Q and A with Professor Chandre Dharma-wardana

Daniel Bacon sounds out Dharma-wardana for World Scientific, 14 June 2013


  1. Discuss the differences between teaching physics at the University of Montreal and conducting research at the National Research Council of Canada?

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) is the premier arm of government research in Canada. The NRC has always worked closely with the cutting-edge technological giants in Canada, in fields like nanotechnology, communications, materials, energy, biotechnology, aerospace etc. It also works with universities in accepting post-graduate students and researcher associates. In my career at the NRC I have had the privilege of working in almost every area of physics, and overlapping into chemistry and engineering, touching on the most fundamental and basic questions in quantum physics, and at another extreme, working directly on very practical applications like light-emitting diodes, semi-conductor field-effect transistors, photonics or plasma physics.

The University of Montreal is the largest French-language university in North America and has a very vibrant faculty and student body. I have had the privilege of supervising graduate students preparing for their PhDs at this university, and also working closely with very distinguished researchers of this university. This university has most of the features of ‘american’ universities as well as some of the cultural values of the university system that we associate with Universite de Paris, in France. I supervised Doctoral students at the Faculte de Science, Universite de Paris, Orsay many years ago, and I myself did my studies at the University of Cambridge, England. I see that increasingly, there is more and more emphasis on course work and publications, whereas in the old days in Europe there was less emphasis on course work or publications. However, the performance at seminars and colloquia, and the breath of one’s knowledge were more important then.

  1. When did you first develop a love for physics? What draws you to physics research?

I have moved around among Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics in my research, but I think it has always been heavily towards Physics because physics attempts to give you a fundamental understanding of nature, and has the capacity to satisfy one’s curiosity. I became interested in science from a young age as it seemed to deal with most problems honestly and actually get results. Once knowledge gets established, it becomes engineering.

  1. You have studied physics in various parts of the world. Do you feel there is any disparity between research done in North America versus other areas of the world?

I have mostly worked in Canada, USA, and Europe, with a stint in Sri Lanka, a developing country, where I started as a faculty member, and ended up as a University Vice-Chancellor. I also worked as a Director of a number of Industrial organizations in the private or corporate sector. Doing good research requires (i) a supporting infra-structure of technology, (b) a vibrant intellectual climate, libraries and colleagues to support intellectual effort. In addition, you need (c) some steady funding where politicians and businessmen do not attempt to micro-manage the scientists and academics.

Developing countries lack all of these. The western world has all three. However, the last item is getting increasingly eroded. That is, micro-management of scientists by funding agencies with their pre-set ‘milestones’ and focused goals set by business has converted scientific research into mere engineering research. People like Maxwell, Niels Bohr and Feynman would have a hard time getting tenure today. Science managers have become people who have only a very narrow or negligible culture in science itself. They are narrow technocrats or pure business managers, and not people who have a broad vision over the scientific landscape to recognize a paradigm shift in technology.

However, there is still much respect for learning in oriental cultures. I see that in time to come, the Asia-Pacific region could become what Florence was in the Renaissance, unless the Western world gets rid of its false paradigms about scientific research and scientific revolutions. Some of these topics get discussed in my book, in the chapters dealing with philosophical and sociological aspects of science (e.g., Chapter 2, Chapter 14).

  1. Have you seen drastic changes in quantum theory from its introduction to today? If so, what are the changes?

Indeed. The quantum theory is probably the explanation to everything there is, and it will one day extend itself to encompass some form of quantum gravity. However, it has not yet become a theory understood by the public or even among practitioners of science. However, those scientists who have studied it have seen a major development in our understanding of the nature of quantum phenomena. Feynman in his BBC lectures of the early sixties could say that we shouldn’t even attempt to understand what a photon is, and how it goes through multiple slits to form an interference pattern. Today, thanks to the work of John Bell, David Bohm, and the experimental work on what is known as quantum ‘entanglement’ that started off in Orsay, University of Paris, we have a much better picture of quantum reality. Of course, there will always be people who contest this, and look for metaphysical views of reality. There are others who take a neutral view, and treat the theory merely as a calculational tool whose ‘meaning’ is irrelevant.

However, modern physics has produced all kinds of experimental spin offs that were never anticipated, creating new technologies and wealth. Every time you use your cellphones, NMR diagnostics, GPS etc., you have to thank the quantum theory and the theory of relativity. These theories have so far worked precisely, without any exceptions, and across all cultures, nations and in outer space. If you want to understand why gold (Au) is golden, and lead (Pb) is not golden in colour, you need relativistic quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is for real, and not a pie in the sky.

Physical law determines every little detail of our existence, and the world we live in. And yet there is indeterminism at the human scale. If we paraphrase what Einstein said, the amazing thing about nature is, “all this is quite comprehensible within physics”. Physical reality may seem weird and display what Einstein called ‘spooky action at a distance’ in the behavior of two quantum particles at absolute zero temperature. However, at the level of complex systems (like living things), and at room temperature, there is no ‘weirdness’ in quantum reality. It is necessary to explain all this, not just to the public, but even to science students, teachers, researchers and philosophers. One purpose of my book is to explain all of this, and emphasize the consilience and convergence of all knowledge and understanding towards a coherent whole.

  1. What advice would you offer to a young student who is interested in pursuing a career in physics or studying complex systems?

Nowadays, students always ask about job prospects in the field, and what sort of money they can make. At that level, the question is simple. You might make a lot more money by becoming a fund manager or a banker. However, a physicist is never likely to be out of a job because s/he acquires a large number of skills that can be used in many areas. However, if it is physics itself that you care for, then you need to specialize and get into research; it not just a vocation but a personal calling. It is like deciding to have a career in music or opera. You are in it for much more than a job. You have to be prepared for a lot of hard work, and for the need to compete with colleagues who are equally dedicated and smart. Furthermore, the prevailing cultural ethos insists on competition between each other and among teams. In the end, after working very hard for four or five years, you might write a four-page article which cannot be understood by most people; it gets published – after stiff peer review – in a ‘prestigious journal’ unheard of by most people and read by a handful. If the work is very close to engineering it might be immediately applicable, and you might get some money and even fame!

  1. What is the proudest moment in your career?

If you are a physicist, you are like a mountaineer. Each time you reach some peak you are not satisfied, and you look toward the next, more difficult peak higher up. So the proudest moment has to be the solution of the next theoretical and experimental problem! Otherwise you retire!

  1. Do you find that your philosophies differ much from those of your colleagues?

Scientists do not worry about a philosophical approach when working on a project. You acquire a certain ‘physics culture’ that retains you within a main-stream approach to problems. This ‘physics culture’ may not even assume the existence of an external world with an objective reality. However, I believe that it enriches one’s understanding if one could stop a bit and examine the philosophical and cultural underpinnings of what we take for granted, be it in science or in other areas of knowledge.

One can treat science merely as a calculational and predictive tool that tells you ‘how’ to achieve a given objective. It does not tell you if you ‘ought’ to achieve that objective or not. That is, on the whole science is ‘value neutral’. However, there is a hidden morality in the scientific method. A good scientist learns to respect facts, and recognize that one’s ‘judgment’ is usually false, and that we need to put ‘the numbers’ and ‘do the calculation’ to see if our judgment is correct. This means, even if people can egoistically hold onto a personal theory, such attempts are in the end doomed. There is a systematic method for detecting errors, as we saw with the false claims of ‘cold fusion’, and other cases of ‘science fraud’, or honest error. They all got corrected.

The ‘social sciences’ (e.g., economics, political ‘science’) do not have that capability, and much of it becomes a ‘pretense of knowedge’, as Fredrich von Hayek, the famous economist stated in his Nobel address about his own subject. The famous Sokal hoax, where post-modernists were tricked into publishing gibberish, also underlines this problem in the social sciences. However, social scientists studying ‘the nature of science’ have claimed that science is just another ‘folk-lore’ associated with this age. Most scientists are not even aware of these so-called ‘science studies’ that proliferate the humanities faculties!

  1. What was the most enjoyable aspect of writing ‘A Physicist’s View of Matter and Mind’?

The challenge of how to organize all the material covering the science, philosophy and the history of ideas into one book was most interesting. The modern knowledge about matter has come up from the earliest days, through the Renaissance to modern times. At first glance one might naively think that modern physics (e.g., of Einstein) is a complete negation of what Galileo and Newton had to say. Such a view is common in popular journalism designed to shock the reader. But to display the consilience and continuity of the ideas with as little mathematics as possible is a challenge. I was very excited about the possibility of including new ideas from density functional theory, not treated in other similar books.

Then there is the new knowledge about mind, memory, consciousness and brain function. It was very enjoyable to assemble everything and see that it makes a coherent whole. Writing it, and drawing all the figures and graphs become a bit painful, hence the finishing of the book, its actual publication with the efficient help of the World Scientific staff, was also a most enjoyable thing! It was also very nice to get words of appreciation from individuals like Edward O. Wilson, Neil Ashcroft, David Peat and several other distinguished colleagues and friends.

1 Comment

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One response to “Q and A with Professor Chandre Dharma-wardana

  1. kavi

    This author has, in this interview, drawn attention to the hostility towards science shown by a class of social scientists nurtured in the now bankrupt Post-modernist tradition, and mentions the
    “The famous Sokal hoax, where post-modernists were tricked into publishing gibberish, also underlines this problem in the social sciences. However, social scientists studying ‘the nature of science’ have claimed that science is just another ‘folk-lore’ associated with this age. Most scientists are not even aware of these so-called ‘science studies’ that proliferate the humanities faculties!”
    Perhaps he is unaware that there are, in Sri Lanka, anti-science zealots like Prof. Nalin de Silva who also claims that “Western science” is at par with astrology, — just a folklore suited to western culture, and he is trying to create some kind of non-western “Kathandara“. he has claimed that the origin of the Kidney disease in the north-central province of Sri Lanka is available from revealed truth – from a woman who communicates with God Natha.

    But Nalin de Silva comes from the science stream, and has become a “political scientist”. So the anti-science attitudes can arise from narrow nationalism or other types of constrained thinking (e.g., Marxism, as in the Lysenko episode), and not peculiar to social science studies of science itself.

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