Varadaraja Raman: Perceived Reality



“Motion, motion, everywhere!  

Now here, now there, now to, now fro, 

Now up, now down, the world goeth so, 

And ever hath done and ever shall.”

- John Gower

The most ubiquitous aspect of perceived reality is movement.  The tree branch is gently heaving at the soft touch of the breeze, the cat is running across the street, raindrops fall from up above, automobiles are speeding on the street.  The pendulum is swinging routinely, the sun climbs to the zenith and descends again to the horizon, waves surge and fall.  All these are among the countless instances of motion I see all around.  Even when I sit for meditation, there is the rhythmic beat of heart and lungs, I can feel in-and-out motion of air through my nostrils.

I notice the massive rock which is still and sturdy amidst the flowers in the garden, lying there for more than a decade now.  Being part of this earth of ours, it too is whirling with the planet, and zooming through space at more than eighteen miles a second.  Also, like every chunk of matter, that stationary stone on soft soil is made up of molecules and atoms which vibrating vigorously, not immobile like their totality.  And the atoms contain perpetually orbiting tinier parts that play a role in the construction of matter.

Then there are those specks of twinkling stars up there in the night sky, seemingly fixed to the dome above.  But they too change positions as hours pass by.  Aside from their apparent routine motions due to earth's rotation, they are known to moving in what seems like pitch dark space at unimaginable speeds.  Even the fixed Polaris, which guide mariners, and to which (as per Shakespeare) Julius Caesar compared himself when he said,

“I am constant as the northern star

of whose true fix'd state and resting quality 

There is no fellow in the firmament,”

isn't fixed.  It is pulsating and moving too.

There is nothing, but nothing in the universe utterly motionless.  Every speck and star is in ceaseless dance, displacing itself from point to another point.

To what purpose, one might ask, this restless motion everywhere, whether ordered or random, of everything, from micro to macrocosmic things?  No science can answer this, for no physics or formula can impose meaning or find purpose.  We need poets and philosophers, religions and reflections to give flesh and form to the skeleton of scientific facts and figures.

There is rich variety in the motions we observe.  The slow pace of the snail is different from the fast flight of the bullet.  The fall of a meteor is not the same as the flight of a bird.  Clouds move and planets move too, as do waters in rivers, and bees in swarms, but not all in the same way.  The pendulum swings and the ship sails, each very differently.

Motion is indispensable for the universe to exist.  Matter depends on the motion of electrons around atomic nuclei.  Molecules are vibrating and rotating.  The stability of planetary systems depends on the orbital motion of the planets.  If the moon stops revolving, it would fall smack on the earth.  If the planets halted, they would plunge into the sun.  Even the so-called fixed stars do not, indeed cannot, stay put in the heavens.

Ours is not a static world like a dark dungeon where inert objects may lie immobile indefinitely.  It is not a grand still-life, where mute matter stays scattered here and there, like boulders in vast wilderness.  The universe is not, nor ever was, nor ever will be, a motionless cosmic landscape.  Rather, every speck and star and stupendous galaxy is perpetually on the move.  They have no choice.

The variety and modes of motion had been investigated, reflected upon, and debated all through the ages.  All the different kinds of motion may be put under just two broad classes: motion that doesn't change in speed or direction, and motion that does.  In the course of the 17th century, new understandings arose, and they were formulated by Isaac Newton in a famous treatise.  Here it was stated that, contrary to centuries of misperception, pushes and pulls don't cause motion, but only changes in it: they only cause matter to move faster or slower or change direction.

We were not supposed to exceed the 65 mph limit on a highway.  Is this fast or is this slow?  Fast and slow have not absolute meanings, much less even than beautiful or ugly.  But we may compare speeds.  The train is moving faster than the trolley, and the buggy faster than the bug.

Little creatures crawl at less than a centimeter a second, a fast walker covers a few miles an hour, and jaguars dart at more than sixty.  Racing cars speed at a few hundred miles an hour, while jet planes fly at six hundred.  Sound in air goes with far greater speed, covering 1100 feet a second, but we have aircraft that fly faster still.  Molecules of gas can be moving at 3000 miles an hour.  There are stars which rush through the cold expanse at more than 7000 kilometers an hour, and grand galaxies with billions of stars are fleeing each other at 20,000 kilometers a second.  Electrons in atoms whirl around the core at unimaginable speeds of more than 2 million meters a second!  If we wonder if there is any limit to the speeds of bodies, the answer is yes, for, as Einstein found out, no physical entity can move, even in principle, with a speed exceeding that of light, which, as any school child should be able to tell, is about 186,000 miles (300  million meters) a second.

If the range and numbers of motion are mind-boggling, it is even more remarkable that they have been tracked down by human ingenuity.  It is difficult enough to recognize that sound and light travel with finite speeds, to know of hydrogen atoms and molecular motions, and to become aware of electrons and galaxies.  But to compute their speeds is even more impressive.

As Wordsworth said:

“No motion but the moving tide, a breeze, 

Or merely silent Nature's breathing life.”

Not just the moving tide and the breeze, one might add, but all motion may be viewed as the life-throb of the cosmos.  If and when everything comes to absolute stand still, it will spell the silence of cosmic demise.


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