[under Public Domain, via Wikipedia]
What Albert Einstein could think up in his head over a century ago, was finally proven in 2016. What started out as the scribblings of a patent clerk as early as in 1905 and emerged in 1916 as a mind-bending hypothesis suggested space and time can be stretched. Nobody, him included, thought any human could ever prove it is possible. But now it has been proved and three American scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for it. In announcing the award, The New York Times reported, the Royal Swedish Academy called it “a discovery that shook the world.”
This TED video titled 'How LIGO discovered gravitational waves—and what might be next' explains what it's all about. (It's in Spanish, with a transcript in English.)
In the mother of all ironies, Einstein, the man who first proposed the Theory of Relativity, had few takers. Even as late as in 1921, the Nobel Academy did not think there were any candidates worth giving the prize in physics to. To be fair to them though, they plucked Einstein out as a worthy contender for his contribution to “Theoretical Physics” and the photoelectric effect. It catapulted him from obscurity into the arc lights.
It had little impact on his obsession with the multiple questions playing on his mind—to most of which only hypothetical answers were possible. But he stayed at it. Why?
For most people who are creatures of reason—particularly in leadership positions, this is a waste of time. Convention has it that there is the immediate and the urgent to be handled on the one hand; and then there are long-term goals to be accomplished on the other hand that are articulated in vision documents. Why would you want to expend energy on what is intangible and not visible to the line of sight?
Some pointers to why started to emerge from an interesting conversation with Shankar Maruwada who co-founded the EkStep Foundation. The stated mission of the foundation is to discover innovative ways to deliver learning opportunities for children who would otherwise not have had access to education. He was also a part of the original team that came together to create Aadhaar, or the Unique Identity Project—an ambitious scheme to provide over a billion people with a unique identity. It is now in the eye of a storm.
My colleague NS Ramnath and I caught up with the thoughtful gentleman a few days ago. The both of us have spent time with him speaking of his stint on thinking through Aadhaar when it was just an idea in the heads of a few people. And we’ve spent time on the many thoughts playing in his mind in his role at EkStep. Basis what he learnt from implementing Project Aadhaar, we asked him a question. “How are you going about it now as opposed to in the past?”
The sum and substance of his answer was: Convention insists that when a problem emerges, a solution be found. Inevitably, these solutions emerge from existing frameworks. In turn, where do frameworks emerge from? Inevitably, from our understanding of how the world operates.
The world we live in is dynamic and complex. It frustrates any framework our imaginations can think up
But we are finally coming around to accept the world we live in is a dynamic and complex one. It has a mind of its own and frustrates any framework our imaginations can think up. Is it possible then to stop thinking in the traditional mechanistic way like an engineer (or a physicist) who builds frames?
Why cannot we push ourselves instead to think dynamically and across disciplines instead? Why aren’t we synthesising knowledge from the masters across fields as diverse as biology, the arts and philosophy without discarding the fundamentals of physics and engineering? Is it possible to be somebody (or an entity for that matter) that can move seamlessly between domains and synthesise all of what emerges to create a new frame?
It is impossible to predict every outcome. You must learn to live with uncertainty and hypotheses
To that extent, Maruwada was trying to say that after having worked on something as large as Project Aadhaar, the implications of which are staggering to the mind, he has learnt it is impossible to predict every outcome. You must learn to live with uncertainty and hypotheses, some of which may work, some of which may not.
After listening to Maruwada, Ramnath and I quickly exchanged notes. What he said was in line with a hypothesis those in academia are intimately aware of and are at work on—but their voices go unheard outside of it. It insists that thinking in silos doesn’t work in the complex world we live in. Because that isn’t how nature is designed.
For instance, an engineer can imagine only structures in grids. A biologist insists on peering at everything from the microscope. A writer can describe the world only in a narrative. A religious teacher thinks there is nothing outside the boundaries of the scriptures he has been weaned on. And, so on and so forth.
History has it that the finest of minds we can think of were not confined to their domains. Think of Leonardo da Vinci. Isaac Newton. Or Albert Einstein who had the temerity to refine Newton’s Laws of Motion to come up with the General Theory of Relativity when Newton’s words was gospel.
In our heads though, Einstein continues to be a physicist. But much like da Vinci and Newton weren’t just scientists, Einstein wasn’t either. There was a lot playing on their minds and they expended much time on it. For the sake of this piece, let’s stick with Einstein. His fertile mind was pondering over multiple questions—all of which were outside his so-call “field of expertise” and very little of which is discussed in the public domain. For instance:
- Does God exist? (At the time he died, he thought there is an incomprehensible force larger than him.)
- Does religion have to exist? (He thought it unnecessary.)
- Do I have to feel patriotic? (The idea was abhorrent to him.)
- If I am a pacifist and abhor violence, how can I possibly eat meat? (He remained conflicted all his life.)
- What is it about art that I can see beauty in, but cannot seem to re-create, much like a painter or a musician would? (He took to playing the violin with much joy to the amusement of his friends who thought him an awful player of the instrument.)
Such questions have occupied humans for centuries. How did Einstein attempt to answer these? Often, in wrestling with these questions, he found himself lonely because there were few people he could exchange notes with.
That is why I started to pore over his many letters, writings, and engage in a conversation with an old friend. He insists on being identified by his first name alone—Ashutosh. During his day job, Ashutosh is designated as a Master Scientist at Agilent Technologies and is based out of Atlanta in the US. He holds a doctorate in physics. Over time though, his trajectory has morphed and he now lives at the intersection of molecular biology, computing, physics and is deeply interested in history, philosophy, and art. I also know of him as one of the finest connoisseurs of Urdu poetry among other things.
I called him the other day to try and simulate what may have passed through Einstein’s mind. Though we didn’t discuss Project Aadhaar, I was wondering if any pointers may emerge on whether Maruwada’s hypothesis that leaders across all domains—government, policy making or businesses—must think of themselves as people dealing with complex adaptive systems.
There is much merit in studying theory that people routinely like to diss. Who knows what will emerge where and when?
After having explained my position to Ashutosh, his first response was that while he is no authority on leadership, there is much merit in studying theory that people routinely like to diss and fine minds like Einstein because that is where the boundaries of convention are pushed. Who knows what will emerge where and when?
Our conversation turned out to be an interesting one that challenged me at various levels. We touched upon pretty much all the questions I articulated above. It lasted a few hours. Allow me offer you some pointers to the themes we flirted with.
Does God exist?
From every platform that matters, for as long as I can remember, I have screamed I am an atheist. That I am a man who believes in science, places a premium on reason and therefore subscribes to the Principle of Falsifiability. Very simply put, if the facts change, I will change my mind.
But no framework or facts exist to support that God exists. In poring over Einstein’s papers, three passages caught my attention.
1. “…the political rulers and the priestly caste make common cause in their own interests…”
In other words, it is important for people who are part of these classes to monopolise the idea of God so that their hold over others in society may continue. To do that, they may go so far as to create a God. This God is the outcome of fear.
2. “The social feelings are another source of the crystallization of religion. Fathers and mothers and the leaders of larger human communities are mortal and fallible. The desire for guidance, love, and support prompts men to form the social or moral conception of God…”
When read closely, this is a God born out of every human’s need to feel wanted and loved. When looked at from Einstein’s eyes, “The development from a religion of fear to moral religion is a great step in a nation's life.”
3. “But there is a third state of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form, and which I will call cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to explain this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it.”
This got my attention. Because this is the kind of God he believed in. And what may this God be? The Ashutosh I have known in the past was an atheist. But in conversing the other day he told me that after having put in as many years at the frontiers of science, it now occurs to him how little he knows; and how insignificant he is in the larger scheme of things. So, while he may not be somebody who is acclaimed, because the kind of work he does is not understood by most people, he gets much joy out of working at an intersection and witness what few people may ever get to witness in this lifetime. I asked him to make this tangible for me.
“Let’s say,” he said, “I am asked to solve a problem. I need to figure some way to do it. I may do it. But my joy does not come from finding an answer to the question. It also lies in how elegantly may I have discovered the answer. If the methods that answer the question don’t read like poetry to me, I feel unhappy with the answers. But when they do, I feel at peace and in harmony with the natural order of the universe. I think of it as the idea of finding truth, beauty and goodness. When I discover that, I know I have found my God.”
When probed further, I figured what he was trying to tell me was that what we traditionally celebrate as “jugaad” is not something he finds joy in. It fit in with the point Maruwada was trying to drive at as well in our conversation.
In implementing Project Aadhaar, the team figured that there were no existing models that they could borrow from any other part of the world to make it happen. They’d have to work on a hypothesis, keep listening to the multiple voices closely, sift the signal from the noise, and strive to arrive at the most elegant solution.
It is an iterative process. It may not be the perfect one. It is entirely possible that along the way, you may make mistakes. But that said, there is no taking away from that you discover much as well. As you do, you get to understand a lot more about what the world may really be like. Those learnings are part of an evolutionary cycle and over time, the hypothesis keeps iterating. But more pertinently, because these learnings are in the public domain, it can be accessed by anybody to deploy and build upon in spaces you may not have otherwise thought possible. Maruwada is a witness to that at the Foundation. To that extent, it is a life-altering experience. My first instinct was to think of it as entrepreneurship.
What if I were to look at this as a search for something that will always be work in progress?
After having slept over that conversation though, my mind went back to what Ashutosh told me the other day and Einstein’s notes. Why do I have to look at Maruwada and team’s quest necessarily as one of entrepreneurship? What if I were to look at this as a search for something that will always be work in progress? The quest for truth, beauty, and goodness, after all, can never end.
What is the matter with eating meat?
In my head, I am at a place where I am deeply conflicted about it. Because when thought about, it does not sit well with my stated world view. I abhor violence. Just that I may add some muscle to my argument, may I bring in some passages from a piece that I stumbled across in Aeon Magazine on how much ought we worry about the death of what we squash without giving it a second thought—in this case, a fly.
"Now, I’m not a biologist, but I know that a fly is an animal, and more specifically, an insect. As such, it has (or had) wings, legs, eyes, antenna and a host of internal organs. Those parts are in turn made of cells, each one of which is hugely complex. And in those cells, among many other things, are—are were—the fly’s genes, which in turn embody an astonishing intricacy and an ancient, multi-million-year history, while in the fly’s gut would have been countless bacteria with their own genes, their own goals. Worlds within worlds, now squidged together into a single dark smudge that I am already finding it hard to pinpoint among the scratches and coffee rings. A history of life spread out before me, if only I were able to read it.
“At this point, I guess that readers will be dividing into two parties. One party, probably the majority, will be thinking, ‘Get over it, it’s a fly.’ This, it seems to me, is a very reasonable position. Flies die in large numbers all the time—some, indeed, at my hand, whether I intend it or not (and I sometimes do). And in the summer evenings, when I sit on our terrace and watch swifts in their spectacle of swooping and screeching, this beautiful display is, of course, at the same time an orgy of insect death.
“The other party of readers, probably the minority, will be horrified at my casual killing of this delicate life-form. They will be appalled at the waste and stupidity of my carelessness. To them, must be an oaf; at best ignorant, at worst malevolent. And this, it seems to me, is also a very reasonable position. Even though I habitually write—sometimes about complex subjects—it is certain that with one mistimed finger-swipe I destroyed complexity and beauty many orders of magnitude greater than any I will ever create."
The piece lingered in my mind. When I squash a fly, I squash millions of years of history. And the passages replay themselves out every once a while. A few months ago, for instance, I passed through Bhiwandi, a two-hour drive from Mumbai. What hits the eye soon after you turn off the highway are rows upon rows of meat shops—or abattoirs. Filthy doesn’t begin to describe the gore with carcasses of goats and chickens mounted one upon another, with their live counterparts tethered close by, waiting their turn to be killed.
The sight can make you retch; and want to give up on eating meat of any kind. I have sworn many times I will. That I haven't yet, is another matter altogether. But it compels me often times to ask questions us humans have asked of each other forever. Do animals have a soul? Do animals have a conscience? Do the wretched creatures lined up for slaughter next to their slaughtered brethren know they are next? Does it terrify them?
The various schools of thoughts that debate these are the ones I have pointed to in the passages quoted above. I asked Ashutosh where does he stand on this. His answer was provocative. Originally from Himachal Pradesh, he grew up as a vegetarian. In an act of rebellion though, he took to eating meat. But as he started getting deeper into studying the various sciences, biology, philosophy, and how nature calibrates itself, in his mind, all conflicts started to dissipate.
I asked him to offer perspective. He started asking me some questions.
How much thought have I put into what kind of resources will it take to sustain the world on an entirely vegetarian diet?
When I poked around a bit, I could see pointers to the problems that exist. While on paper it is possible to move towards a more cereal-based diet, it creates other problems. There is no taking away from that protein is needed as well. And while India has done much to increase wheat production, it has come at a dramatic cost in terms of depletion of Indian rivers. The damage to the ecosystem is enormous and the magnitude is being acknowledged only now.
Then there is an economic argument. What happens to the ecosystem if I stop eating meat? When I looked that up, turns out India is home to the world’s largest livestock population. The most recent data has it that India has the world’s most number of cattle and is the second largest poultry market in the world.
This data raises other questions.
- Is India equipped to deal with the livestock? There are people out there whose livelihood depends on culling livestock because that is how the ecosystem is.
- What happens to their livelihoods if I insist on imposing my morality upon them? How am I to compensate them for the losses and hunger that may accrue to them?
- And if morality be a barometer, how did poultry get to be as big as it is? The only reason poultry is reared anyplace in the world is so that it may yield either eggs or meat. To that extent, it is a source of cheap protein. So, if I were to turn militant about my morality, is it possible that I forbid many people from access to the only food they can afford?
I must admit that had me stumped for a while. Even as I was beginning to ponder the consequences of that, Ashutosh threw yet another one at me.
“Did you know,” he asked me, “the Buddha whom you are now enamoured by and whose teachings you are inclined to follow, died because he consumed pork?”
Ashutosh’s readings suggest at the time of Buddha’s death, his body was wracked by disease and he could not digest meat. But his philosophy insisted that he ought not to refuse any food that has been offered to him as alms. My readings have not provided any conclusive evidence that he did consume meat. It suggests he may or may not have—the literature is very subjective and open to interpretation. But one thing is clear. Gautama Buddha did not forbid his monks from consuming meat. What he did offer them as a pointer though was that they take what is given to them by way of alms—and if that food be meat, so be it. But to refrain from killing wilfully or accept meat that was cooked only for their consumption.
We debated the morality of it all. It threw up more questions.
Ashutosh works at the frontiers of the sciences and states with much authority that animals have “feelings” in much the same way that humans do. There is documented evidence that proves consciousness is not just a human experience. If that be the case, Ashutosh prodded me to think along a few lines before we take the conversation any further:
- Why is it that animals have no qualms in consuming other animals?
- Is it in the moral order of the universe to eat what is available? Does that put into perspective Buddha’s instructions that you take only what is available—and if that be meat, so be it?
- Have I noticed though that animals do not hunt for sport or breed other animals for consumption like humans do?
I hadn’t thought about all these. I have much to think about. Apparently, this is a theme around which Einstein was deeply conflicted as well and something he couldn’t quite come to terms with.
But Einstein thought it pertinent that he stays invested in his search for answers to questions like these. There are no frameworks he knew of to deploy to seek answers. But in trying to find answers to questions like these, he had to think up new possibilities. And these possibilities lie in domains where his expertise was limited.
I pushed Ashutosh to put some perspective on why is this search for answers to seemingly irrelevant questions important in the contemporary scheme of things. He offered me an interesting take.
He currently works at the intersection of multiple sciences. While he trained as a physicist, over time he has acquired a perspective on Big Data, biology, philosophy and literature that compels him to think about what can the outcome of one decision have on the ecosystem. This means he must get out of his comfort zone and work in ambiguous territory.
His mandate right now is to look for patterns in recurring forms of cancer. Will any cure come out of it? He has no clue. But what he does know is that in poking around multiple nooks and crannies, something may just emerge that may not have occurred to him. What he also knows now is that there is only so much he can know. He has made his peace with that.
I asked him to make it tangible for me.
“Do you think IBM worked on Deep Blue with the explicit intent to beat Gary Kasparov?”
That’s how I always thought it to be. His take was no. IBM didn’t know what the outcomes would be. Even if Deep Blue had lost all the matches against Kasparov, an entirely new set of learnings would have emerged for IBM on how the human mind works.
He asked me to think of Google in much the same way. I have been rather vocal in my arguments that Google sounds like a beast that seems to have lost its way. But the way Ashutosh the scientist looks at the company is that after Google was restructured as an entity under Alphabet, it could stick to what it is good—refine its abilities to create a better search engine. Researchers within the larger ecosystem that is Alphabet can engage in moon shots that include everything from artificial intelligence to the Life Sciences. Who is to know what may emerge?
Google is morphing from a fragile creature into an anti-fragile one
When thought about some more, in doing that, Google is morphing from a fragile creature into an anti-fragile one. And what do I mean by anti-fragile? In my head, I think of anything that is rigid as fragile. Because anything that is rigid, when hit hard, can be fractured. But anti-fragile means when hit, it has the ability to absorb the impact and acquire a new shape.
To do that though, much comfort is needed in places where no frameworks exist and confidence exists to work off just a hypothesis.
The world is complex. It adapts constantly. And we need to adapt, keep iterating, and get out of familiar frameworks
Once again, I felt compelled to go back to what Maruwada was trying to suggest. It is high time leaders and leadership systems across the world change the way they work. Acknowledge that all the answers don’t lie within. That the world is a complex place. It adapts constantly. And we need to adapt, keep iterating, and get out of familiar frameworks.
That is something Einstein figured out over a hundred years ago. It took a little over a century, and long after he died, to prove that he was indeed right.
(This is adapted from ‘What advice may Einstein have to offer?’ that was published in Livemint.)