Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Vegetarian caviar is also served

Today I feel like ranting at something totally inconsequential (what else do I ever do, someone is surely asking). Political events these days are way too depressing.

My eye was caught by the following item in the Hindustan Times's supplement for the intellectually challenged, "HT Cafe". It said "xxx Lounge Bar at yyy Hotel is hosting a month long caviar promotion. Guests can indulge in high grade caviar with fine vodka." And then comes the punch line: "Vegetarian caviar is also served to customise the delicacy to Indian tastes".

As customisation goes, this is a classic. Caviar, as everyone hopefully knows, is pickled fish eggs. So what is vegetarian caviar? This, it turns out, is made from algae, and the customisation was done in the West, not at all for Indian tastes. Indeed I doubt there are too many Indian vegetarians who will go for its fishy flavour. It's the vegetarian movement in the West, which boasts pork-sausage look-alikes (and taste-alikes to a surprising degree) made from soybeans, that seems hell-bent on imitating meat products and this appears to be their latest invention.

But imitation is becoming the game in India too. If there is tandoori chicken, there is also tandoori veg. If there are steak sizzlers, there are also veg sizzlers. If mutton rogan josh, vindaloo and korma are the originals, then veg rogan josh, vindaloo and korma are the imitations. In fact airlines in India have perfected the notion - whenever they offer "bashed chicken parts in unseemly gravy" they invariably offer the same dish with "veg" in place of "chicken". I suspect archaeologists of the future will deduce that a strange animal called "veg" roamed our land, and that it tasted surprisingly like a combination of mashed potato, peas, carrots, beans, dozens of spices and truckloads of oil!

Sunday, September 21, 2008


Well Japan left me speechless. I thought it would be so easy to blog about. It is such a singular country, so unique in a million ways - and yet on this short visit - my fifth or sixth - I didn't have anything concrete to say. Some days after getting back home I seem to be finding my voice again.

The thing is, Japan is at the opposite end of the spectrum from India in almost every way. The comparisons favourable to Japan are easy: where India is poor, Japan is rich; where India is dirty, Japan is the cleanest society on earth; where Indians lack discipline, the Japanese are utterly self-disciplined. In fact my biggest fear, as an Indian in Japan, is of coming across as boorish or rude. There is no chance a Japanese will ever jump a queue or push you out of the way. But there is every chance I will fail to return a bow or a smile and thereby upset these gentle, courteous people.

Returning to earth is a shock - reaching a departure gate for a flight bound for India, you get an elbow stuck in your side by someone who wants to get on your flight before you (and would cheerfully take his seat to India faster if he could bribe a cop, leaving your seat to fall into the sea if that were necessary to achieve his goal).

In my case, I returned to earth via Hongkong, an interesting mid-point between Japan and India. The airport is swanky and the shopping spectacular, but the racist staff at the shops make no secret of the fact that in their view the only good Indian is a dead Indian (to quote the charming Theodore Roosevelt, who was speaking about different "Indians"). But one should not get sidetracked here - Hongkong is not important in any sense that I can think of, but Japan and India are, and what I want to know is - where is the cosmic balance? Do we Indians have any redeeming features compared to the Japanese? What is our purpose on this earth?

And for once, at the peak of my middle-aged despair about my own country, I begin to see the point. Precisely the things lacking in Japan are to be found in India. Even when the weather in Tokyo is hot and humid (as it was last week), the environment is chilly - all glass and steel and manicured shrubs. Post-monsoon Bombay may be damp and soggy but it is exuberantly green and - let's face it - shrubs do not wish to be manicured. They want to sprout, to grow, to thrust themselves on your attention and say "here I am - a shrub, maybe, but one with a healthy appetite and sex drive". And perhaps this vulgar phrase says it all. India is where lust (for life and everything that goes with it) is unfettered, where layers of fat are un-restrained, where prejudice and affection are so mixed that we can rarely state our opinions with precision.

Yes we are boorish, but in many ways innocently so. The person who elbows you at the airport will say with a straight face "sorry uncle, I didn't even see you!" and instead of slapping this little upstart you will be lulled into believing him.

Meanwhile back in Japan - one small incident sticks in my mind. By asking successive bus drivers and using "sumimasen" (Japanese for "excuse me") repeatedly, I got closer and closer to my goal of locating the bus for Tokyo University's Kashiwa campus from Kashiwa station. But the last driver frustrated me totally. She just would not gesture. She understood dimly that I was not following her speech, but she would not use any kind of sign language. An hour later (after returning to my hotel in defeat and having the entire staff apologise to me for Japan's failure to help me find my bus) I learned that she had been telling me to take bus number 1, not number 2 which she was driving, from the very same stop. How hard is it to explain that to someone with your hands?

If the fate of the world depended on sign language (and some day it might come to that), Indians and Italians would inherit the earth and the Japanese would perish. And the Hongkongese would, I suppose, be left with only their duty free shops.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The times they are a'changing

For a middle-class Indian, travelling on a foreign airline used to be the height of luxury - in the 1970's and 80's on the rare occasions one got to travel abroad (e.g. for a conference) one looked forward to the spanking new planes, delicately prepared food, elegant service and the occasional (in economy class) freebie like face masks or socks.

Well the tables have certainly turned. This year I've made two international trips on India's Jet Airways which proved excellent on all counts, specially the friendly, cheerful staff and the excellently fitted - and surprisingly spacious - economy class cabins. Then yesterday, I came from Bombay to Tokyo on Cathay Pacific - once famed for being among the world's best airlines. What a disappointment! Creaky planes, badly designed seats (if the person in front chose to recline, their seat back would practically hit you in the face) mediocre staff, no power sockets for laptops, poor quality video screens...

In fact I'm pretty sure Jet provides the best economy-class flying experience in the world today (Kingfisher fans will contest this, but that is also an Indian airline so we won't argue). By contrast, Cathay is right down there among the worst, along with other notables like Northwest, Continental, Delta... From personal experience I can also vouch that Swiss is a pathetic shadow of the defunct Swissair, and Air Canada is unspeakable. I'm not sure where Air India stands, but they are upgrading their fleet and could easily get up near the top given there's little competition left.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What else should a crackpot be called?

I was wandering through the blogosphere, curious to find out what physicist-bloggers elsewhere had to say about the so-called "end of the world". On the excellent blog "Cosmic Variance" I found an article by Mark Trodden: Calling a Crackpot a Crackpot which I strongly recommend. Many of the comments on his posting are also very good (No.14, suggesting we serve a restraining order on the sun, is particularly hilarious).

The above paragraph is hopefully my final posting on this topic. Otherwise I would be guilty of suggesting (I might be guilty of that already) that there really is a debate between qualified scientists on this issue, which there is not.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

End of the world?

I received the following very nicely worded email today, which I am posting along with my response:

Dear Prof. Mukhi,

I am Sribharath Kainkaryam, an undergraduate student studying Geophysics. I am a keen follower of your blog and your work for non-physicists in general.

I have a few doubts which I kindly ask you to clarify in the form of a post on your blog. I hope it is not too much to ask for!

On reading this article, I am more and more intrigued. Is there any basis for these critics to allege that the world is coming to an "end"? Could you please clarify it either by mail/blog post or send a link to an expository article that you might have authored.

Thank you.




Dear Sribharath,

Thanks for your mail. It's nice that you have sought information - I wish others, specially journalists, would do the same!

The Large Hadron Collider is a machine that will send protons whirling round and round in its tunnel and accelerate them until they have enormous kinetic energy, amounting to 5 Tera Electron-volts or TeV (later to be upgraded to 7 TeV). There will be two beams, one circulating clockwise and the other anti-clockwise, each with this energy. They will normally not meet each other, but will instead accelerate separately. Whenever an experiment is to be performed the accelerated beams will be diverted slightly into each others' path and made to collide.

The result of the collisions between these small particles, is a bunch of other particles which will spray out from the collision and pass through detectors. By recording what goes through the detectors, and using sophisticated computers, scientists will determine what particles were produced and at what energies and angles. From this it is in principle possible to reconstruct the laws that apply to fundamental particle interactions. This is the goal of LHC.

LHC is not the first particle accelerator, nor are the laws for fundamental particle interactions unknown to us. Indeed, most of what will be produced by colliding protons is perfectly well known. Moreover, hadron colliders have been around for a long time, the first one (ISR) was built at CERN in 1971 and operated for fourteen years. So the only new thing is the energy that the present collider will reach. Even that is not such a major step, for the last hadron collider (the Tevatron, operational at Fermilab in the US since 1992) reached nearly 1 TeV per beam. In short, what is going to happen at LHC is a logical continuation of experiments that have been going on for decades. The real excitement in science is that we believe new particles, never seen in an experiment before, could be produced. We hoped that about Tevatron too, and it produced a notable one (the "top" quark) but not many others that we were hoping to see.

The claim that LHC poses a risk to the world is not based on the "normal" new particles that scientists hope to see (Higgs, superparticles...) but on something a little different. In the last decade, theorists have proposed an apparently outlandish scenario in which the energy scale required for gravitational effects to be relevant is lower than previously thought and may be accessed at LHC (so far gravitational effects have been totally irrelevant for particle physics). In this scenario there is the possibility that small black holes may be produced. If that happens, there should still be nothing to worry about, for such black holes would decay and that would be that.

The problem is if they fail to decay. In that case, they could "accrete" matter and, without further analysis, there is the risk that this process will pose a threat to the earth. In a detailed scientific analysis (a 96-page paper available here) two excellent physicists, Giddings and Mangano, have analysed this possibility. Their conclusions are that (i) the possibility that such black holes are stable and neutral is extremely unlikely according to known results in physics (besides the low likelihood of their existing at this energy scale in the first place), (ii) assuming all the standard analyses are wrong for some reason and that stable, neutral TeV-scale black holes can exist, such black holes would already have been produced in cosmic rays. This would produce effects which are in contradiction with known observations in astrophysics. Their conclusion is that if such black holes did have any visible effect on the earth, the time scale for this to happen would be longer than the sun's lifetime which is about 5 billion years.

I know both scientists who authored this study personally and find their result quite convincing. Whatever counter-arguments have been made (mostly by non-scientists or unqualified scientists) do not seem to be convincing. In any case it is not I, but the responsible experimenters at CERN, who need to be convinced that it is safe, and they are clearly convinced of that.

By the way, I know it's not much of a consolation, but even the predicted "end of the world" is not really scheduled for September 10. All that will happen on that day is that a single proton beam will circulate in LHC in one direction. The first collisions are scheduled for late October as far as I know. This is a minor point, but please notice how blissfully the Times of India is unaware of even this basic fact!!

Fast car

This morning, it being a Sunday, I was driving to Colaba market to buy prawns. On the way, a red Ferrari pulled out in front of me. I'm quite a car freak, so at the traffic light I pulled alongside and stared at this stunning piece of machinery. The car was being driven by an elderly chauffeur and next to him was a young boy of about 10. Since the car had pulled out of the Ambani building, I assume this was a young Ambani. He saw me staring and gave me a cold look that said "I'm in a Ferrari, and you're not". I returned his look with one of my own that said "I have friends, and you don't".

This was temporarily satisfying, but then there are also days when I'd be tempted to give up my friends to little Ambani in exchange for his Ferrari! He may contact me if interested.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

My father's day

I don't post too often about my personal life on this blog, but today I would like to make an exception.

It is my father's 32nd death anniversary - he passed away on September 6, 1976 at the relatively young age of 58. Last year I put together a webpage about him, linked through my homepage. So today, in his memory, I would like to direct my readers - even if there are only one or two - to that webpage.

I've been thinking about him a lot today and have begun to realise that his profoundest legacy to me was the concept of "following principles". But more about that another time.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Revival of a language

धिस इझ व्हौट मच ऑफ बॉम्बे लुक्स लाईक दीज़ डेज़ऑल शॉप्स हैव गौट मराठी साईन्ज़वन फील्ज़ हैप्पी दैट लैंग्वेज इज बीन्ग प्रिज़र्व्ड! फ्रॉम "बेचलर्स" आईसक्रीम टू "गैस सिलीन्डर्ज़", "टैक्स्टाइल्ज़" एंड अफ कोर्स "फास्ट फ़ूड", ऑल धीज़ आर नाओ क्लिअर्ली एक्सप्रेस्ड इन लोकल लैंग्वेज - विच इज फाइनली बीन्ग रिस्टोर्ड टू इट्स फौर्मर ग्रेट्नैस.

वी मस्ट गिव आर पौलीटिशन्स क्रेडिट फॉर दिस अचीवमेंट!

P.S. I regret not being able to express this posting in a form accessible to Devanagari-challenged readers, and hope they will forgive me this one time!

We only want the bad news

Most of us can think of a friend who frequently calls up with bad news. He had a setback in his job, his wife has a back problem and their daughter was too sick to appear for her exams. You sympathise. You worry about them. Maybe you send over a little present to cheer them up. Then months later, you learn from a common friend that he got a new job at twice the salary, his wife staged a recovery through yoga and now attends dance classes, and the daughter went on to win prizes at school. But somehow, this friend "forgot" to tell you any of that! He shares the bad news, but not the good.

Some people are particularly prone to this kind of behaviour, but overall that's human nature for you. I was reminded of this when I went to Bangalore a couple of days ago. The new airport is a disaster, and there are no roads to connect it to the city, so it will take you three hours to get anywhere - or so my friends assured me. I could remember newspaper reports on these lines and was quite concerned. But the reality was quite the opposite. What I encountered was a gleaming airport that's a pleasure to arrive in, and a highway on which (I timed it) we covered 29 of the 35 km towards Bangalore city in 35 minutes - on a Friday evening. That we got into immense traffic jams on entering the city is hardly the fault of the airport.

Perhaps there were glitches when it opened, but if the press ever highlighted the excellent terminal and smooth roads then I can't remember it. Actually I wasn't here for the last month, but no friend of mine could remember it either. We're all busy collecting the bad news and have little space in our minds for the good. What's the deep reason? I feel contemporary urban Indians are suffering a crisis of personal insecurity (despite, or because of, the fact that our country is poised to make major economic progress and perhaps eliminate its endemic poverty). Could it be that seeing negatives everywhere around makes us feel better about ourselves and alleviates this insecurity, at least temporarily?