Sunday, 30 December 2007

Laugh, and the whole world laughs with you;
Weep and you weep alone.

-Oldboy (2003)

Sunday, 23 December 2007

A operational definition of free will?

Though I admit to have not given much serious thought to the problem of free will, it certainly is an important one in philosophy. Expressed in simple terms, it asks the following question: "Are our thoughts and actions consequences of decisions made by a larger entity or is it through our own agency?" The presence or the absence of God has always been thought of as a corollary to this answer and my aim in this blog is not to pose an answer but just to complicate the problem further.

Some reasonable people I know, who believe in the non-existence of free will (or are at least inclined towards believing so) state first that our life is governed by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. No known experiment has, till date, demonstrated the violation of the second law of thermodynamics or achieved speeds faster than that of light. In that regard, I fully agree with them that every known thing in this universe is constrained to obey these laws in its day to day dealings. But does that mean one doesn't have free will?

Let's narrow our speculation to the things on this earth that possess both life and consciousness. A person likes me decides what time to wake up, what cuisine to eat for dinner, what movie to watch and what books to read. I'd like to call the options in each case as degenerate cases under the laws of physics. A recent essay I read about the "finite nature of consciousness" said the following:
Now we know that the brain is a finite physical object, containing roughly 100 million neurons and 100 billion synapses linking the neurons together. But by consciousness being finite, I mean something stronger: that there are only finitely many lives that could possibly be lived; and that therefore free will, if it exists, must at some level be simply the selection of an element from a finite set. The goals of this article are threefold: to show that this proposition is true; to discuss how it affects Penrose's theory of consciousness; and finally to explain why we needn't worry about the finiteness of our minds.

Now this is a slightly disturbing scenario and the reason is this. I don't know much about how our neurons work but if all of them are finite state machines and if that amounts to saying that the total number of states (or configurations) they can take is finite, then this effectively says that the number of thoughts/actions I am capable of is a finite number. The very reason this is disturbing because of the following: As an agnostic, I find it very difficult to believe in the existence of a god who controls my day to day affairs like a puppeteer. I am willing to accommodate a deistic god, in the very least, a creator who rolled the first domino and let the world be. But if I am capable of only finite states, this effectively makes the deistic god capable of specifying a particular trajectory in phase space for every living thing that ever stepped on this earth, one that will be unique (assuming the world will end before as many living beings as the total neuron states step on this earth. The latter is a big big number) but then something that is known before hand. It's like every action that I perform, thinking it has come from my personal choices, has been chronicled in some book in the heavens.

But then an idea from James Gleick's Chaos managed to temporarily placate my fears. I have already mentioned the Lorenz Attractor in one of my earlier posts. Lorenz investigated the following system of deterministic equations in 1963. I downloaded a copy of the original paper and plan to read it as soon as I find some time.

\frac{dx}{dt}  = \sigma (y - x)
\frac{dy}{dt} = x (\rho - z) - y
\frac{dz}{dt}  = xy - \beta z

He found two things - the system never settles down to a steady state. In other words it has a trajectory which never repeats itself over time and it is impossible to predict its state unless one numerically follows the equations themselves. At the same time the states of the system are bound - they don't blow up or become infinite. The phase portrait of the system looks like the following (x, y and z plotted on three orthogonal axes with time):

This elucidates an important fact in case you haven't noticed it yet. Suppose I were a deistic God and I decided that a human X would be governed by the system of three deterministic equations above. The boundedness of the solution would be the equivalent laws of physics that govern terrestrial behaviour (indeed in the case of the equations this seems to be embedded and doesn't call for any extra intervention). But then this deterministic systems yields a solution that is chaotic in a bounded region. It is deterministic but you don't know what it's gonna do next. Another point in this case is that the solution is extremely sensitive to the initial conditions of the differential equations.

My argument is hardly complete and I do not intend to reach a denouement here. All I wanted to share was that it is possible to reconcile determinism with free will in a way. Whatever the system is going to do exists as hidden information in the three simple differential equations. But it is impossible for a person to deduce that unless the system itself is simulated. And then again, knowing the system at a point in time is not going to help one realize what it's gonna be doing ten milliseconds, hours or years from then.

Saturday, 22 December 2007


What do you do when your day is filled with activities you don't want to involve yourself in? Vacation time in IIT is hard time. One finds oneself tethered when one goes home, so I try my best to avoid it. My sister is lost in her sophomore world of malls and college fests; my mom finds her solace in watching every cookery show on the television and there isn't much I have to talk to her too. Dad is pleasant to talk to but it isn't very often that two workaholics find time for each other. Socializing with friends has decreased considerably and I find it more and more difficult these days to be part of groups on a regular basis unless there is a specific purpose. The unfortunate part of being me is that I am the kind of person who ends up dominating conversations and I don't know whether the others are enjoying my company or meekly tolerating me while we're at it. I don't enjoy chatting very much either but then that's the only way I can keep touch with some people who're important to me. Long conversations bore and tire me and I stop responding and act callous after a point of time. This has led me to hurt some in a way that I did not intend to. I feel stupid. I feel sorry. One wants people but only wants them so much.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Math remedial class on Thursday is something I'd like to erase from my memory. And the reason is because I lost my patience with the kids that day. Teaching has become a bleak activity these days and for a long time I attributed it to what I call 'midterm crisis' among the students. One normally starts off fresh at the start of the year, with crisp new notebooks, upgraded classrooms and fresh topics to learn. It is the time when the academic load hasn't yet piled on and one's senses can discern the smell of the rain soaked mud while getting familiar with new lessons. It is a gestation period that seemingly welcomes an eager mind with ease and anticipation. But as the term progresses, the burden increases, concepts are like bouncers on a seamer's paradise, the same eager mind is at wit's end and to add to the symbolism, even the textbooks start disintegrating, echoing the owner's disability to maintain her/his constitution as the world races ahead. The boredom shows even on the teachers who start feeling consummated with the disinterest of their students. It was one such class on Thursday where for the hundredth time they couldn't remember how to crossmultiply two fractions, how to reduce simple algebraic expressions and other such things. I snapped and made a few condescending remarks. I've normally been extremely patient but I lost control that day and a weird feeling grappled me that very moment. It was probably a feeling of resignation. For the rest of the class I submissively solved all the problems on the board, explaining each step but not bothering to ask them questions to gauge how much seeped in. When I walked out of my class that day, I was sure they hadn't understood a thing of the shit I wrote so neatly on the blackboard.

I saw Taare Zameen Par today and I'm happy to have seen it at a moment as appropriate as this. I cannot sit and articulate everything, but I did learn two or three things from the movie, even if you'd like to call them quotidian. It was a beautiful film (despite some overtly melodramatic moments where I heartlessly smirked as the lady next to me was reaching for her handkerchief). But all said and done, amidst discourses from the Heisenbergs, Goethes and the Dawkinses of the world, a couple of hours at the cinemas is a necessary respite to help you realise that your feet are stuck to the ground. And it is a happy feeling to know that there is still much ground to cover :)

Einstein was a giant. His head was in the clouds, but his feet were on the ground. Those of us who are not so tall have to choose!
- Richard Feynman

Tuesday, 18 December 2007


Reading James Gleick's bestseller had been long overdue. Nonetheless I'm happy that I've finally gotten down to reading it. It is certainly one of the best pop-sci books ever and without second thought I shall ascribe it to the same pedigree as The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins or Six not so easy pieces by Richard Feynman or What Evolution is by Ernst Mayr. I lay down a few thoughts that came across my mind as I read the book. I also add the disclaimer that some of these would be unapologetically nerdy.

1. Non-linear dynamics is beautiful. I don't understand why the chemical engineering curriculum at IITB avoids it. Even in the most utilitarian sense, I think an advanced course in non-linear dynamics can be a reasonable inclusion. I've heard that much work has been done in investigating the nonlinear dynamics of reactors by Amundson and Aris so it's not really a field alien to chemical engineering.

2. The poster child of non-linear dynamics or chaos theory is the so called Lorenz attractor. A simple system of 3 deterministic ordinary non-linear differential equations yields a solution with time that neither shows periodicity nor converges to a limit. Interestingly it was published in a journal of meteorology and was hardly noticed for nearly ten years. Now that Chaos theory has developed thanks to people like Feigenbaum, Mandelbrot and Smale any standard exposition on chaos begins by describing the Lorenz attractor. But it's nonetheless interesting to see that the genesis of ideas that led to such a rich theory involving physics and mathematics could come from a non-specialist in either. So much for the chauvinists!

3. "Turbulence", Gleick says, "is a problem with pedigree". Apparently Heisenberg is known to have quoted that when the time comes he "would have two questions for God, why relativity and why turbulence?" He added, "I think He will have an answer to the first question."

Sunday, 16 December 2007

The emotion of scholarship

I was reading Nirad Chaudhuri's Autobiography of an Unknown Indian when I was at home this weekend. In one of the later chapters, the author tries to recollect his initiation into academic pursuits, particularly the study of history. He spends quite sometime arguing the case for scholarship at the same time describing the people, books and events that motivated him to become a writer. I was particularly captivated by a phrase he used - "to feel the emotion of scholarship". Many writers, particularly postmodern ones, often use the motif of verbal impotence or the incapability of words to articulate an emotion in their writings. I remembered this point being enunciated by my instructor in a recent literature elective I took as I read Chaudhuri's words, while at the same time remembering my failed attempts at convincing some of my friends and relatives about the career choice I intend to make. As I try to express my passion for science and desire to pursue it further to their patronizing air of presumptuousness, all I receive in return is rhetoric that presses me on to choose the utilitarian in the name of prudence. I give up for I do not want to act apologetic. What else can an unaccomplished romantic do?

He can tell the world to fuck off!

Friday, 14 December 2007

The incomplete man

If I had to come up with a motif to describe myself, the most conspicuous one would be 'incompleteness'. And I don't mean it in any congratulatory sense whatsoever. I was 'gung-ho' when I started this blog, determined to be regular, verbose and prolific. That sure went down the drain.

I haven't completed a book cover to cover for a long time. I seem to live in the past. The worse thing is that I seem to enjoy it. I quit reading 'India after Gandhi' just before the economic liberalizations set in. The second stage of my thesis is done with and I feel a sense of complacency has set in. I fear incompleteness but I'm wondering if I can help it.

I see incompleteness in my thoughts, my opinions, my expressions and also my ambitions. I reciprocate to people incompletely. Even my love is incomplete. So is my hate.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

remembrance of a thing past

As far as I can remember my childhood, I had always been amidst prayers and piety. All elders in my family were deeply religious; both my grandfathers would wake up early and conduct a full length puja in the prayer-room before going to work. It was convention that the eldest member in the family had to perform the puja and therefore my dad filled in my grandfather's role when the latter used to be away or ill. It was on weekends and holidays that I experienced the smell of my house in the mornings - the incense and camphor were so strong that I used to be woken up by their smell. When I was with my maternal grandparents, I would be woken up by my grandfather's chants. His voice was stentorian, passionate and pious but his way of recitation had also a deep sense of melody and meter. In contrast to my paternal grandfather who recited his prayers in a colourless monotone my mother's father used to sing his verses rather than chant them. I believe the tunes were his own compositions but what is remarkable is that they could easily diffuse into the memory of even a casual listener like me. I confess that I have never said a prayer sincerely throughout my life whenever I was asked to offer one either at home or in a temple. Post some recent reading, deliberations and introspection (more about them later) I consider myself an atheist and have successfully removed the last vestiges of God and the associated notions of intelligent design from my mind and my heart. But I was surprised today to hear myself singing out Kalidasa's Shyamala-dandakam that was one of my grandfather's favourite shlokas that he set to his own tune. Though I don't remember it in its entirety I still find it remarkable that these three-four verses flowed out of a long abandoned memory cave. The poetry sounded beautiful and the meter was perfect. I don't know the meaning of the words (indeed why would one bother to find out the meaning of a song which hitherto one did not even know existed in one's memory) but I confess that the words have a beautiful sound. Legend says that Kalidasa, India's most famous poet of the classical era was a dim-witted and illiterate simpleton who fell in love with a beautiful princess. When he expressed his love to her, she mocked his ignorance and humiliated him in front of the courtiers. He then went and cried at the feet of the village goddess and asked for redemption. He wept and cursed himself for a full three days at the goddess's feet. All of a sudden a flash of light appeared in the sanctum sanctorum and Kalidasa felt invigorated. Then, as if it were a miracle, he found that he could compose poetry. Shyamala-dandakam was his first composition that he dedicated to the goddess whose benediction had endowed him with the talent and the language that he had longed for. My grandfather, among all his stories that revolved around gods and their miracles told me this one too, enunciating that the Shyamala-dandakam was a symbol of knowledge that came from divine provenance. Reciting it daily, he said, would bring one intelligence and forbearance. My maternal grandfather is a remarkable man (every grandson would say this way about his grandfather but I wont say the same about my other grand-dad whose life and times have never taught me anything that I particularly treasure) and there is possibly no family member whom I respect and revere as much as him. Notwithstanding that I confess that I never believed in what he said about Shyamala-dandakam then or now or ever. But although he was unsuccessful in indoctrinating me with his piety, he did unconsciously manage to show me that beauty need not buttress itself on the stilts of faith.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Remedial math

I went to campus school sharp at 5:15 to find the other volunteers waiting for me. I was immediately informed that I would be teaching 9th and 10th class students in two back to back one hour lectures. This was supposed to be a math remedial class, primarily doubt clearing and problem solving sessions. I told them immediately that it would not be possible for me to commit to two hours every weekday and that I would like to take it slow. Sunita, the senior volunteer smiled a face that expressed both helplessness and deference, an subliminal way of saying that we are desperately short of volunteers but if you cannot do this, we'll respect that. I finally agreed to take math classes from 5 to 6:30, the first half for the 9th standard students and the second half for the 10th standard students.

I was told that the 9th class students are awaiting me in the classroom and I immediately requested one of the volunteers to brief me on the topics to teach and give me a copy of the textbook. He gave the usual sheepish smile of smug unpreparedness and told me that I could borrow a textbook from a student. With a sip of exasperation I stepped into the class to find a whole flock of chirpy 9th class students waiting for me. They were 15 girls and a mere two boys, all of whom got up and chanted "Good evening, Sir" as if it were an evolutionary response to the stimulus of seeing an authoritative figure entering the classroom. I was introduced by the volunteers as an expert in 'macs' who will teach them to solve all relevant problems in the textbook. They were reminded that it was their responsibility to ask me to solve all the 'hard problems' in the textbook. Once the volunteer left thrusting a bunch of blackboard chalks in my hand, I borrowed a textbook from one of the students. I admitted to the class that I had come unprepared and asked them for their choice of lesson for the day. There were shouts of 'Chapter 1' and 'Chapter 2' and I was most dejected to find that they were 'Set Theory' and 'Real Numbers' respectively. The venn diagrams and the number lines gave me a most tiresome feeling and I flipped on to chapter 3. It was on 'Surds' and I told the class that I would teach them chapter 3 since chapter 1 and chapter 2 were very 'easy' (Cantor and Dedekind would be turning on their graves for sure but I assure the reader that my reference was only to the way these two subjects were exposited in the textbook that lay in my hands). I glanced at the first few pages of the chapter and was just about to begin my lesson with the customary definition of the subject of the chapter when I realised that I had to tell them about rational- irrational numbers in order to define surds. I ended up telling them about numbers in general and also platitudes like "All surds are irrational, but all irrationals are not surds" (While chuckling silently the beautiful pun associated with the first half of the sentence). Then we went on to surds and I realised that they needed a recapitulation on the laws of indices too. The kids pressed me to solve problems on the board - converting mixed surds into pure surds and back, problems that applied laws of surds (I found it pretty difficult to convince that these were the same as the laws of indices. The silly educational board reverts back to using the antiquated square, cube, nth root signs in the 9th standard after teaching them indices using the standard and convenient one-half, one-third and one over nth power of numbers. Talk about falling over backwards!) - problems that absolutely made no sense and taught you nothing but nonetheless had to be worked out as drills. I felt they were reasonably smart kids who had unfortunately been brainwashed by the ritualistic approach of their school teachers and hence found it difficult to think and solve the problem. I gave them a couple of problems to solve on their own and could immediately discern by their struggle that they were desperately trying to follow each ritualistic rite from memory and hope that they would arrive at the magical answer.

Half an hour into the class, my volunteer friend knocks on the door and tells me that there a bunch of sixth standard kids whose teacher has bunked today's class. He asked me if it would be 'okay' if they just sat in the back benches and solved their exercises silently while I taught and posed their doubts to me in short intervals while I was instructing the 9th class directly. I said so long as they wouldn't get disturbed by my loud voice I dont have a problem. One small girl in that batch called me over meekly and showed out a problem in the textbook which demanded the expression of 3401 in powers of ten. I had only a minute to attend to her while the 9th standard class was busy copying down a solution I had wrote down on the board and I found myself helplessly explaining her the mantra for the solution - "Move rightward from the first digit to the units digit. Express the number as additions of that digit multiplied by ten raised to the power of the place". She seemed happy and satisfied and I kept wondering about the ordeal I'd have to go through if I started explaining bases to this little one.

When it was 6:00 I bid goodbye to this class and went to the 10th standard class. They were four boys who told me to teach them simultaneous linear equations in two variables. The textbook described a most tiresome and stupid method by sketching the lines on a graph and checking for their point of intersection. I decided to disregard it and explain the simple method of elimination of variables which was straightforward and consumed a lot less paper. I explained the principle in Hindi and gave them a sample problem to solve. They displayed struggle at the very first step and I finally yielded to the yoke of my patience and showed them how to eliminate x from the two equations. What remained was 4y - 5 = 0 and I looked at the four of them for an answer. Confidently one of them tells me 'y=9'. I was agape for this was something I would have expected my 9th class students to be very comfortable with. It was then that I realised I had taken for granted the aptitude of these kids and I felt bad about it. As if 'y=9' was not enough, another boy announced that it was actually 'y=20' with an air of pedagogy while simultaneously correcting his friend as he gave me the answer. A little probing made me realise that these guys had their basic arithmetic completely fucked up. And I now realise its going to be tougher teaching mathematics to these guys than it was to teach English to those kids from the vernacular medium.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Eternal Sunshine of the spotless mind

It was no matter of serendipity that the gorgeous Eloisa had fallen in love with her charming and erudite teacher Abelard. He was the most renowned philosopher in Paris, a man of high intellect, a man respected in academic circles for his mastery over the Latin and Greek scriptures. One may be inclined to think that men endowed with such sublime intelligence are not men who possess bodies that are objects of a woman's fantasy. But Eloisa found that Abelard possessed both - a corporeal confidence that brought her the much needed assurance of protection as well as the polish of a highly refined intelligence that appeals to a woman of finer taste. Their love burgeouned and broke through the walls of classroom etiquette. Philosophy became synonymous to studying the aphorisms of love penned over centuries by master poets, natural science became an excuse to sneak out of the confines of the palace and make love in the woods and art was learnt by the sensation and perception of each other's bodies that had been destined to meet by divine providence.

Alas! The lovers were seen together in proximate unity by a maid servant who reported the misconduct to the girl's family. Outraged and offended at the audacity of the teacher, they apprehended Abelard and tortured him into confessing his love. Upon extracting his confession, Eloisa's eldest brother, the sinister red-bearded Victor ordered that Abelard be castrated for his impudence. One chop, and the eunuch saw the bloodied vestige, of what had once made him a very desirable man, lay upon the ground. For all that was worth, the eunuch decided to spend the rest of his life away on the mountains and seek refuge in a monastery. He bade goodbye to his beloved one last time and blessed his seed that lay in her womb not with the intent of revenge but redemption. Eloisa gripped her stomach suffocating her tears before the horror that had befallen her life. The eunuch looked up to the heavens and thanked God for liberating Abelard from the throes of lust.

That night she dreamed of Abelard, the most handsome and desirable man she had yet known. She felt her anguish echo the still nascent unbearable sexual feelings for her former lover. Even the pity she felt for him seemed to arise from the lava of unfulfilled desire and longing for the man and his body. She knew that God was watching. She was disgusted by the naked callousness of her own lust. Knowing that the Abelard could no longer satisfy any of her desires now, she was still surprised how her mind was not willing to let go of her desires. She knew that if Abelard the eunuch were to come before her, she would not be able to contain herself from the erotic impulses that seemed only to intensify with the minute. But however true these feelings of mine for Abelard, she thought, must I not beg at his feet for forgiveness for the misfortune that has atrophied him? He who lost his dignity and self-respect because of me, does he not deserve my sincerest apologies? But how will I contain my desire, God, when it has not yet matured into the love and empathy that I am expected to feel for him? Therefore God, I cannot seek forgiveness for I cannot curb these urges that make me covet the impossible. Spare me from this ordeal, God and grant me forgetfullness for all its worth.

No, fly me, fly me, far pole as from pole;
Rise Alps between us! and whole oceans roll!
Ah, come not, write not, think not once of me,
Nor share one pang of all I felt for thee.
How happy is the blameless vestal's lot
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd .

All the while I was watching the movie this afternoon, I kept reprimanding myself to not have watched it earlier. I had heard reviews saying the movie is incomprehensible and bounces from scene to scene changing the point of reference as frequently. The reviews are not entirely untrue but once I realised way the narrative was architectured, each scene was a delight. I shall not provide details of the plot here for the movie is just too good to miss and I fear I might give away too many spoilers. According to me this was Jim Carrey's second best performance till date (right below the wonderful "The Truman Show") but Kate Winslet was absolutely stunning. It is by far the best love story I have seen and I haven't had the patience for too may. Watch it watch it!!

Sunday, 24 June 2007


Yesterday, I happened to chance upon a copy of Ek ruka hua faisla, the desi remake of the classic Hollywood drama 12 Angry men on the LAN. The latter is perhaps the most fitting example of a movie with a script whose maximal evaluation rests on the verdict of the movie watcher's intelligence. For those who haven't watched the film, here's an outline of the plot and a complimentary advice - Watch it immediately!

A 12 member jury team is all set to begin deliberations on the fate of an immigrant 19 year old boy accused of murdering his father with a switch-knife. At the start of discussion, a preliminary vote indicates that 11 of the 12 jury members think the boy is guilty. Only juror #8 (a most memorable role by Henry Fonda) votes not guilty, more so because he is not entirely convinced and considers it ethically wrong to send the boy to the gallows without discussing about the case properly. A much heated discussion ensues and the details of the case slowly emerge out. Each juror represents a distinct character and it gets really interesting to see how each character unfolds in parallel to the discussion on the case. One by one, Fonda argues each point of the evidence against the boy and gradually convinces the entire jury that there is indeed reasonable doubt in the evidence. The entire length of the film is set inside a single room and yet thanks to the intense dialogues and wonderful execution is a gripper from start to end. Each performance is memorable, from the boobyish juror #2, the most obnoxious and irritating juror #10, the curt and self-assured juror #4 and the old and wise juror #9. But the most memorable performance comes from Lee. J. Cobb, who plays juror #3. He initially starts of as a pleasant businessman claiming to be impartial in his analysis of the case. However, as time goes on he becomes more and more passionate and seems to be somehow personally involved with the case. He also starts to show some signs of slight mental instability which is revealed at the very end when he irrationally sticks to claiming the boy as being guilty. All in all, 12 angry men is top class cinema that is not to be missed.

Considering the pedigree of the source, I began to watch Ek ruka hua faisla with sincere interest and anticipation. This was not even mainstream Hindi cinema and had a cast composed of character actors. The wonderful Pankaj Kapoor played the role of Juror #3, which, as I said is arguably the most complex role in the film. The role of Juror #8 was played by K. K. Raina, who if you would remember, played the role of Sunny Deol's brother in Ghatak (Yes! I used to watch all hindi movies when in school. Now proceed with the reading!). But the movie was lacklustre and nor was Pankaj Kapoor as wonderful as he usually is. Raina was the only actor who tried to bring some meat into his role in a film that turned out to be comically melodramatic as opposed to the intellectual and dramatic intensity of its predecessor(which was made almost 30 years before this one!). Our directors sometimes forget that the intensity in an argument rests on the dialogue rather than the loudness of the speaker. Anu Kapoor who played the role of the wise old juror #9 was an ignominy and was wobbling like a door-knob as if he were desperate to miraculously age into his character. What was majestically accomplished in an hour and thirty six minutes in 12 anrgy men took almost two and a half hours in a remake as opprobious as this. What was even more belittling to the writers of this movie was that the script was an exact replica of the hollywood gospel it referred to. And they could not even translate word to word competently! And as was expected it was Ache ruka hua faisla by the time it ended.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Selfish to the core - Part 3

Many believe that the living world would have originated as a chaotic society of tiny molecules constituting what is referred to as the primeval soup. Among these molecules arose a particularly formidable character called the replicator (which we have referred to earlier) whose uniqueness lay in the fact that it could make copies of itself and spread through the primeval soup. The DNA of today, in character, is an example of a replicator that survived over the ages and functioned as the basis for the synthesis of higher organisms. There would have been many replicator molecules that would have fought each other over dominion of the natural world over the ages because common and limited resources for survival necessitated competition. Some replicators would have come together and recognised prudence in complicity against others in the soup thus forming even bigger replicator molecules. Indeed, the DNA that we find today in living organisms may be very much unlike these original replicators that existed and propagated in the primeval soup, but the principle on which it functions and propagates has not changed. As Dawkins puts it succinctly, the three characteristics that a replicator must possess if it has to survive in the natural world are longevity, fecundity and copying-fidelity. Is there a basic motive (purely functional in nature and nothing to do with consciousness, as defined in Part 1) at a more fundamental level of which the three aforementioned properties of a replicator are direct consequences? The DNA of any living organism in the world is a map of its psychobiological characteristics. Living beings have evolved over ages up the ladders of natural selection- able bodied organisms of today from the chaotic molecules of the primeval soup through extremely elaborate evolutionary processes over many millions of years - and it is known that it is the replicator (or simply put, the DNA) indeed that holds the masterplan over generations. Thus, can we identify a suitable 'motive' for these replicators that will unveil the process of evolution through the eyes of natural selection?

In this confessedly small exposition (though I realise now that it is far from that), I suddenly find myself juggling at a single place with a number of concepts that were developed over three elaborate chapters in "The Selfish Gene". But I have, to the best of my abilities, tried to maintain a logical chronology of thought in the way I that I received these ideas albeit putting them through a lot of condensation. Coming back to where we were, I had mentioned in my last post that a DNA was divided into sections called the chromosomes which in turn were further divided into genes. Thus, any modern replicator is nothing but a conglomeration of genes. A more enterprising and indeed interesting way to look at it is that it were these unitary genes that were the original replicators in the primeval soup. The properties of longevity, fecundity and high copying-fidelity that were mentioned earlier are indeed the properties that genes would desire if they were to pass the test of survival in nature. A gene, if it has to survive in the gene pool, has to ensure that its copies spread faster than any of its rival genes competing for the same resources. Complicity with other genes may be a really smart option and we shall come to this when we discuss 'survival machines' in the next paragraphs. Fundamentally though, the natural propensity of a gene must be to act for its own interests. Even complicity with other genes, that may seem altruistic at the surface are really acts of forwarding self-interest, if investigated more closely. This is, simply put, the principle of gene selfishness or the 'gene centric view of evolution' or 'gene selection'. The fundamental 'motive' that we were talking about in the last paragraph is indeed selfishness in the sense that a gene must try and propagate its kind in the gene pool at all costs. Let me repeat once again that this selfishness is not a conscious motive and that the reader should not make a conclusion that genes are ruthlessly malevolent entities. Nor is this statemet a harbinger for my crescendo statement where I would issue a coup de grace on humankind as being selfish thanks to the selfish genes that inhabit them. No , I am neither a devil's chaplain nor (or even worse) an evangelist in disguise.

The terms selfishness and altruism that appear here are purely technical definitions- biological motives independent of consciousness and very similar to computer algorithms at the very basic level of the constitution of the living. Selfishness of a gene encompasses all those actions that enable it to spread its copies in the gene pool, even if this required it to inhibit the spread of other genes especially its rivals that are called alleles. Pure Altruism on the other hand refers to acts that demand the gene to facilitate the spread of copies of other genes (rivals or not) at the cost of inhibiting its own spread. There have been instances (the example of Jonathon Livingston Seagull in Part 1), where acts of seeming altruism by an organism on the surface is really selfishness at the core- gene selfishness. The basic statement of the theory of 'gene selection' is that at the fundamental level, genes are basically selfish and this selfish nature empowers them to serve as units of natural selection in all living beings along the evolutionary chain. Can we support this hypothesis with observable evidence from the natural world - observations that cannot be explained under the tenets of 'group selection' or 'individual selection' theories of evolution?( to be continued and concluded)

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

On Reading

I was eight years old, I think, when for the first time, a novel was gifted to me. It was an abridged version of 'The Count of Monte Cristo'. When I went and showed it to my father, his eyes twinkled and he said that it was one of the best books he had read while he was at college. The praise for the book however, did not spark any enthusiasm in me to sit and read it. The first feeling I felt on receiving the book was a joy of ownership and the first thing I pictured was how it would look on my little book-shelf, standing disctint amongst my ordinary schoolbooks. Further, I felt my age being acknowledged by that someone who felt it was fitting to gift me such a wonderful and famous book. It was a feeling of intellectual upliftment, the first one that I recollect from childhood, caused because of an imagined acknowledgement rather than a genuine accomplishment. But when my father praised the book, though the pride of ownership doubled, a feeling of complacency found its way in. Suddenly the book seemed intimidatingly complex, now that I knew my father himself had been capable of reading it only on reaching college. I flipped the pages of the book to see if I could rouse some interest in me by looking at the illustrations. There were very few in number and that too they were ordinary sketches which I must say looked pretty amateurish. However, to commemorate my ownership I took out the best pen out of my dad's briefcase, an original Mont Blanc and wrote on the front page just below the title - "This book belongs to Karthik Shekhar. Standard 3, Division C, Little Angel's High School". I would do the same for every other novel that I recieved or bought for the next 5 years or so. By the time I was 13 and in my 8th grade, I had bucketed quite a collection consisting of puffin classics, encyclopedias, hardy boys, enid blytons and others, so much so that I started keeping them on the fancy glass shelves where my dad kept his books. Each book bore the stamp of my ownership without fail before it was snugly placed in the shelf. The other fact being that I never bothered to read any of the books in those 5 years.

Given a chance, I'd still like to find out what prolonged the inertia in me so much, against reading. Though none of my peers were 'readers' per say and that was probably one of the reasons I did not find reading either the 'The Famous Five' or 'The Hardy Boys' or 'The Count of Monte Cristo' gratifying in any sense. It wasn't an expedient matter for me and could be conveniently left for the future. More importantly, it did not add to my repertoire of skills that assisted me in the kind of games I used to play with my friends, most of whom made it a point to show off their aversion to reading. Some of them were so effective in making a virtue out of it, that I believed them. Ineptitude at playing cricket and reading books used to be directly and confidently correlated and I did not want to be a labeled a sissy at any cost. Though at the same time, I used to enjoy it when guests visiting our house believed I had read those books and praised me for that. As I was introduced to them, they were told without delay that I always stood in the top 3 ranks in my class and from the look on their faces it appeared to me that they considered this knowledge important, subliminally promising to spread it around. Much often they asked me which books I had read and on hearing the words 'Alexander Dumas', 'Leo Tolstoy' and 'Mark Twain', the wife used to remark to the husband, "Now you know why he stands at the top of his class always!" None of this however, created any urge in me to go and read those books which I had conveniently claimed to have read. With the physical ownership of that books, I had assumed indirect ownership of the textual property that the books contained. Yes, I say textual property and not story, for a story is something that cannot be owned and I understood that then too. Nonetheless, I could never get myself to read any of these books because the textual property that these books possessed could never translate into a story in the language of my imagination in those days.

That is not to say that I did not read anything in those days or that I was convinced by the mantra that reading books and physical machoism never went together. In disguise perhaps, but being not so good at playing cricket probably rescued me from accepting that piece of wisdom that my playmates in the colony seemed to emulate with assumed confidence. I had, in my mind, formed notions of what a 'story' ought to be like and the all the books that faced rejection and subsequent refuge in that glass shelf had in some way or the other violated my regulations. I still remember as a small kid of four years, I used to sleep on my grandparents' bed every night and insist on hearing an animal story. The one about the thirsty crow was my favourite one and I never got bored or weary of listening to it every night. Of course, a story is only so good as the storyteller himself and hats off to my grandfather who was a master raconteur! He made the crow in the story seem like an epitome of intelligence, a reverend creature who had so articulately instructed humankind on a scientific principle through an ingenious solution to a predicament. Though repeated listenings failed to tire me, my grandfather's subsequent encores used to capitulate into deep slumber as he always dozed off into his mighty snore before he could finish of the story with his favourite punchlines.

The crows flew away and these bedtime stories transcended onto different levels. My grandfather, a devout hindu, started telling me stories from the Hindu mythology. He told me those stories with a voice that was half piety and half fervour, as if he were dictating verses from a prayer book. He used to fold his hands in reverence and close his eyes in devotion whenever Goddess Durga appeared on her ferocious tiger to slay the demon Mahishasura or Krishna let his disc upon Narakasura who tried to run to the end of the world but was nonetheless hunted down and decapitated. These bedtime sessions succeeded in whetting my appetite for Indian history and mythology but more importantly they passed on a perspective that I would carry in my subconscious through my childhood. Stories were meant to be shared with the ones close to you - narrated and listened to - and the stories that I couldnt share with my family and friends then were the stories I wrote off without second thought in that glass shelf of my father's.

It was impossible for me to share 'The Count of Monte Cristo' as a bedtime story in the same way as a fable from the Panchatantra or an episode from The Ramayana with anyone who was close to me in those days. Even if I had made an attempt to read it, I think an Edmond Dantes would have seemed terribly limited in flair and panache as compared to an Arjuna. My upbringing was fairly cosmopolitan and urbane, so this fraternal comfort that I had with our native stories had nothing to do with a family induced cultural indoctrination. Our stories were relatively easier to comprehend (thanks to the Amar Chitra Katha comics) and assimilate and though this was one reason behind the aforementioned comfort, it was certainly not the only one. (to be contd..)

Monday, 18 June 2007


Project work these days is getting a lot frustrating. It is long since I realised that I am in a Catch-22. There are times when things are working fine, but that is when I know that I am but swimming in waters of mediocrity. But when things aren't (like right now) it gets extremely frustrating to wake up every morning and remember that what I seek is to be able to swim in waters of mediocrity.

To rub salt on the irritation, there are people who come and ask me about my project work. Not that they mean any malintent but the prospect of being answerable to every inquisitive bugger is hardly a very pleasant prospect. However, being an amiable and reasonable man, I cannot therefore be predisposed to shrug every poor bugger off, one who unwittingly asks me about my project. Therefore the best I can do is to humour him/her by putting myself up for public ridicule as follows:

Bugger: So what is it that you're working on these days? How's it going?

Me: I'm concerned with the application of Penetration theory. These days are real bad for I'm experiencing Stiffness problems. Too stiff.

Poor Bugger: What the fuck?

Me: He he (007 smirk)...too bad your major wasn't chemical engineering.

Note: For the innocent, 'Penetration theory' is a theory of solute diffusion in a solvent. It was proposed by Higbie, a man who was ostensibly good at certain things and liked to carry over his panache to work too. Now when this theory (of diffusion) is applied to the system that I am working on (oxidation of cyclohexane), it results in a system of five coupled differential equations in the concentration variables that need to be solved together. Because of bad scaling and non-linearity (if you are really 'innocent' then don't bother reading further), the concentration variables vary in different orders of magnitude. This makes the equations 'stiff' and difficult to solve.

Selfish to the core (part 2)

As nature would have it, it seems that natural selection really takes place at the macromolecular level of the genes that constitute us. Before trying to exposit the workings of a gene as the de facto unit of natural selection, I shall define it for the benefit of the reader. The bodies of living beings are really macromolecular machines, in the sense that all living beings are made up of one or more cells that contain different types of molecules performing various functions. Now what grants each one of us our respective individuality is a particularly long molecule called the DNA. The DNA is like a blueprint to the psychobiological construct of the living organism that it inhabits. Each organism has a unique DNA which may differ relatively less from a corresponding DNA molecule of another member of its species but will nonetheless differ more when compared to the DNA of an organism belonging to a different specie class. This molecule is unique in many aspects, the foremost being that it belongs to a very remarkable class of molecules called the replicators. Such molecules have the ability to make copies of themselves pretty rapidly. This makes them ideal choices as 'blueprint archives' inside an organism, for a DNA can make numerous copies of itself that can get distributed throughout the cells in a body. Thus each part of the body can have in its possession, a consistent set of rules that correspond to various behavioral and physical characteristics of the individual.

Now a DNA itself is divided into pairs of macromolecular sections that are called the chromosomes. There are 23 such chromosomal pairs in the case of humans making it a total of 46 chromosomes that constitute what is referred to as our genome. Other plants and animals also contain chromosomes of their own but in a number different from that of humans. Now these 46 chromosomes are like 46 volumes of formatted and indexed information that constitute the 'blueprint' corresponding to an individual living machine. During sexual reproduction (in most cases) the offspring inherits half of its 46 chromosomes from its mother and the other half from its father. There is a reason we find it more convenient to refer to them as 23 chromosomal pairs rather than 46 chromosomes and the reason is as follows. The two volumes in each pair contain alternative instructions for a particular function or motif. If we suppose that pair number 16 contains information about 'the color of the eyes', 'the shape of the ear', ' literary aptitude' among many other things, then volume 16a (inherited from the mother) might contain the instructions 'brown', 'small' and 'Shakespeare' and 16b(inherited from the father) might say 'green', 'long' and 'George W. Bush Jr.'. Only one instruction in each case can be selected ( I exclude the case of multiple personality disorders for the sake of brevity :P) and the one selected is referred to as dominant. The alternative that is not selected is referred to as recessive and though that part of the chromosome does not perform any function for the individual in which it resides, it may be passed on to future generations.

Now that I have (to the best of my engineering abilities) provided a working definition of the DNA and the chromosome, let me try to do the same for a gene which is the pivot of all my purpose here. I have myself come across two different definitions of a gene which though not definitely contradictory, are not necessary equivalent either. One definition is that a gene is that unit of a chromosome which corresponds to the synthesis of a particular protein or enzyme. For example when the body is in need of glucose and there is lactose present in the environment, a particular gene in the body is instructed to synthesise an enzyme called beta-galactosidase, which is responsible for converting the lactose into usable glucose. The other definition of a gene is that it is that part of a chromosome which corresponds to a particular bodily function or characteristic of the individual say colour of the eyes or height. But in order to go ahead with this small exposition, I shall state Richard Dawkin's definition of a gene which he believes is a working definition for the gene. But that and my last bit on gene selfishness and gene selection in the next and concluding post.

Note: Though pretty late and pretty ungrateful to provide a disclaimer, I shall nonetheless go ahead with this one. All of what I have written is based upon my understanding of most of what is written in one book, little of what is written in a second book and almost none of what is written in a third book. These books are (in order) The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, On Aggression by Konrad Lorenz and The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. The first among these is highly recommended for a fantastic exposition on the 'gene selection' theory. It is succulent with multifarious examples of animal behavior and each point or claim made is substantiated with an extremely articulate line of reasoning. The second was referred to extensively in the first and I chanced upon it in my institute library. I didn't have patience to read more than a couple of chapters. The third book is an undisputed classic and an inspiration to many ethologists and biologists after its author and its eulogised importance compelled me to buy it from Crossword (many thanks to penguin paperback for bringing the Classics to the masses). But I found the arcane english prose extremely dry and soporific in parts. Plus, the very size of the book was intimidating and I chose suicide over enlightenment. But I do hope to evolve into a formidable reader myself someday so that I can confront that book. After all ,Darwin is the master of all braggarts mouthing evolutionary innuendo, isn't he? ;).

Pyaar ke side(y) effects

Mary the elephant was one of a kind,
Unparalleled beauty and a noble mind,
She had the looks and she had the goods,
Her face and figure were the talk of the woods.

When Mary the elephant took her strolls,
Beavers would ogle from their holes,
Mary would respond by flapping her ears,
A coquettish response to the whistles and leers.

Thomas the squirrel was cracking his nut,
And Mary's stroll started quaking his hut,
Openmouthed he checked Mary and thought,
"One thing mate, she's flaming hot"

Larry the Lion was picking his teeth,
Having savoured a chunk of juicy Sambar meat,
Mary passed by and his den was shaking,
Larry peeps out and man, she was breathtaking.

Thomas and larry, the squirrel and the lion,
Smitten by Mary, the beauty elephantine,
Her seductive trunk and her voluptuous hips,
Her ponderous brow and her luscious lips.

Its time, said Thomas, to put on my suit,
A dab of old spice, some original Brut,
One look, and she'd be red as a rose
She'd be coy, and I, ready to propose.

Larry thought, "She's mine, the sexy dame,
I'll manicure my claws and shampoo my mane,
Shall look suave and smoke a cheroot,
We'd be some couple, the beauty and the brute!"

They left for Mary's on parallel routes,
One brought bananas, the other bamboo shoots,
Alas, confrontation at the elephant's gate,
They peep into the house and realise its too late.

Mary's making love to the Beaver named Victor,
Hard work always wins, Omnia vincent Labor!
So there was the tale of Thomas and Larry,
One thing we know, there's sure something about Mary.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Selfish to the core

Our understanding of life and life processes in the natural world has been maximally contributed by Darwin's theory of evolution. Since the days Darwin had impressed upon humankind his articulate and extremely well researched yet elusively simple theory, much of future investigations in the life sciences have only reinforced his original idea. It is conventional wisdom today to know that we humans have evolved from the apes who in turn had evolved from other primates before them. Every other organism inhabiting the natural world is supposed to have evolved out of its primeval counterpart(s) and is known to possess physical and social characteristics that enable its kind to propagate through time. 'Survival of the fittest' is a fairly common term that appears in high school textbooks in chapters that expound Darwin's theory of evolution. Though scarcely anybody today would challenge 'evolution' as a principle characteristic of our construct, the underlying processes that evolution entails have not yet been clearly understood.

Most famous approaches to answering this problem hypothesise a basic biological motive that translates itself into the behaviour of the organism, pervading its consciousness and its actions. For instance, if 'nourishment' is a self-motive that has been programmed into my biological structure, then that would cause me to eat to my fill rather than choosing the alternative to starve. Of course, this is only a crude example to illustrate a 'biological motive' and a much learned lateral thinker would immediately point out the fact that if 'nourishment' was not a motive and 'non-nourishment' was, then life would end before it even began! But 'seeking nourishment' is a behavioral need that has evolved out of 'natural selection', considering the fact that our bodies would violate the second law of thermodynamics if they lived healthily without a balanced and nourishing diet.

The example of 'seeking nourishment' as a biological motive to explain 'natural selection' is perhaps too trivial, almost to the point of being a misplaced illustration. But I believe it will facilitate an understanding that while 'natural selection' itself is an indispensable weapon for adaptation and propagation of life, every physical or behavioral motif cannot be so easily linked with natural selection as easily and trivially as 'seeking nourishment' can. For example, straight and sinewy beaks are 'natural selection' for woodpeckers but would be useless for a parakeet, for which 'natural selection' bequeathed a short and curved beak (almost like a betel-nut cracker) that makes it easy to consume a fruit.

Physical characteristics may perhaps be easily correlated thus but theories on 'natural selection' take a beating when it comes to explaining behavioral characteristics. This is because 'sinewy beaks', 'prehensile tails', 'sharp incisors' and 'seeking nourishment' may be understood as natural selection at the most basic levels for the respective organisms. But not every behavioral aspect can be linked to such a basic need so easily and so trivially. For example, it is found that if a gull sights a predator hovering near their communion, it gives out an alarm call that sends across a message to the other gulls to evacuate/take cover immediately. But this act attracts the attention of the predator onto itself, thereby posing a threat to its own life while it can be sure that none of the other gulls are going to pull out any acts of bravado as an acknowledgment to its altruistic act. This was just one example out of many. Behavioral patterns can also be observed not just at the level of the community, but also of the family. Why does an animal feel closer to its offspring rather than to its second cousin? Why do middle aged women attain menopause whereas there isn't a similar conspicuous event in the lives of men? The question we need to ask with regards to 'natural selection' is the following:

"What aspect of our psychobiological construct governs and causes the process of natural selection unlocking the mechanism of which will enable us to understand and interpret the observed characteristics of living organisms?"

Darwin and his apostles said that it was the 'species' that governed natural selection. In other words, each member of the specie would possess physical characteristics and behave in such a way so as to benefit the species as a whole. Let me digress here and enunciate that the word 'behave' doesn't come out of any diktat that is tutored to each member of a specie, a code which he/she follows out of his/her consciousness. It is similar to a computer program with certain rules that is engraved into the biological construct of a particular specie and if the rules were the opposite of what are observed in nature for a particular specie (e.g. a deer attempting to be a carnivore), then (the biological construct being the same) the organism or others of its kind would be unable to survive. Once again, let me add a disclaimer that I don't mean to suggest we are all mechanical beings devoid of consciousness. The 'rules' I am talking about at this point are really very basic ones which govern our behaviour through the eyes of natural selection which is necessarily not antagonistic to consciousness. For example, walking in a sandstorm would make a man immediately shut his eyes (an instinctual response to a stimulus which doesn't evolve out of a conscious decision making process - natural selection for his benefit) but he can very well keep his eyes wide open and blind himself, thereby asserting the power of his consciousness and his stupidity.

Coming back to where we left, the idea that sought to explain Darwin's theory of evolution was that of "Group Selection" or "Species selection". For a long time, "Group selection" was thought to be synonymous with natural selection. The Group selection theory essentially states that members of a particular 'species' behave so as to ensure that the numbers in the specie are preserved and that they propagate. The altruistic act of martyrdom by Jonathon Livingston Seagull might seemingly appear to support this theory. Many behavioral characteristics of other species like the honeybees, baboons, ants may also appear to be easily explained by the group selection theory.

Group selection may seem to account for the reasons behind observed groupism and comradeship between animals. Nonetheless, the theory falls apart when we look at other behavioral instances of animals. Macabre cannibalism has been observed in the cases of black-headed gulls (which feed on younglings of a neighbour as soon they hatch) , the black widow spider and certain mantises (where the female feeds on the male while they mate). While the group selection theory may be able to account for observed altruism for the community (or the species) as a whole, it cannot account for the aforementioned examples of brutal selfishness. Scientists have also proposed 'Individual selection' as a foil for the group selection theory, but even this theory faces problems of its own. We shall not delve into this one other than stating that today, neither 'group selection' nor 'individual selection' is favoured as a complete theory by biologists or ethologists across the globe.

Well then, what next? The problem or predicament if simply stated, is that of identifying a suitable entity that can serve as a convenient unit of natural selection, something which 'the group' or 'the individual' failed to do. Richard Dawkins and a few other thinkers like Pinker and Dennet propose(d) that selection takes place at the genetic level. In other words it is 'gene selection' as opposed to 'group selection' or 'individual selection'. Now then you would say that's obvious! But I believe you'd be confusing gene selection with gene evolution. The view of the 'gene' as the most basic unit of evolution has been long legitimated by many scientists but the debate as to whether it is indeed the unit of selection is an ongoing one. More about genes, gene selection and gene selfishness in the next post.