Some notes on empiricism, etc.

The Wire published a story about the ‘atoms of Acharya Kanad‘ (background here; tl;dr: Folks at a university in Gujarat claimed an ancient Indian sage had put forth the theory of atoms centuries before John Dalton showed up). The story in question was by a professor of philosophy at IISER, Mohali, and he makes a solid case (not unfamiliar to many of us) as to why Kanad, the sage, didn’t talk about atoms specifically because he was making a speculative statement under the Vaisheshika school of Hindu philosophy that he founded. What got… Read More

Anthropocene

It’s an epoch whose centre of attention de facto is the human even as the attention makes us more conscious of the other multitudes with which we share this universe.

A happy Lord of the Rings Day to you

A map of Middle Earth.

The LotR trilogy made for the first modern great epic fantasy, its guiding light so very bright that even those who came after struggled to match its success.

Discussing some motivations behind a particle physics FAQ

Particle physics is in the middle of a quandary. Let’s use it to catch up on all that we’ve missed.

Money for science

Using a network of telescopes scattered across the globe, including the Danish 1.5-m telescope at ESO La Silla (Chile), astronomers discovered a new extrasolar planet significantly more Earth-like than any other planet found so far. The planet, which is only about 5 times as massive as the Earth, circles its parent star in about 10 years. It is the least massive exoplanet around an ordinary star detected so far and also the coolest. The planet most certainly has a rocky/icy surface. Its discovery marks a groundbreaking result in the search for planets that support life.

Spending money on science has been tied to evaluating the value of spin-offs, assessing the link between technological advancement and GDP, and dissecting the metrics of productivity, but the debate won’t ever settle no matter how convincingly each time it is resolved. For a piece titled The Telescope of the 2030s, Dennis Overbye writes in The New York Times, I used to think $10 billion was a lot of money before TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the $700 billion bailout that saved the banks in 2008 and apparently has brought happy days… Read More

Of small steps and giant leaps of collective imagination

Is the M5 star cluster really out there? Credit: HST/ESA/NASA

The Wire July 16, 2015 We may all harbour a gene that moves us to explore and find new realms of experience but the physical act of discovery has become far removed from the first principles of physics. At 6.23 am on Wednesday, when a signal from the New Horizons probe near Pluto reached a giant antenna in Madrid, cheers went up around the world – with their epicentre focused on the Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, USA. And the moment it received the signal, the antenna’s computer also relayed a message through… Read More

“Maybe the Higgs boson is fictitious!”

That’s an intriguing and, as he remarks, plausible speculation by the noted condensed-matter physicist Philip Warren Anderson. It appears in a short article penned by him in Nature Physics on January 26, in which he discusses how the Higgs mechanism as in particle physics was inspired by a similar phenomenon observed in superconductors. According to the Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer theory, certain materials lose their resistance to the flow of electric current completely and become superconductors below a critical temperature. Specifically, below this temperature, electrons don’t have the energy to sustain their mutual Coulomb repulsion. Instead, they experience a… Read More

Debating the business of beauty in ‘Dreams of a Final Theory’

In his book Dreams of a Final Theory, Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg discusses the various aspects of the journey toward a unifying theory in fundamental physics. One crucial aspect is the aesthetic of such a theory, and Weinberg’s principal contention is that a unifying theory must be beautiful because if it weren’t beautiful, it wouldn’t be final in every sense. However, thinking so presupposes all scientific pursuits are motivated by a quest for beauty – this may not be the case. More importantly, beauty in being a human construction can be fickle and arbitrary,… Read More

The transparency of public transportation

My favorite thing about New York city? The subway. The New York city subway system is very decentralized. Its stations are the only front-facing components while its technical infrastructure is obscured from view. As a result, public consciousness of the system depends on how easily navigable the subway stations are and how transient the experience of using it is. And the Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) has achieved both navigability and transience with splendid iconography. Use Google Maps or ask someone nearby to get yourself near a subway station in New York. Once you’re closer, look out… Read More

Dying in a finite universe

In his book Infinite In All Directions (2002), Freeman Dyson, one of the tallest intellectual giants of our times, attempts to rescue eschatology from the specious grip of religion and teleology with a mix of scientific reasoning and informed speculation. During this, when describing the big crunch, which is one way our universe could end, he moves smoothly from the rational track he has been sprinting on to a less exact but more pertinent and romantic description.

The literature of metaphysics (or, ‘Losing your marbles’ )

For a while now, I’ve been intent on explaining stuff from particle physics. A lot of it is intuitive if you go beyond the mathematics and are ready to look at packets of energy as extremely small marbles. And then, you’ll find out some marbles have some charge, some the opposite charge, and some have no charge at all, and so forth. And then, it’s just a matter of time before you figure out how these properties work with each other (“Like charges repel, unlike charges attract”, etc). These things are easy… Read More

Where the Indian infiniteness?

Avatamsaka Sutra, vol. 12: frontispiece in gold and silver text on indigo blue paper, from the Ho-Am Art Museum. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I didn’t know Kenneth Wilson had died on June 15 until an obituary appeared in Nature on August 1. He was a Nobel Prize winning physicist and mathematician whose contribution to science was and is great. He gave scientists the tools to imagine the laws of physics at different scales — large and small — and to translate causes and effects from one scale into another. Without him, we’d struggle not only to solve physics problems at cosmological and nuclear distances at the same time but also to comprehend the universe from the dimensionless… Read More