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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Life comes from life from life from life... from non-life

"At the foundation of everything there is a binary demarcation. The continuum arises because of our inability to observe closely. The fundamental theory of everything is a yes or no."
Take an arbitrary unit and arrange a large combination of this unit in a specific pattern. Now imagine one pattern within another pattern within another and so on till we have a large number of repeated patterns. These patterns constitute our universe, and at a higher level – the multiverse. And a fundamental question is the origin of life in the universe. Jeremy England, a physicist at MIT gave his theory on evolution of life based on the second law of thermodynamics and postulated that species evolve in a way so that they can expend energy in the most efficient way. His argument unified the nature of living and non-living and said that if we shine light on a stone for sufficiently long duration, it will eventually start moving and behaving like a living thing.

Life is a combination of elements. Our DNA is composed of nothing but basic elements such as Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorous and Hydrogen. Over a span of billions of years, these  and other elements, guided by different sources of energy interacted with each other, rearranging themselves and trying different formations. When the right combinations merged and arranged in various patterns, a continuum was formed from non-living to the living. There can be no doubt that some species existed at the boundary between the two and could not be classified in either category. The first living species came into existence and possibly perished soon owing to the lack of information on how to replicate themselves. This was the simplest form of life.

Soon a stable life developed which was a life form that knew how to pass on the information to make life repeat. What was being transferred in form of the genetic code was an algorithm to replicate the order of atoms which will enable an organism to survive and increase its population. A study done by V.N. Tsytovich based on computer simulations suggested that electrically charged dust particles suspended in plasma display lifelike properties by arranging themselves in double helical structures and evolve into more stable forms to survive in plasma. The study by Tsytovich shows that there is no sharp classification between the living and non-living. Species such as viruses and prions (that are self propogating combination of proteins with no DNA) demonstrate that no matter where we draw the boundary, there will be some varieties standing at the doorstep to life.

Gradually species have evolved from the single celled prokaryotes to more complex and stable arthropods, land plants and mammals to over 8 million estimated species. Even though all known life on earth is carbon based but life outside earth is as likely to be founded upon very different elements such as Silicon and Germanium instead of carbon. This unfamiliar form of life might drink Sulphuric acid or ammonia instead of water. These material will exhibit very different chemistry under different temperatures, pressure and mix of radiative energy. Thus, neither carbon nor water are prerequisites for the existence of life outside earth. For all we know, with the extensive possibilities in front of us, we might find life at an unexpected time at a place where we least expect it. We will then be able to solve some of our existing curiosities but raise many more questions in front of us.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A majority of votes did not mean a majority support for AAP in Delhi

The Delhi Legislative Assembly Elections, 2015 resulted in huge upsets for both BJP and Congress who could only win 3 and 0 seats respectively, whereas the AAP won the remaining 67 seats. This landslide victory for Aam Aadmi Party was already on the cards even though a majority of voters did not consider them as the most deserving contestant. This post explains why a large number of voters did not vote for their favourite party but for their second favourite.

Before the arrival of AAP, Delhi had two major parties – BJP and Congress. And for a vast majority of voters, all other parties or candidates were not the top ranked, so how voters ranked them did not matter in deciding the election result. There could be only two types of voters – BJP supporters and Congress supporters. The introduction of AAP expanded the set to six possible voter types:
Here's my interpretation of types. Type 1 voters support Congress and oppose the Hindutva forces of BJP. These comprise a majority of Congress supporters. Type 2 support BJP but would prefer a change of party due to opposition to Congress because of corruption in previous years. Type 3 are the ones who do not want congress to win at any cost but would give chance to a new party and type 4 are AAP supporters who oppose Hindutva forces of BJP. Type 5 and 6 supported their respective parties but believe that AAP as a new party will not be able to manage the Indian capital.

In the 2013 Delhi elections, the number of BJP (33% votes, 31 seats) supporters exceeded both AAP (29.5% votes, 28 seats) and Congress (24.5% votes, 8 seats). Also, independent candidates received 10% of total votes cast with 1 seat. Once Arvind Kejriwal resigned as the Chief Minister of Delhi, it was clear that Congress is not going to win any significant number of seats in the 2015 re-elections and here is why AAP victory was a near certainty in the following elections.

Since the type 1 voters did not want BJP to win at any cost, they indulged in strategic behaviour and voted for their second favourites AAP instead of Congress (who were doomed to lose). If they had not done this, then BJP would have won more seats and that would have been a worse result for them. Most of the people who supported independent candidates were more likely to support AAP over BJP as they are more likely to give chance to a new party instead of the old established ones. So most of them also voted in favour of AAP candidates to prevent the victory of BJP as they got to know that the independent candidate is unlikely to win over AAP candidate. So the outcome of 2015 elections did not represent the actual support for AAP, but instead strategic voting by groups of congress supporters and independent candidate supporting voters who considered AAP the second best party.

The 2013 election result showed the true preferences of voters as they were largely unaware of the likely outcome and various opinion polls showed widely varying estimates of number of seats for each party. This lack of information reduced the scope for strategic behaviour. Also, since only a very short time passed between 2013 and 2015 elections and there was not much change in the political environment of Delhi, preferences can be taken to be almost constant. The voter turnout increased only marginally from 66% to 67% between the two. So, the set of voters was nearly identical across the two elections. Out of the total votes caste in 2015 elections, AAP secured 54.8% votes, BJP 32.3% votes, whereas Congress could garner only 9.7% of total votes cast. The votes cast in favour of independent candidates reduced to just 0.5%. This increase of votes in favour of AAP by 24.8% of voters is explained almost entirely by the sum of decline in Congress votes by 14.8% and independent votes by 9.5% compared to the 2013 elections. Based on this we can say that type 1 voters comprise roughly 14.8% of the voters whereas type 5 (or those congress supporters who did not indulge in such strategic behaviour) were roughly 9.7%.

Many people blame introduction of Kiran Bedi as BJP's Chief Minister candidate instead of Dr. Harsh Vardhan for their defeat. But a single glance at the election data will give her some relief as BJP's vote share in 2015 elections remained almost the same as 2013 elections, registering only an insignificant fall of 0.7%. Often we only look at the outcome, oblivious to the misrepresentations that keep happening in the background.This was one of those cases when Arvind Kejriwal was lucky to get more support than actually existed for him.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Unearthing the Earth’s History

The answer to the development of universe still lies somewhere within the universe

 We have often wondered and speculated how our own planet might have appeared billions of years ago. What if there was a possibility of watching earth’s evolution in real time? Even though those times have already passed, the image still lingers somewhere in the space. We can observe galaxies that are billions of light years away from us. The images that we see from those galaxies today show the position and conditions of those galaxies from billions of years ago. An observer placed at those galaxies will view images of Earth from billions of years ago. What if we discover some mirrors in space that are at distances in magnitude of light years from us. If our planet is aligned at an appropriate angle from those mirrors, then they would reflect light back from earth and show us images from far away times of our own planet. These images when viewed at high resolution might be able to tell us so much about the history of our own planet and even show us the formation of the Himalayas or the breaking apart of continents.

If discovered, what will be the nature of these objects? Will they have the properties of a white hole or just a reflective glass? A white hole is the opposite of a black hole. The gravity of a black hole is so strong that it doesn’t even allow light to escape and everything is concentrated at the point of singularity. But the white hole will emit everything from the singularity so that nothing can enter it. Even if such bodies are a theoretical possibility, they will be hard to recognize. This is because when we see one, we will feel as if we are looking at another galaxy or system and hence there is a possibility that we might have already missed it out despite observing it.

Depending on where the mirror is placed, we can watch images from different time periods. Closer mirrors show more recent past. If multiple mirrors were discovered we will be able to view different eras. The speed of the video will depend on the speed of the mirror relative to earth and light. If it starts moving away from earth at speed tending to the speed of light, we will constantly observe a single image. At the other theoretical extreme, if it moves towards the earth at the speed of light and assuming that it doesn’t crash with our planet, we will see the entire history in one single moment of infinite images. Stationarity with respect to the earth implies real time images from the past.

White holes are considered unstable. In contrast to black holes, they will act to decrease the entropy of universe and therefore, their existence for elongated periods of time is in violation of the laws of thermodynamics (even though it’s a mathematical possibility). So another possibility is manually placing huge mirrors at far off galaxies. But this will require travel at a speed faster than light. To solve this problem, the mirror will be placed through a shortcut- a wormhole in space, which is the only way to defeat light in a race. Now suppose the mirror is placed x billion light years away from us. It will start reflecting the images from x billion years past. Those images will take an additional x billion years to reach the earth. As a result only the generation born x billion years later will be able to view the past. This has an easy resolution – once a transceiver has been placed through the wormhole, information will be relayed back to the earth through the same wormhole. Thus the discovery of a wormhole – a bridge through space will be useful in another way to add to human knowledge.

Irrespective of the likelihood of such possibilities, a thought about them brings us closer to the understanding that in the universe, space and time might not really have different natures and one can blend into the other. If planets were humans, we might just as well look at the situation as a metaphor of an old man looking in the mirror just to discover the child he used to be.

Image Courtesy: Google

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Hindutva and Scientific Temper

“When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movements become headlong - faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thoughts of obstacles and forget the precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it's too late.”
― Frank Herbert

Ancient Indian science was definitely beyond just the rudimentary stage. To what extent it was developed is yet to be established so I see no point debating that. I see two possibilities though that either our thinking and creativity was at an advanced stage which thought of Vimanas, atomic weapons, television etc., or the science was actually at an advanced stage during that period, both of which are good. There is nothing inherently wrong in stating the possibility of Ganesha's head being joined by a plastic surgeon or pondering over the possibility of having Vimanas in those times. There has been an evidence of brain surgery in Harappan civilization and certain other civilizations as well. From the skeletons found in Mehrgarh, there is an evidence of drilling the teeth and filling the cavities in teeth. Knowledge of astronomy as well as surya siddhanta and observations on sun for over 10000 years point to institutionalized scientific enquiry in that period. Evidences from Gulf of Khambat point to the precision achieved in town planning akin to modern cities. There are many other compelling evidences which point to at least some level of development of technology during that period. When the debate arises between classical and modern technology however, for the purpose of policy making we should have a rational approach and choose to fund the policy which generates the best risk adjusted expected returns in terms of innovation created instead of just manipulating and trying to take advantage of the mass sentiment.

A significant section of the service sector in India is based on the outsourced work from the developed nations which find us a cheap source of labour. As far as people involved in artistic pursuits are concerned, the phenomenon of superstars effect dominates wherein only a small proportion of individuals get a large chunk of the wages in that sector. This kills the incentive for innovation, and by constricting our minds for narrowly confined industry requirements, it leads to lack of development of scientific temper for the country as a whole. It becomes essential to understand the causes of this lack of scientific temper. However, caution should be exercised before terming this as the ultimate cause as the problem for us as society is much deeper and more historical in nature and we cannot limit our attention to spot variables only. But as a preliminary step, we can direct our focus towards two of the fundamental sources of this lack of scientific temper apart from the governance – our schooling system and the family structure.

The problem starts with our schooling system, which tries to curb innovation and gets us ready for this very employment relation. The curriculum is based more on rote learning rather on problem solving and there is a general lack of non-scholastic activities. The vision of an individual tapers like a horse with blinders. Our business schools focus to a large extent on creating good employees rather than creating employers.

Another major innovation killer is the family system where a person starts with say, a given amount of money inherited from his parents and his focus is on leading a stable life. Such a culture is creating a generation of highly risk averse individuals leading to lack of innovation. Women are often expected to marry early, thus expunging almost half the population from the pool of contributors to the arts and sciences. A large proportion of our talent isn’t working in their core competencies which they have developed through the years, but doing some generic work. 

Though, I agree about the lack of scientific temper in India despite it being the duty of an individual enshrined in the constitution, the causes should be understood and cured by providing incentives – a real reason to contribute and add value through his work. If Modi ji gives such statements with an intention to boost the public sentiment and encourage research towards utilizing ancient Indian science and certain ideas enshrined therein to our advantage then it is appreciated. However, it is futile to give such statements just as a consolation for the sad state of affairs in the nation. 

The bottom line is that only very limited public funding should be provided towards research methods based on speculation rather than insight and that public policy should be independent of religious affiliations and more incentives should be provided towards creative pursuits, right from the primary education level as art and science have an inextricable link. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Can having a little less make us happier?

Incentives are the biggest motivation behind individual actions. How people perceive incentives has evolved according to the structure of society. In every society a person is assessed based on certain criteria which are an indicator of the socioeconomic conditions that prevail. Tribal societies deemed an individual worthy based on his ability to hunt and protect the family. The tattoos and engravings on the body were a symbol of his fearlessness and ability to handle adversity. These evaluation criteria have faced a gradual, albeit incomplete transition over time.

Today, in an era of Neo-Capitalism, the perception of an individual's value is determined to a large extent by the income he or she makes. And as an individual gets shaped by the mould he is living in, he ultimately starts perceiving himself according to the benchmarks set by the society. Here, the aim of having a large income does not remain confined to consuming that income or having security in the future but it associates itself to the intrinsic value of having the income along with a better perception of him within himself and in the eyes of his society. Value of money surpasses the value of time along with the other subtleties of life. With commercialization of every aspect of life, the real value of amenities declines when the basis of evaluation is monetary rather than abstract. When this happens, the focus moves away from enjoying whatever luxury life provides an individual, to extracting the maximum out of the money we paid for. When we start believing in the fact that more is preferred to less, the concept of a bliss point immediately vanishes away. Despite the fulfillment of needs and desires, the construct related to non-satiation keeps our mind restless. This presents a dilemma where either our mind isn’t satisfied by the level of consumption or we have over-consumed a commodity, which again results in us moving away from the true bliss point. At this point we also need to consciously distinguish between how much we really need for ourselves and how much we buy just to impress others.

To get you in the context, degrowth or decroissance is the idea that the richest economies and individuals should consciously cut down on their consumption in order to take care of our already burdened environment and tackle growing social inequalities by allowing the poor economies to grow. The happiness will be achieved by non-consumptive means such as indulging in art, activities and sharing based economy. When we talk about Gandhian economics, concepts such as frugal abundance immediately come to mind. Diminishing marginal utility theory of consumption suggests that it is precisely this frugal abundance that protects us from the marginal utility of consumption reaching so low that we ultimately end up being jaded –we gain no more happiness from consuming more, but we still end up consuming more.

When we see that the happiest economies are not necessarily the ones that are richest as reflected in various happiness indices (for example, The Happy Planet Index), it gives some hope that developed nations and individuals truly have incentives to push for degrowth and by the positive consequences of degrowth on the environment have an incentive to bestow positive externalities upon others. I believe we have enough incentive to help out others given the cooperation problem among individuals is solved which will give life more meaning and lead to happiness which is a win-win situation for all. Considering the long term view of history, the possibility of a utopian society where the measure of an individual's net worth will be his contribution to the community does not seem unreal.