Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Quote

"By Darwinian standards I am a horrible mistake, a pathetic loser, not one iota less than if I were a card-carrying member of Queer Nation. But I am happy to be that way, and if my genes don't like it, they can go jump in the lake."

- Steven Pinker on his choice not to have children

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

An interesting blog

In my journey in the blogosphere, I have come across several good blogs and I frequently share some of these. This blog is quite interesting and appears to be very promising. There are several good posts nested in it. The blogger Ed Yong is young and enthusiastic and is set to go a long way. Watch out for him.

An Excerpt

From 'Why I am not a Christian' by Bertrand Russell. This lecture was delivered in 1927.

"Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing -- fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things. In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it."

Friday, October 15, 2010

Friday Quote - Charles Darwin

"It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

"I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars."

- Charles Darwin

Life gets better, if only you wait....

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Amazing rescue effort.

The Chile miners rescue operation is a concerted effort involving several people - scientists, technicians, ministers, psychologists and more. I am intrigued by the so many thanks sent heavenwards ... Why did the omnipotent god let such an incident happen and then wait for 69 days before intervening to help them? I feel thanking a non existent being is somehow belittling those who toiled day and night orchestrating the rescue efforts; though coming to think of it, some of those very people might consider themselves as divine tools...Beats me.

On the 17th day, the first message from the miners was received saying they were alive....

And now the operation is in full swing...already thirteen of them have been rescued. Hope it is completed successfully.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Science and faith

Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible says Jerry Coyne in this USA Today article. Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago. Check it out.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

An Interesting Life - Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra is a writer - novelist; he also writes essays, literary review and more non fiction. He writes for The New York Times, Guardian etc.,He was living in Delhi and later moved to a small Himalayan village- Mashobra. More about him here

In his New York Times article "Games India isn't ready to play" he says only the affluent elite Indians are anxious about India's image in the wealthy world. He further says "Like hundreds of millions of other voiceless Indians, the migrant laborers in my village are even less able to distinguish between the oppressions of old feudal India and the pitiless exploitations of the new business-minded India." He concludes by quoting Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

As I was impressed by the article, I endeavored to know more about the man.

In his interview to the Believer magazine he comes across as a very well read and articulate person.

And in case you do not have the time to go through the whole interview, some interesting excerpts:

"Initially, I saw the life of the writer as a life of reading, which for me was really an extension of the life of idleness that I’d been living as an undergraduate at university. Reading gave me so much pleasure that I felt that maybe I could continue that life indefinitely. I basically went from day to day, reading a lot, loving most books I read and making notes about them. I was just hoping that nothing would happen—like having to apply for a job or think seriously about a career—that would put a stop to the wonderful life I was leading. And, miraculously, nothing stopped me."

"I definitely miss that sense of being a disinterested reader who’s reading purely for the pleasure of imagining his way into emotional situations and vividly realized scenes in nineteenth-century France or late nineteenth-century Russia. Often I find that when I go back to those books by Flaubert or Chekhov—which I loved—I’m unable to summon up that same imaginative richness. That seems to me a huge loss. Now I’m thinking more about the craftsmanship of it—why did this paragraph end here—narrowly technical things."

"I don’t know how many critics today are trying to make the act of reading a more enriching experience as distinct from establishing their own superior intelligence vis-à-vis authors."

"I write for a very elite audience, but is there something else that I’m also responsible to? People who write about issues like poverty or terrorism are a part of the elite, and the distance between the elite and nonelite is growing very fast. You can move around the world but meet only people who speak your language, who share the same ideas, the same beliefs, and in doing so you can lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of the world does not think or believe in or speak the everyday discourse of the elite. Yet their lives are being shaped by these elites, by people like us. I don’t mean this in a pompous way, but we have a responsibility to articulate their sense of suffering."

"You need to work yourself up into some kind of a state every morning and believe that you are doing something terribly important upon which the future of literature, if not the world, depends. Buddhism tells you that this is just a foolish fantasy. So, I try not to think too much about Buddhism early in the morning. From noon on, I think about it."

"I wake up at five or five-thirty, have a cup of coffee on the balcony overlooking the mountains, which is absolutely wonderful, look at the newspapers, start work. Lunch arrives—lunch is made by a family in the village, they deliver it."

"The internet has spawned people for whom knowingness is more important than knowledge. It equips you with the illusion of offering knowledge instantly—and quite easily—so you can read a few articles on a few subjects and feel well informed but not actually know any of those subjects in any depth."

"I feel very privileged to get to read and write and not to have to do things that I don’t like, and I don’t want to give that up. Everything else is just a bonus and often a distraction from the writing, reading, and traveling that gives me the most pleasure. I feel that I already have the life I love and I don’t see how it could be improved radically by any greater material success."

A man of substance.... should read him more.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Put your hand in the LHC?

What happens then? Well no one knows for sure; but scientists attempt to answer that.

Sixty symbols is a collections of videos on physics presented by experts from the University of Nottingham.

It is enriching to see scientists answer questions which are put forth by 'the common man' and it is revealing when they smile and say 'I don't know' to some questions. But then they proceed to think and come up with some interesting possibilities. The presentation is endearing and elegant. An excellent project.

One more video to entice you to visit the website. Enjoy.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Double Rainbow

What a wonderful sight - I saw a double rainbow for the first time today. What made it even more joyous was I saw it with my daughter who is seven years old and my mother-in-law who is eighty years old. And everyone of us, irrespective of the age found it fascinating. Wordsworth captures the emotion flawlessly:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Rainbows are fascinating even when you know the phenomena of refraction and reflection that cause it. And how did Newton decide there were only seven colours in the spectrum. Of course the colours are indistinct and diffused and it is a continuous spectrum. As to how Newton decided on the number 7 there are several surmises ranging from how he drew an analogy with the seven notes in music to seven days in a week and even that he considered seven to be a 'spiritual' number. But the fallout of it is whenever we see a rainbow we try to identify the seven colours though it is generally very difficult to distinguish the violet - blue - indigo bands.

When Newton explained the phenomenon of rainbow, John Keats famously lamented the 'unweaving of rainbow' thus:
Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—-
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

My most favorite of Richard Dawkins' books is 'Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for wonder' which wonderfully seeks to counter Keats' view and instead argues that the poetry of the rainbow was not destroyed by Newton; instead it seeks to enhance our appreciation of Nature in all its glory.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Quantum theory cannot hurt you

This is a book by Marcus Chown, a cosmology consultant for the New Scientist magazine. This is a "For Dummies" kind of book, trying to explain the concepts of quantum theory and the theory of general relativity without mathematics for the common people who did not study Science in college but who are curious to understand the universe we live in.
The title says it all - it is a gentle book without any hard theories and Marcus has a pleasant style of writing and so the book flows interestingly.

More importantly, you are armed to answer some of the toughest questions that children so effortlessly ask and you are left speechless and manage to mumble - "Oh, that is an interesting question. I don't know the answer too. Let us find out." Often I resist the urge to immediately google for the answer and force myself along with my daughter to instead search for it in the relevant book.

One such question is answered in the chapter 'Breathing in Einstein' in this book. If it would take 10 million atoms to span the width of a single full stop how did we ever discover that everything is made of atoms in the first place. A brief of that chapter then for your consumption.

The idea of 'atoms' was first conjured by the Greek philosopher Democritus in about 440 BC, who called the hypothetical building block of all matter atoms from the Greek a-tomos, meaning uncuttable. Since atoms were too smal finding evidence was very difficult. Bernoulli imagined a gas as a collection of billions of atoms in a frenzied motion like a swarm of angry bees. Boyle observed this too. However Robert Brown, a botanist observed in 1827 through a magnifying glass, pollen grains suspended in water, undergoing a curious zig zag motion through the liquid. But he could not solve the mystery which was solved eventually in 1905 by Albert Einstein. Einstein said that the reason for the crazy dance of the pollen grains was that they were under continual machine-gun bombardment by tiny water molecules and devised a mathematical theory to describe Brownian motion.

Then in 1981 the scanning tunnelling microscope - STM was invented by Binnig and Rohrer for which they won the Nobel Prize for Physics. The STM uses a stylus, more like a gramaphone needle charged with electricity, dragging it across the surface of a material and building a picture of the undulations in a computer.

The author says "Their STM images were some of the most remarkable in the history of science, ranking alongside that of Earth rising above the gray desolation of the moon or the sweeping spiral staircase of DNA. Atoms looked like tiny footballs ....."


Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali is matchless for the imagery it creates and for the feelings it evokes. This poem is one of my favorites. To me the image is of a lonely woman peeping out of her hut in a cold dark forest with rains lashing furiously accompanied by thunder and lightning .....

How lyrical it would be in Bengali.....

Art thou abroad on this stormy night
on thy journey of love, my friend?
The sky groans like one in despair.

I have no sleep tonight.
Ever and again I open my door and look out on
the darkness, my friend!

I can see nothing before me.
I wonder where lies thy path!

By what dim shore of the ink-black river,
by what far edge of the frowning forest,
through what mazy depth of gloom art thou threading
thy course to come to me, my friend?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Friday quote

Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for
the things we did not do that is inconsolable.
-- Sidney J. Harris