January 31, 2011

I told you so ...

Such great research researchers do and such innovative ideas they come up with!

Let me quote what researchers have to say:

Men are more than twice as likely to continue dating a girlfriend who has cheated on them with another woman than one who has cheated with another man, according to new research from a University of Texas at Austin psychologist.

Women show the opposite pattern. They are more likely to continue dating a man who has had a heterosexual affair than one who has had a homosexual affair.

Interesting? Here's the full story then ...


Earth Hunting

That's pretty accurate a description of the astonishing job that Kepler is performing. Hopefully, in the next year or so, it will become as common place a name as Hubble is today.


And of course there will be people who will question the rationale behind these missions. I am sure people must have doubted the wisdom of Columbus going on his voyage or Magellan going on his centuries ago.

Humankind's innermost instinct has always been to be explorers. We're lucky that in spite of great difficulties, that human spirit is still being kept alive ... if barely.


Here's a story about how fatness gets forecast in the womb. Children born of moms with gestational diabetes will tend to become fat, say Sydney scientists.


January 29, 2011

In praise of sleeping ...

So, I enjoy sleeping. I mean with myself ... not with someone else — that would be a different story altogether. I am merely talking about the prosaic routine we all indulge in for about eight hours every night ... of course, if you are one of the multitude of youngsters employed by India's call center/BPO industry, then you would probably be indulging in this activity during day time ...

Anyway, it occurred to me that if more people enjoyed this activity more and partook of it more often in more copious quantities, our species might be better off in some ways ... I mean, what do some folks do when they are not asleep ... planning new ways of killing other people, planning how to proselytize and persuade normal people to become suicide bombers, devise ever more powerful nuclear weapons or missiles or whatever, ever more stealthy nuclear submarines or airplanes, etc.

How I wish Hitler was more fund of sleeping and just took an afternoon siesta like folks in my state of Orissa ... so many millions of lives would have been spared ... and the mustachioed guy too — Stalin ... how the millions of dead in the gulags would be wishing that Stalin were more in love with sleeping rather than ...

So, all in all, I would exhort all and sundry to join me in celebrating the values of this invaluable activity and partake more in it — remember that you would be doing a SERVICE to humanity/humankind.

January 24, 2011

What A Species We Are !!!!

At a time when Indians are mired in a myriad tales of petty corruption — not to mention the usual incidents of robbery and husbands and wives killing each other — one hears tales of quantum computing.

How can you reconcile these two activities as the product of the brain of individuals belonging to the same species??? But there it is — that's the reality.

Imagine scientists able to store information in the form of the spin of elections !!! All I can say to that is — Oh my Gosh!


January 19, 2011

January 18, 2011

Good Doggie ... Smart Doggie


An Apple Without Jobs

No CEO has ever been so vital to a company or its future as Steve Jobs is to Apple. As Steve Jobs goes on medical leave again, it's no wonder that folks are wondering about what this portends. At 55, Jobs should have been on track to lead his company for another 20 years but that is not to be since he has got a liver transplant. With the secrecy that surrounds Jobs which is so typical, it's difficult to make out what this leave amounts to.

On a personal scale, it makes one humble in some way when one realizes that there are medical challenges that medical science can't surmount. Even Steve Jobs is mortal ...


January 17, 2011

The Greatest Question

Are we alone in the universe?

The one question that fascinates me more than any other. And my perspectives are these.

The sheer complexity of biological forms makes me think that the evolution of intelligent life forms (such as humans) is likely to be a rather sparse occurrence. There will be many Earth-like planets … perhaps at least millions in the outer arms of the Milky Way revolving around stars like the Sun that the Earth revolves around. But the temperatures have to be just right for water to be plentiful in all three states. What were the stuff available in the early Earth that created the conditions that led to the emergence of primitive life forms? A planet with a lot of volcanic activity, lot of carbon-based complex organic molecules, a planet with continental plates slowly drifting, pushing, merging, separating, rising, and falling, lots of lightning, etc. How many planets will have all these enablers? Reduces the candidate planets to perhaps thousands.

Then on planet Earth, unicellular life evolved to more complex life forms only after billions of years of some sort of a hiatus … who knows why that hiatus happened and why suddenly there was a sudden explosion … the Cambrian Explosion. Is there a guarantee that life once started will inexorably flourish? Life could stutter and sputter for billions of years without reaching the next stage … or indeed, it could wither and die. So, how many planets in the Milky Way galaxy would see life exploding in all its diversity as it did here on Earth?

Even when life explodes in all its richness, it can lead to reptiles or birds or fish … would dinosaurs have ever evolved to some higher states of intelligence? Could dinosaurs have ever created a technological civilization like us humans? Some fortuitous event on planet Earth led to the extinction of the dinosaurs which enabled tiny mammals to get out from their hiding places and start to roam the wide open spaces.

Lastly, is there any inevitability that mammalian evolution will lead to intelligent creatures? Can’t mammals just end up being cows and horses and monkeys and zebras … a planet Earth with all the creatures … just without the humans.

All these fortuitous circumstances dramatically and drastically reduce the likelihood that there are intelligent beings elsewhere in the Milky Way. Of course, Milky Way is only our home galaxy and the visible universe is teeming with billions of them. So, even if there were to be just us in our galaxy, that would imply billions of planets in the universe teeming with life … an awesome prospect indeed.

That raises the next question — why have not we been visited by extraterrestrials then? Perhaps because of the distances. What about finding E.T. using radio telescopes? That endeavor of course goes on … started half a century ago which is less than the blink of an eye in cosmic scales. I hope something comes out of that endeavor … and what a time it will be when finally we do get definitive evidence of life elsewhere. What sort of life will it be? How much more advanced than us? What will we learn? What will they have to teach us? Should we be ‘careful’ lest these creatures bear ‘evil’ intensions and try to destroy humanity? Bewildering and intriguing questions all …

When is this mystery going to get resolved? I hope to live to find an answer but somehow I think the chances are low. Perhaps we need to focus our efforts on galaxies where there is greater probability of the presence of life — galaxies which should be teeming with second and third generation stars and therefore lots of carbon and oxygen and other building blocks of life. Is our Milky Way such a galaxy? What about Andromeda, our neighbor? What about the Local Group? And yet, what will happen even if we detect life after all … I think we’ll still need to go through the phases that we have to go through … whatever phase humanity is in right now … adolescence, childhood, whatever … humanity will have to grow up at its pace and make the mistakes that it has to.

So that raises the question: is humanity fundamentally capable of being a space-faring civilization? Are there fundamental limits to how far humans can grow? Is our intellect and intelligence capable of designing in time the spaceships that will fly close to the speed of life and ferry us to other stars and other galaxies which will require even more ingenious ways of space travel. When is it going to happen — when will humans colonize ten habitable planets in the galaxy? And is it inevitable?

This is a strange time to be alive indeed. I remember Carl Sagan saying that his time was the greatest time to be alive. Yet he wished to see certain things happen in his life and perhaps those things did not happen. I for one am very confused about this — whether to be glad that I live in a time of radio telescopes and Hubble and Chandra or be sad that I am not living a thousand years from now when many more of nature’s mysteries would have been resolved.

Reflect for a moment about our place in the universe and the epoch we live in — a universe that is roughly 13.7 billion years old. A galaxy that is some ten billion years old. A star that has shined for five billion years. A planet that has been revolving for almost as long. And us humans have called that planet ‘home’ for the last million years at the most. Humans are such a mystery. Who would have thought if they had visited Earth a million years ago and saw our forebears hunting in the forests that one day these animals would go on to design and fly rockets, would learn to travel to other planets, would learn to design microscopes that can stare at individual atoms, design radio telescopes that are sensitive enough to detect signals that have travelled for ten billion years through the vastness of space, design detectors to take a snapshot of the Big Bang itself — the Microwave Background Radiation.

And yet what gives pause is our equally stupendous propensity to self-destruct — with nuclear weapons.

January 15, 2011

Sainting John Paul

So, the Pope is on his way to becoming a saint. It's so easy and common place to ascribe saintly qualities to the former Pope ... now dead (I wish to stress that).

People will say ... oh, he was such a gentle old man ... but then I think even my grandfather ... or, both my grandfathers were pretty gentle as well ... most old men tend to be.

So, what is the big deal? Let's go ahead and make saints of all old folks !!!

And if you talk about miracles, my query would be how authentic are they? When a Pope or somebody touches someone and that person gets cured in some fashion, then that becomes a miracle. However, when heart surgeons and brain surgeons and trauma surgeons and cancer specialists bring the dead back to life so to say ... everyday and perhaps in numbers running into the millions, why is that not a miracle?

I don't get it ...

One More Temple Stampede

These have become so numerous and common place in India that it's difficult to keep track of them.
The latest in line of course is the stampede which happened in Sabarimala Temple yesterday. And of course, a stampede is so predictable ... the conditions for a stampede are almost 'perfect.'
All these Gods have various weird habits such as needing to be worshipped on particular days of the year ... and of course, devotees are always crazy enough to bear the brunt of such huge gatherings ....
What crazy, weird stuff ... but anyway, what can one do ... it's people's 'democratic' right to exercise their free will and if they wish to exercise it in this manner, then so be it.

To Get Berlusconied

That's a phrase which should be coined in the English language.

Definition: To commit so many mistakes (particularly of a sexual nature) that eventually people get tired of you and decide to dump you ....

I don't know when the people of Italy will get tired of their weird prime minister. I do not think that they like him or admire him or something ... I feel they are for some weird reason stuck with him as the PM ... perhaps because of the fractitious nature of Italian politics.

Though one might add — What a country!

January 12, 2011

The Pope and the Big Bang

Or, the Big Bang Pope.

Whichever ………………

What I’m referring to here is of course the Pope’s comment or opinion that God is apparently the ‘mind’ behind the Big Bang … oh well, who would have known that … except the Pope of course.

It occurs to me though that neither the Bible nor any of the other religions have explicitly talked about the theory of the Big Bang and God being behind it.
It’s only a theory that Physicists here on planet Earth came up with in the twentieth century … imagine what a very specific situation that is !!!

Scientists here on one planet around one star in some ordinary, insignificant corner of this one galaxy, the Milky Way …

I wonder what else knowledge the Pope is privy to on account of his ‘special’ relationship with God … why doesn’t the Pope share all his knowledge in a proactive manner rather than wait for science to come up with something and only then reacting to that.

Science is far from complete of course and does not brag about itself — part of the very nature of the scientific enterprise. Religion is the exactly opposite — brash, full of braggadocio, confident about its own righteousness …

Science is just beginning to understand the nature of the universe. We realize now that some basic laws of Physics apply throughout the universe … laws such as the law of Gravity. And yet there are so many things that are mysteries for science … apparently only four percent of the matter in the universe is what we know of as ordinary particles. The rest of the 96 percent consists of dark matter and dark energy. So, the nature of that dark matter and energy still remains a significant mystery. Will the Pope proactively solve that mystery please??? Or will he wait for science to come up with an answer and then react to that scientific solution?

Just the other day, NASA’s Kepler mission found evidence of an Earth-like or rocky planet around a nearby star. So, how commonplace is that — in our galaxy as well as across the breadth of the visible universe? Science is yet to find the answer to this very basic of questions — how common are Earth-like planets in the vastness of the cosmos.

Why doesn’t the Pope show some proactivity and answer that question before science has to put in a hell of a lot of effort not to mention sink billions of dollars …

How wonderful would that be ! imagine — you are wondering about some question of science and are worrying yourself to death trying to find the answer to that question and then you have the answer … the Pope !!!!

I am curious above all about whether life exists elsewhere in the universe or not. All available evidence seems to be pointing towards a universe that harbors millions of planets. It remains to be seen how many of them are rocky, Earth-like planets and how many are located in a habitable zone around their home star so that water can remain in all three states. And then how many of those planets would see the emergence of single-celled carbon-based life forms or some other more exotic form of life. And then, how inevitable is it that given millions and billions of years, those single-celled simple organisms would change into something more complex, eventually leading to the emergence of intelligence … simple organisms to more complex ones.

What planet in some corner of the Milky Way harbors what strange life forms … carbon-based or more exotic … what a fascinating thought.

A universe made up of billions of galaxies … and each galaxy comprising of billions and hundreds of billions of stars.

What a fantastic universe we live in !!!

January 09, 2011

Preface — Unweaving the Rainbow

A foreign publisher of my first book confessed that he could not sleep for three nights after reading it, so troubled was he by what he saw as its cold, bleak message. Others have asked me how I can bear to get up in the mornings. A teacher from a distant country wrote to me reproachfully that a pupil had come to him in tears after reading the same book, because it had persuaded her that life was empty and purposeless. He advised her not to show the book to any of her friends, for fear of contaminating them with the same nihilistic pessimism. Similar accusations of barren desolation, of promoting an arid and joyless message, are frequently flung at science in general, and it is easy for scientists to play up to them. My colleague Peter Atkins begins his book The Second Book (1984) in this vein:

We are the children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.

But such very proper purging of saccharine false purpose; such laudable tough-mindedness in the debunking of cosmic sentimentality must not be confused with a loss of personal hope. Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life's hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course we don't; not if we are sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions. To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposite to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am wrongly suspected. But in this book I shall try a more positive response, appealing to the sense of wonder in science because it is so sad to think what these complainers and naysayers are missing. This is one of the things that the late Carl Sagan did so well, and for which he is sadly missed. The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that makes life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living it is finite.

My title is from Keats, who believed that Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colours. Keats could hardly have been more wrong, and my aim is to guide all who are tempted by a similar view towards the opposite conclusion. Science is, or ought to be, the inspiration for great poetry, but I do not have the talent to clinch the argument by demonstration and must depend, instead, on more prosaic persuasion. A couple of the chapter titles are borrowed from Keats: readers may also spot the occasional half-quotation or allusion lacing the text from him (as well as others). They are there as a tribute to his sensitive genius. Keats was a more likeable character than Newton and his shade was one of the imaginary referees looking over my shoulder as I wrote.

Newton's unweaving of the rainbow led on to spectroscopy, which has proved the key to much of what we know today about the cosmos. And the heart of any poet worthy of the title Romantic could not fail to lep up if he beheld the universe of Einstein, Hubble and Hawking. We read its nature through Fraunhofer lines — 'Barcodes in the Stars' — and their shifts along the spectrum. The image of barcodes carries us on to the very different, but equally intriguing, realms of sound ('Barcodes on the Air'); and then DNA fingerprinting ('Barcodes at the Bar'), which offers the opportunity to reflect on other aspects of the role of science in society.

In what I call the Delusion section of the book, 'Hoodwink'd with Faery Fancy' and 'Unweaving the Uncanny,' I turn to those ordinary superstitious folk who, less exalted than poets defending rainbows, revel in mystery and feel cheated if it is explained. They are the ones who love a good ghost story, whose mind leaps to poltergeists or miracles whenever something even faintly odd happens. They never lose an opportunity to quote Hamlet's

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

and the scientists' response ('Yes, but we're working on it') strikes no chord with them. For them, to explain away a good mystery is to be a killjoy, just as some Romantic poets thought about Newton's explaining of the rainbow.

Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, tells a salutary story of an occasion when he publicly debunked a famous television spiritualist. The man was doing ordinary conjuring tricks and duping people into thinking he was communicating with dead spirits. But instead of being hostile to the now-unmasked charlatan, the audience turned on the debunker and supported a woman who accused him of 'inappropriate' behaviour because he destroyed people's illusions. You'd think she'd have been grateful for having the wool pulled off her eyes, but apparently she preferred it firmly over them. I believe that an orderly universe, one indifferent to human preoccupations, in which everything has an explanation even if we still have a long way to go before we find it, is a more beautiful, more wonderful place than a universe tricked out with capricious, ad hoc magic.

January 04, 2011

Winston Churchill

Some excerpts:

There was a fine difference between Stalin and Satan, and Churchill grasped it. In Antony Beevor’s history of the Battle of Stalingrad, the brutality and waste of the Stalinist regime—prisoners left to die in the snow, political commissars ordering the execution of innocents, the dead of the great purges haunting the whole—is sickening. But the murderousness of the Nazi invaders—children killed en masse and buried in common graves—is satanic. It is the tragedy of modern existence that we have to make such distinctions. Yet that does not mean that such distinctions cannot be made, or that Churchill did not make them. His moral instincts were uncanny. In 1944, after the deportation of the Jews from Hungary, when the specifics of the extermination camps were still largely unknown, he wrote that the Nazis’ war on the Jews would turn out to be “probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world.”

Here's the link to The New Yorker article:


The Bias Effect

Or, how our pre-conceived notions and desires and more even affect the scientific method.

Here's a startling article about all that from The New Yorker:

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