Celebrating Physics

Published : May 20, 2005 00:00 IST

The world celebrates 2005 as the World Year of Physics with exciting global projects. However, the Indian initiative has not been able to attract adequate public involvement.

"Science is physics, everything else is stamp collecting."

Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937)

NOTHING demonstrates the truism of the above pithy remark by the founder of nuclear physics than the events of that miraculous year of 1905 when Albert Einstein - arguably the greatest mind of all time - published, within a course of just four months, five watershed papers on quantum theory, Brownian motion and special relativity - that altered the course of physics and, indeed, the underpinnings of all of science. It is the centenary of that annus mirabilis of Einstein that the world is celebrating as the World Year of Physics (WYP) 2005, with events worldwide to commemorate that greatest landmark in the history of science.

Each of those five legendary papers, which demolished many of the cherished scientific beliefs of the time, alone would have placed Einstein as one of the 20th century's leading thinkers. "Collectively," as physicist Chuck Stone of North Carolina A&T State University put it, "they demonstrate one man's sense of confidence, rigour, productivity and insight that stands without parallel in the history of science."

Einstein thought himself to be as much a philosopher as a scientist. His theories relating matter, energy, space, time and gravity have formed the basis of much of the work in theoretical physics since 1905. His famous "thought experiments", based on intuition and imagination rather than laboratory work, showed us that the universe was not a mechanistic "clockwork universe" as conceived by Isaac Newton and other classical physicists but a relativistic universe.

In some sense, this celebration merely symbolises the passage of a milestone of 100 years through which those revolutionary ideas of Einstein have withstood the most stringent tests that they have been subjected to using increasingly sophisticated and high-precision experiments. Indeed, nearly every new development in physics and technological advance itself is a validation of those concepts and a celebration of Einstein.

The idea of commemorating 2005 as the WYP was first conceived at the World Congress of Physical Societies in Berlin in December 2000. More than 40 physical societies from around the world approved the proposal to declare 2005 as the WYP and use the celebration as a vehicle to raise the worldwide public awareness for physics.

This proposal was followed by the approval of the Council of the European Physical Society (EPS) in March 2001 to mobilise support in Europe for this initiative that will increase the public's appreciation and interest in the field and demonstrate the role that physics has played, and continues to play, in our cultural, economic and technical heritage. In October 2002, the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) unanimously adopted a resolution declaring 2005 as the World Year of Physics .

In July 2003, representatives of four continents and 22 countries met in Graz, Austria, for a three-day conference organised by the Austrian Physical Society to discuss the strategies and ideas for implementing WYP2005. As part of this first WYP2005 preparatory conference, an international steering committee prepared a draft resolution for eliciting the support of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in declaring 2005 as the WYP. The Brazilian UNESCO delegation, supported by France and Portugal, presented the draft resolution to the UNESCO Executive Board. The Board considered it in its September 2003 meeting and transmitted it to the General Conference.

Pitted against this motion were the proposals from other quarters of the world to declare the year as the International Year of Microcredit and the International Year of Sport. The letter from the EPS President, Martin Huber, to the national physical societies around the world observed: "What the U.N. will vote in a time, when the concept of International Years is being criticised for poor benefit-to-cost ratio, remains to be seen." However, with the UNESCO Director-General throwing his weight behind the proposal, the 32nd session of the General Conference of UNESCO adopted in November 2003 the resolution supporting the initiative of 2005 as the World Year of Physics and declared 2005 as the International Year of Physics.

The WYP's primary goal, thus, is to "provide a positive physics encounter for people who would not normally experience physics, while also targeting secondary schools, colleges and universities." The letter from Huber, however, exuded confidence in meeting this challenge:"[B]y a strong grassroot effort, one can counter the widespread disinterest in physics, by showing its value for our economical and cultural development." At the Graz conference, for example, seven working groups discussed physics in education, international physics competitions, promoting science among young people, events and exhibitions, popularising physics, physics in the media and physics in different cultures. The role of women in physics was an integral part of each of the working groups. Physics-related events organised around the world by various national agencies that have joined hands to celebrate the WYP have been essentially from this public outreach perspective.

The Second Preparatory Conference for the WYP took place in March 2004 at Montreal, which was followed by a meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) where various national programmes were presented and discussed and ideas exchanged. The variety and originality of events presented were reportedly striking. The WYP celebration will last for 500 days, beginning October 2004 and lasting till February 2006. Formally, however, WYP2005 was kicked off at the UNESCO headquarters in January 2005. The launch was a great success with over 1,200 participants, half of whom were students. The event also included a conference titled "Physics for Tomorrow".

Some of the exciting global projects that form part of the celebration include: "Light Around the World", "Physics Talent Search", "Einstein@Home", "Physics Stories" and "Quantum Diaries". The idea behind the first is to spread the message that "Physics enlightens the world". On the evening of April 18, 2005, lights were switched off in Princeton to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Einstein's death. A light (from a laser beam) emerged, forming the seed for a grand optical relay. The flash of darkness and light wandered across the U.S., transgressed boundaries, spanned a continent, leapt across the seas, spread over hemispheres and embraced the whole globe, uniting all nations by the enlightening power of physics.

A global Physics Talent Search is also being organised within the framework of the WYP. Its goal is to create enthusiasm, interest and participation in physics among young people. Participating countries will identify physics-talented girls and boys who will be rewarded for the excellence in physics. This project does not have the intention to make a competition, but has the intent to "Search for a new Einstein", points out the WYP website.

A compelling way to reach students and adults is through well-told stories in physics. Stories about physics can achieve a great deal in making physicists and their work better understood and in conveying the excitement of real scientific research. The "Physics Stories" project will challenge scientists and science educators worldwide to share their best stories with students and teachers of all cultures and nationalities. The project is currently in the stage of being formulated and yet to invite contributions.

The Indian programme is administered by the Indian Physics Association (IPA) and executed through the Tata Institute of Fundamental research (TIFR) and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Mumbai. Collaborating with a number of other organisations, the Indian initiative has chalked out an extensive programme. R. Chidambaram, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government, is the Chairman of the Coordinating Committee for the Indian initiative. Though many events are taking place and many are on the anvil, in the public view the activities have not been given adequate publicity and public involvement has not been to the desired extent. Indeed, even in the "Light Around the World", while many countries participated in this global project, India does not seem to be one of them.

One of the important events that have taken place so far has been a day-long seminar on March 31, titled: "Attracting Young People to Careers in Science" at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, (IIT-D). This was following the report of the committee constituted by the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet (SAC-C) to examine and recommend new science education initiatives from 10+2 onwards. Three position papers were discussed during the seminar, the summary of whose proceedings is under preparation by the Office of Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government. While inaugurating this seminar, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam also released a special first day cover to mark the Year of Physics in India.

"Physics is essentially in everything and so our effort has been to bring together physicists and scientists of other disciplines on the same platform under a variety of conferences," points out Chidambaram. "The celebration has been planned with the view to attract young brilliant minds to a career in science in general and physics in particular," Chidambaram adds. Though India today offers young researchers excellent facilities for the pursuit of an exciting and challenging future in physics, it remains to be seen whether these efforts as part of the ongoing WYP initiatives are able to make an impact in the young minds to plump for physics.

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