All Those Years Ago

What’s the decade dearest to a Beatles-loving physics enthusiast? The 60s, of course! 

Now yesterday and today, our theatre’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation. And these veterans agreed with me that this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool, who call themselves The Beatles. Now tonight, you’re gonna twice be entertained by them. Right now, and again in the second half of our show. Ladies and gentlemen.., The Beatles.

This was the iconic television show host Ed Sullivan’s introduction to the Fab Four in New York City in February 1964. George, John, Paul and Ringo, the four twenty-something English lads who had started playing together less than four years ago, were already a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. They were to sweep the entire of the decade, a decade that is dear to me for one more reason – particle physics!

I’m a second generation Beatles fan (or the third, it doesn’t matter, anyway). And for about last five years, I have this bug called The Beatles. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.) Born too late to attend a live Beatles performance or to buy vinyl records of Beatles albums, I fell in love with The Beatles when I discovered them on the internet.

It was impossible not to fall for them; in less than a decade, they’d influenced music like no band or artist had ever done. They were winning hearts and earning lots of money (they are the most commercially successful band of all time).

Fifty years ago, in the summer of ’67, they released their eighth studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. An experiment in a number of ways, the album became an instant commercial and critical hit (like almost all of their albums and singles). (Sgt. Pepper’s ranks number one in the Rolling Stones magazine list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.)

But 1967 was phenomenal for another important reason. That very year, Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg, two scientists working in the United States, produced their seminal work on the unification of the electromagnetic and the weak nuclear force.

Now a little something on what this means to help you understand and appreciate its importance. All objects in this universe interact with each other through one or more of four forces – what we call the fundamental interactions. Now, each of these forces has a very specific characteristic; and obtaining a proper and complete description of each of them is quite non-trivial, enough to have kept physicists busy all these years.

Though understanding the behaviour of all these forces is difficult, one smart thing to do is to think of them as interactions between particles mediated by, well, some other particles. So, for example, you’ve electromagnetic interactions between charged particles which are mediated by photons, the corpuscles of light. And gravity which can be understood as a manifestation of interactions mediated by what are very creatively (?) called gravitons.

Now, this is where Salam and Weinberg come into the picture. What these two gentlemen were able to show was that the weak and electromagnetic interactions, which are mediated by different particles, and of course, have different behaviours, are two different manifestations of one fundamental electroweak interaction. First proposed by Sheldon Glashow in 1961, the electroweak unification, as it is called, marks an important milestone in our understanding of nature at the most fundamental levels. (Glashow, Salam and Weinberg were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 for their contributions to the theory of electroweak interaction.)

In fact, the entire of the sixth decade of the last century saw numerous contributions coming from theoreticians and experimentalists alike – all these culminating into what can unarguably be called a triumph of human endeavours – the Standard Model of particle physics. Efforts of countless individuals have given us this fine theory which not only classifies all the elementary particles but also explains how the electromagnetic, strong and weak interactions are related to one another. (As for gravity, it still is a hard to nut to crack.)

The sixties were rather strange, though; the silliest and longest of wars was going on in Vietnam, there were successful lunar missions, but there were assassinations, too – JFK, Martin Luther King Jr. were killed; it was like a win some, lose some kind of thing, perhaps it has always been. But then, there were The Beatles – young, energetic and innovative. And thinking about why a twenty-something guy in India, over forty years after the last Beatles performance, is fascinated by them, I realised something.

It is not just about the music, it is about the themes as well. So, you have this boy band, singing beautiful songs about love and friendship. Four twenty-something English lads generating admiration with their songs and charming personas, captivating an entire generation (and more). Listen to this to get a feel of what I mean (and possibly, to get a break from this tedious read as well).

Following The Beatles album by album made me realise that all the while these guys were growing up, too. Their music was maturing, and so were their themes. I couldn’t help but admire the variety and the depth in their themes. They were not just talking of love and friendship now, there were also talking of nostalgia and were spinning yarns about the lives of regular people and at the same time, using their songs to express their worldviews. They were experimenting with music and songwriting, and in the process, producing a sheer volume of invention. And if I am able to connect to a band that played all those years ago, it is because of the wonderful music, for sure, but probably, it is also because their songs represent what I feel; they cover an entire spectrum of emotions, all the essential themes.

Sheldon Glashow, Abdus Salam, Steven Weinberg, George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, they all symbolise how important ingredients creativity and innovation are in human endeavours. We, as a species, have come quite far, learning and evolving, but probably sometimes repeating the same mistakes again and again.

I’m not sure if the world today is better than that in the sixties or not, but for sure, not everything is fine at present. I’ll leave you with something which I believe is important for all of us to understand, a 1968 Beatles song called Revolution. (And as I tell everyone whenever suggesting a Beatles song, read the lyrics of the song as well, especially when it is as meaningful a song as this one.) Because, though these are troubled times, don’t you know it’s going to be…alright!

The title of this post has been borrowed from that of a 1981 single by George Harrison. All Those Years Ago was Harrison’s tribute to John Lennon who had been assassinated in December the previous year.

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