Gurpur M. Prabhu's "Anita's Legacy": An Enquiry into First Cause
-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao
"Anita's Legacy: An Enquiry into First Cause" is the story of Anita, a precocious and gifted girl, born when Mount St. Helens blew its top. It is the story of the nature of the Universe and the questions Anita asks about it. It is a darn good yarn and it is a bold statement on the nature of modern enquiry into first causes. It is told by a scientist; a scientist who is willing to go out on a limb and sup with religionists; a scientist who is bold enough to say that the book was written "Through" him; a scientist who doesn't just make science privileged in regards to those questions we all ask: where did we come from? What for? How did it happen? And it is told in a way that appeals to the general and lay reader as well as to those more interested in the complexities of cosmology. The narrative format is literary fiction that weaves philosophy, religion and science into a touching and fascinating story that makes at least this scientist beat the stereo type of not having literary imagination and skill.
Many have tried to unravel the mystery and many in the past three decades have tried to bring about a rapprochement between East and West, between science and religion and between physics and metaphysics. Those many have mostly been scientists and writers from the West: the Capras, the Pirsigs, the Zukavs. While they knew/know more about science and about Western metaphysics and philosophy, they are mostly dilettantes when it comes to understanding what the East has to offer and what especially India has to offer. Some comparison about sub-atomic physics and the nature of neutrons and electrons with the "Yin and Yang" of life, about Shiva's cosmic dance and that's mostly it. I am not caricaturing them, as much as pointing out that these authors haven't drunk deep enough and long enough from the fount of India. Especially India. Thus, I am glad that modern Indian scientists are stepping up to the plate, as it were, bringing to the game both their innate knowledge about Hindu philosophy, metaphysics, cosmology, etc. and their careful and bold enquiries in those areas through a knowledge of Sanskrit and through an understanding of the Indian "Mind".
Anita's Legacyis one of the latest in such an effort and it is a fascinating tour de force. Gurpur Prabhu, the author, is a professor of computer science at Iowa State University, one of the premier Science and Technology Universities in the world. He is also the grand nephew of Swami Vireswarananda, the Head of the Ramakrishna Mission from 1966 to 1985 and from whom he learnt all about Hinduism. Dr. Prabhu got his BTech from IIT/Madras (EE), MTech from IIT/Kanpur (CS) and a PhD from Washington State (CS). He has been with the computer science department at Iowa State University since 1983.
The author unravels the enigma of the nature of the universe through the telling of the life story of Anita, a child of the Gods, born to Alan, a graduate student of physics and Meg, an undergrad whose math teacher he is. Alan, the quintessential modern academic/scientist, is both skeptical and dismissive of his daughter's precocity and of her inquiries. Meg, slowly coming to her own and increasingly concerned about her husband's attitude towards her and the world, breaks up with Alan when she comes to know of his affair with a colleague of his. As the drama of their life in Urbana-Champaign unfolds, there enters Major Kay (Norm), a neighbor down the street who has come to the university town to help out his divorced daughter, Becky, manage her house and her "Mute" son, Chris. From baby-sitting Anita to becoming her best buddy, Major Kay is the crusty, wise, troubled, scotch-loving ex-army officer through whose musings we learn a lot about the world's attempts at finding out answers to the fundamental questions of the nature of the universe. Taking up the challenge of challenging the scientists who have speculated upon the "Design" of the universe, Major Kay and Anita traverse the world of physics, astronomy and cosmology asking many of the simple questions that the scientists either have dared not ask, nor didn't know about asking. We will come to those questions later.
Norm's own life is woven into the narrative and we come to know of his bull-dog tenacity in asking questions and seeking out answers. He keeps a journal recording his questions and thoughts. For example: Does the soul consist of matter? What existence test would one apply to determine if the soul exists after death? What exactly happens when one dies? Is the goal of science limited to formulating principles and theories that can only be confirmed by experimental observations and validated by mathematical reasoning? What is the basis for the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics? If there is a God, did this God leave behind His Word so that humans could find out the meaning and purpose of life? Is this Word of God contained in the Bible?
To the last question, the answer is troubling enough that one of the readers who is quoted in the blurb at the beginning of the book says, "When I started reading the book I didn't like it much because it seemed to attack my Christian faith. But then as I progressed some more, the universality of religion appealed to me a lot. When I reached the end I could not stop crying".
As Norm begins to read the New Testament he becomes curious about its accuracy and whether the four Gospels contained the Word of God. Norm becomes convinced that the religious writings in the Old and New Testaments are not complete and that they were not presented from a scientific viewpoint. That further fuels his desire to know more about other religions and to continue to press the scientists for answers that they seemed to be evading. He especially doesn't like the evasions and dismissive attitude of Alan who has become a professor of physics at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. When Alan chides Anita about her questioning saying "I think you should leave it to us specialists to find the answers and tell the whole world", Norm is aghast. "If it was the sole domain of physicists, then intellectual giants like Einstein, Sagan and Hawking would have found the answer by now. All you specialists do is hide behind principles and postulates that the common man is unaware of and afraid to question", he points out. When Alan sarcastically asks Norm, "Haven't you stood on a weighing scale?" in response to Norm's question as to why matter has mass, Norm realizes that many modern scientists have ignored the fundamental questions in physics. The question of why matter had mass, for example, is a basic unanswered question in particle physics. Of academics and academic publishing, Norm seems to have the "Inside Story". Few in public know of the exotic and strange world of higher learning. Norm enlightens the public with this revelation: "Tell me, do you know what percentage of research papers are actually read? Not just in physics, but overall. The number of papers that actually get read is 10% at best. The remaining ones appear on resumes of people like you and gather dust in library shelves. What is happening currently is that scientists are publishing papers for the sake of publishing them, or for getting tenure, or for building credentials to obtain funding. There seem to be few people who are making a real contribution to the goal of science". This is clearly the author speaking through Norm and he has, incidentally, a creative solution to the problem of "Tenure" in academe. However, I will let the reader find it out firsthand. I will give only a pointer: it is on page 121.
What other scientific conundrums have been left by the wayside while we send up $136 million Mars probes and spend billions of dollars sending up men and women to conduct experiments on mice in space and for whiling away our time peering through the Hubble telescope? For example, what about Einstein's special theory of relativity which rested on the postulate that the speed of light was a universal constant? Scientists have not measured the speed of light even on the moon! Could we expect them to, in the near future, measure the speed of light farther away from the moon? Don't bother about checking out the New York Times or Scientific Americanany time soon. But yet we take these scientific postulations for granted because most of us are ignorant about science and what scientists do.
Another conundrum that Norm and Anita speculate about is whether the universe is expanding or contracting. Hubble observed that the frequency of the light waves from a star grew shorter and shorter and he concluded that the star was moving away from us. The further away a star the more rapidly it was moving away. This led scientists to speculate that the universe was expanding and not contracting. Sounds logical, huh? Not to Anita. She throws a curve ball to the scientist at bat. What if the observer is moving faster than the observed phenomenon? If the observer does not know he is moving then he will not know that the object he is observing could actually be moving towards him in the same direction but may appear to be moving away simply because it is moving towards the observer more slowly than the observer is moving away from what was being observed. This way, the universe could actually be contracting. Simple logic, but it seems to have not concerned physicists very much! This and other such scientific puzzles are presented in a way that the ordinary reader can grasp. That is so because Anita and Norm think about those questions in a concrete, commonsensical and logical manner.
What allows Norm and Anita to begin thinking differently and afresh about these matters is a set of experiences and accidents in their life. Norm, as an army officer and riding home on his motorbike through a thunderstorm gets blown off his bike and ends up being taken to the emergency room where he is found without pulse or a heartbeat. While the doctors administer electric shock to revive his heart Norm undergoes a "Near Death Experience" in which he sees a blue god sitting on a mountain with a snake around his neck. Enter Shiva! The little that Norm remembers about his "Vision" enables him to begin believing in the existence of a God. However, when he recounts his experience to the army psychiatrist what he gets in turn is a kind of honorable discharge from the army. At least if he had told the psychiatrist he had seen Jesus he might have had a more sympathetic hearing!
Anita, meanwhile, is growing up with strange things happening to her. She loves books but she is terror-stricken about entering libraries. When Chris, as both he and Anita reach puberty, expresses romantic interest in her she makes him smell her bloody sanitary pad. Little and major events that are placed at strategic points in the narrative that makes this a wonderful human and scientific "Mystery Thriller". I shall not give it all away though except to say that Anita in her own way and Norm through his curiosity about Hindu philosophy and religion begin to arrive at certain conclusions. The author provides some effective analogies between "Models" of the universe presented by scientists and those provided in Hindu philosophy, especially the Sankhya version of it.
Anita too has an experience like Norm and remembers a strange dream in which she is presented a model of the universe. It is in the shape of a tornado, this universe and there is a low pressure in the center of the tornado just like the eye of a hurricane. A substratum ether is present everywhere in the tornado except in the center. Due to the pull of the center three forces become manifest in the universe: a gravitational force that pulls objects inwards, an anti-gravitational force that pulls objects outwards and a revolving force that spins objects around. The three forces force the ether to condense into matter. Light too is a manifestation of ether. And if you are wondering if this is not all crazy because, after all, no scientist now believes there is ether you have another revelation waiting for you in the book.
Anita dies young. Two weeks before she turns sixteen. We come to know that her life reflects and is a strange imitation of the life of the great Hypatia who lived in Alexandria at the time when Christianity began to spread and be thrust around the world. The great library of Alexandria, it is speculated, was burned by either fanatical Christians or Arabs and Hypatia was tortured to death. Remember Anita's dread of libraries? Hypatia too did something with the cloth soaked in her menstrual blood that has a parallel in Anita's life. Anita's model of the universe could not be left just like that, to be a mere speculation by a "Chit" of a girl. Norm sees to that. A computer simulation of the model substantiates her model (and that is a very interesting part of the book itself), a model that is envisioned by Sankhya philosophers.
This is a book that took me by surprise in more ways than one. The author says the book was written through him and not by him for he was able to finish the first draft of it in two months, writing every evening from 9 pm to 4 am For a scientist to confess to such an experience could mean disaster. But this is not presented merely as a scientific treatise but as a wonderful fable, a mystery novel with rich scientific ideas but which should be accessible to most general readers. The author is preparing a manuscript for a scientific audience and says the book is going to be titled "Acceleration in the Substratum: Lectures on First Cause". Meanwhile, I recommend all those interested both in a good story and in the fundamental questions of life to get a copy of "Anita's Legacy". It is not yet available in bookstores.
(Dr. Prabhu's email address is )