Pages

Monday, October 31, 2011

The God Delusion

'The God Delusion' was the title of a 2006 bestseller by Richard Dawkins. I borrowed this title for the first online article I wrote, in 2009: http://nirmukta.com/2009/07/26/a-scientific-view-of-the-god-delusion/

In my article I explained the need for having an evidence-based, scientific view of things. The article generated an enormous amount of discussion, and was reposted by several other websites. Here are some examples:



I reproduce here excerpts from the 'Questions and Answers' section of the article.

Q: No matter what science or scientists say, my faith in the existence of a prayer-answering God is unshakeable. Do you have any problem with that?

A:
As I was sitting in my chair,
I knew the bottom wasn’t there.
Nor legs nor back, but I just sat,
Ignoring little things like that.
(William Hughes Mearns)

Q: What is prayer?

A: Prayer means ‘to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy’ (Ambrose Bierce).

Q: How can all knowledge be acquired only by physical, objective, ‘scientific’ means? Is it not possible that some types of knowledge can be obtained only by ‘experiencing’ it in your head?

A: How can we humans be sure that such ‘knowledge’ is correct and universal? How dependable can such ‘subjective knowledge’ be, whatever that term means? Even such knowledge is bound to lead to some predictions (say about God) which are in the physical realm, and therefore amenable to objective scientific verification. That has not happened. Why not wait till science can make more progress? What is the hurry?! In any case, what can you achieve by hurrying?

Q: I have experienced God. How can you challenge that?

A: Please take the trouble of gaining a mastery over the science of modern psychology. Also, read up some good books on evolutionary theory. You will change your views.

Q: But if my God-concept is demolished, I shall feel utterly lost and forlorn. How can I cope with that?

A: Please be brave and mentally strong, and try to face reality. There are a huge number of atheists or irreligious people out there. Establish contact with them, and share your thoughts with them. There is strength in numbers.


Q: But religion has given rise to so much art and literature. Should we abandon all that?

A: No. That is also our heritage. Nothing prevents you from enjoying good poetry or music. I enjoy Sufi music, as also bhajans sung by Jagjit Singh (yes bhajans, and not just ghazals). The Ramayan and the Mahabharat are great stories. But only stories. They were aptly described by Nehru as a curious mixture of fact and fiction. The point is that we humans must move on as we acquire more and more knowledge and understanding. In the beginning there was no science; only ignorance or some fragmentary pieces of information.  And there were superstitions, born out of the fear of the unknown. Our perspective must change in the light of new insights and knowledge. As more and more people come round to the rationalist’s view of things, a new kind of art, music, and literature would emerge. Things change with time. Don’t be afraid of change.
---


There were several questions and comments on the online article. I was particularly touched by the following comment posted by Don Dahlgaard:

'Your article has been saved to show my daughter. It's clear and insightful. A father's words are seldom as clear. She will be returning from college next week. I also found a version of bhajans by Jagjit Singh. It is wonderful, in a sense similar to enjoying Enya. My music collection is eclectic. I had no need to know why the smoke was at the feet of the fancy lady and the cow. Thank you for the words and the music. I will share them as I assume you would wish.' (Don Dahlgaard, Norton, MA, USA)

Here is another reaction to my article (by Mike Magee):

'I came here from Richard Dawkins’ pages linking to Dr Wadhawan’s latest piece in his series on complexity. Dr Wadhawan, you deserve a good deal of praise. You seem like an excellent teacher and a likable man. This page is especially good, I think, for the purpose you designed it, as a guide for the young. I hope people will make use of it, and having just read towards the end of the comments that the page is free to use under Creative Commons, I shall put it on my own website. I have bookmarked this website Nirmukta, and shall make a point of looking in often. Many thanks for your efforts, and best wishes.'


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Mother Nature

In August 1978 I went to Warsaw to attend the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr) Congress. This was my first visit abroad. I saw the above pictures in an in-flight, take-away, magazine kept in my hotel room. There was something about these pictures of the jungle that moved me greatly. Even now, I find it difficult to take my eyes away when I see them.

It was on 28 August 1838 that the owner of the large estate of the de Longueval-Buquoy family inscribed this passage in the founding charter of the protected natural territory with rich fir, spruce and beech growths:


This preserve, covering an area of 100 hectares is thus one of the oldest in Europe, and Count Jiri Frantisek Augustin inscribed his name in the history of the protection of Nature in Europe. [I have taken this statement from the write-up that accompanied the above pictures and the passage.]

Friday, October 28, 2011

What is Reality?

Stephen Hawking (SH) is one of the greatest scientists ever. He is a cosmologist, particularly well-known for his work on black holes. The book THE GRAND DESIGN, published last year by Hawking and Mlodinow (H&M), has a touch of finality, as if an unusually sharp scientific brain has finally succeeded in finding rational answers to the basic questions about ourselves and about our universe. I have summarized the main ideas of this book in an online article. Here I give a glimpse of that work by discussing the meaning of 'reality'.

 

There are several umbrella words like ‘consciousness’, ‘reality’, etc., which have never been defined rigorously and unambiguously. H&M argue that we can only have 'model-dependent reality', and that any other notion of reality is meaningless.

Does an object exist when we are not viewing it? Suppose there are two opposite models or theories for answering this question (and indeed there are!). Which model of ‘reality’ is better? Naturally the one which is simpler and more successful in terms of its predicted consequences. If a model makes my head spin and entangles me in a web of crazy complications and contradictory conclusions, I would rather stay away from it. This is where materialism wins hands down. The materialistic model is that the object exists even when nobody is observing it. This model is far more successful in explaining ‘reality’ than the opposite model. And we can do no better than build models of whatever there is to understand and explain.

In fact, we adopt this approach in science all the time. There is no point in going into the question of what is absolute and unique ‘reality’. There can only be a model-dependent reality. We can only build models and theories, and we accept those which are most successful in explaining what we humans observe collectively. I said ‘most successful’. Quantum mechanics is an example of what that means. In spite of being so crazily counter-intuitive, it is the most successful and the most repeatedly tested theory ever propounded.

A model is a good model if: it is elegant; it contains few arbitrary or adjustable parameters; it agrees with and explains all the existing observations; and it makes detailed and falsifiable predictions.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Art without Artist

My apartment in Bangalore is near the Kaikondrahalli Lake on Sarjapur Road. The trail around the lake is a lovely place for walking, jogging, and bird watching, at just about any time of the day. I photographed this beautiful flower growing wild there.

It is a work of art, but there is no artist involved! How can that be? Yes, it happens because of the relentless evolution of complexity in thermodynamically 'open' systems. I have explained that in great detail in my book Complexity Science: Tackling the Difficult Questions We Ask about Ourselves and about Our Universe (2010).

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

More about my New Book on Symmetry

Here is what appears on the back cover of the book:

Wow! What a neat book. Dr. Wadhawan has a real gift for explaining concepts. He leads the reader from the basic definition of symmetry through the description of symmetry in simple objects to composite systems and complex networks. With clarity, the author provides an accessible doorway to some fascinating and not widely known aspects of symmetry in science, as broken symmetries, gauge symmetries, and to the seemingly unexpected appearance of latent symmetries.
Daniel B. Litvin
Distinguished Professor of Physics, Penn State University

There is a subtle kind of symmetry called latent symmetry which manifests itself only when the conditions are right. It can occur in systems composed of equal or equivalent components. It lies dormant or latent, and becomes manifest when the components happen to have certain special mutual placements. Although the latent-symmetry idea has been around for more than a decade, not many natural manifestations have been observed to date. But a recognition of the possibility of latent symmetry enables us to formulate a comprehensive symmetry-composition principle enunciated in this book. The principle is applicable to any system composed of equal or equivalent subparts. And there are many such systems around. Crystals are an obvious example, the equal components being the unit cells. Several complex networks can also fall within the purview of this principle, especially if we take note of the approximate nature of the symmetry of these networks. This book presents such an all-inclusive view of symmetry in an accessible language.

We are surrounded by symmetry and broken symmetry. From the Big Bang onwards, as our universe cooled and expanded, a series of symmetry-breaking transitions occurred, resulting in a gradual evolution of the complexity of life we see today. By now it is well recognized that discovering new broken symmetries (particularly broken gauge symmetries) is the path science must take for going deeper into the mysteries of Nature. At a very fundamental level, laws of physics are all about symmetry. There is lot of symmetry even in biological systems. This book celebrates all types of symmetry, including latent symmetry.


  
Dan Litvin, Dorian Hatch and Vinod Wadhawan
(Vienna 1996)

My Book on Symmetry

Some details about my book on symmetry can be seen at


A word about how this book was conceived. I have been working on a comprehensive book on complex systems. I had planned a chapter on symmetry in complex systems in that book. As I was writing that chapter, it became clear that I have material which is far in excess of what can be put in a chapter. So I took a break from writing the book on complexity, and spent almost two years writing the book on symmetry.

I am pleased with the response from fellow scientists. Here is what Prof. A. M. Glazer from the University of Oxford wrote in his Foreword for the book:

'Wherever we look we see a variety of patterns and shapes that show different types of symmetry. Much of this is obvious, such as for instance when we look at the pyramids of Egypt, or crystals in a museum. However, what is not so obvious is just what exactly is symmetry and why is it so prevalent? In this unique and intriguing book, Professor Vinod Wadhawan has set about answering these sorts of questions. He takes us on a journey from very basic descriptions, such as the growth of a crystal, on to more esoteric and complex notions, demonstrating that, in fact, symmetry is even more pervasive than we thought before. Some symmetries are far from obvious, as illustrated by the idea of latent symmetry. This is said to manifest itself when one combines two or more 'equal' objects or systems, each with its own symmetry description, and the resulting composite system exhibits new symmetry elements that were not expected from the original systems. For instance, two identical right-angled isosceles triangles can be joined together to form a square, that has an unanticipated four-fold rotational symmetry. The notion of latent symmetry is relatively new and deserves further consideration.

Not only do we have the symmetry exhibited by living organisms and physical objects, but also by ideas themselves. As such this book has a strong philosophical content that will enable the reader to gain much more insight into the phenomenon than is normally got from a typical university education. Wadhawan shows us how even the concept of randomness is intricately bound up with notions of symmetry. Even the idea of predictability is an example of symmetry in action! And then, having explained what symmetry is, emphasis is placed on what happens when symmetry is broken. In a sense, pure symmetry could even be described as rather boring, since it implies a lack of change or progress. Nonetheless, we still need to understand it. It is when symmetry is broken that fun things start to happen and new ideas, progress and phenomena are created. This book explains how this comes about and why symmetry-breaking is so important.

The book is written with an eye to explaining the fundamental concepts of symmetry, rather than go into complex mathematical proofs and lemmas, which in any case can be found elsewhere for those who like those sorts of things. This means that Wadhawan is able instead to concentrate on the philosophical importance of understanding symmetry, and how it impacts on the world that we observe. Rather like the Second Law of Thermodynamics, symmetry is seen to play a vital role in what holds the universe together. You can see then that this book covers just about everything that we know about symmetry, and possibly that which we do not!'
 Vinod Wadhawan (2nd from the left) as a Nuffield Foundation Fellow at the Clarendon Laboratory, University of Oxford, 1979. Prof. Glazer is 4th from the left in the front row.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Hello, I am Vinod Wadhawan

My new book LATENT, MANIFEST, AND BROKEN SYMMETRY was released yesterday (20th October 2011). I am feeling a bit relaxed today, having completed this project. Beginning today, I shall be blogging occasionally.

My next project is a big fat book on complex systems. 


If you want to know more about me, please see my Google Profile at