The observable examined

Posts Tagged ‘science

Are humans unique?

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We have all interacted with animals, seen them at zoos, marveled at them (watching Nat Geo documentaries). If you are like me, you may have wondered whether they are programmed automatons (“fixed action patterns”) or alternately have a “rich” inner life (don’t accuse me of anthropomorphism just yet). I have always held they view that while animals are well adapted to survive their niches, they are able to do more than execute programmed actions.  Also, along the way, I have tired of the notion that “man was made in the image of God”, in the sense that humans are unique and special, given our extraordinary “cognitive” capacities. But then we humans have succumbed to “confirmation bias” by only looking at evidence that confirms this view (as in the tremendous achievements ranging from agriculture to space research). But we also need to review our history of violence and catalog our behaviors collectively as a species (witness terrorism, territoriality, in group/out group, biases, etc.,) and it becomes quickly evident that our “mental” apparatus has a lot in common with other species.

Frans de Waal argues, that this is indeed in the case, in his essay “What I learned from tickling apes” that appears in the NYTimes. Well worth a read. As always, I find it informative to also peruse the reader comments .

Space Hero

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My newest hero is Commander Chirs Hadfield.  What a man! I had never known or heard of him until about two days ago. I tuned in to one of my favorite radio shows, Fresh Air, and I caught Terri interviewing Commander Hadfield.  It was such a riveting interview. In it,the  Hadfield describes his space walk, tethered to the space ship, and orbiting the earth, with a glorious view of the earth on one side and the black quiet emptiness of space on the other,  at a breathtaking speed of about 17,500 miles per hour!  He is so brilliant, “lyrical”, and eloquent in describing his experiences as an astronaut.  I went back and listened to the whole interview again. You can find it   here .

Astronaut Chris Hadfield Brings Lessons From Space Down To Earth .

Ira Flatow also did an interview with him on Friday …

Chris Hadfield’s Lessons From Life in Orbit

and so did  Marco Weman

Astronaut Chris Hadfield shows childhood dreams can come true

All three interviews while similar have slightly different takes but well worth listening.

Here is a link to his  beautiful and moving rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” [18M+ hits ]

There is a lot more…on YouTube….tears in space, sleeping in space…etc., Entertaining and educational for kids and adults alike.

He is a complete package….astronaut, musician, scientist, guinea pig (NASA is studying bone density loss and recovery), author,  and a fantastic human being. A true role model…..I have ordered his book – An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Can’t  wait to read what he has to say.






Written by asterix98

November 2, 2013 at 5:52 pm

Animal brains

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Over the weekend, I came across an interesting essay, on animal cognition. I loved the ending, where the author, Frans de Waal, an eminent primatologist, writes

“Aristotle’s ladder of nature is not just being flattened; it is being transformed into a bush with many branches. This is no insult to human superiority. It is long-overdue recognition that intelligent life is not something for us to seek in the outer reaches of space but is abundant right here on earth, under our noses.”

You can read the full article here  – The Brains of the Animal Kingdom . In this article, the author mainly showcases chimps, elephants, octopuses,etc., But recent research has shown birds can also hold their own. Here is a write up from Sir Richard Attenborough’s Life of Birds series – Bird brains. The lowly crow turns out to be really “smart”.

While there is sufficient food for thought in the article proper, I always visit the comments page. To me it is fascinating how the main purpose of the article is quickly lost and the conversation quickly degenerates into lame talk of political conspiracy, and other inane commentary. But then, we are the most intelligent species on the earth.



Written by asterix98

March 25, 2013 at 3:01 am

Elevatoring anyone?

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Almost all of us encounter traffic lights, not one but multiple times, during our daily commutes to work or the store. You may have also encountered, on an expressway, a series of traffic lights, that seem to be perfectly synchronized. Sometimes, it may feel like a shuttle bus where you hit red on every light.  When they do not interrupt your flow, you just cruise along else you cuss at them like they had an evil personality. Unless you are an engineering professional, you are unlikely to have stopped to think about how traffic lights actually work. In reality, traffic lights are a small part of an elaborate field of study called traffic engineering.  The video below offers a glimpse into that world.

If this piqued your interest, you can also read more about traffic light science here :  Science Daily- Traffic Lights.  For the formulation of traffic light design as a engineering logic problem, follow this link 

A few days ago, WSJ carried an article  – The Ups and Downs of Making Elevators Go– on elevators, something we may never have thought of as another mode of transportation. It profiles the life of Teresa Christy , an OTIS Fellow [OTIS is the famous elevator company and Fellow is usually the highest technical distinction in an organization].  She has spent the better part of a quarter century optimizing “elevator traffic and scheduling”. It is a great read (be sure to read the comments too, sometimes goofy but informative). The article also deals with cultural preferences in elevator design.  A short interview with Christy is also posted on NPRs marketplace.org site.

The fascinating interplay of science, technology, and culture, in something as  “mundane” as elevator design gave me my cognitive high for the day.

Written by asterix98

December 6, 2012 at 7:05 am

Cliff’s Notes for compassionate behavior

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Social psychologist David DeSteno and his colleagues have figured out the secret sauce for everyday compassionate behavior.  Based on insights derived from some clever experiments, DeSteno writes in Compassion Made Easy “…effortful adherence to religious or philosophical dictums (often requiring meditation, prayer or moral education), though clearly valuable and capable of producing results, is not the only way to go. …Increased compassion for one’s neighbor, for instance, can come from something as easy as encouraging yourself to think of him as (say) a fan of the same local restaurant instead of as a member of a different ethnicity….”

To put it differently, we should constantly strive to find ways to include our fellow human beings in our in-group. I think this is a nice little message. But, I disagree with DeSteno’s phrasing ” .. something as easy as…” . For the general populace, practicing this may be more difficult than the moral prescriptions he labels as “effortful adherence” simply because realigning your compassion compass by thinking differently about others also requires cognitive effort.

Written by asterix98

July 16, 2012 at 2:26 am

Sagan’s lectures on natural theology

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Ann Druyan’s introduction to  Carl Sagan’s – Varieties of Scientific Experience, is wonderful. Just like he does in the lectures proper, she challenges us to open our minds to critical thinking….”what is wanted is not the will to believe, but the desire to find out….we are spiritually and culturally paralyzed, unable to face the vastness [of space], to embrace our lack of centrality and find our actual place in the fabric of nature…” Contemplate this image. The earth is but a pale blue dot afloat in the immensity of the universe…a small speck situated in a solar system within one of a hundred billion galaxies.

The book is a compilation of Sagan’s Gifford lectures on natural theology. As Sagan notes, natural theology is “…everything about the world not supplied by revelation”.

The lectures are organized as chapters. It begins with a chapter titled Nature and Wonder: a reconnaissance of heaven. It is a beautiful tour of what is known about the cosmos. Sagan introduces us to the vastness of the universe and gives us a sense of scale and our relative position in the scheme of the universe. He also tackles superstition [a belief without evidence], and operationalizes the definition of religion [ “binding together from Latin] so essentially science and religion are after understanding the interconnectedness of things.

In the next chapter – The retreat from copernicus – loss of nerve – Sagan takes on creationism, the anthropic principle [interpreting the world in human metaphors], and also gives us a sense of what the lack of centrality for Earth in the cosmic order really means.

Organic universe is another brilliant discussion on the chemical makeup, universal laws and such.  We can see a sample of his wit here .”…so as science advances, there seems to be less and less for God to do. Of course its a big universe, so He, She or It can be gainfully employed in other parts….”  I really like the notion of the  “God of Gaps”, ie., whatever we cannot explain is attributed to God.

The next lecture makes a case for why extraterrestrial intelligence may exist. Sagan also notes that whether it exists or not, it is still hugely informative because it says something about our loneliness. This is followed by a thorough debunking of “extraterrestrial folklore”, the claims of UFO sightings and visitations from aliens, that have been reported in the media over the years.

In the God hypothesis discussion, Sagan provides an operational definition of God, take us on a quick tour of the world religions and their claims and postulates. He then , with scintillating wit (there are many examples throughout), systematically deconstructs these ideas. He also put forth arguments on why God as an OmniX being is not internally consistent.

In the religious experience – he questions the efficacy of prayers, discusses the influence of hormones on human behavior, and coins a God molecule – “theotoxin” he says (tongue in cheek) “would be biasing the issue too strongly….”

In the next chapter, Crimes against creation, he is very concerned with the possibility of a nuclear winter, but in general, it can be interpreted as a general concern for the earth and its inhabitants. Elsewhere, he pleads, “… if you disagree with another human, let him live. There is nowhere in the hundred billion galaxies you will find another…”

The last chapter “Search” – anticipates the world is flat state of affairs. We started as hunter gatherers in small groups, have grown into nation states, now technology, communications, and transport have blurred those boundaries even further. In short, we have to think of ourselves as world citizens. Sagan urges us to think critically on all matters and have compassion for fellow world travelers.  He asks why there is no equivalent of a 11th commandment – thou shalt learn….

In short, if I have not already conveyed it, this compilation of Sagan’s Gifford lectures is pure cognitive pleasure. Well worthy of earning a prominent place on your bookshelves. There are others who, in recent times, have gone after organized religion, such as Dawkins or Harris, but their tone has been angry and sometimes, completely intolerant. Here, I see, Sagan, like an explosives expert, placing the bombs through beautiful, calm, cogent, and brilliant arguments, strategically on the edifice of organized religion. The image I am striving for here is the demolition of tall skyscrapers that crumble in a heap with little or no collateral damage.

Written by asterix98

May 6, 2012 at 10:15 pm

Science, God and Atheism

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My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

— J.B.S. Haldane

“Fact and Faith” (1934)   Quoted in Lawrence Krauss’ article God and Science Don’t Mix


It happens to most of us.  In the late adolescence, early adulthood stages, we tend to contemplate life’s big questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? The answers we settle on, more or less, form the “spiritual” foundation for the rest of our lives. For most, what started as a spiritual quest morphs into a religious identity (the mileage here varies from liberal to orthodox to fanatical), usually centered on a personal God/benefactor. However, for a small minority, the introspection, coupled with evidence from science, leads to a worldview filled with a lifelong skepticism or rejection of commonly held beliefs, particularly the religious kind. These individuals go by the moniker of atheists or the weaker version: agnostics.  They would acknowledge the notion of a God (or Nature or Einstein’s God), devoid of any special interest in human affairs.

On the face of it, one can just dismiss theism or atheism as just two differing viewpoints and move on. But if you examine the evidence over the years, it is abundantly clear that the institution of religion, in spite of it many societal benefits, fosters a worldview that numbs the intellect. Consider its origins. Early man is out foraging for food. Rainclouds are forming above him. Suddenly there is a flash of lightning followed by thunder. He is awestruck by this spectacle. Maybe even a bit fearful. He begins to wonder how and why (a fantastically unique human trait). He seeks an explanation for the phenomenon he has just witnessed. The methods and tools of scientific inquiry are not yet available to him. He walks away, answers not forthcoming. This cognitive state of affairs is common among his fellow tribesmen. Something interesting happens. Over a roast deer dinner, they discuss rain, thunder, and lightning (notice that language has emerged as a means of communication). They concur and attribute agency of these events to an external/unseen entity (this is an outcome of the projection of a mind similar to their own onto this agent). To address this agent collectively, they create symbols. Amongst this group, there is one individual who is thinking deeper and harder about these issues. He is observant and starts noticing some patterns in nature. He can predict an eclipse. He figures he can profit from it. He impresses his fellow tribesmen by predicting the next rains. He also claims he can communicate with the agent. The witch doctor/shaman is born. We also witness the birth of the religion meme.

[In this view, the method of inquiry gave birth to religion contrary to the view that science was born out of religion].

At this stage in human history, human societies are small, the migrations out of Africa are just beginning, the cerebral cortex is evolving, and agriculture as a way of life is still to be discovered. The religious meme, however primitive, offers a “reasonable” explanation of the world humans see, with their as yet meager cognitive abilities. It sticks. And travels with the bands of migrants.

Gradually society transforms from nomadic in nature to settlements. Man is now very appreciative and respectful of the bounties of nature [I find it interesting that many Native American tribes follow a ritual of paying their respects to bodies of water and then sprinkle some on themselves.  A similar tradition exists even among religious Hindus.]  His growing cerebral sophistication leads to awareness at several levels. Foremost amongst them is the realization of the inevitability of death: his own and those of others. This is very confusing and maybe even outright scary. To alleviate this anxious state of affairs he invents the notion of afterlife.  There are even barbaric elements (animal and human sacrifices for the appeasement of the Gods). In parallel, with the growing complexity of expanding societies, social structures emerge.  Social norms are put in place. The leaders find it challenging to enforce these rules. With the help of the high priests they devise a plan. They play on our inherent fears using religion and God as a convenient and powerful instrument for exercising control.  The outcome is the invention of Paradise and Hell. Good conduct is rewarded with a ticket to Paradise, bad results in a journey to Hell. Redemption and retribution become the cornerstones of the religious edict.  Collectively, these developments lead to the evolution of the primitive totem pole symbolism to a more sophisticated divine entity. The God meme has mutated towards theodicy: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. More importantly, this God is extremely tuned in to the personal fortunes of individuals.

Societies continue to expand and disperse. Within the general framework of a God outlined above, newer religions take on unique cultural identities. Elaborate hierarchies, involved in managing the affairs of the Gods, have now replaced the primitive shaman. The modern religious institution is a thriving economic enterprise with organizational structures that rival the best of breed in business. Most of them are monotheistic with one supreme liaison to God (the CEOs of the God enterprise). Interestingly, the Hindus and the Greeks have specialist Gods compared to monotheism that is more dictatorial in style [but has the benefit of unifying the message]. Thus, the God meme over generations has mutated into a very complex menome, very much in lock step with other cultural advances. God then was made and evolved in the image of man.

So there we are. From its humble and benign beginnings as a schema for the unexplained to its modern incarnation as a multi-headed Hydra, religion, like any other invention of man, has proved to be a double-edged sword. The graveyard of history is littered with the carcasses of religious excess. Unless you have been sleeping, the footprints of religion’s pernicious influences across the world are abundant. Ironically, many of the conflicts are based on religious identity [my God is better than yours]. At the individual level, the concern is more with the numbing of the intellect or lack of critical thinking. Individuals make important life decisions based on superstitions, numerology, astrology, and prayers. The list is endless.

Along the way, skeptics have emerged in all cultures and societies. They asked questions that threatened the foundations of established beliefs. But because the God meme has had a stranglehold on the majority, these individuals were labeled blasphemous or heretical, and usually met with terrible deaths, such as burning at the stake. Some, like the Buddha, were initially successful in establishing an alternative worldview, but the message has been slowly eroded.

Through the work of many generations of inquiring minds, starting with the early natural philosophers to modern day scientists, science has systematically unraveled the many mysteries of the universe. But the single most important intellectual achievement is Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It offers a fairly simple, beautiful, and elegant explanation of the natural world. It is indeed a monumental piece of cerebral dexterity. Instead of Religion’s cop out answer of “God works in mysterious ways” when confronted with the many contradictions and inadequacies of the religious worldview, Darwinism brings it all home, plain and simple. Darwin brought God down to Earth. Now advances in brain science (Neurotheology), has placed the locus of God inside your head!!

Richard Dawkins (some have referred to him as Darwin’s Rottweiler) has stirred the religious pot quite vigorously in his book: The God Delusion.  I highly recommend it.

Although, I do not agree with his main thesis (that religion is an evolutionary adaptation, to relieve the anxiety of death), I also recommend Matthew Alper’s book: The God part of the brain, for an interesting take on this whole issue. He, amongst others, has noted that the claims of received wisdom, a cornerstone of many modern religions, can be attributed to delusional minds.

Here is a full length debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox (a Christian Mathematician).

There is a fundamental misconception that the Atheist worldview has no room for accommodating and appreciating the beauty and grandeur of Nature. In this debate, Lennox argues that the atheist worldview is “hideous”. Compared to what? The lame God and his “mysterious ways” worldview?   The Buddha held the view that Prince or Pauper, you cannot escape Disease or Death. I want to argue that the atheist point of view, far from being pessimistic (everything is pointless) urges us to apply the razor of critical thinking when we conduct our worldly affairs. However, critical thinking does not come for free. It requires an open mind and enormous cognitive effort. I find it interesting that, in Indian thought, there is some cognitive stratification. The Jnana yogi is the thinker, his tool is introspection and contemplation. The Karma Yogi is the doer, finds meaning through action. The Bhakti yogi is the prayer (pun intended), requires the most help, and comes with many instruction manuals. The majority, in any society or culture, belong in the last category. Hence, Marx’s observation – Religion is the opium of the masses.

As Lawrence Krauss notes “.. Perhaps the most important contribution an honest assessment of the incompatibility between science and religious doctrine can provide is to make it starkly clear that in human affairs — as well as in the rest of the physical world — reason is the better guide.”

Written by asterix98

February 11, 2012 at 5:59 am

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