I am happy to note that Emory University has received an unprecedented amount of 525 million dollars for purchase of the royalty interest from two companies for an anti-HIV drug that my PhD. advisor Prof. Dennis Liotta discovered with two other colleagues about ten years ago. Officials are saying that apprently, this is the 'largest single sale of intellectual property in the history of American higher education'. The press release is here. The drug, called Emtricitabine, has been used effectively against HIV infection, alone, as well as in combination therapy. Admittedly, I am however getting a feeling that things are getting a bit laid back in our lab now; I would think there wouldn't be any problem of funding at least for the next decade or so to say the least...on the other hand, as Prof. Liotta remarked to me a couple of days ago, how about we, each of us in the computational modeling lab, get a personal computing cluster? I think I would like that ;)
Nullius in verba
Peregrinations of a restless soul
Sunday, July 31, 2005
Saturday, July 30, 2005
THE SCIENTIFIC SIDE OF RELIGION...
In his post, Hirak talks about the Dalai Lama's talk in Washington D.C. The Dalai Lama intends to speak about the potential benefits of meditation and spiritual Buddhist methods. Apparently, some scientists are circulating a petition against the talk, claiming that it has more political and religious ramifications than scientific, and hence should be cancelled...
Gimme a break!...this is a country where fanatic evangelists talk about 'scientific creationism' all the time and are actually funded and encouraged by the Govt and private organizations. It's plain lame and hypocritical not to allow an innocuous, and potentially beneficial event like this to happen. Actually, these scientists who are petitioning against the talk are stifling their own agenda and philosophy; ideally, science should not have any problem whatsoever in investigating religious claims and beliefs in an objective way. The whole purpose of science is objective evaluation; as far as a good controlled experiment can be set up, scientists should approach meditation and the behaviour of alpha particles with the same detached attitude, no matter what the other political, religious, or any other ramifications the issue has.
In fact such opportunities are golden ones for scientists. They offer them a peek into issues which have always been at loggerheads with their scientific wisdom. In fact, many people assume that science and religion are INHERENTLY in conflict with each other. That's not true. In fact, science is not 'inherently' in conflict with ANYTHING. Science merely asks to investigate, objectify and quantify. Even if it cannot do these things with some body of thought of opinion, or finds that body to be in antagonism with its methods, it still has no personal agenda against it, but it quite rightfully and simply announces that body as 'unscientific'. I think that there is a psychological problem that people have, in having their opinions and ideas denoted as 'unscientific'.
Which is interesting, because after all, we HAVE accepted, for example, human emotions as unscientific without any problems. Love is unscientific, and I don't think a person who is in love will take it as a personal affront if someone says that his feelings are unscientific. So if that's the case, why aren't religious people comfortable with having their ideas labeled as unscientific? Nobody is belittling them or looking down upon them here. In fact, what makes me really suspect their motives and integrity is their constant drive to impart 'scientific' explanations to religious phenomena, all under the guise of trying to 'unify' science and religion. This actually makes them appear even more dubious and hypocritical, than what they would have, had they faithfully stuck to their religious faith. If they are so sure about their faith, why do they always need to justify it, and especially by resorting to 'scientific' arguments? Interestingly on the other hand, they don't allow scientists to actually perform objective evaluations of their ideas, and even reject the conclusions of such evaluations, if they don't agree wiith their beliefs. That means they are admitting the sanity of scientific arguments in explaining the world around us through the backdoor, while publicly denouncing the same science. I have no argument (or let's a smaller argument!) with someone who denies evolution, than with someone who actually tries to give me a 'scientific' explanation for divine creation.
The worst offenders in my opinion, ar the ones who try to completely turn the tables by announcing scientists themselves as 'unscientific'. I remember a lecture by Richard Feynman, in which he recounts an amusing encounter with a UFO buff. The UFO man asks him whether he believes in UFOs. Feynman says no. The UFO man then asks Feynman whether he is ONE HUNDRED PERCENT sure that UFOs don't exist. In fact, precisely because Feynman is such a honest and fine scientist, he says that no, he is not one hundred percent sure, but he is fairly sure. And that makes the UFO man say that Feynman is 'unscientific'!! If he doesn't have all the data, how can he say that he is sure that they don't exist? Well, sure, you can ask the same question about the law of gravitation. Are you SURE that it's true?? Isn't there a 'finite, non-zero' probability that the exponent in the law is not 2 but 2.0000000456?? Well there is, but it's so small that it can be neglected for all, and I mean all, pratical purposes, from the sundry to the grand. The problem is, many of these laymen don't understand the difference between error that is inherent in some law or its measurement, and error that will actually obviate the law itself. Take quantum mechanics, the most famous example. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle does NOT make everything uncertain. In fact, without it, we would have none of the calculations that make possible the things which we take for granted today; computers, semi and superconductors, lasers, chemistry and biology. So, as Hans Bethe says, it should really be called the 'certainty principle'! I think that a course in truly understanding the meaning of the 'scientific method' should be mandatory in all schools and colleges.
So we should welcome the Dalai Lama's talk, as an opportunity to bridge the 'two cultures'.
Thursday, July 28, 2005
I don't drink. Period. Not because it is 'evil'. No offense intended to anybody at all. In fact, interestingly, even I cannot justify why I don't partake of a social drink once in a while. And still, I am positive that I don't want a drop of it. I had decided this way back. Maybe it's a weird and inexplicable mix of parental advice of uncertain nature, and a checkered education. My cousins experimented with drinks in occasional family functions, when they were grown enough, at least according to accepted definitions. The elders would then allow them to take a few sips once in a while. But I never felt any problem, let alone any temptation, in refraining.
Not drinking does put me in a position where I sometimes need to explain things to people. Not that I need to, but their puzzlement is not completely unjustified, especially here in the United States. I remember the first big party that I attended in our lab. Our big lab of twenty-two people had gathered in a big room, where we were celebrating a friend's graduation. My advisor is a connoisseur of fine champagne and wines, and he poured out small amounts in paper cups and passed them around. Unfortunately, I was standing way down, at the other end of the room. After making sure that everyone had their share, my advisor raised his glass to toast the new Dr. XYZ, and all heartily joined him of course...except me with a thumbs up instead. An unnecessarily awkward silence ensued, followed by the words from across the room, "So Ash, you don't drink?". "No". "Why"?...."Umm..just like that". Needless to say, a few laughs and puzzled frowns followed. What could I say?! Unlike smoking, which is positively dangerous for health (and which I cannot even remotely tolerate; I flee from the scene even if someone is smoking a cigarette fifty feet away, making it a sure-shot way to get rid of me), occasional drinking of, for example red wine, has actually shown to be good for you. So I could not advance the health argument. Then he asked me, "Is it forbidden by your religion?". "Well...strictly speaking I guess, yes, but I am not a religious person, and many people don't obey our religion so strictly, when it comes to eating and drinking". So what IS the reason? I really really don't know...but I know there is one.
The real problem however is not that people are puzzled that I don't drink. The real 'problem' if we may, is that especially in western civilization, drinking has a prominent and an unspoken but assumed social importance. Taking your buddy out for a beer is a way to express your friendship and solidarity for him, almost an unconscious reflex that guys have. I remember my birthday last year. Two of my American friends, when they heard about it, immediately offered to take me out for a beer. Beer occupies a very important function as a great social equalizer. Does it sound rude when I refrain? Are they really ok with me having a coke (and an expensive one at that; it's a bar after all)? Of course, nobody shows it, but sometimes I do get the feeling that I have quite unnecessarily offended their feelings, or at least made them believe that I am some kind of strange pious prude!
Not drinking automatically cuts me off from social occasions. Not because somebody actually cuts me off, but because I see no point in going to a place where the major attraction is drinks, and where intelligent social conversation occupies the place of a necessary formality at most. Note that I am not talking about the parties where people drink socially; those are just fine. I am talking only about those where people's singular idea of having fun is to drink, and where they go to have fun in the first place. However, there seem to be a suspiciously large number of such parties, and people, around. After they have a few swigs, their ramblings are entertaining mainly to other like-minded people like themselves. For the sobers, they are mildly amusing at most for some time, but then become elements which just eat into the time and the night. Again, no offense to them, but quite simply, I feel bored. There's usually no food, and no intelligent social conversation, at least not after the alcohol has spiced up the evening. I would rather sit at home, cosily nestled in a chair with a hot cup of coffee and a fine book, listening to Brahms.
Sometimes when I feel depressed, my friend, a great lover of wine and song, exhorts me to start drinking. My argument is that it is precisely at such a time when you should NOT drink. That is exactly where addiction can creep in.
In higher social circles, a man's sophistication and his elegance can be judged by his ability to choose and savor the finest wines and spirits. Well, I can probably tell you about the chemistry that goes into wines, the fine balance of pH that has to be achieved in order to make a Chianti a Chianti, and the tender loving care that is showered on the microorganisms growing on the skin of the much treasured grapes in those glorious wineries. I will fondly recall Pasteur's remarkable drive to save the wine industry, that finally led to the process of pasteurization. However, as far as wine tasting or appreciation goes, I am a 'theoretician' in the purest sense, and may well likely be shunned by the practical cogniscienti. Thankfully, unlike Wolfgang Pauli, who had the evil eye for experimental science, until now at least, wine bottles haven't(?) shattered when I have walked into the room.
I believe I will always remain a theoretician, until maybe either acute heart trouble (of the romantic kind?) drives me to drink ;), or acute heart trouble (of the mundane corporeal kind) makes it 'mandatory' for me to sample that unusual medication. Until then, I am on the lookout for people who wish to form a 'non-drinkers anonymous' with me. It would be fun, I guarantee. We will sit and talk, maybe even watch a movie, and play dumb-charades, all over a glass of the finest and purest orange juice...
DAYS GONE BY...
It's been exactly 2 years and 4 days since I arrived in the US of A, and the time seems to have flown by. Looking back and taking stock, how much have I changed? Actually not much! Of course, I have become more independent, but not really; my existence has almost exclusively been limited to home and university. I have not traveled around much, and haven't yet got my license, although I have learnt to take advantage of the reasonably good public transportation in Atlanta. I still have trouble opearting the M&M candy machines in restaurants, and it's been only last year that I finally started taking responsibility for the phone and electricity bills.
I have learnt to take many things in my stride, but at the same time, still have to shed off strands of emotional sensitivity and insecurity that can stifle a cheerful existence. Haven't made too many friends, if the term implies people whose "wavlength perfectly matches yours". I have, however, found a fantastic friend in my fellow classmate from Mexico, who provides inspiration and encouragement for everything. A brilliant chemist, he shares my passion for history, science, and music, and an awareness about the human condition manifested in all its small and great ways. Thanks to him, I have always found an outlet for the many interesting things that I have read or thought about, and which I am brimming over to tell someone.
* Books have been the backbone of my existence here. I cannot say what I would have done without them. The library provided, and will continue to provide, an intellectual as well as an emotional refuge like no other. In every moment of melancholiness, loneliness, and pensive thought, one or more scientists, statesmen, and facts from history, philosophy, and science, have always provided salvation, and for all of that, I am eternally thankful.
* My few Indian friends here, with whom I share the common language and culture, provide a warm, sentimental buttress, which strengthens my roots, and reassures me of the presence of dependable countrymen. No matter how many friends I may have, talking with a Punekar about Pu La is a unique experience that nothing else can beat!
* Conversations with the few across the seven seas that matter have proved incalculably invaluable for me. This includes first and foremost my parents, and then, a very select few extremely important friends in India, who have made being away from home infinitely more enduring for me. They have provided immense and lasting intellectual and emotional support, always brought a smile on my face in diverse ways and hoisted me away from my troubles, and I really cannot imagine how my life would be, if it were not for my constant communication with them. I can never thank them enough. Yahoo Messenger, I salute you...
* Last but not the least, blogging has been a creative and extremely salutary expressive activity for me. I found that I really enjoy writing about the things which matter to me. Most importantly, it connected me to people who I would have absolutely loved to meet earlier, but who I may never have met were it not for blogging. This includes wonderful people who I already knew in small and sundry ways, with whom I reconnected again, as well as wonderful new friends who I hope to always be in touch with.
Ok, I better stop now before this starts sounding like an Oscar speech.
The learning process continues...
Monday, July 25, 2005
MIT and Caltech researchers investigated a piece of Martian rock from the Martian equator which suggests that the 'warmest' part of the planet has been dead frozen for 4 billion years, apparently leaving no chance for liquid water to have existed on that planet, except for the very unlikely possibility of any kind of life arising in the first half billion years...assuming that even if it did, it survived the next four billion year freeze. It seems that we are alone again...
Isn't this a good metaphor for out own life? There too, there are ups and downs, times when we are surrounded by friends and family without a care in the world, and then suddenly times when we feel lonely and alone. The same seems to be happening for life on Mars. The first time someone claims that there is no life, then somebody else stands up and says no, you haven't looked in the canals. Then we go to the canals, don't find anything there. Again somebody pipes up and says no, you haven't looked at the equatorial rocks...and it continues. Seems the same state of being and non-being applies to both individual human life and humanity as a whole.
Saturday, July 23, 2005
When You Are Old by: William Butler Yeats
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Thursday, July 21, 2005
"The mounting fury of the richest and most powerful country is today being directed against one of the smallest and poorest countries in the world. The average income of the people of Vietnam is about $50 a year - what the average American earns in a single week. The war today is costing the United States three million dollars an hour. What could not the Vietnamese do for their country with what we spend in one day fighting them! It is costing the United States $400,000 to kill one guerrilla - enough to pay the annual income of 8,000 Vietnamese. The United States can burn and devastate; it can annihilate the Vietnamese; but it cannot conquer them."
--Felix Greene, 'Vietnam Vietnam' (1966)
The spate does not abate...
The J. Robert Oppenheimer outpouring continues. In the last year and a half alone, five biographies of him have been published. I was pleasantly surprised to find one more in the library by accident.
The Ruin of J. RObert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race by Priscilla McMillan.
A novel that promises to be a unique read was published in June:
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet conjures up a novel reincarnation of the souls of three primary protagonists of nuclear energy; Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard. ANYTHING else that happens later in such a book promises to be revealing, and I am sure Millet set herself a hard task.
It's understandable that the father of the atomic bomb has suddenly become a focus; it's his one-hundredth anniversary. But I believe that it is a propitious time; the current policy makers would do well to heed the message of Oppenheimer and his time. Some things do not change, and now more than ever, we need to know the basic principles for arms control and disarmament that were set out during those times. They are still very much pertinent, and we seem to have forgotten them. The other important lesson to be learnt from that era is simply that soul-searching and exploring alternative political philosophies is a ludicrous excuse for declaring people to be traitors or dangerous. The 'with us or against us' lobby surely needs to keep this in mind. Quite insightfully, most of Oppenheimer's biographies explore his times and the philosophies of the age, and not just his own preeminence.
I am going to be a busy boy...
Tuesday, July 19, 2005
MEN OF DISHONOUR...'Sinhasan'
Yesterday, after a long time again, I saw 'Sinhasan', one of the best movies I have seen. Among all the movies about politics and the lust for power that I have seen, the straightforward and stark treatment meted out to the ethos of political bigotry in Sinhasan is in my opinion unparalleled. If you have not seen this movie, I would very definitely suggest you to. This movie sets a standard that Marathi cinema ought to measure upto. I believe it was made in the early 80s, but its basic message is as pertinent now as it was then, and probably will always be.
The movie itself boasts of a star-cast that has been rarely seen elsewhere. The credits read like a who's who of Marathi cinema and theater; Arun Sarnaik, Mohan Agashe, Shreeram Lagoo, Madhukar Toradmal, Nana Patekar (in an upcoming mini role), Shreekant Moghe, Satish Dubhashi, and many similar stalwarts put up fine performances. The movie is actually quite low key and devoid of melodrama. It portrays a culture that is all too familiar today, that of politicians vying for power and 'the chair', while the actual people who they are supposed to serve, keep on languishing in misery and poverty. Ministers come and go, coalitions form and get disbanded, key positions in the Ministry keep on changing, but the people's lot remains the same. The movie has no 'high-points' as such, no moments of rhetorical speech, or brilliant polemics. Jabbar Patel, one of the most accomplished directors in Marathi theater and cinema, has I think done a clever thing in never letting the performances dominate the overall message. The reason why the movie brilliantly succeeds is precisely this; it lays the facts bare before our eyes without embellishing them, because after all, that is how they are. No amount of rhetoric can obviate the reality that the beggar on the street, the maid servant working to support her children, and the worker working double shifts everyday, face. The movie focuses on Maharashtrian politics, between the struggle for power between the Chief Minister and his scheming party members, but of course the same picture exists elsewhere. A lot of time in the movie is devoted to portrayals of debates in the Council Hall. It is clear that there are a few good men around, who keep on bringing up important topics like the famine in parts of the state, the water shortage, and unemployment. As usual, the objections are silenced or diverted from their pertinent goals by clever and devious members of the assembly. All over the state, while this dillydallying is going on, people are dying from the famine, are taking up illegal and dangerous jobs like smuggling to support their family, and in general, the downtrodden are becoming more downtrodden. The debates and the rhetoric in the assembly seem quite removed from the world which it's proponents are supposed to represent.
However, I didn't mention the most important character in the movie, and in my opinion someone who has delivered the most brilliant performance among a series of fine performances; Nilu Phule. He plays a reporter, who is supposedly one among the inner circle of all these cunning politicians. He is frequently solicited by them, including the chief minister, is invited to their house for tea, and is treated like a close friend by many of them, to keep them upto date on the latest news which they can use as leverage against their opponents; after all, the press is all-powerful...or so it seems. Nilu Phule brings an inimitable quality to his role. In the first place, his rural, hollow, sunken look is perfect for such roles. His performance is extremely low-key, and the helplessness and quiet conscience which he displays are marvelous.
It is clear that all the treatment which is given to him is simply another ploy on the part of the ministers to use him as an information source, and nothing else. Even though they appear to actually ask his advice, it does not matter to them any more than the problems of the people which they are supposed to solve. Nilu Phule is characterised as a very modest man, shirking away from any favours that his leaders want to bestow on him. He lives in a simple apartment, and walks to the ministry, the hospital, and his press house everyday. He is neutral on issues, and is always a listener, prefering not to answer when asked a controversial question; perhaps that's why he is befriended by both the politicians, as well as the acerbic union leader, who is a thorn in their sides (admirably played by Satish Dubhasi). He also suffers from a personal tragedy; there is a former prostitute who he had fallen in love with. She is suffering from a terminal disease, and he is her caretaker, providing her with everything that could help her. He wants to marry her after she becomes well, no matter how long it would take.
Nilu Phule's role is unique. He is the silent bystander, not completely uninvolved with what's happening, but really helpless to do anything about it. He is in the worst position that a sensitive, honest man can be; not being a partisan himself, and forced to watch the crumbling of values, faith, and conviction in front of him. He is forced to take a global view of the situation. He sees how it is clear that for the politicians, their job is simply a game, in which the sole objective is to remain in power. All the speeches, debates, and press statements by the ministers that seem to be directed toward solving people's problems are but shenanigans to divert people's attention so that they can carry on hatching their plans.
There are however, one or two remarkable moments in the movie, which try to take a peek inside the hearts of politicians. These moments make us question whether politicians are simply people who want to make a difference, but are inevitably, even unwillingly, carried down by the vortex of power and corruption, so that just like a man who joins a gang of smugglers, they become unable to hoist themselves out of the quagmire of politics, even when they want to. In one incident, Nilu Phule has been summoned by the CM, Arun Sarnaik, to talk about arranging a meeting with a union leader. At one point, Sarnaik says, "Mala adhich jar ka mahit asta, ki mee nighalo hoto devacha Pandharpuri, pun pochtoy chorachya Pandharpuri, tar mee tewhach mage firlo asto" ("If I knew right at the beginning that instead of going to the saint's holy place Pandharpur, I am treading towards the thief's Pandharpur, then I would have stopped at that point itself"). Would he really have? For a moment there, you think you can see a rare sincerity in his eyes, but then it is quickly dissolved in a realistic appraisal of the present situation...are politicians really honest people at heart who are forced to become dishonest, or really ones whose hearts are inherently black? I think that the real tragedy of politicians is that even their honesty will seldom be taken seriously by many, being dismissed as pretension, and partly because they do have to use it as a false part of their persona. They are stuck in their own golden cage of artificiality and sophistry. They are the true embodiments of Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil for eternal life, or Dorian Gray, whose soul degrades, even as he remains forever young. I believe that that is the real pathos of political culture, that even one who is an honest man can almost never actually reveal himself as one, mostly because of the peculiar constraints that the whole business of politics imposes upon men and women. Of course, the ones who simply lust for power can, and do, make the most out of it and don't care, but I think that it could be a very bad place for even a reasonably honest person to be in.
In the end, seeing all the shenanigans and gratuitous inner games of power that are blissfully removed from reality, the third man, Nilu Phule, goes insane.
The song in the movie, 'Ushakkal hota hota, kaal ratra zali' ('Even as it was becoming bright, it became dark') by Asha Bhosale, with lyrics by Suresh Bhat, is very harrowing and penetrating. I remember singing and playing it in a school annual social in 7th standard.
One may think that the movie is too simplistic and naive, that things are more complicated than what they seem, and that's true. But movies like Sinhasan portray facts, and that's important. No matter what shades of meaning we impart to political philosophies and social issues, reality stays the same and very much real for the man in Dharawi, who is dying of TB in his hut, and who has not eaten for the past two days. It is important to be reminded once in while that he exists, no matter how obvious that fact must be, and I think Sinhasan does a fine job with that. A must see movie.
At least for now, this sounds not completely discouraging...
Historic breakthrough in civilian nuclear co-operation for India-US relations
Saturday, July 16, 2005
THE DAYS AFTER TRINITY...
Today marks the 60th anniversary of the birth of the atomic age. On July 16, 1945 at 5.30 a.m., the world's first nuclear weapon was detonated in the stillness of the desert at Alomogordo bombing range in New Mexico. It was the first time since the dawn of mankind that, as Einstein said, humans obtained energy directly from atoms in a process not taking place directly in the sun. The test was code named 'Trinity' by Robert Oppenheimer, a reference to a poem by John Donne, whose metaphysical poetry frequently explored and transcended our conceptions of life and death.
The nuclear genie that was released that day promises us eternal life or death. Richard Feynman said, "To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates to hell", an adage that could not apply to anything more aptly than to atomic power. The harnessers of that awesome power, people like Einstein, Niels Bohr, and most importantly, Oppenheimer, realised the implications of their work immediately. Oppenheimer, always known for the supreme elegance of his words, said, "In some crude way that no humour, no overstatement, no vulgarity can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge that they cannot lose"...In a somewhat less eloquent shade but resounding the same emotion, was the statement made by Ken Bainbridge, the physicist in charge of Trinity. After the test, some people laughed, some people cried, and most were silent. The line from the Bhagavad Gita that flashed into 'Oppie's' mind went down into history..."Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds". But the last words belonged to Bainbridge. As men around him were still trying to comprehend the otherworldly, and yet all too earthy spectacle they had witnessed, Bainbridge walked over to his Director, clasped his hand and said, "Oppie, now we are all sons of bitches"...
If the physicists had known sin, they had passed it on to their administrators. Meeting Harry Truman after Hiroshima, Oppie languished that he "had blood on his hands", a comment that was not taken too kindly by Truman. The Cold War inflamed the isuue of final armageddon like nothing else. Oppenheimer warned that the United States and Russia were like "scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing each other, but only at the cost of their own lives". The hydrogen bomb signaled the final and most singular weapon that human beings can use for killing each other, in Oppie's words, the "plague of Thebes". Thankfully, it has never been used.
We have come a long way since Trinity, for better and worse. We escaped another morass when the decision not to use nuclear weapons was taken during the Korean War. We looked down the bore of a nuclear gun during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961. We owe a lot to administrators like JFK, when he overrode the fatalist judgements of his belligerent generals such as Curtis Le May, and empathized with his counterpart Nikita Khrushchev who said that they were engaging in a "knot of war", so that pulling on it would only make the other side pull harder. The efforts of dedicated scientists and administrators to loosen this knot materialised in a significantly encouraging development, when the Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963, that forbade atmospheric nuclear tests.
We also saw electricity from nuclear energy showing great promise, and then vanishing in a poof of resentment, because of the flawed judgement of overzealous Government officials and business officials. However, we are back on our feet running, and with the right efforts in the right direction, I believe that nuclear electricity will be a commonplace and essential phenomenon.
Nuclear terrorism is an unfortunate new development, probably not completely unanticipated by the veterans of the heroic 40s and 50s. Even in 1946, when innocence still persisted, Oppenheimer in an interview, was asked what he thought was the best weapon to counter nuclear proliferation. Without hesitating, he quipped, "A screwdriver...to open every case that arrives in a port of entry". It is a remarkably prescient appraisal of the current state of things. And it is in the context of nuclear terrorism, that I think we see a paradigm shift that ought to be embraced, made evident by America's failed war in Vietnam, of empathizing with the 'enemy', instead of trying to annihilate or defeat him. Cheesy as it sounds, as far as ignorance, poverty, injustice, and economic disparity thrive in our world, no number of screwdrivers, fingerprints, and security checks are going to mitigate nuclear proliferation by 'rogue' states and terrorists, and we are always going to live in a ludicrous state of fear. We should gain wisdom from the fact that even a high priest of science like Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe, one of the principal architects of the nuclear age, believed that in the end, it is not science and politics that are going to save the world, but simple and commonsense dialogue with other human beings, and a sustained effort to reach an agreement.
Unfortunately, the current administration of the United States does not seem to have taken such notions seriously, flippantly dismissing them as left-liberal. National Missile Defense still seems to be its first priority rather than man-to-man talks at the table. Instead of words like empathy and dialogue, words like 'deterrence', 'peremptory' and 'unilateral' still seem to abound in the corridors of power, which frankly look like remnants of a Cold War age when the world had gone half-mad...How many times are we going to make the same mistake before we learn? In Robert McNamara's words, how much evil do we have to do in order to do good?...We may call pacifists as idealists, but they are where they are for a sane reason.
In the end, no matter how profound the specific question of nuclear weapons is, it is still a subset of the more profound question of where exactly lies the moral watershed in war, and hence of the meaning of war itself. In World War 2, by the time Little Boy wiped out the innocent civilians of Hiroshima, more than that number had already been destroyed in the strategic bombing of Tokyo. In Germany, Dresden, and long before that, Hamburg in 1943, had already signalled the demise of morality. Was Hiroshima then, simply another eye for an eye? Physicist Kurt Gottfried, in his insightful article about 'moral calculus and the bomb' says, (Nature, September 1999, p. 117)
"The profound moral divide that was crossed by the great democracies was their considered decision to systematically kill civilians by strategic bombing. Once that became routine, the use of the atomic bomb for the same purpose followed inexorably...The combination of new science with the abandonment of a profound moral principle can lead to dangers that could not have been imagined"
It's at such times that the absurdity of killing starts to become apparent. How many people should die before it is called a 'genocide'? What kind of gratuitously violent action should a General take, before he is labeled as a 'war criminal'? In the end, dictionary definitions cannot obliterate the deep anguish. Perhaps that is why James Bryant Conant, President of Harvard and one of the chief administrators of the Manhattan Project said, "The only tenable position is of the absolute pacifist. Once we cross that line, then only can we argue about whether it is better to kill a man by maiming him and spilling out his guts, or to asphyxiate him with poison gas"...
Sure, nuclear weapons do signify a manifest change in conflict. However, 'credible detterence', 'rapid retaliation' and 'multiple reentry vehicles' can only obscure the real question that was asked by a report of a panel of consultants on disarmament that was submitted to the Secretary of State in 1953. It said,
"Fundamentally, and in the long run, the problem which is posed by the release of atomic energy is a problem of the ability of the human race to govern itself without war."...
That bleak dawn of July 16, 1945, we committed ourselves to forever walking a precipice. The future is in our hands, finally again, in Oppenheimer's words, "a future that has so many elements of high promise in it, and is yet a stone's throw from despair"...I hope we all will see each other there...
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE
By William Butler Yeats
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear the water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
Monday, July 11, 2005
SHADES OF MELANCHOLY...
For many years, I used to think that there is only one kind of 'melancholy'. But at least when it comes to music, I have discovered there are fine shades of melancholy; I have chanced upon two, and I am sure there are many. Possibly the best examples of each that come to my mind are the following:
* Beethoven's String Quartet in C Sharp Minor, Opus 131- If I have to mention the most depressing piece of music I have ever heard, it would probably be this one. Not that it's badly composed; that would be an infinite insult to the great man. It's simply beautiful, but at the same time, it literally rakes your soul and tears your heart apart, and plunges you into the depths of loneliness. There is some indescribable quality about this piece that fills you suddenly with what seem like all the woes, all the sadness, and all the despair in the world. This piece was played at Robert Oppenheimer's funeral, because it was one of his favourite pieces. Personally, I would never vouch for it; if anything, it would make the people at the funeral feel as if a few more among them had passed away...I find it really and terribly depressing and disturbing, and I am never going to listen to when I am feeling very low; I think that would be a sure recipe for me to gravitate towards suicidal tendencies...
* Pachelbel's Canon- On the other hand, if I have to name the most beautiful and inspiring melancholy piece of music I have ever heard, it would be this. I have never listened to anything else composed by Pachelbel, and I believe it was truly unnecessary for him to do that; this one creation, I am sure, has completely and totally immortalized him in the annals of music. This piece is a signature baroque piece, with intertwining tunes languidly flowing into each other, and building up to a crescendo, before ebbing away. I first heard this composition (well, one version of it that is) many years back as a schoolkid, and I have to confess that its beauty moved me to tears, and it still continues to move me, no matter how many times I listen to it. If Opus 131 represents all the pathos in the world, I would believe that Canon represents all that is good, inspiring and full of hope. At the same time, the piece retains its somberness throughout its progression (which makes it melancholy in the first place), imparting a low-key, modest ethos to the atmosphere it creates. I believe that, Oppenheimer's tastes notwithstanding, if any piece had to be played at a funeral, I would probably like it to be this one. I think that it would be an inspiring coda that would parallel mortal life, signifying hope and beauty, and eternal faith in the shape of things to come. Listening to Canon is like slowly but surely rising up into the open sky, figuratively and literally transcending the limits and corporeal attributes of our human existence, like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which would be an apt metaphor to our lives; no matter how we spend them, in the end they always signify that quintessential human quality of hope, and then gradually, just like the coda of Canon, we gracefully bow out and fade away, leaving behind a world that forever holds promise for us, and that is the wiser, if not the better for it...
There are many versions of Canon, including the vile 'remix' versions produced recently...please eschew all of them, and listen to the one by the Berlin Philharmonic (Herbert von Karajan conducting), which I think is the best one. And of course, my perceptions of the above two pieces are very subjective, and I would be interested to know what others think of them.
Update: Actually, I have to admit that Handel's famous 'Largo' from 'Xerxes' conforms more to the second description which I have penned.
Tuesday, July 05, 2005
THE AGONY OF INDECISION...
Ok, I don't usually do posts about 'personal matters' but I wanted to write about this for some time, and Sumedha's post sort of suddenly egged me to write on the spur of the moment. So ho, hum, here I am...
Those who knew me since I was a child would think that I should be happy, as I am living my childhood dream of professionally studying science. And I am happy. But the road has not turned out to be as smooth as certain as what it would appear to be.
Ever since I was kid, I ALWAYS wanted to study science, inspired by amateur science books, biographies of scientists, and my father. A chemistry set that generated more alarming explosions in the spare bathroom in our house than inculcating serious facts and principles in my mind, nevertheless sealed my fate I think. Dyeing (dying?) my mother's handkerchiefs, dissolving her safety-pins in nitric acid, stealing her pickle jars to house ravenous praying mantises, and trying to manufacture hydrochloric acid-not good for the bathroom tiles and my father's patience by the way- simply added to the allure of the scientific life. And so my mind, technically, should have known peace when I got into 11th and 12th std. But I was to learn the uncertainty principle of life long before I learnt about the one by Heisenberg. Well, for one thing, my "single-minded" dedication to study science was not helped by getting in the rat-race, the lemming band that participates in the paranoia of gravitating towards professional courses. Quickly, I did learn to march in the race, but even more quickly failed to swim when came the flood, and probably wisely (for me) so. I recognised early on that I was not amongst the elite. As they say in the drug industry, if a drug has to fail, let it fail as soon as possible...
That should have been it. After having dealt with the extreme intricacies of my unstable (at that time!) psyche, and of internal combustion engines, for a month in an engineering college, I wisely decided to pursue my own way to whatever salvation I had imagined lay at the end of the journey. Doing BSc. at Ferguson College was ok, but hardly fun and the opposite of exciting, because of encounters with dedicated students who thought, for some unexplained reason, that studying Chemistry was the best, and possibly the only way, to crack whatever exam is necessary to get into the Indian Military Academy. (No..it was NOT the girls in Chemistry class..trust me). Encounters with worthy teachers who measured temperature in volts didn't really help. Only the presence of two or three dedicated friends, and an equal number of sane teachers, helped me to stave off a certain downward spiral into psychosis. I DO have to wistfully remember those rare and mysterious forays though, made all alone let me assure you, into the dank backrooms of the Great Haunted Wadia Library of Ferguson, as well as the Physics Clubs meetings attended by the few sane-minded, and the occasional/occasionally sane-minded Professor.
Even during BSc., the agony of indecision was ever lingering. During my third year, I was literally torn apart on one side by the Physics department guys- who kept on thinking that I know Physics because I know the History of Physics, and also because I had spouted learned nonsense in a lecture competition about Feynman's Theory of Quantum Electrodynamics, of which I did not understand a word (says volumes about the judges, doesn't it?)- and the Chemistry guys, with my dear father ably backing them. Even when I visited India last December and delivered a lecture on the History of Physics, the present Head of the Department still nostalgically remembered how they had finally lost the battle to lure me towards Physics...little does he know what supreme peace and convenience he gained from that fortuitous event.
Anyway, the fact that finally tipped the scales towards Chem was my abominably juvenile mathematical aptitude ( which would surely have prompted Wolfgang Pauli to say, "He is not even wrong...")
Chemistry turned out to be challenging indeed. I remember one particular experiment which I did eleven times and still did not get the answer...the Professor finally let me leave when I convinced him that I could produce a scatter plot out of those results, and some convoluted formula would then give me the average, apparently plucked out of thin air, which mercifully turned out to be close to the expected answer.
That was Ferguson College. To this day, I don't know why I refused to go to IIT Chennai for my MSc. The liberating air of Pune could have been a subtle undercurrent in my decision...all right, it was homesickness...anyway, MSc. at the University of Pune was essentially me, Galileo Galilei, revolting against the Church. Except that I was not as iconoclastic or brilliant as Galileo; their whims however, were much more debilitating than the papacy's. Classes for me were simply entities that rhymed with 'Glasses', and I gobbled up whatever Chemistry I knew from respectable books, unbeknownst to the Generals in the Department. However, there was one class I paricularly enjoyed...was it Spectroscopy?...and that was only because I could escape the gaze of the lecturer and keep myself alive by reading in the back. A tall friend of mine always obliged me by sitting right in front of me...his favour shall surely be returned.
If there's anything I have seen that remotely reminds me of the torture chambers of the Middle Ages, it was Chemistry Lab. Guarding the gates of this great chamber were two Orks...sorry, I mean 'Mamas' (and even an occasional 'Mami'...great Scott!), the worthy lab assistants to whom was entrusted the responsibility of flogging wrongdoers even when, and especially when, they were doing no wrong. On the throne itself were seated two great monarchs, of properly monarchial girth, who were the dispensers of knowledge and instructions that we hungrily lapped up; after all, isn't servility an essential condition for academic furtherment of any kind? This set of personalities and their residence exemplified the stronghold of totalitarianism and discipline. Not a lab coat would dare to flutter in the presence of these behemoths of authority, not a pipette would draw up a drop of acetone when they were (not) watching. Want to use the first aid kit? Ask the Orks first, no matter even if the unfortunate mortal in need bleeds to death till then. Want to use the bathroom?? Even more crucial for Your Majesty to bestow his benevolent approval on you, even if it means that...whatever. A grand opportunity once presented itself to me; we had to do the 'nitration' (addition of nitro groups) of any aromatic organic compound we wished. Bravely, like a man on a mission, I decided to nitrate toluene, hoping to produce that charming substance that goes off with a cute pop- TNT. I would not have wasted this chance to end this dismal chapter in the annals of my life once and for all. Gone would be the monarchy, neatly and literally blown to kingdom come. Alas, all that transpired in my personal beaker of opportunity was the creation of a nebulous, black residue that did not remotely resemble tri, nitro, or toluene, but did smack of an emphatic deduction of marks by decree of the bigots...
And thus I spent two halcyon years in the hallways and classrooms (or the lack thereof) of a distinguished institution...again, I have to pay homage to the two or three dedicated mentors as well as a tiny band of tolerant friends, who brought me back from the brink of completely disfiguring insanity.
However, in spite of all these handsome legacies, the agony of indecision STILL remained. Even though I had thought to study Organic Chemistry, the tender loving care that was showered upon me by those admirable labmen, combined with my inability to weigh even grams of chemicals accurately, made me wary of experimental work, to say the least. However, since I was still interested in organic chemical science, I thought I would possibly persevere, a decision that quickly changed when I came to Emory University. After having found a first-rate scientist and mentor, I finally ended up designing molecules, albeit on a Computer. I am very fortunate, in that this field helps me realise my many interests, is practical, and still allows me to remain true to my first love of organic molecules.
But the point, which I learned quite late I guess and is the one I am driving at, is that decision and the problems enforced by it, await us at every corner, no matter that we are living the life we had always wanted to live. Like I said, those who knew me as a child would think that I am living my childhood dream. And I am. But it was not a cut and dried scenario, comfortably ensconced in my future when I was a child. Even though I wanted to study science for so long, and AM studying science right now, the journey had many ramifications and mini-dilemmas, and will always be full of them. There was always a decision to be made. What kind of science? Physics or Chemistry? What kind of Chemistry? Physical Chemistry or Organic Chemistry? Organic Chemistry or Biochemistry? Proteins or Nucleic Acids? Nitrogen based or Sulfur based? Red or Green computer screen?...It goes on...Indecision, I have realised, is as faithful a companion of yours as your shadow. Even if you may not see it when it's dark, be sure it's always there. I think, and hope, that this set of academic decisions and agonies of indecision, serves as a good metaphor for life and the future, which I will understand and internalize. After all, whatever we call it, this is the way life is, and as the great teacher from Caltech said it, "If you don't like it...go to a different Universe, where the rules are simpler"...I think I still like this Universe, and count myself relatively lucky, to be one its citizens :)
Monday, July 04, 2005
1776: THE PEOPLE'S YEAR...
(David McCullough; Simon and Schuster; May, 2005)
David McCullough is famous for having chronicled famous American legends and their times. His biographies of Harry Truman (which I have read and is really brilliant) and John Adams, are both the best biographies of these important American statesmen written until now. Both these books won the Pulitzer Prize. Both accounts are as exhastively researched and meticulously detailed as biographies can get.
Now, in "1776", McCullough brings an important year in the history of western civilization to life, with vivid descriptions of events and personalities. The year that brought liberty to the United States was as remarkable a year as any. It is the sort of stuff that makes LOTR style stories a part of our consciousness, the simple and pure times when you knew what you were fighting against and could put your heart and soul in it.
The most important feature of McCullough's writing is that his accounts are as objective and balanced as they can get, and yet naturally emerge as inspirational. One of the key parts of the book concerns his treatment of King George the fifth, a monarch who has been traditionally depicted as a clumsy and thick-skinned apathetic bigot by many historians. McCullough's description of him however, makes him come across as a remarkable man, cast into the monarchy at a young age, fond of and knowledgable in the arts, music, technology, and architecture, and most surprisingly and hearteningly, a sensitive man devoted to monogamy, married to a simple and faithful wife all his life. This last trait is commendable, because having mistresses was not only tolerated at the time, but was even encouraged as a social-status symbol. George is portrayed by McCullough as a sensible and understanding king, but one who completely misjudged the resolve and dogged idealism of what he saw as his naive, unsophisticated, and obstreperous subjects on the other side of the Atlantic. This was a major flaw in his thinking, with far-reaching consequences indeed.
At the other end was the other George, George Washington. Again, McCullough's account of him is revealing. Washington did not have the political diplomacy and eloquence of a Jefferson, the wit and diplomacy of a Franklin, or the shrewd judgment of an Adams. What then made him so great? McCullough convinces us that the one trait that set Washington apart from his peers, was his unflinching bearing and personality as a born leader, a charismatic genius of a general (like Eisenhower) whose mere presence would elicit reverence from his men. As somebody said, they could make Washington out from a group of a hundred similar ranked and uniformed officers, merely by the magnificent way in which he rode his horse, and his graceful demeanor. A true soldier who had demonstrated raw bravery at a young age, Washington was but in his early thirties when he assumed command of the task force that would liberate America. The great George does live upto his reputation in these pages.
McCullough's descriptions of battles are rousing and are the heart of the book. Sullied by cold, disease, and lack of morale...and gunpowder, common and sundry Americans nevertheless pressed on in the face of the greatest military force in the world. Dorchester heights, Bunker Hill, Fort Ticonderoga, Delaware, names which have become imprinted in the minds of history buffs as the scenes of key and decisive battles, and surely not ones where the Americans clearly had the upper hand, are testaments to their will. McCullough's description of how Henry Knox smuggled gunpowder in the cold and harsh winter, that enabled the patriots to win Ticonderoga, is really inspirational. The same goes for Washington's crossing of the Delaware river.
Conditions in the camps are vividly described by him; with typhus, trench dysentery, and lice running rampant throughout, it is remarkable that the men at Boston, for example, retained their morale to stifle the British in a bottleneck noose. The one thing that kept them going was the unshatterable belief of their leaders in them and their cause, and their eternal hope and conviction that they were fighting for something that was really worth it. On the dawn of American independence, it was the blacksmith from Philadelphia, the printer from Boston, and the cobbler from New York, common men fighting with uncommon grit, estranged from their familes for an indefinite period of time, that contributed to the resurrection of lady liberty, as much as did Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin. This history is, in an unperverted way, truly the 'people's history of the United States' as Howard Zinn would call it...
I am writing this on the 229th anniversary of American Independence. Gordon Wood, in his succint and engaging 'The American Revolution: A Short History' says it very well I think. He said that the final goal of those wielders of the torch of freedom was to found a nation where "nobody would have to tip his hat to nobody else"...Is it one today?...