Guillaume Amontons (1663-1705)

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

Fritz Schaudinn

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

Manfred Weidhorn. The Person of the Millennium: The unique impact of Gilileo on world history, iUniverse, 2005

Time magazine chose Einstein as the Man of the Century; Weidhorn (Yeshiva University) desc has had the most drastic impact on human history. The gist is that the scientific revolution brought about the most dramatic changes in human thought and culture. Weidhorn lists some major shifts resulting from the scientific revolution: from revelation to experimentation, from faith to doubt, from uniformity/authority to diversity/multiculturalism, from truth to multiple truths, from status quo to meliorism, from male-female to sexuality. Weidhorn’s thesis is interesting except for two points. Though Galileo’s telescopic observations, testing of theories, and quantitative analysis of motion played important roles in the emergence of modern science, many others participated in the process. Galileo is the most outstanding–a symbol–in the edifice of modern science that could not have arisen without many other masons and architects. In medieval times, Robert Grosseteste suggested testing theories with observations. In the early 17th century, Francis Bacon forcefully articulated empirical philosophy. Many paradigm shifts are fruits of 20th-century postmodernism, entirely different from that instigated by Galileo et al. Insightful and well written. None of this is to diminish the genius and greatness of Galileo.

October 27, 2013


There comes a time in the life of anyone who has lived beyond fifty when one begins to think about getting old. There are references to it in some scriptures. The Book of Job tells us that “With the ancient is wisdom; and in length of days understanding.” In a terse para of the Ecclesiastes, for example, we are reminded in metaphors of what awaits us in the last phase of a fully lived life: hands will tremble, legs will bow themselves, the teeth will grind no more, and eyes will be dimmed.

In traditional cultures, old age (at least for men) often meant being highly regarded and placed on a pedestal in a  large household. It meant the recounting of rich experiences to  the young, the giving of ample advice and frequent blessings, and  the receiving of endless reverences from one and all. But our world and values are changing in this regard.

In our own times, many shudder to think of getting old, for it conjures up  images of spending bleak days in little rooms away from chil­d­ren  and grandchildren, occasional visits by a handful of very busy  people, robotic nurses inflicting periodic pills on us, bland  food in colorless trays in the company of others just as old, and above all, the possibility of con­fin­ing ailments that drastically limit our bodily functions while  prolonging life which ceases to be a joy and becomes a burden for  ourselves and for those around us. These thoughts are  enough to send many people reel­ing,  in quest of higher spiritual truths. For as the poet Lord Byron said it in rhyme:

Years steal fire from the mind as vigor from the limb

And life’s enchanted cup but sparkles near the brim.

There is a whole field of study that focuses on the phenomenon of aging and related problems: gerontology. Scientists study the phenomenon of the onset of senility, medicine tries to slow down the process, drugs prolong virility, and plastic surgeons wreak wonders on wrinkles that make some people embarrassed. .

We celebrate days for love and labor, for mother and father, and dedicate days to a whole variety of other items. In Japan they have declared a day for the elderly. Known as Keirou-no-hi, it falls each year on 15 September. It is a recent festival, initiated only in 1966.

One of the es­sential elements  we long for in our advancing years, beyond health and economic secu­rity, is human contact. We need to feel that there are people in the world  who still remember and care for us, that even if we are cast in the midst of strangers in a nursing home, our own kith and kin haven’t forgotten us. It is to this aspect of that Keirou-hi-no addresses. For on this day, everyone conveys  best wishes to the elderly in the family and in the community. Senior citizens are given gifts, sometimes these are sent from other places. Children and grandchildren hail the grandparents, and wish them a longer life still.

Thus the goal of the festival is to bring good cheer to those who are smack in the last chapter of their lives. Even when the body is no longer vigorous and memory falters, as long as there is love from people  around and perspective from calm reflection,  we can sing with Andrew Lang:

      Our hearts are young ‘neath wrinkled mind;

       Life, more amusing than we thought.

And so we may be grateful for a festival like Keirou-no-hi. Like Mother’s Day and St. Valentine’s, it too can be exported beyond its culture of origin.

Evarist Galois

Just as there is more to art than portraits and landscapes, there is more to mathematics than numbers and computation, geometrical figures and the calculus.

Consider, for example, fifth degree algebraic equations or the even more fascinating conceptual investigation of symmetries; or, exploration into abstract spaces; or the properties of a set of elements which are specified by certain internal rules. The last mentioned is at the basis of what mathematicians call group theory.

The seeds of group theory were sown in the field of mathematics by a young man of extraordinary genius by the name of Évariste Galois (born: 25 October 1811). Galois was  a tragedy as human lives go. He started out as an average student, but when in his teens we was drawn quite by chance to the works of some master-mathematicians like Legendre and Lagrange which only those who have entered the higher realms of the discipline can even vaguely understand.

Galois’ teachers were unkind to him,  his efforts to get into the best schools were thwarted because of his impatience with procedures appropriate perhaps for intelligent students, but intolerable to a genius. It is said that during an oral entrance exam, his unorthodox methods of solving the posed problems were incomprehensible and therefore unacceptable to the judges. Young Galois was so frustrated in the interchange, he threw the eraser at one of the examiners and walked out.

Young Galois mastered  many branches of mathematics. He detected a serious error in an important paper by a famous mathematician on a fundamental theorem. He began writing papers and sent them to the great ones at the Académie des Sciences. The eminent Augustin Cauchy not only did not present it to his colleagues for consideration of publication, he misplaced and lost it to the world.

In the midst of his mind-elevating mathematics, Galois also got embroiled in the politics of the time. This got him into trouble. His name appeared in papers as a dangerous republican. He was thrown into prison for a brief six months, but enough to demoralize the young man. Upon coming out he was snared by the charms of a damsel who turned out to be no more than a passing pleasure, for she abandoned him all too soon. He got into an argument with a fellow political activist, and agreed to a duel. Whether it was for a political matter or because of “an infamous coquette,” we don’t know. But we do know that on 30 May 1832, the twenty-one year old mathematical genius was shot in the stomach in a ritual to defend his honor, left in pain in the field for a few hours before a passer-by took note of the writhing body and took it to the local hospital. There, the next morning, Évariste Galois, the teenage founder of Group Theory in mathematics, breathed his last.

Group theory, which had its genesis in the work of Galois, has evolved into of the most abstract branches of mathematics. Quite unexpectedly, it has also found numerous applications in science. It is used in crystallography and in spectroscopy. It is also a key ingredient quantum mechanics and in theoretical high energy physics. Through it we are able to classify the plethora of particles under-girding the material world, and also understand why they are there. It has enabled physicists to uncover the existence of entities of which they had never known before. Group theory is at the very basis of the physicist’s understanding of the origins of the universe. Without it there can be no string theory of current physics.

Christopher Partridge (ed.) Introduction to world religions, Fortress, 2005.

Although the arts, music, and literature of the world add to the overall aesthetic quilt that is human culture, religions are often in conflict. This book represents an effort to build bridges of understanding and mutual respect. An introductory chapter, “Understanding Religion,” though incomplete in its references to only a few philosophers and psychologists, is a useful guide for those who wish to learn about religions from broad perspectives. Written by specialists, the chapters cover every major religion and many less-known ones too. One chapter discusses the 19th-century notion of the Near East as the “cradle of civilization.” The personal stories of some practitioners are interesting, but the book’s goal would have been better served if scholars from various religious traditions had been asked to contribute instead. The book presents Hinduism from its purely Sanskritic perspective, with not a word on its rich, meaningful, and influential Tamil components. There is no mention of Tirumúlar or Saiva Siddhanta, even in the glossary. Despite this shortcoming, the presentations are informative and nonjudgmental, the pictures colorful and interesting, and the language readable and concise. The book is encyclopedic without being overwhelming, and it will certainly serve a very important need in today’s world.

October 25, 2013

The United Nations Organization

One may consider religions as institutions whose goal is to ensure the moral and spiritual well-being of the communities they serve in a framework of kindness, compassion, and mutual respect, as well as of certain doctrinal beliefs. This is appropriate and useful within particular groups, but what is one to do when one group encounters another?

Whether there is religion or not, confrontation between groups of human beings is nothing new in history. The group affiliation may be determined by geography, religion, race, language, nationality, whatever. Such confrontations sometimes degenerate into clashes when self-interests are involved, whether economic, ideological, territorial, or whatever. Thus arise the wars that litter the pages of human history.

On 1 January 1942, smack in the middle of the Second World War, twenty-six governments of the world joined hands in their opposition to what used to be called the axis-powers: Germany, Japan, and Italy. They called themselves the United Nations. Then, after the war was over, a Charter of the United Nations Organization was formally signed by forty-six countries. It came into force on 24 October 1945: This date is therefore remembered as United Nations Day.

The primary goal of the U.N. is to maintain peace all over the world, and to ensure the security of all member states. The U.N. affirms the principles of human rights and the right to self-determination for all the peoples of the world. The hope is that  nations would cooperate, help one another, work towards common interests and with mutual respect. The organization works on the principle that all nations are created equal, and are entitled to freedom and self-respect. It is clearly stated that the United Nations Organization will not interfere in the internal affairs of any country: in other words, the sovereignty of every nation is to be respected, as long as one adheres to international laws.

From the U.N. have also sprung several other bodies, like the UNESCO, the FAO, and the ILO, all striving to make this a better world for all peoples.

The ideals of the U.N., like the ideals of any religion in its pristine purity, are far from being realized. Human beings and societies being what they are, constrained and conditioned by self-interests and mutual suspicions, and subject to countless disruptive and corrupting influences, wars haven’t ceased, nor peace on earth established by the mere signing of the U.N. Charter, any more than that the promises of the prophets, whether Krishna or Christ to bring peace on earth, have materialized. But this much can be said: The existence of this supra-national entity, with its own commandments for law, order, and mutual respect, has certainly prevented and arrested many wars that could have blown up into major conflagrations. The U.N. is a forum for heads of states and representatives from various governments to argue and debate and lash out at their opponents when occasions arise. But the sting of words, even when uttered with belligerent gesticulations like pounding one’s shoes on the table, is far less perilous than the unleashing of weapons on enemy targets. So it is in the interest of one and all, of the weak and the strong, of the rich and the poor among nations to be part of this noble enterprise which, for the first time in human history, has brought together every nation of the civilized world under a single roof.

It would seem that there is need for a similar organization, a United Religions Organization, wherein every religion of the world would send representatives to work towards developing harmony and mutual respect among the faith traditions of the human family, banning inter-religious and sectarian hegemony and persecutions.

October 24, 2013