Sunday, March 30, 2008


Shashi Tharoor was at our university yesterday for a talk. There are three self-generated axioms in his talk which are quite evident:
1. Shashi Tharoor cannot stop praising India, and like many others these days, muses a lot on how we can close in on the "gap with China".
2. Shashi Tharoor keeps on saying "The cliche that India is a land of paradoxes is a cliche because it is so true" so many times that his statement becomes cliche.
3. Shashi Tharoor lists some obvious problems that India has but offers no insightful solutions or even inspired guesses except for saying "This situation needs to change"

First, Mr. Tharoor's fulsome praise. Now I love my country too, but apparently Mr. Tharoor rarely follows one of his own favourite quotes; that whatever you can say about India, the opposite is also true. There are few things you can lavishly praise about India which do not need to be qualified, and this is not even a gloomy outlook on the country's present but a testament to the very complexity of the country which Mr. Tharoor keeps on noting. And among the things you can unabashedly praise are unfortunately some rather trivial ones; Mr. Tharoor could not tire praising Bollywood movies and Zee TV soap operas for example. His 5 minute long digression on how even Jihadis in Afghanistan religiously (no pun) watch "Kyun ki saas bhi kabhi bahu thee" at 8.30 every evening may be an affectionately amusing anecdote for Americans who are new to India, but hardly a testament to the country's greatness or global reach. Likewise, his constant focus on how even fishermen and toddy-collectors in India now have cell phones detracts from real achievements; large-scale availability of cell phones can constitute the means but not the end to progress. In short, Mr. Tharoor's praise for India, while not unwarranted is not exactly very consequential, and I shudder when it comes dangerously close to reminding me of those outwardly mobile Indian yuppies for whom malls, cheap electronic goods and yes, the latest cell phone models are all emblematic of real "progress".

Moving on to China, One of Nehru's great follies in my opinion was to underestimate China. Contemporary Nehruvites seems to try making up for Nehru's shortcoming in a strange way; by going to the other extreme and obsessing about how India needs to "catch up" with China. Just like these other distinguished members of the intelligentsia, Mr. Tharoor could not stop noting how the wealth of India's top four billionaires surpasses that of China's top ten richest people, or how cell-phone (again) sales in India vastly top those in China. The comparison is not only inconsequential but not exactly a matter of pride. What does it exactly indicate? How does it add insight to serious comparison between the two countries? Shouldn't Mr. Tharoor talk about the freedom of the press and freedom on the Internet that make up a significant difference between our two countries?

On the other hand, what about those crucial matters where China is orders of magnitude ahead of India, matters which can make or break a country? Amartya Sen in his wonderfully insightful book "Development as Freedom" talks about the crucial difference between the two countries when it comes to basic infrastructure like primary education and healthcare. China has overtaken India in many ways because of vastly improved basic infrastructure that was already in place at the beginning of market liberalisation. Why couldn't Mr. Tharoor focus on this? Why couldn't he focus on the fact that the Indian government is not making primary education available and easy for the lower castes, thus actually foiling their chances for personal advancement? You have to be fair when you compare India and China; you cannot just obsess about how India can "overtake" China by establishing more Nehru Centers around the world or by producing more billionaires, as Tharoor contends.

And finally, about the paradoxes and problems. Mr. Tharoor talked about a lot about India's multicultural traditions, its secular history and respect for disagreement. This is becoming sort of cliche now, even if it's true. And yet he did not talk about the very real personal freedom in India that regularly comes under attack, largely by the government, and is not allowed to flourish. Even today, the government finds it prudent to intrude upon or at least encourage criticism of our private lives, how women dress, what they say (Sania Mirza: check), sexual preferences, what goes in the bedroom and which celebrity kisses which other celebrity. Tharoor did focus on Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists' extreme intolerance toward pre-marital relationships or Valentine's Day celebrations, but again, these transgressions constitute a minor component of a nationwide intolerance toward private individual matters by the government. While libertarians are screaming themselves hoarse about constant violations of individual preferences and freedom by the government in small and big ways, Tharoor limits himself to talking about Valentine's Day curbs and M. F. Hussain's exile, which although deplorable and shameful, neglect the bigger picture.

So it was that Mr. Tharoor talked for almost two hours after which there was no time for questions and he himself admitted that he got "carried away". My friend accurately quipped that half of the talk was all smoke and mirrors. At the end, I thought that Mr. Tharoor is actually in love with the concept of India rather than India itself. But having said all of the above, I must say that Mr. Tharoor is a charming man and an enthusiastic public speaker, someone who appreciates language and maintains a good command over it. His talk may have been trite and rather superficial, but at least he made it entertaining by injecting jokes and anecdotes which even if inconsequential were fun. And I would rather sit through an entertaining talk with which I completely disagree, rather than a dull talk where I am nodding in agreement. So I am glad I went to this one.

Note: Middle Stage has already accurately nailed Mr. Tharoor's banality in a review of his book.

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Friday, March 28, 2008


I was reminded of the title of Ben Stein's ludicrous new movie on creationism when I came across BBC's recalling the Three Mile Island which took place on this day in 1979. The reporting makes it clear how reporters sweetly shy away from any subtleties or scientific nuance, which unfortunately turn out to be details that matter. I do understand that almost everyone was more ignorant or fearful of anything in nuclear in 1979 and to be fair the BBC does note later that nobody died from the accident, but what strikes me is how they used the blanket-word "radiation" so many times in the article without in any way qualifying what it means. This is quite similar to the irrational gut reaction many people have when they hear the word. To recapitulate:

1. "Radiation" bathes us from head to toe throughout our life. Background radiation is hundreds of times more than any radiation accrued from living near a nuclear reaction. It's even more than radiation possibly escaped from a nuclear reaction in an accident if the reactor has a containment structure.

2. There is no proof that low-level "radiation" causes cancer; in fact there is proof that it may be generally good for life. Plus, almost everybody who reports such studies fails to consider the relative risks from "radiation" compared to other causes. As the well-known scientist James Lovelock notes in his The Revenge of Gaia (2006), it is misleading to say that 40,000 extra people will die earlier because of some radiation. The question is, how much earlier? As he says, if people are going to die on an average a week earlier because of some radiation, compare that to hundreds of thousands that would die instantaneously if the giant dam they live next to bursts open? How many people die years earlier because of heart disease? How many lives are prematurely cut short because of road accidents? Yet we pristinely accept these risks in daily life. People have no problem living near dams on the Yangtze when the risk they pose is much higher than that from "radiation".

3. And of course, the simple scientific error of not noting what the radiation consists of is commonplace. Every college kid knows that radiation can consist of many different particles- alphas, betas, gammas, neutrons- that each have a vastly different effect on living tissue. Plus, the isotope that emits the radiation is crucial; uranium is vastly preferable to strontium. But strontium has a smaller half life....and so on.

In case of TMI, it was immensely bad timing since the accident was preceded by the scare-mongering movie The China Syndrome starring Jane Fonda, a well-known irrational anti-nuclear spokesman. In it, the reactor core is feared to be melting away through the earth to China, a preposterous scenario even by fictional Hollywood standards. (although some of the Amazon reviewers don't seem to get this) The point is, it is pure fear-mongering to kick around words like "radiation" and "radioactive steam". Sadly, the scenario has not changed too much, and I doubt if most people will do a much more responsible job of reporting such an accident if it happens today. I feel miffed in thinking that a similar accident today will essentially impact the public's perception of nuclear energy almost the same as TMI. I do hope I am wrong. But then, the media has a proven track record of not caring about subtlety and nuance when reporting on science (or many other things for that matter). Unfortunately, they are the "respectable" sources who reach the most people and who most people rely on for their daily dose of "reality".

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008


There's a fair amount of drama going on at The Chem Blog, with chemistry graduate student and popular anonymous blogger "Kyle Finchsigmate" announcing first that he was going to retire, and then demoting (advancing?) himself to "emeritus blogger" to continue writing in his rather inimitable style. Kyle was considering retiring because his identify has been outed in his department (and consequently elsewhere) and he was not comfortable with the attention.

I enjoy reading Kyle's blog and have always done so, and I doubt how many people would have the gumption to express themselves in the way that he does and still preserve a significant amount of intellectual substance and solid information. At the same time, I do find myself cringing once in a while at his novel use of expletives. That said, at least for me, the entertainment gains from reading his blog outweigh the displeasure I may sense in myself on reading what my inner "offense-meter" thinks is a disproportionate amount of profanity or irreverence. But that's not the point. The point is that on the whole, Kyle has always been honest about what he thinks, and that is something that everybody should value.

However, being a star does have its problems and I think Kyle is suffering from typical celebrity troubles. First of all, when you write in the risque language that he does, there is going to be a relatively higher proportion of people feeling offended; it's an inevitable collateral effect. Secondly and more simply, as Kyle's celebrity status improved and hundreds of people started reading his blog, the sheer statistical number of people that could be offended went up. With Kyle's cover blown, this became a particular problem.

Anonymous blogging does have its pitfalls. The advantage of being gung-ho and writing whatever you want about whoever you want, even if done honestly, can be outweighed by the possible consequences if discovered. In this information age, I think it's hard to stay completely anonymous for long. As your blog becomes more and more popular, the chances of getting outed naturally increase (Consider the 'Fake Steve Jobs' who was actually surprised that his his outing took that long).

That's one reason I decided to have a non-anonymous blog. Right at the beginning, I decided that I would not write about other scientists, my own work or my own advisor. Of course it's not very easy because it's human nature to be constantly tempted to point fingers at others and engage in gossip, as well as put in plugs for one's own work. At the very least, it's quite easy to be full of praise for someone, but in the world of science even such an action can have unintended personal consequences. It also seems clear to me that you face a larger risk even with run-of-the-mill writing if you work for someone who is high-profile and famous. Speaking for myself, the only time I have criticised someone is in case of blatant fraud or obviously questionable work where many others have raised similar issues.

But blogging non-anonymously and responsibly and yet effectively is nevertheless possible, and is demonstrated by one of the best examples of such writing that I know- pharmaceutical scientist Derek Lowe's In The Pipeline which is one of the most widely read scientific blogs on the internet and has been a finalist for Best Science Blog. Especially being in industry, I would think that Derek carries a larger than usual burden of making sure he does not become a liability. I believe he has succeeded admirably in always writing entertainingly and quite provocatively, and yet avoided getting personal or offensive. His posts stimulate and inform without offending (at least largely; there is always going to be somebody who can get offended by anything). Harvard graduate student Paul Bracher's now sadly defunct blog was another example of provocative and yet gentle writing; it was interesting how even that gentle writing got Paul into trouble with commentators sometimes. The point is, you always have to be ready for some backlash, no matter what kind of blog you have.

In any case, that's Derek and Paul. Kyle's different, and why not? In the end blogging is a personal activity and personal choice. Even if I am writing for others, it's my blog, and I should have the freedom to express my views the way I want to. It's Kyle's choice how much risk to bear. It's inevitable that he shoulders more risk with his particular style, and in my personal opinion, he could sometimes tread a little more softly as a small price to pay for less risk. But again, it's his blog, and if he changes himself too much for the sake of propriety, then it wouldn't be Kyle Finchsigmate's blog anymore, would it?

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Sunday, March 23, 2008


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There it was, completely nondescript. Nobody could ever tell what the room was used for more than half a century ago. But then I thought that that sounded apt; after all, nobody was supposed to know in the first place what went on in there. To that extent, it perfectly served its intended purpose. An unexceptional but heavy iron gate right next to it probably was the only object that possibly enforced the gravity of the situation.

I looked around and saw the usual tourists ambling along and taking photos of the road on which it was located, of the plaza just a block away with its numerous Indian craftsmen peddling their pretty artistic wares on the road, and of the impressive church that seemed like an anomaly among the low-lying, colorful adobe stores and restaurants. Nobody was taking photos of the door and the small room inside, and there wasn't any reason why anybody should have. What was so special about it? It blended perfectly into its surroundings. The room hosted a shop that sold pretty dresses, bed-sheets and candles. It was right next to a well-known local restaurant and a winery. The entire set of shops and restaurants resided along a contiguous structure under one roof, with a courtyard inside with clear signs that the buildings had seen many such evenings; a sign located inside the courtyard indicated that the buildings were constructed in the early 1600s, sometime when this small town was one among many provincial seats of the vast Spanish Empire then straddling the globe.

The place was so nondescript that in 1943 and 1944, many young men missed it and walked straight past by. These were young men from diverse backgrounds. Many had been picked right out of universities for their particular talents. They were from every part of the country, from Princeton to Berkeley, from Chicago to New York. They were men and women of different dispositions, religious sentiments or the lack thereof, married or single, with an average age of 25 years. Many of them spoke English with a heavy accent. But all of them had one thing in common; all had been asked to report to 109 East Palace Avenue in downtown Santa Fe, where I was now standing. None of them knew what would happen next. All they had been asked to do was to take a train to Lamy and report to 109 East Palace. There, they would be given further instructions by Dorothy McKibben. She would send them to a place that no one had ever heard of.

Dorothy McKibben herself had never wildly guessed that she would be at 109 East Palace. A remarkably plucky, courageous and determined woman, she had come to Santa Fe in the 1920s stricken with TB. At that time, the clear air and bright sunlight were deemed to be salutary for TB patients, and many affected by the terrible ailment came to the historic town with the expectation that the disease would either break them or make them. It did make Dorothy, who had already lost two sisters to TB. But fate had more in store for the Smith college graduate. She fell in love and married a former World War 1 soldier who got stricken with Hodgkin's disease, then an incurable condition. He died, and the grief-stricken Dorothy with her baby son decided to come to her beloved Santa Fe again to spend the rest of her days. There, she seamlessly blended into the town life and became close friends with most of the townsfolk. When World War 2 began, she lost her job as an accountant at an Indian trading company due to personnel shortage. She had been offered another job and was seriously considering to take it, when a friend of hers asked her whether she would be interested in working for the government as a secretary. The job would pay a little better, and it would last at least as long as the war.

Dorothy was summoned to the Hotel La Fonda, a couple of blocks from East Palace, to discuss the job with her friend. There in the lobby she was still undecided about it, when a man in a porkpie hat and the bluest eyes she had ever seen ambled over and talked to her about it for a few minutes. She was astonished when she found herself accepting the job after 10 minutes of talking to the man. That was probably not surprising. J. Robert Oppenheimer had that effect on everyone, whether janitor or Nobel laureate; his powers of persuasion were legendary. The job he offered Dorothy was supposed to be top-secret and she could not tell anyone about it. She would be an important person for a very important government project. It would be run out of 109 East Palace. It would be Dorothy's job to manage personnel.

But over time, her job description expanded. She became much more than a secretary. She would be secretary, personnel manager, mother goose for depressed souls, officiator of marriages and agony aunt for couples in love, friend and confidant of some of the most brilliant minds of the century, and in the end, gentle but firm and efficient supervisor for the front office of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, a place that did not exist on the map. Dorothy McKibben became the gatekeeper of the atomic bomb. For three years, she ran the front end of the most secret scientific project in history from 109 East Palace, from inside that small room in front of which I stood. It was her job to guide the brilliant and clueless young men and women to Los Alamos after they arrived in Santa Fe, often dazed and lost, not knowing where to go. Everyone- and everything including material- without exception who worked on the bomb passed through the doors of 109 East Palace, because it was Dorothy's job to issue them the secret passes that would open the gates of the secret lab high up in the mountains.

It would also be her job to make sure the project remained secret in Santa Fe. To this end, she would always be careful never to address anyone as "Professor" or "Doctor" or even mention the word "scientist". With the deluge of European accents from world-famous European émigré scientists that flooded the town, it was hard to do this to say the least. But Dorothy managed it very efficiently. Her calm demeanor and absolute dedication won her the respect and endearment of Oppenheimer and his band of prima donnas, along with a dozen top military officials not known for exuding warmth. 109 East Palace and her home became focal points for social occasions, where famous scientists could let off steam and spill their frustrations about living in an inaccessible, cloistered, alternately freezing and scorching place that nobody knew about. Even if she was not officially told, by the end, Dorothy became aware of what was going on in the mountains through her close association with the thousands that worked there. Her home and 109 became places where scientists and their spouses could find some solace from the tortuous implications of what they were doing. Domestic spats, complaints about living conditions, strained relationships, baby epidemics, shopping troubles and gossip about other scientists' wives were all directed towards Dorothy's sympathetic ear.

Now, as I stood in front of the small enclosure, my mind wandered back evocatively more than half a century to what went on there. For the first few weeks in 1943, Oppenheimer worked out of 109 East Palace with Dorothy. As he chain smoked and pondered the stark reality of what he was making, his dazzlingly erudite mind must have straddled enormous moral and philosophical dilemmas. Enrico Fermi would visit the project and make calls to Los Alamos from this small room; later he moved permanently to the secret lab. He would stand there, twirling a pencil in his hands while he offered advice on some obscure calculation, his eyes twinkling, sometimes staring quizzically at Dorothy as if he expected her to pipe in with a clever suggestion. Prankster Richard Feynman would have certainly stepped foot in there more than once. He would have engaged in his usual tomfoolery while all the time shouldering a tragic burden as his wife lay dying in a sanitarium in Albuquerque. The wise and great Niels Bohr who, wresting with this unusual paradox of creating a weapon so powerful that it might abrogate war, visited Dorothy several times and endeared himself to her. The steadfast Hans Bethe, the volatile Edward Teller, the intrepid Otto Frisch who worked out nuclear fission with his aunt Lise Meitner, even the spy Klaus Fuchs, all had to pass through the gates of 109 East Palace on their way to Los Alamos. With these extraordinary souls, Dorothy undertook a journey that nobody would ever forget, a journey that would change history and the future. A journey that fundamentally changed the nature of man's animosity towards his fellow human beings.

But then I was suddenly jolted back to reality. I had been standing in front of 109 East Palace for almost an hour. It was dark and the day was ticking to an end. I became painfully aware of the cold, biting, clear air of New Mexico. High up in the mountains, the ponderosas must have been casting silhouettes, shadows that Robert Oppenheimer must have retreated to in moments of quiet introspection. Around me, the tourists had started dwindling. The shop owner closed the room and lit up the pretty dresses in the windows with a soft, glowing light. I took some more photos and started walking back to my hotel. Beside 109, 111 beamed with restaurant visitors engaged in casual and lively banter.

At that moment, 109 East Palace looked like 111's and the other rooms' poor cousin. But it occupies a unique and special place in history of singular value, one that should be commemorated at that spot but sadly is not. It is a testament to a remarkable woman, a remarkable group of men and women, and a truly remarkable time that changed our world. Legendary names- Oppenheimer, Bohr, Fermi, Bethe, Rabi, Teller, Feynman to name only a few- passed through that door. All of them sincerely believed that their work would save the world, a world gone half mad in the throes of inhumanity. Their fond hope was that the weapon they were creating would be so terrifying that it would, in Bohr's words, propel humanity into a completely new situation that could not be resolved by war. The implications of their work woefully turned out to be more complicated. But one thing was for sure. Among other things, none of them would ever forget 109 East Palace.

Neither will I.

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Friday, March 14, 2008


Richard Dawkins has quipped that the Templeton Prize- a stupendously expensive honor tagged at 1.6 million$, more than the Nobel Prize- is given to someone "who is prepared to say something nice about religion". The Prize, whose motive I have never understood, is awarded each year to people who "have made progress in science and religion". Apart from satisfying the personal whims and perspectives of its wealthy patron, I am not sure why a prize should automatically be awarded to someone who is willing to praise religion.

But even that kind of opinion would not do harm, because after all it would be an opinion. Stranger is the viewpoint of those who try to reconcile science and religion in weird ways, and their words can even be damaging because of their misleading meaning. Michael Heller, who is both a priest and cosmologist, unfortunately seems to come from such a breed. The Polish Catholic priest who has been awarded the prize this year says some strange things, not quite unprecedented in our times, but causing more trouble than good in my opinion:
"In an interview with Ecumenical News International the day before the 12 March announcement, Heller reiterated his belief that the oft-described "two worlds" of religion and science are not at odds, saying that without the meaning afforded by religion, "science would be meaningless"...
I certainly don't think science is meaningless or even lame without religion, at least the kind of religion that is practiced by followers of organized religions. What does the "meaning afforded by religion" even objectively mean? There may be some perceived connection between some of the more abstract notions espoused in the Eastern religions, but again, it is dangerously easy to see connections between science and spirituality where none could exist- Fritjof Capra has done this, and Deepak Chopra has taken it to pathological levels.

Now I am no "fundamentalist atheist". I do take objection to some of the more one-sided sounding views on religion held by Dawkins and others. But that's ok. Rational thinkers usually don't agree completely with each other and that's how progress is collectively made possible. In any case, I do agree with the gist of what the "new" atheists say. My problem is not so much with whether it is "right" or "wrong" but with whether it will work. Whether we like it or not, we will need the help of both moderate atheists and religious moderates to get a handle on religious fundamentalism. No matter how right atheists are, it is quite likely that it would be religious moderates who would be able to more or at least as much effectively fight fundamentalists on their own ground. Religious beliefs or the lack thereof are just like other strongly-held opinions. To change them, one needs to adapt to the need and situation, and different approaches are needed with different kinds of people. Some people needed to be scolded, some need to be cajoled. No matter how bang-on-target atheists' arguments are, aggressive attitudes simply don't work with everyone, it's just human nature.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008


My friend Chris is having oodles of fun in exotic Morocco, not to mention encounters with some interesting characters. Read some of his rib-tickling accounts. 1 2 3 4


Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Sunil has a post in which he muses over the merits and demerits of the American and Indian systems of education. With all the flaws we have in the Indian system, it's still hard to compare the two. I have usually come to the conclusion, even if not wholly satisfactory, that at least for motivated students our system is better till the end of junior college (high school in the US) while the American system can sustain a creative mind much better during the college and university years, with its opportunities for collaboration and research.

This comparison inevitably makes me think of one of the most common criticisms leveled at our system- the great emphasis on mostly mindless rote memorization, usually essential for getting good grades. Interestingly, this system is not just deeply embedded in our way of educating people. It used to be endemic in many European and American schools before progressives took over. I remember many biographies of scientists- Einstein being one- where they had to go through the humdrum of rote and usually ended up getting disgusted. Sadly, the European and American systems have largely outgrown this tradition while we still are steeped in it.

But rote memorization can sometimes serve a useful purpose, and there is one absolutely remarkable story that I always remember as an example of this.

My father's school mathematics teacher and close mentor- a man of great learning and wisdom- once wrote a letter to Wrangler R. P. Paranjape asking for advice on how best to do mathematics. But a brief digression here. Most of you probably know that the title "Wrangler", and especially "Senior Wrangler" was and to some extent still is an esteemed honorific that one can acquire in the famous and highly regarded mathematics Tripos examinations at Cambridge University. The Tripos, successful negotiation of which secured the title of Wrangler for those who dared, was the benchmark for marking geniuses, and some of the greatest scientists in the world, including Lord Kelvin and James Clerk Maxwell, have secured their position as Wranglers through this examination. The passing rate was notoriously low. Scholars at Cambridge in the nineteenth century could be divided among those who had cleared the Tripos and those who had not. The Tripos guaranteed one a place among the Cambridge elite and brought great intellectual and strategic benefits.

India can boast of two such personalities, Wrangler Paranjape and Wrangler Mahajani, who distinguished themselves through this difficult examination. Paranjape, who was a Professor and Principal at Fergusson College in Pune long ago (yes, that time standards were slightly different from now), enjoyed great prestige among Indian intellectuals and in fact was the first Indian to become a Wrangler. Incidentally he lived very close to our place, along the road that runs next to our house. His house today is marked as an important historic structure.

In any case, as a student, my father's mathematics teacher Prof. Godbole was curious about how best to go about studying mathematics and decided to write a letter to the great man asking for his advice. Paranjape wrote back and suggested some tricks, habits and techniques. But one thing in the letter stood out for Prof. Godbole, Paranjape's emphasis on rote memorization, the same rote memorization that we look down upon. Why did Paranjape hold this depressing habit in such high esteem?

In the twilight years of the nineteenth century, Paranjape had gone to Cambridge to appear for the infamous Tripos. He took the Tripos, and to his delight, scored the highest grade. But it was when he found out who scored below him that his pulse began to race and he indisputably trembled. It was none other than G H Hardy, best known as Ramanujan's mentor, and undoubtedly one of the greatest pure mathematicians who ever lived! Paranjape, gifted as he was, knew that he was no match for Hardy's formidable intellect. What on earth could have made him do better than Hardy in the Tripos?

Believe it or not, but it was rote, as Paranjape himself said in his letter. The Tripos examination is designed something like the IIT entrance test. One needs to tackle and solve a certain number of problems in a given amount of time. While creative solutions are applauded, efficiency is more important than genius. Hardy, that doyen among mathematicians, decided to apply his mind and come up with novel solutions to the problems. When he could not remember certain equations or formulae, he derived them in a stroke of brilliance. But all this took time. Paranjape who was steeped in the Indian system on the other hand, instantly remembered equations and formulae. He had memorized them and in fact entire problems beforehand through practice. Whenever he saw problems similar to ones which he had seen before, he recalled the necessary technique and solved the problem in a flash. Through sheer memory and the benefit of rote, Paranjape managed to solve many more problems than Hardy could, even if Hardy had shown creative brilliance in solving them.

Prof. Godbole passed this story on to my father, and my father passed it on to me. And I have always remembered it. Sometimes rote can make one triumph even over more gifted individuals. While learning certainly does not end with rote, for all its drawbacks, rote ain't that bad.

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Sunday, March 09, 2008


A couple of days ago, the US quite ostensibly sent up a missile to blow up a "rogue" satellite. China had also done the same thing a year or so ago. These actions seem like ominous preludes to a possible arms race in space, the last thing the world wants.

In the latest issue of Pragati, Adityanjee has an article that exhorts India to develop its own ASAT (anti-satellite) system in response to these actions by the US and China. While developing such a system might be good insurance and a future bargaining chip, the first and most important thing we all need to do is keeping pushing for an international treaty to ban weapons in space. Not only will a failure to do this lead to a possible new Cold War, but it can also render space inhospitable for peaceful technologies, an event that will be disastrous for countries that currently use satellites for weather forecasting and precipitation for example.

Mike Moore, who is a previous editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has written a new book on the history and current status of attempts by the US to weaponise and militarise space. As in many other cases, the US- no friend of treaties for quite some time now- is unique in having vetoed and blocked attempts to forge international treaties to ban weapons in space. This is probably not too surprising considering the attempts by the US since the 19060s (when they were developing a purported system to oust Chinese ballistic missiles) to the 1980s (age of the infamous Star Wars) to the 2000s (the Bush administration's obsession with National Missile Defense). True to other traditions, the US has constantly underscored its sovereign right to exceptionalism when the rest of the world thinks otherwise. The US satellite blowup comes close on the heels of renewed efforts of China and Russia to push for an international treaty to ban space weapons.

In his book, Moore documents how President Eisenhower made spirited efforts to stop an arms race in space. However, every administration since the Reagan administration has vetoed attempts by other space-faring countries to negotiate such treaties. The Pentagon's love affair with GPS-guided precision weapons in the 90s fueled ambitions to weaponise space. Again, it's the US that is leading the world into a dangerous era and is interested in unilaterally pursuing belligerent aims. It seems to be still living in Cold War mode. As Moore says, China and Russia (and presumably India) have many more important problems to tackle and spend money on than building a space weapons capability. However, they can, and will, build this capability if they see the US constantly trying to do so.

The US in fact has a golden opportunity right now to preserve its superiority in weapons technology. The situation reminds me of the early days of the arms race, when an exceptional opportunity to preserve the US superiority over Russia in nuclear arms was lost because of politicking by right wing hawks and threat inflation specialists. After that, Russia soon caught up and it was too late. Similarly, now is the time for the US to talk to other nations and sign a space-weapons ban, thus preserving and possibly sealing its current technological advantage.

One of the central points of missile defense that I have often made in other posts, is that it is almost assuredly going to fail against ballistic missiles, a point which should have been emphasized in the Pragati article. This points needs to be constantly emphasized because like some annoying virus, it keeps infecting and enamoring the minds of US and world officials in every successive administration, in spite of its proven lack of feasibility. Shooting down ballistic missiles realistically has always been a pipe dream harboured by zealous government officials, and the fallibility of this has been demonstrated time and time again by distinguished scientists and other officials. Any attempt to build an anti-ballistic missile system is a huge waste of money, time and talent, and as an added insidious side-effect, it breeds hostility in other nations, something that has already happened because of the US National Missile Defense system. Missile defense should rankle the hearts of democracy and peace-lovers, libertarians and economic conservatives.

Shooting down satellites is another matter, and unfortunately easier than shooting down ballistic missiles. But as Moore points out in his book, one of the many effects of such an exchange will be an amplification of debris in low-earth orbit, debris that will likely make it impossible to use satellites for peaceful purposes, including missions to other planets in the solar system. And of course, it will add perhaps irreversibly to the hubris-laden image that the US has in the world right now.

Every attempt should be made by all space-faring countries to push for an international treaty banning any kind of weapons in space. But sadly, it's the US again that is posing the biggest impediment to the forging of such a consensus. The next President should make it a priority to sign such a treaty, and Obama has indicated that he might be interested. Any attempt by the US to develop a space weapons capability will lead to a dangerous arms race with Russia, China, India and others, involving huge expenditures and wasted efforts. It will contribute to an already deeply dividing feeling of international resentment and animosity. But perhaps most importantly, it will send out a signal that space, that ultimate refuge that is supposed to be the equal sovereign right of every human being on the planet, can be belligerently conquered and manipulated by a few nations. After that, everything will be up for grabs.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008


The United States is a country where individualism has always had great merit. American fortunes and lives have been made based on the idea of individual liberty. But while this concept is more than valuable, it has also led to the belief among some that it is they who have entirely made themselves. This way of thinking leads to some other conclusions which are misguided in my opinion. For example, people who strongly stress individualism can slide towards egotism. At the very least, they believe that there should be a "to each his own" culture in which every person looks out for himself or herself (They also point me to the struggle for survival in nature, which is as far-fetched a comparison as one can imagine)

I have had this argument with people I know who oppose tax hikes and argue that they are not responsible for the rest of society. In my opinion, what they don't understand is that every man, no matter how talented he may be, is inevitably shaped by society. In fact talent itself is defined by the times in which one lives. A hundred years ago, the kinds of talents that have propelled billionaires to the top of the social ladder right now may have been meaningless. Individual talents without a doubt are responsible for success, but any person who thinks that it was he and he alone who made his success possible clearly is having a fit of fantasy. This does not mean that he is obliged to help others (in case libertarians take umbrage) but it also does not mean that he is independent of the system and therefore inherently not obliged to help others. The point is, individuals grow along with society, and it is not possible for long if at all to keep individual success divorced from social prosperity. I wish all those who oppose higher taxes almost as a gut reaction understand this. Adam Smith had said this. Even Bill Gates said it, that the bedrock of progress is individual success combined with that of society, which comes about by those who are privileged reaching out to those who are not in creative ways.

But it is easy for people like me to say this, and probably more difficult to demonstrate it. I am happy when I see examples of people from whom such quotes may superficially sound surprising. That's why I was quite pleased when I saw a quote from another exemplary person who without a doubt is an immensely talented individual, and who should know the role of individualism better than most others. Yet he says
"Many people have this idea that it's "their money' and they deserve to keep every penny of it. What they don't factor in is all the public investment that lets us live the way we do. Take me as an example. I happen to have a talent for allocating capital. But my ability to use that talent is completely dependent on the society in which I was born into. If I'd been born into a tribe of hunters, this talent of mine would be pretty worthless. I can't run very fast. I'm not particularly strong. I'd probably end up some wild animal's dinner.

"'But I was lucky enough to be born in a time and place where society values my talent, and gave me a good education to develop that talent, and set up the laws and the finanical system to let me do what I love doing-and make a lot of money doing it. The least I can do is help pay for all that."
Point to note in my opinion.


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But this tops them all...

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Monday, March 03, 2008


I watched Juno yesterday and thought it was a fine movie with some great acting by Ellen Page. Due to its story and theme, it's not one that would be considered in the category of "great" sweeping movies, but it is probably the best that could have been done for such a movie.

During the movie, I joked to my friend sitting next to me that I hoped that this was not a plug by the pro-lifers. When I was discussing it further with him later, I realized that there is something very simple that pro-life people don't understand. It's one of those facts that's simple but that cannot be emphasized enough.

That fact is that "pro-choice" people like me are not "anti-life". It's not that we are advocating killing embryos or fetuses. We are simply on the side of a woman's right to choose. We would prefer anyone not having an abortion; it's a painful choice for anyone and it does not usually reflect prudent behavior. But we would support someone who wants to nonetheless have it, especially if her circumstances are not favorable for the conception and bringing-up of the child. On the other hand, it's interesting that those who are pro-life are emphatically "anti-choice". I think this is a good illustration of how only something like religion can force people to deal in absolutes.

On a somewhat related note, many religious people also think that people who are pro-contraception are "anti-abstinence". That's not true too. I think abstinence- if you can practise it- is a good way to not unexpectedly become pregnant or catch a STD. I don't think there's anything wrong with promoting abstinence, especially as advice to young people. But the way the church does it is miserably evil- warning that people who don't abstain will go to hell, and that contraception will also get them on a fast track to the realm of brimstone. People like me can be pro-abstinence, it's just that we are also pro-contraception. We realize that one should make all contingency plans, given how fickle human nature is. Religion on the other hand wants to not only change human nature, but subvert it.

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Sunday, March 02, 2008


William Buckley, one of the most sophisticated conservatives of the last half century is dead. Buckley was famous for delivering death blows to liberals and using big and rare words on his long-running show Firing Line. The NYT has an obituary and there's also an informative piece on the Omnivoracious blog. While Buckley was one clever weasel, what I admire about him was that he was extremely intelligent and articulate, and at least appeared to possess a fair amount of sophistication. Something that's utterly lacking in today's chest-thumping conservative yokels. As a tribute to him, I am posting a link to a debate he had with Noam Chomsky on Firing Line. Chomsky prevails in the end, but we can challenge any of today's so-called conservatives to be half as obnoxiously erudite.

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