Friday, December 24, 2010

The Documentary Debate

So here's another debate story. This one is between me and my friend Vatsal; we'll call him Vats for brevity's sake.

Vats is a good mathematician and physicist. However, he belongs to the group which I call as the "derivationalists", which means to say that Vats does not find any fun in science that is explained without the rigor of mathematical derivations and deep physical laws. In short, Vats is quite against popular science.

I have had this debate with Debanjan (Deb) earlier too. Deb is also a "derivationalist" and completely against pop-sci. He feels that it is a complete waste to time to read about an overview of something from a magazine or Wikipedia without starting from the basic principles of physics (we are talking about physics here), reading tens of publications and deriving everything in that field out by yourself.

As a result of these views, we often have clashes on our view of scientific documentaries that are presented in educational media like Discovery or NatGeo. We are specifically talking about documentaries in pure science rather than engineering ("Megastructures" and "Extreme Engineering") because we do agree that the presenting of enigineering design on-screen, be it a Porsche car or the Tokyo Int airport, does hold some merit, because these constructions are "nice to see", and there is really no big point in telling people how an IC engine works or how the strength of materials is calculated to bolster the beams and columns.

Vats (and I believe Deb too) has a strict no-no on pure science documentaries. Being "derivationalist", he raises objections on the way the content is organized. It is obscured in several perspectives. Supposing the documentary starts from the basic principles, then it is difficult to cover the latest philosophies in the course of a single hour. If they intend to touch the latter, they begin half-way, and the uninitiated viewer has no clue about what hit him, and he goes for the schoolboy's approach of "accepting what is on the board to be god-gifted truth". Well, it is true that certain in-depth documentaries have attempted to span the entire horizon of historical development of the subject matter - like the set of 6 documentaries on Astrophysics and Stephen Hawking's theory, which started from the days of Tycho Brahe and ended with Black Hole radiation. But in going into such a vast coverage, one risks the fundamental point of "jumping the steps", as it were.

In such documentaries it is not unusual to come across Einstein's General Theory of relativity explaining gravitation as a "cloth fabric on which the heavenly bodies are located". If you have watched these, you would know that the narrator proceeds to say that the "weight" of the Sun depresses the "fabric" - creating a funnel-like curvature, into which the planet gets pulled in, and the revolution of that planet may be shown to counter the gravitational attraction of the Sun. You might have seen a construct like this at science fairs or exhibitions too, although I doubt whether they did mention Einstein.

At any rate, this interpretation may be looked upon as a culmination of Vats' dissatisfaction with documentaries. And its not without reason. About 90% of the viewers who have been wowed at such a lucid explanation of such deep principles have not considered the most obvious flaw in this argument. The reason we think that a sphere placed on a stretched extent of cloth would depress it is becuase we are used to thinking the sphere having some "weight" which is nothing but a manifestation of the Earth's gravitational force on the sphere. So essentially you are using gravity to explain gravity.

Even if we did accept it as a "visualization aid", the curvature that mass essentially produces is a curvature in space-time, and nothing in this analogy can bring that factor in (unless you carefully describe a light synchronized clocking mechanism in each intersection point of the grid). Furthermore, and Vats tells me this for at this point it really gets beyond my knowledge, there are fundamental roadblocks to one's thought processes if one starts with the belief that gravitation is like the depressing of a fabric. He tells me there is some matrix, when when diagonalized and blah blah gives some parameters. From these parameters emerge the gravitational constant and other factors, which tell you the effect of a mass on space-time. Vats being a derivationalist, this over-simplified approach disturbs him a lot, as it misses out on key concepts and insights into the true origins and ramifications of the theory. The viewer feels that he has "got the thing" when he is as far away from it as he always was, if not more.

Vats' points are logical and true. I do not challenge his points, for being trained in science (though not to his level of detail in these matters), I can see how the links are missing in such documentaries. But my basic argument is not about the excellence of the content, but about the people who watch these documentaries.

So who watches documentaries? Students for one, both from high school and universities. With university students, the trend lies more in watching documentaries from a different area of human knowledge rather than their own. And, mostly, common people who have an interest in science. Imagine this. You were once greatly interested in physics and math. You were an ardent student of these in school. You moved on study engineering, and then in due course of fortune you ended up working to develop algorithms to calculate risk in stock market trading (think GS or MS). Now you have neither the time nor the level of training to indulge yourself in all those topics in physics that they never taught in school. From your perspective, what would such a documentary bring? A refreshing way to fulfill all those dreams, in my opinion. Sure, you cant go teach relativity in the next college lecture. Neither can you sit and derive all those wonderful laws and principles. But if nothing else, you could manage to hear and know a little about those things which you would have otherwise forsaken for good. You did not become an expert, but you had the fun of reliving your physics days, and gain a little more perspective in the process, for all of it is not hogwash.

From the point of view of students, we have to be a more careful. And this is where a good documentary stands out from the rest. For students, documentaries do serve as some of our first insights into the subject matter in many cases, and the concepts and ideas gained thereof stick with us like childhood memories. So some day if we end up actually studying those topics in detail, we would not want our mental roadblocks to get in the way - like the sphere on the cloth conundrum. Neither would we like to talk about half-learned ideas before an educated audience, if the occasion so arises.

In this way, a good documentary is like a good teacher. It sets inquisitiveness aflame. It does not claim that what it is saying is the sacrosanct facsimile of the philosophies of the topic. It tells you, "Well, this thing is actually complicated, but just for starters, you might want to imagine it like this..." It always tells you what is the flaw in its simplified view of looking at it, and warns you against taking it too literally. In doing so, one must be very ingenious and crafty in thinking of the most apt analogies, so that they capture as much of the complexity of the real scenario as possible. Where such analogies are impossible  - like the "spin" of an electron - they should be avoided for good. At the same time, a good documentary does not go into unnecessary piles of math to try and be precise. That is not the intent of the show, and in more ways than one, a documentary with truck-loads of data and number-crunching turns out to be boring, non-intuitive and scares people's interest out of the topic by telling them "This is just not your cup of tea".

As a citation, I'll point to the BBC4 documentary called "The Music of the Primes" - a show on the search of pattern in prime-numbers. This documentary caught my eye in terms of content and organization. It started from the fundamentals, introducing why prime numbers are important, why there are an infinite number of them, etc. Then they spoke of how Gauss went about trying to find a rhythm in the probability of a prime number showing up in logarithmic progression of numbers, and how it did not turn out to be perfect. Then they spoke of the Riemann zeta function, and most tactfully avoided saying anything about plotting functions on Argand planes and all, yet they said that the "valleys" (zeros) of the "contours" of this function in "that other world" (complex domain) held the key to correcting Gauss's step-approximation to precision. They spoke of the conjecture of alignment of zeros, and the difficulty people have faced in trying to prove it. Yet they did not let the show reach a dead end, and spoke about the immense importance of primes in code breaking (Alan Turing), nuclear energy levels and online commerce (encryption). The other show - on the final proof of Fermat's last theorem - did have a definite ending, but was not that well organized and had too many logical "jumps" to make me feel comfortable.

For that matter, books have suffered from the same flaws. Nobody told us that Gauss' Law was more fundamental that Coulomb's Law (some state boards left it out for good). Nobody said that the "g" is actually the gravitational field of the planet. Some even said that an electron "spins about its axis", and went on to equate the atomic structure to the solar system (its like believing Santa Claus actually spends out of his pockets to give children gifts). Just like we have to be wise in our choice of books to learn the correct and the best, so is it when it comes to documentaries. And the joy of a well-set documentary is a lifelong interest in a subject matter that may have just completely eluded us in this lifetime.

Of lost traditions

This year on the Bishnupur trip I came across a rare example of Indian heritage. So rare indeed that it is only available here of all places in India. Just as a background, let it be mentioned that Bishnupur is a little town some 200 km to the north west of Calcutta. It is located close to the town of Bankura, which is the district capital of the same name. Bishnupur used to be the capital of Bengal at the time of the Malla kings.

Bishnupur is known for temples. The temples do not house any deities. Rather, they are noted chiefly for their unique style of architecture. In general the temples are based on a rock foundation, which is followed by a four sided structure held by pillars on each side. Each of the walls a richly decorated by earthen panels that are thoroughly worked with engravings. Engravings originate from the Ramayan, Mahabharat or from the general day to day life of the people of the time. The top of the structure is a curved roof - something like a tent. One may imagine it to be a four cornered handkerchief held at four corners, and buffed by the wind. The top is usually a single peak, often not very richly decorated, but examples of design with more than one peak exist.

What is truly remarkable about these designs is their indication of cultural origins. One may note the pillars to be not the typical Bengal style of architecture. Their girth, relief and contours seem to indicate towards some other origins. The allusion becomes clearer when one considers the design of the door panels along the walls. The doors, divided into small square panels, and having rich decorations in each block, are strongly reminding of the design of doors in forts and palaces of Rajasthan. This realization does reflect back on the design of the pillars, although their correlation is far lesser to the origins.

Another immensely interesting and yet intriguing observation came to my notice here. On one particular temple (Madanmohan) we discovered a carving containing a dragon inscribed on to the wall. I have not yet understood this well enough, and have no idea about how such an object can come into a predominantly Indian architectural style. Maybe those with greater expertise may be able to explain the same. Or again maybe it is a misinterpretation of some other creature which was originally intended to be drawn. But what could be most intriguing is whether Indian myths ever covered creatures such as dragons, or whether this could actually be the impression of some Chinese traveler in those far-off days whose own culture came to influence the symbolism of our own.

But this is not really the object of this writing. This writing is intended towards that one thing which is unique to this town. The object - an artwork for that matter - is called the "Dashavatar cards". These cards are fabricated by one particular family of artists in the town - called the Foujdar family, and they are the only ones in India in fact who have this expertise. The Foujdars - as one might suspect from the name - were once employed at high ranks of the military structure of the Malla kings. On the order of the king, they devised these cards.

The cards are essentially depictions of the 10 incarnations of Vishnu. The main pack comprises a central card denoting one of the incarnations - the "King", along with another primary card, called the "minister". This a backed up by a set of floral cards - 10 in number, having progressively 1, 2, 3 etc flowers, up to 10. This makes for 12 cards per incarnation, and a total of 120 cards for all the 10 incarnations combined. There are some secondary sets, of 10 cards (incarnations alone), 48 cards, and some other varieties.

The cards themselves, are not made of paper, but of cloth. Each card comprises 6 layers of fine woven cloth, held together by specially fabricated glues made from natural sources like seeds and fruits of plants. The picture of the cards is painted onto the cloth, and the colour too is made from indigenous rocks. The rocks (like sandalwood) are soaked in water and rubbed onto a surface to produce the colour. Some other varieties of colour some from flowers and leaves. The final product is glazed in lacquer and sealed into a circular shape. The general diameter of these circles is around 10 cms, but some varieties of larger or smaller sizes are also produced.

The card game is based on the set of 120 cards. Now comes the real problem - only the Kings of the Malla dynasty knew the rules and methods of the odd game that they invented with this pack of cards. The makers did not know how to play - they only prepared the cards as per order. The kings played it with a select group of people from the town - those who were close to the kings. This group of people treated the game as more than merely a game - they considered it more of a worship of Vishnu - and thus surrounded the game with elaborate rituals. The players had to sit in special seats, could not smoke or drink while the game was in progress, and neither could they leave from their seats without taking a bath to come back. To preserve the sanctity of the game, they refused to pitch it out before the common public.

Recently - somewhere in the '80s, the last of the Malla kings passed away. After that only the people from the families of the other players were left with the knowledge. The makers, now desperate to preserve this culture, as well to hold their business, tried very hard to learn the game. But they only managed to learn the basics, following a lot of persuasion, and this really did not get them anywhere far. The elderly players outplayed them easily, and refused to divulge the deeper secrets of the strategy of the game.

It so happened that one copy of this set of cards somehow made its way to a museum in Germany, and a woman there was intrigued by its possible origin and uses in course of her research. She came over to India after she maned to make contact with the makers of the cards, and tried to speak to the elderly players. Naturally they were reluctant to put out the ideas, especially to a foreigner, but finally she persuaded them to come and play in front of her for a regular payment of a large sum of money to each of the players. After 3 months of the labour, she managed to understand how the game was framed and she took back the knowledge to popularize this odd version of cards in Germany. This in turn spread out the game in France and USA, and the makers now mostly export the cards since very few people have the money to buy the cards in India. The price of the total set ranges from 6 to 12 thousand rupees, the cost mainly arising from ingredients like the colour and the gum which is very expensive to prepare, along with the great amount of labour that goes into its finalization.

What is really shocking and surprising is that almost nobody in India is ever aware that something like this exists. Someday we might go to Germany and be very surprised to find a new version of the card game, and marvel at their expertise and ingenuity. But we may never know that this wonder actually originated so close to our own homes. Not just all over India - people all over Bengal hardly know about this in general. For all its worth, its a tradition, a heritage, which is well on its way to being forgotten in the pages of history, and will only be glorified in the west through some other name. The poor card-makers, for all their skill and expertise, will one day fade away into hunger and poverty.

The marks of this nonchalant attitude are rampant all over the place. Many of the heritage sites are not well maintained. Timings of opening and closing are seldom properly observed. The temples are plagued by officious guides and irritating beggars. Overall, at least from a foreigner's point of view, the site does not produce an impression which it should for the worth of its content. I am not sure if we can do something about it directly, but I guess indirectly we certainly can, and we should, at the earliest.