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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

How my world has changed


There was a book titled ‘The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog’ that I bought nearly a quarter century ago. It was meant for sharp youngsters with a taste for science and science fiction, and it was filled with articles on, and artists’ impressions of, the many kinds of ways in which the world was going to change over the next thirty years or so. Crystal-ball gazing, yes, but indulged in on the basis of the best and latest scientific data available around 1980, and the extrapolations were made by supposedly intelligent and reasonable people who had been trained in this sort of thing; not illiterate sadhus and primitive astrologers. The book was inspired by no less a creative scientific genius than Buckminster Fuller, and I was drawn to it because I had become interested in the field of scientific forecasting by reading stalwarts like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Conan Doyle, Arthur Clarke and Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. I was certainly in good company; no one can argue that I was being ‘had’ by con men.

Since then, I have become much older and much less starry-eyed. I have also kept a close watch on the world, and remembered much more, and that much more keenly than the average man. I can hear men and women of my own age group gushing or moaning all around me about how drastically the world has changed in our time, but I know much of that is nonsense. In fact, what I find really surprising is how much has not changed at all, or changed minimally, and how many of the confident-sounding predictions in that book have gone hopelessly wrong. Let me make a little list of the things that have come true as forecast, and things that have not.

The most obvious (and to my mind, deplorable) change that has taken place is that the human population has swelled enormously – even the USA crossed the 300-million mark in 2006 – and much of that bulge has occurred in poor and backward countries like India, making the problems of development and wildlife protection well-nigh insoluble (it is no accident that our leaders are now desperate to find land for everything they want to build, from cities to factories, for there is no vacant land left; why didn’t they take birth control much more seriously since the 1950s, for God’s sake!). Television (which made its countrywide debut in India only in 1982 with the Delhi Asiad) has now become ubiquitous. The book was wide-eyed about the potential of the PC or microcomputer, and even breathlessly suggested that millions of computers might ‘talk’ to each other soon; today the Internet is not only essential to business worldwide, but raises no eyebrows except perhaps in remote villages, even in India, and there are tiny computers everywhere, from microwave ovens to cars. Mobile telephones have spread like wildfire over just one decade, and they are increasingly more powerful and versatile yet cheaper with every passing year. India is witnessing an automobile boom – but also skyrocketing obesity-related problems – and there are still far too few good roads and too scant respect for traffic laws, so the accident graph is soaring. Definitely not a picture of unmixed blessings, all-round progress. Not so, especially when you consider that tuberculosis and malaria still kill millions every year; no safe, cheap and surefire cure for cancer has been found after half a century of strenuous research, and mankind is still almost as helpless as ever in the face of major natural disasters (the frequency and intensity of which are being definitely exacerbated by human action, such as global warming caused by emission of greenhouse gases on a monstrous scale) – hurricane Katrina wrought as much havoc in the USA in 2005 as the great tsunami of December 26, 2004 had done in Asia. In many more areas of research and organized exploration, there have been hardly any breakthroughs. Almost all of our food is still produced by farmers from the land; neither in factories nor through hydroponics on the oceans, as promised. Most of the energy we consume still comes from burning fossil fuels – in Asia and Africa, a huge proportion still comes from burning wood and cowdung! – fusion reactors and solar energy still remain chimeras, and other nonconventional sources, like wind and wave energy, or ocean thermal energy conversion, remain mere scientific curiosities, or contribute tiny amounts of useful power only. What compounds the problem is that economically accessible reserves of fossil fuels (‘dirty’ fuels) are rapidly running out. There is also a growing worldwide scarcity of clean fresh water (India’s condition is among the worst): so much so that the outgoing Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, has warned that the major wars of the 21st century are going to be over control of available water. And what is most frightening is that in the ’60s and ’70s there was at least some alarm over these things even in high places, and some efforts were made to find viable solutions: today a strange apathy seems to have gripped all of us, from leaders to scientists to laymen alike, as though we all know the problems are so big and intractable that they don’t bear thinking about, so we’d be better off having fun with no thought for the morrow: mankind is doomed anyway!

While certain areas of science and technology have indeed witnessed spectacular advancement (electronics and microsurgery, for example) and some others are currently showing very great promise (to wit genetic engineering and nanotechnology), other fields have definitely stagnated. Asimov’s robot stories sound as fantastical as when they were written, half a century or more ago: we still see intelligent (and loveable or sinister) androids only in movies. Organic houses – which grow by themselves according to pre-set plans, and know how to repair themselves, one of those fantasies suggested in the book – likewise. Many more people certainly live into their nineties these days, of course, but they are certainly not on the average half as fit and active and cheerfully enjoying life as the book had predicted they would be: we still know far too little to seriously slow down the ageing process, and both society and psychologists understand the mind too little to help very old folks stave off loneliness and boredom, even when they are not starving or being abused. I believe, rather, that science has yet learnt only how to keep people alive a little longer so that they can suffer more misery! Space exploration has gone little beyond the splendid achievements of the 50s-to-70s, mainly because the non-military spinoffs have been found to be too little, too slow and too uncertain while the technology still remains too clumsy, expensive and risky. So let alone starships capable of making hyperspace jumps, there are no really large-scale and permanent space stations in near-earth orbit serving as factories, power-stations and hotels, no mines on the moon or Venus, Mercury, Mars or the asteroids, indeed no ambitious plans to send manned exploratory missions there either. And, despite the long-search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, it is curious that we still seem to be a very lonely species adrift in space, so public interest even in sci-fi space movies seems to have waned lately: nothing spectacular has happened in that area since the days of E.T. and Star Wars barring stray successes like Spielberg and Tom Cruise’s recent re-telling of the venerable War of the Worlds. The bulk of our trains and buses run on technology that is basically a century old – again, I have been hearing and seeing TV shows about hovertrains and maglev trains that run at 500-plus km/hour for more than three decades, but thus far and no farther. It’s the same in the field of aircraft: nothing essentially pathbreaking has happened since the first Boeing 747 ‘jumbo jet’ rolled out in 1969: the Airbus 380 about to enter service is just a bigger, quieter version, while the supersonic Concorde has been retired as a very costly failure after two decades of trial and has not been replaced by anything better – hyperplanes capable of transporting two thousand people at a time from New York to Sydney in two hours are not even likely to start being produced soon. The same applies to megaships, though Frederick Forsyth wrote a book about a million-tonne oil tanker almost two decades ago. The first 100-plus storey building, the Empire State in New York, was finished in 1931; we haven’t got a 200-storey building yet. And the most widely-used gun in the world, the AK 47, is of World War II vintage!

At the most basic level of physics – the ‘queen’ and trendsetter of all the sciences for three glorious centuries since Newton was born – there is likewise only stagnation and confusion, so far as I can tell from the science columns of the newspapers and the occasional relevant book that I read. At the turn of the century there were so many rapid-fire discoveries of momentous proportions – the electron, the photoelectric effect, quantum mechanics, relativity, the e = mc2 equation and what have you – that vast vistas, whole new realms of knowledge at both the microcosmic and macrocosmic levels, seemed to have been suddenly opened up. ‘Bliss was it in that new dawn to be alive’, most of the best brains in the scientific world were drawn into the exhilarating vortex of atomic physics and astrophysics, and it seemed that perhaps the ultimate mysteries of creation and existence were about to be revealed to mankind; scientists, in Einstein’s words, were really at last going to look into the mind of God. But then things seemed to go awry. Instead of things becoming increasingly clearer and simpler and more organized, chaos abounded. The deeper scientists looked into the ‘heart of the matter’, the more complex and protean it seemed to become, like opening up Russian dolls (which themselves kept shape-shifting in most bizarre ways all the time). So these days we hear that instead of three more or less stable subatomic particles there are ‘actually’ at least 64, many of which cannot often be differentiated from one another or have any stable kind of existence; we hear that nobody is sure whether we live in an oscillating universe or a stable one or one which alternates eternally between the Big Bang and the Big Crunch, or even whether there are multiple universes, budding off baby universes after the fashion of amoebae now and then and fusing into one another sometimes; we hear that scientists have been grappling in vain with the challenge of the Grand Unification Theory because gravity is proving to be unmanageable, and also (something that is certain to confound the thinking layperson) that perhaps there is no such thing as gravity after all: it is only a ‘distortion’ in the uniform field of space-time caused by the presence of very massive bodies. We hear that at the level of the very building blocks of matter we must not talk of strict causality because only probabilities are allowed by something called the uncertainty principle, and at the level of a dying or just-being-born universe there arise such things as ‘singularities’ when space and time themselves stop having any meaning, so we are no longer allowed to ask when and where! At the most esoteric level, there are groups of scientists who do not believe in particles at all, but insist that the universe is ‘actually’ composed of multidimensional ‘strings’, or ‘superstrings’ (and there are a couple of dozen superstring theories happily coexistent and quarreling, because apparently not one of them can be conclusively proved by experiment – once thought to be the sine qua non of real science! – owing to insurmountable technical difficulties). The newspapers these days keep regurgitating this kind of stuff as though they were the latest and very promising breakthroughs, but I have been reading more or less the same things since I was in high school – I have come across very little in the last five years that indicate huge progress has been made since, say, Asimov wrote his brilliant encyclopedic New Guide to Science. However counterintuitive – or, not to put too fine a point on it, plain weird – all this may seem to some of us, we are solemnly assured by the eggheads that reality is indeed like that; they have checked it all with mathematical rigour and precision. And all the time the math involved has become more and more complicated and arcane, so that over my lifetime the scientists doing ‘cutting-edge’ research have been claiming that only the initiated (meaning only they and their friends – scientists can be very disparaging and dismissive of even rival theorists, leave alone laymen, and by layman a particle physicist means even engineers and surgeons, leave alone history professors, politicians, clerks and bus drivers!) may even vaguely comprehend what they are talking about. But isn’t that just the way the church fathers insisted about their own brands of mumbo jumbo in the name of theology and religion for upwards of a thousand years? To think that science was born to fight and destroy that sort of religiosity and offer a better life to men here on earth!

Add to all this the fact that the public has understood at least two things rather clearly over the last half-century – that scientific ‘progress’ has severely harmed the natural environment that sustains us and very greatly magnified our power of mutual destruction through terrorism and war – and it’s no wonder any more that all over the world there has been of late a great ‘turning away’ from science, at least science of the ‘pure’ variety. Of course some wizards are still making vast fortunes by turning this or that application of science into enormously profitable businesses in the footsteps of Arkwright, Graham Bell, Edison, Brunel, Nobel and Eiffel – consider Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and the young founders of Google Inc – but if you take the public as a whole, all over the west science has become ‘uncool’ among the young, while India and China are ‘catching up’ only by supplying the western, or western-style industries in their own domains, with millions of ‘scientifically educated’ labourers who basically do the work of glorified drudges, even when they are well paid, to keep the wheels of conventional commerce and government turning: they have not been trained or encouraged to do any original thinking, so very little pathbreaking scientific creativity ought to be expected from them. At this rate, the Enlightenment dream of knowing everything there is to be known and applying it for the good of Man might turn out to have been a mirage indeed.

Some of the best minds in basic physics have been taking a speculative, not to say metaphysical turn in recent times. Men like Fritjof Capra, Frank Tippler, Mani Bhowmik, Freeman Dyson and Paul Davies – all of them holding science doctorates from the world’s leading universities – insist that there cannot be a meaningful science without God, and those like Roger Penrose, who wouldn’t commit themselves so far, still urge us to consider that at least the stuff of human consciousness must be somehow factored into all scientific hypothesizing to make any significant progress hereafter. On the other hand, those like Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg and Richard Dawkins, following in the footsteps of Laplace who told Napoleon he had no need for the God-hypothesis, are in defiant denial, but they seem to be locked in an intellectual cul de sac. But much worse than that has been happening over the last fifty years. There is a global sense of failure and frustration with science (and even more ominously, with reason itself), and the turning away has been made manifest in a great many undesirable ways.

Since scientists are laying claim to ever larger funds for supposedly important research from the same public whom they cannot (or do not seem willing and eager to) convince about that importance, legislators in many advanced nations have greatly slashed many projects, if not cancelled them entirely – as has been the case with artificial intelligence and ever bigger particle supercolliders. Research into more advanced weaponry, on the other hand, just like research to develop ever more tantalizing cosmetics, keeps going on at a breathtaking pace, because the same legislators (and the voters behind them) can see the obvious ‘utility’ of such things. Meanwhile, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ongoing political reorientation of China, the only dream of creating a secular, rational, civilized (meaning one that outlaws poverty, vast and hereditary power, wealth and privilege and great injustice stemming from these things) utopia on a really large scale has vanished into thin air, but the western model of godless liberal-capitalist democracy wedded to the pseudo-religion of consumerism is neither accessible to the whole human race (because the earth’s resources are not infinite, nor are the rich willing to share enough) nor palatable to all – as a result religion, including religion of the organized and aggressive variety, has begun to appeal to a great many people again everywhere. Now this wouldn’t have been a bad thing if religion had complemented science in consciously and deliberately making a better world for all of us – heaven knows mankind needs a healthy sense of purpose and direction. If religion could have made us better human beings – kinder, quieter, more tolerant, self-possessed and self-assured, less material-obsessed and greedy, more aesthetic – that would have been wonderful. Unfortunately, that is not the kind of religion that is making converts and sympathizers in droves. It is religion of a very parochial, bigoted, violent, ritual obsessed and superstitious sort – precisely the kind of religion that science had struggled so long and hard to banish from the human mind – that is making a comeback with a vengeance all over the world, whether it be within the folds of Islam or Hinduism or Christianity. The zealots want blood, and absolute, unreasoning, inhuman faith; they conjure up apocalyptic visions and promise paradise hereafter, they lust after unbridled, irresponsible power; they want to turn the clock back. And now they have far more potent weapons – not just bombs and guns and poison but the fantastic tools of mass propaganda and collective brainwashing created by science itself – in their hands to do mischief with. Often these religious ‘leaders’ and the hordes of their passionate devotees have acquired at least a smattering of ‘scientific’ education. Is it not a very sad irony that this should have happened after four centuries of the pursuit of knowledge and human welfare?

‘The best lack all conviction/ the worst are full of passionate intensity’. This was written a long time ago, but it might have been a description of the present day. A majority of young people all over the world today – well-fed and supposedly well schooled – cannot spell or do math in their heads; they find both science and Shakespeare boring, last year to them is prehistory, and nothing apparently interests and excites them other than shopping, rave parties awash in drugs, inane sports like football and cricket, the celebrity of the hour and fashionable clothes to be bought and thrown away with hysterical frenzy. Real adventure of any kind is as anathema to them as charity; they hate hard work, they eat like pigs, and truth to them is what TV ads say it is. I know the old have always complained of the dissoluteness of the young, but look, I am not yet such an old man myself, and I have seen galloping decadence with my own eyes as a teacher in the last twenty-odd years. I can at least see how the Roman emperors kept the mob happy with bread and circuses; how well the same timeworn strategy works still, and how the mob hates, despises and ignores all those who tell them to wake up and look at the truth. The book did not foresee this at all, and I cannot foresee what the consequences are likely to be: but there is ‘much that I fear may chance’. What kind of labourers will these lazy morons make, and what sort of statesmen, artists, scientists, reformers and parents will be drawn from their ranks?

Another area where there has been no progress at all is with regard to the dream of a world government, which will have only the interests – especially the long term interests – of Man at heart. The Upanishads dreamt of a world which would live by the dictum of vasudhaiva kutumvakam, the world is my family, the earth is to be held in trust for posterity. Tennyson dreamt in Locksley Hall of a world governed by the ‘Parliament of Man, the federation of the world’; Russell insisted in the middle of the 20th century that without such a thing Man had no future. The first truly international effort to articulate this dream took the form of the League of Nations, which died an early death because most of the powerful members had neither any real understanding of its need nor were willing to give it a fair trial; they were still stuck with nationalistic world-views of medieval ancestry. There followed the unspeakable horror of the Second World War, and the ghastly apprehension (at least in the minds of a few thousand articulate scientists, journalists, generals and statesmen) that a third World War might spell the doom of civilization as we know it. So the League was resurrected and given a shot in the arm in a new avatar, the United Nations, and there was in the mid-1940s some hope that this time round the Great Powers of the World would be moved by both reason and conscience to voluntarily delegate many of their hitherto ‘sovereign’ powers to this body for the greatest common good: prevention of war, rapid development of the poorest countries, encouraging trade, controlling global menaces of crime, pollution, natural-resource depletion and so on globally – which is surely both the most efficient and the most equitable way. Alas, the modicum of good sense generated by the catastrophe of two successive world wars within three decades was dissipated all too soon. When I was born, the world was frozen into a Cold War; the bulk of the resources of the ‘superpowers’ was being eaten up by the arms race and the mutual-hate propaganda race. Whatever dribbles of charity they gave to the poor nations of the world was strictly tied to their own hegemonistic ambitions; they wanted their ‘satellites’ to become either pale clones of themselves or helplessly dependent on them for everything, from advice to technology, forever, when they were not providing cannon fodder for proxy wars in furtherance of the geopolitical interests of the USA or the USSR. Very little genuine developmental work could be done for those countries which needed it most because there was so much bad blood between the superpowers that they would not cooperate. The UNO became a vast, grand, and (compared with the early hopes it had raised) nearly useless bureaucracy spinning out endless beautifully worded and ineffectual resolutions and covenants for the benefit of all those it could not really serve – hundreds of millions of sick, handicapped, poor, elderly people and minorities, including women, who were victims of extreme oppression or neglect all around the planet, not to mention the natural environment, which industrial man’s greed continued to despoil and pollute as though there would be no tomorrow.

Then, when I was nearing thirty, there was sudden cataclysmic change again. The Soviet Union collapsed and vanished, and there was America triumphant: unbridled and unabashed global capitalism seemed suddenly to become the almost unopposed order of the day. The UNO had become, when it was not kowtowing to American interests, irrelevant. The earth and all its riches was up for grabs, and the overwhelming military might as well as cultural leadership of the USA (a very weird leadership though it is, to put it mildly – a leadership of lazy and mindless opulence: the kind of ‘leadership’ that decadent Rome gave to Europe, Africa and the Middle East after the second century C.E.) was there to protect the greediest and most reckless players all around the planet. But these last fifteen odd years have been, from a historian’s point of view, a mere wink of the eye: with failure in Afghanistan, looming disaster in Iraq, China and the European Union growing stronger with every passing year, many governments as well as peoples in both rich and poor countries quietly resentful and resisting, America’s brief moment of unchallengeable authority on the world stage is already becoming a thing of the past. Economically speaking, the world in fifty years’ time is certainly going to be a multipolar world – of that all the experts seem certain. The trillion-dollar question is, will such a world survive politically without a global government to hold the reins, without a global charter of basic human rights (and duties) in force? To put it in another way, will the nations learn to reach that desideratum through relatively smooth, painless and quick negotiations, or shall we arrive at it only through many decades of war and natural disasters whose scale boggles the mind? This no one can tell. On this non-technical (and therefore much more difficult) question the book remains absolutely silent.

So on the whole the book raised far more exciting possibilities than have actually materialized; and the world to me today seems much darker than it had hoped for. This I say though I have been very, very lucky not to have suffered seriously myself over these last 25 years: individual life trajectories often vary greatly from average prognostications aimed at very large numbers. For a lot of people of my parents’ generation and mine, things have shaped up far worse – all those millions who have been rendered destitute refugees by war, revolution and environmental disaster, for instance. On the other hand, things have become better than expected for only a tiny minority of people: mostly rich males in the world’s ten most advanced nations who are still healthy and active. May that remain a warning for my daughter and all her contemporaries. If I look down the road, I will not dare to make forecasts about what the world would look like 25 years hence: experience has taught me to doubt my own wisdom. I shall certainly hope for a few good things to happen, even some unexpectedly good ones, but I shall go on worrying that too many things will take a turn for the worse, and men will wake up to danger only when it is almost too late.

((begun January 1, 2007 , finished January 6, 2007)

15 comments:

Suvro Chatterjee said...

So many friends and ex-students who have 'studied' or are 'studying' science upto a fairly advanced level in some of the supposedly best institutes in this country, and no one can think of writing any intelligent/informative comments here?! - and if they don't want to, why not?

kaushik_chatterjee1 said...

Without being alarmist, the observations of Suvro, so far as they relate to the environmental concerns of our planet, coming close on the heels of the forewarnings of the IPCC meet , does make one feel despondent! Despite such loud talks and reams of paper being churned out daily regarding the prerogatives of imposing environmental safeguards vis-a-vis the developmental imperatives, the divides are still sharp, stoutly defended against and seem almost non-negotiable! It is amazing to find the various layers of intellectual deception amongst individuals disconcerting over these issues! Otherwise, well-meaning individuals, quite perceptive and rational in their respective professional turfs, often fight pitched battles over assigning some form of environmental mandates to decide on the developmental issues of the society at large.

Can a workable consensus on observance of certain minimum common environmental safeguards, be ever reached among the various stakeholders (politicians, technocrats, social scientists, etal culled from diverse ends of social spectrum) which may serve as the pivotal platform for launching developmental projects in future?

It's just not some local environmental protection outfits, loosely functioning under certain Ministry or State Boards, or even supposedly environmental ‘watchdogs’ at the Ministerial level , perfunctorily doing (un-doing?) their work under the subterfuge of various legislations, often running at cross-purposes! For such a meaningful and actionable consensus to emerge, we perhaps need a churning of the society's best and fertile minds, having enlightened wisdom (which Suvro rues, has become such a scarce commodity these days) painstakingly and dispassionately examining the pros and cons of the dialectics involved, encouraging a no-holds-barred brainstorming of the issues and then perhaps zeroing on to certain affordable prescriptions, that may be treated as the bottom lines for initiating progress!

Without in any way being pre-judged in the context of the recent controversy raging over Singur, it is a fact that the car population in Indian cities is increasing even faster – much faster – than the human population. While desperately trying to make good the time, almost irretrievably lost, thanks to our endless ideological quibblings, we have made over much space to highways and flyovers, while our public transport had languished over the years and rapid transit systems, which could move more and more people in a clean and controlled way, remain much on the drawing board. You cannot perhaps fault the wit who , even at the cost of being dubbed ‘an anti-developmentalist’, observed: “The more flyovers you build, the more cars you will encourage to choke them. The more waste disposal facilities you create, the more waste will be generated to choke them too.”

We have exhausted, in a few generations, fossil fuels generated over several million years; 50% of mangroves have been removed, wetlands have shrunk by half; over 20% of recognized fisheries are already depleted; 50% of land surfaces have been transformed.

Interestingly, the ghastly emitters of the classical Green House Gases have been the developed countries. It is learnt that with 4% of world population, USA contributes 25% of the entire global emission. Per capita emission of India is only 1/25th of USA and India’s insistence on per capita parity has not been music to the avowed policy prescriptions enunciated by the West. The iniquitous global energy consumption is brought to a sharper focus when we consider that USA insists on China, India and Brazil also to come under emission control strategy. Curiously, for the sake of sheer survival dynamics, we do not have much grounds for crying hoarse against such supercilious and hegemonistic sermons of the West for then, we would soon cross the concentration thresholds beyond which the threat becomes really serious and equally menacing for both the developed and developing nations (perhaps potentially more disastrous for the latter, in absence of adequate institutional security/emergency handling mechanisms).

We have also learnt that Europe and USA and, increasingly, Japan are concerned with invasion into their atmosphere of huge brown and yellow clouds (being essentially products of bio-mass burning formed through air pollutants – a so-called ‘developing country product’) through long distance transport and have orchestrated for far stringent regimes of law about environmental jurisdiction.

It is perhaps here that an institution of the likes of a global Environmental Ombudsman, (not tied to the individual coat-pins of regional nation-states, diverse geo-strategic outfits, mega transnational corporates , functioning under a motley of regional equations and loyalties) should be given an over-arching authority with adequate moral, ethico-legal powers (immune from narrow executive and bureaucratic pettifoggery) to carry out its onerous mandate! What would be the role of us, the virtual commoners, in this drive?

Sorry for being garrulous ! Even a scatter brain like me has been excited and somewhat carried away by the writer’s extremely thoughtful and provocative piece!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Many thanks. You have been informative and reflective, certainly not 'garrulous': why should you be apologetic? If people don't have the time and attention-span to read long (but serious) essays/comments, that's their problem, not ours! - but I don't despair easily: I'll look forward to intelligent rejoinders. Keep in touch!

Nishant said...

Sir, I read this blog just now (but I am glad that I did) and I am going ask as many of my friends as possible to read this (and the others) too.
I think the years that you have lived so far have helped you in observing and analysing the pattern; in deciding if we truly have made any progress at all. But of course there are few people out there who really observe things that are going on around and then reflect on and analyse them.
I am sure you know this already but (I feel) the fact is that in colleges and universities, the professors just lead us through narrow vestibules. Neither are they themselves concerned about anything apart from the 'work' that they are doing nor do they encourage creative thinking. Students help the cause of the professors by doing just what is asked of them and essentially wasting time. The professors here seem to be quite contented living their lives as they are - indulging in petty politics etc - and for the students, getting a secure job seems to be the be all and end all of all things.
Here I haven't met anybody who looks at things from a really broad perspective. And that's where this blog comes into the picture. I hope more people read it and reflect upon it.

kaushik_chatterjee1 said...

Thanks Suvro! Virtually meeting you after such a long time! Was overwhelmed to find that you found my piece to be a useful one!Continue the good work ! Incidentally, as you know, the fourth dimension of life has stopped ticking for quite some now! Can we have some words from you about him like you gave regarding Sudhirda's ? Again, sorry for this intrusion. Take care.

Arani said...

What a brilliant essay! A modern day elegiac prose written with the help of tremendous reading and assimilation. In fact this assimilation is what is so remarkable. I would request one and all to copy the post and read it at leisure. This is one of the most profitable reads that rubbishes the typical 'fifty years from hence we will go to Mars for our marriages..' for once and all.
Our country and others have indeed regressed over the years in being more mercenary and less innovative, more crowded and less brilliant, more dirty and less peaceful. Surely, we haven't progressed and we also haven't become happier.
I also would request people to read a book called 'Almost Everybody's guide to Science' by John Gribbins. I will leave a copy with Sir.

Arnab Kar said...

The world around has indeed changed. It has changed to make us more and more lazy and less adventurous. With the so called facilities of internet banking. e ticket, e shopping people are more desperate to stick to their houses. The idea of home office has already developed. People can sit in their homes and order for FREE home delivered food. All this have been made possible because of the advancement in technologies. But what does it lead us to? Increase in the number of patients due to problems of obesity in the hospital. People have become narrow minded and selfish. All they are concerned is about their own nuclear families. Doesn't it sound amusing to think that people avoid social gatherings now a days thinking that they its a waste of time. They are incompetent to talk with a group of people and share their ideas. Dalai lama has rightly aid that people have gadgets to communicate their ideas but nothing to communicate.

In this regard let me tell you some striking feature of public gathering and how it has helped YOU to have a so called INDEPENDENT life. During the British rule the whole concept of baroari puja or public puja came about so that people could gather and talk to each other privately and in turn conspire against the British. It was mainly in these gathering that important plans to bring down the British government were carried out.

But where are proceeding to exactly?
Just as we are looking deeper and deeper into atomic structure and seeing smaller and smaller parts, our mind set is also changing to be smaller and smaller. Our dreams are turning out to be smaller and smaller. No doubt that our level of knowledge and urge to know more has come down. And now I fear with the advent of SMS text we are heading towards reducing the size of the OXFORD dictionary.

In non linear dynamics we say that Chaos is the rule and not the exception. Probably we should change it a bit and say - world is changing is the rule and heading towards a disaster is not an exception.

Probably I might have been a bit confused in my post a tried to relate various events.

Sayan said...

Sir,
I would be grateful if you read my comments and then post a reply as to whether my reflections are correct.
I had hitherto neglected the essay on account of the title.But only after I had read a few lines did I begin to think - Hey! This is going to be interesting.
I apologise beforehand for criticising much greater men than me.
Sir,your observations that science has gotten into a rut - I can't disagree.But there are reasons for this.Firstly,this over emphasis on specialized knowledge.Scientists have become so much specialized that they have forgotten to think out of the box.Science is surely a method more than anything else.But this does not mean that there is no place for instinct in science.Feynman makes a similar point in the book 'Surely you are joking Mr.Feynman'.He says that often in science,it is those who know less and not those who more, who are more likely to solve a certain problem.This is because the former category do not know enough to decide that this or that problem cannot be solved.
Also, another aspect of science that is more akin to organised religion is not questioning existing theories enough.Peculiarly those who make pathbreaking discoveries,are at first ridiculed and mocked at,but then when the dust has settled down,they are worshipped as if they were infallible.Science has it's own unique way of developing 'Scientific superstitions.'
Sayan Datta.

Navin said...

I know that mathematical progress cannot be quantified in material terms,(like an android, making a hotel in space, self regnerative houses), but the last 2 decades have resulted in some of the biggest results in the domain of pure Maths. e.g Fermat's Last Theorem, Poincare's Conjecture, Primes is in P, etc etc. They have certainly resulted in a huge knowledge gradient in Mathematics in the past few years. I certainly believe that, Mathematicians have had a Quantum leap of understanding in the Past few decades, and they understand more fundametal things then what Mathematicians understood 30 years ago. Many more fundamental Mathematical facts are known, than they were known 30 years ago.
However, as many visionaries of science have often proclaimed , that the only usefull science is that which benefits the common man, and as Suvro Sir has aptly pointed out, nothing much has taken place in the last 30 years which was so pathbreaking that it changed out lives in fundamental ways(May be Internet was one such change). So science had indeed failed to do what it had set out to do. However it is also instructive to know what has indeed changed in the area of Artifical Intelligence(Much emphasis on that was given in Suvro Sir's Article.)Here is a link http://www.rr.cs.cmu.edu/aaai.pdf , which was written by Turing Award winner Raj Reddy, on what Artificial Intelligence has achieved in the last 25 years. All in all I want to give some hope to people reading this blog, that unlike the 30 or so years past us, we might see some very fundamental changes which will take place in the current century, and Raj reddy's article shows that there are been considerable progress, even though no fundamental one.

Sabyasachi Tarat said...

While agreeing with you on many points, I feel the urge to make a few comments.

The fact that scientific principles tend to become more "complicated" for lay people to understand is not necessarily in contradiction to what science was born for. There are two different aspects to this. One, modern science has become more NON INTUITIVE. As physicists have probed natural phenomena in regimes outside the scope of ordinary human experience, things have turned out to be non intuitive. That quantum mechanics has turned out weird is due to the fact that at subatomic levels things DO behave strangely. It was necessary that to explain certain experimental facts, the whole classical notion of things and their workings had to be thrown out. Classical general relativity is , as Penrose states, the most accurately verified complete theory at present, with the accuracy of verification being about one part in 10 to the 14 for some recent experiments. If concepts have to be changed so drastically to explain phenomena around us, then it is certainly not fair to look complainingly at scientists for that; just marvel at mother nature for the way she is! I think there are very few consciousness raisers like science, in that it shows us how little we understand about everything going on in this vast universe and to value whatever little we do. It cultivates a sense of wonder in us which is one of our greatest possessions driving us forward in the path of progress.The bewildering theories that have sprung up of late reflect the fact that theory has gone so far ahead of our experimental capabilities, that all these bewildering ideas have, at present, little chance of being verified directly or indirectly (or if there is, it is prohibitively costly).There is certainly some propaganda on the part of scientists who want to spread their respective theories of such speculative nature. However, I will hesitate from calling these ideas useless, as many of them have some level of reasonability. I have to admit, though, that many such theories have taken up far too much time in trying to predict something that might prove their credibility experimentally. The lack of experimentally verifiable hypotheses in present theories is something that is quite different to the weirdness of quantum mechanics or relativity. These are weird as they do not agree with our intuitive notions and will continue to be weird to us even after the most fantastically accurate experimental verifications. Present day speculative theories are in a mess because they cannot prove any of their hypotheses (which differ from existing verified theories) experimentally (because present day technology is far behind, but honestly, even indirect testing of some of these may lie very very far ahead in the future).However, these are not totally unreasonable in the sense that many of them have grown up from present well established theories. Comparing even present unproved theories with church mumbo jumbo is unfair, let alone comparison with well established theories.

There are people who say that religious contemplation and scientific research are two different ways of looking at the same truth. Firstly, I would like to state that some proponents of such a view (like Dyson) are established scientists with exceptional contribution to science. (Capra and Paul Davies I'm less sure of; at least their contributions pale significantly in comparison to Dyson's). Roger Penrose says that known laws of physics are inadequate to explain consciousness and human thought is not algorithmic. However, his hypothesis that consciousness is somehow a quantum gravity phenomenon is at least as radical a hypothesis as that all particles come from vibrations of strings (and at least as criticized as string theory etc.).There are also people who oppose ideas of the likes of Dyson etc. like Steven Weinberg or Stephen Hawking (I know from your classes that you positively HATE Dawkins) who have also made exceptional contributions to science. So,without disrespect to any of the persons concerned I would like to state that I very certainly differ from the views of Dyson and all. Scientific theories are built up by gathering painstaking information about the phenomena concerned and explanation of all such diverse happenings on the basis of a consistent few rules. The parallels between things found by scientific inquiry and religious contemplation are at best based on very vague terminology and a rather prominent neglect of details. After the postulation and verification of special relativity, there was a flurry of activity on the part of some philosophers to show how the concept of relativity was quite general and in tune with their philosophical beliefs. However, it did not seem very obvious to them that , say, the speed of a light ray would be the same in all inertial frames. (Actually this is not a trifling detail, it is one of the 2 postulates of special relativity as put forward by Einstein). That people who oppose such ways of thinking are in "defiant denial" is a somewhat biased and harsh way of putting things. I will rather incline to agree with Lederman's comment : such an approach lacks " the understanding of how carefully experiment and theory are woven together and how much blood, sweat, and tears go into each painful advance." This also probably applies to the comments about the absence of so many things predicted in science fiction books in the present world.

I would have liked to write about my belief that human beings do not need metaphysics to derive ethical principles from; however as I have made related comments in a different post, I will not make them again.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

First, Sabyasachi, a big thank you for writing in. Without agreeing with a lot of things you have said, I congratulate you on being able to express yourself so cogently and elegantly in correct English: very few people these days can do that much, alas!

Do I know you? I shall be glad to have your email i.d., so we can maybe talk this thing over a little more, in greater privacy.

A few points for now: I don't 'hate' Dawkins, I merely hold him in contempt. If you read closely his notes in the appendix to The Selfish Gene, I am sure you will know why. As for people like Weinberg, I have pointed out what enormous disservice they have done to the cause of science in my essay. It is largely the doing of such people that these days the young in the west are turning away from science in such large numbers that alarmed governments are trying to lure them back with brainless slogans like 'science is sexy', 'science is cool'!

One more thing. I am sure that when you make comments on scientific ideas, you are well-read enough. Can you claim the same when it comes to religious issues? When you write a sentence like "I would have liked to write about my belief that human beings do not need metaphysics to derive ethical principles from...", are you saying such a thing after having made a deep and thorough study of the various theologies of the world - the Talmud, for instance, or the Summa Theologica by Aquinas, or the Tripitaka of the Buddhists, or Adi Sankara's commentary on the Gita? If you haven't, and you make an effort to acquaint yourself with these titanic works, you might be disabused of the notion that intelligent men started being born only since the end of the 19th century!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I regret to say that of late I am being irritated with comments on this post by some people who have neither really read the post through with meticulous care (it is NOT just about science but about the world and how it has changed before my eyes), nor, when they are commenting, pause to reflect that perhaps a little knowledge of just one subject is really not enough to comment on a post like this. Now I would rather not have comments at all than comments which are silly, prejudiced or simply irrelevant, just because the writers are in a great haste to dash off their comments without doing the homework I expect of them. Someone who has virtually no knowledge of economics, political science, history, sociology and theology, for instance, should either not comment at all, or comment with a humble and open mind, with questions, not dogmatic assertions.

I cannot refrain from quoting two relevant jokes here:
1) When you start thinking you know it all, they give you a BSc. When you start suspecting that perhaps there are a lot of things you do not know after all, they give you an MSc. When you realise that you know hardly anything at all, but neither does anyone else, they give you a PhD and ask you to teach.

2) A very senior doctor was telling me yesterday that an MBBS knows everything, an MD much less so, and a DM with twenty years' practice leaves it mostly to God.

And finally, Socrates said that the only thing he knew with certainty was that he knew very little. That should teach some people to be humble.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Here's an article for the open minded seeker:
http://www.slate.com/id/2149598/

I'd also like all to try the book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Kuhn and Tucker. It was written a long time ago, but it is still highly relevant in 2010, especially for those who think that physics has made huge leaps in the last thirty years.

But, to remind everybody once again, this post was definitely not merely about science but the world that we live in - and I'd like comments from those who understand that very big and important difference.

ginger candy said...

Dear Sir,

Please read this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/29/opinion/republicans-against-science.html?_r=1&emc=eta1

Irrespective of who wins the US Presidential election (I have a strong feeling that the Republicans will next year), this is ominous news not only for the US of A, but for the whole world in general. It frightens me to think that people like these would rule the world in a few years time, a far cry indeed from the likes of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

Thanks,
Joydeep

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I don't know how exactly to react to this article, Joydeep, but I should like to make a few points:

1) Lincoln and Washington were great Presidents, indeed, but neither was known for any great fascination with science,
2)Just because the people in question are sceptical about evolution and climate change theories, wouldn't it be a little unfair to brand them anti-science wholesale? If you research the subjects thoroughly, there is indeed a lot of murky and bad science involved in those fields... mere percentages of scientists claiming something does not necessarily make it true. Remember, Galileo in his time was almost alone in claiming what he claimed!
3) As I have discussed in some detail in this blogpost itself, there are many reasons why science has become unpopular and deserving of suspicion in recent decades, and regrettable as the development is, they cannot just be wished away (see also the recent post title 'Science contemporary style' which is still on my home page).
4) The writer talks mockingly of the 'moral courage' of some politicians, but scientists have never had a monopoly of that virtue, as both of us know. Indeed, scientists compromising with morals to serve petty selfish ends are legion, as the records show: that is just one reason why in some circles science has lost some of its aura!