Friday, September 30, 2005


I have done dozens of experiments on the machine in the last six months and gathered data.
I needed only two more experiments that would take one night to culminate last six months' effort.
The machine is reserved for the weekend, so I cannot use it. So yesterday night was the only night I could do it.
Needless to say, I was excited and impatient because just one more experiment would bring six months' work to fruition
It would have been a perfect end to a perfect week and an imperfect six months.
The machine was working perfectly, I set up the experiments, waited for some time to see that everything was going smoothly, and went home, whistling. Tomorrow, I said to myself, I will finally get the last piece of data that would propel me to the next stage of work, thus ending six months of tedium at least for now.
I came today morning and checked the machine...there was no data whatsoever....the machine had malfunctioned due to a loss of communication with its control panel. Apparently, this is a 'random' error that occurs occassionally...
This 'random' error did not happen in the last six months.
It happened yesterday, when it should not have.
I will have to start over again on Monday. I feel like immersing myself in the liquid helium into the machine and crying myself to death. Or rather, like beating the machine to death.
My perfect ending to six months' work is spoiled.
This is what is called; This is what is called RESEARCH...
I am growing up...

Thursday, September 29, 2005


Gaurav’s nice post about Tekdi (The Hill) brings back many nostalgic memories of my own…

The tekdi is one of the more significant emblematic symbols in my memory. As long as I can remember, I have had some kind of relationship with it. Since my parents taught in Fergusson College, and since we lived so close to it, I always ventured on the tekdi with my parents and their colleagues in the evening, whenever I could. That was ‘Hanuman Tekdi’, the Fergusson College Hill, and an indispensable part of my earliest memories in life. From the top of this hill, we could see ‘Vetal Tekdi’, the Law College hill, on the horizon. Actually the two tekdis had been part of a continuous formation, but because of the road passing through the middle, have been cast as two. ‘Vetal’ is the phantom. Needless to say, Vetal tekdi always held a morbid allure for me, and I could never dare to venture there by myself as a child.

Hanuman tekdi is a curious hill. It is accessible from many sides. You can access it through Fergusson College of course; this part has been rendered more respectable since, by planting trees around it and putting a fence. You can also climb the tekdi through the Gokhale Institute which is right next door. That way, you are led to two huge water tanks. I remember that we used to play hide and seek around these, and one memorable Diwali dawn, without the knowledge of our parents, launched ‘rockets’ from the tanks because it was too dangerous to do so elsewhere. Another way is from the side of BMCC College. Yet another one is through the hutments near Fergusson, a part through which you would not like to venture. Of course, you can reach either of these locations from any other one by climbing over. About halfway through over the hill, there is a memorial erected to honour the freedom fighter and social reformist Gopal Krishna Gokhale. The famed ‘Servants of India Society’ founded by him used to have its meetings at this place. After a long dip following this point, we climb up another sector, and reach the Hanuman temple, the inveterate meeting place of pensioners. Another dip finally leads to the ‘Pagoda’, which is the end of the tekdi.

My first, most definite ‘independent’ memories of the tekdi are of my excursions on it with my friend from school (He is doing a PhD. in physics at Harvard now). This must have been in 5th or 6th standard I think. At the time, his mother and father taught in Gokhale Institute, and we met through the intermediary of the rickshaw which used to take us to school and drop us home everyday. I used to frequent his house for lunch and conversation. We used to play scientific games and amble over to the tekdi, lost in conversation (Our favourite game used to be the one where you guess the name of a scientist by asking questions about him/her that can be answered only using ‘yes’ or ‘no’). At one particular point, there begins a large segment of tiny hillocks and valleys. The segment was largely abandoned then, and one could use the big crevices at the side of the hillocks as a favourite secret place for meeting. And that’s exactly what we did. We used to run there occasionally and take refuge….from the maidservants at my friend’s place who were instructed with the task of making him change/making us eat/making us study! We took great pride in our considerable number of successes, when we used to lead the two women on to the brink of the tekdi…and then suddenly disappear for good in our secret crevice. The crevice was really secret. I don’t recall almost ever seeing a human being around. It harboured a volume that was large enough for us to read our favourite books, or play our scientific games. It was much later that we heard that some parts of the tekdi were not very safe, and episodes of looting, even murder proliferated in later decades. The tragic tales of more than one college student who committed suicide there also made the tekdi a bit infamous. Luckily, at the time we had never heard of these macabre incidents, and treated it as our backyard. We used to play ‘chor police’ all over the place, the danger of falling and getting badly hurt notwithstanding, the innocently intrepid kids that we were. Once, we spotted a snake; I don’t remember what kind. I have a distinct memory of me wanting to catch it, and my friend constantly issuing a warning that he would tell my parents that ‘Ashutosh was fooling around with a snake’ (I remember those exact words). Times on the tekdi with my friend form a fuzzy and enduring early memory in my mind.

Then my friend moved to Delhi, and I was left alone on my ventures. I don’t remember any particular friends with whom I visited Hanuman tekdi regularly after that, although I always kept going there occasionally right until I came to the US, under the perceived illusion of losing weight. However, now, when I think of the word ‘tekdi’, what comes to my mind first and foremost, is Vetal tekdi. Fear of the ‘Vetal’ haunted me when I was a kid, and so I don’t really recall going there as a very small child. It was only when we started going for ‘PT’ exercises to the Law College ground, that I became aware that Vetal tekdi is as friendly a place as its Hanuman counterpart, and it too is the destination of hundreds of normal human beings every evening.

During that time (from 7th-10th standard or so), my overriding interest in life was insects. I used to haunt the dank corners of the Fergusson library, hunting for arresting books about the creepy and crawly creatures which have been true veterans of evolution. My house used to be filled with big pickle jars stolen from my mom, which housed beetles, grasshoppers, praying mantises and the like. It was the only scientific pursuit that I have seriously pursued in my childhood. Insects were the reason I was alive. Every spare minute I had after school when I was waiting for the rickshaw, and every second of the PT session on the Law College ground, used to be spend in catching insects and coaxing them into small jars and bottles that had seen better times, filled with happy memories of pickles, jams, honey, and ‘gulkand’. I have to thank my PT coach. Early on, he fortunately realized that the words ‘physical training’ have never been programmed into my mind, and ‘exercise’ for me refers only to the ones that you solve in exams. Keeping in tune with this innate quality, I used to spend all my time during the purported PT sessions catching insects on the fringes of the ground. In 8th standard, I snared two friends and infused them with enough enthusiasm for them to be my assistants in this venture. During classroom lectures, we sometimes used to misbehave on purpose (although it did not take much for us to misbehave), so that we could be sent out of class and discuss our next insect excursion. Frequently, I used to pluck mantis filled jars out of my pocket with the same nonchalance that a smoker would pluck his cigarette lighter out of his. Anyway…the tekdi is a heaven for insect lovers, and sometime during that period I finally found a friend who was very much interested in nature (He is now a ‘professional nature lover’ and has led trips and treks of nature enthusiasts all over the country). With him by my side, the tekdi became a veritable kingdom of heaven for me.

Compared to Hanuman tekdi which is a sparse and largely barren hill, Vetal tekdi is a vast panorama of trees and deciduous flora. Such flora inevitably houses an enviable diversity of fauna, and we made the most of it. During our first few excursions, me and my friend discovered roads less traveled, paths not beaten, and secret tunnels enveloped by canopies of vines, that led from one part of the tekdi to the distant another. On the other side of the tekdi was a manufacturing facility built by Mafco. Wonder of wonders, there actually were peacocks there, freely roaming about. Of course, they were few in number, and you needed to have the steps of a ninja to quietly launch yourself into a vantage point so that you could see them. But see them we did, and I will never forget those moments. Once, in the middle of the rainy season, we marched into this verdant heaven, and went as far as our feet would take us, to a place that looked untouched by civilization. Suddenly, my friend alerted me to something moving in a big tree. We immediately took cover in a nearby bush and slowly made our way to the tree. As we took a look from behind our cover, our mouths fell open in astonishment. Even today, it’s a little hard to believe, but we actually saw nine peacocks nestled contently in the tree. An unforgettable spectacle. Males and females alike, basking in the glory of the rain, surrounded by a smattering of green. We sat there with rapt attention for a long time, then carefully made our way back so as not to disturb these magnificent birds. While coming back, the profusion of mud tainted our clothes chocolate. But we did not care. Some photos that I took at the time make me wistful like no other…

Because of our insect excursions, we got to know the tekdi literally like the back of our hand, and I still do. Following the great Edward Wilson’s golden rule of naturalist activity, we never took those paths that people took, instead heading straight into the bush, the thorns and allergens notwithstanding. We reveled in the lack of people and in the abundance of natural life around. We spied rabbits, both brown and white, snakes, and salamanders. Once we fooled around with a teeny scorpion. Emerald beetles walked around, their shells sparkling in the sun, and stick insects lurked around, so perfectly camouflaged, that only after many hours could we see and catch even a single one. But catch them we did. And then we brought them home, watched them munching their pet leaves, and studied their behaviour. One of the most memorable memories I have is when I ‘studied’ the reproductive cycle of the emerald beetle. I actually saw the female lay eggs once, and in the process, go from a sparkling green, to a blood red, all in a few moments. It was brilliant. The simple facts about nature that inspire awe and wonder, all thanks to the tekdi. I used to guard these treasures from the tekdi as if they were diamonds. One not so pleasant episode had me lug myself to my maths coaching class in the evening, fresh from the tekdi with insect filled jars in my pockets. In the first place, I was late. Then I sat at the back, and cheerfully took all the crawly jars out of my pocket and placed them on the table. Through all my four years in the class, the professor had never really liked me anyway…the next moment, I was out of the class, lock stock and mantis, and generously told not to come back for a few days. No wonder I used to hate maths at the time. I know for a fact that everybody who attended that class with me still remembers (and laughs at) my insect adventures.

Gradually, I became busy with other things, and lost touch with my friend. I still used to go and catch insects, but then unfortunately, I grew up. My love for insects translated into a love for endeavors closer to the so-called ‘real world’. I do hope I go back to that ethos sometime…
In the last ten years, I kept on going to Vetal tekdi under the pretext of getting exercise, which I never did. The main reason still was that it probably connected me to my childhood and my entrancement with nature. However, I wonder if the peacocks, beetles, and stick insects are still there. Civilization predictably has encroached upon many of their habitats and livelihoods. Deforestation does much more than destroy the environment and cause global warming. It deprives many of us of experiences that can shape our curiosity and appreciation of the simple wonders of life, and which connect us to our inner roots in the most basic manner. After all the forests are gone, I am afraid that it would be this that we could weep the most for…

Gaurav has quite articulately talked about how one can catch glimpses of the entire coterie of slices of Puneri culture and stages of life on the tekdi. Except in recent times, I never caught any glimpse of that or participated in it, because as a school kid, I was too caught up with observing slices of natural life in general to get diverted towards observing human life. I purposely used to look for paths that avoided the presence of human beings (although I was one myself…) Admittedly, I owe the tekdi a lot for piquing my interest in the natural world. As we go on living our daily lives, it alerted me to the fact that there are a billion times many more creatures around us that are living their own. But yes, the tekdi, in one way or other, fuels the roots of everyone who tread its mud and paths everyday. It provides a reassurance to us that it’s the simplest things that can provide a showcase of life in all its variety, from human to insect. I miss it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The road to reality...

Finally issued Roger Penrose's astounding 'The Road to Reality'. Will let the excellent review from Amazon do the talking.

"If Albert Einstein were alive, he would have a copy of The Road to Reality on his bookshelf. So would Isaac Newton. This may be the most complete mathematical explanation of the universe yet published, and Roger Penrose richly deserves the accolades he will receive for it. That said, let us be perfectly clear: this is not an easy book to read. The number of people in the world who can understand everything in it could probably take a taxi together to Penrose's next lecture. Still, math-friendly readers looking for a substantial and possibly even thrillingly difficult intellectual experience should pick up a copy (carefully--it's over a thousand pages long and weighs nearly 4 pounds) and start at the beginning, where Penrose sets out his purpose: to describe "the search for the underlying principles that govern the behavior of our universe." Beginning with the deceptively simple geometry of Pythagoras and the Greeks, Penrose guides readers through the fundamentals--the incontrovertible bricks that hold up the fanciful mathematical structures of later chapters. From such theoretical delights as complex-number calculus, Riemann surfaces, and Clifford bundles, the tour takes us quickly on to the nature of spacetime. The bulk of the book is then devoted to quantum physics, cosmological theories (including Penrose's favored ideas about string theory and universal inflation), and what we know about how the universe is held together. For physicists, mathematicians, and advanced students, The Road to Reality is an essential field guide to the universe. For enthusiastic amateurs, the book is a project to tackle a bit at a time, one with unimaginable intellectual rewards. --Therese Littleton"

Don't know when I will write a review of this one. Will probably be at it at least for this life and the next. I don't believe I will actually read the book.

Monday, September 26, 2005


Rare audio clip of Nobel Laureate Paul Dirac talking about the so-called 'large number hypothesis', regarding the uncanny similar relations between the various fundamental constants of nature, like Planck's constant, the speed of light, the constant of gravitation and so on. It is delightful and really surprising to find Dirac, one of the greatest physicists of the century (he unified quantum theory with the special theory of relativity, and discovered the fundamental equation for the electron, something that physicists would kill for doing), actually talking continuously for about 8 minutes. Dirac was a man who was almost painfully reserved. Someone remarked that he spoke "once in a light year", another physicist remarked that he talks less in a year than what most of us talk in a day. Almost every famous physicist seems to have his favourite Dirac anecdote, an illustration of his very taciturn nature, and almost extreme attitude of taking every sentence literally. When someone remarked that it was very cold outside, Dirac would actually open the window and verify this fact; this fact was not an instance of studied whimsicality, but innate nature. Once there was a galaxy of physicists engaged in heated conversation over dinner about a subject that Dirac was assuredly interested in. Throughout the dinner, Dirac kept quiet. At the end, someone asked him if he had any opinions about the matter just discussed. Dirac simply said, "It seems that there are always more people interested in talking than in listening". Period. Profound truth enunciated in one statement. I could go on...It was very, very hard to get Paul Dirac to talk...
Dirac himself attributed the source of this extreme reluctance to converse, to a painfully amusing event in his upbringing (which was admittedly not a very happy one). He claims that when he was a child, his father, with a view to instructing him in the French language, asked him to either speak in French or not speak. His father may have simply meant it half-jokingly, but Dirac chose not to speak at all. Vintage Dirac decision. Simple as that...
The associated site also has some revealing audio clips of conversations with David Bohm, John Wheeler, and most importantly, Werner Heisenberg, all key figures in the development of modern physics.

P.S.: John D. Barrow's 'The constants of nature' is an engrossing related read.

Friday, September 23, 2005


Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe- Graham Allison

For about 40$, says Graham Allison, former assistant secretary of defense, you can get two books from; 'The Los Alamos Primer' and 'Atomic Energy for Military Purposes'. The first one is the set of lectures given by physicist Robert Serber, a student of Robert Oppenheimer, as a kind of indoctrination course to new recruits in the Manhattan Project. Classified top secret, they were declassified in the 1970s. The second book is written by Henry DeWolf Smyth, chairman of the physics department at Princeton in the 1940s. The book was an early attempt to demystify the bomb and atomic energy for the public, and was published right after the war in 1946. Allison says that while both books may not actually tell you how to build an atomic bomb, they certainly detail the obstacles faced by scientist and engineers, and explain basic bomb physics and engineering that has to be understood at a fundamental level for pursuing atomic weapons research. Anyone who actually wants to build an atomic bomb would almost certainly want to look at these two at least as a preliminary starting point.

Incidentally, I have copies of both books right now in the bookshelf in front of me. More easily, both can be issued from hundreds of public and university libraries in the US and around the world. Both are completely in the public domain. I first obtained Smyth's book as a summer student at the Indian Institute of Science in 2002. I was wandering about dark, decrepit, and ghostly library stacks, when I chanced upon the book. It looked like it had seen more than its share of library interiors. I promptly browsed it, checked it out, and photocopied it to take back a copy to Pune. The Los Alamos Primer is even easier to obtain. It's right here, at this website, as a PDF document (3.1 MB). Let me add two more books which I also have, again published a long time back; Samuel Glasstone's 'Sourcebook on Atomic Energy'; an extraordinary reference book for basic nuclear properties and information, involving isotopes, reactors, nuclear reactions etc., and 'The Effects of Nuclear Weapons'; a survey of major radiation, shock wave, and thermal effects of atomic weapons. Both are available in most libraries around the world. I could cite a couple more.

The point is that if I or anybody could obtain these books so easily, how hard would it be for a terrorist or terrorist state to build a nuclear bomb based completely on declassified materials in the public domain? Not hard at all, says Allison, at least if someone wants to build a crude bomb that would incur 'only' a few thousand casualties, instead of the 'usual' hundreds of thousands or millions that a failsafe, sophisticated nuclear bomb would bring about. The first thing to do after reading Allison's book on nuclear proliferation and terrorism, is to get the notion of the 'secret' of the atomic bomb out of our mind. There is no such thing (More on this later). A few instances should serve to belabour this point:

1. In 1964, the Lawrence Livermore laboratory in California recruited three brand new physics post-docs with no knowledge of nuclear physics, for a special project. Lab personnel gave these post-docs access to basic materials and nuclear physics and bomb related information available in the public domain. Working with this declassified information, these neophytes with no prior knowledge of weapons design, were able to come up with a workable implosion design for a nuclear weapon in less than six months. It was all the more remarkable that they worked on the implosion design, much more difficult to achieve than the 'gun type' bomb that was used on Hiroshima. The experiment, then secret, was dubbed the 'Nth country' experiment, to determine how fast some country (the 'Nth' one) could actually build an atomic weapon.

2. John Philips was a mere undergraduate at Princeton in 1977. Of his own volition, he undertook the same project as the above post-docs. This time, he had no government support, only a small budget allocated for this project, of the magnitude that would be allocated to any other student working on any other project. This 'project' was actually his undergraduate thesis. Philips had no problem procuring every basic fact necessary for constructing an implosion bomb. When he called the Du Pont company regarding information about the 'shaped' explosive charges that are crucial for implosion bombs, the company official gave to him exactly the same information and material that the company had provided to national labs working on nuclear weapons. In a semester's time, Philips had put together a design for a working atomic bomb. While not actually tested, members of the Princeton physics department who had worked on the Manhattan Project testified that the bomb would work if detonated.

3. In 1979, Progressive magazine, against much government pressure and legislation, was able to publish an article which talked in detail about the design and workings of the H bomb, probably the best kept military secret in the world. This article is also available online in PDF format, right here (3.5 MB).

These events took place in the 1960s and 70s. Now, things would be even more easy, with much more information having been declassified, especially under the Freedom of Information Act. The bombs conceived by the Nth country post-docs and Philips may not have been sleek and perfect. But their yield would undeniably have been a few kilotons. As Allison notes, even a one-kiloton bomb detonated in Times Square in New York city in the middle of the day would kill a few hundreds of thousands of people. So the point is that it is not difficult for terrorists to obtain nuclear weapons. It's almost a trivial point. However, the point becomes even more trivial, because in the light of the well-known nuclear black market scandals of the last decade (like the A Q Khan debacle), it has been made clear that terrorists would never go to the trouble of making nuclear material. They will just buy it.

Graham Allison sounds like an alarmist. He says that if things continue on their present course, it is more likely than not that there will be a nuclear attack on US soil in the next ten years. It does not matter what kind of attack it is. Maybe it will be an impossible logistical scenario for terrorists to detonate thermonuclear weapons in the middle of Manhattan, but that does not matter. Even if terrorists detonate a 'fizzle'- a bomb partially debilitated from years of storage and wear, or from faulty design- the yield would still be enough to cause a serious number of casualties. An even easier way is to explode a 'dirty bomb', a package of conventional explosives with Plutonium added in for good measure. One such bomb will disperse its radioactive material far enough for a sickeningly large people to die of radiation poisoning. In fact Allison wonders how such an attack has not already taken place. Admittedly Allison does scare you sometimes. But there's good reason. It's better to face the facts, especially facts enumerated by someone as authoritative as Allison, in his crisp and readable style, that are always substantiated with accounts of known events. So Allison is not an alarmist but actually a sensible realist. He should know; he served as assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans under Bill Clinton, and is a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government as a leading American expert on nuclear weapons and proliferation.

Allison's book is divided into two parts. In the first part, he talks about who could launch a nuclear attack, where they could obtain the material from, and how they could do it. In the second, he talks about how such an attack can be deterred. Each section is supported by a wealth of data. Unfortunately, as Allison points out, it is all too easy for terrorists to lay their hands on nuclear material. The grotesque nuclear legacy bequeathed to the world by the US and the former Soviet Union ensures that there's more than sufficient material flowing around, which opportunists or disgruntled personnel could easily sell to terrorists, and they already have. The Soviet Union, after it's downfall, became a veritable breeding ground for potential nuclear thieves, when its absurdly large nuclear arsenal suddenly became vulnerable to theft. In many cases, nuclear material was protected by just a padlock. In many cases, not at all. As the new government desperately tried to secure vulnerable material and weapons with assistance from the US in a short period of time, the sheer number of warheads made such a procedure imperfect in its success. Their number? Roughly 22,000. The problem is summed up in Dick Cheney's words, that even if 99% of all weapons are secured- a fantastic achievement- still, more than 200 weapons remain vulnerable to theft. In Allison's opinion, it's most likely that they have already been stolen, and maybe 'cannibalized' and taken apart, thus making their precious cargo free to flow through the black market. Who could be interested in buying this cargo of death? Another trivial question with an obvious answer. Given the events of the past decade, there are an inconceivably large number of people and countries who would be interested in launching a nuclear attack against the US or its allies. Allison lists Al-Quaeda, Hezbollah, Chechen rebels and North Korea, but there many potential opportunists. Unfortunately, many of them are faceless and the weapons they would engender would carry no address labels. Thus, the salient feature of Cold War 'peacekeeping', deterrence, goes down the drain. If you don't know who is going to do it, how can you deter them and keep them at bay through threat of retaliation?

Once terrorists acquire a nuclear weapon of any kind, from any one of thousands of sources, Allison demonstrates that the US border is anything but secure, and that there are any number of entry points that could serve to get such material into the country. An alarmingly large number of shipped containers are never opened by customs (unlike the detailed passenger baggage checks at airports), and Allison contends that current X-ray machines and other protocols are unable to detect the presence of Uranium 238, which has a weak radioactive signature. As is well known, X-ray machines usually detect only the two dimensional shape of an object (which is why they checked my Tuna cans last year, based on their suspicious cylindrical shape in my bag). Allison's point is made clear when he cites the staged shipment of Uranium 238 by an ABC film crew from Indonesia in 2003, that was carried out to reinforce the point of vulnerability. The shipment was made through the most innocuous channels; it was packaged in regular cargo boxes in Indonesia, and then it was shipped through US borders without the shipping agent (such as FedEX) asking a single question to the crew about the details of the shipment. The shipment successfully made it through US customs, and the ABC crew filmed the unpacking of the Uranium in a Los Angeles warehouse. To say the least, it was an embarrassing moment for the administration. However, since then, security protocols for shipped cargo haven't significantly improved. Everywhere across US borders- Mexico, Washington State, Florida, Michigan- there is no foolproof system that will detect nuclear material in transported cargo. Agents patrolling these borders sometimes are allocated a few miles of border per agent, making it impossible for them to check every border point all the time. Cases of smugglers being caught appear in the press all the time. It is unnerving to imagine the number that haven't been caught. Allison says that if one wanted to go boating on the Great Lakes, at some places, there is absolutely no physical landmark, let alone security measure, separating one country from another! In a nutshell then, it is not difficult for terrorists to acquire nuclear material and smuggle it across US borders. Once inside, it is impossible to predict when and where and in what form they can use it. The point I think about, is that how much security is enough? For one thing, the people of the most libertarian nation in the world are already complaining about the curtailment of their freedom and the constant security checks they have to undergo. More security is simply going to lead to more suffocation of privileges and more desperation induced in turn. Moreover, it seems to be very difficult even with all that security to not be fooled by false positives; Allison cites a case of a man in a New York subway, who triggered radiation sensors in the train. Within minutes, he was surrounded by FBI agents and police officers in a classic "Drop your weapon!" movie scenario. It turned out that the radioactive Iodine that he had consumed for thyroid disease, had triggered the alarm. Unless we tackle the roots of terrorism, increased security is simply going to cause other problems, and it still may never be enough.

With such a somber background, Allison then proceeds to expound upon measures to prevent such horrendous acts from taking place. Interestingly and also not very surprisingly, his account goes much beyond nuclear terrorism, and he talks about a sober and strong US foreign policy that would be essential to accomplish this. He cites three 'no's' that we need to adhere to in order to stop nuclear proliferation; no loose nuclear weapons, no new nuclear weapons, and no new nuclear weapons states. Allison makes it clear that the US has to play a complex game of carrots and sticks with would-be nuclear states and governments. Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea top the list of states that it would have to contend with. Allison's stance toward North Korea is clear; stop weapons development or face precision bombing of your facilities. It's probably the only time in the book that I felt this otherwise mild sounding Democrat get belligerent. For states to comply, the US should be ready to extent generous economic and technological benefits to them. In the last section, Allison talks about conducting a humble foreign policy, about international cooperation, and the cessation of unilateral measures that the US has always seemed to believe in. He talks about securing the aid of local intelligence forces in various states, of bartering information with local political leaders, and combined action against the miscreants. Clearly, no nation who looks upon the US as a bully will readily engage in such joint activities. It's interesting how the solution of so many large scale problems always involves a mild and generous US foreign policy as a major component. Shouldn't they really start listening now? Allison cites the procrastination towards nuclear proliferation that the administration exhibited in the aftermath of 9/11, with their distracting focus on Iraq. He says that valuable time was given to North Korea and Iran to nourish their nuclear arsenals because the US made the world divert its attention towards Iraq.

Allison's book is sobering. I believe what he says, because the sheer number of loose nuclear weapons that have to be secured makes it very likely that at least a few of them will be in the wrong hands. Also, it is very easy for terrorists to cause SOME nuclear incident to happen; because even a fizzled bomb or a dirty bomb would have tragic consequences, unfortunately it's too damn easy for them to achieve SOMETHING that will cause a loss of life. Political leaders like to point out details about weapons design that are still assuredly secret. But the point is that terrorists don't NEED those details to simply build a crude bomb. The inclusion of maverick suicide bombers among their ranks makes their task even easier. Allison's book gives you a feeling that nuclear terrorism is like natural disasters, something that you are going to have to live with, and simply try to mitigate. His measures, although cogent, will have to be acted upon in order to have effect. Securing nuclear weapons, disallowing states to process uranium or plutonium, and putting constant pressure on non-nuclear states to prevent them from going nuclear; all of these are big enterprises. They involve cooperative dedication by political leaders, and most importantly, international cooperation. Given the pall of bureaucracy that has descended on every aspect of government everywhere in the world, this surely is not going to happen in the near future. But there have been a few success stories, most notably the nuclear disarmament of Libya. There is always hope. But I think most importantly, again and again, we are led to the singular questions about world peace that will continue to haunt us unless we come together. Preventing nuclear terrorism will finally involve preventing terrorism. And preventing terrorism is really a profound problem, that involves mitigating religious strife, eradicating poverty, and liberating women. It is paradoxical that the ultimate solutions for preventing nuclear terrorism have nothing to do with nuclear weapons or terrorism at all. They again have to do with the age old question of conforming to the ideal of there being equality in the world. It takes much more conviction for achieving that than for preventing nuclear terrorism. For doing that, one thing seems to be sure: the policy of "You are either with us or against us" is surely not going to work...


A publisher in New York perused my blog and has sent me a free copy of Noam Chomsky's latest Imperial Ambitions as part of a promotional campaign to raise awareness about the book in the blogsphere. He saw that I was interested in Chomsky after reading a reference to him in, of all the places, my post on arranged marriage! Looking forward to reading it :)

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Forbes magazine has a list of the hundred 'most powerful' women in the world. Not surprisingly, after citing Condoleeza Rice as number one, the list has a smattering of women almost exclusively from business, politics, and entertainment.

While this is keeping quite in line with the current corporate culture and power politics scenario in the world, I do hope that in the year 2050 (possibly earlier!), such a list will include women who are making important scientific discoveries, who are making significant strides towards saving the environment, towards banning land mines, women who are leaders in HIV prevention, women who have started significant programs for general education and sex education of third world women, and women who are in the forefront of the fight against child labour and child abuse, among others. I do hope that we can revise our opinions about the ones who are seen as most 'powerful'. If the ones cited above seem significant for our present, it is the low profile ones, mostly working behind the scenes, who are going to save our future for us and our future generations. In the annals of world history, when we have become as ancient as the pyramids, they are the ones who will emerge as the most 'powerful' ones.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Network communication over a token ring network using tokens: Protein translocation in the Golgi complex and endoplasmic reticulum using signal peptides

Thursday, September 15, 2005

You know you should go to sleep when:

On the half-empty Pringles Potato Chips pack, you scan the ingredients and read "invertebrate sugar" instead of "inverted sugar" and start running helter-skelter...

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


I have always found it very interesting and amusing that Einstein could produce a marvel of counter-intuitive brilliance; the theory of relativity, and yet could not come to terms with another paradigm of brilliance- quantum theory. The reason also seems to be interesting, and while an extrapolation to the matters of daily life might seem more philosophical then plausible, it does seem to lead to an tempting interpretation of life. Here's the way I think about it:

While the framework of relativity is definitely counter-intuitive, the laws governing the framework are nonetheless, definite. Just as in Isaac Newton's universe, in Einstein's universe, if you know the position and velocity of every particle in the present, then you could predict its future condition, no matter how strange a game of nature that particle's attributes may seem to play. Even though the properties of matter and the universe as dictated by the mandates of relativity are strange, they nonetheless are predictable.
But in quantum mechanics, you simply cannot know the future; in fact, you cannot also know the present for sure. There, the game is one of probabilities, and no matter how accurately you may try to measure attributes of a particle, the uncertainty principle and the basic probabilistic nature of the laws that govern the microscopic, forbid you from being sure about anything.Within the framework of probabilities, there is exquisite certainty, but only within that framework.

It seems that what Einstein wanted was security and predictability, just like many of us do in daily life. We are prepared to accept a bizarre existence (if not too easily) provided it is certain. Bizarre certainty is preferable to normal uncertainty. If I know that everytime I fly to India, I have to swim the English channel, over time I will accept this weird notion, no matter how preposterous it sounds like, because it is certain. It obeys a law that has been ordained, no matter how ridiculous (not to mention possibly fatally arduous for me). In fact, many of us accept many things in our life, not because they logically make sense, but because centuries of convention have dictated that they be done a particular way. Relativity is just like that. Strange, but largely certain and predictable.

However, what we cannot come to terms with is uncertainty, even in simple matters. We can accept the notion that that we will meet our sweetheart only after four years of separation, no matter how painful the feeling may be, but it is much harder to accept the uncertainty that maybe we will meet her the next moment, or maybe in two months, or maybe she will show up at our doorstep only when we are seventy...or maybe not at all. That is a much harder pill to swallow. But that is exactly the fluid landscape of quantum mechanics. We can never predict even the simplest thing such as the trajectory of an electron. We can only talk about probabilistic estimates of that attribute. Einstein could never accept this; hence he said 'God does not play dice', a pithy statement that has been overinterpreted and turned into a cliche over the years. He could bear the thought of a certain version of even an outlandishly fantastic reality, but not the thought of an uncertain version of everyday, mundane reality.

Interestingly, if we think about it, the ability to come to terms with uncertainty is usually considered as one of the important signs of human maturity. It is only a small child who insists that everything be certain in the world. Long before physics, human beings have already known that uncertainty is a painful but essential ingredient of our existence. Einstein was a visionary with an acutely sensitive awareness of nature. What distinguished him apart from every other scientist of his time? Many answers, in no ways certain, have been touted, but his own reply seems convincing. He said that he had the same sense of wonder that a five year old has, and in fact all of us have this sense at that age. But fortunately or unfortunately, we lose that sense of wonder and curiosity as we grow up. Einstein, however, never lost that magical sense. He retained it throughout his life, and it proselytized into a powerful way of probing the most fundamental features of the universe. In that sense, Einstein says, he never grew up. Was his inability to accept quantum mechanics and its uncertainty also a manifestation of his state of being a child forever? Did the immaturity of a five year old also, along with the sense of wonder, outgrow his age? It's an interesting thought.

But there's also a twist, because it is precisely a drive to find certainty among uncertainty that makes revolutionary discoveries possible, and this drive is the essential condition for a scientist to probe the edge of the unknown, to search for order in a world of fuzzy correlations. In case of quantum theory, it was ironically this very search for certainty that led Werner Heisenberg to abandon models of the atom altogether, and work purely with the mathematics, with a brave foray into the unknown. The startling feature that he discovered; the existence of classical attributes like momentum and position that do not commute, that directly gave birth to the edifice of modern quantum theory. Like many others, Heisenberg also was trying to look for certainty in uncertainty. Paradoxically, he found out the sine quo non of physical laws, that the only thing that is certain is uncertainty. I believe that this once and for all, destroyed the feeling of exalted assurance that we had, in a way a feeling of hubris that we could know everything. This, along with Kurt Godel's extraordinary discovery of the so-called 'Incompleteness Theorem'- the fact that there are certain statements even in the most pristine of mathematical systems whose truth value cannot be ascertained- were two defining moments for our human existence. I like to think that this was the time when scientists truly matured, when they really became ensconced in the same kind of existence that all of us have always lived, seamless integrating the vagaries of nature with those of life. We grew up at last. But one does get the feeling that Einstein did get left behind, although mavericks frequently face that fate. Only time can tell whether he truly was behind, or just like he was before, way ahead of us to be beyond recognition...

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Chitra Divakaruni has written a wholly unexceptional, simple, and commonplace book. There are no dramatic overtures, no startling revelations, no sudden complications (mostly). And this is precisely what makes her such an effective writer, this is exactly what gives her descriptions of women in arranged marriages, a draconian element of common gloom. I have to say that this is one of the most depressing books I have read recently, because the mundane and universal tales of arranged marriage that Divakaruni weaves make one realize that all over India, hundreds of thousands of women live the lives which she has described. There are many in the book that begin and end so unexceptionally, that you wonder whether the writer is telling us a story, or merely describing a scene on a typical busy day at the market. And that is exactly what the lives of many women caught in Divakaruni’s (and India’s) arranged marriages seem to have become- uninteresting and cliché scenes of life that tread on their inevitable trajectory. Let me describe two:

‘The Bats’ tells us a story seen through the eyes of a small girl, whose mother is being ill treated by her husband every day. The girl’s descriptions of her mother’s sobs, expressed furtively at night so that nobody should hear, are described as if they represent the shackles that women wear all over our country, the supposedly inevitable trials that they bear without resentment. The silent suffering that the mother undergoes, the little girl’s painful bewilderment at her mother’s travails, and her mother’s futile attempts to answer her questions about what is happening, are harrowing to say the least. Finally, in order to save her own sanity and that of her child, the mother decides to surreptitiously go to her uncle’s place, far away in the village. The scenic descriptions of the countryside and the city, her uncle, and the rustic and nourishing life in a village that the girl recounts, could strike a chord only in the hearts of Indians or those who have visited India. Mother and child seek refuge in the kindly old man’s small house. The little girl is delighted by the hues that nature paints in the countryside, and she is enraptured by the fishing trips she undertakes with her grandfather. The story ends, on no certain note, with the girl’s father calling the two back to the city, and promising to be more tolerant the next time...

‘Clothes’ is a more interesting story and one that drives home a general point about the plight of women in arranged marriages, in a more general and distinct manner. It talks about a girl from a rural Indian town ('Roja' from the film with the same name comes to mind) who is about to be married to a man settled in the US who owns a gas station and the inevitable store next to it- quite a typical scenario in its general form. The story is again told from the perspective of the girl. She is at once excited, apprehensive, and fearful. This story is interesting because it has no elements of injustice or oppression. The husband is a good man, and he admittedly loves her and is understanding, and the girl’s in-laws are kind people, if somewhat strict in their demeanor. The girl’s in laws don’t even oppose her wish to teach in a school. Her husband dreams along with her about a life where they can earn enough money to live comfortably, buys new clothes for her, and enthusiastically shows her around the supermarket. The girl is happy to be with him, and happy with the life she is living. The end of the story, best not divulged, ends in a tragedy and also in a glimmer of hope.

The reason why this book seems depressing to me is because it again raises the question which is asked many times. Are girls in arranged marriages really happy? Or have they convinced themselves to be happy, because they have convinced themselves that this is the life they must inevitably live? In their readiness for ‘compromises’, apparently a condition that is frequently touted to be particularly essential for arranged marriages, have they compromised their will, and their sense of liberty and conscious thought? Admittedly, their husbands are frequently making much less of compromises, so one does get the feeling that the situation is not as ideally symmetric as it sounds earlier. Put another way, have they settled for whatever they have, because they think they cannot get something better? Do they even think they deserve any better? Notice that this question would not arise if the marriage is a love marriage. There we already know what's best for us. There, we know that we are happy. The girl in ‘Clothes’ seems innocently happy, but is the happiness really that emanating from a conscious evaluation of her situation, or is it a consequence of something that she has convinced herself, simply cannot be another way? Is the happiness her choice? In fact, she seems to have been brought up in such a way that her parents have almost unconsciously made her believe that not only will she be happy this way, but also that she should be proud of her happiness. Parents propose; daughters dispose.

I believe that the illusion of happiness and satisfaction that women in arranged marriages have is an insidious and tormented crack in the foundation, and just like Noam Chomsky’s famed ‘manufacture of consent’, is much more dangerous to women’s liberation than outright oppression. Just like Chomsky describes the thought control that a ‘democratic’ government imposes on the unconscious psyche of its citizens, do parents impose a life of preorganised order and happiness on their daughters’ lives, sometimes themselves doing it unconsciously? In Chomsky’s model, the people are made to believe all their life that they are free and happy, and it is exactly on this sense of satisfaction that the government preys through subtle means. Similarly girls are made to believe (many times by ‘allowing’ them access to higher education) that they are in control of their destiny, and that even an arranged marriage is essentially a decision of their volition
This crack is truly damaging. That’s simply because, a lot of times, on the face of it, it is not visible, because everybody appears happy. But what many women have done is form their own little world, and resign themselves to be happy within its constraints. In fact, I fear that they form this happy little world precisely because they don’t want to face an alternative, damning reality. I always have this complaint against even well meaning middle class parents who are apparently well educated. The fact that they allow their daughters to get engineering and medical degrees is not enough. Do they actually turn their daughters into independent thinkers, who could, and should, even defy them, when necessary? Maybe they need to define being well educated again. I have no complaint against girls who ‘willingly’ entered into an arranged marriage, as long as they are supremely confident of this ‘will’ of theirs. But there are so many marriages, in fact arranged and otherwise, where looking back ten years down the line, almost as a revelation, we see that the girl has made many more sacrifices, many times the only ones. By that time, she has had kids, nobody wants to have an altercation and damage an enduring marriage, and so everybody is again happy. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; they seem to have it all...I believe that they may have foresworn all of it.

This scenario of enforced happiness that seems to leave everyone smug and satisfied, is sickeningly more striking and depressing than all-out and vociferous arguments about marriage and women’s equality. Such scenarios abound in Divakaruni’s book, and it is precisely their commonplace, uninteresting, matter of fact ethos which screams at us to lift the veil and see and know better. It is their trivially obvious nature that alerts us to the zombie like existence lived by many girls in our society. Of course, like the beings inside the Matrix, they never know what they miss, so they might as well continue this blissfully unaware way of life. But then their behavior defeats every cardinal feature of human idealism, our capacity and vision to break free and see beyond our condition. If this is what these girls wish to do, then their plight is no different from the slaves in Southern American plantations, who happily used to sing songs during the night around a fire- definitely an exaggerated analogy, but an analogy nonetheless (Actually the condition of slaves was probably better, because they were aware of their condition and simply indulged in festive events to stave off the depressing feeling)

Of course, philosophically, the general question about the bourgeois concept of happiness is unresolvable (Me: Of course I am happy. You: No no, you only think you are. Me: No! I insist that I am happy. You: No! That's exactly where the illusion lies...). But no amount of philosophical cogitation can get rid of what 'is'.
Maybe girls in arranged marriages will object to my descriptions. But if I ask them if they are happy and if they have always consciously been happy, can they dare to answer otherwise? More importantly, are they capable of answering? If the answer to these questions is yes, then it does not matter anyway, because as Gibbon said, "The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous"...

Monday, September 12, 2005


I encountered yet another instance of a song that was deeply embedded in my psyche but then got lost somewhere during the march of time. I was wading through random blogs and came across this blog, where the author has described a time when she was returning home in a busy and typically cramped Mumbai local train. The train stopped for a few moments near a station, and her attention was diverted to a hutment where a family among the millions of exceptionally poor families in Mumai resided. The notes of a song wafted out through the was Humaree hee mutthi mein akash sara from the movie Prahaar. The song got the author to think about the condition of the hut dwellers, its inspiring lyrics, and whether it is inspiration or irony that the song existed in such a place at such a time, for such impoverished beings. Later on, she wondered whether, for the people in the hut, the stars and the heavens were really within their reach, or whether it was just an ironic quirk of fate that it was singing false hopes for them.

As far as I was concerned, it immediately took me back to my school days many years back, when we had sung and played this song for the annual social. It is a simple and very inspiring song, that tells us to blaze our own paths, to forge our own destiny, to keep going inspite of all odds, and to wade on alone if nobody else comes with us. A sample:

"Hamare piche koi aae na aae,
hame hee to pahale pahuchna waha hai,
jin par he chalana naee pidhiyo ko,
unhi rasto ko banana hame hai.
Jo bhi saath aaye, unhe saath lele,
agar na koi saath de to akele.
Sulga ke khudko mitade andhera,
disha jisse pehechaan sansaar saraa..."

The lyrics, the haunting voice of Manna De, and most importantly the movie Prahaar, made sure that this song will always live in my memory. Listen to the song on Musicindiaonline here.

Prahaar was a very good movie. It talks about an army officer who resists a group of threatening goons in his locality, finally fighting them and giving up his life for his principles. This army officer was a top commando who had lost his legs in a raid to rescue children who were kidnapped by terrorists. His commanding superior officer (Nana Patekar) is a man of principles, who is aghast on learning about his death, and tries to bring it to the attention of the police and press so that they can do something about it. He also tries to appeal to the dead man's neighbours to appear as witnesses in court, because they had actually seen him getting killed. But all his efforts are in vain. Finally, because of the complacency, the corruption and the hypocrisy, the selfishness, and the sheer indifference to human life that he witnesses, he goes into a frenzy and kills all the goons singlehandedly. The movie was quite riveting, and it was vintage Nana Patekar stuff, with his role and the story appearing to be custom-made for him.

In the ensuing years, Prahaar's message became somewhat cliche, but the tag line still rings very true, and the question it raised still is a profound one- while it is easy to fight an enemy in war because his identity is a definite one, what does one do about 'internal' enemies, citizens of his own country who are bent on abusing their previleges and destroying their nation? In the first place, it can be difficult to identify them. But most importantly (and this is a point not belaboured in the movie), many of them are not actually breaking any law, but are weakening the integrity of their nation through sheer complacence and indifference, and their flaunting of the rights which their government has conferred upon them. They are as much of culprits as armed goons who destroy the peace. What does one do about them? There is no infrastructure erected to 'bring them to justice'...In this age of terrorism without borders, this question is among the cardinal ones that we face, and while the answer is not simple at all, I think it has to do a lot with one phrase- international cooperation.


In this very well-written article on the BBC site (where else) Harold Evans (author of the sweeping and superb The American Century) talks about the American philosophy of Social Darwinism (originally a British invention), the principle that governments are not responsible for the welfare of their citizens, when the citizens can rise above their condition through grit and hard work- essentially the survival of the fittest. This principle seems to have been reponsible for much of American growth and prosperity during the last century. The promised land acquired the epithet of the 'land of the opportunity' exactly through this virtue. However, as Evans mentions, Herbert Hoover rose through the repudiation of exactly this same principle, during the floods in Mississippi in 1927, an exact parallel to the situation today. Literally wading knee deep in the floods and assisting in the relief work, Hoover embraced the people and their needs. This was responsible for his rise to the presidency. Ironically, Hoover forgot about this principle and reembraced Social Darwinism during the Great Depression, where survival of the fittest really wasn't a phrase anybody wanted to hear (Instead it was 'Buddy, can you spare a dime?'). Evans says:

"Why then is Hoover almost a dirty word in the history books? It is because faced with a bigger challenge than the floods - the Great Depression with 13 million out of work - he refused to recognise the responsibility of government to relieve individual suffering. He believed that economic depressions, like natural disasters, were acts of God that must run their course. He expected voluntary acts of compassion by business and good neighbours would be enough, as they mostly had been in his humanitarian work in World War I. But the Depression affected so many millions it was too big and complex for that."

The man who turned the tide was of course, Franklin Roosevelt. Realising the simply benefits of large scale relief work and simple acts of comradery on the part of the government, FDR shook the shackles of pity and poverty engulfing the country. As Evans puts it,

"In 1932 Hoover lost both his reputation and the presidency in a landslide to his Democratic challenger Franklin Roosevelt. The New Deal FDR ushered in - signing 15 bills in his first 100 days - almost drove a stake through the heart of Social Darwinism. Never before had government so directly shored up the lives of individual Americans at every social level and class. It was the foundation of a welfare state - a ringing reaffirmation of America's commitment to huddled masses yearning to share in the great American Dream."

Evans is quite optimistic that the current spate of empathy and large scale horror evoked by Hurricane Katrina will again serve to extinguish the principles of Social Darwinism and galvanize the government. But GW is obviously not doing it. In the first place, what he said- that nobody expected the levees to break- flies in the face of facts known for decades. If it's anyone that will finally abolish Social Darwinism, it's the people. And not just in the United States, but in the world. Paradoxically, but not quite, mutual cooperation and assistance are going to be essential to achieve the very goals that were deemed as 'individualistic' earlier- the pursuit of personal happiness, success, and freedom. So Social Darwinism, although not quite dead, may take on an alter ego, that even Darwin may not have recognised.

In the end, I think that Social Darwinism is also simply related to the availability of resources. Only when there are enough resources around can one think of pursuing his dreams through hard work and rising to the top. In a country which has always been blessed with more than ample resources, it was relatively easy to rise to glory through sheer grit. But now, that idealistic principle of self-resourcefulness is going to be limited by the heights we can achieve that are in turn going to be limited with what we can do as insular nations, especially with the energy and oil crisis looming on the horizon. If there's any success we can achieve, it's going to be through helping each other in the most comprehensive sense. But before that, we have to learn to respect diversity, accept the fact that people all over the world are (mostly) the same, no matter how different they may appear. And unless this sense of empathy is deeply imbibed, Social Darwinism will always continue to poke its head through the veneer of human folly and weakness. Empathy. It's going to be all about empathy. It always was.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

TOO FAST ON THE TRIGGER- Edward Teller and our nuclear legacy

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Memoirs: A Twentieth Century Life in Science and Politics- Edward Teller and Judith Schoolery.
Perseus Group Books (2002)

Sometimes you get the feeling that Edward Teller is simply making too many excuses. Maybe he is making them to preserve his record for posterity. A man who measured his influence by the number of enemies he had, he probably would not make excuses to justify his actions to his detractors. Given this stance, Teller was surprisingly thin-skinned, and unintended slights could cut him to the quick.
Yet you also get the feeling that Teller is being apologetic, that he wants to, but cannot quite admit, that personal misgivings and ambitions frequently coloured his massive and extraordinarily powerful rational power of thinking, that behind the domineering presence, there is hidden a sensitive man, larger than life and generous with his friends, who simply was overwhelmed by his alter egos. Unfortunately, when you are as brilliant and vocal as Teller, your mistakes leave a much bigger mark on history than those of lesser mortals, and you cannot erase the voices that the will emerge from the void of the future that will judge you. Those voices would speak to the mute volume of memoirs that Teller penned towards the end of his years, as a heroic and unique survivor of an extraordinary time.

No scientist in the latter half of the twentieth century has exercised so much influence over governments and the arms race as Teller. No scientist has been maligned so much for his actions. And yet Teller’s life began in innocence, in fair Budapest in 1908, when the world was a much different place. When he died in 2003, it had profoundly changed, and Teller was no small contributor to that change. Teller’s childhood was marked by a deeply ingrained hatred of communism, inculcated by the regimes that were toppling democracy and enforcing the rule of force in Hungary. Teller was not alone in having these resentments; his compatriots John von Neumann, Eugene Wigner, Theodor von Karman, and Leo Szilard also felt them. All would become exceptionally brilliant scientists, all would flee from totalitarianism and immigrate to the United States, all would be instrumental in the making of the atomic bomb and the harnessing of the nuclear genie, yet nobody would demonstrate a temperament as volatile and emotional as Teller and nobody would have such far-reaching influences that would define a period of turmoil and imminent catastrophe. Teller’s descriptions of his childhood make heartwarming reading, they speak of a lost time and place, the idyllic and innocent paradise of central and Eastern Europe, which would get heartbreakingly devastated and permanently marred in a few years. Teller talks with painful affection about his childhood friends, many of whom perished in the concentration camps in World War 2. He tries to hide the agony of being different and special in a matter of fact tone, sometimes laced with humour, and with affectionate Hungarian poems; throughout his life, Teller retained a great appreciation of literature and poetry, and was a pianist of almost professional caliber.

Many months back, I compared Teller to Otto Octavius of Spiderman-2 fame, and I won’t go over all the details of his life, which I summarized in that post. Teller grew in fame and achievements through definitive decades of the century- as a graduate student with Werner Heisenberg, as a professor in England and in the United States, and finally, as the foremost and most enthusiastic proponent and designer of nuclear weapons that probably will ever be born. During this time, he rubbed shoulders, and also fell from the graces of, the greatest minds of the century- along with his fellow Hungarians, Teller stood with Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, and scores of others. He went down in history as Leo Szilard’s chauffer; he drove Szilard to meet Einstein, the meeting in which the eminent physicist wrote the now famous letter warning President Roosevelt of the discovery of nuclear fission, and the ominous possibility of the Nazis building an atomic bomb. After this incident, Teller, more than anyone else, worked to make US authorities aware of the gravity of the situation. It is an amusing irony of politics and history that is was not American scientists but ‘enemy aliens’ from Europe who egged the US Government on to pursue the development of atomic energy.

Teller’s journey into fame and infamy, into endearment and notoriety, began with his work on the Manhattan Project. In the summer of 1942, at Oppenheimer’s beckoning, he joined an elite and small group of physicists who worked out the basic physics of atomic weapons in Oppenheimer’s office at the University of California, Berkeley. While the other participants, including Hans Bethe, pursued the elusive goal of trying to achieve an explosion that would shine brighter than a thousand suns, Teller was distracted by the power of the sun itself; whether instead of fission, one could achieve nuclear fusion by using the energy of a fission weapon, thus harnessing the source of energy that has kept the sun burning for billions of years. Needless to say, this was distracting at a time when the fission bomb was far from being a reality. Another time, Teller raised the ominous possibility of the atmosphere getting ignited by an atomic explosion, a possibility that was quickly shown to be ‘almost impossible’ by the thoroughgoing Hans Bethe.
During the Manhattan Project, Teller was outraged when he was passed over by Oppenheimer to be director of the theoretical division, the key section of the project. Oppenheimer instead chose Bethe, who was much more consistent and meticulous, and not given to wild, if brilliant, fantasizing like Teller. When Teller refused to work on the complex implosion calculations that were necessary for the atomic bomb, the patient Oppenheimer formed a group for Teller to pursue his own ideas on fusion. This created a gap in the fission group, a gap that had to be filled with three or four other scientists to compensate for the brilliant Hungarian’s abilities. From this time on, in spite of some valuable contributions, Teller created more problems than solved them. His late-night piano playing did not help. As was aptly put, “Teller managed to keep more Nobel Laureates awake than he could have done at any other place in the world”.
Teller was brilliant beyond words, but highly erratic and inconsistent, volatile and moody, and somewhat sloppy in his calculations. These were qualities that would define his persona and his actions in crucial times to come. As a scientist put it, “Nine out of ten of Teller’s ideas are bad. He needs other more methodical people to bring the tenth idea to fruition, which is usually a stroke of genius”

After the war, while most of his colleagues withdrew from atomic research or pursued arms disarmament, Teller became a hawk and a vehement anti-communist. He was enormously helped by the political climate of the times, and rode on the emotions of the zealous anti-communists in the state department. In his pursuit of the hydrogen bomb, which he deemed necessary to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating the world, he became an obsessive fanatic. In spite of this, when he lobbied vigorously in 1949 for the government to support a crash program for development of that awesome and horrible weapon, he had no technical proof that it would work. The proof came in 1950, largely supplied by a brooding, reserved and brilliant Polish émigré mathematician, Stanislaw Ulam. The division of credit between Teller and Ulam as to the crucial idea which made the H-bomb work, is part of nuclear and historical folklore and debate, and I would not delve into it right now because it would be a colourful topic for another post. It is a constant controversy that never seems to die, although now most people believe that it was Ulam who at least was solely responsible for the initial idea; that of using the enormous compression supplied by an atomic weapon to efficiently and successfully cause nuclear fusion. Ulam seems to have thought of shock waves that would do this, while Teller quickly realized that the radiation from the fission explosion would do the job much more quickly. Whatever the case was, Teller has never given due credit to Ulam in public, and has proudly worn the epithet of ‘father of the H-bomb’ on his lapel (Bethe has drolly remarked that Teller should actually be the ‘mother of the H-bomb’ because he carried the baby for so long…)

It is also to Teller’s discredit that the US detonated their first fusion behemoth in 1952, thus frustrating the efforts of many to bring about a moratorium on testing that would have stalled Soviet H bomb development. Many also believe that Teller actually encouraged that development with his insistence on an early test; the radioactive fallout from an H-bomb test contains the characteristic signature of the design of the bomb, which could have made the Russians aware of the crucial idea of compression.

Teller’s damning testimony at Robert Oppenheimer’s infamous security hearing in 1954 also has become part of nuclear folklore that has rankled deep. While allegations that Oppenheimer actually hampered H-bomb development have now been shown to be false and misunderstood based on recently declassified documents (Priscilla McMillan, 2005), and while allegations about his loyalty were too far-fetched and preposterous to be considered anyway, Oppenheimer’s bizarre testimony a few years before about a left leaning friend that cost the friend his career, was apparently seen by Teller as a betrayal. Later, Teller justified his testimony against Oppenheimer as a reinforcement of his ideals of not behaving ambiguously with friends. He seems to have overlooked the fact that his testimony itself had a calculated ambiguity which turned out to have devastating consequences. In the years that followed, Teller’s true intentions and behaviour have never been explained, and he never chose to do that in interviews, but whatever the facts, recently Teller has been appearing more and more as the villain in a period which all too resembled the current age of neo-conservative coercion and informal totalitarianism.

In the years after the hearing, Teller suffered a fallout with most of his friends in the community, who had testified on the brilliant Oppenheimer’s behalf. But given the political climate of the times, Teller had no problem in endearing himself to hawks in the government who greatly valued his espousal of the development of grotesquely absurd and powerful weapons of destruction, and his belligerent anti-communist policies. Teller embraced and was one of the key forces behind both the putative anti-ballistic missile system of 1960 and the much debated Star Wars system of the 1980, both of which could not materialize because of the efforts of dedicated scientists and administrators who showed the technical and financial futility of the systems, and the escalation of the arms race that they would engender. But even today, proponents of National Missile Defense (the ‘son of Star-Wars’) seem to be in the shadow of Teller’s ghost.

Why am I talking about all this, instead of talking about Teller’s book? Because for a man as complex and influential as Teller, one hopes that he would be demystified at least to some extent through his own book, written at a time when he could be expected to have very different perspectives on the life he has lived and the times in which he participated. Many people think Teller is emphatically answerable to history. Many activists in the 60s and 70s even labeled him as a war criminal. They think that he should justify all the heretofore-mentioned actions. Many hate him and would like to see his reputation permanently soiled. Nobel laureate Isidor Rabi, one of the clearest and most authoritative consciences of the nuclear age, actually said that we would have been better off if Teller had never been born. Whatever Edward Teller says, his friends as well as foes would be most eager to hear.

Unfortunately, I believe he fails to make a case in the book, which is otherwise extremely readable and an important document that is an ode to a remarkable age, written by one it's most important observers and participants. Most of his statements are as ambiguous as the testimony he rendered for Oppenheimer (an incident on which he predictably spends more time in the book than on any other in his life). Quite upsettingly, the book appears as another series of excuses and partial and foggy explanations that would possibly serve to absolve him. But I believe that Edward Teller had always had a very big problem saying sorry. While he does make an effort at apology for a few of his actions, I think that the weight of history is too much upon his shoulders for him to shrug it off in a massive admission of culpability. This is unfortunate, since Teller craved attention all his life, wanted to be part of the establishment and wanted to appease his friends. In the end, he probably found it much easier to be part of the anti-establishment (which ironically is usually called the establishment). He would rather face history’s accusations than be ordinary. Which seems to be another misfortune, because Teller would not have been ordinary by any standards, even if he had chosen a different path in life. One suspects that if he had spent half the time he spent in weapons advocacy, in doing serious science instead, he would have stood in the same pantheon as Enrico Fermi and Hans Bethe, both Nobel laureates. The few books on physics which he has penned are a delight to read. His passion for physics and his astonishing understanding of it shines through untrammeled. He had ideas that were flowing, a tremendously fertile imagination, and an astoundingly creative mind. He made important contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, and collaborated with some of the most important scientists of the century.
But he was not a team player. He frequently let his emotions override his rational intentions, and then became inadvertently, a slave to the consequences fostered by them. He wanted to be in the driver’s seat all the time, where he could run the show surrounded by a bunch of yes-men. He was extremely ambitious, but finally ended up becoming more infamous than famous. He sank into the spiral generated by his own brilliance and his beliefs that came about by a complex combination of his fierce anti-communism, the traumas of his childhood, and his unique perception of the world around him. Fortunately, or unfortunately, he lived in a time and place where he could make an enormous difference. Maybe it is fitting that not Bill Clinton but George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, two months before his death.

And yet, in the end, what one remembers is the early part of the book, when Teller talks fondly about his time in Hungary, in Germany, in Rome and England, and in the United States. He talks about his lifelong friendships with Enrico Fermi, Ernest Lawrence, and John von Neumann. He warmly recounts the trip when he and his wife had to amusingly watch Hans Bethe's preoccupation with his future wife, Rose; apparently, Bethe had met Rose earlier, and in 'ten minutes' had fallen desperately in love with her, and the couple wanted to get to know each other as well as possible during the trip. Teller gives us rare peeks into the human side of revered scientific giants.
Again, through the thicket of emotions, prejudices, and justifications, one can catch glimpses of the sensitive Teller, the Teller who was generous to his true friends almost to a fault, was warm to his students, and was a model of scientific integrity. The Teller who was loved by his colleagues and friends before his altercations with them, the Teller who sounds like a champion of freedom when he talks about his ideas for world government, the Teller who proposed to his childhood sweetheart Mici in the presence of cackling geese on the banks of the Danube…one wonders what happened to that Teller in later years, why he lay dormant, what those years of mistrust and dissent did to him. One feels sorry for the great man, but one also feels a sense of unwanted resentment towards him. In the end, no matter how eloquently he advocates his causes, it would be best to say that Edward Teller was complicated, and leave it at that yet again. Let that encompass all of him.


Friday, September 09, 2005

THE SUFFOCATING VEIL OF CREATIONISM: Speaking out against the dark force for the (n+1)th time...

It is clear that creationism or/and intelligent design are nonsense. It is clear that there is not an iota of truth in what creationists say. It is more than clear that they have not, and that they cannot, provide a smidgeon of positive evidence for their exhortations. It is easily seen that all they do is point out so-called 'deficiencies' in evolution, deficiencies that simply have to do with some of the details in the process which would be resolved over time, but not with the process itself from any perspective whatsoever. It is obvious that they are blatantly shameless in seeking the support of power hungry politicians, who themselves are the epitome of greed and ignorance.

So why, why do so many people worship these bigots of pseudo intellectual rubbish and join their ranks? Because they want to. Because somewhere, inside them, there’s an inner need for solace, a solace that they can never get from the crude and hard to learn methods of scientific wisdom and rationality. Thus they assume that life should be easy and should provide them with cut and dried, off the shelf answers, no matter that those answers don’t actually help to solve any practical problem of theirs at all. Instead of pursuing hard-earned objective knowledge for the betterment of humanity, gathered through constant inquiry, skepticism, and rewarding hard work, they would like to surround themselves with a shell of beliefs, no matter how far removed from reality those beliefs are, and even if those beliefs cause serious trouble for other human beings. People who are zealously religious can be the most selfish human beings that ever walked on the face of this planet (This is not a generalization at all, but looking at the avalanche of torment caused by fanatic religious beliefs in the world makes it easier for me to rest my case)

Actually, all this may have even been ok, if all it did was provide them with personal peace. After all, the simple truth that there are a variety of people in this world in every sense should help everyone to coexist with everyone else, and peace is one of the cardinal qualties that we yearn for. But when the instruments of personal peace claim to represent truth and try to usurp rock-solid and validated knowledge systems in the world, when they start wavering from their personal framework; that is when they start to serve as insidious tools of ignorance and ultimately, violence. Religion, more than anything, should be a matter of personal choice. And just like other personal choices like smoking, dressing preferences, and the choice to express homosexuality, it should stay within personal boundaries. Otherwise it manifests itself as fundamentalist Islam or Christianity. Fundamentalism is religion gone so perversely berserk, that it is religion no more. Religion is simply what I believe. And what I believe should stay with me. To try to make it someone else’s belief is to undermine the very definition of personal faith, and by that token, most religious people ironically have abused religion many more times over since the dawn of humanity, than have non-religious people.

From this perspective, the warped minds that try to promote creationism are no different from the fundamentalist terrorists who embark on Jihads and promote the most damaging, violent, and absurd of ideals under the name of radicalism and religion. If the world has united against fundamentalist religion, it should also unite against ‘scientific’ creationism. The only difference is that the creationists don’t wield planes and nuclear weapons. But they wield something that is worse; the ability to destroy and infect the spread of education and rationality, which are the only constant virtues that can guarantee progress. And while nuclear weapons or anthrax strains are easily recognizable elements of terror, the instruments of ignorance wielded by creationists run deep and promise a subtle but permanently disfiguring fissure running through our very definitions of progress and enlightenment, that can easily tear the entire superstructure of sanity apart.

The so-called debate between evolution and creationism has so engrossed everyone’s attention, that many people for starters do believe that it is a scientific debate in the first place. It’s not. It’s a political debate. That’s the first fact about it that should be made clear in everyone’s minds. Even a review on Amazon of a hot-off-the-press book about the ‘debate’ between creationism and evolution surmises that this debate is one that has “no easy resolution--it is a complex topic with profound scientific, religious, educational, and legal implications”. I agree about the religious, educational, and legal implications of the debate, or rather debacle, and it is a great pity that teachers or lawyers should have to spend their time on resolving such an absurd conflict. But ‘profound scientific implications’? NO! The only profound scientific implication is that of evolution itself. The simple but great and all-encompassing truth that we have evolved, itself is a matter of profound import. To believe that the debate has profound scientific implications is to insult science at its most basic level. Creationism can never have any scientific implication, trivial or profound. It’s not our problem if evolution creates a problem for religious people, only because someone said something in an apparently holy book many years ago. Evolution is a fact, and it’s a fact that is as irrefutable as anything else. It is a fact that does not claim any glory and it is a fact that does not have the remotest intention of insulting any religion. Period. There is no keeping an “open mind” about the veracity of this particular fact, and not keeping an open mind about it emphatically does not make one ‘unscientific’. We are prepared to keep an open mind about the details of evolution, but not about the fact itself.

In the end, I should just get a doctor’s prescription that forbids me to argue with creationists, on the grounds of good health (especially high blood pressure), just like the eloquent and valuable Richard Dawkins. But then again I think, maybe I should just ask him for a pill, so that I can stand against these agents of obfscation, and join with others in burning the veil of ignorance so that it never casts its pall on humanity and its progress.


Here's my personal favourite anecdote about god, involving the famous mathematicians Lagrange and Laplace, and their emperor Napoleon:

When Laplace wrote his magisterial and famous work on celestial mechanics, he submitted a copy to Napoleon. Napoleon liked it but asked Laplace why he had not mentioned god even once in the work, especially since the work was one of astronomy. Laplace's simple answer which I find fantastic:

"Because, sire, I had no need of that hypothesis"

Later, Napoleon told this incident to Lagrange. Lagrange's answer was even more revealing of our attitudes:

"Hmmm...that is a very nice hypothesis; it would explain many things"

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


For me, reading Bill Bryson’s ‘A short history of nearly everything’ is like eating my favourite salted peanuts. I don’t want to put too many in my mouth, but at the same time, I just cannot stop eating them, and they have become an addiction. I just don’t want to become delirious with all the fat and calories.

Not since Isaac Asimov’s ‘Asimov’s Guide to the Sciences’ has an author come out with such a vast and entertaining survey of not just modern science for the layman, but also about its endearing characters, and its relation to society and history. Bryson largely does justice to the grandiose title of the book, churning out an account of almost every significant scientific and technological event that has happened in the last thousand years. A few central themes run through the book; atoms, the universe, chemistry, the earth, evolution, and biology. But in between, Bryson manages to squeeze a truly commendable coterie of characters and events that provide an enriching narrative of connected details.

His style is full of humour; I would say that he is another John Casti, albeit maybe less sophisticated but probably more accessible to the average layman. The protagonists that have made science and our modern way of life possible deserve equal attention, and it is to Bryson’s credit that he gives due attention to lesser known individuals relatively forgotten by posterity, who were nonetheless responsible for significant advances in science and technology. Many of these directly affect even political affairs. Like Clair Patterson (such an unfairly little known name, that some of the few books that do mention him, think that Clair is a she- I wish she were), who measured the age of the earth and came up with the modern figure of roughly four and a half billion years, a figure that is the boon of scientists and the constant bane of creationists and conservative politicians. Or the women behind the star-gazing men, who contributed much to our understanding of the universe through their common technical prowess of data analysis, but who inevitably gave up their day in the sun to the men.

I truly got the feeling that I was taking in bites of my choice food item when I successively read Bryson’s engaging and crisp paragraphs. Each one in a chapter has a common thread running through it, threads which have not been explored by many others and hence are rare and revealing. Coming back to Clair Patterson, Patterson was a geologist who took up the method of estimation of age based on pioneering work done by Ernest Rutherford at the turn of the twentieth century (Interestingly, Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg has noted that after two centuries, what people will remember would not be who was President of the US or Prime Minister of England in 1900, but the fact that Rutherford was making measurements that would one day determine the age of the earth and abolish religious dogma- at least potentially and largely). However, he had immense trouble doing the correct measurements, as the samples he was testing had been contaminated by lead- the same lead that was so wildly popular as an ‘anti-knock’ agent in car engines. (I remember learning this during 12th std.). Catching hold of this thread, Bryson leads us to Thomas Midgeley, who introduced this practice, and who was also responsible for the introduction of CFCs. Not surprisingly, this takes us to the destruction of the ozone layer, global warming etc.

In this way, we are led through a panorama of chemistry, geology and biology in this case, with some cogent related tales about the politicking that plagues any action that has to do with the environment. Bryson has several such threads in the book, but they don’t become cliché, the narratives always flow smoothly, and they are always peppered with engaging anecdotes about characters, history, and human nature.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the amount of attention that Bryson gives to the earth sciences; to geology, climatology, paleontology and so. That marks it apart. Especially in developing countries, research in the earth sciences is unusually neglected, and even when people have written books about the twentieth century, physics and biology, and not the earth sciences, have usually been the centerpieces. However, Bryson quite rightly devotes a significant amount of attention to this body of knowledge, which will be one of the crucial pieces of twenty-first century wisdom in the most comprehensive sense. Even in the twentieth century, the earth sciences bequeathed to us, issues with which we are going to grapple in the most fundamental way in the future. Deforestation, global warming, and greenhouse emissions are surely going to be much more than just political javelins in the coming decades; they are going to be issues on which our survival will truly depend. Pleas for saving the environment are no longer simply slogans chanted by the ‘pro-environmentalists’, if there’s anything like that anymore. Every intelligent citizen of the world today needs to be aware of these issues if he wants to ensure the well being of his future generations. Bryson has done a commendable job in explaining every significant environmental issue along with its history in this book. This much-needed emphasis on earth sciences has seldom been seen elsewhere.

Also, fundamentalist creationist bigots and their political supporters, whose influence is unfortunately being felt now in schools and colleges, are now questioning issues like evolution, crucially grounded in sciences like paleontology and anthropology. It is imperative that children as well as their parents must be made aware of the essentials of evolution by exposing them to the relevant scientific background, so that everyone can join early and come together in this fight against a new age of ignorance and religious fundamentalism. Bryson quite lucidly explains evolution and convinces us that it is first and foremost, an irrefutable fact, irrespective of the theories about it. Thus, he settles the matter quite firmly, and cleverly manages to skirt political debate about it by not entering into any big arguments against creationism. Little known anecdotes about Darwin and his contemporaries provide a dash of humour.

In the end, Bryson’s book is what any excellent science book should be about, but that seldom is; portraying science as being as much connected to our way of life and to our past, present and future, as are politics, history, economics, and social upheavals. Too often, scientists and science are portrayed and viewed as ivory tower entities, removed from the general state of the world. At most, they are seen as progenitors of technology that contributes to a high standard of living. However, the history of the twentieth century should easily convince us otherwise, that science is as much a part of our consciousness as anything else that we value, and it is as essential as love, empathy, and patience, to the furtherment of our human condition. As an instrument that lifts the dense and insidious veil of ignorance, science and rationality have never been more important. Bryson tells us why that is, and why that should be so.

Monday, September 05, 2005

I would spread my clothes under your feet,
but I am poor, and have only my dreams.
I have spread my dreams under your feet,
tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.

-W. B. Yeats

Saturday, September 03, 2005

THE AGE OF COMPUTER-GENERATED IGNORANCE- Careful what you wish for; you may get it...

It is surprising how our thoughts can take a roundabout turn overnight. But not so much as a roundabout turn as a stroll to the other side of the fence.
Yesterday, I was reading about scientific revolutions driven by technology, a gift bequeathed by the twentieth century to us, in Freeman Dyson’s lucid and engaging ‘The sun, the genome and the internet’ and decided to begin a post on this general scenario, based on some of my own thoughts and some other things I had come across.
Today, it occurred to me that one could well think about the dangers of scientific revolutions driven by technology; in fact one could very well think about the dangers of believing that there is something like that in the first place, which could endure for a long time. As it was, the thought was so tantalizing and the connections seemed so many, that I spent an hour in the shower thinking about it. By the time I was done, my fingers looked like bean pods kept out in the sun for too long- the direct untoward consequence of shower technology. As some other side consequences, I could not find time to shave, and yet missed my bus and had to walk.

The computer has revolutionized basic and pure science, an idea quite alien fifty years ago when Alan Turing first developed his ideas on computation, and John Von Neumann revolutionized the history and future of computing with his idea of the stored program- the direct forerunner of software. My initial plan was to write about some of the examples of such contributions by computers that I could think of, and I already had half a post in the pipeline about that. But now I think it would be pertinent to make this post; first get warned about the dangers, and then decide whether or not to take the plunge. It seems more important to know about the responsibility before we know about the power; a trend that is almost never observed in history...

In 1992, Alexander Wolszczan made one of those epoch making discoveries that mark a decade. Working at the University of Pennsylvania, Wolszczan discovered an actual extra solar planet orbiting an astronomical object called a millisecond pulsar. Pulsars are as different from stars like our sun as they can ever be, and Wolszczan’s discovery was incredulous, to say the least. After publication of this landmark discovery, Wolszczan was confronted by about fifty astronomers at Princeton University, who grilled him successively with the meticulous aggressiveness of a prosecution attorney to substantiate his finding. Wolcszcan had gone to great lengths to validate his discovery; his conclusion, drawn quite painstakingly, consisted of measuring the duration and nature of the signals emitted by the pulsar to uncanny accuracy, and then processing the vast body of data thereby obtained. Crucial to his work were high-speed computers, and state of the art software. In fact, the telescope that Wolcszcan used, the famous crater telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico, was quite old, and while it was still reliable, the telescope by itself would never have allowed him to reach his conclusions. Without the millions of data juggling units in modern computers, and the software which instructs them how to do it, Wolszcan would have been lost.
In the end, Wolszcan did of course succeed in convincing the community of astronomers that there was indeed, another planet much beyond our solar system. After his work, in the next seven years, ten more such planets were discovered. The point is that from the perspective of astronomy, Wolszcan’s discovery was a fundamental one, a ‘pure scientific’ discovery. However, it had been made possible only by the application of modern technology, and most importantly, the power of computing.

Pure mathematics, that most abstract field of human thought, would seem to be one in which the successful application of computers would be a significant event. For computers to demonstrate that they could actually find new things in pure sciences and solve unsolved problems, probably the greatest playing field would be the world of pure mathematics, that epitome of cold rationality, where it seems, only men of the likes of G H Hardy, Gauss, Riemann, and Euler could hold court, and where any allusion to computers making groundbreaking discoveries would be at the least, an insult to this pantheon of greats and their field. In pure maths, the most alluring problems are those that can be stated in less than fifty words, and whose solution has eluded the greatest minds of all times for five centuries. Fermat’s Last Theorem immediately comes to mind, which was solved at the turn of the last century by Andrew Wiles, who was purported to have thrown the entire kitchen sink of twentieth century maths at the problem. The famous unsolved Goldbach Conjecture- the conjecture that every even number can be expressed as the sum of two prime numbers- is another one that boggles the intellect. It seems very unlikely that computers could actually provide an unambiguous solution to such problems, whose resolution depends on wholly unanticipated and creative bursts of thought. However, there are two ways to skin a cat. One is to devise a way in which one could pull a zipper on the cat’s back, and viola; its skin comes off. The other way to skin it is to…well, skin it. Start with the tail, and skin it, skin it until kingdom come. If computers are seen to be too dumb to engage in the first kind of process, it’s already well known that they are adept at the second one.

In 1976, Kenneth Appel and Wolfgang Haken from the University of Illinois stunned the world of mathematics by announcing that they had found a ‘proof’ of the famous ‘Four Colour Problem’, the deceptively simple conjecture that four colours are the minimum that are necessary and sufficient to colour any generalized map, such that no two adjacent areas of the map have the same colour. However, quickly, the mathematical community was also consternated to find out that the ‘proof’ was actually an application of raw computer power. Appel and Haken had used supercomputers running over a period of several months to actually pool together the astronomical number of possible cases into a ‘few’ manageable ones, and then had instructed the computer to prove the conjecture for every one of these cases. While the problem finally got solved, other mathematicians themselves took several months to prove the ‘computer conjecture’ that Appel and Haken had come up with. At the end, even though everyone was convinced, nobody was very happy. Mathematicians have always looked for solution as well as beauty in proofs, and the greatest proofs in mathematicians have always been the most beautiful, although the quality itself is hard to define, and its import is usually truly appreciated only by the lucky few. Proofs that are obtained by hook or crook may be significant, but are frowned upon by the real purists. The great Paul Erdos (pronounced ‘airdish’)- the most prolific mathematician in history who literally had no home, wife, hobbies, and friends (in the conventional sense of the term) and spent all his life only doing mathematics around the world- said that the proof looks correct but it’s not beautiful. On the other hand, this was probably the first case of a famous unsolved problem in pure mathematics solved by computers.

Mathematicians again drew swords a few years ago, when Thomas Hales (at the University of Pittsburgh) announced a computer-generated proof of another famous conjecture, the Kepler Conjecture, which has to do with the stacking of spheres in the most efficient way (or the 'densest' way); as every fruit vendor will know, it’s a pyramid. But the number of different arrangements is vast, and it’s far from trivial to prove the conjecture. As with Appel and Haken before, Hales used a fantastic amount of computing power- incredibly advanced by the 90s- and again examined an exhaustive number of cases to find the solution. This time, when the proof was submitted to refereed journals, it took twelve referees almost four year to check the computer generated result (the theoretical apparatus occupied 3 gigabytes of space), and even then, they could not be utterly sure that it actually was a ‘proof’ in the mathematical sense of the term. In the end, the editors decided to publish the proof, saying that it was '99% correct' but with a word of caution about the validity of proofs generated by computers. Hales himself has begun a project to verify the validity of the proof by using computers to check each and every step, but he thinks it will take at least 20 man years to verify that result...

Both the above proofs seem to be correct, but are hardly the kind of elegant creations that mathematicians have so zealously praised and generated over the last several centuries. (Incidentally, the great G H Hardy has supplied a succinct and lucid definition of a ‘beautiful’ mathematical proof; it should be unexpected, economical, and inevitable. The paradoxical looking but telling combination of unexpectedness and inevitability is not just typical of Hardy’s penetrating mathematical and linguistic abilities, but also signifies the characteristically human qualities of a disordered nature, that reveal themselves in proving theorems. Just like the vagaries of human nature abound in everyday human affairs, the vagaries of the intellect leave telltale marks in cognitive creations that contribute to their novelty).

The two examples above, and many similar ones, at once demonstrate both the power and limitations of computers. On one hand, computers, with their awesome data and number crunching capabilities, demonstrate a prowess that seems to go far beyond simple speed and efficiency. Results obtained with computers often seem startling, and give the eerie feeling that the computer has used its own intellect to tread into lands yet unknown. On the other hand, I believe that the very construction of computer paraphernalia, software and hardware and the logic units, implies the fact that the computer is in fact following a purely algorithmic procedure to come up with the answer. Most importantly, this procedure has been implemented by a human being, whose brain is believed at least for now to be far from algorithmic, although it may seem like it is. Proponents of artificial intelligence may argue immediately that the human brain follows a rule-based procedure when it is thinking. But there are two things. Firstly, I strongly believe that it is a profoundly difficult matter to connect fifteen centuries of human creativity, science, art, and emotion with rule-based thinking procedures. Secondly, my limited human brain cannot deal with artificial intelligence in this post, and it is not the goal of this post anyway.

I can speak for myself. In 1999, John Pople and Walter Kohn, a mathematician and a physicist, received the Nobel Prize for developing modern Computational Chemistry- the application of the methods of quantum mechanics to chemical and biochemical problems, and their implementation in efficient algorithms and computer programs. The theoretical methods that were developed to tackle complex chemical systems are known by two names- semi-empirical methods, and ab initio methods. The first kinds implement some data from experiment to reduce the computational effort involved in calculation. The other kinds which are more accurate, work from first principles, as their name suggests. They calculate all the integrals and parameters from scratch. Admittedly, they need very labour intensive computer algorithms that can take weeks to run. In the last thirty years, the application of computer programs to chemistry has vastly grown in scope and size. Today, these programs are routinely applied to many problems; from drug design to the design of polymers, from explosives design to the design of superconducting materials. Until a few years ago, computer calculations were seen at most as corroboration for experimental results in physics, chemistry and engineering. Today, in all these fields, these calculations are actually trusted as tools for prediction of experiments and properties not yet done or observed, and not just explanatory devices. The most important reason for this newfound trust in computer simulations has without a doubt been the almost unbelievable expansion in hardware and software technology, the development of faster algorithms, and the shrinkage of circuits to an unprecedented degree. That was the reason why the semi-empirical methods quoted above became somewhat redundant, because one did not need to invent techniques purely because there was inadequate computing power. Today, one can routinely do a complex quantum chemical ab initio calculation on a desktop computer, and calculations which could only be done on supercomputers a decade ago, today are entirely feasible to do with clusters which can replace the connectivity and speed of supercomputers. The rapid development of computer graphics software also has given a tremendous boost to the use of simulation programs, especially for non-specialists. Today, one does not need to be a physicist in order to use quantum mechanics to solve his problem. This is largely because most of the calculations that are done by the computer are displayed in the form of attractive graphics that can easily be manipulated. Molecules in the form of ball and sticks in different colours make a pretty picture on the screen that can be understood by many non-specialists.

And yet, from my own experience, I can say that all this is seductively deceptive, and can lead to disaster. The problem is simply that as we climb the tree and taste its fruits, we forget about the roots that nourish the tree and our existence. It is all too easy to believe the attractive picture that’s painted on the display, but much harder to know what were the limitations of the inputs that produced the picture. The simple rule of computer applications, reiterated countless number of times, but also equally easy to forget, is GIGO: Garbage In- Garbage Out. If we put in nonsense, we get nonsense out, except that it looks especially pretty, dressed in deceptively attractive clothes. This, in my opinion, is the most important quality that separates the specialist from the non-specialist, and the sane computer user from the computer minion; the ability to know the limitations of the system and to identify garbage (In fact, the ability to know limitations basically separates a mature human being from an immature one). No matter how attractive the computer screen may look, it’s only as good as your input. No matter what accuracy the computer may spit out the value of a needed parameter to, it could be complete nonsense because the input variables were flawed. In complex systems like chemical systems, many times the problem is not even of a flawed input as such, but that we are using the right input for the wrong system. Every computer simulation program is built on certain assumptions. The code writers go ahead and write the code anyway, because that’s the best that can be done. But many times, they are unaware of the details of the exact kind of applications that the program is going to be used for. The only person who can be aware of these details is the chemist, the engineer, the physicist who uses the program. And to know whether the program will give a reasonable answer or not, he needs to know something about the algorithm which the program generates, but most importantly, he should know how to think in a commonsense way about his field. All too often, when the computer is displaying a complex answer on the screen and we are busy trying to interpret the answer, it turns out that the answer is simply wrong. Many times, the reason why it is wrong is also remarkably simple, and rests on a basic understanding of the properties of the system. I have faced this situation more than once, when I was busy trying to know what a particular computer generated result meant, when my advisor came in and pointed out two important things in a quick and painful way; firstly, that the result should be taken with a big pinch of salt, and secondly, that the result probably was wrong in the first place because the chemical system under study had certain characteristics that the program probably was not able to handle. Many times, all that was needed to know this was simple chemical logic, commonsense, and the knowledge gained from human experience and thinking. That kind of logic existed even five hundred years ago, completely independent of computer technology.

The real punch line of this scenario is devastatingly simple and well known: Computers are dumb. Even though it may impressively look like it, they do NOT know physics, chemistry, engineering, or biology. You cannot look at the computer screen and ask, “How come the computer is displaying this particular interaction? It's a simple law of chemistry that it should be different”. The simple truth to realize is that the computer does not know any law of chemistry. It cannot recognize the object on the screen as an atom, a chemical bond, a mechanical beam, a gene or protein, or a tree or park bench for that matter. For the computer, everything on the screen is simply binary code displayed a certain way. Computers don’t know what goes on in the real world, they are unaware of the laws of physics and chemistry that make it tick (although they function based on the same laws). The only entity who knows that is the human being who is using them. No matter how impressive the results of computers may seem, they can be complete nonsense. One should never, ever, blindly trust them. But what is more remarkable, and again something that is reiterated again and again, is that what’s not dumb is human intelligence. The qualities of taking unexpected detours and non-conventional approaches are unique to human thinking. As of now, even the best computer in the world cannot come up with non-intuitive approaches to problems based on intuitive thinking. The best and most revolutionary solutions are always based on intuition, physical, chemical, and sometimes plain commonsense intuition. Intuition is something that is difficult to define and understand even for human beings, let alone computers. Intuition is what separates a grandmaster of chess from the talented novice. Intuition, seemingly unexpected but essentially a product of human cognition, has been responsible for the most important discoveries in science and technology. I believe that intuition is a sine quo non of human uniqueness. It is a grand mistake to believe that the computer ‘knows’ what it is doing, to believe that it has intuition.

In the end, this excess reliance on the results generated by computers speaks volumes for many things, complete systems of instruction and attitudes that could make for a separate post. One of the main culprits is our severely stultified educational system that grooms students primarily for a job. With that view in mind, a fantastic amount of information is crammed into their brains in three or four years. In this process, the students completely lose a basic appreciation of the scope and limitations of what they are doing. All they are taught is a push-button existence where apparently, the more information you have, the more of the world’s problems you can unconditionally solve. What those computer programs mean, what their purview is, and most importantly, what they cannot do, is never stated. The very few independent thinkers among the students do pick up these things. But the majority of students who graduate from our engineering and science programs are taught to think exactly like computers- in a rule-based manner. No wonder very few of them become original thinkers and researchers, and most of them end up as computer technicians, perhaps glorified, high-earning ones, but technicians nonetheless. These workers are then extolled as role models to another generation of students by the same teachers, and the cycle continues.

But most importantly, this excessive reliance on computer-generated results is a telling indication of our servility towards technology. My grandmother can do mental arithmetic with a speed that I could never hope to match (but then it’s me we are talking about, and I better stay quiet on the subject of arithmetic…). People from our parents’ generation can do calculations much better than what I can do on my calculator, and I need to use it all the time. Maybe that disability may not directly impede my ability to possibly come up with original solutions to problems, but what certainly will is my ability to think independently as a human being. Any other disabilities may not stunt human ability to make progress, but it’s almost a trivial matter to say that the inability to think independently will, no matter what the circumstances.

Currently, maybe the problem is not too big precisely because computers still are not so powerful that we can blindly trust them. Even now, every result obtained with computers has to be double checked and examined, and modifications and corrections of the result are frequently desired and implemented. But after a few decades, the spate of computer technology is going to become so excessive and all encompassing, and we would have become so impressed with computer simulations, that gradually, we would stop thinking independently. Most of the times, it won’t be a problem, because the computer results would be reliable. Because of this trust, we will start thinking even less independently, and eventually, because of sheer lack of use, we will be unable to think even in the simplest of unconventional and independent ways that would be necessary to come up with novel solutions to challenging problems. No matter how much computers advance, every complex system can break down in the most unpredictable ways. Unpredictability is the essential future of progress. What is needed to deal with unpredictable happenings is sane human commonsense, and mutual dialogue. History has recurringly shown that the only way unexpectedness can be confronted, is with the power of human communication and common sensibility. With an overdependence on computers, both of these will become alien to us. We will be trapped in our own golden cage, unable to resolve problems within it, and unable to engage in efficient and serious dialogue with other human beings out of it, again because of sheer lack of practice.

This will be our transition into a new era of computer-generated ignorance. It is unlikely that the computers themselves would help us come out of it, because we would not have designed them for resolving that problem. I don’t know what will happen after that, and whether society will spiral towards death and decadence, gloriously surrounded by its own magnificent contraptions that were meant to ensure perpetual progress and save it from extinction. It would be the perfect ironic metaphor for the chameleon dying in a field of dead flies because its eyes can detect only moving objects.

As for many of the bleakest and most complex scenarios, this one seems to have a refreshingly simple solution, if only we are listening. The most important knowledge we need to have is that of our own capabilities. Capabilities that are unique to our human existence and human mind, and that have withstood the test of time since we evolved. These capabilities are a remarkable mixture of emotion and intellect. These are the capabilities of commonsense, logic, empathy, and dialogue. More than ever, it is necessary to keep channels of communication with other human beings flowing and alive. More than ever, it is necessary to acquire the ability to see simplicity in complexity, to weed out the mundane that always works, from the exalted that always could fail. All these qualities are independent of any technological age and scenario, which is why they have always worked until now. History has shown us all the time that problems, no matter of what kind, can only be resolved by human beings coming together and thinking about them with pedestrian logic and with each other’s help.

More than ever, and this is a point that never can be emphasized enough, it has also become important to teach our students how to become independent thinkers, and instill in them qualities of inquiry, skepticism, and wonder, because in the absence of wonder, there is no further thinking. Teachers and educational institutions must completely reconcile themselves to impart this knowledge to students at the expense of sheer volumes of information. Instead of teaching with a view to make the students ready for a certain future, it should be far more important to teach them in such a way, so that they themselves can decide what future they want. It is also essential to instill in them the conviction to be able to choose that future in the face of social pressure. Only if a committed number of students choose an unconventional future, can social pressure be alleviated in the first place.
All this will not be possible without the elimination of stereotypes, without the typecasting of society and citizens into ‘respectable’ and ‘disrespectable’ categories, and without the constant and inane emphasis on ‘scope’ that has been so brutally abused in our educational system.

Technology can drive scientific revolutions; indeed, it can drive social progress and build moral edifices. At no point in our history has this become more evident than in the era of computer technology. Computers have a literally unimaginable potential to aid in basic scientific progress and our ways of thinking. And it is precisely because it’s unimaginable, that that potential holds portentous import for our future. It may be the biggest mistake that humans have made, to put their faith in algorithmic processes. Computers are tools, great ones. But they are tools, and not the most important things around. It’s human beings who are the most important.

When I was a kid, I read a wonderful illustrated book called ‘Our friend the atom’, published by Walt Disney. In it, in the last chapter, we had to ask the ‘atomic genie’ for three wishes. The first one was power. The second one was happiness based on that knowledge of power. But the third one was wisdom, quite independent of the other two. That one was the most important, because without it, the first two could be lost in a heartbeat. That’s what we need…wisdom.