by Anwar Shaikh
Secrecy runs throughout the texture of this
universe, though it looks open, bright and self-revealing. This view is
confirmed by the fact that every atom is an ambassador of mystery, marvel and
majesty, thus making understanding of the cosmos extremely puzzling,
pervicacious and even punitive. However, value of human life depends on
comprehending the underlying universal mystery because it is only then that one
can assess whether existence, individual or otherwise, is real or just an
illusory phenomenon around us.
Why is the universe based on the principle of mystery?
The answer is simple, indeed: it makes existence exciting through curiosity,
which creates a goal, leading to planning and action for achieving it.
Besides curiosity, inspiration of awe through
bafflement and amazement, appears to be another object of the mystery. As we
know, it is the same stuff, usually called "atoms," which appear as a
mountain, the moon or mars as inanimate things, and also constitute the life of
a mouse, monkey or man. Yet there is a difference between the non-living and
living. He could the same thing appear in myriads of forms to create stunning
diversity without suffering a change in its basic unity? However, all these
forms are not ephemeral processes; some do last millions of years as mountains,
star- and planets. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that an
intelligent being such as man, who is also composed of atoms, and dreams of an
everlasting life, can enjoy an unrestricted span of life.
Even more stunning than the range ol existence is the
mathematical accuracy of behaviour that heavenly bodies epict: waning and waxing
of the moon, the exact symmetry of the spiral nebulas and planetary movements,
are simply marvellous. Remembering the size of rivers, mountains, planets and
stars, one ought to expect a devastating awe only, but this is not the case:
everything is imbued with beauty and radiance. Even a straw when burnt, exhibits
its hidden glow.
The word "mystery" usually refers to a secret
doctrine, which is considered beyond knowledge to explain, tlough it also
applies to anything artfully made difficult. No mystery is greater than the
universal mystery that underlies the universe. Sages of all ages have tried to
uncover it but the more they have tried, the less they have succeeded. In our
time, it is the scientist who has led in this field. Though he has not been able
to pinpoint the underlying principle, he has certainly proved that mystery is
the fundamental law of existence. However, he describes it differently; he calls
it uncertainty; it means the same thing because one is uncertain for lack of
knowledge, which is another description of mystery.
It is clear that the universe has a mystical nature. As
human life is the apex of this universal mystery, it has a hidden meaning which
must be discovered because without it one cannot realise whether life has a
purpose or it is just a mechanical phase. This is what makes Mysticism the right
way of life because this is a search for the hidden meaning which happens to be
In view of the significance of this statement, I am
inclined to give a fuller account of the scientific investigations which testify
to the fact that our universe has evolved on the principle of uncertainty or
1 . The German physicist Max Planck ( 1858-1947 )
discovered that a hot body gives out energy in the form of discrete pallets, or
quanta and not as continuous waves. This is what led to the formation of the
world famous quantum theory, giving rise to the concept of photon i.e. a
particle of radiation, which was later developed by Einstein.
Quantum mecnanics or physics has established the truth
that it is impossible to determine with complete accuracy what an observed
quantity really is. This difficulty is caused oy the fact that it is not
possible to assess exactly both the precise velocity and location of a thing
e.g. an electron. The quantities, location and velocity (impulse) are considered
mutually complementary. Heisenberg was the first to recognise the significance
of the complementarity of two physical quantities. He asserted that there is a
definite relationship between the levels of certainty and uncertainty of
measurable physical quantities. He termed it as the uncertainty relationship. It
was Max Planck who later discovered a constant to determine the uncertainties of
physical quantities. So uncertainty is not just a hypothesis but a concrete
fact. It has assumed a high significance in the field of physics by providing
insight to establish the size of atoms. In fact, without quantum mechanics it is
futile to think of life itself. The stability of the genetic structure is based
on this principle.
Since uncertainty principle reveals that it is
impossible to know at the same time the exact location and velocity of an
object, it is not likely that one can tell the exact state of a physical system
such as the universe at a particular moment. It also implies the impossibility
of predicting its future behaviour with precision. Thus, the concept of
determinism loses its validity. Instead, it gives rise to the idea of
probability, meaning that an electron may be located at a particular site at a
given moment, though it is still urcertain where it will be a little later.
Professor Stephen Hawking has described this uncertainty principle of Wernen
Heisenberg as "a fundamental inescapable property of the world."
The essence of quantum mechanics is that it does not
predict one definite result, but forecasts a number of possible situations, and
how likely they are to arise. It shows lack of determinism in the evolution of
the universe and states that natural laws are quantum laws. Thus atoms and
molecules can exist only because the action is quantized. Therefore, the
fundamental principle of existence is not determinism but indeterminacy, wnich
puts a restriction on man's ability to make precise measurements, thus rendering
him incapable of having the exact knowledge of the world, and foretelling
future. It surely exposes the myth that certain divines are equipped with the
virtue of prophecy. This restriction or indeterminacy is also built into the
laws of nature. Therefore, nobody, no matter how divine, can predict all future
events precisely. Mystery or uncertainty is the natural sequence of the quantum
indeterminacy. This is the essence of the universe.
2. Equally baffling is the vastness of this universe.
There is no way one can imagine its spaciousness, which is absolutely essential
for comprehending its mysterious nature. Of course, our telescopes can reveal
billions of stars which may be several hundred times bigger than our sun and a
thousand times more luminous than it, yet their distance serves as a blinker on
our observational power. Astronomical distances are measured in terms of the
time it takes light to cross them. For example, it takes light one second to
reach the moon, and requires eight minutes to travel to the sun. So, we say that
moon is one light second away and sun is at a distance of eight light minutes.
It has been established that in the night sky, there is not a single star which
is less than three light years away. It means a distance of 30 billion
L(3x10-13) kilometers. This is the minimal astronomical distance. Human mind
cannot grasp its intensity. Thirty billion kilometers is simply a colossal
distance. It may be helpful to describe that we live at the edge of the Milky
Way. This galaxy alone contains more than a hundred billion stars which exist in
the form of a disk, having a diameter of 100,000 light years whereas its
thickness is 5000 light years. Do these distances make any sense to you?
Light travels at a speed of 300,000 kilometers or
186,000 miles per second, which is a million times faster than the speed of
sound in air. Yet, it is no more than the crawling of a tortoise on the
astronomical scale. Why? It is all because of the fantastic size of the universe
which involves unimaginable distances. To illustrate this point further, I may
add that some quasars, which are special galaxies and whose cores emit energy
estimated to be about 10,000 times more than our entire galaxy, are as far away
as twelve billion light years. It follows that light has been travelling towards
us for twelve billion years, which is 80 per cent of the age of the universe.
This mystery is intensified by the fact that even the fossil glow enables us to
look back to a million years after the beginning of this universe. One million
years is certainly a very long time especially when it is right at the beginning
holding the basic formative secrets of the universc. Again, as during that
period temperature stood at several billion degrees, heat may have destroyed all
the information. It is like a record office whose data has been turned into
ashes by fire.
Exact knowledge is not possible for yet another reason.
There are many things which we cannot see as they are, but as they were in the
distant past. For example, many stars which we study today with telescopes, are
no longer there owing to explosion or cooling off. We observe that is left of
them as light travelling towards us through intergalactic space. When we look,
say, at star "A," we are not viewing it as it appears today but watch
it when it sent out the light vhich is reaching us now. We ought to remember
that it takes light some 30,000 years to reach us from the centre of the Milky
Way, which happens to be our own galaxy. And when we cast our gaze at the
Andromeda Nebula, we see light which left that galaxy some two millon years ago
when man was not even born on the earth. We are simply helpless in assessing as
how the Andromeda galaxy looks today. To know the present state of this galaxy,
one will have to wait for about two million years when the light emitted today
will reach the earth.
Of course, it is baffling to know that there are
roughly over one hundred thousand million galaxies, each containing some hundred
thousand million stars. Yet in human terms, one can imagine the mystery of the
universe as a hide-and-seek game of lovers, who hide only to be sought, and for
this purpose, give clues to the seeker in signs, signals and speeches which may
be cryptic yet capable of conveying a meaningful message. Thanks to the English
genius, Sir Isaac Newton, who discovered that when light from the sun passes
through a triangular-shaped piece of glass, known as a prism, it breaks up into
its component colours or spectrum, as is the case in a rainbow. In exactly the
same way, it is possible to observe the spectrum of light from a star or galaxy
through a telescope. Though different stars have different spectra, the relative
brightness of the different colours is always the same as the light emitted by
an object glowing red hot. What human eye sees as different colours, is actually
the different frequencies of light, which are extremely high and range from four
to seven hundred million rnillion waves per second. The lowest frequencies
appear at the red end of the spectrum and the highest frequencies at the blue
end. This spectrum of a star is said to be like the signature of a person which
can tell a good deal about his character.
Though the vastness of the universe is mysterious,
through the brilliance of stars and their colour, it seeks to imbue man with
reverence and makes him curious about knowing more and more about itself.
Emotionally speaking, it is tinged with flirtation and carries a message of
love; it encourages the seeker to keep looking constantly for a reward, which
may be much greater than one's expectations.
3. Though man is an integral part or the universe -
undoubtedly the test and the most reverential, there is a veil between the two.
This illusion is certainly not permanent, and breaks down when he has developed
sufficient vision to see through it. It is like standing at the bank of a
shallow murky pond and keep wondering about its depth, for having no courage to
fathom it. But, when one becomes sufficiently interested and feels inclined to
take a plunge into it one find, the truth about it with amazing ease.
Many a time is greater the pleasure, which accrues from
mounting a search for something than the delight of chance-finding it. It is so,
simply to maintain the dignity and value of effort. Apart from the factors
already mentioned, nature makes sure that exact certainty and predictability
form no part of the universal make-up. When we look afar in our own galaxy, we
find large masses of clouds, which restrict our power of observation. This
difficulty becomes quite insurmountable especially in relation to the regions
outside our galaxy, though it is not to say that it does not apply to itself. It
is obviously not possible to pierce through the clouds of magellan which are
200,000 light years away from us or the Andromeda Nebula lying at a distance of
two million light years. One ought to remember that these nebulae are galaxies
of the same general nature as our own Milky Way.
In fact, what makes our cosmos so mysterious is the
process of birth and death. The Hindu tradition in this connection is highly
respectable. It states that it is the nature of the universe to evolve, devolve
and re-evolve after an interval called a Kalpa. This mathematical fact was also
described in a parable by Lord Buddha of India; he said: "every century
there comes an old man to polish, with a handkerchief of the test Benares silk,
a mountain that is higher and more concrete than the Himalayas. After one Kalpa
the mountain will be worn down to the level of the sea."
According to the scientific calculation, the time
required for this devolutionary process is 10/32 years. Thus Kalpa is broadly
connpatible with modern investigation about the durability of atoms, estimated
to have a half-life of 13/32 i .e. 1 00, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000,
000, 000 years. However, the concept of half-life is rather puzzling. It
applies; to the life of atoms, which last for a while and then change into other
types of atoms. The usual example to explain this fact is that of carbon - 14
atoms which have a life of about 6,000 years. If we place 1000 atoms of this
kind in a container, after 6,000 years, there will be left only 500 atoms; the
number will decrease to 250 atoms arter another 6,000 years and at the end of
18,000 years, there will be found only 125 atoms in the pot, and so on. Though
we know the meaning of half-life, we are not aware of what atoms will perish
within the next thousand years. Even, it is likely that some of these atoms may
dissolve within the next few hours instead of their projected life of 6,000
Today, scientists have discovered that there are more
than a thousand kinds of unstable atoms. Some of these have a half-life of only
a thousandth of a second or less, whereas others may last for several billion
years; for example, Rhenium - 187 lasts for fifty billion years and Samarium -
132 sixty, billion years.
This uncertainty of duration is further compounded by
the uncertainty of behaviour of things. It is brought about by the element of
indeterminacy which clearly exhibits that the overall nature of the physical
laws is not absolute because they do have a factor of tolerance as a carpenter
allows a margin when hanging a door. For example, take the behaviour of electric
charges of the same polarity. According to the classical law they are required
to repel each other. Of course, this is true USUALLY but not always because it
has been noticed that scmetimes when a positive charge is fired, it keeps moving
towards a sister charge, that is, another positive charge, completely ignoring
its presence, though by law the similar charges must lepel each other. Again,
there is no certainty that at what distance will they start repelling each
other. Once this factor is taken into account in relation to the countless
charges in the universe, the concept of determinism begins to look hollow and
the probability-view of the quantum mechanics emerges as the truth. Of course,
it is still possible to make e prediction but the scientific prediction is a
probable event which takes place within certain limits, and cannot be a matter
of exactitude. It implies that no matter how advanced the field of physics and
the allied sciences may be, they cannot explain the reality on their own, though
it also remains a fact that the truth cannot be discovered without the active
assistance of science. Any article of faith or opinion which contradicts the
natural law and scientific discoveries is just a flight of imagination.
The laws of physics must be respected because they are
based neither on guesswork nor wishful thinking: they are neutral laws because
they describe how events occur if certain conditions are met. Since they have no
control over these conditions termed as initial or limiting conditions, they
cannot ascertain reality or predict what really will happen.
One major source of mystery lies in the fact that
reality is relevant to the seeker, or in scientific terms, it is relevant to the
observer. Einstein's theory of relativity has established this fact beyond a
shadow of doubt. He states that time and space are intimately interconnected.
So, it is necessary to take into account the speed of the observer regarding the
object of observation. Both time and space are influenced by speed. One may feel
the same thing situated on the right hand side whereas another person may feel
it on the left hand.
It is in fact a matter of individual perception of time
and space. Everyone is right because one feels as one sees according to one's
own perceptive power. This condition is brought about by the fact that there is
no such thing as absolute time or absolute space. What exists is a
"space-time complex," and its understanding depends on the speed of
the observer. Since perception is physically individualistic, the level of
understanding may vary from person to person. Therefore, what appears real to
one may not look so to another.
This fact exposes the approach of the religion-mongers
who claim that those who do not believe in their creed, will go to hell. To
start with, the God who is dying to be worshipped, is himself unstable, and
therefore, unworthy of devotion. How can He punish people for holding different
opinions when everybody does not possess the ability to perceive and act in
exactly the same way. It is a natural sequence of mystery that people must
differ in their appreciation of reality.
4. Of all mysteries, life itself is the greatest. It is
amazing that rocks, despite being made of atoms, cannot move or communicate, but
man, who is also composed of atoms, can walk, talk, think, will, argue and
invent. Thus, stone is considered lifeless but man is classed alive. What is the
secret of life! How can inanimate things like atoms act as the fountain of life?
Life is obviously dormant in atoms though one cannot trace any sign of life in
the behaviour or chemical properties of the constituting atoms. The higher the
intelligent life rises the greater becomes the mystery.
If various bodies were governed bv different physical
laws, one could ascribe the emergence of life to this difrerence but the fact is
that forms of matter from moon to mars and mouse to man are governed exactly by
the same laws. One should not think that there is something different inherent
in the behaviour of atoms in an organic body compared to the ones in inanimate
matter. They are exactly the same: the difference appears in the past history of
these atoms and the way they have been organised in a specitic structure. Both
coal and diamond are made of carbon atoms yet they look different and command
different values for the different arrangement of these atoms in them.
Possibly, the dormant tendency of atoms to become alive
started when certain structures of atoms were able to make limited choices for
themselves. A crystal could be taken as an example. This inanimate object
acquired the property of selectivity through the juxtaposition of its
constituent atoms as they reached a certain state of organ sation. To feed
itself, it incorporates the matter it chooses, and not anything that comes its
way. The criterion is obviously what helps best to preserve its identity. For
example, an ice or salt crystal grows by collecting a small group of atoms or
molecules from its surroundings until it becomes a definite structure through a
repitition of this process. Thus its existence is brought about by the principle
The same principle of replication is at the root of a
cell, which is the basic unit of life. However, there is a difference: in a
crystal the endless replication is the exact reproduction of a single pattern
but in cells it leads to hundred of variegated patterns. Again, a cell maintains
its identity by extracting its needs from many diiferent kinds of atoms,
including live and inorganic molecules, which may be totally different from
itself but a crystal can use only one kind of atom or molecule for its growth.
Complexity of a cell is so stunning that it is
impossible to gain its full understanding or describe it with complete accuracy.
This is what enhances the mystery of life. A human body which is an assemblage
of cells, on average contains more than one hundred thousand billion cells
(10/14). Though life starts with a single fertilised cell, it swells to this
incredible size through division, which is a form of replicaticn, changing
itself into over two hundred kinds, each having a different function. They have
different shapes, which can be spherical, cylindrical or like branches. An
average cell contains about one thousand billion (10/12) atoms. The full
structure that comes into being is simply so marvellous that man himself cannot
fathom his physical existence. The understanding af his purpose and destination,
make the mystery of living even more complex and baffling.
One ought to realise the mystery of harmonious working
of such an assemblage i.e. a human body, which is far more complex than a
planetary system. Even more mysterious is the fact that the basic principle of
reproduction involves the same process of bonding and evolutionary processes,
which the universe itself went through, thus marking the unity of existence from
a particle to a patriarch.
It is obviously, the universe itself which creates
life. It has been attested that life, was first confined to the ocean; about 350
million years ago, it came ashore when the ozone layer came into being to
protect the atmosphere from the lethal rays which came from space. Where did the
ozone layer come from? It is a product of the respiration of aquatic vegetation
in earlier times. In fact, one thing leads to the creation of another.
Reproduction is also a peculiarity of the living matter.
The universe is a variegated whole because the same
creative principle pervades through it. The realisation that the millions of
forms from flowers to fowl and dust to damsel are organised on the same precept,
makes it incredibly mysterious, marvellous and magical. Take the act of love-
making. On the outside, it is a serene, sweet and satisfying affair but inside
the woman, the same state or chaos and strife prevails as it did at the time or
the Big Bang. Spermatoza in their billions rise to fertilise the single egg to
secure self-reproduction. So terrific is the competition for survival that only
one or two may achieve their goal, and the rest perish in this battle. Yet, this
is not the whole story: under the cell membrane of each of these spermatoza is
boiling a cauldron of chemical reactions which produce proteins; atoms go
through the same process of association and disassociation, and electrons dash
around to form molecular combinations the same way as did elementary particles
at the time of the Big Bang to form nucleons, and gradually changed into nuclei
and atoms. It has been stated authoritatively that the genetic code which is
inscribed into sex cells, was built up in the beginning of the universe. It
simply confirms the unity of man and the cosmos.
To the untrained mind, matter is inanimate, yet
everything comes out of it. Therefore, matter is the source or life though it
may look inorganic. This is where the mystery of life deepens still further. How
can a lifeless object make a live delivery ?
The viruses, which are the smallest disease-inducing
organisms, are the closest live things to inanimate matter. Though nobody knows
the precise mechanism for turning the inanimate into animate, it is understoocd
to be the result of chemical reactions. Tobacco mosaic virus may help to
understand this mystery. In its cystalline phase, it does nct protray any traits
of life, whatsoever. It is just a dead matter, but when these virus crystals are
dissolved in water and sprinkled on a tobacco leaf, they immediately become
alive and multiply themselves quickly. It looks that being and non-being share
the same threshold, and it does not involve a big effort to push the dead over
to the live side and vice versa. It is only a matter of knowing how.
Knowledge is the opposite of mystery. Since life is the
greatest mystery, one must know what it is all about; otherwise, it is not worth
living. The magnitude of life is evidence to the fact that it is more than a
mechanical phase. Mysticism is the only solution to this puzzle.