Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Dunking doughnuts and weighing souls

Few days ago I finished reading an amazing book: "Weighing the Soul - Scientific Discovery from the Brilliant to the bizarre". The author of the book is Len Fisher; the honorary research fellow at University of Bristol and more interestingly the winner of the Ig Nobel prize for his research into the science behind dunking biscuits and doughnuts. His first book "How to dunk a doughnut: The science of everyday life" is next on my reading list.

"Weighing the soul..." is captivating. It talks about the debates and fights that led to the evolution of some of the most important scientific ideas in today's world. Len Fisher takes the reader behind the curtains of some of the best dramas on the stage of science in the 20th century. He describes the bizarre experiments attemting to weigh the souls (of humans, dogs and rats!) and attempts to convert ordinary materials into gold. We hear about the travails of Galileo and how they may have helped bring forth some great science which finds widespread relevance today. We learn the interesting details in the efforts to understand the nature of light and electricity. Len Fisher gives the account of "battles" between two ideas proposed by scientific minds...E.g. Isaac Newton and Thomas Young about the nature of light or between Galvani and Volta about the nature of electricity... or even more interesting between the pointed lightening rods proposed by Ben Franklin and the blunt tipped ones proposed byBenjamin Wilson.

In the chapter on the nature of life, Fisher portrays the attempts to understand what life means and the clash between the mechanists (who sought to explain all life phenomena by the means of known physical laws) and the vitalists (who proposed the necessity of a "vital force" being imbued in living organisms). It is interesting to find that although the mechanists won the day... the contributions to the science made by both sides are equally valuable. Fisher brings out this point very cogently. The "battle of ideas" described by him form a backdrop to the emergence of the winning idea with each side making significant contributions to the final appearance of the winner.

Seeing this "behind the scenes" footage I realized that science is afterall a human enterprise... and it comes with all the usual baggage... ego clashes, personal attacks and pitched battles for dominance. I also thought about the ridiculous "debate" going on in US these days over Darwinian evolution. The ideas that are being proposed as alternative "theories" to Darwin's evolution have been proposed before and they have lost. The vitalist proposing the necessity of a "vital force" were definitely influenced by their religious beliefs. They lost the battle of ideas not because they were not good scientists... they lost the battle of ideas because they could not provide any testable, measurable evidence of their idea... experimental evidence which forms the bedrock of science. They lost because the opposing idea could be tested, could be observed and could explain all the phenomena in question.

I guess today there is so much anxiety and fear about the idea of evolution because it seems like it is out there to remove the role of God from human life. Scientists are not out there to destroy God... but so far science has not felt the need to invoke God into the picture. Scientists are not atheists bent on destroying religion... but science has been successful to an amazing degree in explaining almost all of the things around us without invoking a God or a creator or a designer. Scientists take this success as an indicator that nature is "knowable".... that we can understand phenomena in nature by means of "laws" and "principles" and "theories" which can be tested. Some think that this "knowability" of nature is an article of faith among the scientists. But I feel there is huge degree of success to back it up.

However I cannot bring myself to disagree with one point that Fisher makes in the chapter "What is life?". In the concluding paragraph discussing about the issue of what we know about the nature of life (p163) he says...
No amount of extra scientific information is likely to resolve this issue. The argument is not scientific alone, although some scientists argue there is no point in believing something that cannot be confirmed or refuted by scientific tests. To my mind, this is committing the same fallacy as Driesch did when he could only imagine one way that an intracellular machine might function and decided this was therefore the only way it could function. The fallacy in the first case leads to a hubristic materialism and in the latter case to an equally hubristic philosophy of vitalism. The balance point of view is surely to say that any belief (such as a mechanistic view of life) that can be tested against reality should be, but that does not mean that beliefs that cannot be tested are not true.
It is clear that the difference between science and "not science" IS the difference between beliefs that can be tested and those that cannot be tested. But Fisher issues a note of caution to believers on both sides. I think this kind of balanced stance in necessary if we want to avoid the battle between science and faith that seems ever so close.

"Weighing the soul - Scientific Discovery from the Brilliant to the Bizarre", Len Fisher. Arcade Publishing, New York. 1st U.S Edition. 2004. (ISBN 1-55970-732-1)

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Here and There

There are so many things that I feel I am interested in... or want to do. Increasingly I am having a feeling that I simply dabble in many things and give them up after a short while. Not that I lost interest in most of the things... over time I find myself dabbling in those same things over and over... but without any definite structure or organization to it. So I decided not to take up anything new unless I can make a project out of it. Further... not to take more that 3 projects at a time (and this is regarding things that I do apart from work... ;-))

So here are some projects I have defined for myself:
  1. Binocular messier club: To build my interest in amatuer astronomy I bought a pair of 11x56mm binoculars last December. Have being using them pretty frequently now. So now the project is to observe all the Messier objects in the Astronomy League's binocular Messier Club program. That will give some structure to my observations. It will also need a fair bit of planning and regularity in my part... which is good... I guess :-) plus I will get a binocular messier club certificate too!
  2. The tree thing: (for lack of a better name)... a few weeks ago I picked up a field guide to north American trees at the local B&N. (No! its not the leather bound Audubon Society one... its a simple laminated pamplet kind). So the project for me is to go on short hikes around State College and get familiar with the trees. I know so few of them around here... I feel bad sometimes. When I was in India, Sampada and I had to run into a bookstore when the heavens started pouring suddenly. There I saw a really nice field guide to trees and shrubs in the Western Ghats. I wanted to buy it but it was a bit expensive and I was not gonna roam in the Sahyadris any soon in the forseeable future (if there is such a thing!). So I decided not to buy it then... but that is going to be on my project list one day! Oh! and I want to not my observations in a notebook or a sketch book.
  3. The website thing: I have tried once in a while to put up a small website but haven't gone anywhere with that. I was talking with my friend Manish with that yesterday. Only recently I figured out how to put devanagari text on the web using unicode compatible fonts. See the main reason why I wanted to put up my website was I wanted to have many of the Marathi and a few Hindi poems that I like to be online.... which leads me to a new project
  4. The poems thing: Over a while I have managed to collect a lot of my favourite Marathi, Hindi and English poems. But they are in different formats and some are just prints. So I want to put them up on the web in an orderly way. So the project is to put all the Marathi and Hindi poems in a nice format and then put them up on my website.
Actually as I am writing this I realized that there are still many more things out of which I can make similar projects. So I decided to stop at this point and just finish the projects that I have already chalked out here...

Wish me well!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Back to the roots

I am back from a trip to India. So there has been a huge gap in posting on my blog. My last post... made yesterday was in Marathi (my mothertongue). It seems that now I can post in Marathi... or devanagari script using unicode compatible fonts! I am thinking of starting another blog to post exlusively in Marathi. trip to India was really amazing. We were there for 2 months. We went around a lot... ate a lot of mangoes... enjoyed(!) the scorching summer... enjoyed a little bit of the monsoon (we got back before it REALLY poured and caused all the flooding and damage in Mumbai and other areas). It was refreshing to meet family and friends after almost two and a half years.

My trip was more important because it gave me direction in a way!! I have posted my thoughts on how I want to get organized better and improve my productivity and efficiency and all that schmear. I realized during and after my trip that the best way to do that was to "go back to the roots". I realized that no amount of philosophy, techniques, seven habits (or more)... can work for me unless the philosophy, the techniques, the WAY comes from my roots... things with which I grew up... things which I can relate to... things which had an influence on me.

I grew up in a middleclass Marathi brahmin family in a small town - Kirloskarwadi. When I was in 3rd grade... I had my Upanayan Sanskar - a ritual which was originally intended to begin the student life with the Guru (teacher). After that my grandfather taught me the Sandhya-vandan (a prayer from the Rigveda). I used to perform the Sandhya-vandan pretty regularly till I was in 8th or 9th grade. I didn't know the meaning of the sanskrit prayer... but I used to do it faithfully.

My father is very active in the Swadhyaya movement started by Pandurang Shastri Athavale. (more about Swadhyaya sometime else...) When I went back this time I read a few inspiring books by Pandurang Shastri Athavale. I also went with my father to visit the small villages of Male and Disli is Mulshi Taluka in Pune. My father goes to these villages to visit the people, learn about their life, be a part of them and then give them the message of swadhyaya. I saw how people have been transformed by a simple message of selfhelp. All this had a fairly big impact on me. I decided to try it out for myself... starting with Trikaal Sandhya (or prayers three times a day).

So far I have found that it helps... it is helping me in many different ways. How? Why? I do not fully understand. But I feel that it definitely has got something to do with my roots. The things that I have learned as a child... not in the school... but informally... from my grandfather, from my mother... all of them have come from the Indian philosophy. Their origins were in the various philosophies, mythologies, stories and traditions that form the core of what is popularly known as Hindu religion (which in my opinion is not really a religion... its more like a way of life... but more about it later sometime). The problems I was facing needed self-help and the best inspiration for self-help 'for me' (and I qualify it this way because I don't think this is true for everyone) is my own roots... the philosophy of my ancestors.

Since then I have read a lot. Primarily I read books by Pandurang shastri Athavale. I always liked reading books by Swami Vivekananda. I read some more of his works. Most important of all... I read the complete Bhagwad Geeta. I have found a lot of help, inspiration and direction from these readings. The effect that these have had in such a small time have deepened my belief that the answer to my questions lies in my roots...

There is a lot that I still need to learn... but I feel that I have taken the right road... the road back to my roots.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

मराठीतून ब्लॉग (Blogging in Marathi)

॥ श्री योगेश्वरोविजयतेतराम॥

नमस्कार. मराठीतून ब्लॉग लिहीण्याचा हा पहीलाच प्रयत्न आहे माझा. बघू किती टिकतो ते.

Update (10/06/05): For those who cannot make the head or tail of the stuff above: This is Devanagari script and Marathi language. It is the same script (with small variations) used for writing in Hindi and Sanskrit. Thanks to Unicode compatible fonts I can now post in my mother tongue.

I use Itranslator2003 software (available free) to transliterate Itrans encoded text.

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