No Alternative

The “pulping” of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History by Penguin is yet another blow to the freedom of expression by the religious radicals and fundamentalists who take offence at the drop of a hat. The instances of such attacks — started in 1989 when the Indian government banned Satanic Verses — have increased dramatically in recent years, and the offence-mongers’ purview has expanded from books to movies, artists, and even celebrities. This is not surprising. When a society obliges to a culture of mutual intolerance by capitulating to those who are easily offended, it results into an if-them-then-why-not-us race, with every faction of society vying appeasement for their injured self-esteem.

the hindusI read this book back in 2009. Although the size and scope of this epic was prohibitive (with more than 700 pages), I found Doniger’s vantage refreshing and thought-provoking. The book offers an alternative history of the Hindu religion, looking through the prism of scriptures and tales, zooming into the role of women, members of the lower caste, and animals. It’s a story about the alternative people and characters. Her rationale is to provide an auxiliary viewpoint to show that the so-called marginalized groups (women and Pariahs) actually did have substantial contribution to the development of Hindu tradition. The book is a “celebration of diversity and pluralism, not to mention the worldly wisdom and sensuality, of the Hindus “.

By renouncing such scholarly work, the Hindu radicals are not only attacking the liberal values of our society, but (ironically) also weakening the pluralistic nature of Hindu tradition. It doesn’t surprise me that this regressive act is braced by the right-wing Hindus that are often politically motivated. What troubles me more is the passive support from the moderates. “Yes, I believe in freedom of speech as well, but we have to draw the line somewhere”, “We need to be careful about hurting other (religious) people’s sentiments”, “No one gets away with an offensive book about Muslims, then why shouldn’t we protect Hindu sentiments as well?” are some common responses to this controversy by the religious moderates. It’s dismaying to see a rather large section of the Indian society supporting (however passively), and hence fortifying, the spirits of offence-mongers.

A culture with no space for alternative interpretations and ideas is a culture of putrid orthodoxy. We must not succumb to these regressive forces that are destructive to an open society. 

Ant Zombie

You watch an ant in a meadow, laboriously climbing up a blade of grass, higher and higher until it falls, then climbs again, and again, like Sisyphus rolling his rock, always striving to reach the top. Why is the ant doing this? What benefit is it seeking for itself in this strenuous and unlikely activity? Wrong question, as it turns out. No biological benefit accrues to the ant. It is not trying to get a better view of the territory or seeking food or showing off to a potential mate, for instance. Its brain has been commandeered by a tiny parasite, a lancet fluke (Dicrocelium dendriticum), that needs to get itself into the stomach of a sheep or a cow in order to complete its reproductive cycle. This little brain worm is driving the ant into position to benefit its progeny, not the ant’s. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Similarly manipulative parasites infect fish, and mice, among other species. These hitchhikers cause their hosts to behave in unlikely—even suicidal—ways, all for the benefit of the guest, not the host.


Does anything like this ever happen with human beings? Yes indeed. We often find human beings setting aside their personal interests, their health, their chances to have children, and devoting their entire lives to furthering the interests of an idea that has lodged in their brains. The Arabic word islam means “submission,” and every good Muslim bears witness, prays five times a day, gives alms, fasts during Ramadan, and tries to make the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca, all on behalf of an idea of Allah […]. Christians and Jews do likewise, of course, devoting their lives to spreading the Word, making huge sacrifices, suffering bravely, risking their lives for an idea. So do Sikhs and Hindus and Buddhists. And don’t forget the many thousands of secular humanists who have given their lives to Democracy, or Justice, or just plain Truth. There are many ideas to die for.


The comparison of the Word of God to a lancet fluke is unsettling, but the idea of comparing an idea to a living thing is not new. I have a page of music, written in parchment in the mid-sixteenth century []. The text (in Latin) recounts the moral of the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13): Semen est verbum Dei; sator autem Christus. The Word of of God is a seed, and the sower of the seed is Christ. These seeds take roots in individual human beings, it seems, and get those human beings to spread them, far and wide (and in return, the human hosts get eternal life — eum qui audit manebit in sternum.)

Excerpt from the opening chapter of Breaking the Spell.

Here’s the link to a post I wrote about this book. Read more about lancet fluke here, and watch a video about their parasitic mind control on this link.

[Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons]

Survival Machines

theselfishgenePublished in 1976, The Selfish Gene remains one of the most influential scientific books I’ve ever read. In this book, Richard Dawkins introduced the novel concept of the replicator: “the initial molecule that managed to reproduce itself and thus gained an advantage over other molecules within the primordial soup.” I was flipping through the first chapter of this book a few days ago, and the following passage gave me goosebumps all over again:

Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators? They did not die out, for they are past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by torturous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.

Take a moment to grasp the profundity of this rather unnerving passage. It begins to set-up the central premise of this iconic book, and its many-fold implications are unraveled with elegant prose and extensive detail.

Among other things, this excerpt alludes to the prevalence of behavioral traits that may not be beneficial to an organism (i.e., the vehicle) but still exist because they are favorable to the the genes (i.e., its drivers). The selfish genes do not “care” about their vehicle insofar as it can be used and manipulated for its own survival. Often, there’s no conflict between the long-term survival goals of the genes and and short-term survival motives of an organism. The gene’s longing for eternity is in accordance with an organism’s desire for a long life. But there are exceptions.

Consider the male spider, for instance. The sexual impulse of a male spider is beneficial to the “spider genes” because a potential copulation with a female spider increases their chances of surviving yet another generation. However, this often gets the male spider killed — by getting eaten by the female spider. Good for the spider genes, not so much for the poor male spider. Similarly, there are human traits and impulses that may be unfavorable to an individual, but are necessary for the survival of our selfish, manipulative genes. When I first read this book many years ago, this revelation blew my mind. It left an indelible impact on my understanding of evolution, and continues to shape my worldview even to this day.

In the Company of a Poet

gulzarI wasn’t quite sure what to expect from In the Company of a Poet – a conversational book about the life and work of Gulzar. As a devout Gulzar fan I was excited to get to know more intricacies and details about his work, his past, and outlook on life. But I was skeptical if the book that resulted from a few hours of conversation on Skype would be able to delve into the depths of the vast ocean that is Gulzar.

But I was pleasantly surprised that the book offers a fair amount of bits and pieces that kept me intrigued. The details of his childhood and first encounters with poetry and literature were quite interesting. He begins this conversation with a poignant poem that he wrote (see below) for his rather distant father who disliked his son’s  literary ambitions. His father thought that writing was a poor man’s job, and was sure that Gulzar would not be able to make anything of his life: “Ye bhaiyon se udhaar mangega aur gurdwara ke langar mein khana khayega.”


There is so much to say that is left unsaid

If you were here I would speak

You were so despondent on my account

Fearing my poetry would drown me some day

I am still afloat, father

No longer have I the desire to return to shore

The shore you left so many year ago.

Most of the first half of the book revolves around his childhood and struggling days in Bombay. Perhaps it takes a poet to remember the past with such minute details, but I was amazed by such sharp memory of this septuagenarian. His detailed recollection of events from five or six decades ago creates a vivid picture of his past. Apart from his indelible memory, another thing you can’t help but notice is how amazingly charming and candid Gulzar’s outlook on life is. He finds gentle humor everywhere, even in mundane events. This is not one of those grumpy old men who scoff at the new technology and revile the new generation. He actually embraces them wholeheartedly, and perhaps therein lies the reason why he is so successful even at this age. Another recurring theme is his love for tennis, which he plays every day. (His favorite tennis player is Federer. “I enjoy the way Federer plays. He is cool and has a gentle smile. The only thing I have against Nadal is the villainous grimaces he makes.”)

There’s so much elegance in his prose, and depth in his thoughts, that I felt like poetry was dripping from every page of this book. Even though I was reading, in my mind I could hear him speak. Consider the following reply to a simple question about his daily routine:

I wake up at five when it’s still dark.

I want the sun to look for me instead of my looking for the sun.

Just as the first serve in tennis can be advantageous,

so the first serve must be mine.

The second one goes to the sun.

Some other phrases that particularly struck me were: ‘shadow of words’, ‘dictionary of subconscious’, ‘words should amaze or amuse’, ‘sust-ul wajood‘ (loosely translated as ‘lazy bones’).

Personally, I would have preferred to read more about Gulzar’s work and philosophy, rather than about the people in his life. Nonetheless, these discussions provide delightful insights about his associations and collaborations with legends like Bomal Roy, Hemant Kumar, Hrishikesh Mukharjee, Shailendra, and many more. I was a bit disappointed that Nasreen Munni Kabir, the author, didn’t ask specific questions about his songs and poems. While discussing his first song Mora gora ang lai le, the only question Nasreen asks him is about the choice of the phrase ‘lai le’  instead of ‘le le’, which was perhaps the last thing I would have asked him about that lovely song. But few gripes aside, I enjoyed reading this book. It was a breezy read, and it surely throws light into some unexplored areas of Gulzar’s life and work. Thanks to my dear friend Jatin who kindly lent me this book.

The Periodic Table Personified

Hi, I am Helium.This amusing little book titled Wonderful Life with the Elements caught my eyes few months ago and it quickly became a cherished possession. One of the first thoughts that came to my mind after flipping through few pages of this book was: I wish I had this book while growing up!

The brilliant Japanese artist Bunpei Yorifuji creates this cute little illustrated world where each element from the periodic table is a cartoon character – each with a whimsy of its own. The Carbon dude (shown below) boasts a long whisker because this element was discovered in ancient time. While the recently discovered Radium is a toddler with a pacifier in his mouth. The clothes (or the lack thereof) are modeled after each element’s chemical properties, and the body structures indicate their atomic weight. The scantily clad minerals are hanging around showing off their healthy physique, wearing nothing but a tiny underwear, while elements with industrial applications are dressed-up in suits like businessmen. Uranium is obese because it’s a heavy element. The toxic elements look intimidating with their dark hollow eyes, while the noble gases (like that Helium chap with a balloon, shown above) can be seen sporting stylish afros because…. well, because they are just too cool!

carbonIf you want to “get personal” with the elements of the periodic table, this is your best bet. I am sure I will find myself reaching out to this book every once in a while, and get immersed in this quirky world of elements.

[Image Courtesy: brain pickings]


Previous posts about the periodic table: Sanskrit in the Periodic Table, What I’ve been Reading.

The Watchmaker Argument

One of the most popular arguments in support of God’s existence is what’s called the watchmaker argument: the world is so complex and refined that there must be a designer. Without an intelligent designer, the existence of such an intricately beautiful world is impossible. This theological argument – that design implies designer – is attributed to Paley, and I’ve heard several versions of this improbability argument during religious discourses over the years. Daniel Dennett calls it one of the oldest ideas known:

[T]he idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing. I call it the trickle-down theory of creationism. You’ll never see a spear making a spear maker. You’ll never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith. You’ll never see a pot making a potter.

Richard Dawkins refers to another metaphor (attributed to Hoyle) in his book The God Delusion:

[T]he probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747. […] The odds against assembling a fully functioning horse, beetle or ostrich by randomly shuffling its parts are up there in 747 territory.

This is indeed a strong argument. The biological complexity and diversity of life on Earth seem to, quite logically, require an intelligent designer; it all just can’t happen by chance alone.

However, when analyzed throughly, the argument can be shown to have a circular logic, and instead of proving the necessity (and hence, existence) of an intelligent designer, it works in the opposite direction. The self-refuting idea of ‘an intelligent designer responsible for design’ doesn’t solve the problem, it just passes the baton, and raises another question.

Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable [as a universe] would have to be even more improbable than [the universe itself]. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance.

The improbability argument states that the universe is too complex, ergo there must be a God. But then God himself/herself/itself must be even more complex than the universe. Who created God? You can easily see how this can spiral out to an endless regress. The only way you can get out of it is by saying something like ‘No one created God.’ But then why not make the same argument for the universe itself?

What is the solution then, to this problem of improbability? Well, to understand the solution, the first roadblock that needs to be cleared off is the wrong assumption that chance is the only possible alternative to intelligent design.

A deep understanding of Darwinism teaches us to be wary of the easy assumption that design is the only alternative to chance, and teaches us to seek out graded ramps of slowly increasing complexity. Before Darwin, philosophers such as Hume understood that the improbability of life did not mean that it had to be designed, but they couldn’t imagine an alternative. After Darwin, we all should feel, deep in our bones, suspicious of the very idea of design. The illusion of design is a trap that has caught us before, and Darwin should have immunized us by raising our consciousness. […]

Natural selection is not only a parsimonious, plausible and elegant solution; it is the only workable alternative to chance that has ever been suggested.

Understanding Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection removes the necessity of an intelligent designer. And God suddenly finds himself left with fewer things to do than before. What shouldn’t be surprising here is that science has consistently done this over the years: shrinking God’s circle of influence. We have come long way from superstitious mythologies —  draughts are caused by angry gods etc. — to the current understanding of the universe that leaves fewer things left for God. This, of course, is a continual process. One of the things that makes science awesome is its denial to admit that we’ve reached a final, ultimate, unchangeable truth. (All scientific truth is provisional.) However, this doesn’t stop the theists to proclaim that science does not have all the answers.

Creationists eagerly seek a gap in present-day knowledge or understanding. If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it. What worries thoughtful theologians […] is that the gaps shrink as science advances, and God is threatened with eventually having nothing to do and nowhere to hide.

Jerry Coyne hits the nail on the head:

Why is God considered an explanation for anything? It’s not – it’s a failure to explain, a shrug of the shoulders, an ‘I dunno’ dressed up in spirituality and ritual. If someone credits something to God, generally what it means is that they don’t have a clue, they’re attributing it to an unreachable, unknowable sky-fairy. As for an explanation of where that bloke came from, and odds are you’ll get a vague, pseudo-philosophical reply about having always existed, or being outside nature. Which, of course, explains nothing.

On that note, here’s a hilarious comic by Jesus and Mo.

[The quotes are from Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion. Emphases are mine. Image courtesy: Wikipedia]

The Better Angels of Our Nature

I am immersed in Steven Pinker’s engrossing new book The Better Angels of Our Nature that released few months ago. I am not even half-way through this 700-page epic but I can say that it is one of most interesting, thought-provoking, and intellectually satisfying books I have read in a long time. (Bill Gates would nod in approval!)

For the longest time, I have been an advocate of the fact that we live in a much better world today than our ancestors did. The world has become a safer, healthier, peaceable, and in general, better place. We may grumble about how technological advancements have made us lazy and “stupid”, how we have lost touch with the culture and tradition, how were are increasingly becoming less considerate about the climate. But a basic introductory lesson in cognitive psychology will explain how we are inclined to have what’s called “pessimistic bias”: practically every generation believes that their own generation, and especially the next generation, is not up to the standards of their parents and grand-parents. [See my earlier post Cultural Pessimism.] In reality, while there are occasional detrimental effects of modernization, we have grown by leaps and bounds when it comes to timeless intellectual values (like objectivity, truth, factual discovery), physical values (like overall health, safety, life-span), and civil values (tolerance and fairness, liberty, justice).

The Better Angels of Our Nature immensely helped me to consolidate this worldview yet again. The central argument of this book is that we may be living in the most peaceful era of our species’ existence. However,

[t]he very idea invites skepticism, incredulity, and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times, especially when they are stoked by media that follow the watchword “If it bleeds, it leads.” The human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which it can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age! No matter how small the percentage of violence deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will be always enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impression of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.

Pinker starts with an elaborate exploration of our evolutionary instincts that make us violent. Drawing from one of his favorite philosophers, Hobbes, he explains how there are three incentives of violence that applies to members of an intelligent species: competition, diffidence/fear, and glory. This discussion leads into some fascinating concepts, like the Hobbesian trap and Prisoner’s dilemma, that I was familiar with but never considered them from such distinct vantage point. The psychology of violence remains the main focus for a large part of this book. For me, those are the most interesting chapters. Once that foundation is established, he marches on to persuade the reader that violence has gone down over the years. By using myriad data sources, statistics, and illuminating charts he portrays a robust picture of the gradual, persistent and unmistakable retreat from violence over time. The first major shift in the trend came when we settled down into agricultural societies. The production, preservation and protection of crops eventually led to administrative mini-states that further reduced violent feuds and confrontations. There were other major factors that Pinker delves into, like commerce and women empowerment, each having a profound impact on our retreat from violence.

One of the most important points he makes is that not only violence has declined over time, but our tolerance towards violence has also waned. As a result, we are more sensitive to a level of violence that may be pretty mild stuff by historical standards. Due to this heightened sensitivity, when we see violent crimes, we focus on how low our behavior has sunken, not on how high our standards have risen.

Now, modern technologies have produced lethal weapons that can wreck mass destruction on the scales that were unimaginable to prior generations. Pinker is not claiming that everything has improved, neither does he ignore the fact that our retreat from violence may not necessarily continue into the future. But the arc of history is certainly in the positive direction – understanding that is essential if we were to truly reap the benefits of living in a (relatively) peaceful society and even more importantly, maintain the growth curve to build more peaceful societies.

The conventional view that glorifies the past, and laments the current state of the society, is seriously flawed. This book is a powerful blow to that romanticized nostalgia. However, this is also a very long book – a serious and monumental study, albeit filled with a lot of humor, wit, and interesting tidbits from the history – so I would recommend it to only those who are keenly interested in this subject. For all others, the book can get a bit too comprehensive and exhaustive. Instead, this brilliant TED talk (by the man himself) should suffice:

Sanskrit in the Periodic Table

Who would have thought that there is some connection between Sanskrit alphabet and the periodic table? I certainly wasn’t aware of any such link until I came across this paper by Subhash Kak.

A quick refresher first. The periodic table is a two-dimensional display of Chemical elements arranged according to their atomic numbers. The rows are called periods, and when you move from left to right the atomic numbers increase. There are gaps in some rows to ensure that Chemical elements with similar properties stay in the same column. The invention of the periodic table is generally attributed to the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. Below is one of the first drafts of his periodic table from 1869:

Notice the question marks – these are the places where he thought that there should be corresponding elements, but they had not yet been discovered. It’s what Mendeleev decided to call those then-unknown elements where the link to Sanskrit comes in.

Mendeleev, who had studied Sanskrit at a university in St Petersburg, used Sanskrit prefixes eka, dvi, and tri to name those yet-to-be-discovered elements. The prefixes were chosen based on how far away the unknown elements were from the known ones. For example, Gallium was named eka-Aluminium because it was one place down from Aluminium.

It is this naming convention that made some people (like Subhash Kak mentioned above) speculate if the connection between Mendeleev’s periodic table and Sanskrit runs any deeper. One possible connection is: the two-dimensional arrangement. Like the elements in the periodic table, Sanskrit alphabet are also arranged, very logically, in rows and columns based on how each letter is pronounced. At this point, you might want to check out my post from few years back where I discussed the logic  behind the beautiful arrangement of Hindi alphabet: The Sequence of Hindi Alphabet.

In short, atomic numbers of Chemical elements are, in a way, comparable to the articulatory properties of the consonants (i.e. the place of articulation; whether the letter is pronounce from the throat, or from the palate, etc. ) They are used to determine the order (of elements and letters respectively). In the same way, the Chemical similarity between two adjacent elements, can be compared with the phonological similarity between, say क and च. Both are used to determine which elements, and consonants, appear next to each other. [Again, if you read that post of mine mentioned above, you will see that क and च are similar because they are both non-voiced and non-aspirated.]

Is it possible that Mendeleev might have been inspired by the two dimensional arrangement of Sanskrit alphabet? Here’s Stanford university professor Paul Kiparsky on this similarity:

[T]he analogies between the two systems are striking. Just as Panini found that the phonological patterning of sounds in the language is a function of their articulatory properties, so Mendeleev found that the chemical properties of elements are a function of their atomic weights. Like Panini, Mendeleev arrived at his discovery through a search for the “grammar” of the elements (using what he called the principle of isomorphism, and looking for general formulas to generate the possible chemical compounds). Just as Panini arranged the sounds in order of increasing phonetic complexity so Mendeleev arranged the elements in order of increasing atomic weights, and called the first row (oxygen, nitrogen, carbon etc.) “typical (or representative) elements”. Just as Panini broke the phonetic parallelism of sounds when the simplicity of the system required it, e.g. putting the velar to the right of the labial in the nasal row, so Mendeleev gave priority to isomorphism over atomic weights when they conflicted, e.g. putting beryllium in the magnesium family because it patterns with it even though by atomic weight it seemed to belong with nitrogen and phosphorus. In both cases, the periodicities they discovered would later be explained by a theory of the internal structure of the elements.

Now I am not a language expert and I also don’t claim to know the intricacies of the periodic table, so I can’t say if these similarities are far-fetched or merely coincidental. Kak argues in his paper that “[I]t is unlikely that [the arrangement of Sanskrit consonants] influenced him, because there is no evidence that he knew Sanskrit well enough to appreciate the subtle points related to the organization of the Śiva Sutras. It is more plausible that he noted the comprehensiveness of the two-dimensional arrangement of the Sanskrit alphabet (varnamālā) which is apparent to even the beginning student of the language. The tabular form of the Sanskrit letters is due to the two parameters (point of articulation and aspiration) at the basis of the sounds, and Mendeleev must have recognized that ratios/valency and atomic weight likewise defined a two-dimensional basis for the elements.” [Emphasis is mine.]

Influential or not, tenuous or otherwise, I am just astonished to learn that there are structural similarities in the period table and the Sanskrit alphabet. What do you think?

[Image courtesy: Wikipedia]

PS: If you’re interested in reading more about the elements of the periodic table, I strongly recommend The Disappearing Spoon. Funny, engrossing, and often chilling episodes of the elements in the periodic table.

The Importance of Pedigree

Consider the following thought experiment:

Suppose there is an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, pre-programming your life’s experience?

This, obviously, is a rhetorical question. And I would assume that for most people answer is a curt “No”. We think that actually playing a game is somehow superior to a mere (stimulated) experience of playing a game; even if the brain attached to electrodes can’t tell the difference. Doing something is better than the experience of doing. We just don’t want to experience things, we want to do thing and be someone.

Here’s another scenario: Person A mistakenly believes that his favorite team won the game last night, and person B correctly believes that his favorite team won. [Assume that there are no consequences of the mistaken belief.] Even if there is no difference in their subjective degrees of happiness, if you had to choose between the two, you would choose to be person B. In terms of well-being of a person, the illusion-based happiness is perceived inferior to the fact-based happiness. You don’t want to rejoice for your home-team just for the sake of being happy. You want your home-team to have actually won as well. Otherwise, it’s just not the same. (Again, even if there’s no subjective difference in what we feel from the inside.)

“Happiness, at least if it is understood to correspond to well-being, turns out not to be all in the head”, writes Leo Katz in his intriguing book Ill-gotten Gains: Evasion, Blackmail, Fraud, and Kindred Puzzles of the Law, from which these scenarios are taken. He quotes an Oxford philosopher to elaborate more on this:

I prefer, in important matters of my life, bitter truth to comfortable illusion. Even if I were surrounded by consummate actors able to give me sweet simulacra of love and affection, I should prefer the relatively bitter diet of their authentic reactions. And I should prefer it not because it would be morally better, or more noble, but because it would make for a better life for me to live.

… because it would make for a better life for me to live. Touché!

The pedigree of experience matters – that’s the lesson from these thought experiments. But alas, when it comes to the belief in God, the majority of us seem to prefer the comfortable illusion — there’s an after-life, God is watching and helping us etc. — to the bitter truth that there’s no God, and we are on our own.

What I’ve been Reading

(1) Here’s Looking at Euclid was a delightful read. Alex Bellos takes the reader on an exciting journey of mathematical curiosities. The subtitle says it all: From Counting Ants to Game of Chance – An Awe-Inspiring Journey Through the World of Numbers. The chapters are written – in a relaxed prose style – as stand-alone articles, which was really convenient for me as my reading schedule is becoming quite intermittent lately. This recreational math book is for you if any of the following gets you excited: abacus, Sudoku, Pythagoras theorem, convergence of infinite series, approximations of pi, duodecimal system and such. (A minor gripe: I thought the pun in the book-title was quite silly.)

(2) I picked up At Home: A Short History of Private Life a couple of months ago after reading an excerpt that tickled my fancy. The book was supposed to be about questions like ‘Why did we end up with salt and pepper on our dining tables, rather than say, salt and cardamom?’, ‘Why do we have four tines in forks’? The components and features of our homes are so familiar that we don’t pay much attention to them. The history of domestic life is an unexplored territory, and I thought it can be very interesting. But as I read through the initial chapters replete with British social history and anecdotes, my excitement quickly turned into apathy. The book is enjoyable in parts, but mostly it was a tedious ramble about the history of English country houses.

(3) I am halfway through The Disappearing Spoon, and it has been an interesting read so far. In a way, this book is like a memoir of elements in the Periodic table. The first chapter starts with a novel introduction to the Periodic table — an “anthropological marvel” in Sam Kean’s opinion. He takes each element in the periodic table – mercury, thallium, silicon, carbon, hydrogen, etc. – and tells engaging stories associated with these elements that were so foreign to me and at first reminded me of my befuddlement when my high-school teacher introduced this chart to our class years ago. Reading through these funny, engrossing, and often chilling episodes, I am getting acquainted with these elements, their properties and idiosyncrasies without even realizing that I am learning science. I never thought that periodic table can be this much fun. (I did like the practical joke in this book’s title – a disappearing spoon made of gallium.)

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