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Please read the first post of this series before this one

 Learning From Numbers To Generate New Kowledge- Part 1

2. Role of statistics in different activities                      

Statistics is not a subject like physics, chemistry or biology. A physicist solves a problem in physics using his knowledge of physics. A chemist solves a problem in chemistry using his knowledge of chemistry, and so on. But there is no problem in statistics which we solve by using our knowledge of statistics. Essentially a statistician helps in solving problems posed by others arising in their fields of study. All investigations in science or other activities start with formulating a problem, generating relevant data, processing it, and extracting information to throw light on the problem posed. All these need special skills which a statistician is trained to do.

2.1 Scientific research

 

            “Scientific laws are not advanced by the principle of authority or justified by

             faith or medieval philosophy; statistics is the only court of appeal to new

             knowledge.”

                                                                                    –  P.C.Mahalanobis

A scientist proposes a theory to explain some natural phenomenon. An experiment is needed to verify the theory. How to design an experiment to get the maximum information from the data generated to estimate the accuracy of the theory. If the accuracy is not within acceptable limits, can the data generated from the experiment enable us to suggest improvements in the proposed theory or to propose a new theory. The new theory can be tested by further experimentation. These problems can be answered with statistical help using design of experiments developed by R.A.Fisher. Emphazing the need for consulting a statistician before the experiment is conducted, Fisher said:

     “You get 10 times more information from a carefully designed experiment. To consult a

         statistician after the experiment is finished is often to merely ask him to conduct a

         postmortem examination. He can only say what the experiment died of”.

 

Through collection of relevant data by optimally designed experiments and appropriate data analysis to test hypotheses based on the proposed theory and to provide clues for improvement of the theory or for possible alternatives, statistics enables the scientist to have a full play for his creative imagination to discover new phenomena or suggest improvements in the proposed theory.  Science advances through the following endless process:

   –Theory-Experiment –Statistical assessment of experimental results- New theory-

                          

2.2 Statistics as an investigative technology

 

“Statistics is the technology of finding the invisible and measuring the immeasurable”.

2.2.1 Measure the immeasurable

For instance narcissism, a personality disorder, is hard to measure. However, we can measure a large number of other characteristics of a person which are affected by this disorder. Statistical methodology enables us to connect the measure of narcissism, as a latent variable, to the measurable characteristics through a structural equation model, and estimate it.

2.2.2 Classification or discrimination

There was a policy in US military that while recruiting a person to the army, “ask not and do not answer” about the homosexuality of the person. However, a sample of urine of the person can be obtained and tested for the amounts of androgen and estrogen. It is seen from the two dimensional chart of the measurements obtained from  sets of individuals whose sexual orientation was known, that the homo and heterosexual persons are in 2 different regions, separated by a line, apart from a few exceptions. By plotting the point for any particular individual, his sexual orientation can be inferred with a high degree of success based on the region in which his measurements fall.

This method known as discriminant analysis in statistics, developed by R.A.Fisher and perfected by various authors, has been a powerful tool in such problems. For instance, the method can be used in problems such as medical diagnosis to determine which out of several possible diseases a patient is suffering from based on a number of diagnostic tests, in detecting whether currency is faked and numerous other situations.

2.3 Birth order and eminence

Scholarly interest in the relationship between birth order and extraordinary achievement can be traced to 1874 when Francis Galton published English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture. This book chronicled the lives of 180 eminent men from various fields. Galton was able to collect birth order data from 99 of his subjects, revealing that 48% of them were first born sons or only sons. The percentages of the second and third born were very low. Interest in birth order and  eminence has continued, and countless studies have confirmed Galton’s conclusions that eminence achieved or intelligence of a person depends on his birth order, the fist one being more intelligent than the second, the second more intelligent than the third and so on. The table gives results of intelligent tests conducted on children from families of different sizes, indicating the birth order effect on intelligence.

It would be of interest to investigate the causes of birth order effect. It is believed that the first born gets more parental attention than the later born and has a chance of growing up in the company of adults and learn from them. The second born has similarly more opportunities than the third and so on.

2.4 Common breeding ground of eels.

This is an example to show how learning from numbers led to an important discovery. In the early years of the last century, Johannes Schmidt, a scientist at the Carlsberg Laboratory found that the numbers of vertebrae and fin rays of the same species of fish caught from different localities, often even from different parts of the same lake, varied considerably. With eels, however, in which the variation in vertebrate number is large, Schmidt found sensibly the same mean, and the same standard deviation in samples drawn from all over Europe, from Iceland, from the Azores and from the Nile river, which are widely separated regions, about 1000 miles apart. He inferred that the eels of all these different river systems came from a common breeding-ground in the ocean, which was discovered 50 years later in one of the expeditions of the research vessel “Dana”. Statistical theory was unknown when Schmidt made this discovery. Simple computations of the mean and standard deviation were the only tools used.

 2.5 Mournful numbers

We are continuously made aware of, through news papers, magazines and other news media, the good and deleterious effects of our dietary, exercise, smoking and drinking habits, and the stress in our profession and other daily activities. The following table gives the information on the number of days lost or gained in one’s life due to various causes. The numbers may not be appropriate for specific individuals. However, they provide useful guidelines in making individual decisions.

2.6 The importance of being left handed

T.A.Davis, a professor at the Indian Statistical Institute made several studies on coconut trees which can be classified as left-handed or right- handed depending on the direction of its foliar spiral. By doing experiments he found that spirality is not genetically inherited and left handed trees yield 10% more coconuts than the right handed trees, a conclusion of economic importance. A recommendation was made to the Government in the state of Kerala to grow only the ” leftists to increase the production of nuts”.

2.7 Chronobiology and appropriate time to take Vitamin C

 

Chronobiology is the study of changes in body chemistry during the day. Measurements made on the human body at different times of the day reveal some interesting facts. We are 1 cm taller in the morning than at the time we go to bed. The cortisol level is about 16mg/100 in the morning and it drops to 6mg/100 at bed time. The high cartisol level in the morning wakes you up and you are more alert. Teachers want to teach in the morning because students are more attentive in the morning due to high cartisol level. It was found that vitamin C is better absorbed if taken after a meal.

The examples given above show how numbers generated through experiments or generated through normal transactions provide us with knowledge or information to take optimal decisions in all our activities.

2.8 Facts before theory

 

       “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly, one begins to

       twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts.

 

–          Sherlock Holms

    Without good information, you won’t see things as they really are-you will see them         

    as you think they are.

           “Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was

            married twice, it never occurred to him to verify his statement by examining his

            wives ’mouth”.

–           Bertrand Russel

 

2.9 Computational stylistics

 

The total number of words in all the known works of Shakespeare is 884647 of which 31534 are distinct. Using a statistical method proposed by R.A.Fisher, it is estimated that Shakespeare probably knew about 35000 more words which he did not use in his writings. The total number of words Shakespeare knew is about 66000 out of about 100000 words in the English language in his time. The question arises whether Shakespeare wrote all the plays attributed to him or he had co-authors. Statistical methods, known as computational stylistics, provides answers to questions of this kind. Comparing the styles in terms of rhetorical devices, polysyllabic words and metrical habits, the following possibilities have been mentioned in the   book ”Shakespeare, Co-Author”, by Brian Vickers.

Ceorge Peele wrote a third of Titus Andronicus, Thomas Middleton, two-fifths of Timon of Athens, George Wilkins, two of the five acts of Pericles and John Fletcher, more than half of Henry VIII and The two Noble Kinsmen. 

2.7 Chronobiology and appropriate time to take Vitamin C

 

Chronobiology is the study of changes in body chemistry during the day. Measurements made on the human body at different times of the day reveal some interesting facts. We are 1 cm taller in the morning than at the time we go to bed. The cortisol level is about 16mg/100 in the morning and it drops to 6mg/100 at bed time. The high cartisol level in the morning wakes you up and you are more alert. Teachers want to teach in the morning because students are more attentive in the morning due to high cartisol level. It was found that vitamin C is better absorbed if taken after a meal.

 

The examples given above show how numbers generated through experiments or generated through normal transactions provide us with knowledge or information to take optimal decisions in all our activities.

 

2.8 Facts before theory

 

       “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly, one begins to

       twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts.

 

          Sherlock Holms

    Without good information, you won’t see things as they really are-you will see them         

    as you think they are.

 

           “Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was

            married twice, it never occurred to him to verify his statement by examining his

            wives ’mouth”.

           Bertrand Russel

 

 

2.9 Computational stylistics

 

The total number of words in all the known works of Shakespeare is 884647 of which 31534 are distinct. Using a statistical method proposed by R.A.Fisher, it is estimated that Shakespeare probably knew about 35000 more words which he did not use in his writings. The total number of words Shakespeare knew is about 66000 out of about 100000 words in the English language in his time. The question arises whether Shakespeare wrote all the plays attributed to him or he had co-authors. Statistical methods, known as computational stylistics, provides answers to questions of this kind. Comparing the styles in terms of rhetorical devices, polysyllabic words and metrical habits, the following possibilities have been mentioned in the   book ”Shakespeare, Co-Author”, by Brian Vickers.

 

Ceorge Peele wrote a third of Titus Andronicus, Thomas Middleton, two-fifths of Timon of Athens, George Wilkins, two of the five acts of Pericles and John Fletcher, more than half of Henry VIII and The two Noble Kinsmen.

End of Part 2

Will be posting the concluding part of the lecture in my nest post – Archana

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I had attended a lecture by Dr.C.R.Rao, a world renowned statistician. I had live tweeted the lecture (@ArchanaRaghuram). Many people had requested for the entire  transcript. I am posting the transcript in three parts.

The difference between the Philosophers, Scientists and Statisticians view of knowledge

Statistics is the science, technology and art of developing human knowledge through the use of empirical data.

 1 Concepts of Knowledge

 Knowledge is what we know, also what we know we do not know. We discover what we do not know essentially by what we know. Thus knowledge expands. With more knowledge we come to know more of what we do not know. Thus knowledge expands endlessly. What exactly is the process involved in generating new knowledge? What confidence do we have in the newly created knowledge and how do we use it. In order to understand these problems let us look at different views of knowledge.

 1.1.         Philosopher’s view of knowledge

 Philosophers maintain that knowledge is infallible. The different instruments for acquiring certain knowledge are:

  • Deductive logic or pure reasoning from given premises as advocated by Kant.

The process is the same as that in mathematics, where we lay down certain axioms taken to be true and derive propositions by arguing from them. However, we have to make sure that conclusions drawn from different sets of axioms are not contradictory. The logician Godel proved that consistency of a given set of axioms cannot be established by using the same axioms. He also showed if one contradiction occurs, any contradiction can be established.

  • Mill’s inductive logic of reasoning from particular to particular. For example if it is known that in the past, banks refused to give loans if the applicant had filed for insolvency at any time, we conclude that the same will hold in the future. Byinduction, we generally mean arguing from the particular to the general.
  • The Indian Philosopher Vivekananda and Einstein maintained that new knowledge can be created only by instinct, reason and inspiration, a process known as abduction and not by deductive reasoning assuming a given set of premises to be true or by inductive inference from observed data. ( “a theory can be proved by an experiment, but no path leads  from experiment to theory”-Einstein).
  • The ancient Hindu scriptures mention, perception (pratyksha), inference(anumana), comparison (upamana) and verbal testimony (sabda) as possible instruments for creation of new knowledge.

 1.2 Scientist’s view of knowledge

 Scientists maintain that all knowledge is fallible, i.e., there is nothing like a true knowledge. They create scientific knowledge by the following steps.

 (1)   Build a model for observed data using the information contained in the data or through instinct, reason and inspiration.

(2)   Then generate new data through an experiment or taking observations in nature and see how well the suggested model can predict the observed data.

(3)   If the accuracy of prediction is within acceptable limits for practical applications, the model is given the status of a scientific theory. If not the model is rejected. In either case, research will continue to find a theory which gives   predictions with a higher degree of accuracy. Each time, we replace the existing theory by the new one.

(4)   Sometimes more than one theory can co-exist as Newton’s laws of gravitation and Einstein’s theory of relativity although the latter is more comprehensive than the former. For practical purposes, even sending a man to the moon, Newton’s laws of motion can provide results of sufficient accuracy. Neither of them is strictly true as the following famous scientists affirm.

 1.2.1 Views of some scientists on scientific theories:

  “An experiment does not even establish the relative truth or falsity of a hypothesis but merely furnishes a basis for deciding acceptability”.

                                                -A.H.Copeland (Philosophy of Science, 33,303-316, 1966)

“If you thought that science was certain well that is just an error on your part”.

                                                      -Richard Feynman (Nobel Laureate)

       “In science, fact can only mean confirmed to such a degree that it would be  perverse to withhold provisional assent”

                                                       -Stephen Jay Gould

      “There has not been a single data in the history of the law of gravitation when a      modern test of significance would not have rejected all laws and left us with no   laws”                                       -H.Jeffreys (in The Theory of probability)

       “There is no need for these hypotheses to be true or even to be at all like the truth; rather one thing is sufficient for them-that they should yield calculations which agree with the observations”

                       -Andreas Osiander (1498-1552) in preface to Copernicus De Revolutionibus

 1.2.2 The sad story of Galileo (15 Feb 1564-8 Jan 1642) and the Catholic Church

During the life time of Galileo a large majority of philosophers and astronomers subscribed to the geocentric view that the earth is at the centre of the universe.  When Galileo began publicly supporting the heliocentric view, which placed the sun at the centre of the universe, he met with bitter opposition from some philosophers and clerics, and two of the latter eventually denounced him to the Roman Inquisition early in 1615.

The position of the church as explained by Cardinal Bellarmino in 1615 was similar to what Osiander thought a century earlier that the church would raise no objection if Galileo stated his theory as a mathematical hypothesis, “invented and assumed in order to abbreviate and ease the calculations”, provided he did not claim it to be a true description of the world. In 1916 Galileo agreed not to advocate his views and  he was cleared of any offence. When he later defended his views in his most famous work, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, he was tried by the Inquisition, found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, forced to recant, and spend the rest of his life under house arrest.

   1.3 Statistical view of knowledge

   All knowledge derived from observed data is uncertain with the degree of uncertainty depending on the amount and quality of available data. Unlike in science, in real life action has to be taken on available knowledge however meager or uncertain it is. We are always seeking answers to questions like: What career should I choose? How do I invest my money? Should I go abroad for higher studies or continue in the country? Should I take drug A or B for my headache? There are no definite answers to these questions in view of uncertainties in available information, but decisions cannot be postponed.

To the human mind tuned to deductive logic over several centuries, formulating rules for decision making under uncertainty which can go wrong posed a challenging problem. It is only in the beginning of the last century, it was realized that knowledge, however meager, is usable if we know the amount of uncertainty in it, in the sense that we can formulate optimum decision rules, i.e., with minimum loss, which is the subject matter of statistics developed as a separate discipline in the last century. The fundamental equation of statistics may be stated as follows:

      Uncertain                     Knowledge of                              Usuable

                                    +      of amount of              =       

     Knowledge                  uncertainty in it                            knowledge

   1.3.1 History of statistics

Statistics has a long antiquity but a short history. Its origin can traced back to the primitive man who put notches on trees to keep an account of his possessions. As early as 5000 BC, kings used to carry out census of populations and resources of the state for selfish reasons. When democratic governments were formed, it was the task of the governments to collect information about the people and on the resources of the state to make short term policy decisions and formulate long range plans for improving the living conditions of the people. The information collected by the government was called official statistics (data collected of the people for the people by the government). The word statistics was coined by the German Scholar Achenwal in the middle of the 18th century to mean data, analysis and use by the government.  The first State Statistical Bureau was established in 1800 in France.

 It is interesting to note that Shakespeare came close to invent the word statistics or statistician. He used the word ‘statist’ in his drama Cymbeline in 1600 and ‘statists’ in plural in Hamlet in 1609 to denote, perhaps, officials connected with the state.

  The first nongovernmental use of statistics is in computing life insurance rates based on the data of births and deaths, called Bills of Mortality, in the 17th century. During this period analytical studies were made on death rates from different diseases and the growth of populations in different regions of a state. In 1900, Karl Pearson used concepts of probability to test scientific hypotheses based on observed data in any field of enquiry, which is the beginning of the modern theory of statistics. The theory of statistics was developed during the period 1900-1940 by R.A.Fisher, J.Neyman and A.Wald Statistics was introduced as a separate subject of study and research in universities in the decade, 1940-1950.

The second half of the last century saw the development of statistics as the science and technology of using information as the main tool in all areas of human endeavour from scientific research, designing and controlling the quality of goods, medical diagnosis, national security, giving evidence in courts of law in cases such as disputed paternity and authorship, detection of fraud and to making personal decisions. As R.A.Fisher said in a speech delivered at the Indian Statistical Institute in 1952:

       “Statistical science is the peculiar aspect of human progress which gave 20th      century its special character.   It is to the statistician the present age turns for       what is most essential in all its more important activities”.

 I shall give some examples to show how statistics works in different activities.

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I had the opportunity last week, to attend the inauguration of TWAS 2010. TWAS is a science academy whose members comprise of 800 scientists from 40 countries. This year’s general meeting of TWAS was hosted in Hyderabad and inaugurated by Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. My thatha (Grandfather’s brother), about whom I have written in this blog was awarded the Indian Science Prize, the highest  and most prestigious national recognition given to a scientist in India for a major contribution to any branch of science, engineering and medicine. It was a proud moment for all of us. At 90 he is still going strong and is helping establish the “CR Rao Advanced Institute of Mathematics, Statistics & Computer Science “in Hyderabad University

Thatha with Award from PM

 400 scientists from 40 countries participated in this conference. Prime minister gave a very insightful speech. He recounted his experience of working with the founder of TWAS, Abdus Salam, a Nobel Prize winning physicist from Pakistan. He quoted Sir Winston Churchill who said “Empires of the future would be the empires of the mind”. Since there is a limitation of infrastructure in the developing world, collaboration among all the countries is essential. Science has the capacity to solve most of the pressing problems of our times. We need to put science in a pedestal. Our pedagogical method of teaching emphasizes memory over enquiry and this is not good for scientific progress.

 What I found most interesting in his speech was his mention of open source research platform. He said that the main drawback with scientific research is that the intellectual property rights make it very difficult for sharing and using research findings. Our government is promoting a open source forum where scientists can share their research findings which can be freely reused by other scientists.

I did a quick search on the net and came across “Council of Scientific and Industrial Research” which is using this model to collaboratively develop low cost drugs for diseases. You can read more about their work at “Open Source Drug Discovery Foundation”. I am not sure if this was the forum that the Prime Minister was referring to in his speech.

Some other interesting tit bits from the conference

The chief minister of AP in his speech proudly proclaimed that Hyderabad is a major IT hub with big companies like Microsoft, Oracle, Cognizant having their presence here. I was gratified to hear Cognizant being uttered in the same breath as Microsoft and Oracle

I was sitting next to a Microbiologist from Tunesia. She wanted to know what the Indian nod signified. The way we nod our head to say “yes” is very different from how the rest of the world does it. She actually shook her head and asked me what this means.

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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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I am re-entering the blogosphere after two years with a news that has been troubling me for over month. Stephen Hawking declared that aliens are likely to exist, but we should not try to make contact with them. He said, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans. We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.

It seemed to be something right out of Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. It got me thinking. Hawking seems to have based his hypothesis on the history of human civilization . Powerful countries colonized and imposed their culture on the less civilized ones.

 I am big fan of Carl Sagan and my love for astronomy began with the tele-series Cosmos. Most of us would be aware of his efforts to reach out to aligns. In his famous book “Contact”, he describes a fictional encounter with aliens, where they are described as friendly, benevolent and godlike beings. So, this revelation by Hawking, another scientist whom I greatly respect, whose book “The brief history of time” I truly admire, came something as a shock.

As I pondered over this statement, I was reminded of a theory which I read very long back. Every civilization goes through a phase called technological adolescence, just as human beings go through an adolescence phase which is fraught with danger. In case of human adolescence, there a role models and guides in the form of parents from whom they learn to navigate safely through this phase. Civilizations too go through a phase where they are technological advanced enough to wield a lot of power but not mature enough to handle it responsibly. Unlike human beings, civilizations do not have role models to learn from. So most of them tend to self-destruct during this phase.

By extension, any civilization which has emerged from technological adolescence, should be mature enough to control its aggression. It should have moved from a model of destroying and colonizing the weaker beings to collaborating and living synergistically with its environment. Just like how our civilization is coming to understand the evils of destruction and over utilization of resources. We are coming to terms with the fact that living in harmony with other living beings is vital to our survival. All of us would agree that our civilization can survive only if our collective better nature prevails. We stop fighting wars, stop discriminating on the basis of race, gender and religion, stopping felling trees and killing animals and over utilizing resources.

Wouldn’t this be true any advanced civilization. Even if their initial stages of evolution were violent, they could have survived the technological adolescence only by turning a page in their history. They could have survived only by developing a healthy respect for nature, only by understanding synergy and symbiosis. So why would they want to destroy us? In fact, Carl Sagan goes a step further and theorizes that the early messages from aliens may be on how to avoid technological disaster. How to safely pass from adolescence to maturity. These are the words of Carl Sagan “Perhaps the transmissions from advanced civilizations will describe which pathways of cultural evolution are likely to lead to the stability and longevity of an intelligent species, and which other paths lead to stagnation or degeneration or disaster. Perhaps there are straight-forward solutions, still undiscovered on Earth to problems of food shortages, population growth, energy supplies, dwindling resources, pollution and war. There is, of course, no guarantee that such would be the contents of an interstellar message; but it would be foolhardy to overlook the possibility.” (Ref)

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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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