Friday, November 14, 2008

OF Heroes - Act I Scene II : Science and Religion

Act I Scene II

Zoom to IIT Madras. The tech-fest had featured a quiz which was very popular. The week after the tech-fest, a physics class has suddenly come abuzz. The discussion is on Perpetual Motion Machines.

Prof: PPMs are impossible. The one shown here [slide show moves to a picture of Maxwell’s daemon] fails because it violates the third law of thermodynamics. You simply cannot generate negative entropy through an event.

Student: Sir. I have a tangential question actually. Why are the laws of physics so sanctimonious? Aren’t laws meant to be broken?

Prof: [silencing the ensuing sniggering] Because this is Science, not Sociology!

Student: I’m not trying to be funny. I’m trying to understand Sir. I’ve had this question in my mind for seven years now. Why is it that Science as taught in classrooms frowns upon doubts on the accuracy or credibility of its laws? Isn’t it true that progress in science has been made not linearly but in leaps and bounds, and that these leaps have always been preceded by an experiment or evidence that actually questioned the validity of what was hitherto thought of as a law?

Prof: The evidence comes first, does it not? The laws of physics are suitably changed to accommodate the new evidence. Relativity being a case in the point.

Student: Precisely Sir. Michelson-Morley’s experiment proved once and for all, that velocities did not add up algebraically. The law had to be changed to incorporate this factor called the speed of light. The point is that the interferometer experiment was a climax of scientific thought on relativity(though it wasn’t the end point of that line of study). The experiment was definitely not the beginning of the thought process.

Prof: what are you getting at? [visibly interested]

Student: What I’m getting at is this. The thought experiment came as a result of a belief that the law of simple vector addition of relative velocities was questionable. If it wasn’t, then it wouldn’t have been questioned.

Prof: That is not necessarily true of scientific experiments. Consider the gold-foil experiment. Rutherford’s experiment was a totally random one. There was no reason to believe that it WOULD work.

Student: Sir, there HAD to be some reason to believe that the experiment MIGHT work. Otherwise the experiment wouldn’t have been conducted. Rutherford didn’t reach the position he did - one of the premier scientists of the 20th century - by being whimsical! I’m not saying that Rutherford did not believe the prevalent scientific standpoint regarding the composition of the atom. I’m saying he had reason to believe that there was a possibility that the theory might not stand up to rigourous examination. Granted the possibility was low, hence the test was conducted by Geiger and Marsden, not by the man himself. Though, of course, Rutherford did take... Um... get the credit!

[More coughing and sniggering ensues in class. It is a well-documented belief that the number of papers which have a professor's name as the author is directly proportional to the number of research students the professor has. Professors have a long history of taking credit for work done by researchers working under them.]

Prof: [silences the class once again. This time he is visibly annoyed.]

Student: What I’m saying Sir, is this. Unless an accepted theory is questioned and an alternate one is proposed, there is no meaning to Science. If there is no procedure for questioning and re-evaluating our axioms, what is the difference between Science and Religion?

Prof: We’ll tackle this later. Its time for the next class. [The class is over.]

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Of Heroes - Prologue & Act I Scene I

In the movie Unbreakable, Elijah Price makes a very interesting observation. He asks David Dunn (a security guard by profession),
Why is it, do you think, that of all the professions in the world you chose protection? You could have been a tax accountant. You could have owned your own gym. You could have opened a chain of restaurants. You could've done of [sic] ten thousand things, but in the end, you chose to protect people. You made that decision, and I find that very, very interesting.
In Elijah's story, this analysis of Dunn's heroism is merely a sub-plot: a comic-book background for the showdown between Mr. Glass and the Unbreakable. Elijah highlights the contrast between plus-infinity and minus-infinity.

What I will attempt in the next few posts is a comparison between the finite and the infinite. So what is the finite? Any researcher worth his microscope will tell you that ant colonies have a 'life': an awareness greater than the sum of its parts. Individual ants can be really stupid, selfish and short-sighted, but ant colonies are pretty intelligent. In fact, ants survive because of this ability to form colonies that are wiser than just a collection.
It bears thought, that if there exists a being, that could look at the earth in the same scale, it would see humanity as another colony. Hopefully there will be enough evidence to show that humanity as a whole greater than an algebraic sum of its parts.
I will ask you to take my word for this. We are a colony. Humanity, as a collection, is a sentient being with a greater awareness than all of individual ones. I trust you won't have trouble accepting this: It is a better scenario than just being a random collection of humans. Even if you don't, let us take this forward as a hypotheses. It is neither central nor integral to my moot point. It just happens to make for a comfortable (if not comforting) analogy and has the additional advantage of dramatic effect.

As the drama unfolds, we see the action from the eyes of the sentient being. (We shall henceforth refer to this sentient being as HB. That will serve the twin purposes of being easier to type and giving me the little insider joke. More in the footnote.) Lets get straight to action. HB, as part of his/her/its research, is studying the curious and mysterious ways of the human colony. As we turn Voyeur and peer over HB's shoulder into her notebook, the drama unfolds

Act I Scene I
Human ants are mostly either soldiers or workers. the roles seem to involve specific training and characteristics, but it is quite common for roles to be interchanged. The most significant point about the human ant is its myopia. Each one follows its own path; selfishly so. Each is driven by its own testosterone and by the pheromones of those around it. Each seems to be aware of its own individual little goals. Each is awake to its own individual little knowledge. The colony survives on the back of an incredible amount of knowledge gained as a community and neatly warehoused for future reference. The colony also survives on little green pieces of paper (reference: The inaptly-named trilogy by Douglas Noel Adams). The colony itself has a greater awareness. The evidence of the recent financial crisis showcases both the myopia and the selfish short-term interest of individual ants or groups of ants.

Preview to the next episode: Alarums. Hero approaching...

Footnote: HB is a tribute to the one person in whom I have seen the qualities that makes me believe that Nietzsche's Übermensch is not an idle dream. It is but one of life's little ironies that my vision of a personified Overman is indeed that of a woman. 'twas but natural that my sentient being should be an Overman. I apologize to the lady in question for any slight on my behalf, whether insinuated or explicitly stated.

Disclaimer: All resemblances with Asimov's 'I Robot' are but a natural consequence of the theme.

Friday, November 07, 2008

What are friends for!

For turning up when you least expect them to!
I've not been this happy or this hopeful in a month!
Its gonna be alright. I can save this. I can make it work. I know.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Of Solitude and Loneliness

Rilke wrote,
Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.

I had that love once. I dream that somewhere buried in the mists, that love is still there. The memory at once ephemeral, at once alive. How did i let it go out of my hands? How did i let it go out of my heart?

p.s. Thanks Silly for introducing me to Rilke.