A Candle in the Dark

A look on science, politics, religion and events

Archive for April 2007

The voice of reason

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Imagine that our planet is under the threat of complete annihilation, for whatever reason, by a more advanced intelligent race. If there’s one person, one individual we can send to plead the case for earth’s survival, that representative for earth would have to be the astronomer, Carl Sagan. I’ll never forget the day when I first came across his work, The Demon-Haunted World 1. Sagan’s passion and enthusiasm for science and humanity is truly inspiring and infectious.

Sagan has written some truly brilliant 2 popular science books. If you’ve not read them yet, I strongly suggest that you do. Among his more popular science books, which I’ve absolutely enjoyed, are Cosmos, Broca’s Brain, The Dragons of Eden and Billions and Billions.

This is a video where Carl Sagan talks about the famous Pale Blue Dot photograph 3, that the Voyager 1 spacecraft took. I can’t find adequate words to describe the feeling of awe, beauty and humility that Sagan conveys, so I’ll let you experience it for yourself.

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood
spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate… Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate… Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and, I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

From one of the greatest humans who has ever lived.

Notes

[1] – The more perceptive of you would have noticed that the name of this blog comes from the same book (The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark). No coincidence. In fact, Sagan himself was referring to the British physician Thomas Ady, who bravely wrote a treatise against the Salem witch trials.
[2] – That’s a poor adjective. I’d probably run out of superlatives if I try to express just how good they are. So, if you’ve not read any of his works yet, what are you waiting for?
[3] – From his essay, Reflections on a Mote of Dust.

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Written by parseval

April 22, 2007 at 11:15 am

Posted in people, science

Vedic "Science"

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I found this wonderful article by Meera Nanda, in which she highlights how modern science is being mixed up by the Vedas. The essay, titled Postmodernism, Hindu nationalism and `Vedic science’, was published in the Frontline magazine 1.

This excerpt from the article2, illustrates her argument.

One of the most ludicrous mantras of Hindutva propaganda is that there is “no conflict” between modern science and Hinduism. In reality, everything we know about the workings of nature through the methods of modern science radically disconfirms the presence of any morally significant gunas, or shakti, or any other form of consciousness in nature, as taught by the Vedic cosmology which treats nature as a manifestation of divine consciousness. Far from there being “no conflict” between science and Hinduism, a scientific understanding of nature completely and radically negates the “eternal laws” of Hindu dharma which teach an identity between spirit and matter. That is precisely why the Hindutva apologists are so keen to tame modern science by reducing it to “simply another name for the One Truth” – the “one truth” of Absolute Consciousness contained in Hinduism’s own classical texts.

She further says that 2,

ALL these numerous celebrations of “Vedas as science” follow a similar intellectual strategy of finding analogies and equivalences. All invoke extremely speculative theories from modern cosmology, quantum mechanics, vitalistic theories of biology and parapsychology, and other fringe sciences. They read back these sciences into Sanskrit texts chosen at will, and their meaning decided by the whim of the interpreter, and claim that the entities and processes mentioned in Sanskrit texts are “like”, “the same thing as”, or “another word for” the ideas expressed in modern cosmology, quantum physics or biology. Thus there is a bit of a Brahman here and a bit of quantum mechanics there, the two treated as interchangeable; there are references to “energy”, a scientific term with a definite mathematical formulation in physics, which gets to mean “consciousness”; references to Newton’s laws of action and reaction are made to stand for the laws of karma and reincarnation; completely discredited “evidence” from parapsychology and “secret life of plants” are upheld as proofs of the presence of different degrees of soul in all matter; “evolution” is taught as the self-manifestation of Brahman and so on. The terms are scientific, but the content is religious. There is no regard for consistency either of scientific concepts, or of religious ideas. Both wholes are broken apart, random connections and correspondences are established and with great smugness, the two modes of knowing are declared to be equivalent, and even inter-changeable. The only driving force, the only idea that gives this whole mish-mash any coherence, is the great anxiety to preserve and protect Hinduism from a rational critique and demystification. Vedic science is motivated by cultural chauvinism, pure and simple.

I tend to agree with what she says. Her article is definitely one of the most informed essays I’ve read.

Notes

[1] – Volume 20 – Issue 26, December 20, 2003 – January 02, 2004

[2] – Reproduced under fair use.

Written by parseval

April 17, 2007 at 11:06 pm

Posted in pseudoscience

Free convection for dummies

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The Nonoscience blog has a nice series of articles that serve as an introduction to the principles of free convection. You can find the posts here:

(i) Introduction to Free Convection
(ii) Mechanism of Free Convection
(iii) Free Convection and the Rayleigh Number

As for me, I’m still grappling to make sense of my heat transfer course. It’s hard enough trying to get a physical grasp of all those dimensionless quantities1, and on top of that, my head’s still reeling trying to figure out when to use all the empirical correlations2.

Notes

[1] – Nusselt, Rayleigh, Prandtl, Grashof, Richardson, apart from good old Reynolds and Archimidies. I could probably write a poem!

[2] – Churchill and Chu, you’re exempt. But Dittus & Boelter, Sieder & Tate, Petukhov, Notter & Sleicher, I’m piping confused. And then there’s Whitaker, Polhausen , … I could go on & on

Written by parseval

April 15, 2007 at 12:24 pm

Posted in physics

On convergence

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I recently came across something interesting while reading Mary L Boas text on Mathematical Methods.

Has it ever bothered you, why the power series of a pretty function like converges only for , even though there’s nothing strange which happens at ? For example, if you take , it’s easy to see that there’s a singularity at . But what’s the catch here? What’s wrong with the power series of at ? This apparent conundrum is actually trivial when one looks at it from the complex perspective. Consider the complex function,

Since is infinite when , isn’t analytic in any region containing . Now, there’s a theorem that says that, since is analytic at points other than , it converges inside the circle centered at the origin and extending to the singularity at . From this, one can clearly see that when , and the corresponding power series also converges only when .


The lesson here is that looking at things from a complex perspective might give important insights in the real case.

Written by parseval

April 14, 2007 at 6:19 pm

Posted in mathematics

Darfur Images

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Darfur is burning. But we all knew that already, didn’t we? After all, 300,000 dead and 2.5 million homeless (just another number? think about it) isn’t enough reason for the UN to actually do something.

Atleast Google isn’t evil. It’s possible for you to see the extent of the destruction in Darfur in high-resolution using the Google Earth software. It’s impossible to miss if you pan over Africa.

For example, in the picture below, you can see the village of Niala. The circles you see are what’s left of the mud huts with straw roofs, known as gottias. (Click on the images to get a larger image)

Similarly, this is the village of Selenyi, which has been completely destroyed.

In some cases, you can even see the ashes of some huts which have been recently burnt

Google Earth also allows integrates actual photographs from various destroyed villages, videos and testimonies of some survivors. Here’s an account from a 61-year-old interviewed in Goz Amer

“It was early when I heard the noise and went out to see what is happening. When I opened the door there were Janjawid pointing a gun at me. They told me to stop and they aimed at me with their guns. The Janjawid were everywhere. I saw them collecting men from all the huts, it was mainly men from 16 to 35 years of age. They took them out of the village. They took as they liked, money and belongings. They took the men by car outside of the village. I could see the car returning to bring more every ten minutes back and forth. They took the men behind the mountain. The government army was there with their guns, but they did not burn the village and they did not loot. But they were there with the Janjawid. Behind the mountains they killed them and they arrested others. On that Friday they killed 116 men. I saw the dead bodies behind the mountains. They killed my son, Isa Ibrahim Shagar, he was 23 years of age. They took everything we had. We heard them shooting people. Those who were arrested were told to go and see [name of Janjawid leader] to pay to be released. This was all still on Friday.

“Those who were arrested were tied up: arms behind their body, they had to lie face down on the earth and were beaten. They were hitting them hard until their heads were bleeding. They told us that those between the age of 16-35 could not pay only those older than 55 could pay. They asked for 500.000 Sudanese Pound for one person. Only eight people could pay.The remaining men and women and children were kept under trees outside the village and the Janjawid did not allow anybody to move. We heard women who went to collect firewood who were raped. There was a 15 year old girl, I do not know her name, she was raped by the Janjawid when she went to collect fire wood. Those who were still arrested they were told to get into the cars, because they would to take them to the police in Garsila. But they were taken behind the hills and killed. Some of us could climb the hills and see what they did.On Saturday they killed the rest of the men. This time they did not use their guns, they twisted their necks. One Janjawid stood behind the man to hold him down and others twisted the neck until it broke.”

Meanwhile, Sudan’s president steadfastly refuses to accept that there’s any crisis, completely ignoring the blinding evidence as a conspiracy of the “west” to undermine his country’s sovereignty.

They say that more than 200,000 thousand have been killed in Darfur, we affirm that this number is not true and that… the number of deaths has not reached 9,000. Any talk of a humanitarian crisis is not true

So, what exactly can we, as individuals, do to end this atrocity?

Nothing really. We can only sit and observe the worst human atrocity in recent history run its course. The organization which has the military power to end this organized mass murder and genocide, the UN (or should I say, the USA?), is happy to remain a passive observer. Governments continue to “impose sanctions”, “strongly condemn”, “compile evidence” and do absolutely nothing while the genocide bleeds on, people murdered, just like that. Where’s the attention from the world?

Written by parseval

April 11, 2007 at 5:58 pm

Posted in politics

My Vision

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I’m afflicted with a rare, progressive eye disease, called Keratoconus 1. While it doesn’t cause blindness, it finally results in very bad vision.

Whenever my eye condition comes up during conversation2, I have a hard time explaining exactly how my vision is affected. However, I recently came across a wonderful site3 which contains a compilation of images, some of which I’ve used here, designed to help communicate how and what individuals with Keratoconus see.

Currently, I’m experiencing the early stages of the disease only in the right eye, so my overall vision isn’t too bad. Although, one major problem is that images appear very blurred at night4. For example, this is how the moon looks through my right eye.

Driving at night is especially a problem, because of the glare and streaking of light from the oncoming traffic.

Also, distant objects are never clear or sharp. This results in me ending up with a big headache if I don’t wear my glasses or contacts for an extended period of time.

Footnotes

[1] – Believe me, you DO NOT want to wiki this.

[2] – ie, rarely. Usually, I have much more interesting things to talk about. And no, it’s not the weather either. Honest!

[4] – They appear slightly blurred during the day too, if you’re interested, which doubtless, you’re not.

Written by parseval

April 8, 2007 at 9:55 pm

Posted in personal