Science and Religion (humanity!): Gravity and Love

Some of the recent happenings, which influenced me significantly, led me to think about gravity and love. While I cannot mention all those things in this blog, I should point out two. One is the last blog I wrote about the borders in Science and Nations (1). Many have discussed about the border between Science and Religion. Another is a recent article published in the Journal Judgment and Decision Making titled On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound b—s— . (2)

I am almost convinced that many would have compared gravity and love and I am writing this blog without doing a Google search on these words together or a search in science or philosophical Journals. So this is my views, not influenced by others as yet. I started thinking about this analogy when I saw the authoritative article on pseudo-profund b—s—. I am reproducing one statement from the abstract:  “Across multiple studies, the propensity to judge b—s— statements as profound was associated with a variety of conceptually relevant variables (e.g., intuitive cognitive style, supernatural belief)”. Now you see why I thought of religion. This article appears to be an empirical study to understand why some people believe in statements that clearly appear to be ‘b—s—‘ to a Scientist or perhaps, a rationalist. Such empirical studies are accepted as good scientific procedures! The authors point out that “Despite these seemingly commonplace observations, we know of no psychological research on b—s—.” Such justifications are important for a scientific investigation on any problem.

Though all of us know gravity, we still do not know how gravity works. For example, if we have to take a mango (let me use a fruit that is native to where we live) from a tree, you can get a really long rod or tie together small rods with ropes, and tie a scythe at the end. Have a ladder or stool or go to the rooftop. Use this rod to reach the mango and cut it off from the branch by using the scythe. I have seen my father in law doing it in their house many times. Once the  mango is cutoff from the branch, it falls down. Gravity has helped us now. Mango was bound to the branch physically and a scythe was used to cutoff the link. Why does the mango fall down and not stay where it was or go up, when it’s link is cutoff! Of course, we all know it is due to gravity now.

We know electric and magnetic fields and we know that the opposite charges (poles) attract and like charges (poles) repel. Most students in physics may have done some experiments to look at the line of forces acting on magnetic materials. How does the earth pull the mango down? There are some speculations about ‘gravitons‘ which are hypothetical elementary particles that mediate the force of gravity. The wikipedia page on graviton looks reasonable (3). Basically we have a rope made of gravitons, that we cannot see, and it has pulled the mango down. Beyond this invisible gravitons, we know how gravity works. We can do experiments, make predictions, others can repeat our experiments and we all come to the same conclusions. Though, ‘graviton‘ cannot be seen, gravity is science!

Now let us look at how two people are attracted. We say they are in ‘love’ with each other. May be some one has done an empirical study, like the study on b—s— and come to conclusions about which two individuals may fall in love. I am not aware of them.’Love at first sight’ is a phrase commonly used. It is there from our Ramayanam (for Tamils, Ramayana for others) and the great poet Kamban says ‘அண்ணலும் நோக்கினார்  அவளும் நோக்கினாள்’ (‘annalum nokkinaar avalum nokkinaal’ which translates to ‘Rama looked at Sita and Sita looked at Rama at the same time). They fell in love and we have an epic. Do we have ‘lovons‘ that was mediating between Rama and Sita? Though they both fell in love, their marriage happens after Rama wins her in a contest and it was arranged.

I come from a background in which arranged marriage is still common and ‘love’ starts post marriage and it has worked very well for the most part. From the day of marriage, husband and wife live together and ‘love’ or affinity develops over a period of time. As I knew this would be the case in my life, and I really didn’t want to challenge this practice, I have somehow ensured that I would not possess any ‘lovons‘ or in case a girl were to send ‘lovons‘ to me, I would be transparent. It seems like, this attractive force of ‘love’ which could operate through the ‘imaginary particle lovon‘ can be controlled by humans, who have been conditioned to grow in a certain way. I do realize that, irrespective of the surroundings, some individuals can transmit and receive ‘lovons‘ and when they say they are in ‘love’, we cannot ask them to prove it. We have to accept it. I am not aware of any experiments that can be done to measure the ‘forces’ operating between them.

As with gravity, love is also attractive. If we have only attractive forces, it will be fatal and I am sure, many would have heard this term ‘fatal attraction’. When the mango falls down due to gravity, it will be crushed. We need to counter it with some repulsive forces, such as a cushioned bag, to collect the mango when it falls so that mango is not hurt and then taste the king of fruit. Even as I write, my love for mango is kindling my emotions and my mouth started watering. My love for mango started working. The gravitational force between earth and moon is balanced by the centrifugal force as they revolve around themselves and also the sun, resulting in a stable orbit. Between two people who are attracted by love, there has to be a ‘repulsive force’, one can see this as the space required for the individuals to exist independently, for a stable relationship. If this space is not provided, ‘love’ would not be enough to hold them together.

This article on ‘profound b—s—‘ concludes that those who are religious tend to accept ‘profound b—s—‘ more readily than others. Every religion promotes love. I come from a ‘shaivite’ family (people worshiping Shiva’ and we say ‘அன்பே சிவம்’ (anbae sivam, which means Shiva is nothing but love’) Christ said ‘love thy neighbour’. I am not sure if scientists will ever be able to explain the forces of ‘love’. That is for philosophers, I suppose. If only we can find ways to promote love, world will be a great place. We may never be able to discover ‘lovons‘ but we know love is real, may be not scientific. We may or may not be able to discover ‘gravitons‘ but we know gravity is real and scientific.

Perhaps we should stop comparing science and religion. Perhaps we should start giving equal emphasis for science and social science in schools and colleges. Without a doubt, religion has been used to exploit people and and kill each other as well. Religion does not encourage questioning and science does. Faith by definition cannot be questioned. Science starts by questioning what we observe. Ideally religion should promote love and science could be indifferent to this. Did Einstein say “Science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind’? (4) I have also heard people saying ‘love is blind’.

  1. https://earunan.org/2016/09/20/borders-in-science-and-nation-the-need-for-them-and-the-need-to-have-a-healthy-disrespect-for-them/ Accessed on 24 September 2016.
  2. http://journal.sjdm.org/15/15923a/jdm15923a.html Accessed 24 September 2016
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graviton Accessed 24 September 2016.
  4. 4. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins161289.html Accessed on 24 September 2016

 

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Borders in Science and Nation: The need for them and the need to have a healthy disrespect for them!

Tamil is an ancient language that has been around for several millennia. Several philosophers have written poetry, which are very old, but their content remains applicable for all the times. One such poem was written by Kanian Poongundranaar during the Tamil Sangam (which are perhaps comparable to Academic Societies today) period, which started around 300 BC (1). This poem starts as: யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளிர் (Yaadhum Oorae, yaavarum kaelir), loosely translated as “All towns are the same and all people are our kin”. This is depicted in the United Nations Organization for the profound truth it conveys (2). The translation given in the Wikipedia page quoted says ‘all men are our kin’. This is incorrect and ‘all are our kin’ is the right translation. He did not envision any borders between towns!

I have written earlier about how I became a physical chemist, bordering physics and chemistry. I have been in the editorial advisory board of Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics (PCCP), a Journal published by the Owner societies. The title of the Journal implies that the border between physics and chemistry are thin and either can be the first or last name, for the sub-discipline. More importantly, this Journal showed how borders between the nation-states of Europe had become thin. This Journal combined several favorite Journals in physical chemistry published in various nations in the UK and Europe (among them were two Journals named after two of the greatest scientists of all time, Faraday and Bunsen, Faraday Discussion, published in UK and ‘Berichte der Bunsengesellschaft für physikalische Chemie‘ published in German). PCCP has established itself as one of the leading Journals in this area. Brexit may have happened but I am confident that PCCP will continue, at least, for my lifetime. It is published by the Owner Societies, which has many of the European Chemical Societies as its members. A few years ago, Chemistry, an Asian Journal came into existence as well.

When I was in high school in the 1970s, I remember learning that chemistry is a study of matter and physics is a study of energy. Of course, Einstein’s famous equation E = mc^2 was already known having energy on the left hand side and matter (it’s mass) on the right hand side. One can translate this equation as physics = chemistry. However, still physics and chemistry as individual and independent disciplines exist and it may continue to exist. One subtle difference, that would be lost in this generalization is that chemists worry more about how atoms combine to form molecules or liquids or solids. They worry about the interactions between them and how they transform from one to another. Study of making and breaking bonds between atoms is indeed chemistry. Though atomic physics exists, there is no atomic chemistry. Atoms have to join together for chemistry!

Science, as a pursuit of understanding nature really cannot have a border. However, it is important to have disciplines and sub-disciplines, and sub-sub-disciplines and for individual researchers, focus on one specific problem in a narrow sub-discipline is needed. Divide and conquer works. One soon realizes that even to solve a specific problem in Science, it is important to have contributions from many disciplines. Again, taking a personal example, we have established experimental laboratories in India, where we can make the weakest bond, even between inert gases such as argon and neon and study them with a pulsed nozzle Fourier transform microwave spectrometer. We can also break the strongest bond, the triple bond between two N atoms in N2, in a single pulse shock tube. In both laboratories, building the experimental facilities involved knowledge of mechanical engineering, electronics and communication engineering, vacuum techniques, physics, chemistry and, of course, maths. One lifetime is not enough to learn all these thoroughly but even to talk to experts in all these area one needs to understand these subjects to some extent. It is important to collaborate and that involves mutual trust and respect. Learning all these subjects is not trivial and may require different skills one person may not be able to acquire. None of this skills are more important than others.

We have had humans on this earth for 200,000 years or more.  Currently, we have more than 7 billion people on our earth and they are distributed in about 250+ countries. We started living in caves, feeling secure and hunting animals, migrated to plains, started farming, developed languages to communicate with each other and started developing codes  of conduct so that we can all coexist. We really had no choice about whether to exist, but having come in to this world, we had to find ways to coexist. Religion was found and religious texts prescribed rules for life. Eventually, over the last few hundred years, the nation-state model has started working well. Most nations are democratic and they have a constitution to guide them with elected representatives who have a fixed term.

Given the size of this world, it is not practical to be governed by one ruler or executive and so we have many countries, which are divided in to states, which are divided into districts, and so on. And we have the United Nations. Any conflict in smaller entities is resolved by discussion and arbitration, with mutually agreed rules. While these borders are needed for practical purposes, as the borders in Science, we need to realize that these are arbitrary and came in to existence rather recently. As much as a chemist has no reason to hate a physicist, I don’t see any reason for a person from one district or state or country to hate another one from a different district or state or country. One could add, language and religion as well, which are drawing borders between people. As it is true in the border areas of science, one can note that in the borders drawn based on language, religion, state, nations etc… there is really no big difference between the two sides.

Those from India now are worried about two things as a nation. Tension in the borders between India and Pakistan and the tension in the borders between the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. When we realize that the senior leader of the ruling party BJP, Advani was born in what is Pakistan today, one can get a different perspective. Hosur, a small town in Tamil Nadu, bordering Karnataka, has it’s name in Kannada (Hosur in Kannada means new town). I have been to temples 60 km north of Bangalore (Yoganarasimha temple), where I saw the statues of 13 Aalwargal (Vaishnavite saints, following Vishnu as their God) who wrote poems in Tamil. Clearly the borders have been drawn recently. If we use them for any reason other than administrative simplicity. we will have problems.

Scientists know the importance of collaboration. Again, taking an example from a field that has excited me i.e. the hydrogen bond, one of the most important paper was published recently in Science, from China through a collaboration between physicists and chemists (3). They could see ‘the hydrogen bond’, when seeing atoms and molecules were thought to be impossible, not so long ago! Readers having no access to Science, may not be able to read it and anyone interested is welcome to read a commentary I wrote in Current Science, which is available online with free access (4). Naturally, when people from across the borders work together, they can achieve lot more than what is possible when they work independently. However, not only in Science, but also in human relations, mutual trust and respect are important. When that is lost, there will be tension,war, destruction …. Sooner or later, people realize that, it is better to develop mutual trust and respect and find ways to coexist.

I recommend an autobiograpy written by Prof. Curt Wittig from the University of Southern California (5). It is long but worth reading. A part of this was published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry A in a Festchrift in his honor a few years ago. He has done some beautiful experiments in physical chemistry that helped in understanding the microscopic details of how chemical reactions happen. From his autobiography, one can learn a few things about the nations and their borders in Europe. The city in which he was born kept changing hands to different countries. His experiences in the Chicago southern neighborhood is unbelievable. It also shows that where you started in life hardly matters. Given the right opportunities, you can excel in your career and life.

In closing, let me reiterate: One should not take any of the borders too seriously, if one is interested in real progress. In the references below, two are to Wikipedia pages and they have to be understood as unauthenticated information.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sangam_period Accessed on 20 September 2016.
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaniyan_Pungundranar Accessed on 20 September 2016.
  3. J. Zhang, P. Chen, B. Yuan, W. Ji, Z. Cheng, X. Qiu, Science,Vol. 342, Issue 6158, pp. 611-614 2013. Link: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/342/6158/611
  4. E. Arunan, Curr. Sci. VOL. 105, NO. 7, pp 892-894.  Link: http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/105/07/0892.pdf
  5. C. Wittig autobiography, longer version available at http://www.curtwittig.com/wp-content/uploads/curt-wittig-autobio.pdf
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RTE and NPS: Honesty/integrity doesn’t pay enough for many in India, yet!

Warren Buffet said: Honesty is a very expensive gift, don’t expect it from cheap people. One would think, honesty would become more common if one is from a wealthy nation. The reports I read about Donald Trump indicates that material wealth may not be enough to ensure honesty. One needs a wealth of character.

The Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur campus has a Kendriya Vidyala Higher Secondary School to cater to the children of its faculty and staff. Around 1996, the school administration dropped a bomb on many students and their family. The students were informed that they had to be born before a certain date in order to appear for the higher secondary exam (+2) when they come to that level. This was a new rule introduced at that time and it was enforced retrospectively. Several students had been admitted in the past when they were younger and would not satisfy this new criterion when they enter their school final year. Many students were affected. The parents were given a choice. They could produce an affidavit that would show that their kids were older and so they could write the exam when they reach the final year. If not, the kids will have to stay back in the same class for one more year! Among the many faculty members facing this tough choice, only one chose honesty and integrity. Everyone else found a way to get an affidavit. That bright girl, unlucky daughter of an honest father, who had not learned that integrity doesn’t pay, stayed back in the same class with her juniors. It must have been a tough time to repeat the same courses because the rules were changed in between! She had done well eventually getting a Ph. D. from the USA. I have not known or followed the lives of the other kids who had smarter parents. I can only speculate that they had learned what is more important in life and continued to progress.

India enacted two laws recently. Right to Information (RTI) and Right to Education (RTE). As with any rules and laws, there are always two sides, may be more than two. Both laws have a holistic objective. RTI can ensure that every one has access to information. Political parties and the BCCI (Board of control of cricket in India) continue to claim that the RTI rules don’t apply to them. The RTE was enacted to give opportunities for poor kids to get education from the best of school. There have been so much written about both these and this blog is not about the pros and cons of these acts. It is about honesty and integrity.

Recently, the Central Board of School Education (CBSE) has canceled affiliation for one of the most reputed schools, the National Public School. Some are outraged by this and clearly hundreds of students would be affected. Why did the CBSE take this step? NPS is accused of forging documents to evade law! They are convinced that the RTE act is wrong. Hence, they seem to have decided that forging documents is acceptable for them.If a reputed school can choose to break the law, when it is convinced the law is wrong, what will the students do in life? What would the students of the Kendriya Vidyalaya who got ahead by submitting a false affidavit do in the future? Is it alright to forge a document or lie to get ahead in life? Where does it stop?

In a country or society in which the rich and powerful do not follow the rules, one cannot expect the poor and marginalized to follow the rules either. If NPS can do dishonest things because it is convinced that the law of the land is wrong, why should not a poor person who comes from a section that has been historically marginalized for long, break a law that (s)he does not approve?

This I find to be a serious problem in India. Everyone feels deprived and I have heard it from the leaders in science and politics. As they have been deprived in the past, it is alright to be a little dishonest. It is alright to cut corners, bend or break the rules, forge a signature, alter a document. Is it any wonder, corruption has become prevalent?

India is not unique in having a troubled past. Every country and society have gone through similar history. I remember reading an Italian scientist’s autobiographical review in which he points out that nepotism and favoritism ruled the institutions there in the 60s. I remember reading another such review by a Professor from the University of California, Berkeley, who mentions about his mother who was expected to be a house wife as that was what women were expected to do. As we develop in to a modern nation, we have a constitution and rule of law. If we do not like something, we need to convince our representatives, our people and bring in changes. If we choose not to obey the law of the land, what kind of an example are we setting for our citizens? If I can break a law that I don’t like, do I have any right to stop another person from breaking a law that (s)he doesn’t like!

When can we say, honesty and integrity are essential in life and if someone follows them, they can be assured of growth and a dignified life? If we can say that, we would have become a really developed nation!

 

 

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