Gogh, or be it scientists like Einstein, humans are amazed by the esoteric and enigmatic beauty of the universe. You too must have faced such questions at some point in your life. Such curious, fundamental and existential questions arise intuitively in man, thus inspiring human beings to create ‘art’, ‘science’ and ‘philosophy’. These disciplines are an integral part of human culture.
With the progress of modern science in the last few years, we have an extraordinary and stunning ‘Big Picture’ of the universe looking at us. We can accurately locate the position of the Earth, even the location of humans, within this humongous and endless canvas of time and space. Fourteen billion (14 followed by nine zeros) years ago, a phenomenon called ‘Big-Bang’ gave birth to our universe. This led to the creation of numerous stars; which later came together to form galaxies. Sometime during the evolution of the universe, an insignificant star called ‘Sun’ was born 4.6 billion years ago. It is situated at an insignificant spot near the circumference of a galaxy called the Milky Way. Our universe is occupied by numerous stars like the Sun, numerous galaxies and many other miraculous phenomena such as nebulas and black holes. The Earth is an ordinary part of our solar system. However, 3.5 billion years ago due to some specific scientific reasons, an extraordinary, unique process took place on this ordinary spot of the universe, called the Earth. The process of life. This process has been constantly taking place since millions of years, through you, through us and through the magnificent creatures we see around us. Our personal life is a minuscule part of this vast process. A very beautiful science of, how this process called ‘life’ operates at different levels (that is, at the genetic, biochemical, cellular, population and eco-system level etc.) has been developing since the past few decades. It is in this evolutionary journey of life that, about 3.5 million years ago, a species called ‘man’ was born. Remarkably, the human body has undergone little change since the rise of the man 3.5 million years go. Changes that took place in the psychosocial circles of a human being are far more dynamic than the biological level. Therefore, we begin to see the evolution of man in the context of culture and civilization.
I am a student of theoretical physics. I completed my post-graduation at IISER in Pune. Later, I worked for a year at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and currently pursuing a PhD in theoretical physics at Arizona State University in the United States. ‘Theoretical physics’ is a modern science discipline which studies how the universe looks at different levels, right from the endless horizon of space and time to atoms and radicals. As I was learning at IISER, I had many questions about which physical laws govern the universe’s functioning. I wondered if this topic has any direct social implications, other than its obvious technological connection. I found myself questioning my very decision to pursue a career in this subject. Am I learning this subject only as a personal curiosity or are there any other motivations? What is the significance of this subject in the Big Picture of human evolution? What are the cultural and social references to this subject? Grappling with these fundamental questions led me to discover a youth orientation initiative called NIRMAN, started by Padma Shri recipients Drs. Rani and Abhay Bang in 2006. NIRMAN aims to foster a community of young people who aim to discover the purpose and meaning of their lives, tackle real social issues and connect with the wider society and the universe. My association with NIRMAN allowed me to draw parallels between the implications of theoretical physics and issues in society. Since embarking on my NIRMAN journey in 2016, I have been able to address my burning questions and uncertainties throughout college. NIRMAN developed the approach of combining my love of physics with my passion for social work.
Arguably, theoretical physics’ most prevailing contribution to civilization has been the ‘Big Picture’ of the universe. We are indeed fortunate to witness science’s significant strides in recent decades. Scientists have given expression, in the form of a ‘modern science’ to all the abstract, yet fundamental questions about humanity and nature. Now, we do not have to surrender to any mysteries or to any cleric of any creed. Curiosity is intrinsic to human nature and modern science has allowed us to pose these fundamental questions in a very objective but equally exciting and extraordinary way. Can the discoveries of modern science reach and enthral the masses? Does it reach the younger generation? Through NIRMAN, I understood that the knowledge of the universe understood through modern science is not limited to scientific institutions, it is the ‘accumulated knowledge’ of the entire human society. When such accumulated knowledge is transformed into technology, it is somewhat socially useful. However, the impetus for developing technology is not always conclusive and comprehensive. Here, we see this knowledge as ‘the truth of the world’, which has helped form the worldview of scientists and philosophers (or artists due to artistic expression). These expressions, which eventually develop the self, thoughts and feelings, should not just be limited to that person. They should be utilized to improve society and human civilization. This knowledge should not merely be transmitted as information, instead it should be used to advanced one’s view of the ‘self’. Individuals should be able to incorporate modern knowledge of life and the universe into their own journey. NIRMAN gave me this life purpose. Now as a part of the NIRMAN team, we are looking to examine if youth’s thinking and personality can be influenced to appreciate human insignificance and the wonders of the universe when they learn about the ‘Big Picture’? If so, in what aspect? And does this change in the outlook make the person’s NIRMAN journey more meaningful and comprehensive?
Today, young people are becoming increasingly lonely because of the uncertain economy and competitive culture. Today’s young generation is often referred to as ‘Generation-I’, or the self-centred generation. The motivation for most young people to live and work is derived from the competition with the world around them. With an excessive emphasis on personal ambitions and aspirations, youth are unable to fathom the extraordinary possibilities that exist beyond the self. Youth tend to explore their purpose and meaning within the narrow circle of the self. Young minds are seeking answers to these existential and psychological needs through the myopic lens of consumerism or utilitarianism. Through my experience at NIRMAN, I was able to relate how one’s perception of the ‘Big Picture’ can free young minds from the cage of the self. Like Arjuna’s response to Krishna’s Virat Swaroop in the Mahabharata, we find that by being deeply humbled and in awe of the ‘Big Picture’, individuals realize how vast, comprehensive and beautiful the relation is between life and the universe, and then begins to question and trivial nature of the world structured around ‘me’.
In today’s education system, young people rarely get the chance to connect with the world beyond ‘I’. ‘NIRMAN’ is a learning process that connects youth to the wider society and universe beyond ‘I’ through meaningful experiences. Modern psychology has been able to show the benefits of the mental state of wonder on the human psyche. The person gets the time required to think about the events of life, own existence and about the whole life in the long run. When the youth look at their own self and the Earth, a mere pale blue dot drifting in the vastness of the ‘Big Picture’, we find that their thinking expands, becomes universal and comprehensive and urges young minds to think beyond the ‘self’. It becomes a spiritual experience for the youth. In the words of Jaiprakash Narayan, ‘spirituality isn’t the blabbering of the old age, but a leap of the eagerness of the youth’. According to Narayan, the questions our young generation face are at their core spiritual in nature. The expansion of the ‘self’ as a result of the Big Picture comprehension may arouse the spiritual and existential consciousness of youth. This is indeed a stellar future to look forward to.
NIRMAN is a leadership development program to nurture social change agents. It facilitates young adults’ search for the purpose by social problem based experiential learning and identification of self through it. The selection process of the next batch of NIRMAN is going on presently.
A Marathi version of this article can be accessed here.