Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Linking park on Evolution

I have been on a spree of reading on Evolution and Intelligent design and so on to keep me entertained during my recent travels. I am sharing some of them with you in case you missed reading them. First up, 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense, a Scientific American article by John Rennie, my respect for whom dropped several notches after reading this, which came off more as rant than reasoning. Next, the rebuttal by the ID crowd over at Apologetic press. Boy! They are verbose. I am yet to complete reading this one. While you are at it also check out the book Singularities, by Christian de Duve. I am yet to make up my mind about some of the things he says in the book. Also, as an aside, there is this wonderful article in PNAS this month, called “Darwin’s greatest discovery: Design without designer”, beautifully juxtaposing Darwin with Copernicus. I fell in love with that analogy that never occurred to me before. As always, all this “foraging for information” was so I can condense this whole “Evolution vs ID” in my reductionist no-frills language. But it needs some more simmering before that can happen. So, my own thoughts on all of this stuff follow later.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Do You Believe in God?

I got asked this question recently by somebody after a long time. This made me realize two things. First, the trivial one of the two realizations was that the fact that it has been a long time since I got asked this question is indicative of the other fact that I have not had discussions or conversations with anyone who is not a scientist of some form, and hence have kind of forgotten what that is like. The second more interesting realization was that asking if I believe in god is like asking me if I believe in the washing machine! And I want to take this post to explain to you why this is the case.

Now, every reader has to agree with me that the second question is ridiculous. Why is that? Because I can touch and see the washing machine? No, that is not what I mean. May be a washing machine is not that good an example, may be I should have chosen Energy or some other concept like that to illustrate what I want to say. What I mean is that the washing machine is an invention made to fulfill a need, namely to use a power source other than human muscles to clean clothes. In this sense god is an invention we made to fulfill another one of our needs, and a basic one at that, the need to understand.

Let me explain further. Human beings like all other organisms have needs, food, oxygen, water etc. But in addition, we have another need, that need is the need to understand. Now, suppose I lived at the times of early man. All I had for observing the world around me was my five senses. So, the length and time scales of natural phenomena I had access to were limited by that. And then I saw plants grow into trees and bear flowers and fruits and die. I watched the sun rise and set everyday and watched the stars at night and could not see them if I looked for them when the sun was around. I saw other humans die and become inanimate suddenly. I saw people get sick and did not know why as I was not able to correlate it with anything that had happened before they fell sick. Under these circumstances, I would definitely have invented god. I could explain everything that I observe using one simple concept, namely god is doing it. That is how god came into being.

Then, as people got more understanding of what was happening, for example, when they realized that the objects in the sky must be moving in circular paths relative to earth, they said such things as angels with wings (like the birds they observed here on earth) pushed the heavenly bodies so that they moved in circles and other such subdivisions and auxiliary stories branching out from the concept of god emerged. Then, they wanted to divide observed phenomena into two groups. The first group consisted of those things that were good for humans. The second was those that were detrimental for humans. The second class of phenomena they decided should be propelled and caused by a different unifying entity. This became Satan, or Asuras or whatever the local word was for it. And in this subdivision of phenomena, they included the emotions they themselves felt. If you were jealous, that is not good for the group dynamic and hence you were advised to pray to god to overcome this “temptation of satan” or whatever jargon was fashionable at the time.

So, what about now, in today’s world? First of all, our knowledge of all things is exponentially larger. Not only can we see on all scales (scanning tunneling microscopy and atomic force microscopy now give you subatomic resolution to see things and cosmological observations let you see way in the past, into the very early universe), we have been thinking collectively as a species for long enough that most of the observed phenomena is tied into neat theories with only a few basic assumptions and these assumptions are way simpler than postulating an all powerful entity that did everything. And there is a change in attitude as well. We still don’t know many things. For example, we don’t know how to cure Alzheimer’s or even a simple viral infection. But, we don’t decide that we should all spend time praying. We pay taxes so that the people who know about such things can find out more and hence figure out how to beat these illnesses and thereby make sure that even though we will probably die of these diseases, perhaps our grand children won’t. We have come to understand the power of knowledge and are willing to trust it in some regions of our existence.

But there is one region, where in spite of all the progress made, we cannot put our trust in our knowledge yet. And that is our mind. For all the lip service we may pay to the biochemistry of the brain and the value of Freudian theory of psychoanalysis, we still cannot accept the apparent “fact” that we are but autocatalytic chemical reactions, albeit very complicated ones, but still just a chemical reaction and everything else must follow from there. I mean, even I am a little reluctant to admit that my consciousness is just chemistry and could eventually be controlled as such. So, we still need god to complete the picture we have of the world around us.

PS: These thoughts are about god, not religion and those are two very different things.

PS2: Apologies to anyone that came looking for a new post last week and did not find one. I was traveling…may be I’ll tell you about my adventures in New Mexico subsequently

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Science and society – some musings

The following thoughts occurred to me after reading this post by Sunil in which he was talking about explaining to his non scientist friends what he was doing in life. Before I launch into my spiel, a disclaimer: I am talking about how things should be or must have been rather than how they actually are or were, in a sense, a rudimentary model for human society that misses a lot of the complications that are there in the real version.

Scientists are the highest (or lowest, depending on how you draw the arrows) in the societal food chain. The way to understand this statement is as follows. Each able bodied human being has a two fold existence. One is his or her existence as an individual and in this avatar, his or her primary quest is one’s own happiness. The second is as a part of the collective structure that is the society. In this role, each person has to fulfill a function in the society. For performing this function, the person derives remuneration for sustenance and may be other things as well. In each case, the function performed benefits other human beings by making their life better. For example, the farmer provides food. The electrical lineman outside my window is ensuring that everybody in my building has uninterrupted electricity. The clerk at the bank this morning was making the process of handling money, the chosen denomination of resource in today’s world easier for her customers. The computer engineer techie friend that we all have writes codes to improve the function of the computer so all other things in the world that rely on his code’s ability to function may run more smoothly in the future.

Note that in each of the activities mentioned above, and in any case you can imagine that is outside basic science, the turn around time before your action benefits the society ranges from a day to a few months to at most a few years (this might be the case for people in the R & D departments of industries for example). But a scientist is different. His or her role in society is to take the frontier of human knowledge forward. Of course eventually this process will result in the improvement of quality of life of human beings. But the time scale over which this happens is several human life times, not just a fraction of one. So as far as a normal person is concerned, we are not contributing anything useful to him, for he usually lacks the ability to see beyond his nose.

Next, note that each person fulfilling a useful function in the society contributes a portion of his or her remuneration to a common authority (a geographically varying government of some form). The sum total of all such earnings is directed towards things that enhance the common good, for example infrastructure (roads, schools, airports etc.,), health care and safety and oversight organizations. And more importantly for the purpose at hand, it is from this “common good” money that we scientists derive remuneration to sustain ourselves and the resources to accomplish our research goals.

Once upon a time, when the world was simpler, it was not necessary for every Tom Dick and Harry to have the ability to see beyond his nose. The ruler of the land controlled the resources and had the ultimate say in how these resources were spent. And as long as the ruler was far sighted, he made allowances for philosophers and scientists to live off the state’s income and hence ensured that there were some people thinking about the things that the majority of the others were not. In the present day, things are complicated. And there are two reasons for this. One, now most of the world is a democracy. So in principle, every one of the Toms, Dicks and Harrys mentioned above has a say in how the money is spent. This would not in itself be such a problem if the only thing in question was remuneration for sustenance of the scientist. We all know that as far as pay checks go, a grad student in a science department makes less than the janitors in the same department and a full professor in an academic department at the end of his career has a salary comparable to a techie at the start of his. And we, the scientists, have no right to complain. Monetary benefits are something we will readily sacrifice for the privilege of being at the forefront of human knowledge and being afforded the ability to do what we love day in and day out.

So that brings me to the second problem complicating things in today’s world. The frontier of knowledge is advanced enough that questions can no longer be answered by using stuff other people threw away like Lord Kelvin did or Benjamin Franklin did. The outlay for experiments run from hundreds of thousands for some sophisticated bio-tech problems to billions for the particle accelerator experiments necessary to push the frontier of fundamental physics forward. And with such amounts in play, it reasonable for anybody to ask why the resources of the society have to be spent this way when there are millions of people that don’t even have enough for sustenance.

Now, I am not disputing the fact that money needs to be spent on the scientific questions. Human society cannot function by choosing one priority for a generation. It can only progress by making strides in all the dimensions of its existence (you can dispute this theory and I know I have to justify this better, but perhaps in a later post). I am saying that in today’s world scientists have to take the role of outreach more seriously. Every person needs to understand and acquire the scientific mindset and realize the wonders and power of knowledge the way we scientists do. It is the absence of such outreach initiatives on our part that gives rise to biblical interpretations of evolution or claims that quantum mechanics cannot be right. And when I say outreach, I don’t just mean the systematic activities that are being undertaken by the scientific community. I also mean everyday interaction between a scientist and a regular person, my techie friends, my grandmother, my neighbor, my cab driver. It is our responsibility towards society that we step down from our intrinsic (and in my opinion entirely justified :)) “holier than thou” stance and try to reach out.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

On forwarded emails and common sense

I have an email address and so do you. And I get emails that I don’t particularly want. Everything from me having inherited some million dollars from some long lost aunt to offers that let me enlarge parts of the body that I don’t even have. But with improved spam blockers on the commercial email servers and my own departmental email server, most of these annoying emails don’t show up in my inbox and the few that do, I can delete easily enough with not needing to open it to figure out what it is. So this class of emails is not so annoying anymore.

At this stage, the only emails that I open before deleting are the emails from coworkers and friends. A portion of these emails are forwarded messages. Some of them are jokes or links to cute youtube videos and so on. Depending on how hectic life is when I receive such emails, I read the jokes or follow the links (a recent one I followed is this “Candy shop parody” by some desis) or just delete the email. Hence these emails are not in the annoying category yet.

The emails that fall strongly into the annoying category are the forwards that warn you about everything from spiders on toilet seats to burning aromatherapy candles to the possibility of suffocating in your own fart! You might say “why do they annoy you? If you are busy and you see “FWD:” in the subject line of an email just delete it!” But I find myself unable to do that, because I get these emails from people that are otherwise very smart and I respect them a lot. For example, the email that prompted me to write this rant came from this post doc friend of mine at IAS, Princeton, and he is one of the sharpest people I have met. I find myself unable to dismiss out right as nonsense things that people I respect send me. But I guess that is my fault, to assume that smart in one thing means smart in all things. I never learn.

In any case, what should a sensible person normally do before when one receives such an email? First use some common sense to weed out the absolutely absurd (like the last one in the examples earlier, we exhale way more CO2 than we fart) from the somewhat reasonable like the first two. Then you go to Hoax Slayer or Break the Chain or use the infinite resource that is Google to see how old this particular urban myth is and what is known about the claims. Then, you further apply your common sense if all this does not help you make up your mind. For example, suppose there was truth in the claim that you could die if you burn aromatherapy candles in an air conditioned room. The fragrance industry is a multi-million dollar enterprise in the US and companies get sued for anything and everything even if there is a semblance of truth and sure as hell the paranoia ridden media would have told you all about even the slightest health risk, perceived or established that you will never have to learn about it from a forwarded email from your grand aunt in India. So, you delete the email and don’t subject your friends to the effort of opening it and reading it.

Now suppose you are busy in life yourself and get such an email and don’t have the time to go through the process of making up your mind, but your first inclination is somewhat towards the claim. Then I think most people find compelled to pass on the warning, because of some kind of social responsibility they feel or something. But please! Spare me! If it is important I am sure to find out some other way. And if it is not, I don’t have to go through the exercise of deleting all but the most important mails in the morning, when I have woken up late because I was up late working and am running late for the first meeting of the day. Bottom line: email etiquette should require that you mark the subject of your forwarded emails as “junk”, “read at your leisure”, “just for fun” or in an unlikely scenario that I cannot even imagine right now “DON’T DELETE”.