I had a very memorable day, yesterday. I attended the TedX Youth conference organized at my office premise. I got a special invite. Ideally, I should be posting this in my company blog, but I had so much fun that I wanted to share it with the whole world. Here are some nice insights from the event.

Ted was founded 25 years back, yet it gained popularity in the last 5 years, mainly because of Chris Anderson who took over 5 years back. He decided to upload all the talks on the web and make it available for free. People were paying $6000 for attending the event, so this seemed a very counter intuitive move. Yet, it was THE factor which catapulted TED to world fame. Today, there is a 1 year waiting list for TED conferences.

The most interesting speech was by Aravind Kumar, the founder of Clean Credit. His mission is to make India as clean as Switzerland. He has come up with a unique model for making this happen. He piloted this in IIM campus with great success. He got his idea from trolley management process followed in some international airports. You pay a dollar to take the trolley and when you return it the dollar is refunded. His research showed that 90% of the trash is generated from the products of 25 companies. Get these companies to tag their products with a Clean Credit tag and charge 1Rs extra on all products. Upon returning the used packing material, refund the amount to the customer. When this was piloted in IIM, the trashiest place in the campus became clean in 4 days and they could achieve 100% segregation. Through this model we can make every corner shop a trash collection point.

Now, we only have to put pressure on these 25 companies to tag their products. His idea is to employ Gandhigiri 2.0. Take photographs of trash(which predominantly comprises of these companies’ products) and put them on social networking sites. Aravind Kumar is a PHD student in IIM. Many of his classmates are westerns who keep complaining to him about the filth in our cities. He promised them that he will make India as clean as Switzerland.

Here are some inspiration from other speakers.

Major Ravi, an ex-major in the Indian army and a film maker spoke of his journey from a 9th std dropout to a successful army major and a film maker. His message, “Always take on the most difficult tasks”

Elango, A scientist by profession, went back to his village, Kuthambakkam and transformed it into a model village by engaging the grassroots and employing e-governance. He says,”Youth should lead this country and hence opt for politics as a profession.” In a democracy people should be participants, not just beneficiaries.

Dr.Madhan Marky, a professor in Anna University wanted to be a lyricist. He fulfilled his dream by using software engineering to generate the best possible lyrics for a given tune. He was able to program, such components as uniqueness and pleasantness of the lyrics into his application. The first song that was created using this software was Irumbu Manida from Eindhiran.

I had a thoroughly enjoyable day. A special thanks to Mani and Rajashree for inviting me.

For details on all the speakers at the event refer to http://www.tedxyouthchennai.com

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.

I had the opportunity to visit Sweden last month to attend a management program on Corporate Responsibility. It was an amazing experience. My most memorable experience was the visit to the Nobel Museum at Stockholm. We were lucky to have a very well informed guide. Let me narrate to you a cute story that I heard there. You see the chair below. There is a tradition that after the Nobel dinner the prize winner who signs behind the chair. Once there is no more space for signatures it is bought to the Nobel Museum.

There was one chair in the Museum which was kept locked in a glass case. We thought it belonged to a famous prize winner.

It turned out that this chair had the signature of Koichi Tanaka, a Chemistry Noble prize winner from Japan. He was only a salaried engineer with just a bachelor’s degree. He was not a PhD like most other winners. In fact, he is the first recipient of the chemistry prize with only a bachelor’s degree. He is very famous in Japan because of his unlikely achievement. All the tourist from Japan were insisting on sitting on this chair and taking a picture. They were not even interested in Einstein’s chair as much as this one. The chair was showing signs of breaking because of the demand and hence they decided to protect it in a  glass case.

Here are some more picture from the Museum

A brief about all the prize winner till date is hung a clothes line near the entrance of the Museum.

The hand written will of Alfred Nobel.  According to the guide the most revolutionary aspect of the will was the clause that the prize should be awarded without consideration of nationality. At the time it was written, it was very controversial since many swedes felt that Nobel was giving away his wealth to other countries. But it was this very same clause that made the prize so prestigious.

Inscriptions on the floor of the Museum

Me and our guide in front of Nobel’s will

Quotes by Nobel winners on the walls of the Museum

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?

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.

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.

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)