Thursday, September 19, 2013

PhD Admissions @ IIT Gandhinagar

I am looking for 2 highly motivated PhD students to work on challenging problems in Computer Vision and Computational Photography (with CSE/EE background) under my supervision at IIT Gandhinagar. Students can apply to either EE or CSE depending on their background. The PhD positions are fully funded.

You may follow the below links for more details and free online application. The posters can be accessed in my previous blog post.
My Personal Webpage @ IITGN

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Joy of Teaching at an IIT - 2

My first semester teaching at IIT Jodhpur was highly satisfactory due to the Programming and Data Structures course. The elective course Computational Photography was a good experiment to carry out though I was not fully convinced with the complete organization of the course. The main problem with that course was the lack of proper textbook from which I could teach coherently. The course I believe turned out to be similar to a great movie script with an incoherent screenplay. Students' feedback for these courses also gave me many indications about what I still lack as a teacher. I wanted to correct such mistakes in the courses I taught in the second semester through proper planning and organization.

I wanted to first identify the best textbooks for the second semester courses - Digital Electronics and Microprocessor Technology (DEMT) and 3D Computational Photography and Vision (3DCPV). While "Digital Principles" by Malvino and Leach is supposedly the best book for digital electronics, the beauty of the original text was remixed by an Indian author resulting in complete chaos. This forced me to use "Digital Systems" book by Tocci, Widmer, and Moss and "8085 Microprocessor" book by Ramesh Gaonkar. The best aspect of both these books is that they are highly practical which helped me conduct the lab sessions in sync with the lectures.

3DCPV was named like that as I wanted to focus only on the depth recovery aspect of computer vision and not focusing on the high level vision tasks such as recognition and segmentation. The book by Richard Szeliski provides a very good overview and gives pointers to all the material related to computer vision. It can be the only best reference for computer vision but it demanded more effort from students to locate appropriate material from other sources. Most students do not perform this extra task to learn. I decided to teach classical depth recovery algorithms through "Robot Vision" book by BKP Horn and modern projective geometry based algorithms using "Multiple View Geometry in Computer Vision" book by Richard Hartley and Andrew Zisserman. I found all these three books complement very well for a complete 3D vision course.

While DEMT course I taught for third year BTechs (electrical engineering) was more practical, 3DCPV elective course for final year BTechs, MTechs and PhDs was more theoretical in nature. However, I made sure that I derived almost all the relevant equations in my lectures to deliver the intuition behind various algorithms which can then be readily implemented. DEMT lab sessions ran parallel to the lectures which helped students try out what I taught immediately during the lab sessions. I evaluated 3DCPV course only through the mid semester and end semester exams. As always, there were no marks allotted for attendance and class participation in all the four courses and associated lab sessions I taught last year. I strongly felt that the students should come to class out of their own interest for better knowledge transfer.

I liked teaching both DEMT and 3DCPV courses in the second semester of my teaching career. They enabled me to correct and fix some of the errors I had made earlier. The only concern towards the end of DEMT course was I could not cover some of the advanced topics in microprocessors due to time constraints. Anyway, I tried my level best to make sure I made the fundamentals clear through my lectures in both these courses. I should thank all the 44 students in the DEMT course and 39 students in the 3DCPV course for their active participation in the lectures which helped me deliver the best I could.

P.S: Courses at IIT Jodhpur - Details

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Joy of Teaching at an IIT - 1

It just went like a breeze! Here I am writing this blog after one year of my academic career at IIT Jodhpur. My first year of teaching at IIT Jodhpur got over before I could even come to terms with things completely. Nevertheless, it was a truly enriching experience for me over the past one year. Four full courses (one of them had 146 students), two laboratory courses, few lectures for a third course (see my last post) all in 2012-13. I always loved to teach on black board as I have the opinion that teaching in this manner enables one to explain the concepts coherently. This also helped me to interact more with the students rather than being monotonous.

I never believed that I would be able to contribute to this much amount of teaching in my first year of academic career. IIT Jodhpur students should be credited for this amazing journey which I took over the past one year. I hope they did not feel an overdose of my teaching. They should be complimented for keeping me on toes every lecture and extracting the maximum I could provide. Classroom teaching was always my passion ever since I was a  teaching assistant (TA) at IIT Bombay. In this blog, I will write about the two courses I taught during the first semester.

The first course which kick-started my academic career was Programming and Data Structures (PDS) for the first semester BTech students at IITJ. There were 146 of them in my class to be exact. It was a great class comprising of different types of students. I felt it odd when students called me 'Sir' the first time ever in my life. Though I am not from computer science background, I have working on different algorithms and into full fledged programming for the past ten years. PDS course taught me that programming oneself is much easier than teach someone to program. I found that the best way to teach a programming course is to write the entire algorithm and program on the board and explain each line of the code with the logical flow. In between the lectures, I used to wake up the sleeping students to just relax myself a bit. I should thank them as well for providing a lot of entertainment during the lectures.

The lab sessions clubbed with the lecture sessions helped me track the progress of each and every student. I used to give lecture in the morning and go to lab in the afternoon. I reckon that I know the names of almost 80-90% of the class comprising of 146 students. I will never forget the PDS course as it shaped my teaching abilities, students of PDS course who were vigilant throughout are highly responsible for that. I taught C and some C++ in the course using basic algorithms such as computations, searching, and sorting. Dedicated TAs made my life easier during the lab sessions.

I taught another course in my first semester called Computational Photography (CP) as an elective for final year BTech students. I was surprised to see 24 students register for that course even though I was a new faculty then. Pressure was on me from day one to deliver the best I could. I felt myself in an awkward position not to dash the hopes of the students who opted for this elective. It was a quite challenging course as most of the CP techniques were developed in the past 15 years or so.

I used to read a lot of research papers and teach from them as there is no standard textbook available exclusively to teach CP course yet. Though I followed Szeliski's book, I am still waiting for the book by Ramesh Raskar and Jack Tumblin to get published. I primarily focused on edge preserving filters, gradient domain processing, HDR imaging, and selected applications in the course. At the end of the course, I felt I did some justice to the course but was not fully satisfied with myself in explaining some concepts. This feeling helped me teach an advanced course much better in the next semester.

These two courses  really helped me figure out what classroom teaching at an IIT is all about. It exposed some of the weaknesses I had while trying to explain tricky concepts. The feedback from students also helped me a lot to perform more justice to the courses I taught in the following semester. For these reasons alone, these two courses will be close to my heart ever. These were the courses which helped me realize the dream of becoming a teacher and I would like to thank all the students in these two courses for their encouragement, cooperation, and support.

P.S: Courses at IIT Jodhpur - Details

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Research Methodology - The Feynman, Katz and Hamming Way

I recently gave two lectures as part of the Research Methodology course at IIT Jodhpur. This is a mandatory course for the post-graduate students in order to explain them how to do high quality research. I started off with a famous article by Richard Feynman called "Cargo Cult Science". This was his famous speech delivered at the California Institute of Technology. Feynman talks about scientific integrity while doing research. He clearly explains how to do proper scientific research and how to recognize pseudo-science so that we do not make fool of ourselves while doing research. This article is a must read for any researcher who aspires to carry out very high quality work for his/her thesis.

I have always been fascinated by experimental neuroscience ever since I learned the basics from my MTech advisor Prof. Rohit Manchanda at IIT Bombay. The most important discovery of experimental neuroscience was the one made by Bernard Katz and his colleagues in understanding the functioning of single synapse of a neuro-muscular junction (NMJ). These pioneering studies were carried out primarily in the 1960s and 1970s. Katz was conferred the Nobel prize in 1970 for his experimental discovery of the quantal neurotransmitter release in a NMJ. The Nobel lecture of Bernard Katz is available online.

I had missed the references of the work of Katz which I primarily learned from one of his earlier books called "Nerve, Muscle and the Synapse". I had a hard copy of that book which I lost over time. I was fortunate enough find the complete details of this amazing work in another brilliant neuroscience book called "From Neuron to Brain" (5th Edition) by G. Nicholls and others. This book drew my attention towards the work of Katz and others in NMJ of a frog.

Katz and his colleagues discovered the quantal release of neurotransmitters at the NMJ and proved that the release can be modeled using a Poisson distribution. Since the number of synaptic vesicles are very large and only a tiny fraction of them get released with each depolarization and Calcium in flux, the Poisson distribution models the entire phenomenon perfectly. I tried to illustrate this work as a case study as to how to do inter-disciplinary research in science. The work of Katz involves understanding of the basic electrical engineering, chemistry, and a bit of statistics.

Then, I focused on the principles behind high quality applied research and how to make fundamental contributions to engineering and technology. My last part of the lecture was derived from the famous article by Richard Hamming, "You and Your Research". Hamming is famous for his fundamental contributions to the area of communication systems such as Hamming codes, Hamming distance, and Hamming window. He was one of the pioneers in the field of communication and his works are found in all standard textbooks on Signal Processing, Communication, and Error Detection Codes. His book on numerical analysis is a classic one. I found his suggestions on research to be the best suited for engineering students.

The top ten rules emphasized by Hamming in his lecture was published by the journal Computational Biology. I found these ten rules simple to teach in the classroom. The successive articles in the same journal contained more tips for the students at various stages of their research career and the collection can be accessed as Ten Simple Rules collection. I found the rules for best research by Hamming, successful collaboration, and graduate students to be highly relevant for the course audience and covered them in my lecture. I am sure that these articles would be indispensable for any student who aspires to do high quality research.

The Research Methodology course page I created contains all these links. I plan to add more contents to this page in future.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Angels and Demons by Dan Brown - Book Review

I have been seeing Dan Brown's books stacked up in every book shop over the years. I had always feared reading his books as they were typically bulky. This had scared me from trying any of his books as I was not sure whether I could completely read them in a short span. As it turned out, I wanted to take a break from my scheduled reading of other popular science and math books. I was searching for some nice fiction book to read as a break. Some of the forums in the Internet had rated Dan Brown's books very highly which urged me into reading his famous fiction, "Angels and Demons". The surprising fact is that I could read this book completely in just 5 days though it had over 600 pages.

This novel is about the epic quest of a Harvard professor expert in symbols, Robert Langdon, to solve some of the mysteries surrounding the Vatican city. A terror group called Illuminati, which is believed to be extinct 400 years back, wreaks havoc in the Vatican city by smuggling a secret mass destructive weapon called anti-matter from a Swiss laboratory (CERN). This group also smuggles some of the top cardinals of the Vatican city on the day when a new Pope is supposed to be elected. Robert Langdon along with a CERN scientist, Vittoria Vetra, are taken to Vatican city to solve the mysteries around the Illuminati terror group.

The best thing about this novel is that it is very fast paced and the language is quite simple. Dan Brown has the art of writing so lucidly that even those who do not have a strong English background can easily breeze through the pages. The suspense inherent in the happenings at Vatican city are maintained and keeps the reader interested in the story till the very end. The thorough research carried out by Dan Brown in the Vatican city and Rome are quite evident through the credibility he injects into the novel. I am amazed by the amount of details of each incident in which Brown definitely excels. Another aspect of the novel which impressed me was the middle path taken by Brown between science and religion.

Brown also has a love for sarcasm and humor, which comes out at many places such as those involving the BBC reporters. I watched the English movie based on this novel after I finished reading it. The movie could hardly do any justice to the novel and some of the key incidents in the novel were neglected in the movie. However, I loved the artwork in the movie more than the screenplay. Dan Brown indeed is one of the brilliant fiction writers of the recent times. This novel is just a justification of this fact. Modern Indian writers like Chetan Bhagat, who churn out heap of junk novels, have plenty to learn from the writing of Dan Brown. I even reckon that Kamal Hassan borrowed generously from this novel while writing screenplay for his movie, 'Dasavatharam'.

There are places in the novel where some of the facts mentioned are a bit melodramatic and scarcely believable. I suspect Brown has taken creative liberty in using famous names such as Galileo into controversial incidents. This might have been done in order to make the novel more accessible. Another aspect of this novel which bothered me was that it is mentioned that the incidents in the novel happen in about 6 hours. The detailed conversation of the characters and the slightly slow paced search for the anti-matter leads you scarcely believe that all these incidents could have ever happened in 6 hours. Apart from such minor logical shortcomings, this novel is a rapid page turner and a worthy scientific thriller. I strongly recommend this novel to be a part of your bookshelf.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel - Book Review

What can one say about a man who defied all odds to become one of the best mathematicians of the world having done rigorous research for less than 5 years? That too, when you come know that such a man originated from India (in early twentieth century) which was then enslaved by the British, the achievement becomes even more special. He had to survive the period in England in the extreme conditions of the first world war, his own ill-health notwithstanding. The man, Ramanujan, is really a genius of extra-ordinary brilliance. His biography "The Man Who Knew Infinity - A Life of the Genius Ramanujan" by Robert Kanigel is about a small town guy, Ramanujan, from an authentic Brahmin Iyengar family of Tamilnadu who turns the world over through his intuitive contributions in number theory (primes and partitions, in particular).

This book is an inspiring tale of the conviction of Ramanujan who wanted to show the world his works and earn a well deserved recognition from the very best mathematicians. This book describes how his mother and friends in India along with his collaborator in Trinity college at Cambridge, Prof. Hardy, helped him achieve his ambition but at the expense of the genius himself. This book is a treasure for the aspiring researchers in the world. Although Indians can appreciate and relate the life of Ramanujan much better than others, this book is a homage to a great mathematician who belonged to the elite mathematical community of the world. Ramanujan is a pride of India but it is indeed a pity that he could not live long enough to see his notebooks reach millions of mathematicians and his contributions getting realized as key tools in later scientific inventions.

The book starts with his early life in south Indian town called Kumbakonam where Ramanujan was educated. A tripos exam guide by Carr filled with mathematical formulas inspired Ramanujan into exploring mathematics while neglecting his other subjects in the college. This created a situation wherein earning a basic degree, which is the bare minimum expected of every student in that era, proved elusive as he used to fail in subjects other than mathematics. His requests for funding towards his research were initially rejected in India as he did not earn even a basic degree. Having married at an early age, he was forced to take up a job in port trust while still carrying out his passion for mathematics at leisure.

Ramanujan knew that his works were something special and wanted recognition for his work which he did not get in India under British Raj. He was forced to write to three eminent mathematicians in England. While two of them discarded his request and replied in negative, Hardy and his student Littlewood  could see the real potential of Ramanujan's work. The major part of the book is the effort they took to bring Ramanujan to Cambridge and how they were able to add rigor in otherwise intuitively stunning discoveries of Ramanujan. Ramanujan did not have proper mathematical training on proving different conjectures he had developed. Hardy extracted the best out of Ramanujan apart from playing a key role in making him one of the Fellows of Royal Society (FRS).

Ramanujan used to prepare food for himself as he was a strict vegetarian. Over time, Ramanujan unfortunately contracted tuberculosis which along with his dislike for English food, irregular eating habits, and English weather worsened his health. He could still write some major papers with Hardy even when he was admitted to sanatorium. The ongoing first world war made the sea journey unsafe and prevented Ramanujan to reach India for better care. Ramanujan however returned to India once the world war ended, but the damage to his physical and mental health had become irreversible by then. Kanigel presents this moving tale of a real genius who could not be saved by a nation who still prides in his incredible mathematical proofs.

Kanigel gives various instances of his life when Ramanujan, who even offered a part of Royal Society fellowship to help the needy students, could have been saved by others. His mother could have sent his wife Janaki to take care of him in England as requested by him. Hardy could have cared more about his health and monitored it over time apart from pushing him to deliver his best mathematical contributions. Even after returning to India after first world war, Ramanujan's mother and wife could have created a more pleasant atmosphere instead of fighting over petty things. Ramanujan's belief in astrology through which he predicted that he would not survive more than 35 years also might have played a role in his demise.

It is almost a century since Ramanujan left us. India has been an independent nation over the past 65 years. The basic question which is still left unanswered, why independent India could not foster more such Ramanujans. The question can be answered partly by trying to understand the attitude of present day students. Students nowadays like to go out of India just for the sake of getting higher reputation instead of the actual love and desire to contribute to science and mathematics. This attitude, I feel points in turn to the failure of our basic primary and secondary school education in guiding students. The inclination of students to basic mathematics and basic sciences after school education is still viewed as inferior in India.

The attitude of the majority of established Indian academicians, who treat those researchers from abroad and India differently, is evident even now. Students going to any arbitrary university abroad just to earn a foreign degree are made to think they are 'Ramanujans' in the making. But they do not realize the fact that Ramanujan grew up in British Raj and he was forced to go abroad to get recognition. We have a lot of opportunities for research even in India nowadays. On the contrary, most of the present Indian students do not have strong inclination towards fundamental research and want to go to any arbitrary university abroad just driven by the social constraints. Lack of motivation and adequate funding in independent India towards research might also be a certain contributing factor. This again begs us to answer a few key questions. What is the benefit of India getting independence when we still feel inferior to those educated abroad? Should India have been made to develop into a nation with more intellectual self pride over the past 65 years? No one can answer these questions in the affirmative to even a certain extent by citing any example.

After liberalization, many foreign companies have been allowed to setup their manufacturing centers in India. Every Indian is aware that the IT industry also contributes more to the welfare of the other nations than India. Indian students, who are inherently bright, are lured by the amount of money they can earn in these multi-national companies and are even forced by the changing Indian societal norms. Even the Indian managers of the so called MNCs merely act as brokers who tap the talent of the Indian students towards doing menial jobs. This is their primary job which benefits foreign economy more than that of India. Students are misguided and shown wrong path more in independent India than prior to independence when we could get at least one Ramanujan. These are some of the reasons I feel why India is unable to nurture intuitive scientific and mathematical thinking in the students and which have certainly played a key role to the decline in high quality research of modern India.

Most of the people in Brahmin community, who were close to Ramanujan, neglected Ramanujan's funeral as he had crossed the ocean and did not take bath afterwards in Rameswaram. The descendants of the same Brahmin community have developed into somewhat of a slave race contributing more to the companies originating in countries other than India. Even now, Brahmin community often feels it a criminal offense to work in either companies not owned by a foreigner or those who do not serve people of other nations. Indians who serve other Indians are looked down as somewhat inferior than those who live abroad. In short, we lack self pride which has intruded into the whole society. With such a social setting at present, Ramanujan's life is a real motivating factor for every Indian student who wants to pursue his own interests in basic science and mathematics. This book is a must read treasure for anyone who wants to develop a motivation towards a high quality dedicated research and contribute to the pride of India.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson - Book Review

The title of this book, "A Short History of Nearly Everything", makes it seem to be a history book. I was never able to guess correctly that it is a popular science book until I stumbled upon the reviews of this book at Amazon. The first question that arose in my mind was how can one give a historical scientific account of everything in the universe in 600 odd pages. That too when the author of this book, Bill Bryson, is more of a travel book writer than a scientist or researcher in any specific area of science. I was a bit skeptical whether he would be able to do justice for science in such an ambitious effort. I had no option but to read the entire book to figure out the truth.

As title of the book promises, Bryson covers the history of nearly every significant scientific breakthrough in the world. This book is more of a celebration of the efforts of the great scientists who invested their life in their quest to explore the truths hidden behind nature. After completing the book, I am amazed by the amount of research Bryson would have carried out to produce a masterpiece like this. As Bryson himself admits, he was put off by the rote learning prevalent in almost all of the schools which discourages students from questioning different aspects of life. Bryson makes sure that there is not even a single equation in the whole book and explains every concept intuitively.  Ironically, he does not include history of mathematicians in this book.

The best thing about this book is that Bryson gives credit where it is due. Even those scientists who have been ignored by popular textbooks over the years feature in this book. As with the case of the discovery of helical DNA structure,  Rosalind Franklin was not given her due in the discovery. The male dominant society during that time led her towards hiding most of her research findings. This was exploited by others such as Crick and Watson. Unfortunately, she was not able to share the Nobel prize with others due to her untimely death. Other interesting facts include the competition by paleontologists for claims over the discovery of dinosaur fossils. The politics played by envious and cunning Richard Owen who troubled sincere efforts of Gideon Mantell through sheer bureaucracy can never be found in any standard text book.

Bryson spends quite a lot of the book pages on geology - study of earth. His narration of the stunning history behind the Yellowstone national park in the US exposes one how volcanic eruptions can even create vast plateaus. Most of the visitors to the park are still unaware that they are standing on a big plateau having seismic dangers. Even the Deccan plateau in India is supposedly formed as a result of volcanic eruption millions of years back. Bryson's treatment of the classification of earth's layers as we dig deep from its surface provide scientific evidence for such volcanic eruptions. Bryson also explains why banging of a meteor on the earth's surface lead to the radical change in earth's atmosphere and thereby causing the extinction of the Dinosaurs.

I was amazed by the sufferings undertaken by the scientists in their ventures to unearth the world's mysteries. Bryson gives a thorough account on the emergence of Homo Sapiens from their ancestors such as Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus, and Neandertals. These chapters of the book are similar to that of the Carl Sagan's classic, "The Dragons of Eden". The contradictory theories of the emergence of human beings through fossil studies make one feel how much more truths are still lying hidden behind this planet. Bryson also rues how the different acts of human beings are responsible directly or indirectly behind the extinction of different species and the spoiling of earth's atmosphere.

The main purpose of this book is to encourage rational thinking by introducing the readers to delve into the lives of great scientists. The areas covered is very vast comprising of physics, chemistry, ecology, geology, zoology, botany, etc. All these areas are treated with the core objective of understanding the world we live. Each scientific concept has been presented in such a way that even a person with meager scientific exposure can appreciate and enjoy this book. The important observation is that Bryson succeeds in his daring effort to popularize science to a great extent. Bryson has the incredible art of capturing the attention of the readers second only to another great science writer - Simon Singh.

This book is filled with too much significant information that it was hard to remember everything once I completed it. I felt a sense of deep satisfaction, though. I feel one should read this book many a times for gaining the complete treasure of knowledge. This book is a must read for all of us to have an intuitive understanding of almost every aspect of science. I, in fact, regret not being exposed to such a great book in my school days. On the contrary, it is always better late than never. I am very happy that I got a chance to read this book at least now. I hope almost every reader of this book will feel the same.

I would recommend "A Short History of Nearly Everything" very strongly to any student who is either interested or disinterested in science. Interested students would get motivated more, disinterested ones would start developing interest towards science. That is the magic behind this book and Bill Bryson deserves to be credited for churning out such a wonderful masterpiece. This book is a must read for people of all ages who want to make themselves more skeptical and rational. I would rate this book one of the pinnacles of popular science writing, which certainly has to be relished.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins - Book Review

"The Selfish Gene" is a popular science book by Richard Dawkins, written more than 35 years back. The 30th anniversary edition has more updates and there is a last chapter motivating the reader towards another book called "The Extended Phenotype" by the same author. This book is very famous over past four decades for its support of evolution theory and how the fundamental replicator called gene supports it. Reading this book is a great experience only to those readers who are supportive of Darwin's evolution theory. Others might disagree and pose more questions on the validity of few tall claims made in the book. As a person who generally supports evolution, I was able to relate most of the contents in this book.

There is always a conflict among people regarding the natural tendency of living organisms - selfishness Vs altruism. Though most people believe that altruism is the inherent nature of living beings, the evolution theory by Darwin suggests otherwise. The altruism nature of living beings is supported and propagated by scientists having faith on group selection. Starting from the origin of life, Dawkins argues that every activity of living beings is towards selfishness. The selfish nature of living beings is essential for their survival and replication of their genes according to Dawkins. He illustrates them using examples such as how cuckoo kids destroy other unhatched eggs to get more share of food from their mothers.

Dawkins exposes the readers to a primeval soup consisting of replicators to start with. These replicators are selfish by nature as they would want to make identical copies of themselves. Dawkins extends the theory of  replicators to more general concept of gene/DNA present in the every living cell of a plant or an animal. Through various illustrations, Dawkins proves that the selfish nature of the gene is inherited even by the body (vehicle) of the living being which is built using them. Most of the examples given in the book are at the behavioral level of organisms and the group selection strategies are vehemently opposed by sufficient counter examples.

Dawkins considers why the propagation of their own genes is the primary motivation behind the reproduction. The living beings who fail to do this will go extinct over time as natural selection only favors selfish genes. Basically, Dawkins strives to answer the following questions. How does selfish gene theory account for individual behaviors like aggression, sex, and spreading? How does even symbiotic relationship between two species is still in agreement with selfish gene theory? Why is the balance of sex ratio (male-female) almost the same even though the females put more effort in spreading of selfish genes? What are the ways in which a female selects her male partners for efficient propagation of genes? How come tit-for-tat the best strategy among a group of competing species?

To explain the difference between human beings and other living entities, Dawkins introduces a new term called meme as the basic replicator of culture. Memes are responsible for carrying the cultural aspects from one human to his/her followers and successors. Memes are the very means used by spiritual gurus to train their disciples into believing in certain ideologies about God. Memes can also exploited as a means to inculcate altruism among a group of humans and thereby reduce the effects of selfish genes. However, people generally use memes to impose their own beliefs on others without ever caring about the altruistic benefits that can be achieved by the spread of benign memes. In short, Dawkins claims meme may bring altruism into the genes depending on how that meme evolved from a culture.

The summary of the book is that as the genes are selfish, the nature all living entities of the world is inherently selfish. One has to teach altruism in humans by other means called memes for efficient functioning of the world. I found this book very knowledgeable and well illustrated. However, I felt Dawkins spends most of the time poking fun at other theories such as group selection which seems a bit digressing and annoying. Dawkins seems to be not that open minded as a popular science writer which may be due to his own selfish gene not having evolved that altruistic because of his memes.

The first person ('I') narration in this book does not help in his cause either in inspiring the reader. Dawkins may be a great researcher and supporter of evolution theory. But as a writer of popular science, his arrogant tone makes him fall way behind other eminent writers such as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, George Gamow, and Simon Singh. Very daring statements made by writers such as Dawkins, though their spread of rational scientific cause is unquestionable, stand the risk of turning off layman's interest towards science. In spite of all these ethical issues regarding the tone of the book, I recommend this book with some reservation as it contains a treasure of novel perspectives on evolution theory. The reader is fed with a lot of interesting insights about his own existence in this world.

P.S.: I am not planning to read any of the other books of Richard Dawkins. There are better popular science and math writers such as Carl Sagan, Bill Bryson, Simon Singh, George Gamow, Richard Feynman, John Derbyshire, James Gleick, ET Bell, etc. These writers indeed inspire you on every page of their books instead of being too rude and preachy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan - Book Review

"The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark" by Carl Sagan is considered to be one of his master piece works. I just had the chance to complete reading of this classic book where Sagan talks about science, witchcraft, pseudoscience, anti-science and more. Sagan tries to question the ignorance of general public towards science. Though this book is primarily focused on the US citizens, his arguments seem to apply to the entire world. Sagan also cautions the misuse of science for destruction of world peace apart from discussing its merits in detail. This book is primarily to motivate readers towards scientific skeptical thinking process in order to prevent others from fooling them.

The book contains a collection of Sagan's writings on science with few chapters co-authored with his wife and colleague, Ann Druyan. The initial chapters focus mainly on the Unidentified Flying Objects (UFO) claims by many US citizens and how there are false accounts of people about the aliens troubling them. He also explores the evidence supporting the landing of the space crafts classified as UFOs. He proves through proper insight and arguments how we are yet to encounter a single UFO in this world. He proves how the UFO claims are just hallucinations of the people and their landings are created by some miscreants among us.

Sagan explains the mental aspect of perceiving non-existent objects and how faith healers exploit them to treat people. He also maps how the hallucinations of people are responsible for reports for UFO and alien sightings. Sagan also explains how such mental frailties of humans are often exploited by mystics and religious gurus. Sagan spends most of this book on instructing how to classify science from other fake things. He even develops a baloney kit which can be used to authenticate scientific claims on the media. The most important thing is that Sagan never claims science is 100% perfect but shows how science has a self-correcting machinery built into the process itself to account for any errors.

The only scientific equations which appear in this book are those of James Maxwell. Maxwell's equations serve as the basic building blocks of electromagnetic fields and how they are related to light. Maxwell was a nerdy guy and when he invented those equations by chance, he did not know those equations would later inspire all the modern technologies such as TV, radio, search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI), etc. Sagan illustrates Maxwell's life and his inventions to show why basic scientific research should always be supported even though no practical application is possible in near future. According to Sagan, as science underlies every technology, one should never neglect scientific research.

Sagan also explains the demerits of scientific research when the power shifts to those whose intentions are not that noble. To illustrate this aspect of destructive nature of science, Sagan uses the life of theoretical physicist Edward Teller, known as the "father of hydrogen bomb". Teller is supposedly the inventor of nuclear fusion weapon called hydrogen bomb. Teller was close to the US government and cajoled them into funding his research for this mass destruction weapon. Though faced with criticism by leading researchers such as Oppenheimer, Teller using his political contacts succeeded in developing hydrogen bomb. This scientific research was performed by Teller just to satisfy himself without any regard for the human welfare.

Edward Teller's life is in stark contrast to that of Linus Pauling who received Nobel prize in chemistry for his work on chemical bonds in molecules and another Nobel prize for peace later. The more interesting fact is that both the Nobel prizes were unshared with anyone else. Sagan explains how Teller and Pauling stand at the opposite spectrum of the exploitation of scientific research - the former advocating scientific research for mass destruction while the latter for human welfare. Sagan argues why we should follow some one like Pauling in order to use scientific research for constructive purposes and welfare of the people who fund the research.

Sagan also talks about the destructive effects of media especially TV. Young students around the world are misled by what is exposed as science in popular media. Most of the TV channels show pseudoscience, witchcraft, astrology and mysticism in the name of science which develops a disinterest in the audience towards pure science. Sagan provides illustrations as to how the present education system provides students with a false belief that investing time in scientific research is a waste. Sagan provides solutions through more scientific expositions like experiments and demonstrations in schools and universities. Sagan even talks about the politics in last few chapters which are a bit hard to understand for the readers who are not that aware of US history.

This book is a real treasure for those who want to explore what scientific research is all about and who do not want to be fooled by arbitrary claims by pseudo-scientists and mystics. I felt that this book is a bit incoherent in parts which is acceptable as Sagan aims to cover a plethora of topics in a single book. Some chapters may be a bit tough to comprehend for persons with limited scientific knowledge. However, I found this book as a indispensable resource for any person who wants to develop rational and skeptical thinking in life based on science. Except Sagan, I feel no other person could have inspired the significance of skeptical thinking and its advantages this well. Everyone must read this book at least once to avoid false media propaganda and fake spiritual mystic gurus. Highly recommended.