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I was deeply saddened by the news that, Uncle Pai, the creator of Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle passed away today. These comics were a big part of my childhood. Not many people know that he created a magazine for teenagers called Partha.

When I heard the news of his passing the first thing I remembered were the two stories from Partha that made lasting impact on me.

The story of a Mumbai Entrepreneur

A famous sculptor was once asked how to sculpt an elephant from a stone block. He said that it is very simple. All you have to do is remove from the stone block whatever is not the elephant and what remains is an elephant. Opportunities in life are like stone blocks, we should have an eye to spot the elephant in them.

This is a true life story of Ram who came to Mumbai in search of a job. He waited everyday outside a famous factory hoping to be recruited. As he came there every day, he realized that other job seekers were much more qualified than him. The chances of him getting the job were very slim. He also noticed that these job seeks waited for hours together outside the factory. So, He started selling peanuts outside the factory. Soon he made brisk business. Now he owns a hotel opposite to the factory.

The stone block of opportunity was there for all the 200 job seekers who waited outside the factory. Only Ram could spot the elephant.

David and Goliath – Retold

All of us have heard the story of David and Goliath. The little boy David who defeated the giant Goliath, where mighty warriors failed. Why do you think David succeeded; because he thought he could. All the warriors thought “He is so huge, how can we defeat him”. David thought “He is so big, how can I miss him”.

In life, the circumstances are pretty much the same, the difference lies in the perspective

The fact that I remember these stories after more than 20 years of reading them is a tribute to Uncle Pai and the power of his stories. May he rest in peace.

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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?

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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.

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Rig Veda is an ancient religious text of India, comprising of a collection of Sanskrit Hymns. It is dated as far back as 1500–1000 BCE. One of the most popular hymn and my favorite is commonly known as the hymn of creation

In the beginning there was neither existence nor non-existance.

There was no atmosphere, no sky and no realm beyond the sky

What power was there? Where was that power?

Who was that power? Was it finite or infinite?

 

There was neither death nor immortality.

There was nothing to distinguish night from day.

There was no wind or breath, god alone breathed by his own energy.

 

In the beginning darkness was swathed in darkness, god was clothed in emptiness

 

Then fire arose within god; and in the fire arose love.

This was the seed of the soul.

Sages have found this seed within their hearts;

They have discovered that it is the bond between existence and non-existence.

 

Who really knows what happened? Who can describe it?

How were things produced? Where was creation born?

When the universe was created, the one became many.

Who knows how this occurred?

Did creation happen at God’s command, or did it happen without his command.

He looks down upon the creation from the highest heaven.

Only he knows the answer – or perhaps he does not know.

 

It is perhaps the oldest recorded questioning of mankind on the nature of creation. As you read the verse you can still experience the wonder they must have felt. What I find most fascinating about the verse is its humility. Unlike most later religious texts which claim to know all the answers, here is a poem which is humble enough to acknowledge its ignorance. Vedic age is considered by many one of the golden ages of science in India. I feel, maybe it is this ability to acknowledge the fact that we do not have all the answers and search for them led to such great scientific progress. Isn’t it the true spirit of science?

 

Here are a few more of my favorite verses from the Rig Veda

 

The Dawn

 

Look at how the dawn has set up her banner on the  eastern horizon.

She has adorned herself with sunlight

She is throwing lights of red and gold into the sky

……

……

Her brilliant flame becomes visible once more.

She pushes forward driving back the formless darkness of the night.

She gazes out at all creatures of the world and sends her light straight into every eye.

She awakens all that lives -and gives words to every poet

The divine being is born again and again each morning, always dressed in the same colors.

She causes men and women to grow older, pulling them across their span of life.

She is a cunning gambler whom no one can outwit.

She pushes aside her sister, the night, beyond the very edges of the sky

And draws to herself her lover, the sun.

 

The Power of Speech

 

I am speech –and I am queen of the world.

I am the point at which all riches meet.

I am the point at which all skills come together

I am the one who gives meaning to what is seen.

I am the one who lives in every breath.

I am the one who gives understanding to what is heard.

Though they do not realize it, people eat, see, breathe and hear through me.

 

Those who are famous for their wisdom are wise through me;

I taught them what they know – and they heeded me.

I am the one who conveys joy from one person to another.

Those whom I love I make them clever and sharp.

I incite people to compete for knowledge

I have pervaded the earth and the sky.

 

Ref: 366 Readings from Hinduism

 

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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”

 

 

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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.

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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.

pamban-palam.jpg

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.

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