Friday, December 19, 2008

You are pathetic, Mr Tata

Tukaram Ombale was an unarmed sub inspector belonging to the much maligned Mumbai police. He was the first to have the presence of mind to push a barricade into the middle of the road to stop the car carrying some of the Mumbai terrorists. As a result of his action Mumbai police now have a prize 'live' catch Mohammed Ajmal Kasab who seems to be singing like a lark, but Ombale lost his life when the terrorists opened fire and he got seven bullets in his stomach.

I could go on -- there were unarmed or inadequately armed policemen at CST who still tried to take on the militants and their AK-47s with their WWII vintage Enfield 303 rifles. The ATS lost 3 senior officers, the NSG lost one, numerous civilians, and not just those who were guests in the Taj lost their lives. Perhaps these policemen were foolhardy, perhaps even foolish, but they had no thought of saving their own lives in a desperate situation. Inspector Jadhav, another brave policeman who actually managed to I said I could go on.

What does Mr Tata do? He commiserates with his guests at the hotel (of course since they bring the moolah in), not a word of appreciation for the NSG, for the pathetically armed Mumbai police or any of the brave individuals who gave their lives. He criticises poor intelligence, poor security, he objects to having to go through the State Government to get the Navy commandos (what does he expect -- that they should be under his direct command?). Of course there was poor intelligence, very poor coordination and a very poorly armed police force. These things have now been discussed ad nauseum though I still must say that intelligence can rarely be so perfect as to pinpoint where exactly an attack would take place and it's impossible to protect all public places. (Note however that the Taj was indeed warned and they even introduced extra security measures for a few days which was withdrawn by the management because their high class guests found it irksome and intrusive).

Mr Tata has no thought for any of these people who did their best in the worst possible circumstances. All he can worry about is the loss his business has suffered and how it's all the fault of the Government. Not a word of consolation for the families, not a penny offered to the families who have lost their only bread winner (it's doubtful they would take it at this point). Ombale's salary probably would not even pay for Mr. Tata's shoe shining expenses. Years of just watching the Sensex go up and down clearly destroys the brain and drives everything out of it other than thoughts about the bottom line.

And Mr. Tata is one of our most distinguished Corporate Czars. God help us from all the others, in that case.


After three days, Mr Tata now says his statement should not be seen as a “lack of appreciation for the various agencies that fought the terrorists’’ during the carnage of 26/11. Well, thank you, Mr. Tata, I am sure we are all deeply grateful...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Rabbit was right

Slow and steady doesn't win the race, at least not on this world, I think.

In a recent visit to Europe (the cause for this long hiatus from this page) I couldn't help noticing that life is so much more leisured and slow compared with life in India. This got me thinking about the growing economies of China and India that are nowadays compared with those of many European countries some of which are almost facing recession. (So is the US but I think for different reasons). So here is my two bit cartoon version of at least one reason why this is true. I should warn you that this is a simple thesis based on ordinary everyday observations,

As I said earlier the first thing about Europe and particularly France that strikes you is how everything moves so much more slowly (except on the highways). It starts with the airport. In most places, a one hour gap between connecting flights would be ample. In Charles de Gaulle airport(CDG), that is about half a day to be on the safe side. If you have the misfortune of landing at Terminal 2G which is beyond the outer periphery of the airport, you are dependent on a shuttle which makes its stately appearance every 10 minutes or so and picks up passengers, waits awhile to take a break, then makes its ponderous way to the other terminals (2C, 2F...) at the blistering speed of about 10km/h. There is a certain unhurried grace with which these buses move. Having reached Terminal 2C (or 2F or whatever) you are met with a huge (well only about 50 people say) crowd of people at passport control, manned by one (if you are lucky, two) immigration officials who go about their task in a slow methodical manner, clearing something like one person a minute (they also take frequent breaks from their onerous task to chat with their colleagues), thereby causing hordes of people to miss their flights. In India any immigration section is manned by a minimum of 20 people at peak hours. The only way to not miss a flight at CDG is if the pilot of your aircraft is kind enough to actually wait for connecting passengers.

Life doesn't get any faster once you are inside. When you have been up since 5am, the first thing you want on your 11am flight is sustenance. This is a very major and serious process. First the beverage tray comes around distributing its largesse. If you happen to sit behind a Frenchman you might as well kiss your food goodbye for a good extra 10 minutes during which he will methodically check out each bottle and discuss all the wines available with the stewardess (or cabin crew as they are called now) and which one would be appropriate for the meal to come (all this for a reheated meal wrapped in foil and plastic). If you are lucky the discussion will not descend all the way to the terroir of the wines. On a fast day, meal service takes 2 to 2 1/2 hours, something like the minimum time taken in a typical French restaurant. (I have seen Jet Airways serve a full meal on a one hour flight from Chennai to Hyderabad -- but then I guess you don't get wine!). Descending from the aircraft means politely waiting for all the people in front of you who, after the doors have opened, decide to start struggling to drag their baggage from the overhead bins. It would of course be extreme bad manners to try and push past them in a vain attempt to catch your disappearing connecting flight.

This pattern of life is repeated in all spheres - in supermarket queues, in restaurants, in ticket lines at the station (a horror if there is any, with every passenger insisting on discussing his/her complete vacation plans with the ticket clerk). A line of 3 people can easily take half an hour and I am not exaggerating, compared to something like 15 that a ticket clerk in India will clear in the same time.

I do not claim that the frenetic pace of life that we see in India, where you trample metaphorically or physically over whatever comes in your way, to get ahead, is a better system. There is something very dignified and comforting in the graciousness of interactions in the public sphere (including the habit of greeting everyone you pass). It also is a mark of a certain level of discipline in the environment Europeans grow up in. This is however,sometimes taken to extremes. There are times when it is more productive to work a little faster, a little longer, take shorter breaks, fewer vacations. Unfortunately, years of a comfortable life have made Europeans disinclined to change their slow and gracious lifestyle. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times who normally writes some pretty infantile columns on globalisation once put it well though -- while the French are fighting to preserve their 35 hour (or is it 34?) week, Indians and Chinese would be quite willing to work 35 hour days if that were actually possible, to better their lot. Few Indians or Chinese take the kind of vacations that Europeans take (can you imagine anyone in India taking a whole month off year after year, something Europeans do regularly every August, to say nothing of Christmas and New Year breaks). In the present globalised world where the playing field is getting increasingly levelled by the day (or Flat as Friedman insists on putting it), it's unlikely that this pace of life, desirable though it might be, will survive.

There is one field where the Europeans (almost all of them, the French, the Germans, The Italians, the English) do substantially better than us, despite this lifestyle. And that is academics. How do they do it?

Monday, December 1, 2008


The world suddenly seems such a different place since my last post. How much difference does a week make?

The title of this post came about in a conversation recently amongst some friends and colleagues. It refers to two events. One of these was the terrorist attack on three very public places in Mumbai of which there has been saturation coverage in the media. Hundreds have again died, just months after similar though not quite the same kind of attack in Delhi, Jaipur and other places. For a few days there is enhanced security, talk of setting up an FBI like organisation, improving intelligence. Then it's all forgotten and we are back where we started, till the next attack.

The second event got little or no coverage in the press (except a bit in the local newspapers) and that was Cyclone 'Nisha' hitting Chennai. Coincidentally the two events spanned the same few days. Some of us in so called 'low-lying areas' had to leave our houses and apartment buildings and take shelter with friends, relatives and colleagues to avoid being marooned in a sea of water. Every year there is flooding and large parts of the city resemble a lake with bits of buildings sticking out from under the water. Every year the Corporation claims it has redone the storm water drains and things will be better - and they remain the same. Of course this year was particularly bad, as bad as 2005, the intervening years have been somewhat less destructive. And so it goes - people crib, complain and then finally, with no other option, grit their teeth and bear it. The total number of people who died in the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu due to this cyclone is in the same ball park as the Mumbai attack.

All this is supposed to show we are a resilient culture. But this is just wishful thinking (or to put it more politely, hogwash) - making a virtue of inaction. So I wonder, is it some kind of fatalism that affects all Indians, borrowed from Hinduism, that you suffer because you deserve it, you must have done something bad in your past life. The inexorable law of karma justifies not only the misfortune but provides an escape route from finding a long term solution to a crisis. Interestingly, I think Christians and Muslims seems also to have been affected by this ingrained fatalism bug. It's probably the price we pay for being Indians.

How many disasters, deaths, tribulations must one suffer before concerted preventive action becomes the norm? Is it so difficult to improve intelligence, to improve coordination between agencies, provide high tech equipment, take tips from other countries which are also battling terrorism. I do not advocate, unlike the BJP, something akin to the Patriot Act which throws fundamental rights to the winds and loosens the restrictions on security forces to misusing their powers. The law of the land is not the problem. It is also impossible really to completely secure open public spaces. However we can, with some effort, have better intelligence and importantly, make use of it.

Similarly surely we (or City Corporations) can make a concerted effort to improve infrastructure so that people's lives are not made a living hell with monotonous regularity. Being rendered homeless, or made a refugee even for a short period, is an experience that one can do well without.

So all this brings me to the title of the post -- forbearance. Is that then a virtue or just plain incompetence?

Tailpiece: For a different aspect of the Mumbai attack, see Martha Nussbaum's article. For a clearly balanced and non-partisan view of South Asian Jihadi Groups, read Hussain Haqqani's article. Hussain Haqqani is a diplomat who is presently Pakistan's ambassador to the US.

Comments, as always, welcome.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

India after Gandhi

A bit late, but better than never!!

Three months, many long hours and I am finally done with Ramachandra Guha's opus - India after Gandhi. The history of sixty years of independent India, fourteen general elections, through droughts, floods and green harvests, numerous riots, four wars, from a flirtation with authoritarianism to its glorious repudiation in the subsequent election, from poverty and destitution to its slow rise as a major economy for the world to contend with, and, not least, Hindi music through the ages, Ram Guha chronicles it all, through prose and style that is at once precise as well as evocative, the tumultuous more than half century that this country has existed as an independent nation-state as opposed to a civilisation.

Through the first seventeen years, Nehru (as well as other giants of that time like Patel and Ambedkar) towers over the country and its people as well as in the pages of the book, steering India away from petty regionalism, linguistic chauvinism and religious fundamentalism. However, even after 1964, even though Nehru is no longer present in person, whether intended or otherwise, he is ever present in the pages of the book, as indeed he does even today in the very idea of India. Our development of heavy industry, a solid science and technological base, (though one wishes he had done more for primary education), a commitment to the secular and humanist ideals of the founding fathers, as Guha makes clear, has kept the country together for 60 years. Numerous Cassandras, mostly Western, some Indians, have predicted the dismemberment or Balkanisation of the country every time there have been wars, or riots or the unending series of secessionist movements whether in Kashmir or in the North East. And India has disproved them all. As Guha repeatedly stresses, it was precisely Nehru's insistence that every culture, every language, every religion, every creed, every caste would have its own place in the Indian polity that, illogically enough, has kept the country together. There has never been an overarching dominant culture to which all others have had to defer. India might be predominantly Hindu, but by no means is it a Hindu Pakistan, though the Sangh Parivar would dearly like it to be so. In that sense, India is very different from the melting pot that is America, where people of various cultures, ethnicity, religions and languages have come and found succour, but been absorbed into a predominantly Christian, (largely white) English speaking civilisation, the same being true of Australia. The disastrous effect of having a dominant culture in Asia and particularly South Asia, that Nehru foresaw 60 years ago, is now becoming evident in our immediate neighbourhood. Jinnah's insistence on a dominant Urdu culture that Pakistan put into practice and forced on the natives of East Pakistan (which had its own dominant Bengali, though still Islamic, culture) resulted in the dismemberment of the country in 1971. The dominant Sinhalese in Sri Lanka are finally realising the price of imposing a single dominant language and culture on their country is a civil war that has ravaged the country for something like a quarter century.

Today, we have jettisoned many of our Nehruvian ideals. It has become fashionable to deride and denigrate Nehru and Nehruvian socialism and secularism. But it is the Nehruvian ideal, the cliche of 'unity in diversity' that has precisely seen the country through the shocks of more than half a century. Nehru bashing, another term for revisionist history is now a popular pasttime by poster boys of the saffron chaddiwalas -- even the discredited self-styled Nehruphile K. Natwar Singh takes pot shots at him. But while Nehru's economic policies may have been less than sound (though as Guha clarifies, his views on a command economy were shared by a large majority in the Congress party), it is precisely because of Nehru and his firm hand that we today live in a country where Nehru bashing can continue unabated without fear of repercussion. Were such a thing possible in China or in Singapore with Mao ZeDong or Lee Yuan Kew.

Ram Guha's admiration for Nehru (that I share) does not blind him to Nehru's faults. His inability to gauge the perfidy of the Chinese in events prior to the Chinese war of 1962 (though an interesting highlight of the book is the account of the exchange of angry letters between Chou En-Lai and Nehru in the years just preceding 1962) and his blindness towards his friends like Krishna Menon are all dutifully documented. So are the roles played by the firm and unyielding Sardar Patel and the bureaucrat V. P. Menon with his carrot and stick diplomacy, in bringing the squabbling princely states into the Indian Union. None of this would have been possible for the far softer Nehru to achieve without the help of these two people.

The book is short on cultural developments in India, the various art and theatre movements as well as the flowering of Indian writing in English. Some of it is covered in a chapter on 'People's Entertainment' a large part of which is an entertaining description of the Hindi Film Industry. However, this is as it should be. After 800 odd pages of a political history, a detailed history of art and culture would have made the book far too unwieldy and it's best left to a separate study.

I would like to end by quoting from the last lines of Ram Guha's book, which summarises his idea of India:

So long as the Constitution is not amended beyond recognition, so long as elections are held regularly and fairly, and the ethos of secularism broadly prevails, so long as citizens can speak and write in a language of their choosing, so long as there is an integrated market and a moderately efficient civil service and army and -- lest I forget -- so long as Hindi films are watched and their songs sung, India will survive. Amen

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Confirming Einstein ?

This is a guest column by Sourendu Gupta, TIFR, Mumbai

UPI today picked up what is probably its first ever news story about lattice gauge theory. This is a method of dealing with a quantum field theory which is usually applied to problems where nothing else works, and is heavily dependent on modern supercomputers. The news is about an application to computing the mass of a proton by Stephan Duerr and his collaborators. If you are not familiar with particle physics and field theories, then think of it as computing Avogadro's number to three digit precision using as input only the standard model of particle physics.

Quantum field theories inherit infinities from classical theories of matter: most well-known of which is the infinity encountered in Lorentz's theory of the electron. Because of such infinities, classical theories cannot manage to explain the structure of matter, ie, the masses of elementary particles, and their basic interactions. However, quantum theories can remove these infinities and make precise predictions about physical quantities. The process by which this is done is called renormalization.

In the 1970's Kenneth Wilson exploited a deep connection between quantum theory and statistical mechanics to understand the physics of renormalization. Since then his insights have permeated all theories of matter and started a quiet revolution which has gone largely unnoticed outside the world of theoretical physics. However, Wilson's way of understanding renormalization has provided solutions to many outstanding problems: the computation of Avogrado's number starting from particle physics being just one.

Mass media, however, recognize Einstein as the sole repository of genius in the sciences. Hence the connection with him in UPI's report, and the invocation of his name by media science in general. To the extent that particle physics uses relativistic quantum field theories, the report by UPI is certainly not wrong. E=mc2 is certainly important (again, for the umpteen millionth time) and the supercomputers used most definitely treat the theory on a space-time lattice. However these are not the most exciting things about the result reported.

For those who attend the Lattice Meeting each summer, the exciting aspect of this work is that it is one of several this year which compute the masses of the proton and other hadrons with high accuracy. Lattice gauge theory is now testably one of the most accurate methods of dealing with quantum field theory.

You might expect such a powerful technique to have other things to say. It does. Other works have begun to predict new and as yet unobserved hadrons, some of which may well be seen at the LHC, the Beijing synchrotron, the Jefferson lab or the Japanese collider J-PARC. Results from lattice QCD are also important in tests of CP violations, for which one half of this year's Nobel prize in physics was awarded.

Interestingly, the other half of the same Nobel prize is closely related to another prediction of lattice gauge theory: that of a phase transition to a completely new state of elementary particle matter; one in which there are no hadrons. The reverse phase transition is expected to have occurred within the first microsecond of the history of the universe. This kind of matter may already have been created in a lab: the RHIC. It will be studied further in the LHC.

We are now firmly in the era of lattice gauge theory as a major tool in the box of tricks for theoretical particle physics. This is the place where quantum physics, relativity and supercomputing come together. The newspaper report you saw may have got it wrong, but it wasn't completely wrong.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Honeymoon is over

....if ever there was one. The knives are out. Aijaz Ahmed a columnist for the Chennai newspaper 'The Hindu' as well as 'Frontline' and a fully paid up member of the Indian left has presented a stark, gloomy and depressing prospect of the, still in the future, Obama presidency. Almost makes it sound as if the Bush years were a walk in the park. Surely one could have waited for the poor guy to have at least moved into the White House, before we sharpened our knives.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Kid's Movement

From Nicolas Kristof's Op-Ed column: Talia Leman is an eighth grader in Iowa who loves soccer and swimming, and whose favorite subject is science. When Talia was 10 years old, she saw television clips of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and decided to help. She galvanized other kids and started a movement to trick-or-treat at Halloween for coins for hurricane victims. The movement caught the public imagination, Talia made it on the “Today” show, and the campaign raised more than $10 million. With that success behind her, Talia organized a program called RandomKid to help other young social entrepreneurs organize and raise money. At, young people can link up with others to participate in various philanthropic ventures. On the Web site, Talia has organized a campaign to build a school in rural Cambodia, backed by children in 48 states and 19 countries. Likewise, she’s working with schools in seven states to provide clean water for rural African villages. And so it goes.... Since the new mantra now is 'Change' here is a change-maker -- Bill Drayton, who founded an organization called Ashoka to support “change-makers.” Now he is heavily focused on nurturing student social entrepreneurs, and he has started an organization called Youth Venture to support them. Take a look.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Does Religion make you a nicer person?

Or, equivalently, does atheism make you mean? Superficially, perhaps...but probe a little deeper and you find exactly the opposite. For example, countries like Denmark and Sweden where God plays almost no role in public or private affairs (the Danes and Swedes don't go to church or pray in the privacy of their own homes; they don't believe in God or heaven or hell). But, by any reasonable standard, they're nice to one another. They have a famously expansive welfare and health care service. They have a strong commitment to social equality. And, even without belief in a God looming over them—they murder and rape one another significantly less frequently than Americans do. And we know that the US is considerably more religious than other Western countries and a self-proclaimed atheist has about as much hope of getting elected President as Osama bin Laden. This and more, here.

Friday, November 14, 2008

"The Thick die Quick"

This is the kind of scientific study that gives nightmares to politically correct people. Smarter people live longer, according to a long and extended study reported recently in an essay in Nature magazine (requires subscription). If you only have a paper subscription, the exact reference is Nature 456, 175-176 (13 November 2008). Before I get hauled over the coals for this, let me hasten to add that I am only the messenger. And for those without a Nature subscription here are the salient points. The result is the outcome of surveys done on more than a million people whose development has been followed for upwards of 20 years. 1. The simplest but by no means the only explanation is that intelligence is associated with more education, and thereafter with more professional occupations that might place the person in healthier environments. However, this is by no means the whole story. 2. People with higher intelligence might engage in more healthy behaviours. Evidence is accruing that people with higher intelligence in early life are more likely to have better diets, take more exercise, avoid accidents, give up smoking, engage in less binge drinking and put on less weight in adulthood. Again, this is not the whole story. 3. Mental test scores from early life might act as a record of insults to the brain that have occurred before that date. These insults — perinatal events, or the result of illnesses, accidents or deprivations before the mental testing — might be the fundamental cause behind both intelligence test scores and mortality risk. So far, little evidence supports this. Both birth weight (commonly used as a marker of fetal development) and parental social class (used as a marker of early-life circumstances) are correlated with intelligence test scores. But, when the associations between intelligence and mortality are adjusted for these factors, the association remains almost unaltered. Perhaps subsequent work may find better indicators of early-life tribulations that have more explanatory power. 4. Mental test scores obtained in youth might be an indicator of a well-put-together system. It is hypothesized that a well-wired body is more able to respond effectively to environmental insults. If none of this sounds convincing, it's because it's not meant to. These are empirical findings for which researchers are still trying to find explanations. As the writer is at pains to clarify a clear chain of causation from intelligence to health outcomes and then to death has not emerged. In fact, the new University of Edinburgh Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, which opened on 1 September 2008 aims is to provide a forum and infrastructure to unpick the extent to which cognitive and other effects underlie different causes of mortality . Why do we die when we do, and to what extent is this question tractable? This is what these researchers are trying to discover. I should point out also that the author is careful is stressing that these are not the standard intelligence IQ tests that many of us have taken from cheap paperbacks which at one time used to flood the market, mostly propagated by enthusiasts of the now discredited field of Eugenics. These are scores from cognitive-ability tests (also known as intelligence tests or IQ tests) (which) have validity that is almost unequalled in psychology.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

In Memoriam

At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, an armistice was signed to end the Great War, now known as World War I. The armistice was meant to prevent a recurrence of a war which saw about 20 million dead and another 20 million wounded. Today is the 90th anniversary of this day and the world as one paid tribute to the fallen soldiers. I say the world as one because this was not just a war fought by European and American soldiers. Soldiers from the 'colonial armies' from India and Africa fought side by side with their European counterparts, for a war which was not theirs' in the first place and to which they had little connection. More than 1.5 million soldiers from the Indian subcontinent participated in WWI and more than 70,000 died and another 70,000 wounded. The names of many of the dead are inscribed on the pillars of India Gate in New Delhi, which began as a WWI memorial to Indian soldiers. R.I.P

Monday, November 10, 2008

Obama and India

It appears from this side of the Suez Canal that the honeymoon, if ever there was one between India (and Indians) and Obama is already unraveling. (I am not yet convinced that there was a honeymoon -- there was an international poll sometime back whose link I have forgotten, which showed India to be one of the few countries where people, or at least the people polled, preferred Bush/McCain to Obama. Not surprising, considering that Republican Governments other than Nixon's have generally stayed away from interfering and finger wagging, and most yuppies and puppies tend to have a conservative mind-set -- no liberal viewpoint there (yes, I am generalising a bit here). Of course the Sunil Mukhi effect might also be at play). Be that as it may, whatever there was, seems to have sprung a leak, and the poor fellow hasn't even entered the White House. First there was the mediation in Kashmir threat or as we like to call it third party mediation which is an absolute no-no in political circles. (One would have thought that if two guys can't settle a matter for 60 odd years, a third guy can hardly do more harm). Second, there was the case of the missing phone-call -- Obama called 15 world leaders including, horror of horrors, Pakistan's, but not poor Dr Singh. ("Told you this would happen if you went around telling Bush that all of India loves him -- Obama is clearly sulking, no Indian loves him, you can't love both!"). The mandarins of the foreign office have tried to give it a positive spin by claiming -- "but he didn't call the Russian and Chinese leaders either - and they are important countries". But the intense disappointment is there for all to see. As if this were not enough, there is a belief that there is going to be renewed pressure on India to sign the CTBT if the new President can arm-twist Congress into ratifying it too. This, according to the full spectrum of political opinion, red, saffron, green, yellow, white is a disaster. I again fail to see why -- if the whole world falls in line to sign the CTBT, including Pakistan (and Obama is not going to pressure only India and not Pakistan), -- why should India, the land of the Buddha, the Mahatma and Nehru not ratify it? Since the time of Eisenhower and Kennedy, India has built a reputation of being a very touchy and prickly partner on all global political matters (apart from a tendency to moralise to other countries, a habit we now seem to be shaking off). Isn't it time we grew up? We are after all 61! And give the poor guy a break -- he needs time just to stop the economy from free-falling to nothing!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Rocket Science?

At the end of the day, I personally think (and with all due respect to people who disagree) it's fairly unique that at this moment in time, the economy is absolutely a nightmare haunting us 24/7. It's not rocket science, so why didn't people get it earlier? What is all this gobbledygook? Well, it's just a sentence I cobbled together, using all the phrases which are apparently amongst the most irritating that many people use in their speech, according to Damp Squid, a book by BBC Radio 4 presenter John Humphreys. These are 1 - At the end of the day 2 - Fairly unique 3 - I personally 4 - At this moment in time 5 - With all due respect 6 - Absolutely 7 - It's a nightmare 8 - Shouldn't of 9 - 24/7 10 - It's not rocket science 11 - synergy I invite you to comment on my post, using these very phrases....

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Lilavati's Daughters

The Indian Academy of Sciences has, as part of its initiative to probe Women in Science issues, brought out Lilavati's Daughters a collection of essays by one hundred women scientists who are based in India, writing about themselves, what brought them to science, what keeps them going, etc. Details here and you can also order a copy from the same site, Rs. 325 postage included, within India.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Science under a new US Administration

Leo Kadanoff ponders over whether the fruitful relationship science enjoyed with the White House, will be re-kindled with the next US administration. The signs are not encouraging...(Nature article, needs subscription) The American Association for the Advancement of Science and a large group of other organizations tried to bring science back into view by putting before the presidential candidates a list of fourteen key science-policy questions. After long and discouraging delays — possibly indicating the candidates' lack of enthusiasm for the task — extensive answers were returned3. The responses revealed many similarities between the programmes of the two candidates. Both explicitly rejected the present administration's weakness in scientific honesty and integrity; both were in favour of bringing better scientific and technical advice to the White House; both worried about energy availability and environmental degradation, and supported some sort of cap-and-trade system for limiting greenhouse gas emissions. But there were also major differences. Whereas both candidates seemed to want to encourage 'innovation', Obama would do this via government programmes and a doubling of the budgets for basic science; in contrast, McCain's first target would be to show strong support for industry as a way of nurturing technology. Both candidates supported the improvement of education. Obama pledged to educate citizens; McCain aimed to train the workforce and retrain displaced workers. Bob Park reviews (also in Nature, needs subscription) Physics for future presidents: the science behind the headlines by Richard Muller, a UC Berkeley Physics Professor. After an amusing start Dear Mr President, Congratulations on your election to lead our nation. I think you can forget the 'leader of the free world' part of the job; it kind of lost its cachet in your predecessor's administration. Nevertheless, America still looks to you to make the difficult decisions. It won't be easy. it goes on The good news is that UC Berkeley Physics Professor, Richard A. Muller, has written Physics for Future Presidents: The Science behind the Headlines, a knowledgeable and level-headed analysis of many of the problems you will face, written in a clear, non-mathematical style that a President can easily understand: nuclear energy, from bombing cities to keeping them lit; what terrorists might try next; getting the space programme back to exploration instead of flag-planting; the key facts about global warming and the common-sense measures we should take; and finally, the opportunities and problems of alternative energy. Scientifically, the 354 pages of Physics for Future Presidents would make you the best-informed national leader on the planet at a time when science is the key to power. The bad news is that you aren't going to read it; your calendar is so full you don't have time to read your own ghost-written books. It's too late to sign you up for Professor Muller's class, but fortunately there is a happy alternative: appoint Richard Muller to be your Science Advisor. If he's not available, there are about a thousand other physicists that think the way he does....

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Will Barack Obama be good for science?

Many of my friends whose blogs are on the side panel have been much exercised about the Obama-McCain US presidential campaign. Many have been surprised that I have said nothing about this till now. My main reason is that so much has been written about this campaign by every shade of public opinion, that very little is left to be said, irrespective of one's political leanings. I therefore would like to discuss one issue which has not been discussed as much -- will an Obama presidency be better than the Bush presidency as regards funding for science (and I mean science, not ID) goes. Some skeptics like Bob Park who writes the weekly 'What's New' column have not been too sure of the answer, mainly on account of the fact that science hardly figures in either candidates' stump speeches or their manifestos (given the free-falling economy that is not a surprise but it didn't figure even earlier). However, even a die-hard skeptic like him has now endorsed Senator Obama, given the horror on the other side. Moreover, for the first time the journal Nature has endorsed Obama. Finally, Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel Laureate who first postulated quarks as fundamental constituents of matter, along with 76 other Nobel Laureates, has endorsed Barack Obama and you can see him live, reading from the endorsement letter at the Cosmic Variance blog or on YouTube. In the face of such heavy duty endorsements, who am I to throw a stone? But I wonder, has Obama every made a clear statement regarding evolution vs. intelligent design, or about stem-cell research or about climate change? To give him the benefit of doubt, Obama, as a consummate politician is not going to burn any bridges to win this election, which could be one reason for not stating his position clearly on such issues, thereby perhaps antagonising whole swathes of the population in the mid-West. It's also difficult to imagine science faring worse under him than under George W. Bush, though here is John Marburger pointing out why indeed the Bush presidency has been good for science funding.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Us and Them

I have been ploughing through Ramachandra Guha's massive tome India after Gandhi a biography of India (I mean indeed a biography rather than a history of a young nation finding its feet) since independence. Despite the ponderous and stolid nature of the subject, the book is a very easy read and has some amusing snippets about many important events. Indian democracy may have its flaws but it is not without colour and Ram Guha makes full use of this, while not ignoring the strong ideological underpinnings given by Nehru and Gandhi that many of us believe have kept India together. One of these events that caught my attention was not about domestic polity but a border issue. This refers to the events that culminated in the India-China war of 1962. For the preceding three years Jawaharlal Nehru and Chou En-Lai had exchanged numerous letters over the border issue, these turning more and more acrimonious with time. Border skirmishes became a frequent occurrence and public attitudes towards the Chinese started to harden both amongst the public at large and amongst political parties (except the communists). There were frequent demonstrations against China and Mao and a large number of harsh letters were also exchanged between the officials of the two countries. One of these incidents, as described by Guha took place in Bombay. The Chinese version communicated to New Delhi by Peking described a group of protesters who raised slogans and made speeches against China's putting down of the Tibetan 'rebellion'. What is more serious, they pasted up a portrait of Mao Tse-Tung on the wall of the Chinese Consulate-General and carried out wanton insult by throwing tomatoes and rotten eggs at it... and some more along these lines. It was clear that pelting tomatoes at the great Helmsman's portrait was not on and constituted a huge insult to the head of state of the PRC and the respected and beloved leader of the Chinese people. In a measured and mature response the Indian Government, used as it was to the public burning of effigies of its leaders and numerous other such 'insulting' behaviour, deeply regretted the discourtesy shown to a picture of Chairman Mao.... and while the behaviour of the protesters was 'deplorable', added, perhaps with more than a touch of smugness, The Chinese Government are no doubt aware that under the law in India, processions cannot be banned as long as they are peaceful. Not unoften they are held even near Parliament house and the processionists indulge in all manner of slogans against high personages in India. Incidences have occurred in the past when portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and the Prime Minister were taken out by irresponsible persons and treated in an insulting manner. Under the law and Constitution of India, a great deal of latitude is allowed to the people as long as they do not indulge in actual violence. It was clear at that time and from subsequent events, that this nuance was totally beyond Peking's comprehension. However, before we get too complacent, let me add that this was the Nehruvian vision of a democratic India that was speaking. Today, we as a nation and as a Government are far more intolerant of dissent. The Government is intolerant of differing opinions (though even now it would be unthinkable in India to ban the kind of protest marches that the monks tried to carry out in Tibet a few months before the Beijing Olympics and paid dearly for their actions) and we, as a people are intolerant of others in our society who do not share our opinions. And while we are nowhere near to being a totalitarian state like China, it is time to think about how far we have left behind the democratic ideals of people like Nehru and Gandhi.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Some Links

Why don't we do it on the road? -- for once, not about Indians but about the British Farmer in Chief -- The era of cheap and abundant food is drawing to a close and how to rework food habits and the food industry Four Letter words and Freedom's curse - Steve Pinker argues that four-letter-peppered speech gets tedious, and malicious epithets can express condemnable attitudes. But in a free society, these annoyances are naturally regulated in the marketplace of people’s reactions.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Fake or Real?

Followers of this blog will have noticed that I have been more than cynical about police claims regarding the Balti house encounter. Much has been written on blogs and in newspapers on the incident without shedding much light on the issue. However Praveen Swami, the Hindu correspondent and one of the most well-informed, clear and balanced voices on terrorist violence in India, has given a detailed account of the so-called encounter which points out why it was extremely unlikely to be a fake one. At the other extreme is Harsh Mander, a well-known human rights activist who has essentially dismissed the whole encounter as a fake one, without calling it so. This too is from the Hindu. I leave you to decide.

Which life is more precious?

In a recent development. all the DMK MPs at the centre have been asked to resign by the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Mr. Karunanidhi as a means of putting pressure on the Centre to lean on the Sri Lankan Government to ease off on the offensive they have launched in Northern Sri Lanka to flesh out the LTTE. In the process, many innocent Tamil civilians have either lost their lives in the cross fire or have been severely affected by the ongoing hostilities. Now, any action that tries to ameliorate the suffering of innocent civilians in an ongoing war (and indeed, what is happening in Northern Sri Lanka is little short of war between the Government and LTTE forces) should be encouraged. However, what I find more than faintly repulsive is the unwritten assumption that the lives of the Tamilians there is more valuable that those of others. The suicide bombers of the ferociously violent and ruthless LTTE have killed thousands of innocents, Sinhalese and Tamilian alike and I recall no particularly action by the DMK on such occasion except the usual platitudes muttered about innocents being killed. Is the life of a Tamilian more valuable than, say, the lives of others in Sri Lanka or for that matter in India? What about all the people killed in bomb blasts here, the thousands of Kashmiris killed in terrorist violence and in cross fire? Does not the DMK feel the same for all these people. Why is the life of a person of one's own community (that too in another country) more valuable than those of others? Before I am accused of harbouring anti-Tamil sentiments, let me hasten to add that this kind of chauvinism is not limited to Tamil Nadu politics though it does tend to rear its ugly face there more often, perhaps due to the proximity of Sri Lanka and the ethnic conflict there. I am sure Mr Raj Thackerey would consider the life of a 'Marathi Manoos' more precious than that of a Tamilian (definitely that of a Tamilian -- after all at one time they were the ones accused of taking away jobs from the locals). The same, I have no doubt, would be true of a blue-blooded Bengali -- even a distinguished intellectual like Sunil Gangopadhyay once fulminated against these Marwaris in Kolkata who were destroying Bengali 'kalchar'. Mercifully it remained at that level and there were no lives at stake though I can imagine scenarios involving next door Bangladesh. Mr Karunanidhi, as a senior statesman may fulminate at being compared to Raj Thackerey, considered by many to be just a rabble-rousing thuggish politician, but surely there is little difference? If hordes of 'North Indians' -- Biharis, UPites, Assamese invaded Chennai the way they do Mumbai, I am willing to bet my last Galavati kebab that the reaction of Mr Karunanidhi and the DMK would be very similar. The point is that after more than 60 years after independence, we continue to be prisoners of our caste, creed, ethnicity, language, religion and community. This is usually the point where I am accused of having a typical rootless elitist Westernised education (in India that only means going to a, perhaps convent, English medium school) and have therefore little sense of 'belonging'. This may or may not be true, but I must confess that I do feel far more de-racinated than many people I see around me, particularly in Chennai. If that is the result of my education, so be it. But I feel no reason to be apologetic about it -- in fact, I think a little more deracination is overall a good thing for an excessively diverse country like India. By that I do not mean to imply that one should not have any appreciation for one's own art and culture, literature, food, customs -- Maharashtrians can celebrate their Ganesh festivals and Bengalis their Durga Puja and Tamilians their Pongals and Diwalis (perhaps the one festival that seems to have become truly pan-Indian). But unfortunately it doesn't end with that. One's own existence becomes superior to that of people from other communities, chauvinism is just a step away and jingoism just around the next corner. Kashmiri Pandits feel only for Kashmiri Pandits, Sikhs are worried only about whether the Sikh Maryada is being compromised (one heard much of such statements during the Khalistan problem), Bengalis worry about fellow Bengalis being slaughtered next door by the mostly Punjabi Pakistani army and the DMK worries only about the Tamils in Sri Lanka. One can presumably look at the good side -- at least someone is worried about innocent human lives being lost, even if those are from just one community. But wouldn't it be nice if we could, for once, have concern for a fellow human without worrying about the person's ethnicity?

Saturday, October 18, 2008


Sometime later this week (between 22 and 26 October) India plans to launch its first (unmanned) Moon mission Chandrayaan-I. Subhadra Menon traces the history of India's very successful space program in this article in Nature (subscription required).

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Nobel, Delhi and all that

Since I left Delhi in the late 80's this is the first time I have spent 2 weeks at a stretch here. However, a hectic lecture schedule which involved two and half hour lectures daily, coupled with a dodgy internet connection meant that my blog has remained neglected for some time. First things first. So we all got it wrong -- the Nobel went to Nambu, Kobayashi and Maskawa, and while all of them are most deserving, it's unfair that Yoichiro Nambu had to wait this long (he is, I believe 87) to get the prize and then share it with two others. To get back to Delhi. When I was growing up in Delhi, in the 60's and 70's, Delhi was a charming city, with tree lined avenues, beautiful and stately buildings, and shopping complexes (can you compare Connaught Place with these present day monstrosities in Gurgaon) and lots of wide open areas. The ugly concrete jungles of South Delhi were yet to crop up. During the 80's and 90's when I used to visit Delhi for short periods, Delhi literally seemed to be falling apart at the seams -- the traffic was horrendous and polluting, the people even more rough and crude, and hideously ugly concrete jungles sprouting everywhere. Moreover, from an academic point of view, there was little reason to visit Delhi University. In a couple of visits in the last two years, I am happy to see that this downward slide has been halted. There are still horrible traffic jams in rush hour, people are as arrogant and rude as always (though in all honesty, not much worse than Chennai). However, there is the wonder of modern technology actually applied successfully to an Indian city - the Delhi Metro. Spick and span, perfect timing, and completely professionally run, the Metro has truly changed the face of Delhi in the areas it runs. Part of the traffic is now transferred to the Metro, resulting in better traffic management. It takes 20 minutes to go from Central Secretariat to the University, something that used to take upto an hour or more depending on the time of day. There are two other lines one of which goes all the way to Dwarka on the outskirts, so it's not the one-line wonder like the Kolkata metro. Of course South Delhi still has its jams but hopefully when the metro reaches those parts, things will improve. (Nothing will change the classic Delhi attitude though -- I noticed that people would rather spend an hour in one of their airconditioned limousines stuck in a traffic jam, than take the metro and be seen with the hoi-polloi). Dare I say it -- without naming names, some of my well-heeled friends have never even seen the inside of the Metro and its been around for more than two years! Nothing also will improve the average Delhi temperament. Too much money has brought with it a brashness, a rough and ready tendency to take matters into one's own hands, a general disdain for others' convenience. In the last two weeks, a women journalist has been shot while driving a car, a man had petrol poured on him and set on fire because of some minor dispute, and road rage has resulted in all kinds of fights, altercation and police cases. In the midst of this, the blue line buses continue to contribute their mite in keeping the population in check. Which reminds me -- DTC now has neat and clean low floor buses, some airconditioned, (with doors which open only at bus stops), which are actually cleaned everyday (no, I am NOT making this up). A colleague of mine once said pithily, Delhi is all history and no culture. While the latter is not quite true -- being the National Capital, there is a huge amount of cultural activity taking place somewhere or other in the city -- it's true when applied to the general 'culture' of the place. Delhi will always remain my favourite city, despite its people and its traffic jams. Perhaps it has to do with where one grows up. (I am always astonished when children of my colleagues think that Chennai is the best city to be in). And now with academic activity in Delhi University showing an upward trend with many good appointments, I look forward to using that excuse to reacquaint myself once again with one of my first loves.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Nobel Prize - this year's picks

Here are some picks from various sources including Physics World: Daniel Kleppner : Hydrogen Maser Perlmutter and Schmidt: Increasing expansion rate of the universe and hence dark energy postulate Guth and Linde: Inflationary scenario Berry and Aharanov: Aharanov-Bohm effect and also the related Berry phase Pendry and Smith: Negative refraction Penrose, Hawking: various developments in General Relativity and Cosmology Suzuki (Super-K) and Macdonald (SNO): neutrino oscillations Unfortunately the Guth-Linde inflationary picture is not yet completely confirmed experimentally, and Penrose and Hawking do not have any specific prediction tested by experiment which is what the Swedish Academy looks for in theory prizes. Do put in your nominations -- even though the Swedish Academy is probably not one of the regular readers of this blog :(

Friday, October 3, 2008

The net and the ArXiv

For an interesting overview of the development of the internet, the web and the attendant repositories like the ArXiv from an academician's point of view, take a look at this interesting article by Paul Ginsparg, the 'father' of the Cornell (earlier Los Alamos) arxiv. Update: My friend Ananthanarayan pointed me to this article on Paul Ginsparg, dating from 2001. You may not be able to download it if you are not a subscriber, but the following paragraph points out that it was Spenta Wadia whose complaints about too many preprints flooding his mailbox led him to think of a central repository -- so there seems to be an Indian connection in the genesis of the arxiv server. In June 1991, at the Aspen Center for Physics in Colorado, Ginsparg overheard physicist Spenta Wadia of the Tata Institute in India fret about the e-mailed preprints that flooded his disk while he was away. Realizing that it would be much more efficient to circulate only the abstracts and archive the full papers, Ginsparg spent that afternoon at the Aspen gym working out an automated preprint archiving and distribution system. He wrote the code later that month and opened the server in August.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Love and Hate

Another day and another bomb blast in Delhi. This time a young child of 11 or so, killed because he tried to return the package the motorcyclists had dropped. How much hate do these people carry within themselves, that they are willing to kill, maim and orphan people they have never seen, who have done them no harm? If their fight is with the state, why don't they pick someone their own size? The Delhi Police, in its new found efficient avatar has immediately declared, even before it seems all the evidence is in, that this is a different (apparently Bangladeshi) group. Of course by their lights it has to be, after all they killed the 'mastermind' Atif (or was it Sadiq, I can no longer remember all the 'masterminds') and eliminated the Indian Mujaheddin (IM) 'module". Some more people have been arrested, and everything is back to normal, till the next blast. Mr L. K. Advani has reiterated that Manmohan Singh is our weakest Prime Minister ever. (Correct me if I am wrong, but haven't we heard this from LKA not once but several times over -- has his speech writer gone on vacation or is he no longer able to save any of his new speeches since his disk is full??). In the meantime (and a less depressing environment) just as we were all praise for the contrast that a dignified Dr Manmohan Singh presented in his meeting with Sarah Palin, with that of a gushing and breathless Asif Zardari, Sardar Saheb has gone and declared, on our behalf, our deep and abiding love for George W. Bush. What is it about Dr Singh that in the presence of George Bush, the normally dignified and reticent PM turns all mushy and emotional?

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Hindu gets it right

This blog has frequently been critical of the Hindu and its editorial policies, particularly with regard to Tibet/China/CPI(M). In fairness therefore, one should commend it for the stand it has taken with respect to present events which I have written about in the last two posts. Specifically today's editorial makes exactly the point I made in the previous post (not that my point is particularly new or original -- which makes it all the more surprising that so few people seem to get it!) - the amazing inability of the BJP in distinguishing between the offer of legal aid to an accused and the moral justification of a heinous crime. One interesting fact that I discovered is that Mr Ravi Shankar Prasad the BJP spokesman who asked for the VC's head, is actually an experienced lawyer. Maybe belonging to the BJP is injurious to the brain... And now the Nanavati commission has, for all intents and purposes, absolved the Modi Government of all guilt in the Gujarat riots of 2002 -- "There is absolutely no evidence to show that the Chief Minister, his Council of Ministers or the police officers had played any role in the Godhra incident or that there was any lapse on their part in the matter of providing protection, relief and rehabilitation to the victims of communal riots". Maybe we do have a flat earth after all. Makes you want to emigrate...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

How low can a 'national' party sink

Another day and another master mind arrested. This is exactly how NDTV announced the arrest of the 5 alleged terrorists, one of whom, 'Sadiq' is supposed to be the mastermind. This is to be distinguished from 'Atif' whom the Delhi police killed in an encounter, who is also a mastermind. If terrorist ranks are full of masterminds, who does the actual dirty work? Or does each police force want to outdo the others in claiming that they have the mastermind! However, despite my scepticism, it's perhaps best not to pass judgment at this sensitive stage. No, in fact this post is about something else. It's about how low, how partisan, to what pathetic levels the BJP can sink in trying to prove they are tough on terror. Ravi Shankar Prasad of the BJP has insisted that the respected Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) vice chancellor Mushirul Hasan be fired for wanting to provide legal help to the students of his university who have been arrested for their alleged terrorist links. It is rare indeed to find a vice chancellor who is willing to stick his neck out and take a clearly unpopular stand to do the right thing by his students. The BJP which is the fount of all that is retrograde, reactionary and contemptible, wants to stand all jurisprudence on its head by claiming that the culprits are guilty until proved innocent. It is up to the courts to decide that fact, not for Mr Rudy and his miserable cohorts to pass judgment either on them or on the VC. Given the conviction rates under TADA and POTA (it was 0.89% under TADA, much lower that what I said in my earlier post, see Rajinder Sachar's article here) this is all the more important in our country and in the present charged atmosphere. (Incidentally and for what it's worth, the VC's decision has been cleared by the Ministry of Human Resource Development). I realise that the BJP has its own agenda, its own ideology and its own constituency to worry about. But just as one wonders at the kind of environment that breeds the terrorist mindset, where do you have to be born to develop a saffron sheen? Tailpiece: "It is heartrending to note that day in and day out we come across news of blood-curdling incidents of police brutality and atrocities alleged to have been committed in utter disregard and in all breaches of humanitarian law and universal human rights as well as in total negation of the constitutional guarantees and human decency..." This is not the loony-left-liberal talking, people whom the BJP holds in contempt. It is the Supreme Court of India, quoted by Rajinder Sachar in the article I quoted earlier.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Blasts and Arrests

Ten days in Goa meant that I had fallen way behind in work and particularly in my lectures. This is partly the reason for the long gap in my posts, a fact brought to my attention verbally, by email, by chat, by every other mode of communication! (If indeed I have so many committed readers, why do I get an average of 0.5 comments per post? ) The other reason for this long gap is that I have been meaning to write on a somewhat sensitive topic and wasn't sure how to. I have decided to plunge in nevertheless, though I should warn you that this post is somewhat more rambling, woozy and ill-structured than my usual smart, clear, scintillating posts on other subjects :-) ... This is about something that has been bothering me for some time. The Delhi blasts have happened and Delhi police, in a remarkable show of efficiency, have apparently managed to kill 2 terrorists, arrest some 8 more and a few have escaped. In the process, one of their highly decorated officers has lost his life. Now I realise that it's easy (from the comfort of your armchair) to point fingers and find fault, but this same Delhi police completely mismanaged the Aarushi murder case (to the point of throwing the girl's father in jail for no fault of his own), mismanaged the Nithari murder case, made a pig's-breakfast of the Jessica Lal murder and allowed the BMW killers to escape until sustained media pressure forced them to open the case once more and arraign one of the guilty. (As an aside, not a single one of these people is a minority). How is it that the same police not only managed to find the terrorists who planted the bomb within a week but apparently are now in the possession of clues which will help the Rajasthan police wrap up the Jaipur bomb blast case too? If indeed their intelligence is of such high caliber, how is it that it never worked earlier, nor for that matter did it work before the blast which would have saved scores of innocent lives? I am, in fact, amazed at the details of the planning that they have uncovered. For example one report, which appeared in the TOI, claims that one of the accused was running ahead of schedule and therefore stopped by an ice cream vendor to have an ice cream and finally moved only because the autodriver balked at waiting for him so long to finish his ice cream. This level of detail is truly 'impressive'. So, what am I trying to say. No, unlike a certain section of the goofy-left, I am not saying it's all fake, that it's all a plant, or Pankaj Mishra style, claim that it's the police themselves who set off the bombs. However, as anyone who has been around, and not on Mars will vouchsafe, there is a tendency on the part of the police (and other parts of the law and order enforcement machinery) to label people by their names. It is no secret that not only in J&K but even in Delhi, UP, MP, young Muslim men have been dragged out of their homes, beaten and tortured in an effort to make them confess. Large numbers of them have eventually turned out to be innocent. When just the fact that you have the 'wrong' name is enough reason to be picked up, it is only fair that we use a standard substantially higher than the norm, to decide whether the evidence against the accused stands up to the highest level of scrutiny. If any evidence for miscarriage of justice is needed, the fact that the conviction rate under POTA and its infamous predecessor TADA was less than 10% should convince any sceptic. Unfortunately there is always the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, who believe that re-imposing POTA would magically drive all terrorists away. It's heartening then that many newspapers, not just the left leaning Hindu but even the Times of India, Indian Express and others have led with serious articles, for example here and here about the alienation of the Muslim minority in this country, thanks to such heavy handed practices of the police force and the army (in J&K). As Rahul Siddharthan points out here, even if such actions radicalise only .001% of the Muslim population, that still comes to 2000 -- a number sufficient to cause a lot of damage. Perhaps indeed, for once, the Delhi police have proved that they can perform when they have to. But why is it that I still have some niggling doubts? Is it because in the country today, when after all the mayhem of looting, burning and killing in Orissa of the Christian minority by the goons of the Sangh Parivar, and also in Karnataka, just one solitary person, who happens to be the head of the Bajrang Dal in Karnataka has been taken into custody (he might even have been released on bail by the time you read this)? The UPA Government, who I sincerely believe are non-communal, are so much under pressure from the opposition BJP to take action, that it is falling over backwards trying to prove that we are not a 'soft state'. What other reason can there be for a normally reticent and sober Prime Minister to start talking of tougher laws to control terrorism, only to be contradicted by other members of the Party as well as the coalition (as indeed they should).

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sarah Palin's interview

Sarah Palin, the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee's first interview to the media, that was eager anticipated as the first opening to who this woman really is, turned out to be a damp squib. (Those who missed it can see it here). Charles Gibson, the ABC anchor was suitably deferential and asked all the 'right' questions. Bob Park, the physicist who runs the very popular and extremely acerbic newsletter 'What's New' has the following open letter to Mr Gibson about the interview. I can hardly describe it any better, so I will just reproduce his letter here. THE PALIN INTERVIEW: CHARLIE, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? Dear Mr. Gibson: Having agreed to be "deferential" and being a nice guy besides, you were picked by Sarah Palin’s handlers to conduct her first media interview since the nomination. You were not unaware of how little the nation knew of her. As the only reporter granted this privilege you had a responsibility. In view of her links to Pentecostalism, and what little we’ve been able to piece together about her views on other issues, I was praying, figuratively speaking of course, that you’d start right off with the big one: what is your opinion of Charles Darwin’s theory of human evolution? All the others, sex education, stem cell research, choice, gay rights, church/state separation, are easy once that one out in the open. You greeted her politely, if at arms length, and went right to the first question: "Can you look the country in the eye and say, I have the experience and the ability to be not just Vice President, but perhaps President if the United States of America?" Isn’t that the same question McCain was asked? "I do Charlie, I’m ready," she replied. What did you expect her to say? No, I’d better go back to school and find out how things work outside Alaska? For weeks we’ve heard not one unscripted word and all you can think to ask her is whether she’s ready? And you wouldn’t let it go. "When he asked you to be VP," you persisted, "did you think for a minute, 'N'?" If she did, she’s not going to tell you on nationwide television. Are we supposed to spot look for beads of sweat or a shifty look in the eyes? "I did not," she said, "I thought yes, right off the bat". You wouldn’t drop it, "And you didn’t say to yourself, am I ready?" "I didn’t hesitate, no." My God! Give it a rest Charlie. "Doesn’t that take some hubris," you asked? "I answered yes," Palin responded, because I know you can’t blink." It probably got better, but I was asleep by then. And here for good measure are some of Maureen Dowd's questions (none of which were asked or will ever be asked). What kind of budget-cutter makes a show of getting rid of the state plane, then turns around and bills taxpayers for the travel of her husband and kids between Juneau and Wasilla and sticks the state with a per-diem tab to stay in her own home? Why was Sarah for the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against the Bridge to Nowhere, and why was she for earmarks before she was against them? And doesn’t all this make her just as big a flip-flopper as John Kerry? What kind of fiscal conservative raises taxes and increases budgets in both her jobs — as mayor and as governor? When the phone rings at 3 a.m., will she call the Wasilla Assembly of God congregation and ask them to pray on a response, as she asked them to pray for a natural gas pipeline? Does she really think Adam, Eve, Satan and the dinosaurs mingled on the earth 5,000 years ago? Why put out a press release about her teenage daughter’s pregnancy and then spend the next few days attacking the press for covering that press release? As Troopergate unfolds here — an inquiry into whether Palin inappropriately fired the commissioner of public safety for refusing to fire her ex-brother-in-law — it raises this question: Who else is on her enemies list and what might she do with the F.B.I.? Does she want a federal ban on trans fat in restaurants and a ban on abortion and Harry Potter? And which books exactly would have landed on the literature bonfire if she had had her way with that Wasilla librarian? Just how is it that Fannie and Freddie have cost taxpayers money (since they haven’t yet)? Does she talk in tongues or just eat caribou tongues? What does she have against polar bears? Imagine, she might just become the "leader of the free world" some day.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Cultural Relativism and the end of the world

Cultural relativism is defined by Wikipedia as the principle that an individual human's beliefs and activities should be understood in terms of his or her own culture. Unfortunately, in recent times and in popular thought and discussion, it has also meant that all views are equally valid (after all, each view is a function of the person's own cultural mileau). This point of view, which is the result of taking an idea to its extreme limit in this day of political correctness, was forcibly brought home to me on the issue of the doomsday scenario being predicted as a result of the LHC startup. Television and newspaper reports have been full of predictions of black hole formation, that will eat up the earth. (In India, the two channels particularly guilty of this hype have been Aaj Tak and India TV two sensation mongering channels). Unfortunately the net result has been that scientists have been scrambling to give well reasoned arguments why this is all hogwash, taking precious time away from doing more useful work. While it is true that scientists have occasionally been guilty of arrogantly dismissing the public's right to know what kind of research they are doing with public money, it is also important to dismiss crackpots as crackpots. After all, we don't engage 'flat-earth' proponents in any serious debate. Both sides of an issue do not carry equal weight in such arguments. To take a example more relevant to the US, creationism and evolution are not two equally valid theories of evolution of mankind. The same applies to the doomsday scenario. Of course it's another matter that the theories themselves that predict black hole formation are pretty far-fetched in my opinion, that make many assumptions of the nature of space-time and the kind of particles that live in some extra dimensions. However, these are still scientific theories, published in peer-reviewed respected scientific journals, and hopefully subject to being falsified. They cannot, on any account, be compared to theories propounded by crackpots and eccentrics with only a nodding acquaintance with the structure and methodologies of science, and in this particular case, high energy physics. Therefore, after having taken sufficient trouble to quantitatively demonstrate why these fanciful ideas have no basis in fact, scientists should just ignore this phenomena and get back to their work. Otherwise, by engaging these people in prolonged debate, one is conferring ill-deserved respectability on them. What is most amusing is that most newspapers and TV channels have now gone off the doomsday scenario, believing that yesterday's beam test by CERN was proof that no black holes that eat up the earth were produced. Ironic when you think that no collisions took place! It just shows that the airheads are ignorant of the very scenario they are purveying. (The Times of India even had an editorial claiming that if you are reading this paper the next day, it means it's all safe and nothing has happened). Tailpiece: If anyone is interested in a lay-man level article on this issue, please read this description by Michael Peskin.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Goa and Pondicherry

Today being Sunday we took a trip to Panjim the capital and walked around the mostly empty streets (probably because it was too early). Panjim in many ways retains its European (Portuguese) influence. It has wide boulevards with wide sidewalks where people can amble along in the evenings. The facades of houses and buildings have a Southern European feel to them with bright colours and columns. There are small parks dotting the city and small town squares kept reasonably clean and green. We had lunch in a well known restaurant called O Coquiero -- Coconut Tree (in Porvorim/Mapusa) which has a nice mix of Goan and Portuguese food. It is also (in)famous for the place where the notorious international criminal Charles Sobhraj was captured -- an event immortalised by a plaster cast of his sitting at the table where he was having his dinner when his sins caught up with him. The Portuguese influence in Goa is still quite strong. Many people dress in western clothes (women really, men anyway dress in western clothes all over India), there are a large number of d'Souza's and Vaz's and d'Mello's, all the churches that the Portugese built are still functional with regular service and very European architecture and ambiance, though they are nowhere as well preserved. Large numbers of Goans are Christian, the food is a fusion of local (Konkan) and Portuguese influence, and so is typical Goan music. However, except in the names of places and people, there is very little trace of the Portuguese language. Even some of the higher end hotels' and restaurants' waiters speak the three language formula of India (English, Hindi and the local language which in this case is Konkkani), very few people speak Portuguese. I couldn't help comparing this with the other 'colonial' era town I know well, Pondicherry (or Puducheri as it has been renamed). Pondicherry, except for a small 'French' quarter, is a typical small Indian town -- noisy, chaotic, no sidewalks, vehicles with horns blaring. Except in the street names, there is little French influence of the kind Goa has. There are no more Christians than in the rest of Tamil Nadu, the food is standard local food (except in special restaurants which serve a generic form of European food), almost everyone dresses in the Indian way (western dress for men, salwar-kameez/saris for women) and hardly any churches of note (again, no more than the rest of India). However, the French language is still very much in existence, large numbers of people still speak French, it's still traditional for children to learn French in school (aided by the Aurobindo Ashram whose schools actively promote French), there is even a French language bookstore, and incongruously enough, the policemen wear kepis. In other words, French intellectual activity survives while popular culture has become totally Indian, almost in exact contrast to the Goan experience. Perhaps there is an explanation for this, and it doesn't need a rocket scientist to figure it out. (Of course I could be wrong). The Portuguese were responsible for very aggressive proselytizing and large scale (and occasionally forcible) conversions. At the same time though, the Portuguese inter-married with the local population more freely than other colonial powers, resulting in a large fraction of people in the population of mixed blood. Like all examples of cross-pollination this produced a rich new (Christian) fusion sub-culture whose remnant we see today in Goa. The Pondicherry experience was very different. The French with their Gallic aloofness, never tried to convert (in any case their republican ideals would not approve of such actions) and never inter-married with the locals. The two sections always existed separately (and peacefully) for the most part. However they introduced the French language in their schools and their administration, which meant that the language (and its associated intellectual structure) slowly percolated amongst the local populace. Thus, while popular culture remained local (in this case Tamil), French language and literature flourished and continued to do so, even after the French left. The fact that the French departed from India amicably meant that there was no strong movement to banish all vestiges of the colonial past. Whatever be it, one can't help feeling that while India may have been invaded many times over, a fact that is regularly met with much bemoaning and breast beating by the BJP and its Parivar, in the final analysis it has left India richer in its cultural and intellectual heritage and given her its unique syncretic culture.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Goan or Coming?

Have been in Goa for the last few days. I have come for a meeting, whose pace, in keeping with the spirit of the place, is not exactly frenetic. The mornings are reserved for tourism. Work starts languidly around 2pm. By 6 or 6.30 we are done and free to do whatever suits our fancy. (My only regret is that there is no siesta time). Of course there are advantages. It allows me to prepare my talk as well as my Field Theory lectures which I am missing back home and which I will need to make up once I return. Goa is of course a tourists' paradise. I mean for the locals, not the tourists. That means you are allowed to charge tourists approximately three times what you would charge in the rest of the country (a bit like Jaipur as I have mentioned elsewhere). A taxi ride of 8km costs around Rs 300. A taxi ride around 6 km costs Rs. 300. A taxi ride around 4 km costs...well, you get the point. Beyond around 10km, the cost makes a substantial jump. The numbers are independent of size of the car, petrol or diesel or any other such piffling details like number of passengers the car can carry. The locals are relaxed and easy going (another word is l... well never mind). However, if you think I am over critical, perish the thought. Yesterday, while we were walking along the road, a scooterist coming towards us spontaneously toppled off the scooter and came a cropper. A car passing by immediately stopped, the people got out and asked him very solicitously if he needed help, and what they could do. (As it turned out, the poor guy had had a pint too much and there wasn't much damage done). This would be unheard of in Chennai (or any other major city in India). Car drivers would just whiz past (if you are lucky) or run you over (if you are not). Nobody would think of stopping, let alone ask about your health. Punjabification of food has not left Goa untouched. Everyday at the centre we are staying, we get Paneer Masala/Makhni/Butter Masala/Badami, Chicken Mughlai/Masala/Butter Masala/Xacuti along with tandoori roti, dal makhni/tadka, and some other non-descript vegetable. Goan cuisine is conspicuous, if I may be allowed a cliche, by its absence except for that one Xacuti which unfortunately tasted the same as the others. However there appeared today, a pleasant coconut based prawn curry mixed, somewhat disconcertingly, with bhindi(okra). In a couple of days, I will have something nice to say, I am sure. And so to bed.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Ayurveda and Heavy Metals

A recent study in the August 27 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association points out that around twenty per cent of ayurvedic products purchased through the internet have significant levels of arsenic, lead and mercury. About 60 percent of the samples were from U.S. companies and 40 percent from Indian companies. Twenty-one percent had significant levels of lead, mercury and arsenic. The ingestion of these metals “could result in lead and/or mercury ingestions 100 to 10,000 times greater than acceptable limits..". This is not the first time that the Journal has reported this. In 2004, a similar study uncovered very similar facts. The existence of heavy metals in Ayurvedic medicine will not be a surprise to most Indians who are probably familiar with the claims of Ayurvedic Vaidyas, that these, in a suitably processed form are not harmful to the human body. The Wikipedia article on Ayurveda quotes Vaidyas as claiming that the practice of using heavy metals therapeutically as anti-microbials and anti-cancer agents is an old one and they have no toxic effects since as they are "meticulously and elaborately processed to oxides, salts and ashes that do not have the same biological activity as the more active, unprocessed compounds". Unfortunately the detoxification process as described in Wikipedia (called samskara) is not exactly guaranteed to fill one with great confidence. The described detoxification is a simple chemical process which involves four successive rounds of boiling the crude Aconitum root in cow's urine (twice) and cow's milk (twice). This process is claimed to chemically modify both toxic and proposed therapeutic components of the root. It also extracts some of these compounds from the root into the boiling solvents, thereby decreasing their concentration in the final product. Like most of Ayurveda, these are just empirical statements quoting some of the Shastras. The above description of the detoxification of Aconite is from the work of a certain Thorat Dahanukar which was carried out on mice and has not been reproduced. There is no attempt to understand what cow's milk and urine have to do with the detoxification. I think for the moment, I will stick to standard (also known as Allopathic) medicine.

And now Samuel Pepys's

This seems to be the latest fashion in blogs. Like Orwell's, Samuel Pepys's famous diaries are now being serialised in real time as a blog. If you have never heard of Samuel Pepys :-( then this is a good place to start. Of course, there is the ubiquitous Wikipedia entry, dry, mechanical and lifeless as always.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Orwell's blog

Yes indeed! Most of you who know me are aware that for long I have admired Orwell and his writing. In fact, this blog is named after Orwell's column in the Tribune. (see the right column). So it makes me very happy to learn that Orwell's diaries on a day to day basis is being published in real time as a blog (though shifted in time by 70 years) at Thus today, 25 August 2008, we have an entry for 25 August 1938. A lot of it has a rural feel to it, since Orwell was then living in Kent in a sanatorium recovering from a bout of tuberculosis and he describes the crops, the birds, the blackberries. Seems not very different from a contemporary description, until he actually comes to a description of some major event during that era. Of course the war is not too far and so, very soon we might expect more political entries. What better way to enjoy Orwell! The blog also has convenient footnotes to describe items that may not be familiar to present day readers, including strangely enough a link from blackberries and geraniums to the appropriate Wikipedia entry. Aren't readers supposed to know about blackberries, even in this present highly urbanised world? Or perhaps, as the New York Times cattily suggests, to distinguish them from the type you press with your fingers! But surely not for geraniums?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

How large is your water footprint?

Planetary supplies of fresh water are becoming more and more scarce as demand from six billion people on earth keeps soaring. Partly this is because world population continues to explode and many of its inhabitants are getting richer and and thus expanding demand. In other words it's the old story all over again that I explored in my 'food' posts - India and China are to blame! Be that as it may, and it may well be true, it is indeed a fact that water supplies are dwindling. Rivers such as the Nile, the Yangtze, the Jordan and the Ganges regularly peter out during the summer months and the water table in major cities like New Delhi, Chennai, Beijing and others have fallen drastically. Here are some little known facts which would help to put the problem in perspective. On an average, according to the Stockholm International Water Institute, on average each person on earth uses 1000 cubic meters (m^3) of water per year. A cubic meter being a 1000 litres, this works out to one million litres of water per year per capita! Now, before you think I, or the gentlemen at the institute above have been indulging in some vapourous stimulants to come up with such outrageous numbers, let me explain what these numbers mean. This is the average water footprint of each person on earth i.e. this is all the water we use for drinking, hygiene, growing food and all other activities. Or in other words, the water footprint of an individual, business or nation is defined as the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual, business or nation. It is then easy to understand the magnitude of these numbers. A kilo of beef needs 16000 litres of water (for grain fed cattle and therefore not true in India). a kilo of wheat or corn requires about 1000 litres for irrigation, even a cup of coffee requires around 140 litres of water to grow the requisite number of seeds to make that coffee. The actual drinking water that the metropolitan supply delivers to our homes (or, as in Chennai, more often than not, does not deliver) is a minuscule fraction of our total water footprint. The water footprint could also include items like a cotton shirt (which has a virtual water content of about 2000 litres). Consequently, an individual's water footprint is also dependent in many ways on his/her prosperity level. India's average water footprint per year per capita is around 980 cubic meters not very different from the world average. You can also calculate your individual water footprint from this site. For an average meat eater in India, this works out surprisingly to around 540 cubic meters per year, of which something like 520 is for food and 18 is for domestic use (this is the part which is actually supplied to our homes). Of this 520 for food, in India, almost 90% is for cereal consumption, the meat contribution being negligible. The same parameters including annual incomes applied to the US produces a number of around 1200, about 80% of which is from meat consumption. The difference in India between vegetarians and non vegetarians is in fact negligible. If anything, the vegetarian water footprint is marginally higher, presumably due to higher grain consumption. These and many other interesting facts can be discovered by playing with the water footprint site calculator given earlier. Which begs the question -- if most of us have a water footprint of around 500, why is that of the country around a 1000. Which part of the population is tilting the balance to such high numbers? Here are some other interesting facts which you can find from the papers linked at the site. For example, with regard to the water footprint of nations, in absolute terms, India is the champion -- 987Gm^3/year. Even though India's population is 17% of the world's, its people contribute only 13% to the global water footprint. On a per capita basis, the US is the champion -- 2480 m^3/year/capita followed by people in Southern European countries. On the other hand, despite our tendency to blame China's growth for most developmental problems, China has a much smaller footprint -- around 700 m^3/year/capita. However, as with many consumption patterns, India (13%), China(12%) and the US(9%) are the largest consumers of the global water resources. Interestingly, Japan's external water footprint ratio to the total footprint is very large (65%) compared to the three countries above (1.6% for India), mainly because it imports a large number of agricultural and industrial products. An interesting aspect of this external footprint is that, by importing say rice and other grains from another country with higher productivity per acre, we are actually reducing our own water footprint and making more effective use of water. Sources of water Finally, where is all this water coming from? All the fresh water on earth comes from precipitation. Of this, 61% is what is called Green water that flows through the landscape and is absorbed by soil and plants and is not available for direct withdrawal. About 38% is called Blue water and collects in rivers, lakes, wetlands and groundwater and is available for withdrawal. Irrigation from this blue water is the largest single use of freshwater (1.4% of the total), with cities and industries consuming a tiny fraction of the total usage (.1 %). However, this tiny usage actually creates a large local demand, thus draining nearby regions of ready supplies of fresh water as we have seen happen in India. Finally around 1.3% is lost through evaporation. In a future post, I will discuss what we can do (both individually and as a nation) to reduce water consumption. For those of you interested in reading some more, the August 2008 issue of Scientific American has an article on Water. The Water Footprint site mentioned in my post above is a rich resource for water related issues.

Sir Nils Olav

Nils Olav has been a part of Norway's elite King's Guard for 35 years, and even became honorary colonel in chief in 2005. Finally, in a crowning achievement of his career, Nils Olav became Sir Nils Olav in a morning ceremony on 15 August, watched by several hundred onlookers and attended by 130 guardsmen. Why is this news fit to print? Because Sir Nils is a penguin! And here is the news item along with a picture for all you skeptics. And as far as I can tell, unlike some other news items in recent times, this is not a hoax :-) . I have a question, though. How many of those guardsmen standing at attention in the picture suffered a thrombosis trying to stop themselves from cracking up?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Testing Chinese Style 'Openness'

Nicolas Kristof, whom I have often quoted on my blog, is one of the few New York Times Op-Ed Columnists who are readable and have something worthwhile to say. Most of the others are either infantile (TF), hysterical (MD) or plain dull (PK). In his most recent Op-Ed column, Kristof decides to personally test out China's new experiment in allowing protest demonstrations provided prior permission is taken. It's a hilarious description of how the oppressive Chinese system works. Read it here. My take on this? Once the Olympics are over, it's going to be back to business as usual. Nothing will change (though I would be happy to be proved wrong on this one). Even now, if it were not a NYT columnist but a Chinese coming to get permission, he would just be labelled a counterrevolutionary and thrown in jail. This is not just me being predictably cynical about China. Zhang Wei who applied for the requisite license was promptly arrested for “disturbing social order.” Read it here para 5. There are no depths to which the perfidious Chinese system will not sink. Come to think of it -- why don't we send our comrades (whose admiration for that country is legion) to China to hold their hartals, bandhs and protest marches? Hopefully we will never hear from them again! Tailpiece: "Mr. Putin’s already stratospheric popularity at home has grown to Phelpsian proportions" - quote from the second article above. We now seem to have a synonym for 'Olympian' :) Update 19 August 2008: And so it goes on ... ...and on

Friday, August 15, 2008

Energy needs: India and the World

This post is mostly about non carbon alternatives for electricity generation, induced by an article in Nature. However, that article may not be available to people without a subscription and furthermore, in addition to a summary, I also include here some numbers specific to India which are not available in the article. The numbers quoted in the rest of this post are taken from either the Nature article or from sources which are linked in appropriate places. The world's total energy requirement is around 45,000 terawatt-hours of energy a year, of which about 18,000 terawatt-hours a year, or roughly 40% is for electricity alone. (At 9000 hours approximately to a year, this works out to a constant 2 TW generation capacity). Electricity generation alone produces 10 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide every year, the largest fraction of all the fossil fuel derived emissions. India's total energy consumption is around 4000 kilowatt-hour per year per capita. Of this around 10%, or more precisely 460 kWh per year per capita is for electricity alone. (Some comparative figures are 28,200 for Iceland, 13,300 for the USA, 1,600 for China). These are all 2005 numbers. (Aside: The energy debate is sufficiently complicated as it is; however matters are made worse by different agencies using different units, depending on whether they are in the US or UK or elsewhere in the world. To make sense of this mad profusion in units, here is a quick conversion: 1 Quad = 1 quadrillion btu, a quadrillion is ten to the power fifteen. 1 kWh = 3412.14 btu. May the devil take the non-metricians). Now let us look at the distribution of different types of electricity generation in India. (Here again, there is some disagreement in numbers -- the Nature article gives the total for India, as I stated above, at 460 kWh/year/capita whereas this quotes 587). Of this 25% is hydroelectric, around 2.5% is nuclear, 69% is conventional thermal and the rest (a little more than 3%) is a combination of what is commonly called non-conventional energy sources (geothermal/solar/wind/biomass but in fact, is mainly wind). Hydropower development in the Brahmaputra river basin in eastern India is expected to result, by 2012 in six large power plants, which will add nearly 30,000 megawatts of generating capacity. (At present the total installed electricity generation capacity is around 118 gigawatts though using the above numbers gives us about 50-60 gigawatts. Thus there are significant discrepancies in various numbers floating around). Now a look at the rest of the world for these non-carbon-polluting sources. The total hydroelectric generation capacity in the world is 800 gigawatts, about 10 times more than geothermal, solar and wind power combined. The Three Gorges dam in China will eventually generate 18 gigawatts. In the best of all possible worlds, the International Hydropower Association estimates that hydroelectric capacity could triple worldwide with sufficient investment, the growth being mostly in Asia and Africa. It is expected that up to a terawatt of capacity could be added. However, while a clean technology, hydropower causes, as we in India have seen over the last few decades, enormous disruption in human lives, and enormous costs involved in relocating people, along with significant ecological damage caused to ecosystms downstream and upstream. Nuclear power produces 370 gigawatts of energy, around 15% of energy generated worldwide. (The number for India is abysmally small - less than 3%). With improvements in design, using breeder reactors, and introduction of thorium as a fuel, nuclear capacity can grow by a factor of two or three and continue for a century or more. In principle the world could be 100% nuclear power based. However, apart from being capital intensive (offset partly by their long lifetime), there are issues of storage of nuclear waste, diversion of nuclear fuel for nuclear weapons, the dangers of the spread of radiation in case of an accident and so on. Various different studies both by he IAEA as well as by academic organisations predict a rise to around 1000 to 1200 gigawatts of energy by 2050. Biomass and geothermal account for about 40 to 50 gigawatts of energy generation and are easily surpassed by windpower. The total installed capacity for windpower is around 94 gigawatts (or around 5% of total electricity generation) and at the present rise of around 20% per year, could triple in the next six years. In this, India too is doing very well. Unfortunately, its intermittancy means only up to around 20% of a grid's capacity can be met with wind energy. Incidentally large wind farms can affect local and potentially global climate by altering wind patterns and reducing the cooling effect of the wind, as large turbines slow the wind down. Solar energy is plentiful, particularly in a country like India which has negligible solar energy generation. Unfortunately solar cells have an efficiency of around 12-18% going up to around 20%, which is much higher than photosynthesis (1%). Additionally solar cells are still expensive, though their price is falling. Even though installed capacity is 9 gigawatts, the actual energy produced is much less, due to nights and clouds. The Earth receives 100,000 TW of solar power at its surface - enough power it is said, per hour to supply humanity's needs for a year. I don't see though, how this number adds up. It is also said that the world's primary energy needs could be served by less than a tenth of the area of the Sahara. But I am yet to see a clear calculation that backs this up. However, there is clearly no question that the Sun does represent a virtually inexhaustible and non polluting source of energy for our needs, if only we knew how to harness it efficiently. Other than wind power, India lags behind very badly in developing non-carbon methods of generating energy, including electricity. Its success with hydroelectric power is marked by controversial and incomplete resettlement programs for people displaced by large dams (coupled with somewhat knee-jerk extreme reactions by environmental fundamentalists). Given our rising energy needs, there seems to be no option but to develop one or more of these energy sources. However, with the nascent state of research in solar energy and the almost complete exploitation of wind energy, nuclear power today appears to be the only option to pursue in the short term (10-20 years). This is contingent on two premises: that the Department of Atomic Energy improve its track record significantly, in adding substantial electricity generation capacity (it has over the years fallen behind hugely, its own predictions of capacity addition) and secondly that the world stop treating us as a pariah state and agree to do nuclear commerce with us, so that we can buy nuclear fuel in the open market.