Kashmiri Scientist who made Global Headlines: (Mansoor Parey Interviews Dr Mir Faizal)
Mir Faizal’s Profile
He did his Engineering from NIT Srinagar, and then masters in particle physics from the University of Durham, UK. After that, he did his PhD from University of York UK and then did two post docs, one from University of Durham and another from University of Oxford, UK. He also taught University of Waterloo, Canada. Presently he is teaching at the University of British Colombia-Okanagan and the University of Lethbridge. He is one of the few people to work on both string theory, and other approaches to quantum gravity, such as loop quantum gravity. His research deal with things like big bang theory, parallel universes, physics of black holes, mini black hole production on earth etc. Faizal’s work has also been highlighted almost all major newspapers of the world.
Dr Mir Faizal believes that the fundamental flaw in our educational system is that we prepare people for competition, not creativity and the aim has been reduced to passing certain competitive exams. He speaks at length in an exclusive interview with young Journalist MANSOOR PAREY
Mansoor Parey: You started by doing your engineering from NIT Srinagar, and then shifted to do masters in particle physics from the University of Durham, and a PhD from the University of York. Why this shift to physics from engineering? It must have been hard to shift from engineering to physics. Can you also tell us how hard did you work during your education and how hard to you work at present?
Mir Faizal: I wanted to work on fundamental science, and engineering was just applied science. I was more interested in the laws of nature, rather than the application of those laws for producing technology. So, I shifted from engineering to physics. I do not work at all, as doing research is my way of having fun. So, I just have fun, and we get new results. I think it is a major flaw in our educational system that we prepare people for competition, not creativity. The whole aim of the education has been reduced to passing certain competitive exams. There is a deeper way of looking at education, which is to use creativity to find new solutions to the existing problems. This is level at which research in technology occurs. However, there is yet a deeper level to educations, that is to understand nature for the sake of understanding nature. This is the level at which pure science works, and this is the level of which I am interested in working. I do like a quote by Hardy, who was one of the greatest mathematicians in the world, and he has said ”I have never done anything useful. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world.”
Mansoor Parey: Can you tell us something important lesson you learned during your research career?
Mir Faizal: I learn a very important lesson about doing research, and I can state it as follows: ”It is important to know what you need to know, but it is more important to know, what you do not need to know”. There is a lot of things you can learn in a subject, however, your research involves a certain problem in a certain area. It is nice to have a broad understanding of various areas, but you need to know what is needed for a specific problem and use it to address that specific problem (even if it is a broad one). I remember, when I start research at York, I was given took some books and asked a Professor at the University of York, if I should finish them before starting research, and he told me that with this attitude I would never even start doing research. I should work on my research problem, and learn new things, as would be required by that problem. At the same time, I can keep learning new stuff, so I can think in new directions. I think I learned this very important lesson about doing research from that Professor.
Mansoor Parey: You have done two post docs, one at University of Durham and another one at University of Oxford? What did you work on in your post docs?
Mir Faizal: We know general relativity describes at the very large scale, and quantum mechanics describes nature at the very small scale. Now the problem is how to come combine the general relativity and quantum mechanics, and this is important for understanding physics at the beginning of the universe, and physics at the centre of the black holes. There are various approaches to combine general relativity with quantum mechanics, and normally people stick to one approach and do not even approach other approaches. However, I feel we should work on all these approaches, and what we learn from each approach may help us develop some understanding of quantum gravity. So, in my post docs, I worked on a various approach to quantum gravity. I did some interesting work on both M-theory and loop quantum gravity along with some other approaches to quantum gravity. This is still my approach for doing research on quantum gravity.
Mansoor Parey: Are there some universal predictions of all the different approaches to quantum gravity, and have we learned anything physical from them?
Mir Faizal: I think one universal prediction of almost all approaches to quantum gravity is that there is a minimal length scale in space time, and the geometry of space time does not exist below that scale. This implies that the geometry of space time is an emergent structure from some more fundamental mathematical structure. As everything we observe in our universe exists in space time, so all these structures are only emergent approximations from purely mathematical theory describing our universe. I find it very interesting that our conscious perception of this universe is based on an approximation, and hence can be thought as an illusion. This has led to the development of the philosophy of physics that the information or laws of physics describing the universe called as ”it” is more fundamental than the substance of the universe called as ”bit”. So, this philosophical understanding that we have arrived at can be summarized as ”it from the bit and not a bit of it”. Another universal prediction of almost all approaches to quantum gravity is that the black holes have an entropy which is proportional to the area of those black holes, and not their volume. This has led to a principle called the holographic principle, which states that the physical degrees of freedom in a volume is equal to the degrees of freedom on the boundary surrounding that volume. You told the British press “Something did not come from nothing. The universe still is nothing, it’s just more elegantly ordered nothing.” What did you mean by that? This was relating to my work on inflation. I must specify what I meant by ”nothing”. I did not mean an absence of ”bit” or information, but an absence of ”it” or substance. This is because we have changed our perception of physics from ”bit from it” to ”it from bit”. As the mathematical laws describing the universe are more fundamental than the universe, and the universe can emerge from them. In inflation, the universe starts from nothing, with zero energy, and the total energy of the universe is still zero, as the positive energy in the universe balances the negative energy. So, the total energy of the universe is still zero, but it is an elegantly written zero as a sum of positive and negative energies, which gives us the structure of the universe. This is only possible as laws of physics are thought to be more fundamental than the universe they describe.
Mansoor Parey: What is the most interesting and surprising thing you have learned in science?
Mir Faizal: A The quantum mechanical way of looking at things would be the most surprising. This is because according to quantum mechanics, in a two state system both the possibilities exist at the same instance, if they are not measured. So, if you do not see a cat in a box, and a quantum process kills the cats, then till a measurement is made on a cat, it is both dead and alive. However, the act of observing the cat makes it dead or alive. The most interesting would be the understanding that according to almost approach to quantum gravity, our spacetime is an approximation to some fundamental mathematical theory.
Mansoor Parey: Theories like this seem to go against common sense. How do you make sense of it?
Mir Faizal: You make sense of it by first understanding what the nature of common sense. Common sense is a word used to describe our perception of reality at a certain scale, at which our brains evolved. There is no reason why this would hold at a different scale, and actually, it does not. So, the only way to make sense of these results would be to understand the limitations of our common sense in describing reality. However, common sense is a good way to describe the world at our scale, and any theory of physics predicts that our common perception of the universe should hold at the scale at which we commonly observe the universe.
Mansoor Parey: Your work has made global headlines many times. You had predicted that we could detect parallel universes in extra dimensions by producing mini black holes at the LHC. Can you tell us if the production of mini black holes on earth could be dangerous?
Mir Faizal: In general relativity, these mini black holes will evaporate by emitting Hawking radiation. It is possible that nature is actually described by a certain modification to general relativity, and it is also possible that mini black holes in such a modified theory, would be stable and form small black holes remnants. However, I do not think such mini black holes can possess any serious threat to earth. This is because the earth has been bombarded by cosmic rays for a very long time, and it has not still been destroyed by them. We also do not observe any stars or astronomical body suddenly disappearing, even though they are also bombarded by cosmic rays. So, there is no real danger to earth from the experiment at the LHC.
Mansoor Parey: Are these parallel universe, like the parallel universes in science fiction.
Mir Faizal: The parallel universes usually described in science fiction are based on many world interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which all possibilities are actualized. I do not agree with the many world interpretation of quantum mechanics and do not even consider it science, but as bad philosophy. It exists because we do not understand how the quantum mechanics works, and I am happy to admit that we do not know the answer to a certain problem than accept nonsensical answers. However, the parallel universes, I talk about are motivated by string theory, and exist as real universes in extra dimensions. Furthermore, they can also be detected using mini black holes, and so this model of parallel universes is science.
Mansoor Parey: You were a Visiting Professor at the University of Waterloo, and are currently an Adjunct Professor at the University of Lethbridge, and a Visiting Professor at the University of British Colombia-Okanagan. Is there any suggestion you have for improving the education in Kashmir.
Mir Faizal: I think it is important for the students to get some power in the educational institution. Students should evaluate the teaching of a teacher, just as the teacher evaluates the performance of a student. Also, it is important for this evaluation to matter when it comes to the promotion of teachers, and it should be taken seriously. Another important thing to realize is that we live in a global world now, and English is the language of this global world. Human evolved in Africa, and English evolved in Britain, but now English is as British as humans are African. We need to make all the school into English medium schools. So, English should be the first language taught in all schools, including government schools.
Mansoor Parey: You have published more than 100 papers in top journals in your field, and that too in such a short time. You have also published on a wide range of topics. How do you manage to be so productive?
Mir Faizal: I guess, I work on different topics, and sometimes a structure in an area can be applied to some different area. However, as the scientists from different areas do not talk to each other, they do not discover the application of this structure. So, my way of doing research is to start collaborations between scientists working in different areas, and this has led to some really interesting results. I will just give you a recent example. Recently, we have applied some techniques from quantum gravity for understanding the behaviour of condensed matter systems. It seems remarkable that these condensed matter systems could act as quantum gravity analogues.
Mansoor Parey: Can such an inter disciplinary approach event affect other fields, like between social science and science?
Mir Faizal: That would be really interesting, and I think such work should be done. It is true that social sciences are based on humans, and human behaviour is not deterministic, but then quantum mechanics, unlike classical mechanics, is also not deterministic. So, it is not that far-fetched to think of ways to modelling the collective behaviour of human society, as we model the collective behaviour of quantum particles. The results we get will be still probabilistic, but we may have a better way of the understanding problem relating to the society.
Mansoor Parey: Usually, we talk about areas in which our place needs to improve. Is there any area, where you think the west needs to improve?
Mir Faizal: I do not like or agree with the classification of the world into east and west, as many areas of the world would not fit in such a classification. So, let me redefine your question as a question about Europe and North America. One area where I think all counties in the world need to improve (including Europe and North America), is the treatment of women. It is a known fact that women have historically been the most discriminated class of people. Now the world is accepting is equality, but equality can only be fair if there has been equality opportunity to start with. Due to the historical discrimination towards women, I think we need strong affirmative action in favour of women, As an example, I think if women and men do the same job, women should get a higher salary. I do not want only equality but the strong affirmative action in favour of women, and this is an area that even Europe and North America can improve upon.
Mansoor Parey: You have lived in many countries, which country do you think you now identify with as your country?
Mir Faizal: To identify with a country can be called nationalism, and I consider the division of the world into nation states, and nationalism as the biggest problem facing the humanity. I consider it a bigger problem than global warming. If someone told you that he/she does not have friends or enemies, but only interests, you would think that he/she is the very immoral person. However, this is exactly what nation states are based on, countries do not have friends or enemies, but only interests. A nation state was a nice structure to evolve out of tribalism, but now we need to proceed towards one world and leave this mega-tribal structure behind. Till the humanity does not proceed towards one world, with one democratic world government, I would consider it to be still trapped in its primitive state. This may take some time, but we can at least start by identifying with the world and not a country. So, I identify with the world as my country.
We would like to thank you for your interesting views. We hope for your success in future. It was really nice talking to you.
Dr Mir Faizal, Thank you, Mansoor.
This is Mansoor Parey’s 150th interview from last 10 years in the field of Journalism.