November 28, 2012

Inspirational Heroes

I want to talk about real heroes today à not the kind we elevate to the status of demi-gods too easily and unthinkingly.

“There’s a secret society of geniuses who weave and shape the fabric of our culture,” somebody had said about Subrahmanian Chandrasekhar (he was known among his colleagues as ‘Chandra’) on the occasion of awarding a medal to Chandra.

Yes. Chandra was such a genius and so was Srinivasa Ramanujan.

It is not widely known that one of NASA’s space telescopes (‘Great Observatories’) is named after him? à the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. The most well-known of the space telescopes is of course the Hubble Space Telescope which has revealed so much about the wonders of our universe in its 20 year long lifetime.

Every educated person must consider it his or her bounden duty to be acquainted with the images and the results of these great space projects.

To give just a bit of a primer about Chandra, some of his areas of work included these
·         stellar structure,
·         theory of white dwarfs,
·         stellar dynamics, theory of radiative transfer,
·         quantum theory of the negative ion of Hydrogen,
·         hydrodynamic and hydromagnetic stability,
·         equilibrium and the stability of ellipsoidal figures of equilibrium,
·         general relativity. mathematical theory of black holes and theory of colliding gravitational waves.
Just reflect for a moment – if you will – about the greatness of the scientific endeavor which has given us mere humans the tools – mathematical – which we can manipulate to understand the interiors and evolution of stars or when a star will turn into a black hole and when it will end up as a white dwarf or a neutron star.

November 16, 2012

James Acord — Alchemist for the Nuclear Age

That's the title of an article about him in The New Yorker. All I can say is ... What a Life !

The only private individual in the world who had license to handle nuclear materials.

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November 14, 2012

Remembering Nehru

I realized with a start that this week is the birthday of my favorite character from the pages of history.

When I flip through the pages of history and of course I am no professional historian, I find that I have more regard and affection for Jawaharlal Nehru than anyone else.

Of course, there is Mahatma Gandhi. And there are others belonging to India and to other nations whose achievements I find awe inspiring or admirable or creditable or inspirational.

Internationally, there were men like Washington to Jefferson to Lincoln – three of the great presidents of the United States. There was Napoleon and there was Lenin. And Mao. The 20th century was a period that provided enough scope for megalomaniac men of varied hues to chase their dreams. So, recent history is replete with larger than life characters – some who achieved an astonishing amount of infamy such as Hitler and Stalin and Mussolini to others who have left their mark on human history which is essentially positive: men such as Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. Of course, the position of President of United States seems to offer an undue amount of scope to create heroes out of ordinary men. So, may be, some of those who have held that position probably don’t deserve the kind of fame and recognition and greatness that they have been endowed with. As the immortal Bard had said: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

November 11, 2012

Is Life Beautiful

When people are ‘lucky’, they tend to reflect on their good luck and tend to thank providence profusely for it and reach conclusions such as “Life is Beautiful.”
I always wonder if life is indeed beautiful – and, even more pertinently, how valid an argument it is to reach that conclusion when one happens to get “lucky” by chance.
I recall numerous instances of people who survive natural disasters thanking the Lord for letting them live while others died. Without citing any particular incident, let us just think for a moment how fair that is – to thank God for letting you live. How about the others who died? Were they at fault somehow and deserved to die? The recent serial blasts in Jaipur killed many people. Did the good Lord decide that these people were unworthy of living and so deserved to die and so the terrorists were in fact agents of God. So, why spend so much resource in trying to find them and punish them?
The September 11, 2001 attacks in the US were carried out by people who were convinced that they were explicitly messengers of God and carrying out God’s work. So, perhaps those who died in the twin towers of WTC and in the Pentagon and the passengers in the planes were all somehow being punished by God for their wrongdoings.
The kids who died in the Bhuj earthquake a few years back on the Republic Day were also scheduled to die that day and the earthquake was merely the tool that God used to take their lives – is that it?

November 10, 2012

Richard Feynman on the Gap Dividing Science and Human Culture

A few quotes from the incomparable Feynman:
… people — I mean the average person, the great majority of people, the enormous majority of people — are woefully, pitifully, absolutely ignorant of the science of the world that they live in, and they can stay that way … And an interesting question of the relation of science to modern society is just that — why is it possible for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably happy in modern society when so much knowledge is unavailable to them?
Incidentally, about knowledge and wonder, Mr. Bernardini* said we shouldn’t teach wonders but knowledge.
It may be a difference in the meaning of the words. I think we should teach them wonders and that the purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more. And that the knowledge is just to put into correct framework the wonder that nature is.
… as I’d like to show Galileo our world, I must show him something with a great deal of shame. If we look away from the science and look at the world around us, we find out something rather pitiful: that the environment that we live in is so actively, intensely unscientific. Galileo could say: ‘I noticed that Jupiter was a ball with moons and not a god in the sky. Tell me, what happened to the astrologers?’ Well, they print their results in the newspapers, in the United States at least, in every daily paper every day. Why do we still have astrologers?
I believe that we must attack these things in which we do not believe. Not attack by the method of cutting off the heads of the people, but attack in the sense of discuss. I believe that we should demand that people try in their own minds to obtain for themselves a more consistent picture of their own world; that they not permit themselves the luxury of having their brain cut in four pieces or two pieces even, and on one side they believe this and on the other side they believe that, but never try to compare the two points of view. Because we have learned that, by trying to put the points of view that we have in our head together and comparing one to the other, we make some progress in understanding and in appreciating where we are and what we are. And I believe that science has remained irrelevant because we wait until somebody asks us questions or until we are invited to give a speech on Einstein’s theory to people who don’t understand Newtonian mechanics, but we never are invited to give an attack on faith healing, or on astrology — on what is the scientific view of astrology today.


November 07, 2012

My Billion Dollar Building

I am planning to build a house to live in. I am thinking out-of-the-box and thinking big. Really big. I am planning on building a 50-storey residence for myself and my little family. You think that’s a bit big for a single family? No, no, let me explain.
The first five floors of the building will merely constitute the car park for all my cars and those of my guests.
The next five floors will be service floors that will house various amenities such as a laundry and warehouses to stock food supplies, etc.
Then, the next ten floors will be for my guests. There will be master bedrooms and massage rooms and Jacuzzis and gyms and sprawling bathrooms and facilities for playing lawn tennis and basketball and squash.
The next five floors of the building will house a common library to provide intellectual stimulation to my friends as well as me.
There will be five floors on top of these devoted to entertainment. There will be 5 movie theaters with various seating capacities.
There will of course be an IMAX theater in there as well. You see, I just love watching the crazy stuff that these NASA astronauts do up there in space. So, I would like to enjoy watching some of that on an IMAX screen.
The five floors on top of those will be devoted to gyms and bowling alleys and an indoor golfing green. Of course, I like to play the odd round of lawn tennis and basketball and squash at times, so, those will be in there as well. You see, I have got only one life to live and I want to live it fully.

November 03, 2012

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