Saturday, August 31, 2013

Stephen Hawking's Black Holes And Baby Universes and other essays - Review

A few days back, I got into an online debate with a random girl in a Facebook community. She had mentioned that this is the age of Science, and while Science is taking human life forward at an unimaginable pace, speculative Philosophers are just a hindrance to human progress. I replied with the speculation that a lot of what Science says could turn out to be wrong.  This started a fierce discussion that went on for quite long, and I was barely able to defend the powerful arguments she kept throwing at me, until the community admin removed the post for "digression". The takeaway from that experience was this : if she is right, Science is very close to finding an answer to The Life, The Universe and Everything in It, and that it would not be 42.

Stephen Hawking's "Black Holes and Baby Universes and other essays" published by Bantam Books is a collection of essays and speeches by Stephen Hawking during different times in his career, and like a cherry on top, it includes his 1992 interview with BBC Radio. Like the girl I got into an argument with, Stephen Hawking believes that we are very close to solving the puzzle of the Universe. He sets the tone in the introduction itself, with the words

"The scientific articles in this volume were written in the belief that the universe is governed by an order that we can perceive partially  now and that we may understand fully in the not-too-distant future. It may be that this hope is just a mirage; there may be no ultimate theory, and even if there is, we may not be able to find it. But it is surely better to strive for a complete understanding than to despair of the human mind."

In the first two essays, "Childhood" and "Oxford and Cambridge", Hawking tells us briefly about the first few years of his life, and he makes it out as unremarkable. One feature of Hawking's writing throughout the book is that he maintains a largely impersonal tone, with an occasional sense of humour. This aloof attitude of his writing is further highlighted in his third essay (which is actually a speech transcript) - "My Experience with ALS". This speech transcript describing Stephen Hawking's unfortunate medical condition and its effect on him should arguably be the most attractive piece in the collection, given our morbid curiosity over other people's lives. But Hawking uses an unemotional tone, and describes the events alone. He concludes this speech making an effort to give all his listeners hope with the words

"I have had motor neurone disease for practically all my adult life. Yet it has not prevented me from having a very attractive family and being successful in my work. This is thanks to the help I have received from my wife, my children and a large number of other people and organizations. I have been lucky that my condition has progressed more slowly that is often the case. It shows that one need not lose hope."

In the next two essays "Public Attitudes Towards Science" and "A Brief History of A Brief  History", Hawking explains his belief that the public should be aware of the latest advancements in Science, and his own effort in making this possible by writing his most famous book - "A Brief History of Time".  Hawking does not ignore the fact that though the book may be a best-seller, a lot of people use it to just adorn their bookshelves as a status symbol (The book lies untouched in my own bookshelf for about 7 years now. Note to self : Soon).

Starting with the  speech transcript "My Position", where he temporarily lets go his composure and indulges in a self-confessed harsh attack on Philosophers ("They are not in touch with the present frontier of Physics"), the next few essays get into real Physics. Though I couldn't understand the Physics part completely, I could get the broad ideas pretty well. This is largely due the fact that owing to their independent by-themselves nature of the essays, Hawking gives a general idea of the same concepts multiple times throughout the collection.

The final interview - "Desert Island Discs : An Interview" - is a delightful read. As a part of this very interesting show hosted at BBC Radio, the interviewer (Sue Lawley) manages to bring out different aspects to the very incidents that we encountered though Hawking's own words. For example, in answer to a question, Hawking explains the feeling of hopelessness on discovery of his medical condition better than he does in his own speech. A more musically inclined person than me would even take the chance to approve (or disapprove) of Hawking's taste in music. However my personal favorite in the whole collection is the essay titled "Is Everything Determined?", where armed with no emperical data to support him Hawking  himself indulges in what he accuses the Philosophers of being guilty of - speculation. Touching over concepts of a pre-determined destiny, and the moral culpability of human actions in a pre-destined Universe, Hawking lets himself go (with an ironic sense of humour).

On the whole, "Black Holes and Baby Universes and other essays" is a very good read (at least for a scientifically non-inclined person like me). Hawking's writing is good and to the point, and his sense of mild humour ensures that all is not dull. Regardless of your agreement or disagreement (as in my case) with the statement from the book's Introduction I have quoted above, I would suggest that you go for this one.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Weekly Digest - Must read online articles

For the past few months, I have been coming across some wonderful articles on varied subjects. Most of my content discovery has been through twitter. Given that I follow nearly 300 people on twitter, I come across articles of many different kinds. Since my the list of my browser bookmarks, and favorited tweets are continuously growing, I have decided to make a weekly digest of all the interesting links I come across the week, along with a short description of the article in each link. I do hope that it would be useful to you at some point of time, but I don't mind if it is not. Having said that, here is a list of articles that kept me engaged this week :

1) Here is the first one. A first person account of the sexual harassment faced by an American woman who studied abroad in India. There is nothing uplifting about this article. It is a depressing read on the state of affairs prevalent in our country. A little time spent in the comments section of the article makes one even more depressed. When I shared this link in FB, I was directed to this response to the article, which didn't convince me. But I would leave that to your own judgement.

2) Another related link, a super sad story (fiction or everyday-reality?) of an Indian born mother who experiences growing up as a woman in India, and is reluctant to come back to the country.

3) Meanwhile, my most favorite cricketer ever is back at what he has been recently best at. No, I don't mean batting in a test match to save a series. Here is Rahul Dravid speaking at For Cricket summit, reiterating the values of test cricket. He gives some interesting ideas on merging domestic structure of different countries, and scheduling matches based on prevailing conditions to preserve test cricket. At a convocation function in BITS, he attempts to inspire youngsters with his own story. He mentions a particularly interesting plant - the Chinese Bamboo, which does not grow at all for 5 years, and then grows up to 90 feet in the next 6 months.

4) Here is a mash-up trailer of the upcoming Tamil dark comedy Sutta Kadhai, where the voice over of the Tamil movie's trailer has been synced wonderfully with visuals from Django Unchained. Personally, this movie scores high on my expectation meter, and I hope it doesn't disappoint.

5) And here is the link to a quora question "What are the most profound quotes from the Calvin and Hobbes series?". Need I say anything more? 

6) Sportskeeda has collected a list of the best Indian test cricket team ever from various cricket commentators and observers and compiled it to form the Best Indian Test xi. What stands out is that 3 players : Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid are present in every single list.

7) Apart from reading these various links, I also found time to engage in some twitter banter with @opindia_revenge, the Indian wing of the hacker and activist group Anonymous. The discussion is on the merits of an anarchist state over a statist state. I decided to try using Storify for the first time in my life, and save the conversation for posterity.

8) While India was reeling over another gangrape incident, it was announced that Ben Affleck will be donning the role of Batman in the Man of Steel sequel. Indians joined the rest of the World in outraging over the merits (or the lack of it) of choosing him for the role. Having seen only two movies starring Ben Affleck (Goodwill Hunting and Argo), and I have nothing intelligent to offer to this debate. But here is a link showing how the Internet World reacted when Heath Ledger was chosen as The Joker. 

8) Here is the pick of the week. A wonderfully written unauthorized biography on Yahoo's current CEO Marissa Mayer, and how she might just change the company's fortune. Even though it is quite long, the article is informative and inspiring on so many levels. I wonder how the real people who have been mentioned in the story would feel when they read the article. If they do not feel that their personal space is violated, all journalism should be like this.

10) Frederik Forsyth is one of my more-liked authors, and I was delightfully surprised to find his latest interview with The Hindu. For some reason, I felt very good reading the interview.

11) Roger Federer fans are having a tough time supporting their hero. Here is a longish article that considers the possibility of a comeback by the legend. The article maintains a balanced tone throughout.

12) And here is an story that touches upon the very reasons I dislike Science. The account of a social psychologist who fabricated data to become famous. It is also the story of a set-up that encourages such con men. And the story of a few brave souls who exposed him.

A quick glance at the list, and I realise that it covers Current Affairs, Cricket, Kollywood, Hollywood, Tennis, Politics, Comics, Technology and Science. No wonder I believe that the Internet is awesome.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Depression Flowchart

This year has already been one of my most productive year as a Bibliophile, both in terms of quantity and quality. I have already read 17 books this year, and I am on the brink of completing the 18th. My aggregate for the whole of last year was 18 (The statistics are readily available, thanks to goodreads). I have also made a conscious effort towards reading a certain kind of books - books that I have been avoiding for a long time. Having read one book each by Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Franz Kafka this year, I can even try pretending to be an expert on existentialist philosophy. My sudden voraciousness in consuming books hungrily delights me, but it also makes me wonder about the reason behind it.

One of the major reasons for my rekindled love for books is my new Kindle EInk. Buying a kindle is one decision I won't regret anytime soon, if at all. Having started my kindle journey with a sufficiently memorable book (The Fall by Albert Camus), I can't wait to get my hands on numerous other classics. But, there has been another equally important reason for this book-reading streak - depression.

I seek books as a cure for depression, and ironically the kind of books that accentuate it. In a rare occasion where I get to show my work skills outside of it, I have charted out a flowchart that depicts a normal working day in my life. 

The flowchart is quite easy to follow. In case you didn't know, the diamonds depict a decision point. The ratios in parenthesis indicate the probability of that event to occur. As I intended it to be fairly obvious when I started with the diagram (I am not sure how it has ended up), the normal pattern in my day is : Go to office, feel low over something, come back home, write a blog post (or get depressed over my inability to write one), try to promote the post, get depressed on the reaction, read a depressing book, fall asleep in a colossal ball of depression, wake up forgetting everything, repeat. Do I intend to do anything about this? No, not at all. I am getting used to this depressed state of mind. In fact, if I ever experience an exhilratingly happy moment, I might dearly miss my depression, and get depressed all over again.

Ah, looks like I have another blog post in hand! Now, if you don't mind, I will have to leave you at this point. And promote this blog post. And..

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

India Today

I don't usually blog on current events. The reason is simple - I need atleast a whole week to complete a single post, and by the time I complete it, the event is not current any more. Looking through all of my blogposts (admittedly not as many as I would like), there are just a couple of posts that were prompted by news items. Make it one more now.

The two headlines that scream at me when I take a quick glance at any national newspaper's website are : "5 Indians soldiers killed in attack by Pakistan soldiers." and "UP cops arrest dalit writer for Facebook post criticizing UP Government on Durga issue". It makes me wonder about a couple of things. 

1) Security or liberty?
Large Governments make us believe today that there must be some compromise on individual freedom so that the country's citizens can be safe. Since the 9/11 attacks in the United States, they have managed to prevent any other major terrorist incident. But as recent revelations show, they have also been monitoring potentially every activity made by their citizens online. The Government probably thinks it is a necessary compromise. What do you feel? Do you value security or liberty? Or are you Libertarian, and want minimum interference from Governments whatsoever? (As a side note, Libertarians believe that every Man has enough rational abilities to govern himself. These days, a lot of netizens proclaim themselves as libertarian, but a lot of them also accuse the masses for its tastes, such as in, and especially in, movies. This is a topic for a different day though)

2) Security at the cost of liberty? Liberty at the cost of security? As today's national headlines demonstrate, we seem to have neither in our country.

PS : Whoa, that is my shortest post ever!

Do let me know what you think..