The nationally streamed debate in Kentucky between a spokesman for Science (Bill Nye) and an adherent to the Biblical version of biogenesis (Ken Ham) was a national embarrassment (not to say disgrace). That one has to argue for the scientific worldview in the twenty-first century in a nation which has a prestigious history of scientific discoveries, inventions, and international prizes revealed a known and much-regretted fact: That a good deal still needs to be done to spread the spirit and knowledge of science to the general educated public at large, let alone in schools. It is of little consolation that billions of people belonging to other mainstream religions will side with Mr. Ham’s insistence on the validity of scriptural authority on matters relating to the physical world, though allegiances will be to different ancient texts in other cases. The debate was painful to watch for those who have been touched by the knowledge harvested in the past few centuries, and the whole event was no laughing matter, notwithstanding some awkward claims made with a straight face.
In fact, the debate was not between evolution and creationism, nor simply between science and religion, but between reason and unreason, between perspectives that value experiments and coherence in our understandings of the world, and those that honor the legacy of one’s distant cultural ancestors. It was between different ways of acquiring knowledge about the wonders of the world: the rational and the non-rational, the questioning and the respect-for-authority mode.
Dr. Nye was persuasive with all the meticulously accumulated data from geology, paleontology, and biology that he clearly presented. Mr. Ham was persistent in his reverence for the Holy Book and in the literal reading of seven-day creation, Noah’s Ark and the like. One could admire his deep devotion to Christ and after-life, and empathize with his concerns about what strikes him (and many others) as an alarming deterioration in traditional values which have resulted in sexual promiscuity, unwanted pregnancies, increasing drug addiction and the like. It is not clear that these social changes are the result of accepting Darwinian evolution or the big-bang theory. It is not impossible to teach healthier values in a science-respecting framework.
Leaving aside the technical error of saying that Hubble had discovered the recession of stars – actually it was the recession of galaxies – and showing a diagram in this context on how Bessel had determined the distance of a star, Nye pleaded the cause of science with passion and frustration, posing fruitlessly some questions several times to his opponent in the debate. Though most scientifically inclined people like myself were sympathetic to him, there were a few things he said on science’s behalf which have little to do with the merits of science’s case.
Nye kept saying that the scientific question gives him great joy. True, but this eureka-ecstasy cannot be experienced by those who have not done science, and they are the vast majority. Then again Hams gets similar joy from reading the Bible and signing the Psalms. That does not make his position stronger either. Then Nye kept warning Kentuckians that if they did not adopt the scientific worldview, the United States would fall behind in its scientific leadership. Well, for quite some time now the U. S. has been among the leading nations in science, in spite of anti-evolutionists. The fact is, as long as there is a body of serious scientists in any nation, there will always be creative scientists. This is not an argument against science education but a recognition that scientific breakthroughs, like good art and great music, are always done by only a select few everywhere. Then again, Nye’s threat that if we do not embrace science we will fall behind economically is not valid either. Dubai and Saudi Arabia are doing economically quite well, thank you, without subscribing to Darwin and while upholding their own holy book.
The greatest argument for science is that it expands our mind and our enhances our values too. The tug today, in the United States as elsewhere too in the world, is between those (cultures and individuals within cultures) who choose to linger in the past, fettered by worldviews and values that are anachronistic and sometimes unconscionable, and those who are informed by the immense body of knowledge that the sciences have brought to humankind and have been awakened by the transnational, transreligious, and transcultural worldview that the scientific quest has sculptured. That worldview is ennobling, magnificent and mind-expanding in its own right, far more so than any that humanity has constructed over the millennia.
The intelligent recognition of the scientific worldview need not deter us from respecting the views of distant generations as fruits of past endeavors of the human spirit, or from valuing their insights in so far as they are uplifting and foster love and compassion, or from enjoying the great art and music and poetry that religious visions have prompted in all cultures. But honoring the great visionaries of the past should not arrest the exciting quest for new knowledge and understanding accruing from exploration and new insights, nor repudiate the fruits of that quest.
February 5, 2014
Much of the universe, as we understand it, is not at all friendly to humans or to any life form. That is to say, life cannot exist in 99.999…% of the Universe which consists mainly of super-hot stars.
But there are pockets here and there, such as our own planet Earth, where life has evolved, because the physical-chemical conditions and planetary size have been conducive to the emergence and sustenance for a long period of time (but only for a fraction of the age of the universe).
We may, if we wish, express our gratitude to the Laws of Nature and the chance-generated configurations of matter and energy that have made Life (on Earth) a possibility.
From what little we know the universe itself is pretty indifferent to such expressions of gratitude.
But our cultural evolution instills in us some deep satisfaction when we say “Thank You” for goodies we receive. We also treat with disdain people who don’t say “Thank You” for the nice things they get from others. That is why, since we gobble up all these great experiences for a few decades, in our reflective moments, we say we are grateful for the gift of life and the associated pleasantness – not just our own. Such feelings don’t arise when we or other people suffer under severe conditions generated by Nature (the Universe).
I once told my eight year old daughter when she asked me if God exists: “I don’t have the faintest idea, Indira, but I wish there was Something or Somebody to whom I can say ‘Thank you!’ for all the blessings (= unasked-for positive experiences) I have received. That Something is what some people call Mother Nature and the some others call God. If there were no such entity, we may have to invent one for this purpose alone.
Quite a few people manage to live peacefully without expressing any such gratitude for Life and happiness, love and joy, mainly because they don’t know to whom they should send this. If they can do this, that’s fine for them. Problems start when these people tell others they should not say “Thank you!” to anybody, real or imagined, and others force the apparently ungrateful ones to adopt their version of the gratitude-target.”
24 Jan 2014
A week ago the Gregorian calendar ushered in yet another New Year, numbered 2014 by (more or less) international convention. For while the vast majority of nations which have been brought under the West-instigated global framework follow this chronology, a few other traditional systems reckon their New Years by other conventions, all anchored to some religion or local convention or other, and none having any point of reference that is culture-invariant.
The sun, fixed in the solar system relative to the planets, moves from our slanted terrestrial perspective between the tropics as our planet zooms in the void of solar space along its elliptical orbit, coming ever so slightly closer to the central star during what denizens of the Northern Hemisphere experience as winter, utterly indifferent to the celebrations of earthlings now and again. Countries and capitals sometimes compete with fireworks in the jubilation of this astronomical non-event
People open bottles of champagne and other beverages to mark this occasion which is devoid of any cosmic significance, make resolutions in hopes of changing their behavior and list to-be-achieved goals before the last date of 2014 is dumped into the black hole of irretrievable history. We wish one another health and happiness: vestige of the ancient magical belief by which words and gestures would modify events in the human-centered world.
I too like to engage in such wishful thinking. Wouldn’t be great, I tell myself, if, at long last, this would be the year when peace dawns in the middle east; terrorists give up their modus operandi; dictators are dethroned; the wealthy resolve to give a significant percentage of their resources for the benefit of the less fortunate members of our species; arch-enemies extend hands of mutual friendship; nations stop snooping; religions recognize that none of them is better or worse than a sister religion in their attempts to visualize God and cease persuading or forcing others as to the truth-content of one’s own faith-system; poachers stop killing helpless animals in the wilderness; superstitions are recognized for what they are and relegated to the laughable relics of human beliefs; bigots, fanatics, and extremists, whether religious or secular, calm down or are exterminated in as humane a fashion as possible; the corrupt are cleansed and condemned for good; chocolates are available everywhere free-of-cost; and such other improbabilities as all wish and none can bring about come to pass!
I know too well that none of this will come to pass this year or in the next, or even in the next five decades to come. But it is soothing to engage in their possibility at least in the first week of a new year, and that’s why I indulge in such thoughts.
January 6, 2014
Daniel Dennett is a brilliant philosopher, and also a general in the army that is out to rid humanity of traditional religions. He takes up his mission with the zeal of a preacher, saying at the very outset of this penetrating appraisal of religion: “I say unto you, O religious folks who fear to break the taboo: Let go! Let go! You’ll hardly notice the drop!” Such language is appropriate, given that (as he sees it) religion is an unfortunate spell to which we are bound, and he is out to break it.
In 2006 Dennett published a provocative essay in which he described people who had rid themselves of all traditional religious beliefs as brights, without using any epithet for those who haven’t. The present book, which offers some generous, if sarcastic-sounding suggestions as not how the non-brights might call themselves, is an expansion, elucidation, and defense of the brights-position. The book says little that is entirely new to reasonable skeptics, informed atheists and unreligious scientists, but it says it all with great wit, intelligence and persuasiveness.
In a “I-come-to-bury-Caesar-not-to-praise-him” style, Dennett is not out to decry, degrade, or destroy religion, but only to analyze it from scientific perspectives. All he wants to explain is that religion is just another human invention to serve human needs, and is no revealer of truths, much less a vehicle that gives us a post mortem ride unto a grander or more terrible world beyond space and time. His analysis of religion and its emergence is sharp and insightful, and as informative as that of a master anthropologist about an exotic culture. In an age in which mindless religious fanaticism does havoc the world over, and sometimes tries to distort or usurp science, a book like this is welcome.
However, what escapes Dennett’s analysis is that we are all under the spell of something or other. It could be fanatical religion or unadulterated rationality. Redemption for the brights consists in breaking the spell of religion, and in coming under the spell of pure rationality in the appraisal and experience of everything human. As to whether this book will transform millions into brights, it is difficult to say. It may be generations before that goal is achieved. Some, after recalling Stalin and Mao, may wonder if it is even a safe goal to strive for. But who knows!
December 27, 2013
This is the month of Christmas and Hanukkah for people of the Judeo-Christian traditions when lamps will be lit, gifts will be exchanged, trees will be decorated, stores will be invaded, and moneys will be collected for charity by the Salvation army.
But when poets write about drear-nighted December, and complain that
The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over the gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon
they are, unwittingly, prisoners in their latitudes. For, down below, to the south of the equator this is the month of mid-summer, with no snow or chill, except perhaps on mountain peaks.
“It’s the December Date for Winter!
Season of white and snow.”
“But in November too, there was this stuff,
As I’m sure you know.”
“It’s the month of joys when Santa comes
And toys, they are on sale!”
“Now, my friend, we all do know:
That Santa’s but a tale.”
“We’ll have Christmas soon, trees will be lit
And carols we will sing.
“But to Yusuf, Ben, and Gopal too
Christmas doesn’t mean a thing.”
“Oh, Winter is here, days are cold,
We need coats to go to town.”
“Not if you live in Peru or Perth
In Jakarta or Cape Town.”
“What do you want me to say, my friend
If all I say is wrong?
There’s no Christmas, there’s no snow,
There is no joy or song?”
“You aren’t wrong, no not at all,
But your truths are but for some.
All truths that touch one’s heart and soul,
Absolute ne’er become.
“So December sure is all you say:
For carols and snow, I bet.
But others have other seasons like this:
This we shouldn’t forget.
“The seeming path of sun in sky
Changes this day, we find.
This truth touches no heart or soul,
It’s of the scientific kind.”
“I care not for truths scientific,
In Christmas, they’ve no place.
Come, sing with me of Christ and Love
Of Joy and Peace and Grace.”
December 1, 2013
Michele Marie Desmarais, Changing Minds: Mind, consciousness, and identity in Patañjali’s Yoga-Sûtra and cognitive neuroscience, New Delhi: Motilal Benarsidass Publishers, 2008.
The Yoga-Sûtra of Patañjali is a classic work in humanity’s heritage. It is the time-honored treatise that expounds the conceptual and spiritual basis of yoga which is one of the major contributions of India to world knowledge and culture. Over the ages, the theory and practice of yoga have undergone changes, often instigated by enlightened practitioners. In today’s world it has spread far and wide beyond the shores of India, enriched and distorted in a variety of ways.
The Yoga-Sûtra has been translated into several languages, and in English there are several renderings and commentaries. The theoretical framework of the complex system of yoga involves many technical terms, such as purusha, prakriti, vritti, and pramana. This book presents remarkably clear expositions of such terms in a systematic manner. It elaborates on the philological aspects of the words, elucidating their multiplicity of meanings, especially in translations; sometimes it critiques the inadequacy of certain translations. Thus citta, manas, and buddhi may all refer to mind, intellect or ideation (p. 43). The book explores the philosophical significance of the concepts as well: after all, the yoga is one of the six canonical schools of classical Hindu darshanas (philosophical systems). Thus, for example, the notions of samskâras and vâsanâs, and karmâshya are discussed in detail (pp. 66 et seq.) All through, the appropriate passages from the text are quoted. The psychological dimensions of the Yoga-Sûtra are also analyzed. But the yoga system is more than philosophy: it is a system of psychology that analyzes the nature and properties of the human mind and consciousness. Thus the book refers to cognition, perception, memory, and sleep from the yoga perspective.
What makes this study particularly interesting is that it puts all of this in the context of modern cognitive neuroscience. Thus discussions on various parts of the brain (neuroanatomy) is introduced in a section that talks of the mind as emergent from the brain (p. 84). The book explains how in the yoga system mind is studied in terms of matter.
But the most important aspect of yoga is practice. Its components are discussed. They include restraints (yamas), observances (niyamas), postures (asanas), breath control (pranayama) pratyâdhâra (withdrawal of the senses), dhârana (concentration), dhyâna (meditation), and samâdhi which the author chooses not to translate even as the ultimate state of union (pp. 158-176). The concluding chapters dealing with an analysis of yoga practice and the extraordinary results of yoga are informative and inspiring.
The author has formatted her book in an ingeniously meaningful way. Taking the cue from samkhya which regards the human experience as witnessing a show on the stage, she presents the topics under theatrical epithets: Entering the Theater, Taking the Stage, All the World’s a Stage, Following the Plot, The Plot Thickens, and Lights Up. In this manner the reader is gradually taken through the various stages of yoga theory and practice, philosophy, psychology, and the climactic fulfillment. This original method of presenting the Yoga-Sutra builds an awareness that is difficult to get from a mere reading of a translation.
This book should be of special value to anyone is interested in getting an overview of the yoga system and its relevance and relationship to the modern world.
November 22, 2013
Science has two primary goals: to find explanations of myriad natural phenomena characterizing the world of experience and to unravel from these explanations the ultimate nature of reality. These goals are interlinked in that the mode of explanation will be the road by which reality will be unveiled. The scientific mode, finding spectacular expression in physics, is through mathematics. Thus, mathematics becomes the road to reality for scientists and especially for physicists. Physicist Penrose guides the reader through that complex and exciting road with profound erudition, deep insight, and great flair. He begins with a clear, succinct exposition of the interrelationships among mental, mathematical, and physical worlds. All through, there is blending of technical mathematics with keen observations and historical asides. Penrose reflects on his own views on current physics, confessing only partial trust in string theories to provide the ultimate key to unlocking the terminus. Though the book is for “the serious lay leader,” not many will fathom much beyond the first chapter. Those with graduate work in theoretical physics will be enormously enriched. More than anything else, this book will be a great resource for graduate seminars. A must for all libraries serving physics departments. Summing Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through professionals.
November 6, 2013
How quickly the sunny days of summer seem to have fled, leaving us to a period when, in the words of the poet Walter Scott (of the northern hemisphere):
November’s sky is chill and clear,
November’s leaf is red and sear.
Some of us may recall Thomas Wood’s unkind description of the month:
No Park – no Ring – no afternoon gentility -
No company – no nobility -
No warmth – no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds -
Yet, this is also the month when, (this year) Hindus celebrate their festival of light, and Sikhs will be remembering two of their gurus.
People remember the names and deeds of great ones on whom we have records: historical, anecdotal, or legendary. But beyond the known personages of eminence there have been, in all cultures, many individuals, modest perhaps in their recognized accomplishments, but deserving to be remembered no less for their thoughts and deeds.
One way of remembering them is by dedicating a day to all worthy people. This is one way of interpreting All Saints Day which is observed on November 1 by the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. It dates back to more than a thousand years: this remembrance of the countless martyrs and saints, known and unknown, who lived in the Christian world. In the tradition, one pays homage to God for those precious lives which exemplified some of the best elements in the human potential and expressed the capacity for self-sacrifice for a cause.
In an extended sense, all who toil lifelong for the common good with more pain than personal benefit may be looked upon as saints; all who show extraordinary compassion and kindness, humility and empathy for the suffering of others, and whose lives enrich and enhance the well-being of others, are saints too. So, whether Catholic or Anglican, Christian or otherwise, we can all pause for a moment in reverence for our fellow humans who have been martyrs and saints in this extended meaning of the word.
In the first decade of the seventh century, the Pantheon in Rome was consecrated to Sanctae Mariae et Martyres. In the next century, Pope Gregory III made a special chapel in St. Peter’s where the relics of all martyrs were kept, and “for all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world.” This is one of the few inclusive statements from the Catholic Church, for it does not explicitly exclude Non-Christians, reminding one of the Vedic prayer loká samastaa sukhino bhavantu: May the whole world be happy!
The word martyr is not etymologically related in any way to death. It originally meant “a witness who testifies to a fact of which he has knowledge from personal experience.” It is in this sense that the original Apostles of Christ were the first martyrs. In an extended sense again, all those who have had profound and genuine spiritual experience are martyrs, whether or not they belong to the Christian tradition. From this perspective we may regard All Saints Day as a day to remember the worthy souls from all over the world.
One of the reasons that science is a reliable source of knowledge its great reliance on careful measurements in the description of phenomena. This implies the use of instruments. It is no coincidence that the 17th century which saw the blossoming of modern science was also the one in which some of the most basic measuring devices were invented and improved upon.
Among the many ingenious investigators who contributed to this field of science was Guillaume Amontons. It is said that when he was in his teens Amontons practically lost his hearing faculty. But he was not deterred by this impairement. Rather, it enabled him to concentrate better on matters that interested him most. These ranged from drawing and architecture to mechanics and measuring devices. He also studied celestial mechanics to boot.
The telescope explores the skies and the microscope probes into the very minute, but neither of them was as yet a measuring gadget. The pendulum clock was for measuring time, but there had been other time-measuring devices before.
The important new measuring instruments of the seventeenth century were the thermometer for measuring the heat-condition (temperature), and the barometer for measuring atmospheric pressure. Both these were concepts and discoveries made in that century, and were to play a major role in the future development of science.
Amontons is remembered for the refinements he brought on these. He invented a barometer with multiple connected tubes, shorter than the one then in vogue. He invented a hygrometer which measured the water-vapor content in the atmosphere. He made a new version of the clepsydra (time-measuring device) for use in ships. He devised an air thermometer in which a U-shaped tube with mercury contained some air above. By marking the variation of the length of the air column with changing temperature, one could measure temperature. In this context, he considered what would happen if the temperature were reduced more and more: the volume becoming less and less. By extrapolating the observed reduction in volume with the lowering of temperature, he speculated that that must be a temperature at which the volume would become zero. Thus, intuitively and unwittingly, he had thought of an absolute zero temperature: an idea which was to emerge in a more sophisticated version in the nineteenth century. Playing with his air-columns Amontons also discovered one of the basic gas-laws: the proportionality between the pressure and temperature of an enclosed volume of gas.
Amontons studied the relationship between the friction generated when bodies are in contact and the mutual pressure at the surface of contact. He is also credited with the idea of an optical telegraph: a system by which messages could be sent over long distances by light signals which were observed with spyglasses.
With all that, not many students of physics, let alone the people in the world beyond, have even heard the name of Guillaume Amontons.
As noted earlier, Amontons had hearing impairment. As with Edison at one stage of his life, or with Beethoven towards the end of his life, this physical constraint put no constraint on his creative abilities. When one looks into lives of people like Amontons one begins to realize that those who accomplish significant things in life are seldom preoccupied with the hindrances and obstacles that come their way or are even part of their everyday life: They are more focused on positive side of life than on the negative.
October 30, 2013
It has been recorded that there was an epidemic of a strange new disease in Europe towards the close of the 15th century. Its early manifestation included soreness in the reproductive organs. It often affected people who had traveled much. So it came to be named in terms of a foreign country: Polish sickness in Russia, German ailment in Poland, Neopolitan disease in France, French affliction in Italy, etc. Apparently, French soldiers returning from an Italian campaign in Naples were afflicted by it. It was also believed to have been communicated by prostitutes. A Latin poem by Girolamo Fracastero, published in 1521, was entitled Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus (Syphilis, or the French disease), which would be a very politically incorrect term in our own times. Many have argued that, like potato and maize, the disease was imported into Europe from the New World via sailors who had engaged in physical intimacies with the women of the land. Fracastero named the disease after the mythic Syphilus of antiquity who is said to have worshiped his king rather than any God he could not see. This angered Apollo who, thereupon, filled the air with toxic fumes which caused blisters all over the poor shepherd’s body.
Be that as it may, there was little doubt that syphilis was a venereal disease, even though it also afflicted some cardinals in Rome. Aside from strict segregation and even exile beyond city walls, the victims suffered from pain, and were affected in other terrible ways too before they died. Priests preached abstinence and self-discipline as prevention, while physicians tried liberal use of mercury which played an important medicinal role in those days. Though effective to a degree, this treatment also had some terrible side effects like vomiting and blisters on the tongue.
It was only in the 20th century that the real culprit for the disease was discovered. This was done by Fritz Schaudinn (born: 19 September 1871) who had early interests in philology and physics, received a degree in philosophy, and then went on to explore zoology. He got a doctoral degree in science and went on expeditions to study life forms in the Arctic regions, before joining the Zoological Institute of the University of Berlin. He was particularly interested in protozoa: the unicellular organisms that can be pretty nasty to human beings. He studied malaria and other diseases, and established that tropical dysentery was caused by an amoeba. When he became director of the newly established Institute for Protozoology in Berlin, his attention turned to the cause of hookworm disease.
In 1905, while examining all kinds of microorganisms, Schaudinn spotted a minute spiral-shaped rod, pale in appearance, in material from a syphilitic papule. His claim that this Spirochaeta pallida was ultimately responsible for syphilis was not received very warmly by his peers at the Berlin Medical Society. But news of his finding reached scientists in other countries where his experiments were repeated. Sure enough, the presence of Spirochaeta pallida was found over and over again in all lesions associated with syphilis. Schaudinn attained international scientific fame, and was invited to work in various laboratories. Sadly, he died at the young age of 37.
From Schaudinn’s discovery came the famous (August Paul von) Wassermann test for the disease, and finally a cure for it. First the drug Salvarsan, was developed by Paul Ehrlich and Sahachiro Hata. It was also known as a magic bullet. It alleviated centuries of untold suffering and deaths. Like leprosy and AIDS, syphilis had wreaked horrors on countless human beings during many centuries. Only meticulous probing through the microscope could zero in on the cause and provide remedies.
October 29, 2013