Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Let's Talk About Science

I have a friend, who, although quite close to me, differs significantly from my view of science. His name is Debanjan; I'll call him Deb here to save myself the trouble of having to type out the full name every time I make a reference to him. Deb is a brilliant student, and I believe he has quite a future ahead of him in physics. He is an ardent student of quantum physics. But that is beyond the point here. Deb has very strong opinions, and he holds to them and defends them to great depths with much logic. This I find particularly delectable, because when I enter into a technical argument with most people they back down before my own expressiveness. As a result, time and again we have very interesting conversations.

One particular topic about which we differ greatly is the aim of science. I hold a belief that science is meant for the benefit of the common people and to improve the life and living of the masses. Deb on the other hand believes that science is a natural outflow of the joy of discovery, "the pleasure of finding things out", quoting Feynman. As a result of this, we come to rather contradictory conclusions and tiffs regarding the nature of modern research. For one, I acknowledge that for an innovator, the kick of finding things out is like a drug. It gives you an addictive pleasure from which it is indeed very difficult to draw yourself out. Due to this, researchers go deeper and deeper into more and more esoteric topics, to hunt out the intimate details of the truth behind things.

The negative of what I find in this is that researchers, especially modern researchers, overlook the fact that they have some, even if very little, responsibility to the society from which they come and to which they belong. By saying this, I mean that modern research goes so deep into so difficult things, that what they do seldom benefit the common man at all. Much of the research that goes on today, if you see reports in good technical journals, will have a title that in unnerving enough. As soon as you read the title you know that you are as far away from it as one could possibly be. Worse still, I have discovered topics which are somewhat related to my own field of interest, and yet it has gone to such a depth of specialization that indeed I can understand very little about it. I am not against such research, mind you. I appreciate the intelligence and knowledge it requires, and respect the fact that the people involved in it get some great enjoyment in doing it.

The problem I placed before Deb in our debate was thus: imagine such a man, maybe yourself, who knows "very much about very little" and is doing great things in that. Now suppose a simple man, who works 10-to-5 and goes to the market everyday morning, meets you on the street one fine morning and asks you what you are doing. You explain to him, as best as you can (there is a difference in opinion between us here too, but lets leave that aside for the time being), that you are trying to figure out the probabilistic path taken by the electron cloud  between two contacts in a quantum transistor, and how the same maybe modified by the use of magnetic fields (actually it is perhaps far more complicated, but lets suppose we bring it down to this). Mr. Simple Guy frowns his brow, tried hard to understand, breaks into a sweat, gives up and finally asks, "I am sure it is very great, but how is it going to help me, or those like me?" What answer do you give?

Deb is of the opinion that the pursuit of knowledge in science in a natural process. If scientists had to worry day in and day out about fulfilling the expectation of the farmer, the laborer and the quintessential family-man right here right now, life would become very difficult for them. They would be forced to think about things and find solutions to problems that really do not interest them, and would perhaps make a mess out of it because they did not put their hearts to it well enough. Deb believes that researches are best left to themselves, doing whatever they please and however they please, without worrying about the fact that whether they are benefiting people or not in the present scenario.

But what about the people, I ask him. What about the thousands of people who live around you. We studied in a college whose fees were greatly subsidized, and if I am not wrong, the subsidy came from the taxes paid by those people about whom you are not willing to spare a thought. Is that morally correct, and do they not have a right to ask you to what effect they invested their money in educating you? Was it not in the hope that you, being brighter and smarter, would show them a new, perhaps better way of living? How can you so casually evade your responsibility to the people behind your success and move on to "whatever you please"?

Deb feels that it is out of context to ask for benefits right now. He believes that what science achieves today benefits people in very tangible ways a few generations down the line. For example, when John Bardeen and Walter Brattain worked hard to develop the first semiconductor transistor, I am sure nobody felt how useful this could be (perhaps not even they themselves). But look now - the transistor, a few generations down the line and with more innovations, has made possible today the computer and the mobile phone and a host of other things that every other person is using. The esoteric has become the pedestrian, and people are reaping the benefits of what once might have been considered to be pursued in "pure academic interest". It may be humorous at this point to note that when the first telephone was invented, the then-president of the USA said "Its a wonderful gadget, but who would want to use it anyway?" Funny as it may sound, it is the root of this argument - what seems to be mere fanciful inventing today may turn out to be instrumental in a mass technical revolution just a few years later.

True. But I have more to say. What about astrophysicists? Prof Hawking for example? What he has done is marvelous, and has richened our understanding of the universe in ways that cannot be explained in the mere words of a fool like me. But how many generations and how many more innovators down the line will it ever become useful to common people? Besides, how many researchers can boast of having done seminal work which has brought in a revolution a few generations down the line? What about the loads of rubbish people produce every year (which perhaps includes many of the undergraduate dissertations we scripted ourselves - God knows whether anybody even reads them) and pass of their entire lives in the name of "futuristic research? Or the people who work on number theory? As of now, I know no application of the practical world where that field has ever proven to be useful.

Deb tries his defense here too. He counters by saying that in that respect many of the greatest discoveries should be called useless. The Special Theory of Relativity, for example. Probability and combinatorics. Even quantum mechanics!

No its not true, I argue. Special theory of relativity is useful, although we may not be aware of it. This theory tells us how to harness nuclear energy, and bad as that may sound, it may well be our prime source of alternative energy a few hundred years down the line, considering the rate at which fossil fuels are getting depleted. Special theory of relativity has its uses in modern aeronautics and allows pilots to drive people home safely, talking of more immediate impacts. Probability and combinatorics are almost the backbone of the world of finance and speculation, the basis on which billions of dollars of forex trading take place and people make or break their fortunes in stock exchanges. Quantum mechanics has allowed us many things, not the least of which is to understand solid state physics well, abstract it to a simpler lever and happily teach it away to undergraduates in the name of electronics! Even molecular reactions owe their full understanding to quantum mechanics, and although many genetics engineers may not be aware of it, the discovery of the structure and thereafter artificial production of life-savers like insulin are, in the history of development of science, an offshoot of quantum mechanics in the name of crystallographic studies (remember Bragg's law, anyone?)

Deb takes these points in his favor and strongly sticks to the fact that such esoteric practices must go on, because that is the way progress has been ushered in in the past and perhaps will continue to be in the future. But who are the recipients of these benefits? The elite? The people who are directly or indirectly funding your research? USA and Europe, to be more in-the-face? What happened to poor India? What about the people here, who will come back for them and benefit them, even if it is 7 generations away in the future?

Deb says science and scientists serve mankind as a whole, and are not limited by political boundaries. Nobel as it might sound, it is fallacious, because if you disregard the political boundaries then you become only more strongly answerable to every common man in the world. The poor farmer who rides on his wooden plough trying to bring his unruly oxen under the harness beneath the burning sun to till his field perhaps gets only more right to question the outcome of your research and its impact, if that be the way. I am yet to receive a satisfactory response to this question.

It is difficult to come to a conclusion on something like this, but what I feel about the topic is this: it is undeniable that research cannot be put under the yoke of day-to-day concerns, and the creativity of innovators must be allowed to run free if discoveries like the recent artificial development of genetic material to bring to "life" an otherwise inactive cytoplasm are to become reality. Needless to say, this research, no matter how esoteric it may seem to the plain eye, has immense significance which I, being a gob-smacked idiot in the world of biology, can also appreciate. But perhaps it would be good if all these great minds sat up straight and decided, that out of 12 months of the year, I shall put 10 months in what I want to do, and think for 2 months about what the people, my people, mankind at large, need, right NOW. And I shall use my mental faculties to find some practicable and useful solution for them, to make the world a better place.

And above all, no great mind should ever become blind to the impact of his discovery on the practical world, in the name of "the pleasure of finding things out". Feynman himself said that when he started working on the Manhattan project, his chief concern was that if Nazi Germany beat them to the race of successfully making the bomb, then the losses to human life would be incalculable. Thus it was a necessary evil to put their minds to work for the bomb. But when Germany was defeated, he regrets that not once did it strike him as to what point was there in continuing the work he had been doing, so lost he and the team was in the kick of discovery. He admits it was perhaps the greatest mistake a scientist could ever make, to allow his brain to be used by the "worldly wise" for unscrupulous purposes while allowing himself to be fooled under the "pleasure of finding things out" syndrome. People around us are too smart, unlike what we "educated" ones think, and they can manipulate us in ways we cannot imagine. In view of mankind, then, let us indulge in the joy of discovery, but not become blind to what it may mean to, and how it may affect, our people, and lets spare a little time thinking for them too.

PS: I am not sure if my readers will find this interesting. If you do, let me know, there are several other equally, if not more, interesting debates, that we had, which I shall be glad to share with you.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The ways of the Almighty...

There is a popular line in drama in my mother tongue (Bengali, that is) which goes as "Kotha bolo na; tomra keu shobdo koro na, bhogobaan nidra giyechhen golojog shoite paren na; kotha bolo na!" Translated to English, that stands as "Dont talk, dont make a noise, the Almighty is asleep, and he cannot stand being disturbed, so keep quiet". Every time I hear this line, I feel something very queer, which is perhaps not noticeable in the lines in a hurried read.

The surprise element lies in the statement that the Almighty is asleep. Think about it. Someone whom we visualize as our guardian above, who watches over us, protecting us from harm, noting our deeds and punishing or rewarding us accordingly at the end of our mortal lives (at least so says mythology, of almost any religion) is asleep. ASLEEP. HE is not watching over you. HE does not care about who is doing what, the good the bad and the ugly. Is HE at all interested?

Its a philosophical thought, but it brings to my mind the question "what if?" What if all that we were taught was wrong? What if values, virtues and the fabled "triumph of good" do not exist in reality? What if the good do not get rewarded in any way and die miserably, and the bad who manage their way all the way up are the ones who end up with everything they want in life? What if there is no grand record book of earthly doings? Worse still, what if the judging criteria of a man or woman on earth is not what we imagine it to be? What if it is exactly reverse?

What about the old guy who lives down your street? The poor man spent his life working hard at the local post office. Little did he earn, but spent it unflinchingly to educate his son. Great was his joy on the day when his son finished school. Unbounded was his pride when his son studied in a good college by a scholarship. He held hands with his elderly wife, sitting at the park bench, sighing at having successfully raised a family and served his nation, waiting for his son to come to him with visions of a better life.

The wait never ended. His wife perhaps realized its no good waiting, she quietly passed away one day. Heartbreaking it was, yet an occasion with a silver lining, for on this excuse his son did come home for a week. But then it was all gone, and the shroud of loneliness descended upon him. He waits still, but suspects that his wife knew better, and hopes that one night he too will pass away in his sleep, unnoticed to the rest of the world.

And then relatives will come and say "He was a good man. God rewarded him, he passed away painlessly." Painless, was it? Was that all the reward he deserved? Oh the folly! But the topic changes soon, to more important things like inheritance.

In a Bengali movie called "Kori diye kinlam" (among the better ones) there is a silly old man, who says two lines of great wisdom. When a girl about to be married asks him "Will I be happy in life?" he says "Oh you silly girl, dont you know? In this world he who is rich is happy". And when the girl asks him about punishment after death, he vehemently protests "There is nothing after death. Nothing. With death its finished. Its all gone, dark and hollow". Remarkable. Why have people not thought about this in greater detail?

There is a little girl at the corner of street where I turn. In ragged clothes and dirty hair she scrubs away at the cups and plates piled high and deep at her feet. She works fast, because her angry employer shouts at her when she does not. But in her heart she knows another reason. Everyday when she finishes her work, she gets a dry biscuit from the owner of the ramshackle dhaba. She tries to time this precisely at the hour when her 3-and-a-half foot high hero comes with a holder full of tea glasses. If she succeeds, she manages to share the biscuit with the urchin, who in turn manages one extra cup of tea everyday for this little intimate brunch. The owner looks suspiciously at the pair, and seems to be in an unusual hurry to close shop and go home. She hates it, the moment of separation.

God's children, aren't they? Well they'd better be, for there is nobody else alive who would call them their children. And what is the fate of God's children? Somewhere below the wheels of a car? Or are they to succeed the beggar a little further down? Who keeps note of their tender feelings, and where will those take them?

Don't seethe your temper against the owner of the shop. He does not earn much himself. Has an ailing wife, and a promiscuous daughter who ran away from home for ... He shivers at the thought. God knows where she is now. His wife weeps every night secretly for her. He weeps every night thinking of all the money he owes the street ruffians who threaten him in different ways every week. They are backed by the police, who share in the earnings. Its no good fighting crocodiles in water, so he tries to accommodate. And when bereft of all hope he stumbles along the lanes of the red-light area dead drunk shouting out the name of his daughter, not knowing whether to be happy or sad at the lean prospect of a reply from one of the windows above, a little feeling stretches out for the pair of urchins back at his shop. He'll scold the girl even more the next day, he tells himself. Maybe that way she wont lose discipline like his daughter did. And he'll keep the boy away from her, this is where it all begins. But maybe, just maybe, he'll get her a bigger biscuit.

And in contrast we have God's privileged child. The symbol of Hinduism. The god of the state. He who brings great investments and great industrialization. He who, not so long ago, was charged of inactivity, or rather instigating activities between 27th to 3rd February of 2002. He who was, possibly, indirectly responsible for the death of almost a thousand innocent people, orphaning of children, rape of women and numerous such atrocities. He who was accused of having systematically planned government and security level inaction against a terrible carnage. Numerous aging parents like the one who recently passed away down the street have been pushed to wait forever for their children to return by him. Countless little girls and tea-carrying urchins have been purportedly produced by him, who loiter the streets with no place to call home, and nobody to call dear. Perhaps even today, the graying hairs and the wrinkled brows of some father like my dear dhabawala try hard to conceal the screams of imputation to the Almighty against him, only to break down in the comfortable numbness of inebriation.

But is HE listening? His ideal demagogue came through clean. Of course he did, the Government found nothing wrong. They even got him a better rank and position. And I am quite sure, after death, if he stands before HIS court, he'll come clean there too. "Pichhpaa noy bidhatao dudhete jol meshate" we say in Bengali - Even HE does not hesitate to mix water in milk. HE could with with a little more money and power HIMSELF.

Maybe in the Christian schools when the kids line up in the morning for their prayers, they should just say:

Dear God,
Are you watching?