Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hinduism is about spreading terror?

It's common nowadays to get forwarded mailings telling us how "Islamofascism" is taking over the world, or in other ways saying nasty things about Islamists and the threats they pose to world peace and security. While some of these mailings are downright slanderous in their attempt to malign entire communities and religions, other warnings are not entirely negligible and I'm sure all liberals have had occasion to worry about the increasing incompatibility between the liberal viewpoint and the political agenda of some Islamic leaders.

Trouble is, it's not only Islamic leaders we have to contend with. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad ("World Hindu Council") has as its slogan: "धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः", which loosely means "religion protects when protected". One of their principal goals is "To protect, promote and propagate Hindu values of life, the ethical and the spiritual in the context of modern times."

Well to protect, promote and propagate Hindu values of life, these charming people yesterday did the following. They burnt alive a paralytic woman aged 20. Please imagine her fate. She was in a house that was set on fire by VHP activists and being paralysed, could not move as the flames engulfed her.

Perhaps she was not the intended victim, but then the people killed in bomb blasts are also not intended victims! And the VHP must take responsibility for this killing, since they organised the violent protest during which it happened. Moreover as per news reports, "Many churches, prayer houses and other Christian institutions were attacked in Kandhamal, Bargarh, Koraput, Rayagada, Gajapati, Boudh, Sundargarh and Jajpur districts. At least two prayer houses were damaged in the capital city [of the state of Orissa]."

Now all this is said to have been in retaliation for the recent killing of a VHP leader in one of the above districts. And that's my point really. If in retaliation for a killing of a member of my group, I kill innocent, poor and handicapped people and attack their places of worship, am I propagating "Hindu values of life, the ethical and the spiritual"?

Herein lies a conundrum for the VHP. If the answer to my question is "no", then they need to explain why they failed to propagate the desired Hindu values of life among their followers (who surely must learn the said values, otherwise how can they propagate them?). Remember that the Chandogya Upanishad - apparently not on the daily reading list of all VHP members - bars violence against all creatures and mentions ahimsa (non-violence) as one of five essential virtues.

Alternatively if the propagation of "Hindu values of life, the ethical and the spiritual" has come to mean burning paralytic women alive and pillaging poor villages, then let us all be aware that some kind of terrorists are attempting to run our religion too.

P.S. I can't help adding that every time this happens, the apologists for this kind of fake-Hindu organisation tell me "what are we supposed to do when our religion is under attack?". It's sad if they are unable to figure out the answer to that question from the texts of the religion they claim to follow. They should go back and study it better.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Geneva? You can't get there from here!

Well I'm back from France and all I can say is, I miss France a lot. I did complain about people there in a previous blog, but have to admit that much of what I encountered was probably due to my own discomfort in a new place. As time passed, people became much more friendly and - unless there was a special campaign in France to be nice to Sunil Mukhi (which even in my megalomanic moments I very much doubt) - this must be because I became more used to the place, and more normal in my interactions with people. I wonder if this is how things work when people in a new place feel they are being treated in a racist manner (something I did not complain of, by the way). One is awkward in a new place and then the responses are equally awkward and one feels people are trying consciously not to be nice.

Having in some way backed off from my comments about the French, I must reiterate that Geneva airport remains a strange place (as I mentioned in another blog posting). I arrived there for my departure early last Saturday morning. The thing is, having rented a car from the French side, I had to return it on the French side. I thought I would stroll over to the Swiss side inside the airport, the reverse of what I had done on arrival. But no, this is not reversible. To catch a plane from the French side of Geneva airport, you have to check in on the French side (this can be done for all flights). Then with boarding pass in hand you go through a door to the departure area on the Swiss side.

Thing is, that door was locked! And a bunch of disconsolate passengers were sitting around at 6 AM waiting for the "door to Switzerland" to open. Here started the fun. I had waited just ten minutes but some passengers were about to miss their flights and started to create a fuss. Within a few minutes it was total pandemonium. French authorities, from check-in staff to security, were milling about and yelling at each other. Turned out the Swiss had omitted to hand over a key to their country (whose departure lounge we could see through a glass door) to the French! Just the sort of thing they would do! But more surprisingly, they themselves had failed to show up early in the morning and open their door.

The French security guard angrily informed us passengers (as though it were our fault) that he could not, and would not, open that door. Passengers shouted (in half a dozen languages) "I'm going to miss my flight!". The check-in staff revealed that Swiss security were not answering their phone. I still had some time before I would miss my own flight, and was frankly enjoying what appeared to be a complete "third-world situation". I wondered which passenger would be the first to try smashing down the glass door.

Then out of nowhere a blue-uniformed gent appeared, unlocked the door, and waved us in. But the story doesn't end here. A European-looking woman asked me in English "is this the way to Geneva"? I pointed out that we were, at least in a technical sense, in Geneva. She said "yes, and I live there, but as a volunteer for an organisation that helps blind people, I came over to the French side to help some passengers and for an hour I've been waiting to go back!". Later I saw her pleading with Swiss security to let her out of the airport so she could go home. But they were unrelenting. I don't know if she ever made it, as the guard appeared to be telling her "Geneva? You can't get there from here".

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Coolest place on earth

I've not blogged for over a week because life has been getting busy here at CERN. The buildup to the Strings 2008 conference kept me rather occupied. Alas my attempt to go down into the LHC tunnel (with the help of Indian experimentalists working at one of the detectors) narrowly failed because it's now officially closed to visitors.

The Strings 2008 conference had - unusually for a Strings conference, but understandably given the location - an entire session devoted to the LHC, yesterday afternoon. In three successive talks we learned about the design and construction of the machine, the design and construction of the detectors and the new physics that we anticipate learning about once the machine starts taking data.

One striking fact is that because such strong magnets need to be superconducting to function, the insides of the LHC are cooled to 1.9 Kelvin. That's not just colder than anywhere on earth - it is actually colder than outer space! That's because (for those readers not familiar with physics) the entire universe is at a minimum temperature of 2.7 Kelvin, the temperature of the so-called Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation found everywhere and believed to be the residue of the Big Bang in which the universe originated.

Now there are certainly laboratories where much colder temperatures than 1.9 Kelvin are achieved (it's hard to be "much colder" than 1.9K since one can't go below absolute zero, but in this range tiny changes make a big difference on physics). The world record as far as I know is 100 picoKelvin or a ten-billionth part of a Kelvin above zero.

However the LHC isn't just a very very cold little box in the lab, but achieves its temperature over its entire 27 kilometre circumference. That certainly makes it unique and CERN's media-savvy publicists now describe the laboratory as "the coolest place on earth".

As for the functioning of the machine - last week a test beam was sent around one-eighth of the ring, approximately 3 km, and we were told that it worked on the first shot. On September 10 a test beam will be sent all the way around (I mentioned this in a previous posting "LH but no C", but now the date is known). Finally the first collisions will take place after the official inauguration, which is to be accompanied by huge fanfare and loads of European politicians, on October 21 2008.

As a tailpiece - in the last three weeks I've heard countless "scenarios" about what the LHC will find, and every speaker has had an item like "Totally unexpected result" as one of the possibilities. Obviously they don't spend much time on this item as - by definition - there isn't anything to say about it. But this raises a new question - or perhaps meta-question. Will the LHC find any of the wide spectrum of phenomena that has been predicted, or something that all the theorists somehow missed? I feel this can have a major impact on the enterprise of theoretical physics - at least that part of it that deals with regimes of energy not yet subjected to experiment.

Either it's good to keep working on theories and hope experiments will later vindicate them, or else we humans lack the ability to make progress without experiment as a guide. Clearly the former possibility will please theorists and the latter one will please experimentalists. I wonder if the LHC will (at least in particle physics) tilt the balance in one direction or the other.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Large Hadron Rap

I guess many people know about it already - I first got to hear of it a couple of days ago from Rahul Basu in Chennai - despite the fact that I'm sitting physically above the LHC at this moment and he's not! It seems to have finally percolated into the CERN theory division yesterday.

So without further ado - drop whatever you're doing, throw your colleagues out of your office (or wear earphones) and click on this:

Large Hadron Rap (on YouTube).

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Flies make me Miserieux!

Ah France... what can you say about a country that has villages called (I am not making any of this up): Mussy, Dingy, Silly, Miserieux, and Ars! Not to mention a tiny and very pretty one that I drive past every day on my way to Gex. Problem is, it's called Flies.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

LH but no C

While there is obviously much excitement about the Large Hadron Collider here at CERN, I also sense a certain fatigue related to it. It has been talked about to death by now. Apparently all possibilities about what it will discover, from the most exotic to the most banal, have been analysed. Pessimists have predicted the death of particle physics. Optimists have predicted a resurgence of the field and a renewed thrust towards a "final theory" of all fundamental particles. There seems not much more to say until it starts gathering data.

This situation profoundly brings home to me the role of experiment in science. Most things that can be said about LHC before it starts running have been said. And yet we cannot know what it will find, or not find, until it happens. What better proof - if any were needed - that all the words in the world are not a substitute for an experimental result?

One thing I particularly like is that here the pessimists could well be proved wrong. In everyday life, pessimists usually take the "safe" option and too easily end up looking "cool". If you are pessimistic about politics, or human behaviour, or the environment, you are usually right. But about the Higgs, or supersymmetry - sure, be pessimistic if you like, but you could have to eat your words and they may end up more indigestible than all the blue cheese in Gex!

In a comment on a previous blog I was asked if there is any betting going on. I don't know if there is -- it hasn't come up in discussions at which I've been present, at least so far. But if there's one thing to bet on right now, it would be the date on which the machine is turned on. Current gossip indicates late August/early September. But all that will happen then is that a single proton beam will circulate in one direction through the tunnel. So it will be a case of Large Hadron, but no Collider! Of course it will be a crucial test for the magnets and everything else, but having two beams circulating in opposite directions, and then making them collide, and then collecting the data, and analysing it... It's all a long way off. Till then, we have only our words for company.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Hell is other people

Having settled down rather nicely in Gex, I woke up today wondering how to spend the weekend (the last one didn't count as I had just arrived). The thing to do, quite obviously, was to drive up into the Jura and trek. Never mind that I've never trekked alone before, I didn't know where to go, and the thought of enquiring at a French tourist office terrifies me.

Actually, doing anything in France has always terrified me. It's not as if I don't know French - I've recently reached near-100-percent comprehension when reading ordinary (not literary) French, and I can speak enough to get by. But there's something I don't do right, and it seems to bother people here en particulier.

Last Sunday I went to the farmers market in Thoiry, a picturesque village nestled in the shadow of the Jura. I was doing OK until I dared to ask for a filet of salmon. The fishmonger froze when I spoke to him, and stared at me in horror for a couple of seconds. Though he did sell me a filet of salmon, he steadfastly looked the other way (chatting with someone else to disguise the fact) even while handing me my change. What was it? Racism would be too simple an explanation. I think it's just me.

Next, a couple of days ago, again in Thoiry (could it be that the village hates me?) I went to the gigantic Migros supermarket. As it happened, all I needed was milk (and I picked up some mushrooms too). Then I saw her - the African-French lady at the counter - and she saw me, which caused her to roll her eyes in disgust. I fumbled with the shopping bag (you have to buy one, which I had forgotten). She rolled her eyes again. Then I handed her Swiss francs instead of Euros (I was carrying both). I'm sure this lady has the most muscular eyeballs on the planet by now.

Then yesterday, by now terrified of Thoiry, I tried to shop at Intermarche in St Genis which I had successfully conquered - or at least survived - on a previous visit. I picked up some trout. I remembered to pick up a shopping bag. The teenage boy at the counter wore thin-rimmed glasses and was clearly an aspiring existentialist. I mean, deep down he was yearning to go dancing, but he had developed a fixation on Sartre that made this impossible - for, if you believe that "All human actions are equivalent and all are on principle doomed to failure." then how do you step into a disco?

Anyway the gloomy kid asked me coldly if I had a "fidelity card" for his store. I said no, then (thinking to be chatty) asked if it cost money or was free. Unfortunately I said "gratuit" instead of "gratuite" which is the appropriate feminine adjective for "carte" (if you don't know cards are female, well what do you know??). And that did it. Boy-Sartre fixed me with a poisonous look and gave me a long and hostile lecture on how to acquire a fidelity card. I thought of hitting back with "Sartre only did philosophy so he could pick up women", which is also true. But I'd have messed up my grammar and he'd have won again, so I didn't try.

So this morning, with all these experiences under my belt, I set out in my rented Ford Focus (suggested ad line: this car accelerates from 0 to 100 kmph in a single afternoon!). I reach Col de la Faucille, park next to the tiny wooden shack which claims to be a tourist office, and - my heart understandably thumping - walk inside. "My French is terrible" I start out in French. The lady gives me a kind smile and says "English?" and I dance the bhangra and say "yippee!!" (or rather, "balle balle!!"). This lovely lady is most helpful and, to cut a long story short, I followed all her advice and had a wonderful trek.

Well there was one part of her advice I shouldn't have followed. "At the top of Petit Mont-Rond you will find a restaurant" she said. I did indeed find it, and went in for some coffee. Only, Mme Fraud, the owner, had the nerve to bring me a lukewarm cup of mud-water and ask for the Euro 3.30 upfront. The Italians, who can actually make coffee, charge 1 Euro for their divine beverage.

And there ends my adventure. Not much of an adventure, you say? You haven't read Sartre, obviously. The great man once said: "For an occurrence to become an adventure, it is necessary and sufficient for one to recount it."