Wednesday, June 30, 2004

"The value the world sets upon motives is often grossly unjust and inaccurate. Consider, for example, two of them: mere insatiable curiosity and the desire to do good. The latter is put high above the former, and yet it is the former that moves one of the most useful men the human race has yet produced: the scientific investigator. What actually urges him on is not some brummagem idea of Service, but a boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the secret.... His prototype is not the liberator releasing slaves, the good Samaritan lifting up the fallen, but a dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes"
-- H. L. Mencken
Extremely provocative, although I would say not one hundred percent true...


Had a strange and irrational dream yesterday. I dreamt that my father was retiring from Fergusson College (where he is a Professor, and in fact going to retire next year) and so the time had come to return all those hundreds of library books which I had issued on his name (Very fortunately for me, faculty members can issue as many books as they want for any amount of time). Among the books is Linus Pauling's (Two times Nobel Laureate) classic book "The Nature of the Chemical Bond" which many people call the most influential chemistry book ever published. Anyway, the book has been with me for a long time, and in the dream as well as in real life, I don't want to give it back! So I make a valid plan, namely that I would make a deal with the library people; classify the book as being on a sale, something quite common, and I would buy it. So off we go to the library, and the negotiations start on a slow and peaceful note. All to no avail. The ladies will just not budge. Finally the debate becomes really heated, and I become so emotional that I am almost on the verge of tears. I make a desperate plea to the librarian, a strict motherly looking lady who can nonetheless exude great impassiveness. I say "Look here, this guy won two Nobel Prizes, both unshared. This book is the Bhagavad Gita of Chemistry. Let me tell you that if any time I am sentenced to death, when they are hanging me, I will hold this book, and not the Gita, in my hands! No no no! If you take this away from me, these priceless gems of knowledge will be lost from me forever...Please, please!!" I could well have spoken to a stone. Finally, to make an attempt to end this pitiful spectacle, the other lady calls security...
I do not know what "Security" did with me, because long before I could observe my plight, I woke up with a start, sweating profusely. The irrational part of the dream? Well, if even in a dream I could think rationally enough to try to persuade them to put up the book on sale, couldn't I have been rational enough to do the much simpler job of xeroxing (I know the correct word is 'photocopying', but popular and much steeped culture makes saying 'xeroxed' second nature to me) it, to prevent the loss of "priceless gems of knowledge"? Especially considering the fact that I have already xeroxed at least 15-20 books, some simply on impulse...That was the hilarious part of the dream. But this actually brings me to its interpretation. Without wanting to read Freud's book, I want to make a few points. First and most importantly, even in dreams, we can think rationally. I actually worked out a plan with my father, of persuading them to classify the book as being on sale. Is this rational thinking similar to or the same as the thinking we do consciously? Its hard to answer this, because the only thinking we are aware of is conscious thinking. Secondly, what dictates the details of a dream. Of course, the answer is 'subconscious thought'. But exactly which ones? For example, what dictates the details of the room in which the library was housed (it was NOT the Fergusson Library), the colours of the walls, the shirt styles of the clerks which I saw, and the faces of the library ladies, one of whom looked like a hybrid between my usual lady from whom i got most books xeroxed, and the mother of one of my best friends? Its interesting to compare the two streams, of consciousness and unconsciousness....Can we ever find the answers?....

Thursday, June 24, 2004


John Casti has in my opinion, emerged as the most articulate, humorous and sophisticated science writer in the world in recent years. Writing on topics as diverse as Artificial Intelligence, Mathematics and Complexity, Biology and Genetics and the Philosophy of Science, he now has taken the boldest step as of yet, an effort to debate the limits of knowledge itself. As in his earlier book, "The Cambridge Quintet", Casti weaves together a fictional set of discussions between famous scientists set in the 1940s at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, the "one, true, platonic heaven", a place where the most austere and profound theorists in the world could come and think. Participants include such luminaries as J. Robert Oppenheimer (who was director of the institute then), Kurt Godel, Freeman Dyson, John von Neumann and the great Einstein himself. The discussions take place at diverse locations and times; in the common room during tea time, between Einstein and Godel during walks from the institute to the house, and at a party hosted by the great mathematician John von Neumann. The topic? What are the limits of our knowledge, in Physics, in Mathematics, in Social Sciences, in Philosophy. At the background are minor discussions of matters involving whether Kurt Godel should be made a permanent member, and whether von Neumann should build the first ever computer in the Institute. There's also a cameo appearance by T. S. Eliot, who was an invited member for a year. I have to admit that this book is not as profound as The Cambridge Quintet. However, Casti has an uncanny knack for constructing life size figures of famous scientists, and making the discussions relevant, articulate and accessible. There are of course, a few cliche lines coming from each of the scientists, but then since the discussions are fictional, who knows what all of them would have actually said. In the end, there is no concrete conclusion, as there cannot be any about such a profound topic. But I closed the book feeling sure only about one thing, that we must continue the quest for the limits of knowledge, even if we don't know what they are at this moment. This is surely an example where, for once, the journey is infinitely more interesting and important than the destination.


Of all the myriad rhythms which serve to foster the auditory pleasure of human beings, my favourite one is the Waltz. For those of you who cannot instantly recall this beautiful rhythm, remember "E dil hai hai 'Bumbai' meri jaan" from the old hit CID (starring Guru Dutt)? All rhythms are very regular in their meter and pace; however I find Waltz to be special in this respect. It sounds like this rhythm was made for dancing, not only literally, but also symbolically in the upper echelons of human thought and creativity. What I can say about Waltz is similar in spirit to the well known (Communist?) phrase namely that "All rhythms are regular but some are more regular than others". And Waltz belongs to this category. Interestingly, there are two types of Waltzes which are diamterically opposite to each other in their meter, but still evoke a diabolically common emotion. First there is the normal, frequently heard, honest Waltz. You begin with it slowly, and your mind and heart start springing with its cadence. And before you know it, you are lost in its regularity, its precise predictive beats. There's something about symmetry that humans love. And Waltz portrays it to a magnificent extent. For getting a feel of this, one just has to listen to a composition by Johann Strauss, the "King of Waltz". Many of his compositions have become so commonplace and familiar that we do not even recognise the fact that they are great works of art. The best example is his "On the beautiful blue Danube" which I have heard as background music played in movies, cafes and restaurants, the gas station, the train station, the grocery and even before a scientific seminar. Again, you may recall it as being played incessantly in the background in "2001: A space Odyssey", the Stanley Kubrick opus. So that's the usual Waltz for you.
And there's the mind boggling, tempting, naughty "Viennese Waltz". Its hard to describe this one. The best analogy I can think of for it is a cat, a beautiful sprightly feline who creeps ever so gently from behind you....and then with a sudden jump which is full of conviction as well as affection, says "Gotcha"! The Viennese Waltz has beats which begin off the meter and then linger somewhere off apparently in space and time before touching the on meter, just on time. It is the only human phenomenon I know which makes you actually WANT to hold your breath and feel great about it! That's what you feel like doing when it goes off beat and then you and the rhythm hold hands and make a glorious entrance, right on beat! Compelling! Hail the humble Waltz, and may it continue to delight and entertain humanity forever!

Friday, June 18, 2004


It is 5.27. My eyes are straining. My head is spinning. My brain feels like its a potpourri of thai cuisine. My heart feels as if its going to burst open any second now. I feel like crying.
I am being unable to come to terms with crystallographic maps and models. A two hours meeting with Jim Snyder and Jim Nettles ensued yesterday, and therein lay a ray of hope. Its 5.27 on the next day. I have at least managed to generate two electron density maps, preceded by a mammoth task of hopeless file transferring from one root directory to the other. The maps show a perfect fit on the maps already generated by the voluble Nettles. Maybe there is hope. I know more today than what I knew yesterday. Still I fell saturated. Time to go home and stop thinking about this. Maybe a book about Oppenheimer and a cup of hot coffee will ease the pain. Anyway, there is hope. Always. So this time will pass. Good days will come. We will see the light, finally. Give me strength, o unknown source of strength. I will finally triumph. I know I will. We will.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004


Out of all the characters from my favourite TV show, "Friends", the character I like the most is Chandler (although all of them are perfect for their respective roles). This is not the least because of his uncanny ability to wise crack and finally squirm himself out of the knottiest of situations, but because of his great self deprecating humour which enables him to do this. In an age where it is quite common to indulge in "others deprecating" humour, we have to realise that self deprecating humour instantly helps to ease heated discussions and thorny situations without hurting other people. In diverse situations, times and countries, there have always been people like this and they have played an important role in helping to avoid getting situations out of hand. Some disparate examples come to mind. Ronald Reagan, who was famous for his ability to see the humour in the situation. Physicist Samuel Allison, who worked on the Atomic Bomb project. The famous mathematician John von Neumann. And far and away, possibly the best of them all...Pu La Deshpande. The man was a genius at this. And the quality is far from common. Try spending a day when you don't come up with a single joke making fun of others. Of course, in his famous writings, Pu La did make fun of others, but never in a way that was condescending. The self deprecator is valuable to society. He is instrumental in deflecting the attention of people from the strained situation at hand. He can use any bad quality which he has in a wonderful way, so that people see the human element in the situation. He is the person who makes us aware that no matter how bitter matters are, they can always be resolved. He makes us realise that life is more than petty or even profound differences. He always has the last laugh, and he encourages us to do the same. So Chandlers of the world....UNITE!!

Friday, June 11, 2004


I read Thomas Friedman's article on the Indian Elections in the New York Times and thought it made a lot of sense. He was basically echoing a opinion expressed by a few Indian intellectuals right after the elections. The basic opinion is that the B.J.P did not lose because of the anti globalization sentiments of the poor. The poor are not against globalization. In fact, they want globalization to slow down so that too can have its full benefits. That is very true. The average Indian poor man, when he watches a soap or shampoo commercial is not only looking at the product, but more at the lifestyles of the people using it. Its a total package which he wants to be a part of. The same thought was expressed by Cornell University economist Kaushik Basu in his BBC column, just one day after the results were out. Now the main reason why the poor man's condition is not getting any better is because of the truly appaling corruption in local government sectors which is the real cause of all evil. In fact, even anyone of us who belongs to the middle class knows the hassles that we face in the RTO, the passport office, the local police station, and the local courts, to name a few places. An indication of how bad the situation has become comes from the fact that nowadays, most of us don't even feel a high degree of consience when we bribe the policeman who stops us at the traffic light, or the RTO officer who issues us a driving license. Its a complex cyclical system, one end of which feeds the other. So we essentially need to weed out corruption problems on the most local levels in small villages and towns, as well as cities. There can be two simple 'solutions' for doing this, already practised to a high extent in the western world. If every person who works even in the smallest village realises the part he plays in the total working of the economy, if he understands that he is a cog in the mechanism, but one that is essential in combination with other cogs to keep the economy alive and kicking, then the problem will be solved. We might as well say; if every person tries hard enough, he can win an Olympic gold medal. The problem is that not all people are motivated, and they don't even have the same 'aptitude' for getting motivated. In such a case, there is only one other quick solution. Give everyone a fair salary every month, so that at least he will work hard for the money, and more importantly may not feel the need to procure the extra income by practising corruption. Capitalism (almost) exemplified. Well, this is obviously easier said than done. Friedman rightfully notes that well educated social activists will contribute a lot in making this happen, but they are still not going to be the movers and shakers. We will need a complete revamping of the economy to achieve this. Possible with supreme efforts, but i don't see it happening in the near future. Assuming that the Government works efficiently to do this (with due interference from the Communist Party acknowledged....and assuming that we have the same government for quite some time...improbable again) I would say that it will take at least 25 years for the situation to improve to any considerable extent. I hope it happens before that. But I don't believe it will.

Thursday, June 10, 2004


Lately I have developed a beginner's interest in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, reputedly the most influential Philosopher of the twentieth century, whose work on language, logic and the mind marks a turning point in Philosophy and thinking in general. One would think that, in this increasingly materialistic world, the majority of people would get diverted from Philosophy in general towards the "Philosophy of Corporations" in particular ( I am sure that I am being very prescient in using this term. However, I humbly borrow it from "Austin Powers" where Doctor Evil's henchman, "Number 2" says that in the future, there probably would be no Governments, just Corporations) So I was pleasantly surprised when I typed a Wittgenstein book search in the online Library Catalog, found out that there are 615 titles (Who was this guy, exactly?!...), and also found out that the majority of the volumes are already checked out. Good to know that so many people are interested in this stuff and are reading it (I never imagined that I would be the only one wanting to read the books, but frankly, I also never imagined that there would be so many people interested in them). This experience is an especially heartening one, after my excursions in the Fergusson College Library, where I noticed more than once, that the book issued to me had been last issued in 1943 or so; truly antique. Anyway, so it means that there is hope for the world after all...:)

Tuesday, June 08, 2004


The day since I started following the "Apple a day..." maxim, I have been catapulted into another constant problem. Apple splashes. I like to browse the web or read when I am eating my apple. Little did I know that every bite of mine sends microscopic drops of apple juice flying across...everywhere; the keyboard and mouse, books and papers, headphones, calculator, and the picture of my 2 year old nephew that I keep on the table. The problem with these splashes are, since they are microscopic, I can't see them. But when they dry up, the whole place feels sticky. So everyday before I leave work, I have to wipe all the above mentioned things with a wet cloth. Why couldn't they make the texture of apples more like bananas? Tender and soft, without you having to assault them everytime you take a bite?...Another big unanswered question in the world...

Monday, June 07, 2004


For a long long time, I used to think that "aanchal" in Hindi means EYEBROWS. Then I thought of "Chhod do aanchal zamana kya kahega" and "katon se kheech ke aanchal" and was mortified. Nope! It possibly could not be EYEBROWS. Consultation with elders then revealed the true meaning! So nice that I dropped Hindi in 8th standard...


I am having a gala time for the last few days, with the D-Day celebrations reaching their peak yesterday. There are so many interesting programs on television and so many interesting articles on the web, that I just couldn't have enough even after printing a 100 or so pages full of D-Day tales. June 6th, 1944, a very important day for the world, when the Allied invasion of Europe took place. I am particularly moved by it, because that was the first war story I ever read when I was about 12 years old, from Cornelius Ryan's splendid book "The Longest Day". At the time I was highly inspired. These things sink in much more at that age. I also watched the movie which is also very well made. After that, WW2 history became a serious pastime for me, especially after reading the epic work by William Shirer, "The Rise and fall of the Third Reich". I always believe that the history of those years should never be forgotten. I totally respect the sentiments of people who do not want to dig up old and terrible issues. However I always think that given a choice, one should be overaware, rather than underaware of these issues. Just taking a broad look at the history of conflict in the world after the war could lead us to believe that the point was not driven in forcefully enough. We have yet to learn that we must think a hundred times before killing people. As Robert McNamara says in "The Fog of War", there was a time when political and military leaders would make mistakes and learn from them. The equation obviously changed with the atomic bomb. Now, we cannot afford to make mistakes. The problem is, that prevention of atomic warfare still does not obviate "less harmful' types of conflict including "ordinary" civil war and mass genocide. Anyway, this is a very complex and paradoxical issue which demands critical thought. The point in my opinion is what I said above. We should never forget what happened. That does NOT mean that we should continue to hold responsible nations which committed those crimes. That would not make sense at all. Those were different times, when the psyche of the people was so different so as to belong to a completely alien form of thinking and living, one which does not belong to any nation or race, but rather to a particular type of human being, who really ceases to be a normal human being and is driven by a unique psychology. We merely have to keep the fact in mind. Human beings are capable of great deeds. Good and bad. Maybe, as someone said, the only true position is of the complete pacifist....

Tuesday, June 01, 2004


Its here again! After valiantly braving the last catastrophic volcano, tsunami, earthquake and hurricane the end of the world is near again. The North Atlantic current has gotten disrupted, and the next ice age is about to begin! We can only watch with helpless fear as hurricanes in Los Angeles, tidal waves in New York city, and hail stones in Tokyo and Delhi pound human life with nature’s ruthless fury, once again reminding us that we are nothing but a tiny flicker of life in a vast and bottomless ocean of darkness…Oh! And I forgot to mention! Yet again, America saves the world! This time though, it has realized the immense benefit of scientific collaboration with governments round the world. And so it comes to pass…this latest danger, and the greatest until now. We are safe once more, at least for the time being. However, now, we have to (again) begin the Herculean task of reconstructing our almost annihilated civilization…
Of course, I am talking about the latest disaster flick on the block, “The Day after Tomorrow”. The moment I heard about the movie, I resolved to watch it as soon as it was released. This resolve was admittedly not weakened by reviews, including one surprisingly in Nature, the premier scientific journal in the world (?). Anyway, I finally made it to the first show, the day before yesterday. To cut a long story short, I thought the movie was good but not outstanding. Anyway, even though I had wanted to watch the movie, I never actually expected that it would be great. That’s because there’s usually nothing more to such disaster flicks other than special effects. And that’s one thing I have to admit. The special effects were superb. The story was ok, but, as one of my friends pointed out, some of the parts were truly Bollywood ishtyle. Especially the father braving the worst climatic events in 10000 years just to save his son, when he had absolutely no guarantee as to his son’s whereabouts, let alone his fate. But apart from that, the movie was great entertainment, as such movies sometimes are. Moreover, I was pretty confident that it would be that because I had really enjoyed the director, Roland Emmerich’s earlier makings, Godzilla and Independence Day. So, the bottom line is that if you are an enthusiast of typical such movies, go ahead enjoy! On a much more interesting note, this movie is apparently stirring up political and environmental issues (again). Now this is interesting. If such movies actually cause politicians to rethink about environmental pollution and global warming to any extent, then bravo Emmerich!