Wednesday, November 24, 2004


Great things are happening in the world of science and academics.

Google has finally launched their academic search engine Google Scholar which enables you to search all possible online journals and official sources including books for any damn thing under the sun. Its fantasticabulous!! Of course, it includes natural and social sciences, engineering and medicine, and probably anything else that can be considered under the heading 'academics'.
It displays a list of results based on the usual criteria, namely the importance of the key word in the publication, the number of citations, the citations for the journal itself, and the number of times a particular author has published on that subject. Of course, your university or institution still needs a subscription to the journal (Google is still not THAT great). But now you no longer need to browse slightly ungainly sources like PubMed and WebOfScience. Now you directly get the article and the PDF. A must for researchers in every and any field. Check it out (However, I have to assume it's still not as good as Scifinder)

The latest issue of Nature is dedicated to nuclear proliferation. And it's about time, with the US again trying to use it's leverage in the UN to act as Iran's nuclear watchdog. The articles in the issue are perspicacious and quite honest in most, if not all parts. For one thing, in one of them, the author correctly berates Colin Powell who was being ultra-paranoid about Iran's nuclear capability, conveniently ignoring his own country's behemoth silos and repositories. If this is not being a hypocrite, then what is? The articles explore the central and seemingly utopian question; Can we actually have a world without the pall of nuclear power? Read on for yourself! Apart from other measures, an old, sober and simple plan, whose principal architect was my favourite J. Robert Oppenheimer, is seen in a spirit of resurrection.

Sunday, November 21, 2004


In August, there was an accident at a nuclear power plant in Japan which killed four people. In the news article which the BBC ran on it, there was a 'Have your say' section in which they asked the question 'Is Japan too reliant on nuclear power'? and then invited readers to voice their opinions. It was a very pleasant surprise to me when, except one reader, all the others vouched for the necessity and benefits of nuclear power, and many even pointed out that it's much more safe than conventional power sources. As far as nuclear power goes, the common man finally seems to have come of age. Bravo! Now we may at last become a bit more optimistic about future power crises.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004


Although I felt like giving this post a funny title, killer diseases like Ebola or Mad Cow Disease are anything but funny, and I am dead serious (pun intended) about their existence.

The best book on infectious diseases I had read until now was Richard Preston's chilling portrait of Ebola, 'The Hot Zone'. It kept me awake through a few nights because of morbid fascination alone. The concept of a new, incurable epidemic which kills almost instantly and in a hideous way is a sobering thought for us humans, with the potential to turn to dust all that we have achieved since the dawn of our existence, and our existence itself.

Richard Rhodes, in his book 'Deadly Feasts: Tracking the Secrets of a Terrifying New Plague', has woven another riveting and ominous but completely matter-of-fact portrait of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephelopathy). We know it by the more common, ironic name of Mad Cow Disease, a name originally concocted by British reporters to describe the tipsy behaviour of cows affected by it. Up close and personal, it is one of the most pernicious and terrifying, not to mention fascinating diseases, to ever confront humanity. One reason is simple. It's incurable and one hundred percent fatal, and a fast killer. Within months of getting affected, victims start the relatively slow but inexorable march toward becoming a vegetable, losing their sanity, and finally and mercifully dying at a time when one would have wished them dead much earlier. The agent which causes the disease is a completely novel and enigmatic entity that is beyond definition, surviving on the border between living and dead. Dubbed the 'Prion', it has a fascinating scientific history of it's own. Yet, after hundreds of research papers on it and two Nobel Prizes, what makes it tick, and how to stop it's rampage, remains a mystery.

Rhodes's book opens with a gory but all too real scenario, a cannibalistic feast among the natives of Papua New Guinea in the 1950s-the so called 'Fore' people. Rhodes reminds us that for all the myths surrounding it, cannibalism was a common ritual among many tribes, and sporadic incidents of it crop up even today. Interestingly, among the Fore, it was a symbol of gender power. It seems that only the women practised cannibalism upon other women's dead bodies. Secretly eating the meat of the dead woman in the shadows, away from the men, gave them a vicarious sense of thrill and supremacy. But unbeknownst to them, this is where the first footprints of the fearsome disease arose, the terrifying malady called 'Kuru', which in Fore lingo, literally means 'The Shivers'. Victims of this disease slowly lose their sanity, develop extreme shivers as in Parkinson's disease. Within just a few months, they lose sense of space and time, and sometimes they become unable to swallow. Death is a welcome event, mostly and painfully caused by starvation, or more mercifully simply caused by the brain becoming dead. For the fore, it was a curse which no witch doctor could cure.

To study this strange disease came one of the most remarkable scientists about whom I have read- D. Carleton Gujdusek. An American Doctor with a penchant for travelling deep and wide in the world in search of exotic diseases, he arrived in New Guinea just when the epidemic was starting in the late 1950s. He finally came to love this wild place and its people so much, that returning back to civilization was almost painful for him. After doing exhaustive investigation, he realised that he was dealing with a new disease caused by a new agent, something never seen before, that was causing the brains of the victims to be literally riddled with holes; hence the name 'spongiform encephelopathy'. It was probably caused by consumption of dead people's brains. But what a disease this was! Its most outstanding characteristic was the absolute lack of inflammation in the victims' bodies. Medically, this is an astounding enigma. As we know, the body fights against any foreign organism invading it, be it bacteria or virus, and inflammation is an obvious telltale sign of this. But this strange new disease was infectious, yet produced no inflammation at all. Even now, this is a most enduring puzzle.

After studying this disease, scientists began to find remarkable parallels for it in medical history- a similar disease called 'scrapie' in sheep, and a human counterpart with the hard to pronounce name Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (thankfully abbreviated as CJD), first documented in the early twentieth century in Germany. This disease ominously arises in a spontaneous way, affecting one in a million people in the world. The symptoms of all these maladies were similar: tremors, loss of sanity, a loss of a sense of hygiene, and finally and inevitably, death. It was, and still is, a certainty. Within a year at most. However, the incubation period of all these is substantially long, somtimes as much as ten to fifteen years. All through the 60s and 70s, Rhodes recounts the tales of these remarkable scientists' work, the linking together of the disparate threads of evidence, the failure to ascertain the identity of the notorious agent. Carleton Gujdusek received the Nobel Prize for his work in identifying a new form of infection in 1976, and more importantly, for demonstrating that it could be transmitted to chimpanzees-an ominous observation. Another brilliant scientist, Stanley Prusiner would do detailed genetic and biochemical studies on the agent and receive his prize in 1994. He would coin the title 'prions', short for 'proteinaceous particles', for them. These prions are fabulously resistant. Boil them in water for a week, and they won't disintegrate. Neither UV light, nor other forms of radiation, both of which incapacitate Ebola, kill them. In fact, one of the cases was distressingy spread through the use of infected silver electrodes which were used on an unfortunate patient, as a part of therapy. Before they were used, they had been autoclaved under the harshest condition.

The most startling and logic defying conclusion of all this work was that whatever the causative agent was, it contained no nucleic acid such as DNA or RNA, a component fundamental to life, which is possessed even by those most primitive forms of life, the viruses. Whatever it was, it was just protein, the other fundamental component of life. We are still grappling with this puzzle today because the most basic tenets of biology say that proteins alone cannot reproduce (However, ther has been some evidence now that proteins can participate in a primitive form of 'self-assembly'). As if this shock was not enough, another discovery was made that the genes for producing the protein in CJD are present even in normal human beings. There is something which goes terribly wrong with a few individuals, that causes this usually benign protein to become malignant. In fact, we don't even accurately know the function that the 'normal' protein performs in our body.

All this would have been just a fascinating academic curiousity. Then, in 1985, the disease hit the British cattle industry. It was identified as another type of 'spongiform encephelopathy', bovine in this case. Scientists studying the cases realised that the disease had spread through hundreds of thousands of cows through our own version of what Rhodes calls 'high tech neo-industrial cannibalism'. That is to say, the disease spread through the high protein cow feed which is made out of leftover pieces of cows and other animals after they have been slaughtered-cannibalism among cows. This was a common practice. In studying the new phenomenon, and never having thought that a variant would be found in cattle, the scientists made what would be turn out to be a crucial, misleading, and woefully wrong assumption: that the disease entered the cattle industry through the remnants of sheep meat in the cow feed. The form of the disease in sheep called 'scrapie' was well known for years and was known not to affect human beings, ergo eating the infected cows would not affect human beings as well. This conclusion would have distressingly serious repurcussions. In fact, the British agricultural minister John Gummer even caused a public stir when he photographed himself and his teenage daughter eating a hamburger. Prime Minister John major himself endorsed beef. Nonetheless, beef sales dropped, and the industry suffered a massive setback.

All was peaceful until 1993, when cases of CJD like cases began erupting all over England. Pathologists who performed autopsies on the vicitms realised that they were looking at a new type of CJD, much like the disease in cows. That was when hell broke loose, and the world at large heard about Mad Cow Disease. The British Ministry for Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF) tried at first to downplay the impact of the event, but the bare facts soon became painfully clear: the disease had spread to human beings through infected beef, something that had been thought to be almost impossible. After a lot of political deliberations, the Government finally broke the news to a stunned nation. Within days, the cattle industry lost billions of dollars, boards with warnings were hung on British McDonald'ss and hundreds of thousands of cows were buthered. Europe stopped imports of British beef after cases in France and Belgium. Since the incubation period of the disease was so long, no one could say for sure how many cases would emerge (We may still be looking at a few of them). Since then, there have been isolated cases, but the picture at large has fortunately not been as nightmarish as imagined. However, I think we can never know how much information the Government has suppressed from us, given the immense importance of the problem.

Rhodes's book was published in 1997. The first case of BSE in the US appeared in a Seattle cow in December, 2003. In the US, soybean protein largely substitutes for the cannibalistic cow feed fed to cows in Europe. Yet, it seems a painfully obvious conclusion that the counterpart of spontaneous CJD in humans, is spontaneous BSE in cows. Similar diseases have been implicated in many other species including everything from cats to minks. At the heart of the global question is a fundamental scientific one: What is the exact identity of this enigmatic proteinacious agent and how does it replicate? Rhodes says that the most alluring and fascinating theory comes from the master Gajdusek himself. To put things in perspective, Gujdusek draws upon Kurt Vonnegut's novel 'The Cat's Cradle'. In it, a wild scientist comes up with a theory, in which the ice that we see is only one of many crystalline forms. Crystallization is something with which we are all familiar. It is a well-known phenomenon in Physics and Chemistry that the conditions under which something crystallizes can have a striking effect on its final state. The most pronounced example is Carbon. One way, it gives Graphite, the other way it gives Diamond. Both could not be more different. In Vonnegut's novel, the protagonist discovers a new form of ice called 'Ice-9' which, when dumped into the oceans, cause all the water to freeze. The folding of proteins is a well known similar process, upon which life itself depends. Change the conditions and a protein misfolds, for example causing Alzheimer's disease- whose symptoms are similar to those of the spongiform diseases. What if, suggests Gujdusek, conditions in the body cause a part of the protein which is normal, to misfold and give rise to to a deadly agent. This agent then would act as a center of nucleation and would ceaselessly 'hijack' similar molecules and make copies of itself, just the way a crystal of ice can cause accelerated growth around it. It's a very interesting theory, but unfortunately one that has been very hard to validate. One reason is because these prions are almost impossible to 'grow' in test-tubes. Secondly, this theory just reduced the problem to another one: what causes the protein to misfold in the first place? Until we know this fundamental process of formation of prions, we are far far away from finding a cure. The most abstract part of the problem is that we cannot even call prions 'living' and yet they can reproduce and cause havoc in an organism just like any other infection. The problem of treating a deadly disease comes down to defining life itself.

In the end, of course, it's the facts that matter. The most insidious and fastest killing disease imaginable, a possible 'slate-wiper' as Preston calls it, would admittedly be one that infects a major component of our diet. I cannot even begin to contemplate the effects of a fatal, resistant disease that infected wheat or rice. Beef is admittedly the most popular meat in America. Steak is not only a food item but part of American culture. The Atkins diet spurred the sales of beef in the US as never before. It's a 175 billion dollar industry. Even after the December scare, nobody takes it very seriously. For now, things are calm. But it can very well be the eye of the storm. Until we know the exact cause and mode of operation of the disease, we will be playing a game of hit and miss for finding the cure. And until there's a cure, we have a responsibility to watch out. After all, who can predict the future?

Reading Rhodes's book alerted me to the tenuous existence that we live, without even noticing it. Let's hope that past wisdom serves us in the future too.

Friday, November 12, 2004


For those of you who may be unfamiliar with these, I am posting four famous photos taken during the Vietnam war that polarized a country as never before, and which I think are a harrowing representation and a symbolism of the brutality, futility and heart-breaking devastation of war. All the journalists who took these photos won Pulitzer prizes for their portrayal. All the images depict the all-important role that the media can play during conflict. In the end, I think that words cannot do justice, and all we have to do is to see and never forget.

1. June 11, 1963, Saigon, South Vietnam. A Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, immolates himself in protest against the atrocities which the South Vietnamese Government is perpetuating against religious monks. I was horrified to see the composure of the man walking behind him, who still seems to be searching for his cigarette lighter.

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2. February 1, 1968. A South Vietnamese police chief summarily executes a man suspected to have killed eight people. Another iconic image that helped sway public opinion in the US against the war. Journalist Eddie Adams took the picture.

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3. Kent State University, OH, May 4th, 1970. The National Guard, in their attempt to dispel an anti-war rally, open fire. Four students are killed. Mary Ann Vecchio, shattered, kneels over the body of Jeffrey Miller, one of the students just killed. Journalist John Filo who took the photo was a student at Kent State at the time. Ironically, one of the unfortunate students was not even participating in the protest, just observing.

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4. June 8th, 1972. Trang Bang, Vietnam. A napalm bomb was dropped by the US Air-Force on this village, suspected to be harbouring insurgent Viet-Cong guerillas. Napalm is an incendiary which consists of gasoline mixed with palm oil and aluminum powder. It's notorious for burning intensely, but slowly. This picture, probably the most enduring of the war, shows a little girl named Kim Phuc Phan Thi running naked on the road along with other children, away from the onslaught of the bombing. She had been severely burned. Photographer Nick Ut of the Associated Press took this photo, and also promptly took her to a hospital.
By 1997 Thi had forgiven the bomber pilot and was named a UNESCO goodwill ambassador.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2004


An article on BBC (Unfortunately, I lost it. Will post a link to it as soon as I find it) corroborates what we all thought was heavily responsible for Bush winning the election- the faith and votes of conservative, evangelical Christians. For me it will always be a source of wonder how, even in the most 'advanced' country in the world, the election of the President is dictated by people who worry much more about his ability to 'preserve the sanctity of marriage' than his ability to fight the war on terror, to get jobs, or to protect the environment and save us from impending doom. For all the mammoth politicking that went on, these issues apparently did not figure to any reasonable extent for the ~4 million evangelicals who voted. For them, it seems that gay marriage and abortion were still the main issues. This raises a couple of plausible points and questions in my mind:

1. Who really 'runs the country', any country for that matter? Is it really the liberal, well-educated people?
2. Love it or hate it, religion is always going to be the most enduring theme in civilization, even when we are going to be travelling in space pods to distant planets.
3. In spite of our rants about science and rationality and about 'being good in spite of religion' (my stance), the time when people will accept a morally upright but atheist President (as opposed to an evangelical but morally devious President) is a figment of our imagination. Will that time ever come?
4. This really brings us to the definiton of 'advanced'. How do you define advancement? Even now, it probably turns out, not by the number of people getting a college degree, the growth in crop production by the use of genetically modified strains, or the successful landing of the Mars rover. It is a common and well founded conception that technology has really changed the way we view ourselves and the world, and that it has become completely enshrined in our being and living. I seriously doubt the absolute nature of that statement now. Events such as these cannot but help make us wonder whether all that technology and 'progress' is seriously dissociated from the social and emotional progress of human beings.

I have no argument against religious people. But sometimes I fear: will their faith in God sometimes overrule their faith in rationality and elementary morality? I certainly don't ask this question without having any precedent for asking it! If we think of it, it is quite obvious that more crimes have been commiteed against humanity in a century that was the most 'developed' in history than any other. Most of them have been committed in the name of religion. Ironically, we also know that it was technology that made these crimes possible. On the other hand, we can argue that technology is never, by itself, responsible for such events. It is only its misuse that makes them happen.

So the fact is, even now, for most people even in the US, religious issues are the most important. There is no problem if resolution of these issues is going to lead to a more peaceful co-existence. But does it always? Cannot help but wonder...

Monday, November 08, 2004


For some time now, I have wanted to make an entry about the famous philosopher, Sir Karl Popper (1902-1994) and his ideas. Popper, who is most well known for his idea of ‘falsification’, has been on my mind for a long time now. I languished for all that time, trying to get my thoughts into order. Since philosophy itself is a slippery discipline, it is always hard to get your thoughts about it into perfect order, let alone express them succinctly. So what I am going to say will most probably be a bit garbled and confusing, and certainly not complete. But instead of waiting for an infinite time before achieving perfection, which will never come, I thought I would go ahead anyway, and follow up on this post whenever I get fresh inspiration.

I probably wouldn't have written about Popper at this time, had it not been for my perusal of a marvelous article titled 'A skeptical look at Popper' by the eminent philosopher and expositor of Mathematics, Martin Gardner (Gardner, 'Skeptical Inquirer’, July/August, 2001, pg. 13). It was a revelation, not only for the typically enlightening style in which Gardner has written it, but also because it surprisingly mirrored some thoughts about Popper's ideas that I had quite independently. Ironically, these thoughts of mine had originated as a result of puzzlement, rather than as a product of detailed analysis.

Although I can never claim to be close even to being an amateur philosopher, what surprised me was how naiveté such as mine can actually lead to valid questioning. This instance may provide an explanation of why children's ideas are sometimes much more insightful and probing than those of even established professionals in the field. They are not clouded by bias and the hubris of higher education and achievement. The lesson I learnt from this experience, quite curiously, is that sometimes it's better to actually not read too much about something, instead giving yourself a chance to think independently about it for a while, before you make a foray into wider and greener pastures.

Sir Karl Popper was one of the most distinguished philosophers of the century. Many people have no problem placing him on the same pedestal as Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. That he was brilliant is undisputed. Popper was born in Vienna, the son of a wealthy lawyer. He was trained in Philosophy and Mathematics, although he never would have a formal degree in science (This also marks him with the unique distinction of being the only 'non scientist' as such to be elected to the Royal Society of London). Early in his life, he was exposed to the famous 'Vienna Circle' of Philosophers, whose philosophy of 'logical positivism' aimed to establish Philosophy on the same secure basis as science. The members of this circle, people like Kurt Gödel, Rudolf Carnap, Moritz Schlick and others, would go on to make fundamental contributions to logic, mathematics and philosophy. Right from the beginning, Popper could never reconcile himself with logical positivism and hence always remained an underdog outside this elite circle of intellectuals. I will describe their ideas and Popper's opposition to them shortly, but first let me finish up the shortened story of Popper's life. When Hitler came to power, Popper, like many others, sought to escape Germany's vehement policies and anti-Semitism. Because he was not deeply affiliated with the Vienna Circle, he could not rely on the prestige of its members to land himself a decent job in another country. Persistent efforts finally got him a lectureship in Christchurch, New Zealand, where he essentially lived out the war. While in New Zealand, he wrote what many consider to be his most important work, 'The Open Society and its Enemies', which was essentially an attack on totalitarian regimes. Another reason why the book received a wide audience was its severe critique of Plato's ideas, especially as enumerated in his famous 'The Republic'. According to Popper, Plato's ideas were among the first ones to support totalitarianism. The book turned out to be Popper's claim to fame (he called it his 'contribution to the war effort'), and after the war, he was offered a Professorship at the prestigious London School of Economics, where he stayed until his death at the ripe old age of 92.

Popper grew up in a period, which was witnessing great scientific, philosophical, and political upheavals. Albert Einstein had proposed his brilliant General Theory of Relativity in 1917. The Quantum Theory had begun to take root with Niels Bohr’s model of the atom in 1913. In parallel, Europe had gone to the most destructive war it had ever seen. Political ideologies were rampant, especially in Russia and Germany, ideologies which would have devastating and permanent effects on the future of society.
At the same time, philosophy was witnessing another revolution. Popper was fortunate to have lived during those times in Vienna, a place that was really the center of culture, music, art, science and philosophy. Austrian philosophy in fact dominated world philosophy at the time, through a remarkable group of men, whose inspirations were Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

This group was called the ‘Vienna Circle’. Their goal: to make philosophy more or less an exact science. In philosophy, as in other non-natural sciences, the big question is that of truth and falsity. How can we decide if something, anything, including a statement, is ‘true’ or ‘false’? The Vienna Circle apparently saw a way out of this profound conundrum. The fundamental tenet on which they based their musings was Francis Bacon's 16th century idea of ‘induction’, a process which had it’s origins in Aristotle’s philosophy, and which had been the basis of scientific and rational thought for centuries. Today, it is better known as ‘empiricism. In the 18th century, David Hume had pointed out the problems with induction. For example, consider the statement, ‘The sun rises in the East’. Is there any way to actually ‘prove’ this? The only reason we say that it is true, is because the sun has continued to rise in the East as far as man can remember. Implicit in this reasoning is a method for verifying this fact, by making observations. This was the method which the Vienna Circle banked upon. To reinforce this point, they reduced all ‘true’ statements to mean statements which are verifiable: they called this dogma the ‘Verification Principle’. Simply put, the truth-value of a statement rests on its verifiability. So if I say that some object is ‘red’, that means that I should be able to provide a method of ‘measuring’ the quality called ‘red’. The exact method may be disputed, but for the Vienna Circle, the fact that a well-defined method for verification of a conjecture exists at all is the only proof of the truth of that conjecture. To put it another way, philosophy is reduced to the scientific method of verification and induction.

Unfortunately, there are problems with the Verification Principle that immediately come to mind. For example, if someone says that she has a headache, then is this statement true only if it is ‘verified’, that is, only if say, she takes a headache pill!? This particular way of doing things seems odd, to say the least. But there is another fundamental problem with verification, one that is inherent in its nature and also in that of induction. The most famous example consists of the statement ‘All crows are black’. What is the proof of this statement? According to the Vienna Circle, the moment we make an observation and see a black crow, the statement is verified. Or is it? The problem hinges with the word ‘all’. This word guarantees that no matter how many black crows we see, there may just be a white one around the corner to refute the statement! So no matter how many observations we make, we are still stuck. Another profound problem has to do with the method of induction which we are using. What justifies it? As Hume pointed out, there is no way we can deduce the principle itself from first principles. So the only way that it can be justified is by noting that it has always worked, and so it should work in every future case too. In a nutshell, we are using induction to justify the use of induction! Such kind of self-referential methods are the bane of logic and philosophy, as Kurt Gödel, one of the members of the Vienna Circle, himself later proved. As long as we cannot justify induction, and as long as we cannot verify a statement exhaustively, the method of verification is left to cool its heels while the fate of every statement such as ‘All crows are black’ hangs in balance. How do we get around this problem? Enter Karl Popper.

Popper’s contribution to modern science and philosophy rests on his crucial observation that no number of observations is enough to justify the validity of a statement, as we saw above: however, a single negative observation is enough to invalidate the theory. In the case of our crows example, a single observation of a white crow instantly renders the statement ‘All crows are black’ as false. So to say, the real value and decisiveness of a scientific theory lies not in its verification, but in fact in its falsification. This ‘Falsification Principle’ of Popper’s has been long exalted as a fundamental standard to which scientists must subject their theories. Thus, according to Popper, once someone comes up with a scientific theory, all his peers have to do is to concoct experiments which will refute his theory. If the theory passes these norms of falsification, it proves itself as a golden model of science. The appeal of Popper’s theory lies in its ability to decide, once and for all and abruptly, whether a theory is scientific or not. Therefore, Popper gave the world a powerful tool for doing something which is profoundly important, separating science from non-science.

I first read about Popper and falsification in John Casti’s fantastic appraisal of modern science and society, ‘Paradigms Lost’. I was struck by the decisive power of the idea, but something was missing, something about it was not-so-decisive, something which gnawed at my mind but which I could not put my finger on. Some of the problems with Popper’s concept of falsification have been articulated by philosophers themselves. The most important among these is called the ‘Law of Auxiliary Hypothesis’. Coming back again to our enduring problem of black crows, Popper says that a single observation of a white crow is enough to repudiate the hypothesis. But suppose the crow is originally a black one purposefully painted white to deceive us. Or suppose there’s a mutation which has caused it to become white. In such cases, there is no problem with our original hypothesis, but there is a problem with some secondary or auxiliary principles which we have tacitly assumed, in this case the facts that there can be no mutations and that nobody is going to artificially color crows to try to fool us. But it’s clear in such cases that falsification certainly does not invalidate our hypothesis immediately, but calls for further investigation. This raises other questions. How many such auxiliary hypotheses must we investigate? This genuinely is a problem with Popper’s theory. But in my case, the simple fact that naively jumped at me was this: whenever we falsify a theory, we are validating some other theory, in most cases its opposite. In fact, we may be validating not only another one but many other ones (since most things in life cannot be simply explained only by one theory or another, but demand scrutiny from many quarters). In that case, we would have to apply the same falsification to all the other theories, until we automatically validated the last surviving one. So to me, falsification really seemed a great process of elimination, but also one through which we were in the end validating something or the other. That’s why, to me, falsification looked complementary to verification, not something that would usurp it. More importantly, I turned over the statement about the great value of falsification over and over again in my mind: as a superb tool for distinguishing science from non-science. And that’s when I thought about Cosmology. In Cosmology, we have many completely theoretical models, for example those of black holes advocated by stalwarts such as Stephen Hawking. Most of these theories stake their claim to valid science because they are supported on sound mathematical models. Experimental evidence for many of them, if any, is either fuzzy or simply impossible to gather in the present scientific setup. In fact, many of them may never be either validated or falsified. Would Popper characterize these as ‘non-science’ then? Or consider evolution, the great debate. The single most important fight scientists are waging right now is against the ‘creationists’ who claim that all of Evolution is hogwash, and that the earth was actually created a few thousand years ago, if not yesterday. In case of evolution as well as creationism, we are talking about extremely complex events that took place over an incredibly large period of time extending over millions of years. Most of the evidence that we have for evolution is indirect, and no matter how convincing it may seem, we definitely cannot directly validate it. Nor can we falsify it. So the bottom line is that we can never think of direct laboratory experiments, which can be done within human capacity, that can demonstrate any of the tenets of evolution. Ergo, according to Popper’s model, evolution is not a scientific theory, or at least not as scientific as, say Newton’s Laws of Motion. First of all, this notion raises the question of the ‘degree of scientificness’ of a theory. Secondly, I think that the fundamental problem with both verification and falsification is that they assume that scientific theories are of ‘either-or’ kind. Unfortunately, as we have seen, even in some of the best scientific theories of today, decidability is not absolute. Verification or otherwise is not decided by them being ‘true’ or ‘false’. There are shades of gray in them. Here, as in other aspects, science really models real life. It is not absolute but probabilistic. Can Popper’s theory handle probability? More importantly, what does Popper have to say about theories which are simply not falsifiable? And in fact, this raises a fundamental recurring theme in Philosophy, be it that of science or morality: are the theories of philosophy supposed to model the real world in the first place? Or are they simply artifacts of contemplation, occupying a world which is bereft of any connection to reality, designed for the entertainment of intellectuals in Viennese cafes? I am not demanding that philosophy should actually enable us to build a better mousetrap. But if anything, it should at least set standards and theoretical paradigms and constructs, which will aid our understanding of the world or of human nature and thought. What constructs does Popper provide us for the development of our discipline?

I pondered about these questions for a long time without finding definite answers, and still do. But the article by Gardner was a kind of redemption to me and gave me some relief. He raises many points which I thought of, in a much more organized and marvelously revealing way. Most importantly, he tackles the last question which we mentioned, and reaches a definite conclusion: as far as the real work of real scientists, be it social or natural, is concerned, Popper’s ideas do not provide much buttress. Ironically, the ghosts of verification in fact aid the work of scientific thinkers. Simply put, and quite obviously if we think about it, all modern scientists are engaged in verifying their theories, or those of others.
For example, astronomers look for water on Mars. They are not trying to falsify the fact that Mars never had any water. In another example, astronomers are now finding compelling evidence that smaller and smaller planets orbit distant suns. Surely, this is inductive evidence that there may be Earth sized planets out there. Why bother to say, as each new planet is discovered, that it tends to falsify the conjecture that there are no planets outside the solar system? Why, as Gardner wittily says, should we scratch our left ear with our right hand? The fact remains that in the real world, real science operates mostly by verification, and much less by falsification. In the ideological and infinite playing field of philosophy, verification may be seen as an incomplete unsolved puzzle, but in the real world, it is always a virtue. Gardner also mentions the exact thought that I had, that falsification of one conjecture is confirmation of the opposite one. But he says, somehow Popper dismissed this fact as unimportant. My take on it is that perhaps he dismissed it because of tacit assumption of the opposite: that confirmation of a theory is falsification of another one! The fact is, and this in my opinion is the bottom line: falsification is no more important than verification, and in practical life, probably less so.

So why the big fuss about it over more than half a century? As Gardner notes, this was largely due to Popper’s prestige. Karl Popper was a forceful man, one who would press his claim to priority as vehemently as he could, one who would make his opponents shiver in debate, one who would even lionize his own achievements, relegating others’ to unimportance. While he lived, he was probably the most prestigious philosopher of his time. In his iron rule of the philosophical arena, he cleverly managed to subjugate the value of verification. Part of the fault is not his. Falsification is important, undeniably so. But, as I doubted from the beginning, it is no more necessarily important than confirmation. Popper made verification look like its poor cousin, when in reality, I think that falsification is more aptly described as verification's half-brother, coming to our aid sometimes when other methods fail, but mostly being of marginal practical importance at most. I felt a satisfying feeling on reading Gardner’s article. I felt that some of my own feelings had been verified, and I must confess that this pleased me much more than if they had been falsified!

That Sir Karl Popper was one of the most brilliant intellectuals of the twentieth century is undoubted. His provocative contributions to knowledge have made us question our beliefs in understanding why and how. However, neither Popper nor anyone else can make the final claim on our understanding, questioning and reasoning. And it’s better that way. Because in the uncertain shades of these human attributes lies the wonder of the human spirit. And the wonder would endure only if these attributes are neither verified nor falsified.


Those of you who were worrying whether the Universe may survive long enough for you to celebrate your birthday party can rest assured.
New research at Stanford shows that the Universe will probably end in 24 billion years, and not the 11 billion years that scientists were fearing. Thank God! I was actually quite terrified that it would end in just 100 million years...

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Bush has won. A few general preliminary points:

1. I am neither overly surprised nor overly disappointed. No political analyst, I don't know why he won. It could be as simple as the 'known devil unknown angel' argument or something much more convoluted. I do remember reading many people's opinions who said that Bush has made mistakes but they cannot see Kerry in the White House too. In this case, for all his mistakes, Bush managed the nation in one of the most shaky periods in recent times. He is a good man and he can improve. Now that he knows what people have criticized him for, he can work on those points. In case of Kerry, all they had were promises.

2. However, as a friend said to me, Bush may be a good president, but the rest of the world would like to see Kerry win the election. Bush's toughest job (apart from the usual ones) would be to reestablish American good-will in the world, as well as win the confidence of similar people in his own country.

3. In a way, the next four years pose an even greater test for Bush. Like I mentioned above, he now knows all the actions which he has been criticized for. Thanks to people like Kerry and Michael Moore, those actions and policies have been clearly enumerated in the last two years and brought out in the open. So now his job is to account for those actions, at the same time preserving his core convictions and the party agenda. That's going to be hard. Bringing hope and stability to a nation which has been in turmoil is almost as difficult as inspiring the nation during the period of turmoil. This mopping up operation involves soothing many ruffled feathers, and slowly but surely buttressing affected social systems. That's why, since the beginning, even though I liked Kerry slightly more than Bush, I wouldn't have minded giving Bush another chance.
It remains to be seen how he plays his cards in the next four years. More than any other time, this is when he will be under radar. If, at the end of that time, the nation in all it's domestic and foreign manifestations is in no better condition than it is now, he should squarely be forced to resign.

4. I do feel sorry about gay couples though, now that many states have passed the anti-gay marriage bill. I believe that they are being the innocent victims of the capriciousness of political jargon and constitutional punctillios. Why should their fate be dependent on how the constitution defines marriage? The whole issue is that they will not be subject to the same financial benefits as married couples. Since these include insurance benefits, I don't see why not recognizing their relationship as 'marriage' has anything to do with awarding them spouse associated insurance in times of severe illness. That seems to me to be an unfair action. If one of them is sufffering from a terminal illness, they have the humane right to receive something akin to spouse associated insurance benefits, whether we call their partner a 'spouse' or not. Direct humanitarian policies should not have anything to do with textbook and constitutional definitions of relationships.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Monday. As I am walking to school, yet another campaigner for John Kerry tries to thrust a Kerry-Edwards flyer into my hands. The 'Honk for Kerry' signs may be creating more noise pollution that Kerry would approve. For the nth time, I tell the campaigner, a rotund cheerful southern mom, that I don't have a car. 'Why don't you stick it on your backpack instead", she cajoles. "Not a bad idea", I say. As I start walking, she leaves me with a utilitarian quote: "Advertising is the name of the game".
The world is watching. What will be the outcome?