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OverBOOKed

Too Many Options?

I am a voracious reader. And a compulsive-obsessive book collector. For me, genre is not and has never been a barrier. Science, Philosophy, History, Politics, Literature & Fiction, Biographies, Psychology, you name the genre and I have read something related.

So, it is imperative for me to carry a book wherever I go. Whether I am going to office in the morning, or visiting friends and relatives over the weekends or simply out for break, I always need to carry a book with me. I am building my personal space for books, a mini-library if you may. As of now, it contains over 130 books (as of last official count), all of which I have bought in the last 2 years. That basically means 1.3 books a week. And most importantly, each of those titles has been purchased after careful deliberation on my part.

That is not to say that I am reading a lot of books in practice or that I must be a speed reader. No, I am hardly able to cover a book in less than 2 weeks and there is a very bad reason for it. I don’t seem to have the time for it. When I am travelling to office every morning, I read for about half an hour. Then I start to feel sick because of reading in a moving car (does that to me a lot). In the evening, I reach home quite late and it is only when I get into bed that I continue the book. Needless to say the tiredness of the entire day gets the better of me and every night I fall asleep with the book still held open in my hands. Yes, every single night. Next morning, the cycle continues.

Weekends are when I really cherish the idea of reading a lot. I have mostly been able to pick up a book and, provided there are no distractions, have been able to enjoy my reading quite a lot. On the whole, I think I have read at least 110 of those 130, but having 20 unread books can sometimes be very troublesome. Let me explain.

I sometimes get into a phase, in which I have termed myself as being ‘Overbooked’. It is a state in which I am eager to start/continue reading a book but I am unable to decide which one. For instance, should I read ‘The Republic’ by Plato that I bought a long time back and really want to get through, or should I pick up from where I left off with my PG Wodehouse collection? Things get complicated when, simultaneously, it occurs to me that I have recently bought Sam Harris’s ‘The Moral Landscape’ but deep within my heart, I really now need to read Christopher Hitchens’s ‘Hitch-22’, an autobiography that I have secured in a plastic bag since last 2 yrs for the fear of it catching even a mote of dust. I could even read up the 2nd volume of Stephen Fry’s autobiography, titled ‘The Fry Chronicles’. But, Truth be told, there is no greater masterpiece like the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ collection that I have. So, basically, I am spoilt for choices.

Sometimes, this phase can get really frustrating and absorbing, with the result that I spend most of my energy in this futile attempt at decision-making and end up reading nothing at all. But I often wonder why this happens to me and it might make you wonder if I am simply a spendthrift who keeps buying books by the dozen but does not care to read them.

But it’s not that I don’t care, for I purchase every single title after very careful deliberations and am very touchy about the condition of each book in my collection. I take care to even wash my hands before I take out some of the special books form my library. It is just that I do feel spoilt for choices and with the kind of affection I have for my books, it is somewhat like having many girlfriends, all of them being equally amazing (well, not really), but you can’t spend time with all of them together. I know I could have used a better analogy and this one might make me sound like a nerd or a geek who really doesn’t understand the difference between women and books, but I hope you will not judge me on this because I do understand the difference and never mix the two.

Has this ever happened to you, being spoilt for choices and feeling actually frustrated about it? If yes, I would love to know what you do in such a situation. How do you come out of such a dilemma when you are spoilt for choices? Please share your experiences with me.

Eratosthenes and the Circumference of the Earth

Portrait of Eratosthenes

Eratosthenes was an astronomer, historian, geographer, philosopher, poet, theatre critic and mathematician, who lived in the 3rd century BC in the greatest metropolis of the age, the Egyptian city of Alexandria. His envious contemporaries called him ‘Beta’, the second letter of the Greek alphabet, because they said, Eratosthenes was second best in the world in everything.

However, it was quite an underevaluation of the greatness of the man.

He was the first person to use the word “geography” and invented the discipline of geography as we understand it. He also invented a system of latitude and longitude.

He was the first person to calculate the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy. He was also the first to calculate the tilt of the Earth’s axis (also with remarkable accuracy).

The story of the calculation of Earth’s circumference is very interesting. Eratosthenes was also the director of the great library of Alexandria. There, one day he read in a book that in the southern frontier outpost of the ancient Egyptian city of Swenet (known in Greek as Syene, and in the modern day as Aswan) on June 21 at noon, the Sun would appear at the zeith, which means directly overhead. Thus on this day at this time at this location, a vertical stick would cast no shadow. On the summer solstice, June 21 (the longest day of the year), as the hours crept towards noon, the shadows of the temple columns drew shorter and shorter. At noon precisely, the reflection of the Sun could be seen in the water at the bottom of a deep well.

This was a fairly simply observation that someone else might easily have ignored. What significance could sticks, shadows, reflections and wells  have on the simple everyday matters? But Eratosthenes was a scientist and his musings on these commonplaces changed the world; in a way they made the world.

Eratosthenes had the presence of mind to do an experiment, actually to observe whether vertical sticks cast any shadows at noon on June 21 in Alexandria as well. And his discovery was that they do.

Eratosthenes asked himself how, at the same moment, a stick in Syene could cast no shadow while a stick in Alexandria, could cast a pronounced shadow.  In case, at both places had there been no shadows, or had the shadows been of equal lengths, it would have been easy to explain considering the earth to be a flat surface and the Sun’s rays to be inclined in both cases at equal angles. This would have been easily explainable. But this was clearly not the right explanation under the present observation.

Hence, the only possible answer that he saw was that the surface of the Earth was curved. Not only that, the greater the curvature, the greater would be the difference in the shadow lengths.  Since the Sun was so far away, its rays falling on any two locations on the Earth can be considered parallel for all practical purposes. Thence, according to the difference in shadow lengths between the two observations, Eratosthenes was able to calculate that the angular separation of Alexandria and Syene to be of 7 degrees along the surface of the Earth and this 7 degrees was approximately 1/50th of 360 degrees, which was the total angular circumference of the Earth. Knowing the distance between the two cities was approximately 800 Kms, because he hired a man to pace it out, Eratosthenes was able to calculate that 800 Kms times 50 is 40,000 Kms and so that must be the circumference of the Earth.

It was a brilliant deduction, especially in an age where the only tools he had available for this scientific experiment were a few sticks, eyes, feet and brains. Most importantly, he had a taste for experimentation, a thirst for knowledge and a curiosity to understand the basic tenets of nature, which were all ahead of his own age.

The story of Eratosthenes and how one man changed our understanding of our world is an awe inspiring example of the power of scientific inquiry and inquisitiveness. He drew his conclusions objectively from the observed facts of the world and not according from his personal wishes and preferences.

 

 

Further Reading:

“Cosmos” by Carl Sagan (book)

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/hawking/cosmostar/html/cstars_eratho.html (online reading)

 

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