Thursday, March 31, 2005


Some of the best limericks I have heard in recent times! (Filched from Artharaja)

1. Mendelian genetics exemplified...
“There was a young fellow named Starkie,
Who had an affair with a darky;
The result of his sins
Was quadruplets, not twins –
One black, one white and two khaki!”

2. To each his own...
“A young schizophrenic named Struther,
When told of the death of his mother,
Said, “Yes, it’s too bad,
But I can’t feel sad.
After all, I still have each other.”

3. And here are two to evoke "O dear!"...
“There once was a sculptor named Phidias,
Who had a distaste for the hideous,
So he sculpted Aphrodite
Without any nightie,
And shocked all the ultra-fastidious.”

“On the bust of a barmaid in Hale
Were tattooed current prices of ale –
While on her behind
(For the sake of the blind)
Were all the same prices in Braille.”

I especially like the snide connotations in limericks; very innocent, very hilarious, very creative, very endearing (and enduring) and at the same time, very provocative in their own way, and very naughty!

Tuesday, March 29, 2005


I should have written this post long back, but I was reminded of the whole issue by my mom in a conversation today.

Abhijit Gadgil was my cousin. My mama (uncle) was in the Indian Air Force (IAF), and retired as a wing commander to become a commercial pilot with Air India. He was one of the most respected pilots in their squadron and even flew Prime Minister Vajapayee to the US once. Abhijit and Kedar are his sons and Kavita mami (aunt) is his wife. They used to frequently visit our place, especially on my sister's birthday. Both brothers were cheerful and laid back, and had a great sense of humour. Many times, I used to enjoy their company when we met during family functions. (Somehow, I especially remember one of my sister's birthdays when the duo presented her with a box of rich, delicious chocolates with a sign saying "Hope these extra calories always keep the smile on your face"). Everytime I met them, I literally used to beg them to tell me a joke.

Abhijit joined the IAF and made my mama and mami (aunt) proud. He got married to a flight attendant in Air India, and I very much remember having attended their wedding. The future was bright for him, with a newly wedded wife and a promotion to Flight Lieutenant.

Then, in September 2001, on a routine flight take off in Rajasthan, his MIG-21 exploded into flames. Not surprisingly, 'accidental' instrument failure was cited as the cause. No further explanations were given to my mama and mami. In an absurdly tragic and dismal act, quite unworthy of our defence services, they were actually asked to pay for Abhijit's funeral which the Air Force had conducted. Upto date, IAF haven't even apologised for the crash.

My mami and mama could not rest in piece, especially in the face of the complacence and hypocrisy which they had witnessed. They started the Abhijit Flying Foundation to bring together similarly bereaved familes. Gradually the horrifying statistics became clear. Hundreds of pilots were being killed in routine flights with either pilot or technical failure being cited and dismissed every time. My mama, and especially my mami fought relentlessly for four years. They wrote to Government officials, made almost monthly (and mostly, predictably futile) trips to New Delhi, but finally managed to get together a lobby of such grief stricken parents. Finally, they got an interview both with Defence Minister George Fernandes and a 30 minute session with President Abdul Kalam. Their grievances were heard and noted, and sympathised with. Only time will tell how much they have truly succeeded. But the most important thing in which they have truly succeeded without a doubt is in making their message known throughout the country and in definitely putting their pressure on Government officials. If not anything else, let us hope that their most commendable efforts will at least cause the Government to make public the results of crash inquiries, if not anything else.

A few days ago, my mother called up my mami. My mami said, "The one thing we get solace from is that we continued to fight to our utmost". I am sure that they have done more than what could be a fitting memorial to Abhijit's memory.

I believe that Indian defence personnel are among the best in the world. It is one of the biggest tragedies in our country, that their innocent and committed lives are being lost because of the capricious whims of complacent politicians. However, in a democracy, again and again, in many quarters, it can be seen that it is the common man who triumphs. The spirit of freedom lives on in the most trivial as well as grandiose ways.
HATS OFF TO A TRUE MOTHER AND FATHER...I am proud to say that I know them...

P.S: Queries on Google (and even a few on the BBC site) under the name of 'Kavita Gadgil; will bring up many hits which feature news articles and other items. Here is an interview with my mami.


Somewhat continuing on the note of the former post, I think that this whole culture of fake independence is one of the many byproducts of great quality that America cherishes, and which has always been seen as a minor hallmark of her success- informality.

I remember the observations on American informality made by the wife of the great Enrico Fermi when she first visited America in 1933. Laura Fermi says that at first, being the European gentile that she was, she was somewhat offended by the casual informality that Americans seem to exude. However, gradually she realised that this superficial informality actually mirrored the deep seated conviction that all men are created equal (not women mind you; it never said that in the original constitutional draft...). The apparent irreverence was actually an indication of the commanility of dignity imbued in every American. The implication is clear; you may be my teacher or my parent, and I should respect you for the qualities that you have. But that does not mean that you are a greater HUMAN BEING in any way. This fundamental conviction of the American psyche has percolated through the times, where teachers and parents are supposed to be good 'friends'. If the teacher walks into the middle of a seminar and there are no seats vacant, there is absolutely no need to vacate your seat for him. After all, you would have also stood had you been in his place. And since both of you are 'created equal' you deserve equal treatment.
Laura Fermi also noted that the converse attitude had contributed to the decadence of twentieth century European where reverence became servility, and even slavish and blind following of orders, perhaps reflected in the rise of the murderous regimes that finally straddled and devastated that beautiful continent.

Laura Fermi's observation was made in 1933. Today, things are different. Informality has percolated through stratas to such an extent that it is also means sleeping with the teacher and killing your grandparent. After all, both your teacher and grandparent are your 'friends', and it's probably all right to get really mad at or 'fall in love' with a friend. Apart from the absurdity stemming from a basic emotional and social strife that such incidents reflect (OF COURSE it's nonsense to kill even your friend!), I firmly believe that such incidents are made more facile by the rejection of authority and the adoption of casual attitudes toward everything and everyone. The line between informality, irreverence, and condescension and finally hate, is easy to cross.

As a student, I enjoy the informality inherent in the American century and the American landscape. I have been relieved that I don't actually have to fear 'losing marks in the practical' because I ask questions to a professor in class. I don't have to 'dare' to disagree with him. I can easily ask administrative officials for explanations when a job does not get done, without fear that 'they will report my conduct to the principal (or whoever)'. I realise that all of this is made possible because of a country's belief in the basic freedom and rights accorded to everyone. However, many people tend to fail to recognise the responsibility that is inseparably linked with rights and privileges. When you exercise a right, it is also a privilege and therefore it means that you have a responsibility when you execute that right or privilege, a fact that I think is easily overlooked by many of these law-breakers. Behaving informally with the teacher does not suddenly obviate the status of both.
The same goes for these fake independence stereotypes. They think that by asserting the kind of independence which they claim thay have the right to, they are pushing forward the borders of liberalism, when they are actually crossing the borders of hypocrisy. Informality essentially and very simply means behaving as you want under the guise of freedom.

I don't know what the solution of this dilemma is, because it IS a dilemma. In India, the opposite is frequently seen. Reverence and formality are sometimes so extreme that they pummel the individual into accepting anything on the basis of authority. Students in schools and colleges are supposed to accept the words in their textbooks and of their teachers as law. Questions are forbidden, and even curiosity is frowned upon. It is a great tragedy that the basic scientific inquisitiveness which actually should be fostered as that age, is trampled upon by these unspoken decrees. I remember an incident from when I was doing my MSc. in Pune University. A friend of mine from another lab walked into my lab during practicals with a bleeding finger. She had cut herself and the first aid kit from her lab was missing. I immediately took the first aid box and lent her a bandage, whereupon the 'lab assistant' became livid with rage. Why had I not taken his permission before engaging in such an act? That did it. I could not contain myself and began to deliver a sermon on the most basic of human rights. I don't remember how the argument finally ended, but the incident reinforces the tragedy of the Indian scenario in one's mind. From lab assistants refusing bandages to injured students, to doctors refusing hospital admission in the absence of massive pre-payment of fees, imposed authoritarian strictures are the hallmark of every Indian organisation.
All this massively stifles creativity, curiosity, and finally even the desire to voice dissent. I always say that in many ways, an 'official dictatorship' is better than the situation in many quarters in our country, where unofficial totalitarianism embodies itself as a slippery animal, free to do its will and not get cornered by the law due to its unofficial nature. Again, I think that the educational scene provides a good example. If a teacher formally causes trouble for a student, there could be a provision in the law by which action can be taken against him. But when the teacher imposes unofficial authoritarianism (Insulting the student constantly in a saracastic manner is a good way of doing this), both of his purposes are served. The student would not dare to speak against him and the his basic curiosity would get smothered, and he also would be unable to take any official action against him (if he dares to that is).
So informality does have its great benefits. Communication is speeded, mistakes are quickly detected and eliminated and everybody's rights are preserved, unlike in our country. But then, we also don't sleep with the teacher...It's a tough nut to crack indeed.

Monday, March 28, 2005


I don't understand why 'Sex and the City' should be such a popular show with any sane minded person. I have no argument with the people who watch it simply for entertainment and leave it at that. However, there is a major clique of people for whom the show sets new trends. Of course, that's the case with any show. But somehow, 'Sex and the City' really gets to me because I think that it is a 'danger for feminism and all that it stands for'.

The show essentially revolves around four hep, trendy New York single women. All the time in the show, it appears that they are obessed with only one thing; men and relationships. My problem is not with what the show portrays (In fact there certainly are both men and women like that in real life). In fact, some of the humour in it is quite good and intelligent in its own context. My peeve is with what the show PUPORTS to portray. As far as I can see it, and I may be wrong here, it essentially exhorts casual sex and casual relationships more than anything else. Worse, it portrays all of this under the name of humour, feminism and woman-power, and worst of all, sophistication. We are led to believe that this is, and should be, the life-style of respectable, sohpisticated and well-educated single women in the great progressive cities of America and finally the whole world, and that they could well be role models for women in the real world. What comes through after even a little thought is nothing more than hubris-loaded hypocrisy. The four protagonists seem to be women in search of the 'perfect one' but in fact they are little more than pleasure seeking sybarites, engaging in all their escapades under the guise of innocent efforts, modernity, and high-culture. They also act like they are the epitome of the fashionable, forward looking women of the world, who would set the trend for their counterparts in the rest of the world. Actually, I think that they are worse than the most obvious hooker in Harlem, who at least does not hide the fact she is one. So, ironical as it may seem, I would probably pay due respect to Samantha, one of the characters who is a professed sex-maniac, but at least one who does not hide her obsession and intent. As for the other three, "relationships" seem to be only ways of embarking on flagrant adventures. In all of these, the supposed aim is the search for true love, the desire propelling it is a purported restless angst for a tranquil connection with the man of their dreams. Appalling!

Arthur Holden's comment in "Memoirs of a Geisha" is revealing. I don't remember the exact words, but he says, "It is ironical that women in the Western world who get into 'relationships' with rich, older penthouse-owning men, sneer at Geishas, when actually, the Geisha's are much more dignified and honest than them". This comment could perfectly apply to 'Sex and the City'. I don't mind blatant and scandalous sensationalism and portrayals. What I truly despise are hypocritical guises of progressive culture, donned to hide the crudity beneath the ostentatious exterior.

Is all this done for humour? Well, when humour becomes an instrument of social change, you better watch out for what kind of humour you portray on screen, especially when it is propagated through such powerful mediums as television and cinema.
From Sex and the City to 'American Pie', I believe that American films and shows are losing even the iota of quality that they had before. Outrageousness substitutes for intelligent humour, simply because the writers and directors have run out of good ideas. Morbid fascination is guaranteed to draw audiences, at the cost of genuine quality. Non-sexual comedy is almost forbidden, and is supposed to be 'old-fashioned'. But it's even worse when all that morbid fascination and outrageousness starts setting the trends for future generations, all under the name of "freedom of speech" (I don't even know anymore what that phrase really means). 'F.R.I.E.N.D.S.' is one of my all time favourite shows. That certainly does not mean that I would want to adopt the lifestyle portrayed in it, or even approve of it. Unfortunately, considering the impact that films and TV shows have, the gratuitous humour and the casual sex does not leave your mind when you walk out of the theatre or switch off the TV. You begin to think that since it's portrayed so frequently on the screen, it's normal and in fact should be a part of reality (if it is not already). This is a very serious state of affairs, and I don't see how it's going to improve in the next few years, with competition increasing even more, and advertisers, moviemakers, and producers wanting to buy people's minds and hearts at any cost. We are already living in a world where many of our actions, even at an unconscious level, are dicated by the vagaries of corporate movers and shakers. It is very easy to influence the mind of the public, as a hundred years of enormously successful advertising can easily prove. However, again and again I think we must keep in mind, that when relationships start becoming the handmaidens of the whims of propaganda, especially when it's diabolically hidden under the guise of culture, sophistication, freedom, innocence, and even dignity, things start to get extremely problematic.
After a thousand years, if we are sustained in a 'relationshipness world' (although I cannot imagine what kind of draconian future that will be), I am sure that looking back, we will surely think that 'Sex and the City' really wasn't worth it at all...

Thursday, March 24, 2005


I have a good friend, who was telling me the other day, that apparently fifty percent or so of 11th and 12th standard students in Pune 'are in a relationship' (whatever that means). Actually she was just talking about one particular college, but having seen the college going 'junta' from Pune for a long time, I don't hesitate to extend the phenomenon, nay, to magnify it, to other colleges too.
I have to say that this is a manifest change from 'our times' (127 year old as I have become...). Seriously. When I was in 12th standard (and that too in Ferguson), I knew of only one or two 'couples'. Although I don't want to sound like a prude, I fear that this may be another borrowed element of Western culture, borrowed without rhyme and reason like many others, that could cause big problems. Even in the US, where such early relationships have been part of societal structure for a considerable time, one continuously sees youngsters struggling to understand their relationships and suffering because of their inability to do so.
This inability seems to get carried over into their married lives, which frequently don't stay stable for long.

Especially in our Indian society where deep human relationships form a core set of beliefs, I think that this transition has the potential to cause a huge amount of confusion and consternation in the minds of many young people. The question really boils down to; is it ok to be in a relationship (at least the way it is defined in western culture) at an early age?
There may be many exceptions, but by and large, I think that one should think a hundred times before getting into any such thing. A couple of reasons that may appear obvious but which I think always make sense:
1. Maturity levels in this context are generally low at that age. One doesn't usually know 'what he/she wants'. Most of the times, the attraction is temporary, possibly physical, and ends up turning out as an infatuation. Based on statistics, I know very very people who had 'decided to get married' in school, and actually ended up doing it many years later (and are married, at least until now...)
2. The 'commitment' (real or imagined) as well the pain (definitely real) can create many distractions, to say the least, and in a few cases can cause deep psychological problems, which are uncalled for at a crucial stage of life.
3. In general, aping elements from other cultures without realising whether they will fit in in the general form and structure of your society can always create trouble. Again, it takes a certain maturity level to realise this, which may be absent at that stage.
4. In the US, I believe that casual realtionships were basically a result of two things; informality and non-conformism (not to mention physical attraction). In India, given our current society and traditions, both of these would be way too much premature and destructive.
(Interestingly, if someone had told me this when I was a teenager, I could possibly have tossed it aside with the typical hubris of teensense!)

So am I consternated? Not really, given human nature. But I have to say I did not think things would progress to such a stage so soon. (But then I also did not think every kid from 8th standard and his brother would have a cell-phone so soon...) One advantage of living away from home is that it is possible to some extent, to take a detached view, to 'step out of the system', and make objective evaluations. :-)
I believe that Indian society is very complex, more so than most others in the world. It is difficult to even make objective judgements within the constraints of our social structure itself. But indulging in an action because it's OK in some other culture carries the constant risk of confusion and despair. This is not as far-fetched and hard to find as it sounds. Many of us speak American phrases, eat American food, listen to American music, and wear American style clothes. Many of us don't do all of this because we actually like it a lot. We do it simply because we don't want to be different from our peers. We just 'started doing it' until it was a natural part of our social existence and 'not a big deal' ;). Peer acceptance, especially at a young age, is a human necessity, and there's nothing wrong with adopting attitudes which will facilitate it to some extent. However, when we step into the wobbly foundation of relationships, we cannot let peer acceptance dominate our actions. That is a line which is truly distinct from other cultural and social lines.
So, without sounding like an overly avuncular 'ajoba', let me just say one, simple, cliche thing to my 'antecessors'; "Look before you leap"...


"Principles of Biochemistry", originally by Albert Lehninger, and now revised by Michael Cox and David Nelson after Lehninger's death, is one of the best biochemistry texts ever.

Michael Cox and David Nelson both have been divorced. How do I know that?

In the acknowledgments section of earlier editions of the book, both of them acknowledged help from their wives. In the same section of the new editions, the names of these two ladies were DIFFERENT! Interesting what unexpected information we can get from books!

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

* Poem of the week


THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

-William Wordsworth

All the time when foreigners like us come to the US, they try to contrast American culture with their own. However, a lot of common threads run through many cultures, and it is always hazy to try to pick out one that is absolutely unique to a particular culture. Most of the times, one can only contrast magnitudes, and not existence of cultural elements themselves.

On March 22, a 16 year old boy in a remote part of Minnesota killed his two grandparents with a shotgun and a handgun, then walked into his school and killed nine others. (link)

I think I can safely say that these incidents of school children killing students, and especially members of their own family, are pretty much a unique hallmark of modern day America. I will let the experts decide if they are also a hallmark of present American 'culture'...I am at a complete loss to understand why the Government should be so lackadaisical in enforcing gun laws. And I also can never understand what possession of a military or police style gun by absolutely any citizen has anything to do with 'constitutional rights'...

Monday, March 21, 2005


"You put a hard question on the virtue of discipline. What you say is true: I do value it- and I think that you do too- more than for its earthly fruit, proficiency. I think that one can give only a metaphysical ground for this evaluation; but the variety of metaphysics which gave an answer to your question has been very great, the metaphysics themselves very disparate: the bhagavadgita, Ecclesiastes, the Stoa, the beginning of the Laws, Hugo of St. Victor, St. Thomas, John of the Cross, Spinoza. This very great disparity suggests that the fact that discipline is good for the soul is more fundamental than any of the grounds given for its goodness. I believe that through discipline, though not through discipline alone, we can achieve serenity, and a certain small but precious measure of the freedom from the accidents of incarnation, and charity, and that detachment which preserves the world which it renounces. I believe that through discipline we can learn to preserve what is essential to our happiness in more and more adverse circumstances, and to abandon with simplicity what would else have seemed to us indispensable; that we come a little to see the world without the gross distortion of personal desire, and in seeing it so, accept more easily our earthly privation and its earthly horror- But because I believe that the reward of discipline is greater than its immediate objective, I would not have you think that discipline without objective is possible: in its nature discipline involves the subjection of the soul to some perhaps minor end; and that end must be real, if the discipline is not to be factitious. Therefore I think that all things which evoke discipline: study, and our duties to men and to the commonwealth, war, and personal hardship, and even the need for subsistence, ought to be greeted by us with profound gratitude, for only through them can we attain to the least detachment; and only so can we know peace."

- Robert Oppenheimer (Letter to his brother Frank, 1932)

Sunday, March 20, 2005


Today marks the tenth anniversary of the Tokyo subway nerve gas attack which left twelve people dead. The agent used, Sarin, is one of the deadliest substances known to man, and can kill within a minute or two.

Among the three (chemical, biological and nuclear), I think that chemical warfare agents are the most dangerous in a way, because they are the easiest to make in the laboratory; a well trained chemistry PhD. student could purportedly make them in a week, with 'some' risk to his life of course.
That's why many common chemical compounds that can be used to make these are classified as controlled substances in the Sigma-Aldrich catalog, the largest supplier of lab chemicals in the world, and one which is used almost universally by every chemistry laboratory in the world. Unfortunately, chemists are clever, and I don't doubt that they can easily bypass these routes and make these deadly agents from even more common compounds. (For example, phosphoric acid could be one of these; it would be absurd to make it a controlled substance since it is used so commonly and in such large amounts)

A few years ago, this point was driven home. James Tour, a well-known chemist at Rice University actually proved that it is not difficult at all to manufacture these chemicals. He ordered all the compounds which would be necessary to produce sarin from Sigma-Aldrich. He did this over a long period of time so that it would appear innocuous. In the end, he had a battery of raw materials, which could make enough nerve gas to kill the inhabitants of an entire city. He finally posed with his 'treasure' for a well-known science magazine, sending alarm bells throughout the community, that led to better and closer scrutiny on the sale of these substances. In another test case, someone walked into three retail stores and simply bought the same material without any problem whatsoever...

What do we do, when death is simply a phone call away?

Monday, March 14, 2005

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Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit someone, who seems to have the whole world wrapped up in his house. Whatever's out there was probably in here! A great traveller, he has made trips, truly in the tradition of Stanley Livingston, to the most exotic reaches of the planet. These include the Congo, all of Africa, Mongolia, the Amazon and all of South America, the Galapagos, and the Everglades, to name the a few. But this is not just some tourist wanting to take guided tours to explore the most docile of trails in these locations. This guy has actually lived, breathed, and eaten with the natives and tribes, even the ones who are notoriously wary of strangers. He has an outstanding bargaining ability (by which he could negotiate with the natives, as also with the airport customs officials). Even a cursory tour of his house, literally dug into a mountain along the banks of the Chatahooche River in Georgia, reveals wonders, and I am definitely going to be back for a more detailed exploration. Some of the artifacts included:

* Porcupine quills from the Amazon
* Coca leaves (Sorry, I don't smoke...)
* An ancient Japanese warrior's armor (of the kind in 'The Last Samurai')
* Two bison skulls ("Courtesy of my friend in Colorado")
* Horse stirupps from Mongolia, Mexico, and Chile
* Brass spurs with wheels having pointed spokes, from Argentina. Since it would be cruel to actually use these on the animals, the cowboys used to tie them to their belt and walk into town. Ths wheels made a nice swishing sound; this would serve to get the dapper gentlemen some charming belles.
* Bearskin and foxskin hats from Mongolia
* A humongous set of two big drums from the Amazon ( The ones in the picture above. This was the high point; he had gotten these as a 'present' from the chief of one of the Amazonian tribes. Apparently their sound can be heard for upto 25 kms. Since we were already on a hill I already imagined I was a big chief when I played them. Had a great time doing that)
* Samurai swords
* A German soldier's WW2 helmet
* A beautiful sword (Apparently 'from the Crusades')
* Last but not the least, a WHOLE CANOE from the Amazon (with an oar 'made by a native in a week specially for me')

In the wine cellar, he had wines dating back to the 1850s, along with some LOADED pistols (Didn't know that when I picked up one...). Everything in this man's house was unusual; the light switches embedded in some obscure wood, the water container from Morocco, the pots and pans from a special place in France, the big armchair draped wiith Llama skin..

Two thoughts flashed in my mind as I left this wondeful place; "Boy, wouldn't the SPCA love this" ;), and "I HAVE to come here again!"

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

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(Above: The book and its dilettante subject, perfumer Luca Turin)

Rush (By Gucci)
"Gucci hasn't put a foot wrong for some time, both Envy perfumes were landmarks, and expectations were high for their latest. The first sniff gave me a shock of recognition, like a long-forgotten but familiar face, and I spent a few busy minutes dredging my memory for the original impression... Dioressence! Not all of it, mind you, just a bit I loved, which in the original happened two or three hours into the story and felt like a warm breath whispering crazy things in my ear. That breath is back, now strong, loud, irresistible, a sultry wind fit to keep everyone stark awake and plotting indiscretions... The charm of this perfume is entirely man-made, no mention of Nature, e.g. flowers, etc. This thing smells like a person. To be exact, thanks to the milky lactone note, it smells like an infant's breath mixed with his mother's hair spray... What Rush can do, as all great art does, is create a yearning, then fill it with false memories of an invented past..."

"Start with the deepest mystery of smell" says author Chandler Burr in the opening stanza. "No one knows how we do it. Despite everything, despite the billions the secretive giant corporations of smell have riding on it and the powerful computers they throw at it, despite the most powerful sorcery of their legions of chemists and the years of toiling in the labs and all the famous neurowizardry aimed at mastering it, the exact way we smell things–anything, crushed raspberry and mint, the subway at West Fourteenth and Eighth, a newborn infant–remains a mystery".

In this gripping and entrancing book, Chandler Burr tackles the life story of Luca Turin, a man with an unusually sensitive nose,and a man obsessed by perfume and smell, a sense that commands a 20 billion dollar enthralling industry of flavour and odors. I was bowled over by Turin, at least the way Burr has described him; a brilliant, feisty, passionate, uniquely creative and completely non-conformist scientist trying to decipher a deep puzzle. Strangely, we still don't know how exactly we smell, and Turin set about to find out just how. Collecting together bits and pieces of biology, chemistry and physics, recent and past, he resurrected a fifty year old theory of smell in an astoundingly novel way. Burr also chronicles the intense interactions Turin had with other scientists, prima donnas in the field, big perfumery company scientists and executives, and the editors of the prestigious journal Nature. Turin was as much of a public person as a private one. In the end, Turin fails to convince most of them of the value of his theory, and ends up publishing his theory in a reasonably good but not blockbuster journal.

I was so impressed by this book that it became the basis for a graduate seminar on olfaction and perfume that I am going to give soon, and I have to really thank Burr for that. These days, I am engaged in thrusting bottles of chemicals under people's noses, and asking them to describe the smell. The book also introduced me to the dazzling and unique world of perfumery and smell in general, a bizzarely interesting mixture of art and science. The exotic sources for perfumery raw materials kept me glued to it and other perfumery books. Whether it was oudh, that lavish material that is obtained from rotten wood eaten by a fungus in Assam, or ambergris, the mesmerising ingredient originating in the stomach of a sperm whale, the world of perfumery abounds with facts which made me gravitate toward learning more. Most of these perfumery materials are fantastically expensive (typically costing more than their weight in gold) and hence the search for synthetic substitutes is an expedient one. Before I made a foray into this world, I was unaware of the fact that perfumers can smell perfume the way a music maestro or composer listens to a symphony. There are 'notes' in every perfume, and a good perfumer can literally dissect each note and characterize it when he smells a new creation. (For example, 'spicy', 'woody', 'minty' and 'green')

The book makes it clear that the perfumery industry is shrouded in secrecy, sophistication, and glamour. This very fact indicates that the creation of new smells is both an unpredictably creative process, and also a matter of trial and error. Because there is no 'objective' way to judge whether a perfume will be wildly popular or not, seductive advertising, big money, and big names are the name of the perfumery game. I remember, that when I got off on the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris for a transit flight, the first thing I saw was Nicole Kidman's face staring at me from an enormous poster advertisement for Chanel 5., one of the most successful perfumes ever. Unlike the drug industry, where a drug succeeds if it succeeds, the appeal of perfumes is essentially created by the 'commodification of desire', as Noam Chomsky would probably call it! High society, penthouse cocktail parties, and extravaganza are the engines which fuel the perfumery industry. The perfumery capital of the world is surely Grasse in France. In fact, the French are totally obsessed with perfume. After defense and aerospace, it is their third largest money maker.

All this makes perfumery very much an art, and there is definitely a need for a convincing general scientific framework with which one could relate smell to the structure of molecules that constitute it. My uncle works as a perfumer in International Flavours and Fragrances, one of the biggest perfumery companies in the world, and this book served to enhance my appreciation and fascination of the state of affairs, as I recalled intriguing tidbits about smell and chemistry that my uncle has told me many times. Before Turin came on the scene, there was essentially a general paradigm of smell that drove studies in perfumery. It was a mixture of empirical chemistry and a hodgepodge of art and intuition. However, there were gaping cracks in this framework, and Turin decided to come up with a theory that could remedy this situation. Without going into the details, let me say that Turin's theory is very interesting and innovative, and promises possible new understanding in our study of smell. That the science/art of smell has come of age is indicated by the awarding of last year's Nobel Prize to two researchers who worked out the biology of olfaction.

The only possible flaw in this book, is that Burr does only too well in a sense. His eloquent description of many scientific concepts somewhats clouds the real truth behind them in a dazzling display of words and rhetoric. Things are not as simple as they seem, especially in science. So does his description of top scientists' reaction to Turin, and Turin's futile attempts to solicit interest from big perfumery companies. While it is true that the scientific peer review process that evaluated Turin's theory and finally dismissed it can sometimes be quite unforgiving, Burr makes Turin sound like the hero and all others (including last years' Nobel Laureates) as villains, who have come together in a conspiracy clique to prohibit others from overthrowing their pet ideas. That is rather unfair to them. The fact is that with all its flaws, the scientific review process has its merits and it's probably the best we have right now. Most importantly, not all of Turin's results sound as spectacular and unambiguous as Burr makes them sound, and Turin does not provide overwhelming evidence for them. In fact, some of his results are thought to be almost certainly false by a number of distinguished perfumers. When he first proposed his theory, many were convinced that he would win the Nobel the next year. However, as time revealed the overambitious essence of his ideas (no pun intended), people became much more skeptical. After all, Turin has proposed a theory, but perfumery is still very much an applied and empirical science/art, and is the basis for essentially a consumer industry that owes more to mystique and advertising than it does to hard science. Theories are of no use if they are not predictive and cannot make money for the big perfume giants. Most importantly, smell is SUBJECTIVE, and this is a point which keeps hitting home. Unlike the efficacy of a drug, there is no way to judge the character of a new smell. It may smell of mint to one person, sandalwood to the other. A related problem is that our sense of smell is bound by language, by the way we describe odors, and these descriptions turn out to be completely different for similar odors (even seasoned perfumers face this problem). This is a major barrier that has to be surmounted, if there is to be a satisfactory theory of smell. In this respect, Turin turned out to be too ambitious and tried to devise a general theory, without a proper method of evaluation and measurement. In a way, experiments still have to catch up with his theory. He still has a long way to go (not that the other ones are any more predictive; in this sense, Turin is on the same stage as the old stalwarts). Burr does not enumerate the drawbacks of Turin and his theories as well as he should have. Interestingly, the only serious scientific conference that Turin was invited to was a conference in Bangalore organised by TIFR (Burr calls it 'India's Los Alamos'). There, he had lively discussions, especially with students in the rustic 'coffee board' cafeteria of the Indian Institute of Science, a place where I myself have lazed about many times when I spent a summer there.

The one feature of this book that stands apart is the spellbinding and exquisite language that Burr uses, quite worthy of its subject, who is a connoiseur in every sense of the word. Scientific facts and theories, tales of perfumes and their creators, the capricious world of perfume marketing, the artificiality and sophistry that inundates the high profile clientele of perfumes, and finally the man behind the book himself; all of these submit before Burr's flourishing descriptions and make engrossing reading. Burr is a master of rhetoric, and his style is very gripping; this is one of the best page-turners that I have come across.
The only thing that can possibly surpass Burr's language are Turin's own descriptions of perfumes and smells in the best selling perfume guide which he wrote. He has an uncanny ability to nail down the smell of anything in the most interesting and unanticipated words. I had never, ever thought that one could describe perfumes this way.
For example, consider this account of a perfume that he wrote:

Feu d'Issey (Issey Miyake)
"The surprise of Feu d'Issey is total: smelling it is like a frantic videoclip of objects that fly past at warp speed: fresh baguette, lime peel, clean wet linen, shower soap, hot stone, salty skin, even a fleeting touch of vitamin B pills. Whoever created this has that rarest of qualities in perfumery, a sense of humour. A reminder that perfume is, among other things, the most portable form of intelligence."

Or this one:

Vetiver (Guerlain)
"One of the rare perfumes so named that do not betray the character of this uncompromising raw material, Vetiver is a temperament as much as it is a perfume, above all when it is worn by a woman. Stoic and discreet, Vetiver scorns all luxury save that of its own proud solitude. At the same time distant and perfectly clear, it must be worn muted and must never allow itself to be sensed except at the instant of a kiss."

Not surprisingly, this book became quite controversial. Scientists and journal editors alike were miffed because of the bad light that it cast some of the big names in smell research in. A group from Rockefeller University published experiments in the well-known journal Nature Neuroscience, that did not support Turin's theory. But they were bound as well by the problem of objectively evaluating smell, and so even their experiments are certainly not the final say on the matter. However, all this backlash is actually a tribute to Burr, who could make his book so attractive and compellingly convincing, that even scientific journal editors needed to take note and criticize it (a rare event indeed for a popular scientific book).

My advice; read the book and enjoy it. It could be a fantastic read. However, don't take Burr's words too seriously and literally. Science is a harsh world, and rhetoric cannot undermine the rough scrutiny that any theory undergoes. One thing is for sure; Turin will be remembered, whether his theory survives or not. It is clear that even if he had not invented his smell theory, he would have still been a very interesting character for a profile. If his theory can be used in a fruitful way, it will be a great and enduring one. If not, at least he should be thanked for inspiring a wonderfully written book. For me, both ways it would be a reward, since the book and Luca Turin introduced me to a new and fascinating world.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005


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Hans Bethe, one of the true titans of twentieth century physics, and probably the greatest scientist who was alive, is dead at 98. A Nobel Laureate, he was Professor emeritus at Cornell University, where he had been ever since 1935. Among many outstanding discoveries, he was especially noted for his discovery of the nuclear processes that fuel the stars. With him, a remarkable and extraordinary age; the golden age of physics and the atomic age, finally passes into history.

When I heard this news, I got a sinking feeling in my heart, and immediately wanted to write about him to 'get it out of my system'. He was one of my favourite scientists. It is strange what impact unrelated people from past ages and faraway places make on you. Frankly, I was awaiting this news for some time now (you have to be realistic; he was in his nineties). Strangely, even though the news is quite saddening, it fills me with the kind of pensive peace that fills you upon hearing about an inevitability. I am not a physicist. But as a student of the history of physics, here's my humble two tribute to this great man.

It would be very difficult for me to write about Bethe in a short space. However, I will make an attempt to write a short biography on the spur of the moment, based on what I have read about him and the period which he lived in. Bethe was one of my most admired scientific figures, and I first encountered him many years ago, when I read Richard Feynman's delightful and well-known memoir, 'Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman!'. He was a scientist and humanitarian by the highest standards that could possibly be applied to anybody. He made pioneering contributions in almost every branch of modern physics. In many of these, he set the trends, and built the foundations upon which all future research was built. Most importantly, he was the last great survivor and one of the prime participants of an era which changed the face of our world and our existence forever; the nuclear age, preceded by the great age of the birth of modern physics. First, as head of the theoretical division of the Manhattan Project, and then as a member of many committees on nuclear disarmament, arms control, and nuclear power, Bethe in many ways represented the conscience of the scientist. He personally knew most of the outstanding physicists of the century. Even a partial list of his friends, teachers, and associates reads as a list of the greatest minds of our time; Niels Bohr, Arnold Sommerfeld, Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman, Freeman Dyson, Robert Wilson, Edward Teller, and John von Neumann, to name just a few. To many of these, his was a reassuring presence, and his strong personality was frequently a support to them in many ways.

Hans Albrecht Bethe was born in Strasbourg, Germany in 1906. His father was a medical physiologist. Ever since he was a child, Hans was fascinated by numbers and had an outstanding natural mathematical ability. The household was a quiet one; later, Hans's mother would have to be admitted to an asylum. Clumsiness with his hands decided Hans's destiny early on. Fortunately, he was born, and would live his life, in a time when our perception of the physical world was being changed completely; the dual edifices of quantum theory and relativity were demolishing earlier conceptions of space and time, and casting completely knew and astoundingly unintuitive light on our view of space and time, and matter. Mathematics was essential for understanding these abstract theories, and Bethe's talents could not have been better suited for the task.
Bethe attended the schools in Strasbourg, and for his PhD., decided to apprentice himself to Arnold Sommerfeld at Munich, who along with Niels Bohr, was probably the greatest teacher of theoretical physics in the world. Bethe was one of his favourite students, and during his tenure in Munich, he met and formed long-lasting associations with the great physicists of the time; at that time, students all over the world were flocking to Europe to immerse themselves in the study of the new quantum theory. At nearby Gottingen, a host of remarkable men of the likes of Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli and others were turning over the world of physics on its head. In Cambridge, men like Rutherford and Paul Dirac were creating and discovering fantastic facets of the atomic world. And in Copenhagen, Niels Bohr held court on the most intricate secrets of the quantum. It was a time such as no other, and Bethe benefited enormously.

After getting his PhD. Bethe spent a summer working with Enrico Fermi's famous group in Rome. This was a revelation to him. While Sommerfeld was a great physicist and teacher, his style was excessively mathematical and formal. From Fermi, Bethe learned how to do 'back of the envelope' calculations, and to not use complicated mathematics when the result could be obtained much more simply. These dual qualities that he picked up from Sommerfeld and Fermi would make Bethe a force to be reckoned with in the world of physics.
All seemed good for Bethe's future, and after teaching stints at Frankfurt and Munich, he accepted a post at the University of Tubingen. But as fate would have it, Hitler came to power in 1933 and issued the laws which decreed that anyone with a Jewish background could not occupy a respectable job in the country. One of Bethe's grandparents was a Jew; more than adequate a reason to warrant his dismissal from his job. When Bethe wrote to the well-known physicist Hans Geiger (of the Geiger counter fame), Geiger's reply was cold and completely unsympathetic. Bethe was fortunately offered a position at Cornell, and that would be his home away from home after that forever. Because of him, the University would become one of the finest centres of physics in the world. Bethe arrived in America in 1935, and almost immediately established himself as one of the leading physicists of his day. He wrote a famous article on the quantum mechanics of one and two electron systems during this time. Robert Bacher, who later became chief of the experimental division of the Manhattan Project, recalled how Bethe sat at a desk in a small room, and under a dim light there, wrote the entire article almost without a break. This event characterises two very important qualities in Bethe, stamina and and a quiet and indefatigable persistence, qualities that he would be quite famous for later.
While at Cornell, Bethe also met his future wife, Rose, who was the daughter of one of his Professors in Germany, the distinguished experimental physicist Paul Ewald. Throughout his life, Rose was to provide him with a quiet, strong and unwavering source of support and strength. They have two children, Henry and Monica, and three grandchildren.
It was during the 1930s that Bethe also wrote his famous articles on Nuclear Physics, that were published in the Reviews of Modern Physics. Together, these three massive review articles summarised almost everything that was known about the physics of nuclear systems until the time. They became known as 'Bethe's Bible' and served as a standard reference for the state of the science for many years.
Another important contribution that Bethe made during those years, which was crucial for chemistry, concrened the treatment of molecules and atoms in electric fields. This was the harbringer of 'crystal field theory' something that even I learnt about during my BSc.
The idea that finally got Bethe the Nobel Prize germinated at a conference in Ithaca, New York, that was organised to discuss nuclear reactions. The question turned to the origin of energy in the stars. A few years earlier, the physicists Rowan Atkinson and Fritz Houtermans had hypothesized that nuclear fusion could be responsible for the energy of the sun and stars. However, nobody knew the exact mechanism by which this took place. Bethe recounts how, on a train trip after the conference, he solved the problem in its essentiality. The 'carbon fusion cycle' which he discovered has now become part of astrophysical folklore. Bethe's work during that time marked the beginning of modern nuclear astrophysics, upon which almost all future developments are based. With these breakthroughs, Bethe put Cornell on the world-physics map.

With 1939 came war. Bethe, who was not still a US citizen, could not technically work on classified war projects. By that time, many other brilliant scientists had emigrated from Europe to the United States to flee Nazism. These included John von Neumann, George Gamow, and the most famous of them all; Albert Einstein (who had taken up residence at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton). One scientist who was to become perhaps the most controversial post-war physicist in the United States had also left his native Hungary- Edward Teller. Teller, who was teaching at George Washington University, was Bethe's friend, and the two decided to see if they could possibly make a contribution to the war. They made a cross-country trip to California, where the distinguished aeronautical physicist from Hungary, Theodor von Karman was working at Caltech. Karman suggested that they work on the mechanism by which shock waves are propagated from a blast. This study would be very useful to the development of ballistics and missile launches. During the trip back home, Teller and Bethe came up with a treatment of the problem which became classified. Another important contribution that they made concerned the penetration of armor piercing shells and bullets.

In 1942, Bethe's life witnessed an important change, when Robert Oppenheimer invited him to participate in a top-secret Government project to produce a practical weapon in the form of a bomb. Initially Bethe did not believe that a chain reaction could be sustained in a practical manner in Uranium. In fact, before the war began and before fission was discovered, interestingly, he had strenuously argued against fission. But when he saw the first self-sustaining chain reacting pile that Enrico Fermi had constructed under the football stands of the University of Chicago, Bethe became convinced of the feasibility of the project. Before embarking on anything, he had a discussion with his wife, and decided that he must play his role before the Nazis could possibly get their hands on such a weapon. By this time, Bethe was a citizen, and in the summer of 1942, he took part in a secret discussion at Berkeley that discussed the theory behind a potential atomic weapon. The discussion was presided over by Oppenheimer, and Bethe called the time one of the most intellectually exciting times that he had participated in. During this time, an ominous possibility was raised by Teller; that the atomic bomb could potentially ignite the atmosphere of the earth. While Oppenheimer thought the possibility serious enough to go to Michigan and discuss it with Nobel Laureate Arthur Compton (one of the administrative heads of the project), Bethe, with his usual cool and calm attitude, did an all-night calculation and ruled out the possibility.

The culmination of this and many other events finally led to the establishment of the famous bomb laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Bethe found the time he spent here the most challenging time of his life. He enjoyed hiking in the mountains and developed a lifelong love of the outdoors. For the project, Oppenheimer made Bethe the head of the important theoretical division, probably the most dominant division in the laboratory. This was a move that highly irked the volatile Teller. However, Oppenheimer had good reason to take this step. After the war, Bethe himself testified that his slow, prodding, and persistent approach to problems was seen more as an asset than Teller's rash and brilliant attitude. To placate Teller, Oppenheimer let him pursue his own ominous ideas; the precursors to the development of a hydrogen bomb. However, sadly after this, relations between Teller and Bethe were always strained. During this time, Klaus Fuchs, who committed espionage for the Russians, was also in Bethe's division. Like everyone else, Bethe had no idea that Fuchs was a spy.

The rest of the Manhattan Project is history. During the development of the bomb, many moral and ethical dilemmas came up. Bethe was not really involved with facing these dilemmas. Not because he did not care; in fact far from it, as became clear after the war, but because at the time, as head of an important division, his job was to ensure that the project was led to fruition. Although he did participate in many discussions related to choice of targets, strategy of dropping the bomb etc., his first priority was to make sure the weapon would work. Finally, after three years of tremendous hard work and creativity, the first atomic bomb was exploded in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. An anecdote during this time demonstrates Bethe's essential qualities. Just before the test, in a dummy explosion, doubt was cast about whether the bomb would work or not. The situation became very tense, especially for Oppenheimer, and the resolution of the problem depended on understanding the working of an important instrument designed to validate the test results. Bethe again stayed up all night and did calculations that indicated, that the machine had a flaw which would not have let it distinguish between a successful and unsuccessful test. The problem was solved and everybody breathed easy. Characteristic Bethe.
Of course, the bombs were finally used then, and it marked the beginning of a new age. Again, we don't know if Bethe had anything profound to say about the implications of the terrible weapon he had helped to create. Throughout his life, he used to say, 'I am not a philosopher'.

After the war, Bethe wanted to immediately return to his life's pursuit- pure physics. He himself said that 'just like the soldiers, we had done our job, and now just like them, we wanted to go back to our universities to do what we liked best'.
By this time, because of the war work, Bethe had also become a superb applied scientist, in addition to being an extraordinary pure physicist. His persistent approach to problems earned him the nickname 'The Battleship', except that this equally formidable vessel usually boomed with laughter. In the words of Richard Feynman, who by now was his close friend and colleague, he was 'absolutely top-notch at calculation'. He knew literally hundreds of mathematical tricks that could simplify complex mathematical problems. However, when the situation demanded, he had tremendous energy and could also do extensive and tedious numerical work to get the solution. On rare occasions, his candor could be jarring. When asked by the physicist Victor Weiskopf about the complexity of a problem, he replied, 'For me, it would take three days, for you it would take three weeks'. This was not supposed to be a put-off in any way; it was a true fact that Weiskopf acknowledged. At Cornell, Bethe shared a close relationship with Feynman. During his time at Los Alamos, Feynman had used Bethe as his sounding board. This trend continued at Cornell, where Bethe was a reassuring presence for Feynman; he had lost his wife to tuberculosis during the war. People could hear the two arguing volubly many times; they called Feynman 'The Mosquito Boat'. At Cornell, Bethe trained many outstanding physicists, most notably the English physicist Freeman Dyson, who he called his most brilliant student. He was the centre of Cornell's scientific universe.

At Cornell, Bethe was interested in the new fields of particle physics and quantum electrodynamics; the interaction of light with matter. In order to map out future developments in physics, a series of distinguished conferences was organised, with Oppenheimer as presiding chair. To these conferences came the most brilliant breed of the young masters, in addition to the old school of experts. These included John Wheeler, Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger, and Freeman Dyson, all of whom were going to play key roles in the development of physics in post-war America. Memorable during these conferences was Schwinger's marathon lecture, lasting for several hours. Purportedly, only Fermi and Bethe, who were known for their tremendous stamina, were alert (and awake) at the end of the lecture. At the conference, the most interesting and baffling problem that was discussed was of the so called Lamb Shift, concerning the difference in the energy levels of electrons. While nobody was making any headaway with the problem, Bethe provided the first calculation that indicated the way out of the difficulty. Again, he worked out the essential steps of the problem on a train journey. This gave an impetus to researchers like Feynman, who became the pioneers of modern quantum electrodynamics.

In the early 1950s, the Cold War started raging, and the paranoia of McCarthysm gripped the country. After the Soviets exploded their A-bomb, and the leakage of information through espionage became known, President Truman ordered a crash program to develop the H-bomb. At the helm of the effort was Bethe's old friend, Edward Teller. In 1950, Bethe wrote an article arguing against H-bomb development. But Teller tried to persuade Bethe to help him on the project. After a lot of deliberation, Bethe agreed to be a consultant on the project at Los Alamos, mainly because of the very interesting physics that it involved, and because at first he thought the project so unlikely, that he wanted to work on it merely to prove it impossible. After the H-bomb was developed however, Bethe became an outspoken critic of nuclear development. He served on the scientific advisory committee to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He began to make a case for discontinuation of nuclear testing. In 1963, Bethe was one of the driving forces behind the Limited Test Ban Treaty.
In 1954, Oppenheimer was put on trial and lost his security clearance during a much publicised hearing. Bethe unequivocally testified in favour of Oppenheimer; throughout his life he held him in great regard, and tried in vain to persuade Teller against testifying against the brilliant and committed scientist. Teller's testimony was particularly damning, and this event further and permanently widened the rift between him and Bethe. When Oppenheimer died in 1967, Bethe remarked that he felt almost as if he had lost an older brother.

In 1967, Bethe won the Nobel Prize for his work in deducing the source of energy in the stars. Freeman Dyson says that the Nobel Committe could have considered awarding the prize for many other contributions that he made. However, this discovery is particularly important; it is a deep and fundamental discovery related to our cosmic origins.

In 1968, Bethe essentially broke off with the Government. In a courageous article in Scientific American with the IBM physicist Richard Garwin, he laid down points that argued against the deployment of an anti ballistic missile system that the US Government was developing, ostensibly against Chinese ballistic missile attacks. In the article, the two authors argued how ANY system that the US could develop could not possibly contain such an attack; in fact if anything, it would lead to bitter conflict between the two sides. I have read this article and it is a remarkable model of clarity and candor. This event demonstrates Bethe's conviction and integrity as a humanitarian, assets that he continued to exemplify.
In 1983, at President Reagan's initiative, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or 'Star Wars' system was conceived, that was designed to act as a 'missile shield' for a possible Soviet attack. (Teller, again, was one of the chief architects). Bethe and Garwin, along with Cornell physicist Kurt Gottfried, wrote another aticle akin to the earlier one, arguing against the futility of the system and the enormous sums of money that were being spent on its development.
In 1985, after the Chernobyl disaster, Bethe put together a committee of experts that analysed the accident. They cited human error and a fundamentally faulty design as the cause, and so ruled out the accident happening in any reasonably good US reactor. Bethe was always an outspoken advocate of electricity from nuclear power, and believed that it represented the best hope of the world for the future energy crisis. He served on many committees that investigated reactor technology and its development. His assesments will surely be borne out by time.

All through the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Bethe kept working on cutting edge problems in physics, mainly astrophysics, and 'political physics', as he called arms disarmament. He still carried his old slide-rule with him, and had no problem digesting reams of supercomputer printouts. Even after retiring and facing a debilitating condition that affects muscles and which limited the use of his left arm, he kept coming to his department everyday. He loved to lie in his bathtub for 45 minutes everyday; he said it got his thoughts in order. His hobbies included mountain climbing (his lifelong love) and stamp collecting; about the latter, he said that it is the only situation which enables all the countries in the world to live together in peace...
In the 1980s, well in his own eighties, Bethe started a collaboration with Gerald Brown of SUNY Stony Brook. Together, they published many articles about nuclear processes, especially in supernovae. In the mid 1980s, Bethe wrote an important article discussing the famous solar neutrino problem. Distinguished colleagues of his attest that they don't know of any scientist in the history of physics who has done such important work in his eighties. A couple of years ago, he gave a set of lectures on quantum physics to his neighbours to tell them of that wondrous age in which he had participated. We are lucky to have them online on the Cornell website.

In 1999, at the ripe old age of 93, this grand old man of science wrote a petition opposing the United States senate's decision to reject the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). In it, Bethe outlined how this act is, if anything, going to lessen the US's advantage in maintaining a nuclear initiative. In the petition, as someone who was more worthy to comment on this than anybody else, he made an appeal to all scientists to desist working on nuclear weapons development.

During my earlier readings, whenever I used to read about the atomic pioneers, Bethe always stood out as the quiet, brilliant, morally strong and unwavering, and concerned scientist that he was. Hans Bethe's life is an extraordinary example of achievement, concern and humanitarianism. He was a true giant of science. His colleague, the distinguished physicist Robert Wilson, said that his quintessential quality was 'responsibility'. Bethe shared his responsibility for his personal life, his personal and professional advancement, for physics in America, and for world physics. He participated in one of the most exciting ages in scientific history, and his stewardship in that age contributed a paradigm shift in our perception of science, politics and humanity.
He is the perfect example of the scientist-citizen. In his research he was indefatigable, and demonstrated extraordinary brilliance and perseverance. He was one of the last 'universalists' who contributed to virtually every branch of modern physics. In his public life, he was a quiet worker who went along doing his job and executing his responsibilities with characteristic fervor. When the time arose though, he was not one to shirk from being an outspoken advocate or opponent.
His colleagues always spoke fondly of him and with great reverence; I do not remember having read a single bad opinion about him uttered by anyone, including the sharp-tongued Oppenheimer.
Hans Bethe's life, in my opinion teaches us many things. It teaches us love for science and a basic love for our fellowmen. It demonstrates the responsibility that scientists have towards the public and the world. And it teaches us never to lose our wonder for the universe, and never to lose our conviction towards humanity and most importantly, oneself. It is truly an extraordinary life.
He will be sorely missed.

1. Hans Bethe: Prophet of Energy- Jeremy Bernstein
2. Brighter than a Thousand Suns- Robert Jungk
3. The Making of the Atomic Bomb- Richard Rhodes
4. Enrico Fermi: Physicist- Emilio Segre
5. Cornell University website

Monday, March 07, 2005


It's nice when you see the title of a book that says 'The Disappearance of the Universe' on Amazon, and eagerly move on to the main book page to see who's the author and what's it about, in anticipation that it will be a new exciting book about astrophysics or something related.

It's frustrating when, upon moving to the main book page, you see the full title of the book; 'The Disappearance of the Universe: Straight Talk About Illusions, Past Lives, Religion, Sex, Politics, and the Miracles of Forgiveness'


Saturday, March 05, 2005


A single instance convinced me of the problem of culture, and in this case music, reaching out across communities. I thought I would introduce my good Mexican friend to Indian Classical Music.

When he heard a 'bhajan' by Bhimsen Joshi, he said it reminded him of Elton John's songs from LION KING

When he heard a recital of 'matras' from a tabla piece by Alla Rakha, he said it reminded him of RAP

I give up...

Friday, March 04, 2005


As everyone knows, Wikipedia is the well-known FREE encyclopaedia. Over the years, the number of articles on it has grown substantially, and now, a search for almost any 'encyclopaedia type' article on Google brings up Wikipedia as one of the prominent hits. I have been contributing to Wikipedia for some time now. Some of the articles I have contributed a reasonable amount, and in one case completely to, are Linus Pauling, Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Robert B. Woodward.
However, in the past few months, I have become increasingly pensive about Wikipedia, and indeed, about any such FREE venture. The reason centers upon a long and incessant argument I had (and keep having) with a user regarding an entry.

The most important policy Wikipedia exhorts is its so-called 'NPOV' (Neutral Point of View) policy, which simply says that contributions should be objective and unbiased. I have no argument with people who support this policy, and I myself think that it should be an essential quality of any encyclopaedic article. However, this unfortunately cannot be well-defined in each and every case and therein lies the big problem. I think the best, although certainly not the most comprehensive, way to overcome this problem and avoid perpetual debate is to precisely attribute statements to sources and then let the reader judge their veracity for themselves. This should at least largely solve the problem and should make Wikipedia a nice source of information which our grandchildren could potentially read. However, as much as I hate to say it, I believe that Wikipedia will finally turn out to be a failed effort, albeit a noble one. The following paragraph could explain why I think this way.

A long and protracted argument I had with a user (let's call him Druid; unlike him, I am civil enough not to mention his real user name here) illustrates what I think are the problems inherent in a FREE encyclopaedia to which every anonymous person can contribute. This user had contributed subtantially to an article from the above list, that is related to the history of science. I was also much interested in contributing (in fact, I will humbly say that I created the article on that topic a few years ago) and so put in what I thought were cogent points related to the article. Repeatedly, I saw my contribution being reverted (deleted). Druid thought I was putting in hagiographical POVs. Although he was right about a few things, my argument, especially later, was that I could support almost every one of my so-called 'hagiographical POVs' with authentic references. After that, the onus of interpretation and judgement is on the reader. Druid and me kept on going back and forth on this (and I think this will continue). Countering Druid's comments and criticizing his opinions became almost a daily evening pastime for me. Druid is someone who is getting an entire PhD. in the history of science, and so obviously he has a lot more time and patience to spare on the article than I have, even though I too am deeply interested in the subject and have read about it for a very long time.

The point is that, in the end, Druid was being plain adamant about what HE thought was the right way to go about writing the article. It was all about HIM. He wanted to make the entry essentially HIS entry. This, I believe undermines a fundamental aspect of a FREE encyclopaedia. In a FREE encyclopaedia, every well-supported argument (which sometimes DOES look like a POV) should be admitted. After all, unless the situation is obviously extreme or unambiguous, it is very hard to always truly judge the veracity (or lack thereof) of a source. You can keep on quibbling about what you think is a good source and the argument can go on without end. In my opinion, the sources I quoted were good ones. In Druid's opinions, they were not. In my opinion, some of his sources were biased, although I did not revert most of his statements the way he reverted mine. If you are going to impose a unilateral point of view on what goes into an article, how does Wikipedia become a FREE encyclopaedia? I would suggest contributors to respect people's contributions, and unless they are obviously dubious, should not take them out of the article, like Druid did, just because they don't 'look good' to THEM.

However, human nature and ambitions being what they are, I don't think this is going to happen in practice. Users like Druid who have a lot of time and patience, would continue to make an entry in Wikipedia THEIR entry. Depending on their proclivity toward Wikipedia, in theory, they could spend an infinite amount of time reverting other users' contributions and making and remaking sure that an entry contains almost exclusively THEIR contribution. Users like me, who don't write for Wikipedia as their profession and don't have all the time in the world for this, will eventually, and wisely, concede to the wishes of these Wikipedia obsessive compulsives. Hence, in the end, every entry will become biased. If this has been the case even for the relatively objective historical entry that I contributed to, I cannot even imagine how the situation will be (and already is) for inherently opionated and contentious entries like Communism, Free Will, Abortion, Gay rights, and even Evolution ;).

Given this, I don't think anyone should ever trust an article from Wikipedia the way they would trust an article from an authentic book or similar source. Of course, in every source, no matter how unbiased, there are always biases and points of views. However, in most cases, at least one "knows" the author and can read up on him, thus knowing his biases too. Secondly, judging by the level of scholarship of the author, one can decide how much to trust him/her. On the other hand, in a free encyclopaedia, a diverse number of contributors abound. Most of these include amateur enthusiasts, mavericks and non-conformists, and finally people who just have too much time to spare in making sure the world hears their words (I have similar qualms and fears about the internet in general). Once in a while, a scholar may contribute, but his contribution will be lost in the din of the aforementioned characters' biases. In the end the article will hardly be an encyclopaedic article, and will end up being a conglomerate of opinions and POVs.

So, on a somber note, I think that as membership grows, Wikipedia is going to become more and more fuzzy as an authentic source of information. The bottom line is that when it comes to Wikipedia or anything similar to it, read all the entries, but with a whole bucket of salt, and not just a pinch! Maybe this just reiterates the maxim that there is no free lunch, but with an extra addendum; if the lunch is truly free, it probably stinks!

P.S: For this particular entry, I have to say that Druid's contributions were in general not all that bad, but his obstreperousness illustrated to me in a very striking way, the big problems inherently associated with a FREE encyclopaedia.
As for me, paradoxically, I am almost waiting for the time when Wikipedia ceases to be interesting for me so that I will spend no more potentially fruitless time on it...

Thursday, March 03, 2005


This was fantastic and I never knew it existed before! In this truly rare video clip on the Nobel Prize site, George Bernard Shaw proposes a toast to Albert Einstein. One great man to another.

And it is incredible. Shaw, with his characteristic eloquence and penetrating candor says,
"If I were asked to propose a toast to Napoleon, I can undoubtedly say many very flattering things about him. But one thing which I could not say, would be perhaps the most important thing. And that is, that it would perhaps have been better for the human race, if he had never been born"!

Absolutely brilliant!! Wow! Shaw sure should have been around during the last US election!

In another witty statement, Shaw makes clear in one stroke, the distinction between fleeting moments and permanent monuments:
"Einstein is among those men who have not made empires, but who have gone beyond that, who have made the Universe. They are among those whose hands are unstained by the blood of their fellow men. Ptolemy's Universe lasted for fourteen hundred years. Newton's Universe lasted for two hundred years. I can't tell you how long Einstein's Universe is going to last..."

I watched the clip again and again, and am going to remember it for a long time indeed . Particularly delightful are Einstein's hearty and loud laughs at Shaw's statements. The brevity, liveliness and candor of the whole short piece is simply marvelous. Do have a look at it!

Wednesday, March 02, 2005


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I had the greatest pleasure yesterday listening to the French National Orchestra perform at Emory. The conductor was Kurt Masur (who earlier had been Zubin Mehta's successor to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra) , the orchestra pianist was Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and the lead violinist was Sarah Nemtanu.

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All were excellent. Here's the program:

* Debussy, Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
* Ravel, Piano Concerto in G Major (1929-31)
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
* Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade, Op. 35
Sarah Nemtanu, solo violin

I have heard 'The flight of the bumble-bee' by Rimsky and 'Bolero' by Ravel, as well as the delectable 'Clair de Lune' by Debussy, surely one of the most enchanting pieces ever written for piano (remember the 'fountain music' at the end of 'Ocean's eleven'?), but apart from these, I had not heard anything else by these composers.

The first two pieces were very good, with Ravel's eccentric mischievousness showing well. I was reminded of Leopold Mozart's (Wolfgang's father's) 'Toy Symphony' where sudden overtures by least-expected instruments are the hallmark. Interestingly, some of the piano fill-ins sounded like jazz! Thibaudet played with amazing dexterity.

However, surely the high point of the evening was 'Scheherazade'. Based on the Arabian Nights, this marvelous piece combines traditional orchestra with occasional Persian tunes. In fact, the Persian tunes are a recurring theme in all the movements. Each movement is based on one particular tale told in the fascinating compendium of fantasy woven by the beautiful queen Scheherazade. But the real beauty of the piece is that these Persian tunes are merely fleeting glimpses, and lightly touch your soul before departing. They are never too explicit. That makes them a much desired object in the whole scheme of things. Because of this quality, they form a subtle but memorable and crucial companion to the underlying basic score; in fact they are hardly discernible from the basic score. The clarinet, the harp, the viola, and the bassoon among others, have been used to wonderful effect, and the french horn and the flute rounded off the movements with a skilful facility. The lead violin was the heart and soul of the theme, and Sarah Nemtanu was very good indeed.

At the end, an unexpected and pleasant surprise awaited us. The conductor came into the hall once more and directed his troupe for a final performance of 'The flight of the bumble-bee'!

All in all, a superb evening!

I do believe that classical music (Indian and Western) is definitely an acquired taste. While there are pieces that 'blow you away' instantly, a serious appreciation can only come with a lot of listening. Even though I have been listening to both Indian and Western classical for a long time, it still happens that I simply cannot appreciate a supposedly 'famous' piece when I hear it for the first time, and have to repeatedly listen to get the hang of it. I must confess that the first time I heard Beethoven's famed Late String Quartets, I almost fell asleep! (In my defence, it had been a long day and I was really tired...:-))

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Following up on the earlier post, I am among the camp who finds it completely idiotic that the US is urging other countries to stop testing and destroy their arsenals, while harbouring Cold War level stockpiles of nuclear warheads. This is a situation which completely goes against all the common sense that could possibly exist in the world. Think about it; 14, 000 warheads, each with at least a hundred times more force than the Hiroshima bomb, all sitting in armed silos, purely for deterrence purposes. I think that this word was so abused during the period that it completely lost its meaning. 14000 warheads completely change the paradigm. This has nothing at all to do with detrrence. Even if they needed to blow Russia out of orbit, they would never have required more than a hundred warheads. What is the meaning of 14000 of them? I completely fail to grasp, how, some of the most intelligent administrators in the world could resort to such outlandish machinations. At the peak of the cold war, six warheads were being built per day! It was complete nonesense (Even with all the paranoia)

Tragically, as far as I know, there been no efforts to destroy even half of these, at a time when their utility is essentially non-existent (Well, it was non-existent even during that time, but then the Cold War always was a good excuse). Before sending out supposedly beneficient message, the US should get rid of its perversely excessive silos. And this is not an opinion enumerated only by left-liberals. I remember that John Deutch, director of the CIA during the Clinton administration, took the same stand in Foreign Affairs probably the leading mainstream right-wing magazine in the US. He says:
"Countering the proliferation of nuclear weapons--by slowing the spread of nuclear capabilities among states, assuring that nuclear devices do not get into the hands of terrorist groups, and protecting existing stockpiles--has become as high a priority as deterring major nuclear attacks.
Unfortunately, the current U.S. nuclear posture does not reflect this shift. Washington still maintains a large nuclear arsenal designed for the Cold War, and it fails to take into account the current impact of its nuclear policies on those of other governments. In fact, with its overwhelming conventional military advantage, the United States does not need nuclear weapons for either war fighting or for deterring conventional war. It should therefore scale back its nuclear activity significantly."

What's the anagram of 'nuclear'? Unclear. That says it all.


Today, March 1, marks the 51st anniversay of the testing of 'Bravo', the largest nuclear test ever conducted by the US. It was detonated on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. The fireball from the bomb spread for almost three miles and gouged a crater a mile in diameter. Physicist Marshall Rosenbluth said that the fireball "just kept rising and rising, and looked to me like what you might imagine a diseased brain, or a brain of some mad man would look like on the surface...and the air started getting filled with this gray stuff, which I guess was somewhat radioactive coral."

The scientists underestimated the result; while they expected 5 megatons of TNT, it was closer to a more 'fortuitous' 15 megatons, which was about 1000 times the force of the blast that destroyed Hiroshima.

This was the same bomb from which fallout drifted far and wide and settled on a Japanese fishing vessel (the name of which I think ironically was 'The lucky dragon') killing one and causing severe radiation sickness to the others. The US paid a couple of million dollars to the Japanese Government in compensation. In the last many years, the US Government has paid millions of dollars in compensation to inhabitant families of the Marshall Islands (Remember; for everything, there's Mastercard; apparently human lives have always been among the things money can buy).

The last time I remember reading about it, the Bush Government is apparently going to cut down the time required for testing. After all, if yields are more than what you expect, it can only be a happy circumstance, right?

I also remember Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, talking straight into the camera in Errol Morris's 'The Fog of War'. He says, "During my tenure, they tested a 100 megaton bomb. Cold War??? Hell! It was a Hot War!!"