Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Thanks to the generosity of Chris, I am getting a superb collection of music from BMG music at an incredible discount. This includes:

Mozart- The Complete Symphonies: Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. I remember the sublime pleasure that I had when as a child I listened to the 36th (Linz) and 40th symphony conducted by Marriner. Now I will be the ecstatic owner of 12 CDs with all the symphonies. Of course this will add to my 40 CD Mozart Complete Works set (Brilliant Classics) but this is Marriner and Marriner imparts a light and fleet-footed, ephemeral touch to Mozart which suits him very well in my opinion. It would probably not suit Beethoven.

Beethoven- The Late Quartets: Takacs Some of the most melancholy music ever written. The Late Quartet in C Sharp Minor will make you reach for the bottle and is surely the greatest depressing piece of music I have ever heard. Now I will hear Takacs play it. This is a 6 CD set.

Mozart- The Complete Piano Sonatas: Mitsuko Uchida Who could forget the famous and widely played Piano Sonata no. 11. Now I will have all of them, played by the stunning Uchida.

As Einstein used to say, Beethoven created his music while Mozart simply found it. Found it. Found it...as an eternal part of the universe...


Thursday, April 23, 2009

FDA does, and should, stick to only science

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In a welcome reversal of a key politics-driven Bush era mandate, the FDA has approved the Plan B morning-after emergency contraception pill for 17-year olds. Previously the reluctance of FDA to approve the product had led a senior official to rightly resign. Not surprisingly, this decision drew wrath from conservative groups who say that the pill would "encourage promiscuity". This statement is rather typical of conservative statements opposing abortion and promotion of contraceptive measures in school, in spite of the fact that abstinence-only programs have been shown to essentially cause no change or even an increase in "promiscuity".

But here's the thing, and it should be clear all along; the FDA should stick to science and nothing else. Just as the conservative FDA officials during the Bush era were utterly out of line opposing Plan B because of political and religious interests, so should liberals also not applaud the FDA decision as a moral value judgement. The business of the FDA is to determine the efficacy and safety of medical products, period. The moment it starts to pontificate on the moral or political value of its decision its immediately sets itself on a slippery slope.

So just like the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education should stick to demonstrating the evidence for evolution and lack of evidence for ID/creationism and not pass judgement on whether science and religion are compatible, so should the FDA stick to the science behind the approval of medical products. Not making political or religious statements, either conservative or liberal, would be in the safe and best interests of both the FDA and society.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

The Pope of Cosmology 'very ill'

For a 67 year old man with ALS who has already defied medical science, this is not good news at all. Remember what happened to Christopher Reeve. When you are in a condition like this, even otherwise normal ailments may become life-threatening.

I have been recently reading a lot about Hawking in Leonard Susskind's splendid book "The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics". The rather grandiose title of the book obscures a perfectly entertaining and informative romp through the world of black holes; this is about as close as possible to black hole thermodynamics, string theory and quantum mechanics that we laymen can get without being drowned in a whirlpool of math. Susskind who is a professor at Stanford tells the story of the paradox of information falling into a black hole and supposedly disappearing with lots of verve, hilarious personal anecdotes and tributes to famous physicists. Being a prime participant in the debate with Hawking on the other side, he is in a unique position to tell the story. His recounting of the way the physicist Jacob Bekenstein used high-school math to derive the formula for the entropy of black holes is astounding; very rarely has someone used such simple physics and mathematics to discover such profound relationships and the act reminded me of Bell's Theorem, another spectacular twentieth-century physics result that can essentially be derived using high-school mathematics.

But more than anyone else, it is Hawking's figure that looms large in the book. Susskind describes how his physical disability, his strange disembodied computer voice and his astonishingly brilliant and creative mind guarantees the kind of reverence and silence wherever he appears that otherwise only seems to be reserved for the Pope. Susskind vividly describes a typical Q & A session after a Hawking lecture; Hawking's physical condition means that he can compose even a "yes/no" answer only after several minutes, and what's striking is that during such times Susskind has witnessed audiences of thousands maintain stand-still silence with not a whisper spoken for sometimes fifteen minutes while the great man painfully communicates himself. Hawking may be the only living scientist whose presence provokes utter and rapt silence and attention that one would observe only during religious prayer. No wonder Hawking is compared to God by many, a comparison which only makes him uncomfortable. Susskind describes a particular time in a restaurant where a passerby went to his knees and virtually kissed Hawking's feet. Needless to say Hawking was embarrassed and galled.

In any case, we can only hope that Hawking feels better. However in one way we can rest assured; Stephen Hawking's name has been etched in the annals of science forever. That's the power of ideas. Their timelessness assures us that they remain youthful and vibrant, irrespective of the age and condition of their source. But let's all hope Hawking springs back from this illness to his mischievous, witty self.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Reading C P Snow and The Two Cultures

Over at The Intersection blog which I often read and comment on, Chris Mooney (author of "The Republican War on Science") has initiated an informal reading of C. P. Snow's "The Two Cultures". Anyone who is interested is more than welcome to read the influential and very short lecture and blog or comment on it. The schedule is listed in the post. The recommended edition is the Canto edition, with a very readable introduction by Stefan Collini. Incidentally it was this version that I read many years ago (a second-hand copy picked up from one of those delightful book sales at The Institute of Engineers in Pune). Time now for a re-reading.

I have encountered Snow in two other interesting books. The first one- "The Physicists: A Generation that Changed the World"- was authored by him and contains clear and abundant photographs as well as recollections and insights on some of the most famous physicists of the century whom he closely knew. In this for instance I read his generous assessment of Enrico Fermi that captures the supreme greatness of the man's talents and achievements
"If Fermi had been born twenty years earlier, it is possible to envisage him first discovering Rutherford's nucleus and then discovering Bohr's atom. If this sounds like hyperbole, anything about Fermi is likely to sound like hyperbole"
Snow also thought that Robert Oppenheimer's real tragedy was not his sidelining or victimization during the 1950s witch hunts but the fact that he would have thrown away all his fame, brilliance and glory if he had the privilege to make one timeless discovery like Pauli's exclusion principle.

Another book with Snow in it is a fascinating piece of "scientific fiction" written by John Casti. "The Cambridge Quintet: A Work Of Scientific Speculation" features four famous scientists and intellectuals- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Erwin Schrödinger, J B S Haldane and Alan Turing- being invited over to Snow's house for a multi-course dinner. As the dinner unfolds, so do the conversations between these stalwarts. The topic is artificial intelligence, and the participants hold forth in myriad and fascinating ways on the subject with excursions that not surprisingly take them into avenues like the philosophy of mind and language, epistemology and metaphysical questions. Very much worth reading.

In any case, I am looking forward to reading The Two Cultures again and writing about it. Anyone who is interested is more than welcome. The entire lecture is 50 pages and could be read in a few hours of thoughtful contemplation. The topic is as relevant today as it was then, which explains the lecture's enduring appeal. The consequences though could be vastly more pronounced.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The long and winding road...

...is at an end, but a new road begins. The last many few years have been difficult in more than one way. Books, science and friends have sustained me well during that time. So many thanks to all those who were involved in myriad ways.