Category Archives: nature

Evolution – Variation and Similarity

Evolutionary thinking (due to Darwin) is no doubt one of those paradigm shifting moments in scientific history, changing how we conceive of the world around us and ourselves. The idea of ‘Descent through Modification’ is now well established and accepted.

While evolution is not a disputable fact, a major source of debate a few decades ago (and even nowadays, to some extent) has been the causes for evolution. Enter a evolutionary biology class and you will see that everyone tries to explain observable traits (non-jargon way of saying phenotypes) using fitness arguments – how this or that trait was required for survival and reproductive success, and hence it is here today. These arguments stem from a view that is called the ‘Modern Synthesis’ – evolution happens primarily through natural selection, and natural selection requires a set of variants to select from, and this variation within a population is given by random genetic mutation. It is called the ‘Synthesis’ since it combined ideas from evolution and genetics to give a plausible answer to the mechanism of evolution. The whole idea of evolutionary game theory rests on this hypothesis, and so does evolutionary psychology.

However, a physicist or a mathematician or anyone else who tries to look for patterns in phenomena will tend to be exasperated by natural selection arguments for everything: in some cases, it is obvious that natural selection caused evolution, while it is not so in others. However, a knee-jerk answer to any evolutionary question by a biologist will invoke natural selection. Now, most of these answers are plausible, but that does not mean anything. For example, a crash in a predator population can easily be put down to a lack in fitness, but everyone who has studied the predator prey model will tell you that this crash comes about due to interactions between predator and prey populations, and has nothing to do with genes or natural selection.

Creating evolutionary fairy tales frees the biologist from looking at a phenomena at a deeper level, and sometimes one feels that depth is what is lacking when one reads up evolutionary biology. The oft quoted example is of the Fibonacci spirals in plants – this shows up everywhere, from shapes of galaxies to arrangement of seeds in flowers. A hardliner selectionist would tell you that this is because there were many variants of the universe and ours was the only one that managed to survive (reproduce?), and thus all such successful survivors will have Fibonacci spirals because of their ‘fitness improvement’. Now, one cannot disprove this, no doubt, but the question is whether one should accept it.

For me atleast, the answer is no – while selection of variants has its place in biology and (I sceptically say this) in other fields, it cannot explain the unity underlying phenomena: Certain things ‘just happen’ to look/behave/think similarly, and this evolution via selection cannot explain. Are there physical, chemical, informational constraints on a living being that simply does not allow certain variants? Are ‘gaps in the fossil record’ actually ‘gaps’ –  is there a step jump from one form to another? Answering these questions is way harder than coming up with ‘plausible’ selectionist arguments, and has very rarely been attempted in the history of biology. However, if evolutionary theory has to have the depth seen in physics or mathematics, such work has to inevitably happen.

Situating the Mind

One of interesting themes that emerged from a workshop that I attended recently is the problem of placing the Mind in a certain place. Up front, one must assume that it is sensible to separate the Mind from the Brain, at least for purposes of analysis if nothing else. Neuroscientists may have problems with this, but that is their problem.

The first approach to this problem was to deny that anything ever happened within the Mind – the brain was a simple input/output machine, put in stimulus and get out behavior. There is nothing called mental states and anything ‘unobservable’ had no real existence. This was the approach of the Behaviorists, and this is what gave rise to traditional psychology, with its ideas of conditioning and behavioral modification. This view is quite defunct especially after Chomsky and others at MIT and Harvard came into the picture.

The second dig at the problem was taken by the cognitive scientists from the Chomsky tribe. This still dominant view considers the brain to be a computer (note that they do not think of a computer as a good model, but rather that the brain is a computer). While the particulars of implementation may be debated (Turing Machine vs. Neural Networks), the idea is that the Mind has certain internal states, which when combined with sensory inputs gives you all the rich everyday experience that any person is familiar with. To a first approximation, and as a working hypothesis, this is extremely useful and has led to great insights about the functioning of the Mind, especially with regard to perception and language. Computer vision is the brainchild of this era, and its results are there for anyone to see.

However, biologists were probably dissatisfied by this ‘disembodied’ mind that the computer scientists had come up with. This would imply that the relation between the mind’s functioning and the environment in which it evolved is very small. No self respecting biologist can ever accept such a claim, and this led to an ’embodied’ concept of the mind, where perception (for example) was not the output of an algorithm but a combination of body states (walking, running, eating, etc.,) and mental states, and one cannot separate the two out since the mind did not evolve on its own, but rather developed as part of a whole.

Thus, we see a trajectory of thinking about the Mind, which moves from a complete denial of it, to a disembodied version to one (now popular) version which places it firmly within an organism. In some sense, the complexity which one attributed to the mind has increased over time.

The next step came from (obviously) the philosophers, some of whom claimed that the Mind does not exist within the person, but is a combination of the organism and its environment. What they say is that the environment does not simply affect cognitive processes, but is a part of them. Thus, no environment means some processess simply will not work.

Thus, the Mind is no longer a localized entity but which is distributed over space and (maybe!) time. One hopes this gradual extrapolation does not lead to Deepak Chopra like new-age mysticism and leads to claims that can actually be tested for their truth value. But again, one sees that this is a step up the complexity ladder. Slowly, the study of the Mind has gone from simple to very complicated ideas about its location, forget about function.

This is in contrast to historical developments in say physics, where complicated phenomena were ultimately explained using a small set of concepts which were considered fundamental. As with the study of the Mind, the study of the Earth system has run into difficulties. What one hoped would end at studying large scale motions of the atmosphere and ocean is nowadays studying phytoplankton and its effects on global climate!

Intuitively, there seems to be something very different about the phenomena that we are trying to study in the mind sciences or earth system science than the atoms or celestial objects that physics studied. You cannot study vision and learn things that extrapolate to the mind in general, just as you cannot study a liver and tell what the organism is likely to be. The fact that even the question of what to study is not well defined leads to very dubious research which gives the whole field a bad name. Do we, as our predecessors did, study the liver, pancreas and heart and say well, put all this together and you get a living being? Or do we try to answer the question ‘what is life’?

It does not seem very clear as to how the present range of scientific methods can help answer a question like the latter. The study of the Mind, the Earth or even Biology is at a stage similar to maybe where Mechanics was at the time of Kepler. People are looking at various ways to chip away at the same problem, some traditional, some extremely offbeat, in the hope that what one considers valid questions will be answered. Whether they will be answered or shown to be invalid, time will tell.

The Subject-Object distinction

A basic ontological position that is taken up in the quest for knowledge is that of  Subject and Object. The Subject is the Observer, the Object the Observed, and there has to be a definite distinction between both. Once this is setup, the observer uses some means of acquiring knowledge about the observed, be it meditation, divine revelation or the new-fangled thing called the scientific method. The knowledge acquired about the Object, through a means that is independent of the Subject is thus ‘objective knowledge’. This kind of knowledge is supposed to reflect reality as it truly is, without contamination by the biases of the observer.

It is easy to see why the scientific method of repeated observation and experimentation is the preferred mode knowledge acquisition – God apparently reveals to people of every religion that theirs is the true religion or that theirs is the superior religion, and obviously not everyone can be right, i.e, there is some ‘contamination’. Of course, the previous statement implicity assumes that there is actually a single reality, but without that assumption, one falls into the critical theory mire, which to me is the worse of the two alternatives. Thus, the scientific method, atleast in theory, can be relied upon to produce subject independent knowledge about some object.

The crucial thing, again, is the fact that we must be able to provide a clear separation between the observer and the observed for this to work. Without this separation, the scientific method is as good as divine revelation. There are quite a few objects that are amenable to this separation – the solar system, atoms, molecules, plants, animals, ice-cream, among other things. However, there are certain objects that do not allow such a distinction (Of course, you cannot call it an object anymore, but Im retaining the nomenclature and discarding the ontological connotation).

For example, the stock market – If someone gives you ‘objective knowledge’ that there is a good chance of the stock market crashing and you pass on that information and you and your friends selling all your holdings triggering a crash, there is absolutely no way of telling whether the crash would have happened if you did not know that it would happen. Another example would be the ‘study of the Self’ – If you figure out through psychoanalysis or meditation or something else that ‘humans are essentially xyz’, and you begin to see yourself acting (or trying to act) in that manner, it is difficult to gauge whether behavior follows the statement or vice versa. This is not to say that humans are not xyz, but whether they are only xyz. If someone subscribes to the Freudian prescription of  the mating instinct dominating our actions or the Christian one that Man is incomplete without God’s grace, and tries to interpret his everyday action through such a framework, then he is likely to see that everything ‘fits’. But it is evident that there is no way that this is objective knowledge.

The previous paragraphs can be considered as a very short summary J. Krishnamurti’s line of thinking – that there exist situations where the subject-object distinction does not hold and thus statments about objectivity or subjectivity make no sense. The critical theorists in addressing the same issue come to the conclusion that everything is subjective – made famous by the statment ‘ Death of the Author’, but the issue to me cannot be interpreted from the subject-object perspective – the negation of objectivity need not only be subjectivity but also lack of both.

Take the example of a drama – one may imagine that there is a clear distinction here between the observer and the observed. But if one takes another look, the drama is written and produced keeping the audience in mind, for otherwise there is no point in it being performed, and thus the audience is also part of the play – the observer is also the observed. The drama, as it unfolds, is a dialogue between the performers and the audience and can thus be interpreted only as a whole. A ‘flop’ is one which fails to bring about this unity, with the dramatist complaining about how backward his audiences are. The drama is simply not situated within the correct context, which alienates the audience from the drama.

Similar questions arise in other places as well – can historical records and religious texts be interpreted by an observer who is not also the observed ? In India, the interpretation of history is a huge controversy. But neither the Hindutva glorification of the spiritual nor the Marxist focus on the material can do justice, since neither ‘lives’ the history – it is an exercise in textual interpretation. The only true history can come from someone who actually lives it. Similarly, atheists/rationalists tearing apart religious texts serves little more than angering others.

Another interesting place to look at is music. It is well known that most classical music is also religious music – some of the finest music has been in the praise of God (regardless of definition). Is is possible to appreciate Handel or Tyagaraja without sharing the intense experience of divinity (again, regardless of how you define divinity) that lead to the actual creation of the music ? Bland technical music criticism leads to a ‘fossilization’ of the music just as textual criticism of religion only shows a religion that is ‘dead’ – both lead to unnatural and normally harmful ideas of  ‘purity’ which do not allow any evolution of the object under scrutiny. A true purist will try and maintain continuity rather than stasis – not hinder evolution, but participate in deciding its direction.

This question is more important now than ever, given that natural scientists and engineers are called to take on the burden of examining and interpreting phenomena that are complex beyond comparison to the objects of study which they initially started off with, which decided their methodology. Unless we evolve new ways to understand reality, all we will be doing is tuning zillions of parameters, looking for an Objective Model of the World.

Field Trip to Kaggalipura

For some unknown reason, was invited by the Regional Museum of Natural History, Mysore to conduct a field trip for the children who were attending their annual summer camp. I was to speak about ‘pollution in a water body’, but thankfully was able to do more than just that.

Morning sky
Thank you water vapor!!

The day was perfect for a field trip, overcast from the morning. The plan was to make the children take a hike around the (almost dry) lake and make a list of what animals/birds/plants/trees/insects they see. We then used the data that they collected to try and make some sense of it from an ecology framework.

Insect hunters!

Birders!
Botanists!

They found that there were far more small organisms (plants, insects) than large ones (birds, trees). We tried to figure out why this was so, and this led to the concept of survival of the one able to reproduce fastest. They saw birds near the lake had different beaks and legs compared to the ones in the field, and this led to the concept of adaptation.

We then had a discussion about the food web, and why the nutrients in the soil never get over even though plants keep consuming them. This led to the concept of a nutrient cycle, and the importance of decomposers in any ecosystem (and the importance of sweepers and housekeeping (as compared to the IT crowd) in any city!).

Fortunately, the discussions stopped before the children were bored, and then we were off the Somanathapura for lunch and then headed back.

Can't get enough of it!
Intricate, beautiful...
Curiosity has no favorite subject!
The gang at state of least entropy!!

Seems like the best way to teach children anything is to actually take them to where the action is. Since they have enough energy to burn, unlike me, they need to work on some activity which keeps them both mentally and physically busy. Then, rather than shoving concepts down their throats, it is best to ask questions so that they come up with the concepts themselves, or suddenly understand what their textbooks had mentioned. Thankfully, this theory worked well with this bunch of kids, since they were actively answering and participating in the discussions. It never works with older people. Guess questioning is now only a bastion of the child!!

Life at 8 kmph – A Walker’s Manifesto

Whether on four limbs or two, we and our ancestors have been walking for millenia. It is in our DNA, and we still rely on it from time to time when our cars break down, just like our ancestors relied on it when their donkeys suddenly died. In fact, we have been walking for longer than we have been thinking, which explains why the average human walks far better the she can think – If everybody walked as well as they thought, the world would be a very dizzy place for most of us.

Here, no attempt is made to outline the physical importance of walking – This every IT professional or MBA knows and no farmer or street vendor needs to know – this is an attempt to delineate the cosmology of the walker. Also, it is an attempt to understand how man’s relationship with his walk changed after cataclysms like the invention of the wheel and the iPod. However, technical questions like how much to walk, at what intensity, with whom, how can one associate a real number with a certain kind of walk and other publishable questions are left to future theoreticians from some Institutes of Science.

A walker is a peaceful animal. She knows that she cannot walk faster than some 10 kmph regardless of what happens, therefore is content with her lot. Running is possible, but not for long distances – walking is the only way to ensure that one can transport oneself daily from point A to B without dying at a very early age. A walker is also a very careful animal. He is at his most vulnerable when not protected by his home and family. Thorns, predators, snakes, stones, pretty much everything in his path is potentially fatal. For example, if people only knew how to walk, then people would not have such a problem with night traffic being banned in Bandipur. Instead, they would request that such a ban be enforced in the interest of the walking public. For the walker, time is not composed of discrete intervals determined by some cesium atom. One does not have to reach some place at some time, one reaches a place when one reaches the place (preferably before sunset, when we are even more vulnerable).

A walker is learning and playing all the time, unlike those who need specialized locations for both. Learning about what to eat, where to stop, how much to talk are all part of the curriculum. At the same time, listening to the wind rustling through the leaves, the robin announcing the arrival of spring with interesting lectures from the tree tops, watching the trees burst into bloom and the grass drying out are all part of the small pleasures that come by the walker’s way. A walker can stand and stare for as long as she wants, an ability that is slowly dying out. Staring is a very important part of both the intellectual and aesthetic development of the walker, though nowadays she would be accused of sexual harassment or mental illness for doing the same.

A walker does not go visit point B alone, but an infinite number of places along the way. People coming to Mysore complain that they only have around 10 places to visit, boring place. Maybe a walk around will change their mind. Thus, for a walker space is not composed of finite points connected by finite curves, but a continuum of points from here to everywhere. It is therefore not surprising that walkers know more about a place than anyone else. Nothing is boring because nothing is static, space in a walker’s view is always fluid, just like time, and both are in consonance – more the space in front of you, the more the time you will have.

And then comes the wheel. Nowadays, everybody wants their own wheels, depending on what they can afford. Thus, an American rides a Harley, an Indian rides a Hero Honda and an IIScian rides a cycle. For some strange reasons not well understood, from where they come (point A) and where they go (point B) suddenly are given undue importance. Another strange concept called ‘saving time’ also gets introduced, which justifies riding wheels that rotate faster than ever. Time cannot be stored for a rainy day, nor does it need saving from anything, thus this saving business seems to be mere wordplay rather than a concrete concept. Space and time are now quantities that are opposed to each other – farther means you ‘save less time’. The harmony between space and time is destroyed in this process.

Now everybody has ‘saved’ time, and therefore has plenty of time to ‘spare’. Since it cannot be lent to others, it must be used by its owner in the best manner possible – parties, philosophy, defence policy, business expansion and the like. Unfortunately, as was noted before, man does not think as well as he walks. Thus, it is not surprising that most of the problems in the world today are caused by the ‘savers’ – animals with too much time and too little brains. If they only had less time to plot jihads or search for cheap labor markets, we might have been better off. Simply put, walking naturally leads to world peace!

Earplugs which deliver music right to your eardrum is another invention that is killing the pleasure of walking. Like all good earplugs, they cutoff the walker from his surroundings, surrounding him with badly composed notes which are not even infinite like the ones he is cutoff from. Thus, his concept of space and time are completely dictated by another person (sometimes rightly called the ‘conductor’). Since the walker no longer pays attention to his surroundings, all the dangers that he faces are thus to be paved over by roads, killed or put into National Parks. Thus, not only does he affect himself, but everything around him as well.

These and other pernicious inventions have relegated the walker from being the centre of her universe to a small, sometimes irritating, part of someone else’s universe. It is high time we discover the walker in ourselves, before we evolve to a stage where we do not know what to do when our donkey dies.

Bridging Nature and Humanity

I personally find it quite strange to think of humans as apart from nature and vice versa, but after many interactions with people who think otherwise, it seems that I’m in a minority. If evolution is to be believed, we as a species (Dawkins would say individuals!) have evolved mechanisms to improve our survival rate, to the extent that we are now the most dominant species in terms of geographical reach and resource use.

However, our genes seem to have forgotten to encode limiting behavior, atleast with respect to resource utilization, which would enable us to live sustainably. Therefore, we have to resort to non-biological notions like stewardship and animal rights to keep ourselves in check. From where such notions arise, one really does not know. Nevertheless, questions in ethics, epistemology and ontology have interested us as much as questions in physics, math or chemistry.

Ancient scholarship, both Western and Eastern, never viewed either category as seperate from the other and, to quote a friend, did both physics and metaphysics. It is only recently that our world view has taken a schizophrenic turn, looking at billiard balls using differential equations (bottom-up) and guiding human behavior using teleology (top-down). It has been notoriously hard to reconcile these world views and thus each developed practically independent of the other.

No doubt, there have been attempts by one to encroach upon the other’s turf. Dawkins and like minded compatriots went one way, while the Christian Right in USA and Astrology try going the other. All in all, it seems unlikely that one or the other will have total dominance anytime in the near future.

Thus we are stuck with quarks on the one hand and The Goal Of Human Life on the other. For example, mainstream economics ignores nature by invoking the Axiom of Infinite Substitutability (One kind of good can always be substituted for another, thanks to human ingenuity), so if rainforests go, then we can always conjure up something to take its place. Marxist thinking takes the view that all human development is the result of economic processes, so trees and animals don’t even merit a mention – they are simply unimportant as far as human society’s development goes. On the other hand, we have climate models which put in a large amount of CO2 into the model atmosphere and see how things change, as though humans are just passive CO2 emitters who cannot recognize calamities and adapt their behavior (This seems ominously probable nowadays!). Each approach has value, no doubt, but it is obvious that neither economics nor climate modelling can actually solve the problems we face today.

One solution is for people with different outlooks to sit down and reach a consensus. My last experience with such an experiment was not very encouraging, and the recent spat between Rajendra Pachauri and Jairam Ramesh did nothing to to encourage anyone about interactions between politicians and scientists, I’m sure. The other solution, of which one is more optimistic, is for researchers to break  the new barriers and go back to a world view where one can engage with physics and metaphysics without being called a witch-doctor. Natural and social sciences are ripe for such a synthesis — we have finally reached a state where our metaphysics (explicit or otherwise) is affecting the earth’s chemistry and biology, maybe even the physics: while I don’t think we can change the Gravitational Constant anytime soon, but a few thermonuclear warheads here and there could change g=9.8 m/s2 to something substantially smaller!

Little known but impotant steps towards such a synthesis are being seen — ecological economics is bound to be mainstream before we kill ourselves, social ecology is bound to be important in the future too. Scientists seem to be getting more comfortable doing politics outside their institutions and politicians are learning some thermodynamics, thank heavens. The principle of  learning two subjects well, one closer to quarks and the other closer to the God side of the spectrum of human thought will serve researchers well in the future. Oh, and present day economics does not count on either side of the spectrum.

Climate and Engines – similarities and lack thereof.

After a whole semester of getting hammered by all kinds of climate related courses, one develops a great respect for the Earth and for the sheer dumb luck that we call life.

For example, a little closer to the Sun, we might have gone the Venus way, a little farther we would have been like Mars. Even then, we had to have the right amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, a surface dominated by water and its wierd behavior to survive. Also interesting is the fact that we have as a major component of our atmosphere a very reactive gas called oxygen whose fraction has not varied for a couple of million years. A little more oxygen, everything would have burned to cinders long time ago. A little less, the diversity of life that we see might not have existed. How silly bacteria and plants have managed to maintain the fraction of oxygen for this long a time period is quite a mystery!!

The Earth’s climate is like the holy grail for students of nonlinear physics, and thousands make a living by showing that we still have much to learn about it. That humans will never be able to accurately predict it over very long times scales is a given, so everyone has a gala time building models of increasing complexity to see how good we can become at this game of prediction in the future. All that being said, the basic physics behind climate are well understood, just that to predict it will require crazily large amounts of measurements of a crazily large number of variables, which just may not happen anytime before we cook ourselves.

To a first approximation, the earth is very much like an engine: it takes energy from the sun, does some work with it, and rejects the waste heat back to space. Since it has been doing this for millions of years, it seems reasonable to assume that what comes in must go out, otherwise this energy would build up within the earth, eventually destroying it. This kind of state is called radiative equilibrium.

So, what kind of work does the earth do using this energy ? Well, it causes winds, oceans currents to develop, helps photosynthesis and eventually (though not necessarily) forms something interesting like Aishwarya Rai. Every source of energy available to humans today, from flowing water to coal to Red Bull, all are sunlight in different forms (except nuclear, of course).

So, the main purpose of the earth’s weather (If one can impute purpose to it)  seems to be to distribute this energy to all corners of the earth. There are places like Antartica which really cannot be bothered by all this energy and reflect it back, other places like Kolkata and Chennai which seem to take in more than needed, but on the whole, the spread is quite even. The atmosphere seems to act like a piston, moving this way and that, taking excess energy from here and transferring it there. The poor atmosphere just wants to remain calm and steady, but somehow it manages to gain enough energy to become unstable. In the tropics where we live, the main mechanism by which it tries to regain equilibrium seem to be via rainfall – little wonder why it rains so much in the tropics!

The oceans take in quite a bit of this energy, keep it to themselves for a long time (unless something makes them throw it back out) and act like the flywheel – even if there is no much energy coming in from the sun (at night, say), they provide some energy back to the atmosphere, which is why coastal regions don’t really have too much variations in temperature.

But unlike human built engines, climate and weather don’t really bother about (probably due to lack of awareness) Carnot’s theorem. The source and sink temperatures for most of earth’s thermodynamic cycles is miniscule – the temperature difference for a good monsoon to happen is probably lesser than 10 degrees centigrade, amounting to an efficiency of almost zero! Makes you wonder if the Earth managed so well with zero efficiency thermodynamic cycles, why are we hell bent upon engines with huge contrasts in source and sink temperatures! Maybe we are just too impatient, and want to travel from Bangalore to Boston in less than a day. In contrast, ocean currents probably take years to do such a trip.

Come to think of it, huge gradients of anything are not really visible on earth, and where they exist they are quite destructive (think waterfall!). But even large gradients like waterfalls finally work to reduce the same gradient (these are called negative feedbacks). There are processes which enhance gradients (called positive feedbacks), and which are believed to have caused (and removed) the many Ice Ages that the earth has experienced, but on the whole this policy of keeping gradients small seems to have worked quite well for the Earth – Ice Age or otherwise, the Earth’s mean temperature does not seemed to have varied by more than 10 degree centigrade over millions of years. Individual areas might have huge variations, but as a whole it has been quite steady.

In contrast, a factory can have a variation of over 100 degrees over a single day! Obviously, factories cannot last millions of years. Any extreme event ( like human civilization ;) cannot sustain itself for long. But we seem to have made an ideal out of extremes : F1 racing, supersonic flights, George Bush, Bill Gates, Narendra Modi and so on, which does not seem to conform with sustainable behavior. One wonders whether sustainability addresses such issues. There is little doubt that our industrial civilization of the past 200 years will be a blip in the history of the Earth, but it remains to be seen (by who/whatever inhabits this planet millions of years from now) whether the Earth changes forever due to this extreme blip.