Zero Tolerance, says Indian Judiciary!

Indian Judiciary has done well most of the time and this week has been outstanding. First came the verdict on instant triple talaq! Then came the verdict on privacy. And the final nail was the conviction of Ram Rahim as a rapist. Sentencing is expected on Monday. His followers have not just disagreed with the sentence, they have ravaged many parts of Haryana, Punjab and Delhi. They are clearly in contempt of court and all of them should be booked for violence, disturbing peace and contempt of court.

Sakshi Maharaj, a sitting MP has come up with a statement and this highlights why India is still unable to become a developed nation, despite seven decades of independence and more than two decades of economic growth. Sakshi Maharaj is alleging a “conspiracy to defame not only Ram Rahim and other saints, but also Indian culture.” [1] Sorry Mr. Maharaj! Convicting a rapist does not defame Indian culture. It enhances it and it is an important step to becoming a civilized and developed nation. I see this in every sphere of life in India, including in Indian Science and Academics.  We protect our beloved ones, even when they commit the most heinous crimes. In the process, we ensure that everything that is spoken in public is given a decent burial. We disregard merit, independence, performance, and talent and promote people who are our favorites for various reasons such as the person is from our group and/or (s)he is obedient! This has made India, casteist, communalist, nepotist, and corrupt. All of us have been asked to take a pledge against all these ‘isms’, including ‘terrorism’.  Evidently Sakshi Maharaj did not take the pledge.

How is it that India has grown in the last seven decades, despite all this? We do have people of honesty and integrity in every sphere of life as much as we have people like Ram Rahim and Sakshi Maharaj and their followers. Two girls courageously wrote a letter describing the crime. One reporter who was brave enough to report this was killed. His murder case is still being investigated. And we have honest officials like Mr. Naryanan who refused to yield to pressure from his superiors in CBI, political leaders and the mob that followed Ram Rahim [2]. Some who claimed a new India is born after the triple talaq verdict just a couple of days ago have been very silent after Ram Rahim was convicted by the Court. Clearly, they are not looking for a modern India. They are keen on establishing a differently ‘backward’ India. The real liberals have welcomed the judgement on all three days.

Some days ago, I was in a meeting which discussed about promoting Science in India.  One of the points I mentioned was about having ‘zero tolerance’ about promoting Scientists who have been unethical in their practice of science. Other members in the committee were very supportive of this idea. From the response of some members, it appears that this has not been the general practice. I am personally aware of specific instances when this was not the case.

What do we do with anyone, whether it is Ram Rahim or a Scientist who has committed a crime. We don’t put everyone in a guilletine, like what was done after French Revolution. Somewhat coincidentally, I write this blog on 26th August 2017. In 1794, on this day, Antoine Lavoisier, the father of Chemistry was put on a guilletine as he was accused of selling adulterated tobacco! The Judge had apparently told that ‘the Republic needed neither scientists nor chemists and that justice could not be delayed’ [3,4]. Doesn’t India need Godmen and Scientists? We do need the honest ones, whether in Science or Religion.

We live in 21st century. I for one do not believe in capitol punishment. However, not giving any punishments to those who commit crimes, whether they are scientists or godmen, will only stop our progress towards a modern nation. I hope Ram Rahim is given the maximum punishment and the State and Central Governments do everything to enforce it.

Not so long ago, Tamil Nadu showed how to oppose court Judgements and Government orders in a democratic way when there was a genuine grouse and attack on our culture. Eventually, Supreme Court and both the Central and State Governments agreed to make amends and stop interfering with culture. What Sakshi Maharaj talks about is not this culture. It is interesting that there has been a continuous propaganda against Tamil Nadu by the same group of people claiming that Hindu culture is being suppressed and opposed. Their objective is not protecting Hindu or Tamil culture and it is political victory and dominance to take Tamil Nadu and India backwards. Hindu/Indian culture has been protected in Tamil Nadu for millennia and neither the mogul nor the british could do anything about it. I am sure no other force can do it either.

References (All weblinks accessed on 26 August 2017)

  1. http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/bjp-lawmaker-sakshi-maharaj-says-ram-rahim-being-harassed-attacks-court-1742157
  2. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/dera-sacha-sauda-chief-gurmeet-ram-rahim-singh-cbi-officer-who-cracked-case-was-asked-to-close-it-4813907/   A note added on 27 August 2017. I got to see a Facebook posting of Mr. Yadvender Singh and shared it. He had given more details about all the brave men and women who fought a long battle. I hope this link works: https://www.facebook.com/earunan/posts/10208319420298142?notif_t=like&notif_id=1503806551165486
  3. http://www.edn.com/electronics-blogs/edn-moments/4413675/Father-of-modern-chemistry-Antoine-Lavoisier-is-falsely-convicted–May-8–1794
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoine_Lavoisier
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Ethics cannot solve the problem of superstition! Is Sarukkai’s claim that it can, devoid of ethics?

Since, our Independence seven decades ago, most everyone has pointed out that India is lagging behind in many fields by, perhaps, decades. Most of the world organized a ‘March for Science’ in April 2017 and Indian scientists caught up rather quickly by marching for Science in August 2017, within a few months. One Director of a CSIR lab used the pretext of potential violence to order (or was it an advice?) all his staff not to join the March.

Many scientists participated in this and it was covered in national and international news. Sundar Sarukkai, perhaps the only philosopher of Science in India, currently at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore wrote a commentary in The Hindu proclaiming that the March for Science was unscientific. (1) We need more philosophers of Science in India and perhaps we need more in many major fields of Science as well. Sarukkai’s reasons for calling the march unscientific did not appeal to some scientists from India and two of them wrote a long response. Rahul Siddharthan’s response came in Wire (2) and Felix Bast (3) put it in his blog. A social scientist also disagreed and pointed out that the March for Science was needed even for social science (4). Wire offered a chance for Sarukkai to respond to Siddharthan’s counter and published it too.  Sarukkai’s response was titled “To Stop Superstition, We Need Viable Ethical Perspectives, Not More Science” (5).

I contend that viable ethical perspectives cannot by itself counter superstition. Let us look at what ‘viable ethical perspective’ means and see if there is any hope for it to counter superstition. Let me use Google dictionary for ease of use. The first word ‘viable’ is simple enough and it means ‘workable, practicable, feasible’ and so on. I am convinced that most every reader of this article would know what ‘viable’ means. The third word ‘perspective’ means among other things ‘point of view’. It is surprising how a philosopher of science chose to put this as a viable alternative to Science to counter superstition. Obviously, points of view will differ. Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘perspective as a particular way of thinking’. Clearly, different people can have different perspectives! This will certainly not help in clearing ‘superstition’ and it can only help sustain superstition.

Now let us look at the second word ‘ethical’. This seems to be the most important word suggested by Sarukkai to counter superstition instead of ‘more science’. Perhaps he believes that the advances in Science are already enough to counter superstition and we do not need any more Science. I hope he did not mean ‘ethics’ instead of Science. Though most everyone would have heard about this word as well, let us look at what ‘ethics’ means. According to Google ‘ethics is a branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles’. Could this help in removing superstition? Let us first define ‘superstition’. According to Google, It is any belief or practice that is irrational. It is not obvious to me how ‘following any moral principles’ can stop ‘irrational belief’? Let me give you some examples.

One of the most widely held superstitious belief was that ‘earth was flat’. Aryabhatta, according to the Wikipedia page found today, has estimated the circumference of earth as 39,968 km, very close to the value accepted today, 40,075 km (5). Aristotle had also argued that earth was spherical.  I am not sure if we still have human beings who hold this belief. It agrees with what one can see in front of their eyes. If someone believes this, (s)he cannot be held immoral for propagating this view. (S)he is not deceiving or cheating anyone when claiming earth is flat. For others, (s)he is spreading a superstition as they know the fact that earth is not flat.

If this sounds like one of the tales from a distant past, I accidentally stumbled on a TV show recently, in which one Hindu scholar was comparing someone talking to the forefathers who have long been dead with someone using a mobile phone and talking to someone else living in America. He mentioned that in both cases we cannot see how our voice reaches them. I did not think his comparison was fair or scientific. He seemed pretty convinced with this analogy and offered it as a proof that we could communicate with our forefathers who are no longer alive. While I can understand, with Science, how a person from here can talk to another living person in America using a mobile phone, I do not know how to understand some one talking to his/her dead relative! I certainly would neither claim I understand everything nor would say if I don’t understand something it must be wrong. That scholar seems very convinced and clearly believed what he said. I do think it is a superstitious belief. If that scholar believes what he says, how can I say he is being immoral or unethical? If I find a way to prove or disprove his claim scientifically, it can convince many. If he believes what he says, ethics or moral would never stop him from doing this.

It so happens that a solar eclipse is expected today, on 21 August 2017! There have been a lot of superstitious believes about the solar eclipse (7). Science has dispelled many such superstitions. I am not sure if ethics could have ever done what Science did. I have been a Scientist by career and I do not claim Science will solve every problem humanity faces. That is not even the objective of Science. Science, in my view, is a pursuit to understand nature. Such understanding can be used or abused by scientists and other humans. When it is abused, those who abuse are lacking in moral/ethics. As far as superstitions are concerned, Science can dispel it with understanding. Could we have scientists who understand some things and do not reveal it to others? Yes, of course. However, by way of practice, Science encourages everyone to share what they have learned. As it is commonly known, Science encourages ‘publish or perish’ culture. Wouldn’t the Philosopher of Science, Sundar Sarukkai, be able to see the difference? I would think he can.

Sarukkai argues about scientists having different perceptions about how science is practiced. Let us look at ethics and morals. There is no common code of ethics or morals accepted by various societies now. Even within a same society, ethics and morals change with time. In the past, religion defined morality and we have had many of them. For example, Tamils think of Thirukkural as an important book prescribing ethics and morals for life. One of the Kural mentions that a wife who treats her husband as God will be powerful to demand and get rain from nature when she wants. It was perhaps written more than 2000 years ago. Today this Kural could be thought of us promoting patriarchy and suppressing women and dare I say, it is immoral and unethical. Bhagavad Gita talks about caste system, which I think is a very immoral system. It is indeed surprising to see that Sarukkai thinks ethics can fight superstition and not more science.

Today, most every nation has a constitution and rule of law. For the rule of law, ignorance is not a defense. Whether you are aware of it or not, if you do not follow the rules, you can be punished. Whether you like it or not, if you do not follow the rules, you can be punished. For example, I think it is silly to play the National Anthem before every movie and I hope the Supreme Court applies its mind soon and reverses it. However, until it does, whether I like it or not, if I go to a movie theater and do not stand up when the National Anthem plays, I can be booked for violating the rules. What about ethics and morals? Where is one supposed to find them? While some one ignorant of a law may do something illegal and face punishment if caught, ignorance of knowledge is not illegal or immoral or unethical. Refusing to learn is not illegal or immoral or unethical. A believer can choose to say Darwin is missing the grand design and refuse to read his book or the major advances in Science since his book. It is not illegal, immoral or unethical.

Many years ago, when I was a faculty in IIT Kanpur, one Professor from an Engineering Department of IIT Delhi, gave a talk with the title ‘How to solve all the problems in the World?’ As I was curious, I went to the talk. His advice was that we all read Bhagavatam and accept what it says in resolving conflicts.  At the end of the lecture, I told the speaker: What you have given us today is a way to create problems, not solve problems.

Einstein’s quote on science and religion is quoted often: ”Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”. Following Sarukkai’s suggestion of ethics as an alternative to fight superstition, let me rephrase it: Science without Ethics is lame, Ethics without Science is blind! You cannot fight superstition without Science. By suggesting that ethics can solve the problem of superstition, is Sarukkai being unethical? He would be if he is spreading this message without believing it and misleading the reader. Lying would be considered immoral in every society or country, I assume. If he believes it, I cannot call him unethical! He is certainly being unscientific!

References (All links were accessed on 21 August 2017 and found to be working):

  1. http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-march-from-yesterday/article19459043.ece
  2. https://thewire.in/166906/sundar-sarukkai-march-for-science-scientific-temper-fundamentalism/
  3. http://flexyble.blogspot.in/2017/08/what-construes-pseudoscience.html
  4. https://thewire.in/167673/sundar-sarukkai-march-for-science-superstition-lynching/
  5. https://thewire.in/169312/march-for-science-scientific-method-sociology/
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aryabhata
  7. https://www.bustle.com/p/11-creepy-superstitions-people-have-had-about-solar-eclipses-throughout-history-77240
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Indian Institute of Science on 12th of July! Mahatma Gandhi and Morris Travers!

My last blog was around 27th May, which happens to be the day in 1909 the vesting order for the establishment of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) was issued. It wasn’t well known until Prof. Balaram, the then Director, started planning the centenary celebrations of the Institute in 2007! It wasn’t easy to find out when IISc started. Given this history, one cannot expect to know much about what happened in IISc over the 11 decades that have passed. May be with some efforts, we can have a ‘On this day in IISc’ booklet detailing the important things that have happened in IISc.

Ninety years ago on this day, 12 July 1927, Mahatma Gandhi visited the IISc and spoke to the faculty and students. A picture taken on that day is shown below and the famous quote by Albert Einstein on Gandhi follows!

What did Gandhi tell the IISc people? He says: “There is no place for a rustic like me who has to stand speechless in awe and wonderment”. It is interesting to note that, in 1927 Gandhi was awed by the ‘huge laboratories and electrical apparatus’ present in IISc. He reminds the IIScians that these have been established due to the labour of millions, often unwilling and forced. (1) He pointed out that the 30 Lakhs donated by Tata and also the generous contributions from the Mysore King, both originated from the same labour of the poor millions! He wanted all the research efforts to have the welfare of the poor as the main objective. It is interesting that we have had very similar views expressed by many and the Governments. I personally do not agree that all research efforts should have direct benefit to humanity. There have been a lot of discussion on basic vs applied research and my view is that every society and Government should support both, as long as it is done with competence. However, I would agree with one statement made by Gandhi: “no taxation without representation”. He accuses the elites of taking the poor for granted and acting as if ‘they knew what is good for everyone’.

Gandhi recollected a discussion with a Professor who had informed him: “…that the properties of some of the chemicals will take years of experiments to explore”. As a physical chemist, I might make a very similar statement on chemicals today! He was also talking about the ‘wireless instruments’ being made in 1927!

What else happened on 12th July of relevance to IISc? Morris Travers and William Ramsey discovered  Xenon on 12th July 1898 (2). William Ramsay was contacted to help with the establishment of the research institute planned by the Tata. Ramsay sent in his student Morris Travers as the first Director of the Indian Institute of Science. Travers also was the Chairman of the Chemistry Department, and established the building which houses our Inorganic and Physical Chemistry Department today. He also built the iconic Faculty Hall, mentioned in my previous blog.

I have personally been keen on rare gases including xenon. They are unique in the periodic table and remain as monoatomic gases at ambient conditions and no other element in the periodic table remains as monoatomic gas. Still, they can condense to become liquids or solids at high pressure/low temperature. The attractive forces between the rare gas atoms leading to their freezing was derived by London in 1930s. van der Waals had pointed out that attractive forces exist between all gaseous molecules and hence the ideal gas law ignoring this must be corrected. He introduced the equation named after him ‘van der Waals equation’. This is now taught to high school students all over the world. I had written a series of articles in Resonance, Journal of Education on these intermolecular forces, named after London and van der Waals (3). Clearly, London forces are similar to those acting between inert gases and ‘van der Waals forces’ imply forces acting between all molecules that condense. These have been considered equal by many scientists incorrectly.

July 12th, then becomes an important day in the history of the Indian Institute of Science. It’s first Director Morris Travers had discovered xenon on this day in 1898 and in 1927, Mahatma Gandhi addressed the IIScians asking them to think about the poor when they do research. After nearly a century, this view is gaining strength now.

 

References:

  1. The Hindu, 13-07-1927 and the Young India 21-07-1927. If you want to read this, I have a pdf version sent to me by Sharath Ahuja.
  2. http://www.rsc.org/learn-chemistry/resource/rdc00000712/on-this-day-jul-12-discovery-of-xenon?cmpid=CDC00000712 (Accessed on 11 July 2017).
  3. http://ipc.iisc.ac.in/~arunan/resonance_articles.html

 

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Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and Indian Association for Cultivation of Science (IACS) defined India before Independence!

On 27th May 2017, all students, faculty and staff of the Indian Institute of Science received an email from the Director that started with the following message: “Today is the 27th of  May,  on which day in 1909 the vesting order for the establishment of the Indian Institute of Science was issued.”(1)  On 27th May 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India passed away! Between 1951 and 1961, India established the five Indian Institutes of Technology. Nehru as the Prime Minister is credited with founding these institutes and they are governed by the Institutes of Technology act 1961. India had become an independent nation in 1947 and these five institutions of national importance were named Indian Institute of Technology.

How did Indian Institute of Science get it’s name in 1909, nearly four decades before India become an Independent nation? This was established in Bangalore which was part of the Mysore Presidency, ruled by the Mysore Royal Family. This question came to my mind following a comment by a friend in Facebook below my post on 27th May 2017 announcing the birth anniversary of IISc, as we call the Institute. He felt the Institute could have been named Mysore Institute of Science or Maharaja Institute of Science as it was the Mysore Maharaja H.H. Sir Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, who gave 371 acres of land to establish the Institute. He also gave additional financial support. This friend is perhaps from Mysore and he was emphasizing the Mysore King’s contributions to the Institute.

The Institute owes it’s existence to J N Tata, who was born in Gujarat. Once he was traveling in a ship from Japan to Chicago with Swami Vivekananda, originally from West Bengal. Both these eminent personalities were discussing what Tata as an entrepreneur could do to help the country, India, which was yet to become independent. One of their plans, that materialized a few years after the demise of Tata, was Indian Institute of Science. The locals call it Tata Institute even today. In front of the iconic building housing all the administrators today, there is a statue of J N Tata, which was installed in the early days.  Somehow, the contribution of the Mysore King was not adequately recognized for more than a century. Just a few years ago, the bust of the Mysore King was unveiled inside this building.  With some effort, the King and Tata could say hello to each other right in front of the iconic building:-)

Mysore_King2_P1350302

Even as I was wondering how they decided to name the new institute as ‘Indian Institute of Science’ in 1909, another comment on my post reminded me of the Indian Association for Cultivation of Science,Calcutta, which was established in 1876 itself! Somewhat interestingly, the first Indian Director for the Indian Institute of Science, C. V. Raman came from IACS to IISc in the 1930s. The first Director of the very first Indian Institute of Technology, in Kharagpur, J. C. Ghosh, went from IISc to West Bengal. He was a Professor in the Department where I work and we have a best Thesis award for physical chemistry students from our Department named after J C Ghosh.

I learn that IISc started with the grant from Tata and the Governments of both Mysore King and the British gave some support. It seems to me that the name was chosen appropriately. IACS received no such support from any one! C V Raman worked there and got the Nobel prize before coming to IISc. Mysore king gave Raman a land too to start the Indian Academy of Sciences. Raman built a research institute named after himself and the Indian Academy of Sciences in this land, in the same road, now called C V Raman avenue across from IISc.

IACS was established by Mahendra Lal Sarkar (2) to carry out basic research. It generated funds by arranging public lectures on Science for which the audience had to buy tickets. Sarkar still named the institution as Indian Association for Cultivation of Science, though no Government or benevolent donors gave any support. Those were the days! Now the trend is to name a lecture hall, building, and institutions after the founder or a donor. When I learn about the name of IACS starting with Indian, IISc starting with Indian seems more justified. Still, why do we have such thoughts occurring on some people’s mind?

One of the reason is that the contribution of the Mysore king has not been recognized at all. If you search Google for images with ‘Tata statue at IISc’, you will see perhaps 1000s of images. I tried ‘Mysore king bust at IISc’, I could not find a single one. I could still see many images of Tata statue and others related to IISc. The diversity India has naturally leads to regional/local feelings based on State, Language, Religion, and Caste. There are some who try to identify a person of their back ground who may have played a minor role and attribute undue importance. On the other hand, some who have made enormous contributions do not get their dues!

It turns out the Mysore king was indeed a minor when the decision to give the land was made by the Maharani. However, he not only honored it as he became a major, he continued to support the Institute. I was indeed inspired to read from one of his speeches the following: “I cannot help feeling that the Council will be well advised to keep an open mind on the scholarship question until they are satisfied by actual experience that scholarships are not actually needed.” (3) Apparently, the Council decided that there would be no need to provide any financial assistance to students as the poor may not gain much by learning Science! May be the Mysore Royal Family should have insisted that the Institute be named after the King 🙂 Some of you may have read my last blog on naming things (4). It is indeed important!

Somewhat coincidentally, 27th May 1997 was the last day of my job at IIT Kanpur. I resigned my job effective that day and traveled to Bangalore on 28th May 1997 and joined IISc on 29th May 1997! This blog is published on my 20th anniversary at the Indian Institute of Science. I am glad it is the Indian Institute of Science and not Mysore Institute of Science or Maharaja Institute of Science. I do think Indians should avoid such regional feelings as borders between state/nations are arbitrary. My views on this could be seen in an Editorial published in Current Science recently (5). However, I do hope the contributions of the Mysore King is much widely recognized!

References

    1. http://chep.iisc.ac.in/IISc_History.html (Accessed on 28 May 2017).
    2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahendralal_Sarkar
    3. https://archive.org/stream/SpeechesByKrishnarajaWadiyar/SpeechesByKrishnarajaWadiyar_djvu.txt (Page 128
    4. https://earunan.org/2017/04/23/whats-in-a-name-everything
    5. http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/112/03/0435.pdf

Acknowledgements:

I thank Dr. Sharath Ahuja who provided the image of the Institue’s Tower building, which was taken from a drone by Dr. Omkar of Aerospace Engineering Department at IISc. Dr. Ahuja in fact reminded me of this anniversary. I could not get the picture of the Mysore King’s bust before posting it, though I had personally clicked some pictures. What is shown in this blog is an image from Google search and the original page is http://www.indianetzone.com/59/krishna_raja_wadiyar_iv.htm

Added the picture of the Mysore King’s bust on 29th May 2017, courtesy Sharath Ahuja and removed the picture from the website quoted above.

 

 

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What’s in a name? Everything!

My parents decided to name me Arunan. As I grew up, I realized it means the sun, may be more precisely the ‘rising sun’. I also realized, my name would be shortened in most parts of India, perhaps except Kerala and Tamil Nadu, to Arun, which is a lot more common name. I also found some others named ‘Arunachalam’. This is one of the names of Shiva, and in particular the deity in Thiruvannamalai is called ‘Arunachaleswar’. Super star of Tamil movies, Rajni Kant made a movie titled ‘Arunachalam’ in which he is called by everyone as ‘Arunachalam’. As most of you may be aware, Rajni Kant is not his real name and he was christened so by Director K. Balachander. Would Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, as Rajni Kant was named by his parents, have been as successful in Tamil movies?

I had seen some Arunachalams preferring to be called ‘Arun’. Shortened names are very common. However, I found some of them preferred this short name, as they thought ‘Arunachalam’ was too old-fahioned. I could almost sense that they felt some shame in their name. I am not sure if I learned it from some one or I was made like this. I had never been ashamed of my name or color or religion or native or sex or mother tongue etc… One should never be ashamed of the many things that come with one’s birth. We didn’t have any choice, did we. However, it seems like many fall for this trap and feel ashamed about things that came with their birth. The movie ‘Nameshake’ is about the struggle the hero goes through because of the name given by Bengali parents living in north america! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Namesake_(film) When you understand that you cannot be ashamed of everything that came with your birth, you realize, you cannot be proud about these either!

I was amused to read the news about China giving Chinese names to some of the cities in Arunachal Pradesh. Like Arunan becomes Arun in north India, Arunachalam becomes Arunachal. This is one of the seven northeastern states which have been integral part of India. China considers this part of their territory and so they have given names in Chinese for some of the cities in this Indian State! How else can one claim territory? Naming cities is important! What was really amusing to me is the experience from my visit to Beijing in 2004, my first visit to China. The 24th International Symposium on Shock Waves was held there. (The 25th one was hosted by us in Bangalore). Beijing is actually called Peking in China and I shouldn’t forget how we call the city we live in now, Bengaluru! We were visiting the Great Wall of China and other tourists places and we had some guides. All the guides had their Chinese names, but would tell the tourists some English names like Jim, John or Jack. I asked the Guide who came with us his Chinese name and used that to address him. I was wondering if they are becoming tourist friendly. Wouldn’t it be great to tell the tourists their real name and help them pronounce it? I have seen many other Chinese youth, giving themselves a simple western name! May be they thought it is important to have a simple western name to make more money! I always insisted that people call me Arunan, which wasn’t very long anyway!

My home state is called Tamil Nadu. It was part of the Madras presidency which included all of Tamil Nadu and parts of Kerala, Karnataka and Andrapradesh, when India got independence! Apparently, when India decided to accept the new name, Rajaji had suggested that the name be spelled Tamil Nad so that it will be easy for others to pronounce it. Ma Po Si (M P Sivagnanam) insisted that the name be kept Tamil Nadu, which is how it should be pronounced in Tamil. Bengaluru and Mysuru have realized this and changed the spellings in their names recently. So have Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. Changing your name for the rest of the world is akin to losing your identity! Naming the cities and states are indeed important.

Interestingly, there was a paper published in physics recently that generated a frenzy in the world of science and stories screamed ‘Physicists have created negative mass’! Magazines explained it by describing what it could do. If you push particles with positive mass, they move away as the force is acting in that direction. If the particles were to have negative  mass, when you push them, they would come towards you! Lately, I see that there is some news or other about Science always. Print, television, social media etc… need 24 X 7 news, which they cannot have. I wonder how anyone can expect ‘newsworthy’ discoveries in Science to report 24 X 7! Sensationalizing has spoiled news reporting in every field and Science has not escaped this as well. Sabine Hossenfelder from Frankfurt Institute for Advance Studies finally took some time to read the paper and has pointed out that the paper should not have in it’s title ‘Negative mass’ What the authors have reported is more like ‘negative effective mass’ and the authors have given a misleading title! (http://backreaction.blogspot.in/2017/04/no-physicists-have-not-created-negative.html). She says there’s a world of difference between ‘negative mass’ and ‘negatice effective mass’. Naming things properly is indeed important!

When we published our first paper with experimental data measured with a home-built microwave spectrometer, we got in to problems with a reviewer about the title. The paper discussed a weakly bound complex between ethylene and hydrogen sulphide and we had called the structure ‘hydrogen bonded’. One referee objected, though agreed that the paper deserves to be published. At that time, we were in no mood to argue and changed the title to ‘bridging hydrogen bonding and van der Waals interaction’. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S000926140400867X) However, the referee’s comments about the title intrigued me enough to read about hydrogen bonds from papers, books and reports published over a century. In the end, I contacted IUPAC and with their suggestion, formed and chaired a task group to redefine hydrogen bonding! (https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/pac.2011.83.issue-8/pac-rec-10-01-02/pac-rec-10-01-02.xml) Naming phenomenon appropriately is indeed important.

Whenever I mention about defining hydrogen bond, many have mentioned ‘What’s in a name?, What difference does it make, how we call it? and so on…! Shakespeare comes in handy and Romeo and Juliet will be quoted “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” I can’t believe a Government would name a police force intended for stopping harassment of women as ‘anti-Romeo squad’. Were they influenced by the colloquial reference to such guys (lover boys) as ‘Romeo’ or is there an attempt to make ‘harassment of women’ a foreign culture? Some time ago, one such leader said ‘Rape happens in India and not in Bharath’. Most of us had no clue, what he was talking about. No wonder some have objected to this naming. Romeo was a true lover and he never harassed anyone!

I have become a scientist and I have not read Shakespeare! I like to quote Richard Feynmann, an outstanding physicist from 20th Century! He said “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.” When you can give an appropriate name for a person, city, state, phenomenon, etc… you really understand what you are talking about. Naming then, is indeed important!

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Bhogi, Pongal, Maattu Pongal, Kaanum Pongal, Makar Sankranti, Bhogali Bihu and Lohri and of course Jallikattu

I consider Pongal to be the real national festival of India, more than Deepavali. It is one festival that is celebrated all over India in various names. I come from Tamil Nadu and Pongal is the name for this festival in Tamil Nadu. It implies a sweet dish made of rice, moongdhal (paasiparuppu in Tamil, one form of lentils) and jaggery (brown sugar made of sugarcane) with cashew nuts and dried grape (Kiss miss is the name I am familiar with and I have no idea where this came from. It is certainly not a Tamil word). I know a lot of Tamils consider Pongal as a ‘Tamil festival’ and I learn that the Canadian Prime Minister has wished all the Tamils on this day and declared January as Tamil Heritage Month  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69SzPbvF81w). He has wished it in English, French and Tamil! Clearly, the Tamils in Canada (from Sri Lanka and India?) are more active than others from India and they have not informed the liberal Canadian Prime Minister about Shankranti yet.

Mark Twain wrote ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness’. What is more important is to learn about your neighbours, in your street, in your office, in your district, in your state, in your country and most certainly in our earth. If you cannot travel, talk to people who may have traveled to your neighbourhood. I have been fortunate not only to travel but also to meet people from all over the world who come here. I have heard about Shankranti (it is spelled in many ways. Seems like Pongal has only one spelling 🙂 may be after I left Tamil Nadu. I have heard about Bihu and Lohiri as well. All these are farmers’ festivals. I have not learned much about these festivals and the local customs in the regions where they are celebrated yet. Let me mention what I have learned about Pongal growing up in Madurai.

I had written a blog earlier about Deepvali (1) and pointed out that it is celebrated on different days in various parts of India.  In Bangalore, it is at least a three day affairs whereas in Madurai, it is a one-day festival. Pongal used to be a  three day affair in the Madurai I grew up in 1960s-70s. It starts with the Bhogi pandigai (2). It’s a day you discard the old and embrace the new. People used to have a bonfire and burn all the old things. Bhogi cannot be a Tamil word as words cannot start with the sound ‘bho’ and it has to be ‘po’ for Tamil. (See comments below. Added on 6 February 2017)  The next day is the main festival Pongal and it’s the first day of the Tamil month Thai. As I had mentioned in another blog, it’s also considered a New Year’s day for Tamils and there are different opinions. (3) On this day, we get up early and cook Pongal, both the sweet one mentioned above which is yellow in color and also ‘Venpongal’ (white pongal). This has the same rice and lentil and lot of pepper in addition to cashew nuts.  These are offered to God and eventually taken back for consumption. We buy sugarcanes and eat them. You need strong teeth. Several farm vegetables are cooked for lunch too.

The third day is called ‘Maattu Pongal’, a specific Pongal day for the bulls and cows. Bulls help in farming and cows give us milk. These are considered as part of the family and one can see the bulls and cows dressed up and decorated walking joyously. If you had known about a recent blockbuster movie in Tamil called Shivaji, directed by Shankar with Rajnikant as the lead, you would have known the popular song ‘Kaveri aarum kaikuthal arisium maranthu poguma’ (can you forget the river Kaveri and the rice grounded by hand’. (Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1RYrQL6fkg). In this song, I couldn’t forget one line ‘aadumaadu melae ulla paasam, veetil ration cardil saekka cholli kaekkum’ (the love one has for the cattles, they will be added to the ration card’. Ration card is given to families in India when food  is rationed).  The cattle is part of the family.

And of course, on this day, they will have Jallikattu in many of the villages around Madurai. I had always wanted to see it live as it is a major tourist attraction as well. Though I have been to many parts of the world, I never had a chance to see a Jallikkattu live. I am more eager to watch one now than ever before. Because of an ignorant, perhaps motivated, PETA filing a case in the Supreme Court in Delhi, Jallikkattu happening in Alanganallur, a village near Madurai, has been banned. The blame should not only go to Peta and the Supreme Court but also the Tamil Nadu Government and the lawyers representing the other side. I couldn’t believe the arrogance of the PETA, formed sometime in the 1980s in the U.S.A. in appealing in the Supreme Court for banning Jallikattu. Of course, PETA has officials from India and people from Tamil Nadu know Ettappan who helped the British captureVeerapandia Kattabomman. Other NGOs have the arrogance to give a letter to the President demanding the duly elected state Government be dismissed. I think all the people involved in Jallikkattu should register a complaint in Police Stations charging PETA with disrespecting the sentiments of Tamil and disrespecting the culture that is several millennia old.  I have read about PETA capturing dogs and cats on the street in the USA and having permission to kill them from the Government if no one opts to adapt them (4). They really know ethical way of killing the animals. They want the streets to be free of animals. We grew up in streets that can be used by one and all. Our farmers know the ethical way of raising them for the whole life.

I had never known about Kaanum pongal when I grew up in Madurai. After traveling to Chennai (Madras), I learned that the fourth day is Kaanum Pongal, when farmers around Chennai come to the beech in Chennai and have a family outing. (Kaanum in Tamil means ‘what is seen’). According to the reference 2 given below, it is called Mukkanuma in Andhra Pradesh. I was indeed surprised that a Tamil growing in the heartland of Tamil (Madurai) did not know about Kaanum Pongal, celebrated in Chennai, the capitol of the state Tamil Nadu in independent India. But then, Mark Twain knew this. I am glad I traveled.

Some Tamils feel, it’s a conspiracy not only by the multinationals but also the politicians from North India (including our PM Modi) to root out Tamil culture. May be these are conspiracy theories and I don’t know the facts. However, I do know that Bhogi, Pongal and Maattu Pongal are in our culture and I am convinced that the animal lovers who oppose Jallikkattu have no clues about how to treat animals. Recently, Thiruvalluvar Thinam (Thiruvalluvar’s day) was added to the Pongal festival and it will be on January 17th. Like Dasara in Mysore, Dusshera in UP and Durga festival in Bengal, Christmas-New Year in many parts of the world, Pongal has become the long holiday season in Tamil Nadu. Any attempts to disrupt this by people outside the state, whether they are from the Central Government, Supreme Court, PETA, USA or UN, will eventually fail.

Happy Pongal to one and all and the Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Before I can wish the same to our PM Modi, he needs to do some thing about it. If not, with or without his help, Tamils will do it.

      1. https://earunan.org/2015/11/05/hinduism-is-not-a-way-of-life-hindus-celebrate-deepavali-on-different-days-and-yes-some-hindus-eat-beef/
      2. http://www.drikpanchang.com/festivals/pongal/bhogi-pandigai-date-time.html
      3. https://earunan.org/2015/04/11/learning-history-ii-and-happy-new-year/
      4. https://www.petakillsanimals.com/
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Orange Mittai, Manjhi: the mountain man, and 108 Emergency services in India!

I had not written any serious movie reviews so far but wanted to write one after watching the Tamil movie titled ‘Orange Mittai’ in August 2015.  A simple story very well shown on screen. I have enjoyed watching some of Vijay Sethupathi’s  earlier films (“Soothu kavvum” for example) and was keen to see this movie. I have rarely gone to movies alone and after a very long time, I watched this alone. As someone growing old, it is a good thing to learn. That happens to be the theme of the movie as well. It is about a father abandoned (Vijay Sethupathi) to live alone by his son. The hero of the movie is a paramedic working with 108 Emergency service ambulance. The father who lives alone, keeps calling the 108 service pretending to be ill. On one such call, the hero, Ramesh Thilak, shows up to help. The whole movie is about the interactions between these two men. Ramesh would have lost his father about a year ago. They both realize that it is easier to be a father of some one else’s son and son of some one else’s father. Let me not give the story here in case any of you are planning to watch it. It’s worth your time.

Another movie I watched in 2015 was Manjhi, the mountain man in Hindi. In this movie, Manjhi the hero is unable to take his wife to a hospital on time when she was ready to deliver their second kid. They live in a village in Bihar which is not connected by road. The villagers cross a hill on foot to catch a bus. Manjhi and a friend carry her on a blanket crossing the hill on foot. By the time they reach the hospital, she delivers a healthy baby and dies. No ambulance could reach them for help! Several Governments came and went and the village was not connected by a road. After his wife dies, Manjhi takes it as his life’s mission to build a road by himself breaking down the mountain with a hammer and chisel. He succeeds after 22 years! The Government made it a proper road in 2011, 30 years after he completes it and four years after he died. The road has been named after him recently.

I remembered both these movies this evening, as we had a talk by Dr. Sudhakar Varanasi, who headed the 108 Emergency services project in the initial stages of planning and implementation.  He was one of the Vice-Presidents in Satyam Computers. His talk was arranged by the Al(l)chemis’s Society in IPC Department. This was started as an ambitious project by Satyam Computers in (the united) Andhra Pradesh around 2005, when they had just become a billion dollar company. Dr. Sudhakar thought of the emergency services after one of his friends from the USA died in a road accident near Bangalore as an ambulance didn’t reach on time. The title of his talk today was ‘Working with head and heart aligned’. Though India had three phone numbers for calling police (100), fire service (101) and ambulance (102), we did not have one emergency number like the 911 in the USA and 112 in many parts of Europe. Dr. Sudhakar and team created 108 as an emergency number which can be used for police, fire or ambulance. With the old 100 number, there were very few lines and it was answered by the police directly. 108 is answered by trained professionals and they can attend thousands of calls simultaneously. Andhra Pradesh Government started financing the project soon and Gujarat followed it next. Now this service is available in more than 20 states all over the country. It appears that Delhi and West Bengal are yet to go for it. I was on a road trip in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala last week and I could see several 108 Ambulances on the road rushing to help.

Dr. Sudhakar has an interesting background. He did his MSc in Physics from IIT Kharagpur and a Ph. D. at the Molecular Biophysics Unit in IISc and followed it with postdoctoral work at the Aerospace Engineering Department. After serving in the Indian Institute of Science till 1990, he started his own software company and joined Satyam Computers later. Today he is a Chief Mentor at Emergent Institute in Bengaluru. It is interesting to think about the eventual success stories of Manjhi the Mountain Man and Dr. Sudhakar Varanasi! If a service like 108 was available 50 years ago and if every village in India was connected by road, there would have been no need for Manjhi the Mountain Man. In any case, irrespective of where you are and what your background is, if you decide to do something and have the patience and perseverance, it can be done.

 

In case you would like to know more about the three topics and AL(l)chemist’s Society, the following links would help.

1.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orange_Mittai

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manjhi_-_The_Mountain_Man

3. http://www.emergentinstitute.com/the-team-2/

4. http://ipc.iisc.ac.in/~alchemie/

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