The Epic of Whalayana

The mother has been reading The Ramayana. She is especially fond of the Sundarakandam. For a few months, any good is attributed to the Sundarakandam readings. Anything bad is soothed away with the assurance that her Sundarakandam chantings will make it better. It takes her several weeks to make it through a complete reading. The Ramayana is a long epic, and lilts rhythmically. Reading this epic soothes her, and every now and then with touching belief, she has a go at it.

I like the Ramayana too for its main storyline, and its myriad side stories. I do think Sita could have been a pluckier heroine, but then I remember that these tales were passed down from one generation to the next, each one, quite probably, embellishing the epics a little to make sure their ideal version of the woman is subtly inserted in there. (Another post for another day)

It is interesting to think of how our epics and ballads have helped shape human history. Artifacts and natural phenomena shaped our myths, and particularly gifted story-tellers were always a treasured people. We truly believed that story-telling was the single distinguishing feature of our species. After all, imagination is a task much higher on the cognitive scale than living & feeling. 

‘Did you know? We used to have a Professor who could chant every verse and explain it so beautifully? From memory! In those days, our professors used to remember Shakespeare, entire Sanskrit texts, and eloquently recite from memory. ‘ said the father, and waxed as eloquently about the good old days; his fervor growing as he spoke of the stellar nature of his professors, about how they learnt and memorized Shakespeare and the Sanskrit texts from their forefathers. 

I smiled at the pride in his voice when he thought of his long-dead professors. For millennia we thought we were the only ones capable of passing on this kind of generational wisdom and knowledge. But that is not the case. Take the enormously intelligent whales and dolphins for instance. Carl Sagan, the physicist, writes about these intelligent creatures often. In his essay on dolphin sounds, he writes of Elvar the Dolphin who knows up to 50 English sounds and can use them in context. 

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Quote from Cosmos by Carl Sagan:

Some whale sounds are called songs, but we are still ignorant of their true nature and meaning. They range over a broad band of frequencies, down to well below the lowest sound the human ear can detect. A typical whale song lasts for perhaps 15 minutes; the longest about an hour. Often it is repeated, identically beat for beat, measure for measure, note for note. 

Very often, the members of the group will sing the same song together. By some mutual consensus, some collaborative song-writing, the piece changes month by month, slowly and predictably. These vocalizations are complex. If the songs of the humpback whale are enunciated as a tonal language, the total information content, the number of bits of information in such songs, is some 10 to the power of 6 bits, about the same as the information content of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

I would love to hear and understand the generational wisdom that these large benevolent creatures have for living in the oceans. The ever changing oceans must be a rich source of material. Do they have heroes vs villains, good vs evil, or things much more complex and intriguing than simple story lines like that? 

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Quote:

They have no manipulative organs, they make no engineering constructs, but they are social creatures. They hunt, swim, fish, browse, frolic, mate, play, run from predators. There may be a great deal to talk about.

If human beings have a fault, it is assuming our anthropomorphic abilities are the pinnacle of what is possible. I must remember that until recently, we did not know whale songs existed. 

The sea is as near as we come to another world. – Ann Stevenson

Coming up next: The Inner Life of Animals

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The Dance of the Butterflies

Magical March gave us the immense satisfaction of walking to school under magical rainbows,  leprechauns had wreaked havoc and left treasures, my mother got to see her father for the first time at the age of 73, we had a beautiful trip playing in the snow, the doting grandparents arrived and the children have been reveling in the social rainbow that enveloped them.

Out in the natural world, the hills are alive with the sound of moo-sic (cows grazing – get it, get it?), the cherry blossoms send sparks of joy piercing through the soul every time I look at them, and the butterflies have been dancing the dance of joy. Rain showers cleansed the Earth, and all nature around us seems to be smiling benevolently.

 

One beautiful evening, I stepped out on a walk with my little son. Elementary school children derive a certain pleasure in crouching and looking at ants, snails or ladybugs. This time, however, we crouched down to look at a furry, black caterpillar. After reading Eric Carle’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, everyday for months at a time with each of the children, I did not think that I would be enamored sitting and observing caterpillars, but such is the infectious enthusiasm of youth. (The Wind in the Reefs – Working title of The Wind In The Willows)

I found myself excited and thrilled to crouch and watch the caterpillar make its short journey across the concrete path back into the sidewalk where the bushes grew. I still find it amazing that these creatures metamorphose into butterflies. Eggs->Caterpillar(larvae)->Chrysalis(Pupa)->Butterfly has to be the most magical thing in our daily existence next to rainbows.

Later that week, the crouch with the caterpillar made me reach longingly for the book, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science – Joyce Sidman

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Maria Merian was a naturalist and illustrator in the seventeenth century.  Written by the children’s author and poet, Joyce Sidman, she says:

In many ways, Maria was an enigma. She rarely wrote about anything other than caterpillars…What we do know is that she had boundless energy, insatiable curiosity, and superhuman focus – traits that would have been difficult to live with, but ones that marked her as a true scientist at a time when the odds were stacked against her.

How does one find the passion and perseverance to stick to a field of study in spite of societal disapproval, familial duties and demanding businesses?  The book gives us a glimpse into seventeenth century life: The impossible clamps on Women, the dangerous possibility of any curiosity being mistaken for witchcraft, the difficult life of artists in general and so much more.

I have always admired those who have high energy levels and put it to good use. Maria Merian was one of those people. She was a brilliant artist, had business acumen and her curiosity about insects made her a pioneer in the field of etymology (A field that did not even have a name until several decades after her death). Her contributions to etymology were remarkable because she also managed to travel to Surinam near Barbados in those days with the sole purpose of studying animal life. Her paintings on Surinam and her books on caterpillars had great appeal in Europe, and Maria Merian went on to transform Art and Science forever.

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The book is full of beautiful diagrams, paintings, flowers and plants with little insects on them. It is a joy to thumb through even if it is just to look at the pictures.

 

 

Here is to more butterflies, rainbows and magic.

How Squids Shaped Our Myths

We are familiar with the Pangea theory (large hulk of a landmass floating together, and breaking apart into the continents of today, current day India going and joining up with the Eurasian chunk and creating the Himalayas in the process etc). Supporting evidence for this theory has been largely in the form of marine fossils found in the Himalayas, a region that is landlocked today.

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Pangea animation from Wikipedia

It was while reading Squid Empire by Danna Staaf that I realized how intertwined the evolution of the world, our myths, theories and culture are.

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Culture is a funny word. It is supposed to capture the intellectual and sociological elements of a group of people living at a certain point in time in a certain place. The clothes, the food, the music and drama, the myths, the beliefs, the societal graces etc are what loosely constitute culture. It always amazes me how a word that is essentially an observation of life can be taken by the self righteous and used to noisily monger about the manger (but that is another post for another day.)

It is not surprising that our myths reflect our surroundings. Some cultures where myths have intertwined with religion are also reflective of the evolution of mankind over time in these places.

Indian myths, for instance, say that the Himalayas are home to the Gods. At the time when the myths originated, the Himalayas were probably looked on with awe (they still are, but probably more so 5000 years ago), and the only beings capable of living and scaling the mountains were attributed to having god-like capabilities. (Lord Shiva, the destroyer of the universe, apparently could be reached at Mt Kailas, Himadri Range, Himalayas. )

Lord Vishnu (The preserver), was always depicted with a conch and a shell. I have often wondered why Vishnu had a conch and a shell. Why not a sword and scythe?

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Shiva-Vishnu: Image from Google Search

But like a minute puzzle piece waiting to chink into place, I realize that these were the fossils found in the Himalayas at the time. Nautilus shells, and ammonoid shells. They are shaped like conches and shells. Of course, they became the accessories for the popular gods. <Pictures of ammonoid shell fossils below>

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Quote from The Squid Empire by Danna Staaf:
Just on the other side of the Himalayas in India, certain coiled ammonoids fossils are named saligrams, symbols of the god Vishnu, and are believed to offer spiritual rather than physical healing.

Quote from: Adrienne Mayor’s paper on  (Fossil Appropriations Past and Present), (Classics and History of Science, Stanford University)

A current popular exhibit called “Mythic Creatures” at the American Museum of Natural History (May – Dec 2007) demonstrates how some stories of fantastic creatures, such as griffins, unicorns, and water monsters, arose from observations of extinct animal fossils around the world.

There is always a beauty to observing the natural phenomena around us. We are minute in a large throbbing cosmos, occupying a still thriving ecosystem on Earth for minuscule specks in time.

When you think about life that way, it seems beautiful:  a gift meant to be nourished and cherished. Did the squid think they would influence homo-sapiens millennia later, and help shape their culture? Probably not. But they did, just by existing.

 

 

 

Cephalopods

The husband had an amused expression on his face as he walked into the kitchen and saw me reading while making dinner. His eyes were set to roll, and his lips had already started on the journey to upward curvature that results in an indulgent smile. I told him so.

“Your neurons, it seems, are all controlled by one brain – tut tut! Not the case with Cephalopods. Take octopi or octopuses for example. They have neurons tingling all over their many arms, and each arm can function almost independently of another. Severed arms have been known to collect food on their own you know?”

“What are you reading now?”, asked the husband.

“Squid Empire by Danna Staaf. It is a book about squids, octopuses, and some other creatures called nautiluses and ammonoids, coleoids and cuttlefish and god-knows-what-else. Apparently, they are all called Cephalopods.” I said beaming happily, while slowly roasting the dinner. It made me feel like an eight armed goddess myself just reading about these fascinating creatures, and cooking at the same time. Never mind that I was making the most gawd-awful hash at both these tasks.

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“Did you know? The humble garden snail is descended from the ammonoids and squids?” I said.

“Well….I will leave you to it then.” said he squiggling out of the kitchen like an octopus out of a tank.

I went back to the book and though I was at times confused by the various scientific terms, I enjoyed the read. It yanked me through the ages, and took me to a time in Earth’s history well before dinosaurs or life on land had started. It was intriguing to see how they formed shells, and how those very shells helped them move from the ocean floor to the central zones of the ocean where they could swim and live with no apparent threat till the whales and larger fish evolved to eat them. The shells secreted a liquid less salty than the surrounding sea water, and this helped them float and remain buoyant instead of being brought down by the heavy shells.

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The Evolutionary History of Cephalopods from the book, Squid Empire

Why did I pick up a book on Squids?

I don’t really know, except that I loved the children’s book, Octopus and Squid by Tao Nyeu. A book that the son and I read every now and then for its beautiful friendship between two seemingly different creatures.

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Squid and Octopus by Tao Nyeu

Then, a few months ago, I read The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

Cosmic Nature of Living:

Quoted from The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery:

Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness asserts that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness”, and that “nonhuman animals, including all birds and mammals and many other creatures, including octopuses also possess these neurological substrates.”

Now, I felt it was time to get acquainted with Squids. I don’t distinctly remember a squid – I must have seen them at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Their evolution is fascinating. The book is written by a genuine marine lover (Danna Staaf’s site is here: cephalopodiatrist), and her love for these creatures shines through in the book. I only wish the book had more pictures. I had to keep looking up pictures on the internet. Pictures of nautilus, cuttlefish, squid and octopus obtained from Google search below:

 

I had never used the word, Cephalopod, before, and I was glad to learn so much about another way of life, even if I may never fully comprehend what it means to have consciousness so permeable, so distributed, and yet co-ordinated.

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water. Loren Eiseley

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Spring is in the Air

I started the month off with a beautiful walk in the park as an unusually bright February unfurled itself around me. Nature’s shows are marvelous: Whether we are learning to skip pebbles along the waterside, or admiring the early cherry blossoms,  the unmistakable signs of Spring stirring is in the air.

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As I walked, I could not help listening to the wind rustling through the trees, the trilling of the birds, the quacking of the geese, and the chittering of the squirrels. If I had any musical sense, I would have conducted the Great Animal Orchestra.

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The Great Bird Orchestra

I was therefore very happy when a children’s book joyfully tapped into the orchestra playing out around us so beautifully.

Hiccupotamus By Steve Smallman and illustrated by Ada grey, is a perfect companion for a nippy spring.

It is a beautiful bubble squeaking sort of day. It makes little mouse want to squeak and so he does.

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His squeaks soon encourage the bird to tweet. Then, the centipede taps, and the alligator plays the xylophone with a bone on his teeth.

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Before we know it,

Boom-dee-Boom

Tappity Tappity

Squeak Squeak

Plink Plink

Boom ba-da boom boom!

Everyone is happy when the Hippo claims to have started the whole thing off. Hey! cried the mouse, bird, alligator and monkey. Where were you?

Why? I am hiccuping bubbles non-stop! says Hiccupotamus.IMG_7876.jpg

The illustrations are so charming, that we have looked at these pages several times, and enjoyed the joy contained in this book.

Spring is in the air, and I’d like to join the birds and animals out on these beautiful Wind In The Reefs sort of days.

Homo Incredulitatis

For the past few years, we have not watched any of the Harry Potter movies in the home because we did not want to ruin the Harry Potter stories for the little sponge in the household. So, we waited patiently till he read Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone. He read some of it, had some of it read to him, and he discussed the whole of it with his Harry Potter wise sister. (Please check out the latest edition with illustrations by Jim Kay. His illustrations are beautiful as if he lived and breathed in the story himself.)

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He only had the last chapter left, and savored the thought like the last piece of cake. The pair of us snuggled up one day with the rain pattering the windows and read. I read in the low rumbling voice of Albus Dumbledore:
‘As for the Stone, it has been destroyed.’
‘Destroyed?’ said Harry blankly. ‘But your friend – Nicolas Flamel – ‘

Dumbledore smiled at the look of amazement on Harry’s face.
‘To one as young as you, I’m sure it seems incredible, but to Nicolas and Perenelle, it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day. After all, to the well organized mind, death is but the next adventure. You know, the Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all – the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things which are worst for them.”

I could not agree more. Fresh from my readings of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, I was already uneasy with our hideous choices for progress:
An economy built on everlasting growth needs endless projects – just like the quests for immortality, bliss and divinity.

The husband had spent the afternoon watching a movie with some very interesting sound effects. A sci-fi crime thriller of one who had moved his consciousness into the ether and could possess bodies at will. “Something like Voldemort, only he could find one horcrux at a time and keep going.” said the husband.

Living for ever, resurrecting species back from the dead?

Why? A few years ago, we played a game in the car with the children where we asked the children which animal they would bring back from extinction, to great hilarity (Dodo, Dragon, Dinosaur Dis-apparitions) . This had such an impossible Sci-Fi feel to it, and that contributed to the thrill of the game. I mean you cannot bring back Dodos can you?

In less than two years, I read a book titled ‘Woolly: Bringing the Mammoth Back to Life’ by Ben Mezrich. I only read the book now, but work on that front has been going ever since we learnt to sequence a genome, and cloned a sheep. If pressed on the benefit of this move, I suppose mankind would say, “This will help reduce global warming by ensuring the Tundra permafrost is packed in with the stomping of large beasts.”

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I am not so sure. If anything, we use our considerable creativity to find grand purposes.

I was intrigued by the husband’s movie discussion on immortality in the form of storing one’s thoughts elsewhere. I have been looking at my thoughts ever since this discussion, and I got to tell you: There isn’t much going on up there. No future generation in the 25th century will benefit from my great wisdom. In fact, the number of times I resist eating chocolate, and then meekly give in, might be the greatest wisdom there is.

Projecting the future is a crummy business. An excerpt from the book, Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari:
While some experts are familiar with developments in one field, such as AI, nanotechnology, big data or genetics, no one is an expert on everything. No one is capable of connecting all the dots and seeing the full picture. Different fields influence one another in such intricate ways that even the best minds cannot fathom how breakthroughs in artificial intelligence might impact nanotechnology or vice versa. Nobody can absorb all the latest scientific discoveries, nobody can predict how the global economy will look in 10 years, and nobody has a clue where we are heading in such a rush.

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Why does the unknown scare us? If that is the case, isn’t tinkering with immortality even more of an unknown than death?

Our tales and myths are full of warnings against this very wish. From Bhasmasura, Ravana and Hiranyakashipu to Grindelwald, and Voldemort, we have read and ingested that immortality is not such a sweet bunch of grapes as it is made out to be.

Homo Sapiens seem to have forgotten that Happiness is only important when we have unhappiness to compare it against. Life is only good because we know it is finite, and we strive to make it a full, worthwhile one. Would I cherish every moment and live in the present and all that lark, if the present is all there ever is? It was a sobering thought.

Really Homo Sapiens are Homo Incredulitatis!

Books: 
   Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone: J K Rowling 
   Homo Deus: Yuval Noah Harari
   Woolly: Ben Mezrich
Movie: Mayavan
Myths: Bhasmasura, Ravana, Hiranyakisapu

Are We To Become Lab Rats?

‘Let’s watch something together Amma.’ , said the children one Friday evening. It is officially our movie night. Watching something that suits all of us is a true test of Democracy (An Email From Mars) The littlest fellow is the easiest to appease, and also the fellow you want to most watch out for. He sits there like a sponge absorbing everything: tilting his head to one side, looking through the corner of his eyes, this child seems like the ideal companion. But, his inappropriate quips at opportune moments have chastened us and we no longer welcome him saying, “Oh – he is too little to know.” He knows!

So, the debate raged – which show can we watch that everyone will enjoy?

Everybody Loves Raymond, Cosmos, Big Bang Theory? How about Lab Rats? 

A resounding cheer went up for Lab Rats.

‘Isn’t that show for Teens?’

‘Well…yes but this little dobukins watches it all the time with me.’ said the daughter tousling her little brother’s hair lovingly.

‘Really?’, I said turning around towards the fellow with my hands on my hips.

‘Yes….but Lab Rats is fine….not teenagie stuff.’ he said chuckling merrily.

Like he knows what teenagie stuff is.  Maybe he does and should that worry me? The daughter now tells me things are inappropriate for us to watch. I wonder what rules she uses.

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Lab Rats is a show about a family where the children have Bionic superpowers – Bree the girl can run free, Adam the hulk can lift a truck, and Chase the fellow whose name sounds like he must run after Bree, instead is the one with superior intellect. They live with their non-bionic stepbrother, Leo.

Like most Television shows these days, they had aced the humor, characterization and it was an enjoyable show. All the same, it left a niggling after-taste in me.

This show captured human desires in a nutshell. We all want to be better. Better than the rest, better than we ever were, better, faster, stronger, smarter. Better to do what?  And where does this betterment stop? We know how any concept can be twisted by thwarted minds to suit themselves as was evident in the sad state of Eugenics.

I am reading Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari, and the same vein popped up again.

The modern economy needs constant and indefinite growth in order to survive. An economy built on everlasting growth needs endless projects – just like the quests for immortality, bliss and divinity.

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Human kind, when we set ourselves on the path to development, most probably do so with good intentions. The problem is once we fix the problems, it seems we can use these very technologies to make things better for those who do not need it. Like  plastic surgery for instance:

Modern plastic surgery was born in the First World War, when Harold Gillies began treating facial injuries in the Aldershot military hospital. When the war was over, surgeons discovered that the same techniques could also turn perfectly healthy but ugly noses into more beautiful specimens. Nowadays, plastic surgeons make millions in private clinics whose explicit and sole aim is to upgrade the healthy and beautify the wealthy.

In Homo Deus, the author goes on to point out this trend in bionic legs, Viagra and memory treatments:

When you develop bionic legs that enable paraplegics to walk again, you can also use the same technology to upgrade healthy people. When you discover how to stop memory loss among older people, the same treatments might enhance the memory of the young. 

No clear line separates healing from upgrading. Medicine almost always begins by saving people from falling below the norm. but the same tools and know-how can then be used to surpass the norm. Viagra began life as a treatment for blood pressure problems. To the surprise and delight of Pfizer, it transpired that Viagra can also overcome impotence. It enabled millions of men to regain normal sexual abilities; but soon enough men who had no impotence problems in the first place began using the same pill to surpass the norm, and acquire sexual powers they never had before.

(Bolding my own)

Growth is a wonderful thing. For the first time in the history of mankind, we are able to self regulate our belligerence, spend our resources towards ending disease and poverty, and feed our growing numbers. Science and Capitalism have enabled this wonderful state. But what next? This relentless growth has led to an inordinate strain on the one planet we have. Previously, we could look forward to discovering new lands, but now we have mapped every ounce of the Earth, and we know no Middle Earth or Earthsea is hidden anymore. We have tapped them all. Our only hope is to find a parking garage planet close by so we can continue to expand at the rate we are now.

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We need to change course for a sustainable future of our planet, and Capitalism with its growth needs seems to be ill-suited to call for such changes.

The recently deceased author, Ursula K Le Guin, said in a speech once:

“We live in capitalism,” said Le Guin, “Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

I am sure our intense need to survive will push us towards self-regulation and conservation.

With immortality, bliss and divinity projects, are we not Gods capable of solving anything? But, we are also a species who can make the Butter Battle Book by Dr Seuss a sad reality.

Are we to become our own Lab Rats? What would our super-powers be? More importantly, will our shortcomings be even more apparent with our strengths magnified, or will our shortcomings be magnified too?