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Podcast

Dr. Vivek Murthy – COVID-19, Anchors and Loneliness

The latest (#417) episode of The Tim Ferriss Show is with the former Surgeon General of the United States of America, Dr. Vivek Murthy. He spoke of various things that made this episode an enjoyable listen – how he would have handled the COVID-19 pandemic, anchors and loneliness.

I just loved listening to his calm voice. I hope he takes Tim’s suggestion of starting a podcast seriously.

From his suggestions on how he would have handled the COVID-19 pandemic:

  1. Lead with Science in your decision making and Scientists in your communication.
  2. Be transparent with the public. This is key to building and maintaining trust. This also creates accountability.
  3. Provide resources needed by the people in the front line. This means things like providing Private Protection Equipment to people in the front line.

Dr. Murthy says “Remember your anchors” is a reminder he developed when he was serving time in residency dealing with life and death on a daily basis. He defines anchors are forces that anchors his life. These are people, in his case, like his parents and friends. He tries to stay connected with his anchors because he found that the times when he found himself to be anxious and worried was usually the times when he had lost touch with his anchors.

Dr. Murthy’s friend provides a definition of friendship that I particularly liked. A real friend is someone who reminds you of who you are even if you forget.

Dr. Murthy said that he had begun writing and talking about loneliness when he found that people at his workplace did not step out of their place to help others. He instituted a practice of sharing an employee’s non-work related life once a week. This 5 minute practice, over time increased helpfulness among employees and productivity at the workplace. He says, the lack of connection has an effect on health and also is a basis of social connection.

He thinks that organisations should work on loneliness at the workplace because it has an impact on the organisation’s retention capability and profitability. He said asking employees if they had a friend at the workplace showed an impact on their engagement at the workplace.

His book, Together (Amazon Affiliate Link) , to be released on April 28, 2020, called Together, is about loneliness but also deals with workplace loneliness.

In passing, Tim Ferriss mentioned an essay by Tim Urban called the The Tail End. Tim says this essay had an impact on the more time that he spent with his family since reading the essay.

In the essay, Tim Urban says that he would spend less than a year’s worth of time with his parents for the rest of his life compared to the first 18 years of his life. Hence, he says that he is down to the last 5% of the total time he would spend with his parent. He says that he is at the tail end in terms of time he would spend with his parents. Hence he says he wants to improve the quality of time that he spends with them.

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Podcast science

Paul Davies

[It took me well over a week to write this all down. The best way to digest this information is to consume it in podcast form and read the transcript for clarity. I thought the podcast was so information-packed that it took me 19 revisions and 2785 words to put this all down. I started with in-depth exploration in the beginning but took to compressing ideas into paragraphs later. There’s still a lot that I don’t understand about the subject. Writing this also kept me away from writing any other post in the meanwhile. My thanks to Mat Kaplan for this wonderful interview. – Pradeep]

Paul Davies is the Regents’ Professor of Physics and Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University. He is a physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist and author who has written thirty books.

The following is my podcast notes of the interview that Mat Kaplan did with Paul Davies for Planetary Radio [+transcript]. They are talking at University of California San Diego’s Arthur C Clarke Center for Human Imagination studio. This is a huge podcast episode at almost an hour and ten minutes. The podcast discusses his latest book, The Demon in the Machine: How hidden webs of information are solving the mystery of life (Amazon Affiliate Link).

Photo by Ahmad Fikri on Pexels.com

Context

Kaplan first tries to understand the context in which this book is written. There is a fundamental difference that we see in Living Matter and Non-living Matter. Davies suggests that this fundamental difference is information. He gives us an equation to understand this:

Life = Matter + Information

Paul Davies

Davies suggests that the present Physics cannot provide a solution for helping us understand this issue. We need or need to discover a new Physics to understand the problem. We need to dive back into some history for this context.

History of Context

The hero of this story is Erwin Schrodinger (famous more for his thought experiment with a cat). Schrodinger is an Austrian who succeeds Max Planck in 1927 in Berlin. In 1933, he leaves Germany and moves to England. He is invited to Ireland to establish Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin by the then Prime Minister of Ireland, Éamon de Valera. He moved to Clontarf, Dublin as Director of the School for Theoretical Physics in 1940. He stays here for another 17 years. Ireland is neutral during World War II. He gives what are a string of lectures about life (in the biological sense). Davies calls Biology the next frontier of Physics.

Schrodinger is the architect of Quantum Mechanics. His theory works really well for non-living matter. It explains almost everything from atoms to stars. Where it does not explain things is when it comes to living matter. In 1944, these are compiled into a book called What is Life? This book has an immense influence on the field of molecular biology.

In 1944, he wrote What Is Life?, which contains a discussion of negentropy and the concept of a complex molecule with the genetic code for living organisms. According to James D. Watson’s memoir, DNA, the Secret of Life, Schrödinger’s book gave Watson the inspiration to research the gene, which led to the discovery of the DNA double helix structure in 1953. Similarly, Francis Crick, in his autobiographical book What Mad Pursuit, described how he was influenced by Schrödinger’s speculations about how genetic information might be stored in molecules.

From the Wikipedia entry on Erwin Schrodinger

Davies says that biologists however got distracted and involved in the field of molecular biology and lost track of the bigger picture. In the past two decades, the focus has gone back to the bigger picture.

Information is the secret sauce…

What differentiates non-living matter and living matter is the information. Davies says that the use of the word information here differs significantly from the way we talk about information in our daily life. He says that when defined in Physics, information becomes a part of the laws of physics much like energy does. Information enters Physics through the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Here, we go further into the past. We go to the mid-nineteenth century. James Clerk Maxwell who was working on concept of heat at King’s College in London. In a letter he sent to a friend, he asked that his friend consider a diminutive being that could see and follow molecules. The being could then use a shutter mechanism to sort fast and slow moving molecules. Slow and fast moving molecules determine temperature. So, by sorting the molecules, the being has created a difference in temperature. An engineer could, in principle create an engine that could do work. This being that Maxwell discusses is called Maxwell’s Demon. It is this demon that the title of Davies book references in the title of his book.

Maxwell’s suggestion created a perpetual motion machine, in effect and went against the First Law of Thermodynamics. In the podcast, Davies says it goes against the Second Law but then describes it as, “We can’t get something for nothing”. I think he’s going after the First Law. Maxwell’s thought stood as a thorny issue in Physics for a long time.

However, in the last two decades, scientists have been able to create these Maxwell demons at the nano level. However, they have not yet been able to scale it up. However, this introduces information into the realm of Physics.

Entropy

The Laws of Thermodynamics predicts that entropy (the level of chaos or disorder) in a system goes on increasing. However, information seems to reverse this trend in living systems. In the words of Schrodinger, “Order from order, evermore order.” This, is used as an example of a miracle.

However, Davies suggests that order in living systems is paid for by disorder in the environment. And so, overall, things are balanced. He says living beings are open systems. In Thermodynamics, that means a system that allows transfer of energy and mass.

Davies then jumps to the life at molecular level where Davies says that Maxwell demons are working to get the most thermodynamic efficiency in living systems. He now gives examples of this nearly 100% efficient Maxwell demons enabling replication of the DNA. The most exciting example that Davies cites for this efficiency is the human brain. A megawatt capability supercomputer is operating at such efficiency that it works at the energy level of a dim light bulb.

Original World Wide Web

In Biology, Davies says, information also plays a managerial or supervisory role. Information flow scales up from signalling (chemical, mechanical and electric) mechanisms between cells, to decision making among insects, to co-ordination between birds in a flock all the way up to the planetary scale. Another key Davies line spoken here is,

And I like to say that the biosphere is the original worldwide web.

Paul Davies

A New Physics

Davies says that the information flow in biological systems is more than just simple information flows. He says that information is encrypted and has to be decrypted for use by cells. Information has to be read and expressed in a certain way and biological systems express this. Physicists have not found a way to incorporate this into Biology and hence, this is where Davies think the New Physics that he thinks is required will come from. Information makes a difference to the way that an organism behaves. Davies thinks this has a physical effect.

Complexity

Davies now arrives at the topic of complexity of biological beings. Kaplan discusses his high school biology experience of the complexity involved in a single cell. Davies responds by saying that scientists don’t have a way to measure the complexity at say the level of the biosphere or even the organism. He says we don’t yet know if the complexity increased with time or is there a fundamental law that defines the growth of complexity and other problems related to Complexity. However, he says at the root of it all are atoms, whose Physics we know well.

[To me personally, there seems to be a relationship between Complexity and Entropy.]

Davies says however that talking about things at the molecular level and then seeking to get answer about complexity has a parallel in the world of computer science. A scientist trying to explain complexity in terms of molecules would be like a software engineer trying to explain his code at the level of electrons flowing through computer hardware. Davies says that there are people like Paul Nurse who are seeking to explain Complexity in a language and precise terms of code that software engineer uses.

Epigenetics

Kaplan asks about the change in our understanding genes express themselves as the understanding of DNA not as a ROM but as a read/write memory. Davies says that there has been a change in Biology in the last 30 years. He says that people have moved away from the assumption that genetics alone explains life. Expression of the genes also plays an important role. This is explored in the field of Epigenetics.

Things like an external physical force, physical environment, growth of cell in space, etc. seem to affect how the genes express themselves and this has an impact on how cell structure or the organism grows and develops. So, genes are somehow expressing themselves differently based on the information about their surroundings.

Davies cites the work of Cheryl Nickerson at Arizona State University in the impact of gut bacteria in astronauts. He says that the bacteria that are passive on Earth’s surface somehow get active in the environment of weightlessness and makes an astronaut throw up.

Davies also cites the work of Mike Levin at Tufts University who works with planaria worms. He says that planaria worms are cut at different parts of the body and they grow back up in the correct way. He says that using electrical patterning, they are able to grow worms with two heads, two tails etc. He says this proves that something more than just genes has a role to play in the way genes express themselves.

Information Flows

Davies says that Physics inherently has a bottom up structure of explaining things. Biology, on the other hand, explains things both ways, in terms of bottoms up and from the up down to the bottom. He says that Physics needs a way to do this. Davies says that thinking of information flows may be the simplest way of doing this. A cell gets information about its environment from the organism and changes the way it expresses itself. Things like electronics and gravity seem to affect the expression of the genes of a cell.

As an example, Davies says that in eukaryotic cells, the genes are in the chromosomes. There is complex structure and mechanism within the chromosomes that switches on and off the genes that get expressed depending on the environment.

Darwinism 2.0

Darwin suggested that the mutation in the organisms that evolved was random. Davies suggests it is not. He says that at the cellular level, that the way cells edit their genes have been shown to be statistically non-random. He says that Epigenitics explains the new biology much better than Darwin’s theory. He says Epigenetics is to Darwin’s theory what Einstein’s Physics is to Newton’s Physics. He says that Science replaces with even more approximate views of the World.

Cancer

Davies has a special interest in our ways of curing cancer. He says that in the beginning about 2 billion years ago, only single cell organisms existed. Their only job was to replecate endlessly. At some point in time, multi-cellular organisms came into existence. There is a contract of sorts between the cell and the organism. Cells perform specialised functions and in exchange the organism exists. He says Cancer is a return to single cellular nature of the cell, a breaking of the contract in multi-cellular organisms.

He says current treatment of Cancer targets the uncontrolled replicability of the cells. However, cells have learnt over 2 billion years how to overcome obstacles placed in the replicability of the cells. They learn to overcome radiation and there could possibly be chemotherapy resistance.

Davies suggests the ideal way to think of treatment of cancer is to “reason” with the cell. The cell does not realise that its replication while good for the cell, is bad for the host and could eventually lead to it getting killed. Davies suggests that one has to download a patch or reboot the system in order to manage the Cancer, in a way similar to Diabetes. In the end, its a way of making the cells behave better. This hasn’t been done in practice. It’s still all theory.

Quantum Biology

Quantum Biology is a field that has come into existence in the last 10-20 years. Life exploits quantum mechanics for little quirks. Davies sits on the fence about whether there is space for quantum biology. They’re currently at a place where they could be at the tip of the iceberg or it could be just small quirks of living beings.

The issue with quantum biology is the lack of ease of doing experiments. Davies says that there is a lot of thermodynamic noise in systems at room temperature. He says that’s the reason why quantum mechanics experiment happen at very low temperature. Here the effects are clearly visible. Not so much at room temperature. Also quantum mechanics involves simple systems but life is a very complex system.

Photosynthesis as an example of Quantum Biology

Photosynthesis is the process by which plant uses sunlight to break water molecules to create energy for the plant. However, what has been noticed is that there is some molecular distance between the place where solar energy is captured and where the break of the water molecule happens. Energy to break the molecule has to be transported with minimum loss of energy. It has been found that this transmission takes place using a principle called quantum coherence. Study in this field was begun and is ongoing under Graham Fleming at UC Berkley.

Consciousness and Quantum Mechanics

It is thought that Quantum Mechanics will either explain consciousness or it will not. Thinking currently is that at the quantum level, atoms live in a universe of multiple possibilities and parallel universes. However, when one brings in the act of observation, these multiple possibilities are brought into one defined reality by consciousness. There is also another school of thought that is looking at things from outside in and asking the question whether quantum effects exist in the brain. People like Roger Penrose at Oxford University and Stuart Hameroff at the University of Arizona are working to figure out whether there are quantum goings-on in cells and more importantly in the human brain that explains consciousness. Davies says that personally he is skeptical but open-minded about the possibilities.

Davies suggests that a quantum pathway could be a possibility for explaining the link between non-living molecules to living molecules.

Extremophiles

It is believed that one of the possible origins of life on Earth is in the depths of the ocean. It is kilometers below the surface of the ocean where perhaps even sunlight would not reach it. Davies suggests that life discovered the use of quantum coherence discussed above in these depths and improved and perfected it when it reached the surface. Other possibilities include origin of life outside Earth with comets and meteorites seeding the planet.

Phylostratigraphy

Phylostratigraphy is a new field of study where it is believed that genes can be dated. There are ancient genes and some recently evolved genes. It sheds light on how life evolved on the planet.

Miller Urey experiments

Chemists have been trying to cook up life in laboratories by mixing various organic chemicals but without any luck. Stanley Miller tried to experiment using simple organisms from chemical substances. Davies thinks this is a stretch and the wrong way to do things.

How does life code?

Davies says that the real question is how does life code. Going back to the computer analogy, he thinks that life is the software which codes. It’s the way which life processes information. He believes that this is the boundary between non-life and life. But there is no answer as to how these cells learn how to code. Cells store information, process information and encodes this information and passes it on.

New ways of thinking

Davies suggests that life is so complex that we need new ways of thinking about life to break this code. His way of thinking is to think about parallels with the world of computers.

His craziest paper has been a submission to a journal Nature on the quantum origin of life. He suggests that the original code existed on an interstellar dust of grain existing at 3 degrees above absolute zero, the temperature that existed in the cosmic microwave background. He suggests that life code existed here and coded in q-bits. It made copies that got stored in organic molecules that seeded Earth and is possibly seeding other planets as we speak.

Davies suggests that such crazy ideas are necessary as we think about that jump from non-life molecules to living organisms.

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Books Podcast

Tiny Habits

Brett McKay talks to Dr B J Fogg for Episode 581 of the Art of Manliness podcast. Below are my show notes for the episode. The episode discusses Tiny Habits (Amazon Affiliates link), a book that Fogg has written.

Tiny Habits

Fogg proposes the Tiny Habits method of behavior change. He talks of habits not in terms of breaking them but in terms of untangling them. Think of behavior change the way you would untangle the mess of wires to straighten out your headphones. Changing habits is a process where you move from the easiest to the most difficult.

Fogg suggests that long lasting behavior change happens by changing really small habits as part of a routine. Imagine you want to make a tiny change. Fogg suggests identifying a routine attached to the change that you require. Inserting the habit as part of the routine and then slowly increasing the number of repetitions.

As an example, if you want to inculcate the habit of flossing your teeth, he suggests flossing just one tooth after brushing your teeth (routine). He suggests that we stay with one tooth as long as we want. He also gives us the freedom to do more when we want to. The number can go up. You can floss three teeth or just one. The over-achievement on the day you flossed three teeth acts as motivation for you to do just a little more. This turns this into a behavior change of flossing the teeth after you brush it.

The Three Elements – Motivation, Ability and Prompt

Behavior change here involves three elements – motivation, ability and prompt. Fogg defines motivation as the driving force which energizes you to certain behavior. He suggests that there is a compensatory relationship between motivation and ability. Ability here stands for you knowing how to do a certain task. He says that when it is harder to do something, the motivation needed is more. When it is easier to do something, you don’t need too much motivation. He recognized this compensatory relationship over an eight year period of study! He warns us that we over-estimate our future motivation to do certain things. Hence he warns us from depending on motivation as a way to change habits.

He also warns us from thinking of our aims in abstract terms. Losing weight, reducing stress etc are outcomes. He suggests that tweaking systems and processes will lead to these desired outputs. He believes that the habits should involve less time, less effort and little cost to implement to be successful.

Here, he brings the concept of prompts. He thinks that there are three types of prompts – personal prompt, context prompt and action prompt. He says that personal prompt involves you or someone else reminding you that you need to do a habit. Context prompt is a notification that alerts you to do a habit. An action prompt involves using a routine as a prompt. In our example above, brushing your teeth is a prompt for flossing them. He says personal and context prompts are not effective. He thinks that action prompts are the most effective way to initiate long lasting habit change.

In My Opinion…

Listening to this podcast, this seemed like a more scientific version of Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits. It also seemed similar to James Clear’s Atomic Habits but with different terminology. Saurabh also spoke in his blog about changing habits for the new year and hence I thought this might be worth sharing. I would personally, rather follow James Clear method.

I loved what he says about celebration, though. This is his value addition to the habit change journey, in my opinion. He suggests that celebrating these small habit changes with a celebration make you feel successful. He says that these emotions get attached to the habits and re-wires your brain that converts these habits into part of your life. He suggests teaching children to celebrate after their every small habit change.

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Podcast Space

Planetary Radio on Asteroid Bennu descent

Asteroid Bennu is slated for a close encounter with Earth in 2175. It is expected to be the asteroid that has the most chance for a possible Earth impact over the next 200 years. Hence, it was selected for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission.

Mat Kaplan at Planetary Radio sat down to discuss the mission with it’s Principal Investigator, Dante Lauretta. The mission is of interest because it will descent on Bennu’s surface in August 2020, collect a sample and return it to Earth in 2023. These are my podcast notes from that episode.

Lauretta talks about the mission updates till now. The spacecraft reached the asteroid and has been doing a series of mapping the surface of the asteroid. In December 2019, they selected the landing site, code-named Nightingale. All surface features on Bennu named so far are named after Egyptian birds. Bennu itself is named after an Egyptian mythological bird, that probably inspired the Greek bird, the phoenix.

The final four candidate OSIRIS-REx sample sites. Image Credit: Wikipedia

He then talked about the surprise of finding the surface of the asteroid so rocky. Apparently, radio and infrared studies of the asteroid’s surface had predicted the surface to be smooth. They had designed the instruments using the experience gained on the Hayabusa spacecraft which had a 25-meters radius for operations. They had given themselves a 50-meters radius for operations. But, the current landing site gives them just 5-meters. This means that they had to drop the LIDAR based landing navigation system and use a more optical based hazard avoidance system to land on the surface.

He then talked about cross-pollination between the Hayabusa and the OSIRIS mission with people working in each other’s projects. This is part of the on-going collaboration between NASA and JAXA.

They then spoke about some of the public outreach efforts of the mission. This is usually an integral part of all NASA missions. However, OSIRIS’ education and public outreach budget was cut in 2018. Lauretta then took it upon himself to continue the work. He designed board games and also supports Target Asteroids!, a program that takes help from amateur astronomers to observe certain asteroids. The board games include X-tronaut and Constellations.

Unrelated, but the episode ends with a session of Space Poetry.

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Podcast

Peak Planet podcast

Peak Planet podcast hosted by Karthik Ganesan. Image: IVM Podcasts

I listened to the Filter Koffee Podcast episode with Karthik Ganesan on my morning commute to work. I found the Peak Planet podcast on the IVM podcast network as a result. Contrary to Karthik Nagarajan’s usual episode, this felt all over the place. Rich in data but played out in starts and stops.

The notes here are from the Episode 2 of the Peak Planet podcast on data and a few notes from Episode 3. I binge-listened to all the episodes of the podcast after listening to the morning episode on The Filter Koffee Podcast. The podcast seems to have hit pause after 4 episodes that were out in November, 2019.

The first episode of the podcast introduced me to the Hinjewadi IT Park Residents Welfare Association (HIRWA). I loved their Twitter handle – HIRWA Hinjewadi. HIRWA in Marathi is Green and is usually associated with pollution-free advertisements along the lines of “Clean Mumbai, Green Mumbai” etc. So, this reads as “Green Hinjewadi” if you partly translate it.

The second episode is about data. Karthik G quotes Michael Bloomberg in the beginning, “In God we trust, everyone else please bring data.” The global standard in Air Quality Index measurements is to have 1 AQI reference monitor for every 1 million people. India has 1 per 7 million. And, most of these are concentrated in Delhi.

It is believed that air pollution is an urban phenomenon and this is not true. Sagnik Dey working out of IIT-Delhi says that we have no data on the background pollution level in India. Background pollution level is the pollution that exists because of natural causes like dust, etc. India makes up for some of the lack of ground-level pollution monitoring by watching things from space. Satellite based data monitoring has been around for the past twenty years. Dey believes that this data must be used to deploy ground-based costlier reference monitor stations across India.

They further talk to Rohit Bansal of Purelogic Labs. They have a website called AQI.in which tries to provide low cost sensors. Sensors have become really good and really cheap in the last three years. So much so, that their quality is slowly moving towards the levels of reference monitors. Where, reference monitors cost in the range of $15,000-$20,000, low cost sensors are available for $20-$40 range. There are efforts to make these sensors as good as the reference monitors. Bansal says that the quality of reference monitors also needs improvement.

The third episode is about governance. They talk about the umbrella Environmental Protection Act, 1986. These provide standards, emission standards and working of the Pollution Control Boards. They talk about India moving from BS IV directly to BS VI, about how PCBs can issue notices but can’t collect the charges levied on them. I didn’t grok this episode because it slipped on the side of law and governance.

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Podcast

Reporting ISRO

The 15th episode of NewSpace India podcast came out this Friday (January 17). It had Narayan Prasad in conversation with Vasudevan Mukunth. VM is the Science Editor for The Wire. If you do follow their Science stories, it is in quite a league of it’s own (better than most Indian coverage and almost at international standards). He also blogs extensively at Root Privileges and tweets at @1amnerd. Full disclosure that he has been my editor of the two pieces that I have contributed to The Wire.

Here are my notes from listening to the podcast episode for my own future reference:

The coverage of ISRO as a journalist depends on the quality of information and access to sources available to a journalist. It requires more information made available in the public domain and access to sources who can explain the information to a journalist. There is no clear demarcation on when the information is publicly available. In many cases, ISRO uses policy to clamp up when asked tough questions.

NP suggests this might be a top level policy level decision. VM suggests that the policy is that scientists are allowed to speak to journalists as long as their comments are not adversarial. Scientists often err on the side of caution and hence do not speak at all. There is no clear information policy. This ambiguity in information policy means that when a failure occurs, information flow just dries up.

NP describes The Wire’s science journalism with respect to ISRO as being that of piecing together information, for placing things in context and critiquing various aspects of the space program. He suggests that the lack of information has forced The Wire to take to this form of “citizen journalism”. VM replies saying that ISRO clamps up information and they seem to fail to acknowledge other sources of information for the stories. As an example, they fail to acknowledge that NASA could find the Vikram lander and put this news out. Similarly, international experts challenged the DRDO claim of the impact of the ASAT test. ISRO scientist don’t put out such news because they don’t know whether they can say it. Information comes out in the form of tweets, in form of access to ISRO Chairman’s office, some of the press notes or updates on the ISRO website etc.

NP then asked VM to share the toolkit that he uses to cover ISRO given this lack of information. VM replies that he uses Google, CelesTrak (where he’s playing with orbital visualisations), he uses crawlers that frequently crawl on the ISRO website where information is put out but not easily available/visible like PDFs etc, Twitter, WhatsApp and the ISRO sub-reddit. VM shares The Wire story that he did on the ISRO sub-redditors and other sources of ISRO news.

VM and NP think that clamping up when failure strikes is a cultural issue that ISRO needs to tackle. VM sympathises with ISRO with regards to the loss of signal issue during the Vikram landing as they may not be comfortable doing this. He feels that they would have done much better to keep quiet rather than to make absurd claims like 95% mission success etc. This is because of the lack of training of journalists they would report anything that ISRO says without questioning.

At another earlier point in the conversation, VM and NP had discussed that lack of good questions came from lack of well-trained journalists who follow space. VM had then argued that there was no point having good journalists when there was not enough people to answer said good questions. Existing journalists have also been made to bureaucratic hoops to cover ISRO events.

ISRO has also lost many opportunities for public science participation. Finding Vikram and Moon Impact Probe were good use cases. Images could easily have been released of the landing site and help taken from the public to find the lander. Also, NP points out that ISRO had a lot of support from the public in many fora, despite a failure and this makes ISRO statements like the 95% success rate unnecessary.

NP then asks on the possibility of using tools like the RTI. VM says RTI provisions are getting diluted and it is getting more difficult to get information through RTI in other areas. However, an RTI request could easily be blocked citing National Security reasons. So, VM wonders if it is worth the investment of time to apply a RTI query. He also says that information regarding a program under taken by ISRO should be put out voluntarily. VM says that commercial use of ISRO images and spacecrafts like the PSLV launch of Mars Orbiter Mission for the movie, Mangalyaan should have been made available easily for commercial use.

NP suggests that given ISRO’s lack of response, one of the ways in which good questions can be put to ISRO may be through the Parliamentary Standing Committee. He suggests it as one of the ways for getting information from ISRO. VM reiterates his stand that information should be forthcoming voluntarily from ISRO.

They both agree that the issue with answering questioning and putting out information is a cultural issue with ISRO.

NP then asks if there must be independent thinking and tracking of the space program, similar to efforts of T S Kelso and Jonathan McDowell. VM thinks that the lack of information availability makes this sort of analysis difficult in the Indian context.

NP then asks VM about what we can look forward to in the future from The Wire Science. VM says they are looking to add more videos and educational material. He believes that having a more informed audience improves the type of journalism that they can do.

They discuss how more senior and retired ISRO journalists could contribute more in the education and discourse if they wrote after their times at ISRO. VM thinks this is also not part of their culture. The books coming out currently are anecdotal or technical. U R Rao’s book is quoted as an exemption and an example to follow. ISRO scientists like Tapan Misra take to Facebook to write about current events at ISRO.

VM ends by saying that he is happy that more diverse newsrooms are now covering space. He gives Firspost as an example for this, whereas earlier the Hindu science pages was the go-to for this sort of information.

VM has posted an addendum to this conversation on his blog and Ohsin also shares his feedback on the ISRO sub-reddit along with his lament about how ISRO image policy leads to loss of images used for coverage of ISRO on Wikipedia. The about community for ISRO’s sub-reddit page perhaps encapsulates the whole episode: For anything related to Indian Space Agency we love but hardly know.

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Podcast

American Pragmatism

Last week, I read news that Center for John Dewey Studies was being inaugurated at the Savithribai Phule Pune University in collaboration with University of Texas, Austin. Yesterday, on the Art of Manliness podcast, I heard about two American philosophies – American Transcendentalism and American Pragmatism, with philosopher John Kaag.

Of importance to me and the link between these two events is that these are philosophies which John Dewey believed in. He passed on this influence further to the Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. It is believed that this influenced him while working on the Indian constitution. Below are my notes from the podcast:

Kaag believes that American Transcendentalism is situated around three philosophers – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. The Transcendentalists believed in freedom from societal constraints and the idea of self-reliance and breaking away from traditions set by European philosophy. However, Emerson believed that this needs to be tempered with compassion. He wrote about this in an essay called Compensation in which he says that the freedom is always in tension with or operates within a cosmos of give and take. It is believed that this idea was inspired from his study of the Bhagavad Gita and broadly with his reading of Indian metaphysics and with the idea of karma.

This is broadly expressed in Transcendentalism as an individual existing within a cosmic whole, that an individual does not lead a solitary existence and that an individual continuously negotiates his freedom within the Society or cosmos he exists in.

The challenge to American Transcendentalism came from Charles Darwin and his work, On the Origin of Species. This posited that humans are just evolved animals. The question then arose that if we were just animals, then will we not be dictated by natural laws and hence, does free will exist?

The American Pragmatists provide the answer to this by trying to reconcile free will and morals with Science. They also appear after the American Civil War (1861-1865), where they see how a strict adherence to ideology and dogma leads to violence and conflict. American Pragmatism is built by philosophers Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Pragmatism believed in securing human freedom and human dignity in response to changes seen in Industrial Revolution. They believed Philosophy should be world ready and that philosophical truth should be based on practical consequences.

Kaag believes that William James read a French philosopher, Charles Renouvier, who believed that there is no empirical proof for the existence of free will. However, if one believed that there was such a thing as free will then it would create a world where there was free will. James expands on this concept and says that there are certain concepts in the world like God, Love, Free Will etc. for which there is no empirical evidence possible. Here, the standard method of Science fails because they miss things that happens below a certain level of consciousness, small nuances and an unseen order.

So, the Pragmatists answer the question of whether life is worth living without free will with Maybe. They push the onus on the live-r. They believe that the experience of the important life events are not based on certainty but on maybes. James believes that exercising our freedoms while living life with others and negotiating our freedoms while living our life, is what makes our life worth living. They believed that there is a connection between freedom and love based on this maybe.They believed more in the experience of the real world.

Kaag believes that Pragmatism as an idea went out of vogue in the 1950s when Philosophy became more logical and followed the footsteps of Mathematics rather than staying with the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

I have not read any of the original thinkers mentioned on this podcast or the news item, Dewey and Ambedkar. Hearing the podcast, I think it would be worth reading them in the original. Naval Ravikant has tweeted and mentioned in other podcasts that reading “On The Origin of Species” in the original is possible. Hence, it may be worth reading the American philosophers, Emerson, James, Fuller and Thoreau, in the original as well. Of these, I have only tried reading and listening to Thoreau so far. However, I have ended up sleeping during both of my efforts. Perhaps, I should start with someone else?

What could be their contribution to our world today? It could perhaps ween us away from the strict adherence to ideology and dogma that we experience daily in the news and on social media. It could also help us understand that we are all rational beings capable of making decisions. Hence, we must respect others and the decisions they make that they have this rational capacity. There are some things that Science can explain and some that Science is yet to explain. We need to understand thing in the scientific way where evidence exists and be open to the possibility of the role of Spirituality where Science is not able to provide compelling answers yet. We need to spend more time experiencing life offline where experiences are shared and real and not try to argue in abstract terms. I would love to read the book that this podcast is based on, American Philosophy: A Love Story.

Categories
Podcast Politics

Political Ideology in India

I have been listening to IVM Podcast’s The Seen and the Unseen podcast hosted by Amit Varma since about the last year or so. The important I learnt in lesson in this episode that the usual tags of left and right politics do not apply to Indian politics. Indian politics can be better understood based on the ideologies of identity and statism.

The cover art of the Episode 131 of the Seen and the Unseen
The cover art of the Episode 131 of The Seen and The Unseen

Amit’s earlies episodes espouses the classical liberal ideologies and are based on the idea of individual freedom. While the explanation made theoretical sense, it didn’t quite apply when I analysed many macroeconomic issues to try and understand why the government acted in the way it did. Hence, Amit’s episodes were critical of any government that was at the Center.

This particular episode presented a better political lens to understand the Indian political landscape. The episode is based on the book Ideology and Identity by Pradeep K Chhibber and Rahul Verma. Rahul Verma explains the terms ideology, identity and statism. He then takes us through Indian history post-independence as seen through the lens of identity and statism and explains how this bifurcation of Indian history makes more sense than the western right-wing and left-wing narrative.

The episode held several insights for me. That India had a rich “conservative” tradition but this was hidden from English readers like me. These traditions existed in the vernacular press in Hindi, Marathi etc. An earlier episode began digging at some of the features of the conservative tradition in India which seems to have been so different from the conservative traditions in other countries. It has been a fascinating listen for me.

I haven’t read the book but would definitely suggest listening to this episode if you want to decide either way about getting their book.

Categories
Podcast

Pradeep’s Space Podcast Episode 0.1

Show Notes: