G C Lichtenberg: “It is as if our languages were confounded: when we want a thought, they bring us a word; when we ask for a word, they give us a dash; and when we expect a dash, there comes a piece of bawdy.”

W H Auden: "But in my arms till break of day / Let the living creature lie. / Mortal, guilty, but to me/ The entirely beautiful."

Will Self: “To attempt to write seriously is always, I feel, to fail – the disjunction between my beautifully sonorous, accurate and painfully affecting mental content, and the leaden, halting sentences on the page always seems a dreadful falling short. It is this failure – a ceaseless threnody keening through the writing mind – that dominates my working life, just as an overweening sense of not having loved with enough depth or recklessness or tenderness dominates my personal one.”

John Gray: "Unlike Schopenhauer, who lamented the human lot, Leopardi believed that the best response to life is laughter. What fascinated Schopenhauer, along with many later writers, was Leopardi’s insistence that illusion is necessary to human happiness."

Art Spiegelman: "You know words in a way are hitting you on the left side of your brain, music and visual arts hit on the right side of the brain, so the idea is to pummel you, to send you from left brain to right brain and back until you're as unbalanced as I am."

विलास सारंग: "संदर्भ कुठलेही असोत, संस्कृत, इंग्रजी, बुद्धिवादी, तांत्रिक, इतिहासाचे, खगोलशास्त्राचे, आधुनिक पदार्थविज्ञानाचे, शिवकालीन व पेशवाईतील बखरीचे, अगणित ज्ञानक्षेत्रांचे, अशा वैविध्यपूर्ण ज्ञानावर लेखन- विशेषत: कवितालेखन- उभं राहत."

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Why Minus Times a Minus Equals a Plus?

George Santayana:

"(Pierre-Simon) Laplace is reported to have said on his deathbed that science was mere trifling, and that nothing was real but love."

('The Life of Reason' / 'the Phases of Human Progress', in five volumes from 1905 to 1906)

George Orwell:

Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised?--for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modem talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except "Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it"? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised.

(Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933)

J Sri Raman

Nucleus and Nation' is especially recommended for anyone interested in studying, or engaged in a struggle against nuclear nationalism and militarism. Anderson helps us comprehend the history of an Indian science that has given the country the Bomb but no solution to socio-economic backwardness.

(EPW, April 23 2011)

Dr. Jayant Narlikar has written an essay "Don’t blind kids with science" (The Asian Age, April 13 2011)

He says:

"...Indeed, in general, our school science texts seek to present the subject in a cut and dried form so that the student gets the impression that it was always that way. He is not aware of the birth pangs suffered by the scientists involved, often being misled, sometimes running a race to establish priority, or even making an over-claim so as to attract more funds for future work. Ambient social conditions can play a significant part in deciding which way science moves. The rapid research on the atomic bomb was inspired by its potential importance as the ultimate weapon during World War II...

...Chandrasekhar is credited with the discovery of the mass limit on stable white dwarf stars. Reading the technical account of his work conveys the imaginativeness and depth of understanding of the young scientist, then under 25 in age. But such accounts do not convey his mental agony when he had to face severe criticism and ridicule from an unexpected quarter. No less a person than Eddington, in an unexpected attack on Chandrasekhar’s ideas, tore his theory apart. This confrontation took place in the august debating hall of the Royal Astronomical Society in London. The typical neutral person in the audience left the meeting under the impression that the idea of a rather inexperienced young scientist had been demolished by an experienced leader in the field. Yet, in science an ultimate objectivity eventually prevails. Within a few years Chandrasekhar was vindicated and went on to receive the Nobel Prize. But episodes like these need to be part of the student’s curriculum so as to give him or her the right perspective on science and its practitioners..."

Why do we want to give our students the right perspective on science and its practitioners?

1> I don't think most middle-class parents of India's students want their wards to have "the right perspective on science". They just want their kids to excel in competitive exams and get wealthy asap.

2> Most Indian corporates don't want their employees to have "the right perspective on science". They just want them to be able to execute "the straight line extrapolations" of the managements and meet quarterly earnings or sales quotas.

"The straight line extrapolations" is explained here by Stefan Stern:

"...As Rich Lyons, the dean of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, points out, the straight line extrapolations on a number of important graphs lead you to a pretty scary place.
Over the next few decades the earth’s population looks set to climb to about 9bn. Temperatures and sea levels are rising. But we may not have enough habitable land, water, energy or food to cope with these changed circumstances. Future healthcare costs in a world of greatly increased longevity are daunting. See it human. The outlook is bad..."

(FT, July 12 2010)

3> If we want to give "the right perspective on science", why not begin the effort by teaching them that science also is a kind of faith?

Betrand Russell explains:

"...The great scandals in the philosophy of science ever since the time of Hume have been causality and induction. We all believe in both, but Hume made it appear that our belief is a blind faith for which no rational ground can be assigned...

...Science, as it exists at present, is partly agreeable, partly disagreeable.

It is agreeable through the power which it gives us of manipulating our environment,and to a small but important minority it is agreeable because it affords intellectual satisfactions.

It is disagreeable because, however we may seek to disguise the fact, it assumes a determinism which involves, theoretically, the power of predicting human actions; in this respect, it seems to lessen human power.

Naturally people wish to keep the pleasant aspect of science without the unpleasant aspect; but so far the attempts to do so have broken down..."

To most students and their parents "it (the science) is agreeable through the power which it gives us of manipulating our environment".

"To a small but important minority" (that perhaps includes Dr. Narlikar), "it is agreeable because it affords intellectual satisfactions".

Let us turn to giving "the right perspective on practitioners of science".

Bertrand Russell:

"...We all know that Galileo and Darwin were bad men;...Almost all the Renaissance artists were bad men..."

Clive Cookson:

"The author (Michael Brooks) starts by reminding us of Einstein’s unappealing personal life – among other things making passes at his mistress’s daughter, breaking his promise to give all his Nobel prize money to his wife Mileva, evading tax and abandoning his schizophrenic son to die a “third-class” patient in a mental institution.

Then the book analyses the many “shady moments” in Einstein’s professional life: cherry-picking data to support his theories, appropriating advances made by others and, once he had made his name, using fame shamelessly for further self-advancement.
The equation most closely associated with Einstein, E=mc2, did not come as a surprise to those in the know when he first proposed it in 1905, Brooks claims. And Einstein failed in eight attempts to prove E=mc2 during the next 41 years, though others succeeded – yet he had appropriated the equation as his own and he dismissed attempts to set the record straight, with aggressive assertions of his “priority”..." (FT, July 8, 2011)

These guys were as human as us.

Alexander Waugh writes:

"... Mathematics, in which physicists vest unwarranted confidence, is far too blunt a tool. It worked for Newton, Maxwell and Einstein because they found equations that accurately described the classical world. But with the discovery, in the early 20th century, of quantum mechanics, everything changed. Subatomic particles do not behave like large visible objects. One cannot measure a particle’s position and its velocity at the same time; the arrow of time cannot be observed in particle interactions; and (so Hawking believes) for a particle to travel between two points it has to take every ‘possible path’ between them simultaneously. The number of possible paths from A to B is, he claims, infinite. If this is correct, then it becomes a feature of the quantum world that all history, and all possible histories, also take place simultaneously.

How can mathematics, however sophisticated, be up to the task of dealing with this? Numbers, after all, were created by humans to describe things in the observed world. They are adjectival. How can one ascribe a number to a particle, or to its position, or its velocity if, while travelling from A to B, it is said to be in an infinite number of places simultaneously?

If numbers are not to be trusted, then it follows that mathematics is even worse. Have you ever tried asking a mathematician why a minus times a minus equals a plus? Try it. He cannot answer, except by specific reference to the man-made artificialities of algebra. Outside of these, the concept has no application and no meaning. One should be equally suspicious of mathematical infinities. In very simple terms, if you divide 10 by three in base ten you get 3.3 recurring (infinitely). Equally you could say that the answer is 31/3 with no infinite recurrence. In his famous Brief History of Time, as well as in the present book, Hawking finds himself constantly frustrated in his attempts to describe the universe because of the ‘plague of infinities’ that come into his maths at every turn...."

(The Spectator, 11th September 2010)

Therefore, sure we can teach our students science using a wider canvas but, more importantly, why not we teach them our great books, classics?

That might give them the right perspective, not just on science and its practitioners, but on much larger thing called life.

Artist: Mischa Richter, The New Yorker, 16 June 1962