Another Darwin

“Would it be too bold to imagine that in the great length of time since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, – would it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which the great First Cause endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions and associations….”

If we are asked to guess who first wrote these lines, quite a few might name Darwin, and in this they would be right. However, if they had in mind the author of On Origin of Species, they would be wrong, because the long line was written by Erasmus Darwin (born: 1731) in hia  Zoonomia which was published in 1794: more than sixty years before Charles Darwin’s classic.

Grandfather Erasmus began as a physician; he was a scientific thinker, and man of letters too. He was given to versifying a little too often, going into rhyming rhapsodies on plants and leaves, evoking ancient mysteries and mythologies. Thus, in a poem entitled The Temple of Nature (1802), he wrote:

Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.

Prosody-sensitive critics were not sympathetic to Darwin’s ventures into verses, They saw no need for couplets of decasyllabic meters to reflect on botany. One of them is said to have published a poetic parody of Erasmus.

Erasmus Darwin also hypothesized, like ancient Hindu and Jain thinkers, and some present-day horticultural enthusiasts, that plants could feel and in fact have a will.

He was a liberal thinker who applauded the French Revolution and spoke out against slavery. He was one of the few 18th century thinkers who toyed with the idea of a species evolving: a radical notion in those days when, in the minds of most, we were created in one single stroke in our present forms and features. To even imagine that there was a time when our very, very distant ancestors were not humans was indeed a weird departure from standard texts and thought. So, though he was a deist, he was looked upon as an atheist by many of his contemporaries.

February 22, 2011

The Amerindian Sun Dance

There was a time, more than a hundred years ago, when the Plains Indians used to have a joyous festival to welcome the onset of the summer solstice. It was often held for a whole week, often culminating on July 1. Its intent was to celebrate the renewal of life, to affirm the cycle of life and death, to recognize the rebirth of nature, and to express hope for a new year. Seasonal changes remind us of the cycles through which everything must go to be sustained and to continue.

A great many tribes, of which the Arapaha, the Cheyenne, the Crow, and the Ute were only a few, practiced the Sun Dance festival all over North America which once belonged to them in its entirety.

As in many ancient cultures, the jubilation involved the hunting of animals. Some traditions sacrifice lambs, others slaughter  cows, yet others offer bleating goats to the Almighty as part of their reverence. The Amerindian tribes often hunted buffaloes and bisons to offer to their god (Wakan Tanka) along with their prayer for peace and harmony in their lives. The buffalo was believed to have special powers and some tribes regarded it as the source of certain types of knowledge.

There are symbolic meanings in the sacrifice of the buffalo: the animal is considered sacred because it is the source of nourishment for the people. Offering it to God is a gesture of gratitude for this gift. But the participants in the festival also sacrifice part of themselves through fasting and even self-torture sometimes. It has also been suggested that the self-torture symbolizes death, and at the end of it the person is re-born, not only physically but also spiritually. One late 19th cnetury observer of the festival wrote: “Each one of the young men presented himself to a medicine-man, who took between his thumb and forefinger a fold of the loose skin of the breast – and then ran a very narrow-bladed but sharp knife through the skin – a stronger skewer of bone, about the size of a carpenter’s pencil was inserted. This was tied to a long skin rope fastened, at its other extremity, to the top of the sun-pole in the center of the arena. The whole object of the devotee is to break loose from these fetters. To liberate himself he must tear the skewers through the skin, a horrible task that even with the most resolute may require many hours of torture.” Not all these practices are continued in our own times.

All this may sound strange to those not of the culture, but every movement and practice has an underlying meaning. This is the key to appreciating different cultures: Unfamiliarity always stands as a barrier. But it is important to recognize that one’s own culture, however normal and reasonable it may seem to the practitioner, could seem just as strange and unnatural to an outsider. Moreover, just as every aspect of one’s own traditional practices has a historical root and metaphysical inner meaning, so it is with other cultures as well. In the words of Lame Deer, an Indian leader, “We Sioux have… have many legends of buffalo changing themselves into men. And the Indians are built like buffalo too, ­ big shoulders, narrow hips. According to our belief, the Buffalo Woman who brought us the peace pipe, which is at the center of our religion, was a beautiful maiden, and after she had taught our tribes how to worship with the pipe, she changed herself into a white buffalo calf. So the buffalo is very sacred to us. You can’t understand about nature, about the feeling we have toward it, unless you understand how close we are to the buffalo. That animal was almost like a part of ourselves – a part of our souls.” [Quoted in John Fire and Richard Erdoes, Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions.]

February 23, 2011

Let’s Remember Copernicus

A major factor in the transition from ancient science to modern science was the recognition that, with due respects to and admiration for the human species, our earth is simply not the center of the Universe. The person who formally and systematically presented this as a hypothesis was Nicolaus Copernicus (born: 19 February 1473). Copernicus (1473-1543) was born in Poland. He studied mathematics, canon law, astronomy, and medicine, at the universities of Cracow, Bologna, and Padua at various times. He  served as canon  of the cathedral of Frauenburg, worked on a currency reform for his country, and  meticulously searched for a new view of the solar system. He published the fruits of his astronomical investigations in a book which he received when he was on his death-bed. He died without the faintest idea that  his book would bring about a revolution of enormous significance.

His monumental work tried to establish that much of the data of observational astronomy could be explained even more simply than the Ptolemaic picture, by imagining the earth, as well as the other planets, to be moving around a fixed sun at the center.  Copernicus wrote:

“As a matter of fact, when a ship floats over a tranquil sea, all the things outside seem to the voyagers to be moving in a movement which is in the image of their own, and they think on the contrary that they themselves and all the things with them are at rest. So it can easily happen in the case of the movement of the earth that the whole world should be believed to be moving in a circle.”

It is difficult to evaluate the relative impact of books that have molded and affected human history. On all counts the Copernicus book was surely one of the most consequential. The Vedas, the Bible, the Qur’an, and other sacred works have no doubt formed the minds and sensitivities of millions all over the world. Most of these rested on the implicit assumption that Man and his habitat are central to all of Creation. The Copernican treatise was to wreak havoc on this intuitive conviction. This was not just a book, it was a jolting world-view that would create cultural and spiritual shocks.

Martin Luther, who rebelled against the authority of the Pope, did not applaud the rebellion of Copernicus against the authority of Ptolemy.  He declared, upon hearing that Copernicus talked of a moving earth around a stationary sun: “This fool wishes to reverse the entire scheme of astronomy. But sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.”

Fifty years after the publication of Copernicus’s treatise, the Catholic mathematician  Christophe Clavius pointed out that the heliocentric doctrine was verging on blasphemy. To be suddenly told that the earth is just another planet was the equivalent, on a much larger scale, of a political superpower being relegated to an ordinary membership in the comity of nations.

When one examines the life of Copernicus and the impact of his work, a number of interesting elements of the modern scientific enterprise emerge. [Am Journal of Physics [41 (1973) pp. 1341-1349.]

February 19, 2011


I know not from where I come,

I know not  where I go.

But I like the muddy waters

And the filth where I grow.

A tiny egg it breaks up,

And a wriggler I become,

When I fly and flap my wings,

To you it’s just a hum.

When I suck your salty blood,

Oh, it feels so good!

What can I really do,

If this is my only food?

It’s true I spread some germs

And also some disease,

But that isn’t all my fault,

Note this, if you please.

If news is bad, just think, you

Should the messenger  be dead?

Shouldn’t you exterminate

Plasmodium instead?

Didn’t God say to you

Thou shalt not kill?

Yet you’re always this

You kill our larvae still!

Or is it that other rule

You’re following through?

Do unto others

Before they do unto you.

There are on any beach

Less grains of tiny sands,

Than numbers of my species

Who’ve died from human hands.

We are now convinced:

That  Man’s purpose here below

Is to kill all mosquitoes

By means fast and slow.

February 18, 2011

Thoughts on Music

On Music

Most normal people who have time to spare enjoy music of one kind or another. As Shakespeare’s Lorenzo said in the Merchant of Venice,

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.

The motions of his spirit are dull as night,

And his affections dark as Erebus. Let no such man be trusted.

To the post-modernist for whom anything goes and everything must be respected, there is really no difference between music and noise, it is all a matter of cultural preference and indoctrinated tastes, just as  there is no difference between one set of values and another.  To the physicist, music differs from noise in terms of its discrete frequency components. More generally any sound that offers auricular aesthetic satisfaction, whether in content or in experience,  deserves to be called music. Thus when one whispers “I love you!” or proclaims that a war is over, that can be music to the ears.

Music of the harmony, rhythm, and  melody variety has been an integral part of practically every culture. It ranges from simple humming to the resounding majesty of full-fledged orchestras, from the child singing “Twinkle, twinkle little star,” to the Queen of the Night soprano belting out Mozart’s Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen. Musical instruments range from the marvelous chords in the human voice box which, when properly trained, can create the most sublime sounds to those constructed by human ingenuity. Through winds and strings, with percussions and gongs we have devised a hundred different instruments ranging from the mridangam and the violin to the veena and the flute. from which music of incredible variety can be produced.

Music can be a soothing lullaby as in the Turkish balubalu or the Tamil tháláttu. It can be inspirational as in Allons, enfants de la Patrie! Le jour de gloire est arrivé, or patriotic as Iqbal’s sáré jahan sé acchchá hindustán hamárá.  It can be deeply religious as in a Gregorian chant or in a Thyagaraja keertanam. It can be a serene invocation of peace as in the shánti mantra or a call for universal brotherhood as in Beethoven/Schiller’s Alle Menschen werden Bruder, Wo dein sanfter Flugel weilt. It can be somber as in a requiem or arousing one to noisy resonance as with rock music. It can be folk music from mystic singers as the Baul of Bengal or the troubadour minstrels of medieval Europe. One can go on and on: There is no end to the variety of music humanity has created.

I enjoy a variety of music, from  pop and  popular to piano concerti and ragamalikais. I love to hear Mahler’s symphony and Rossini’s overtures as much as Muttuswami Dikshatar and Robíndro shongeet. But I will confess I have always enjoyed the opera arias.

February 16, 2011

Remembering Galileo

Galileo Galilei was born on February 15, 1564.

He  was not just one of the giants in the first phase of modern science: he is reckoned as its founder. But he also got into trouble with ecclesiastical authorities, as much for espousing views about the world then declared to be heretical, as by his intransigence which struck some as arrogance.

Galileo went to the university to become a physician. He heard a lecture on mathematics, and fell in love with the subject. He was stirred to explore the world by observing it, rather than by speculating on it.

One of his biographers says that Galileo measured the time of swing of a pendulum by observing swinging chandeliers in church and using his pulse to measure time. [Tourists are shown the pendulum in Pisa which Galileo is said to have observed, though this one was installed five years later. But that is how tourism-history is constructed.] He analyzed the motion of projectiles, studied bodies slide down inclined planes, initiated the quantitative study of motion, and declared that the laws of nature are written in the language of mathematics. He was one of the first to formulate the law of inertia: we don’t need a force to keep bodies in motion. He turned the telescope skyward, and brought to human knowledge aspects of the heavens which none before him had seen or suspected: such as craters on the Moon, the grainy structure of the Milky Way, and four satellites of Jupiter. He detected spots on the sun, and theorized that tides resulted from the orbital rush of the Earth around the Sun. He served the new astronomy by propagating the Sun-centered model through a popular book.

Galileo was God-fearing and faithful, attended mass on Sundays, visited a place of pilgrimage to express thanks for recovery from an illness, and attributed to God the wonder of the phenomenal world. But he was stubborn in his conviction that truths about the physical world can be known only through observation and experiment, and he doubted that the Holy Book can be regarded as an authority in the mathematical sciences. Like al-Farábi of the Islamic tradition, he argued that sacred books must not be taken literally, but only metaphorically. Fortunately for the West, its al-Ghazâlîs lost the battle in curbing freedom of thought  so essential for the progress of science.

Galileo befriended cardinals and popes, and they respected him. But he also made enemies among scholars and clerics who rejected the heliocentric worldview. They saw in Galileo a threat to long-cherished scriptural cosmography. He had but scant respect and much contempt for the unscientific authorities who dictated worldviews.

When he was almost seventy, he was brought to trial: not for offense against God, but for propagating the idea that the earth was moving around the Sun. He conceded he had been arrogant in writing the book, and promised not to engage in heresies any more. Because he pronounced the mea culpa, and also because of his age and stature, he was spared the torture chamber, only sentenced to house arrest and ordered to read regularly passages from the Bible. If it is difficult for us to imagine such a punishment, we may be happy that some societies have made progress in the matter of intellectual freedom and have been freed from the tyranny of those who presume to speak for the Almighty.

Galileo was close to his children: most of all to his older daughter Maria Celeste who wrote to him regularly from the nunnery to where she had retired at an early age.

His inquiring, insightful, and inventing mind enriched human knowledge and creativity in ways that few others in human history have achieved.

Unity and Diversity

We all belong to the same biological species, or as we say in more humanistic terms, we are all members of the same large human family; biologically speaking, we are all descendents of the same great apes. Yet, an important aspect of the human condition is that, over the eons, due to various historical and cultural reasons, we have divided ourselves into countless groups and subgroups.

These sets and subsets of humanity are not unlike children: sometimes they are mutually cooperative, sometimes mutually indifferent, and sometimes mutually combative. The major factors that unite and divide us are race, religion, and language.

Race is  no longer an acceptable term, either scientifically or in terms of political correctness. One prefers the less noxious term ethnicity. Be that as it may there still lingers in human beings differences in skin pigmentation and to an extent, even in facial features.

Religion has been a mighty force in human history, and is still so in human culture.  It has both noble and ignoble sides. It teaches us that we are all  children of the same Divine principle, that the same God molded us all. Yet, there have been at least as many ugly confrontations due to religious beliefs as due to greed and thirst for power over other people.

Language is beautiful and endearing to those who understand it. Every language is like a different musical instrument, and every poet is a virtuoso who wields her language with ease and creativity.  Yet, foreign languages throw people into states of bewilderment, incomprehension, and sometimes even distrust. These three factors also form the basic elements of human culture. Culture is situated in Nature.

The world of nature  strikes us by the  plethora of elements which range from stones and sand particles  to living organisms and stars and galaxies. All these are situated in the Cosmos. All this variety  contributes to the aesthetic splendor of the world that touches us all. We have no inkling as to why it is all so beautiful.  Through cosmology, astrophysics, geology, and biology, through physics and science more generally, we have come to understand how such variety came into existence, but not why. Perhaps, the variety in the world, whether in the biological and human context, or in the physical and astronomical realm, is a necessary condition for a universe to exist as a stable complex entity.