Readers Write In #269: A Brief History of Science

Posted on September 13, 2020


(by G Waugh)

You are all made up of atoms. A large portion of the atom is just empty space. A very small portion of it contains the nucleus. The nucleus is so, so tiny but inspite of its infinitesimal size it holds the protons and neutrons together. A strong nuclear force packs all the protons and neutrons into that unimaginably tiny space while a weak nuclear force keeps the spinning electrons in orbit around the nucleus. If an electron moves from one orbit to another, it emits energy. But the energy that an invisible atom contains is just immense. Can you believe if I say your entire body if converted into its equivalent form of energy, shall be as powerful as a hundred atom bombs that exploded at Hiroshima?

This is precisely why I want you to read science. It is so interesting that you will realize at a point that, all the dullness and monotony that you experience in life is concentrated only in the field of your vision. Anything that is outside it, regardless of whether it is too large or too tiny is just as interesting as hell.

Will you believe if I say there are millions of explosions a hundred times larger than you have seen in Hollywood action films happening every single instant as you are reading this now? If you won’t believe, of course I can understand- since what all of us have been trained to think about most of the time is whether our office-bus shall arrive at the right time at the stop or which political party shall sweep the next Assembly elections. But what I said is just the truth. There is nothing truer than my ‘explosion’ idea. If there is no such explosion, you and me simply won’t exist. Forget your office and your routines. The Sun is the place where explosions several times stronger than the most powerful hydrogen bomb every conceived by man happens every single second and without them, there is simply no day and night. All the light and heat that you are exposed to every second, owe their origins to these never-ending explosions. But the explosions even if they happen millions of miles away from us are not without their harmful effects. The ultra-violet radiation that accompanies the light and the cosmic radiation that the universe is so full of can simply pulverize your body the moment you come in touch with them. But the Earth is not only the place on which you can simply tread at hundred miles per hour in your car on a traffic-free Sunday morning. There is more to it- the ball on which we live is made up of three layers, one of which is called the mantle whose filler is molten in nature. The mantle provides the required magnetic field needed to deflect the harmful cosmic radiation while a thin layer of ozone that wraps the Earth like a polythene shroud wards off the ultra-violet radiation that comes from the explosion-ridden Sun. If you are alive on this Earth, it is due to a combination of these curious circumstances for which you could choose to be thankful if you wish.

Let me follow this up with a very brief history of how science helped man unravel the secrets of nature and where we stand now in our progress. If at the end of the essay, you are still not enamoured of the subject, okay well and good. If you think you love it, I have given a set of books at the end, that will make your journey to the center of the Universe all the more exciting.


The scientists of the last few centuries tried to understand the nature of an atom. If the behavior of an atom is somehow understood, they assumed they will be able to explain the whole ‘idea’ behind the Universe. Just like how all of us think we are born on this planet for a purpose, they thought that if the Universe exists, there must be an idea and a whole ‘purpose’ behind it. Initially, the atom was assumed to be just a particle. A lot of physical phenomena were explained on this assumption but some key concepts such as gravity did not fit in. So they decided to change their assumptions.

A scientist named Young once allowed light to pass through a screen with two vertical slits to see the pattern that emerges on a second screen behind. The light that emerged produced a pattern of alternating bright and dark patches, much to his astonishment. This kind of patching was not possible if the light were just composed of mere photon ‘particles’. Without possessing a property called ‘interference’ the light-producing photons couldn’t have formed those alternating patches. And particles cannot in all probability ‘interfere’ with one another. To possess interference, they must not have been particles but waves. So a new idea emerged and it was called the ‘wave theory’ that displaced the ‘particle’ idea behind atomic and subatomic entities.

But the ‘wave’ theory too had a lot of limitations. It could not explain the photoelectric effect or the properties of light propagating through a vacuum. So scientists found a new idea. Some phenomena of the atom were explicable through the ‘particle’ hypothesis while others made sense through the ‘wave’ hypothesis. So why don’t we combine both and create a new theory? Let us imbibe an atom with dual properties similar to our masala movie heroes who remain docile in the first half and turn borderline brutal in the second. Here is what we call it, the ‘quantum’ theory which means the atom is neither just a particle nor just a wave but simply ‘both’. The scientists considered this a ‘great’ victory that helped them understand all the properties of atomic and subatomic particles and the whole ‘idea’ behind the universe they thought, was just simply a block or two away.


The Bihar Earthquake is a divine chastisement for the great sin we have committed against those whom we describe as Harijans”. This was Gandhi in 1934 when thousands of people were killed on account of a massive earthquake.

When this Kali Yuga ends, the God will descend on the Earth, destroy it and create a whole new planet”. This was my mother when I was a ten-year old kid in 1999.

Kerala is being punished by God through torrential rains and floods because those God-hating communists opened the Sabarimala temple for menstruating women”. These were Hindu right-wingers a couple of years back mocking the sufferings of Kerala people who were struggling to survive a natural calamity.

You can’t blame mankind for attributing every single natural phenomenon on this world to its own acts and behaviours. For centuries together, people believed that the Sun was actually revolving around the Earth and that every single being that existed on this planet was made for them to consume. So we took the liberty of drilling down mountains to extract minerals, oil and coal, we butchered animals that couldn’t register a sign of protest, we caught fishes and other aquatic beings in millions without a smidgen of remorse. Man for centuries together, thought he was the centre of everything around him and if the Earth sometimes behaved adversely it was because it was angry and was trying to punish him.


There is a place called Yellowstone National Park in the US and the park extends to hundreds of miles in the State of Wyoming. Every year close to a million people visit it on account of its curious geography and intriguing landscape. The National Park came into being on such a wide landmass owing to one singular condition- the entire region was once a super-volcano that explodes at indefinable time intervals.

The ‘volcano’ concept itself is a very curious thing and if a mountain decides to explode, it will lead to frequent earthquakes and climate changes in the surrounding area. But the Yellowstone is considered to be a super-volcano. A super-volcano is one which, if it explodes will lead to emission of tonnes and tonnes of lava, triggering massive earthquakes and changes in the climate that might easily amount to a massive destruction of life and property in a large portion of the continent itself. The Yellowstone is dotted with something what you call ‘geysers’ which are pretty much sudden outbursts of hot water that reach a height of over a hundred feet and stay there for quite a while. Scientists and geologists working in the Yellowstone still don’t have the faintest idea of how these geysers suddenly burst forth into being or where the next geyser will make its appearance. They have a lot of sophisticated equipment in place to study the supervolcano behaviour but their predictions about the next eruption are accurate only in the range of thousands of years.

After all, the Earth was formed 4.5 billion years before man was born on it and any predictions we make are bound to be in keeping with the Earth’s massive time-scale. Some scientists at the Yellowstone calculate that the super-volcano erupts once in every 6,00,000 years and the last eruption according to reliable estimates happened at an eerily approximate 6,00,000 years ago. As we see, an eruption that has the potential to wipe out almost a continent is very much on the cards and as responsible citizens shouldn’t we be considering vacating the region now?

The answer is no. The number of 6,00,000 years is pretty much an estimate. There might be an error in the range of 10,000 years which is too tiny considering the age of the planet. You might as a responsible President of the United States order a large-scale evacuation with so much scientific evidence and love for humanity to back you up but the eruption might not take place at all in the next two thousand years or so.

So what do we gather from this? The Earth is pretty much a mysterious place. The reason why Earthquakes occur is still not clear and the science of plate tectonics that could predict them is still in its infancy. The same applies to volcanoes. The Earth was formed out of a clump of dust particles that burst from a star some billions of years ago and the moon that revolves around us is nothing but a broken piece that was driven out of the Earth by a massive asteroid that hit it long, long back.

If Earth were located a mere five percent closer to the Sun in our orbit, the heat of our nearest Star would simply burn all life down. If we were distant from it by the same proportion, the Earth would be full of frost and ice-sheets that shall kill every one of us. So if we are here alive going through the vagaries of time and destiny, it is all because of a combination of favourable accidents.

The dinosaurs, the largest ever predators that populated the Earth for over 170 million years, had they not died on account of a meteor that fell on our Earth 65 million years ago, there would have been no monkeys, apes or chimpanzees and consequently none of us. If someone tells you the whole universe was meticulously designed and crafted for our taking, you know what to tell them.


When Einstein invented the E=mc^ equation, pretty much everything on this planet seemed to adhere to the rule. The equation was a grand success and the whole of mankind was celebrating it in various ways. Man had proved once again that he was the most advanced among the species on the Earth and the whole ‘idea’ behind creation was right in front of him on a small sheet of paper. There was nothing more to invent or hypothesize and some journals were writing obituaries mourning the end of ‘Science’.

But some decades later, scientists decided to venture into space and tried applying Einstein’s equation to things out there. The energy to everyone’s shock, was found to have literally nothing to do with the mass of things in space. The ‘grand’ equation broke into smithereens and the much-celebrated quantum physics made no sense at all just a few miles away from the atmosphere. There was so much invisible matter and energy out in the space and scientists decided to call it ‘dark’ energy and ‘dark’ matter.  It has been decades since these names were given and we are still in many ways, very much in the ‘dark’ with respect to what happens in space.


A few decades ago, something called DNA was found in human cells to which almost all of our daily physiological activities and behavior was attributed to. Can you believe a single strand of human DNA located inside one of your billion invisible cells is not less than six feet long, if unfurled fully? The DNA was found to contain four types of bases- Adenine, Guanine, Thiamine and Cytosine and a combination of these was said to constitute the entire genetic constitution of man. Numerous parts of the DNA called as ‘genes’ were found to influence every behavior in our body and if these components were somehow ‘cracked’, the whole idea behind ‘life’ it was assumed, could be found out.

But this was another massive failure. More than 90 percent of the DNA strands had only empty fillers and no single component could in isolation, be treated as responsible for a specific human trait. It was hence inferred that genes do not work on their own to produce a tangible ‘trait’ in man and the entire human organism and its behavior was the outcome of an inimitable symphony that all these genes carry out flawlessly with breathtaking internal co-ordination.


Man invented ‘quantum’ physics to find out the ‘idea’ behind all of creation and failed. He invented genetics to study and know the background of his body and failed. He thought he had split the atom into its three primal components and mastered its design but soon was mortified when he found there were more confusing subatomic particles such as quarks and bosons and muons inside.

Aren’t we the only species with six senses and the most advanced brain ever found on this planet? Why are we still groping in the dark to crack the ‘idea’ behind creation? After all, don’t we think we are the only ones with the power and the entitlement to conjure rains out of clouds to help ourselves and lesser organisms live happily, through prayers and supplications to the forces at work? Why do we fail time and again?

If there is a consensus among scientists on anything in this world, it is only on one thing. There might be no ‘grand’ idea behind the creation of the Universe at all and hence no solid purpose behind its functioning. Or if there is one, it is still beyond the reach of us. If it is beyond us, does it mean we would just need some more centuries to get there? May be yes. May be no. But for the time being, it is good to assume that we can one fine day, pin the whole ‘idea’ down. We will find out for certain what is going on within and outside us and get a chance to announce to posterity, the realization of mankind’s greatest success ever. But to get there, before we fasten our belts we must know exactly what we have and what we lack.

The Universe, if it hasn’t made sense to us, it might not only because we haven’t gotten there yet. There could be a couple of other reasons as well. It could be because we are just mere components of the Universe, and each component does not need to know the whole story behind its functioning. The heart doesn’t need to know that it is part of a big human body and its function of cleaning the blood is central to the whole being’s existence. Aham Brahmasmi.

Or it may be because the Universe doesn’t have the need to make sense to us. We may all be simply insects on Its whole body and if an ant that climbs over your neck gets crushed beneath your fingers, it is not because you hated its colour or behavior. On some occasions when you were fast asleep for hours the ant might have with impunity travelled all over your body which doesn’t mean it did something to appease you and you decided to tolerate it. The ant is a non-entity to you as long as it doesn’t disturb you and hence you have no obligation to make sense to it. Similarly, the Earth or the Universe if it had a form that we could interact with, might not after all, even recognize us. Forms of life on this planet including the most advanced like us came into being on account of their excellent adaptability to the myriad conditions that prevailed over it and the Earth or the Universe never had any obligation or necessity to create or destroy us. After all, we have only six senses most of which operate under a plenty of restrictions. We can see only seven colors or just a combination of them and those that exist beneath or above the bounds of certain wavelengths are completely beyond our visibility. Similarly, the Universe might have properties that are completely beyond the reaches of human understanding. Our inadequacies might be a temporary or a permanent handicap but they are without doubt effective hindrances towards our journey towards the Eternity.