A response to Rajnath Singh’s unscientific remarks

Rajnath_Singh“Rajnath Singh” is what happens when there is a disconnect between dogma and common sense. That the minister does not know science is a sorry fact, it is also indicative of the ignorance that has crept deep into the core of an organization that wishes to keep its eyes closed to reality. This post is a response to his unscientific comments made in front of news media, which can be read here. What he is basically trying to do here is merge Science with mythology by referring to pundits instead of scientists. Is it really necessary to go on ranting about stuff that you don’t really know and label Astronomy as coming from a ‘US Observatory’? I mean, where is the man really coming from? Clearly, it is an attempt to glorify his mythological beliefs, which no doubt are BJP’s main driving factor.

What Mr. Singh really doesn’t know, perhaps due to his lack of scientific education, is that it is not a ‘US observatory’ that observes and tells us when an eclipse is going to happen, it is the science of Astronomy, completely consistent across the world as well as in (surprise) India itself that ‘calculates’ (perhaps too difficult a word for him to contemplate) the occurrence of an eclipse. Concepts such as tilt of the axis of the earth, revolution of celestial bodies around the sun due to gravity and the position of the point of observer on the surface of the earth that, when put together give you the end result. But why should the minister worry about those factors when he has the neighborhood pundit by his side?

Nevermind the scientific calculations, Mr. Singh must now answer some more basic questions about the knowledge he seems to  have derived from scriptures using the high intellect of his pundits (if that is what he meant).

First: Hindu mythology also says that the earth is sitting on the back of a giant turtle (or was it a tortoise). What I want to know is, does the minister really believe that that is the case? Does he really have the courage to go so far as to appear a complete fool by accepting this joke also as a truth? Is he angry or upset that science doesn’t care about his point of view and is doing well enough to steer clear of such an embarrassing claim?

Second: Does the minister really believe that the Earth was formed 196 crore years ago? 196 crores = 1,960,000,000, i.e., 1.96 billion years old. Scientists have a unanimous agreement that the Earth is at least more than 4.5 billion years old, so his pundits, whoever they are, have got this fact wrong by at least 2.5 billion years and ended up embarrassing the minister in front of the whole nation. Too bad! And by the way, that is just the age of the Earth and we haven’t even mentioned the age of the universe, which scientists agree is more than 14.5 billion years, and which the mythology somehow totally missed. How did this disaster befall the great Hindu mythology? The minister should have opened a science textbook instead of listening to his idiot pundits.

Third: What does the minister mean when he says “Earlier, science did not accept this..”? What the hell is he talking about? Another stupid thing his pundits told him? Who in the scientific community has accepted anything of this sort from the Hindu mythology? Science is a system of making observations, developing theories and then testing these theories rigorously to find out the truth and it is science that has discovered the actual age and not his pundits. There have been many ancient cultures in the world that have put their own guesses on the age of the earth and all of them have the missed the mark. It is purely a coincidence that Hindu mythology has come up with the longest time of them all, but it is still nowhere near the correct scientific calculation.

Fourth: According to Hindu mythology, when a man dies, his wife should throw herself into the fire of his funeral and become a Sati, whereas a man has no such obligation, and we can probably guess why that is. So, does the minister think this “traditional value” should also be followed by the country? Will he suggest such a step to his loved ones? Is this a tradition that he is proud of? As a citizen, I demand an answer.

“No other country could match our knowledge” Well, it might not be true of our country today, but it certainly appears to be true that nobody in the world can match the knowledge that Mr. Singh has procured through his detailed scientific assessments of his uneducated pundits. The world is light years ahead of India in terms of science and technology, perhaps because we still want to suck up to any myth, however uninformed and unscientific, as long as it makes some of us proud of it. What he doesn’t understand is that we do not want a false sense of pride, but real measurable achievements.

For instance, Algebra is now from India? When the hell did that happen? Did he derive this also from his foolish pundits? The word algebra comes from the Arabic language (“restoration”) from the title of the book Ilm al-jabr wa’l-muḳābala by al-Khwarizmi. The roots of algebra can be traced to the ancient Babylonians. The word entered the English language during Late Middle English from either Spanish, Italian, or Medieval Latin. Algebra originally referred to a surgical procedure, and still is used in that sense in Spanish, while the mathematical meaning was a later development. If you need to read more about it, go to wikipedia. So, not only does he want to inflate his sense of mythological pride, he even wants to steal from scientific achievements of other cultures.

At this stage, rather than going on attacking the minister, I would pardon him a break and make one point very clear. Progress on scientific fronts has happened throughout the course of history. It is in accordance with that that various theories and concepts came about in different ages. So, yes, there will always be some concepts that you can attribute as having originated in one country or developed and refined in another. But, it doesn’t by any means imply that people in India discovered everything scientific and that was the end of progress of all areas of knowledge across the world.

The theory of relativity was not discovered in India. Neither did the theory of gravitation, electricity, nuclear physics, the periodic table of elements, evolution. Countries such as Japan have mastered fantastic technologies such as magnetically levitated trains, while we still are unable to figure out why our trains keep running off tracks every now and then.

What the minister has forgotten, or perhaps failed to understand, is that even the scientific achievements of India from centuries in the past did not come from pundits and that was not even mythology being practiced. That was science itself. And any person, whichever age they lived in, who developed any scientific theory was a scientist and not a pundit. And there is a huge difference between the two. Of course, a believer in mythology can still be a scientist if they follow the scientific method to draw conclusions, but the results of their method are by no means mythological in nature. Yes, it was someone living in India who invented the concept of Zero, but did he say it was thanks to mythology that he found out about Zero or was it because he used his intelligence just like many others have done all across the world to come up with their own discoveries in mathematics and the various branches of science.

The minister also fails to realize that our country was for long a source of inspiration to many other upcoming nations and do you know what for? We were the first nation in the world that had in its constitution the duty of each citizen to “build scientific temper”. But, perhaps the unscientific minister merely confused temper with temple, which is why he is part of an organization that has its origins in mythology and seems to be more concerned with where the next temple could be built.

“When knowledge is cut-off from traditional values, it becomes disastrous.” Does this sentence make any sense at all? Does he mean to say that what is wrong with the world is lack of touching of feet? Really? He thinks science tells one to stop touching our parents’ feet? Which scientific book is he referring to? Traditional values have nothing to do with knowledge.

“Civilizations which get cut-off from their traditions and values do not survive for long.” Again, what is he talking about? Which civilizations is he getting his knowledge from?

“..highly-educated youth involved in terror activities..” Oh? Now now, isn’t he talking about the ill effects of religion itself?

Now, why criticize the man so ruthlessly when there are many more like him in the country? Because he is the Home Minister. He is in charge of the country in a very special way and I, as a citizen, am obviously quite concerned with what he thinks about science and technology. I really want to know if the Home Minister of India really believes the Earth is sitting on the back of a giant turtle. I really need to know which direction this man and his party are planning to take the country towards: a progressive development of science and technology or a systematic rusting of the scientific capability and regression of the nation?

We have a right to know.

 

Edit 1: Added link to TOI report on what Rajnath Singh exactly said and expanded the intro paragraph a bit.

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Happy New Year!!!

 

sun-rise-in-earth-orbit

Here’s me wishing everyone a great and happy new year 2014. Yes, finally, after a long wait of 365 days, the calendar has finally exhausted itself and the Earth has tirelessly completed yet another revolution around the Sun – though the point in the orbit where it started from and where it finished really has no bearing on us. It might as well have been any other point or any other date, we would still have enjoyed the feeling of the New Year just as well.

Not so overjoyed today are the outer planets, such as Jupitor, Saturn, etc. because they are not seeing the new year anytime soon. It takes both Jupitor and Saturn nearly 12-earth-years to complete their single year, so basically, you need to wait for a really really long time.

Uranus, with its 84-earth-year cycle lags a long long way behind as well. Can you imagine celebrating new year on Uranus?

And the worst of the lot – the saddest of them – I can certainly say are Neptune and Pluto with their own yearly cycle corresponding to 165 and 248 earth-years.

But that does not mean we got the best deal. Mercury celebrates its new year every 88 days, so all the party people…. Next year, forget Ibiza and head to Mercury!!!!

Moon further from Earth than Sun: Godman

prabhupadaI recently came across this website (http://www.prabhupadanugas.eu/?p=9315), dedicated to Late Srila Prabhupada, anchor of the Hare Krishna Movement of the ISKCON fame, and I couldn’t make up my mind regarding whether they are serious or is this all some sort of a joke.

You wonder why I say this?

Because, though this website is supposed to increase the Godman’s followers even post-humously and add strength to the movement, it makes the mistake of actually and shamelessly publishing a lot of junk that he has preached which no sane person can dare to utter and another dare to hear without breaking out into a fit of laughter and ridicule.

Sample this. The Swami says that man has not landed on the moon (http://www.prabhupadanugas.eu/?p=9315) and explains it in a conversation that becomes absolutely non-sensical after the first 5-6 sentences itself:

They have not gone to the moon (excerpt from conversation with disciples, Perth, May 12, 1975)

Prabhupada: They have not gone to the moon planet .
Paramahamsa: Really?
Prabhupada: Yes. It is far, far away. Their calculation is wrong. They are going to a wrong planet.

Paramahamsa: It must be the Rahu planet.
Prabhupada: Yes, or something else. Not moon planet.

Well, as everyone clearly knows, there is NO Rahu planet. Yet, the godman seems to be unaware of modern (or even medieval) astronomy. Anyway, after this bit, the conversation drifts into looney calculation territory which is mind boggling even for a class 6 student because the swami and the other person keep tying themselves up in knots. Suffice to say that they end up concluding that the moon is further than the sun and then he says it is above the sun (another crackpot conclusion). And then he says:

Prabhupada: Above the sun. How they’ll go? [laughter] They are going to the wrong… bluffing only. I am repeatedly saying, they have never gone, simply bluff. How it is that they brought some dust? So brilliant, it is blazing, full. There is fire blazing.

Another conversation on the same page:

Guru krpa: How is the moon behind the sun?
Prabhupada: Not behind, above.
(ACBSP. 27th May 1975. Morning Walk in Honolulu, Hawaii.)

The moon is really above the Sun? Am sure this is going to piss Newton off because if defies his theory of gravitation Gravitycompletely. And I wonder how an eclipse is caused then. Oh, well, but wait… he has answered that important question also in an equally looney way:

Amogha: Is that Rahu planet closer than the moon to the earth?
Prabhupada : Rahu planet orbit is in between moon and sun. So when it comes in between moon and sun there is eclipse . At night it is eclipse in the moon, and daytime it is eclipse in the sun.

Eclipse in the moon and eclipse in the Sun? I have never heard such preposterous claims in my life and I was shocked to the core. I could not understand if I should simply laugh at everything and let it be. But then I realized that it is extremely sad to know that ISKCON has a huge following world over and this is what they must be preaching to their innocent unquestioning followers, so this is tragic news for humanity.

I really think that all the followers should now attend ISKCON sessions but only for fun and entertainment and not for science anyway.

Oh, and by the way, this is how that webpage concluded considering all the arguments against (none in favour, mind you) man landing on moon:

So as ISKCON devotees we are left with various possibilities :

1) Astronauts did indeed land on the moon, but they did not perceive the world of the demigods (Candraloka) because it is invisible to gross sense perception.

2) The astronauts were deluded by the demigods at some stage in their journey and diverted to the planet Rahu. (SB 4. 29. 69p)

3) The entire moon-landing story is a complete conspiracy, which has fooled millions of people all over the world for over 30 years. (Some say that they filmed the “moon’s surface” in a place in America known as Area 51, according to the TV program.)

So even those concluding from it were nuts? They gave so much thought to the Swami’s arguments that they perhaps didn’t consider a fourth more obvious conclusion:

4) The man was crazy.

 

P.S. I know all ISKCON followers would be fuming by now reading this blog. But please stop here one minute and think and answer one second. Don’t you think it is grossly unfair of you to get angry when everything I’ve state here is the truth substantiated by Prabhupada’s own webpages? And do you really believe that the moon is further from the Sun?

Come on.. You know he was wrong.

What’s your Sun Sign?

virgoWhen somebody asks me what star-sign, or sun-sign, or moon-sign I am, a sort of embarrassed grin shows on my face. I am sorry, I could just easily say I’m a Virgo, but something in me stops me from saying that. Then as a few moments pass, I usually stumble for an answer but none comes out.

The problem I face is that whatever I tell others about me should at least be consistent with what I myself consider to be true and of any relevance whatsoever. But when a question like what Astro Sign I am comes up, it puts me into a dilemma.

Firstly, some people in an ancient civilization thousands of years ago came up with this idea that you are somehow governed by the position of certain celestial bodies (like the sun or the moon) in space at the time of your birth. Not only that, they even place you in the same “group” as others who were also born in the same “time period” even though in different years. The thought of belonging to a “group” based on what constellation was being seen at the time of birth sounds as ridiculous to me as belonging to a group based on the color of the walls of the delivery room. Extremely useless, isn’t it?

Similarly, another supposition that a constellation has an effect on a person simply by virtue of it being a recognizable shape in the sky is quite unreasonable. What about groups of stars that don’t form a recognizable shape? Does the non-appearance of a figure make the other stars impotent? What about the asteroids right in the middle of our own solar system? Don’t they get a say on my life? What about Neptune and Pluto? I love Pluto and I want Pluto to have a role too. But no one would listen to me. I know, I know what you will say about this. Wishful thinking on my part, isn’t it?

Anyway, ever since I was a kid, I have been told time and again that I am a Virgo. Well, my birth date falls on 29th August and matches with the date range for Virgo (23rd Aug – 22nd Sep), so I am Virgo. And whatever people said about my personal attributes based on my “sign” was, again, based on the description for Virgo.

But a few years ago, while studying astronomy as a hobby, I discovered that the charts published in newspapers, magazines, astrology books and everywhere else were all WRONG. They were all based on the noted positions of the sun relative to the 12 constellations more than 2000 years ago. I found out, as a matter of fact, that these relative positions have changed over a period of time due to the wobbling of the earth around its axis – also called precession. So, as of the new charts, my actual sign turned out to be…. LEO!! (Aug 10 to Sept 16). Look it up here.

astrotattooWell, I was hurt. I sort of started believing I am a Virgo and it did seem like the most beautiful sign of all 12. Especially when they said that Virgos can be “tough on the outside but soft on the inside” and that “we care a lot about those we love and sometimes really hate the people we hate,” I know they struck a chord with me. And I am not the only one. Others were angry too.

But, now that I know I am not a Virgo anymore, I can’t continue to lie to and deceive people I interact with. Add to that the fact that there are 13 – and not 12 – zodiacal constellations (Ophiuchus – Nov 29 to Dec 17 so boo to those affected by this), the whole thing makes even lesser sense to me now than it did before. Damn that bloody astronomy that changed my view and took away the cosy comforts that astrology provided me when it told me I was part of a group who acted in exactly the same way as I did and that everything happening in my life was pre-determined and so I was not responsible for my failures. And even though the scales fell from my eyes long ago, this exposed piece of error on part of the astrologers even killed whatever little fun I had reading newspaper horoscopes.

So, when somebody asks me what Sign I am, I can either tell them that I am still a Virgo, in which case I would be lying, or I can tell them that I am a Leo, in which case it will not adhere to the prevailing, albeit incorrect system, thus making even this piece of information utterly useless. Compounded by the fact that even knowing a correct Sign really amounts to nothing, I am usually unable to answer at all. But then, one realizes that delving into such an explanation for such a trivial question might not always be the smartest thing to do. So, one quietly answers “Virgo” with the hope the Bozos asking this might climb down our backs. Unless I was Ophiuchus.

newzodiacs

The Joys of Stargazing

Star Gazing

It was almost 4 AM on a chilly December night (or morning) in Delhi a few years back and I stood on the open terrace of my house gazing up at the night sky with my telescope. The sky was clear at last, there was no moon and so it was a good time to look for those otherwise hard-to-spot stars and star-clusters. To read the sky map, I had a torch double wrapped with red cellophane paper so as to prevent it from ruining my eyes’ acclimatization to the darkness.

Astronomy, or rather Amateur Astronomy, was a new hobby of mine, only a few months old. I had recently been reading as much as I could on the subject, joined the local Astronomy club, met and spoke to other passionate enthusiasts and even bought myself a 5-inch Newtonian reflector scope, which has become one of my most prized possessions. Reading on the subject and then spending time contemplating that knowledge gave me a new perspective.

Tonight, as I was gazing at the stars and contemplating the vastness of the universe beyond those skies, I started to get goosebumps. There are about a hundred billion stars in each of the hundred billion galaxies in our universe and I guess almost all of the stars will have their own solar systems – some big, some small. So that makes the number of planets in the universe so large that it is beyond comprehension of ordinary human brains. And yet, despite this vast number, we know of not a single other planet, except our own, to bear life.

“Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”

Of course, being the only known (to us) life bearing planet, makes our place quite special in the universe. And what makes us even more special is the fact that we are able to contemplate our existence and ask questions about our own origins and the origins of the universe and then seek answers to them using our own intelligence. We were formed out of the same starstuff that makes the rest of the Cosmos – the planets, stars, comets, asteroids as well as the galaxies billions of light years away from our own – and we have evolved to think and ask questions about ourselves.

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

Yet, on the other hand we also know that the reason why we haven’t been able to find life elsewhere in the universe is not because it does not exist, but because we are not intelligent enough and capable enough of finding out. The vastness of the universe trumps our little brains. The gigantic interstellar distances dwarf by trillions and trillions of times any distances we have seen on our earth or even in our solar system. The cosmic clock runs on a scale that trumps the longest lifetimes of humans and make us insignificant. And so, as the contemplation went on and on in my head, I lost myself into an even longer train of thoughts and it was as if I was slowly being removed from the earth. And finally, I truly realized that my relation to the universe was far greater than I had ever imagined before. I had become one with the Cosmos, not in the usual religious way, but in a much deeper and meaningful way. Because as Carl Sagan said it so beautifully:

“The Cosmos is also within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”

It is a unique perspective because it also makes me realize how precious our planet really is. We have our friends, family, idols and enemies all here on this planet. It is our home. Everybody we have ever known lives or lived here. Outside of it, there is just loneliness in the vast universe. That also makes everybody I know here that much more special. The apparent insignificance of my own existence is in itself the reason why I should continue to live because this is the only life I have and will ever have. And I am lucky to be here today. When I learn something about the universe, it is basically the universe learning about itself. When I look out at the Cosmos, the Cosmos looks back into me.

My thoughts are interrupted by a sudden strong cold breeze and I realize that I am now shivering. I hear a truck pass by somewhere in the distance but otherwise the night is very quiet. It is almost morning and the darkness is fading away. A bit like the darkness of my ignorance is fading away because of the knowledge of my own real self?

I am quite tired now so I gather my stuff and head back inside for bed, leaving my telescope behind as it continued to gaze endlessly at the cosmos beyond.

Mars Trail Astrophotography

My Photograph of Mars trail created with 40 exposures of 30 seconds each, with regular breaks. Shots taken using my Canon EOS 500D from my rooftop in Noida (near Delhi, India).

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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