Age is just a number.

I’m coming up on a birthday soon. It’s hard to not connect birthdays to aging once you reach the mid-forties. 46. Is that really how old I am?

Let’s take a closer look.

The youngest atom in the body is more than a billion years old. Hydrogen, the most abundantly found element, is nearly 14 billion years old and was produced during the Big Bang. Carbon and oxygen atoms are between 7 and 10 billion years old. In other words, we are really really ancient. What’s another 20 or 46 or 72 years in this cosmic scheme of things?

So how old did you say I was?

Cells in our body die every second and new ones replace them. In a sense, we are re-created with each passing moment. A liver refreshes itself in 3 months. Taste buds in 2 weeks. The lung’s surface in 3 weeks. The heart refreshes 2-3 times over a lifetime. Cells in the intestine in 2 days. In fact, only our eyes are as old are we are, not undergoing transformation over time.

So we are made of ancient cosmic dust but renew ourselves in some cases as often as every 2 days and sometimes never?

So, tell me again. How old did you say I was?

Each of us, like a chicken, started off as an egg. From the egg that came from our mothers, that is. The thing about a human egg is that it is formed when the mother herself is an embryo. And we could argue that the formation of the egg, half of which contributed to each of us, is technically our first moment of existence. So, if your mother had you at 25 years of age, and you are 30 years old, technically you are ( 30 + 25 = ) 55 years old.

46 years. 2 days. 14 billion years. your pick.  I told you that age is just a number.

And happy birthday to you too (for whenever the day comes). Remember that you are this newborn baby that has existed since the beginning of time and will last till the end of it. Many happy returns of infinity to you.

The Beauty in Uncertainty

Life is uncertain. As we grow, we learn that stories don’t always have happy endings. We see that poems don’t always rhyme. We are distressed to see that good does not always win over the bad. We find that truth is not always dressed in black or white. We begin to see shades of grey and so we adjust our sensibilities and beliefs. We sense degrees of uncertainty in events that transpire around us. We become uncomfortable and so we embark on a quest to seize control.

In the quest, we try to force happy endings onto tales that cannot be salvaged. We don’t notice or even deride beauty when it does not conform to our sensibilities. We look for patterns amid the disorder and we interpret them in a manner as to reinforce our biases. We mix effects with causes. We try to re-order chaos to make our lives more predictable. We constantly intervene. Sometimes we succeed. That makes us happy. Sometimes we fail. That makes us miserable. So we go on.

There are two fundamental problems with the way we view uncertainty.

  1. Our brains are not wired to comprehend uncertainty.
  2. There is nothing you can do about uncertainty.

The wiring of our brains

The first problem has to do with the way our brains have evolved. In biological terms, evolution is a process which promotes certain traits disproportionately to others. Human evolution, it appears, has promoted the ability to leap to conclusions over the ability to make carefully thought out analytical decisions. This explains why a fast thinking college quarterback or dashing batsman is more popular than a slow thinking chess club geek.

Example: Imagine (a 100,000 years ago) a cave man running into a saber toothed tiger on one of his daily hunts. As you’d imagine, his choices were to either fight or flee. If you think about it, he also had the option of whipping out his NCERT designed maths text book and calculating the odds of an average 20 year old Homo Sapiens male becoming fodder for a wild canine. It turns out that (not surprisingly) that evolution rewarded those who leaped to the swift and plausible conclusion that flight was the prudent course of action. Those paused to analyze and failed to take quick action were weeded out. Thanks to the momentum of evolution, this tendency to leap to quick conclusions persists to this day even in the absence of the threat of encountering sharp toothed felines on daily morning walks.

This is how our brains came to be wired. We are not good at understanding the concepts of chance and probability. Our brains don’t naturally construct normal distributions and assign confidence levels for events. At least, not in normal course of action. If you think back about the struggles with probability and statistics courses in school and college, I’m sure you’d agree.

What can we do about uncertainty?

The first coping mechanism was a belief in an entity called God, who is all-knowing and orchestrates the events of our lives. Pretty soon, salesmen claimed privileged access to God and added extraordinary tales of His powers and especially about His ruthlessness when it came to dealing with disbelievers. These middlemen are possibly ones who understood the nature of uncertainty (that you could do nothing about it) better than most, and exploited this arbitrage to their benefit.

And then came scientific determinism in Europe more than a thousand years after Aristotle spoke of it. Science began explaining events which would normally be interpreted as acts of God. Science began explaining nature in ways that undermined religious middlemen. Scientists began curing people. They made people fly in the skies. They explained why the planets moved the way they did and why stars twinkled. The moon was not made of cheese, they said. Scientists began displaying powers normally attributable to Gods. And it is possible that scientists began believing that they were Gods themselves.

Something happened in 1927 which rocked the world of science. The scientific community which comprised confident men and women who believed that someday they would explain (and thus control) EVERYTHING were told that the creation was not as explainable and controllable as they believed it to be. They were told that, at the subterranean depths of nature where particles smaller than atoms exist, there was great uncertainty. Quantum mechanics described the fundamental aspect of nature as probabilistic (one of many possible outcomes) and not deterministic (a cause leads to a predictable effect) as Newton and Einstein had led them to believe. Wisp like particles with no mass interact in unpredictable ways to produce blocks called atoms and molecules which in turn combine to produce concrete things with mass (like babies, stars, flowers, bees, chairs, etc) which then interact with each other according to deterministic laws, thus creating an illusion of an orderly creation. Some like Einstein never came to terms with this notion of uncertainty. “God,” he complained, “does not play dice with the universe.”

In other words, if you were given a 300 qubit quantum computer capable of processing every single microscopic piece of data from the beginning of time and then were somehow able to construct a model that explained EVERYTHING till date, you would still not be able to predict what would happen the very next nanosecond because even nature does not know what she is going to do next.

To say that the only thing certain about uncertainty is that you can do nothing about it is a conundrum unto itself.

The beauty in uncertainty

Whether you choose to confide in God about your deepest hopes and fears, or to place your faith in text books and armies of scientists who toil unsung in far away laboratories, or to unconditionally embrace the uncertainty in this creation is your decision. However, there is something to be said about the beauty inherent in uncertainty. This beauty becomes pronounced and magical when we view it from a position that is separated from the self.

Happiness comes from simply listening to the music and swaying with your eyes closed without having to torment yourself about why and how the notes came to be composed. The greatest of joys sometimes does not always come from knowledge or discovery. It comes from the simple act of surrendering to the experience.

Plausibility and Probability

I must have read hundreds of books over the years, many of which have been great. Of those I’ve read, I can point to two books which fundamentally and almost instantaneously transformed my views on life, love and happiness. They are (in no particular order)

  1. Life after Death by Deepak Chopra
  2. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Now, there’s a third one. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. Prof. Kahneman teaches at Princeton these days. He’s a Nobel winner in Economics, and has done path breaking work over the last four decades in understanding the psychology behind how our minds process information. He’s truly a treasure.

I’d like to share some nuggets from the book over a few posts. If you like this sort of thing, you should get the book and check it out for yourself.

Background: Prof. Kahneman breaks the working of the mind into System 1, which processes data, reflexively forms patterns and draws conclusions, and System 2, which applies logical rules to examine the soundness of drawn conclusions. One of his assertions, borne out from his studies, is that System 1 is hyper-active, and System 2 is extraordinarily lazy.

Plausibility and Probability

One of the things we humans often do is to mix plausibility with probability. To understand this, Prof. Kahneman and his colleagues designed what is now famously called ‘the Linda problem’. Consider the description of a fictitious Linda below.

Linda is thirty one years old, single, outspoken and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

After reading Linda’s profile, respondents in studies were asked a simple question: Which of the following is a more probable alternative?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The correct answer is the first. Think Venn diagrams. The circle with ‘feminist bank tellers’ is wholly included in the circle of all bank tellers. Therefore, the probability of Linda being just a bank teller is higher than the probability of her being a bank teller AND a feminist. The more specific you are about an event, the lower are the chances of its occurrence.

Here’s the fascinating part. In the survey, 89% of undergraduate students at top ranked American universities picked option 2. When they administered the test to doctoral students at Stanford Business School, all of whom had taken advanced courses in decision sciences and probability, they got a similar result! 85% chose option 2. A majority of really smart people violated the most fundamental rule of probability. They chose the more plausible but less probable event over the other.

What (the system 1 of) our mind does is to jump to the most plausible or coherent conclusion. It does not consider the likelihood of the conclusion. The mind substitutes likelihood with representative-ness of the event. This is how we make errors in judgment that can have far reaching impact on society at large.

This is not to say that plausibility is unimportant and should be ignored. It has its benefits. Plausibility, for example, is the basis for profiling at US airports. Resistance to these methods may be a laudable moral position, but also a rather simplistic one. If your name is Shah Rukh Khan and there’s a known terror suspect out there of a similar age with the same name, chances are pretty high that you’re going to be detained at the airport. Such predictive techniques are based on pattern matching, where the preference is to form a quick conclusion and investigate at leisure. As long as such methods are not manipulated but implemented fairly, they will lead to benefits for the society even if it means costs for the impacted few.

People who are taught new statistical facts about human behavior are often impressed to the point where they will tell their friends about what they heard. This does not mean that their world view has changed. Learning is about applying lessons to our own experiences, and not about repetition of facts. The test of learning lies in whether our understanding of experiences (and how we live) has changed .

In the words of the good professor himself, “changing one’s mind about human nature is hard work. Changing one’s mind for the worse about oneself is even harder.”

Why do rapes happen?

Unless we know why rapes happen, we cannot prevent them from happening. Rapes are prevalent in nearly all species of animals (especially primates). They happen in all cultures in every country in the world. And they have been happening for a very long time.

There is no country, as yet, that has managed to stop rapes from happening. Nothing has helped. Not even the death penalty has deterred rape.

Decades of research have brought us no closer to an answer that is fundamentally insightful enough to design prevention of rape. However, almost all research agrees on the following-

  1. That rape is not a sexual act. That it is an act of power. Of entitlement.
  2. That there may be other emotions involved, such as anger or mental depression.
  3. That the incidence of rape in a society or culture is a function of what’s commonly perceived to be a man’s ‘entitlement’ in that society and avenues it provides for discharge of the anger when such expectations are not met.

Which kind of leads me to the fact that women are physically weaker than men. That’s the way it’s always been. Why is that so?

I presume that at the beginning of the evolutionary cycle, there must have been females who were physically equal to or even stronger than males as well as females who were weaker than males. Now why did natural selection favor females who were weaker than males in almost all species that exist today? What was the evolutionary advantage of being a female who was physically weaker than a male?

Is it because weaker females were “preferred” in some way by males for reproduction? Are we humans a result of stronger, aggressive males systematically raping weaker females over millions of years? That’s a horrifying thought. Yet, that’s how far back in time we might need to travel in order to find where the demons lie hidden.

Is there such a thing as a ‘rapist’ gene? Do all males have it or is it just some? Can it be modified to change / eradicate this aggressive, entitlement behavior? Time will tell.

As scientists explore the “ultimate” reasons for rape from an evolutionary perspective, law makers and citizens must pay attention to the proximate causes for rape. In Indian cities and our society – there are many proximate causes, all of which are fairly obvious.

Imagine this. A group of young aggressive males, filled with an entitlement of superiority, encounter a single woman who’s more educated or successful than them. They feel emasculated. Rage erupts. One person suggests rape.  Group dynamics kick in. The others join in. And that may be how a gang rape results. This is not a justification. It’s an explanation. An explanation that does not provide solutions to preventing rape. But it provides some clues to women as to how they can safeguard themselves by spotting or avoiding signs of trouble.

The question is – why do men have a sense of entitlement? What do they feel entitled to? Can we medically or otherwise (mandatory therapy?) erase such notions from their minds? Research should hopefully shed some light on this.

As long as the law looks at crimes against women through the eyes of men, nothing will ever change.

A Brief Overview of Hindu Cosmology

Time is possibly the most fascinating construct devised by humans. You may say that all organic entities have a ‘biological clock’ and act accordingly. And you might ask, what’s so special about time. It’s true that animals and plants seem to operate to built-in clocks. But humans are unique in the way that we have consciously embraced the notion of time and in the way we let our perception of time dictate how we lead our lives. A while back, I had written about ‘The Secret Powers of Time and Regret.’ You might want to check this out either before or after reading further.

What is time?

Time, at its core, is an artificial and abstract concept. In practice, it’s about keeping track of change and the patterns by which change manifests itself. Time is about keeping track of changes in ourselves and in the world around us. And this has become deeply embedded into our psyches, and into our religions and philosophies. The early human, for instance, must have noticed the regularity with which dawn broke and the sun set, and subliminally internalized the notion of time while deriving benefits of recognizing such patterns. One thing must have led to another, and eventually resulted in Egyptian and Greek sun dials, Indian hour glasses, Swiss clocks , Julian calendars and other inventions which helped in accurate measurement of and tracking time.

If there was no change or observable patterns either in ourselves or in the world around us, we would have simply ignored the passage of time. In other words, our mortal existences are so absurdly short that we have come to believe that there is a necessity to keep track of and measure time. There is no other entity (that we know of) in the universe which consciously does this and allows the concept of time to dictate its behavior.

Thought experiment

Imagine if each of us were to live for a few million years before dying. During the course of our lives, we would observe hills being formed, rivers changing courses and weather patterns changing so gradually that it’s possible that we might not value the notion of time or the practice of measuring it at all. I wonder how the absence of the notion of time would influence the way we live our lives.  Let’s take this to one logical extreme: Suppose we were all to be immortal, wouldn’t  we simply discard time since it would cease to have any value? So, could the converse be true? If we ceased to value time, would that be our ticket to immortality? Interestingly enough, that’s what eastern wisdom tells us – to stay in the now and discard all perceptions of time such as the past and the future. I told you that this was fascinating stuff.

Measuring time

There’s a lot to write on this. I’ll stick to what enthralls me about the way we and our religions have looked at time.

Abra’amaic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – take a linear view of time. They agree that the world started with the creation of the universe by God, who also created the first man and woman roughly five thousand years back. They have neatly compartmentalized time into the beginning – when God created man and woman, now – while we are alive, and the everafter, the future that comes after death when we shall receive Judgment and live in eternal bliss or torment depending on the way we led our lives. The simplicity of this compartmentalization is attractive. It provides a sense of purpose, which is to conduct our affairs now in a manner that we shall be one of God’s chosen ones in the future. It provides a basis in the past – which is that God created man five thousand years back.

Time is accorded a great deal of importance in these religious schools, which borrowed the Greek notion of time being finite and running out . This life that we have now is our only chance of getting it right. Once we die, our time ends, and so do our chances of correcting the errors of our ways. Seize the day and the life you have been given, they say. This simplicity is so powerfully compelling and so easy to grasp that it has taken roots in the way we’ve divided our history timeline – in terms of what happened before the birth of Jesus Christ (Before Christ – B.C.) and that which is happening in the year of our Lord (Anno Domini – A.D.).

Eastern schools are, in contrast, vexingly vague about time.  They insist that time is illusory and hence without value, and all that matters is this mysterious thing called “now.” They candidly confess that they don’t know when and where it all began, and who started this whole thing called the universe. They tell us that we’re trapped in a web of illusion called maya, and that time is merely one of the  illusory constructs which perpetuates maya. They ask – if nothing exists and everything is an illusion, then how can the concept of time be relevant? They tell us that if we can manage to find and stay in the moment, then time itself will cease to exist, and the past, present and future will merge into one and we will be able to see them simultaneously. Indeed, the Sakyamuni was believed to possess the powers of rising above time and view all his past lives, the stories of which came to be known as the Hitopadesha.

This is all confusing and perplexing, and intoxicating and exhilarating at the same time. We listen in fascination each time, and then go away, shaking our heads, back into our worlds in which time only moves forward linearly. We don’t know what to make of such theories, or what to do about them. The eastern concept of timelessness applies temporary balm on our wounded souls and scarred pysches, and provides us with some indescribable comfort. It soothes us to hear that time does not run out and that we will have more chances to get things right, and that God and this universe may not be as harsh and unforgiving as they are made out to be.

A look at Hindu cosmology, calendars and time scales

Carl Sagan describes the Big Bang and the creation of the universe in his television series “Cosmos,” which first aired when I was in school. In this, he talks about how it all began according to science, and how the universe formed within the first new nano seconds of the Big Bang. In the world of science, creation is synonymous with the formation of matter and the creation of space and time.

In “Cosmos,” Sagan makes an interesting observation about how Hinduism has looked at time. He says, ” <snip> a wonderful aspect of Hindu cosmology is that it is consonant with that of modern scientific cosmology. We know that the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and the cosmos, or at least its present incarnation, is something like 10 or 20 billion years old. The Hindu tradition has a day and night of Brahma in this range, somewhere in the region of 8.4 billion years. As far as I know. It is the only ancient religious tradition on the Earth which talks about the right time-scale.

Precisely for its uncanny resemblance to modern scientific cosmological time scales, I figured it would be interesting to share my understanding of the Hindu view of the age of the universe. These details are partly from my notes from reading Srimad Bhaagavatam and heavily borrowed from more erudite persons (my sisters), all of which can, I am sure, be found on Wikipedia.

Note: I’m not writing this to prove the superiority of the Hindu view vis-a-vis other religious views. I have no interest in such matters. Each religion brings forth its own compelling insight. That is the raison d’etre of each religion. To bring forth new insights and comfort. In the matter of cosmology and universal time scales, the Hindus have put forth a grand idea, and whether true or not, it does make the pulse quicken. My belief is that it would benefit all to take notice of this.

How old is the universe per Hindu cosmology?

The Hindu cosmic cycle is divided into Yugas, Chatur or Maha Yugas and Kalpas.

A ‘basic’ cycle is called a ‘Yuga‘ or an ‘age’. There are four such Yugas, each for a different tenure. These Yugas are Krita or Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapara Yuga and Kali Yuga. Their durations are (in human years):

Krita Yuga: 1,728,000 years. Treta Yuga: 1,296,000 years. Dwapara Yuga: 864,000 years. Kali Yuga: 432,000 years.

Note: At the end of each Yuga, the earth is overwhelmed by elements and humans are wiped out. Each Yuga is followed by an interlude of still and nothingness and life begins anew in the next Yuga. 

Each quartet, a set of 4 Yugas, is called a Maha Yuga or a Chatur Yuga.

 1 Maha Yuga = One quartet of 4 Yugas = sum of (Krita + Treta + Dwapara + Kali + all interludes between them) = 4,320,000 years = 4.32 million years.

1 Kalpa = 1,000 Maha Yugas = One half of a day of Brahma, the creator = 4.32 billion years.

Side notes

1. Each Kalpa is successively ruled by 14 Manus. Each reigning period of a Manu, the giver of Dharma, is 71.42 Maha Yugas. So, Manus come and go during the tenure of a Brahma.

2. Brahma is the creator of the universe, filled with its stars, planets and moons and Manus who reign periodically over it. Brahma is considered to be a manifestation of the (Para) Brahman, the or spirit underlying the universe which binds all things and is the fundamental energy that makes the cosmic dance possible. Even Brahma, the creator, cedes his place and “dies,” at the end of his tenure of a 100 years. And a new Brahma is manifested by the Para Brahman, and the cycle goes on. Such is the nature of the universe, according to the Hindus, one in which permanence is assured to none.

So, what do we get?

When we put the time lines together, we get –

A “full day” ie “day” + “night” of a Brahma works out to ( 2 x half-day of Brahma or 2 x Kalpa) = 2 x 4.32 billion = 8.64 billion years.

This number is interesting because cosmologists now believe that the Big Bang happened roughly 13 billion years back (revised significantly since Sagan did Cosmos twenty five years back). This number of 13 billion years is of the same magnitude (proportionally) to what the Hindus postulated many moons ago. This aspect of Rig Veda is nothing short of spellbinding. How could have they come up with such a grand scale – in billions of years – for the cosmological age of the universe? What kind of minds and awareness did they possess to get into the same ballpark timeline wise, when it has taken us billions of dollars worth of equipment and painstaking scientific research to get into the same ball park? Was it a lucky guess or is there more to this than meets the eye? Incredible.

What’s even more incredible is that the Hindus didn’t restrict themselves to the current universe. The Rig Veda tells us that the life of the cosmos stretches endlessly before the Big Bang and will stretch endlessly well after the current version of the universe ends. The life of a Brahma, we’re told, is 100 years of 360 days each, where each day = 8.64 billion years. Simple math (100 x 360 x 8.64 billion) gives us the life time of Brahma, which is the life of the cosmos. This number is a staggering 311 trillion years. And after 311 trillion years, the ‘old’ Brahma ‘dies’, and a ‘new’ Brahma is ‘born’. And the cycle of 311 trillion years repeats itself with a new Brahma, endlessly into time. Mind boggling!

The significance of the Sankalpa mantra

If you’re Hindu or if you’ve observed Hindu rituals, you may have heard a set of mantras called the Sankalpa mantra which precedes Hindu rituals. The Sankalpa mantra is meant to keep track of where we are, and the time it is now in this version of the cosmos that we exist, at the time of performing the said ritual.

A brief context first to the Sankalpa mantra

It is said that we are presently in the Sveta-Varaha kalpa in the reigning period of Vaivaswatha – the 7th Manu. In this Manvantara we are in the 28th Maha Yuga. As per Hindu cosmology, Brahma is supposed to have completed 50 Brahma years and is now in his 51st year. For this reason, he is called “Parardha-dvaya-jivin” ie he now lives in the second half of his life. The word ‘parardha’ means half. So Brahma is called this as he has completed one half of his life. This might help you make better sense when you hear or read about the Sankalpa. On a lighter note, we live in a time when our Brahma has reached middle age, and one can only hope that he doesn’t go through a mid-life crisis 🙂

As for the Sankalpa mantra, it goes roughly as follows-

…. dvi-teeya parardhe: In the second half of Brahma’s life

Sveta-varaha kalpe: in the kalpa of Sveta-Varaha

Vaivaswatha manvantare – in the reigning period of the Vaivaswatha Manu

Ashta Vimsati tame:  In the 28th Maha Yuga of the current Manvantara

Kaliyuge: in this Kali Yuga

Prathame Padhe: In the first quarter of this Kali Yuga. Note: Kali Yuga is said to have started in 3102 BC according to Aryabhatta.

Jamboodveepe: This denotes the place where the ritual is being performed. Note: India was once believed to have been an island called Jambudveepa.

Bhaarata Varshe, Bharata Kande: in this land called Bhaarata.

Sakhabde Mero, Dakshine Parsve: to the South of the Meru mountain. Note: Mount Meru is repeatedly referenced in Hindu purana, and is believed to have existed when India was once an island. 

Asmin Varthamane Vyavaharike: in the current period now reigning

Prabhavadi Shasti Samvatsaranam Madya: which is in the middle of a cycle of 60 years starting from the year Prabhava. Note: Hindu calendar was divided into sixty calendar years, each with a name to itself, the first of which is called Prabhava.

< insert name of year > Nama Samvatsare:  the name of the present year in the 60 year Hindu calendar. Note: The present year is called Nandana.

<fill in> ayane: Dakshin-ayane (when the sun travels south) or Uttar-ayane (when the sun travels north). Note: Uttarayana is the period between the winter and the summer solstices (roughly Dec 22 to June 21) and Dakshinayana is the other half of the year.

<fill in> ritou: Ritou denotes the six seasons or Ritus, who are Vasantha, Greeshma, Varsha, Sharadh, Hemantha and Shishira

<fill in> Maase: One of the 12 Tamil months when performed in Tamil tradition.

<fill in> Pakshe: Either Shukla Paksham (day after Amavasya to and including Pournami) or Krishna Paksham (day after Pournami to and including Amavasya)

<fill in> Subha Thithou: Name of the day of the month, which is one of the 15 days between Pournami and Amavasya. These are Prathama, Dvithiya, Trithiya, Chaturthi, Panchami, Shasti, Saptami, Ashtami, Navami, Dasami, Ekadasi, Dwadashi, Trayodasi, Chaturdasi, Pournami and Amavasya.

<fill in>Vaasara Yuktaa-yaam: Name of the day of the week, one of Bhanu, Soma, Bhowma, Soumya, Guru, Brugu and Sthira

<fill in> Nakshatra Yuktaa-yaam: Name of the Nakshatra or star prevalent on the day.

Upon reciting all of the above, the name of the ritual is said. According to HH Sri Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti, the Sankalpam is a record of the ritual one performs with exact details going down to the day and location of the ritual. Presumably, this was an effective technique of keeping records and track of time in a tradition that relied more on word of mouth than writing things down.

There is another unusual feature of the Hindu calendar. Each year is labeled by the number of years elapsed since the epoch. As of 2012, 5114 years have elapsed in the Hindu calendar. The present epoch (Kali Yuga) is believed to have started on February 18, 3102 BC (though there are debates around this).

What boggles my mind is the ‘how did these guys keep track of everything?’ question. If the earth and the universe are being destroyed and rebuilt every so often, how do the Hindus confidently state that we are in the 51st year of Brahma? How did the information about the previous epochs get transferred across the epochs? The Hindu calendar is so precisely documented that they have every Manu in every epoch documented going all the way back to the beginning of the life of Brahma himself. How is this even possible? Should we dismiss this as carefully planned deception and bunkum? If it is deception, why would anyone go to such trouble to plan such elaborate deception when easier routes are available?

There is something inspiring about the way we humans have looked at time, especially those in the Vedic tradition. The next time you observe or perform a ritual, hopefully I have made it a more interesting exercise for us. Hopefully, it will make you wonder about the grand scale of this amazing universe and its life time, our own insignificance in the scheme of things that are destined till the end of time and the transcendent beauty of the nature of enquiry itself.

Let me wind up for now, with another quote from Carl Sagan on Hindu cosmology:

“The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond, to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long. Longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang. And there are much longer time scales still.”

Happy journeys!

PS: For a topic as complex as this, I’d be surprised if there were no errors in the way I’ve understood things. I stand by, ready to correct errors and mis-statements. Do write and let me know if you see anything amiss. Thanks.

On Creativity

Earlier this week, I happened to read an outstanding interview of Doug Casey, an investment guru of some sorts, in which he is scathingly critical of the school system that we have today. This prompted me to go back and re-watch the ” target=”_blank”>famous video of Sir Ken Robinson talking about “how education is killing creativity.” This made me wonder as to the nature of creativity, and how it happens. So, I found ” target=”_blank”>another video by Steven Johnson, in which he talks about how creativity happens. All of this in turn led to thoughts such as, “If creativity is such an amazing thing, why aren’t more of us creating things? Why is there a notion that creativity and pain are inseparable? Why do artists lead tortured existences and can creativity arise only out of pain?”

Here’s a synopsis of what I learnt, and my accompanying thoughts.

On why our schools are killing creativity (by Sir Ken Robinson)

What is creativity? There are many ways to describe it. I rather like the one which describes creativity as divergence in thought – an ability to consider infinite possibilities in the place of one or few. We are all born with it. Tragically, it dies within most of us by the time we cross the age of ten. Studies have demonstrated this. Conformity is the enemy of creativity, which likes to run unfettered and unshackled. The way we are schooled is much like the factory model, regimented and structured, and meant to enforce standards and conformity. This was borne out of the elitist notion during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe that most humans needed “schooling,” and out of the necessity created by the Industrial Revolution for a trained workforce. For a couple of centuries, the concept of “education through schooling” gained momentum on the back of the premise that “if you worked hard and went to college, you would find a job and become prosperous.” This worked for a minority of students who performed well on “standardized tests” and went on to obtain fine jobs and fat paychecks. For a large majority, it meant being relegated to the ranks of the “average” or “poor,” unfairly so because the schooling system did not value creativity that each of them possessed to begin with. The system continues till date, and hasn’t changed significantly over the last 100 years.

How does creativity happen? Where do good ideas come from? (by Steven Johnson)

Steven Johnson argues that creative breakthroughs don’t come through accidental moments of epiphany. Rather, they are the slow buildup of several related hunches (some which are ours, and some from others) which collide in our sub-conscious to produce what appear to be spontaneous bursts of inspiration. Great ideas require time to incubate before they hatch. He also makes the point that we live in an increasingly connected world of Facebook and mobile phones, which, although distracting, help connect us with others who may provide the missing hunches so we can assemble the whole picture for ourselves.

Why aren’t more of us creating things? Why is there a notion that great art comes only out of pain?

All of us love to create. We like to do things that we can get better at. Yet, we suppress these instincts for most of, if not all our lives. And, when leisure visits in our retirement years, we are at a loss as to how to fill our time. Why do we suppress our creative instincts and not let them flower? There are a couple of obvious reasons and one that is not so obvious.

First is the fear of punishment. In spite of all that is said, most workplaces do not reward creativity. So, we try to excel in our vocations through conformance rather than disruption. In most professions, except in a handful, predictability and stability are more valued than the inherently unstable process of creativity. Thus, we become slaves to standards and processes, and creativity dies a slow, painful death over time.

The second reason for loss in creativity is not so obvious. This is the ‘expert complex’ that we develop over time. Interestingly, research shows that the higher the intelligence, the lesser the creativity. Those with scores of 120 and higher on IQ tests have tended to perform poorly on creative fronts. These are ‘smart’ people, ‘who get it’ instantaneously and impatiently turn their minds away from considering other possibilities. As we get better at doing things, we become experts. Once we become experts, we spend our time defending the mountains we’ve built, rather than exploring new terrain. And thus, we turn ourselves away from creative pursuits.

The third reason is the fear of failure. As much as we enjoy creative pursuits, we carry with us a deep-seated fear of “not being good enough” at it. Since rewards from creativity are given only to those who scale its summits, we prefer to play it safe and pursue the mundane where even mediocrity is tolerated and compensated.

Even great, successful artists carry a fear of failure. Barbra Streisand, the singer who’s sold millions of records, once confessed to stage fright and shies away from live performances. In fact, success seems to bring with it an even greater fear of failure. The fear that somehow the artist does not possess what it takes to top the previous astounding accomplishment. This weirdly inexplicable fear drives a successful artist into drinking gin at ten in the morning, and drags him through a tortured existence to an early grave. Why is it so?

Is it the individual or the genius which creates?

Ancient notions of creativity described the individual as too insignificant, even incapable of creation by himself. Creativity was the divine spirit that ‘passed’ through him when it chose to visit him. They maintained a “distance” between the individual and his creation by attributing credit to the ‘genius’ who came to visit the artist and transported her to the realms of the divine.

In the Hindu tradition, to create is to dance with the Lord. An indelible image of Lord Shiva is that of Lord Nataraja, “the Lord of the Dance,” of the great temple of Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. The Ananda Thaandava of Lord Shiva represents his five activities – shrishti (creation), sthiti (preservation), samhara (destruction), tirobhava (illusion), and anugraha (emancipation), through which he maintains the harmony of the universe. To witness the dance of the divine spirit is to see the world truly as it is – an endless moment of cosmic creativity in which birth, life and death come and go to every entity in this universe.

The ancient Greeks and Romans viewed the creative process similarly.  The Greeks had a word for the spirits whose possess our bodies during inspirational moments of creativity. They called these spirits ‘daemons.’ The Romans called this divine helper a ‘genius.’

It was only during the period of Renaissance that the notion of the individual himself being considered a genius and not separate from it, came about, and has stuck on since. One can speculate that this dissociation of the individual from the creative spirit may have led to extreme egotism and narcissism among artists and resulted in their tortured existences over the last five centuries.

When we regard ourselves as not responsible for creation, and merely as instruments of the divine spirit – there can be no room for pain.

We were born to create.

Great art may come out of great pain. But, the greatest of art comes from the greatest of bliss. To create is to let go of the few, and to embrace the infinite. It is to surrender to and dissolve oneself into the genius when it comes to possess, and draw it forth into expressions of exquisite beauty. To create is to dance with the divine spirit, with Nataraja himself.

This is the work we were born to do. Happy journeys.

God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – A Review

“God Delusion” is a bestseller non fiction book, written by Richard Dawkins, a professor at Oxford.

The primary purpose of the book is to debunk the Judeo-Christian notion of God as a “superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us,” which Dawkins calls the “God Hypothesis.” His argument against this hypothesis is that a God with such abilities has to be more complex than what it has created, and hence improbable. He then raises the reductio ad absurdum question of who created God. In fact, this elaboration on the “Mommy, who created God?” question is the central argument of the book.

Dawkins’ argues that science and religion are mutually incompatible for the reason that science is all about evidence, while religion is about believing without evidence. He makes the point “morality needs no religion,” which, frankly, has been said before. He stands on the shoulders of Bertrand Russell when he says this.

My observations from reading the book

Dawkins treats “believers” with little respect. e.g. calling them ‘faith heads’ to make unwarranted, implied comparisons with ‘crack heads’. This is not necessary. On the other hand, religion has become accustomed to getting respect. So, maybe a little disrespect is not a bad tactic to get attention. Agree with his real point that there is no reason why religion should be immune to criticism or get any special treatment.

Dawkins blames religion disproportionately. Reading the book – one would be tempted to believe that if religion were to be somehow obliterated, all the world’s wars would cease. Rather dramatic and flawed since things like language and good old megalomaniacal tendencies have contributed more to wars than religion. I get the sense that Dawkins is hung up more on labels rather than religion or God itself, and is stretching to make the linkages. his point really is that religion is a ‘marker’ much like tribal membership, language, skin color etc except that we’re giving it way more (undeserved) respect than the other markers. This is a fair point but not a very useful one.

Dawkins recommends impractical and absurd measures like “children should not be given the religious labels of their parents”. Again, he unfairly picks on religion, since non-religious beliefs of parents play possibly an even more important role in deciding children’s future development. Further, children tend to grow out of their parents’ belief systems as they have experiences of their own

Dawkins makes no distinction between ‘liberals’, ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ in religions. This may not be a minor point. Just like – not all atheists are pacifists (eg Stalin, Mao), not all theists are pacifist. So why, again, isolate religion as a sole culprit?

He is unable to pin down what he really feels is wrong with or does not makes sense about religion from an evolutionary perspective. Dawkins would be the first to admit that religion has a “utility” value in evolution, although he would qualify this by saying “even false beliefs have utility value.” False belief or not, religion’s utility appears to be there. So, what’s the problem with this? Why the hysteria against religion? This is especially disappointing given his strengths in this area.

The Verdict

Dawkins brings a great deal of passion to the book, but reading it can feel like watching a Michael Moore movie. His tone is smug, logic sloppy at times and the book occasionally includes crass phrases like “sucking up to God”. When it comes to his own specialty, evolutionary biology, there is none better. But the purpose of this book is not to explain science. It is rather, as he tells us, “to raise consciousness,” which is quite another thing. The book ends up being a unscientific polemic, in which an evolutionary biologist stretches into areas like socio-economics, politics, history, philosophy, theosophy, theology etc. where he has no core expertise. For a person who does not believe in God, he appears more obsessed with Him than the believers.

Dawkins puts forth that to be an atheist is a “brave and splendid” aspiration. On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is certainty that God exists and 7 is certainty that God does not exist, Dawkins rates himself a 6. “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there,” he says. An assumption, not coincidentally that has fetched him millions of dollars.

If you’re looking for a “good atheist” book, this one’s not it.

What is the Higgs Boson?

Today (July 4, 2012), scientists from CERN in Europe announced that they may have found clear signs of a particle which is thought to be the Higgs boson, popularly known as the God particle. The hardworking scientists aren’t getting ahead of themselves, and are not quite confirming the existence of the Higgs boson outright. They’ve stopped at saying that they have evidence for a new particle, which “must be a boson” and that “there is a high probability that this could be the Higgs boson.”

What is the Higgs boson? Why is it called the God particle?

Is there a simple way to describe this without doing gross injustice to the years of work and thought that has gone into it? Not really, but what ho! plunge into it we shall, in any case.

All matter is composed of fundamental particles. In fact, scientists have uncovered twelve particles that can be described as building blocks of matter. There may be more yet to be found. As of now, there are twelve. Out of these twelve, three (electron, up/down quarks) are considered even more fundamental for the reason that everything else can be constructed using a combination of these three. In other words, a few basic particles combine in various possible ways to create higher level particles. Higher level particles get together in other possible manners and shapes to form chairs, cats, people and plants, which have perceptible mass. I think we should leave this at that, for fear that if we go any further, our brains will begin to tie themselves into knots.

Long story short, there are a small number of sub-atomic, “massless” particles which combine mysteriously to form matter. Mysteriously? How do an electron and an up quark decide to form a neutron? What is it that triggers these combinations causing matter to be formed?

This is where the Higgs boson comes in. Peter Higgs, a British physicist, came up with the theory that there *had* be this even more inscrutably mysterious particle that catalyzed interactions between the fundamental particles, which results in matter being formed. He and later scientists have envisioned this “thing” as sort of a massless wave that exists everywhere. When other particles interact with this energy field, if you will, they combine and begin transformation into matter. Whew! Hope that made sense. This theoretical particle was named the Higgs boson, in honor of its postulator, and the popular media began dubbing it the “God particle” due to the powers of creation ascribed to it.

How do you prove something called the God particle exists?

For a good part of four decades, the Higgs boson has remained a theory in search of proof. Speaking of proof, how exactly do you go about proving a thing like the God particle? Well, here’s how it roughly works. You have two models. One which says, “Yes, there’s a Higgs boson”. And another that says, “No, there isn’t.” You let each model to make predictions on effects that can be observed. An example of an observable effect is what happens when two particles are smashed into each other, otherwise known as a “particle collision.” So, scientist conduct collisions and record the data from the collisions. And then they check to see if there are observable differences between predictions of the two models. In this particular case of the Higgs boson, the difference predicted between the models is incredibly tiny. Since this difference is so small, bajillions of data are needed before you can come to a statistically significant conclusion. All of this also means you need apparatus that can generate enormous amounts of energy required to conduct particle collision experiments.

This is where the CERN labs in Europe came in. They spent billions of dollars in building the Large Hadron Collider, designed to go in search of the God particle. And, they have been running 40 million collisions a second, all day for the entire year during the last two years.  And, it looks like they have finally found something that looks like the God particle. Amazing stuff.

So, what does this all mean?

First, it is a reflection on this day and age that we have to hold a press conference to cautiously announce that we may have discovered the God particle. There is something indefinably amusing and ironic about this act. That we who have been created by the God particle are not yet sure if our creator exists! This drama appears filled with even more irony when you consider that a large majority of people on this planet are unlikely to even notice this announcement regarding their creator.

Cartoon on reactions to God particle announcement

Having said that, the quest for figuring out how it all got started just got a whole lot interesting. We’ve all heard that the universe started from nothingness and exploded into what we know as the universe with a big bang. The one thing that has mystified scientists about this theory is the question, “How and why did matter form after the big bang?” The Higgs boson, if proved, gives them something to stand and build on.

The day is not too far when CERN scientists will be able to confidently confirm that the God particle does exist. And then will come the question, “Who created the God particle? And where did it come from?”

Picture, my friend, abhi bakhi hai. Get some popcorn, sit back on the couch, make yourself comfortable and have fun watching! Cheers.

This beautiful thing called empathy

Last Sunday, I watched a a fascinating conversation between His Holiness Dalai Lama and a group of scientists, titled “Neuroscience and the emerging mind,”. The dialogue revolved around the questions of “what triggers empathy?” and “can we be trained to be empathetic?”. I spent an hour watching the scientists and the monk in rapt attention. Here’s a gist.

Empathy is the ability to view the world from another’s perspective. Of all emotions, it’s empathy that makes us human. Some would even say it’s empathy that makes us divine. So how exactly does empathy work from a neurological perspective? Prof. V. Ramachandran at University of California, San Diego explains it nicely. Not a surprise since he’s been researching this topic for over two decades. Here’s my understanding of what he’s found.

The brain, at its core, is a mushy mass of gooey tissue filled with a massive number of neurons. The cerebral cortex is the largest part of the brain, and contains 10-13 billion neurons. What are neurons? They’re cells that excitable. When they’re excited, they transmit information through electric signals. When you lean forward to pick up a cup, there’s a neuron in your brain that fires and coordinates the motor movement of the arm stretching, fingers clasping the handle and the hand picking it up.

What made things more intriguing was the discovery of what Prof. Ramachandran calls “mirror neurons”, found in the cortex. Mirror neurons fire when *someone else* performs an action that you’re familiar with. In other words, a mirror neuron fires in my brain when *you* lean forward to pick up a cup. And soon after its firing, my hand signals back to the brain saying “It’s not you picking up the cup. It’s the other person”. All of this happens reflexively in the background. Amazing stuff.

Mirror neurons are the agents of empathy in the brain. When you see another person being pricked with a pin, you flinch reflexively because of them. Your finger quickly sends a message back saying “safe” and that’s how you realize that it’s not you being pricked. In experiments performed on folks with prosthetic arms, subjects actually experienced pain when watching another person being pricked. That’s because their arms lacked cells to transmit “safe” back to the brain! Suddenly, the question of – can we be “trained” to be empathetic? – doesn’t appear out of bounds!

All this talk did leave me a tad uncomfortable. It’s as though we’re trespassing noisily into a sanctum where one must tread with respect. The strength of science lies in its irreverence, which keeps it moving forward and from settling in a comfort zone. That just might be its Achilles heel as well. Science seeks to discover so it can manipulate and control. Any quest based on the notion of “how can I control what’s going on”, I believe, will fail ultimately. Action-without-agenda has far higher staying power, resilience and chances of achieving its goals than action-with-agenda. This is what eastern wisdom tells us. And that’s what His Holiness Dalai Lama subtly conveyed to the professors in the room.

Empathy is a beautiful thing. It holds the key to happiness. Forcing it upon another violates the idea of empathy itself.

ps: This was a great way to spend an hour on a Sunday morning. Check out the video when you get a chance. cheers.

On the Nature of Light

Light is at the core of physics. Light, its attributes and energy, define the very parameters of this amazing universe that we find ourselves in. The nature of light, also (less commonly) known by its scientific name – electromagnetic radiation (EMR) – is the most fascinating conundrum we have encountered in nature. Light is the two-faced Janus, connecting our past, present and future, and, for mysterious reasons, can behave as either a ‘wave’ or a ‘particle’. This is no ordinary matter. How light can behave at times like a “particle” – something that has “mass” and confined to “finite amount of space”, and on other occasions, as a “wave” – something that is formless and existing everywhere simultaneously – is one of the most captivating mysteries that science is yet to solve.

On the Nature of Light

Long before before great scientists like Aristotle, Galileo and Newton came along, humans had grasped the mystical importance of light, in a philosophical and religious sense.

Psalms 119:105  (Holy Bible, King James Version):  “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path”

“Seeing the light” came to be equated with wisdom and enlightenment, and with receiving the ultimate expression of God’s benevolence. A dark universe, devoid of light, was considered a universe devoid of itself – a universe that existed without form or purpose until – as the Holy Bible tells us – “God said, Let there be light”. The Holy Koran says, “Allah, (Praise be to his name) is the light of the heavens and the earth”. The Rig Vedantin prayed “Lead me from darkness to light, from the unreal to the real”. The ancient savants intuitively grasped the quixotic nature of light, a baton which science has only recently taken but carried resolutely over the last hundred years. Continue reading “On the Nature of Light”

Can neutrinos travel faster than light?

Scientists in Europe claim that they have observed neutrinos traveling faster than light. What are neutrinos? Why is it surprising that they can travel faster than light? What’s the big deal?

Neutrinos

What are neutrinos? They are sub-atomic particles – little wisps of almost nothing, with no electrical charge. Being neutral, they are found nearly everywhere and can pass through matter unabsorbed. If you hold your hand toward the sunlight for one second, about a billion neutrinos from the sun will pass through it.

These “ghost particles”, as they’re often called, are part of the universe’s essential ingredients, and play a critical role in helping scientists understand some of the most fundamental questions about the nature of matter and in crafting a picture of how our universe formed and evolved.

“Whence this creation has arisen. Perhaps, it formed itself, or perhaps it did not. The one who looks down on it in the highest heaven, only he knows, or perhaps he knows not” – A hymn from the Rig Veda

A group of scientists working at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) – among other things – have been attempting to measure the velocity (or speed) of neutrinos, by shooting these particles through an “accelerator” (sort of a long tunnel built underground). In their experiments, the group found that neutrinos were arriving at their destinations earlier than expected. Startlingly, they appear to be traveling faster than light itself. No definitive conclusions have been drawn yet. The results will have to be examined by a wider group of scientists before they can be confirmed or deemed wrong.

Speed of Light

If we were to view the exquisitely intricate design of the universe as a “program” with some of the parameters as “fixed, constant and coded in” and everything else as “variable, relative, dynamic and subject to change”, the only constant (that we know of) is the speed of light (‘c’). Why is the speed of light constant? It just is. We don’t really know why. And light travels at slightly more than 186,000 miles per second. All we know or can say in this regard, is that our measurements till date have not disproved that assertion. It’s the way things work in this particular version of the universe that we find ourselves in, to the best of our knowledge. That light never slows down or comes to a rest and is always moving at a constant speed. This assertion forms a critical basis for Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity

The simplest way to explain this is to say that “nothing is absolute” or “everything is relative”. So, immediate answers to any question posed are “it depends” and “compared to what?” For example, a train said to be moving at 60 kmph is relative to a stationary observer on a platform, and not relative to another observer on another train moving in (say) the opposite direction at 70kmph. Everything in the universe is in motion or at rest, *relative to something*. Galaxies with their stars are racing, planets and moons are revolving and rotating and indeed the universe itself is expanding. Grossly simplified, the theory of general relativity is a framework that explains everything as relative and subject to a frame of reference with the notable exception of two things – the speed of light and the laws of physics themselves – which hold steadfast no matter whether you are in San Francisco or in some dark, uninhabited corner of the universe.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity is magnificent for many reasons. In particular, it is awe inspiring for the reason that it tells us that “time itself is relative”. Time itself moves faster or slower depending on the velocity of motion, a mind boggling notion. Clocks slow down when you move faster. Of course, this is not noticeable at speeds we humans move around at normally. The “time dilation” effect kicks in only when we can get to speeds resembling that of light.

Why the fuss about the CERN finding?

It’s tough being a sub-atomic particle these days with scientists constantly tracking your every movement and accusing you of some misdemeanor or the other. If it turns out to be true that neutrinos have been caught breaking the “speed limit of the universe”, the implications are profound at a fundamental level. No, it will not change the way we live in any way. The sun will still rise in the east. Our lives will weave their ways inexorably through to whatever lies ahead. We will continue to fight our daily battles, wage our petty wars and live our lives ordinarily as we did yesterday and the day before. It won’t tell us if there is a God who designed it all. It won’t tell us otherwise either. Yet, everything would have changed. Einstein once said “Time is just a mechanism that ensures that everything doesn’t happen all at once”. The future is nothing more than where light has not reached as yet, or in other words a past that is yet to happen. If something is found to travel faster than light, then notions of past, present, future, time, cause, effect, etc. become mysteriously murkier than ever.

But, it will add a smidgeon of hope and joy that we would have inched forward in the quest for knowing. It will tell us that there is more afoot, more thrill to be had in this pursuit, and simultaneously give us pause to examine this wonder that we call life.