Saturday, March 26, 2016

How many wrongs make a right?

The proposition "two wrongs don't make a right" is readily accepted but I haven't met anyone who really believes it in practice. Most of us, rather than deciding for ourselves what we consider right and wrong, tend to focus on a definite wrong that bothers us enormously, and then conclude that the opposite must be right.

As I pointed out to a mathematically inclined friend this morning, "two wrongs make a right" defines the group Z2, and this naturally extends to "N wrongs make a right" which describes the cyclic group ZN. People may quibble about why a beautiful unimodular complex number like an Nth root of unity could possibly be called a "wrong" in the first place, but we'll let that pass. The point is that life is not based on any cyclic group. Wrongs accumulate and they never cancel each other out.

A fair person will observe that Israelis and Palestinians have both committed multiple wrongs during their conflict. The same is true at various times of the US and the USSR, the US and Iran, Iran and Iraq, Irish Protestants and Catholics, Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalas and (I hesitate to say this for fear of a jail sentence, but will say it anyway) India and Pakistan. It's also true of left- and right-wingers in today's India. Only a person who has no observational powers, or who has put those powers on hold for some reason, could fail to see that the ongoing political flare-up in India between students and the government involves wrongs on both sides.

This brings up two big questions: (i) between two wrongs, shouldn't one focus on the greater wrong? (ii) since wrongs tend to perpetuate each other, doesn't the fault lie with whoever committed the "first" wrong? Anyone who can answer these questions has figured out life's problems extraordinarily well and must be able to sleep peacefully at night. I, however, struggle with both questions and it costs me a fair bit of my sleep. By now I've given up on finding complete answers and I'm not sure such answers exist at all.

On an apparently unrelated note, I recently watched Bridge of Spies and it moved me to reflect about the cold war between the US and the USSR. When I reached the US in 1976 as a Ph.D. student, the cold war was very much a reality. Communist sympathisers were considered "anti-American" and publicly reviled. This extended to anyone seen as "anti-American", a catch-all phrase for those who opposed the government or its policies in any way. I came in at the tail-end of this phenomenon, which had peaked in the 1950's (McCarthy era) and again in the 1960's (anti-Vietnam-war movement). The latter period was marked by frequent conflicts between university students and the US government, which brought the police and army on to campuses on several occasions.

Volumes have been written about these periods but I'm not a historian, and I know the history of that period primarily through rock music - of which I'm a huge fan. An epic song that highlights the student-government conflicts of the 1960's is For What It's Worth, penned by Stephen Stills and originally performed by his band Buffalo Springfield (the incredible Neil Young was part of the band and is briefly seen in this video looking remarkably young!). Here's a relevant excerpt from the song (the full lyrics are here):

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking' their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
It goes on to say:

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away

(for rock music fans, I believe Neil Young played the superb "paranoid" guitar sequence during the first line of this verse).

One point which is largely forgotten nowadays is that student demonstrations on US campuses grew increasingly violent during that period. On the one hand there is an iconic image (seen below) of a student showing flowers to angry gun-toting policemen:

but there was also another side that is rarely admitted to in rock songs. I quote from this website:

However, increasingly violent protests - while still representing only a small minority of the movement - ended up alienating most Americans from the anti-war cause as well. Government agents would routinely infiltrate anti-war groups, encouraging them to  use violence in order to marginalize the movement further. 

The anger and violence built up until a peak was reached in 1970 with the Kent State Shootings in which four unarmed student protestors were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard on the campus of Kent State University. This incident is commemorated in another great rock song, Ohio by Neil Young, who was by now part of a supergroup with Crosby, Stills and Nash. The video features chilling visuals of the event and ends with the statement "No one was ever held responsible for the deaths of the four students". Neil Young's song has the powerful lines:

What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground? 
How can you run when you know?

The backdrop to the shootings is interesting and not so widely known. On May 1 1970, a campus demonstration was organised to oppose President Nixon's expansion of the Vietnam war into Cambodia. A major campus building was set on fire and there were other acts of violence during the demonstration. The next day, as the Wikipedia entry tells us, Governor Rhodes of Ohio responded thus:

During a press conference at the Kent firehouse, an emotional Governor Rhodes pounded on the desk and called the student protesters un-American, referring to them as revolutionaries set on destroying higher education in Ohio. "We've seen here at the city of Kent especially, probably the most vicious form of campus oriented violence yet perpetrated by dissident groups. They make definite plans of burning, destroying, and throwing rocks at police, and at the National Guard and the Highway Patrol. This is when we're going to use every part of the law enforcement agency of Ohio to drive them out of Kent. We are going to eradicate the problem. We're not going to treat the symptoms. And these people just move from one campus to the other and terrorize the community."

He added:

"They're the worst type of people that we harbor in America. Now I want to say this. They are not going to take over [the] campus. I think that we're up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America."

By May 4 the protests had escalated. 2000 students gathered on campus despite a University ban on the protest. Students threw rocks at the National Guardsmen who were still on their campus and taunted them as "pigs". Soon thereafter, the National Guard opened fire and not only killed four students but injured 9 more including one who was paralysed for life. The horrifying situation came to an end when geology professor Glenn Frank urged students to vacate the area with the following short speech:

I don't care whether you've never listened to anyone before in your lives. I am begging you right now. If you don't disperse right now, they're going to move in, and it can only be a slaughter. Would you please listen to me? Jesus Christ, I don't want to be a part of this ..

The event led to a nationwide strike by a staggering four million students. Today it is widely considered a tragedy and a blot on the history of the United States.

So how many wrongs made a right? Clearly there were wrongs on both sides. Protesting students went far beyond their guaranteed right of freedom of expression and indulged in violence. Whether there were infiltrators or not, it's clear that students did many unacceptable things over a period of many years.

In this recorded interview after the Kent State Shootings, President Richard Nixon started by saying "We think we've done a rather good job in Washington" in handling similar protests. He then went on to basically blame rock-throwing students and defend the National Guard, and ended with a brief U-turn by showing some sympathy for the dead students and vowing to deal better with campus protests. This was Nixon's standard slippery, double-faced behaviour (if you don't believe me, listen to the interview). The Vietnam war came to an end in 1975 with the humiliating escape of the Americans from Saigon. By that time Nixon had resigned in disgrace as he faced impeachment for the criminal Watergate scandal. He has gone down in American history as a crooked trickster.

I'm not sure what universal lessons can be extracted from this story. If the Kent State students had not protested violently, the shootings may not have taken place. But history has judged their protest as sincere, motivated by opposition to an unjust and pointless war. It was the government's even more violent and disproportionate response that alienated its own citizens, many of whom were not Vietnam war protestors to start with. So this particular incident ended badly for four students, but even more badly for the US government and the image of the nation.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Laughing Buddha

I'm taking the opportunity to restart my blog while on vacation in Thailand. Each time I visit this country, I'm impressed by the role that religion seems to play in daily life. Perhaps there is also a darker side that I don't know about, but my impression as a visitor is that Thai people follow a gentle religious practice focused on simplicity and personal responsibility. They are primarily Buddhists, but have great respect for Hindu gods and scriptures. Indeed the Hindu epic Ramayana has been transformed into the national epic of Thailand, the "Ramakien", written under the supervision of Kings Rama I and II in the 18th and 19th century. In this story Hindu gods and personages acquire Thai-style names, for example the names Vishnu and Brahma translate to Witsanu and Phrom, while Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughna are Lak, Phrot and Satrut. Clothes, weapons and natural surroundings have likewise been converted to the Thai context, but the the essential narrative remains intact.

Interestingly the Ramakien was translated back into Sanskrit by Prof. Satya Vrat Shastri, who according to Wikipedia "has written many important poetic works in Sanskrit, the most important being his rendition from Royal Thai into Sanskrit, of the Thai version of the Ramayana, viz., Sri-rama-kirti-maha-kavyam, upon royal request, and with a Foreword by the Princess of Thailand". He is presently an honorary professor at the Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies at India's leading anti-national university.

Thai religious practice can pose quite a challenge to orthodox Hindus from India. In Thailand it is possible to be devout and still believe in the right of women to work. Indeed Thai women are said to constitute 47% of the workforce, and this shows clearly on the streets. As far as food and drink go, devout Thai people eat pork, chicken, duck, beef, many varieties of seafood, as well as insects like water beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, bee larvae and ant eggs (all of which I saw being sold in the local market) plus of course a generous quota of vegetables and fruits. Alcohol is freely available and can be bought just about anywhere. So the impact of religion does not seem to go anywhere near inhibiting people's consumption of the fun things in life (well, maybe ant eggs are fun for those who eat them). I don't think orthodox Muslims care too much for Thai habits either. The southern and predominantly Muslim part of Thailand has an ongoing insurgency which has apparently transformed itself from separatist to jidhadist over the last couple of decades. This is a complicated story, as the insurgents seem particularly annoyed with moderate Muslims from Thailand and Malaysia.

In the last few days I've visited half a dozen Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai. Some are extremely popular with tourists but others are quite deserted and one of them was completely empty (in Thailand this means no security guard either). Each of them has signs urging you to sit or kneel if you are near the front, partly to not block the view for others, and partly I suppose for devotion. Personally I'm a great fan of religious devotion, as long as it's my own choice and doesn't come with any annoying baggage (I'm also an atheist but I understand the Buddha is fine with that). So in each of these temples I've been sitting down and enjoying the silence, punctuated by the gentlest tinkling of tiny bells placed at strategic corners, and praying to the Buddha for enlightenment to descend on my countrymen. When He responds (as I'm sure He will), India will give up its modern, mean-spirited, bullying, violent and materialistic approach to religion. Each Indian will be allowed their own religous practice and their own choice of food. Religion will help us be more self-disciplined, organised and responsible. We will re-read our scriptures and realise their deep meaning. Religion will go back to being a gentle and personal activity, and India will turn once more into a place of peace and contentment.

One thing puzzles me, though -- while these thoughts were going through my mind, I noticed that the Buddha seemed to be laughing.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Leave those kids alone

When I was 12, my school decided to hold aptitude tests to help the students determine what career they would be suited to pursue. I did quite well in overall aptitude, but completely failed to show the desired result -- a strong preference for science over the arts, or vice versa. The priest in charge of this test looked rather blankly at me and said I could do either one. So I went to my parents and asked them what to do. Their response was immediate: "you decide".

It was a long time before I understood how unique my parents were in this regard. Whether it was a matter of spending evenings out with friends, or spending my (very limited) pocket money, or making career choices, the response was pretty much the same: "you decide". But at no point did I feel they were washing their hands of my problems. I sensed that they cared a lot, and both of them were known for their strong opinions on everything, but they held back trying to influence me so that I would feel responsible for my own choices.

There was one caveat, though: I was made to understand that if I wanted money from my parents (even as pocket money) then I had to be accountable to them for it. One day, early in my undergraduate days, I managed to get a National Science Talent Scholarship which paid a small monthly stipend. My parents promptly suggested I stop taking pocket money from them and use this scholarship to pay for my college lunches and other small expenses. I was outraged -- was it not my right as a college student staying at home, to get pocket money from them? Shouldn't I be banking my scholarship money for future use? My mother's response was "you'll thank us for this later on". And she was absolutely right. There is hardly anything that can beat the feeling of being independent. Though let's not exaggerate here, I was staying at home and eating dinner and breakfast at home so I wasn't quite independent in any true sense. Still the idea stayed -- if I spend my parents' money then I'm accountable to them, if I spend my own then I don't owe any explanations. I think this made me more responsible with both kinds of money.

Another peculiarity of my parents was that they rarely took my side, or propped me up, in social situations. If I was playing with cousins who were visiting our house and a conflict arose over toys, it was "let them have the toys, they are our guests". If the same conflict arose when we were in their house, it was "let them have the toys, we are their guests". This was so infuriating at the time. But when I look at kids whose parents followed the opposite dictum: "yes darling you shall have the toys and I will fight everyone in town for your right to have them" -- well, these kids have largely become psychological wrecks, and it's no surprise. Nothing can lower your self-esteem more than to know that whatever you possess is due to parental assistance and not due to any effort coming from within yourself.

These days there is a meme circulating on Facebook that completely gets on my nerves. Here is a screenshot:

This obviously comes from parents obsessed with themselves and their own self-importance. It would be funny if it were not so tragic. I've encountered so many examples of children ruined by this attitude. There was a boy in my school whose mother's obsession was to make him a genius. She would contact successful students who were a year ahead of him (myself, in particular), copy their notes and pressurise her son to learn everything before his year even started. The inevitable result was that he was the only student in the entire school to get a third division in his final year. Later I learned that he had died from drug abuse.

Most cases are less dramatic, but I have seen a bunch of kids growing up around me -- children of friends and relatives -- and the style of parenting is quite visible on the children. To be sure, important roles are also played by genetics, by the environment outside the home and even by epigenetics, so we can hardly blame (or credit) parents for everything. And yet, when things don't seem quite right with a growing child, there is so often a readily visible parental obsession behind it.

One particular model that I think is very damaging (and is the opposite of the model I grew up with) is that of the family as a fortress. In this view, the family is organised on the basis of strongly expressed loyalties. Each member publicly gushes about the other. Mothers say how wonderful their children are. Fathers post pictures of themselves with their "brood" as though somehow they are their patron saints and benefactors. Children are careful not to question the model because they would pay a price for disloyalty. Instead they quickly learn to exploit the system by paying lip service to it. If any member shows a weakness, the rest of the family steps in to cover it up. It all sounds lovely up to a point, but the missing ingredient -- individual responsibility for oneself -- ensures that this is a fragile and damaging arrangement. In the long run it rarely fools anyone outside and doesn't much benefit those inside either.

To close on a positive note, I would like to tell a story about my mother. Once a neighbour came over and gushed about how her son had scored 72% in the exams. She went on and on about his brilliance for ages. My mother smiled patiently through it all but said nothing. When the neighbour left, I exploded: "Ma, why didn't you tell her that I got 95% in the same exam?". There was a hint of pride on my mother's face when she replied "We don't tell other people these things, dear".

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


I recently gave a talk titled "Goals, Models, Frameworks and the Scientific Method" at a leading Indian institution. This was based on my Current Science article with the same title, which you are welcome to read here. In the article and talk, I attempted to de-confuse the word "theory" into three distinct words: goal, model and framework. Then I explained that "string theory", my field of research, should be thought of as a framework rather than a model.

After the talk, I met the former Director of this Institute over tea and he pointed out that there had been many books and articles that were very critical of string theory. I told him that my talk and article were partly a response to these. He smiled pleasantly and replied "Anyway, I take some pleasure in the discomfiture of string theorists". I'll confess that his comment left me a little discomfited at that moment. But as things turned over in my head, I realised it was a nice illustration of my favourite German word, "Schadenfreude", which translates as "pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others" (actually I have other favourite German words, like "Weltschmerz" and "Bremsstrahlung", not to mention "Schweinhund", but we'll leave these for another day.)

Wikipedia tells us that this pleasure is particularly acute when the unfortunate person is seen to have deserved their misfortune. And I suppose we all indulge in a bit of Schadenfreude, myself included. It can be quite harmless and enjoyable. For example, today the nation is enjoying the spectacle of Congress workers managing to burn themselves while attempting to burn an effigy of the Prime Minister. This is such fun! But when the desire to see one's rivals suffer takes root in organisations, communities or countries, and outstrips the desire for everyone to succeed together, then there is something to worry about.

Here is an interesting example from academia. The Superconducting Supercollider planned in Texas some decades ago would certainly have found the Higgs particle (and perhaps others) much before the LHC, had it been completed. The project was aborted in 1993 when the US Congress refused to fund it, following Congressional hearings in which - in particular - the project was opposed by physicists in disciplines other than high-energy physics. In this Scientific American article, David Appell writes:

When the SSC was finally canceled, the late Rustum Roy, professor of materials sciences at The Pennsylvania State University, expressed his joy to the New York Times. “This comeuppance for high-energy physics was long overdue.” Roy said.

And here is what Steven Weinberg, in this article for the New York Review of Books, says about the same event:

I took little pleasure from the observation that none of the funds saved by canceling the SSC went to other areas of science.

Even though Weinberg comes off looking much better, one can't help suspecting there was Schadenfreude on both sides. But no scientist seems to have gained from the cancellation -- and scientific progress lost a number of years.

On this subject I have a small personal tale to tell. In the mid 1990's I was visiting the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton and had the chance to dine with the legendary Freeman Dyson (he's still going strong at the age of 92, but at the time of this story he was a mere lad of 72 years!). Dyson was boasting about having successfully opposed the SSC. "Colliding tables and chairs! You can't possibly make any sense out of it" he declaimed at dinner. His point was that hadron colliders inherently produce a huge mess of particles and it would be impossible to spot the new one, if any. So he believed a proton-proton collider at those energies simply could not uncover the Higgs. Unfortunately for Dyson, the LHC is precisely such a hadron collider and it has worked spectacularly well. So I'll confess to some Schadenfreude about Prof. Dyson's incorrect prediction.

As for the discomfiture of string theorists, if that brings a ray of light into anyone's humdrum lives, we really shouldn't grudge them.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

India's Escape from Freedom: An article from the past

In December 1992 the situation in India was rather tense following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (December 6). There followed riots in many cities including Bombay - as it was then called - which peaked in early January 1992, with 60 deaths on a single day. Most of the affected were poor and homeless, many of whom left Bombay together with their meagre belongings. Many say the city changed forever from that day. In March 1993 the city was rocked by an awful series of bomb blasts and things got even worse.

Together with colleagues in TIFR, I volunteered to help at a "refugee camp" in Malad where doctors had gathered to provide medical assistance to the poorest slum dwellers - not those who had a small shack with a tin roof and some pots and pans, but those who had four bamboo poles connected up with plastic sheets. It was a grim experience. Not being a doctor I had little to do but observe the affected people. Injured or not, they all looked dazed and blank. With very good reason, for they had done nothing to deserve what had happened to them.

A month later in February 1993 I read Erich Fromm's book "Escape from Freedom" about the psychological roots of Nazism, written at a time when this ideology was still very much in existence. The ideas in this book inspired to write an article in the Indian context. It was published in a Bombay newspaper that has since folded, and I don't have a copy of the original, but have fortunately saved the tex file.

The situation in India today is somewhat different, but a few observations in the article may resonate. For example the "intol******" word featured even back then!

The link is here:

Sunday, November 22, 2015

How democracy works elsewhere

This evening the Mayor of Vienna hosted a reception for the delegates at The World Academy of Sciences meeting. It was held in the grand ballroom (or whatever it's really called) of the Rathaus, or City Hall. The room is five miles long and looks like this:

The food didn't risk winning any awards, but was quite OK. The wine was plentiful. The live jazz band played standards of Antonio Carlos Jobim, evoking an altogether different city from Vienna.

But the fun part was the ride back to the hotel. The taxi driver was shaped like a wine barrel and, as P.G. Wodehouse would have delicately put it, "pickled to the gills". I was slow to figure this out and risked life and limb by sitting in front, next to him. Here is the dialogue as I recall it:

Driver [while accelerating to the speed of light]: So how was our mayor?
Me (vaguely): Oh, he was great.
Other occupants of our taxi: The mayor wasn't there.
Me (embarrassed): Oh he wasn't? Well someone gave a speech. Maybe it was the Deputy Mayor.
Driver: The Deputy Mayor is a woman of Greek origin. She's called Vassilakoy.
Me: Well, it definitely wasn't her.
Driver: Was it a young man who spoke well?
Me: Yes that was it. He did speak well.
Driver: That's the second Deputy Mayor. You know how politics works, one from every party.
Me: Could you please try killing fewer pedestrians as you drive? [I didn't say that out loud, only in my mind]
Driver: He speaks well, right! Well he should. He makes 20,000 Euros a month. So, he really better speak well.
Me: [Eyes closed as we nearly crush a few cars in the next lane]
Driver: I probably pay one cent of his salary. So, if he doesn't speak well, I can go to him and say "hey you should speak well".
Me: Yes you should definitely do that. We've reached our hotel. [totter out and say a quiet prayer of thanks]

Friday, November 20, 2015

Albie Sachs and "soft vengeance"

The most moving lecture at the Vienna meeting of The World Academy of Sciences that I'm presently attending was a talk by Albert Sachs, anti-apartheid campaigner and former constitutional judge from South Africa. He has a colourful history. During the apartheid era he was exiled to England and later Mozambique, where in 1988 the South African security services placed a bomb in his car. He survived the attack but lost an arm as well as an eye. What happened after that is something to which I'll return below.

The "Grootboom dilemma" that you see in the title of his talk refers to the case of a poor woman called Mrs Grootboom who, along with several other shanty dwellers, was served an eviction notice because their shanties were on private land. The High Court was sympathetic to the shanty dwellers and ordered the government to provide them "rudimentary shelter irrespective of the availability of resources". On appeal, the Constitutional Court (with Albie Sachs as one of the judges) again sympathised with the shanty dwellers and ruled that "the state was obliged to take positive action to meet the needs of those living in extreme conditions of poverty, homelessness or intolerable housing". But at the same time, this court held that "land invasions" were not acceptable.

The above details are available on Wikipedia. But what moved me greatly during the talk was the question that Albie Sachs repeatedly raised and that had clearly exercised him as a judge: how could the state not intervene on behalf of people living in distressing conditions? And at the very same time, how could the state allow people to grab private property? The talk beautifully evoked the tension created by these two contrasting, but important, legal and constitutional concerns. What came across was that the judges did not blindly uphold one, or the other, of these concerns. Rather, they pro-actively convinced the government to find a compromise solution and ease the living conditions of the homeless as expeditiously as possible.

In the end though, Mrs Grootboom died before permanent housing could be found for her and her family. Albie Sachs said the image of her lying in her bed with a plastic sheet for a roof and the rains due to arrive, kept haunting him. "What have I done to deserve this?" he imagined her wondering.

I don't want to go into too many details of the impact this discussion had on me. But I will admit to an enormous feeling of shame that I personally have not focused much of my life on improving the lives of socially deprived people in India. I see it as a sign of the greatness of the South African courts, as well as the government, to have taken so seriously their obligations towards the poor and deprived.

Now let me return to the impact of the bomb. Albie Sachs recuperated in London and then returned to South Africa to help in drafting the new democratic constitution after which Nelson Mandela made him a judge of the Constitutional Court. On the way, he came up with the notion of "soft vengeance" which is in the title of his autobiography on which a  recent movie has also been based. This notion is based on the Gandhian view that "an eye for an eye will make the world blind". In the case of Sachs, this could have been taken quite literally - he had lost an eye, as well as an arm, and South African nationalists were vowing to avenge this on his behalf. But Sachs disagreed with vengeance based on violence. He felt that helping to bring in democracy and working for the poor were, in fact, his soft vengeance. I'll leave you with his words on the subject:

"The whole achievement of our wonderful new democratic constitution is soft vengeance. It totally smites the horror, the division, the hatreds, the separations of apartheid but it does so in a way that is benign and creative and humanising. It's a far more profound vengeance than doing to them what they did to us."