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.

Friday, May 18, 2012

IPL - Indian Pensioners' League

Indian Premier League (IPL) 5 is currently on. It is clouded by as many controversies as one can imagine. Some five IPL players were booked for match fixing, Shah Rukh Khan was banned from Wankhede stadium for five years and Luke Pomersbach is under trial for assaulting some foreigners last night. Such incidents are only going to be more frequent due to the low quality of IPL. Due to increasing number of cricket matches these days, I did not have the urge to watch any of the matches so far in this IPL 5. As such, the winner of IPL can not prove anything technically superior to the other teams involved. Winning IPL simply does not make any sense. Due to my strong past connections with cricket, I still can not resist myself from checking the scorecards and points table few times a day at Cricinfo.

The key performers of IPL 5 seem to be Chris Gayle and Rahul Dravid, both either not playing or going to play any more international cricket. Gilchrist also joined the fun last night making merry with his bat and almost kicking out Chennai from the play-offs. In contrast, the men in form such as Virat Kohli have made least impact in this version of IPL. Still, I am surprised by the enormous amount of viewers for IPL in spite of the substandard cricket played all around. The main concern for me is the injury of key international players which might restrict them from future national duties. This was evident last year when many players including Sehwag had to be in hospital for many months after the IPL season. Injuries are often hidden by the players in the lust for money.

In Tennis, doubles games are often played by only those who are aged and whose bodies do not yield to the rigors of singles games. Hence the quality is highly inferior to that of the singles and very few bother to watch doubles matches on TV/court even in Grand slams. Doubles games are rather played just to enable the doubles players tamper with the courts (especially grass courts) making it more difficult for the singles players later on. I would rate the quality of IPL compare with that of the test cricket analogous to how doubles tennis matches compare with that of the singles tennis matches. The surprising fact is that IPL attracts more viewers than international matches on TV. Is it because people do not bother about the quality of the game played? Are the viewers of cricket not that well informed as the viewers of tennis about the quality of matches? Are just arbitrary sixes and fours coupled with cheer girls enough to entertain viewers instead of technical elegance?

My perception is that the cricket audience want just to be anxious all the time, no matter how low the quality of the game played is. But tennis audience get bored with doubles games where points are decided in rallies which last not more than ten shots. The singles tennis games provides them with much longer rallies and much better strategic approach and the physical fitness of the players involved is also superior. Over the years, I feel that the tennis audience have evolved to understand the rigors of singles game and are able to appreciate its complications and entertainment. Only alert audience can disapprove of IPL and bring back sanity in cricket. To make cricket audience realize this fact, it is high time acronym IPL is made to stand for Indian Pensioners' League. It might well be the first right step towards alerting the viewers about the quality of cricket involved in IPL.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond - Book Review

Popular science books are the ones I am very fond of these days. How could I then miss reading this Pulitzer prize winning best seller on a controversial theme of human history. "Guns, Germs and Steel" is the main title of the book by UCLA Professor Jared Diamond. This book strangely has two different subtitles for the editions from US (The Fates of Human Societies) and UK (A short history of everybody for the last 13000 years). In hindsight, I feel that the subtitle associated with the UK edition suits the contents of this book much better. Jared Diamond is the author of other famous books - "The Third Chimpanzee" and "Collapse".

This book is unique in the sense that it tries to disprove the racial theory behind the disparity in the development of different parts of the world. Yali, a local politician, in New Guinea asks the reason for the superiority of Europeans over the other people (especially New Guineans) in the world. This question was raised by him to Diamond in the 1970s. The whole book is structured in such a way as to answer this Yali's question. Diamond through his experience of research he had performed on New Guinea for 30 years attempts to answer Yali's question. As he answers, the reader is taken through a roller coaster of a ride of the entire world history over the past 13,000 years.

The book primarily focuses on the onset of food production to explain this difference. Diamond explains why food production which first originated in the fertile crescent region spread quickly into entire Eurasia. He ponders on the ability to domesticate available wild animals and the suitability of crops available for farming in particular. Further, he brings out the advantages of farming over the primitive hunter gatherer lifestyle prevalent in other places of the world. He also argues how this head start in domestication of animals and farming allowed Europeans to improve on their resistance to germs and helped them in technological innovation. He also provides archaeological evidences to support his claims. 

The other primary factor considered by Diamond is the geographical stretch of the different landmasses of earth. While Eurasia is stretched in the east-west direction, Africa and the Americas are stretched in the north-south direction. Diamond through appropriate evidences describes how the east-west latitudinal stretch allowed Eurasia to spread farming and domestication much faster to far off places than the other continents. Thus availability of crops and animals which can be domesticated and the geographical stretch in east-west direction are supposedly primary reasons for the domination of Europe over the rest of the world. This made them resistant to germs originating from different animals compared to the other people.

Some European people might want to contradict the facts as provided by Diamond regarding the holocaust they launched on the aborigines of Americas and Australia. But Diamond brings out such facts through evidences such as the battle of Cajamarca in South America when a little more than hundred Spanish invaders killed thousands of unarmed aborigines of Inca empire mercilessly. He also explains how apart from the superior weapons Spanish had, the smallpox germs they spread helped them eventually colonize the whole of Americas. Similar fate awaited the aborigine population in Australia. However, New Guineans were more advanced and could resist the colonists.

This book is a wonderful exposition of facts which are often not taught in school books where explorers such as Columbus and Vasco da Gama are treated as demigods. The main conclusion of the book is that Europeans did not dominate the world because they were people of superior race. It so happened through evolution that their area was more suitable for food production and thereby contributing to their superior technology. Further, Europeans were able to land in the right place at right time and thereby, at this point in the history of world they are able to dominate the other continents. It is nothing to do with the whites being superior to blacks or any other race in the world, for that matter. Diamond puts all the prevalent racial theories in trial and exposes their pitfalls through out this extra ordinary book.

Though this book is a bit repetitive in analyzing the same facts and insisting upon them from different perspectives, I was able to appreciate the evidences provided by Diamond to support his claims. I could not find much detail about the societies in the Indian subcontinent in this book, which disappointed me as I have always felt this region had a rich history. Also, Diamond seems to concern more about the area around New Guinea and tries to propagate the findings there to support his claims on other parts of the world. This may not be applicable for all his claims. These drawbacks aside, this book is a very good read for anyone who is interested in a scientific viewpoint of human evolution over the past 13,000 years. I strongly recommend this book for those who are interested in popular science and evolutionary aspects of the world history.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl - Book Review

Viktor E. Frankl is a famous Austrian psychiatrist well known for the invention of a new way of treating psychiatric ailments called logotherapy. Logotherapy strives to make the patient understand the purpose and meaning of his/her life. The meaning may differ from one person to another. It differs from the previous popular psychiatric theories based on the pleasure of sex by Freud and the urge for power by Adler. "Man's search for meaning" is a book which explains how Frankl survived concentration camps which lead to the eventual development of logotherapy.

I read this book a few weeks back. This book is effectively divided into three parts. First part explains the tough conditions faced by Frankl in the Nazi concentration camps in Auschwitz and Dachau. Second part provides the realizations of Frankl through his experiences in extreme conditions of concentration camps. It provides in a nutshell the treatment of basic psychic ailments through logotherapy. Frankl and his students have treated millions of people using logotherapy and some of the instants are narrated in this part. Third part of the book includes a lecture given by Frankl which got appended to the book later as an overview of logotherapy.

This book though a bit too hectic read to start with, poses some of the vital questions. How to find meaning of one's life even in highly improbable extreme situations? How to keep faith on oneself that the suffering would soon end, even if the conditions do not seem so? Why did not all the members of the concentration camp commit suicide? What impulse drove them to survive unrecoverable tortures imposed on them by the Nazis? How could the inmates of concentration camp cope up with the fear of being put in a gas chamber any moment? All these questions are elegantly answered in this wonderful book through search for meaning.

Frankl gives instances how he helped the inmates of the camp even when he was suffering himself. Frankl also provides glimpses of the later treatments he provided to some of his patients which directed them to realize the real meaning of their life. Frankl makes it very clear that there is no such thing called universal meaning for every one's life. The meaning of life differs from one individual to another. The meaning can be anything like one's love for parents, affinity towards some God, completion of professional duty, etc. While in the camp, Frankl was driven by his love for wife and the psychotherapy book which was incomplete. Logotherapy can just direct one towards identifying that meaning of his/her life. It is for the individual to take the lead and live to fulfill that meaning.

Though I have heard about the theories of Freud and Adler, I have not read their works. But after reading this book, I felt Frankl's logotherapy to be much more effective in facing life's challenges. The very fact that Frankl lived for more than 90 years even after going through the tortures of Nazi concentration camp, supports his theory quite well. The book is lucidly written though not much coherent. However, this book is highly recommended as it provides a detailed account of one of the foremost technique in psychotherapy and makes it accessible to any common man. I am sure every reader will get some different insight on life after completing this book.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee - Book Review

I just completed reading the 50th anniversary edition of this classic book, "To Kill A Mockingbird", by Harper Lee. A mockingbird entertains the listeners by its pleasant songs often mimicking other birds. The title of this book roughly implies that it is always a crime to harm a person who has always been helpful to you. This subtle lesson for everyone's life has been effectively conveyed by Harper Lee through the eyes of a third grade girl child called 'Scout' Jean Louise Finch. The main protagonist of this novel being her father Atticus Finch. Though the novel is bit dated, it is a pleasurable read even today. Let us see why.

The plot of the novel is based on the incidents in a county called Maycomb in the US. Widower Atticus Finch, an advocate by profession, lives with his two children - 'Scout' Jean Louise Finch and 'Jem' Jeremy Finch. They are accompanied in their house by a cook called Calpurnia, who is a Negro. Jem is elder to Scout and they have their neighbor Dill who accompanies them during vacations. Atticus defends a Negro called Tom, a married man, accused of raping a white woman. The girl's father Bob Ewell is a notorious trouble maker. The novel unfolds how the hierarchy in American society influences the lives of Atticus and his family.

I really liked the character of Atticus as a father. Jem and Scout learn a lot of good habits from them and Atticus never loses his cool even when his children do some mischief like poking neighbor Boo Radley. The entire story's soul is Scout who is the narrator of all the incidents leading to the fracture of Jem's hand. Their affection towards Dill, a deprived child, moves you. The first person narration of Scout brings out the innocence evident in a kid of her age. Other characters like Tom Robinson, aunt Alexandra, and cook Calpurnia are all very realistic. Even the characters such as the neighbors of Scout, Bob Ewell, and Heck Tate keep the story more interesting.

The only complaint about this novel may be that it stagnates at times on even minute details. But all the loose ends are tied and well knit towards the end making this novel a sort of thriller. It is an irony that Harper Lee never wrote another novel after writing this one. She might have surely felt that the expectations would be sky high from the readers after producing a timeless classic like "To Kill a Mockingbird". She might not have wanted to risk trying to exceed the perfect story telling evident throughout this novel. I liked this novel and strongly recommend to readers who enjoy English classics.

This novel is really a must read as it educates one as how parents have to live by example to make better humans out of their children. It also exposes the disparity prevalent in societies across the world. There was incidentally an English film of the same name based on this novel. Gregory Peck won the best actor Academy award for portraying the role of Atticus Finch. There were two more Academy awards for this film that year. However, I feel the entire credit for the film must be attributed to Harper Lee. She was instrumental in delivering a masterpiece which may be classified as one of the best English novels ever written. This novel is an important addition to any one's bookshelf.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan - Book Review

I recently read "The Dragons of Eden - Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence" by Carl Sagan. I was inspired by his more famous book on the universe called "Cosmos" which I had read last year. I would personally rate this book more interesting and insightful than Cosmos. Cosmos was expected to be a great book as it was a product of one of the great space scientists ever. Human intelligence and neuroscience had never been Sagan's area of research, which he himself acknowledges in the book. In terms of explaining the basic human brain function, Sagan has topped even most of the present day neuroscience researchers.

Though I have a masters degree through research in neuroscience (Hippocampus, in particular), I never had the access to the amount of in-depth knowledge which Sagan provides in this book. I have developed a new sense of love for neuroscience and human intelligence after reading this book. Sagan, being a strong supporter of evolution, provides ample evidences to support his causes. The beauty about Sagan's writing is that he accepts as mere speculations those ideas which he himself is not confident. This is indeed the true character of some of the top notch researchers, whose percentage is sadly dwindling over the years.

I was amazed how Sagan uses the mapping of the entire evolution of universe to a single calendar year and explains evolution. Sagan provides credit to top researchers wherever it is due, which makes the book even more credible. I liked the sections of interaction of right and left brain hemispheres through corpus callosum. I could relate such ideas with the popular neuroscience texts I read over the past 6 years. Sagan even talks about the brains of other species and how the human intelligence is more to do with the evolution of a larger cortex region. Sagan also provides an analysis of what happens when one dreams and digresses at many places without getting the reader bored.

This book is a real treasure for those who are interested in understanding the evolution of human intelligence through the words of the best popular science writer. I have already ordered for reading his another masterpiece, "The Demon Haunted World", which exposes pseudo and fake science. Sagan condemns such fake irrational ideas proclaimed as science towards the end in "The Dragons of Eden". I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in gaining knowledge of basic neuroscience, cognition, and evolution. I can guarantee that it will be an once in a lifetime experience of tracking own existence at present. This book is a must read for people of any age who can understand basic English.

Friday, April 06, 2012

The Difficulty of Being Good by Gurcharan Das - Book Review

After a long time spent in reading mediocre books, I was searching for an ideal book to revive my reading habit. This fantastic book, "The Difficulty of Being Good - On the Subtle Art of Dharma" by Gurcharan Das, was recently released as a part of low-priced popular Penguin initiative. Gurcharan Das was an Ex-CEO of Procter & Gamble India. He took an early retirement to concentrate more on his literary contributions. He is mostly known for his other famous book called "India Unbound" which promotes capitalistic ideals of modern India. Though I started reading "India Unbound" inspired by his book on Dharma, it did not impress me much.

The book, "The Difficulty of Being Good", landed me in a whole new world of Dharma (being good or perfect, roughly) and its various implications as suggested through various incidents in the Indian epic Mahabharata. After 6 years of research reading Mahabharata, Gurcharan Das has indeed delivered a masterpiece. Though there are various versions of Mahabharata and its commentary are prevalent, I have never seen such an in-depth analysis of the major incidents of Mahabharata. I was not mature enough to understand the epic completely when it was shown in Doordarshan long back.

The beauty of this book is that one can directly read this book without having ever come close to hearing about this Indian epic. Gurcharan Das, in particular focuses on 2 types of Dharma in the epic called 'Sva-Dharma' (perfectness based on oneself and his/her tradition) and 'Sadharana Dharma' (perfectness which is universally accepted). Different Mahabharata characters like Yudhishtra, Arjuna, Karna, Krishna, Duryodhana, Dhridharashtra, Drowpadi, etc. are used as tools to explain the intricacies of the Dharma. It might be a spoiler, but I can't resist admiring how Das primarily employs Yudhishtra to explain the different phases of Dharma one has to go through in real life.

Even a person well versed with Mahabharata will find this book full of wisdom he/she has never learnt before. I am amazed how the tricky incidents of Mahabharata are being repeated in various forms often in this modern world. Another extra-ordinary attempt by Das is that he does not view this epic as a Hindu religious book, thereby avoiding biased religious views from affecting the perfect understanding of the Dharma as illustrated in the Mahabharata. I strongly recommend this book for anyone in this world who would like to delve into the world of Dharma and the practice of it in everyday life. I enjoyed every page of this book thoroughly. A Must Read.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Publish or Perish

Google scholar citations which was launched recently is a great tool to track one's technical publications and their citations. I also built my Google scholar citations page and became follower of some of the leading researchers in my research area - Computer Vision. As almost every journal or conference proceedings has been indexed in Google scholar, deliberately not citing key papers can be considered a major violation of academic integrity.

Every researcher truly benefits from such an effort by Google scholar as he/she gains the right to access almost all journals and conference proceedings as soon as they are published online. An unfortunate thing to note is that researchers deliberately avoid citing key papers which have already been published in order to avoid the loss in contribution of their paper. In recent times, I am getting repeatedly put off reading such papers in my research area.

For example, today I saw a paper by few Chinese researchers on HDR imaging (see here) published recently in an Elsevier journal. This paper cites one of my older papers (Eurographics 2009, see here) and even compares their results with this work of mine. However, these guys deliberately avoid citing or comparing their results with my later improved work in SIGGRAPH Asia 2009 (see here). The reason is that my later paper is so similar to (might have even inspired) their paper. It would have been tough for them to sneak their paper into any decent journal or conference if they had cited my SIGGRAPH Asia work.

I am terribly sad with such unethical behavior of researchers who just want to increase their paper count without much technical contribution. I feel it is almost impossible for them not to have looked at my later works as all the works till date are listed clearly in my personal webpage. The only consolation in this case is that these guys at least had the courtesy to cite and compare with my earlier work. I have had much worse experience with some other researchers in the past who had ignored citing all of relevant papers.

I do not foresee any improvement in the lack of ethics among the researchers in citing relevant works. This is mainly because of the general lack of academic integrity among the research community. Most researchers are constantly driven by the motto of "Publish or Perish". I would strongly recommend every researcher to read a popular article by Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman known as Cargo Cult Science before taking up research as a career.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Background Hum Article

My article on HDR Imaging appeared in Electrical Engineering, IIT Bombay magazine called "Background Hum". This article aims to cater to a wider audience with minimal technical details. I had posted the earlier version of this article in my previous blog post. The article - "High Dynamic Range Imaging - A Technical Overview" appears in the fifth page of the recent issue of Background Hum.

The e-copy of Background Hum can be accessed from the IIT Bombay website here.