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Quarks 1, Bootstraps 0
Beginning in the 1970s science, and especially physics, became a favorite topic of conversation among students of Eastern religion. The first, and still the most interesting contribution to the vast Physics & Eastern Philosophy genre, Fritjof Capra’s influential Tao of Physics, explores parallels between the Avatamsaka Sutra and modern physics. The Avatamsaka Sutra teaches that mind, universe, and Buddha are identical. Capra was struck by a seeming parallel with quantum theory: “A careful analysis of the process of observation in atomic physics has shown that the subatomic particles have no meaning as isolated entities, but can only be understood as interconnections between the preparation of an experiment and the subsequent measurement. Quantum theory thus reveals a basic oneness of the universe.” Now a widely accepted truism among non-scientists, the idea is regularly invoked by modern-day Buddhists.
Capra saw a second connection between the “bootstrap hypothesis” of particle physics as developed by Geoffrey Chew, and the Diamond Net of Indra from the Avatamsaka Sutra. The bootstrap hypothesis posits that the basic particles of the universe, in particular the protons and neutrons which make up the nuclei of atoms, can only be understood through self-consistency. In other words, nucleons have no “self-nature” but exist only through their relationship to other nucleons. Though it sounds vague, the hypothesis can be expressed mathematically in terms of certain equations, called “bootstrap equations.” In the Diamond Net of Indra, jewels placed at each intersection of a vast network reflect every other jewel in the net. Conservationist John Muir articulated an American version: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Capra believed that the bootstrap hypothesis described the Diamond Net of Indra in scientific terms.
However, two theoretical physicists, Cardy and Mussardo, showed in 1989 that the simplest bootstrap equations, describing just one type of particle moving in one spatial dimension, led to negative probabilities, violating a central postulate of quantum (and classical) physics. (The chance of rain can never be -40%.) The once-fashionable bootstrap hypothesis turned out to be sterile. A different approach to understanding nucleons, one based on the well-supported view that they are built out of even more basic entities called quarks, is far more fruitful. The quark model makes concrete, no-nonsense predictions that have been verified in numerous experiments. Today, scientists have abandoned the bootstrap hypothesis.
We are attracted by the mysterious and the exotic. The equation seems to be: Physics is expressed in complicated mathematical formulas, and Eastern ideas are strange and hard to express in words, so they must be speaking of the same thing. Also it is tempting for teachers to leverage the prestige and power of science to promote a particular religious view. Scientists used to quote scripture. Now religious leaders quote scientific theories! However, we should keep in mind that the Buddha responded with silence when asked metaphysical or cosmological questions. A Zen koan says:
As the officer Lu Hsuan was talking with Nan Ch’uan, he said, “Master of the Teachings Chao said, 'Heaven, earth, and I have the same root; myriad things and I are one body.’ This is quite marvelous.”
An ordinary experience, like seeing a flower, is more valuable than metaphysics. A single scientific fact is more useful than speculation. Take the light and heat radiated by warm bodies, something we sense when we feel the warmth of the sun or turn on an incandescent light bulb. It was the failure of nineteenth century classical physics to describe this radiation - a failure known as the “ultraviolet catastrophe” - that drove Max Planck to create the first quantum theory. Hardly a mere metaphor, we now know that Planck’s quantum law describes the spectrum of microwave background radiation left over from the Big Bang to a precision of one part in ten thousand!
The apparent resemblance of the language of quantum physics and of sutras is just that - an appearance. My training as a quantum physicist gives me no special insight into Buddhist practice. For that, daily life and ordinary mind are where the real work begins.
Brad Marston is a practicing Zen Buddhist and a physics professor at Brown University. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife and his Labrador retriever.