Tuesday, May 31, 2005


A few days back, somebody found out I was a Noam Chomsky fan. The following allegation (in rough paraphrase) was made against me and like minded people:

How can I join the ranks of those thousands of Chomsky fanatics who keep rambling about the kinds of systems that feed them and support them, and still, never suggest practical solutions to the problems of the system? Most of these ramblings simply seem to be aimed at pointing out drawbacks of the capitalist system, as currently epitomized by the United States, without actually offering any alternative, realistic solutions. Surely this seems to be a case of sour grapes, or simply a case of subscribing to the trendy, minority point of view as a fashion statement.

I think the simple answer to these points has to do with recognizing the role of DISSENT in any system, which always serves as a sober and opposing bulwark to intentions gone astray. For example, in many of his books, Chomsky provides overwhelming evidence for the atrocities by rebels in Central America that the US apparently supported in the 1980s. Whether we believe him or not, first of all, what he says is at least partially correct. (If in doubt, look at the mammoth and painstaking list of references he provides in his major works, all of which surely cannot be false or biased). Secondly, consider what would have happened if he, or people like him, had NOT spoken against these acts at all. That would have given the Government free rein against committing even more blatantly rule-breaking immoral, acts. One simple truth at the basis of ANY political system is that “Power corrupts”, even in the most benevolent of systems. No matter how much freedom the Government gives its citizens, its first priority is to satisfy its own personal needs of wealth generation, status maintenance, and most importantly, going to almost any length possible to “maintain a presence” in its own country and the rest of the world, in whatever manifestation that may be deemed necessary. Even the most honorable and ‘good’ political leader of the United States, or any other country, will first and foremost put his country’s self-serving intentions before any humanitarian purpose. These intentions frequently may be at odds with what the citizens of that nation believe their leaders' intentions should be. The situation is similar to the presence of pharmaceutical companies. No matter how much they have helped humanity in the last one hundred years, their biggest priority is still to make money; everything else comes second to that priority. I think that once we understand these basic motives of Governments and corporations, future arguments are facilitated.
However, this is not as bad as it sounds, because many times, the execution of all other priorities in fact depends upon whether the first priority is followed or not. For example, many times, in order to produce life saving drugs, the pharmaceutical industry HAS to generate a lot of revenue. Similarly, in order to bring peace to the world, Governments sometimes HAVE to maintain a military presence which may look intimidating on the face of it. Wars sometimes have to be fought precisely in order to maintain peace, controversial as they may be.

The real problem is, because so much of the Government’s business is conducted in secrecy (and mostly rightly so), we can never know how much it is willing to compromise on the principles which its citizens think it should stand for. We don’t know whether it will put its interests before its citizens’ interests to an extent much more than what most of the population would approve of. And in fact we can’t know it. In such a case, the best ploy is to assume the WORST case scenario (which, not surprisingly, has turned out be an accurate assessment time and time again!). Assume that the Government would go to any appallingly selfish length to protect it’s own self-aggrandizing interests, and then protest accordingly. Even if your protests are extreme or unjustified, at least they blow up the whole affair and help to make a big deal out of it, so that everyone takes notice. Because of this simple effect, after this, because it knows that everyone will be watching, the Government would be more careful and abandon any plans of extreme and unscrupulous personal gains that it MAY have been planning to implement. If nothing of the sort was being orchestrated, well, then the protestors would be castigated, but it becomes a trivial matter because no evil plan was being hatched in the first place. What do these protestors do? They serve the obvious but extremely important purpose of PREVENTION. They prevent Governments from becoming totalitarian by blowing up issues that could possibly have been profitable to the Government, at the expense of its population. I think all of us have to realize this; that dissent in fact cannot, and rarely does, serve a CURATIVE function. Nobody thinks that writings by Chomsky et. al. would bring about the next American Revolution and overturn the whole capitalist system. I don’t think that people like him even convince others that capitalism is evil. But what they do, is simply serve the very important function of preventing certain evils that the Government may have engaged in, had they NOT dissented. They prevent a putative future catastrophe. In fact, why even go as far as Chomsky and other left-liberals/'libertarian socialists'/whatever label we want to attach to them? Even about democracy itself, Bertrand Russell said,

“The value of democracy is negative. It does not solve all our problems; all it does is prevent certain evils.”

A compelling statement. And it’s the same for libertarians, left-liberals, and even communists (unfortunately, I think the word has become as overused as the word ‘the’). I don’t believe for a moment that what they are saying is practicable or workable. But I would rather have them in my country than not have them, because they fulfill the invaluable function of the dissenter. They may not cure the system of its problems, but they sure prevent problems from getting out of hand through their exegeses, no matter how outrageous they may be. If there is no dissent at all it is very easy for political leaders to get completely corrupted. My point is, there’s no use always asking a left liberal about what point he is making. The very fact that he is making a point that is making you think/feel like strangling him, means that he is fulfilling his role as a dissenter. Too many times we get obsessed with the end itself, but as has been adequately said in the Gita (which also unfortunately has become a cliché), the MEANS to the end are very valuable, many times they are more valuable than the end, and sometimes they are the ONLY valuable thing around.

So that should hopefully answer my friend’s allegations. First, I am a Chomsky FAN, not a Chomsky FANATIC. I don’t believe in everything he says, and I think he stretches things too far many times. But, apart from the fact that some of his arguments do make a lot of sense, it’s better than keeping silent on matters. I remember how many of my relatives complain about how the American media tends to exaggerate every minor piece of news and rant about it till everyone finally becomes nauseatingly sick of it (For example; mother gives birth to Siamese twins, they need to be separated and one of them has to die to save the other- which one should it be??). But I maintain that this scenario is any day better than not reporting it at all.

Now, it’s easy to say, “Strike a golden mean”. But as the history of the world tells us, this is easier said than done. Many times, we only have the choice of choosing between two extremes. Paradoxically, at the same time, we also strive to strike the golden mean. The only way we can do this is if we have information about both extremes in the first place, and people like Chomsky epitomize this other extreme, which helps to prevent tipping the balance unilaterally to one side. It is highly commendable of a country like America, and to some extent, India, which allow this dissent; that is one of the hallmarks of a true democracy. What is really frustrating about India however, is the ‘unofficial’ suppression of dissent, which in some ways is worse than totalitarianism, because the citizens cannot even legitimately rebel against it through official channels. According to Chomsky, in the US, the same kind of suppression takes place through his famous ‘manufacture of consent’, in which the Government, along with corporations and the media, tries to mould and shape the unconscious opinions of dissenters through subtle propaganda, so that they will inevitably ‘convert’. That makes people like Chomsky even more important, because since this manipulation is subtle, few people would realize it. He rightly says that in a country where outright violence and totalitarian policies cannot be adopted against the citizens to bend their opinions, the Government will engage in thought control instead, which may seem quite benevolent. If, in the first place, we accept that ANY Government will always do this in some way or the other, then we will also naturally recognize the importance of people like Chomsky. Their whole function is preventive; whether it is curative becomes irrelevant, and I get the feeling that their most vociferous opponents don’t realize this fact, assuming that Chomsky’s function (and single-minded motive) in the first place is to save the country and the world from the cruel capitalists.

The bottom line? I think that paradoxically, a founding father of the symbol of capitalism himself would have been proud of Noam Chomsky, when he said it best:

“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance"- Thomas Jefferson

Monday, May 30, 2005


X's desk is between Y's and Ashutosh's (A's) desk.
Monday afternoon, 3.00 p.m. A, Y and X are the only three people in the modeling lab (not THAT kind of modeling)
A is eating cornflakes, having skipped lunch, in the continuing war against the dietary devil. Y is already a valiant survivor, and hails from Turkey. X is Americana. Typical conversation between A and Y (yet again) follows...

Y: Hey A, don't keep the cornflakes packet and the milk carton on top of the CPU.
A: That's OK. Both are kept there right in front of me, because I want to see how long I can resist temptation after I am done with this snack.
Y: Yeah. But you should not keep liquids on top of CPUs. What if it spills?
A: Don't worry. I always screw on the cap very tightly, mainly to keep odors from the Unidentified Chinese Eatables (UCE) in the fridge from getting in.
Y: What about the cornflakes? By the way, they contain enough calories so that if you eat them constantly, it won't make a difference whether you skip lunch or not.
A: Yes. But I believe that the calories in these are of the fast-burning types. So they will quickly disappear.
Y: Anyway, skipping meals is not going to help. The point is, you will just eat more for dinner.
A: I WON'T. That's precisely the test.
Y: But are you going to keep eating burritos for dinner?
A: Yessir
Y: Ha! So much for the diet.
A: No listen; I told them to take out the sour cream from the burritos. That's about 200 cals.
Y: Ha! What about the tortilla flour wrap? That's about 200 cals itself.
A: I know all that. But dependence is a persistent animal that can only gradually be taken care of. That's why the skipped meal.
Y: Won't work. Every year, I fast for one month, and then I just end up eating more.
A: That's why I am NOT going to do this for a month. It's all about quick fat burning.
Y: Won't work. First the proteins in your muscles will burn, only then the fat; by that time, you will be panting for food.
A: It's not that simple. These metabolic cycles are interlinked. Let me check in my favourite Biochemistry textbook. O, by the way, I also told them to take out LETTUCE from my burrito. I am sure that will help...

X: Look, why don't you just ingest a tapeworm or something?? That way, you will keep away from EVERYTHING, and most importantly, you won't have to ARGUE any further...

Friday, May 27, 2005


Aristotle postulated four different characteristics and causes for the existence of everything in the world. These were:

material, formal, efficient, and final

Let us leave aside the last two, and focus on the first two. The material cause simply relates to the exact composition of any entity, that gives it its unique properties. For example, if I have to justify and describe the function of a chair, I would say that the exact material the chair is composed of, plastic, gives, because of its unique properties of malleability, the property of 'being a chair' to the chair, which makes it suitable for a human being to sit comfortably in it. I also might further inquire to the material cause of the plastic. As can be imagined, this inquiry when reiterated, leads us to polymers, to molecules, and finally to atoms. Thus, we try to explain everything from a 'bottom up' approach.
On the other hand, the other cause of Aristotle's is the 'formal' cause, which tries to explain the existence of entities purely based on their function. For example, the three most important characteristics of living systems are metabolism, self-repair, and replication. Instead of thinking about what property a material would have, we think about what material would be needed for demonstrating a particular property. This is the ‘top-down’ approach.

The bottom-up approach has been enormously useful, especially in all aspects of the natural sciences. Chemists, for example, synthesize molecules, and the eternal activity they have been engaged in, involves relating the structure of a molecule to its function. At one end, this leads to practical endeavors like drug-design, and at the other end, it leads to investigation of the molecules of life; how their particular unique structure has been tailor-made for their unique functions, without which life, as we know it would not exist.

In Computer Science, there have been two famous schools in the area of Artificial Intelligence. The 'Bottom- Uppers' tried to focus on the actual material and form of the human brain manifested through neurons, and tried to articulate these concepts in systems design. However, there has been a dominant school of thinkers, the 'Top Downers' who proposed that what matters is the way in which the brain functions- if we can duplicate that, the actual architecture of the brain is irrelevant. Of course, the two are complementary, and studying both is essential to the success of any discipline which hinges upon such relationships. But the real problem facing the top-downers is that they are dealing with a single effect-multiple cause situation. In the case of biological systems for example, even if DNA is an exquisitely special molecule, the structure of which points almost instantly to its function as the genetic and replicating unit of life, one could conceive of many other structures, some radically different, which could serve the same purpose. So going back from function to structure raises the problem of investigating multiple solutions to a complex problem. In the case of bottom-up analysis, however, we know that there is one SINGLE target, and we are trying to construct approaches towards achieving that target, multiple as they may be.

Interestingly, the top-down approach has always been used in the social sciences, because there, in the first place, the systems are much more complex than many natural systems. Secondly, at least till very recently, there was no inkling of what kind of economic, social, and political models could be built from scratch, that would possibly mirror the problems of modern society, and their possible solutions; the bottom-up approach was just too difficult. Because any kind of precise logical mathematical modeling of social scenarios was almost non-existent till the early twentieth century, social scientists adopted the top-down approach because it was the ONLY one they could adopt. Look at the behaviour of society, and try to extrapolate back to possible mechanisms and assumptions that could be modeled. Even now, this is the approach many fall back on, because something as complex as human behaviour is still unpredictable, even with the most sound looking bottom-up approaches.

In the natural sciences however, enough progress has been made since the renaissance to at least try to contemplate top-down approaches. For example, in the design of new tailor-made molecules that can be used as drugs, that can be used in the electronics of the future, that can be used as the materials of tomorrow, the focus now is on the synthesis of PROPERTIES, rather than that of the molecules themselves, In biology, the question we are asking now is not what material will have what property but how we can tread back from the property to the material. We now ask; what approach do we need to take to model life as it is. Although this question is quite old, until now, we admittedly lacked the heavy intellectual and technological equipment that would have been necessary to logically approach the problem. The main ‘problem’ with the top-down approach is that it puts forward very general principles, exceedingly powerful as they may be. In biology for example, the great mathematician John von Neumann postulated the mechanism of genetic transmission in a very general way in 1948, five years before Watson and Crick suggested a very specific model of this general idea. Admittedly, their model became famous in comparison to von Neumann’s ideas, because in science, what turns heads is the clear-cut paradigm, the foolproof experiment, and the watertight, precise logic. However, in the last couple of years, as science has become more and more interdisciplinary, general ideas from one field can more easily be preludes to successful realistic models in another, precisely because of their generality. This approach has seen its biggest explosion in the fields of artificial life, evolution, and artificial intelligence.

In the study of evolution, most approaches have relied upon assuming the existence of complex organic molecules as the logical starting point for the emergence of life. In the last century, top-down approaches based on the concepts of cellular automata and neural networks have yielded new perspectives that can be used to design putative experiments. Of course, in ANY experimental setup, we are obviously restricted by some kind of material approach or the other. Attempts can only be made to simplify and generalize the assumptions in the experiments as far as possible. From my point of view, the most lucrative experiment suggested to shed light on the exhausting debate of how life arose on earth, has been the so-called "Whole Environment Evolution Synthesizer" or "WEES". WEES consists of trying to put together a duplicate of the prebiotic environment that existed on earth at the beginning of life. Rather than assume, from a modern day standpoint, that molecules like DNA, RNA or proteins would be an essential part of the paraphernalia of living systems, WEES aims to adjust and control only the conditions and then let the evolutionary circus run for itself, leading to whatever comes out at the other end. The input of the system would simply consist of water, and the gases that were purported to form the so-called early ‘reducing’ atmosphere of the earth, along with other very simple possible organic and inorganic components. The gaseous atmosphere constitutes the ‘primary’ component of the system, while simulations of pools and tidal zones are the ‘secondary’ elements. The ‘tertiary’ portion would refer to the changes in the values of the various parameters that would influence the outcome. While nobody expects to see a Gorilla come crawling out at the other end, it would definitely be interesting what combinations of molecular architecture are generated in the system, and whether certain kinds are preferred, which would possibly gain the upper hand in traversing the roadblocks on the pathway to life. Till date, nobody has successfully actually completed such an experiment, not in the least because of the fine controls that would be needed to take care of all the physicochemical parameters over a long period of time; an engineer’s nightmare.

Interestingly, the British chemist Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith has come up with a simplified scenario, which by the mandates of Ocham’s Razor, sounds to me like THE most likely way for life to have arisen on our planet. Smith simply eschews the enormous hurdles that would be required to overcome the synthesis of complex organic molecules such as DNA and proteins. Rather than form such nightmarish architectures, Smith postulated that life arose…out of CLAY. In his vastly revealing book, “Seven Clues to the Origin of Life” that reads like a detective story, Smith postulates a splendid and detailed mechanism whereby life starts out in the form of crystals of clay (a material which has been present in vast quantities everywhere throughout time; silicon and oxygen constitute the most abundant elements on earth), which grow in the usual fashion of crystals. Over time, organic ions and molecules get trapped in these crystals and grow along with them. The breakthrough occurs when these organic molecules become polymers, and start acquiring special properties like structural versatility, and even a kind of ‘replication’ ability, which their simple, poor progenitors lack. As time passes, natural selection takes over, and the more robust organic molecules depart from the original clay systems in all their glory, now free to spin the tale of life.
Smith’s scenario has the beauty of being logical and simple. It has the drawback of not being actually demonstrated in the lab. That is where systems like WEES come in. Arrange for a steady supply of clay and other necessary ingredients at one end, and watch what kind of ‘crystal evolution’ takes place. If some kind of organic polymorph, or at least a clay-organic chimera, is spit out at the other end, we can be fairly sure that this could have been at least a plausible mechanism of the origins of life. Recently, Jack Szostak of Harvard has obtained some interesting results from such kind of a ‘life from clay’ system.

The main problem with such an experiment is that, even for a seemingly lowly ‘life form’ such as clay, evolution will take possibly thousands, if not billions of years, a time that no grant-pressed research scientist can afford to spend in observation. However, lacking all the peculiar and unique tendencies that befell human beings, computers can be a great help here, essentially accelerating the time needed for evolution. A virtual version of WEES would not only speed up the process, but also would easily take care of the immovably constant values of all the variables that are introduced.

Unfortunately, I think that even computers, in the end, would not provide us with a predictive and satisfactory picture of such a kind of evolutionary process. I think that there are two reasons why this would not happen. First of all, the above mentioned ‘constant’ values of all the parameters would hardly have been constant in the early days of our planet, with volcanoes, lava pools, comets and other celestial events, and other grand natural phenomena causing continuous and tumultuous upheavals in its existence, leading to wild fluctuations in the workings of the ‘primordial soup’ of life. If anything, these parameters would have been random. However, even this randomness would have been of a special kind, which finally led to successful dominance on earth of the molecules of life. It would be impossible to simulate this ‘non-random randomness’ in a computer. If the computer did decide to explore all possible versions of randomness, then I cannot imagine how the time needed for even the fastest supercomputer to arrive at a possible result would be any less than that required for evolution on earth itself.
Secondly, one of the most profound discoveries of the last century has been the discovery of ‘chaos’ in all kinds of natural and artificial systems, from the stock market to rabbit reproductive cycles. If one wants to pithily, if somewhat incompletely, sum up the definition of chaos, it would probably be ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’. The famous ‘Butterfly Effect’ (made infamous by a movie with the same name) contends that a butterfly flapping its wings in Timbuktu can cause a hurricane off Florida. In the financial world, the smallest of seemingly unrelated perturbations of any kind (rumours of ‘Ganpati drinking milk’, death of a movie star) can cause enormous fluctuations in market prices. Given this precarious balance in which physical and human laws hold the world together, it would be beyond imagination to even understand, let alone predict, how small changes in initial conditions on the early earth, would possibly affect its biochemical equilibrium.

Similar approaches are being taken towards investigating AI, the most telling and admittedly cute general model being the ‘Ant Model’, in which virtual ‘ants’ are let loose, with only broadly defined signals constituting food, ant hills and pheromones in their immediate environment. Alluding to chaos theory again, it is found that such models can give fascinating results, which again are critically dependent upon initial conditions. Human beings, contrary to some our fond expectations, also act quite confusedly upon quite random bits of information of all kind. Throw in some completely rampant emotional factors, and it becomes a fortunate and wondrous conclusion that we are able to develop logically after all. For example, our language capacity is one of the most fascinating properties of our brain in this regard. As children, all we hear is garbled pieces of sentences that frequently may be grammatically incorrect. Yet we catch on fast as the wind. While Noam Chomsky’s ‘universal grammar’ is a spectacular explanation of this phenomenon, we yet have to intuitively come to terms with the whole state of affairs.

In the end, of course, the most surprising fact about the results of such models, as well as life, is the simple fact that it EXISTS- a truth that flies in our face and that should jolt us when we become too vague. No matter how much we may rave about chaos theories, and juggle with probabilities, we are faced with a reality that seems to boast of order concocted out of supposed disorder. Everything from evolutionary patterns to weather patterns seems to hold a secret enclave of organization. Unless evolution was the result of a completely random fluke- unlikely since even a lucky fluke would need some kind of organizing principle to propagate itself- it is likely that these approaches would bear some kind of fruition, at least in providing patterns of recognition that would link all these fields and more together. It seems that finally, we are starting to make the transition from Aristotle’s ‘material’ causes to ‘formal’ causes, which question the very basis of existence of our world, and all the reality in it that we so much take for granted. Maybe this will provide us the passage from ‘being’ to ‘becoming’.

Monday, May 23, 2005


Rudy Baum, a correspondent with the American Chemical Society, was part of a delegation that had recently been sent to China to conduct a purview of the general scientific situation in China. While there were some striking observations made about the state of research in China, what I found to be the most astounding thing was how the Chinese Government controls the flow of free information with an iron hand. Baum conducted a simple Internet experiment, that nonetheless had enlightening results, to say the least. Baum found out that not only has the Government banned access to many results that can be obtained through Google searches, but it also has instituted a system that can potentially trace and stifle flow of information to selected individuals. Not only that, because of this filtering, it can also specifically promote information which is obviously advantageous not just as a nationalistic and patriotic tool, but also as a means of inciting resentment against other nations...

If this does not convince people that China is still very much a closed and strained society, irrespective of it's impressive growth, I don't know what will (Although I am sure that the Chinese authorities will not surprisingly have 'logical' reasons for implementing these laws, and many more. I will let Baum speak in his own words:

"Late on our last night in Beijing, I conducted a sloppy experiment that nevertheless had fascinating results. My hotel room had high-speed Internet access for a fee, and I had been using it throughout the week to keep up with e-mail and world news via the New York Times and Yahoo. I had not perceived any filtering of the content I had been accessing. In my experiment, I logged on to Yahoo and searched on "Falun Gong," the Chinese religious movement that has been ruthlessly suppressed by the authorities. After a longish wait, I was informed "This page cannot be displayed," the standard page that appears when a website is down or otherwise unavailable. I then searched on "Tiananmen Square" and got "This page cannot be displayed." "Democracy movement in China" and "democracy" likewise could not be displayed.

Then I searched on "Japanese aggression" and got 1,090,000 hits. "American imperialism" got 1,820,000 hits, and "chemistry" got 34,700,000 hits. I tried searching on "Falun Gong" again and, again, got "This page cannot be displayed." "Chairman Mao," "Mao Tse Tung," "Stalin," "Franklin Roosevelt," "Albert Einstein," "Bill Clinton," "Charlie Chaplin," and "Nicole Kidman" were likewise not available. In fact, after my second search on "Falun Gong," nothing was available; my Yahoo search engine had been shut down.

I logged off Yahoo and the Internet and logged back on again. Here are the results of the next searches:

Albert Einstein

Nicole Kidman

Bill Clinton

Chairman Mao

Democracy in China

Falun Gong
Page cannot be displayed

Chairman Mao
Page cannot be displayed"

Baum concludes:
"China seems in many ways like a typical developing country, but it is not. For reasons that are not clear to me, we in the West seem to ignore the fact that China remains a one-party authoritarian state that controls the free flow of information and arrests its citizens for practicing free speech and expressing their religious beliefs. Yes, China is an enormous market, and the world desperately wants to do business with it. Yes, China is advancing rapidly in science and technology, and Western scientists must engage their Chinese counterparts. But let's not delude ourselves and pretend that China is just like the U.S. or Japan or a member of the European Union."

Although Baum says that the advantage of such a system could be that "China is uniquely able to focus the substantial innate energy of its citizens on efforts it deems most likely to bear fruit", trampling access to basic free information is certainly not the way to do it; if anything, it sounds like another one of those pseudojustifications for instituting 'discipline' among a country's citizens. We have one too many examples where such an experiment on a grand scale led to a grander disaster, and thank you, but we don't need to witness it again.

Glad to be living in India...

Friday, May 20, 2005

PUNE TITHE KAY UNE! (What could possibly be lacking in Pune!)

For all the fame of the US as the "land of plenty", especially for material goods, I was quite disappointed at the quality of two essential commodities that I bought here, which I found to be way much better in dear old Pune. These two are especially important for me since I love walking from home to school and back (not in the least as an ardently hopeful weight-losing device), especially in this weather:

1. Umbrella (Chatri): Even after buying THREE umbrellas with the design of the stars and stripes gloriously streaked on them, not one of them lived up to the promise of protecting their owner from the pelt of the Gods. The springs of two of them gave way almost days after I bought them, and the third, after turning inside out after a particularly severe gale, collapsed under its own weight. I actually used the first one for a couple of days, even with its spring broken and length elongated (A graduate student can have to make unimaginable compromises sometimes...), with the consequence that whenever I used to keep it in my backpack, my backpack would start looking like a tent, with some purported living creatures possibly living in it.
When I went to India, I bought a nice, sturdy, umbrella from a trusted local shop from "lakdi pool" (no pun) and until now, it has braved the elements like nothing before.

Sandals (Chappal): An ABSOLUTELY essential commodity for me. I have 'almost' flat feet, so that I find it painful to wear shoes over long distances, especially when I have to walk briskly. I spent millions of dollars on a grand footwear project funded by the FDA (Footwear Design Agency), trying out at least four different pairs of sandals of differing quality and cost. Alas! Not one of them endured my march to lab and back. In most cases, the soles simply collapsed, and in others, the velcro got worn out.
My feet finally found a savior in the simple, inexpensive chappals sold by the old cobbler ("shejarcha chambhar") who runs a dilapidated shop right next to our place in Pune. I have bought shoes and chappals from him since I was a centimeter tall, and even now, it was he who preserved my feet and sanity.

Old is gold, and there is always beauty in simplicity.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


In spite of all the outcries created by Creationism and Intelligent Design, at their core, they may turn out to be simply cases of sheer lethargy, which however is is an equally pernicious disease. As Michael Lynch at Indiana University worries, the problem with these concepts is that, irrespective of their details, they seem to propagate the "legitimizing of intellectual laziness" (Nature, May 19, 2005). Don't know how something happened? Invoke a creator. Don't understand how something works? Invoke an all powerful deity.

I think that Lynch, along with others, has hit the nail on the head. After two thousand years of astounding rational and scientific progress, why do believers in religion and pseudoscience abound? The crushingly simple answer (if not the only one, I think, at least a major part of "the" answer) is that it's simply easy to live life that way.

John Casti, in his entertaining, but always enlightening style, says in his magnificent Paradigms Lost (with slight modifications):

"A lot of pseudoscientific and religious ideas are not only heartening and push the whole problem of explanation under the rug, but even appeal to what we usually call common sense. Unfortunately, neither the world nor science is as simple as naive common sense would have us believe. For example, what kind of peasant cunning would suggest that energy levels in atoms come only in discrete packets? It seems that the more advanced a scientific specialty becomes, the less reliable common sense is as a guide. In fact many aspects of modern science are just plain contrary to common sense. The point to keep in mind is that most beliefs being promoted as 'alternatives' to science are deliberately calculated to fit smoothly into what common sense suggests is the way things should be, as well as the way to solve all our problems. Within these comforting world views, we have no problems of our own- everything that happens to us does so because of bad aspects of Jupiter, the work of the devil, or the will of superior beings from Andromeda. At root, these beliefs are a measure of disappointment with which the general public greets the revelations of science. The average man wants complete, easy-to-understand, clear-cut answers, when all that science has to offer is arcane, difficult to follow ifs, ands, buts, and maybes"

So let's face it. The fact is; all of us, human beings, are weak. We need some kind of emotional support that simply appears when we invoke it. We are not ready to go the painful lengths that are necessary to understand science and reason, which even when deciphered, are tentative. All this is understood. When a loved one dies unexpectedly for example, we have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that it is merely an accident. At such times, it is a deep emotional need that is fulfilled when we appeal to an unknown source of cause and effect that provides us with a definite, if vicarious, source of strength.

All this would have been all right if we had kept all the spiritual devices to ourselves. The real problem is not that people go to chuches, preach, or pray to god. I don't think any scientist in his right mind would have an objection to that. Trouble starts brewing when these beliefs start infringing upon sound and rational scientific wisdom, which no matter how tentative it may be, still provides the most solid picture of reality based on highly accurate observational evidence. Scientists become uncomfortable not when priests deliver sermons on heaven and hell to thousands of devotees, but when they start preaching their version of reality-generation as a legitimate alternative to established scientific theories like evolution, the details of which may be debated, but the general picture of which is anything but tentative.

One of the most striking concepts in science, as well as in life, is that of complementarity; the existence of disparate and seemingly opposite elements, that nonetheless must co-exist to define the fabric of reality. The phenomenon of wave-particle duality in physics is a supreme example. In life too, we find things like war and peace, happiness and sorrow, right and wrong (whatever they may be), that, though contradictory, are all essential to shape the human social, intellectual, and spiritual existence.
In spite of this accceptance of complementarity in many aspects of our life, it is an astounding fact to me that we cannot keep science and religion separate and let them be nourishing and complementary structures of our world. Somewhere, we must circumvent this "either-or" approach and adopt the "and" approach. Unfortunately, protagonists of pseudoscience make their own perverse attempts to do this, thus pitting the two camps against each other, and stamping out sincere efforts for reconciliation.

In the end, it is simply a matter of growing up and facing the facts. When we were children, we used to read stories about fairies and witches. As we grew up, we realised, with some disappointment, that fairies don't exist. This feeling however, was also tempered with the satisfaction in knowing that witches don't exist too. Life seems to be a combination of forsaking faith in both fairies and witches, one of which may bring us joy, and one of which may bring us disappointment. Scientists and rational thinkers have largely faced up to these facts. They have realised that with every witch that is slain, signalling an advance in our understanding of our world and the discovery of a wonderful new fact, there is a fairy that has to be sacrificed, which perhaps means giving up our idealistic faith in what we would have liked the world to be like. Whether we brood over the death of the fairy, or exalt in the death of the witch and resurrection of the truth, marks the difference between pessimism and optimism. What makes science fun and always challenging and fascinating, is that there is no dearth of fairies to be forsaken or witches to be slain. Not surprisingly, this hide and seek of witches and fairies is another example of the complementarity which we talked about earlier. Pseudoscientists and believers, on the other hand, still believe in eternal fairies and witches, frequently masking that belief under optimism and evangelical conviction.

Finally, it's of no consequence whether we call something as 'common' or 'uncommon' sense or whatever else. The truth is that it represents the facts. Are we prepared to accept the facts as they are, or even make attempts to do so? That seems to be the real question...If we cannot, as Richard Feynman said, maybe we should "go to a different Universe, where the laws are simpler"...Who said life was easy?!

Thursday, May 12, 2005


For me, probably the SINGLE best thing in the U.S. is the fact that you can order books of your choice and ask the librarian (may she live a hundred years, may her house be overflowing with prosperity, may her grandchildren live a hundred years too) to buy them. I ordered, among others, the following books which I had loved to read, and within a month, I can see that they are already in the process of being shelved:

1. Manufacturing Consent (New Edition, 2002)- Noam Chomsky
2. J. Robert Oppenheimer; A Life- Abraham Pais (who was Einstein's assistant)
3. Paradigms Regained- John Casti
4. Medicine, Science, and Merck- Roy Vagelos (CEO of Merck during its most successful modern run)

I can only embarrassingly compare myself with the spoilt rich child of the millionaire, who pesters his father for a Ferrari and gets it right away.

NOTHING like this was possible in India, where libraries were held really sacred...so sacred, in fact, that students were not supposed to use them- the most gross and twisted and convoluted paradox that I have ever encountered.

In India, I could hardly issue an existing book, let alone order new ones. But wait...for issuing existing books, you have to be physically present among the bookstacks and browse old books, and THAT is precisely what was not allowed in the exalted Wadia Library of Ferguson College (as I am sure it wasn't in other places). As I have mentioned sometime back, the "mamas" or peons (what an unfortunate title; mamas are supposed to be among the kindest members of the family and are supposed to indulge their nephews) in the library guarded the book treasure like a snake guards gold, and just like the snake doesn't have the remotest inkling or awareness of what gold is, so don't the mamas have the slightest idea of what bibliogold the library harbours. Just like the snake, the mamas 'guard' the books simply because they are obeying the vacuous mandates of 'higher' authority, and in this way eking out their miserable existence in the library.

You can issue a book only if you already know its name and it is already supposed to exist in the library according to the catalogues (more often than not, there's no connection between what's in the catalogues and what's on the shelves, antedeluvian as the catalogues are). If by sheer luck, the book IS listed in the catalogues, even then, it's only the insidious mamas who can slither inside the bookstacks, and not you. Usually, they take one lazy, general look to see if the book is there, and then come back to tell you that it is not. Underpaid, but more importantly, usually not possessing the slightest respect for knowledge, these villains (and I dare say this includes the librarian) are the prime movers in the obfuscation and damnation that inundates teaching and learning in our institutions. I was very lucky that I met two dedicated mamas who recognised my genuine interest and allowed me to browse books and issue them (and that too, primarily because my parents teach in Ferguson). In Marathi, there is an apt saying; "Gadhwala gulachi chaw kay" which simply means that no donkey can ever appreciate what sugar (or jaggery if literally translated) tastes like. Plainly, the mamas are donkeys, but unfortunately in this case, ones who are not going to go away if you beat them with a stick. If anything, if you do that, there will be another "fast unto death" decorating the main entrance of Ferguson the next day, the catch phrase this time being (again), "the protest of the inhuman treatment of the downtrodden class", and you will be forced to leave the college.

It's one of the biggest tragedies I have witnessed in life; this condemnation of books in the Wadia library and elsewhere, their introduction to life long 'termite physics', which finally and painfully brings about their demise, and woefully, all of this without almost anyone even using them. It's the most despicable form of informal totalitarianism I have ever seen imposed and it would not surprise me if it massively contributes to the continuing and final decline in the quality of education that our system provides. It stifles, once and for all, by sheer inane bureaucracy, the most innocent beginnings of an interest in learning that a student displays. It almost moves me to tears, when I see stacks of priceless books, covered by layers of dust, that are going to die a cruel death, all because 'the mamas don't take care of them and disallow students from browsing them'.
I salute the courageous and dedicated students of our Physics Department, who, along with their teacher, were literally ready to engage in hand-to-hand (and hand-to everything else) fights with these apostles of ignorance in the library. In the end, they managed to at least salvage some classic physics books, and transfer them to our student-managed Physics Club. The last time I was in Pune, my eyes glazed when I saw that treasure trove of books, finally looking safely ensconced, whose ranks included original volumes by the likes of Einstein, Heisenberg, Jeans, Hoyle, and Feynman. However, after a couple of years, there will be new students and new teachers. Would they have the same respect for our heritage of knowledge? Unfortunately, it seems that probably for years to come, there won't be any new mamas...

Monday, May 09, 2005


I had never thought for a moment that I would ever yield to the will of the calorie/fat devil. Back in India, I used to laugh and sneer at my sister, when I witnessed her counting every single calorie and saying things like, "I will eat the chocolate but not the nuts" (and the next time, vice versa) or something similar. I used to look down upon the dietary paranoia which seems to have engulfed the United States and used to mock those incessant weight-watchers. And I used to excessively criticize the excessively detailed nutritional information which seemed be as essential as the food item to which it was tagged.

But, as old Morpheus said, "Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony".

When I came to the US, almost two years ago, I was not worried a tad about my weight or my diet. I never had had a tendency to put on weight, and I didn't think this state of affairs would change. But gradually, just like the Matrix took over the world and blended itself into the humans' psyche, so was I dragged into the Matrix of calorie land. The US seems, it looks like, almost tailor-made to make people fat.
About the Battle of Britain, Churchill said, "In no time in the history of human conflict, have so many owed so much, to so few". I would say, "In no time in the history of modern civilization, have so many put on so much weight, because of such little effort". Actually "little" seems to be a misnomer, given the humongous culture with which food producers and advertisers bombard us. What I mean is that it takes little to cross the boundary from being merely enticed, to falling into the black hole of chocolaty and nutty desire, past the point of no return. When I say 'little', I am talking about the extra effort that it takes.
Of course, consumerism is as rampant in India today as it is in the US. The difference, however, is that in the US, food is much more affordable than in India, especially the kind of snazzy food that's advertised on TV. So compared to India, it is much easier here to fall into the clutches of the foody ethos. (Also the fact that the important entities called "parents" are not around to keep a check on you here)

And so it came to pass that I too, had fallen into this trap. Note that I am certainly not overweight (although I am sure many may beg to differ on that contention, purely as a vacuous way of exacting revenge). However, over the past few months, I have realized that my weight seems to be a 'monotonically increasing function', no matter how small the increments may be, and I realised that I would have to salvage my being before I crossed over across the event horizon. As would be realised by all those stalwart survivors of the fat plague, it's not so much of what I eat that is making the difference, as it is of how much time I am spending thinking about food. Already when I have set out in the early hours of the morning, I am thinking about what snack for dinner would make the day have a perfect ending. These thoughts cajole me and linger around throughout the day, so that by the time I get home, I make a bee line for the snack joint, like a shark.

Now there is that one little thing which may help a good deal to circumvent the problem- EXERCISE. However, since that is the thing I hate the second most in life (the first one being 'Sex and the City') there is no question of degrading my sanity by submitting myself to that blasphemous activity. The second best thing for averting the weight catastrophe- a GOOD DIET. And it's then that I realise that I have relegated myself to become a part of those select and woeful calorie watching cults that I used to mock and have an extreme aversion to. Alas! How things change over time...

After a lot of exhaustive investigation, I think I have nailed down the culprit that has been largely responsible for this unexpected trauma. For some time, I was bemused at the monotonic weight increase, because for one thing, I almost never eat burgers from McDonald's and Burger King (or anything else for that matter), and I almost never touch french fries or potato chips- prime contenders for weight gain. That fact first singled out the other prime contender- fizzy, chilly, sweetened carbonated water a.k.a the king of all such beverages: Coke (which, by the way, for Southerners, means ANY carbonated drink). So first and foremost, I completely broke off my relationship with the wily culprit...a blow that I think I have taken quite graciously.

The second big problem- and this is a battle that I am still fighting- is that delicious item of food ('heaven on a roll') that I find myself getting addicted to: The Great Mexican Burrito (for the uninitiated, a burrito is something like a frankie except that it has ten times more stuff stuffed inside it). Among other things, a burrito contains lettuce, red peppers, and salsa (a quite unsophisticated form of tomato salad). However, given the mentality of the indulgent child, I was conveniently not paying attention to the other things that it contains- cheese, rice, sour cream, and the tortilla roll which holds everything together, all of which undoubtedly pack a hydrogen bomb worth of calories. My last thread of hope broke one day, when a not too kind friend of mine sent me an unsolicited mail, listing the amount of calories that these burritos contain- close to 1000. Although I am vehemently opposing his sources and criticising his research techniques, I am afraid that I am fighting a lost battle. Providence, in an ironically tragic way, has opened up the Mexican restaurant right across the road, and for the first time in my life, it looks like I really have to try... (On a lighter note, I told the '1000 calorie incident' to my Professor who unexpectedly showed up in the burrito line in front of me one day. He too was shocked; apparently, he too frequents the place more than he should. In fact he was so shocked, that after that, he kept asking me whether this was really true, almost every two minutes or so. On my part, I was wickedly and heartily laughing inside, having served my purpose of taking some kind of sweet revenge on him for some of those somnolent lectures that he had cruelly subjected us to)

So...sigh! These days, I too find myself constantly glancing over at labels on every food container, badgering those heroes and heroines who have survived the dietary famine to tell me how much calories a particular food (even water) contains, doing the calorie aritmetic which I always hated, and thinking twice or sometimes even thrice before venturing into a blissful snack villa. I even catch myself doing a push up or two everyday these days. Milk- that glorious gift of God that was my constant companion- has now become "Milk with 2% fat", a despicable fluid that bears little resemblance to its exalted ancestor. Sandwiches have become a necessary evil in my life. I have reluctantly made Subway Sandwiches (sans the chicken, mayonnaise, and essentially everything else but the lettuce and the onions) my savior. Chocolates and coke are to be looked down upon as the conceptions of Satan him/herself. And except when it comes to clicking photos, 'cheese' is a lost word.

However, I may have lost the battle for now, but I will win the war. I will trudge through these shackles of enforced dietary rehabilitation, and finally emerge trim and slim. As old Arnie will no doubt endorse, I just have one thing to say: "I WILL BE BACK...WITH A HERSHEYS"!!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Beethoven's String Quartet in C Sharp Minor is surely one of the most melancholy pieces of music I have ever heard. In its own way, it is likely the most beautiful too.
Music leaves its marks on different people in many different ways. It can rouse, sadden, inspire, and humble. My personal introduction to this magnificent piece came through my introduction to a magnificent human being, whose life was connected to this piece in a unique way.

When J. Robert Oppenheimer became a Professor of Physics in the early 1930s at the University of California at Berkeley, he created the greatest school of theoretical physics that the United States had ever known till then. Because of his bohemian and spartan existence, as well as his astoundingly versatile interests, students all over the country were drawn to him and mesmerized by his sparkling intellect and his eclectic interests. They were a ragged band, coming from diverse parts of a depression stricken nation, barely surviving on the most meagre of scholarships. But their thirst for knowledge was such, that they cast away all the shackles of the material existence and came to Berkeley to literally study at the feet of the master. "Oppie', as they affectionately called him, introduced them to a whole new world of science and art. While men and women elsewhere were talking about FDR's New Deal, Oppie and his disciples would be pondering the most arcane secrets of the atom, and reading Sanskrit with an ascetic colleague, Arthur Ryder, late into the night. When others were mostly concerned with the ongoing political situation in Europe, these dilettantes would be reading Hamlet and Dante. Oppie's students saw him as an otherworldy asthete, and in fact soon picked up his mannerisms. They were all 'little Oppenheimers', and as one acclaimed physicist said, 'purse proud about it'.

One of the things missing from the group's diverse interests was music. Oppenheimer, for all his eclectic interests and excursions into every intellectual domain, had an almost painful aversion to music. However, for some reason, in those halcyon days, he started to appreciate it, although still not as much as some of his students.
Joe Weinberg, who used to study with his mentor late into the night, used to put on music in the background. Once, Quartet in C Sharp Minor was playing, and the wine had broken some of his emotional resolve. His eyes teared as the gossamer notes slowly faded into the background. Looking up, he saw Oppie, who stood in silence, and finally looked at him through those icy-blue eyes, and said, "Yes, it IS beautiful..."
Weinberg decided that this piece would be the group's theme song...

More than a quarter of a century later, on a fine day in 1967, the piece was heard once again, but this time in a completely different ethos. Oppie was dead of throat cancer, having risen as Promethus in his ascendancy as director of the most important scientific project in history- the atomic project. Riddled with guilt by the existence of the weapon he had created, he had become the Hamlet of the atomic age himself. He had become the director of the Institute for Advanced Study, riding with luminaries including Einstein himself, whose every word was heard with hushed dedication by scientists and statesmen alike. His concerns for the future security of the world were misinterpreted by men in power, and in one of the blackest chapters in American history, in a much publicised hearing, his security clearance was taken away. Excluded from the corridors of power, Oppie nonetheless became an oracle of conscience, the embodiment of the eternal conflict between science and society, an internationally known and enormously respected figure. Until his death, he brought together outstanding scholars in many fields together, and with his unique qualities, interpreted and extended their discourse.
The day when he died, the Julliard Quartet thought it fit to play the theme which had once been the hallmark of the Oppie and his school- the cynosure of American commitment to science and learning.
Oppie has earned his place in history, and Beethoven too. And the quartet plays on...

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

I always find it puzzling why, when it comes to the environment, there are two camps of people; the 'environmentalists' and the 'non(?) environmentalists'. I don't understand why 'Republicans have to be in general anti and Democrats have to be pro environment'.
I don't think the environment is an issue where lobbying and engaging in partisan causes makes sense (except in the sense of scoring political wins; always prosaic for me). I don't think that the issue of whether and how important the environment is is an issue at all. I don't believe it is a matter of opinion. It's simply a fact, isn't it? What does 'being a Republican' have to do anything with not being as concerned about the environment as a Democrat. The situation has gone way too far for that. Saving the environment is not 'an option'. I do hope that all of us understand and act on this, without attaching stupid political labels to each and every inhabitant of our planet. It is well known that we are damaging the environment (notwithstanding the 'Day after tomorrow' type outcries) and that fact will unfortunately not disappear if I declare myself a 'pro' or 'anti' environmentalist. I hope that all of us do something about it, so that members of my fifth generation (maybe earlier ones?) will not have to live coated with a layer of fast deteriorating material that protects them from the sun's UV radiation.

In fact, I think that this whole issue bears upon the general matter of attaching labels to people. Why do 'intellectuals' generally have to be left-liberal? Why were people who opposed nuclear testing immediately labeled as left-liberals? Why can't a 'right hawk' oppose Government policy? Simply because then he won't be obeying definitions? Since when did we start obeying the dictionary, instead of it being the other way round?
Politics surely is an ugly thing; it will label me a 'non-conformist' for saying "Politics surely is an ugly thing"...

Monday, May 02, 2005

A QUESTION OF USAGE: What should (would) one say?

Usually, the general populace (including me) seems to prefer the word 'would' in sentences such as the following:

"If you were to grant me this favour, I WOULD be eternally grateful to you"

However, I have seen in the penmanship of many a fine and admittedly eloquent writer, the preferred use of 'should' instead of 'would':

"If you were to grant me this favour, I SHOULD be eternally grateful to you"

Is this just a matter of somewhat archaic versus modern usage, or is there some more deep seated rule which dicates the use of one versus the other?
Maybe someone can care to enlighten :-)

P.S: On another note, today my blog completes a year, and I am heartened to see that I have not lost interest in posting. Thanks to the few among you out there who evince interest :-) I celebrate this anniversary with a session of listening to Handel's "Wassermusik und Feuerwerksmusik", four of my all time favourite suites.