Wednesday, May 31, 2006


The marvelous Richard Dawkins gives a short account of contraptions made by a German engineer that gradually 'evolved' from crude starting materials. Include a wind harnessing system of propellors inspired by the principles of bird flight, and an 'intelligently designed' (!) foil that is engineered by 'natural selection' to minimize air drag. This presentation should put to rest one of the many misconceptions about evolution- that it is so 'random' and hinges upon such a fortuitous happenstance, that it simply could not have taken place naturally in such a 'short' time. An illuminating presentation lasting only a few minutes

These days, I have strongly started to think that it is relatively easy to harbour doubts about evolution if one has not read into it in some detail. For example, questions about the improbability of complex life arising 'randomly' by mutations from simple chemical precursors in a short period of time, is what can be only called the "argument from incredulity"- we find it hard to believe simply because we cannot readily imagine it. No wonder the 'intelligent designees' can hoodwink people in a hardbeat. A more incredulous stance would actually be the belief that simply because something is incomprehensible to us human beings means that it cannot have taken place in nature. Talk about smug and self-centered satisfaction!

A little glance into some of the details of evolution should be enough to convince us of the utter beauty, logic and very much probable simplicity of the process. In retrospect, evolution should look infinitely more simple and beautiful than the transcendental and much more complex process of some inconceivable super-designer designing such a complex world.


I have noticed a lot of parallels between Noam Chomsky and Bertrand Russell. Just like Russell (Philosophy and Mathematics), Chomsky made a groundbreaking contribution to his field (Theoretical Linguistics) at a relatively early age which assured his place in the history of that topic, after which he passed the peak of his abilities in that field. Just like Russell, Chomsky became known to a wide audience not through his original specialty, but through his outspoken views on social issues- Chomsky on US foreign policy and some other issues, Russell on almost everything. Both Chomsky and Russell became known as among the foremost intellectuals in the world.

Like Russell, Chomsky has become the foremost government dissenter in his own country, and is the bane of party liners. And just like Russell, Chomsky has published dozens of best selling books and articles, and given hundreds of speeches criticising what he believes is wrong. And also like Russell, about 50% of what Chomsky is saying in his old age is repeated in his books. ;)

But finally, just like Russell's work, Chomsky's work nonetheless remains enduring and very interesting in its own, unique way. What one review has called "his uncompromising moral sensibility, icy logic and withering sarcasm" remain commendable and attractive.

The one similarity which Chomsky does not share with Russell, is the award of the Literature Nobel prize. But if Russell could get the prize "in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought", then why couldn't Chomsky?

Chomsky incidentally has a framed photo of Russell in his MIT office.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

For the first time in my life, I found what I would call a jackpot in the true sense of the term:

Monday evening, walking in front of the used book store next to the Mexican place, with a fat burrito in a bag in hand, I spy three books. Three of the bestselling textbooks in the world.

Textbook of Biochemistry with Clinical Correlations- Thomas Devlin
Biochemistry- Lubert Stryer
Molecular Biology of the Cell- Alberts, Watson (The Watson)

Almost brand new condition. Some highlighting.
Average market price: 100$ each

I got them for a dollar each.


Friday, May 26, 2006

The King and the Don...

Larry King interviewed (Warning: Transcript may be heavily edited!) Donald Rumsfeld. I was expecting that there would be at least some excitement, but there was none. There were two problems. The first one is King's well-known non confrontational style. While that has always been an asset with him, enabling people to warm up to him much more easily, it can also make him go soft on people who don't deserve such a soft approach.
The second problem is of course the time. Constraints are usually such (and this was the Pentagon...) that King can ask one question only once, and cannot afford to elaborate on it much. So essentially Rumsfeld was free to dwell on whatever stuff he wanted to, and free to swerve away from the really contentious issues by essentially dismissing them in a sentence or two, without being anxious of King grilling him about them. I felt that King should have grilled Rumsfeld a little more by at least citing some sources that lambast him about such things as WMDs and Guantanamo. Overall, I think that King usually does a decent job, but sometimes, under the objective of making the other person feel comfortable by asking cute questions, he ends up spending less time on the really important ones.
Tch, the problems with being a nice guy...(I am talking about King of course)

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Richard Zare, an internationally known scientist at Stanford, writes in Chemical and Engineering News about gender inequality in academics. An alarmingly low percentage of women, 13%, are on the science faculties of the top 50 universities in the US.
Zare writes that there are three main factors responsible for this trend:

1. Subtle but real discrimination
2. The failure to take account of the asymmetric burdens of childbirth and childcare.
3. The failure to structure faculty jobs to better reflect a balanced lifestyle.

Point 2 is paramount, and I think it's almost cruel not to take account of it. By the time a woman is done with her pregnancy and the first sleepless nights, it's quite difficult for her to feel the previous allure of academic research unless she has incentives. If not anything else, generous maternity leave for female postdocs is a must

As for point 3, a balanced lifetsyle itself first needs to become widespread, lopsided as it has become with the pressures of modern capitalist promises. Then comes the issue of structuring faculty jobs. But isn't this a vicious cycle? Point to ponder I think.

Then Zare asks the question which is on the minds of many:
"Why is it that men are described as brilliant while women are described as talented and hard-working? Let a man be assertive and we admire his courage to speak out. Let a woman be assertive and we feel threatened by what she might next say."

I don't know, but as has been noted by Ad Lagendijk in Nature, scientific research especially is an alpha male's game, where aggressiveness and laconic and quick criticism unfortunately seem to be the rules of the game. This may introduce an unspoken bias against women and especially aggressive women, who were always a rarity in the field because of historical circumstances.

If this is the case even in the US, one can only wonder what's the case in other nations. Actually, one does not need to wonder, and the facts are there for everybody to see. To complement point no. 1 in the above list, in the cases of countries like India, let me add the influence of subtle but real bias introduced by parents and society at an early age. As I have written earlier, this involves a gentle but firm push towards choosing a 'safe' career.

Strangely, I sometimes think that the hullabaloo about women's lib in the US has actually accentuated the gender gap, ironically and unduly highlighting women in high places. Sex and the City surely cannot help.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Pretty much says it...

Actually it's even worse; "What facts can we make up to support it?"
From What is pseudoscience?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Methinks that the opening and transitional trumpet piece in the famous All you need is love by The Beatles is clearly borrowed from the identical trumpet piece in the sparkling and rousing Overture 1812 by Tchaikovsky. The recognition of the resemblance is not very pronounced, but quite clear when you listen to the two pieces a couple of times.

Or maybe this is simply a 'well-known' fact that has escaped my attention. Any corroborations?

Recall that Overture 1812 was used to spectacular effect in V for Vendetta


Arjun Singh is the King of Banality. He is also the King of Evasion, the King of Backwardness, the King of Iniquity, and the King of Breathtaking Inanity (love that phrase)

All this on the road of his aspirations to make India the Paragon of Suppressed Democracy and the Zenith of So Close and Yet a Stone's Throw from Despair

This interview should make it largely clear.
Every country has a Bush. And a bird neither in hand nor in the bush.
[Hat Tip: Gaurav]

Sunday, May 21, 2006


Eight year old Chuyia nurtures false hopes of going home in 'Water'

Deepa Mehta's 'Water' is a brilliant film. It narrates the story of widowhood in 1930s India, and it does so in such a way that it should make all of us shameful of that part of our cultural 'heritage'. The sets and art direction are gorgeous, the cast and performances are largely impeccable, and there is genuine pathos in the setting. The small and simple moments in the film grace its impact, and it leaves you (or at least should) with a sense of somber realisation and sadness.

Widows' life in 1930s India was, as are many of our current customs, prescribed by a two thousand year old cultural code from the Manusmriti, which everyone faithfully followed and nobody ever questioned, largely because it was conducive to the male supremacy so much prevalent in society. The story starts with Chuyia, a little girl who is married by age eight, and widowed very soon. She is promptly sent to an Ashram for widows, where the ghosts of women damned by society live. The ashram looks more like a leper colony, with everyone's shaved heads, sunken faces, snow white robes, and a quiet and miserable existence which has been imposed upon them by society's so-called upper class, educated men. The innocent Chuyia soon resigns herself to her fate in the Ashram, and fortunately finds a few kind souls that sympathize with her, and who give vent to her frustrations and childlish behaviour. Among these are the quiet and resolute Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) and the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray). Kalyani's head suprisingly is not shaved, but her tresses hide a tragic existence; the only reason she is allowed this exception to the tradition, is because she is a prostitute who is employed by Madhumati, the fat and lazy self-appointed head of the Ashram, through the agency of a eunuch pimp Gulabi (Raghuveer Yadav). As is not surprising, her customers are rich, pompously self-righteous lawyers and merchants, who are hypocrites of the weakest and most obnoxious kind; one of these ostensibly claims that there is no problem in Brahmins having mistresses, because in this transaction, it is the woman who becomes 'pure' by sleeping with the Brahmin. This is a perfect example of the kind of wretched, hypocritical men posing as prigs and saints, who have riddled and damned history and human dignity in every age and culture.

I thought that an example of the true pathos and harrowing reality of the widows is found in the character of an old woman who has been in the ashram since the pitifully young age of eight. The only reason why she remembers her marriage clearly when those memories have been long lost to the minds of the other old women, is because she remembers the delectable sweets in the marriage menu, that she says still make her mouth water. All those sweets- big juicy rasgullas, piping hot gulab jamuns, laddoos dripping with pure ghee- still make her drool. Widows are forbidden from eating sweets. This old, bony woman's constant reminiscing of these sweets evokes a combination of amusement and heartbreaking pain that I have seldom experienced. Although her character is not a central one, this mundane existence of hers at the Ashram tells us about the wretched and pitiful lives of widows in a wholly unique way. Deepa Mehta is a very talented director, and she can bring out the dredges of human existence in the most subtle but convincing manner, including in this particular instance, the innocence of Chuyia.
One of the interesting facts about the film is that throughout the story, there is not an inkling of British presence. The history of widowhood in India has little or nothing to do with British rule as such. This makes one wonder that this could well have been a story set in the 50s or 60s, and we could have observed more or less the same picture.

The wheels of the women's existence begin to turn when a young lawyer and follower of Gandhi, Narayan (Mark Abraham), falls in love with Kalyani, and is willing to marry her inspite of her being a widow. He points out that there are laws which have been passed, which allow the remarriage of widows. The fact that everyone turns a blind eye to these laws under the pretext of purity and faith and religious integrity, strikes at the heart of our historical and current cultural existence. Perhaps the only change for the worse that has been brought about, is that now, we actually twist laws to suit our pseudoreligious, hypocritical faith. This situation is pithily summed up by another character, the preacher Kulbhushan Kharbanda, who says "We follow laws only if they are convenient to us"... In any case, this affair sets in motion a series of decisive events, that are definitive of the era, people's mentalities, and the absolutely appalling and heartbreaking plight of widows. Their condition in our country lends itself to any definition of the word 'unjust' in any dictionary whatsoever. We, like others who mistreated women in their times, are guilty of a great moral travesty, and it would do well for us to keep that in mind always. Getting young girls married and widowed when they are eight years of age, and consigning them to an existence not better than animals when they understand nothing that is going on around them, is a crime against humanity in every sense of the term. In our country, it was such an integral part of our social structure and centuries old tradition, that nobody saw it as a crime or unjust act.

Why did Hindu fundamentalists violently protest this film in our country? Without exercising the urge to simply say 'Because they are exactly that, bigoted fundamentalists', I thought to analyse the reasons that may possibly reinforce this opinion.
They ostensibly agitated because like always, they thought that the portrayals in the film insult our 'glorious culture'. Actually they do, but only because they exposes the bigotry and hypocrisy in it. It depicts women as they were treated in our country less than eighty years ago (and perhaps even now) and makes us face the reality of our divided society, the divisions within which were not apparent even to its most exalted members. That is obviously because they were the ones who created the divisions in the first place.
I was surprised that even women vehemently rallied against the film. I think that by doing this, they simply refused to accept their own pitiful existence in our history. By protesting against the film, they effectively could be seen to say that they don't believe that women were treated so badly, which flies in the face of historical records. Aren't they betraying their kind, when they themselves try to deny the reality which they existed in?
Another reason for protesting against the film, could have been the fact that the head widow runs a prostitution business, or that she uses some crass and crude language. Is that any worse than the behaviour of normal human beings? If you really want to protest against something like this, then protest against crass language in general, or against prostitution in general. Aren't widows human beings? If so, they are going to be subject to the same vagaries of human nature and human desires as are other people, and it is dishonest and hypocritical to assume that such behaviour is going to get stifled only because you choose to label them in a particular manner and then cast them into universal neglect.

The bottom line of course is that, just as in many other matters and apart from political motives, the hard liners in our country simply don't want to admit that their heroes had flaws, that their customs were hypocritical and unjust, and that they have been worshippers of an outdated culture and religious faith. No doubt that these are features of the general religious fundamentalists in the rest of the world. Since they cannot admit these things openly, they resort to moral policing, trying to justify their actions under moral righteousness, still not realising that both their actions as well as whatever they are trying to protest, both themselves provide glaring and incisive exceptions to their professed sense of current and historical cultural righteousness. They say that a cat drinks milk with its eyes closed, because by doing so, it thinks that others cannot see it. There could not be a better example of that than this.

If this is really the case, then film makers like Mehta have to continue making such films, and kudos to them for that. In today's internet age, it has become virtually impossible to stifle the freedom of expression, and it always finds it way out. No matter how many efigies are burned, fatwahs are imposed, or threat calls are made, reality will emerge at some point or the other.
We have long since talked about our 'glorious Indian culture'. It is, and always has been high time, that we talk about its ugly, outdated, and highly flawed and shameful underbelly. After all, we are all only human.

Note: Here is a sobering personal account of the banning of the film and its shooting.

Friday, May 19, 2006


In the last post, I mentioned that about fifty percent of Americans don't believe in evolution. One might dismiss this as another deplorable instance of religious fundamentalism that seems to be sweeping the world in general. But fifty percent of the scientifically most advanced nation in the world?? This kind of large scale belief in many issues purely based on faith, in the face of overwhelming evidence that shows otherwise, seems to be unique to America. Why is this?
9/11 notwithstanding, Americans seem to be some of the most afraid people in the world. This fear is subtle and general and not always evident. In spite of an unprecedented history of security in which not a single international war took its toll on American people on their own soil (It's instructive to note that during WW2 for example, a total of about 300,000 American soldiers lost their lives, while that many Soviet soldiers were killed in a single battle), and even in a current world where many other nations live in a much greater shadow of terror, Americans still seem to be living in an envelope of fear. One can easily argue that a general belief in religion, creationism etc. is a direct result of this state of fear- people turn to god because only that can be the one manufactured certainty. It's a foregone conclusion that the American government is in no small way responsible for capitalizing on this paranoia. Michael Moore has documented this phenomenon pretty well in his documentary, some hyperbole notwithstanding. In fact, many governments have twisted such situations to their advantage throughout history.

Why are Americans so afraid, and so ready to believe in most things which their government imposes on them? I believe it is a confluence of many factors. One surely must be economic prosperity, which simply removes the burden of becoming alert and aware international citizens from their shoulders. If everything is well at home, why would the average citizen pay attention to what it is happening in the world, even if all that can also potentially happen in his own country? I am not saying that blissful ignorance is a necessary consequence of economic security; I only think that it is so in the case of the US. America had never had a taste of terrorism, and so Americans extrapolated and thought that they probably would not even in the future. This was in spite of the bombing of the American embassies in Africa, as well as the attack on American troops in Lebanon in the 1980s. Probably again, until apocalypse actually comes trotting to your doorstep, you can blissfully shut your door and surround yourself with toys and entertainment, and a warm illusion of peace. Because Americans have never faced terror at home, once they do, they cannot independently evaluate threats for themselves because of 'lack of experience', and so have to trust their government to tell them what's dangerous and what's not. If this attitude was present in the beginning, it was only exacerbated with the arrival of the Bush administration. It hardly needs to be enumerated that people want to turn to sources of reassuring certainty in such times, and what better cocoon of warm certainty than religion? After all, the 'only' thing science has to offer is a tentative, uncertain future, based on the best current data. Religion offers a much more pervasive druglike miasma of faith and belief, no matter that in the end, it is simply the farthest thing from reality that we can imagine. After all, every man has his own reality. One only wishes that this false vision of reality does not lead him to harm other human beings, an expectation that sadly cannot be substantiated from history. Sometimes, people need to only close their eyes to blind themselves from reality and see their own version of it, and that's what they have been largely doing, again because few events have jolted them out of it.

Noam Chomsky thinks that the reasons for Americans' fear lies in history. Michael Moore also has enumerated this factor in his film. Moore thinks that Americans have always been afraid of something right from the beginning; first it was the British, then the slaves, then the Soviets and nuclear war, and so on it extended to killer bees from the South, deadly viruses in their food supply, and serial killers lurking at every corner. The high crime rate in the 80s and 90s did not help to dispel such kind of fear. Interestingly, if this fear encouraged common Americans to own guns, then it ironically really made their world a dangerous one, except that now they had themselves to fear. More paranoia which the government and media handsomely capitalized on in the form of propaganda.
Chomsky also thinks that Americans have an unspoken fear of retribution for their actions. He is refering mainly to the imperialistic-like policies that the US implemented after the Second World War, especially in Vietnam and Latin America. He thinks that somewhere, Americans know that they have meted out injustice under the guise of spreading freedom and democracy, and this past is coming back to haunt them. Actually this is true, and there are obviously many foreign states who think of American governments as hypocritical and brutal entities, who have conveniently hid behind a facade. I agree that in fact, this may be what's truly happening. But I am not sure I agree that this is what the people think is happening. I am not sure how many people are even truly aware of American foreign policy, say during the 1980s, and I feel that an even lesser number of people would think that their government really deserves to be punished for those actions.

Most importantly, I concur with a point Richard Dawkins makes, in which he questions why such fundamentalist and regressive beliefs are common especially in the US, compared with Europe and the UK. In no other developed nation to my knowledge, is the creationism-evolution fiasco such a visible, bitter and resounding debate for example. Dawkins thinks that religious fundamentalist and evangelical people exist everywhere, but it's only in the US that such people much more frequently and in much greater numbers actually come to power. I quite agree on this, and one just has to take a look at the current administration's members to see examples of this stunted tunnel vision and misguided conservatism prevalent in the government. But it's also a vicious cycle, because after all, it's the people, half of whom are misguided, who elect the government. The government in turn manufactures their consent, which would ensure that they elect the same kinds of leaders in the next election. Why do the people elect such leaders to power? Again, I think it has to do with some of the former reasons. Perhaps they think that being a religious fundamentalist has nothing to do with good and sensible governance, because they have never had a taste of what kind of a dictator to his own people a fundamentalist leader can be. Apart from isolated incidents, Americans have never experienced extreme actions directly wrought by a fundmanetalist leader. Most people don't care whether evolution or creationism is taught in school, because it has never directly had an impact on their daily life as such. Unfortunately, such issues always have a more general and greater impact that goes beyond their immediate context, and the most insidious consequences are also usually the slowest, quietly eating into the foundations of education, politics, and social progress. This needs to be understood.

Sometimes, the only remedy for getting out of this cycle seems to be Newton's 'external, unbalanced force'. The Arab oil embargo in the 70s suddenly made Americans realise their obsequious dependence on foreign oil, a realisation that was very quickly lost though. 9/11 was a hideous and tragic event. One surely cannot wish for such events. But one of the great truisms of humanity, is that good comes out of the most depressing and shocking circumstances. Sometimes the good is simple awareness. Awareness can come from things much less dramatic than terrorism and oil embargoes. And that's what is needed now. No matter how complicated and hopeless matters seem, I believe that putting the pressure on and quietly but relentlessly fighting, will always continue to be a successful if slow remedy for spreading awareness, and it should be so especially in a country where freedom of speech has at least traditionally been respected.


My life's first love and interest was biology. My earliest recollections are of wonder at insects, including cockroaches, that graced our house and its surroundings. Our house on Fergusson College road is situated in a somewhat unique location. The property behind our society belongs to a cantankerous and eccentric doctor, who time and time again, has refused to sell it to builders willing to pay him an extraordinary amount for such a large space in a key location. The result is that that small part of our F C Road always has been full of trees, wild grasses and weeds, housing the random variety of flora and fauna that such a mini woodland always and naturally does. Ever since I was a kid, I used to wander into this mini retreat, and collect insects, observe the myriad cats and their kittens prowling around, and take note of the calls of birds inhabiting the single, majestic tree, that occupied centre stage in this local ecosystem.

Insects were my passion in school. I used to haunt the old dungeons of the Fergusson College library, an unfettered endeavor made possible only because of my parents, and used to dig out volumes upon volumes of insect anatomy, physiology, and taxonomy. Vetal Tekdi on Law College Road gave me an opportunity to watch the principles enumerated in those tomes put into practice by nature. Entire sessions of 'PT periods' were spent on the fringes of the Law College ground, as also the school premises, hunting and collecting beetles, grasshoppers, centipedes, and praying mantises. While the other boys kicked the football around, I and two dedicated friends kicked away mud, 'congress' grass, and thorns to reveal camouflaged stick insects and monsoon snails. Hours used to be spent at home, housing these denizens of the green in big jars borrowed from my mom. The insect collection streak, exhibited over a considerable period of time, inevitably earned me the worthy title of nerd in school. I often used to have small bottles tucked away in my jacket pocket. These used to be filled with little praying mantises at times, and I had no hesitation about whipping them out at the slightest provocation. One time, a not too kind class teacher failed to appreciate the time I had spent in missing the first period and collecting golden beetles. She promptly asked the class bully to throw out the bugs, and to protest, I spent the rest of the day in search of them outside, an action that was instantly rewarded with a letter to my parents asking for a meeting.

As far as I can remember, I never ever doubted that it was evolution and natural selection that gave rise to the diversity around me. I chanced upon Darwin's book in the Ferguson library sometime in seventh or eighth standard. Even if I did not understand the details, I had read enough about Darwin from encyclopedias to know that here was a book that had really changed the way we look at world around us, and at ourselves. Phrases like variation, mutations, survival of the fittest, and natural selection were ingrained into my mind by then. Although my parents, especially my mom, are not atheists, they never tried to foist their beliefs on me to the slightest extent, and my dad always taught me the paradigm of evolution as almost a foregone conclusion.

Unfortunately, biology put me off in junior college. By that time, I had become fascinated by chemistry and physics. The fact that there could be cut and dried rules for the living world, based on fundamental laws and constants, thoroughly fascinated me. After setting up a lab in the spare bathroom in our house, I made dyes and soap, created colours and smells, and dissolved handkerchiefs and safety pins. Whatever interest I had in biology was swept away by the lackluster facts of junior college and BSc. biology classes. Most of the texts written for BSc. biology classes look like they have never been revised for a hundred years, and some of them actually have not been. None of the initial texts I studied reflected the revolution and logic in biology in the latter half of the twentieth century, which has brought biology so much closer to physics and chemistry in being an exact, predictable science. I remember studying, actually memorizing, genetics in my first year. But even that text taught the topic as a collection of a facts, as is the fashion for any discipline in our colleges. Almost the only thing I can remember from school and college biology, is an account of the anatomy of every species on earth, including having to draw excruciatingly detailed illustrations of circulatory, respiratory, and reproductive systems. This fact, in addition to the fact that most of my biology teachers were truly terrible, completely drew me away from biology. I also found a small but dedicated group of students who were interested in physics and chemistry. It is always easier to appreciate the logic in these harder sciences, and that sealed my fate as far as biology is concerned. Physics especially, with its reassuringly exact nature, entranced me. So did physicists, with their very much inexact nature. I was never very good at physics or mathematics, but I fortunately imbibed a lifelong appreciation of both.

But as they say, first loves always endure, and not only did I always retain an informal interest in biology, but I have realised that some of the details about bones and muscles have even stayed with me. In fact, I have now come to the conclusion that there cannot possibly be any person who is not interested in biology. Not being interested in school textbook biology and not being interested in biology are two quite different things. The first is almost a necessary consequence of our educational system. The second sounds like an impossibility. Biology is not a subject to be studied after all; it is our worldview. After all, who would not be interested in man's origins, and the workings of the wonderful world around him, and inside him? Who would not be interested in knowing how the almost unbelievable complexity around us obeys the same laws of physics and chemistry as simple systems? Who would not be interested in knowing the story of evolution, a story many times more breathtaking in its complexity and scope than any possible story of creation? Ergo, we are all interested in biology, even if high school and college biology can drive us mad. On a more mundane note, physicists, chemists, and engineers should always find biology interesting. In all these sciences, most systems studied are simple systems, and if they are complex, mathematical approximations are used. Biology is truly the ultimate challenge for any practitioner of these sciences due to its complex nature, and thanks to the spectacular advances in the last century, we are now all in a position to realistically understand the great enterprise of life. Beginning in the late 1950s, a glance at major biological discoveries shows that it is physicists and chemists who have contributed the most to biology, an observation that is not really surprising in light of the physical and chemical nature of biological science. Over the last few years, engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists have found biology to be a treasure trove of complex phenomena, of networks, cascades, and structures, begging to be explained, and many of them have contributed to and gleaned insights from the science, that have been applied to disciplines as diverse as manufacturing, circuit design, and artificial intelligence. Biology is no longer the domain of the biologists. That is the real reason why it is the most exciting science of the future.

At the same time, biological insights are in no way restricted to reductionist approaches. In biology more than other science, the sum of the parts is not equal to the whole. That is where ecologists, evolutionary biologists, and systems biologists come in, who can connect the macro to the micro.

During the last year or two, I have found my interest in biology to be resurrected. Two reasons have been responsible for the resurgence. The first one has been my study of biochemistry, a really fantastic field of study, which explains the logic of life like no other. Cascades of molecular interactions in our body are like symphonies, each amplifying the result of the previous one, culminating in a finale that contributes to every emotion that we exhibit, every movement that we make, and even every thought we think, although we are far from actually explaning the details of these most human of all actions. Many of the phenomena in cell biology, immunology, and genetics are explicable by probing their underlying biochemical basis. If anything, an understanding of the biochemical complexity of life enhances our appreciation of the beauty of nature, and I can never see how it dulls it and reduces it to "mere" atoms and molecules, as enunciated by some religious people and artists. Just like a piece of art, there is beauty on many scales in biology, and at some point, the phenomenon called life actually materialises. Where, we don't know yet, but the journey here is as interesting, if not more, than the destination for sure.

The second reason comes from my reading of evolutionary biology. Some of the strongest support for evolution comes from a study of the comparative anatomy of current and ancient organisms. What our incompetent teachers did not teach us in college (or probably did not know- in any case, they never grasped the big picture) is the simple fact known to any chemist or biologist- structure begets function. If you want to know how something works, first know how it is made. When I read about the similarities of organisms and their ancestors as revealed through the fossil records, many mundane details of pure and boring anatomy that I studied so exasperatingly in college came back to me. All those features of frogs, earthworms, rats, and human beings, are there for a reason. A little investigation reveals their intimate connection to the organism's very existence, and brings to light the spectacular logic of those structures, embedded in the fossil record. For example, it is a source of great wonder to know that two of the three major bones of our ear actually came from the jaw of an amphibian, and intermediate and bizarre organisms somewhere between amphibians and reptiles can be found, where the bones actually served the double purpose of both hearing and eating for that organism, now forever frozen in time in the fossil record. I cursed my teachers for not revealing these intimate details between structure and function which we should have learnt in our college biology. The anatomical frustrations we were drawing in our journal were actually anatomical delights, which pointed to a logical fabric of life in the past and present. It's unforgivable that our teachers did not teach us those connections. In that process, the whole logic of life was lost upon us, and knowing that logic is a godsend in the study of life for any intelligent layman.

There is a third reason why I have resurrected my interest in biology. I had never even heard of creationism until I read John Casti's marvelous volume on the great mysteries of modern science and human existence. I was even more appalled to know that about fifty percent of people in the United States don't believe in evolution. How could they possibly ignore something for which the evidence is now all but final, and which has such a simple structure and beauty of its own? I have read about creationism (No, I will not call it ‘intelligent design’- the underlying philosophy, even if implied, is the same) and the eternal battle between religion and science. Thanks to people like Dawkins, Dennett, and Miller who continue to give sensible people hope and inspiration, we have wellsprings of progress. I have much to say about creationism, religion and science, but this is not the post for that. I have already written about it a couple of times.

The conclusion I have really come to, which is related to the post, is that even now, many people don't appreciate evolution because they think it somehow lacks the glory and beauty of the story of creation. They think that it is some great travesty to suggest that we have evolved from 'lesser' organisms. It is disconcerting for them to think that we are here without a purpose, that 'mere' and 'random' laws of physics and chemistry can fashion such great and noble beings as human beings.
I don't think there is anybody who can usurp their solipsistic view of human beings as the greatest of all living organisms.
But what I believe they fail to recognise is that the process of evolution is as wonderful, beautiful and lofty as any tale of creation they can possible imagine. I think that they should appreciate the process of evolution as a gem of logic and structure in its own right. This does not hamper their basic moral faith in other issues in any way. They should realise that as far as biology goes, other living creatures are not 'lesser' to us. They share the same bond with us that we do with each other. I think that we need to know, and tell each other, how evolution emphatically does not undermine our position in the universe, but it should make us feel lucky that we have come about as a result of such random, but targeted random processes. It needs to be emphatically proclaimed that even though mutations are random, evolution is not a random process. The analogy with Dawkins's blind watchmaker cannot be more apt. I think that one of the major reasons why people cannot come to terms with evolution is that they simply think it cannot be 'noble' enough to have produced us. Actually it is more than noble, more than beautiful, and more than awe inspiring, and yet relentlessly general and unsparing. And yet it produces beings who, in spite of having an understanding of their own origins, still are nothing special as far as the general fabric of life is concerned. Evolution, in its sweeping advances, never preferred us to the frog or to the snail. Personally, I find the fact that we share so many things in common with so many unlikely and diverse creatures much, much more enchanting and wondrous than the fact that we may be created and standing alone in isolated splendour. Evolution, for the first time, gives us a chance to revel in our shared heritage, and still appreciate our own unique place in the world. I think we all need to know this, and try to teach this to others. That is the real satisfaction and purpose that I get from having resurrected my interest in the science of life.

After all, who wouldn’t like to be reunited with their first love?

Thursday, May 18, 2006


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Peace and War: Reminiscences of a Life on the Frontiers of Science- By Robert Serber and Robert Crease
Columbia University Press

Robert Serber’s definitive quality is laconic understatement. Even the opening line of his book starts with the mundane “I was born in…” His style may seem to point to a manifestly boring book. It is only when one knows the importance of the ages which he lived through, that one realizes that Serber does not need to exaggerate or dramatize anything he says. The most noteworthy achievements are those which simply need to be stated, never eloquently dramatized. And Serber’s life, his times, and his achievements are all more than noteworthy.
Robert Serber is not a name known to even most enthusiasts of science and history. But consider the major events of his life; childhood spent in Philadelphia, PhD. with Nobel Laureate John Van Vleck, post doctoral studies and a lifelong friendship with J. Robert Oppenheimer, time spent at Los Alamos as one of the primary participants in the Manhattan project, work on the hydrogen bomb, teaching and research at Berkeley, Illinois, and Columbia, and a life devoted to science, teaching, and scholarship. No wonder Serber does not need to overstate things. His words and observations do the talking and dramatization. And yet there is warmth, compassion and appreciation in his words, which may be subtle, but which are nonetheless an important ingredient of his writing.

This downplaying of major events and times is a characteristic that is not just a style of writing, but an inherent part of Serber’s personality. The austere physicist from Philadelphia with a steel-trap mind liked to be a detached observer. He preferred to be a scribe who would record events for posterity. He describes some of the most important and personal events in his life, including tragic ones, with unblinking objectivity. Even though he participated in some of the earth shattering (pun intended) events in twentieth century history, his narration of those times reads like a journalistic account, with scant editorial comment. But this does not make the matter any less interesting, as his detached position gave Serber a clear mind and an attention to detail, that others would lack because of their impassioned involvement. Flowing smoothly with the narration is a dry and understated sense of humor, and unconventional observations on politics, scientists, and society.
Serber’s main achievements were building the atomic bomb, and more importantly, being part of a unique mission to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a few months after the bombs were dropped. His job was to take readings, make measurements, and in general document the general destruction the bombs had wrought.

Serber lived in a unique age and time, possibly the most important period in the history of American physics, when the American scientific establishment was burgeoning and assimilating resources that would launch it into the front rank of world science and technology. He was also lucky to be at the right place at the right time, and brilliant enough to be sought by the leading theorists of the century, many of who were Nobel laureates. After growing up in Philadelphia, he obtained his PhD. at the University of Wisconsin with John Van Vleck, a future Nobel laureate known for his pioneering studies of magnetism. After Wisconsin, Serber received a National Research Council fellowship, one among only five awarded every year during Depression times, to study physics at the institution of his choice. He planned to work with Eugene Wigner at Princeton, another future Nobel laureate. But fate intervened when Serber attended the then famous summer physics school at the University of Michigan. At Ann Arbor, Serber heard J. Robert Oppenheimer lecture; “His mind was so quick and his speech was so fluent, that he dominated almost every gathering”. Serber was so taken with ‘Oppie’, that he decided to change plans and drive west to Berkeley instead, where Oppenheimer had created the greatest school of theoretical physics in the United States. A measure of Oppenheimer’s influence can be gleaned from the fact that, among the five NRC fellows throughout the country that year, three chose to work with him.

At Berkeley, Serber quickly became Oppie’s closest associate and worked with a dozen of his students, who would go on to become important scientists themselves. Those were Depression times, and Serber describes how he and Oppie’s students were introduced to an unfamiliar way of life, wining and dining with the theorist, and acquiring his erudite tastes in literature, poetry, and art. Some of Serber’s most important papers were coauthored with Oppenheimer, and he became Oppie’s close friend and research associate. He says that his role was to act as translator for Oppie, and explain to students what the master really meant. Once in a while, Serber and his wife and Oppie the bachelor would catch a movie or dinner across the San Francisco bay, and then work late into the night with Beethoven’s string quartets playing in the background. The lover of metaphysical poetry, and the quiet, unassuming student, made a fine pair. In summers, Serber and his wife Charlotte would drive to Oppie’s ranch in the New Mexico mountains and mesas, where horse back riding was the norm for traveling. Late in the 1930s, Serber moved to the University of Illinois, where he taught for three years. Then of course, war broke out.

Oppenheimer invited Serber to join the atomic bomb project, and Serber was part of the elite group of theoreticians who Oppenheimer assembled in the summer of 1942, to work out basic bomb theory. These luminaries included Hans Bethe and Edward Teller. Serber recalls the stimulating discussions in the summer heat, involving calculations on whether the bomb would set the earth’s atmosphere on fire.

At Los Alamos, Serber’s most important initial job was to give a set of lectures that would indoctrinate the new, brilliant recruits with the basics of nuclear fission and bomb physics. Despite the impediment of a slight, lifelong lisp, the young theoretician lectured with authority to people like Enrico Fermi, irreverent Richard Feynman, and a dozen other Nobel laureates. These lectures were written up and declassified after the war, and in 1992, were published with Richard Rhodes as a co-author, as the Los Alamos primer. A PDF version is available here.

Serber’s group did important work on the implosion method for the plutonium bomb. Unlike some other participants, Serber does not leave a record of having participated in discussions about the moral implications of the bomb. He was the scribe, and he let the leaders do the talking and equivocation.

Probably the most important part of the book concerns Serber’s trip to Japan right after the bombs were dropped. His job was to go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and document the damage done by this new force of nature, as well as collect samples. During that period, he wrote dozens of letters to his wife, and these letters paint an evocative picture of the period, his thoughts, and his observations. It is possibly the only time in the book, when he lets himself indulge in some emotion and awe; both of a nation almost completely destroyed by war, and of the incredible power of the new weapon which he had helped to create. He documents little amusing incidents of island life, and his descriptions give us a flavour of the life of American soldiers and civilians scattered on those little islands in the Pacific, who had been fighting for their life against a desperate and almost fanatical enemy. He also narrates the brutal destruction that had been inflicted in turn by Curtis LeMay’s incessant strategic bombing, which killed many more civilians than the atomic bombs (about 2.5 million)

After the war, Serber lived a relatively quiet life, first teaching at Berkeley, then finally moving to New York to teach at Columbia. About ten percent of his book is devoted to non-mathematical, but technical descriptions of his work in nuclear physics with Oppenheimer, and at Berkeley and Columbia. These accounts can easily be skipped by uninterested readers.

Serber’s characteristic understatement sometimes hides emotion and sentiments. It’s a little amusing, when he recounts incidents like a colleague propositioning his wife, with nothing more than a one line objective description. Apparently, after a party, the colleague led Charlotte into the nearby woods, and made a pass at her. When she refused, he asked her why (!) Charlotte, as austere as her husband, quietly pointed to the ground and replied, “Poison oak”

There is one time when you cannot help but feel that this man is trying to hide his pain and sadness under the guise of journalistic reporting. In 1967, the man who had brought Serber into the mainstream of American physics, and who had been a guiding light for physics and conscience in America, died. Serber planned to deliver a eulogy for Robert Oppenheimer’s memorial service, but characteristically, he refrained after his wife told him that he was not good at doing these things. Later in the same year, Serber’s wife committed suicide from depression. If there is one person whose name appears in Serber’s account even more than his own, it is his wife Charlotte’s. Serber does not need to say that his wife was a very important and constant presence in his life. It is quite obvious; the two had been together through every phase of his life since graduate school, and she had been a lifelong companion in every sense of the term, participating in his adventures, and having an important say in his life. Even though Serber does not devote a single sentence to describing how he felt after the incident, again, he does not need to. His wife’s unflinching support of him is evident throughout the book, and one cannot help feel somber and sad, even while reading this apparently most detached of accounts.
Later, Serber struck up a close relationship with Kitty, Oppenheimer’s widow. Tragically, she too died a few years later, while on trip to Panama. As if this were not enough, Oppenheimer’s daughter Toni also committed suicide. In a span of a few years, Serber lost people who were closest to him, who were an integral part of his life during the most important of times. He does not need to express his feelings for us to know how he must have felt.

Serber retired from the Columbia physics department, and spent the rest of his years with a woman he met on St. John’s Island, where he often vacationed. He must have found solace and pleasure in spending time with his two sons. The island had been a favourite vacation spot and sailing bay for the Oppenheimer family.

The Amazon book review for Serber’s book says that “Nonphysicists will find parts of this fascinating memoir unintelligible, but that should not be a deterrent”. I wholly agree. But I would also object to calling it ‘unintelligible’, and I hope that opinion refers only to portions describing Serber’s research.
As someone interested in the history of American science, I found Serber’s book illuminating for its accounts of American physics in its heyday, and in general remarkable for its understated style and dry humour, consistently demonstrated. But it is also an important memoir documenting a remarkable time with remarkable people in it. Serber was an important physicist in a tumultuous time, both for science and society, and for war and peace. He never says much. And he never needs to do.


We have a new definition of being secular- genuflecting to the demands of each and every group that exists in our nation, be it minority or majority. It does not matter how outrageous, frivolous, or dishonest the demand is. It does not matter that the group in question cannot give any reason for the demand, apart from the fact that they just feel like making that demand. We must accede. That is the hallmark of a truly democratic, free country. The motto is anything goes. For us, being secular and being servile flatterers is the same thing. (Pseudo) Secularism is such a lofty principle for us, that even freedom of expression has to defer to it. In our secular nation, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, whether mainstream or on the fringe, are given affirmative and equal opportunity to abuse the constitution, bend legal rules, and stifle basic freedom of speech and expression. Religious "rights" are much more important than basic human rights, including the right to live. How come other nations still don't learn from us? Although I must agree that the US is making commendable efforts in doing this, and some Islamic countries are even surpassing us.

Creationism has not usurped evolution in our schools yet. The creationist movement in the US is evidence of a truly regressive social vision, and it often galls me in the extreme. But I comfort myself with the fact that there are places where it surely can be even more outrageous- India for example. I can almost bet that if tomorrow, any group tries to insist that the story of creation be taught alongside evolution in school science classes as an alternative 'theory', the government will generously accept this demand in a heartbeat. If we are bothered about such a conflict in the US, I think we can be reassured that in India, fundamentalism is peacefully accepted. Another great sign that we are secular, not to mention peace loving.

The good thing about the world is that there is a way you can spare yourself from feeling outraged at some event, because simply by looking around, you can convince yourself that there are places where things could always be even worse. Fortunately for us, no amount of social backwardness is backward enough, and we can always find a way to sink to lower depths, just when everyone thought we reached the nadir. After all, not failure but low aim is crime, isn't it? You can always aim lower.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Note to a prominent contributor to the Shivaji article on Wikipedia, who has tried to keep the article unbiased, reasonable, and informed. As does not appear surprising these days, it seems to be a foreigner who has read up on Shivaji and contributed to the article more than most Indians:

Hello Danny. I want to commend you on your contributions to the Shivaji article, and for mentioning Laine's book and the reaction to it in an objective manner. I personally found nothing in Laine's book that was deliberately irreverent; notwithstanding that he could have avoided controversy by deleting a few references which were not really necessary for the integrity of his narration. Also, although what happened with BORI was certainly despicable in the extreme, I think the whole incident was also an instructive one, because it dispelled the illusion of hero-worship of Shivaji that many of his followers like to wallow in. In India, there are many historical figures (and even current, living ones) who are regarded as gods, and any criticism of them is violently reacted to. I think these hero-worshippers need to be taught repeatedly that their 'gods' are human beings, and that their flawed character does not diminish their greatness as such. Ironically, a lot of such public reaction is not even based on devotion or hero-worship, but primarily based on political motivation and interest. I am sure that most common citizens of Maharashtra and Pune, where I am from, know or appreciate more about Shivaji than the hoodlums who desecrated BORI under the pretext of Shivaji worship. That's the most tragic part of a lot of these cultural onslaughts; that they are motivated purely by political interests rather by any kind of even fanatical but still informed conviction. In the end, the members of the Sambhaji Brigade turn out to be nothing more than being similar to the Nazi SS; common thieves and violent criminals, motivated by nothing more than political greed, without any knowledge of even what they are apparently fighting about. So much for all their exalted attitude of pseudo cultural righteousness. In the list of those who want to defend and respect their own culture, their names will not appear even at the very bottom.
Sorry for the somewhat emotional comments, but having grown up in Pune which is supposed to be a cauldron of Marathi culture and decency, such travesty does rankle and keep festering.
Keep up the good work.

Sunday, May 07, 2006


Imagine a child who comes running to his mother, saying that the neighbourhood bully beat him up. The evidence is clear; a bleeding lip and a black eye. He hopes that his mom will take some action against this obviously despicable act. To his astonishment, his mother launches into a tirade, where she suddenly lists all the times he has misbehaved at home: dropped his glass of hot chocolate, broken the TV remote, and spilt chili sauce on the nice new carpet. His mother says that because he indulged in these other misdemeanours, not only does he have no right to accuse the bully of beating him up, but also that the incident he experienced never even happened, inspite of the cruel and clear evidence right in front of her eyes. With that, she leaves. Needless to say, the child is completely flummoxed, and feels humiliated and cheated.

Some people are taking a stance exactly like the mother's, to try to either accuse certain individuals of not having the right to express their opinions about certain matters, or to exculpate other individuals from misdemeanours or crimes, in a way that would make logical thinkers cringe. This is even if what the former are saying is right, and what the accused are doing is plain wrong.

I am aware of a couple of such recent incidents. For example, Arundhati Roy has long been lambasted for her left wing and sometimes extreme views. I agree that she does cross the line sometimes, and launches into extended spiels against globalization (like her pretty misguided and silly denunciation of cell phone corporations in India). But does that suddenly discredit everything she has said about, say, the current US administration, or about corporate greed? What about this article here, published remarkably soon after 9/11, which I still think is a commendable article of simple clarity. Because we don't agree with Ms. Roy's views on certain issues, let's not slot her into the general category of being a nut, and suddenly start seeing an ulterior and deluded motive behind everything she says. There is almost nothing in the world which is all right or all wrong. It's important to objectively analyze what an individual says, and then judge it, instead of finding ammunition against that individual's character, and implying that that necessarily renders everything what she or he says as wrong. Elementary logic can tell us that this is not the right approach. Not that I am implying that elementary logic can be applied to social problems, but in this case, many times it's quite clear that one thing does not automatically imply the other. Maybe it does, maybe it does not. My problem is with critics trying to find a necessary and sufficient connection between the two that according to them, exists by default.

The second such individual against whom ad hominem attacks have always been a favourite ploy of his critics, is Noam Chomsky. Recently, there was an article asserting that Chomsky is a 'closet capitalist' because he has a trust fund set up, through which he holds stocks in some of the very corporations he is accusing of being criminals. I already have posted my opinion about this in detail. To expect an individual who criticizes a system to not partake of any benefits of that system at all, is being naive and unrealistic. In fact, this is precisely what that individual's critics would want, that the individual should get out of the system completely, so that he is no longer in a position to criticize it. Does that mean that every American citizen who criticizes the government for some policy or the other, does not have the right to live in the US?
Let's assume for a moment that Chomsky does all that he has been accused of, and also that that is the only side of the picture (a fundamentally false premise). Still, how does that suddenly debunk all the arguments against corporations and US foreign policy he makes? Like I said in my post, how does the cook's possibly shoddy character suddenly make his cakes rotten? There is no necessary connection between the two. Also, such articles are really relevant, if they are so at all, for someone who hero-worships Chomsky. I love his writings by and large, but I don't think he is not flawed. But I do try to make efforts to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to call wheat wheat, and chaff chaff. I think all of us should. The point is that after one hundred years, professional historians and political scientists will not care one bit for what Chomsky's character was, but only for what he said (They don't even do that for Marx- that's why I think that Paul Johnson't book is brilliant but meaningless in the end). So why indulge in so much character bashing? What's the point here?

The latest salvos in the fray seem to have been fired by those, who are criticizing former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, for speaking up against Donald Rumsfeld during Rumsfeld's trip to Atlanta a few days back. McGovern plainly asked the secretary why he lied that he knew the exact locations of the WMDs in Iraq. Not suprisingly, Rumsfeld was in quite a fix, and in the end, managed to barely get away with the kind of seemingly clever but trite remarks which politicians are known for. He even managed to try to inject some humour into the matter to try to deflect people's attention, by saying that there are troops who go out into the field wearing gas masks and chemical suits, and they don't do this 'for the style'. Well, American troops in Iraq are also not there for the style. They believe that their government has sent them there for a valid cause, and it's also a fact that without their trust in their government which has led them there, their government would be nowhere. The government should remember this.
In any case, a blogger hurled accusations at McGovern, citing that McGovern was involved in all kinds of shady and unpatriotic activities [Hat tip: Gawker]. Apart from the fact that this charge sheet looks like vintage tabloid slander, as Gawker also simply notes, even if this is true, how does that suddenly exonerate Rumsfeld from having misled the people? Just as the existence of troops with yellow suits hunting for CWs does not necessarily point towards definite sites of existence of these weapons, McGovern's past, even if true, does not distort McGovern's allegations. Let's say McGovern turns out to be some flag burning protest marcher, who has participated in rallies against every American president in the last 30 years. How on earth does that have anything to do with Rumsfeld not having lied to the people about WMDs? Isn't that a violation of simple logic? It seems that such people as this blogger use the same strategy as any 'good' politician, to try to deflect the issue at hand, and prove that is is meaningless, by going down the character defamation road.

Indulging in ad hominem attacks is hardly something new. Also, such attacks in some way, remind me of the arguments that creationists make 'in support' of their 'theory'. They claim that evolution has certain pitfalls in it, and that makes their 'theory' true by default. No matter that they have not procured a single shred of evidence in support of their own contentions, nor have they actually proved that evolution is a fundamentally flawed theory. The ad hominem perpetrators are similar. They attack their opponent's character, and try to prove that this allegation makes his statements false by default. They neither produce negative evidence to disprove his beliefs, nor positive evidence to corroborate their own.
Such attacks have always been part of the paraphernalia of any 'good' politician. But that does not hide the fact that at the least, they point to clever use of propaganda aimed at obscuring the main issue, and at worst, point to plain jealousy on the part of the accuser, or desperation from having run out of valid, relevant arguments to counter their adversary's arguments. This is too old a ploy, and nobody should be taken in by it. Unfortunately, people still do, and it's important for all not to lose sight of the goal.

As for the analogy with the bully, the tragedy is that these days, the child does not even have a mother to run to. All he can do is negotiate with the bully and demand explanations from him. And no point in expecting the bully to accede.

Friday, May 05, 2006


Chanced upon Deborah Lipstadt's blog. Lipstadt is Professor of Jewish Studies in the Theology division and History department at Emory University. She has had a pretty unique career, having come into the limelight recently, when she came into conflict with the (in)famous British historian David Irving.

David Irving has penned magisterial, if somewhat controversial, histories and biographies of World War 2 characters and events. And yet this brilliant man is amongst that bizarre group of people who, I cannot for the life of me understand why, deny the Holocaust. A couple of months ago, Irving finally met his fate, when he was sentenced to imprisonment in Europe for his consistent views about the matter.
How could such intelligent, informed, and publicly visible men and women deny something that is a foregone conclusion? Is it simply to be rebels without a cause? Their point is either that the Holocaust did not happen at all, something which is absurd to the point of being worthy of neglect in the face of irrefutable evidence, or that it's magnitude was much 'lesser'. According to these esteemed scholars, rather than the pretty well accepted figure of six million, 'only', say one or two million Jews died in Hitler's factories of death. First of all, the Holocaust was of such epic proportions in both its magnitude and execution (pun intended) that it does not make a difference to me if six million died in it or one million. The fact that human beings could murder other human beings in the millions, and go about it as nonchalantly as they were butchering chickens for meat packaging, is really beyond comprehension. It is really curious and unsettling to see hundreds of well-known people denying the Holocaust even now. In fact, to make sure that nobody would accuse the Allies of having 'invented' the Holocaust, it is said that Eisenhower paraded common Germans, including small children, in front of the emaciated skeletons of both living and dead Jews in the concentration camps and in front of the gas chambers. Maybe he should also have paraded some celebrities from his own side.

The French writer Robert Faurisson was one of those who came under fire for such an outrageous belief, and dragged Noam Chomsky into the snafu, when he cited Chomsky's quips about freedom of speech as his book's introduction. The public accused Chomsky of supporting Faurisson's views. The distinction was simple. Chomsky never supported the man's views, only his right to express them. After all, nonsense about matters mundane and profound has long been spoken and accepted in society. People who utter publicly perceived nonsense also pay for it in one way or the other, and Faurisson has also been seriously physically assaulted a few times for his beliefs. Believe as I do in civil liberties, I agree that it is an extremely sensitive issue for holocaust survivors to be surrounded by holocaust deniers, and conflicts are inevitable.
Be that as may, the fact that public opinion in France and elsewhere still rained down on Chomsky reflects how, rightfully, people are extremely emotional when it comes to any discussion of the incalculable Nazi atrocity. Fifty years after it happened, I don't think there is a single human being who can still emotionally fathom the depravity of those years. So the scars will live on.

Deborah Lipstadt came to Irving's attention when she criticized him for his views in her book and called him a Holocaust denier. Quite surprisingly, Irving had the gall to file a case against her in court. Lipstadt's fight against Irving, which basically became a highly publicised, representative crusade of sorts against Holocaust deniers, has been well-documented in 'The Holocaust on Trial'. Gratifyingly, Lipstadt won the case and became well-known, while Irving lost both his reputation and a lot of money he had spent on the case.

The fact that internationally known scholars like Irving can not only be Holocaust deniers, but can also sue historians like Lipstadt for character defemation, shows how even our most foregone conclusions can be challenged and insulted. Lipstadt remains a commendable protagonist of historical truth. But human beings will always remain complicated.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Books newly arrived from Amazon:
1. The one true platonic heaven: A scientific fiction of the limits of knowledge- John Casti
2. Brotherhood of the bomb: The tangled lives and loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller- Gregg Herken
3. Rousseau's Dog: Two great thinkers at war in the age of enlightenment- Eidinow and Edmonds

Along with a few earlier ones, this hopefully concludes my shameless, thriftless spending for this semester. I am really lucky the library is so resourceful, otherwise I don't know how quickly I would have had to hit the road after being bankrupt. Still, inspite of the library, any book lover would commiserate with me when I say that nothing beats holding the crisp, fresh smelling pages of a new book that you own in your own hands. Also, praise the carpeting in the United States that makes up for the lack of bookshelves (but not when it has chilli sauce spilt on it by accident- a grim tale for another time...)

Mega Mozart

My first big (and independent!) music purchase: Mozart Complete Masterworks Collection.

40 CDs of the master's best symphonies, concertos, sonatas, quartets, operas, and variations, including all my favourite ones that I have ever heard, and the collection is worth every penny. Mozart was the first composer I ever heard in my life, and he has always been my favourite, and I believe the greatest of them all (an opinion I seem to share with the old one).

Thanks to Chris who alerted me to this terrific deal on EBay. I had never done business on the site before. But it turned out to be smooth and efficient. I got the shipment after about 10 days, in excellent condition. The performing artists include Sir Charles Mackerras
That's enough Mozart for a long time to come. And all at a cool 110$. I paid 20$ only for the shipping, but then that's how they make their money. In any case, the best deal was the raw price of 90$. I at least got the second best deal.

One thing I realised about a lot of people I met here (by no means most of them), who listen to classical music as a pastime- I realised that that's the only purpose of music for them: as a pastime. I found a couple of people who were playing classical music in the background, but when I asked them what they were playing, they had no idea. So it was not like they were playing their favourite pieces with deliberation, but that they simply had picked up some music in a store or off the internet, and were playing it as elevator music. Boo hoo.

Monday, May 01, 2006

A remarkable man has passed away: John Kenneth Galbraith