Thursday, June 30, 2005

"Take a flier on it"...

Apprentice to Genius: The Making of a Scientific Dynasty- Robert Kanigel (MacMillan, New York, 1986)

The past and present of our civilization is replete with famous (infamous?) dynasties, mainly political and business families; the Nehru dynasty, the Bush dynasty, the DuPont dynasty, the Kennedy dynasty and so on.
Less famous are scientific dynasties, generations of mentors and their students who contribute to a growing body of knowledge, frequently as pioneers. Many times, the unique streak and style of research as well as values developed by the original scientific patriarch endures in an unmistakable manner, and his scientific children, grandchildren and beyond distinctly display that streak in bringing important work to fruition.

One such important scientific dynasty begins with James Shannon in the late 1940s. I don't how many of you know this name, but I had not heard it till I began reading Robert Kanigel's engaging and inspiring account of a brilliant scientific dynasty; Apprentice to Genius. James Shannon was the man who almost singlehandedly founded the famous National Institutes of Health, the biggest biomedical research organization in the world, with a budget that is truly staggering, and research that has played a key role in our fight against disease and our efforts in the continuation of good health, over the past half century.

Kanigel (author of the very readable book on Srinivas Ramanujan; 'The Man who knew Infinity: A life of the genius Ramanujan') chronicles five generations of prize-winning pioneers who revolutionized the very important field of neuropharmacology, the science of how drugs act on the brain. Shannon was the trendsetter who first extolled a very simple but far reaching principle, namely the measurement of drug levels in the blood. This technique was revolutionised in all its glorious forms by his student, Bernard 'Steve' Brodie (the 'father of drug metabolism'). Brodie then passed on the scientific mantle to his student, Juliux Axelrod, who won a Nobel Prize for his research into the metabolism of noradrenaline, one of the key neurotransmitters in our body. Axelrod then trained HIS esteemed student, Solomon Snyder (at Johns Hopkins) who passed on the legacy to Candace Pert (author of the controversial 'Molecules of Emotion'). All these scientists essentially perfected various techniques for measuring the levels of various drugs and other foreign substances in the blood, in the brain, and in other organs, and then acting on the knowledge gained in these endeavors, both to find out more about the basic workings of our body and brain, and to design new drugs. If all this sounds technical and mundane, consider the following; by using this technique, Brodie discovered Tylenol, after Aspirin probably the most widely consumed drug in the world; by using this technique, he and Axelrod discovered crucial enzymes called microsomal enzymes in the liver, which act to metabolize each and every foreign substance introduced in our body; by using this technique, Axelrod and Snyder discovered a host of important enzymes, crucial for drug metabolism; by using this technique, Snyder and Pert discovered proteins called opiate receptors, the seat of pain and pleasure in our body, and key targets for tackling drug addiction...
These men (and one woman) completely changed the science of drug metabolism, and their research is the backbone of each and every drug which makes it to the market today. Their methods, their concepts and ideas, have become so seamlessly integrated into modern drug discovery, that their names are sometimes forgotten.

Kanigel paints an absorbing portrait of each of these characters, of their personalities and peccadilloes. Most importantly, he seeks to explain how they constituted an exclusive family of mentors and students, in the true sense of the terms. Mentor the Greek was a close friend of Ulysses, to whom the great king entrusted his son, Telemachus, when he left for the Trojan War. Mentor was supposed to be Telemachus's friend, philosopher and guide, a role model, and a constant force to steer the boy's complete development in the path that was chosen for him. A chapter at the end of the book talks about the general sociological ramifications of scientific research and mentorship. Thomas Kuhn's 'paradigm shifts', always a favourite of natural as well as social scientists, makes a cameo appearance in the chapter, to explain how scientific revolutions are frequently blazed by such dynasties. Kanigel has a good facility in bringing to life each of these stalwarts (all but two of whom are dead now- Snyder and Pert both are very much visible). Each one of these trail blazers trained a host of students throughout the world, who went back to their universities and laboratories, and donned the robe of style, taste, and discrimination in research conferred upon them by their mentors.

I was quite taken in by the style of research described, that was inculcated in all of them, primarily by Steve Brodie. According, to Kanigel, Brodie's style of research, particularly exemplified by Axelrod, was to consider research as mainly fun. Unlike many other students and researchers (such as myself) Axelrod would never get stuck with the small and tedious experimental details, or the detailed statistical analyses. He had an eye, or more correctly, a nose, for what the essential elements in the big picture were. He would never go for the details, but would look for the one decisive experiment, most of the times incredibly simple, that would turn everyone's heads. He would do the experiment in the most 'quick and dirty' manner possible, and then publish the results, leaving bottom feeders (like me) to slog over the muck of tedium. That style of his, and then of Snyder's, drew students to him like flies to honey. When they came into his lab, there were just two 'requirements' if any; a capacity for hard-work, and an open and cheerful mind. Axelrod's students (unlike me) would never be seen groping with glazed eyes through weighty tomes in the library. Instead they would be in the lab all the time, doing quick, even if sloppy, experiments. These experiments were remarkably simple and revealing, and blazed paths through previously unthought of territory- a tribut to Axelrod's uncanny 'nose'. Axelrod himself continued to work at the bench even after his retirement, eschewing the benefits of the Nobel, the mark of a truly dedicated scientist. Needless to say, there was magic in this approach. In Axelrod's own words, when he wanted to investigate an interesting phenomenon, he would tell his students to 'take a flier on it'. The phrase stuck, and got passed on to Snyder and Pert.
Long after leaving Axelrod's lab, Solomon Snyder would frequently wonder aloud when faced with a particularly recalcitrant problem; "What would Julie think about this?" if seeking divination. Kanigel's description of scientific research makes everything sound exciting, insouciant, and almost effortlessly flowing. Follow your nose, take a flier on something, do whatever you feel like doing- these are phrases that would be music to a graduate student's ears. Unfortunately, it DOES take a Brodie, an Axelrod, and a Snyder, to turn those phrases into spectacular reality, and most of us only achieve success by groping for the door in the dark room, lacking the seemingly infrared goggles that such stalwarts wear, with which to guide their students. However, I have not lost hope, and I think that attitude does count...

The most interesting part of Kanigel's account is the petty and glorious rivalries and other conflicts between the scientists, that threatened to destroy their reputations and credibility. Because they were involved in such important advances, the question of how to apportion the credit for discoveries invariably snubbed its ugly nose into the fray. When Axelrod discovered microsomal enzymes in the liver (a discovery which I think alone would have guaranteed him the Nobel; they are an essential, indispensable part of drug research today), the paper announcing their success had Steve Brodie's name on it as the main author, because he after all was the lab chief, and he had initiated the project in the first place, had provided crucial hints and so on. Now, this graduate student-principal investigator conflict has always been a dilemma, and to this day remains a fiercely disputed matter. More vehement was the debate over the discovery of the so-called opiate receptors. In 1971, Richard Nixon had declared an all-out war on narcotic drugs in a much publicised speech; the Vietnam war had driven many young men to addiction, and suddenly, intense interest and money was channeled into drug addiction research. Many vied for the prize, but the ones to finally get it were Snyder and Pert, who, in 1973 discovered a natural protein in the body that is required for agents like cocaine to elicit their euphoric reaction. Two years later, after another fiercely competitive scramble, Hans Kosterlitz and John Hughes in Aberdeen, Scotland, discovered a natural chemical agent in the body, enkephalins, that bind to this protein and bring about the same mitigating effect on pain. The search for the perfect painkiller has always been one of the hottest topics in medical research, and Snyder and Pert in the process opened up a whole new milieu, that continues to promise exciting insights into our understanding of the nature of physical (and mental) pain and pleasure. Unfortunately, the humdrum world of materialistic rewards is not as idealistic as the world of future possibilities. In 1975, Snyder, Hughes and Kosterlitz were chosen to be awarded the famous Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research. The award is significant, in that almost 80% of its winners have gone on to win the Nobel. Now here at last was the kind of Bronze Ring for which every scientist works all his life...except that there was a significant omission; Candace Pert, the graduate student in Snyder's lab who had done the work. Not surprisingly, the omission was pounced upon by Pert and a host of other groups as being the typical kind of male dominated lobbying that is insidious to all feminism. On one hand, Pert's rancour was justified; she bore the same relationship to Snyder as Hughes bore to Kosterlitz. Yet she was neglected and Hughes was chosen. On the other hand, she created such a furor about the whole incident, that Snyder's name, along with hers, was inadvertently dragged into the mud; the speculation was, and is, rampant that he has missed the Nobel because his reputation was embellished by this controversy. Nonetheless, as one of the most famous neuroscientists in the world, Snyder is yet a worthy candidate for the prize. Pert later published a book called 'Molecules of Emotion' (1997) that explained her part in the tale. During recent years, Pert has become an ardent activist of alternative medicine; maybe she seeks to resurrect her reputation, that in the minds of many has always remained embroiled in the opiate controversy.

Personally, I have read another splendid account of the whole opiate business; Jeff Goldberg's 'Anatomy of a Scientific Discovery', and while Pert definitely did play a crucial role in the work, I think that Hughes's contribution to the enkephalin discovery, made in the dingy and cold labs of Aberdeen, sounds more commendable; Goldblum's vivid descriptions of the most crude and fundamental kind of research that Hughes did, which involved dragging bloodied pig's brains from the local slaughtering house (in exchange for some fine bottled spirits) and literally re-slaughtering them with an ice pick on the floors of his lab, makes morbidly fascinating reading. After comparing the two books, I could not help but feel that Hughes's contributions were much more dedicated and self-initiated than Pert's who after all doggedly worked on the project, but only after Snyder managed to convince her about it's crucial importance. The readers are urged to read both these accounts, written in a very popular kind of style, with the minimal amount of technical details scattered through them, and then too when their description is absolutely necessary for the integrity of the story. They very much read like a fast paced novel.

Thus, Kanigel again hammers home the point; scientists, without exception all of them, are all too human, and not assuming that they are so leads to many of the public's misconceptions about the dealings that go on at the highest level in the halls of research. Research is always as human and exciting an activity as politics or sports (Ugh!). The line between the pursuit of potential benefits, and promising work that gets smothered is thin, and is best exemplified by scientific dynasties, with all their glories and flaws.

Postscript: Of all the emotions, I think the most mysterious one may be love. What is it exactly, that makes us don spectacles of that emotion, through which the whole world suddenly starts appearing different? Could the research of these pioneers lead us to an understanding of the 'molecules of emotion' that Pert talks about, in this case, ones that lead to wistful longing and dreamy-eyed monologues? I don't know, but it would explain the quintessential love potions that have been part of so much folklore from Cinderella to the tales of King Arthur, chemical cocktails that they were purported to be. In any case, many think that if we really find a chemical formula for love, it would undermine it's essential human ingredient. Quite the opposite I think. An understanding of the precise chemical balances in our body, combined with social conditioning that leads people to irrational unexplained actions, specifically designed to win the heart of another human being, would only increase the fascination that we have for that universal emotion, spanning centuries, continents, and races. The fact that such a profound human ethos should be explained by the same kind of molecular interactions that constitute inanimate matter around us, would only add to the magic, i think, and never subtract from it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

I am suffering from the 'Pauli Effect'...or rather, I am making everything around me suffer from it.

Wolfgang Pauli, the famous physicist, was also (in)famous for exercising a bizarre effect especially on mechanical objects and equipment around him. A pure theoretician to the core, he was purported to cause such equipment to malfunction by his sheer presence. For unexplained reasons. when Pauli entered the room, sparks would fly and circuits would short, motors would fall down with a crash, and acids and bases would spill on the floor. According to the physicist James Frank (a Nobel Prize winning experimentalist), even when Pauli would fly overhead in an aircraft, such manifestations would become instantly visible...

Insidious as the Pauli Effect is, I had no idea that it would be passed down over three generations to me of all the people, an innocent lad who has only the highest respect for experimentalists and experiments. With devastating speed, the effect has manifested itself through me, and its first victims are three unfortunate Macs, neatly of three different sizes (12'...sorry...12", 15" and 17") whose hard disks crashed, all in an interval of less than a month, after I started using them. Other star-wars style special effects also became visible in their workings, when I wisely dispatched them to the Apple shop. One of them was my 'brand new' Powerbook. If this is coincidence, then it is the most cruel of destiny's manifestations. I hope the Pauli Effect goes away soon. If I had been assured that I too would win the Nobel Prize, then I would have gladly even smashed electronic equipment around me of my own volition...quite gladly. But the Pauli Effect SANS the ability and the THAT'S a real tragedy. Dear Wolfgang...pray let go; I am sure you will find much more worthy successors who can bring your cherished and exalted legend to life again...

Friday, June 24, 2005


My good friend, a hard worker and a brilliant and insightful chap, was working on the synthesis of a complicated molecule for the last year and a half, almost two years. This Tuesday, the synthesis of that molecule was published by a team of four graduate students and postdocs led by Prof. David Evans of Harvard University, an acknowledged leader in the field. Needless to say, my friend felt morose; he had been scooped. Although I tried to console him and kept reminding him of the knowledge gained in the effort, it was clear that this incident rankled. The more important point concerns future work. This synthesis was an important landmark in the synthesis of an even more complicated molecule, work which would be sizeable for a whole PhD. However, now that the synthesis of the important molecule has been already published, and it is known that Prof. Evans is bent upon finishing the whole big molecule, my friend's advisor is having second thoughts about whether my friend should go for the entire project. Now even though this does not mean that my friend's efforts have been in vain (far from it; the training is invaluable in any case), this case, quite typical of many, raises the question of how credit is apportioned to scientists, and how this is going to (and has already) affected research and its future.

The important fact is, that my friend was the only one working on the project, whereas David Evans had four people (the joke making the rounds being that he also had four whips). No matter if my friend had been the most brilliant organic chemist in the world, perhaps he still would not have been able to do this early all by himself. The big question that emerges is; are the greatest advances in science going to be made by researchers who have the greatest manpower and funding? Is this 'fair'? Ever since WW2, when science became 'big science', the picture of well-placed and influential scientists vying for big government grants and students has become an enduring necessity in the cut-throat world of research, and especially the corporate-like world of science in the United States. Not that these scientists are average; they are world leaders in their fields. But so are a couple of others, maybe working under unprevileged circumstances, in third world countries, with fewer students. The differences in raw ability between the two groups may be small. So is it unfair that the former are lauded and win prizes, while the others languish somewhat in the shadows, many times missing glory by a hairsbreadth? Is the future of science going to be decided by researchers who, even more than ability, have the biggest access to workers and resources?

A case in point is Prof. K. C. Nicolaou at the Scripps Research Institute, arguably the most famous organic chemist in the world today. Over the last fifteen years, his lab has churned out a series of spectacular syntheses of giant molecules having great import, both for the relevance of the field, as well as for medicine. While nobody denies Prof. Nicolaou's erudition, it is quite clear that such factory-like publishing is made possible by the almost fifty people in his lab, most of them postdocs who are already capable workers. All these researchers work day and night, at a pace that would be unmatched by anyone else who lacks this manpower, no matter how brilliant he may be. Another case involves Prof. Robert Langer at MIT, a giant among giants in the field of Biomedical Engineering, and one of the biggest stars in science in the last twenty years. Working in the field of drug delivery and a host of other capabilities, he has already published more than 800 papers in the most famous journals in the world, and filed close to five hundred patents. He has won virtually every award possible in his field, except the Nobel. His secret? Nobody knows for sure, because success in science involves a lot of factors. But one suspects that a large part of it is made possible because of the 100 students and postdocs in his lab, an awe inspiring number. I don't know of any other lab which boasts of such an enormous research family. I could site many such examples. Needless to say, both these men are considered prime candidates for the Nobel Prize by many. So is it unfair to other almost equally brilliant men and women who simply lack the access to manpower and funding? I don't know the answer; it is a big dilemma. And this problem is a very big one and involves the general disparity between people of all ilks in the world. The short answer to the question is, "Yes. It IS unfair. But then, the world is unfair". This answer, while providing comfort to the philosophers among us, does not really solve the practical question of apportioning credit. In the capricious world of research, it is truly difficult to assign credit and due to this, flared tempers and jealous sensibilities abound, as much as in any other area of human affairs.

While there is no 'solution' as such to this grand problem, I think its severity can be mitigated to some extent by reducing our obsession with titles and names, by not blindly getting mesmerized by the aura of the United States, Harvard and Yale and Oxford, and the Nobel Prize, capable as these institutions and their products are. Talent is not an excessively rare commodity, and we would be doing the unluckier wielders of talent a service by acknowledging their existence, in a world in which they are as necessary as their better known and equally talented counterparts. If not the title holder, they are still like Sania Mirza in her latest match, a close and equally respectable distinguished second, if second at all.

Thursday, June 23, 2005


I have been book-tagged by Sumedha and Hirak. Finally...probably the post which I am going to write with the most gusto. However, I am famous for succumbing to the agony of indecision, and because books are so close to my heart, I could keep on writing about them. So I am going to keep this short, because I CAN keep on writing about them forever and nothing about them that I say will be enough for me at least. Suffice it to say that books provide me with the greatest amount of emotional support, sometimes more than those unpredictable human beings ;). So here goes...the tip of the iceberg that it is:

* Total number of books that I own: Never counted, but by broad definition could easily be about five hundred to eight hundred. These include books bought on my own from regular bookstalls, used bookstalls, exhibitions and sales, footpaths (including the trusted man on lakdi pool who used to reserve good ones for me), and others that I have begged, borrowed or stolen for good, and ones which have been presented to me on joyous occasions ( (which does not include the 12th std. results day) by one and all. Ninety percent of the books at my place are 'owned' by my father or me. My mother valiantly tries to make space for her own volumes in the midst of our literary quagmire (like the hundreds of old Reader's Digest issues which I have excluded from my count)

* Last book I bought: Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin's American Prometheus. My obsession with J. Robert Oppenheimer continues and I have read all his biographies published so far.

* Last book I read: Probably two, more or less at the same time. 1776 by David McCullough, a great account of the American Revolution. The other one was The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams, a rollicking set of essays penned in his inimitable style.

* One book I couldn't finish: would probably be Foundation by Isaac Asimov. I am ashamed to say that even though I am a big Asimov fan, some bizarre reason found me constantly gravitating away from this famous book in mid stride. I suspect it was probably the temptation of even more interesting books scattered around me. However, I know that the book is a classic, and I hope to gather together enough focus to finish it sometime.

* Five great books I have read: Obviously this is a tough one, and I could list five hundred. But here goes anyway:

1. The Making of the Atomic Bomb: by Richard Rhodes- A Pulitzer Prize winning book with a deceptively simple title. This volume is an epic in the true sense of the word, a journey into all our sadness and triumphs and woe, the timeless history of the twentieth century all rolled into 600 pages. It is very much a work of history, science, and literature, each theme enumerated at its highest caliber. If we had to name two themes which defined the epoch that was the twentieth century, WAR and SCIENCE/TECHNOLOGY can lay fair claim to be the top candidates. This book is a sweeping and unforgettable journey through these themes, and demonstrates their intimate connection like no other book I have come across. Rhodes is a chronicler without peer of the people, places, and events that symbolized a new age, an age which promises salvation and damnation at the same time. Nothing I could say about this book would do justice to it, and I keep coming back to it at least once a week, many times for unforseeable reasons. As the Nobel Laureate and prime participant in the heroic era of physics, politics and science Isidor Rabi said, it is an "epic worth of Milton". This book also should convince any naysayer, that science, more than anything else, is a human endeavor. Meeting Rhodes last year in Atlanta was one of the most fortunate events in my life. It is very rarely that you get to meet the author of a book that is in many ways, the one that inspired you the most and changed your life.

2. Paradigms Lost: by John Casti- The BEST socio-scientific book that I have read. John Casti has become my favourite science writer, and I have read all his works. I first very fortunately came across this book when one of my father's students gifted it to him. In it, Casti, originally a mathematician, takes a wonderful, penetrating, and immensely expansive and entertaining look at six great problems that humanity faces (not in the practical sense of the term; that is trivial compared to these!). Because science and human problems are not really separate (it's only our feeble minds that need to compartmentalize them), every problem has both a profound scientific and social flavour, and the solution of these, if any, actually will define our existence and our sensibilities, and our place in the Universe. These problems are:
a. The origin of life
b. The acquisition of language
c. The acquisition of traits- nature or nurture?
d. Artificial intelligence
e. Extraterrestrial intelligence
f. Is there an objective 'reality' 'out there'?

Casti's style is very novel and creative. He presents each of these great debates as a courtroom trial, first presenting arguments for the prosecution, then for the defense. Finally, he summarizes everything and steps in as the jury to make the final decision. Predictably, for many problems, there is no final decision, no absolute answer. But we don't care because for every one of these conundrums, the process of discovery is much more revealing than the dogmatic nature of any 'final answer'. Not surprisingly, in solving these problems were, and are, involved the most brilliant minds of the century; natural scientists, philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists to name a few.
One of the most striking things in the book is the sense of humour. Nowhere, even in popular scientific books, have I seen such fine dashes of humour; sophisticated and glib, sarcastic and endearing at the same time. Those who think scientists to be staid, silver haired oracle-like ivory tower figures will have their beliefs rapidly dispelled upon reading this book. Scientists are prone to the same delights and gauche follies that befall everyone else. More than anything else, research is fun, and John Casti is one of its funniest publicity agents.
At the end Casti seeks to ask one of the most gnawing questions that we have: Are human beings special in any way? It is obvious that an affirmative answer to questions like AI or ETI will negate our unique place in the Universe. But again, what I think we are unique right now, is in ASKING these questions in the first place. Like Casti, I think that more than finding, looking and searching are what science and life are really about.

3. Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman- This book started me on my quest as a scientist; I read it in 7th or 8th std. Since then, Feynman and his philosophy have always been with me and guided me in some of the more somber moments of life, and will continue to do so. Just like for many others, he is my personal hero, and I will never ever forget him.

4. Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach- Inspiring in the simplest way possible, it may be the shortest inspirational book ever written. As in his other works, Bach brings a fresh breath of life to our existence in this work, and while it is simplistic, it is worthwhile taking an occasional break from life as we know it, to peruse it.

5. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer- Another earth shattering book that I read at a young age. THE definitive history of Nazi Germany, a thousand page crusade through the story of the greatest evil humanity has ever known. The book is remarkable and unique. Shirer was a war correspondent in Nazi Germany, and one of the few correspondents to leave the country very late. He witnessed the world's spiral into the dark ages first hand. Later after the war, for a very short time, the Allies opened the archives of captured Nazi documents to a select and elite few, Shirer being one of them. From the intensive work that he did during that unique period, Shirer put together this exhaustive and soul wrenching masterpiece, which will truly be the most meticulous account of Hitler's Germany ever written. My father thought that I shouldn't have read detailed accounts of Jews getting gassed at Auschwitz, at such a young age. But I think that the book in some ways, humanized me for life (although it also has made me overly sensitive sometimes to holocaust books and movies). The history of those years is so overwhelming, that for once, the adage of words being inadequate to justify and describe something surely is true. The rest is silence.
The most maddeningly penetrating account I have ever read (and that would likely be ever written) of why those blackest hours of the century should NEVER be forgotten.

OK...couldn't help putting in two more, disguised as one:

6. Giants of Science and Conquest of Disease, two other children's books, that nonethless were key along with Feynman's autobiography in inspiring my scientific interest, as well my interest in the human side of science, at an early age.

All these books are really inspiring for me from a 'lifetime's' perspective. As someone wrote however, many times we are inspired by writers, rather than specific books. Scholars who have recently inspired me include Noam Chomsky and Bertrand Russell. My comparatively recent interests; nuclear and American history, will surely add to such a list down the line.

As can be noted, there is ONE fiction book in there, and it can immediately be concluded that my book ruminations have almost completely leaned toward non-fiction. I am making efforts to read good fiction, and I do have read random and sundry works by Dumas, Wells, Verne, Dickens, and Bronte. I read abridged versions of most classics as a kid, and loved reading some George Bernard Shaw pieces for example. But frankly, I get readily distracted by good non-fiction books that are around. This is not surprising, as my two great interests are science and history. Somehow, I very quickly get inspired by real stories of men and women from different ages. However, my education in fiction will surely continue, thanks to the stalwarts at the Literature Blog

I am spreading the good word...tagging:


Friday, June 17, 2005

My brand new 17' Powerbook G4 has finally arrived. I got lucky. They stopped selling the 15' which was the one I had ordered. By a fortuitous quirk of fate, they shipped me the 17' "instead", and also gave me a considerable discount. Well...I mean, if you insist, I WILL accept it this time...!!!
The display and the resultant graphics are fantasticabulous! It essentially feels like a laptop with the power of a desktop.
Now let me get back to playing with my new pet/toy...

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Before it's too late...

Nuclear Renewal: Commonsense about Energy is a clear cut and fact based objective assesment of the world's, and especially America's, nuclear choices by the acclaimed Richard Rhodes (who I had the pleasure of meeting and actually talking to for a few minutes last year). Compared to his other works, this one is a short one. But just like in his other volumes, Rhodes does not mince any words. He clearly sees that the present American disdain of nuclear power for electricity, remarkable for a nation who started it all in the first place, stems from a combination of public paranoia, bad management and a tendency to oversell on the part of nuclear managers.

It all started in the 50's, when the US Navy, spurred ahead by star Admiral Hyman Rickover's (See Rickover: The Struggle for Excellence) initiative, became the first one to harness nuclear power in their submarines. Quite disastrously, almost the same reactor model was carried over by overambitious Cold War public policy makers and managers, into the public arena for which it was anything but fit. Promises of nuclear technology and reactors were cheerfully oversold, with huge initial investments made, that were mostly based on optimistic future assesments rather than realistic present estimates. The result? Most reactors that were born of this bravado had to decomissioned after only a few years, because the then used models simply were not efficient, and could not pay off the initial investment that had been ceremoniously put in. By the 1970s, America's practical nuclear advantage was stalling. In 1979, Three Mile Island made matters worse, and fuelled a public fear of the word "nuclear" that continues unabated till the present moment (that is why they had to name it Magnetic Resonance Imaging instead of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, which after all is the basic principle from which the medical technique stems; no person would allow himself to be put into a contraption that sported the title "Nuclear").

The most revealing part of the book is the discussion of foreign reactor technologies and economies that Rhodes presents, especially France and Japan. Compared to the US (about 25%), 40% of Japanese electricity and 70% of French electricity comes from nuclear power. Ironically, most of the Japanese reactors are built using US technology. Why the glaring difference? Rhodes's answers and investigations are sobering and again go a long way in telling us how the simplest of human measures can lead to a better world. In Japan, there's simply much better housekeeping in the reactors. Basic things like safety valves and pipes are regularly checked by human beings (quite a telling fact, given the Japanese dominance in automation). The simplest of objects such as bright green fluorescent labels serve as warning signals at crucial points. In case of France, the main approach is different, and a powerful reminder to the opponents who are lobbying the Yucca Mountain project in the US. The French have superior spent fuel reprocessing plants, and care is taken so that the maximum amount of fissile material is recycled. Note that these are the same kind of spent fuel rods, currently sitting in huge water tanks in the US, that US policy makers are planning to actually bury leading to an enormous waste worth billions of dollars, as well as an environmental hazard that would be seen to be almost painfully crafted in an intentional way.

But the most important point, which I thought really highlights man's relation, and conflict, with technology, concerns the basic assumptions that were made in constructing US reactors. Reactor makers right through the 50s sought to make their inventions perfect and infallible. This led not only to an inordinate amount of time in their development, but to painstaking attention to a goal that was absurdly unachievable. The Japanese, on the other hand, never assumed in the first place that their reactors would be perfect and infallible. With this in mind, they instituted double the number of safety measures, as well as easy human entry to the reactors' environs, which would make manual shutting down of the reactors much easier. Faith in human infallibility born of hubris comes, it seems, at the cost of pragmatic failure.

The public's eternal paranoia, almost a morbid fascination with nuclear power, is exacting a heavy toll on future nuclear options, possibly the only thing on the near horizon that can save humanity from the fuel and oil crisis. I remember reading an article by Paul Slovic and others in the December 1991 issue of Science in which they gave an account of a survey, in which people were asked to imagine the general scene that would ensue if a 'moderately serious' nuclear reactor accident happened near their homes. Shockingly, most people's descriptions of the consequences of such an accident more closely resembled the aftermath of a nuclear war, paralleling descriptions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is wildly absurd, given the fact that many many times more people have died because of industrial pollution than from nuclear radiation, let alone nuclear accidents. Also, a 'moderately serious' reactor accident may, if anything, mostly lead to a temporary evacuation of personnel in the immediate vicinity. The image of civilians sprawled dead and dying from such an accident is almost science fiction. The physicist Bernard Cohen has written an eye-opening book ('Before it's too late', 1983), in which he makes a plea for nuclear energy. In the book, Cohen gives an estimate of risks that would be incurred from various random and common events in our lives, including nuclear accidents. It is quite clear, that the risks of me (and you) dying of heart disease, road accidents, pollution, and electric shock, are many hundred times more than those of me (and you) suffering death due to radiation poisoning, no matter if a nuclear reactor continuously runs within a mile of my house for the next fifty years. The public's fears, as Rhodes notes, are simply unfounded, and mainly made more pernicious by the ravings of the anti-nuclear lobby. Similarly, the hazards of burial of nuclear waste are minimal, and can be completely averted if the spent fuel processing noted above is vigorously pursued. This spent fuel processing will essentially leave only either very short lived nuclides which will decay fast, or extremely long lived nuclides, which will decay very slowly, and thus can be safely buried without any significant risks. Clearly, the public needs to be educated as a whole.

The book is not without hope, however (as nothing can ever be). Experiments conducted with a prototype reactor in Idaho in the 80s promise a cheap, renewable, and completely safe source of nuclear energy. Public education about nuclear energy, of the kind vigorously pursued in Japan (they even have regular high-school trips to nuclear power plants) hopefully promise a manifest change in the public's attitude. All that remains is for the public apprehension to subside, and for politicians and policy makers to start looking objectively at the nuclear world, and not simply as yet another political salvo in their foreign policy exegeses.

The real problem is that the word "nuclear", like the word "holocaust", has been so thoroughly and negatively ingrained in our mind, that it has become a painfully evident and constant part of popular culture. We need to take a fresh and detached look at this companion of ours, to whom we are surely bound for eternity. He holds promises on which depend our future and our hopes.

P.S: Rhodes also has written a very informative article in the January/February 2000 issue of 'Foreign Affairs', in which he makes a sound case why nuclear electricity is actually much more feasible and promising than the usually discussed alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


The lull in my posting simply reflects the overdependence on technology that we have succumbed to. My old Mac has broken down. A brand new Powerbook G4 has been ordered. Until it gets here, it feels as if the air that I breathe itself has been sucked into oblivion...

Two movies that I watched last week shed light, or rather raise yet more questions, about the moral dilemmas of war. I will talk about one of them here, and save discussion of the other, 'The Fog of War', for the next post. Actually I have seen 'The Fog of War' many times and had bought the DVD many months back. But I wanted to talk about it in some detail. So...

Path to War (2002) paints a sober and telling picture of the Johnson administration's struggles with Vietnam. Michael Gambon makes a valiant attempt to portray Lyndon Johnson, and almost perfectly succeeds. While admirably displaying LBJ's overbearing demeanour (both physically imposing and intellectually aggressive), he also brings a sensitivity and sense of tormented concern to the role, traits that LBJ possesed to an unusual extent, which few people saw behind the gruff and domineering personality.

The movie focuses on the now well-known trials and tribulations that the administration faced in Vietnam. In retrospect, it looks as if the die had been cast, and the whole state of affairs had the inevitability of a Greek tragedy right from the beginning. Johnson wanted to effect a quick win and draw out; Ho Chi-Minh would have never let Johnson have it, even if it meant the total annihilation of Vietnam. Period. The central issue, that the Vietnamese were not Chinese or Russian Communist pawns, but were essentially fighting for their independence, seems to have been consistently and totally overlooked by the 'best and the brightest'; hand picked, ivy-league educated brilliant men in the administration, which included Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Former CEO of Ford, and the only non-member of the Ford family to hold that post), and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Some, like JFK's National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, purportedly realised quite early that American entry into Vietnam was jinxed, but "persisted in their folly" (according to historian Kai Bird; his 'Colour of Truth' paints an excellent and objective portrait of the 'Bundy brothers', the other of whom was at the Pentagon) Probably the only person who seemed to understand the tenacious doggedness of the Vietnamese was George Ball, Undersecretary of State, whose opinions were repeatedly given a sympathetic ear and then ignored. That war was all about empathizing with the enemy, a fact that the naive idealism of the Americans completely managed to ignore at the time. (In restrospect, in his book, 'In Retrospect- The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam', McNamara analyzes the entire state of affairs in convincing and sane detail. Whatever happened to hindsight then?!)

In the movie, Donald Sutherland powerfully plays Clark Clifford, a personal friend and a special advisor to Johnson, and Alec Baldwin puts up a sincere performance as McNamara (although I thought he was a bit too rotund for the role).
Many memorable dialogues and comments abound in the movie. But I would definitely remember one situation in particular...

The President and his advisors have gathered at Camp David, the presidential retreat, to discuss future policy and action. On one side of Johnson is Clark, on the other is McNamara. Clark at first makes a commonsense argument about how any unilateral effort in Vietnam is going to be doomed. Then comes McNamara's turn. With the cold, precise, logical thinking that he was known for ('Mac the Knife'), he launches into an extended statistical analysis of sorties, deployments, and charts, virtually burying the men around him in numbers. After this protracted ultra-analytical spiel, he somehow seems to have managed to convince the President, on the basis of sheer numbers, that victory in Vietnam seems very plausible. After the long discussion, the advisors step outside for some fresh air. Clark walks over to McNamara, and tells him that it was very interesting to hear him speak today. Clark recounts a tale JFK had told him. During the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most that the world had ever been close to nuclear war, McNamara had provided invaluable advice on how to tackle the situation, and he played a major part in averting a significant disaster. Clark says, "As far as I can remember Bob, that time, you had not made a single statistical analysis, had not put forth any important numbers. You had only used your commonsense and straightforward thinking..."

Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe, who died a few months ago, always believed that science is not going to save humanity. If anything, it will be commonsense, and mutual discussion with the other fellow. Coming from a man who was one of the high priests of science in the twentieth century, this statement may sound strange. But Bethe quite rightly understood, that rationality can only take us so far, and after that, what can possibly save us are only the simple, straightforward ties that link us to each other. Those advisors of the Vietnam war apparently seem to have failed to recognise this, maybe because it was too simple and obvious? The more important question is, has the world of today recognised it? I doubt it...

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The recent ban on smoking in Indian films is such an inane move by the Government, that I don't even think they deserve any lengthy analyses or detailed comments. But I just want to make one extrapolation (out of several I can think of):

Cigarette smoking is injurious to health. Smoke from car exhausts is also injurious to health (and people also drive cars of their own accord). Ergo, the Government should also ban portraying cars in films, or in the least, they should portray only those cars on which clearly visible, big, block lettered pollution control certificates are stuck. Dear Minister Saahab, this is the right thing to do, Yours, Ashutosh.

Monday, June 06, 2005


When I was a kid (!) and even now (!!), I used to simply LOVE Tom and Jerry. The quintessential pair of brats gamboling around, with the most outrageous and hilarious events coming their way, used to tickle my funny bone like no other, and even now it gives me infinite bouts of unadulterated (pun intended: see discussion below) pleasure. Later, I was enchanted by classic films like Alladin, Beauty and the Beast, and of course, the Lion King.

However, if I think about it, in the last couple of years, if I really have to mark out good old-fashioned kinds of animated films that delighted me, I can probably think only of 'Finding Nemo'. What was common between all these films that so enchanted children as well as adults around the globe? I believe it was the eternal and unexpected sense of wonder and hilarity that they inspired in our hearts and minds, and most importantly, their insistence to let children stay children, and to portray a child's dreamland in their milieu.

I think that is what has largely changed in the past decade or so. Animated films, in my opinion, have become too 'adulterated'. The main culprit in this process has been the infiltration of elements of pop-culture in films, the best recent examples being the Shrek pair and 'Shark Tale'. In an attempt at anomaly which will inspire humour, animated film makers have started injecting every contemporary pop-cultural icon, from MacDonalds to the Gap, into films. While the novelty of these lasts for a short time, after that, I am afraid these contraptions just start looking lame. The reason is that they represent too much of an 'adult' phenomenon, something that I think mars the basic innocent childlish feature that is (and should be) so endemic to animated films. The reason Tom and Jerry were so cute and successful was that nobody expected the protagonists to spout contemporary adult nonsense from their mouths. They just went their silly innocent ways, and the unexpected adventures which came their way, made us laugh. Note that my emphasis here is on the word 'unexpected'. In case of Tom and Jerry, most incidents, although simple and even improbable, were largely unanticipated. With films like Shrek, once one pop-culture icon has creeped in, you start expecting the whole coterie of them. You say, "Oooooook. So now it's MacDonald's. What next? Britney Spears? Starbucks? Gucci?" And guess what? Viola! There they are. All of them. All quite predictably filled in. This significantly takes away the excitement from these films.

I am not saying that Shrek and Shark Tale were bad, but because they lacked the component of silliness to a large extent, the silliness which makes children stay children, and which makes adults become children for a while, they lose their kiddish charm, which animated films are inherently supposed to harbour. The image of the inimitable Donald Duck whimsically saying "Wanna fight, wanna fight?!" or the cute toothed brat Bugs Bunny saying "Wassssup doc??!" has been replaced by Will Smith donning the role of the shark slayer and spouting contemporary hip-hop, or by characters from Shrek spitting out tidbits of contemporary, if funny, adult wisdom that look more safely ensconced in "Spy Hard" or "Back to the future" rather than in these films. While such things are OK once in a while, any excess expression of them makes the humour tepid at best. The overall result of all this is that instead of being 'children's animated films', these films become 'animated versions of funny adult movies'.

I also think that one serious real effect of these films is the inspiration from them which small children get, which compels them to start behaving like 'little adults'. Because many of the children and characters in these recent films exemplify this trend, children are tempted to borrow from them and start pretending to be adults, spewing out learned nonsense. This takes away their childlish charm, not to mention their innocence, and at the least, it becomes a nuisance for parents. In fact treating their children as little adults is one of the worst things well-meaning parents can do, which may have permanent untoward effects on the children's psyche. Let children be children, and treat them as ones.

Another simple and practical drawback of these films is that almost all of these pop-culture icons are known mostly and intimately to American audiences. There is a difference between knowing them and intimately being familiar with them as a part of daily life. Only in the latter case can the connection be instantaneous and elicit humour. While any child in India could largely appreciate Tom and Jerry, not many children in India are going to appreciate the familiarity of Starbucks, Estee Lauder, and lines cut and pasted from "Mission Impossible". And they surely cannot (and probably should not!) appreciate Pinocchio wearing a pink thong (Shrek 2)!

Sometimes I wonder if all this contemporary pop-cultural inundation in cartoon films simply reflects the film makers' and artists' inability to think of intelligent and enchanting humour that would fascinate children. Have they fallen prey to the same disease of creative inactivity and 'cartoonist's block', that constantly propels makers of 'normal' adult films to substitute outrageous sexual humour for intelligent humour, as a desperate device for drawing audiences? Do these talented (I assume) people think that they can continue to filch lines, events and icons from other films into their animated films that would make audiences laugh simply because of the 'out-of-place' nature of these things, and keep on going forever with this philosophy? If the answer is yes, then I think that this says as much about the degraded sense of appreciation of the audiences of these films, as it does about the sense of medocrity that the filmakers are propagating. Frankly, notwithstanding the wonderful people who work at Pixar, Disney etc., I think it took much more creativity to make Tom and Jerry than it took to make 'Shark Tale'. Making Shark Tale simply entails thinking like a wacky adult, while making Tom and Jerry really entails becoming a child, thinking like a child, and getting lost in that world which all of us experience only once in our life. Part of this trend is simply a part of the more general flow of films towards being tailored for 'adult' audiences, which I deplore if done to an overt extent. Animated films are essentially supposed to be a part of a children's dreamland. They represent one of the classic vestiges of innocence we have in the modern age of entertainment, and it would be a real tragedy if their true character is lost.

I set out with a heavy heart, full of anticipation, to watch 'Madagascar" this weekend.