Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ancient footprints and modern preprints

"Oh the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,
Ancient footprints are everywhere"

These are the opening lines of Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece and, despite having no masterpieces in progress (and no skill at painting), I was haunted by these words all of last week. The occasion was Strings 2009, the annual String Theory conference, held this year at the "Angelicum" whose very impressive full name is "Pontificia Università San Tommaso d'Aquino".

Saint Thomas Aquinas was a famous theologian of the Dominican order, and this university named after him teaches Canon Law, Sacred Theology and Philosophy, so many will consider it perfectly appropriate that a String Theory conference should be held there! The analogy becomes more amusing if one examines the five precepts of St Thomas, which in brief are:

1. God is simple, without composition of parts.
2. God is perfect, lacking nothing.
3. God is infinite.
4. God is immutable, incapable of change on the levels of essence and character.
5. God is one, without diversification.

If I can permit myself a heresy that will offend both devout Catholics and devout String Theorists: take the above list and replace "God" by "String Theory" everywhere, and you get a charming caricature of what string theorists say about their subject, or at least what other people think string theorists say about their subject.

The surroundings at the Angelicum are beautiful - and the slightly uncomfortable seats are clearly part of the divine plan of making us concentrate on the lectures. But there were more elements to this divine plan that unfolded as the conference progressed.

For those who don't know, a scientific conference in this day and age typically consists of a speaker talking to the backs of several hundred laptops behind which members of the audience check their email, write papers, and occasionally chat with each other via Google Talk. Alas, the wi-fi in the hall simply failed to work. The organisers assured us they had paid for the connection but the $%*#@# (Italian curses) phone company simply wasn't doing their job. On the second day things had not changed one bit. Moreover, this being Rome, most hotels did not offer internet or charged heavily for it (judging from the ads, 6 Euros an hour is considered a "cheap" rate, though it's what most Indians pay for an entire month's internet connection!). I was lucky with my hotel, which had free wi-fi though it was very basic in other ways.

By lunchtime on Tuesday the conference wi-fi finally started working. But unknown to anyone, a new element of the divine plan was unfolding. Just as the afternoon session was getting ready to commence at 2:30 PM, the lights went out. For the next half hour people sat obediently in their seats (the wi-fi of course went away along with the power). Around 3 PM the organisers announced that the power could not be restored that day, so the entire afternoon session was cancelled - or rather postponed to Wednesday, which in the original schedule was to have been a half-day.

I know what you, the reader, are thinking at this point. Clearly the Swiss Guard at the Vatican had started shutting off power selectively to different parts of Rome! I tried to convince my colleagues of this -- but sadly, most had not seen, or read, or even heard of, Angels and Demons. So they looked at me very very strangely.

Anyhow people streamed out of the Angelicum and many went to see the Colosseum which was a short walk away. There, one had the opportunity to stand in a long line (as we had already got used to doing for tea and lunch each day) before entering. Of course once you were inside it was magical, specially if you could succeed in visualising it minus the few thousand tourists. An interesting historical fact about the Colosseum is that half a million humans and a million animals perished within it. Another fact, which I promise I am not making up, is that "Pope Sixtus V (1585–1590) planned to turn the building into a wool factory to provide employment for Rome's prostitutes, though this proposal fell through with his premature death". And a good thing too. How would it have looked if we had all said: "Lectures are cancelled so let's go to the wool factory and look at ex-prostitutes"?

From what I've written so far you may not get the impression that much physics got done, but in fact there were many excellent lectures at Strings 2009. Some of the most impressive ones were about superconductors, QCD, particle scattering and neutron stars. These are important issues for many "earthly" physicists and string theory provides one of the most exciting ways to tackle outstanding problems in these areas. See for example this article. I particularly enjoyed the talks on these subjects by Sean Hartnoll, Ofer Aharony, Juan Maldacena, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Zvi Bern and and Erik Verlinde, the first three of whom had visited my institute in Bombay last year for the Monsoon Workshop on String Theory.

This turn of events is fascinating. Despite the most advertised (and often ridiculed) motivation of String Theory as being a unified theory of all fundamental interactions, the last couple of years have seen an upsurge in its applications to other fields of physics. What's impressive is that the string theorists who work on these applications have taken on a different area of physics and come to know it thoroughly and deeply. For example it's clear that Sean Hartnoll knows superconductivity, conventional and otherwise, extremely well and his presentation was impressive for his simultaneous mastery over that as well as string theory. The same can be said for many others who spoke and yet others who didn't come to Strings 2009.

I begin to feel that if String Theory is like any religion at all, it's not Christianity but Hinduism, which gradually incorporates and ultimately swallows up anything interesting that's going on around it.

I shouldn't fail to mention that there were also many lectures at Strings 2009 on particle phenomenology as related to (or interpreted in) string theory. Clearly the forthcoming experiments at the LHC are on people's minds. I particularly enjoyed Michelangelo Mangano's talk on LHC physics (not relating it to string theory but just updating us on what the likely scenarios are) and found it wonderfully clear, cogent, optimistic and yet balanced.

But back to Rome. As Dylan says, "You can almost think that you're seein' double, On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs". There weren't any cold dark nights, but given that tourists frequently sit on the Spanish Stairs and sing Bob Dylan songs, I can well understand why he was seeing double!

And some people did indeed paint their masterpiece in Rome, many times over. On my last day I got to see the Galleria Borghese, thanks to my dear friend Franco who made the required reservations for both of us. There I discovered (as I've discovered on previous visits to Rome many years ago) what stunning masterpieces had been painted by Caravaggio and Titian, and even more stunning statues sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The latter started sculpting as a teenager and had a bunch of masterpieces done before he was 25, which should make the rest of us feel pretty rotten indeed. By the time I came out, my voice was almost as whiny as Uncle Bob's! But I felt deeply elevated and fortunate to have witnessed this sublime level of art.

Now here's a funny thing. The last verse of Dylan's song goes:

"I left Rome and landed in Brussels,
On a plane ride so bumpy that I almost cried."

And the nice coincidence is that I, your humble (ha ha!) blogger, also left Rome and landed in Brussels. But the plane ride wasn't bumpy in the least. Only, my baggage didn't make it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Endonyms, exonyms, allonyms... what's in a nym?

A comment about my previous posting led me to do a little study about names of cities and countries. I'd like to describe some of what I learned. More details can be found on this Wikipedia entry.

The name by which a city or country is referred to by the local population is called an "endonym" while the name used by others not native to the place is called an "exonym". As an example, "Firenze" is an endonym while "Florence" is an exonym for the same city used by the French and English. Examples of exonyms are abundant in Europe. Among the most interesting for me are two German cities: "München", known in Italy by its exonym "Monaco" (which means "monk") and "Aachen" whose Italian exonym is "Aquisgrana" (which comes from the original Roman name meaning "hot springs"). In both cases, the exonym conveys more accurately the history of the city than does the current endonym.

The city we call by its English exonym "Geneva" has the endonym Genève used by its mainly French-speaking residents. Its other names
, "Genf" in German and "Ginevra" in Italian, might be called exonyms, but then German and Italian are official Swiss languages, so residents of Geneva who speak these languages can legitimately use "Genf" and "Ginevra" as endonyms. Thus a single city can have two or more endonyms. In this case the different endonyms are called "allonyms" of each other.

Another example of allonyms is "Bruxelles" (endonym used by French-speaking locals) and "Brussel" (endonym used by Flemish-speaking locals). Neither is pronounced the same way as "Brussels" which is the English exonym.

A nice example of allonyms closer to (my) home is "Mumbai" (Marathi endonym), "Bambai" (Hindi endonym) and "Bombay" (English endonym). While some might claim that the last one is an English exonym, English is one of India's official languages and there is a significant population in the city that uses it as a principal language. Therefore "Bombay" qualifies to be an endonym and is one of at least three allonyms for the city. This is in quite the same sense that Genf and Ginevra qualify as endonyms for Genève.

We spontaneously use exonyms all the time, for example English speakers refer to the country called "Zhōngguó" as China, and the city of "Krung Thep" as Bangkok. In my experience, English speakers tend to be particularly ignorant that they are using exonyms and often try to convince themselves and others that they are using the "correct" names, whatever that means. This is perhaps because of the very widespread (though hardly as overwhelming as some people imagine) use of English in the world today.

While the United Nations has studiously tried to encourage the exclusive use of endonyms, it has by its own admission found this very difficult, you can read about it here. To quote from this document: "Time has, however, shown that initial ambitious attempts to rapidly decrease the number of exonyms were over-optimistic and not possible to realise in the intended way. The reason would appear to be that many exonyms have become common words in a language and can be seen as part of the language’s cultural heritage."

In official situations the use of specific endonyms is sometimes required, but (in a democracy) there cannot be any restrictions on the use of different endonyms or exonyms in informal conversation, blogging, literature, art etc. This is particularly convenient for those contemplating a visit to Baile Átha Cliath!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


The Economist has released one of those predictable surveys ranking cities in the world for their "liveability". I'm amazed how a supposedly scientific magazine can present "liveability" as some sort of objective criterion. It also seems rather pompous to label the report "The Economist Intelligence Unit's liveability survey February 2009" and on top of that they expect online readers to fork out 250 US dollars to access the full report! All I've read, therefore, is the free summary and that tells us the top ten and the bottom ten cities.

India doesn't make it at either end but as today's papers tell us, both Bombay and Delhi are way down there. Now my irritation at the above article and survey is certainly not due to an inflated sense of where my beloved Bombay should lie. But let me say a few words about the winners. Three Canadian cities make it to the top 10: Vancouver (1), Toronto (4) and Calgary (5). Calgary is most easily demolished, it's dull as a garbage heap and ugly to boot (unless you include nearby Banff, but that's another city altogether). In addition to my personal impression, I've known a couple of people who have served time there. Of course someone will say liveability is altogether a different thing from aesthetics and liveliness. But I wonder, I wonder...

Vancouver is better. I've been there a few times and spent a good six weeks living in the very heart of downtown overlooking Coal Harbour (prettier than it sounds) - in an eminently "liveable" glass building where, if you're not careful, your entire personal life can be made into a feature film by the folks next door. The building had a full-size indoor heated swimming pool (there's not much of a market in chilly, rainy Vancouver for open-air pools!), sauna, jacuzzi, gym.. In short, liveable. Problem is, I found it a shade dull. No one there mentioned a museum or an art gallery seriously worth visiting. Bars inevitably consisted of a few despondent people watching TV. There really wasn't much of a buzz on the streets.

And here's the final blow. The supermarkets there sold average Canadian imitations of French cheese! And the "pesto" there is made from cashew nuts instead of pine nuts and generic oil instead of olive oil! Did I say "liveable"??

OK, OK. I have a brother, a sister-in-law, a cousin, a cousin-in-law and four nephews in Vancouver so I have to be careful what I say. It's a lovely city and if I found it a wee bit dull, it's surely my own limitation.

So on to Melbourne which comes in at number 3. And this is where
I begin to seriously wonder. The Economist claims its criteria for liveability are: stability, health care, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. Somewhere in this list they must surely evaluate the ability to walk safely home from a train station at night. Good old Bombay comes out shining on that score. But in the last few weeks Melbourne's image has certainly taken a bashing. I'm not referring to the hyped version in the Indian media, who believe that every Aussie wants nothing more in life than to beat up an Indian, and that every Indian in Melbourne is an angel. I'm referring to the moderate Australian response to this situation, as typified by an article titled "Play fair, mate" by Aussie journalist Greg Sheridan reprinted in yesterday's Hindustan Times. Here is an extract, referring to Melbourne:

"All big cities around the world are struggling with a rise in urban violence, especially in the throes of the global recession. While I'm sure there has been a racial element in these attacks, there has also been an element of robbery pure and simple, and of random, big city violence".

Does it bother you that a city so casually described in these terms by a resident scribe ranks No.3 on the Economist's list for "liveability"?

Oh, I'm not convincing you? OK, then here's my next (and final) card. Please read the following excerpt from Wikipedia's article on the current swine flu outbreak:

As of June 6, Australia's second largest city, Melbourne, has been reported as the "swine flu capital of the world", with 1,011 cases in Victoria, mostly in Melbourne.

I think I'll settle for Bombay's liveability, or whatever that thing which I like over here is called. Oh, and the mangoes are just fabulous!

Monday, June 8, 2009

BEST, c'est le meilleur!

If you're the owner of a flat that's been given out on rent, what you don't want to receive first thing in the morning is a phone call from the building manager informing you that the electric meter of the flat has burnt out. The call evoked visions of irate tenants, slow repair services and one or more wasted days. But that's not how things turned out at all.

For starters, my French tenant was more than understanding. He volunteered to leave work and return to the flat if that became necessary. His partner, a journalist, found herself trying to meet a deadline for an article without an internet connection and without even a fan in this sweltering weather -- so she went off to an air-conditioned cafe with wi-fi where she quietly got on with her work. And someone from the ever-impressive BEST (Bombay Electric Supply and Transport, with Bombay now replaced by "Brihanmumbai"), showed up at the building, took my mobile number from the manager and phoned to let me know they were working on the problem. By evening they had installed a brand new meter and hesitantly called again to ask if I could come to sign a document acknowledging the work. The man was genuinely sorry I had to leave my office for this! It took me ten minutes to get there, sign the document and slip him a 100-rupee note in gratitude (which he accepted gracefully after telling me it wasn't really necessary).

In another world, my tenants could have started off by screaming at me -- they're paying me so much and now no electricity! And the electric supply company could have been unreachable, then claimed it would take them a week to fix the problem, then gradually drawn me into a situation where a sizable "gift" had to be parted with before they would do anything. Happily, all that happened in a parallel universe unconnected to this one.

Well - this short posting is to publicly thank my tenants as well as the BEST. What can I say but "merci beaucoup, phaar aabhaari aahe!"