Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Quotes

Note the plural ....Could not restrict myself to just one quote by Carl Sagan.

But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism.

Personally, I would be delighted if there were a life after death, especially if it permitted me to continue to learn about this world and others, if it gave me a chance to discover how history turns out.

It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

We are pioneers

After the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, Ronald Reagan, the then President of the USA, addressed the nation.

A moving speech indeed. A fitting tribute to the pioneers who lost their lives. The speech was predictably filled with positive messages. He addressed not only the families of the astronauts but also the men and women who worked for NASA and said he shared their anguish. More importantly he talked to the children who were probably watching the Challenger explode telling them that the future belongs to the brave.

It was poignant when he said:Nothing ends here - our hopes and our journeys continue.

I wish our political leaders would take a cue from this - address the nation positively when something goes wrong instead of disappearing altogether or playing the blame game.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday Quote

Richard Feynman - My Hero

I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I'm not absolutely sure of anything, and in many things I don't know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we're here, and what the question might mean. I might think about a little, but if I can't figure it out, then I go to something else. But I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn't frighten me." —
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman

Sunday, July 18, 2010

"I know someone who told stories to me"

I had copied the following words from somewhere in one of my old diaries – I used to record my favourite quotes and passages those days.

You may have tangible wealth untold,

Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold,

Richer than I you could never be;

I know someone who told stories to me.

Reading it now, I was intrigued about the author of these lines. I googled it and was even more intrigued. These lines were attributed to Cynthia Pearl Maus. And the same lines with a different ending were attributed to Strickland Gillilan. It ended thus: “ I had a Mother who read to me.”

I do not know who was the real author of the said lines. But I could identify with Cynthia Pearl’s verse as I know someone who told stories to me – My father. He was a good story teller. He would patiently weave stories, bring before our eyes the characters and we would be transported to strange worlds. Tom Sawyer, Gulliver’s travels, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Robin Hood, Water Babies, Mahabharat and so many other stories that he made up in a jiffy – I only have to close my eyes and I can see my father recount the stories in measured tones and the children utterly captivated by the mesmerising tales.

I never tired of listening to two stories – Merchant of Venice and A Tale of two cities. Shylock and his bitter speech would be told in glorious detail and though life at that age was seen only in black and white, he tried to describe the shades of grey. I understood the anguish of Shylock much later and could commiserate with him now. As for A Tale of two cities, apart from Sidney Carton and Miss. Manette, Evremonde is somehow etched in my mind. The story of Evremonde running his chariot over a peasant boy, and then throwing a coin to the peasant, the girl with brain fever mumbling all the time, Dr.Manette hunched over making shoes and Sydney Carton facing the guillotine are so vivid in my imagination, as if I had seen the entire novel happen.

Story telling is an art. It calls for patience, imagination, involvement and most of all love for the listener. It is entirely due to him, that I have developed a voracious appetite for books and an unending thirst for knowledge. I am sustained by what I read and learn. My father has thus given me the one most valuable gift – a treasure for which I am thankful to him. So I knew someone who told stories to me and made me richer than I could ever hope to be.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Strange happenings

Have you heard of the Tanzania laughter epidemic?

During 1962 a laughter epidemic started in a school and spread to nearby villages. Several people had laughter attacks which incapacitated them. Schools were closed down because the children were laughing uncontrollably. It died down after about six months.

How strange it must have been, when it lasted?

A Festival to abuse god

I watched a programme on Sun TV the other day about a festival celebrated by the Kurumba tribes in Kerala. The programme was limited to the way it was celebrated and it got me interested. During the festival devotees take a procession to the Bhagawathy temple at Kodungallur singing obscene songs, making lewd gestures and hurling abuses at their god.

I browsed the Internet for details and found many references to it. This paper by M.J.Gentes of the University of Texas dealt in detail the happenings in the festival.

The trite saying Truth is stranger than fiction came to my mind. We are so much used to seeing hymns being sung in praise of god by groveling devotees and here are people abusing god with choicest expletives. Still, is there any other place on earth where god is treated with such utter contempt, if only for one day? The author of the said paper compares Greek, Roman and Mesopotamian myths and festivals with our own Kerala festival and draws several parallels and make surmises.

Whatever could have been the origins of the festival, it would definitely have served as a catharsis for the people to rant and rave and take it on the goddess the drudgery of their living. They probably would have gone back de-stressed and invigorated to living more such drudgery.

Friday Quote

We have an appetite for wonder, a poetic appetite, which real science ought to be feeding but which is being hijacked, often for monetary gain, by purveyors of superstition, the paranormal and astrology.

- - Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow.

"An Idea is a greater monument than a Cathedral"

Thus thunders Spencer Tracy in the courtroom in the film 'Inherit the Wind (1960).' The film was loosely based on the Scopes Monkey Trial in the Tennessee state of the USA in 1925. A biology teacher was prosecuted for going against the law and teaching Evolution in school. It was a landmark event that brought much attention to science teaching in schools in the USA, though not much positive result came out of the trial.

It amazes me that teaching Evolution in schools is still debated hotly in the West and there are demands of teaching Intelligent design as well. Charles Darwin would surely have anticipated the repercussions of his book On the Origin of Species and that must be why he published the book almost 30 years after his trip in the Beagle. The ripples created by him are still felt so far into the future.

Should we feel happy that there is not a murmur of protest in India against teaching Evolution in schools? Does it mean that we are in some way superior and advanced? Well I do not think so. It only shows how comfortably we compartmentalise our lives - what we learn in schools is not allowed to seep into our conscious and create any lasting impact. No way we would allow our learning to inform our world view. Studying is to find a means for living. Nothing more. We have a hoary past and a sanctified tradition to live by. And we are content with that. Proud in fact.

Spencer Tracy questions the prosecuting attorney, who is an authority on the Bible, as to wherefrom Cain got a wife and the lawyer says that he does not know and that the Bible satisfies him. Tracy replies "It frightens me to think of the state of learning in the world, if everybody had your sense of driving curiosity." Frightens me too.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Pale Blue Dot

Carl Sagan at his poetic best. The words lend a wonderful perspective to our lives – each one of us is unique in our own way, so let us celebrate for what we are. Yet let us not forget that we are mere specks in the vast cosmic ocean – totally insignificant star dust.

Making the best use of the time we happen to be here and trying to make sense of the existence of universe is what life ultimately is.

I am Calvin in his old age

Calvin and Hobbes – my favourite comic strip. I read this yesterday – Calvin wonders aloud to Hobbes –

Why do people get slow, as they age?

You would think that knowing they have less time, they would like to hurry.

And when I get to be as old as my father, I would drive like a maniac.

Struck a chord in me. Driving through life like a maniac – Is that what I am trying to do, right now? Gathering knowledge, gaining experience, savouring whatever little pleasures I could … short, trying to live a full life. Though Diana Athill wags a finger at me, admonishing me not to take things too seriously …. I keep reading this passage of hers to stay in balance

There are no lessons to be learnt, no discoveries to be made, no solutions to offer. I find myself left with nothing but a few random thoughts. One of them is that from up here I can look back and see that although a human life is less than the blink of an eyelid in terms of the universe, within its own framework it is amazingly capacious so that it can contain many opposites. One life can contain serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving — and also more particular opposites such as a neurotic conviction that one is a flop and a consciousness of success amounting to smugness.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday Quote

A favourite passage from the essay “What I Believe” by Bertrand Russell

I believe that when I die, I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.

Ramanujan - The Man who knew Infinity

I am reading ‘The man who knew Infinity’ by Robert Kanigel. It is about the life of the mathematical genius Ramanujan. Those of us in Tamilnadu are already familiar with some details of his life, but the author has undertaken painstaking research on Ramanujan’s early life, people who had an impact on him, his religious views, his life in England and how Hardy took stupendous efforts to take Ramanujan to Cambridge. In the Prologue the author raises a pertinent question: How many Ramanujans, his life begs us to ask, dwell in India today, unknown and unrecognized? And how many in America and Britain locked away in racial or economic ghettos, scarcely aware of worlds outside their own?

It is amazing that Ramanujan seems to have arrived at splendid mathematical theories almost out of the blue though he credited his insights to his family deity Namagiri. He arrived at some stunning discoveries on his own and once when he found that they were discovered atleast 150 years earlier by the great mathematician Euler, he hid the papers on which he had recorded the results in the roof of his house. The famous Ramanujan Notebooks are still probed for the riches it contains and find varied applications even today. The book is as much of Ramanujan as of Hardy, the man who took Ramanujan to Cambridge and in effect introduced him to the world.

His school head master described him thus - An A-plus or 100 per cent, would’nt do to rate him. Ramanujan, he was saying, was off-scale. Somehow such a man brings to our mind an embodiment of seriousness and studiousness. But surprisingly that was not the case. An extract from the book: “He was so friendly and gregarious,” one who knew him later in Madras would say of him. He was “always so full of fun, ever punning on Tamil and English words, telling jokes, sometimes long stories, and going into fits of laughter when relating them. His tuft would come undone and he would try to knot it back as he continued to tell the story. Oh what an image that is.

Ramanujan, in the language of the Polish émigré mathematician Mark Kac was a magician rather than an ordinary genius.

An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what he has done, we feel certain that we too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. They are, to use mathematical jargon, in the orthogonal complement of where we are and the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark.

We should be thankful to Kanigel for having recorded for posterity the life of Ramnujan and this book should be made a compulsory read for the graduate students in our Universities – to appreciate the life of a genius - not for studying it mindlessly to score marks, as I dread to think what we are capable of, while attempting to make a book part of an undergraduate syllabus.

I hope students would be taught life-histories of mathematicians, scientists, philosophers, poets and writers – not just the kings and queens or their present day equivalents, politicians. The history should not deify them in any way; instead it should talk about them as extraordinary people who strived to achieve something and succeeded; people with their own quirks and foibles; people with their aspirations and dreams and which they dared to make true. The fact that Ramanujan attempted suicide in a momemt of desperation does not take away from him his unalloyed genius. It just makes him a bit more human.

And finally we wonder along with the author, What might have been, had he been discovered a few years earlier, or lived a few years longer?