Saturday, December 19, 2009

THE SEARCH FOR EXTRA DIMENSIONS

I was fortunate to attend a talk on "The search for extra dimensions" by the Indian Physicist Dr. Sayen Kar at IIT Kharagpur. He highlighted that there are numerous experimental observations in Physics that can be explained only if we invoke the presence of extra dimensions (that is apart from the usual x,y,z and time dimensions). However, these dimensions become "visible" only at sub-micron length scales and requires high-energy techniques (like the Large Hadron Collider). I couldn't really imagine the presence of an extra dimension. It was hard convincing myself. However, it struck me that this would have been the state of mind before people discovered microbes! Nobody knew what caused diseases. The invent of microscopes was a milestone in knowing the microscopic world - organisims not visible to the eye. Similarly, I think we need high-end techniques like the LHCs before we really explore and perceive the presence/absence of the extra dimensions. In all cases, nothing can be ruled out until proved otherwise! :-)
THE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY OF SCIENCE

I thought quite deeply about the social responsibility of Science when I wrote my previous blogpost (click here). However, I was very skeptical of how much my view was right, though I did get a few feedbacks agreeing to my opinions. A recent article in SciAM "War in Peace" parallels my thoughts. The author very clearly points out "Discerning the merits of competing claims is where the empirical basis of Science should play a role". The competing claims may be in any area. I am indeed happy that I understood this aspect of Science, quite right, thanks to Feynman of course! But the question is, why don't everybody who holds a degree in Science understand this?? Wouldn't the world be a better place if everyone agreed to this aspect? In the same issue of SciAm, Michael Shermer (click here) informs us of a research work in psychology that identifies 5 innate and universally available psychological systems upon which our senses of right and wrong rest. The underlying basis of opinion difference is now delineated!!
HUMAN GENOME SEQUENCING IN INDIA

Recently, there was much news that Indian scientists were successful in sequencing an Indian genome. It is a great step indeed for India and shows its promise of progress. However, on retrospection, I wonder if this is any news at all! The human genome project published its first sequence around the year 2000. This means, the technology for sequencing was developed even before that...say 5 years (though the actual root is the invention of the PCR in 1983 - even before I was born!). So, this only means that Indians are lagging behind by at least 15 years now!! In addition, I learn from news that the sequencing technology license was bought from an european organization. So, what was so indigenous to India to celebrate the sequencing? Was there any break through data that leapt out - at least as of now, NO - there hasn't been a publication yet! So, why did the government choose to announce it prematurely? I have no clue! There are lot of things to do with sequencing - population genetics of the different races, cause for the malarial susceptibility etc etc etc. Couldn't the scientists have waited until there was good data to publish? I seriously don't understand their motive from a scientific point of view when there is no novelty displayed yet.
STAR GAZING

Singapore being one of the most "light-polluted" countries, I never thought there would be an astronomical observatory here. But as it happens, there is one...and in fact, one of the few telescopes on the equator! And what more...they offer 'free star gazing' every friday between 7.45 and 10 pm! The planet on focus today was Jupiter - as that was the most observable celestial body today - perhaps the whole of December. There was a big hood like thing..as we see in the movies... in which the telescope was mounted. I guess the whole of the hood was rotatable to view different parts of the sky. The telescopic image showed 4 moons along with the planet. It just made me wonder how much our 'vision' has improved :P (The proposed site for the Indian Neutrino Observatory has been dismissed by the government). There a lot of things that we don't know and are beyond our imagination too. It is so interesting how people live in so much vanity when there are a lot of stuffs that we don't understand and do not even perceive! That apart, I also saw a small satellite that crossed Singapore while I was there...apparently it reflected the sun's light for a fraction of a minute on its way...and was observable at Singapore. One can get a list of observable satellites in their location for the next 7 days from this website: http://www.heavens-above.com/.

Astronomy is fun and humbling!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Components of Research - Hypothesis- vs Non-hypothesis- Driven Research

Holding a bachelor degree in Science and stepping into a graduate program in the Engineering has been the most arduous task I have ever undertaken in my life. Trained as a Science student with a little research exposure at NCL and NCBS, I have always learnt to build upon existing information, i.e., summarise the existing information - identify the gaps and fill them. However, the approach in engineering research seemed totally different. Here they identified a(ny) problem, solved it, and then looked for supporting information! Well, I have had serious trouble because of these two different approaches in research - I was never able to accept there can be "non-hypothesis" driven research. However, a blog and a chat with a friend at CMU, made me go over the breakthroughs in Science.

Case 1: Newton sits down an apple tree. Apple falls. Newton discovers law of gravity.

Was there any hypothesis in this discovery? No! Newton first made an observation! He then went on to systematically study it and bingo - he derived the laws. So, there was a non-hypothesis driven research first - the observation that an apple fell. This was followed by hypothesis-driven research - "systematic" study of the observations. What one means by "systematic" is that, you pose a series of questions and check your logic of understanding by answering each of the questions with consistency. If consistency fails with your logic, you got to revise your logic - hypothesis. So, research involved a non-hypothesis driven observation followed by a hypothesis driven work.

Case 2: Structure of DNA is a double helix.

Crystallization was a new technique in the 1940's -50's. Watson and Crick were curious to know the structure of DNA, as many of the contemporary scientists were. So, they made an observation - the diffraction data - and interpreted them. While the interpretation involved asking a series of logical questions in order, they were, as such NOT addressing any hypothesis. So, again, this is a clear example of non-hypothesis driven + hypothesis driven research.

To finally conclude, research is both making an observation and studying it systematically.

In the context of Systems Biology, I guess the entire field is in the stage of non-hypothesis driven research. Not much progress has been into making meaning out of the observations generated so far. But with time, it shall see its fruits and enter into its second phase - hypothesis driven research.

PS: Just making a RANDOM observation is NOT Science. An observation that resulted out of curiosity or inquisitiveness is only Science. I will talk about Serendipity and Science in another post.

Monday, November 02, 2009

For the Structural Bio Enthusiast: Torsion Angles

In structural biology, I have come across the term torsion angle many a times. But I never understood the precise meaning of it until today! The motivation to learn about it came from Dr. Xian-Jun's blog: Torsion Angle
Dr. Xian-Jun had given a detailed description of how to calculate it, though he had taken for advantage that someone reading it will know what a torsion angle is - I did not know! A quick google search yielded some informative links. The summary of my learning is as follows: In the newman projection it is the angle between the bond that is nearer to you and the bond that is farther from you. A more clear explanation is given at IUPAC

Monday, October 26, 2009

It is in the appreication of the unknown, humbleness sets in. But that doesn't mean that you have to intimidated by the unknown. Embrace it and learn it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ancient and Unique Nature of Tamil

I have had small debates with my North Indian friends as to which Language (Tamil or Sanskrit) is the mother language of all Indian Languages. Naturally, they claim Sanskrit to be the oldest, and I claim Tamil to be the oldest. It perhaps seems that both are the oldest!! The below link shows evidences that Tamil developed with NO influence of Sanskrit.

Scroll down to "Origins of Tamil".

http://karkanirka.wordpress.com/2009/10/12/tamilintro1/

Also came across: http://www.ifih.org/SouthIndianInfluencesintheFarEast.htm
If you had read Kadal Pura, you would have already known that there was a huge South Indian influence in the Far East..if not, this site talks about it...I haven't read through it thoroughly...but I trust the source.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

OBAMA FOR NOBEL PEACE?

It came as a very unexpected news that the US President Obama was voted for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009. Though I knew not much of nominations and the criteria, I definitely did not, even in the slightest, think of Obama for Nobel. Anyway, I read up on the news in a few news papers and I understood that it was awarded to him for the claims and promises he made in his presidential campaign. There is a huge uproar and sarcasm against the Nobel committee which made this decision. However, I think I am going to support the school of thoughts which says, the award will compel him to bring his promises true. I don't know what Alfred Nobel originally stipulated as the requirements of the award. But I think it perfectly makes sense to put an extra pressure to a man who made tall claims by honoring him with the Nobel. At the same time, the money gives him the freedom and confidence to do what he desires to make the dreams come true. So, instead of awarding a person who has achieved already, the Nobel committee's decision to award a person who can potentially achieve the need of the hour is wise.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

"To put it bluntly, the only thing that appears to have motivated large numbers of people to invest significant resources in science is fear of dying..."

Can layman be any longer ignorant of the scientific happenings around him? How important is to educate layman on Scientific pursuits? And a lot more questions on Science. David Balamuth analyzes each factor and answers an interview, the details can be viewed here

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Well...well...there is something that I seriously understand:

Some people, who are supposedly in "good" and "high" positions...or atleast are in the path to that, cannot really take care of small stuffs! For example, maintaining stationary inventory, getting the requested quality of a product etc., seems so silly to them..but that makes a difference! When they canNOT pay attention to such small details, how are they going to make a difference with a "big" detail..and what good it would be to put them in a higher position?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"The future, good or ill, ceased to have any power over the present. Health and hope grew strong in them, and they were content with each good day as it came, taking pleasure in every meal, and in every word and song."

-- Lord of the Rings

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Well, well...India and Indian people are never going to come out of their stupidity.
Would anyone compel their own daughter to marry someone whom she doesn't want to marry? Well, the daughter has not much choice! And you have to believe it! Arranged marriages can be good...but I guess with changing social life pattern, it is important to consider the preferences of both the individuals. I think this is quite important for the development of the society as well.
I just happened know that people can even be reluctant to visit a doctor, despite having some problems. Even if it were minor, if it were I, I wouldn't have let it and I would have got a consultation. However, Mr. X dismissed that since he didn't have anymore symptoms, he was fine. But I am not sure if this is right. The discomfort could have been due to many reasons, which a layman wouldn't suspect. Even if it was a simple problem, my advise would be to pay a visit to the doctor and get it confirmed that it was nothing. However, I learn that people are a bit reluctant because of the cost involved. The consultation fee, lab fee, prescription fee etc etc. That is true. But one cannot risk his life for money, especially when there is a whole 50-60 years of life ahead! Well, truly, I don't know what is right in this case!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Be True to Yourself

In light of women's day, there was this article (click here)that appeared in rediff where in an IAS officer, Mrs Ministhy Dileep had written an article on balancing work and life. It is a quite common plight that women give up jobs to take care of the kid - the larger good. However, isn't it also necessary to allow women to pursue their desires? Kids - a decision that has to be taken by both and the responsibility of raising the kids is on both the parents. However, in India, it has been customary for women to stop working after having kids. Is this voluntary or under compulsion, I don't know. However, I do think that women should be allowed to pursue their desires. At the same time, men should also be allowed to pursue their desires - if you don't want to go shopping - NO GO! Everyone should be allowed to be true to themselves.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Finally, the oscar buzz is over. ARR conferred with 2 oscars and every Indian is so proud about it. While every Indian MUST be proud of it, I just want the people to think WHY ARR won the oscar for Jai Ho and the other song. WHAT in Jai Ho made it really unique that it stood up the strict evaluations of the oscar committee? Shouldn't that be spelt out for other aspiring music directors? Would ARR or any other music critic do that for the benefit of others?

Monday, March 02, 2009

Sometimes, it so happens that we get caught up in very petty issues, which actually happens so unintentionally. Infact, they may not even have an impact on us...yet we driven off by it. However, helplessness leads to frustration. What is the medicine?

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Delhi-6

Finally, I had the chance to watch the 'much-awaited' movie Delhi-6 from the director of 'Rang De Basanti' with music by ARR. A good friend of mine brought this movie to my attention, mainly for ARR's music...and when trailers came about, we were very much convinced that it is a 'must-watch' movie for several reason (partly because of the spoilers too). With great expectations set, my friend watched the movie the very next day of its release and ended up with great disappointments. For example, the 'Rehna Tu' song wasn't expected to be in such a context ;-), though it was nice! Having not lived up to his expectations, he discouraged me from seeing it...which eventually proved to be one of the motivations for me!! I liked the movie.

The story is that of a young man (Abisheak B) bringing his granny (who is dying from cancer) to accompany her spending her last days in the place she lived (which apparently is Delhi with pincode 6). He is welcome by the startling(??!!) news of the black monkey in Delhi (which did really happen in Delhi a few years ago, though, suprisingly, it was never spotted later!!). He comes into India with a mindset that granny didn't have anyone in India. But he is suprised by the love and affection of the people who welcome granny and is relished by these 'connections'. However, as the days pass by, the black monkey issue kindles Hindu-Muslim conflicts in his own area. The young man himself is being caught up and fried up for this issue when he tries to mitigate the conflicts! He becomes vexed. He decides to go back to the US and take granny as well. But then, something stops him from doing it. He realises they are his people and he has to accept them for whatever they are: indeed that is life! The director has beautifully portrayed this transition in the mind of the young man - and I should say I could relate it to myself sometimes,though I don't work up for any mitigations of the Hindu-Muslim conflicts.

In addition, the director has beautifully captured the stupidity of the people in India. The cow giving birth, using black monkey to rescue themselves from pressing situations - making fool of others, the marriage issues are some typical examples. The foolish humiliation of the 'low caste' people is also a nice issue that has been well-handled (particularly with the Ramayan drama). Yet another one I liked was the Gobar characterization. I strongly feel there are lot of people in the society who play to the tunes of others just because that is the only way they can make up a living. This has to stop! The police character is so well portrayed - Indeed Indian policemen are so - shame!

The Ramayan drama set up was extremely good, I should say. I was wondering how they are going to show up the flames when Sita crosses the Lakshman Rekha...and the way the flame was brought in picture was brilliant!

The movie ending could have been different.

All in all, Delhi-6 was a movie that I enjoyed. Though India is filled with stupidity in many places, India is still a beautiful place and is fun to be in India. It would also be nice to have a right balance of stupidity and common sense like the one the young man visualizes in his dream.

Final recommendation - See the movie!

It occurs to me that this movie should have also been to the Oscars. It captures many subtleties of the Indian society.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Science and Religion - A confluence!

I was just going through my research notebook when I happened to see that I had noted two nice quotes - don't know from where...but it was nice and I thought I have to put it down. They reflect that science and religion are different perspectives of the same emotion. Not sure how many are going to agree, but I think I agree to this:

"Science is about finding material explanations of the world - explanations that can inspire those spooky feelings of awe, wonder and reverence in the hyper-evolved brain".

"Religion, on the other hand, is about humans thinking that awe, wonder and reverance are the clue to understanding a God-built universe".

Comments welcome!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire and the Oscars

The 81st Oscar Academy Awards is special for Indians. The Indian music maestro AR Rahman has been nominated for Oscars for his music. The music was indeed good. The movie has other nominations as well. Now, what bothers me is: Why would ALL Indians be proud if ARR wins the laurels? True, hez an Indian and his winning an award would put India in the limelight. However, isn't it all because of ARR's own efforts? I just could not accept people just celebrating the victory...shouldn't they get inspired to perform and achieve like him? Well, it is not in only this area I have this lament...but with any field.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

An archeological foray: Mahabalipuram

Following up on a recent visit to Mahabalipuram, Chennai, my friend, Ruban, and myself got intrigued by a number of issues, and more specifically, the Krishna's butter ball! On the persistent insistence of curious Ruban, I landed up lending out a book called 'The Seven Pagodas on the Coromandel Coast' from our library. It was an interesting read.
First of all, let me tell you why we went to Mahabalipuram. It was very much decided before even I planned for vacation that Ruban and I would go out somewhere when I came to India for vacation this year. First we thought we would go to some place near Bangalore, but then he got a job in Chennai. So we decided on Pondicherry. However, little did I realise that Pondicherry was 120 kms from Chennai! So it was finally decided that we would go to Mahabalipuram. That said, we rode on the famous ECR with great cautions from his parents. It was a nice ride with brief stop-overs. Finally on reaching Mahabalipuram, both the curious minds had their own curious questions! Finally, the Krishna's butter ball caught attention of both of us. I couldn't imagine how that piece of rock was hinging on a small area. What was more interesting was that one half of the rock was flat! Would someone have tried to do something with the rock? How is that it is perfectly flat on the other side? Mind boggling questions! So, with these and other curious things the vacation came to an end; I came back to work when I lent the book.

The book was interesting. It was a collection of descriptive and historical papers relating to Mahabalipuram, also called the Seven Pagodas. The archeological significance of this place was discovered by Europeans in the late 1700s. Since then there have been lot of documentation about the place, notable among them is the one by Goldingham. Each historian has documented their own observations of inscriptions, arcitecture, style, legends etc. Some question the interpretations of the earlier, and some admonishing as well. (Well, I understand what it is to do research in archeology!)

So now, the facts that I learn: The Krishna's butter ball is actually Draupadi's butter ball according the sthalapurana, the other half having bitten by a cat which can be found in the Arjuna's penance sculpture! The question now is - Why did Draupadi, Arjuna come down here? Well, we all (atleast I) know Mahabharatha is a myth...so perhaps people living around made the story for money (some of the historians tell the same too!). Now the mentioning of the rock in the sthalapurana confirms that the rock was not brought to the place recently. However, it has seemed to have attracted little attention by the historians despite its uniqueness.

Now to learn about the people who might have lived there: The inscriptions are of Pali language - which means people who made the inscriptions were either in constant touch with Palinese or that it was made by Pali people. The sculptures reflect the people of those days. What suprised me was, one of the europeans had mentioned seeing kids in their hips of their mother as suprising! I had, to this day, thought it was common...perhaps it was not - europeans didn't carry babies that way probably. But the other knowledge is that, Indians, or more specifically, South Indians, had been used to carry babies in their hips since long time. In addition, the sculptures also give insights into the clothing habits of people of that time (which time is a question!). Let me put it verbatim:
" Several interesting particulars regarding the ancient Hindus may be gathered from this pastoral scene. The dress of the females resembles that now worn by the Neyris (Nair women) and Tiyyattis (females of the Tiyyar caste) of Malabar, who are uncovered about the waist. The men it appears, wore turbans, and the women very large ear-rings, with bangles on their hands and feet. The peculiar practice of carrying the infant on the hip, which cannot fail to attract the notice of the Europeans at the present day, was then in use; and even the vertical arrangement and method of tying together the three earthen vessels here represented, is recognized by all Hindu visitors as being universally adopted by the modern Gopalas. The execution of this work is coarse, and the design rude; and though particular parts have much merit, yet the limbs of the principal figures are clumsy and ill-proportioned, the attitudes forced, and the countenances without experession"
- Inscriptions at Mahamalaipur - Dr. B. G Babington.

One thing I do notice is that the europeans have tended to refer to the local people as Hindus (or in some places, Brahmans). Two, it is suprising that women are depicted to be uncovered above the waist - probably a fact that we cannot digest today because women are supposed to be fully covered in public. The carrying of earthern pots in the head - is something we might be able to see in the remote villages today. So in all, the scultptures have depicted the then cultures of the people and the localites have since then exploited these with well-woven stories for money.

There are a lot of things we can learn from these ancient sculptures - relics that stand against the fury of Nature to provide the humankind insights about their earlier generations.

Take Home Message: Do visit Mahabalipuram and try to appreciate what it truly means to convey us, apart from the skill display, which is also exemplary.Let us not fall prey to the myths. While appreicating the skills and thoughtfulness of the earlier generations, let us also be thoughtful and do activities with a foresight - a message that we get from our ancestors.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

On thinking of the current education scenario in India, I have increasingly come to believe that the education system is lacking perspectives - teachers teach just to cover the syllabus,not help appreciate the beauty and the usefulness of what is being taught/studied. I am not making this claim blindly, but after interaction with a few teachers and with a few students. A recent article in dinamalar wherein Dr. Kalam shares his idea on what the purpose of education has to be is a worthwhile read. A succinct, english version of his points are from the book: Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner. In the book, Gardner identifies five different types of minds that education today has to inculcate in the younger generation. They are as follows:
1. The Disciplinary Mind: the mastery of major schools of thought,including science, mathematics, and history, and of at least one rofessional craft.
2. The Synthesizing Mind: the ability to integrate ideas from different disciplines or spheres into a coherent whole and to communicate that integration to others.
3. The Creating Mind: the capacity to uncover and clarify new problems, questions and phenomena.
4. The Respectful Mind: awareness of and appreciation for differences among human beings and human groups.
5. The Ethical Mind: fulfillment of one's responsibilities as a worker and as a citizen.

Having realised what needs to be done, it is time we act to do what needs to be done! But how?