Sunday, August 29, 2010

Floods in Pakistan

As of now a whopping 20 million people have been affected by floods that are still ravaging Pakistan. An estimated 5 million are homeless and the numbers continue to rise. The news is essentially off the radar for Indian news agencies. Both the Hindu and the Times of India run stories that are buried deep inside the newspaper.

As the primary 'enemy country' in the eyes of most Indians (just as India is, in the eyes of many Pakistanis), this is not very surprising though I am disappointed that main stream sober newspapers like the Hindu have not been more proactive at least in their reportage. However the poor, the homeless and the ravaged (like their counterparts in India) have nothing to do with terrorism, the Taliban, the al-Qaeda, or their many off shoots -- they are just trying to survive this horrific disaster made worse by a completely incompetent civic administration.

The Indian Government, in a remarkable pusillanimous move offered 5 million rupees dollars (a rupeedollar per homeless!) with some promise of more at a later date. Our Pakistani counterparts in a even more churlish mood, asked the Indian Government to route it through the UN. Surely both countries can rise to the occasion for once and not let our past colour the accessibility of civilian aid. However, overall international aid has also been slow in coming, which some news agencies have attributed to Pakistan's "image deficit".

For those who have been living on Mars and don't know what is happening, you can check here and older stories available on the same page. The BBC has been running a series on Pakistan Floods on TV and the extent of the horror became apparent to me after seeing one of these. Here is a series of special reports from the BBC. The BBC also has a story on why external humanitarian assistance has been so tardy (no, terrorism and corruption are only two of many other causes).

Now I come to the main purpose of this post (it was not just to pontificate). Here is a list of donor agencies you can contribute to. If you are worried that your money may fall into the 'wrong' hands, try one of the international agencies like Oxfam . This is what they have to say

Oxfam works closely with partner organizations on the ground, which helps ensure that our response to emergencies like the Pakistan floods is swift, effective, and culturally appropriate. But we conduct careful checks before accepting any local organization as a partner. We have well-developed financial reporting procedures, and we monitor and assess the work we fund to ensure that aid is being delivered in a fair and responsible manner. Neither Oxfam nor its partners has allowed its resources to be diverted to extremist organizations.
I have not been able to find any Indian agencies involved in this. If you do know of one, please let me know -- it would be easier to contribute to those. But I suspect Indian aid agencies would have trouble getting visas to go to Pakistan for relief work.

There is now a Wikipedia page on the Pakistan Floods but it may not reflect the latest situation.

The Indian Government has commendably now hiked the aid to 25 million dollars, making it next only to the US and UK. Let us hope it actually reaches those for whom it is meant. Wonder what happened to all those oil-rich sheikdoms?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

ICM reportage

The best reports of the International Congress of Mathematicians is available at Tim Gowers' blog. He also has links to YouTube videos of the Field Medal ceremony.

He has some (non mathematical) interesting points to make. He comments on the tala that people keep with their hands in a Carnatic recital and the typical syncopated rhythm. He identifies the National Anthem to be in E major and the ending in as he put it "it was in a very clear E major — to describe it in Western terms — but strangely ended, in even quavers apart from a held last note, with E E F# F# G# G# F# G# A" - the Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya He.

For a Britisher he is strangely ignorant of some very common Indian customs. He seems never to have seen anyone do a Namaste which is truly odd since it is so common, not only in India but many parts of South and South East Asia. Instead he calls it a gesture he has only seen in Indian sculptures "she greeted us by putting her two hands together, pointing upwards, a gesture I was familiar with only from Indian sculptures".

He seems never to have heard of biryani (he thinks it is billani) -- again odd given how popular Indian food is in Britain.

A faint air of superciliousness runs through the account which I found a bit irksome

the president (of India, not the IMU) told us once again what the ICM was, but after that unpromising start she moved into a speech about India’s mathematical heritage and various other topics, all discussed in a way that made it clear that somebody — I presume not her — knew what they were talking about. She told us of an old Sanskrit saying, “Mathematics stands at the helm of all sciences.” I think I prefer the “queen of” metaphor that is more prevalent in the west. She told us that the concept of zero originated in India, and that calculus was anticipated in India in the 15th century. I wondered before the opening ceremony started how many times Ramanujan would be mentioned.
and particularly that irritating crack about Ramanujan.

But I suppose a Fields medalist is entitled to his upturned nose....

Friday, August 20, 2010

Mathematics promotes a scientific temper?

Our honourable President, Smt. Pratibha Patil while inaugurating the International Congress of Mathematicians (the largest and most prestigious congregation of mathematicians of the world, held every four years and for the first time in India) claimed that the study of mathematics leads to the development of a scientific temper.

To my mind this statement needs to be proved (though of course not in the sense my mathematician friends might want). Since neither she nor I are mathematicians, we are perfectly placed to comment on mathematics and mathematicians! The importance of mathematics is not in doubt. As a physicist, the "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" is obvious to all practitioners of the subject. However using mathematics as a tool is very different from doing mathematics itself which is what mathematicians do. And therein lies the rub.

Mathematics, to put it somewhat simplistically, is purely Platonic -- that is, complete understanding is to be achieved, and in fact, is achieved through pure thought. Pure mathematicians needs no knowledge of the physical world to prove their theorems. In fact, many of them (like G. H. Hardy) would be horrified at the thought that their work had any connection, dependence or relevance to the real world. Unlike physics, which is based on observation and experiment (leading to a theory) and eventual falsification (leading to a new theory, in Popper's famous description) a correct mathematical theorem is for eternity. No new observation of the physical world, no new insights into nature's working can have the slightest effect on its correctness. The only thing that can topple a theorem is a realisation that there was a flaw in its proof. 'Laws' of physics, on the other hand, are continuously falling by the wayside, replaced by new ones, based on newer and better experimental observations of the real world. (Even String Theory, the most esoteric and mathematical of all physical theories needs to pay obeisance to some fundamental symmetries of nature).

In the absence therefore, of a scientific principle or method, pure mathematics cannot be classed as a science. It is a pure art form, existing by and of itself with no supporting scaffolding from nature. It therefore requires no scientific bent of mind from its practitioners (in the sense that it does not require that its practitioners demand rational explanations of all natural phenomenon). A stone thrown into the air at an angle could well follow a parabolic path because God so decreed it, rather than the laws of physics. It would make not an iota of difference to any theorem past, present or future. (In recent years, this supremacy of mathematics has been partly dented by its somewhat intricate dependence on other branches of science -- Jones Polynomials and Chern-Simons theory, or the proof of the four colour map theorem which required the use of computers to eliminate a few remaining counter examples).

There is therefore no evidence, in my humble opinion, that the study of mathematics either promotes or even requires a scientific temper. This is also the reason why mathematicians as a community are far more religious (Ramanujan being the classic but by no means the only example) than their counterparts in the physical sciences -- not because mathematics promotes a belief in the supernatural, but because it does not require you to relinquish your belief in it. This has also been my personal experience, though I obviously do not have statistics to prove this claim.

Disclaimer: I do not claim that physicists are not religious -- many are, surprisingly. However it is a matter of statistics. As a fraction, fewer physicists in my opinion are overtly religious or believe in non-rational explanations of natural phenomena, compared to their mathematics colleagues.

Note added: Morris Kline discusses some of these issues and many more and twentieth century mathematics in his book -- Mathematics -- The Loss of Certainty. In particular he discusses what he calls 'The Authority of Nature" in the last chapter and in and around page 333. I thank Rahul Siddharthan for acquainting me with this book.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Muslims in the Middle

Op-Ed by William Dalrymple in the New York Times.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

'Running' 64

We have just completed 63 years of independence, or as Indians like to call it, we are 'running' 64. Can we at least stop firing on unarmed civilians, no matter how misguided they might be?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Tony Judt, 1948 -- 2010

From the obituary in the New York Times
Tony Judt, the author of “Postwar,” a monumental history of Europe after World War II, and a public intellectual known for his sharply polemical essays on American foreign policy, the state of Israel and the future of Europe, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 62.


After he passed the entrance examinations to King’s College, Cambridge, he volunteered as an auxiliary with the Israeli Defense Forces during the Six-Day War, acting as an interpreter for other volunteers in the newly conquered Golan Heights. There he lost faith in the Zionist mission and began to see Israel as a malign occupying power whose self-definition as a Jewish state, he later argued, made it “an anachronism.”


His views on Israel made Mr. Judt an increasingly polarizing figure. He placed himself in the midst of a bitter debate when, in 2003, he outlined a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem in The New York Review of Books, proposing that Israel accept a future as a secular, bi-national state in which Jews and Arabs enjoyed equal status.


“Today I’m regarded outside New York University as a looney-tunes leftie self-hating Jewish communist; inside the university I’m regarded as a typical old-fashioned white male liberal elitist,” he told The Guardian of London in January 2010. “I like that. I’m on the edge of both, it makes me feel comfortable.”