Archive for October, 2006

Quantum Superman and Quantum Othello

October 19, 2006

I realized that my blog was getting too serious for my own comfort, so here is a completely frivolous post. I was thinking about Superman and Clark Kent (CK) and how each time Clark Kent has to become Superman, he has to go into a telephone booth and change. With the advent of cellphones there are no telephone booths anymore, so what is CK gonna do? I think that Superman has to change with the times. In other words, he has to become Quantum Supeman, who is in a superposition state, being both Superman and not Superman simultaneously. Just think about how terrific a slogan quantum Superman has waiting for him:

“He is a Bird AND he is a Plane AND he is Superman!”

But Houston, there is a problem. If Superman is quantum while Lois Lane (LL) is still classical, then with whom does she fall in love? Is it with Clark Kent or is it with Superman? A good classical girl (as all DC comics heroines are, none of this postmodern hedonism for them) wouldnt be caught dead performing quantum bigamy. We could solve the problem by making LL quantum as well but then the audience gets distracted from the main theme of the movie, which is Superman’s superpositional double identity. Making LL a quantum heroine violates the cardinal rule for hit quantum movies:

Only the central character should be quantum. Everyone else should be classical.

So what is one to do? I have a solution: make quantum Superman into a tragic hero, a la Othello. In quantum Othello, Clark Kent, playing Iago (and not knowing about his quantum alter ego) is jealous of Superman and scuppers S’mans chances with LL. However, the discerning reader will realize that casting Clark Kent as quantum Othello poses a real problem, for quantum mechanics says that only one of the infinite superposition states (of which CK and Superman are only two: one wonders what the others are) are manifested at a given point in time. So either Superman exists or Clark Kent does but not both at the same time. So how does CK take his revenge?

So far, I have Clark Kent fooling Superman into going back in time to see him, i.e., Clark Kent kissing LL. Superman being jealous in the Othello mould but honorable in the superhero mould kills himself instead of Lois and Clark gets the girl. And here is the kicker – combine the tragedy with the fact that quantum superman is BOTH DEAD AND ALIVE now, and we have a ghost story in the makings. And since Superman is not really dead and in reality, he is also Clark Kent, we have the makings of a sequel where Superman and Clark Kent discover their true identities, make up and live forever in a combination of reality and limbo. So we have in one movie:

A love story
A tragedy
A ghost story
A coming of age story

Four for the price of one! What a genre busting movie this is gonna be!

The Charkha Computer

October 10, 2006

I think one of Gandhi’s greatest ideological innovations (and certainly the symbol most associated with him) was the Charkha, the spinning wheel. It was a great example of a mechanical device that was easy to make, easy to use by an individual working by himself, and it made a product that was clearly useful to the spinner as well as society as a whole. In one stroke, Gandhi seized upon an invention that subverted the idea of industrialization being necessary for production in a modern economy and furthered his goal of highlighting the material and spiritual benefits of manual labour as opposed to the mental gymnastics normally associated with Brahminical Hinduism.

However, times have changed. When we think of technology we dont think anymore of massive steel mills and big dams. Our imagination has been captured by intelligent computers and virtual worlds. Some might say that the microcomputer has combined high technology and decentralization to give rise to the ideal Gandhian artifact. Is that really true? Here are four questions I have in this regard:

(a) Is the computer and the internet really Gandhian?

(b) If not, can you think of a technology (that already exists or should exist) that will take the place of the Charkha in our imagination? What is the Charkha of the computer age?

(c) More ambitiously, if one were to write the The Charkha Computer for Dummies manual, what would it look like? What design procedures would one include and what products would one design?

(d) If you were on the jury of the Charkha Award for Intelligent Design, what new technology or person would you award it to (apart from God, who created everything in 4004 BCE)?

“Pure” Mathematics

October 6, 2006

In case you havent heard, these are exciting times in the otherwise media unfriendly domain of mathematical research. A month ago, Grigory Perelman refused to attend the International Congress of Mathematicians (held in Madrid this time) in order to collect his Fields medal, the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize. While Perelman was holed up in his mothers apartment in St.Petersburg, the worlds of gossip and geometry were intersecting at faster than light speeds. One of the pioneers in the field of geometric analysis, S.T.Yau, sued the New Yorker as well as Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber for writing this article about Perelman’s proof of the Poincare Conjecture.

I am not going to dwell any longer on the controversies surrounding Perelman and his proof, since the webuniverse has plenty of material to whet your appetites (including the New Yorker article cited above), but here is a juicy titbit of my own: while I was a graduate student at MIT in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I lived in a one bedroom apartment owned by you know who: Mr Yau himself. We finally left the apartment after living there for five years after a traumatic week of no water, preceded by a shower that refused to work and a million cockroach infestations. Boy was it a slum! Mr Yau clearly has many avatars and being a Cambridge slumlord is one of them.

Anyway, this post is really about the following quote in the New Yorker article, from Mischa Gromov, one of my favourite mathematicians, where Mischa says

“To do great work, you have to have a pure mind. You can think only about the mathematics. Everything else is human weakness. Accepting prizes is showing weakness.” Others might view Perelman’s refusal to accept a Fields as arrogant, Gromov said, but his principles are admirable. “The ideal scientist does science and cares about nothing else,” he said. “He wants to live this ideal. Now, I don’t think he really lives on this ideal plane. But he wants to.”

Here’s what I want to say: Mathematicians and scientists use the word pure to mean moral qualities rather different from what other people mean. When for example, I say that St Francis of Assisi was a pure soul, I might highlight virtues like: he led an exemplary life of devotion, he cared for the weak and the poor, his love for animals, and his speaking truth to power. In other words, he led a supremely virtuous life in this world, fully aware of the weaknesses of humanity and nevertheless tolerant of those weaknesses. Mathematicians on the other hand, seem to think that purity involves shutting yourself off from society, caring only about abstract problems and disdaining any appreciation by others (after all, who are they to judge your pure heaven?).

I was a mathematician myself, so I am quite aware of the seductiveness of this kind of purity, which is often manifested in its “purest” form in South Indian Brahmin mathematicians. Just go to the TIFR maths department and check it for yourself. However, as I grow older, I am more and more worried by these abstract, intellectualized notions of purity. When Gandhi in Hind Swaraj talks about the evils of mechanized societies he didnt have mathematics in mind, but one look at a computer should convince you that according to the mathematicians norms, a computer is an ideal mathematician: it doesnt care for rewards, it is stuck in its own syntactically circumscribed universe and it will keep crunching away at a problem until and unless you pull the plug. In other words, not only are computers better at calculating your taxes, they are also morally superior to us.

Isn’t there something disturbing about this inescapable moral judgement? And what does it mean that within the natural sciences, the most valued, the most celebrated disciplines like string theory and higher mathematics presuppose a morality that priveleges mechanisms over humans and other animals? Perhaps we should rename physics autistic metaphysics.

The End of European History.

October 4, 2006

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published an (in)famous book called “The End of History and the Last Man“in which he famously pronounced that the end of the cold war marked the end of history and that we would all ride into the liberal democratic sunset unto the end of all days. Recent events, from 9/11 to the rise of China have put paid to Fukuyama’s predictions, but I think that after making a minor adjustment, he might still be right.

My point being: what if the cold war marked the End of European History? That is to say, was the cold war the last global dialogue/debate/battle of ideas all whom had their origins in Europe? The west is clearly in a furor over the relationship between global Islam and “western values”. I think that the presence of Islam in the global arena is only one sign of the changing times. I wouldnt be surprised, for example, if China and India make increasingly larger contributions to the debate about the future of humanity.

About a year ago, I was travelling from Amherst to Boston by car with two of my friends, one French and the other Swedish. The Frenchwoman, a medieval historian, was complaining that Amherst College was replacing their last medieval historian (who was retiring) with a Chinese historian. At that time, I told her that it was strange that she was complaining about the lack of medieval European historians, when there was not a single historian at Amherst College who taught any Indian history – ancient, medieval or modern. My friend was aghast that I would make that comparison, after all, she said that the US was founded on European principles and is comprised mostly of people of European descent, so it was only fitting that American colleges taught their students “their own history”. I replied that nevertheless, American institutions from corporations to colleges are pragmatic in nature and that given the times, I found it natural that these American institutions are looking west, over the Pacific and not east, over the Atlantic.

After hearing my admittedly provocative remarks, my friend refused to talk to me for the rest of the trip. Be that as it may, I wonder if European history is over, and that the rise of Asia will also involve a slow process of the US becoming a Pacific nation.

Karnataka Bandh

October 4, 2006

I am going to be at home all day today since everything is closed and rumors are that anybody or any vehicle on the street is liable to be stoned or beaten up. Why? Because some shadowy group of “Kannada Organizations” is organizing a Statewide bandh, i.e., all shutters are closed for the day. I am amazed by the level of Kannada nationalism in Karnataka. The ostensible reason is the border dispute between Maharashtra and Karnataka over some villages in northern Karnataka. I am not aware of the underlying political dynamic.

Being Tamilian, though not having grown up in Tamil Nadu, I am quite aware of Tamil Nationalism and the anti-Hindi stance of Tamilians. I can understand that to some extent since having grown up in the north, I am quite aware of the routine dismissal of non-Hindi speakers by northerners. But Tamil nationalism has other, less attractive aspects as well, such as the complete domination of Tamil politics by the two Dravidian parties with their hagiographic representation of Tamil politicians such as MGR, Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi. Even that is OK, but the bleeding edge of Tamil nationalism is seen not in India, but in Sri Lanka, where it meets an equally ugly, if not uglier, counterpart in Sinhala nationalism. I guess I should be glad that Tamilians are not blowing themselves up in India, though we know that they can do it, having killed Rajiv Gandhi that way.

Anyway, back to today and back to Bangalore and Kannada. First of all, I am not sure who is being represented by these Kannada organizations. Secondly, what is the great achievement in closing down a state in which your nationalist ideology is accepted by all the major political parties? And, while people like me with salaried positions are OK, what about all those daily wage workers? Are these Kannada organizations going to feed all of them and their families this evening? I mean, its not as if these “Kannada Organizations” are shutting down Maharashtra. It seems like an arbitrary exercise of power, hence a cowardly act, to force people to obey your diktats in your own backyard. Har gali mein kutta bhi sher hota hai na.

PS: Mid afternoon update. I just turned the TV on. Lo and behold, only the Kannada channels are playing. Great, now all of us will have to become Kannadiga’s.

Ways of Knowing

October 1, 2006

One can distinguish between two different epistemological stances:

(a) The theoretical attitude: this is the standard claim about the nature of western thinking, where one stands in a propositional attitude towards the world, either as a belief or as a claim or whatever. It is this attitude that western thinkers have one the one hand tried to universalize in order to explain all phenomena, from quarks to quasars, and on the other hand claimed as being uniquely true of western thought, its inheritance from the ancient Greeks. For example, here’s what the well known German philosopher and ur-phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl has to say about this topic:

“‘The spiritual image of Europe’ – what is it? It is exhibiting the philosophical idea immanent in the history of Europe (of spiritual Europe). To put it another way, it is its immanent teleology, which, if we consider mankind in general, manifests itself as a new human epoch emerging and beginning to grow, the epoch of a humanity that from now on will and can live only in the free fashioning of its being and its historical life out of rational ideas and infinite tasks.

No matter how inimical the European nations may be toward each other, still they have a special inner affinity of spirit that permeates all of them and transcends their national differences. It is a sort of fraternal relationship that gives us the consciousness of being at home in this circle. This becomes immediately evident as soon as, for example, we penetrate sympathetically into the historical process of India, with its many peoples and cultural forms. In this circle there is again the unity of a family-like relationship, but one that is strange to us. On the other hand, Indians find us strangers and find only in each other their fellows. Still, this essential distinction between fellowship and strangeness, which is relativized on many levels and is a basic category of all historicity, cannot suffice. Historical humanity does not always divide itself in the same way according to this category. We get a hint of that right in our own Europe. Therein lies something unique, which all other human groups, too, feel with regard to us, something that apart from all considerations of expediency, becomes a motivation for them – despite their determination to retain their spiritual autonomy – constantly to Europeanize themselves, whereas we, if we understand ourselves properly, will never, for example, Indianize ourselves.”

OK, I got it, there is something about Europe that’s both unique to Europe and is universal enough that everybody else wants to emulate. But what if we dont want to do that? Do we have some other ways of knowing at our disposal? If you think of theoretical knowing as “knowing that”, then there is a well known alternative, which is knowledge based on action or “knowing how”. That is to say:

(b) Dispositional attitudes. Here one includes the various ways of acting in the world – performing right actions, rituals etc. According to S.N Balagangadhara this is the way in which we Indians “understand” the world, not as theoretical belief claims about the nature of the world, but rather, ways in which to act in the world. One may agree or disagree with Balu, but there is no doubt that knowledge grounded in action is different from knowledge based on propositions. Strangely enough, “knowing how” is making a comeback in cognitive science and neuroscience in the form of embodied and enactive approaches to cognition. So it may turn out that the entire biological universe (apart from some western Europeans) is bereft of theoretical knowledge. What a tragedy for all of us.

So far, so good. But: are these the only two epistemic attitudes? In other words, are these the only two ways of being embedded in the world, epistemically? For example, do emotions come under one or the other? What about existential insights? They seem neither theoretical, nor dispositional. If theoretical and dispositional attitudes are not enough to cover the range of epistemic states, do we need to have a more general notion of epistemic attitudes in order to have a broader theory that covers both theoretical and dispositional attitudes?