The value of impermanence – V.S. Ravi


V.S. Ravi IPSEven if material objects are not permanent and physical laws are not constant, we can take consolation in the fact that human values such as goodness, truth and beauty appear to be permanent, in Western thought as well as Indian philosophy. – V.S. Ravi

The instability of human glory and the impermanence of things and institutions have been favourite themes of poetry in all languages. No one can express the idea better than Gray who wrote in his famous Elegy:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power.
And all that beauty, all that wealth ever gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

The statue of Ozymandias and the marble busts and gilded monuments of princes melt alike into the desert sands with the passage of time. The great Greek philosopher Heraclitus, having observed that on this planet everything crumbles, decays and dies, had rather pessimistically declared, “nothing endures but change”. (One might of course argue that there is new growth and new life but that too is in a sense “change”, and even the new things, age, wither, and die when their turn comes).

Indeed, the law enunciated by Heraclitus seems to be valid in respect of all objects in the universe. From asteroids to animals, everything in the physical universe is born, grows, old, fades and then dies. As Fitzgerald wrote in The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam:

Oh threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise
One thing at least is certain—this Life flies
One thing is certain, the rest is Lies
The Flower that once has blown forever dies.

Yet people rather ironically continue their eternal search for permanence knowing that it is against all nature’s laws.

Nothing endures forever. Not even the mountains.

Isaac Asimov, that genius doctor of popular science writing, observes how rising towards the sky in majesty, and wearing down in imperceptible erosion grain by grain, peak by peak, mountains evolve and die.

The crust of the Earth is in very slow but constant motion: one massive plate pushes away from another to form a new sea and collides with still another plate to crumple up into a new mountain range. The continents fuse together to form one huge landmass and then break apart again to the beat of a primordial hundred-million-year rhythm.

Underneath the Earth’s crust are glacially slow currents that drive the crustal plates together and apart, and further down in the liquid core itself are swirls that form the earth’s magnetic field which intensifies and dies repeatedly, changing polarity with each death and rebirth.

This scenario offers an uncomfortable and unstable footing for all those who seek permanence and security in the haven of the eternal, and the changeless.

Some people try to find solace in the idea of an omnipresent deity and they ask no proof for it, other than conventional belief and tradition. Settling for that, they sigh thankfully and close their minds to doubts.

Others look for some evidence of changelessness, something they can scientifically measure.

In 350 B.C. Aristotle believed that the celestial objects were permanent, changeless, incorruptible and eternal. They did change position, but in a regular and predictable way. But this belief in permanence was shattered by Galileo’s first telescopic demonstration that the moon was just another body similar to the earth, with mountains, craters and seas.

The revelations of modern astronomy have underscored the universality of impermanence. The solar system was born nearly 4.571 billion years ago, and on its every solid surface are the scars of the final collisions, that marked its birth process.

Some of the mountains of Mars and Venus were once live volcanoes. Volcanoes still erupt on Io, the airless satellite of Jupiter. Spouting out dust and fumes into the surrounding vacuum, these Ionian volcanoes cover the satellite with a red-orange layer of sulphur. And beautiful colossal storms rage on Jupiter, with one vast swirling tornado so large that it could swallow three Earths at once.

The Sun, the symbol of permanence itself in almost all human cultures, will die in five to seven billion years. After expanding into a red giant, it will collapse into a white dwarf and probably destroy the Earth in the process.

As Asimov observes, hundreds of billions of new stars are continually born out of the shreds and tatters of dead ones, but the new ones too will someday die. As the old stars die they form black holes, which swallow matter. They do not give anything and grow inexorably more massive until the entire core of a galaxy may be swallowed up. But even black holes evaporate and will turn very slowly into thin gas.

The universe which was born in a violent explosion and has been expanding ever since, may contract again at some point in space-time only to trigger a new explosion. It could be considered as a colossal breathing organism that takes hundreds of billions of years for each breath in and out.

Should we hope to find permanence in the world of the infinitely small rather than in the world of the infinitely large?

Some subatomic particles once formed live incredibly short lives before breaking up—a life span of a few trillionths of a trillionth of a second, an infinitesimal fraction of time utterly beyond the comprehension of the human mind.

Isaac Asimov, in his beautiful elucidation of the sub-atomic universe shows that among the stable subatomic particles, photons are continually absorbed and re-emitted. Protons and electrons which accelerate and decelerate under the influence of electromagnetic fields combine to form atoms, or smash atoms to bits in collisions. Stable particles such as protons, electrons, photons, and neutrinos might last forever if they were left to themselves.

But they are never left to themselves, they are always interacting with one another.

Asimov points out that the proton once thought to be stable might not be absolutely stable after all. Today the particle and theoretical physicists are well aware of such concepts as “proton decay”.

In the course of a trillion trillion trillion years, a time interval which an ordinary human mind cannot conceive of, half of all the protons in existence might break down into even smaller particles, though neutrinos do so only very occasionally. Asimov weaves through his words a picture of this subatomic event and puts it in a cosmic perspective:

If we set the mighty life of the universe as the equivalent of one second, then the expected half-life of the proton would be the equivalent of 200 trillion years. In other words, to a proton, the entire lifetime of the universe so far is far, far less than an eye blink.

Asimov asks whether we should seek permanence not in material objects but in the laws of science?

Take the laws of conservation. Surely one would assume they must be unchanging.

Energy is conserved; no matter what changes take place on our planet or elsewhere, the total amount of energy in the universe is constant. Energy can be transferred from one place to another or altered in form but it cannot be created out of nothing or destroyed.

The total quantity never changes and surely that is permanence, or is it?

Take any two celestial objects, multiply the intensity of the gravitational interaction between them by the square of the distance from the centre of one to the centre of the other; then divide this number by the product of the two masses. You will always get the same number—the gravitational constant.

Some other quantities also never change regardless of where they are measured or how: Planck’s constant, the velocity of light in a vacuum, the charge on the electron. These are permanent too.

But are they really?

After all we measure the conservation and fundamental constants in our part of the universe under conditions that are comparatively mild and tame.

In Asimov’s view just as Newtonian laws do not apply in the chaotic world of subatomic physics, so we must wonder what happened to our constants during those sub-fractions of a second after the “Big Bang” when the temperatures were unimaginably high and the condition chaotic and violent.

And what happens now at the centre of Black Holes where densities and gravitational intensities push against the infinite?

We do not know.

Perhaps those relationships seem permanent only because we have not been observing the universe long enough. Some say even the gravitational constant changes, slowly weakening as the universe expands. (The brilliant English physicist Paul Dirac entertained doubts as to whether the so called “constants” of physics are really constant at all or if they are changing).

Once we have observed it over millions of years, (or get the sense of that observation through our intricate calculations and equations), we may see that in a total sense Heraclitus was right, that nothing endures but change, that the only permanence is “impermanence”.

While on the subject of impermanence, I would like to mention what Fritjof Capra states, in his book—Uncommon Wisdom—a collection of his interviews with eminent scientists, artists, psychologists and economists, and his interaction with Werner Heisenberg in 1972.

Capra had just begun working on the Tao of Physics and was naturally curious to hear Heisenberg’s thoughts on Eastern philosophy. Heisenberg told Capra to his great surprise that not only was he well aware of the parallels between quantum physics and Eastern thought, but also that his own scientific work had been influenced, at least at the subconscious level, by Indian philosophy.

Capra quotes Heisenberg as revealing to him his spending a whole evening on 4 October 1929, as the guest of the great Indian poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

The poet and the physicist had long conversations about science and Indian philosophy.

Heisenberg had added that the introduction to Indian thought had brought him great comfort. He began to see that the recognition of relativity, interconnectedness, and impermanence as fundamental aspects of physical reality, which had been so difficult for himself and his fellow physicists, was the very basis of the Indian spiritual traditions. “After these conversations with Tagore,” Capra quotes Heisenberg, “some of the ideas that had seemed so crazy suddenly made much more sense. That was a great help for me.”

Thus, Heisenberg’s views on impermanence, as one of the offshoots of Quantum mechanics, resonate with the concept of impermanence in the tenets of Indian philosophy.

In the final analysis, in order to find something permanent, we must get rid of all that is impermanent, we must wipe out all matter, all energy, all relationships, all life—and all of us. Only absolute nothingness remains forever unchanged. But that is too high a price to pay for permanence.

Must we then throw up our hands in despair and end this essay on a pessimistic note? Even if material objects are not permanent and physical laws are not constant, we can take consolation in the fact that human values such as goodness, truth and beauty appear to be permanent, in Western thought as well as Indian philosophy.

Their fusion would lead us to agree with Will Durant who wrote:

All things must die, but love alone eludes mortality. It over-leaps the tombs, and bridges the chasm of death with generation. How brief it seems in the bitterness of disillusion; and yet how perennial it is in the perspective of mankind—how in the end it saves a bit of us from decay, and enshrines our life anew, in the youth and vigour of a child. Our wealth is a weariness, and our wisdom is a little light that chills; but love warms the heart with unspeakable solace, even more when it is given than when it is received.

First published in Swarajya, 21 March 2021.

V.S. Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India for 35 years. He passed Physics (Hons.) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology. He is also one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country.