Philosophy · Science · Short stories

The mind-matter dilemma

The next few weeks, Ary’s mind went through severe turbulence, the kind of which it never experienced before in the twenty years of its existence on the planet. So far he had built his life upon the strong foundations of intelligence and hard work. Chasing academic success was his preoccupation, and more often than not he was successful in reaching his goals. He remembered that fine morning in India when he got up from bed and opened the mailbox on his computer to receive the admission letter from UC Berkeley. Extremely elated that finally his four years of hard work during undergraduate studies had paid off, he announced the news to his parents and close friends immediately. He still remembered how it felt to run on the treadmill in the gym that morning- that joy of success- how life was a race and he was the galloping horse who just aced the race.

At the present moment, such success really felt very superficial to Ary. He was currently studying in the top school in the world- an institution of his dreams, but he wasn’t happy. He felt that chasing success had always kept him distracted from the truth. Could he ever explore the truth in science labs of a university? Was the real truth hiding somewhere in the mountains? He didn’t know.

Ary started spending less number of hours in the laboratory. He was massively conflicted between continuing with his current PhD project on ferroelectric thin films or switching to a completely divergent PhD project in the form of deploying wireless sensors in the Sierra Nevada basin. He spent more time in the laboratory taking advice from others on that topic than on growing or measuring thin films. Evenings were mostly spent playing squash in the university gym with Diggy and also debating over the same topic.

One such evening, while playing squash, Ary made a mention of the book written by Swami Vivekananda which he recently picked up from the famous university book stacks located underground, below the vast field called Memorial Glade next to the campus tower. Though he did his high school in an institution founded on Vivekananda’s principles, he never actually put his thought into Vivekananda’s writings until then. Probably there was no need for it.

“Dude, he says that there is no point to learning things unless they can be realized. I don’t think you can realize science. It’s just things we read in books.”, Ary told Diggy, as Diggy prepared to make the next serve.

“What do you mean?”, Diggie replied as he hit the ball. The ball hit the lower part of the front wall and touched the floor extremely close to it. Ary was standing far behind and hence was in no position to make the return. Diggy increased the lead to 5-0. Diggy was tall and slender and much more agile than Ary. Hence he always had an advantage in most games he played against Ary other than cricket, which they also played occasionally in Berkeley on a lazy Sunday.

“For example, I always read in textbooks that if you put a stick in water then it appears bent”, Ary said, “They show a ray diagram with light rays coming from the stick bending at the water surface before hitting the eye. But I never realized the phenomenon.” Each squash court was an isolated room with concrete white walls and a hard wood floor, and was a surprisingly great place for intense conversations.

“Then your understanding of the basic principle of science is probably lacking”, said Diggy, as he served the ball again.

Something sank inside Ary, when he heard it. The foundation upon which he had built his life so far was crumbling down very fast. Did he really love Physics? Did he actually even care about Physics?

The game continued. Ary’s mind wasn’t really in it and Diggy soon took the lead to 11-0.

“Don’t feel like playing any more today. Let’s go.”, Ary said pensively.

As they grabbed dinner at a local diner on their way back to their respective apartments, Ary kept talking about his current dilemma with Diggy listening patiently and providing inputs here and there.

“I am not sure man. Do I really care about science? I now think I never actually cared about crystal structure or about how vibrations take place in a lattice or why ferroelectrics have spontaneous polarization. These things have nothing to do with me. It is just all about matter. Vivekananda talks about my mind, my heart, my conversations, my emotions, my life! I don’t find anything about that in physics”, Ary said, with a sense of helplessness pervading his face and his speech.

“Sure! Change your project then man, go out into the mountains.”, replied Diggy, confused, “It really sounds exciting. May be I shall join you too in a year.”

“I don’t know man. Every time I am planning to go tell my advisor that I am quitting my current project, something is stopping me from inside. Yet I don’t feel like my heart is in this ferroelectrics project”, said Ary.

Diggy didn’t say anything in response.

Ary lay on his bed sleepless for a long time that night. His thoughts went all over the place- he would go to the mountains to do the sensors project, he would realize things he read in Vivekananda’s book for himself in the mountains and frame his own ideology in life, he would he would then get back to India and immerse himself in Indian politics with the aim of implementing his idealogy…. But something was preventing him from carrying out the plan. Unable to sleep, Ary grabbed his mobile phone from the desk next to his bed and checked the time. It was 2 AM in the morning. He went to bed at 11 PM. Three hours of sleeplessness! The worst thing that could happen to someone was trying to fall asleep but not being able to. His eyes were hurting. He felt hungry and he knew there was no food left in the refrigerator. Ary decided to take a walk to the hotdog store a few blocks down, which he knew was still open.

As he walked along the quiet and empty streets of downtown Berkeley in the early hours of the morning, the probable cause of his hesitation to switch projects suddenly just occurred to him. He had decided to pursue his PhD on the physics of ferroelectric thin films not because he was deeply interested in unraveling the mysteries of physics. Rather he was chasing a dream that he had nurtured inside him since the days of his undergraduate studies- he wanted to publish his work in the most reputed and impactful science journal that was out there- Nature. If he switched to the wireless sensors project, his goal would forever be unrealized leaving him with a deep sense of regret.

Excited, he dialed Diggy’s number on his mobile. It was probably one of those rare moments in life where everything just fell in place because Diggy was actually up that late too and picked up the phone at once. Ary ran his idea past Diggy, who listened carefully and then said, “ Yeah, that sounds convincing enough. If chasing goals is how you function in life, just keep doing that. Now go to sleep holding on to the current thought. If your mind doesn’t drift from it, then probably it is the right thought and the right direction.”

Ary liked what Diggy said. Diggy was the only guy in Berkeley with whom Ary could share everything in his mind, and he took Diggy’s words very seriously. After filling up his stomach with a four dollar hotdog the guy at the counter used to refer to as “mango”, Ary walked back to his studio apartment and jumped into his bed. Soon his back and forth thoughts reached a state of blissful incoherence, his eyelids closed and he fell into deep sleep.