When Musings Are Amusing

It haș only been about a hundred years since humankind gained the knowledge that the atom is made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. In the intervening century, what all we have done with this knowledge – slowly building upon the cumulative knowledge of mankind? It is astounding, and I shivered a little – partly due to the cold, and partly due to awe.

It took humankind 200,000 years, or at least about six millennia of civilization to discover subatomic particles, and somehow in the intervening century since, the pace of technology and the possibilities of the future seem to have raced forward. Every generation has had to live with phenomenal changes. Barring huge setbacks, where would humanity be in another 100-200 years? 

The stars spun around in its merry dance around the universe ,while I had the same sensation in my head trying to make sense of the world we have built for ourselves. The simple observation on the atom’s makeup led us on a merry dance of our own – that of financial markets, world economies and much more.

The husband was explaining the concept of NFTs, VR worlds that is already beginning to manifest in the world.  Our great grandfathers would not have understood. We are not going to understand things of perceived importance in our grandchildren’s lives, forget great grandchildren’s. The mind boggled. 

It all started with my fretting about the Economics of the world getting increasingly complex – how did stock market indices, per capita incomes came to be built one upon the other? Currency fluctuations, led to the discussions on crypto currencies, and we went on to how people claimed ownership to stars. Apparently, one could pick a star and name it after yourself for a fee. ( Star registry )You essentially ‘owned’ the star from then on. The only problem was that there were multiple star registries, and so multiple people could pick the same star to ‘own’. Also, there is the real problem of the star not knowing it is ‘owned’ by a human on a faraway planet.

I looked up and laughed out loud – the stars seemed to understand and winked back.

I could not help thinking of the parody of The Little Prince by Antoine Saint de Exupery. In The Little Prince, the Prince visits different ‘planets’ each hosting one human being – a geographer, a banker, a king, a drunkard and so on. The banker never seems to spend any time enjoying the stars around him, but spends his time counting them all, as he claims that the moment he counts a star, he owns it. (Carl Sagan’s Quote on Astronomy being a humbling profession is completely lost on the poor, rich banker!)

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience

Carl Sagan, Physicist and Astronomer

Really, human beings are the most remarkable beings if you stop to think about it. We want to own the first digital signatures, the most coveted things on earth (Napoleon prided himself on his Aluminum vessels, and it was considered a luxury till someone found how to produce it enmasse: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_aluminium), the best paintings that cost millions, and so on. We want our egos fed and nourished all the time by a universe that largely does not seem to care whether we exist or not. 

But, simple things that mattered before the composition of the atom was discovered still remains important. We still value our loved ones, yearn for contentment and peace, and want to live on a bountiful planet that allows us to thrive.

There is no doubt about it: The musings of our importance on a cold, starlit night is highly amusing.

On the Shores of Sleep

I lay awake ready to explore the cosmic oceans of the subconscious, which is to say, the eyelids were heavy with welcoming drowsiness, but blessed sleep was momentarily elusive.

The infection in my eye was throbbing, and had morphed into a dull headache. A trip to the city earlier in the day had tuckered me out more than I cared to admit, and an over-tired body can take some time falling asleep. 

The quick trip to the city had also rekindled some familiar feelings. Some things never seemed to change. The city with its trembling lights, its massive office buildings, the scores of people rushing, rushing towards something, nothing. Life felt long, unchanging, and yet, distressingly tumultuous all at once.

I stopped to take pulse – the anxious rush of traffic, the speed with which one needed to act and react on the streets, the cacophony of ambulances and traffic, and the frenzied pace were one thing. Colleagues who had moved out of the geographic location, colleagues who had moved on was quite another. The memory of a colleague who had succumbed to cancer a few weeks prior: another good human being whose companionship and solid good sense I missed.

How could time feel swift and still at the same time? 

How can our ephemerality coincide with that sense of life being long and varied?

“We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.” 

― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Every moment plucked like a strand from a whirlwind, and yet, every person’s appreciation of the whirlwind was their own. Life seemed meaningless and meaningful in spots of flashing clarity in the confusing overwhelm of the day.

I tried to sleep that night – back in the quiet of our suburban home. I couldn’t, and took to moon-watching instead. The moon had risen – the same moon that rose over the Sierra Nevada mountains – unmoving, majestic; the oceans – calm and serene; the vast plains of the desert cactii-laden amidst multi-hued rocks and sands; the coastal regions  – the sandy shores and the redwood forests reaching up to eternity; and the bustling city all at the same time. 

The Japanese have a beautiful word for moon-watching:

Tsukimi (月見) or Otsukimi (お月見), meaning, “moon-viewing”, also known as Jugoya (十五夜), are Japanese festivals honoring the autumn moon, a variant of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Time and Space in the physical realm invites us to think of Being in the meta-physical sense.  The land of dreams beckoned again, and I went to bed – grateful for the quiet solitude of the night, the calming nature of moonlit thoughts and blessed sleep.

The sun will rise bringing with it a whole new perspective.

Barnard’s Star & Jupiter Dancing

Jupiter and Venus were both illuminating the evening skies. Dusk was creeping in. The sight of our familiar planetary companions is always a welcome one. The first ones to illumine the skies, and visible long before the stars can be seen, these wanderers are a delight. The red atmosphere of Venus, the thunderous black ones on Jupiter, and the beautiful bluish velvet earthly skies make for a magical time.

Later that night, after loads of laundry, dishwashing and cleaning were done, I sat on a park bench nearby and gazed up. Jupiter looked brighter than all the other stars, and I found my thoughts drifting. I read somewhere that the red spot on Jupiter depicting its great raging storm looks fiercer than ever. I could see none of that from my park bench millions of miles away of course. That night, the reflected light from the sun was just soothing, and in some ways alluring.  The great mighty giant with its storm raging for 3-4 centuries spinning, quietly keeping the solar system in balance, and dealing with its own destiny is strangely fascinating. Are there extremophiles on its surface? Any micro-organisms that only thrive in the storms? Maybe we would know one day.

https://www.nationalgeographic.org/activity/jupiter-s-great-red-spot/family/

As I went to say good night to the son, we fell to discussing the skies (one of our favorite topics as regular readers know). I told him that I read about Jupiter’s storms being stronger this year,

“Ha! Our global warming affecting the storms on Jupiter? “ he said and the pair of us chuckled at the joke. 

“Did you know if you put 90 Jupiters together, you still won’t have a star?”

“Yeah?! How many would you need?”

“ A hundred.”

“Let me guess – Kurzegesagt?” I said, and he nodded. 

That channel has some of the most amazing content, and the son gets excited when a new video is released.

“If 100 Jupiters came together, we could get a star like the Barnard’s star. We cannot see, but it will be a star. ” . I had not heard of Barnard’s star, but there it was capable of going on as a red dwarf star for the next 10 trillion years. He charmingly said 1-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0 of course, and I was wondering what the number is – fogged after a hard days’ work, this child’s 1-0-0-…-0 can be a bit much. 

So, there was another close neighbor to the Earth – a star that was not as visible as Alpha Centauri, but there nevertheless, 6 light years away. This red dwarf has made its way into science fiction with the possibility of harboring life in the planets around it. The dwarf star is too cold, and though the planets orbit at an optimal distance, it is too cold for life as we know it. But human imagination, while marvelous, is also limited in some respects.

Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.

Carl Sagan

Apparently, the Barnard’s Star is known as one of the fastest moving stars – a little dancer in the skies, moving slowly regally among Jupiter & Venus in the evening skies. This one’s movements are not as visible in one lifetime, but is visible over a century. To marvel at this kind of generational wisdom being passed down always makes me grateful for the little part we all play in this mighty universe.

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As we sat in our pajamas talking about the stars and their planets, I thought about the beautiful marvelous gift of star-gazing.

I don’t know what the future holds for mankind, but I hope gazing at the stars is one that is always possible. A source of dreams, conjectures, possibilities, and solace. That is my wish for all sentient beings,

The Covid Vaccine

We rolled into the expansive grounds to receive the Covid vaccine. Everything shone with efficiency starting from the way our appointments were scheduled. It always astounds me when I see undertakings as large as this. Any public health initiatives are amazing in their scope and ability, and I was in awe. Like a child at the fairgrounds, I soaked in the sign boards, the appointment process, the courteous health workers all working on Saturday mornings to ensure the world can be a safer place. 

There were no questions unrelated to one’s health. No checks other than ensuring one was eligible age-wise and health-wise and had no known allergic reactions. 

As we waited for our turn and watched the registered nurses, volunteers and traffic attendants go about their duties, I thought once again of all the great things human beings are capable of as a species. Within a year of the coronavirus bringing the world to a stand-still, a vaccine was not just found, but mass produced and administered to millions of people. That is nothing short of a miracle. Even as the virus continues to spread its tentacles in waves, the vaccine outreach program was offering hope.

Extensive testing, mass production, and a dizzying level of community outreach and logistics had gone into place for this to work. But how did the mRNA vaccines work?

We live in the Information Age, and know first-hand how it can quickly be turned on its head to a Misinformation Age. A Quote from the Demon Haunted World came to mind.

“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements—transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting—profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

The nurse came up to the car with a thin needle and I closed my eyes instinctively. She smiled and said, “It’s done. You feeling okay?”

Just like that, the tiny ant-like pinch of the needle that delivered a tiny dose of messenger RNA gave rise to something else.

I felt a surge for love for America

A touch of pride in its efficacy and its courtesy

A ripple of gratitude for Science

A shiver while thinking how it might have been had the 46th President not been elected.

And finally a sense of gratitude that we did have a President who valued these things.

 

Mars Marvels

There is something special in being able to watch the Mars Perseverance Rover land on Mars during the day with your fellow explorer. 

Mars.Nasa.Gov

A work day was in bustling progress.  Many meetings, many projects, many interruptions, and many more deadlines were jostling about in the ether, when the son came charging into the room. It was the middle of his school day (one of the many high points of the corona lifestyle), “Amma! Amma! You will like this. I just came to tell you this! The Mars landing just happened!”

I plucked myself away from the myriad day-to-day happenings of my world, and looked up at his excited face. Luckily, it was one of those rare ½ hour slots that was meeting-free. “Do you want to see the landing? “ I asked, and he nodded. There is something special in being able to watch the Mars Perseverance Rover land on Mars during the day with your fellow explorer. 

Mars.Nasa.Gov

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The video attests to Carl Sagan’s deductions in the book, Pale Blue Dot (essay: Sacred Black). The Martian atmosphere does look pinkish red with heavily desert hues. The son & I looked outside at the beautiful blue sky with reassuringly white clouds flitting by. 

The Mars Perseverance Rover is tasked with looking for evidence for extraterrestrial life.

Excerpt from Wikipedia:

The Perseverance rover has four science objectives that support the Mars Exploration Program‘s science goals:[8]

  1. Looking for habitability: identify past environments capable of supporting microbial life.
  2. Seeking biosignatures: seek signs of possible past microbial life in those habitable environments, particularly in specific rock types known to preserve signs over time.
  3. Caching samples: collect core rock and regolith (“soil”) samples and store them on the Martian surface.
  4. Preparing for humans: test oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere.

Mars has, it seems, been a most fertile planet for the imagination through the centuries. From harboring questions about life on its surface to envisioning warfare between worlds. As rich as lifeforms on Earth are, even in our imaginings, we are somewhat limited by how life has evolved on Earth. Cephalopods, trees, giraffes, humans – but what else is possible? What sensory powers are we not even considering?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_in_fiction

The War of the Worlds (1898) by H. G. Wells. Features an attack on England by cephalopod-like Martians and their advanced technology to employ fighting machines to decimate the world.

Even as early as the 16th and 17th century, writers made bold attempts at imagining life on its surface. The canal like squiggles on its surface, led to intriguing theories on an advanced civilization running advanced colonies etc. 

Now, seems like a good time for me to read The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Given what we know about the Martian atmosphere now, there are places where the writing seems awkward. For instance, Ray Bradbury writes of a blue Martian sky – an example that it is hard for us to un-imagine what is. 

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The Martian Chronicles (1950) by Ray Bradbury. Features human-like Martians with copper-colored skin, human emotions, and telepathic abilities. They have an advanced culture, but the human explorers are greeted with incomprehension. 

Science took us to Mars with the reddish sky, but it was the blue sky with white clouds that enabled us to dream. The hunter gatherer is us out to explore the cosmic ocean, as Carl Sagan would say.

Why is our sky not green?

The elementary school going son, like many children his age, pulls a full why-wagon with him wherever he goes. The questions tumble out with ease, and can be anywhere on the spectrum : 

They are all fair game.

Sometimes, of course, his questions chip away at the stoutest of theories. For instance, a few years ago, as we mooned about the hills overlooking the bay at sunset and taking in the shades of pinks, oranges, blues, grays, purples and reds, he said, “Why is the sunset never green?

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Now, that is a perfectly valid question with a perfectly scientific answer. However, it had me stumped, for it never occurred to me to ask that particular question.  I remember being awed a few years ago, when the children had drawn rust and pink colored skies when asked to imagine a sky for their imaginary world. 

How often do we take the time to question things that just are? 

This is why when I read the Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan, and he comes up with a marvelous chapter based on determining the planetary world one is in simply based on the color of the sky, I shone with girlish delight. Here, was the kind of leap in imagination where only deep thought and research can take you, and here he was, simply giving it away in a book. All his marvelous thought processes, his wonder of the world, his eternal curiosity and scientific rigor just laid out on a page so we could embrace it in one simple reading. 

“The color of the sky characterizes the world. Plop me down on any planet in the Solar System, without seeing the gravity, without glimpsing the ground, let me take a look at the sun and the sky, and I can, I think, pretty well tell you where I am, That familiar shade of blue, interrupted here and there by fleecy white clouds, is a signature of our world. “ – Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

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The whimsical side of me wants to ask whether he will recognize Earth at sunrise, sunset, during wildfires and what-not. 

The essay, Sacred Black , in the book, Pale Blue Dot is well worth reading. He explains the reasoning behind the colors of the planets as we see them. He deduces the color of the sky based on the elements found in their atmospheres. 

  1. Venus, he says, probably has a red sky.
  2. Mars has a sky that is between ochre and pink much like the colors of the desert.
  3. Jupiter, Saturn – worlds with such giant atmospheres such that sunlight hardly penetrates it, have black skies. He talks about this bleak expanse of a sky being interrupted here and there by strokes of lightning in the thick mop of clouds surrounding the planets. This image does make for a sober shiver for someone who loves the sky and its myriad attractions. Imagine, not being able to the stars, the sun, or anything beyond the clouds – brrrr.
  4. Uranus & Neptune – uncanny, austere blue color. The distant sunlight reaches a comparatively clean atmosphere of hydrogen, helium and methane in these planets. The skies may be blue or green at a certain depth resulting in an aquamarine or an ‘unearthly blue’.

pale_blue_dot_pichttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PIA23645-Earth-PaleBlueDot-6Bkm-Voyager1-orig19900214-upd20200212.jpg

He shows us how in the absence of an atmosphere, an inky deep purple is all there is. How, our planet is only a pale blue dot floating in an inky void illumined by a ray of light from the sun. Our eyes may not show us green colors in the sky at sunset, but it does detect plenty of green in the flora around us.

What would you like to see in a sky?

Rajma on Titan or Mars

“Yeah! Rajma!” The little fellow slurped in mock exaggeration throwing his hands up into the air. I smiled. I wondered yet again how genetics seems to work in odd ways. My brother as a child had the same expression or at least sentiment every time rajma was made. How could my children who are growing up on the opposite side of the earth from my rajma-loving brother have the same expressions of delight and exaggerated lip-smacking responses to this simple dish?

I can hear my brother mimicking Tamil movie comedians and saying,  “அனுபவிக்கனும் ஆராய கூடாது”. Loosely translated, this means, it is better to not analyze these things too much, but just enjoy them.

I turned the little red kidney beans over in my hands, and in a moment of impulse planted a few of them into the soil in a little pot where the winter colds had stripped the plants bare. 

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I started the year reading The Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan. Much of Carl Sagan’s writing celebrates the accident of life on this beautiful planet, and how incredibly lucky we are to be blessed with sentience to try and make sense of it all.

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by [Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan]

A sentiment that I agree with wholeheartedly. It is one of the reasons I love Thanksgiving and Pongal or Makara Sankranthi. The fact that we actually set aside our myriad problems to take a moment to express gratitude to the cosmos and this planet for nurturing life is special enough, but this year it feels extra special and even necessary. The planet has united human destiny with a virus, reminded us of the pettiness of grandiose ambition, and helped us appreciate the delights of the ordinary. No small feat. 

In the book, Carl Sagan talks at length about what all can revealed about a celestial object by a mere photograph. Our own pale blue dot – the picture of Earth he says can actually reveal existence of life on this planet. The combination of gases in the atmosphere, not to mention the presence of methane in the atmosphere. However, in the very next chapter, he examines the methane in Titan ( one of the moons of Saturn), and quickly debunks existence of life there as yet because of the temperatures and the concentration of the gas. However, he still holds out on its potential :  the moon has the conditions necessary for the accident of life to happen at some point in the future. 

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As he painstakingly examines one world after another, there is so much to marvel at, and also appreciate the only home known to our particular kind of life. There is nothing as yet discovered that can harbor our particular chemical compositions, our requirements for this particular combination of atmosphere, water and foliage. 

For all the marvels we surround ourselves with I still think the joy of seeing things sprout from a seed into a plant has to be the most wondrous of all. Every time I walk in a forest or a meadow, I wonder how many seedlings lie around us, waiting to take that leap into their chance of life. 

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I walk around my little strip of a garden that has been kindly putting up with my well-intentioned, but often laughable, attempts at horticulture. I stand marveling at the tulip bulbs shooting up through the soil. This year’s rains have been woefully low, and I hope it changes for I know what it portends for a fire season later in the year. 

A few days ago, I went to water the potted plants and I cannot tell you the joy of seeing little kidney bean plants sprouting up. To think of all that wondrous work happening quietly in the soil while we spend our days with our concerns of our human imprints on this one tiny planet of ours is truly humbling. This is the real work isn’t it? 

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“So can we really eat the rajma beans now?” Asked the son, his eyes gleaming with excitement. I found, I didn’t know the answer. How does one transform legumes to rajma beans that little fellows in kitchens go on to associate with warmth and love? 

I fumbled and told the little fellow honestly that I didn’t know, but that we’d find out together. We will spend a pleasurable evening looking through the process of legumes to kidney beans. Whether Mars or Titan ever gets to growing rajma beans, we do not know, but I did promise him a dish of rajma from our very own plants. I think my brother would give his approving nod half an earth away. 

How the Library (Not the Prince) Saved Rapunzel

When the Covid lockdowns started, many folks went on a buying spree (we all know the toilet paper jokes). Ever the dutiful one, off I went too. I was feeling rather pleased with myself when I got an extra bag of rice, and headed onto the library (to get books to tide us over during the lockdown).  When the husband called to ask where I’d gone, I sheepishly said that I was at the library just in case we were unable to get books during lockdown. I could hear a sound like a paper bag bursting – his version of a cross between a snort, and the urge to laugh. I bragged about the extra bag of rice, and I could see his face wondering why he had to be landed with someone, who in P G Wodehouse’s language, ‘must’ve been bumped on the head as a baby’. 

Well, I must say that when we staggered home with books for the children and self, I felt better. The local library has been one of my favorite spots to visit of course, but over the Covid period, I felt like Rapunzel in the book: How the Library Saved Rapunzel (Not the Prince). The library allowed us to schedule an appointment and arrange to pickup books on hold. What was more, they were kind enough to include a few picture books of their choice if you requested them to do so. I am eternally grateful to have access to libraries.

I felt almost an irresistible urge to increase my Science based reading this year (maybe this is a tiny rebellion for the disturbing anti-Science strain emerging with the 45th POTUS office). Starting the year off by re-reading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos set the stage for the year ahead. The following books gave me no end of pleasure and learning over the year. (My Science writing class for children)

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2020 was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day

  • Unbowed – Wangari Maathai (in progress)
  • On Looking  – Alexandra  Horowitz
  • Losing  Earth  A Recent History – Nathaniel Rich
  • This is the Earth – Diane Z Shore & Jessica Alexander, Paintings by Wendell Minor

Bill Anders said: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

What a lovely statement that is, and together with his Earth Rising image, contributed to the concerns around Planet Earth that led to founding of Earth Day in 1970.

1200px-NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-Earthrise

It was also a wonderful year to take in poetry. Mary Oliver & Margarita Engle were always welcome in a year when poets alone seemed to know the right turn of phrase for the bizarre. Dr Seuss & Jackl Prelutsky always know to turn one’s frown into a smile. 

  • Blue Iris – Mary Oliver
  • Enchanted Air – By Margarita Engle
  • Dog Songs – Mary Oliver
  • Owls and other fantasies – Mary Oliver (Yes! no!)
  • Be Glad your nose is in your face – Jack Prelutsky
  • Dr Seuss books (always worth reads and re-reads). I found a few gems that truly tickled the mind and got out some belly laughs.
    • Horton hears a Who
    • Horton Hatches an Egg
    • Sleep book
    • Oh the Thinks you can Think
    • How Lucky You Are
    • Thidwick the Big Hearted Moose

summer-collage

With the Black Lives Matter movement, the year was ripe for educating oneself on the inequities of society and civil disobedience. The local library, news media, and friends all helped with an excellent array of reading material. Notable among the works read then were:

  • Becoming – By Michelle Obama
  • Black Panther – by Ta Nehisi Coates
  • Sneetches and other stories – Dr Seuss
  • A Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela‘s children’s book version
  • My Many Colored Days – Dr Seuss

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With uplifting books and humour, life can be truly marvelous. My all-time favorites kept me company, and I am eternally grateful to their influence of course but a few others were added to the list this year.

The world isn’t such a good place either, and reading books such as these helps to remind us about the many problems that still beset society

The lure of power, and how we are seeing it all play out in real life

  • The Fate of Fausto – Oliver Jeffers
  • Louis I – The King of Sheep – Oliver Tallec
  • Yertle the Turtle and other Stories – Dr Seuss
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (pieces relating to the Minister of Magic refusing to acknowledge Voldemort’s return so he could stay in power)

Of course the true magic of life is never complete without children’s books. There are so many of them in this genre, that I did not even note half of them. But a few of them lit up my life

  • My Grandma is a Ninja – By Todd Tarpley, Illustrated by Danny Chatzikonstantinou (When I become a grandma – though it is a few decades off, that is how I wish to be 🙂 )
  • Gondra’s Treasure – By Linda Sue Park
  • Enchanted Wood – by Enid Blyton (old Saucepan Man, Silky and Moonface with the lands above the enchanted tree – though it doesn’t hold the same level of magic it did as a child, it still has its charm)
  • The Red Pyramid – By Rick Riordan (this was the son’s recommendation, and thoroughly enjoyable it turned out to be romping down the Egyptian myths!)
  • The Quiet Book – by Deborah Underwood
  • A Fun Day with Lewis Carroll – Kathleen Krull & Julia Sarda
  • Peter Rabbit’s Tales – Beatrix Potter
  • Why is my Hair Curly – By Lakshmi Iyer
  • A History of Magic – Based on Harry Potter Universe
  • Tintin Comics (a fair few)
  • Calvin & Hobbes
  • The Velocity of Being – Maria Popova & Claudia Bedrick

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On that magical high note, here is wishing everyone a healthy, happy new year in 2021. Things are already turning around, and looking hopeful. Keep reading, and sharing 🙂

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The Fine Art of Baloney Detection

I feel like a separate dedicated post to Baloney Detection Kits are useful right about now. It has been a disturbing 6 – 7 years – ever since the presidential election started heating up for the 2016 cycle, we have been living in a state of dubiety (The state or quality of being doubtful; uncertainty).

We have grown used to being lied to, we are more divided than ever before, and the versions of the truth fluctuate wildly depending on which network or newspaper reports it, it is increasingly hard to determine what the truth is. 

Just a simple search for ‘Media Bias Charts 2020’ is enough to drive home the point:

media bias chart 2020

These problems have always been there. 2000 years ago, the world’s greatest democracy of the times, modern day Italy, then the Roman Empire, witnessed turmoil and breaking of the largest democracy. But with accelerated advances in technology linking us faster than ever to ‘breaking news’ and social media amplifiers for everyone, the waters have become noisier and murkier.

The book, Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, has an essay on the Fine Art of Baloney Detection.

Read also: Candles in the Dark

The essay starts off empathising with the human condition. Why are we, as humans, willing to believe in things whether or not ‘there is any sober evidence for it.’? 

It isn’t unheard of to believe in things supernatural, or falling for false advertising campaigns with exaggerated claims, or believing models wearing Doctor’s coats, or blindly believing religious zealots who spout hypotheses with confidence. As human beings we have been doing this for centuries, and in most probability will continue to fall for some sort of questionable practices. 

As long as there are those who are willing to take advantage of the vulnerable with little or no consequence, these will persist.

For those who wish to read the whole essay, it is here. Or it can be found in the book, Science as a Candle in the Dark – By Carl Sagan

While we enjoy the occasional myth or fib, it is important to know the difference. For an adult to attack Harry Potter for instilling witchcraft is worrisome for this very reason. As part of growing up, we want children to outgrow the myth of Santa Claus. Knowing to distinguish fantasies from reality is a necessary tool for survival. 

Which brings us to why we must have a version of Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit for us to use. 

The complete essay can be found here:

It has been a saddening realization to find that Science has not been embraced when it is needed the most. I was reading a book on the Greatest inventions of mankind in the past 2000 years. It is a book collating the answers from philosophers, researchers, and professors from various fields. One of the answers given was the framework of Science. I could not agree more. The ability to think, weigh, design experiments with control and test groups, and sift empirical evidence has resulted in the very least at :

  • Saving millions of lives, that in previous generations, succumbed to disease
  • Figuring out how to feed a planet that grew from 1 billion to over 7 billion within a generation

For those who would prefer a straight jump to the Baloney Detection Kit, here it is:

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight—“authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.*
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
  • Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
  • If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise)—not just most of them.
  • Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
  • Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable, are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle—an electron, say—in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

Qi to the Yin & Yang

Fact and Fiction were swirling and creating waves and patterns inside the old eggshell. Harry Potter – A History of Magic was entertaining in ways I did not quite expect. Regular readers and friends know how much I love the Harry Potter series. The sheer brilliance and richness of the world, and the marvelous ways in which J K Rowling examines our world has been written about in far greater depth and width and by far greater minds than my own. (Leaky Cauldron site for instance)

I know I enjoyed reading  this in The Prisoner of Azkaban

“Witch Burning in the Fourteenth Century Was Completely Pointless — discuss” – Holiday homework set to Harry Potter and his classmates in the Prisoner of Azkaban.

“Non-magic people (more commonly known as Muggles) were particularly afraid of magic in medieval times, but not very good at recognizing it. On the rare occasion that they did catch a real witch or wizard, burning had no effect whatsoever. The witch or wizard would perform a basic Flame Freezing Charm and then pretend to shriek with pain while enjoying a gentle, tickling sensation. Indeed, Wendelin the Weird enjoyed being burned so much that she allowed herself to be caught no less than forty-seven times in various disguises.”
—Bathilda Bagshot, A History of Magic

Harry Potter – A History of Magic book was amazing – Firstly, it contained little tidbits of deleted sections, some planning sketches etc. Secondly, it was organized by subject area: Herbology, Charms, Astronomy, Divination, Care of Magical Creatures, & Transfiguration. In each section were glimpses into humankind’s long fascination with magic. It is astounding to see the vast repertoire of knowledge that the author herself had to be able to synthesize all this and to create another world based on anthropological details, myths from various cultures and her own dose of fantastic imagination.

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The mind was reveling in the fact and admiring the fiction therein. Our cosmic dance of fact and fiction as a species is almost necessary to examine and understand the world around us. We are story tellers, and we are curious to understand and infer. The Qi to the Yin and Yang of understanding the world around us.

The Astronomy section of the book contained a drawing of the Rudolphine Tables, which helped the reader locate the planets amidst the stars. Containing the locations of 1000+ stars, this was probably the most comprehensive study at the time.

Beside the picture of the Rudophine Tables was a note by Alexander Lock, the Curator
“In 1617, Kepler’s mother was suspected of witchcraft, a crime punishable by death. The accused spent over a year in prison but was eventually released when her son intervened. Kepler was an official astronomer to the Holy Roman Emperor – this family intrigue must have been very difficult for him.”

489px-Johannes-kepler-tabulae-rudolphinae-google-arts-culture

I could not help linking this with some of the things I read in Carl Sagan’s Science as a Candle in the Dark, especially a chapter titled the Demon Haunted World, in which he talks about the grotesque practice of witch hunts and how it became an increasingly profit driven model as well.

Pope Innocent VIII (if ever there was a name that was totally out of sorts with the meaning, this must be it). Pope Innocent was singularly responsible for starting and popularizing the witch hunts in the 15th and 16th centuries leading to millions of people losing their lives and millions more living in a state of constant fear.

There are demon-haunted worlds, regions of utter darkness. – The Isa Upanishad (India ca 600 BC).

With a single proclamation in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII “initiated the systematic accusation, torture and execution of countless “witches” all over Europe.

While we know of the barbaric practices, little did I realize how pervasive the evil was – The Demon Haunted World -By  Carl Sagan:
It quickly became an expense account scam. All costs of investigation, trial, and execution were borne by the accused or her relatives down to per diems for the private detectives hired to spy on her, wine for her guards, banquets for her judges the travel expenses of a messenger set to fetch a more experienced torturer from another city, and faggots, tar and hangman’s rope. Then there was a bonus to the members of the tribunal for each witch burned. The convicted witch ‘s remaining property, if any, was divided between Church and State.

While I am enormously glad to see that we have evolved past this especially cruel phase of mankind’s history it does make me feel terrible about the state of things in the world today. Conspiracy theories, choosing which version of the truth to believe in etc have been problems for a long time, but now it seems these problems have occupied center stage because the leader of the free world seems to spend enormous amounts of time ingesting and spewing conspiracy theories himself.

Maybe it is time for all of us to equip ourselves with Carl Sagan’s famous Baloney Detection Kits.

But there is hope, we have moved past the atrocities of witch-burning to the point that we are now not only able to have witches and wizards in our stories, but also have a clear distinction between fact and fiction.

The yin and yang are sturdily holding their own, and I hope our qi (understanding) will remain unclouded and clear.

 

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