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/

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.


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/


2017 will be a great year for India and the World!

I can’t think of any situation in which we can be hopeless! I am certain that 2017 is going to be a great year for the world. Let me wish everyone a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous 2017!

As I start writing this blog at 22:18 hours on 31 December 2016, we await in India the beginning of 2017. Australia and New Zealand would have welcomed 2017 already and tomorrow morning, every hour we can watch the new year being welcomed in different parts of the world, sitting in front of our TV. And apparently, astronomers have decided to add a leap second to 2016 and so everyone will have to wait for another second to welcome 2017!

The result of USA/UK elections and the war in Syria, among other things have led the New York Times to dub the 2016 as the worst year ever (1).  Anyone who knows the World history to some extent will know this just can’t be true. Demonitization in India has affected every one and our former Prime  Minister Manmohan Singh has called it a monumental blunder. Unlike what the current Prime Minister Modi had mentioned some time ago, even after 50 days, the situation is far from normal. India has not only survived the monumental blunder (according to Manmohan Singh), we have survived seven decades of misrule by Congress (according to Modi). Modi was pleased to join ISRO as soon as he took over to watch the Mangalyaan launch and witnessed India becoming the first nation to reach Mars in its very first attempt. This is not the only positive outcome of seven decades of misrule! I had written a few blogs pointing out how India has risen in every field (2) and also coauthored articles on India’s growth in Chemistry (3) and Chemical Education (4).

Clearly Modi’s description of India in the first seven decades after Independence and Manmohan Singh’s description of demonitization  are just their opinions. I can’t believe that some are trying to point out the lack of violent protest as evidence that people are not suffering. Indians are by nature peace loving and they have survived much worse conditions. Last year’s flood in Chennai is a great example. People’s power was at work and it seemed they were lot more effective than the Government in relief work. India is too big a country for any monumental failure by even a Prime Minister to cause irreparable damage.

On 9th November, the day after demonitization, I had to send a parcel by courier and needed Rs 650. I had several thousand rupees with me in invalid currency but only Rs 400 with me. Though the courier company had a credit card machine for long, it was not working that day. When I told the lady in the counter that the parcel had to be sent urgently, she took it and told me that I could pay later when I have cash! I then went to a store to buy some malt and snacks. The bill was about Rs 1300 and luckily the card machine was working.  I asked the person who was running the store if he was facing any problem due to demonitization. His immediate response was that we should support our PM in this bold decision, though we will have some temporary problems. He said we need to do something about corruption. Then he gave me a bill for half the items I bought and added the other half in the back side of the bill and totalled it. When I asked him, why he was not adding all the items in the bill he said ‘they are different sir’. He was keen on supporting the bold initiative by the PM to root out black money :-). I thought I might use his patriotism and asked him if he would charge my card for a few more hundred and give me some cash. He obliged! I paid for the courier charges. Next evening our neighborhood fruit vendor took old rupee note and gave me fruit.

Whether it is seven decades of misrule or the monumental blunder, Indians know how to live. We have had no revolution yet and we are unlikely to have it either. Every election India votes and no one can take our voters for granted. They voted out Indira Gandhi after Emergency and Vajpayee after the ‘India shining campaign’ that was perceived to be ugly. If demonitization becomes a monumental failure, voters will speak loud in the next election. Congress was routed in 2014 Parliament elections and BJP was routed in Delhi and Bihar state elections. Indian electorate is decisive.

When the electorate in the largest democracy in the world are decisive, can we expect the electorate in the oldest democracy to be less wise? USA has elected Donald Trump and it is only fair that he is given a chance to run the USA for 4 years.

Whether it is God or Nature, the world is too big and there is enough in the world for everyone’s need as pointed out by the Mahatma Gandhi. He also pointed out that the world does not have enough for anyone’s greed. Incompetence, jealousy and greed have been serious sources of problems in society and country and it seems like they have been around  as long as there have been humans. I don’t see them vanishing and our troubles will continue. Whether it is Thirukkural in Tamil or a proverb from Africa, you can see scholars have been pointing out the dangers of these human traits. As Bharadwaj Rangan has beautifully written in a movie review “the acts we consider inhuman are born from the most basic human emotions” (5).

We have been using a daily sheet calendar in Tamil, popularly called Vivekananda Calendar. Everyday, it lists out the important events from all over the world. I note that January first is listed as the World Family Day and World Peace Day.   Again, whether it is God or Nature, it is great to have men and women, and it is clearly impossible not to have them both. As long as there are women in the world, I am convinced that the ‘family’ will survive and that will ensure that peace will prevail too! Stay positive and do what you can to make 2017 a great year!


  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/28/opinion/2016-worst-year-ever.html?_r=0
  2. https://earunan.org/2015/01/03/indian-science-catch-up-with-india-then-worry-about-china/ This blog discusses the growth of India in various fields and points out that Indian science has not grown as much.
  3. E. Arunan, R. Brakaspathy, G. R. Desiraju, S. Sivaram, Chemistry in India, Angew. Chemie Int. Ed. Engl. 2013, 51.This article discusses the growth of Chemistry in India. 
  4. Mangala Sunder Krishnan, R. Brakaspathy and E. Arunan Chemical Education in India: Addressing Current Challenges and Optimizing Opportunities J. Chem. Educ. 2016.
  5. http://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/Dhuruvangal-Pathinaaru-A-matter-of-crime/article16964857.ece

Science and humanity!: Gravitons and Lovons

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.  Maybe, I should write Science and Humanity, because I see that most of the religions have not managed to promote love, which is often proclaimed as one of their goals.  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

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

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!




Silence of the Lambs!

It is 25 years since the classic movie ‘Silence of the lambs’ was released on the Valentine’s day in 1991 (1). I was in the USA at that time but do not remember the release. I had not seen the movie until a few years ago. What a powerful movie. This blog is not about the movie, though. It is about the title. What can a lamb do other than silently putting up with the atrocities committed on it? I have seen in some temples where they sacrifice Lambs for the Gods. Of course, it is always for the devotees to consume and not really for the Gods. Some one will pour some water with turmeric on the Lamb’s head and when it shakes the head, people will shout to the man holding the scythe! ‘Lamb has accepted and you can chop of the head’

I did see The Revenant when it released recently in Bangalore. In the  movie, Fritzgerald (Hardy) kills Gloss’s son and tries to kill Gloss (Dicaprio). He lies to the young Bridger (Poulter) and forces him to leave Gloss to death and accompany him to safety. Bridger finds out the truth and is angry with Fritzgerald for lying to him but is forced to return. On reaching the settlement, Fritzgerald tells Captain Henry (Glessen) that Gloss died and he has been given a decent burial. Bridger is sitting next to him and is unable to speak the truth. I remembered the silence of the lambs.

I wonder if each one of us would have had this experience. Keeping silent when some one powerful lies blatantly. I have experienced. Typically, one does not expect the person who is a lot more powerful to lie blatantly. When the lie comes all of a sudden, the weaker person can not speak up for various reasons. It could be fear, politeness, avoiding open confrontation… Many holding power enjoy such silence and exploit it. I was listening to someone who was blatantly taking all the credit in public for the work I had done without blinking. I did not respond and felt sad. I could only pity the person who was confidently lying.

While growing up, one may have such experiences. It may be  prudent to ignore and continue ones work. Speaking up and resisting too soon could be counterproductive. Person holding power has a lot more voice. One can only hope the silence does not end up becoming fatal as in the case of the lambs. Apparently, if the lamb does not shake its head, it’s head cannot be chopped off! Lamb cannot but shake its head when water is poured on it and clearly the lamb does not have much choice. Perhaps humans are better off.

Today (13th March 2016), NDTV had She the People instead of We the People. Burkha Dutt was talking to prominent ladies including Melinda Gates and Kalki Koechlin. Sexual harassment was one of the topic and the show announced that 90 % of the women in India suffer. It is difficult for me to believe this number but certainly it is prevalent. I was reminded of the movie Highway, which I got to watch in a flight. A young girl who has been harassed is forced to be silent, not only by the perpetrator but also by the mother. Sshh, don’t say a word! It is not just women. Twelve years a slave was another powerful movie depicting the lives of African American slaves in the USA during the 19th century. During those days, the slaves had no voice. Their complaints won’t be registered. Courts will not listen to them. I was reminded of the murder of Mooka Nadar who dared to enter the Meenakshi Temple. Court acquitted the murderers (2). Those with power would like to keep everyone silent and exploit their power. Democracy has indeed given some voice to everyone. I am glad Indian democracy started with every adult having a vote. Your vote is your voice. It is important to speak up.

  1. http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/silence-of-the-lambs-at-25-the-complete-buffalo-bill-story-20160214?page=2
  2. https://earunan.org/2015/02/01/rosa-parks-and-mooka-nadar-recent-tales-from-the-worlds-oldest-and-largest-democracies/