Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

I for Imagination by Marc Riboud and Catherine Chaine is the most recent addition to my book shelf. I bought it from my favorite book shop in Chennai, Tara Books at Thiruvanmiyur.
I for Imagination is an alphabet book with a difference. It uses photographs of Marc Riboud and it is authored by his wife Catherine. Most of the pictures are of 1950 and 1960s Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Ghana, India, Turkey and Vietnam. The words for each image work here as pointers, nudging the viewer towards unexpected ways of reading the photograph. Here is a sample

It is captioned R for road

Khybar Pass, Afghanistan, 1955


It is not just any road. It is the Khyber pass, which determined so much of our history. You notice the handmade sign for animals and vehicles which seems to capture the timelessness of this road.

A for alone

Strike in Liverpool, England, 1954

It was taken during a workers’ strike in Liverpool in 1954. The irony strikes you when you read the word ‘Alone’. We have all experienced this though; the loneliness of being alone in a crowd.

F for flight

Beijing, China 1957

An old woman in china sitting on what appears to be her belongings, waiting for someone, beneath a graffiti of a bird soaring with its wings wide open. It seems to reflect her longing.

T of Tenderness

Unknown village, North Vietnam, 1969


On the road from Tabriz to Teheran, Iran, 1955

Both the pictures reflect the power and beauty of human connection

S for Son

In the steppes, Mongolia, 1965


on the boat on a little river, North Vietnam, 1969

Seems to says that certain bonds are universal. They transcend time and place

Y for yell

Anti American demonstration, Beijing, China, 1965

South African school children cheering for their team , Johannesberg, 1998

Two very different kinds of yell

The publishers in the introduction to the book aptly summarize the spirit of the book
This way of seeing belongs to a time when the photographer was a bearer of memory, the photograph appeared able to capture the burden of existential and historical truth. Riboud’s way of seeing pauses time, if only for a moment, slowing us down to a place that allows us to stop, observe and relish a moment in all its richness and ambiguity before we deign to capture it.

There are some books in my collection which I call comfort books. I pick them up and read whenever I feel down and they will lift your spirits instantly. This is one such.

Read Full Post »

I am reading Super Freakanomics. I am enjoying it ever more than the first book. The chapter on global warming intrigued me the most because it seems to be so out of synch with the conventional wisdom. I want to share with you some radical thoughts and ideas from the chapter and am really interested in knowing what you think of these facts.

Cows flatulence, belching and manure emit methane which is 25% more potent then CO2.  Cows are responsible for about 50% more greenhouse gas than the entire transportation sector.

Sulphur dioxide in the stratosphere can act as a sunscreen and reduce earth’s temperature. This was observed in 1991 when a powerful volcanic eruption in Mt Pinatubo spewed huge amounts of sulphuric ash in the sky and for two years it reduced the average temperature of the earth by 1F.

CO2 may have little to do with the current global warming. All the heavy particulate pollutants we generated in the past decades cooled the atmosphere by dimming the sun. The trend began to reverse as we started cleaning up our air and global warming may actually be the result of good environmental stewardship.

Ice-cap evidence of past several 100 years shows that carbondioxide levels increased after a rise in temperature and not the other way round.

CO2 is not a very efficient greenhouse gas. If you double the carbondioxide in the atmosphere it will only trap 2% of the outgoing radiation. It is subject to law of diminishing returns. Each additional gigaton of CO2, has less radiative impact than the previous one.

As the CO2 in the atmosphere increases, plants would require less water to grow.  Doubling of CO2 will result in 70% increase in plant growth.

The increase in sea level in not primarily driven by glaciers melting but by increasing ocean temperature. Sea levels have been rising since the last ice age and they are 425ft higher today. In the past century it has risen less than 8”.

Only 12% of the solar energy absorbed by the solar cells is converted to electricity, the rest of the energy absorbed in radiated as heat thus contributing to global warming.

In the past several years the average global temperature has decreased.

Some geoengineering solutions

200million tons of supher di oxide go into the atmosphere each year. All this stays in the troposphere. If  100,000 ton can be relocated to the higher troposphere, it can completely reverse the effects of global warming.

Solution1: 18mile long hose to the sky through which liquefied Sulphur di oxide can be sent up. This project would cost $20M with an annual operating cost of $10M.

Solution2: Simply extend the smoke stacks of some strategically located coal plants. A handful of coal plants emit more than the required amount of Sulphur to cool the planet. If we can extend their smoke stacks to 18miles it will be emitted in the stratosphere.

Some other geoengineering solutions are discussed in the book. What I found most appealing is that these don’t require large scale behavioral changes from us, which many people consider quite impractical and much more cost effective than most conventional solutions.

The question is, why aren’t these options more widely discussed? There must be a catch, right. What are your thoughts on this?

Read Full Post »

I spotted this book a couple of months back at a bookstore in Bangalore. It caught my eye because it dealt with many subjects that interest me –  Shiva, Indus Valley, river Saraswathi and real stories behind mythology. I read a couple of pages and found the style of writing very text bookish. I decided not to buy but instead borrow it from the library.

In the past couple of weeks many people wrote to me about this book. My friend Archana presented it for my birthday. On the same day my library delivered a copy. Another friend, Meenks wrote to me from the US recommending the book. He had read reviews of the book and thought I would like it. It was almost as if the entire universe was conspiring to make me read the book 🙂

All my friends were right, I loved the book. Although I was not mistaken in my initial assessment of the style of writing, I enjoyed it all the same.

 It is the story of Shiva, a Tibetan immigrant who comes to Meluha (mainland India) to escape from the incessant tribal wars in his countru. In Meluha he is given Somras which makes his throat turn blue. Thus he becomes Neelkanth, who the Meluhan legend says would be their savior. The story is about Shiva’s discovery of his true destiny. In the course of the story we are introduced to many mythological characters in their new Avatar. Brahma the Meluhan scientist who invents Somras, the drink of immortality. Saptharishis are selected students of Brahma to whom Somras was first administered. Lord Rama, an ancient king who broke the caste barrier to the access to Somras.  He laid down a social order which ensured that everyone got equal opportunities regardless of their birth.  Sati, the daughter of the current Meluhan king, Daksha. Manu, a Pandya kind from the land of Tamil sangam!!!!

I know, I know. I can hear many of you are screaming in protest at the blatant disregard for actual historical facts

Amish, the author the book has the imagination of a child. It is innocent, idealistic and without boundaries. And just like a child his story is very simplistic. It lacks the nuance and depth of an adult’s book.  Have you seen the cartoon network adaptation of Ramayan in English? This book gives you a similar feeling.  Shiva comes across as a cool dude of the new millennium who loves marijuana and has modern views of equality, justice and democracy.  Sati is the feminist of the last millennium, intelligent, well read and a warrior and yet willingly submissive to the rules of her tradition. She silently bears all the insults hurled at her and raises her voice only when someone insults Shiva. Towards the end Shiva resembles Ahoka, filled with grief for having fought a pointless war. There are also references to the ideological clash of communism and democracy.  The book is the first of a trilogy and the climax is cleverly crafted to make you long for the next one.

The Immortals of Meluha is very much a children’s book at heart. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Those of us who are closet comic book readers, who can still experience the magic of Astrix, Archie and Bhagavatam will understand its appeal.

Read Full Post »

It comes as no a surprise that the inspiration for this book was Cameron Diaz, since in many ways the book reads like a movie script. In author’s words “ the stories are as much about passion, love and revenge as it is about cool scientific discovery.” The book begins with the history of each component of the equation; e, m, c, =, 2 and this is the part I loved best. Towards the end, the book dumbs down a lot, with focus more on the politics of the atom bomb rather than the science behind it. This is part I did not like.

 Before the 1800s there was no overreaching notion of energy within which all “powers” could fit. Electricity was considered different from wind which was different from heat. Michael Faraday’s  work on the relationship between magnetism and electricity helped establish the concept of energy. He was a deeply religious man and felt that a single force spreading throughout the universe and never getting destroyed was proof of god’s design.

In 1543 Robert Recorde, a text book writer in England invented the “= “sign. It was widely adopted during Shakespeare’s time. The author says” A equation is not simply a formula for computation. Scientists started using the symbol =as something like a telescope for new ideas.

In 1700s a scientist named Lavoisier proved that matter moved from one form to another, it never ceased to exist. This discovery helped establish the concept of mass as a common theme running through all matter. It is really sad that such a great scientist was executed during the French revolution.

In 1676, a 21 year old Danish scientist called Ole Roamer proved that light travelled in finite speeds. Before him everyone assumed that light travelled at an infinite speed. Although he was able to accurately predict the appearance of Io, a planet of Jupiter, based on his calculations of  speed of light, for 50 years scientists did not accept his findings. This was because his boss, Cassini declared Roamer was wrong and used all his influence to ensure that the scientific community rejected Roamers discovery.

In 1726, a Dutch researcher, William sGravesande was making some observations by letting weights plummet into a soft clay floor. What he found was that if a small brass weight was pushed twice as fast as the previous one it was pushed four times as far into the clay. It was flung three times as fast, in went nine times as deep. Based on this research, a brilliant scientist Emilie Du Chatelet concluded that energy can be defines as the product of mass and the square of velocity (mv2). There is also an romantic dimension to this story. Du Chatelet was Voltaire’s lover and he used his influence as a writer and thinker  to establish her legacy.

The book goes on to describe how all these great scientists paved way to Einstein’s famous equation and his theory of relativity.

Apparently, Diaz’s statement that she would like to understand E=MC2 inspired this. I can definitely say that the book will connect to readers with no background in physics. To that extent the author has achieved what he set out to do.

Read Full Post »

This week I was gratified to read that VS Ramachandran, my favorite science author figured in the list of top 100 public intellectuals by an American magazine. I have read two of his books, “Phantoms in the Brain” and “The Emerging Mind”. They are absolutely brilliant. Although I have done a couple of posts based on his writing, I have never been able to do a review of his books. I always felt that a single page write-up would not do justice to the broad spectrum of mind blowing ideas he presents in his books.


My friend, Sukumar also quoted him in his recent post Building a Belief System Part 2 – What holds us back?. These inspired me to re-read “Phantoms in the Brain”. It was as delightful as the first time. I thought I will attempt a review, although I do so with apprehension because I am still not sure if I can do justice to this absolutely amazing book.


V S Ramachandran is an eminent neuroscientist who has done pioneering work in the area of Phantom limbs. Many amputees, even after their limbs are removed still feel as if the limbs exist. They feel pain and movement in these limbs.  In this book he talks about this phenomenon and many other strange neurological disorders. He claims that these disorders help us gain great insights into the working of normal brains.


The first few chapters of the book are dedicated to Phantom limbs. He recounts some fascinating stories of amputees – Tom,  whose Phantom (non-existent) arm could wriggle its finger, reach out for objects and pick them up. Mirabelle, who born without two arms yet felt a vivid phantom which she felt was 6” shorter than her artificial arm. What is even more interesting is how Dr.VSR identified the neurological cause of these Phantoms and helped cure a few of them using simple devices.


An even more fascinating case was that of Diane. She had suffered a carbon monoxide poisoning that left her completely blind. When her physician was evaluating her, he stumbled upon something really unbelievable. Although she was technically blind, she was able to grasp objects and perform complex activities without being aware of it. For example, if you ask her to post a letter in a mail box, she will have no awareness of seeing the mail box or the letter, yet she would be able to orient her letter and post it perfectly into the slit. This phenomenon is called “blindsight”, It is as if a zombie within you is performing these functions without you being aware of it. As many as 30 regions in the brain are involved in vision and only a few of these regions produce the consciousness or awareness of sight.


Then there is this strange mental disorder called “hemi neglect” which occurs in patients who suffer from right brain stroke. Patients with this disorder tend to neglect what ever lies to their left side including their own body. They will comb only the right half of their heir, apply makeup to only the right half of their face, will eat food only from the right half of their plate, will bump into objects that lie in the left half of the vision. Neglect is not same as blindness. If you draw their attention to the left side they will respond. Another disorder in patients who suffer paralysis on their left half is “Denial”. Even normal human beings suffer from denial however these patients have extreme case of this disorder. They refuse to acknowledge that they are paralyzed. They claim that they can move their left hand and perform complex functions like tying a shoe lace. Most often, these patients are considered psychiatric cases. Dr.VSR provides neurological explanation to these disorders.


He says about his experiences with these patients “What I didn’t realize when I began these experiments is that they would take me to the heart of human nature. For denial is something we do all our lives, whether we are temporarily ignoring the bills accumulating in our tray or defiantly denying the finality and humiliation of death”.


The book covers many other interesting disorders like Carpgras delusion where the patient claims that his close relatives like father/mother/brother are imposters and Cotards syndrome where the patient believes he is dead and he can smell the rotting of his own flesh.


In the last few chapters he discusses profound concepts. What causes spiritual experiences? Do we have a god module in our brain? What is consciousness? What is the nature of the self?  VSR tries to explain these deep philosophical questions in neurological terms.


I like to end my review with VSR’s thoughts on why he thinks neurology is so interesting. Because it has the potential for the “greatest revolution in the history of human race – understanding ourselves.”

“There is something distinctly odd about a hairless primate that has evolved into a species that can look back over its own shoulder and ask questions about its origins. And odder still, the brain can not only discover how other brains work but also ask questions about its own existence: Who am I? What happens after death? Does my mind arise exclusively from neurons in my brain? If so, what scope is there for free will? It is the peculiar recursive nature of these questions – as the brain struggles to understand itself-that makes neurology fascinating”



Read Full Post »

I read this book when I was in 11th grade and I have read it a countless times since then. I have always wondered about the secret of its appeal. Most people think of it as a brilliant satire. It talks about how we celebrate mediocrity but fail to reward greatness and originality. It communicates this through five principal characters. Howard Roark the hero of this book. He is a brilliant architect who believes that a building should have integrity. He is original and talented at the same time uncompromising. He does not believe in adding frills to a building just to make it look beautiful. Everything about a building should serve a purpose. At the other end is Peter Keating who is every thing which Roark is not? He possesses no great talent or originality, believes in playing to the gallery and copying other great works of architecture. You can guess who is the more successful of the two! Ayn Rand brings out the stark contrast between the two characters in a brilliant dialog

No man likes to be beaten. But to be beaten by the man who has stood as the particular example of mediocrity in his eyes, to start by the side of this mediocrity and see it shoot up, while he struggles and gets nothing, to see the mediocrity snatch from him, the chances that he did give his life for, to see mediocrity worshipped, to lose, to be sacrificed, to be ignored and beaten not by a greater genius, not by god, but by Peter Keating. Do you think the Spanish inquisition ever thought of a torture to equal this? 

Then there is Dominique Francon, a newspaper women and the daughter of a very famous architect. She is in love with Roark and appalled by the way the world treats him. Ellsworth Toohey, another newspaper man, who wants to control the world by preventing independent thought. Finally, Gail Waynand, my favorite character in this book. He is a media baron. He owns the largest newspaper chain in the country. He is a man of great intelligence and refinement. Yet he achieves success by compromising his integrity, by writing not what he believes but what appeals to the majority.

There is something timeless and larger than life about each of this characters. The more I think about it, the more I feel that it is not just a satire. It’s genre is mythology. The story is written like the epic struggles between the gods and the demons. Like the gods and demons the characters in this book understand the working of the world and can determine its destiny. These characters do things which would be quite unacceptable for mere mortals. And just like mythology, this story sells a philosophy, the philosophy of selfishness. The importance of putting our own selves before anyone else. Maybe, this is one of the reasons for it’s appeal. Most of us are selfish most of the time and it feels good when someone says it is the right thing to do 🙂. There are many dramatic moments in the book. Like the first time Dominique and Gail meet. The conversation between them is brilliant.

Once Gail presents Dominique with a beautiful diamond necklace set in platinum. She tells him, The story of the Bronx housewife who murdered her husband’s young mistress is pretty sordid. But I think there is something even dirtier, the curiosity of people who like to read about it. And I think there is something dirtier still – the people who pander to that curiosity. Actually it was the Bronx housewife who made this necklace possible, I shall be proud to wear it”

Gail replies, “That is one way of looking at it. There’s another. I like to think that I took the worst refuse of human spirit, the Bronx house wife and the minds of people who like to read about her and made of it this necklace on your shoulders. I like to think I was an alchemist capable of performing so great a purification”.

Ayn Rand is a brilliant writer. As you read the book, you feel like you are being let in on a huge secret. It is just you and the characters in the book, the rest of the world is out of it. She does it by means of subtle statements which leave a lot unsaid and makes you think you have figured out the meaning yourself. It is full of symbolisms. And just like most mythological stories, it has an enduring quality; you can read it a million times and still want more.

It is one of those great books that can never leave you untouched.

Read Full Post »

Last year I went on a trip to Rameshwaram, which is an island in the south of India. It is a very important pilgrimage center, famous for an ancient Shiva temple believed to have been built by Lord Rama. We had to get to the town via a bridge built across the ocean. The sea looked so beautiful from there. I have never seen so many colors in the ocean. It varied from Aquamarine green to deep blue.


It reminded me of the great Indian scientist Sir C.V.Raman who got the inspiration for his Nobel Prize winning theory as he observed the deep blue of Mediterranean Sea from the deck of his ship. I thought I should write about him.  

Before Raman propounded his theory it was believed that the sea was blue because it reflected the blue of the sky. Raman observed that the Mediterranean appeared blue even when the sky was dull gray. After extensive research in his laboratory in India he found that the color of the sea changes because of a phenomenon called inelastic scattering of light. Why is the sky blue? Because it scatters the blue light more than any other wavelength. A similar phenomenon occurs in ocean. However in addition to scattering the light , the molecules of the water absorb some energy from the light. A lower energy light radiation is emitted and thus color of the sea changes. It is not identical to the color of the sky. It can easily be understood through quantum theory. Photons of higher energy are absorbed and lower energy are released by the molecules. If you look at the picture above, the color varies directly proportional to the depth of the sea. I think it is because, in deeper areas of the sea there are more water molecules and hence more energy loss and those areas appear green (green is of lower frequency and hence lower energy photons)whereas the in the shallower regions the energy loss in less hence it is blue.  

Raman also found that this loss of energy or shift in wavelength is dependant on the medium. Hence it was possible to study the molecules of the medium and the structural arrangement by passing light through it. Raman won the Nobel prize in physics for his finding. Today, Raman Effect is considered to be one of the four major discoveries in experimental physics of the early twentieth century.  

What is even more commendable about his finding is that it happened in his laboratory in India. He did not have sophisticated instruments or technology which was available to the western scientist of his times. In fact he did not have the money to buy a light source, so conducted his experiments using sunlight. He is believed to have said “The essence of science is independent thinking and hard work, not equipment 

Till he died, Raman continued to do research, give talks and inspire students. During his life he wrote 360 research papers and four books. He founded schools of physics in Kolkata and Bangalore. To mark the anniversary of the discovery of Raman effect, Feb 28th  is celebrated as “National Science Day” all over India. 

Footnote: In my library I have a book series called Charitravali, which are biographies dedicated to great people of India. I have written about these books in this blog. The Charitravali series also has the biography of C.V Raman, “The Scientist Extraordinary by Dilip.M.Salwi” ,which I used as a reference for this post. The entire series is a great read. I strongly recommend it to all my readers.  

Update:  Here is Priya’s explaination for the varying color of sea

The deeper the sea, the bluer it will be. Shallow water appears a lighter shade of blue or green. Yellow, Red, Green etc are absorbed first. The amount of organic debris in the water impacts the color. The deader it is (little or no organic debris or life-forms) the bluer it is.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »