March 30, 2011

Way Bigger Than SuperBowl

Article first published as A Match that Merits a Different Language on Technorati.

Cricket is a rather obscure game that’s favored mostly by countries that were once part of the British Empire. It’s quite easy in fact to list out ALL the nations of the world where cricket is played with some seriousness: England, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, West Indies, South Africa.

That list tells you everything. Cricket is played in England and a couple of other nations where the English migrated to. And it’s played in the Indian subcontinent.

For some odd reasons that are clearly beyond my ability to understand, cricket has become a national passion in India. And India has a great historical rivalry with Pakistan. India and Pakistan have gone to war thrice and wars being messy affairs, the countries are trying hard to avoid another battle.

Cricket therefore offers the opportunity to wage a war by proxy. The World Cup of cricket is clearly the biggest stage to host this battle. As luck would have it, India and Pakistan are both in the semi-finals of this tournament and pitted against each other.

What this means is difficult to describe in words. The only way this can get better is if India and Pakistan were to meet each other in the finals.

Let me mention some of the statistics of this match that will demonstrate the scale of this encounter.

The number of people who are expected to watch this match: 600 million to 800 million people.

Everybody who's anybody in India and Pakistan is in Mohali for the match including the PMs, the Gandhi family, and movie stars.

When can one find a story about India and Pakistan on the home page of the New York Times except when they’re fighting a war?

State governments are working hard to give their people a break for a day from power cuts.

Astrologers are busy putting their reputations and necks on the line by predicting the results of the match.

Indian fans have become ultra-patriotic which otherwise happens only when there’s a war going on.

The powerful bureaucrats of India are in a spot as they suddenly appear to be powerless at least in so far as arranging tickets for the match is concerned.

Celebrities are doing wacky, superstitious stuff.

Opportunistic politicians are busy using this match as an opportunity to curry favor with the electorate.

India’s usually industrious people are on mass leave.

Even the government has made it official by declaring a half-day leave for employees.

Busy streets across India wear a deserted look because of the match.

All of Kolkata is closed.

So is the growing IT hub of Hyderabad.

Even usually truculent politicians in state legislatures finished work early.

And people in the troubled state of Kashmir have forgotten their troubles for a day.

March 26, 2011

The Most Important Question of Your Life

Facebook or Twitter?

Yes. Choose. Between Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor if you like. Or, Aishwrya Rai and Katrina Kaif.

Twitter it is for me. Hands down. No contest.

Reason: it lets me keep in touch with so many and so much ... from news sources to my heroes to celebrities.

Please weigh in with your choice and the reasons thereof.

Wild. Life. Conservation

One more leopard dies in India. Another leopard was burnt to death. This has become common place and these incidents do not even make it to the mainstream media. So, what chance does wildlife have in India? I am thinking about the reality of life for Indians and trying to guess where saving tigers or leopards would fit in in their spectrum of priorities.

Let's look at a few lives across the economic spectrum.

  • Think of the guy who runs a tea stall or a cigarette stall or does ironing of clothes. Income per month: 5,000 rupees. Family members: one wife and three kids. What are his priorities? A grown up daughter at home who needs to be married off. The kids in school who need money for books and fees. The wife has been falling ill. There is talk of widening of the road and so the stall might need to be relocated. Does this guy wonder about the vastness and beauty of the cosmos? Does the guy wonder if there's life elsewhere in the universe? Does the guy think about the diversity of biological life and the splendor of evolution? Does the guy worry about the dangers of deforestation and the loss of biodiversity and species becoming extinct? Does it matter to him if leopards are being beaten to death by villagers or burnt to death? Not likely.
  • Think of the guy who does a middle of the road job. Income: 20,000 rupees per month. Family: one wife and three kids. What occupies his mind? College education is getting expensive in India. Private engineering colleges are particularly expensive. There are so few seats available in the government colleges. He needs to buy a refrigerator, AC, washing machine, TV, mobiles for all three kids. Ten years ago, they had no phones. Now, they have five. Oh, and the son wants a two wheeler too. Does this guy wait with bated breath for the LHC to become fully operational so that the Higgs would at last be detected? Does he marvel at the brilliance of Richard Feynman and the elegant mathematics of Chandrasekhar and the singular insights of Paul Dirac? Does he try to evaluate who was the greater genius: Einstein or Newton? And so, does the death of leopards bother him? Not likely.
  • Then there's the wannabe generation. Ahhh. This is fun to write about. The hip and happening youngsters. The future of India. The jeans generation. Males in jeans ... and females too. Income: anywhere from 50,000 ... 200,000 rupees per month. Family: anywhere from single status to wife and a kid or two. So, what keeps the 10 trillions neurons in their heads busy? Let's see. Movies. Dresses. Eating out. Tasting the diverse foods from all over the world in different restaurants. Living unhealthy lifestyles. Did I mention drinks ... Medicines. YES. CAR. CAR. CAR. Home. Installments. Installments. Installments. Installments. Mobiles. AC. Furniture. LED LCD TV. Apple (not the fruit). Goa visit. Nainital visit. Shimla visit. Did I forget something? And any chance that they are into watching the final launches of the space shuttles? Are they worried about the energy challenges facing the planet? Some of them are animal lovers. Some have dogs at home. But that's about it. Mostly, they have a long way to go. Lots more to achieve. Lots more to earn. Many more installments to pay. Would they bother about leopards? The fact that the media does not even report such deaths answers that. Cricket news makes for a lighter read.
  • The narrow tribe of celebrities. This includes movie stars, cricketers, and other rich people. Some belonging to this tribe are associated with various causes. Some of them are associated with wildlife conservation too. Sometimes, celebrities might come to attend some function wearing short dresses and forgetting some items of clothing. Well, animals wear nothing. And we ARE animals. This is called raising awareness.

So, who are we left with? Valmik Thapar and Maneka Gandhi. And surely thousands more who truly understand the complex web of life. Perhaps millions of them are there. Although I think millions would be too optimistic a number.

What does the future hold for animals? The big cats in the wild will surely continue to dwindle in numbers. They may not quite become extinct. Thousands of species continue to become extinct of course. But then extinction is perhaps a part of the very nature of evolution. Some of the natural cycles would be there even if there were no humans on the planet.

Science will play the role of savior as it always does. It will provide some answers ... partial solutions. What is unpredictable is the speed with which science will find solutions. It might be too late for some species. The international treaties that have been fought over and worked out to protect whales gives some sense of the challenges involved. Nations seem to have agreed to keep Antarctica pristine.

My other-worldly hope is this. Nations will agree to keep Mars free from large scale human habitation. This will be more or less easy as humans won't be so keen to go so far away from home and start over. Animals on the other hand won't mind. I don't know when we'll start to terraform Mars. Let's make it warm and fill the ancient river beds with water. Make the atmosphere oxygen-rich so that animals can live and exhale carbon dioxide so that plants can thrive.

I hope in a century from now, Mars will be full of forests and a variety of ecosystems and climates just as Earth does. Then we can transport a variety of animals to start living there. It would be fantastic if the elephants and zebras and lion and cheetahs and antelopes and peacocks and wildebeests of Earth are transformed into the Martians.

How wonderful would that Be?

March 24, 2011

Grieving for the Famous Dead

To elaborate on the above, I find it a bit mystifying that we seem to have so much of reserves of ... sympathy perhaps ... for an Elizabeth Taylor. Was she a poor little women who suffered through her life and she deserved better? I think the fact is that she was lucky beyond compare. Perhaps she was the luckiest one in a population of one million. Which is to say, I am counting her as one of the roughly 7,000 luckiest people in the world.

Contrast this with the tragedy in Japan. And even more so, other natural disasters of the past few years. Also, the everyday disasters that permeate this world.

I consider myself one of the people who enable this situation ... having read three obituaries and seen perhaps a similar number of photo albums of Taylor.

But I'm wondering about some psychological or biological/evolutionary explanation as to why this is so.

What is it in our make-up that makes us do what we do? Is there some evolutionary advantage to doing this? Or, is it a fault?

Perhaps it's somewhat aspirational. May be, all of us wish we were a celebrity like her and wish the world would griever our end as it does hers.

Or, may be, it just shows proves the absolutely random nature of who we are. Some random assemblage of genes gives someone extraordinarily symmetrical features that we describe as 'beauty.' And then all males are hardwired to admire that female beauty ... more or less.

Of course, to digress a bit, one must remember in the context of lists of the 'most beautiful women in the world' that only a few women are in a public career. There might be or must be many other beautiful women who live out their lives privately.

Which of course leads one to wonder ... how many beauties such as Taylor are there in this world?

The Old Men And The Religions

Yeah. Sorry. Could not resist that nod to Hemingway.

It occurred to me just today. So dumb of me really ... to realize this so late in the day.

Why is it that "men of religion" ... and they tend to be invariably and without exception 'men' ... God men, the "leaders" of the various religions, whichever way you want to put it, they all are WITHOUT EXCEPTION old men.

I am thinking of the 'Father's of Christianity, the myriad gurus and god-men littering the land of the Hindus (with their saffron attire, perhaps a fashion beard and hairstyle) , the Islamic clergy with their long beards, the Jewish Rabbis with their beards, the Tibetan monks ... well, I can think of only one I guess ... Dalai Lama with his fashionably bald pate and mild, kindly disposition, Sikh holy men of the gurudwaras too, etc.

Yeah. So, what's the story? What's the logic? Is it that we are willing to defer to old men more than, say young men ... or women? And, if so, why? Are old men (more or less neutered) less threatening from a mate selection or procreation perspective?

Clearly, if I had a lovely girlfriend, and if I had to suddenly go out for an hour, I would be far more at ease if she was at home with an 80-year-old man rather than Shah Rukh, Aamir, Brad, Colin, etc. ...

There's clearly something here. For this to be so uniformly true of all the "successful" religions.

What Price Heartbreak

Is the end of a relationship a little like dying? But what does it mean to say that ... die a little.

Is it like losing a little part of oneself? Sighhhhhh.

Is there some evolutionary basis to this?

What brings two people together? Perhaps just self-interest. And is that bad? Perhaps not.

It seems to me that heartbreak is not so much like one's own death. It's more like the death of someone beloved.

So we grieve. For a day or a few days or any other suitable length of time. But then we pick ourselves up and life moves on.

And so it is, I think, with heartbreak.

Heartbreak can be overcome. Ignorance can last a lifetime.

March 21, 2011

The Nuclear Scarecrow

Article first published as The Nuclear Scarecrow on Technorati.

The events of this past week in Japan have predictably resurrected the dormant nuclear scarecrow. The usual arguments are being trotted about how nuclear power generation is an off-the-charts risky enterprise. It’s time therefore to slay the scarecrow again.
Gun ownership in the United States is a peculiar left over from the 17th century and earlier. It serves no useful purpose. Yet the number of fatalities from gun-related causes is of the order of 100 per day. The number of non-fatal injuries is clearly twice or thrice as many. Yet gun ownership prospers.
Thousands of coal miners die every year. Tuberculosis and malaria account for some three million deaths every year. Malnutrition and diarrhea account for millions more deaths every year. The oil and gas industry sees thousands of deaths from accidents every year. Road accidents lead to hundreds of fatalities around the world everyday. Actually, about 300 die in road accidents everyday in India.
Keeping all this in mind, it’s clear that nuclear power plants do not represent a frontline clear and present danger in any logical sense. They are very much a potential danger though.
But the potential danger posed by power plants is probably largely misunderstood. The real danger of course arises from the possibility that radioactivity may leak into the atmosphere or water bodies ultimately affecting millions of people. But nobody can show a plausible mechanism as to how this worst case scenario might actually come to pass if the already stringent safety standards are followed in designing, building and operating these nuclear power plants.
Japan faced a rare double whammy of a severe earthquake combined with a massive tsunami and yet the result so far is that we are faced with a catastrophe but still with a fighting chance to avert the worst.
Contrast this with the rest. In all the focus on Fukushima, the thousands of dead have been forgotten.
And above all, this was Japan after all. Not a factor to be taken lightly. Japan is clearly the world’s best prepared country when it comes to earthquakes. If an earthquake of similar magnitude had occurred elsewhere, the death toll would have been 100 times worse.
Natural disasters unfortunately have become commonplace and we have become desensitized to the resulting human toll to a great extent. How many of us remember the Pakistan floods, the Pakistan earthquake, the Chilean earthquake, the Haitian earthquake, the supercyclone in Orissa? Katrina and the Asian tsunami are seared into our memories — but they do not constitute the only natural disasters of the past decade.
Whereas building codes and other such factors are naturally local, the standards to which a nuclear power plant is built are mostly global. So, while earthquakes and tsunamis in poor nations of the world will continue to result in thousands of fatalities as a matter of routine, one can say with a great deal of certainty that it’s difficult to imagine an accident related to a nuclear power plant that will result in similar number of fatalities.
It’s good that there’s so much focus on Fukushima. That will ensure that lessons will be learnt and the world will be wiser to the overt and covert dangers. But let’s not be hallucinated. We are not talking about the accidental explosion of a 50-megaton H-bomb.
Look at it this way: no matter how safe you can make airplanes, every time 400 people fly in a single plane, there’s a chance that 400 people could die in a single disaster. Indeed, disasters have happened in the air. But we have not stopped flying. We merely investigate the causes and make flying ever safer.
And we build bigger planes than ever before.

March 19, 2011

Trillion Dollar Trouble

One can get some sense of the mindboggling size of the U.S. healthcare business from the sort of figures mentioned in AHRQ's report.

U.S. community hospitals billed insurance companies and federal and state programs $1.2 trillion in 2008 for inpatient care.

Read more here.

March 15, 2011

Revised Ramayana

I was thinking of a revised version of this ancient Indian tale. Something more suited to the 21st century. I am thinking of the empowered females of today who are so unlike the women of yesterday.

So, let's tweak the storyline a little bit.

I imagine Ram being a rather boring guy ... perhaps rather like the Indian cricketer Sachin and lacking some of the swashbuckling character of, say, cricketers from other countries ... you can think of any cricketer that you admire in particular. Gul Panag recently admired one from Pakistan on Twitter which generated some angry responses ... Sania of course showed her preferences in her own unique way as well.

So, Sita being an empowered and emancipated female decided not to give in to fate and instead to make her own destiny. So, in a true pioneering spirit, she sought to seek out new frontiers in the relationship domain.

She had heard of this wise and powerful king in a foreign land ... a King with an intriguing name Ravana ... yeah, clearly, the name itself makes you want to explore the guy further.

So, how was she going to take this further? Clearly, Ram was not up to it considering all that this would involve ... the transportation and logistics and having to explain to the folks back home.

So, she thought it would be a great idea to stage her own kidnapping ... she called her trusted friend Hanuman and asked him to courier a secret message to Ravana. In the letter, Sita gave all the necessary details for a successful kidnap expedition.

And so, by and by, Ravana came at the right time and kidnapped her in his wonderful flying machine and Sita quite enjoyed the ride to Sri Lanka too ... she had never before seen the coastline of India after all ... she thought it was wonderful to observe it from on high ... so sharply etched, the blue waters of the ocean on one side and the landmass of India on the other.

After Sita reached Ravana's palace, she had many an intellectual discussions with the wise king discussing the latest in science & technology and contemporary international affairs and went for scuba diving too using Ravana's proprietary scuba equipment.

But eventually, Ram got bold and launched his now-well-known campaign to free Sita and he succeeded too unfortunately ... and the rest is history, as they say.

March 13, 2011

Where did all the screen gods go?

I was wondering about the actors who portrayed various gods on those TV serials about two decades back.

Many of the 'important' gods of course managed to leverage their roles in quite remarkable and unrelated ways.

Many of the gods became politicians and representatives of the people of India.

But then their political careers sort of fizzled out as the people decided that perhaps they didn't want these gods to represent them.

Even as actors, I do not think any of these guys either were exceptional in their profession to begin with or rose to any great heights afterwards.

Perhaps this shows that playing god is a rather easy job as far as acting jobs go. Which would seem to indicate that the 'story' itself was rather weak if the main characters are rather unremarkable.

Indeed, the mythologies are more or less like children's fables written millennia ago that have lost much of their relevance today.

The basic assumption that something written ages ago would contain something remarkably wise seems rather childish. Just try to imagine the world as it was only ten years ago. A world virtually without Google, Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, cheap flights, Delhi Metro, cheap computers, etc.

Does anyone want to live in that world? So, if it's clearly obvious that we have improved the world in the last ten years, why can't we realize that we have improved the world immeasurably and immensely more through the centuries.

Why do we search for great wisdom in the distant past?

March 12, 2011

Deepak Chopra = The Pope !!!

Do I need to explain how or why? OK. I will.

DC is the latest beneficiary of the fascination that people in the West have with the mysterious East. The fact that he was able to persuade a few Hollywood celebrities has clearly helped his cause immensely as well.

He is a trained medical doctor and PhD too as he will readily inform you. The essence of his philosophy is intricate and intriguing. Well, that's really the secret to being a New Age guru. A SUCCESSFUL one, that is.

You take the latest from modern science ... medicine/physiology/genetics, nuclear physics/quantum physics and general relativity and whatever else you can put in the mix without appearing too wacko.

You correlate this 'latest' scientific stuff with some 'ancient' wisdom. And you say that all this was already known to the ancient wizards living and meditating in the jungles. And then you've to do a very effective presentation about the 'new' insights you've gained into these 'ancient' texts. Of course, you're allowed to speak on authority — your own. It would be very useful to throw in as many instances of anecdotal evidence as you can. For the tribe of New Age healers thrive entirely on the basis of the credulity of people — on purely unrepeatable anecdotal evidence. Which is, one might add, the exact opposite of what science is about.

Oh, do not forget to criticize 'science' for all the 'evil' it has spawned of course. That is quite essential. Oh, how our lives have become so complicated ! Blame computers, blame cell phones, blame emails, blame Twitter if you want to be really hip (and iPad too ...).

People just love it when someone has the chutzpah to simultaneously bask under the glory of science and then criticize it with equal gumption.

Let's picture it ... you could imagine ... Jack ... for example doing this seminar for example. He has got a nice PowerPoint presentation where he persuasively talks about the 'confluence' or 'convergence' he has discovered between modern science and ancient wisdom. Then, inside of five minutes, Jack should throw his laptop away from the lectern (Apple will be the sufferer most probably ... guys, you're the best after all) in a huff and say that technology is the root cause of all that ails human life today.

And then Jack makes a joke or two about how the laptop can be useful ... at t-i-m-e-s ... and retrieves the Apple and proceeds with his PowerPoint presentation.

He offers life improvement techniques of course — take aways ... life lessons learned ... why else would anyone pay the $100 tickets to attend this theater.

So, there you have it. One instance of how to be a New Age Guru.

Deepak of course has mastered all of the components of it. The Pope is similar to Deepak in certain ways. Neither of them bother to confine themselves to their specific areas of expertise. Deepak will blithely lecture about insights provided by quantum physics as if he's a professional physicist. Deepak will talk about the Planck time and he will lecture about the moments after the Big Bang when the laws of physics do not work.

The Pope will do the same things as well ... talking about contraceptives and the origins of the universe and evolution and perhaps psychology as well.

Sam Harris, Christopher Hitcheens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennet

One can describe them as the elegant future, the fighting present, the glorious past, and the dinosaur ...

Before folks turn on me in all their fury, let me explain ...

I admire them all of course ... they've been the guiding lights of my life who've given me confidence that I was not some lone loony who properly belonged in the slammer of one sort or another.

Those who are still unfamiliar with these names of course are merely intellectually spectacularly impoverished.

How does one give a brief 'summary' of who these people are? Here, let me try.

Sam Harris. He's a great scientist who knows 'everything' about science. Now, if you introduce him as such in front of an audience, I know that he will protest. He will add the caveat that he does not know about all science. Okay. He has got a PhD in neuroscience. So, perhaps I can narrow the broad tapestry of science and say that Sam is an 'expert' on neuroscience. But he has done deep research into various eastern 'contemplative traditions' too as he so elegantly puts them. I like the way he takes liberals to task. I just loved the way Sam destroyed Deepak Chopra's mumbo-jumbo and without so much as raising his voice.

Christopher Hitchens. I'm sure his very name might make some people shudder and sweat ... or shrug their shoulders. His acerbic wit is incomparable. He clearly has encyclopedic knowledge about the content and history of the various major religions ... and perhaps the minor religions as well not to mention some of the older and extinct religions and gods.

It's perhaps a reflection of some sense of false priorities of us as a species that we do not give more important to men like Hitchens with the kind of incandescent intelligence that they possess.

Richard Dawkins. What to say about him? He continues the great tradition pioneered by the inimitable Carl Sagan. Ever humble and ever elegant and lyrical. Whereas Sagan's forte was talking about our place in the astronomical context, Dawkins wonderfully conveys the splendor of our evolutionary inheritance. Dawkins has contributed an enormous amount to the great intellectual discourse about evolution. He has been patiently refuting the non arguments of the scientifically illiterate who come up with non arguments to show that evolution is a myth.

Gentle as Dawkins is, he is not afraid to take on those who usurp and warp the message of science to pursue their own agendas. Dawkins deserves enormous admiration for the way he takes on the religious right in the United States and New Age gurus such as Deepak Chopra and other false sciences such as homeopathy. Watch him speak. Watch him talk with other great thinkers and scientists. Watch him to learn about life itself.

Daniel Dennet. I am not a paleontologist. Well, I'm quite ignorant really about Dennet's work. So, please, somebody fill this in ...

The Best Indian Bloggers

I am wondering who they are. I can't find any compilation on the web. I am sure M. J. Akbar, Shashi Tharoor, Swaminathan Aiyar, and Chetan Bhagat, etc. would automatically be on any such list.

Of course, some of them may not have a personal blog. But I believe all thinkers should be open and daring and share their thoughts with the world at large. It's their noble responsibility to society.

We need robust exchanges of ideas to keep this a thriving civilization of new ideas. We need to hold everything up to scrutiny. Democracies consist of imperfect people in charge of institutions created only by the same imperfect humans.

I find M. J. Akbar's writings to be peerless. I want to offer my assessment that he's the best in contemporary India. His articles seem to be like perfectly formed marbles that need no further refinement. It's tough to even add a comment to his articles. What can one add beyond just saying something cliched like 'Perfect.'

Chetan Bhagat seems another contemporary writer who's deceptively dumb. His books tend to convey the point that this writer is a purveyor of low-brow literature. But clearly Chetan knows which way the wind is blowing and is doing a marvellous job of producing bestsellers ... which writer won't be envious of Chetan or Shoba De. How many writers can claim that pirated versions of their books get sold at traffic lights?

But certainly in a nation of 1,200 million people, the number of public intellectuals who are willing to stand up and swim against the current if need be is pitiably low. One feels envious of a country like America where you find so many alternatives ... you could be an avid reader of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal and you'll find provocative opinion writers who have a point of view and are not afraid of expressing their opinions. One could go on naming the wide variety of other publications there as well.

March 11, 2011

Not Again !

The Pope has apparently authored some book and pontificated as is his habit ... I can't believe how people let someone who's completely unqualified to talk about anything lecture about everything !

Just give it a thought. The Pope gives about the use of contraceptive techniques. Is he a professional gynecologist or something of a related nature? The Pope opines that science should not investigate about what happened before the Big Bang. Is he a trained general relativist which makes him qualified to talk about this? The Pope does not like the idea of embryonic stem cell research. He considers it an example of humans playing god. Is he an embryologist ... a microbiologist ... a geneticist perhaps?

What about the theory of evolution? Clearly, the religious potentates won't be so stupid as to look at the fossilized remains of a dinosaur and dismiss it entirely as a figment of human imagination. At the same time, they can't give their stamp of approval to the theory of evolution either. Doing so would eliminate god or the idea of god or whatever remains of the idea of god.

So, what the god-headed folks do is to say that god created all those creatures a few thousand years ago and man and dinosaurs roamed freely on the Earth and mingled amongst themselves.

Clearly, some people are benefiting from 'freedom of expression.' The rest of us therefore equally deserve the right to freely call them to task when they utter logical fallacies and illogical monstrosities.

March 07, 2011

Boson Dreams

Simon van der Meer is clearly not a household name. But he has made many seminal contributions to the technologies used by particle physicists.

Here's how CERN remembers Simon van der Meer.

The story of how we have burrowed ever deeper into the secrets of nature in particle physics in the last century is utterly fascinating. The story of how the W and Z particles came to be predicted and then detected is a small part of the larger story. Simon van der Meer along with Carlo Rubia got their Nobels in Physics for designing the experiments that led to the detection of these particles at CERN. Weinber, Glashow, and Salam were of course the ones who combined the elctromagnetic and weak interactions. The W and Z particles are carriers of the weak nuclear force just as the photon is the carrier of electromagnetic force.

The Higgs boson is one part of the puzzle which still remains to be solved.

The list of particles already discovered and some predicted/theorized is clearly vast.

Here's a great article about how the W and Z particles came to be discovered:

The Groom And The Horse

I witnessed a typical marriage procession in Delhi yesterday evening ... got caught in one as I was going somewhere. It's something to behold of course. The absurdity is clearly off the charts.

What a silly superficial show it is! The noise and lights and above all riding a horse ... perhaps pretending that you're a king returning after conquering a new kingdom in battle.

Why does this absurdity persist? Why do educated people let themselves be put through such absurd, silly rituals? Why don't people have the common sense to admit that this is something stupendously silly and that it's time to stop doing this?

Why can't the young generation simply put their foot down and say 'to hell with it.' Why does not anybody have the imagination to recognize this as a symbol of extraordinary stupidity?

Clearly, this is evidence that Indians in huge numbers lack the quality of imagination. Perhaps Indians' obsession with the game of cricket is further substantiation of the same quality.

It's quite odd when you think about it. Marriage is after all a simple matter of a 'living arrangement' involving a couple of humans. And society has taken it and decided to attach spiritual significance, religious significance, and cosmic significance to it.

God has been assigned the task of supervising living arrangements among humans. What a job!

March 05, 2011

I Am A Jew

Dirac and Pauli on Religion

Werner Heisenberg [in Physics and Beyond, 1971] recollects a friendly conversation among young participants at the 1927 Solvay Conference, about Einstein and Planck's views on religion. Wolfgang Pauli, Heisenberg, and Dirac took part in it. Dirac's contribution was a poignant and clear criticism of the political manipulation of religion, that was much appreciated for its lucidity by Bohr, when Heisenberg reported it to him later. Among other things, Dirac said: "I cannot understand why we idle discussing religion. If we are honest — and as scientists honesty is our precise duty — we cannot help but admit that any religion is a pack of false statements, deprived of any real foundation. The very idea of God is a product of human imagination. [...] I do not recognize any religious myth, at least because they contradict one another. [...]" Heisenberg's view was tolerant. Pauli had kept silent, after some initial remarks. But when finally he was asked for his opinion, jokingly he said: "Well, I'd say that also our friend Dirac has got a religion and the first commandment of this religion is 'God does not exist and Paul Dirac is his prophet'". Everybody burst into laughter, including Dirac.

The Genius Business

How many problems does humanity face? Over-population, lack of clean drinking water, lack of sanitation, food shortages, energy shortages, and so on.

Peter Diamandis was talking about how we are on the verge of an age of abundance. And I was struck by how counter-intuitive that is to the way things appear to be right at this moment.
So, are we on the verge of an age of conflict or an age of abundance? And what has that got to do with being a genius?
The odd thing that struck me is how few of these geniuses are there. When you look through history, how many names can one think of who have been responsible for fundamental changes.
I can think of these people:
  1. The Wright brothers showed that heavier than air powered flight was possible. The aviation industry basically followed from that. Whittle's jet engine led to the current great age of aviation.
  2. Goddard's idea of multistage rockets lies at the heart of rocketry of all sorts to this day. It has enabled us to send communication satellites, space shuttles, and the Apollo lunar landers to the Moon. And we are still waiting for that next genius idea that will lead to the development of interstellar human exploration with vehicles that fly at speeds which are significant fractions of the speed of light.
  3. The cell phone has been quite a revolution in communication. It is probably one of the very few revolutionary ideas that can't be traced back to one individual. Martin Cooper of Motorola of course led the team that created the first of these devices. But then the cell phone was an extension of existing wired phones. And the individuals who are responsible for the creation of that technology are Graham Bell and Marconi. Tesla and J. C. Bose were pioneers as well.
  4. The modern age of microprocessors is due to a couple of companies: Intel and AMD. Intel was founded by Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore. Andy Grove of course is also a key part of the Intel story.
  5. Bob Noyce and Jack Kilby are of course the co-inventors of the microchip.
  6. John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Walter Brattain invented the transistor which led to the microchip.
  7. Modern physics owes its existence to such geniuses as Rutherford, Bohr, Scrodinger, Pauli, Dirac, Heisenberg, Feynman, Schwinger, Weinberg, etc.
  8. Modern astronomy/astrophysics has many heroes such as Galileo, Copernicus, Brahe, Hubble, Chandrasekhar, Hawking, Penzias, Wilson, Mather, etc.
  9. Biology has many luminaries such as Darwin, Pasteur, Fleming, Watson, Crick, etc.

This is just a random sample of names and people. One could talk of many others such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who have been responsible for the desktop computer revolution. Life without Google today seems almost unthinkable. So, hats off to the search engine pioneers as well.

That list may have missed a few names. May be one can add hundreds of people to that list. Or, thousands. The Apollo project itself involved some 4,00,000 Americans. The Manhattan Project was almost as large.

But clearly, not everyone involved with the Apollo or the Manhattan projects had to be a genius. So, the total number of people who have made astonishing contributions to humankind is really limited numbering in the hundreds or thousands.

But this is a planet that has seven billion people — 7,000 million.

This clearly shows that the direction that humanity takes is more or less determined by the minds of a few people who make fundamental discoveries or inventions that affect vast numbers of people.

So, my feeling is this. When I mentioned the challenges facing humanity at the beginning of this article, they are barely five or so in number. Is it possible that it won't take many more than five geniuses to solve all of humanity's problems?

March 02, 2011

Religion is Sinister AND Funny

Today is as good a day as any to reflect on this tragi-comic situation.

Religion committed one more murder the other day.

And Hindus commemorated Shiva, one of the numerous gods of Hinduism just the other day. For the uninitiated, Shiva is the guy who's responsible for the destruction of the world as opposed to Vishnu who is the creator of worlds ... Brahma is responsible for the day-to-day upkeep of worlds ... correct me if I am wrong since it's a long time since my childhood when I learnt these things.

So, you've got a guy who's basically responsible for the Big Bang and another guy who's responsible for the Big Crunch ... so to say. Pretty nifty.

Anyway, this god Shiva or Lord Shiva as Hindus would have it has got some interesting characteristics such as:

  1. He lives on the top of one particular mountain named Kailash ... in the Himalayas of course. I would imagine it would be pretty cold (as in sub-zero temperatures) up there. But clearly, since he's a god, he doesn't need too much of winter wear. In fact, he manages quite well with only wearing something quite scanty. He sits on the hide of a tiger ... or is it that he sort of 'wears' the hide. Again, my memory of the 'facts' is not quite strong.

  2. He has a snake around his neck — don't ask me why. May be there's a reason that old folks would be able to answer. And he has the crescent moon on his head too. Oh, and the Ganga river flows from his head as well.

  3. He does an angry dance ... when he's angry of course. So, Hindus like to propitiate him ... keep the guy happy.
  4. He is married to a goddess of course (well, gods marry goddesses, right? Simple. Can you imagine for example Shiva being married to Britney Spears or Rihana or Mariah Carey or Paris Hilton or Priyanka Chopra??? No, I can't imagine that.) named Parvati.
  5. And they of course have a baby god named Ganesha. That's the god with an elephant head of course. The story of how he got to have an elephant's head is quite interesting. But as usual, I have forgotten most of it so I won't recount it here.
  6. Oh, Ganesha had (or is it 'has') a brother too ... I had almost forgotten. So, there's this nifty story about how clever Ganesha is. Once the two brothers had a contest (I forgot who 'initiated' the contest). The challenge was to go around the world seven times and see who does it first. The slow-witted brother actually went around the world seven times ... clearly, lots of hard work considering the Earth has a diameter of some 40,000 kms. And clever Ganesha just went seven times around the parents. So, there's a lesson to be learnt there ... don't ask me what lesson though. Hindus like to repeat this story as a 'teachable moment' to use a hot phrase.

Well, that's about it when it comes to one particular god and his immediate family. Hinduism has got many crazy gods. There's a god with 10 hands, one god with four hands, and one with four heads. One famous villain had 10 heads.

I am thinking whether it would be quite advantageous to have four heads or four hands or ten hands. Well, it could be advantageous of course. Imagine if you had four hands. You could be driving a bike using two hands and hold your cell phone with one hand and still have one more hand left over if you need to scratch your nose while driving your bike and talking on the cell phone. Good.

Four heads could be useful too. One advantage that immediately strikes me is that you would be able to look all around you ... all 360 degrees without having to rotate your one measly head. Although, I anticipate some trouble while sleeping ... and the sleeping bit gets even more complicated when you go up from four heads or hands to ten heads or hands ... just imagine that.

And it's not like you have to live with these deformities for 50 or 70 years ... being a god, you gotta live forever, right? Ohhhhhhhh, that's quite a pain ...

And BTW, why do gods (and goddesses) have one word names? Why don't they have a first name and a last name like we do?

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