August 28, 2010
Sagan explains relativity to the general audience — I would never have thought that possible. Perhaps, an audience that is not trained in science would not be able to make much of this really.
The spectacular ideas originating with Albert Einstein that the speed of light is the ultimate speed in the universe, that the speed of light stays constant in all frames of reference, that there are no privileged frames of reference, that time slows down as you travel close to the speed of light, all these concepts are such basic concepts of modern physics and yet very little known to the general public.
Sagan talks about the original thinker that Leonardo da Vinci was and how Einstein's special relativity opens the door to the possibility of long distance space and time travel.
Sagan shows sketches of spaceships of the future that utilize nuclear fusion as their power source — surely something that lies hundreds of years in the future from now if not thousands.
And yet we must be thankful to the people who dare to design such things in a world where stupidity of all sorts is all too common.
It astonishes me no end that we are a species that simultaneously conducts space exploration and is still mired in all sorts of religious and ethnic and other sorts of fanaticism.
On the one hand, we have landed robotic spacecraft on other planets and yet on the other hand, the planet still struggles with abject poverty and millions and hundreds of millions of people are still prey to superstitious religious beliefs.
Sagan goes back to the Greek islands from 2,600 years ago where people first developed the scientific method.
Sagan goes even further back in time to our hunter-gatherer ancestors and wonders if they ever wondered about the stars and how they would have reasoned.
We are all children of astronomers of course, like Sagan has said in one of these episodes somewhere.
It is awe-inspiring to realize that people made simple extrapolations and realized that those little points of lights in the night sky had to be like our sun and that there might be planets and life around those stars too.
And here we are, more than 2,000 years on, and we are still searching for the answers to those questions posed a long time back. It's tough to find the answers to some questions.
I was thinking of what questions I could pose today that humanity would still be trying to answer more than 2,000 years from now.
Sagan touches upon Democritus to Pythagoras to Pluto and then returns to a classroom full of young kids in Brooklyn. It is fantastic to see the zeal kids have for science — pure, unadulterated curiosity. Slowly, as kids grow up, they get caught in various rat races and the sense of curiosity somehow becomes quiescent.
Sagan also mellifluously described how the natural curiosity of mankind ages ago would have naturally led to ideas that perhaps the Sun and the Moon were gods and so also all the other occurrences of nature.
In making that argument of course, Sagan unarguably demolishes the need or rationale for any religion in the present day ... without being too bellicose about it.
It's up to the smart people among us to realize that.
It of course amazes me that so many of us would cling to these prehistoric religious beliefs ... belief-systems which arose millennia ago while we would not be seen dead in a car more than ten years old or a cell phone more than two years old.
What is so sacrosanct about 'old' belief systems that gives them any enduring value. it's not time to throw all of them away into the dustbin like so many computers from the '80s, well, it's LONG PAST the time when we should have done that.
August 26, 2010
Sagan talks about the Voyagers ... those robotic spaceships ... traveller's from Earth as far as Sagan is concerned.
Sagan goes back and forth in time effortlessly ... from the world of Christian Huygens to the strange worlds discovered by the Voyagers ...
Sagan talks about the Jovian satellites and their wonders.
Sagan daringly conludes this episode like the true visionary that he is imagining the day that people on Titan will look up at the sky and see the wonder that is the ring planet Saturn.
I am sure that day will come to pass perhaps 500 years from now ... long after we are gone from Earth.
The Cassini mission that Sagan talks about has come to pass of course. How sad it is that Sagan did not live to see the spacecraft landing on Titan ...
August 23, 2010
Sagan covers an immense and bewildering amount of ground in this episode too as with every other episode. He narrates the story of how French explorers first made contact with a tribe living on an Alaskan coast back in the 18th century and how they had a peaceful interaction and he contrasts this with Spanish explorers and they violent initial contacts they had with the Aztecs in Mexico. This was all awe-inspiringly new found knowledge and discovery for me personally of course.
He uses these earlier encounters to explain how a future initial contact with an extraterrestrial civilization might turn out to be. He daringly attempts to explain the imponderables in the Drake Equation which tries to put a number on the possible existence of intelligent civilizations elsewhere in the universe. I am curious about one of the components of the Drake Equation in particular — the likelihood of a technologically advanced civilization self-destructing. The prognosis in that equation is rather pessimistic. I don't know why that should be so. On Earth and in that particular moment in the history of human civilization when the Cold War was at its zenith or near-zenith, it might have been easy to have a pessimistic outlook about humanity's future. But, I don't know why we should extrapolate that and ascribe similar stupidities to all civilizations that develop technical capabilities. The particular adolescence of humanity arises out of some peculiar evolutionary heritage whereby we have deeply held racial/national allegiances. I don't think that these would necessarily apply to all up and coming technological civilizations on all planets. I sure hope so.
Sagan passionately elucidates the extraordinarily dangers from nuclear war. This was of course a very clear and present danger back in the seventies when the series was first made. This particular danger has receded somewhat since then.
Overall, since this was the last episode, one is tempted to pass judgment on the series as a whole. I am clearly inadequately qualified for that task. Sagan was a professional scientist of course. His speciality lay in extraterrestrial explorations. Other scientists have discovered other stuff. So much has been discovered in biology since we understood the structure of the DNA. So much has been explained and understood in particle physics down to quarks. So much is known now in the realm of the large-scale structure of the universe. We understand perfectly well the evolution of stars and galaxies. Astronomy has advanced so much across much of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Sagan's more fundamental contribution has been his role as the Great Communicator of all this scientific knowledge to the larger public. Of course, the current attitude of the public in much of the world to science is very lucidly and very disappointingly demonstrating the public's absolute ignorance about the scientific enterprise. It's astonishing to see how effortlessly people adopt the fruits of scientific advancements and at the same time do not mind questioning its methods and principles. It's astonishing how scientific and unscientific people can be all at the same time.
In conclusion, one can only say that Sagan was a one of a kind. We have never seen a more passionate and pellucid communicator of science in all of human history. I wonder if there will ever be another one quite like him. Of course, it should not shock anyone if I say that Sagan was way ahead of the times and century that he lived in. Humanity in the 20th century was not quite ready to understand him. I wonder when humanity will grow mature enough to appreciate men like Sagan or Feynman and others of their quality rather than following some demagogic leader blindly like so many uneducated, unskepitcal sheep.
In another 500 years, humanity should still remember Sagan ... or may be only the historians will remember him ... those who would be studying the discipline of 'ancient history' in the 26th century.
August 22, 2010
In this episode, Sagan daring touches upon what one might describe as the somewhat treacherous and murky grounds of UFOs and extraterrestrial intelligence. It was instructive to see him emphasize and repeat that 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs.'
The way he categorically ruled out that all the sightings of UFOs are anything but figment's of people's imaginations showed the essential spirit of scientific inquiry at its best — one might almost have concluded that Sagan doesn't really think that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe at all.
But in fact Sagan and most other scientists do believe in the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. They are positive that our galaxy must be teeming with them. That of course poses the question of why we have not yet made contact with any. A question to which there is no answer really.
It boggles the mind that we are not yet conducting an exhausting survey of the universe across all available radio channels to detect if any such civilization out there is sending out any messages intentionally or otherwise.
After all, we have been broadcasting out into space our TV messages unintentionally ... the unfortunate historical fact being that Hitler's opening ceremony speech from the Berlin Olympics in 1936 is going to be one of the first TV signals that has gone out into space from the human race.
The question of our ability to decipher such a message if and when we receive it is another issue as well and Sagan goes back to the story of how the Egyptian hieroglyphics were deciphered after a lot of effort and missteps to illustrate the difficulties involved in the process.
August 21, 2010
It was breathtaking to see Sagan start this particular episode talking about whales with all the confidence and panache and more of a marine biologist.
He talks about the amount of information in our genes and then moves on to our brains — one particular theory posits that the brain evolved in layers: the brain stem, the Reptilian-complex, and then the cerebral cortex.
He lucidly shows how the brain contains more information than contained in our genes and how that accounts for all that we have accomplished as a species and he extrapolates about species that might have more neurons and neuronal connections than are present in our brains. He speculates about intelligent life forms whose neurons may not be physically connected like they are in our brains. What creative thoughts!
Astonishingly enough, Sagan draws parallels between how a city like New York evolves and how our brain has evolved! And he does a marvelous job of it of course ...
And yet as powerful as our brains are, mankind has advanced so much in the last few centuries although it has had pretty much the same brain for the last ten thousand years. Sagan leads us to understand how critically important books have been, the technologies of paper and printing and all the related stuff.
And of course, late in his life, Sagan would have witnessed the incipent Internet and would have visualized the end of printed books as well.
My thoughts were that every educated person should watch this series ... at least, this is much easier than reading all his books. This should be part of the curriculum in all streams of education.
And it makes me shudder when I hear politicians proudly go on about the Sunday Bible schools they had attended as kids.
The amazing truths about the real universe discovered by science are far more awe-inspiring than any religious truths contained in any of the religions of the world. Think of the fact of the expansion of the universe first discovered by Hubble and his assistant whose name I was not familiar with so far until Sagan mentioned him.
This episode is all about the large scale structure of the universe. Sagan talks about the types of galaxies and the origin and fate of the universe.
Sagan tries to explain the possibility of the existence of a forth dimension. He wonders if there might be enough matter in the universe to stop the present expansion of the universe.
Oddly enough, he seamlessly weaves Hindu philosophical stuff into this story of modern scientific cosmology. He talks about how only the timescales mentioned in Hindu mythology come anywhere close to the timescales revealed by modern cosmology.
It was wonderful to see Sagan visit South India and talk about the Pongal harvest festival in the same episode that he talks about the Very Large Array in New Mexico. And he visits both South India as well as the VLA.
He gives eloquent voice to the speculations about whether our universe might be only one of an infinite number of universes and whether we are living in one cycle in an infinite cycle of expansions and contractions.
Sagan humbles by both the breadth of the science that he talks about as well as the breadth of his vision and knowledge and humility.
I liked the way he both pointed out that timescales in Hindu mythology roughly correspond to the timescales in modern cosmology and at the same time added that it was mere coincidence.
We are truly poised at the edge of forever as he concluded the episode by saying. That was true when he said it and that remains true today.
I wonder if we will ever reach definitive conclusions about these cosmic questions or if we will still be poised on the same edge a thousand years from now and a million years from now.
It was calming to see all this as we realize then that we are all so insignificant in the big scheme of things. Our individual human lives do not have much significance. That gives me some solace as I measure my own life with all its little triumphs and numerous defeats.
August 17, 2010
Japan has many achievements it can be proud of. One of those is the extraordinary number of centenarians amongst its population.
But now it seems that many of those centenarians exist merely on paper!
The New York Times reports that some of the older folks have been dead or missing for nearly 30 years in some cases but their relatives never reported this minor detail to the government so that they could keep claiming the pension.
Well, it seems economic necessity can make people do the strangest things.
August 16, 2010
He is wonderfully unsentimental as when he suggests that an appropriate answer to that inevitable question about 'Why Me?' is ... 'Why Not?'
Yeah, exactly the kind of stoicism that I hope to display under circumstances of stress.
It's infinitely infantile of course to imagine that the universe cares whether we are alive or dead! But clearly, people who believe in one variety of religion or the other do believe that there exists a benevolent 'Father' up in the sky who is looking after us.
Of course, it beats me how people can believe in the basic scientific facts such as the fact of the Earth being a sphere and revolving around the Sun in space and at the same time believe in all this religious childish mumbo-jumbo. You see, when you look up at the sky to point to the Big Fellow with the White Beard, that's only a part of the sky that's relatively located at the top of your head at that point in time.
If you could go through the center of the Earth, you would reach a point exactly opposite to where you are standing at the moment and there, you would again point to the sky to locate 'Heaven.'
The problem is that these two heavens would be located in exactly the opposite directions!
August 14, 2010
August 13, 2010
It's nauseating to hear about all the corruption with respect to the contracts awarded for various projects related to the Commonwealth Games.
People are doing it so 'transparently' and brazenly as they know that nothing will happen to them ... there are no consequences. Powerful people know that you can always make sure that a corruption case will get lost in the maze of the Indian judiciary. You can make a case last longer than your lifetime and then of course once you are dead, it's over!!!
The death sentence is on the statute books of course for the 'rarest of the rare' crime as of now. People get the death sentence for particularly gruesome cases of murder. Although, another oddity in India has been the fact of how rarely even those few death sentences get carried out. But that's another story.
If people can be awarded the death sentence for murder/rape, then why not give them the death sentence for particularly eggregious cases of corruption as well. I think we as a society have to agree to do it and then we can really use it effectively.
Of course, we'll need to fast track such cases like we manage to fast track cases where any foreigner is raped. Once people see justice being served expeditiously, the corrupt will curb their abandon. China provides a good model in this sphere though it's not a model to be followed in general.
Let's not wax eloquent and get all mushy about the value and sanctity of life and what not. Let's face it. Life is cheap in India.
How many people die in road accidents everyday in India? 300? 400?
How many folks just fall off the railway tracks in Mumbai everyday and die that way? 10? 20?
How many female infanticides happen every year?
How many cases of murder that don't get solved?
Well, the mumbling Good Doctor is now India's third-longest serving PM ...
Third on the all-time list! Well, India does not have the kind of restrictions that the United States. Think of the vision of Washington to leave the office voluntarily after he completed two terms in the office!
That was 200 years ago and strangely enough nobody dared to try to better the General. Think of Jefferson — he wanted him epithet to say that he was the founder of the University of Virginia. Being the President was passe to him. What an humble polymathic genius!
And what do we folks here in India do? We put someone in the office of the PM and once the bloke has been there long enough, we start thinking ... 'oh, who after him/her!' This man/woman is indispensable!!! How is India going to survive after him/her!!!
And we lift the ordinary mortal to the level of a deity ... there you go. That's us Indians. We really like our deities I guess.
I mean, the U.S. govt. is probably able to crack any encrypted communication it wants to ...
And the movie Enemy of the State would have us believe that the telecommunications companies are hand in glove with the govt. And of course there are laws in the U.S. too that require companies to provide access to the govt. when the govt. wants to tap into any particular individual's account.
As long as that's all done in a supervised fashion ... legal warrants and all ... I think that's okay in these days of terrorism.
To live through and fight through the War.
We are all poorer for not having participated in anything so massive ...
Where in hell is that exactly, you may ask?
Well, it's just one of the tiny states of the Republic of India. If you are trying to find out on a map, look EAST if you may please ...
40 million people ... all the relevant statistics that matters.
And what do the blessed and intelligent folks of Orissa — happens to be the state that I am from — do to 'fight' swine flu?
Oh, they turn to homeopathy of course!
Wow! How smart of them!
August 12, 2010
August 10, 2010
However, these modern-day royals have to perform a real tight-rope walking as well. Gone are the days when kings used to have 'exclusive' access to extensive harems. Alas!
These days, well, just look at what happened to the CEO of HP. Mark Hurd has done a fantastic job as the CEO by all accounts. And yet he was brought down by sexual harrassment charges brought by a reality TV contestant.
It's not entirely clear what exactly was the job description of the lady who has brought these sexual harassment charges. Seems like she was a high-end hostess or something — whatever that means.
Perhaps, HP's mistake lay in hiring her for that job but then that decision must have been more than just Mark's since her's was very much a 'public' job.
To me though, there seems to be some amount of inherent contradiction in this lady making these charges.
Clearly, I am not aware of the specifics of the charges levelled. My point therefore is simply this: clearly, the lady was not hired for her 'rare' intellectual abilities. She was hired because she was a woman and had what women have that makes them appealing to men.
That being the case, I would tend to be somewhat skeptical about her allegations.
It's somewhat vertiginous to think about these things. I am thinking of how constrained a President of the U.S. is now a days ... how careful he has to be. Certainly, a president can't think of conducting some secret affair.
And yet you had Clinton doing exactly that and almost self-destructing his presidency. He did what he did inspite of all the 'known' risks that he must have been aware of ... more than most people ... inevitably got caught with ... shall I say 'with his pants down'?
Kennedy was lucky then. The press was more ... deferential perhaps or cooperative or non-interfering back in those ... should I say, 'halcyon days'?
It seems researchers have come up with definitive biomarkers in cerebrospinal fluid.
Parallels are being drawn between these amyloid and tau markers as a predictor of Alzheimer's and cholesterol as a predictor of heart disease.
So, the dilemma is also pretty inherent. Having cholesterol is a good predictor of heart disease. However, not everyone who has high cholesterol will develop heart disease.
Similarly, if a person has amyloid and tau, that doesn't mean that the person is sure to develop Alzheimer's in the future.
Drug companies out there are all frantically trying to develop drugs of course.
Will we see a day when there will be something akin to atorvastatin for people having these biomarkers?
It's going to be a dangerous balancing act to do a cost versus benefit analysis pertaining to any drugs that apper that proclaim to help 'prevent' Alzheimer's.
But it will be really wonderful if such a linear correlation or cause-and-effect relation is definitively proven and then drug(s) are developed to counter those degenerative processes in brain cells.
Hopefully, this task won't be akin to finding the mythical elixir of life or the fountain of youth.
August 09, 2010
August 03, 2010
August 01, 2010
And a difficult book to write.
I marvel at the audacious genius of Sagan. Imagine the breadth of someone who was a professional scientist who had specialized in two disciplines — astronomy and biology. No one was a more potent lyrical evangelist for the beauty and compelling nature of the scientific enterprise. And he wrote fiction too!
It's clearly a difficult task to try and decide on what track events might proceed when we make contact with an advanced civilization out there. I hope folks are still at work on SETI. I for one can think of no other scientific endeavor that is more important. SETI is a game changer of a magnitude unlike any other scientific endeavor — except none.
May be, I am 'unrealistic' like the scientist portrayed in the book.
But if I may try to sell my point of view for a moment here, can't anyone imagine the consequences of how marvellous it would be if we discover species that are millions of years advanced than us technologically.
A related thought I have though is this: it's strange to reflect about the 'diversity' among one species, one civilization itself — that is us humans.
Think of all that has taken to make "us." Think of the hundreds of thousands of years of hominid evolution. Then the millions of years of mammalian evolution preceding that. Stretching back perhaps all the way back to the extinction of the dinosaurs. And what a majestic planet it must have been with dinosaurs roaming the Earth for more than 100 million years. And humans have been here for about 0.1 millions years so far?
I imagine what would have been the course of this planet if the dinosaurs had never died. Clearly, there would have been no flowering of all the mammals. I wonder if in that case, dinosaurs would have developed larger brains and become 'intelligent.' I don't know the answer to that question and I wonder if biologists can answer that definitively.
I fancy though that some accident of genetics and evolution might have led some species of dinosaurs to evolve larger frontal lobes and parietal lobes and what not and then they could have taken the path that humans have in recent millenia.
Imagine a world of dinosaurs who have developed science & technology. How fascinating that would be to contemplate! Imagine typical suburban America populated by the 'average' dinosaur dad and mom and their two 'kids.' Two cars in the driveway of course.
Imagine the dinosaur mom preparing dinner for the family in the evening ... what would the dad and mom discuss in the kitchen?
What about romance? Would Paris still be the city of romance?
There would be some dinosaurs who would be vegetarians and others who would be non-vegetarian. Then there would be some dinosaurs like Geetha too who would not mind eating non-vegetarian stuff but would be hesitant to cook it.
Would dinosaurs invent the technology of flying? 500 dinosaurs on an A380???
Would dinosaurs develop religion and political systems? Would there be a Cold War? The specter of nuclear Armageddon?
Would dinosaurs learn to travel into space on space shuttles? And perhaps develop their own SETI too ...
We will need a dinosaurian Carl Sagan of course ... and if there would be religion, we would need a Dawkins of the dinosaurs ...
What about computers and robots? What would the World Wide Web look like on a planet inhabited by seven billion dinosaurs?
Dinosaur blogs anyone?