Tag: India

Making pseudoscience of homeopathy immune from criticism does not serve public weal

A physician friend alerted me the other day about a strange new official proclamation from the Government of India (GoI). With a long history of uncritical friendliness (as well as State-sponsorship) towards various alternative medicine modalities, GoI —specifically, the ministry in charge of altmed, the Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha & Homeopathy) in this case— announced that a “high level committee” has been set up to “deal with issues” related to “false propaganda against homeopathy”.

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Tuberculosis, the global scourge, and a new drug-design strategy

Every year on March 24, World Tuberculosis (TB) Day is observed to commemorate the discovery of the etiological agent of this disease, the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis by noted German physician and microbiologist and Nobel Laureate, Robert Koch (1843-1910). The infection occurs via inhalation of the air-borne bug; therefore, the disease primarily affects the lungs, but it can spread to other parts of body as well, such as the central nervous system (brain and spinal chord), bone, and internal organs. If adequate treatment is not instituted (and sometimes despite therapy), a person with active TB disease will likely die. In the United States, in 2010 (the latest year for which statistics are currently available), of the nearly nine hundred deaths in which TB was suspected, TB was confirmed in roughly 4 out of 10 cases, and a total of 569 people died from TB. Globally, in 2012, an estimated 8.6 million people contracted TB, of which 1.3 million died.

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Hello there! Did y’all miss me?

Belatedly, to whomever is reading this post, I wish a happy and healthy 2013, hopefully filled with peace, reason and sanity. The inestimable Khalil, our kind and ever-watchful community manager, asked after my health today, and it made me realize that I have been sorta kinda neglecting Scilogs for a while. Not that there is a great deal of interest evinced in whatever I write anyway, but blogging about science-related stuff at Scilogs is one of my more pleasurable activities. But of late, I have been languishing in a modicum of funk, and haven’t been able to find any lasting interest in professional topics. There is a reason for that, though. Allow me to explain.

My science-related interests are blogged at Scilogs (formerly, the Nature Network blogs), but I have another blog, a personal one, in which from time to time I write about things that flit through my mind – about life, society, people and stuff. I have used that blog to express my anguish about certain things happening in real life around me. Very few people actually read that blog, too (which is perhaps a testament to a certain lack of writing abilities in me), but it has given me a channel to vent.

And since the beginning of December last year, there has been a lot to vent about, and consequently, I have been writing in that blog of mine – in preference to Scilogs. Those who have followed events of recent past in India would perhaps know what I am talking about. I have been outside India for 11 years now, living and working in the US. But that has not diminished the emotional ties that I have with the country of my birth, my growing up and my education, the country where I still have family and countless friends. That is the reason why incidents happening in India still affect me, deeply.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not some sensitive flower wilting at the mere mention of unpleasantness. I have been known to be severely critical of, but otherwise unfazed by, the religion-inspired idiocy that goes around in much of India’s public spheres. I have been surprised, shocked, devastated at news of terrorist attacks or natural disasters, fearing for the safety of my family, friends and their families and friends. I have been deeply concerned about the state of science and education, and the current economic crisis in that country. But very few events of any magnitude have affected me at a visceral level, as did the spate of news from India about continuous – and unrelenting – occurrence of rape and other forms of sexual violence against women in contemporary India.

The Indian society is mired in patriarchal traditions and customs, which are ably bolstered by religions of various hues. One may be hard put to find any particular custom which doesn’t have the sanction of a corresponding religious tradition. All the spheres of societal life are intricately associated with religion. Which is perhaps why, on any matter of local, social or national importance, religious leaders, as well as self-appointed guardians of public morality – who often fall back upon quasi-religious justifications for their actions – feel impelled to comment publicly, and their utterances are faithfully lapped up by their followers.

The problem is that in this patriarchal society and its customs/traditions, the scourge of misogyny is deeply entrenched. And the putrid stench of that often permeates all aspects of society, including legislature and judiciary. Therefore, rape laws are antiquated and ineffective; victims are treated inhumanly and unfairly; even in case of apprehension of the culprit(s), the legal processes drag on, sometimes for decades, often resulting in utter humiliation of the victims – and justice is often denied in the end on some ground or the other. The worst of all – and the religious and social leaders are often complicit in this – the victims are almost always blamed for their own terrible calamities. The sheer ludicrousness of some of the victim-blaming statements that these uncouth people have spewed forth is mindboggling, and would have been funny, if they were not associated with a heinous crime. I have been writing and commenting upon these aspects in the other blog.

One silver lining of a very dark cloud has been the fact that aided by the internet, particularly social media tools, the citizens of India, especially the youth, have decided not to remain silent this time. Outrage has poured in, demonstrations have been organized, demands have been made of the government for swift and decisive action. I don’t know if anything will eventually come out of it, though. Nothing ever does, really. These incidents mostly would remain within public memory, flicker after a while, and go out, returning to status quo – except for those who have faced them personally.

Sexual violence against women has become this country’s collective shame. Delhi, the city close to my heart – where I studied for my Master’s degree and worked towards my PhD – has been dubbed the ‘rape capital’ of India. Unsavory as it is, the epithet seems le mot juste, since even while all this outrage is going on, rape incidents – including cruel and inhuman gang rapes – continue unabated in Delhi, in other North Indian states, and also elsewhere in the country. Even children, little girls, were not spared.

All these things have been bearing upon my mind rather heavily. I am a scientist, and science, to me, is a way of life; but these incidents and their repercussions have made me realize that I am a human being, too – mostly filled with impotent rage and frustration. I hope you’d bear with me for a little while longer. I hope to return to a more equanimitous frame of mind, and re-initiate my science-blogging.

See you soon, and take care. Ciao!

Time for an “Occupy Science” in India?


Yes. Yes!! Oh, yes! — This was my reaction while reading a commentary in April 12’s Nature. In a policy commentary article titled Bold strategies for Indian Science (Nature 484, 159-160;12 April 2012), Gautam Desiraju, a professor of Chemistry in the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and the current president of the International Union of Crystallography, held forth forcefully on what he thought were the bottlenecks that seem to be holding back the progress of Indian science. I found much to agree with.

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The Man Whose Name Boson Honors

In the past several days, the world was waiting agog for the news: is it there or is it not? As the Honorable Beeb reported:

The most coveted prize in particle physics – the Higgs boson – may have been glimpsed, say researchers reporting at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva… Scientists say that two experiments at the LHC see hints of the Higgs at the same mass, fuelling huge excitement. But the LHC does not yet have enough data to claim a discovery.

Although we may have to wait another year, the BBC article and the one on CNN, both highly informative, explain the excitement around the possible discovery of the Higgs Boson, a currently-theoretical, elementary subatomic particle that is purported to provide mass to matter, and is the integral part of the theoretical Higgs mechanism by which mass is proposed to be generated.

I, sadly, don’t understand enough of quantam mechanics or mathematics to launch into an extensive discussion of the properties of the elusive Higgs Boson particle. A nice Q&A at the BBC Science & Environment website explains a lot of the concepts. I, on the other hand, want to briefly focus on the person, who introduced the principles of Statistical Mechanics guiding photons in 1924 and after whom physicist/mathematician Paul Dirac named the one of the most elementary of subatomic particles, Bosons. That person is Satyendra Nath Bose, the Indian physicist who made significant advances in the studies of Statistical Mechanics and Quantam Statistics.

Satyendranath Bose
Image courtesy http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi1893.htm

Bose, along with another luminary Indian physicist Meghnad Saha, established the foundation of modern theoretical physics in India. And yet, unfortunately, Bose is not a familiar name in India. To quote Dr. G Venkataraman, a distinguised physicist of recent years and author of a volume on Bose:

…the name of Satyendra Nath Bose will live forever in physics… Unfortunately, most people in india have never heard of him. I would not be surprised if most of our scientists also do not know much about him, although they might have heard his name. Indeed, I am prepared to bet that barring a sprinkling of physicists (mostly theorists), many in our physics community too are ignorant about Bose. Even if they have heard of him, it is quite likely that they are not aware of the significance of his work. (Source: Government of India Science Portal)

Only son amongst seven siblings, Satyendra Nath Bose (last name variant: Basu) was born on January 1, 1894, in the city of Calcutta in Bengal of Undivided India. His academic merits were on display right from high school. At the prestigious Hindu School in Calcutta, he was once awarded 110 marks out of maximum 100 in mathematics by Upendra Bakshi, a legendary teacher of the Hindu School. Asked for an explanation by the Headmaster, Bakshi defended his decision indicating the Bose “had succeeded in the allotted time in correctly solving all the questions without excluding any of the alternatives.” (Source: Government of India Science Portal)

Bose joined the Intermediate Science course (in those days, a bridge course to Bachelor’s degree studies) at the Presidency College, Calcutta (of which I am an alumnus; my vicarious brush with greatness!), where he flourished under the tutelage of luminary scientist/teachers Prafulla Chandra Ray (1861-1942) and Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1957), and became friends with Meghnad Saha, later his colleague and co-author of scientific papers. In 1913 and 1915, respectively, he earned his Bachelor’s (with Honors) and Master’s degrees in Mixed Mathematics (a modern-day equivalent would be applied mathematics or mathematical physics) from Calcutta University, ranking first in his class in both (while Meghnad Saha came second). Both started teaching in then newly-created University College of Science in the departments of Physics and Mathematics, as well as engaged in research. With Saha as his co-author, Bose published his first research paper in the Philosophical Magazine of London in 1918 (volume 36, Issue 212), titled: On the influence of the finite volume of molecules on the equation of state (Amazingly, a PDF may be available from Taylor and Francis!). The next year Bose published two papers on Pure Mathematics in the Bulletin of the Calcutta Mathematical Society, titled “On the stress equation of equilibrium” and “On herpolhode”.

Einstein and Satyendranath Bose
Image courtesy http://e-ducation.net/physicists.htm

Meanwhile, in the world of theoretical physics, it was an exciting time of discoveries and scientific progress, with the appearance of the quantum theory. Bose, in collaboration with Saha, translated Albert Einstein’s paper on the Theory of General Relativity from the original German into English, with gracious permission from Einstein himself (apparently, over the objections of the British publishers). This, together with Saha’s translation of an original paper by Jewish-German mathematician Hermann Minkowski (titled: “Raum und Zeit” – Space and Time), was brought out by the Calcutta University Press in 1920, in the form of a booklet, titled The Principle of Relativity. The same year, Bose published another joint paper with Saha in the Philosophical Magazine of London (volume 39, Issue 232, 1920, pp.456), titled: On the Equation of State (a PDF is available to buy from Taylor and Francis), and a single-author paper in the same journal, (volume 40, Issue 239, 1920, pp.619-627), titled: On the Deduction of Rydberg’s law from the quantum theory of spectral emission (a PDF is available to buy from Taylor and Francis).

The newly-formed Dacca (now, Dhaka) University (founded in 1921) in Bengal of Undivided India (now, in Bangladesh) invited Bose to join as a Reader in Physics, which he did. Although constrained by meager professional resources and grossly inadequate research facilities in his new workplace, he didn’t lose his enthusiasm. During his studies, he felt dissatisfied with the existing derivations of Max Planck’s formula for the distribution of energy in black body radiations – in that both Einstein’s and Planck’s quantum mechanical derivations provided valid results, but conflicted with one another. To solve this puzzle, he set about to work out a rigorous and logically consistent derivation based on Einstein’s concept of photon, a quantam of light; he realized the indistinguishability of photons, and essentially proposed a new synthesis between the wave and particle functions of photons. Bose communicated this work in 1924 in a short 4-page article in English, titled: Planck’s Law and Light Quantum Hypothesis (PDF here), to the Philosophical Magazine as usual. Having received no reply from the publisher, Bose took the bold step of writing to Einstein, with a request to facilitate its publication in the German language journal Zeitschrift Für Physic. In his letter dated June 4, 1924, he wrote:

I have ventured to send you the accompanying article for your perusal and opinion. I am anxious to know what you think of it. You will see that I have tried to deduce the coefficient 8p v2/c3 in Plank’s Law independent of classical electrodynamics, only assuming that the elementary regions in the phase-space has the content h3. I do not know sufficient German to translate the paper. If you think the paper worth publication I shall be grateful if you arrange for its publication in Zeitschrift für Physic. Though a complete stranger to you, I do not feel any hesitation in making such a request. Because we are all your pupils though profiting only by your teachings through your writings. I do not know whether you still remember that somebody from Calcutta asked your permission to translate your papers on Relativity in English. You acceded to the request. The book has since published. I was the one who translated your paper on Generalised Relativity. (Source: Government of India Science Portal)

Einstein translated Bose’s paper to German, and it was published in 1924 in Zeitschrift für Physic, with Einstein’s comment: “Bose’s derivative of Plank’s formula appears to me to be an important step forward. The method used here gives also the quantum theory of an ideal gas, as I shall show elsewhere.” Improving upon the concept of Kinetic Theory of Gases propounded by James Maxwell (1831-79) and Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906), Einstein applied Bose’s method to the theory of ideal quantam gas (such as a Bose gas, a quantam-mechanical version of a classical ideal gas, composed on bosons) and predicted the statistical distribution of identical indistinguishable bosons over the energy states in thermal equilibrium, what would come to be known as Bose-Einstein Statistics in quantam mechanics.

The international recognition helped smooth his way when in 1924 he applied to Dacca University for a 2-year leave to visit Europe in order to work with the giants of his field (it appears that he didn’t get permission from the Vice Chancellor of the university until he was able to show an appreciative postcard written by Einstein!). He spent a year in Paris, and got acquainted with Paul Langevin (1872-1946), Marie Curie (1867-1934) and Maurice de Broglie (1892-1967). He proceeded next to Berlin, met with Einstein and with his help, managed to be acquainted with some of the topmost European scientists of that time – Fritz Haber (1868-1934), Otto Hahn (1879-1968), Lise Meitner (1878-1968), Walther Bothe (1891-1957), Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), Max von Laue (1879-1960), Walter Gordon (1893-1940), Eugene Wigner (1902-1995) and others, and later Max Born (1882-1970) and Erich Huckel (1896-1980) in Göttingen. He tried to learn as much as he could, but sometimes circumstances didn’t allow him to get his heart’s fill.

Towards the end of his European sojourn, the post of a Professor fell vacant in Dacca University. Einstein wrote him a recommendation for the post, which, according to some accounts, did not help (Source: Government of India Science Portal). However, eventually, in 1926, Bose was appointed Professor and Head of the department of Physics of Dacca University where he served for nearly 25 years, and initiated studies in experimental physics. He worked to set up an X-ray crystallography unit at the university, even designing and building his own equipment.

Returning to Calcutta in 1945 to a named professorship in Physics in Calcutta University, Bose published during 1953-54 five important papers on the Unified Field Theory; this term was coined by Einstein, who endeavored to unify the general theory of relativity with electromagnetism. However, when Bose sent these papers to Einstein (whom he considered, and referred to as, his intellectual master), Einstein differed with him on some aspects of interpretation and discussed it in detail in one of his papers. Bose prepared a detailed reply, and would have discussed it with Einstein, but for his death in 1955. Bose, overwhelmed with grief, destroyed the only copy of his reply and did never resume his work on Unified Field theory. But his deep and abiding interest continued into many other different branches of science, including organic chemistry, mineralogy and soil science, biology and archeology, as well as philosophy, fine arts and literature. He was keenly interested in popularizing science in the vernacular and inspired the setting up of a society, Bangiya Bijnana Parishad (Science Association of Bengal), with the sole objective of promoting and popularizing science through Bangla (Bengali) language. He was also a great connoisseur of music, ranging from folk music to classical, as well from Indian to Western, and played Esraj (an Indian stringed instrument with a bow, like a violin) and the flute consummately (Source: “Satyendranath Bose” by Santimaya Chatterjee and Enakshi Chatterjee, National Book Trust, India, New Delhi, 1976).

A versatile scientist, he also served in many academic leadership positions. He was the president of the physics section of Indian Science Congress in 1939; the general president of the Indian Science Congress in Delhi in 1944; president of the Indian Physical Society during 1945-1948; and president of the National Institute of Science of India in 1949. He was awarded the second highest civilian honor in India, the Padma Vibhushan, in 1954, and in 1958 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. In 1959 he was appointed as National Professor, a post he held till his death on February 4, 1974 – the end of an era of great men of modern science in India. A lot of Indian scientists feel that Satyendranath Bose should have been awarded the Nobel Prize. The late physicist Professor PK Kabir wrote:

Bose’s paper not only had an immediate and far-reaching impact on several basic problems in physics but it also provides the fundamental explanation of phenomena whose elucidation and elaboration has been the subject of at least three Nobel Prizes. It is a great pity that this token of honour was not accorded to S.N. Bose, whose work is undoubtedly the most important contribution to science made by any Indian so far (Source: “Satyendranath Bose” by Santimaya Chatterjee and Enakshi Chatterjee, National Book Trust, India, New Delhi, 1976).

Be that as it may – the lack of Nobel Prize notwithstanding – Bose, a brilliant scholar throughout his life time, continues to inspire many even today, while his name lives on in Bosons, and inextricably linked with Einstein’s in Bose-Einstein Statistics and Bose-Einstein condensates, in the annals of the history of science in the 20th century and beyond.

Confusions galore: science and superstition? Part 1 of 2

Angela Saini, a well-known London-based science journalist and author, has written a book titled Geek Nation in which she makes a case for the rise of India as a scientific superpower despite the overwhelming influence of religion in the Indian society. I’d love to read the book. It will be published tomorrow, on March 3, 2011 in the UK; I don’t know when it’d be available in the US, but soon, I hope.
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Confusion? You betcher… Part 2 of 2

In the first part of this two part post inspired by science-journalist and author Angela Saini’s write-ups on the topic of science and superstition in India, I explained my views on the real problem plaguing science education in India. In this second part, I look more closely at Angela’s writings.

What got me interested in Angela’s forthcoming book, Geek Nation (available March 3, 2011 in the UK), has been outlined in one of her blog posts, titled “”http://angelasaini.blogspot.com/2011/02/god-confusion.html" style=“text-decoration: none;”>The god confusion". She indicates:

One of the more controversial themes in Geek Nation is the impact that the rise of science and technology is having on superstition and faith in India (which is, after all, said to be the most religious place in the world).

This happens to be an issue that has, frankly, troubled me for a long time. Angela offered a sorta-kinda justification in her post:

The ideas we’re instilled with as kids are far more difficult to abandon when we grow older than some rationalists would like to think they are. And of course I know lots of intelligent, rational people who cling to faith (and many more who read their horoscopes)… for many, it’s comforting and reassuring.

This immediately dredged up memories of my having grown up in India, images of people I have been around and situations I have been in: (a) the frequent practice of choosing an ‘auspicious’ time and place of a scientific convention (meeting, congress, conference) based on astrology or some other personally favorite superstition; (b) the invoking of gods and goddesses for blessings prior to the commencement of scientific symposia; © working scientists, biologists, chemists, physicists, sporting on ten fingers ten rings set with precious or semi-precious stones, all designed either to curry favor with some astrological planet or star, or to ward off the evil influences thereof; (d) biochemists and molecular biologists devoutly praying for a favorable outcome of their PCR runs; … the list can go on and on. This regrettable behavior on part of scientists is the sign of a greater malaise: Irrationality of any kind leaves our minds open for further irrationality. For that very reason, merely because a superstition appears ‘comforting and reassuring’, that cannot/shouldn’t be reason enough for embracing it wholeheartedly.

I have listed my views on the topic. I am, unfortunately, not aware if Angela is a scientist by training or not (Her Blogger profile mentions her industry as ‘Communications or Media’). If she is not, it’d certainly be refreshing to get a perspective from a non-scientist on the strange, and strangely easy, coexistence of science and superstitions in India – all the more reason to wait eagerly for the book.

Pending the arrival of the book, I turned to the column that Angela has written for the New Humanist, titled the same as her blog post, “The god confusion”, in order to get a feel of what was to come in the book. It is well-written and insightful. Angela’s conversational style is a pleasure to read. She has explored the situation from a personal as well as historical perspective, noting past efforts at injecting rationality into the Indian societal mores. She has examined a couple of the reasons why the juxtaposition of science and superstition seems to have endured in the Indian psyche, such as high levels of adult illiteracy and the apparent fluidity of Hinduism (which is the predominant religion in India). She has questioned the foundations of a so-called spiritual resurgence among India’s urban or semi-urban, educated youth.

But there is also something oddly wrong and out of sync in her piece. It is almost as if the confusion she underscores in her article is not the confusion that the Indian people appear to face in having to choose between science and irrationality; it is rather a confusion that is her own, as if reflecting her own ambivalence about the relative place of science and religion in her life – perhaps borne out of the confusion of ideas from her childhood, the invisible-yet-present struggle between her unashamedly geeky, rational and skeptical father and horoscope-wielding mother (judging from her own words).

In odd places in Angela’s otherwise interesting account, a strange credulity, a desire to look at the Indian science situation through rose-tinted glasses, has shone through – evident in the facile ease with which she refuses to acknowledge what her inner rationalist says. When she passed by the Swaminarayan Akshardham temple in New Delhi, a sprawling religious edifice purportedly for showcasing “the essence of India’s ancient architecture, traditions and timeless spiritual messages”, the rationalist in Angela did note that “In a poor country, it’s a sumptuous and expensive testament to faith”, and yet she is “impressed” by the motivations of the people who built the place. Is it really that hard to imagine how many poor, hungry people could have been fed and clothed, how many little girls given the light of education, how many endeavors – towards empowerment of women, the disadvantaged, and the marginalized – financed through the amount of money and/or effort spent on building an edifice that does nothing but look pretty and rehash some perennially ineffectual words?

Towards the end of the article, Angela also whimpers about how difficult it is to let go of religion in India. Don’t get me wrong. Her observation is astute when she notes:

In India that struggle is multiplied because the culture is so dominated by it. Beliefs are burned into the minds of children – Hindus often keep shrines at home, pray daily and have their fates decided by their horoscopes at birth. It’s common to appeal to the gods to guide you in your choices and to give you luck. Not only this, superstition and religion are big business: astrologers have their own television programmes (sic); homeopathic drugs and traditional medicines are sold in the millions; and fashionable gurus attract stadia full of fat-walleted worshippers. Ditching god isn’t easy when you’re surrounded by an infrastructure built on belief.

(It may be difficult, Angela, but it is not impossible. I have done it and freed myself from the shackles of religion. It is an unbelievably liberating feeling.)

However, it is important to understand that unless Indians grow up as a nation, unless the unholy reliance on faith and superstitions is burnt at the altar of reason and sanity (the religious imagery of this allegory seems oddly appropriate here!!), unless rationality and skepticism is made the mainstay of the basic education, including science education, the nation can never grow, prosper and thrive intellectually – no matter how ‘desperately religious’ modern, so-called educated Indians try to rationalize their transcendental bond with faith and superstitions, no matter how much they attempt to reconcile scientific facts with fundamentally incompatible religious stories.

But perhaps Angela’s problem – despite her obvious understanding of the crux of the situation – has a different root. She epitomizes it when she engages in a rather disappointing, spacious, strawman-beating statement in her blog post, where she says:

“Unlike some scientists and radical atheists like Richard Dawkins, I’m actually quite sympathetic to the emotional reasons behind religious belief.”

Yes, the sympathy. Angela’s article’s title The god confusion may possibly be a play on Dawkins’ The god delusion, but the former ain’t nothing like the latter. Nowhere has Richard indicated that he is not sympathetic to the emotions associated with religious belief in people; in fact, in The God Delusion, he has dedicated chapter after chapter towards understanding the basis of religious belief, of faith.

But Angela’s ‘sympathy’ towards the faithful – likely stemming from her own internal confusion – seems to have effectively blinded her towards the fact that rational atheists object to the religious beliefs, myths and superstitions per se, and not to the individuals holding those beliefs – until and unless those beliefs lead to harm and injury to others (and they do; there is enough evidence of that in the real world – but that’s a topic for another day).