In praise of amateurs
Over the past couple of weeks, as a sort of new year’s resolution to learn something difficult and something further away from my comfort zone, I began to study the basics of General Relativity, a physical theory of gravitation which was “invented” by Albert Einstein with help and guidance from the mathematicians Marcel Grossmann and Tullio Levi-Civita. To Levi-Civita, who helped him understand in a deep way how the mathematical functions called ‘tensors’ operate, Einstein wrote: “I admire the elegance of your method of computation; it must be nice to ride through these fields upon the horse of true mathematics while the like of us have to make our way laboriously on foot.” Reading that, I could only smile. If Einstein thought of himself as a straggler on foot surveying the vast field of mathematics, how does one describe amateurish efforts like mine? Nevertheless, undeterred, like a fool in search of gold, I have persisted to study a subject matter that I had abandoned in college for the glitter of Wall Street.
During my struggles with notations and unwieldy abstractions, I am often reminded of my father’s friends, who, after listening to K.J. Yesudas’ singing or Nikhil Banerjee’s sitar, decided to learn music or purchase a sitar. As a child, I found their efforts mystifying. After all, they would never perform in front of audiences. Nor would they be any good at it compared to a child half their age, who had trained for long hours. Their exertions seemed like an indulgence seeking to cure the boredom of middle age. But now, as I do my own thing, I have begun to see what they truly were after: soak themselves in the warm afterglow of something they intuited as larger than themselves, to apprehend something beautiful that lay hidden behind the forest of grammar and notational rigour. In a way, they were the first amateurs I had met in my life; individuals who weren’t overwhelmed by the enormity of the journeys they had embarked on. Instead, I suspect, they were like how I am with my own efforts — relieved to just be without any pressure to be smart, clever, or have profound insights. I plod along, perhaps for the pleasure of plodding itself. It is this which distinguishes the amateur from the professional: to travel with no intention of reaching the destination.
My goals from each page of the textbook that I use may seem more trivial to those who the know the subject well, but for me the pleasures from seeing how one line of mathematical notation leads to another are all too real. In a way, this is no different than when a student of Carnatic or Hindustani music recognizes for the first time how individual swarams when arranged in a specific order bring to the fore the flavoring of a raga. Much like how breathing techniques help students of singing traverse difficult portions of a song, a widely used “trick” in General Relativity is the extensive use of indices and superscripts. The goal is to subsume a whole lot of information about various dimensions and learn to perform specific manipulations on them. However, I often struggle to “see” the details of the manipulations of indices and superscripts in those equations. The rapturous sweep of notational simplifications often leaves me wondering if indeed these representations can explain the physical realities of our universe. It is a frequent suspicion that makes me feel small. Notwithstanding these doubts, I press on through the field of symbols and abstractions, like a nun walking past shirtless men playing soccer: cautious, and eager to avoid distractions.
A real challenge, one all too difficult for an amateur to resist, is to keep my eyes on the exercise at hand and not look for any greater meaning. For most non-physicists who dabble in physics, talk often veers towards the ‘deep’ stuff — relativity, nature of time, reality, and so on. But the actual practice of physics — much like any subject in its practised, lived reality — comprises laborious mathematical routines that have little use for grandiloquence. This is as terrifyingly demanding as writing page after page before a novel emerges, or digging out layers of earth before a well is constructed. One simply has to sit and perform each task, one after the other. At its distilled best, such efforts are an exercise in discovering a kind of sublimation, a form of non-personhood.
All that exists at that moment is the task at hand, with neither its past nor its future apprehensible to the performer. It is what our ancients called ‘sadhana’, a state of performative being that is indistinguishable from meditation. Thanks to the rise of the nation state and archipelagos of clerks and bureaucrats who rule over it, such a theory of action is deemed antiquated. A cult of efficiency has arisen with acquisition of more degrees as the sole ritual of interest. Amidst all this, the amateur, like a platypus — is it a mammal or a bird? — is unclassifiable. Is he a wastrel or just a vainglorious fool? Irrespective of the seeming irrelevance of the amateur in an age of professionals, the pleasures of discovering things for its own sake is as old as humans themselves. It is here to stay, no matter what the experts will tell you. 
A version of this piece was published in The Hindu on January 14, 2018.