Sunday, July 30, 2006


In 1998 as it is now, Nobel laureate E. J. Corey's lab at Harvard was the most productive synthetic organic chemistry lab in the world. There is not a single academic or industrial laboratory in the world that does not use the chemistry developed in his group. He has trained more than 600 post docs and 200 graduate students, an astonishing number, who carry on his tradition in their labs on every continent. The entire pharmaceutical industry survives on chemistry that he has sometime invented. And that was how it was in 1998.

Then, Jason Altom, a highly promising graduate student in his group, committed suicide by drinking a cocktail laced with cyanide from his own lab. The memory remains as painful as the possible explanation, which is vague. Is modern graduate study in the United States an exercise in harsh and unforgiving ascetic living? Is the demand for excellence and productivity finally overriding the emotional capacity of fledgling graduate students? Who is to blame?

Lethal Chemistry at Harvard explores in detail Altom's tragedy, its possible reasons, and the whole framework of academic research and its strains. It hits the nail on its head, when it elucidates what graduate study really is:

"Graduate study in the sciences, however, is a very unsentimental education. It requires the intellectual evolution from undergrad who can ace tests of textbook knowledge to original thinker who can initiate and execute research about which the textbooks have yet to be written. What is less often acknowledged is that this intense education involves an equally arduous psychological transition, almost a second rebellious adolescence. The passage from callow, eager-to-please first-year student in awe of an often-famous faculty adviser to confident, independent-minded researcher willing to challenge, and sometimes defy, a mentor is a requisite part of the journey."

The article's long, but sobering and worth reading. Very well written.

Especially after reading this article, I thanked my lucky stars that my two research advisors are almost too laid back. But more importantly, I realised the importance of having interests other than your work, including hobbies and family. Because then, even if you fail in your work, you can fall back on your other interests (and I can emphatically say this based on personal experience). But if your world is only your work, then when you fail in your work, your whole world collapses, just like it did for poor Jason, and the consequences can be devastating.

What I think is this: Some of us are inherently made out of the kind of stern stuff that's needed to live cheerfully in the high-pressure environment of graduate research. But I believe that most of us are not. Especially those of us who come from India are used to living with their parents, so that the emotional support structure exists. It's not like we don't face pressure, but there are a lot of fall-back-upons, and the kind of pressure we face does not involve coming up with new ideas so that our career depends on it. Now, we suddenly are plunged into a totally different environment when we come to the US. No family, few if any existing friends, and an environment that demands creativity and total dedication with few if any excuses. We have to radically change our attitudes and personality for this. And that is difficult. There is no official way that allows us to handle this change. Someone needs to understand this to ease the transition, to give us the time to gradually mould ourselves and adapt. The only person who can do this is our research advisor, because our work is connected to his demands. But he is also running against a tight schedule of grants and tenure. He too does not have the luxury of letting us take our sweet time to emotionally adapt ourselves at the cost of less productivity? So what to do?

I think that one way out of this dilemma is the time tested technique of giving each student a project that seems to be commensurate with both his intellectual abilities and his emotional capabilities. This will challenge him, but not so much that his emotional state struggles to catch up with the intellectual demands. Then, after he has warmed up his emotional capacity to handle the pressure, the advisor can give him a tougher research project, possibly one for his thesis. At any rate, I do think that it will often create problems if all graduate students are dunked into the same high-pressure research environment, irrespective of their personality, without giving them time to emotionally adapt. And of course, the part in the article about having someone to talk to is a must. Most of us don't have family here. People like me are reluctant to always discuss their problems with their family, largely because the emotional trouble is often related to the exact details of the research problem. For me luckily, my advisor can serve in the twin capacity of someone who can understand emotional problems arising from intellectual problems and research problems (on the other hand, he is hardly around!). But at least one such person is a must. There needs to be at least someone around you who can understand both your science as well as you. You are really stuck if neither your advisor nor a close friend can do this.
The unfortunate question that still remains is, even if such resources are available, will students like Jason Altom avail of them? Or should every research advisor also have another degree in psychology?
The problem does not have a definite solution as of now, but the one definite conclusion I can reach is that every research advisor needs to make at least some efforts to fine tune his senses in understanding what kind of an emotional person his graduate student is.

Corey's work of course continues at full speed. Even today at the age of 80, he publishes at least one paper in a top chemistry journal almost every week (his total paper count being more than a thousand), and has secured his place as one of the greatest organic chemists in history. The science goes on. It's the humans we have to care about.

Friday, July 28, 2006


Unrest is brewing in the world of chemistry, because a piece of research is raising eyebrows, and hackles, of those who think that it represents possibly dishonest science. The case also showcases the dilemmas in modern scientific progress, which have been illustrated before by some other famous cases. I think it would be worth it for me to elucidate the nature of the current entertaining fracas. But after a very short introduction to the art and science of organic synthesis.

* Magic in moleculeland and showdown in the house of hexacyclinol:

'Total synthesis', the multistep synthesis of complex organic molecules with practical and medicinal benefits, has been one of the cornerstones of the scientific foundation of the modern world. Look everywhere around you, and you see materials that have been manufactured tediously by organic chemists, one step and one bond at a time, since many decades. The greatest impact of this endeavor has been in the pharmaceutical industry, and most of today's important drugs would not exist if it were not for the patience and ingenuity of the organic chemist, nor could we hope to get future pharmaceutical products. Without synthesis of natural and artificial molecules, we would essentially be losers in our fight against disease.

So much for the practical aspect. The other reason why organic chemists synthesize molecules is for the sheer intellectual challenge. Building a complex molecule is like building the Eiffel tower or like painting the Sistine chapel, where not only does every bit and piece have to be put in its exact place, guided by known chemical principles, but the result, efficiency, and methods also have to be aesthetically pleasing. Many chemists are drawn to the synthesis of especially natural molecules, because they are dazzled by the beauty of nature's architectures, and want to make every effort to top nature in her magnificent constructions. Many have come close, if not surpassed, the rich and astonishing diversity of nature's creations.

So did James La Clair of the Xenobe Research Institute (whose name I had never ever heard before in my life) want to synthesize a molecule called hexacyclinol, whose structural beauty and complexity only seasoned organic chemists can truly appreciate. It is a metabolite from a fungus isolated a few years ago, from a dead piece of wood in Siberia. Many of the top selling drugs of recent years have incidentally been based on molecules isolated from such obscure terrestrial and marine organisms in exotic locations, a resounding case for preserving biodiversity.

A couple of months ago, his synthesis appeared in one of the two top chemistry journals in the world. I am not a seasoned organic chemist, but when I saw the structure and synthesis, my first reaction was 'Wow'. But further reading of the paper made my jaw drop lower down. The synthesis was 30 steps, something not uncommon in today's synthetic protocols, although still a formidable feat. What was dazzling was the fact that authoring the paper was one man- La Clair. Today's syntheses are massive endeavors, usually involving at least four to five graduate students and post-docs who have toiled for months, if not years, on such a complex product. One man's crusade in synthesizing such a molecule would have been hard to believe even in the maverick days of the 30s, when rebels determined to overturn sacred cows could toil obsessively in their laboratories. Frankly though, I was not completely qualified to judge the synthesis, but I was astonished at the fact that one man had done all the work of procuring, synthesizing, and then characterising this gigantic succesion of molecules in the synthesis. Suddenly I remembered having seen La Clair in a session from the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society. I remembered his clever remarks in the session which he had chaired, which involved praising my friend's synthesis and saying that 'my friend is ahead of the bug that usually synthesizes the molecule by several steps'.

My astonishment and puzzlement at the solitary achievement of La Clair was justified when I came across Dylan's Tenderblog, where he pointed out the dubious nature of some of the steps and statements in the paper, followed by a world-class barrage of invective, hilarious comments, and astute observations. I was ROFL when I was reading these comments.

However, now, it seems that La Clair may have become A La Carte indeed. A chemist by the name of Scott Rychnovsky at the University of California Irvine, predicted that some structural data for the molecule actually matched the calculated data for a totally different molecule.
Note that the molecule which La Clair synthesized already existed. Its structural data was already known, and a structure had already been deduced from that data. What Rychnovsky did was use powerful computers and the methods of computational chemistry (my turf!) to conversely calculate the structural data from the molecule. What he got did not correspond to the observed data. Instead, he came up with a totally different structure which would correspond to the observed data. In a mammoth effort now, John Porco of Boston University has actually synthesized the alternative structure which according to Rychnovsky, should correspond to the observed data. Voila! It does.

Now what does this mean?? For one thing, it could mean that La Clair synthesized the wrong molecule. But remember, Rychnovsky's structural data calculated for La Clair's structure does not actually correspond to that structure. However, in his paper, La Clair has done the usual routine of presenting the experimental structural data for his molecule, comparing it to the original experimental data acquired when the molecule was isolated from its fungus, and then noting the exact correspondence between them, concluding that his structure is the same as the original one. This is standard and age-old scientific protocol; come up with something, then see if the data for that something matches the known data. If it does, you do have what you say you have. But again, according to Rychnovsky, La Clair's structure should NOT give the structural data which La Clair has presented. So there's a disconnect between La Clair's structure and its synthesis, and La Clair's structural data. Now, the structural data already exists (from the original isolation study) and so cannot be fabricated. Thus, by the rules of Aristotelian logic, that imperfectly perfect science, the fault lies with La Clair's synthesis. Ergo, the skeptics conclude, La Clair could not have synthesized the molecule which he claims he did. Ergo, La Clair's synthesis is not what he says it is.

Ergo, La Clair has committed scientific fraud, or that's what they are saying at least.

La Clair claims that most of his work was done in an institute named 'Bionic Bros GmbH' in Germany. This name sounds to me like something from an Asimov novel, a cross between a robotics company and a bagel bakery (I am thinking of Einstein Bros. of course) where an obscure genius toiling in an obscure institute with a funny name, comes up with a breakthrough to create artificial life or something similar. He also acknowledges the help of 'five technicians' there who assisted him in the project. This acknowledgement is only a footnote, and considering the complexity of the synthesis, these five should have ideally been co-authors on the paper.
Supporting the skeptics' conclusion is the dubious nature of some of La Clair's statements and experimental steps, which I would leave an experienced organic chemist to pontificate on.

To be frank, strictly speaking, the verdict is still out on the La Clair affair. La Clair himself says now that the structural data for both the molecules could be exactly the same. To my humble chemist's mind, this seems highly unlikely, given the very different structures of the two. But as it is the case, whether I or La Clair or the critics are wrong in this case, science will progress either way. No offense to La Clair. If he is right, we will be wiser anyway.
That's the good thing about doing science. Whatever happens, science always wins.

* I replicate, therefore I am:

But this case is illustrating some of the inherent problems of scientific peer review. Scientific results should crucially be testable. But who is going to go to the trouble of testing a 30 step synthesis, or any such mammoth endeavor? And mind you, dozens of such syntheses are published every month. All the reviewers can do is check for internal consistency and past conformity based on their own knowledge and experience. Nature has recently published a nice article, narrating the problems with the all-important replication of data that is paramount in the scientific method. How can you check each and everything in a paper? Even if you can, does failure to replicate mean shoddy work on your own part, or a fundamental problem in the original author's work? And more importantly as the article points out, scientific research has subtle details in the exact protocol, including elements introduced by the skill (or lack of) the experimenter. Such elements can hardly be evaluated, and are never mentioned in a paper. What if these subtleties are playing a large role in the results?

The Nature author recounts the efforts of several journals now going to be devoted to methods, as well as websites where readers can rank papers based on their own efforts in duplicating the data from those papers. As the author says though, this could have the adverse effect of having to include too many similar pieces of work, a fact that may make the journal less attractive for authors and readers alike.

Another quite different matter concerns the nagging question; Why do they do it? Is their behaviour an inevitable consequence of today's cut throat world of competition in science, the high-pressure world of publish-or-perish that is so emotionally taxing, that sometimes scientists just lose it a little and falsify their results with the hope that they won't be detected. In La Clair's case, hexacyclinol was one example among a dozen other interesting examples. But what about the celebrated case of Woo-Suk Hwang, the Korean celebrity, the scientist who became the lifeblood and then the pariah of his ilk with his work on stem cells and cloning. Surely he could not have assumed that crucial work such as his would not be subjected to the closest scrutiny possible. That scientists would not keep the midnight oil burning in their laboratories to validate his results. How can someone who does work of that calibre afford to be dishonest to any degree and think he would get away with it? What about another celebrated case, that of Jan Hendrik Schon, the trailblazing Bell Labs researcher who promised to revolutionise electronics, semiconductor and superconductor technology. Not in one but in sixteen papers did he duplicate the exact same graph. How could he think he would escape unscathed and in fact be lionized? The question defies explanation. However, if any kind of serious study found out that it is emotional strain and pressure that brings about such behaviour, then does our entire way of doing science deserve a second and serious look? Or do we just dismiss these few cases as bad apples?

I believe that psychologists should find this avenue of investigation a very fertile paradigm of study. In the 1930s, a publicised and comprehensive psychological study tried to document what kind of men and women become scientists. What is their personality, their origins, childhood influences that turned them toward science and inquiry? Maybe the time is ripe for a similar study asking a different question: What are the adverse effects of the framework of modern scientific research and peer review?

But in the end, I think that the Nature author says it best when he points out that the marvelous expositor of science Nobel laureate Peter Medawar once pointed out that all scientific papers are frauds, because they paint a false picture of science progressing in an orderly fashion from hypothesis, testing, confirmation, to theory or law! As the great philosopher Paul Feyerabend pointed out to the chagrin of others, science is an anarchic enterprise. As the Nature article enumerates, since the actual process of science is much more messier than is depicted, maybe the evaluation of the process should also be more messier. I agree. Let evaluation also be an anarchic enterprise.

The more the messier. The messier the merrier.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

During my college days, me and my friend Anand had started a small band. We called ourselves 'The Young Stars'.

It's too bad that the band came to nought after some time. If we had continued, then in our old age, we would have renamed it The White Dwarfs. Hopefully, somewhere in between, we perhaps could have managed to become The Red Giants.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Ashutosh S. Jogalekar

The name was Gottingen. It was a small town in Germany, not even a city. Modest in looks and in style it did not boast of anything that the big metropolises would. It hardly had any automobiles, hardly any crowded streets and hardly any very rich people. Distances in the town were small, and people preferred to walk, hesitating to even take a bicycle along with them, let alone a car. The inhabitants were carefree, simple, middle class people. They were happy living this simple life, free from worries. The streets of the town were safe at all times, and frequently would one find lone travelers cheerfully whistling a tune and walking with a swinging gait on some wide street at one o’ clock in the night. In this small town would soon start, however, the greatest revolution science had ever seen.

Even if the townsfolk didn’t boast of any very famous people, they did pride themselves on the fact that one of the greatest of all mathematicians resided in the University there at one time. He was Carl Friedrich Gauss. In 1866, a young mathematician named Felix Klein occupied his vacant chair in the University. Klein was a vigorous young lad, with a particular interest in increasing the prestige of the small University. He spared no efforts in inviting the greatest mathematicians and physicists of the day to his Institute. With his prodding and enticing, gradually, eminent and learned men started coming. In the early 1900’s, a prominent group of men occupied the chairs of mathematics and physics in the University. David Hilbert would be known as the foremost mathematician of the first half of the twentieth century, and one of the most brilliant of all time. James Franck was a gifted physicist who would soon win a Nobel Prize. Together, these men brought into the University, a vigorous and burgeoning atmosphere of learning. Students soon began to pour into the University attracted by the aura of these great men. But it was not only the academics. The atmosphere in the University served as an almost magical catalyst for learning. Discussions were very informal and heated, continuing frequently well into the night. Now, students came to be seen on the road at night, their heads up in the sky, thinking of some interesting theory or equation. The professors were extremely approachable; indeed, if Franck ever went wrong somewhere during his lecture, he would not hesitate to ask one of his students to take over.

A few years after these men had established the University as a well known center for physical science, a young man arrived who was destined to make it downright famous and start a kind of Aristotelian revolution in physics, along with his students. To him would come an extraordinary group of people who would turn the world of physics upside down. His name was Max Born. Having had the most thorough of German educations, the new Professor was a man of wide learning. When he was an undergraduate, his father told him to take all courses possible, so that he could finally select the one which he liked most. So Max took courses in Literature, Philosophy, Physics and Mathematics, and Astronomy. In the end, he chose Physics, of course. Born was a generous man who cared much for the welfare of his students. He strived to get the best as students and collaborators. His wishes were fulfilled sooner than he thought.

During the early 1920’s, a most remarkable group of young men arrived at the University to work with Born. Together, they would represent a tour de force, the likes of which had never been seen-or would be seen in the future- in the world of Physics. Born within a year of each other, these men would be unparalleled in their mathematical insight, physical intuition and interpretative abilities. They came to the university to grapple with the new physics, called quantum mechanics-the physics governing the world of subatomic and microscopic particles. Werner Heisenberg had been a precocious youngster who had finished his PhD at the age of 24 and had already started to make waves in the physical world. Paul Dirac from Cambridge studied Electrical Engineering at Bristol before finally switching to physics. A formidable mathematician, he would soon discover the fundamental equation of quantum mechanics governing the electron, which would also take into account the requirements of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Wolfgang Pauli impressed Einstein at age 19 by producing an authoritative tome on Relativity. A quick thinker with a sharp tongue, he could easily outwit anyone else around him. Together, these young dazzling minds collected around them the greatest collection of young thinkers that has probably ever gathered at a single place. Slowly, eager and brilliant minds started showing up from all over the world. They would call their stay in the small homely town, the beautiful years.

From America came the most interesting breed of the young boys. Within just a few years, the status of scientific excellence would shift from Europe to America. And these men were here to start just that tradition. The well-bred Germans would first look with disdain upon their foreign colleagues’ manners of eating junk food and exercising a superior air of authority, very casually, which they didn’t have the right to do at all. But gradually, disdain turned to mutual admiration. The beauty of Europe was balanced to some extent by the mechanical gadgets in the US. The strict adherence to traditions in Germany contrasted with the carefree attitude of the youngsters. Slowly, the two groups started to mix with one another. The Americans taught the Europeans how to dance wildly late into the night and nibble at chicken livers at the dinner table. The Europeans in turn taught them how to appreciate fine wine, sing and listen to Wagner, and dance on the tune of Strauss’ Waltzes. The Americans found housing in the apartments of the kind residents of the small town and thus began collaborations that would soon turn into strong friendships, and even marriage. It’s surprising how many American and British physicists have had the extra good fortune of finding more than just physics revelations in the small town. They also found loving and supporting life partners. For example, the youthful and brilliant Fritz Houtermans realized that the situation had become more serious than he thought when he began to make some unusually large number of trips for evening tea to the house of fellow physics student Charlotte Riefenstahl. Miss Riefenstahl soon justified his doubts by becoming Mrs. Houtermans in a few years. In this carefree, invigorating atmosphere, it is not surprising that new ideas literally crawled out of woodwork. Indeed, the period 1920-1932 is one of the most productive periods in the history of science, when the greatest discoveries were made in this small town by these young men.

They were a diverse lot. Amongst them were the enthusiastic Fritz Houtermans, the introspective Richtmeyer, the prodigious Pauling, who often came down from Munich, and the conscientious Condon. All of these men were to make indelible marks in the world of Physics and Chemistry. In the winter of 1927, a young man arrived from America, who seemed outstanding even in this exceptional company of luminaries. Young Robert Oppenheimer had graduated from Harvard in just three years, instead of the customary four. He came to the University with a burning desire to learn the new physics. And his mind was more than worthy for this. Soon, the students began to get bewildered by his ability to solve complex problems, and to compose entire dissertations, almost on the spot, instantaneously, and seemingly without effort, so that no one else had even a chance to say anything about the topic anymore. His cultured manners made an impression on the German Herr Professors, especially Born, and he was easily the fastest thinker amongst the lot. But that was not all. He possessed an almost unbelievable amount of knowledge about diverse topics ranging from French literature to Oriental Philosophy. He had an exceptional aptitude for languages and could learn one in a very short period of time. To refute arguments, he could quote from the works of Goethe, Shakespeare and the Bhagvad Gita, which was one of his favourites. He could make others uncomfortable with his impeccable manners at the dining table. As one physicist put it, “Robert could make you feel as if you were a savage at the dinner table”. With a wealthy father’s money at his disposal, he soon was looked down upon with indignation by many of the other students, some of whom barely could make ends meet. However, he was not one to appreciate the problems of ordinary human beings. He could not reconcile his mind with the tough financial conditions that his colleagues faced. And he had a sharp tongue which could both insult and praise. In fact that was the gravest defect in his personality. And it was something that would have far reaching consequences, which no one could even dream of yet.
But everyone in general liked him because he was basically a very conscientious young man. He was like a small boy who sometimes could not control his bursts of temper. He himself admitted that his greatest fault was his ‘beastliness’ as he called it. Everyone would fondly remember rare instances, like the one in Charlotte Riefenstahl’s apartment, where, when Charlotte started to make tea, he suddenly leaped up and offered to heat the water. Robert also composed poetry, a fact which astonished fellow physicist Paul Dirac. Once, Dirac, who people joked, spoke ‘once a light year’, took Robert aside and said to him, “They told me that you compose poetry as well as work at Physics. How can you do both these things at the same time? In Physics, we try to tell people things which they didn’t understand before, in a simplified manner. In poetry, its exactly the opposite”. Robert took this as a compliment, but it was something which the reserved, monomaniac Dirac could never understand, with his single minded dedication to Physics.

The ‘boys’ had the time of their lives in the small town. Whenever there wasn’t Physics to be done, there was recreation. In the evenings, the cafes and bars soon would begin to get thronged with the youngsters. There they would discuss everything under the sun. A typical discussion would start with love affairs, then move on to the discussion of fine wine, and end with a heated argument about Goethe’s ‘Faust’. As the night would grow, so would the pace of the Polka and Hungarian dances. In the thick of it all would be Robert Oppenheimer. Once the Dutch physicists Uhlenbeck and Gouschmidt (who later discovered a key property of the electron called spin) were reading Dante’s works in the original. Robert was left out because he did not know Italian. For the next month, the lanky American was absent from the café. When he came back, he knew Italian as fluently as anyone in Italy.

As noted before, many great discoveries took place in those productive years. One of the most important would be the solving of the puzzle which concerned the source of energy in the sun. Now we know that it’s a process called fusion, or the fusing of Hydrogen nuclei, that is responsible for the generation of this energy. Once, Fritz Houtermans and his English colleague Atkinson were taking a walk in the night. They casually started discussing this age old puzzle, and by next morning, they had worked out at least the outline of the basic process. Houtermans recollects how, on that particular night, he was out with one of his friends who was a girl. They were sitting on a bench and the stars were shining bright overhead. “Oh! Look how pretty the stars are shining”, said his friend. “Yes, and right now I am the only person in this world who knows why they shine like that”, said Houtermans. He was describing a feeling of exhilaration that someone has when he is the lone owner of a new intellectual idea. But somehow, says Houtermans, his friend only laughed at this remark. Such ideas were to turn out in the dozens during those years.

In 1929, Robert Oppenheimer left the University for his homeland after obtaining his PhD. Soon, he would head a secret laboratory at Los Alamos and the development of the most horrifying weapon in mankind’s history, in the process becoming world famous. He would also become infamous as the ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb’, and it would be a truth that would terrifyingly haunt him throughout his life. He would realize that, during those years in the University, he had set the stage for changing the world along with his young friends, and that it would never be the same again. And it never was. In 1933, Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor, and in principle, the dictator of Germany. World War 2 would soon begin.
The young physicists had to leave the town, some because they were foreigners, others because they were Jews. Each of them had had the time of their lives there. And each would weave his own story later on. Heisenberg would face enormous moral scruples as head of the German atomic bomb project. Houtermans would have a nasty time being interrogated and beaten up by Soviet KGB Agents. Pauli would settle at Princeton, but would be faced by fits of depression during his later life. Condon would clash with Oppenheimer over security problems at Los Alamos and end up not having contributed to the bomb work. Linus Pauling would revolutionize Chemistry with the application of Quantum Physics. In later years, he would strongly speak against nuclear disarmament. Max Born would decide to migrate to Cambridge, James Franck to the US. Almost all of these men had been, or would be future Nobel Laureates.

But gone would be the days in the University, the quiet, carefree life, the intense devotion to physics, the indefatigable desire to understand the secrets of the Universe. Gone would be the invigorating discussions about Shakespeare in pretty cafes and the walks at late nights on the streets, thinking about physics, with the head in the clouds.
Gone were the beautiful years.

- A. J.
September, 2001


I have never posted a forward on this blog, and would especially not post such a long one. But this one surely is the most hilarious forward I have received since the internet came to my home. I cried a bucketful of tears from laughing when I read this. Just could not resist putting it up. Please please read it and die.

The World According to Student Bloopers
by Richard Lederer
St. Paul's School
(Spring 1987, Verbatim, The Language Quarterly, Vol. XIII, No.4)

"The inhabitants of ancient Egypt were called mummies. They lived in the Sarah Dessert and traveled by Camelot. The climate of the Sarah is such that the inhabitants have to live elsewhere, so certain areas of the dessert are cultivated by irritation. The Egyptians built the Pyramids in the shape of a huge triangular cube. They Pramids are a range mountains between France and Spain.

The Bible is full of interesting caricatures. In the first book of the Bible, Guinesses, Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree. One of their children, Cain. once asked, "Am I my brother's son?" God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Montezuma. Jacob, son of Isaac, stole his brother's birth mark. Jacob was a patriarch who brought up his twelve sons to be patriarchs. but they did not take to it. One of Jacob's sons, Joseph, gave refuse to the Israelites.

Pharaoh forced the Hebrew slaves to make bread without straw. Moses led them to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread, which is bread made without any ingredients. Afterwards, Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the ten commandments. David was a Hebrew king skilled at playing the liar. He fought with the Philatelists, a race of people who lived in Biblical times. Solomon, one of David's sons, had 500 wives and 500 porcupines.

Without the Greeks we wouldn't have history. The Greeks invented three kinds of columns -- Corinthian, Doric, and Ironic. They also had myths. A myth is a female moth. One myth says that the mother of Achilles dipped him in the River Stynx until he became intollerable. Achilles appears in The Illiad, by Homer. Homer also wrote the Oddity, in which Penelope was the last hardship that Ulysses endured on his journey. Actually, Homer was not written by Homer but by another man of that name.

Socrates was a famous Greek teacher who went around giving people advice. They killed him. Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock.

In the Olympic Games, Greeks ran races, jumped, hurled the biscuits and threw the java. The reward to the victor was a coral wreath. The government of Athens was democratic because people took the law into their own hands. There were no wars in Greece, as the mountains were so high that they couldn't climb over to see what their neighbors were doing. When they fought with the Persians, the Greeks were outnumbered because the Persians had more men.

Eventually, the Ramons conquered the Geeks. History calls people Romans because they never stayed in one place for very long. At Roman banquets, the guests wore garlics in their hair. Julius Caesar extinguished himself on the battlefields of Gaul. The Ides of March murdered him because they thought he was going to be made king. Nero was a cruel tyranny who would torture his poor subjects by playing the fiddle to them.

Then came the Middle Ages. King Alfred conquered the Dames, King Arthur lived in the Age of Shivery, King Harold mustarded his troops before the Battle of Hastings, Joan of Arc was cannonized by Bernard Shaw, and victims of the Black Death grew boobs on their necks. Finally the Magna Carta provided that no free man should be hanged twice for the same offense.

In midevil times most of the people were alliterate. The greatest writer of the time was Chaucer, who wrote many poems and verses and also wrote literature. Another tale tells of William Tell, who shot an arrow through an apple while standing on his son's head.

The Renaissance was an age in which more individuals felt the value of their human being. Martin Luther was nailed to the church door at Wittenburg for selling papal indulgences. He died a horrible death, being excommunicated by a bull. It was the painter Donatello's interest in the female nude that made him the father of the Renaissance. It was an age of great inventions and discoveries. Gutenberg invented the Bible. Sir Walter Raleigh is a historical figure because he invented cigarettes. Another important invention was the circulation of blood. Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper.

The government of England was a limited mockery. Henry VIII found walking difficult because he had an abbess on his knee. Queen Elizabeth was the "Virgin Queen." As a queen she was a success. When Elizabeth exposed herself before her troops, they all shouted, "hurrah." Then her navy went out and defeated the Spanish Armadillo.

The greatest writer of the Renaissance was William Shakespear. Shakespear never made much money and is famous only because of his plays. He lived at Windsor with his merry wives, writing tragedies, comedies, and errors. In one of Shakespear's famous plays, Hamlet rations out his situation by relieving himself in a long soliloquy. In another, Lady Macbeth tries to convince Macbeth to kill the King by attacking his manhood. Romeo and Juliet are an example of a heroic couplet. Writing at the same time as Shakespear was Miguel Cervantes. He wrote Donkey Hote. The next great author was John Milton. Milton wrote Paradise Lost. Then his wife died and he wrote Paradise Regained.

During the Renaissance America began. Christopher Columbus was a great navigator who discovered America while cursing about the Atlantic. His ships were called the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Fe. Later, the Pilgrims crossed the Ocean, and this was known as Pilgrims Progress. When they landed at Plymouth Rock, they were greeted by the Indians, who came down the hill rolling their war hoops before them. The Indian squabs carried porpoises on their back. Many of the Indian heroes were killed, along with their cabooses which proved very fatal to them. The winter of 1620 was a hard one for the settlers. Many people died and many babies were born. Captain John Smith was responsible for all this.

One of the causes of the Revolutionary Wars was the English put tacks in their tea. Also, the colonists would send their parcels through the post without stamps. During the War, the Red Coats and Paul Revere was throwing balls over stone walls. The dogs were barking and the peacocks were crowing. Finally, The colonists won the War and no longer had to pay for taxis.

Delegates from the original thirteen states formed the Contented Congress. Thomas Jefferson, a Virgin, and Benjamin Franklin were two singers of the Declaration of Independence. Franklin had gone to Boston carrying all his clothes in his pocket and a loaf of bread under each arm. He invented electricity by rubbing cats backwards and declared, "A horse divided against itself cannot stand." Franklin died in 1790 and is still dead.

George Washington married Martha Curtis and in due time became the Father of Our Country. Then the Constitution of the United States was adopted to secure domestic hostility. Under the Constitution the people enjoyed the right to keep bare arms.

Abraham Lincoln became America's greatest Precedent. Lincoln's mother died in infancy, and he was born in a log cabin which he built with his own hands. When Lincoln was President, he wore only a tall silk hat. He said, "In onion there is strength." Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope. He also freed the slaves by signing the Emasculation Proclamation, and the Fourteenth Amendment gave the ex-Negroes citizenship. But the Clue Clux Clan would torcher and lynch the ex-Negroes and other innocent victims. It claimed it represented law and odor. On the night of April 14, 1865, Lincoln went to the theater and got shot in his seat by one of the actors in a moving picture show. The believed assinator was John Wilkes Booth, a supposingly insane actor. This ruined Booth's career.

Meanwhile in Europe, the enlightenment was a reasonable time. Voltare invented electricity and also wrote a book called Candy. Gravity was invented by Isaac Walton. It is chiefly noticeable in the Autumn, when the apples are falling off the trees.

Bach was the most famous composer in the world. and so was Handel. Handel was half German, half Italian, and half English. He was very large. Bach died from 1750 to the present. Beethoven wrote music even though he was deaf. He was so deaf he wrote loud music. He took long walks in the forest even when everyone was calling for him. Beethoven expired in 1827 and later died for this.

France was in a very serious state. The French Revolution was accomplished before it happened. The Marseillaise was the theme song of the French Revolution, and it catapulted into Napoleon. During the Napoleonic Wars, the crowned heads of Europe were trembling in their shoes. Then the Spanish gorillas came down from the hills and nipped at Napoleon's flanks. Napoleon became ill with bladder problems and was very tense and unrestrained. He wanted an heir to inherit his power, but since Josephine was a baroness, she couldn't bear children.

The sun never set on the British Empire because the British Empire is in the East and the sun sets in the West. Queen Victoria was the longest queen. She sat on a thorn for 63 years. Her reclining years and finally the end of her life were exemplatory of a great of a great personality. Her death was the final event which ended her reign.

The nineteenth century was a time of many great inventions and thoughts. The invention of the steamboat caused a network of rivers to spring up. Cyrus McCormick invented the McCormick raper, which did the work of a hundred men. Samuel Morse invented a code of telepathy. Louis Pasteur discovered a cure for rabbis. Charles Darwin was a naturalist who wrote the Organ of the Species. Madman Curie discovered radium. And Karl Marx became one of the Marx brothers.

The First World War, caused by the assignation of the Arch-Duck by a surf, ushered in a new error in the anals of human history."

Sunday, July 23, 2006


In an age where 'environmental actvism' is not some maverick, flashy phrase but a humdrum essentiality, green chemistry is the need of the day. But after all, why didn't the word enter the vocabulary of chemists and chemical engineers earlier, since Rachel Carson had alerted us to environmental damage from chemicals way back in 1962? The reason has more to do with the methodology of teaching chemistry, than attitude. Jack Warner, who along with Paul Anastas is one of the pioneers of this field (or rather, paradigm), gives his opinion on this:

"So if green chemistry is such a blindingly obvious idea, "why in 2004 are people acting like it's a revolutionary concept?" asks Warner of the University of Massachusetts.

The answer is simply that toxicity and environmental impact have never been taught as part of the innate set of qualities — such as boiling point — that all chemicals have. "If I stood in front of a chemistry class and held a glass of water up and asked, 'What are the characteristics of this material?' no one is going to answer, 'It's not toxic,' " Warner says."

Which proves again how important education is.

Incidentally, Anastas' and Williamson's readable text on green chemistry is one that I remember issuing out of the Pune British Library a few years back. One of the important developments elucidated in this book, now widely researched, is the use of liquid CO2 as a solvent for reactions. Finally, we have an alternative use for all that greenhouse CO2. Isn't it?

Thursday, July 20, 2006


The following words were quoted by a well-known international spiritual leader, in an essay about human values, reasons for terrorism, and people's march towards fundamentalism. I would preferably keep his name undisclosed, but the issue could apply to many such gurus. Much of the essay was reasonably sound, although a little banal. One simple thing which I was in complete agreement with him was:

"Most of us look at people who are already terrorists and ask how they can be reformed. There is, perhaps a more important and urgent question to ask. How can we prevent youth and children of today from becoming terrorists of tomorrow?"

But this is what came at the end:

"How can we get anger, violence and the sense of hatred out of the
hearts of people? This is the problem that is facing us today. We know the
answer philosophically, but what are the practical steps and how do we
begin? It is here that something very basic to our life comes into play
- our breath. Breath is the link between body, mind and emotions.

By attending to it, we can calm our minds."

Interestingly, that's it. That's the end of the essay.
It is when I read words like these coming from well-known spiritual gurus that I am really befuddled by, if not irked by spirituality. I am sure the man meant well, but how on earth is a rational thinker supposed to see how spiritualism can ever provide an answer to our problems, if he reads something like this? At the least, he would end up believing that spiritualism is as worse, if not worse, at providing solutions to dilemmas as are other efforts. This is when I start thinking of religion and/or spiritualism as literally being the opium of the masses. It won't solve your problems, but if you believe enough in it, you surely can seek solace from those problems and forget about them in a mist of breathing/meditation/other opioid things. But remember, they are still not solved. Maybe then you can believe that problems are never to be solved, only to be forgotten?

I thought about this, and as if to reiterate my opinions, a quote from one of the guru's students caught my attention:
"I used to get angry very easily, even at very small things. Now, almost nothing bothers me"

Correct. Just like Mumbai is so resilient, that it can never be bothered by bomb blasts. No?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


First of all, Israel's foreign minister Tzipi Livni says,

"The diplomatic process is not intended to reduce the window of opportunity for military operations, but will take place in parallel."

It seems Mr. Livni has redefined the word 'diplomacy'. Diplomatic proceedings are supposed to precede all other actions. Military action is supposed to be a last resort. In any case, diplomatic proceedings are not supposed to be held "in parallel" with military action. That sounds outlandish to me personally.

To be frank, Israel's actions are sounding like typical political maneuvers, where one uses a particular document, event, or law, as an excuse for exercising some large scale agenda, which often is more of a personal vendetta. One of the cornerstones for the whole campaign seems to be one document, UN Resolution 1559, which calls for disbanding of Hezbollah. Does that also call for doing it by 'any means necessary', including killing innocent civilians? But of course, this is a question that has haunted us through many wars; are the 'accidental' or downright deliberate deaths of civilians during destruction of military forces and installations justified?

If history is anything to go by, it seems that this action is justified only for the victors. During World War 2, millions of civilians were killed by both sides during military target destruction. Although the allies never participated in anything as grotesque as the Holocaust, their killing of hundreds of thousands during strategic bombing raids on Dresden and Tokyo (where a deliberately provoked firestrom killed one hundred thousand civilians in one night, men women and children, more than that killed by the atomic bomb) are morally equivalent to the greatest travesty. None of the perpetrators of these acts, including Pacific commander Curtis Le May, or "Butcher" Harris, head of British Bomber Command, were prosecuted, whereas at Nuremberg and the Japanese war tribunal, scores were tried and hanged on similar accounts (Interestingly, the one dissenting vote at the Japanese tribunal was of an India judge). But LeMay summed up the repurcussions pithily; "If we had lost, we would all have been tried as war criminals".

The more important question of course reaches even deeper; how do we define morality, and is it context specific? Whatever the etymology, one thing is clear, distinctions have been seen throughout history. The most recent example is the US 'War on Terror' where the running philosophy again seems to be, 'If we do it, it's counter terrorism. If they do it, it's terrorism'. Does morality always have to take sides to preserve a structured world order? Has it become the bitter truth of the day? This is one of the pressing questions of our times.

So it seems that punitive action in this little war in the middle east will depend on who is seen as the 'victor' although as someone said, 'in war, there are no victors'. Is anybody listening?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

If the government actually bans complete access to all of blogspot or other blogging sites, it will be an unprecedented act. We will lose our hold on one of the most important reasons why we are proud of India, and which can enable us to criticise censure in other countries. One of my American friends asked me two days ago, when I was aware of the government's planned action only a rumour, whether this fact was true. I confidently told him that I am sure that something like this could never happen.

Voila! Today, I ask a couple of my friends in India, and none of them can access my blog. Frankly, this is quite shocking for me, because as I said before, no matter how much freedom of speech is trampled under the feet of fanatic fundamentalists and bigots who take out on the streets the moment someone makes a comment about a national matter, I am not aware of any incident where the government itself has ordered a large scale suppression of this right in any way. I also hope that the government does not exploit the fear of terrorism and conflict as an excuse to indulge in this, an action that has ample precedent in history, most recently in the US.
In recent years, many of us have lamented the loss of freedom of speech by informal threats and extreme criticism which makes anyone automatically wary of speaking out for or against any national matter, from sex in cinema to Naramada andolan. Is this government action simply a transition to making this paradigm a formal one? It still would be outrageous, and the day would go down as a black day in our recent history.

From today onwards, let me keep my mouth shut about the curtailment of civil liberties in Pakistan and China, which I frequently used to aggressively quote, to make a point about Indian democracy.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


One of the biggest problems with AIDS treatment always has been patient compliance. Viral levels can be reduced in a patient and maintained at that level only if you hit the virus early, hard, and repeatedly so. But because of the number of times that one has to take the drugs, many patients fail to keep up with this strict routine. There was a point when patients had to take drugs as many as 18 times a day, a grotesque regimen. If this fails to happen for even a couple of days, not only does the virus come back with a vengeance, but the diabolically chimeral creature develops resistance to that drug combination by clever mutations. After this, even the same previously highly effective treatment fails to have any efficacy.

The usual combination therapy of drugs consists of two drugs that inhibit the viral enzyme called reverse transcriptase which codes for viral DNA, and one which targets an enzyme called HIV-protease, which is reponsible for processing viral proteins into a form suitable for forming the viral coat. Both enzymes can rapidly develop resistance to these drugs through mutations, in an exquisite though unfortunate example of Darwinian evolution (People who think evolution is necessarily a slow process and therefore cannot be observed need only to look at HIV among other things)

In what I see as a major advance in HIV treatment, the FDA has finally approved a once-a-day capsule with a combination of three best selling drugs. The treatment still costs 1000$ a month, but this is assuredly affordable for well to do people in the developed world. The problem of making it available in India and Africa still persists, and I don't know if there's any easy way out, because given the income levels of many HIV patients especially in Africa (which are essentially none), there is no difference for them between paying 1000$ and paying a million dollars. Short of making the treatment free to at least some, I don't see any easy way out for pharmaceutical companies and governments.

In any case, this is an important new development, and I am proud that one of the three drugs (Emtricitabine®) is the one that was co-discovered by my advisor. Does this mean he will be away even longer than usual? Boo hoo.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


* Like all great cities, Mumbai is instantly on its feet. We had a few moments of worry and suspense yesterday, when we could not locate and get in touch with my cousin sister who had started from Worli in the evening. Three of the seven blast point stations were on her route. Luckily, it turned out that she had started late and the trains were stopped even before she left Dadar. We kept on calling and finally reached her late at night. She rightly had decided to spend the night at a friend's place at Dadar.
I was impressed by and am grateful to the folks at the Mumbai Help blog, where I had left her number, my uncle's number, and my own number in Pune, asking anyone who could get in touch to finally contact my father in Pune. I was touched to see about three or four people repeatedly trying to contact these numbers in the next half an hour. Interestingly, my uncle's home number was not working; however, the people at the helpline who called that number all unanimously said that they had been yelled at at that number for calling so late. It would be quite a coincidence if all of them contacted the same wrong number! But many thanks to them (especially Saba and Rushina) for trying so hard. I finally got through to my brother before them, who told me that both he and my sister got in touch and spent the night at their friend's place in Dadar. It's these simple things that matter and make me hopeful.

* One system which I think we should really implement is a system of keeping accurate electronic records of suspected citizens or militants. I know that the whole issue of stifling civil liberties immediately pokes its nose through, and it's a very valid one. But I don't think we have instant electronic access to detailed backgrounds of even suspected criminals. Such information will help us instantly coordinate information about various past miscreants, and based on their past known locations and transactions, could help us try to predict at least who could be conniving to plot the next attack, if not exactly where. At the least, it could help us confirm suspects in the aftermath. I don't know if the government has such a system in place, and how good it is, but technology definitely can help us solve problems that inefficient human communication and analysis could thwart, even though the ultimate decisions need to be taken by human beings.

* In the aftermath of the blasts, we are getting the usual boilerplate from the politicians. Shivraj Patil was shown reading from a prepared speech literally in the tone of a fifth standard kid forced to read a chapter from a history textbook. All predictable, mundane, and dull. Manmohan Singh too failed up yet again to live up to his widely read and scholarly image and parroted banality from a prepared document. Mr. Prime Minister, are there not even a few heartfelt words in your soul, that could be brought forth spontaneously, especially when you are someone who can actually express himself in good English? I mean, if you can't talk extempore, at least pretend to do so. With all his egregious mistakes, even George Bush can pull that off.
Singh says that "we will not kneel", a line that would have sounded cheesy had it not been for the macabre context. Well, not kneeling is one thing, fighting back is another. Not kneeling is fine, but leading a life where we periodically kneel and then simply forget about things and go about our daily existence is stretching the proud tradition of 'non-violence' to the extreme. That's what the Jews did. They went peacefully to their deaths. They did not lose their dignity, but neither did they fight back. Need we say more about the consequences.
It's time that we started to actually fight back, and not simply not kneel.

* The common people who nurture these terrorists are given free rein in our country. Nobody dares to say anything against them for fear of inciting religious or communal feelings. Nobody wants to accuse them even in the face of evidence. It does not matter that harboring or supporting terrorism should have nothing to do with religion. And in a bonafide indication of the landslide decline in the law and order situation in our country, nobody wants to stop them from indulging in and bringing to fruition their personal grievances and irrational paranoias. Whether it is Rajkumar's death or Bush's visit, anybody can protest as violently as they want and they will be sure they won't be prosecuted. The politicians and police don't realise that it is exactly this gratuitous allowance for public flaunting of the rule of law, that actually brings about communal unrest. For example, if you fail to prosecute Hindus who violently protest because some Hindu leader is dead, then the next time, you will have to allow Muslims to violently protest for the same cause, otherwise they will accuse the government of religious discrimination. Who gives a damn about which community is protesting, if they are destroying public property or human lives? But for our secular sensibilities, the definition of being secular is not to prosecute everyone equally under the law, but to allow everyone equally to murder everyone else and to indulge in mass hysteria. And then we appeal to some perverse and warped notion of "freedom of expression". Unless the government prosecutes each and every criminal uniformly, irrespective of anything else but his deeds, religious dimensions to violence will never disappear, and every violent element would have achieved its mission in keeping the unending cycle of recrimination and rage thriving.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Mumbai bomb blasts (11.30 p.m. IST)- I just want the government to do one thing; start an intensive, honest, and all out manhunt RIGHT NOW before the culprits and/or their contacts are given time to escape. It's the least they can do.

Monday, July 10, 2006


Let us make the audacious assumption that a lot of details about global warming are in doubt (It would be a deranged assumption to say that all of them are downright wrong); yet Al Gore's documentary makes sense. The real question is this; we are bringing about unpredictable changes in the atmosphere that cannot be explained by natural phenomena extrapolated over a really long time. We know that the effects of human contribution to these changes can be extremely unpredictable, and generally deleterious. Given these simple facts, I think that anyone who says that we must not do anything about global warming is at least thoroughly misguided, if not downright immoral. Yes, like Gore, I too think that this is not so much a political issue as it is a moral issue, even if there are those among us who have grotesquely turned it into a political one. But even completely leaving morality aside, unpredictable climate change can create havoc, of the kind that used to be created when weather prediction was non existent. This involves much economic damage, including market fluctuations and sudden changes in fortunes. How about doing something about global warming for this reason alone?

Now, let us get rid of that assumption which we made above, because it is plain wrong. There is no doubt in the minds of the majority of scientists that global warming is real, that greenhouse gases are causing is, and that it is generally responsible for violent and unpredictable weather events. There is no doubt in the mind of scientists that for the first time in the history of our planet, a single species has engaged in activities whose magnitude has finally become enough to modify earth's mighty and tempestuous terrains, oceans, and atmosphere. Actually most scientists are quite sure about even definite changes, such as ice cap melting, but let us for a moment give the skeptics the benefit of doubt by agreeing that the exact details are debated. Even then, the issue does not lose its ominous urgency. No.

I don't want to go into all the details about global warming myself, because they are easily available and are enumerated in detail in the film. There are myriad changes of ever kind on our planet, including everything from hurricanes and desertification, to a rise in noxious plants and insidious animal, insect, and most importantly, disease causing microorganisms. It does not matter that we cannot pinpoint particular events to just global warming. This is like knowing that a tiger is on his way to kill us, and asking for the length of his fangs and the exact strength in his muscles, before deciding whether to run or not. Does it matter?
Gore does a great job of explaining in the most simple terms what is happening, and what the current as well as past scenario looks like, and the movie is worth watching just for those factual details. The same facts are enumerated and lavishly illustrated in the book too, which I promptly ordered.

Most amazingly, even though the whole film is about Gore making a presentation, and even talking about his childhood and life, the film is not one bit about Al Gore. The data speaks for itself, and no human being can divert us from its significance. That is the beauty of the film. We hardly see it as Al Gore's film about global warming. We simply see it as an urgent message about global warming, in which a responsible citizen who could represent any such citizen of our planet, is narrating ths story of our pernicious contribution to the planetary bill. The graphs and charts can be understood by any high school student. As one review said, there's no scene in any horror movie which can elicit as much horror as the face-slapping truth of some of those charts. The images of dying glaciers, rainforests, and rapidly declining species of every kind are striking, but not because of their grandeur. They are striking because of their sheer number, which demonstrate that climate change is not just real, but it's happening fast. We are losing day by day, and painful bit by bit, what Edward Wilson describes as our primeval emotional connection to nature.

Another key feature of the film is that Gore is distinctly non-partisan, and yet he manages to convey that the current administration will go down in ignominy because of its blatant disregard, abuse and manipulation of sound and objective scientific advice. If we deem Union Carbide to be a criminal, then why not politicians like those in the current administration, who are doing the exact same thing by ignoring data that has a fair chance of causing the death of millions and destruction of untold amounts of property? What kind of monsters will go on playing for profits after knowing that there is a thirty percent chance that ten million people may die because of man made climate change that they are partially or largely responsible for?

And in the end, does it matter if the whole issue is about profits? In an ironically amusing and disarmingly simple cartoon, Gore demonstrates what dissenters of global warming are doing; they are weighing gold bars and prosperity on one side of the scale. What's on the other side of the scale? Planet Earth. Q.E.D. and there should be no need to say more.

The real issue in my mind, far away, is actually quite different but a crucial one that I believe strikes at the heart of our existence and history on earth. We have phenomena here that are generally agreed upon. There is also general scientific consensus on their causes, which are man made. And there is also general consensus about their effects. My point is, irrespective of the details, isn't it our moral, political, social, and even economic duty, to do something about events that, even potentially, can hold the planet's fate in their balance? Do we need to be one hundred percent sure of such a catastrophe in order to do something about it? If so, then I think we will have failed all our future and past accomplishments, and our unique perspective of insight and foresight which has helped us survive and conquer this planet much more than we should have.

The issue surely is a moral one. But I think that the greater issue simply asks the question of what the stuff is, that we as humans are made of. We have outlived our lifespan and colonized every acre of the planet by averting exactly those risks which we were reasonably sure of, without waiting for certainty about their prospects. We never always asked for one hundred percent guarantee when it came to issues of survival. Do we ask for one hundred percent certainty that an emergent disease could possibly wipe out even ten percent of the world's population? Do we ask for one hundred percent certainty that a natural catastrophe will happen in some location? Do we we ask for one hundred percent certainty about financial events that could bring about economic depression? The answer clearly is no. We have always acted on the basis of the best possible knowledge that we have, even though we never were one hundred percent sure. We have kept the midnight oil burning in our laboratories and institutions, and poured in resources of every kind, to prevent minor catastrophes that even had a fifty percent chance of occuring.
If this is the case, then it is beyond me to understand why we are so stuborn in acting to prevent something that is firstly reasonably well-established, and secondly, something that is a million times more damaging than these other events, even to the point of being a certified global killer. Have the trappings of our unique minds injected so much hubris and clouded our psyche so much, that like a Greek tragedy, when it is most necessary, we fail to summon all our qualities that have furthered our existence and prosperity until now?

And yet, even in the dark recesses of our greatest errors, hope goes about its daily business as usual.
This is a problem we can solve. In the end of the film, simple ways to reduce our dependence on oil and cut down on emissions, including electing reponsible politcians, intersperse the titles. A large enough number of people just have to do it. A large enough number of people have to lobby in whatever way they can, to change policy. At the very least, they have to educate themselves about issues at the very basic level. If there is any time for all of us to climb out of our cocoon of complacance, this is it, and perhaps this is the last great opportunity we have. The greater responsibility is obviously of the developed nations, but we all have to do our share. The science is reasonably sound, and we are only deceiving ourselves if we ignore it or deem it to be "uncertain", as most politcians do. Central to their behavior is perhaps the notion that environmental protection and corporate interests cannot coexist. Wrong again. However, it is also true that every day that corporations and governments ignore warmings about human initiated climate change, so will changes for the better keep on becoming harder to implement. If we cross the tipping point, some things may permanently change. It's a law of nature.

Sometimes, I get the feeling that human existence is the greatest of Greek tragedies, inevitably caught so much in its own inertia, that the sheer scale and intensity of that inertia means that we are hurtling inexorably towards our doom. We did not die because of plagues because we invented medicines. We did not die of natural disasters because we protected ourselves through technology. We have not even died yet of war, for inexplicable reasons in which I nonetheless see hope and aspirations. But what about those reasons which we manufacture almost gleefully. It may be that fate would have finally found the perfect way to bring an end to humanity, by literally its own will.

And yet like I said, the fact that even the darkest scenarios hold hope also seems to be a curiously human attribute. Gore talks about the great wars we have fought, the disasters (including CFC damage) that we have averted, and the differences that we have overcome in presciently achieving the impossible. When no amount of logic and reasoning can pacify our hearts and minds, it is only the thin but remarkably assuring thread of history that can guide us in the dark. And yet, like the thread of Ariadne, it leads us both ways, to liberation, or to the Minotaur which we have subconsiously created out of our common greed and woes. Where we go depends on us, all of us. We have to integrate and educate, empathize and act. This issue is not about Republicans and Democrats, about conservatives and liberals, about developed and developing countries. We are beyond rhetoric. We have entered the age where action should provide its own rhetoric.
Global warming is a fact with unpredictable consequences. We are largely responsible. The consequences will be violent. Unless everyone does his or her own part to prevent it, the olympian sun, both literally and figuratively, will undoubtedly melt the wings of us proud Icaruses.

And in the limitless reaches of space, with not an inkling of life anywhere in the Universe, there wouldn't even be any one to watch this pale blue dot, alone in its glory and pride, gradually dim and fade away into non existence.

Don't miss 'An Inconvenient Truth'


Murray Rothbard tackles six myths about libertarianism and overall does a good job [Hat tip: Gaurav]. But there is one statement he makes which I think misses the point.

"Myth #3: Libertarians do not believe in moral principles; they limit themselves to cost-benefit analysis on the assumption that man is always rational.
...There are indeed libertarians, particularly Chicago-school economists, who refuse to believe that liberty and individual rights are moral principles, and instead attempt to arrive at public policy by weighing alleged social costs and benefits."

I think Rothbard is confusing economics and morals. Economists talk about policies that will bring about a certain monetary and financial outcome for a corporation or institution. Economists may or may not believe in morals as human beings in general but as economists their job is only to enumerate the best and most optimal policy. Just because Chicago school economists tout profiit maximization does not mean they don't believe that liberty and individual rights are not moral principles. They simply believe that whether those are moral principles and how they can be incorporated into policy making are issues that society should decide, not economists. As economists, they simply state those policies which will maximize profits. Whether those policies are moral or not with respect to liberty etc. is for society to decide. Economics per se has nothing to do with it. So if I am an economist, I will say that decreasing wages is the best way to increase profit. That statement does not mean anything more than what it says. It is strictly about increasing profits. I may say that decreasing wages is not good for the workers, but that stance has to do with my being a human being, not with my being an economist.

Of course, there may be some Chicago school economists who don't think that individual rights are not moral principles, but it should be emphatically noted that this has nothing to do with their work as economists (although their point of view could be influenced by their work). This is somewhat like saying that physicists who work on nuclear energy don't care about human life. It should be clear that as physicists, their job has nothing to do with morals and principles. As human beings, it certainly has.

I think such distinctions are very important, and I hope Rothbard himself does not perpetuate a myth by stating the above.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


Nawaz Sharif has apparently made a statement that Musharraf was planning a nuclear attack against India during Kargil, and that this fact was told to him by Clinton. [Hat tip: Gaurav] While I find both these premises to be possible in theory, I would have to see both of them validated from independent sources to trust them.

In fact, both premises may turn out to be totally misguided.

There has always been a dangerous disconnect between the polity and the military in Pakistan's history and this by itself points to the possible verity of the former fact. However, the mere fact that nuclear silos were moved from one station to another signifies nothing concrete. In fact, the silos could have been moved precisely to avoid their destruction by a possible preventive Indian air attack. At the very least, the silos could have been moved only to create an aura of threat, a standard strategy in nuclear deterrence. One of the motives for such an action is precisely to provoke the enemy into thinking that a nuclear attack is going to take place, thus giving your own side a good pretext to now launch some kind of preemptive attack. So there are several possible explanations for this action under Musharraf's supervision.

As for Clinton telling Sharif about this, again, Clinton could simply have reported what intelligence told him. He could have thought of all the above explanations too. This wouldn't have led him to think necessarily that Musharraf was planning to launch nuclear missiles against India, an action that I personally think would have been extremely unlikely on Musharraf's part. Musharraf knew about India's superiority in both conventional as well as nuclear forces. He also craved power. It seems foolhardy for him to have thought of engaging in such an action. At the very least, Clinton should certainly get the benefit of doubt here.

The general point about the US promoting self interests under the guise of spreading democracy is quite naturally well taken though.

I don't know why Sharif is making this statement right now; maybe it could have been true, or maybe he just wants to stir up controversy. Truth is, what does he have to lose in discrediting a former general who ousted him from power?
But in any case, his current statements, in the absence of further proof, prove nothing.