Wednesday, July 28, 2004

This article on CNN says that instead of swatting mosquitoes, its better to flick them away, because the infernal things may spread diseases, once you 'have their blood on your hands'. Instead, (this, the article says) gently cajole them to leave your palm, so that they can go away, (this, the article does not stress) renew their ammunition, and come back and bite you again, bringing back due returns and a worthy end to your magnanimity.
Actually, I don't hate mosquitoes all that much. Once, I even saw one sitting cross-legged on my dining table, when I was studying during a rare late night. Unfortunately, nobody I told the incident to believed that a mosquito could sit cross-legged, and this discouraged me from pursuing the topic further...

Tuesday, July 27, 2004


I don't understand why people all over the world have a tendency to generalise (and this itself could be a generalization). I was reading yesterday, of how Newton's laws, when they were discovered, cast people into a quandary. That is because Newton's laws are essentially deterministic and give rise to what we call the clockwork universe, namely a universe in which, given the initial positions and velocities of all material particles, one can predict their motion forever, at least in theory. This created a lot of consternation for people, because if these laws could govern all the events in the world, then so could they also govern the free will of men, which would then cease to be free will. This was a blasphemous conclusion which went against the teachings of the Bible, and immediately, the entire world was plunged into turmoil...What I cannot understand is why we have to extrapolate conclusions from the domain of natural science to that of social science. In fact, this has been a tendency all throughout history. But thinking about it, I think there a couple of reasons why we like to generalise, and of course I am no exception to that myself:
1. Generalisations solve all our problems easily, or so it seems. Phenomena in natural science are much easier to explain compared to the much more fickle world of human phenomena. It is heartening to think that we can also solve social problems, or at least explain them, if we can borrow what seems like an analogous explanation from the hard sciences. For example, it is very easy to think, even without any 'proof', that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle is nothing but a scientific mirroring of the uncertainties of daily life. It is our insecurity and helplessness in tackling social questions that leads us to generalisations of plausible solutions, so that we get a vicarious thrill of having solved those problems.
2. A lot of times, generalisations reflect nothing but a simple ego problem, and a desire for oneupmanship in the art of rhetoric. This is also related to the point above. We would like to think that we understand much more than what we actually do. In doing this, we are very clever in taking advantage of the nonprovability of human affairs. It is very easy to find a social analog of a scientific law or theory. It is quite another thing to 'prove' it. However, since its also equally difficuly to 'disprove' it, we conveniently chuck the ball into the the nonprovers' court, say that the onus of falsifiability is on them and proclaim that we have found a great generalization of a law of nature and human nature. For anyone who would contradict us, we may make an appeal to Karl Popper's theory that the ultimate importance of any theory lies in its falsifiability. Probability is another thing that can supposedly make us immune to criticism. We can generalize and extrapolate a law, with the added caveat that it is only probable, not definite. That way, if we are proved wrong, we can claim that we never said anything for sure, and only talked about probabilities. This represents a tricky position and its sometimes hard to get around it. Probably the only way could be to bring about a common consensus among social and natural scientists as to what properly would constitute a law and its generalization, and that could help resolve matters. But the point is definitely going to be debated for long.
3. Every situation is different. But how its difference could exactly undermine our generalization is not clear. I have a friend who frequently engages in very clever argument with me. His strategy is essentially 'proof by analogy' which is another form of unsubstantiated generalization. If we are debating a point in mathematics, he would refute me with one from philosophy. If the point in question is from physics, he would refute me with one from biology. In doing so, he is crossing great boundaries between diciplines, and making what he thinks are valid generalizations. However, neither he nor I am sure what exactly are the flaws in his argument, because none of us know how the differences between these various fields of thought can exactly affect the generalizations he makes. But as in any good political debate, my friend conveniently pushes his ignorance under the rug, and brings mine to the forefront, when they are not really different at all!
To conclude, I would think that generalizations are basically our attempt to answer all possible questions about ourselves and the world. They frequently arise from emotional insecurity brought about by ignorance, and sometimes from plain ego problems and desires to prove ourselves right. They abound everywhere, and I have probably generalised a lot in this post myself!
However, looking at the bright side, generalizations are also useful, ironically for the very reasons cited above. They give us a feeling of intellectual and emotional security. They sometimes get rid of our inferiority complexes, and they could also possibly win us admirers, if we are skillful enough in hiding our inabilities! Most importantly, generalizations are sometimes invaluable in science. In this age of specialization, it has become imperative to see connections between various fields and phenomena. Even though this technique ('proof by analogy') has not been as successful in the social sciences, it has sometimes brought unexpected rewards, at least temporarily. Given the great uncertainty in the social sciences, I guess even a marginally useful generalisation would be quite valuable.
To generalize is definitely human. But we must realise that it is a two pronged tool, and one which we must use wisely. It is all too easy to be led down a blind alley by generalizing, and we must be aware that that can happen. The last word probably belongs to the indefatigable Oscar Wilde, which presents both a maxim and a paradox:
"No statement is general, even this one!"-Oscar Wilde
P.S: In this post, I have alternately used 'generalization' and 'generalisation'. Can I generalis(z)e about this?...

Monday, July 26, 2004


For some time now, I have wanted to write a LOTR post. But I thought that I would rather do it after all the excitement has subsided a bit, if not died down. I absolutely loved the glorious tale. I have to say that as far as the movies are concerned, I liked TTT and ROTK better. But that really set me thinking about why, apart from the grandeur of the movies, LOTR suddenly became so popular.
Well, at this point I remember a story told by Isaac Asimov. He and J.R.R. Tolkien were contending in the same year for the “Hugo” award, the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize or Academy award for science fiction and fantasy. Asimov was dead sure that Tolkien would win the award. He was in awe of the Lord of the Rings, and had read it several times, in fact. So he was pleasantly surprised when he, not Tolkien, won the Hugo. Even after many years, he could not fathom the reason. Incidentally, Asimov won the prize for his famed “Foundation Series”, a set of stories which are as, if not more popular than LOTR. Well, I don’t know why what happened happened. One reason I strongly suspect played a part is that the Hugo is primarily given for science fiction. Tolkien’s work does not really count as science fiction. Perhaps, in a purely fantasy based competition, Tolkien would have emerged the winner.
LOTR is surely one of the classics of our time. But if you think of it, it embodies many of the same principles that are enumerated in the world’s most celebrated epic tales and religious gospels and poems. Many of the characters in LOTR remind us of similar famous characters. The most compelling character in the book is probably Golum, who definitely reminds me of Goethe’s Faust. Just like Faust, he wants the ring and what he thinks is eternal power and happiness. Just like Faust, he is willing to do anything for it. Just like Faust who trades his soul with the devil for eternal life, but is in fact stricken with eternal pain and torment, Golum forsakes all the good in his life for the pursuit of the ring. Which shows that power, no matter how great, can never bring utopian happiness. In LOTR, the central theme is the fight between good and evil, as exemplified by countless immortal tales from cultures around the world. But what struck me more than anything else was the one single principle everyone constantly sticks by and which is really the guiding force of the whole epic. Many people agree that the varied battle scenes in the story are the most inspiring parts. But I think that these scenes are not memorable for the special effects, or for the bravery and valour of the warriors alone. A recurrent theme preceding almost all the battle scenes is a completely gloomy outlook towards the results of the battle. At no point, especially in The Two Towers, is it clear that the ‘good’ men will win the battle. At no point is even their survival a comfortably obvious assumption. At no point is it clear that Frodo is going to succeed. In fact, at every point of the tale, the odds are always against these brave men. But still they decide to persist to uphold their honour. They decide to fight tooth and nail with everything they have got. They strive to give it their best shot, NO MATTER WHAT THE OUTCOME. This strikes me as a golden principle guiding mankind through centuries of struggle and survival. I don’t need to say it but what we are talking about has been said thousands of years ago in a glorious epic, the Bhagavad Gita. Of course, it is not only the Gita which says this, but as far as I know, in almost no other document has the principle been articulated so eloquently and clearly. Although I am an agnostic and not greatly biased towards Hinduism, I think that the great strength of the Gita lies in its generosity. It enumerates many different ways in which the principle can be realized. It teaches the principle in a way which is fit to follow for many men through the centuries; whether it is the Mahabharata’s Arjuna, or the Lord of the Ring’s Aragon. Its truly a universal principle. So if LOTR teaches a universal principle, what is Tolkien’s contribution? As any great author does, Tolkien brings wonderfully to life, men who embody this principle and many others too. The tenacity of Frodo, the singular, almost fanatic nature of Aragon aimed at the defeat of evil, and the determined guiding principles of Gandalf, are all great and tangible examples of qualities which make us great and different. But a more important thing, which I thought was responsible for the success of LOTR was the fact that we are at a stage where we are in danger of forgetting these principles, if not for any other reason, for the reason that the world has become too complicated and utilitarian. Just as the old generation complains about the lack of recognition of the value of good old hard work, so we can all complain about the gradual diminishing in the world, of values which have brought us to this stage of apparent domination of the earth. I think that more than at any time, we are at a stage when the shroud of materialistic and technological contraptions, as well as the great influence of political ideologies has clouded our thinking. And the most dangerous thing is that we are gradually even losing awareness of this deprecation of values. Today, more that 2000 years after these principles were enumerated, it is becoming more and more difficult to actually recognize these qualities. At least that’s what I think. So today, it has become more important that men like Tolkien create these heroes in whom these qualities are firmly pronounced. With the current growth of the culture and sentiment of civilization, I would not be surprised if another Tolkien comes out with another such inspiring story in about fifty years more or so. We will need it even more then. I am not saying that we should start indulging more and more in idol worship. But I do think that we need a reminder, in this more and more complicated world, that these qualities exist and they still matter as much, or actually even more. We need more Aragons and Frodos to save our sanity. In fact, if nobody writes such a book for a very long time, I would be surprised. If the book fails to inspire people when it is written, I would be disturbed.
On a more practical note, Tolkien also weaves a remarkable tale in which the most important character is not necessarily the most inspiring. And so it has also been in real life. A lot of us have great ability, but that ability cannot be realised unless there is someone, real or apparent who can give us strength and has the staying power and tenacity which we may lack. Arjuna had Krishna, Olympic champions have their coaches, and Frodo had Sam. That's why, important as he may be, I always think that the real heroes of LOTR are Sam, and Aragorn, for his sheer staying power.


The past few days, I have been listening to the main theme of LOTR- The Two Towers, and I have to say that its one of the best movie soundtracks I have heard in my life.
It’s a very serious piece, a quality that is firmly apparent right from the start. The Gothic background song pervades the entire piece and gives it a dark and foreboding flavour. You are reminded of a struggle, which is beginning, a struggle upon which rests the fate of humanity, a struggle which has to be fought tooth and nail till the end. Most importantly, you get the feeling that this is a struggle, which probably cannot be won. This is a struggle, which surely marks the end of the age of men, as we know it. But then, somewhere in between, without changing the overall tone, the piece begins to display subtle innuendoes, innuendoes that display hope, that display the resurrection of a will to fight, a will to keep on fighting till the end with valour, NO MATTER WHAT THE RESULT MAY BE. It is especially this principle, eternally immortalized in the Bhagavad Gita which was apparent at least to me, as the piece proceeded. And it is in fact a reverberation of a central theme in the Lord of the Rings. We do not know where our life is exactly going to lead us. But, as Gandalf would say it, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that has been given to us”. So be it. And so the characters in this lofty tale take it upon themselves to fight evil, irrespective of whether they would win or not. I thought that the theme music perfectly represents the essence of the tale. Not the fruits of your task but it is the process that is all important. The piece ends somewhat abruptly. But not before we are sure that we are going to win at least this battle. And with this attitude, it really won’t matter what will happen to us in the future.

Saturday, July 24, 2004


This is surely the best biography, out of many written, of Alexander Fleming, the scientist whose discovery of penicillin ranks among the most important in the history of medicine. The discovery and the man himself has been much debated; whether he really made the discovery, whether he was conceited and sought all the fame and honours for himself-many such allegations abound. In this book, all these have been probably put to rest. MacFarlane personally knew Fleming and he weaves an affectionate and engaging portrait of a fine man, a hard worker, and most importantly, an unassuming man who never sought fame or honours for himself. MacFarlane gives due credit to Florey and Chain, who shared the Nobel Prize with Fleming. Without their work, Penicillin may never have seen the light of day, and especially in time to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers during the Second World War. There had been much criticism of Fleming and he had been accused of stealing the glory from Florey and Chain. Nothing could be further from the truth. If people and the press adored Fleming, it was because of his inherent simplicity and modesty, a disarming trait which he acquired during his childhood spent in the countryside, and which endeared him to them. A man of extremely few words, he lived his life quietly and that is precisely why he fuelled the press's notion of a solitary worker striving obsessively in a lab to make great advances in science for humanity's benefit. MacFarlane dispels this assumption by the press, noting that most of his life, Fleming worked a regular but honest 9-6 day at his laboratory. He also usually refrained from interviews. However, MacFarlane also importantly dispels the idea rooted in the minds of so many; that Fleming's discovery was a 'fortunate accident'. Fleming himself has said that "Chance favours the prepared mind". The accidental introduction of the mold which kills bacteria in Fleming's petri dishes may have been fortunate, but it is a tribute to his powers of observation and meticulousness, as well as his foresight, that not only did he notice this unusual event and recorded it, but he also saw that it could be extremely important as a practical discovery. He duly published a few articles in which he tried to explain why the discovery could be medically important, but because of his reticient nature, he did not push or publicise it. When Florey and Chain were doing their path breaking research on the commercialization of Penicillin, Fleming was always generous enough to answer their questions, provide them samples, and give them due credit in public. He never claimed the penicillin story as exclusively his own. MacFarlane brings to light this remarkably modest character of the man. He describes Fleming as he was and does not try to unduly lionize him. In the end though, you cannot help but feel admiration and affection for the scientist who without a doubt began the modern age of war against microbes. MacFarlane has done a superb job of stripping away the elements of myth from Fleming's life, and showing us the man in all his greatness.

Friday, July 23, 2004


I am interested in many things besides my vocation. But there are two about which I am a complete ignoramous-sports and politics. If I am in a group and everyone is getting irked with my constant interrupting and talking, there is a sure-shot way of silencing me. Start talking about Indian elections in the 1970s or the results of the latest X game (where X=Soccer, Cricket, Hockey, Tennis, Formula One or/and all the others). You can rest assured that my face will become white as a corpse's and I will lapse into meditative silence. Politics and sports just don't enamour themselves to me. There are a couple of reasons. As far as sports is concerned, the reason is simple. I am so lazy, that even the efforts of watching others exert themselves to exhaustion, no matter how noble the goal may be, completely overwhelms me. I have made some efforts to watch at least the best cricket matches which India has won, lest my fellow countrymen forever label me as the indifferent traitor. But I don't know any of the technical details of the game, although I know enough extreme cricket facts from the Guiness Book to regale my fellow American friends a few times. But that is largely a social PR tactic, and after an extent, I get bored of reading about even these exemplary feats. As far as other sports are concerned, I don't even know the basics of any of them, albeit the facts that tennis is played with a racquet and soccer is played with a ball. However, even with all these inadequacies, I am still blissfully unaware of all sports that are played around the world. And I have never been worried about that. Maybe tomorrow, when I am constantly surrounded by enough enthusiastic animals so as to get me into the mood, I may someday actually learn where the slip and the gully are...
With Politics, the matter is more profound. I have always disliked Politics. When I was in school, I used to forever be mad at my father when I wanted to watch "Shaktimaan" or a similar show and he wanted to watch a political debate show. I used to be aghast when I saw the interest with which he used to watch these shows. How, I asked myself, could he like so much, these displays of what I could only see as one-upmanship and rhetoric? The politicans in those shows to me seemed only like men who essentially argue and make false promises for a selfish living, never ever reaching any concrete conclusions with a desire to actually bring about the people's good. I got so tired of this game that finally, I even stopped reading the headlines everyday, where the Prime Minister would "strongly condemn terrorist attacks" at least a hundred times a year without actually taking any action against terrorists. When the newspaper arrived, I would nonchalantly turn to the science and technology page and peruse a few things like the editor's choice, and most importantly, the cartoons. And so it continued for many years. Reading about acts of terrorism and vandalism and about the empty promises of politicians just used to make me feel more and more helpless. I did use to read international news. Somehow, events happening in the US didn't make me feel as helpless, because it seemed that I could do absolutely nothing about those. Closer to home, however, the helplessness arises from the fact that you CAN do something about these things, and yet, because of the twisted political atmosphere in the country, you cannot. So I thought I would rather turn my back on these events. In case something significant happened, I would certainly hear it from my parents or friends. I was very happy to pursue the other important interests in my life besides science; Music, Poetry, History and Philosophy etc.
My first introduction to the importance of Politics came from my reading of the Second World War and the History of Atomic Energy. When Hitler came to power in Germany, the best scientists such as Einstein had to flee their homeland. If Politics could disrupt something as pristine as pure scientific research, then it seemed that nothing could be immune from it. The discovery of fission changed everything. For the first time in History as such, it thrust the world into a condition where scientific research became irreversibly intertwined with Politics. Henceforth, the face of Politics, no matter how ugly, would become an inseparable companion to science. Secrecy got enforced in the US and the Manhattan Project began, largely controlled by the whims of politicians. That's when I realised that as much as I hate it, one cannot neglect politics. Later, when I read more and more about the Cold War, I further realised the the important role which politics played in all aspects of human life. Whether we liked it or not was unimportant. We had to accept the fact that it was there. Over the past few years, because of my interest in Philosophy, I have read something about the philosophy of politics, as enumerated by such stalwarts as Bertrand Russell. Most importantly, my naivete about the nature of politics has been replaced by what I think is a grasp of reality. Yes, Politics IS a game. That is true. But I have realised that its an essential game, and if you really think about it, even an interesting one. The objective is to say something which will give your opponent the benefit of doubt. Then, with this uncertainty on your side, you can play him even more, and sometimes, you will be able to profit or get something out of this. Also, just like in a chess game, sometimes you have to sacrifice a piece, and even make inane statements to secure some future victory. The rhetoric which politicians use against each other is perhaps the only way to play the game, and even to bring about progress. Once you learn the rules of the game, you can play the political game just like you would play any other. However, in politics, the conclusion of the game is of paramount importance, and the fate of the entire nation may hang in balance because of that. Unfortunately, as we know, some politicians play the game all too well and in the process trick everyone. But as Lincoln said, at least they never manage to trick "all the people at all the times". I understood that whether you are a "good" or a "bad" politician, you have to learn these aforementioned rules. Even today, I don't like politics much, and I don't mean to study it any detail. I am content to read about general political philosophy a bit because I think it is of great importance to an understanding of history, economics and related subjects. I still remain silent, when I see voluble discussions about politics on the blogs of my politically knowledgable friends. Some of them really know a lot about it, and I admire them for their insights. But I don't think I can ever enter the mainstream of political discussion. I am content with my fields of interest. However, my viewpoint towards the subject has definitely changed. Now, I do try to keep myself informed about the main political events in the world, because I guess its a requirement for being an informed citizen. I think of politics as a necessary evil, but one that sometimes can give rise to unexpected good. But I think I am better off in the realm of facts, fascinating as the realm of fluid and capricious human judgements may be. I can only appreciate these qualities somewhat in philosophy. As far as politics is concerned, perhaps it is yet again the sage who has the last say: "Politics is ephemeral but an equation is forever..."- Albert Einstein.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

There was once a young fellow from Trinity,
who tried to calculate the square root of infinity,
but the number of digits
gave him the fidgets,
so he dropped Math and took up Divinity...

Wednesday, July 14, 2004


Many years ago, maybe when I was in seventh or eight standard, I read one of the most interesting stories I have ever come across, that of the murder of Napoleon Bonaparte. Even today, many people are innocent of this fact and believe that he died a natural death on St. Helena, where he was imprisoned. However, in the 1950s, a Swedish dentist named Sten Forshufvud had a hunch about Napoleon's possible murder when he read about the circumstances of his death. The medical records carefully preserved at that time finally led Forshufvud to a singular conclusion; that Napoleon was a victim of arsenic poisoning. But how could he prove it? Foraging through old records and testimonies, Forshufvud gradually built up a remarkable story of murder and deception. The murder was possibly committed by someone who had easy access to the kitchen, and possibly through the favourite brand of wine which Napoleon loved. Arsenic is perfect for such jobs because it is cheap and easily available, and it is almost completely tasteless. Most importantly, its presence could not be detected in the body during post mortem, at least during those times, and it kills the victim slowly but surely. In doing so, it produces symptoms which could easily be interpreted as those of other well known ailments...No wonder arsenic is such a popular form of poisoning since Roman times. Forshufvud went over all the evidence and made sure that there were no loopholes in his theory, before he could present this audacious finding to the world. One evidence in particular was truly striking. Nineteen years after his death, it was decided that Napoleon's tomb be opened and his remains moved to a more formal and respectable burial ground in France. When the tomb was finally opened, the onlookers braced themselves for the sight. But where they expected to see a skeleton, they saw the untouched, perfectly preserved figure of their Emperor, looking as if he were merely asleep, and in fact younger than most of them! They were astonished at the spectacle but, given the beliefs of those times, no one should be surprised if they attributed the sight to divine intervention of some kind. The implications of this event for Forshufvud's theory; arsenic is also an exceptional preserving agent that greatly slows down decomposition of organic matter! This was surely the kind of proof that Forshufvud was looking for. But science needs material proof, not historical. There was no question about Forshufvud opening Napoleon's tomb again. The authorities, not to mention the people of France, just wouldn't have allowed it. But there was one chance. In those times, people frequently used to preserve locks of hair of a deceased person (and I believe they still do, in some cultures). Arsenic in hair is a sure sign of poisoning. If Forshufvud could track down any of the Emperor's descendents or a descendent of his valets, perhaps he or she could give him a strand of hair for his experiments. This in fact turned out to be the case. A man who was a member of the Napoleonic Society agreed to give him a strand of hair which he had obtained from the collection of one of Napoleon's valets. With the techniques of modern science at his hand, Forshufvud could now go ahead at full steam. Using a then new and ultra sensitive technique called Neutron Activation Analysis, Forshufvud finally got through the piece de resistance. The data showed incontrovertible existence of arsenic in the hair sample. Not only that, but analysing various layers of the hair proved that the arsenic had been slowly but regularly administered through food or drink. As far as Forshufvud was concerned, the case was closed. Napoleon certainly had been murdered. Moreover, this was truly a perfect murder, because the murderer was never caught, and indeed carried the secret to his grave. Who was it? ...I will leave it to you to find out from the book that Forshufvud and co author Ben Weider published, which I am (re)reading right now! I discovered it again in the library here and it brought back many memories...

As far as I was concerned, I found this story absolutely fascinating. Forshufvud's investigation was so perfect that he could actually publish his theory in the prestigious science journal NATURE. I decided that I had to get my hands on this article. Now the only place where I could do this at that time was the Fergusson College library. Anyone of you who has ventured looking for old books in this library, would agree with me in noting that it is possibly the only true remnant of the dark ages, surely undisturbed since Newton's time. If you took a look at any old book or journal here, there's almost no doubt that it was last checked out at least a hundred years ago, if not never. With such a track record, you won't be surprised if I tell you that climbing up the dark stairs in the back of the library and setting foot into the even darker rooms where old journal copies are kept, presents a sight such as no other to the eye. Generous quantities of cobwebs are strung across everywhere, with their creators nowhere in sight. They too perhaps died of boredom in this place. Stacks upon stacks of books and encyclopedias stare at you through their gloomy eyes, basking in the glory of their 19th century origin, when the library was actually a place to READ, and generations enjoyed the knowledge immortalised in their pages. But now its all gone, and the place looks literally like an alchemist's den, if not like the House On The Haunted Hill. If it were not for your desire to glean knowledge from these old gems, you would surely sense a foreboding, dark presence here and not venture to stay a minute longer. But, melancholy as the atmosphere in this place is, for a school kid fascinated by a mystery whose conclusion he hopes to find here and nowhere else, the place also arouses an acute sense of wonder, excitement and discovery. Climbing up the stairs and into this inviting, almost sacred looking room can only be compared to the little girl's discovery of the secret garden, to Ali Baba's of the cave of treasures, or to Alice’s excursions down the rabbit hole. So it was with this inexplicable mixture of sentiments that I entered this room upstairs and looked for that particular issue of Nature published in 1961. After getting due doses of layers of dust and cobwebs on my hands, I finally found it. Needless to say, because I hardly knew any fundamental science at that age, when I opened it to the requisite page, I did not understand a word! But still, I won't ever forget that whole experience. Because here I was, holding a piece of paper, on which was certain proof of a tumultuous event in history, one that shook conventional acceptance of that event, whose veracity had been taken for granted in polite social circles. And here was science overturning the tables on social dogma in the hands of a singular scientist who begged to differ. This search for the truth by Forshufvud represents a remarkably common but still profound phenomenon in the History of mankind. It is at such moments that one cannot help but think that there is an absolute truth out there and that somehow science will discover it. I cannot say that it was this experience that encouraged me to study science. But because of this journey of discovery, starting with the story in Reader's Digest, then continuing through the unforgettable experience in Fergusson College's Library and finally ending in the pages of a respected science journal, I certainly understood that there is more to the world than what meets the eye. On a somber, down to earth and damning note, I have to say that except for one or two kind ones, the wretched Library Assistants wouldn't have allowed me to set foot in that section, had my parents not been teachers in Fergusson College. They were, and still are, exactly like the snakes who guard the gold, yearn for it, and still cannot partake of it. They did, and still do, deny entry to interested students who want to do no more than satisfy their curiosity about science and the world. And I know that after a few years, the pages of all these books and journals would have turned to dust, they would have been discarded, and new ones would have been condemned to spend their lives in the library, untouched and unused by anyone, guarded by a new breed of hissing library assistants denying students entry to those sections. And I also know that this is more or less the case everywhere in the country. And then we wonder why India no longer produces many fine scientists and thinkers...
Strangely, if you think of it, I was not prepared to have such a unique experience. After all, I was just another enthusiastic kid eagerly waiting to find out the conclusion of a damn good murder mystery...

Tuesday, July 13, 2004


Paul Dirac was surely one of the certified great scientific ascetics of our time. He spoke less in his lifetime than what most of us speak in a day. That he was one of the greatest physicists of all time is undoubted (In fact, I remember an article in Scientific American in which the author had eloquently argued that Dirac was a greater physicist than Einstein). He made extremely fundamental contributions to Quantum Theory and is one of its founders in the true sense of the term. But what physics buffs usually remember when one says "Dirac" are the countless anecdotes about his eccentricities. A psychologist would have had a field day with this man. I suddenly got in a mood to remember a few of the many anecdotes generated about and by him:
  • Dirac's laconic nature is most well documented. Once, in the middle of a lecture, a student rose up and said to him, "Professor Dirac, I haven't understood equation no. 10". Dirac nodded and then, to the surprise of the student, simply continued writing. This happened once again. Finally, the student said, "Professor Dirac, why are you not answering my question?". To which Dirac replied "Question? Oh! I thought what you said was a statement, that you have not understood equation no.10"
  • Dirac was a visiting member at the famed Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Usually there was a common telephone in the hall where the members had their offices. Whenever there was a call for Dirac, it was amusing for the other members to hear his conversation, punctuated almost exclusively by "yes" and "no". Once Dirac wanted to submit an advance copy of a talk he was going to give to a newspaper. He was concerned that the talk might be published before he delivered it. So he walked into an office where two of his colleagues, Abraham Pais (chronicler of physicists' lives and one time assistant to Einstein) and Jeremy Bernstein (another well known chronicler of physicists' lives) were having a conversation. He told them about the problem and one of them advised him to send a note along with the talk to the newspaper saying "Not to publish in any form". Dirac heard this and stood in the doorway. After an awkward silence, (and also because they were used to this behaviour) his colleagues resumed their conversation with each other. After about fifteen minutes, Dirac finally asked them, "Don't you think that the words 'in any form' in the above phrase are redundant?"
  • My personal favourite Dirac anecdote concerns a sea voyage to Japan, on which he was travelling with his friend and colleague, Werner Heisenberg. Heisenberg was the exact opposite of Dirac. Talkative and flamboyant, he used to the take part regularly in the weekly social events on the ship, including the dances. During these events, Dirac used to quietly sit in a corner, if he came at all that is, and watch. Once, just before a dance was going to begin, he asked Heisenberg, "Heisenberg, why do you dance?". At this typical Diracian question, all that Heisenberg could say that time was "Well, when there are pretty and nice girls, then I feel like dancing with them". Dirac fell silent. After a long time, he called Heisenberg and asked him, "How do you know beforehand that the girls are nice?"

    Upon reading these statements by Dirac, what strikes me the most is that they are extremely logical and well thought about. It also makes me realise how most of us usually have no qualms about sacrificing clarity in language at the expense of elegance and even sophistry. At the same time, I also realise that it is because of this that things like poetry exist, where you say less in more words. Dirac never appreciated poetry. But we need to, if we want to express our emotions and feeling in the exquisite framework that language gives us. From that point of view, the world needs just one Dirac, no matter how badly. The irony is that, given his immense and unique talent and brilliance, there can in fact be only one Dirac...


    There are two textile mills, one in Manchester and the other in England. There is a change of shift at 12.00 a.m. in both factories. Just before 12.00 a.m. in both factories, a bell rings which signals the end of the shift. I make two observations, day after day and observe the same thing every single time; whenever the bell rings in London, the workers change their shift in Manchester. The clocks and the bells in both factories are perfectly synchronised. Hence, I conclude that the bell ringing in London is the CAUSE of the workers in Manchester changing their shift. Without performing a single experiment and just by thinking about it, can you prove me wrong? This is obviously a fallacious conclusion that I am drawing, but can you prove me wrong?... That is the great debate about causality...(For those with the Latin bent, this is well known as "Post hoc ergo propter hoc")

    Wednesday, July 07, 2004


    What a coincidence! Yesterday I was writing about how Japan's nuclear program differs from the US's and the very same evening, I came across an article in Chemical & Engineering News which talked about the future of solar energy. It seems that Japan also beats the US when it comes to the number of households employing solar energy as a partial or complete source of electricity. The reason; the Japanese Government has been providing subsidies to encourage photovoltaic panel production and use throughout the country. The US was doing this, and for some reason that I don't know, stopped subsidies in 1984. The result; Today, Japan is the most sophisticated alternative fuel economy with costs of solar energy almost comparable with natural gas, and definitely with nuclear power.

    Tuesday, July 06, 2004


    I was reading the incredibly insightful recent book "Nuclear Renewal: Common sense about nuclear energy" by Richard Rhodes, in which he calls upon the world and especially upon the US to actively campaign for and start using nuclear energy in order to battle the fuel crises imminent upon us. In this slim volume, there are many items of interest (including an especially informative chapter on Chernobyl), but the most striking one is a comparison between nuclear energy in Japan and the US. In the US, 20% of electricity comes from nuclear energy: in Japan, close to 30% and in France, 75%. In spite of this, there hasn't been a single serious nuclear accident in Japan or France. Why? Well, apart from the cold war induced intrinsic fear and disdain in Americans against nuclear energy, and a few technical reasons such as France possessing better reprocessing plants, there was a singular point which I did not know and found very interesting. In the US, especially after the Three Mile Island accident, nuclear scientists, operators, engineers and businessmen (not to mention congressmen) seek to build nuclear reactors which are foolproof. That means that the reactor should be a veritable vault, completely sealed from the inside, preventing access of radioactive material to the outside. But that is not easy. You need to test hundreds of models of such a reactor before you actually put it to work. Even after testing, you cannot be one hundred percent sure. This desire for foolproofness has essentially stalled the US nuclear program, or has at least greatly impeded its progress. In Japan, on the other hand, reactor scientists and engineers KNOW and assume that you cannot make a system foolproof. So they go ahead anyway and construct reactors taking the best possible care they can. Sealing off a reactor essentially also makes the converse procedure very difficult, namely personnel getting in for repairs. So the Japanese take due care not to actually seal the reactor, but to provide a cleverly constructed safe entrance somewhere for personnel and material to get in. This would make it comparatively easy to shut down the reactor, in case there is an accident. They also take some simple but effective precautionary measures like labelling all entrances and exits and water and electricity lines. The motive and thought behind all this? Its not possible to make a system foolproof. Its better to assess the risks as thoroughly as one can, hope for the best, take all necessary precautions to prevent the worst and most importantly, go ahead with the system. The difference is essentially not technical but psychological. The Americans seek perfection; no one knows when they will actually reach it. By that time, they may well have been propelled into another world war, fighting over dwindling natural gas and coal, while their 'foolproof' reactors lie rusting in the machine shop. The Japanese are more practical; they admit that nuclear energy has its risks, but firstly they are not as paranoid about generous quantities of Plutonium making its way into their breakfast cereal, and secondly they are aware of the fact that no matter what the risks are, nuclear energy is the only long term solution to the energy problem at least as of now. I found this difference between aspiring idealogies and practical certainties quite striking. We have to understand the benefits of nuclear energy, especially in view of the dark energy crisis today. Hundreds of years ago, when coal was first used as an energy source in England, there was a lot of protest against it, because it would pollute the air. But we survived somehow without greatly polluting our atmosphere. More importantly, we understood the real concept of tradeoffs then: not to aspire for the best, but only for the best possible. We did it then, we have to do it now. As a very fitting quote, I am reminded of something which Cardinal Newman said, which was printed on the first page of a well know Organic Chemistry text: "A man would do nothing, if he waited until he could do it so well, that no one would find fault with what he has done"...


    Just finished reading "Wittgenstein's Poker" and want to say a few words about it. Over the past many evenings, accompanied by a hot cup of coffee, it has been an inspiring, informative and entertaining journey for me. Two towering intellects engaged in a battle of wits at Cambridge on October 1946. On one side was Ludwig Wittgenstein (who I shall call Witt in order to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome), widely regarded as the greatest Philosopher of the century. On the other was Karl Popper, a profound mind that had published classic works on the Philosophy of Science and Politics. Probably his most important work was "The Open Society", the definitive book destroying all forms of totalitarianism, striking at the heart of Plato's doctrine of a select clique becoming the ruling class. However, it was their views on language and logic which really are at the heart of the book. I can hardly elucidate their respective theories, partly because its difficult for me to do so in words, essentially a fact which Witt was profoundly concerned with. The book deals mainly with Popper and Witt's radically different personalities, approaches to Philosophy and indeed to life in general. But in doing so, it cuts a memorable swathe through early twentieth century Vienna, which was a glorious seat of culture and science. It documents the growing anti-Semitism there making it the birthplace of one of the most destructive and horrible events in human history. Hitler spent a few miserable years here; he was struck by the pathetic lethargy in people, brought on by the war, and the absolute absence of belligerent patriotism which he thought had brought on his people's defeat. Parallel to this, it was in Vienna that the rabid roots of anti-Semitism took roots in his mind and heart. And it was in this place that both Popper and Wittgenstein both grew up, but in radically different environments. Witt was the son of a steel magnate, probably one of the richest men in Europe whereas Popper was the son of a well to do, but not opulent lawyer. Both grew up in tumultuous times. Wittgenstein was as otherworldly as a man can get. After distinguished service in World War 1, when he also astonishingly wrote the most important work of his life, he continued his work on the interpretation of language. After the war, he gave away most of his estate and inheritance to his brother and sisters, and to needy artists, and donned an ascetic robe of living. According to him, Philosophy is essentially about puzzles. When you say something like, "This apple is red”, you are essentially establishing a correlation between the qualities of redness and the actual existence of the colour red in the world. This may sound trivial, but it is best exemplified in the paradox posed by Bertrand Russell namely “The king of France is bald”. This seems to be a perfectly reasonable statement until we realize that France has NO king. The problem becomes even thornier with phrases such as “The golden mountain”. What does this phrase exactly mean? If we accept the wisdom of the 18th century philosophers, then it is supposed to represent an object. But there is no such thing as a ‘golden mountain’. An even stranger statement is “The golden mountain does not exist”. Here, you are talking about a purported object, only to then deny its existence! It was precisely such kinds of statements that Witt sought to clarify. I would not want to bore you with the details of how he managed to do that (and also because at least at the moment, I find it hard to put it in words), but would rather talk more about what’s written in the book. By all accounts, Witt was an exceptionally otherworldly person. People record having a conversation with him as ‘terrifying’ because of the ferocity with which he was frank about your opinions and about his own arguments. His finest work was called ‘Tractatus Logico Philosophicus’ and when he wanted to get it published, he sent a strange note to the publisher. The note said that the book consisted of two parts, one written and the other unwritten. He was sending the written part to the publisher, but the unwritten part was much more important. No wonder any publisher in his right mind refused to publish his book. Witt’s book tries to document the problems with language, and its very limitations to speak about itself. For example, if one wants to make propositions about English grammar, can one use English grammar itself to make them? This ‘self referential’ property makes analyzing some situations impossible. To get around this, Witt evolved his own theme in which propositions are of two kinds; those which can be talked about and those which can only be ‘pictured’. He called it the ‘picture theory of language’. The last statement of Witt’s work has become part of philosophical folklore; “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent”...
    Popper, on the other hand, was very much a worldly person. Unlike Witt who had been born in a family of great affluence and influence, he had had to struggle for making a living and a mark on the world. He emigrated to New Zealand in 1938 after the annexation of Austria by Germany. During the war, he published “The Open Society and its Enemies”, which he called his “contribution to the war effort”. Popper was against Witt’s dogmas. He also resented the almost godlike worship with which Witt’s students regarded him. According to Popper, the world consisted of problems, not puzzles. He had been a champion against the Verificationist School of the famed Vienna Circle of Philosophers, which held the view that the only way to account for the existence of an object was a process for its verification. Thus the meaning of the word “yellow” is tantamount to a process for measuring, say, a particular wavelength of light. Popper argued against this by invoking the “Problem of Induction” which very simply states that one can never make a statement about a property or object, even with verification unless one’s sample space is infinite. For example, we simply cannot say that the sun rises in the east, only because it has done so always. Popper’s greatest contribution to philosophy was his way of getting around this problem; the method of falsification. According to him, no amount of positive observation is sufficient to verify a theory, but a single negative observation is enough to conclude that it’s false. Hence, the real bedrock of existence for a theory is falsification. Of course, Popper’s premise is also not infallible because it does not hold for say, the theory of probability. In spite of this, it’s a powerful tool for analysis of scientific laws.
    Anyway, so the book talks about the backgrounds of the two men, about the audience that day in Cambridge and about the ‘third man’, Bertrand Russell. It depicts lucidly how the two men brought their unique intellects and personality to the debate. The questions debated that day concerned a question greater than even philosophy itself; “Are there Philosophical problems?” Popper thought that there are. Witt thought that all the ‘problems’ that Popper was talking about, were merely puzzles created by man’s common existence and by personal and social conventions. The meeting lasted long and bitter and at the end, Witt reputedly pointed a red-hot poker from the fireplace at Popper (hence “Wittgenstein’s Poker”). The meeting ended with Witt storming out after a particularly provoking statement by Popper. Witt died in 1952, Popper lived much longer. Over the years, he never could forget his animosity against Witt and never failed to criticize him in print. He thought he had won, although others are less sure. In scores of interviews with many surviving witnesses of the debate, the authors construct a vastly entertaining and comprehensive document, detailing early twentieth century Europe, the problems of philosophy and the state of language. They demonstrate once again that even a subject seemingly as unworldly as Philosophy is very much a human endeavor, subject to the same prejudices and tempers that befell all of us, whether common men, or great intellects. I strongly recommend the book.

    Thursday, July 01, 2004


    Been there, watched Spidey 2. I did not expect too much from it, and you cannot expect to see Oscar winning elements in such movies. It was good but not great. I liked the first one more for its novelty. But what interested me the most was the character of Dr. Otto Octavius. The most striking fact that I noticed was that he almost intentionally seemed to be modeled after Dr. Edward Teller. Since Teller was one of the most important scientists of the century and not really a household name, I wish to say a few words about him.

    For those of you who may not be familiar with this name, Teller, who died a few months back and was well in his nineties was one of the most brilliant physicists of the century. (In)famously known to the public as the 'father of the hydrogen bomb', Teller was born in Hungary. An intense fear and revulsion for Communism was instilled deep in him as a child, evoked by the revolutions then shaking the country. Teller, like many other eminent scientists of his times decided to seek newer lands in his quest for science and freedom. A streetcar accident in Leipzig in Germany resulted in his foot being amputated, but only gave further impetus to his determination to make it big in life. At the time, the new Quantum Mechanics was being successfully applied to many problems, and Teller plunged right into it, getting a PhD. with the famous physicist, Werner Heisenberg. After some notable research, he finally, like many others, emigrated to the United States and became a Professor at the University of Washington, where the chairman of the Physics department was the eccentric Russian genius, George Gamow. The Second World War forced Teller to think about the application of physics to military problems, and he developed many useful theories, including a theory of armor penetration with his friend, the eminent Physicist Hans Bethe (who later won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the reactions that fuel the sun). Bethe, then as now at Cornell University, is 98 and still going strong. In the summer of 1942, Robert Oppenheimer invited him to participate in a group discussion at Berkeley, where they would discuss the plausible theory behind contruction of an atomic bomb. Teller, as someone who always would think about fantastic ideas that would not always be tangible, thought of whether a fission bomb could possibly used to bring about nuclear fusion. At the time, the fission bomb itself was far from being a reality, and Teller's ideas were rightly perceived to be far fetched. Another amusing incident concerns Teller's fear that the atomic bomb would produce enough heat to light up the entire atmosphere and destroy the earth. However, after due calculations, Bethe found out that this would not happen. The culmination of that discussion and other events led to the establishment of the famous bomb laboratory at Los Alamos, and the Manhattan Project. During the course of that development, Oppenheimer made Bethe the head of the theoretical division at Los Alamos, a move which greatly irked the volatile Teller. However, it was an insightful move, just like so many others in the future, on the part of the brilliant Oppenheimer, because Bethe's more steady and persistent approach to solving problems was more important to the project than Teller's brilliant but rash ways of jumping to conclusions and conjuring up novel ideas. After that event, relations between Oppenheimer and Bethe, and Teller were always strained. Oppenheimer deserves credit for putting up with Teller's idiosynchrasies, including his playing the piano late in the night and disturbing neighbours. However, Teller made some valuable contributions to the project, especially in the development of the implosion method. The end of the war and the dropping of the atomic bomb evoked feelings of great guilt in most of the scientists, especially Oppenheimer, and most of them vowed not to work anymore on atomic weapons. But not Teller. He was convinced that the US would need to develop as many atomic bombs as it could to keep the Russians in check. Most importantly, he began to relentlessly push the effort for building an H bomb. The first Russian atomic bomb in 1949 spurred Truman to order a crash program to build the H bomb. Although Teller's ideas about bomb design, confident as he was about them, were certainly unworkable in the beginning, a feasible design soon began to take shape because of the contribution of other brilliant scientists. Especially notable in this regard was the Polish emigre mathematician, Stanislaw Ulam (who later was a prime contributor in the development of Monte Carlo methods). The first US H bomb was finally exploded in 1952. Even after this event, Teller continued to push for more atomic power. 1954 saw a significant watershed in Teller's life, when Oppenheimer was convicted of having Communist sympathies during the McCarthy Communist scare. Oppenheimer went on trial, and was almost unequivocally supported by scores of scientists and administrators, who testified in favour of his brilliance, his leadership and his loyalty to the United States. Teller was among the exceptions who said that it would be better if they took away his security clearance. The board finally ruled against Oppenheimer. This resulted in Teller becoming alienated against most of the scientific community, and he began a period of exile. However, there were those in Washington who liked his belligerent anti communist views, and they continued to seek his advice. Teller even managed to start a whole new laboratory in California specially devoted to weapons research. All this only pitted the scientific community more against him. From 1960 onwards, Teller made important contributions to physics and weapons research. Presidents sought his advice and he was active on the political scene. In the 1980s, he again became well known for his advocation and conception of the 'Star Wars' missile interception system developed by the Reagan administration. Many scientists argued that the Soviet Union could easily incapacitate the system and that it was just a big waste of money. But Teller's influence was considerable. In the 1990s, he continued to write, speak and support weapons development. In the last few years, he very rarely made public appearances. Edward Teller was a maverick scientist, without a doubt extremely brilliant, creative and original, but volatile and sensitive. Unintended slights could hurt him, and he managed to make a few enemies and lost many friends because of his belligerent views.
    I personally am in two minds about Teller. He was a good man by heart, but just like many others, emotionally sensitive. And he made many mistakes which were obviously dictated by his strongly opinionated views and his emotions. One of the greatest tragedies which I personally feel Teller faced, was that even today, most people remember him as the 'Father of the H bomb'. This is unfortunate because Teller made many important and lasting contributions to Atomic and Molecular physics. Among other contributions, he gave one of the most accurate quantum mechanical descriptions of the Hydrogen molecule. He developed a theory of energy levels in crystals which is very important for Chemistry and Solid State Physics. He also co authored a paper on the adsorbtion of gases on surfaces, which is one of the highest cited papers in Chemistry today. Its a pity that most people remember him for his weapons research and not for these fundamental contributions.
    I was surprised how much Otto Octavius resembled Teller, even physically, right from the bushy eyebrows, to the penetrating sense of humour. Octavius was also working on the dream which made Teller famous; fusion. Like Teller, Octavius can also be dark and brooding, not prepared to accept defeat. Teller and Ocatavius, they both represent the conscience of the scientist who has been given a gift. He has to decide how he uses the gift. Whatever the verdict, one thing is for sure; Ocatavius in the movie and Edward Teller in History, will always leave their mark upon the world.

    Note: Teller's autobiography is "Memoirs; A twentieth century journey in science and politics"