Schadenfreude

schadenfreude

The opposite of schadenfreude is the Buddhist concept of ‘mudita’ — happiness derived from the good fortune of others.

Happy Pi Day 2013

comic2-987

From this year onwards, in addition to celebrating Pi Day on March 14th, I am going to celebrate Pi Approximation Day on July 22nd (22/7) as well. I can really use an additional day of celebration for my favorite mathematical constant!

By the way, here’s an interesting approximation of π: A nano-century is approximately π seconds long. In other words, if you divide the number of seconds in a century by one billion (nano = 1 billionth), you’ll get a result that’s close to π:

One nano-century is approximately π seconds long.

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The comic is from Dinosaur Comic.

Previous posts involving π: 3.14, A Sanskrit Mnemonic for π, Happy Pi Day!, A Mathematical Conundrum.

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]

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

Life Begins Anew

I’ve been away from blogging for a while. I plan to return and post at least some short posts every once in a while. The few of you who had asked me where I was and/or have still stayed as subscribers, thank you! And if you are still wondering why I was away, here’s why:

lifedrawing

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:

3.14

Happy Pi Day!

Remember that the “Real Pi Day” will be celebrated on March 14th, 2015 at 9:26:53 AM. These numbers (3/14/15, 9:26:53) correspond with the first 10 digits of pi (3.141592653).

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Previously on this blog: A Sanskrit Mnemonic for π, Happy Pi Day!, A Mathematical Conundrum.

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