Thursday, December 30, 2004


The first thing that hits you when you set foot into Vietnam, writes Graham Greene in 'The Quiet American', are the smells. Ditto for Mumbai. I could smell the 'Khadi' (the salty fringes of the sea) even in the plane. Outside, it was the 'smell of the local train ethos', whatever that is, but an unmistakable one. Tinged with the typically sulfaraceous smell was also the smell of memory and nostalgia, because this smell has permeated my being so many times since childhood. Apart from being a good augury for the seminar on olfaction that I am going to give in April, the smells signified homecoming in its unique way. The memory was not marred at all by the extremely lackadaisical attitude of the customs official, who was actually chatting with his friend all the time that my three bags were passing through the x-ray machine. Long live Indian complacency.
The sight of your mom and dad after such a long time is of course an indescribably signature experience. So is the ride back home to Pune on the expressway, and the first glimpses of a most familiar city. The most heartwarming experience for me was setting foot into my home. Old sights and details, even cracks in particular places in the wall, inundate your mind and instantly register. It is at once overwhelming and surreal, because you are looking at things that are an inseparable part of your childhood, youth and material and spiritual subconsciousness, but at the same time there is a certain novelty in them since you have been away from them for a while. Oddly affectionate. The rest of it is about the way you expect it to be. The sight of old granny, gulabjamuns, shrikhand and palak paneer trigger rarely explored but strongly inculcated emotions. There is nothing in the world quite like inculturation. Let the good times flow!

Sunday, December 26, 2004


Adios Amigos! (Is that the correct plural?). I am finally leaving tomorrow, ready to bask in the warmth, literal and emotional, of amche Pune, and waiting to get back to those particular things close to all Punekars' hearts (and stomachs) (and my apologies to non Punekars or non Pune buffs); HOME, Mom and Dad, Mom's cooking, relatives and friends, Vaish and SPDP, Fergi and Fergi Road, Pune Univ canteen, Appachi khichadi kakdi, Vetal tekdi and Fergi tekdi, Gopi restaurant, Exploratory, KNP, Marzorin and MG road, and much much more (including lots that came up after I left). So the next post will be from my home computer, with me bundled up cosily in my grandfather's old chair, eating loads of shrikhand...Auf wiedersehen!

Friday, December 24, 2004


One of the world's favourite waltzes, and mine too, is Johann Strauss's 'An der shonen blauen Donau' (On the beautiful blue Danube). This waltz in fact is the THE waltz which has set the standard for other popular waltzes. So far reaching have been its effects that it has become part of modern music and culture. (For those who need to recollect, recall the omnipresent music piece from Kubrick's '2001, A Space Odyssey')

I have listened to this waltz thousands of times, in every form, for many years. But in spite of my love for it, the sublime piece of music never lent itself to my humming. And my philosophy is; if I can't hum a tune, I can't play it on the keyboard. And this philosophy has worked well for me. Baroque pieces (Handel, Bach etc.) I can hum, ergo they are the ones I most frequently play, sometimes even entire suites. But not the blue Danube. In its vast, flowing depths, it always hid a a certain unwillingness which I could never coax out of it. But as they say, every hummer has his own day...

For the umpteenth time, I was playing the piece today. I can only hum its first three movements, so I always have been playing it's first three movements. After the third movement, there is a sudden change of scale. Although I always KNOW what that it is in my mind, when it comes to humming it, somehow there is a loss of connection between my brain and my manifested musical sense. So I end up knowing the entire waltz, but playing only the first three movements. And so I thought it would be today. However, I have always tried to make an effort to recall the slippery tunes every time and play, and every time, they wriggle their way out from my consciousness. Today, I finished the first three movements, and, according to self-set tradition, tried to recall the next sudden change. Lo and behold! Slowly, but surely, the tunes not only came to my mind, but gracefully hummed their way out. Hum once, hum twice, and I actually hummed the entire fourth movement! I couldn't believe it. I stopped, as if in a dream. This had happened for the first time. Just to make sure it wasn't the effect of some ephemeral brain malfunction like deja vu, I tried again. Again, the tunes came out. What about the fifth movement? Would it work? Not wanting to pause and allow it to slip away, I tried. Thumbs up for the fifth! How far could I go??...

As the vagaries of practical life would have it, I had to go out somewhere in one hour, and before that I had to take a shower. This reality struck home hard. But I possibly could not bear to lose this marvelous musical offering, now that I had gotten hold of it. Hum the sixth, hum it in the shower...Hum the seventh.....and there's shampoo in my hair. I am ecstatic now, being able to remember AND hum almost the entire waltz; in fact I am waltzing the waltz in the shower, starting in my room (Ahh, the benefits of living alone...)...Hum the eighth...I am dancing and jumping in the shower, neglecting the shampoo (and the time)...hum the ninth...I am in seventh (or should I say 'ninth') heaven....and the HOT WATER GOES OUT!! Outside, it is 2 degrees celsius. Amidst my humming and gamboling, I have stayed long enough to make the water heater devoid of its precious contents. Hum the ninth...Damn the ninth! What should I do? As the plane of my existence cruelly changed, I decided to take a blitzkrieg shot under the shower. In about 10 seconds, I mercilessly shook the suds out of my hair with as much cold water as I could endure, and bounded out, freezing. But no starch...I was finally with old Johann! The first thing to do was to try to play the tunes, and again make sure that they hadn't been simply visitors to my cranium. But no...fate has been good to me, at least until now, and I am humming the entire waltz again and again. Maybe I will even record my humming. For what it was worth, the cold water could be metaphorically thought of as a dip in the Danube (Or maybe this is just exalted wishful thinking on my part...whatever!). It made me cold, it made me blue (literally) and it made me happy. What else could you want from life?!...Ta na na na na, ta ta, ta ta...

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Four days left to teleportation to amche Pune...

Monday, December 20, 2004


Today I found out for the first time, that there is a version of cold which acts, feels and tastes like rain (and still it's not rain). I found out that this particular brand of cold actually falls by gravity on top of everything it comes in contact with, and it actually SETTLES on your clothes and finally seeps through them, just like heavy droplets of rain. No matter if you cover yourself with eveything from the Burlington Coat Factory, it will find you and hunt you down. However, just like the mysterious luminiferous ether, you cannot see it, confront it man-to-cold, or confine it in a box, and most importantly, you cannot do a damn thing about it...Aargh!! I hate this cold! I can only imagine the agony which my friends in Michigan or Wisconsin go through.

Friday, December 17, 2004


Department lunches have had an unusually consistent record of being insipid, as far as the food goes, and today's end of semester lunch was no exception. Turkey and chicken so typically American and bland, that you get the feeling they have been picked straight from the farm and served to you without further ado. Ditto for the green beans, which would strike fear in the heart of even the most seasoned Asian vegetarian. And Eggnog (apparently a 'great Christmas treat'), the first sip of which made me immediately feel that I have ingested a ton of the betelnuts which my grandfather occasionally used to chew. Bah!! The one saving grace was the line of desserts which I used to sate my appetite. I have here with me right now; Baklava (the great Turkish treat), lemon cake AND walnut cake, fruit punch (which for once is not tasting like cough syrup-'It's the cherries, stupid!'), frosted muffins and assorted chocolates.
How I miss mom's cooking, for which I am going to have to wait a mere fortnight now...

Wednesday, December 15, 2004


While the general topic of stem cell research has vastly complicated (mostly unnecessarily so) political and religious dimensions, an article in Nature throws some light on the main points of contention. Much of the debate seems to centre on opinions about 'when life begins'.

1. Apparently, Islam and Judaism have no problem with embryonic research. According to their tenets, 'life begins 40 days after conception' (I would surely like to know the method, if there is any, which they used to determine this!) and so there's no harm in using a younger than 40 days embryo for extracting stem cells.

2. The stance of Hinduism is interesting, and again reminds me of the general quality of tolerance that is embodied in that religion. According to Hindu philosophy, life does begin at conception. However, according to 'Swami Tyagananda at MIT', there is no problem in destroying life in an embryonic stage, if it is being done for the greater good. In the Mahabharata, Krishna has no qualms about even resorting to trickery in killing the Kauravas, because it ultimately would lead to a much greater good, and the principle seems to have endured after such a long time. This is probably much better than any other religious belief, except for the fact that in the cloistered precincts of human affairs, 'the greater good' is frequently hard to define. In this case, however, I am happy to note that it is taken to mean curing Alzheimer's and other serious diseases. For once, Swami Tyagananda and the scientists seem to have reached an agreement.
Scientifically, even the opinion that life begins at conception seems to me to be a fuzzy concept. How do you define the exact moment of conception? Is it during the act of conception? Or when the sperm reaches the ovum? Or when it penetrates the ovum?...We could go on. The problem ironically is, even the seemingly well-defined (and frequently fanatical) beliefs of religion are never ever unambiguous.

3. Predictably, the strongest objections come from Christian sects that condemn the 'killing' of an embryo, even if it is a three day old amorphous clump of cells. While this roughly matches current Vatican thinking, that institution seems to conform more to our idea of a 'human rights group'. The Vatican does not strictly claim that the early embryo is a person- only that 'it deserves respect as a potential human being'. Eventually, the Vatican may even change its opinions, but only in the kind of agonizingly slow process that Galileo's case demonstrated.

Last but not the least, I don't even need to voice my opinions about the sheer, appalling stupidity of groups who are arguing against birth control pills because they apparently prevent the embryo from forming and hence stifle life...

At this rate, finally, only the God who many scientists and rationalists don't believe in could possibly save them...and everyone else!!

Wednesday, December 08, 2004


Science and Religion have always fought a relentless battle based on methods and convictions. Many people devote a good deal of thought and time trying to think of ways that could weed out differences between them. The issues of contention are manifold and profound; certainty, faith, belief, and rationality. I don't know when these differences between two fundamental edifices, one of nature and the other of human creation, will be resolved, if ever. The debate is really between rational people who are critical and those who essentially subscribe to dogma. In recent years, instead of arguing about the discrepancies between science and religion, the dogmatists have sought a clever way out- to try to demonstrate that science and religion in fact have common goals. This would be a minor nuisance at most, if they also did not insist that science and religion also share the same philosophy and methodology. I think that more than anything else, opponents of science use two weapons to make people believe that scientists are just like them-faith and uncertainty. Their way of 'reconciliation' is to try to prove that fundamentally, there is no difference between science and religion, or pseudoscience in general.

Many religious people still assume that certainty is the hallmark of science and that a lack of irrevocable faith is what distinguishes scientists from pseudoscientists. While this assumption is fallacious in the first place, to counter this point, they usually make the following arguments:
1. Modern science is replete with theories that are uncertain, the archetypal and most overwrought examples of them being supposedly Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and evolution. Evolution is probably the biggest area of contention for the pseudoscientists. They are glad of pointing out the lack of 'experimental' data for many of the axioms of evolution. Thus, they say that there is no difference between evolution and creationism because both are tentative 'theories'.
2. 'Faith' is another word which has been abused by them. They say that every scientist has faith in the rational method. There is no possible reason (except perhaps induction) why the 'rational method' should work all the time. Hence, they conclude, scientists are just like themselves, mostly advancing their case based on personal faith.
Both of the above misleading arguments are used by pseudoscientists to try to 'win scientists over', and to demonstrate to society that both are in fact birds of the same feather. Let us take a critical look at each of these points.

1. Uncertainty: As far as this is concerned, the pseudoscientists are absolutely right in their preliminary evaluation. Science has always been a tentative process. The history of science is full of examples when someone came along and refuted a previous theory. Copernicus refuted the geocentric view of the Universe, Wohler refuted the 'vitalism' theory of biology, and probably most profoundly, Darwin refuted the biblical 'theory' of creationism. In the twentieth century, physics provides the most striking example. Relativity and Quantum Theory both changed our view of the world, and annuled many previous ideas, the most significant being the existence of the 'luminiferous ether'. The pseudoscientists claim that since this has always been the trend, why shouldn't it be possible to accept the existence of God and creationism sometime in the future? Well, the answer to this question depends on an understanding of the scientific method itself. First of all, the meaning of a 'theory' in science is completely different from, say the meaning of the 'theory' of creationism. Science starts with a set of assumptions and then makes hypothesis regarding particular phenomena. If observation supports the hypothesis repeatedly, then it is accepted as the best representation of the world at the moment. Many such hypotheses, combined with many many observations supporting them, finally become a theory. The other hallmark of a theory is that it is not self-contradictory, and it makes use of logical steps which can be deduced from the assumtions. Note that we are not saying anything about the assumptions themselves. They are true only insofar as the hypotheses derived from them are supported by observations. Another way in which a theory is confirmed in science is by cross-observations from many different systems. For example, if one wanted to verify Newton's laws of motion, a compelling piece of evidence would be their veracity in many diverse systems, for example, for a ball rolling down an inclined plane, for the motion of the planets, and for water flowing downhill. Very importantly, it may happen that a particular observation does not support a hypothesis. However, that does not necessarily obviate the theory. There may be an experimental error made, or maybe that observation is related to an assumption assumed, but not actually present in the theory. Conversely, the assumption may not hold in the natural system at all. For example, if one notices that the volume and pressure of a gaseous system don't have an inverse relationship, it probably would be because the temperature is not constant, which is an implicit assumption in Boyle's Law. So when checking the applicability of a good theory, it is important to note that the system under observation lends itself to the same assumptions that the theory makes. Anyway, so the other characteristic of a good theory is its generality. The more general a theory is, the more convincing it becomes. Again, the generality should be consistent with the assumptions and these must be clearly laid out. Falsifiability is another criterion for an accepted theory. One should be able to think of possible, well-defined experiments that could refute the theory if it fails these tests. If the theory passes these tests, its credibility usually increases.

With many years of such stringent testing, a theory finally becomes well-accepted. However, it is still possible, although the possibility is extremely low, that we find a system in which all the assumptions and hypotheses of the theory hold but still the theory's predictions are not true. Two things may happen then; the theory may have to be modified and further hypotheses introduced, or it may need to be discarded. Now here, I am not using the word 'discarded' in its usual sense. I don't mean that, suddenly, because of one anomalous observation, they theory completely breaks down. Certainly not. It still keeps on explaining all those phenomena which it had explained earlier. A common misconception is that quantum theory toppled Newton's theories. That's not true as far as everyday phenomena are concerned. We can still perfectly explain most phenomena in everyday life using Newton's laws. It is only in the domain of the subatomic world that these laws break down and have to be explained using unusual probabilistic concepts. So, even today, Newtonian physics is still anything but obsolete.
Lastly, and most importantly, the real value of a theory lies in its predictability. It should be able to make reasonable predictions about as yet unknown phenomena or undone experiments. Again, that does not mean that it should be able to explain anything and everything. Sometimes, the current level of sophistication just does not allow that kind of prediction and explanation. For example, technically, all of life can be explained if we know the laws of physics and chemistry, because all living systems are built from molecules, and finally from atoms. Centuries after the first postulation of the existence of atoms, and many years after incredible advances in molecular sciences, the puzzle of life is still standing, and probably will be so forever. That does not mean there is a problem with the laws of chemistry. It just means that we haven't yet reached the degree of sohistication required to 'explain life' using them.
Finally, it is almost a truism to note that the true judge of any theory is experiment. As Richard Feynman says, if a theory does not agree with experiment, it's wrong. Period. Again, we should be sure of the accuracy of our experiments. Corroboration from many sources from different parts of the world, and repeated observation, helps in deciding this.
To summarize, science is a complex network of assumptions, ideas and theories, all of which are synergistically reinforced, and in turn help to reinforce experiment. The requirement for self-consistency and agreement with experiment is very stringent. No wonder that many scientific theories never make it past the drawing board.

Now let us look at some of the 'theories' developed by the pseudoscientists. First of all, it is interesting to note that for every unexplained observation, every profound phenomenon, they seem to have a theory. Evolution, UFOs, telepathy, psychokinesis and life itself, every one of these and more have fallen prey to intricate deconvolution by them. The reason is simple. They don't bother to do experiments, and in fact they don't trust in experiments, at least the kind of experiments that are known to science to be decisive. Actually, this is a very easy way of theorising and the pseudoscientists don't demonstrate any high degree of intelligence in doing this. If I wanted to explain digestion, and I did not know a thing about enzymes and the anatomy of the digestive system, what is going to stop me from postulating that digestion takes place due to the presence of little dwarfs running around in my stomach with sickles, chopping up particles of food? No matter that I am simply engaging in armchair speculation, and that any number of experiments could immediately prove me wrong. The pseuodoscientists simply don't bother about controlled experiments. Sometimes they do do 'experiments', but ones which could be interpreted exactly the way they want. I remember the old joke about the scientist who cuts off all the legs of a cockroach, and then seeing that it wouldn't walk anymore, concludes that cutting off the legs led to it becoming brain-dead! The answer to such fallacious conclusions is simply more experiments, including controls, which are a hallmark of science. But the pseudos don't care about experimentation. They start with a random assumption, and then derive conclusions based on them which explain a fact. Sometimes they even do it 'logically' and claim that they are using the 'scientific method'. Again, that's not difficult to do at all. If I start with a false assumption in the first place, then it is possible to derive anything I want from that assumption using 'logical' arguments. Consider the following argument: 'All men are ants. Socrates is a man. Hence Socrates is an ant'. Perfectly logical, except that the initial premise is completely false! However, when the pseudoscientists are challenged about this, their specious reply usually is, 'Even in science there are assumptions which are not justified. What about 2 + 2= 4? What's the proof of that assumption?'. True. Except that they forget that even though that may be an axiom, almost every one of the hundreds of thousands of hypotheses and the conclusions drawn from that assumption have been tested and retested and cross-tested by experiment. It is extremely unlikely (and I am not saying plain 'false' only because I am a student of science) that the assumptions underlying such a universal system of explaining reality which has consistently worked for centuries would be 'wrong'. What the pseudoscientists don't realise is the cohesive nature of science. It's a package. You can question axioms indefinitely, but it's impossible to question the entire system, which in fact they are doing (Unless of course, you decide to question experiment itself, including what you see, hear and measure, in which case I would stop arguing with the pseudos and start completely ignoring them).

However, the most important way the pseudoscientists try to convince us of the soundness of their 'theories' is by making assumptions that simply cannot be tested by experiment. Creationism is a popular example. The general statement that there are little green men a million light years away playing hide and seek is another. There is no way to justify, or falsify these 'theories'. To reinforce their point, the pseudos make a case about theories in 'normal' science which are not justified. I think the best case in point is the field of astrophysics. We know that astrophysicists make predictions about black holes, quasars, and events occuring in remote galaxies. Many of these cannot be verified by direct experiment. Does that mean that these theories are any less 'scientific' than, say, Boyle's Law? Not really. Where they cannot be strong experimentally, these theories make up mathematically. The theory of black holes, for example, follows from Relativity, which itself has been rigorously justified. Moreover, let us again consider the idea of self-consistency, which I think makes a strong case for such theories. What would happen if the entire theory of black holes is wrong? That would probably also question many of the assumptions on which it is based which are derived from relativity theory. Again, it is extremely unlikely that the theory of relativity is fallacious, because its uncertainty would in turn lead to uncertainty in the assumptions on which IT is based and so on.
Evolution is probably the greatest debate in this respect. The fact is, except in certain specialized circumstances, we cannot actually demonstrate evolution as it happened on earth. The pseudos take this to mean that evolution is actually no more certain than any of the fantastic theories that they propose. However, there is so much data in support of evolution, including evidence from fossil deposits, made incontrovertible by radioactive dating, that it is virtually impossible to question the theory of evolution. The pseudos' argument is akin to asking for 'direct' evidence that a murder took place. No matter how much evidence the police collect, usually it is impossible to 'prove' that the murder actually happened. Nonetheless, when the weight of evidence becomes so large that a strong case can be made against the suspect, he is convicted and sentenced. It's a similar case for evolution, except that the weight of evidence is much more convincing here. Since the theory of evolution has not been 'proved' according to the pseudos, they don't see the harm in admitting their theories as valid descriptions of nature as well. It does not matter that clean and concrete evidence for their ideas is non-existent. The writer John Casti gives a nice analogy for this. He says that the pseudos are like racing enthusiasts who want to enter a car equipped with a jet engine into the Grand Prix, because after all, someday the rules may be changed to allow such a car in the race! By refering to a future but as-yet-unknown state of science, the cranks are in effect refusing to participate in the compeition. That would be all right if they didn't at the same time insist on entering the race. However, since the pseudos don't have a high regard for experiment and the self-consistent way of appraisal that lies at the heart of any scientific theory, they have no hesitation in equating their ideas with scientific ones. I have yet to come across a single pseudoscientist, who can give a theory for the existence of God that is self-consistent and that can be repeatedly verified by experiment. I guarantee that I will become a convert from a skeptical agnostic once that happens.

So what about uncertainty? This was what we were getting at all this time by describing the nature of science and pseudoscience, and by now, it is more or less clear. In science, there is uncertainty. However, it's not of the kind which demolishes an entire theoretical edifice. A great example is the Uncertainty Principle in quantum theory. It does not make life uncertain. If it were really that uncertain, we would not be able to do anything useful using quantum mechanics. The fact is, quantum mechanics has given us more accurate explanations of physical phenomena, and more practical applications than any other theory in science. If not anything else, nothing succeeds like success. So this is a very special type of uncertainty. It puts a fundamental barrier on our knowledge of the subatomic world, but not one which suddenly transforms the entire theory into a shaky foundation. The tentative nature of science has been grossly misunderstood by the pseudos. Tentative does not mean that I suddenly stop believing today what I believed in yesterday. It just means that I should always be ready to revise and revitalise my ideas about the natural world. Whatever I believe, the facts don't change. What we have is the current best model of the world. But for us and science, even 'current best' is extraordinarily good. Lastly and quite simply, lack of proof for a particular theory does not automatically imply the existence of another. 'Lack' of direct evidence of evolution does not mean the existence of creationism, as the creationists claim. For a true scientist, the lack of evidence means just that, that the matter has to be further investigated. Period. The bottom line is, uncertainty in science and uncertainty in pseudoscience have a completely different meaning. For a scientist, all of pseudoscience is uncertain in a fundamental way. The whole structure of pseoduscience is tinged with selfishness and personal bias. There is no objectivity in it, which can be confirmed or falsified even by other 'believers'. And talking about belief, that brings us to the second contentious debate, that of faith.

2. Faith: Faith, in my opinion, is the 'raison d' etre' that religion exists. The very existence of people with fanatic faith in religion and God means that they have exhausted all other ways of convincing themselves to believe in these concepts. For a scientist, if experiment proves his theory, he does not need to put his 'faith' in it so ardently. The usual claim that is made by the pseudos is that scientists have faith in rationality and the scientific method. There is no reason, per se, why this should be so. Hence, since even scientists engage in a belief system of some kind, the pseudos conclude that there is no difference between them and scientific thinkers. This is completely absurd. Again, just as in the above example, the meaning of 'faith' for a scientist and a pseudo is totally different. The faith of the scientist is a product of many assumptions and tentative beliefs. It is not eternal and unchanging. He is ready to change his faith if the evidence demands it. From that perspective, his is not a 'faith' in the usual sense of the term. Moreover, his faith does not change the way nature is, whereas the pseudo's faith dictates his actions and their results. This is another piece of evidence that the pseudo has nothing but his faith to come to his aid. Is faith in rationality inappropriate? Does a scientist's faith in rationality make him someone not too different from the pseudo, who has fallen in love with his own philosophy? The pseudos seem to think, that precisely because one of the hallmarks of science is uncertainty and change, the scientist should be ready to abandon his belief in rationality too! This is another one of the pseudos' 'logical' arguments! Again, it's not too difficult to counter it. However tentative science has been, rationality is probably the only thing that has been consistent in science. Sometimes, when the current best theory does not give a rational answer to a problem, the scientist may think 'irrationally' but what he is really doing is thinking outside the box. When the puzzle is finally straightened out, the initial 'irrational' thought turns out to be a part of a perfectly rational scaffold. The illusion of irrationality exists only in our mind. For example, when Linus Pauling discovered his famous helical structure of proteins, he made a highly unorthodox assumption about the structure of the amino acids comprising the protein. 'Irrational' as the assumption may have seemed to some people at the time, in hindsight, it turned out to be a part of a consistent theory of protein structure, one that has been validated by thousands of examples. When certain nuclear transformations could not be explained in the 1930s, scientists postulated the existence of a third neutral particle in the nucleus, the neutron. This may have looked like a random hypothesis advanced by a pseudo, except that in this case, it was completely validated and became an essential component of all atomic theories, not to mention an instrument of far reaching consequences. So if a pseudo accuses a scientist of having 'faith in rationality', he is only fooling himself. It's almost a trivial statement. Yes, a scientist has faith in rationality, if not for any other reason, for the reason that rationality is the only way to think about a problem in the first place. And if we don't even think, how can we expect to solve ANY problem?

I am writing about all this because I feel concerned, just like many of you, about the rising fanatic religious and pseodoscientific sentiment in the world. After all, we are all trying to find a solution for all our problems. Can science provide a solution? Certainly not. However, I do think that religion has created more problems than it has solved ever since the dawn of mankind. More people have been, and are being killed, in the name of religion than in the name of any other human endeavor. I don't hesitate to say that that is not the case for science. Technology, yes. But not science.

We may not even be able to solve all our problems finally. We don't know what solutions are going to work. But what we do know is that we have to think rationally. Maybe in the end, it may not work. But at least we would have given it a try and can be satisfied with the effort. With religion, all we have is dogma which we follow mindlessly. In the end, our goal is to have a peaceful and content society. If religion can bring that peace, even on an individual level (and I don't deny that it has to many) I have no objection. But a system based on dogma always has the chance of easily going astray. We have seen this happen for religion and communism. To counter this, we need people who will dissent against dogma or at least always be skeptical of it. Scientists are the best candidates for this job, because their very belief system is free of dogma in the first place. The tentative nature of science makes it a wonderful instrument for creating change and social awareness. When I say 'scientists', I don't mean just scientific researchers. I mean absolutely everyone who can think in a reasonably scientific way, taking a balanced and rational approach toward situations. I dare say that that includes many of us, certainly enough to make a difference if we try. So finally, the real question is, can rationality save us? I don't know. But as Winston Churchill would have said, 'Rationality seems the most awful way of solving all our problems...until we realise the alternatives to it...'

In Pictures: Presidents at Play

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An exhibition of rarely seen presidential photos has opened in Washington. Here Ronald Reagan laughs at one of his own jokes on board Air Force One. (Photo: National Archives/Reagan Library)

Quite ironical.
1. He laughs at his own joke because no one else laughs at it.
2. Actually that's not true. He laughs at his own joke and forces everyone else to laugh at it.
3. Given some of the policies, especially foreign policies, which he was responsible for, it's more likely that only he laughs at his joke because, at least in the rest of the world, no one else laughs at it.
4. Maybe we SHOULD be more appreciative. The man really was supposed to have a great sense of humour. And humour is always a great way to get out of a thorny situation...

That's Reagan for you.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004


'Did you say ten to twelve o' clock?', I disbelievingly asked the Professor, who was holding his chemical court for freshmen in room E440. I stared at him, stared at my reservation form which said I had reserved the room for my qualifier at 11.00, then back at him again. 'That's right. I am teaching in this room from ten to twelve today. I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do', was his cold-hearted reply. I realised that these things don't happen just in India. Getting a room reservation in the Chemistry Department is hard, and I had reserved this room almost ten days ago for my qualifier, the yearly ritual which makes my mind cringe. After all, it's just once a year that the faculty gets to eat your heart out. 'Somebody in the administration' had messed up the room reservation schedule.

Meanwhile, the three members on my examining committee were frantically running around all over the place trying to find me and the room. Somehow, I managed to round all of them up, and finally saw an empty room. In I went and downloaded my powerpoint presentation in a flash. And so began my presentation quite smoothly...for about 20 minutes (the duration is supposed to be an hour). Someone knocked on the door. Inorganic Chemistry class at 11.30. Out goes our brigade again, laptop and evaluation sheets in hand. Is no room available? What about the conference room next to the office? Looks good. As we sit down, someone from the office comes in. There's a lunch seminar at 11.45. The next attempt to find a room reveals none in sight. Finally, Prof X sees a small room lurking in the corner? It's the chairman's office, with no board, black or white, and no overhead projector. Would the chairman mind? Does he even need to know? In we go quietly. Nice, cosy, small office harbouring THE chair of the department. Would I like to sit in it, asks my advisor? No, thank you, I say. I am trying to make sure this is a honest, typical qualifier exam. Seeing my hesitation, Prof X jumps in the chair. He is known for his provocative articles even in the most formal scientific journals. An iconoclastic and formidable expert in his field, he would make more than a few souls squirm if he occupies that chair (Not that he would like to...far from it). Seeing him in the chair tickles my advisor's funny and poetic bones. 'Ahh!', he says mockingly to the man in the chair. 'A bloodless coup, I suppose!'. My third committee member, a young and brilliant assistant professor from Caltech, nods somewhat grudgingly. My advisor cannot resist the opportunity and takes a picture of Prof X with his cell phone. 'We ought to send this to everyone in the department!'. During this time, I am wondering whether this is a graduate qualifier exam or a pre bar-mitzvah informal gathering. Suddenly my advisor probably notices my presence. 'Oh, yes! About those calculations of yours...'. That's it. No more presentation. I should have spent all that time in eating pad Thai or something, instead of making all those slides. After a few more minutes, a few tough and many not-so-tough questions, and a few general comments (The most enduring one being the ominous 'Never trust what the computer tells you') I am sent out to wait to hear the verdict. The options on the evaluation sheet read:
1. PhD. candidate
2. Possible PhD. candidate
3. MS candidate: will leave with MS at the end of current semester
4. No degree: will leave by end of current semester.

Mirror mirror on the wall, will this be the end of it all?? But no. Inspite of the most informal and disrupted exam of my life (Another lesson in American nonchalance), the three examiners think it's still worth to tolerate my presence in the department. They come out and shake my hand and suggest a few things. My joy and anticipation of celebration quickly subsides when my advisor says, 'Well, about those nucleosides, I think it would be a good idea if you did some more claculations on them...I will be going out of town on Thursday, so make sure you turn them in to me by then...'

Another day in the life of a graduate begins tomorrow. That was hardly my idea of either a peaceful or a gruelling one hour qualifier exam. But that's graduate school. Whatever the vicissitudes of research and PhD. committees, the show goes on. Next year, I hope to stay in one room the entire time.


I have wanted to write on this for a long time. However, this post wouldn't be too long, because it's not possible to be exhaustive on this matter. These are merely some fleeting, frivolous thoughts of mine.

We all know the old adage 'One sparrow does not make a bird'. My question is, if not one, then how many? Even though this may sound trivial at the least, and an amusing philosophical puzzle at most, I think that it has profound implications for many aspects of our existence. Let us consider a few examples:

1. Science: In this rigorous human endeavor, the answer to the above question, most of the times, is a qualified 'no'. Because here, it's tantamount to asking 'Do ten examples make a theory?'. Although most of the times they don't, there are several cases where it's really hard to reach a conclusion. Let's look at the 'pseudoscientists', people who dress up in the guise of science and try to convince us of all kinds of quack theories such as creationism, afterlife, telepathy, UFOs etc. Many times, they resort to a classic weapon of 'logic' to disprove scientists- the weapon of 'evidence or lack thereof'. For example, if they claim that Hitler still lives, then I will have to prove them wrong. Of course, given the circumstances, the most I can do is prove that this is extremely improbable, not impossible. They take my lack of ability of proof as 'disproof' or proof that they are right. Another great arena of debate for them is, and I think perpetually will be, evolution. We have to admit that, even after convincing evidence of evolution, we cannot still actually DEMONSTRATE (albeit in very special cases) evolution. And in fact, even for a scientist, it will always be an everlasting wonder how the living world and humans came to be, and how the cornucopia of organic molecules in living organisms makes possible that what we call 'life'. The pseudoscientists (or creationists or religious dogmatists) turn this wonder against the scientist, and claim that since he cannot actually demonstrate evolution, it must be wrong and therefore God exists and he created the earth. Alluding to the title of the post, they are trying to say that 'The lack of a sparrow, and certainly ten of them, implies the existence of a crow'! In my opinion, what the poor fellows do not understand is that the onus of proof is on them. If lack of proof really always meant the opposite, then all pseudoscientific theories would be true, and 'circumstantial evidence' would go into the dustbin. On the contrary, lack of proof merely means further investigation. So in this case lack of 'sparrows' means simply that, that there are no sparrows. Interestingly, when they have to bear the brunt of proof, the pseudoscientists conveniently use the 'one sparrow' theory very efficiently. For example, they would have said, 'The earth is flat. That's obvious because the ground on which we are standing is definitely flat'. In most cases, such ridiculous claims can be shown to be outright wrong by looking at the big picture (in this case, literally!). Unfortunately, we can never validate or falsify all of their claims. For example, one infallible observation of the universe being billions of years old is that we can see light from stars which are billions of years old. However, the fanatics, who believe that the earth is only ten thousand years old, would ridicule this claim and say that when God created the universe ten thousand years ago, he also created the stars at the observed distance and also instantaneously created the light that we see. It's obvious that this claim cannot be falsified, because we cannot do an experiment. The fanatics would take this to mean that we are wrong and they are right. One of the most fundamental facts of science is its tentative nature. It is precisely because of that, that science can progress. Uncertainty does not mean a complete breakdown of the entire scaffold, as the fanatics assume. But why even bother trying to explain that to them...

Even in 'normal science' the above fact is never easily validated. There have been several conflicts between theories in the history of science (I do not consider the conflict between creationism and evolution to be a legitimate scientific conflict in this regard) in which the two sides tried to argue their point by giving examples of their logic. These examples were the sparrows. So the question is, if I give a thousand examples, do I actually also validate the theory? Well, probably no. But in science, what we usually mean by ‘example’ is observation. And it is extremely unlikely that tens of thousands of observation could be downright wrong. In fact, it is probably more likely that the theory is wrong, in which case it can be modified. So the observation would certainly validate the theory to a very large extent. Again, it is important to keep in mind the tentative nature of science quoted above. Unfortunately, we are too easily resigned to the use of the words 'right' and 'wrong', words which are really very strong to be used even in science. Sometimes we all too easily relegate our perception of events to one of these categories. So yes; in science, ten sparrows don't make a bird. But they do immensely increase the probability of there being a bird! There is always room for doubt though, and doubt is the cornerstone of the scientific method. So it's probably better that way. What happens when the probability goes on increasing? Or decreasing for that matter? Let's say someone proposes a theory, and in support of his theory, he gives many convincing examples. The more examples he gives, the more convincing his theory will become. At some point, his theory will not only be convincing but also consistent. I always think that this is an often-overlooked strength of a successful theory. For example, what if Newton's Laws are wrong? Now this represents a case where the bird has almost been complete, to the point where he is indistinguishable with his ideal, complete version. If someone asks if there is a possibility that Newton's Laws are wrong, the answer is that if they were wrong, not only would this convincing, almost complete replica of a perfect bird be an illusion (highly unlikely) but we would have to discard the sparrows, the bird bath, the branch of the tree, and reality itself! Now that would be very bad indeed! So in this case, it's almost a truism that the bird exists, and that whatever number of sparrows have been employed to build up his image do in fact do that. The bottom line is; in science, the number of sparrows required to make a bird is arbitrary, and the proof of principle can be given by, among other things, repeated observations of the sparrows, common consensus about their existence and role, and self-consistency.

2. Society: When it comes to social problems, things get infinitely more complicated. Let's turn to a recent example that I came across, the work of the renowned left-liberal, linguist, and outspoken critic of US foreign policy, Noam Chomsky (more on him some other time). In his book 'Hegemony or Survival-America's quest for global dominance' (and many others), he says, among other things, that the US is the biggest violator of human rights, the greatest opponent of democracy, and the worst imperialist regime since Great Britain. To back these outstanding claims, Chomsky buries us under a mass of information. Tons of examples from decades document the insidious and selfish activities of the US Government, the US media and the CIA in countries like Central and South America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and East Timor. Many of the examples are spectacularly convincing, some of them less so. The point is, do these examples indicate that capitalism, as exemplified by the US is 'bad'. Does this mean that we and the world need a massive and unilateral overhaul of Government? Do all these examples of US atrocities; the 'sparrows' in this case, mean that we should get rid of capitalism, as we know it? Do these sparrows make a bird? The question is extremely difficult to answer (And that I think is part of the reason why Chomsky could gain so much popular support for decades). The reason is that in science, as we noted above, support for examples i.e. observations, comes from mathematically logical theories and arguments of self-consistency. So observations, no matter how important they are, do not represent the only thread of reality that we hang on to. In the convoluted realm of social sciences, apart from observations, the only other things we can trust are the sensibilities and moralities of people. These can be, and are, easily hidden from us, politicians being the most convincing examples, and most of the times, we simply cannot validate the principles underlying these observations. They can be easily manipulated and subjected to the vagaries of avarice. Secondly, and I think this is a profound dilemma, many times we simply cannot document the other side of the story. For example, Chomsky may give a debilitating number of examples of atrocities committed by the US, which could possibly convince us of the malignant nature of US 'hegemony'. But what about those atrocities which they did not do!? There are several examples of this dilemma. We rant about how pollution kills us slowly but surely. Agreed, the argument is completely valid. But what about those lives that have been saved because of the safety measures adopted by automobiles and industry? After all, we cannot know those figures. So one of the problems with any social scientific argument, especially based on history, is that we never get to know the other side of the story, unlike natural science.
Does that mean that we should stop making a case for all these scenarios? Certainly not! Because there is a second imaginary world, which we are ensuring is imagined. If we don’t take these measures that we do, or at least fight for them, we will not prevent the other extreme situation. For example, if Chomsky did NOT take these stances, then there would be no limit to what the protagonists would do. So all these actions are somewhat like the eternal saying in the Bhagavad-Gita: Do your duty without expecting any fruit. The duty’s value is incomparable.