Friday, January 27, 2012

Happy Wedding Anniversary to us!

Yesterday (26th Jan) Jaya and I completed going around the sun together 10000 times.

Monday, January 23, 2012

'Hubble moments' and their consequences

My feelings on negotiating various 'Hubble moments' that I had mentioned in my previous post are captured in a couple of passages in The Age of Wonder. The first is a description of how Keats combined science and poetry in an exciting way:
Keats likens his own discovery of Homer’s poetry to the experience of the great astronomer and the great explorer finding new worlds.

....Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like Stout Cortez when with wond’ring eyes
He stared at the Pacfic – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent upon a peak in Darien.

Both comparisons turn on moments of physical vision – watching, staring, looking with ‘wondering eyes’. (This was the original manuscript reading, although Keats later changed it to the more conventional ‘eagle eyes’.) Physical vision – one might say scientific vision – brings about a metaphysical shift in the observer’s view of reality as a whole. The geography of the earth, or the structure of the solar system, are in an instant utterly changed, and forever. The explorer, the scientific observer , the literary reader, experience the sublime: a moment of revelation into the idea of the unbounded, the infinite.
The second is poet Thomas Campbell's impressions on meeting the astronomer William Herschel:
Campbell recalled that he felt he had been ‘conversing with a super natural intelligence.’ Finally, Herschel completely perplexed the poet by remarking that many distant stars had probably ‘ceased to exist ‘ millions of years ago, and that looking up into the night sky we were seeing a stellar landscape that was not really there at all. The sky was full of ghosts. 'The light did travel after the body was gone.’ After leaving Herschel, Campbell walked onto the shingle of Brighton beach, gazing out to sea, feeling ‘elevated and overcome.’ He was reminded of Newton’s observation that he was just a child picking up shells on the seashore, while the great ocean of truth lay all before him.
I saw a quote by Steven Weinberg that I liked in this nice post - 'The effort to understand the universe is one of the few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy'. I fall into the following category of people mentioned by Jonathan Rée in Varieties of irreligious experience:
The most important force pushing people away from religion has always, I suspect, been what you might call the problem of scale. The Copernican revolution in astronomy – the celebrated transition from “closed world” to “infinite universe”, and the demotion of the earth from a commanding position at the centre of the cosmos to a supporting role circling one of the less distinguished of millions of stars – dealt a prodigious blow to human self-esteem. But even without the benefit of modern cosmology, our earliest ancestors must have been able to sense the paltriness of their hopes and fears compared with the colossal indifference of everything else. Most of us, in the course of growing up, will have been transfixed by the thought that we ourselves, together with parents and all the other figures who stride like giants through our lives, are of very little interest to the rest of the human race, and of no consequence at all to the ambient natural world. I remember, as a devout schoolboy, being halted in mid-prayer by the thought of my minuteness: God in his greatness was not going to spare a thought for little me or anyone I knew, and was probably bored to tears by the whole human fandangle.
Analysing God's utility function, Richard Dawkins says in River Out Of Eden:
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it:

For Nature, heartless, witless Nature
Will neither care nor know.
It may be argued that it would have been helpful to have some belief in the sense that I would have had someone to blame. But now fulminating about the capriciousness of an invisible omniscient entity seems infantile. 'Stuff happens', as Donald Rumsfeld would have said. Richard Feynman explain things nicely.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Annotated Origin

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Probably no one left bigger footprints than Darwin especially when you consider the explanatory power of an idea. In this convocation address at Case Western Reserve, David Quammen says that 'On The Origin of Species' is a book that 'every educated person should read'. I now tend to agree with this. By this criterion I was almost 40 before I could call myself educated when I heard am audiobook version of the same. (I downloaded it from It is a useful site to know if you don't want to read How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read.)

I just read The Annotated Origin.I wanted to read an annotated version of 'The Origin' since it would give additional information about how Darwin formulated his ides, the pressures on him, what he got wrong, additional comments etc. For instance, the last two lines of 'The Origin' are as follows:
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.
The annotation says:
I hesitate to intrude on the beauty of these lines. By necessity I will simply point out a few interesting features and later changes. Note, first that Darwin seems to speak to those perhaps reluctant to let go of their natural theology worldview: despite the reality of the "war of nature" - famine and death - exquisite beauty arises, he urges. His tone is not consoling, yet there is an air of reassurance about the statement. Note, too, the juxtaposition of Darwin's natural law of descent with modification with the law of gravitation. Even the divines of Darwin's time would have granted that the planets cycle on by Newtonian natural law, albeit set in motion by the creator. So, too, Darwin is saying, do life forms continually change - not in a cycle, he would argue, but in response to cycles of geological and biological change, in a grand interrelated system that spins "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful" from perhaps but a single common ancestor. In the second edition Darwin added "by the Creator" to "originally breathed," intimating that a creator may have set this grand system in motion, just as the physicists held for the clockwork universe. Note, finally, that the very last word is the only use of the word "evolve" or its cognates in the book - ironic, given that "evolution" is now synonymous with Darwin's model of common descent by natural selection. In his day the word was more closely associated with embryological development, and indeed Darwin's usage in this last sentence may be invoking an image of the embryo's unfolding developmental complexity, as natural selection endlessly spins out those forms most beautiful and most wonderful.
'The Origin' is worth reading but if it is your first book about evolution, you will struggle to complete it. At least that would have been the case with me. I had to negotiate a number of 'Hubble moments' eg. the idea of Deep Time, by reading a number of popular science books. (Here is a history of Earth in 24 hours.) Earlier, if there was a discussion of Cambrian life forms, I would have had no idea what was being discussed.

Apart from his genius, there is another thing about Darwin that fascinates me.He was born into wealth, had an independent source of income and didn't have to work for a day in his life to support himself. Most people in his place would have wasted their time in trivial pursuits. Darwin went on a five year voyage around the world and then did not move very far from his house for the rest of his life. But he had voluminous correspondence with many leading scientists, gathered copious amounts of data, thought long and hard and came up with a great idea. His privileged life was in contrast to that of Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection.

All things, including the species to which you belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms, it involves a principle of natural selection. That is, species that are suited to survive and to reproduce successfully, endure, at least for a time; those that are not so well suited, die off quickly. But nothing - from our own species, to the planet on which we live, to the sun that lights our day - lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal ...
Lucretius lived over 2000 years ago.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Narrowmouth's tale

You must be tired of reading my cribs so I thought that I will perk you up a bit by telling you about...frogs. I know what you are thinking - 'How does this guy get such splendid ideas? What next? Millipedes?' Let's just say it is god's gift and leave it at that.

About those frogs. In The Ancestor's Tale, Richard Dawkins writes:
Microhyla (sometimes confused with Gastrophryne ) is a genus of small frogs, the narrowmouthed frogs. There are several species, including two in North America: the eastern narrowmouth Microhyla carolinensis, and the Great Plains narrowmouth Microhyla olivacea. These two are so closely related that they occasionally hybridise in nature. The eastern narrowmouth’s range extends down the east coast from the Carolinas to Florida, and west until half way across Texas and Oklahoma. The Great Plains narrowmouth extends from Baja California in the west , as far north as northern Missouri. Its range is therefore a western mirror of the eastern narrowmouth’s and it might as well be called the western narrowmouth. The important point is that their ranges meet in the middle: there is an overlap zone running up the eastern half of Texas and into Oklahoma. As I said, hybrids are occasionally found in this overlap zone, but mostly the frogs distinguish just as well as herpetologists do. This is what justifies our calling them two different species.
The most conspicuous difference between the two species lies in their mating calls. Both are squeaky buzzes but they differ in duration and predominant pitch. This difference is clearest in the zone of overlap where they meet. In areas where the two species never meet, the calls are more similar to each other. In areas close to the zone of overlap but not quite in it, the calls are more different. But the maximum difference is in the zone of overlap itself. Something is pushing the two species apart in the overlap zone. One reason for this could be due to what ecologists call competitive exclusion. Dawkins writes:
This phenomenon, where two species differ from each other more when they overlap than when they don’t , is called ‘character displacement’ or ‘reverse cline’. It is easy to generalise from biological species to cases where any class of entities differ more when they encounter one another than when they are alone. The human parallels are tempting, but I shall resist. As authors used to say, this is left as an exercise for the reader.

Friday, January 6, 2012


Sometimes visitors who have come after a long gap will be confronted by the killer question, 'Can you see any changes in him?' At first I used to feel uncomfortable with this question but then I began to derive a perverse pleasure in watching visitors ponder over how to answer the question tactfully.The straight-forward answer to this question would have been to say that they could not see any change. But it is not socially acceptable to give such a blunt answer.

So there will be some standard anodyne responses that will be like the following:

- His skin is glowing.
- His eyes are shining.
- He is looking more alert.
- The little finger of his left hand moves (it always did).
- His legs move when he coughs (they always did).

I will sit impassively listening to the exchanges.

Monday, January 2, 2012

An Anthropologist On Mars

I finished reading An Anthropologist On Mars by Oliver Sacks some days ago. He tells remarkable stories of people with various neurological disorders and how they dealt with them. For example, there is the story of a Canadian surgeon with Tourette's syndrome and that of an amazing autistic woman.

There is a story of a painter who became colour blind after an accident. This was unusual because a person is usually born colour blind but this person totally lost his colour vision following an accident. Even his dreams were in B & W. He had totally lost the sense of colour. Oliver Sacks writes:
In addition to this medical fear, there was a deeper bewilderment and fear that he found almost impossible to articulate, and it was this that had come to a head in his month of attempted colour painting, his month of insisting that he still ‘knew’ colour. It had gradually come upon him, during this time, that it was not merely colour perception and colour imagery that he lacked, but something deeper and difficult to define. He knew all about colour, externally, intellectually, but he had lost the remembrance, the inner knowledge of it that had been part of his very being. He had had a lifetime of experience in colour, but now this was only a historical fact, not something he could access and feel directly. It was as if his past, his chromatic past, had been taken away, as if the brain’s knowledge of colour had been totally excised, leaving no trace, no inner evidence, of its existence behind.
I also find it difficult to explain certain things. For example, if I suddenly become alright today and went shopping, I would feel as if I was in a different country dealing with a different currency. I sometimes ask Jaya about the prices of some items and the values take my breath away. I have an idea of the inflation numbers but those are just abstract figures and very different from actual shopping experience. I am not sure how to explain this. Suppose a person watches the hour hand of a clock continuously, he will not see it move. But if he looks at the hour hand at two widely separated points in time, he will know that it has changed positions. A person who shops regularly will be like the first person. I am not implying that he will not notice the price changes but the effect will be far lesser than on me. I will be like second person, sampling the prices at two widely separated points in time and I will not know what hit me.

Another strange feeling is when I meet young people who I had last met when they were in junior school. I will not be able to recognize them and they will have only a vague idea of who I am. It feels strange to hear them discussing about whether they should study Engineering or Fashion Design when I had last heard them talk about Cinderella. I feel a bit like Cabuliwalla when he meets Mini on the day of her marriage.

Like most people, the painter described above gradually got used to his changed circumstances. His psychological recovery began when he saw a sunrise with all the blazing reds turned to black and seemed to look like an enormous nuclear explosion and he thought to himself that nobody had seen a sunset like that. Over time, he began to make splendid B & W paintings that could not have been made by someone with normal colour vision.
Although Mr. I does not deny his loss, and at some level still mourns it, he has come to feel that his vision has become ‘highly refined’, ‘privileged’, that he sees a world of pure form, uncluttered by colour. Subtle textures and patterns, normally obscured for the rest of us because of their embedding in colour, now stand out for him. He feels he has been given ‘a whole new world’, which the rest of us, distracted by colour, are insensitive to. He no longer thinks of colour, pines for it, grieves its loss. He has almost come to see his achromatopsia as a strange gift, one that has ushered him into a new state of sensibility and being.
Mind Hacks links to an old video of Oliver Sacks talking about various neurological disorders. Here is a TED Talk by him about hallucinations. He himself suffers from face blindness.

PS: I have partial colour blindness which used to cause some minor problems. For example, titration experiments in the chemistry lab used to be a problem. I could never make out when the colour of the solution changed. I always got the answer wrong and used to get marks only for writing the procedure correctly. I think I did not get any titration experiment for the Board exam so I escaped. I didn't know at the time that I had colour blindness.

Another problem was electrical lab in engineering because resistances are colour coded. I could never determine the value of the resistances so my circuits never worked properly. Again I did not have to make any circuits during the final exam so I escaped. I was one lucky dude.

Following the campus interview in TELCO (now Tata Motors), I had to undergo a medical test during which I learnt about the Ishihara colour vision test and knew that I was a goner. You can try it here. I can see the number in the opening panel - 16. All subsequent panels are jumbles of coloured dots for me.

After that, the closest I came to my colour vision being tested was after the campus interview for Bajaj Auto Ltd. The doctor pointed at a panel and asked me the colour. I said blue. He pointed at another panel and I said yellow. He seemed satisfied with my answers and I heaved a sigh of relief.

I used to hesitate buying clothes as gifts eg., a sari for my mother. I was not sure if she will see exactly what I saw. I must be seeing the world a bit differently compared to people with normal colour vision. I don't know how different. Perhaps they see sky-blue pink. Luckily, I never had this chemistry course.