Saturday, February 26, 2011

In which I bite off more than I can chew

Although the universe is under no obligation to make sense, students in pursuit of the Ph.D are. - Robert P. Kirshner

Although I was not gunning for a Ph.D, after getting some interest in reading about astronomy, I became ambitious and decided to see what cosmology was all about. I found that one of the most recommended popular science books in field was The Whole Shebang. I bought it and started reading it. The preface contained the following ominous lines:
Then quantum chance reared its indeterminate face, as a creative agency that authored the first phenomena of cosmic time. So we are obliged to consider that even the largest systems are ruled by quantum precepts that govern nature on the smallest scales, and that the origin of the universe may itself have been a quantum flux.
This did not look promising. I encountered terms like shape of space, C-field theory, entropy of Black holes,baryon asymmetry etc. and my synapses jammed. There were passages where I thought I understood something followed by fog. There were parts that I understood as well as I did this contraption. The part I enjoyed most was a character sketch of the Nobel laureate, Paul Dirac. Apparently, Dirac was supreme in one area of human endeavour and had no interest or competence in any other area. He was famously taciturn. There was an extract from an interview he gave to a magazine:
REPORTER: Now, doctor, will you give me in a few words the low-down on all your investigations?
REPORTER: Will it be right if I put it this way - "Professor Dirac solves all the problems of mathematical physics, but is unable to find a better way of figuring out Babe Ruth's batting average"?
REPORTER: What do you like best in America?
DIRAC: Potatoes.
There was a description of another Dirac incident:
The physicist Jagdish Mehra recalls dining with Dirac at hightable at Cambridge. "The weather outside was very bad, and since in England it is always quite respectable to start a conversation with the weather, I said to Dirac, 'It is very windy, Professor'. He said nothing at all, and a few seconds later he got up and left. I was mortified, as I thought that I had somehow offended him. He went to the door, opened it, looked out, came back, sat down, and said 'Yes.'"
With passages like these, I thought I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. But naive me! I did not realise that the light was from an oncoming train. I soon ran into terms like virtual particles, gauge bosons, Lie groups...and my neurons went on strike. But being a glutton for punishment, I struggled through to the end and managed to survive. If you want to have an idea about the kinds of topics that are discussed in the book you can listen to Dark Matter Rap.

Aside - I saw another anecdote about Dirac in this post:
At the question period after a Dirac lecture at the University of Toronto, somebody in the audience remarked: “Professor Dirac, I do not understand how you derived the formula on the top left side of the blackboard.”

“This is not a question,” snapped Dirac, “it is a statement. Next question, please.”

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Punctuality and boredom

This post about perfectionism got me thinking. (I tend to do it sometimes.) I didn't have the kind of obsession mentioned in the post but I was a stickler for punctuality. If I had an appointment at 10 a.m. I usually arrived a few minutes earlier than the scheduled time. This was not always possible in Mumbai because of the traffic jams so I used to start earlier in order to get to the venue on time.

This habit became a problem after my stroke. When people rang up and said that they would come at a particular time, I would expect them to land up at exactly that time. When they got delayed due to some reason, I would keep worrying and will not be able to focus on whatever I was doing. Nowadays I am much more relaxed when visitors get delayed and carry on with my usual routine. (It is part of the process of getting used to the changed circumstances.) When they finally arrive a couple of hours after the scheduled time, I will grin and think,'Samaj gaya mein...vahi purana...tera bahana...dere se aana aur ye kehna, vaada toh nibhaaya.'

Another post on boredom was relevant to me. In it, Jonah Lehrer quotes Joseph Brodsky:
When hit by boredom , let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.

Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one's mental equilibrium. It is your window on time's infinity. Once this window opens, don't try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.
This reminded me of a poem that I had learnt in school - Ode on Melancholy. In it, Keats says that melancholy should be enjoyed by comparing it with beautiful things and not with objects that give feelings of sorrow 'For shade to shade will come too drowsily,/ And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.'

Perhaps I made the connection between the two because both talk of enjoying feelings that one normally tries to avoid.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Faith is not a virtue - II

Just think of the tragedy of teaching children not to doubt. - Clarence Darrow

From my early teens, I was skeptical of considering some people who wear the right uniform as the repositories of all knowledge about Life, the Universe and Everything. Galileo, a devout Christian, said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” I remember listening to a podcast where the speaker said 'progress depends on learning how to reject authority of priests and rulers' or words to that effect. I agree.

Priests will extol the virtues of faith and they will decry the lack of faith in people as a major shortcoming. This is not surprising. Their power and pelf depend on it. They would like as many people as possible to lead an unconsidered life. (This result was not a surprise.) They would have loved the punchline of an ad I came across some time back -'Thinking is such a waste of time!' (I don't know the product - I wasn't paying attention and only looked at the TV when I heard the punchline.)

Whoever first got the idea of putting faith on a pedestal should be regarded with awe. Having people conditioned not to think is a great way to avoid scrutiny. When I see clips of huge crowds at religious functions listening intently to the pious rambling of some guy in a funny dress, I can't help thinking about Einstein's words: "He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice." I didn't think along these lines before my stroke but now that I have had the time to read and reflect, I increasingly feel that religious faith is a problem and not a virtue.

There are way too many poor people in the world and it is not surprising that they unquestioningly accept what their priests tell them. People who are struggling to get two square meals a day or who are trapped in deadly conflict zones cannot reasonably be expected to ponder over the implications of faith. The simplistic explanations of religion that I find so unsatisfying seem to give them some kind of comfort in their daily struggles. What is puzzling is that many people who are much more privileged and very smart tend to think in the same way. The amount of cognitive dissonance that they can live with is staggering.

In this talk by Dan Dennett about some reasons why many people profess a 'belief' in god, one of the reasons he gives is a fear of a 'catastrophic collapse of consensus'. Perhaps this is the reason why some vitriolic comments about 'New Atheist' books have been by people who are themselves not believers. This fear is exemplified by some comments quoted in The Blank Slate (I saw a post last month about the book):
In a scene from Inherit the Wind, the play about the Scopes Monkey Trial, the prosecutor and defense attorney (based on William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow) are relaxing together after a day in court. The prosecutor says of the Tennessee locals:

They're simple people, Henry; poor people. They work hard and they need to believe in something, something beautiful. Why do you want to take it away from them? It's all they have.

That is not far from the attitude of the neocons. Kristol has written:

If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded - or even if it suspects - that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe.

He spells out the moral corollary:

There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work.

As the science writer Ronald Bailey observes, "Ironically today many modern conservatives fervently agree with Karl Marx that religion is 'the opium of the people'; they add a heartfelt, 'Thank God!'"
Another reason that Dennett gives is the love and respect we have for a lot of religious people. I have not been religious since my early teens so it should be easy for me to criticize religion but it isn't because of this constraint. Most of the people I know are religious to varying extents and I get along well with them. It doesn't feel good to criticize the cherished beliefs of those close to you even if you find them (the ideas not the people) weird. You tend to nod politely and swallow your words.