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 randomkid.org, 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.