Book Review: Ages in Chaos by Stephen Baxter

Ages in Chaos is a scientific biography of James Hutton by Stephen Baxter. Hutton was a Scottish scientist who also played his part in Scottish enlightenment. Hutton was the first to speculate on the idea deep time required for geological processes at the end of 1700s arguing with evidence he collected. He was trained as a medical doctor, practiced farming for 10 odd years and had continued his explorations of geology throughout. The prevalent theories of geology, called Neptunists, posited that water was the change agent. Hutton on the other hand posited that it was heat which was responsible for changes, hence Vulcanists. Also, another thing was that of time needed for this change. As others of his era, Hutton was deeply religious, like Newton, wanted to find evidence for creation as per bible.

During his time, especially popular was the idea of flood as per Bible, while the Earth was literally considered to be 6000 years old. This created a problem for Hutton, who was labelled to be atheist and heretic for suggesting that Earth is much older and that there was no design. But Hutton was a conformist and wanted to find a uniform evidence for all observable aspects. He was not like a modern scientist, as he is painted many times. The ideas were vehemently attacked on each point. Though he went to the field to find geological examples for this theory. James Watt, Black and John Playfair were his friends and provided him with evidence in the form of rock samples. During his lifetime, Hutton’s ideas will not find much audience. But due to his friends, his ideas sustained a a barrage of criticisms. Only in the next generation with Lyell this work would find acceptance. This idea of a deep time was crucial in formation Darwin’s theory.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/157978.Ages_in_Chaos

The book reads well mostly, but at times a complete lack of illustrations in the forms of geological artefacats and maps (of Scotland) makes it difficult to read well.

Conditioning hatred for books

INFANT NURSERIES. NEO-PAVLOVIAN CONDITIONING ROOMS, announced the notice board.

The Director opened a door. They were in a large bare room, very bright and sunny; for the whole of the southern wall was a single win-dow. Half a dozen nurses, trousered and jacketed in the regulation white viscose-linen uniform, their hair aseptically hidden under white caps, were engaged in setting out bowls of roses in a long row across the floor. Big bowls, packed tight with blossom. Thousands of petals, ripe-blown and silkily smooth, like the cheeks of innumerable little cherubs, but of cherubs, in that bright light, not exclusively pink and Aryan, but also luminously Chinese, also Mexican, also apoplectic with too much blowing of celestial trumpets, also pale as death, pale with the posthumous whiteness of marble.

The nurses stiffened to attention as the D.H.C. came in.

“Set out the books,” he said curtly.

In silence the nurses obeyed his command. Between the rose bowls the books were duly set out-a row of nursery quartos opened invitingly each at some gaily coloured image of beast or fish or bird.

“Now bring in the children.”

They hurried out of the room and returned in a minute or two, each
pushing a kind of tall dumb-waiter laden, on all its four wire-netted
shelves, with eight-month-old babies, all exactly alike (a Bokanovsky
Group, it was evident) and all (since their caste was Delta) dressed in
khaki.

“Put them down on the floor.” The infants were unloaded.

“Now turn them so that they can see the flowers and books.”

Turned, the babies at once fell silent, then began to crawl towards those clusters of sleek colours, those shapes so gay and brilliant on the white pages. As they approached, the sun came out of a momentary eclipse behind a cloud. The roses flamed up as though with a sudden passion from within; a new and profound significance seemed to suffuse the shining pages of the books. From the ranks of the crawling babies came little squeals of excitement, gurgles and twitterings of pleasure.

The Director rubbed his hands. “Excellent!” he said. “It might almost have been done on purpose.”

The swiftest crawlers were already at their goal. Small hands reached out uncertainly, touched, grasped, unpetaling the transfigured roses, crumpling the illuminated pages of the books. The Director waited until all were happily busy. Then, “Watch carefully,” he said. And, lifting his hand, he gave the signal.

The Head Nurse, who was standing by a switchboard at the other end of the room, pressed down a little lever.

There was a violent explosion. Shriller and ever shriller, a siren shrieked. Alarm bells maddeningly sounded.

The children started, screamed; their faces were distorted with terror.

“And now,” the Director shouted (for the noise was deafening), “now we proceed to rub in the lesson with a mild electric shock.”

He waved his hand again, and the Head Nurse pressed a second lever. The screaming of the babies suddenly changed its tone. There was something desperate, almost insane, about the sharp spasmodic yelps to which they now gave utterance. Their little bodies twitched and stiffened; their limbs moved jerkily as if to the tug of unseen wires.

“We can electrify that whole strip of floor,” bawled the Director in explanation. “But that’s enough,” he signalled to the nurse.

The explosions ceased, the bells stopped ringing, the shriek of the siren died down from tone to tone into silence. The stiffly twitching bodies relaxed, and what had become the sob and yelp of infant maniacs broadened out once more into a normal howl of ordinary terror.

“Offer them the flowers and the books again.”

The nurses obeyed; but at the approach of the roses, at the mere sight of those gaily-coloured images of pussy and cock-a-doodle-doo and baa-baa black sheep, the infants shrank away in horror, the volume of their howling suddenly increased.

“Observe,” said the Director triumphantly, “observe.”

Books and loud noises, flowers and electric shocks-already in the infant mind these couples were compromisingly linked; and after two hundred repetitions of the same or a similar lesson would be wedded indissolubly. What man has joined, nature is powerless to put asunder.

“They’ll grow up with what the psychologists used to call an ‘instinctive’ hatred of books and flowers. Reflexes unalterably conditioned. They’ll be safe from books and botany all their lives.” The Director turned to his nurses. “Take them away again.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Though fictionalised the above passages capture what makes people hate books in general. The conditioning happens in reality in a more subtle manner. The conditioning laboratory is the school. In school children are made to engage with the books, textbooks in most cases, in the most artificial and dishonest matter. Another problem is the quality of textbooks themselves. Though the school has a “textbook culture”, not enough effort is put in by the writers and designers of the textbooks to make the best that they can offer. Instead cheap, copy-paste techniques, and a mix-and-match fashioned content is crammed and printed onto those pages glued together called as textbooks. No wonder, people when they grow up don’t like books or run away at the sight of them. Its just behaviorism at work with Pavlov portrait in the background.

Sidenotes and label in LaTeX

Recently I have been using the sidenotes package in LaTeX. It provides many options which I find aesthetically pleasing. For example, instead of footnotes, it gives sidenotes. This particular typesetting has been used beautifully by Tufte in his books. But even before Tufte’s books this option has been used, for example, see the beautifully designed book The Evolution of Culture in Animals by John. T. Bonner.

bonner

Not the recent reprint, some idiots at Princeton University Press have completely killed the aesthetically pleasing landscaped typesetting to portrait one (and a not very good one)! In general Bonner’s book are a visual treat in terms of designing and of course the content as well. His meticulous detail to the images, and use of log-scales to depict biological scale in time and space it something that I have not seen very often.

The Evolution of Culture in Animals uses a landscape mode with sidenotes and figures in margins extensively. This is the exact functionality that the sidenotes package provides. Even the tufte-book and tufte-handout classes use this package in a modified manner.

When using sidenotes package, I found that the marginfigure and margintable environments worked without a problem when using a label and referring them to in the document. But when it came to the sidecaption option for wider figures and tables, somehow I could not get the referencing to work. The hyperref showed the correct page and even the captions had the correct numbers for tables and figures. But the label and \ref{} to it didn’t work.

For example, if a figure was created as such:

\begin{figure}
\includegraphics[width=0.8\textwidth]{eagle.jpg}
\sidecaption[][1cm]{This is an eagle.}
\label{eagle1}
\end{figure}

The first [] controls the text that appears in the List of Figures, while the second [] controls the vertical placement of the caption.

Now when I referred to this figure in the document using Figure~\ref{eagle1}, it gave an error and typeset it as Figure ??, instead of Figure 1.1 or something similar. The same problem was there for a sidecaption used for tables as well. A common mistake which usually causes this error is placing the label before the caption. So the golden rule seems to be:

Always place your \label{} after the \caption{}.

But it was not the case in my example. A bit of digging in the log file showed this error:


Package caption Warning: \label without proper reference on input line xxx.
See the caption package documentation for explanation.

LaTeX Warning: Reference `eagle1′ on page 7 undefined on input line 415.

Now back to caption package documentation, it had this explanation for this error (page 44):

\label without proper \caption

Regarding \label the floating environments behave differently than its non-floating counter-parts: The internal reference will not be generated at the beginning of the environment, but at \caption instead. So you have to place the \label command either just after or inside the caption text (mandatory argument of \caption).

So that was it. You have to place the \label{} inside the \caption{} environment and the issue was solved. Placing it just after the caption did not work for me.

\begin{figure}
\includegraphics[width=0.8\textwidth]{eagle.jpg}
\sidecaption[][1cm]{This is an eagle.\label{eagle1}}
\end{figure}

The Art of Not Reading

The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making great commotion, You should remember That he who writes for fools Always finds a large public. – A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.
– Arthur Schopenhauer

Very relevant quote with the kind of circus main stream media has become in India.

The Pendulum and The Fixed Points

… And then last year, when I saw the Pen­dulum, I understood everything.”

“Everything?”

“Almost everything. You see, Casaubon, even the Pendulum is a false prophet. You look at it, you think it’s the only fixed point in the cosmos, but if you detach it from the ceiling of the Conserva­toire and hang it in a brothel, it works just the same. And there are other pendulums: there’s one in New York, in the UN building, there’s one in the science museum in San Francisco, and God knows how many others. Wherever you put it, Foucault’s Pendulum swings from a motionless point while the earth rotates beneath it. Every point of the universe is a fixed point: all you have to do is hang the Pendulum from it.”

– Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

On Books and Bookcases

“But I am apt to use my books at any time,” I explain to the salesman. “I never can tell when it is coming on me. And when I want a book I want it quickly. I don’t want to have to send down to the office for the key, and I don’t want to have to manipulate any trick ball-bearings and open up a case as if I were getting cream-puffs out for a customer. I want a bookcase for books and not books for a bookcase.

–  Robert Benchley

Review of His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem

 

The book is an autobiographical tale by one of the mathematician-scientist who looks at a mysterious signal from the cosmos. The title is from the title given to the top secret project which tries to decipher this signal. The signal in the form of a neutrino stream is discovered accidentally and is hidden well in the general noise of neutrino signal. Only if you know where to tune in to is the signal readable/recordable/visible. The signal is attacked upon by a team of experts from different domains like physics, chemistry, biology, language, mathematics. They are able to know that the signal has an “alphabet” but are not able to crack the code as a whole. Though they discover some properties of the signal to interact with matter. For example, they discover that this letter from cosmos has a positive effect on the formation and consolidation of large protein molecules. They also discover a “recipe” for building a substance which is dubbed as “Frog Eggs” and “Lord of the flies”. This substance with a consistency of frog eggs can absorb energy from radioactive fission within itself and has some peculiar properties.

even though, receiving the message from the stars, we did with it no more than a savage who, warming himself by a fire of burning books, the writings of the wisest men, believes that he has drawn tremendous benefit from his find!

That not withstanding, the entire operation is under government supervision and there are plots and counter-plots of bureaucracy enmeshed within the narrative. This also includes an effect termed as “TX” in which a small nuclear detonation can have its energy transmitted to another place. But large scale implementation fails as the energy is dissipated over a very large area rendering any weapons created from them unusable. After these initial success, there is not further “code-breaking” possible and things come to a standstill

We are proceeding like a man who looks for a lost thing not everywhere, but only beneath a lighted street lamp, because there it is bright.

They also discover there is another parallel team working on the same problem but under the command of the military. Finally, the two units are merged.

At this point, various theories are put forth which try to explain the origin of the “letter”. Doubts are even raised to know if the signal is “natural” or “artificial”.  One of the military members uses the oscillating universe model to suggest that the neutrino signal is information from the past universe, from a ‘fissure” in between the universes, to the current one. One more hypothesis is given in the form that the frog eggs naturally evolved and the neutrino signal is just a by-product and the “organisms” do not know if this signal is being sent. A closer example of this is plants doing photosynthesis, they are not aware that their photosynthetic activity is helping other organisms grow, they do it nonetheless.

And surely it was unintentional on the part of the grass to give us the opportunity to exist!

While the author genuinely believes that the signal is from a very old and highly evolved “civilisation”, and we are at a stage such that we cannot understand the letter fully. We are not meant to, not at this stage of our technological evolution. The signal has been there for billions of years, and it takes an enormous amount of power (at least by our standards) to send it, so whoever (or whatever)  is sending it must have a purpose, just that we don’t know ( and perhaps will never know) what the purpose is.

 We will make it undecipherable for all who are not yet ready; but we must go further in our caution — so that even a false reading will not be able to supply them with any of the things that they seek but that should be denied them.

The book is an interesting take on the status of technological progress and its ramification for civilisation as a whole. Some of the themes that one can identify is the survival of the species and not of a particular nation. The concerns expressed over the “TX” discovery make the smaller group privy to this very anxious as we would then have a weapon which at the speed of light can deliver an atomic explosion anywhere. Some of the musings about the senders of the signal and the kind of evolution the civilisation that must have are interesting to read.

Undead Texts

These are the Undead Texts. Their ambition and success inevitably made these works targets of specialist rebuttals. There is probably not a single claim they make that subsequent scholarship has not queried, criticized, or refuted. Yet these texts refuse to die. Novices and experts alike remain susceptible to the spell they cast. – source

 

Just for fun or how to invite readers to immerse in your book

These problems are for fun. I never meant them to be taken too seriously. Some you will find easy enough to answer. Others are enormously difficult, and grown men and women make their livings trying to answer them. But even these tough ones are for fun. I am not so interested in how many you can answer as I am in getting you to worry over them.

What I mainly want to show here is that physics is not something that has to be done in a physics building. Physics and physics problems are in the real, everyday world that we live, work, love, and die in. And I hope that this book will capture you enough that you begin to find your own flying circus of physics in your own world. If you start thinking about physics when you are cooking, flying, or just lazing next to a stream, then I will feel the book was worthwhile. Please let me know what physics you do find, along with any corrections or comments on the book. However, please take all this as being just for fun.

From Preface of Jearl Walkers The Flying Circus of Physics

The Forbidden Library

bitmap.png

What do you do when you find something offensive? Whether it be a book, a film or any other art form? You ask for a ban. You not only ban the book, perhaps want to ban the creator of the said object, including all their other work. We will explore Let us look at the dictionary meaning of ban:

Screen Shot 2018-10-09 at 4.25.26 PM

Over the centuries, the powers to be, have banned books and other materials or ideas which they found offensive. But the idea for bans is not always from the state. Grieved individuals often take upon themselves to argue for a ban on a given book or other material. But why would anyone want to ban anything? There seem to be two major reasons, both ideological for this. Both of them involve cultural and societal values.

Every society has some agreed upon norms about behaviour in public, interactions between individuals and things which are considered “normal”. Now, if you look at different cultures, it does take a genius to see those different cultures have different norms. If you look at the same culture historically, you will see that norms change with time. What was blasphemous in the last generation is acceptable now. For example, in the Indian context consider inter-caste marriages. It would be almost impossible to think of it (especially if the female is from the higher caste) in our grandfather’s generation. Manusmriti has

In an earlier post, I had discussed the absurdity of television censorship. The main reason seems to be that in the case of television the continuous flow of images with sound creates a sense of participation for the viewers, whereas they are just consuming. The attention span of the viewers on the television is the most treasured commodity. To keep the viewers glued to the screen, the content creators use a variety of means. The spectacle is out there. Feeding the viewers, satiating their bored lives showing them things that they will never ever get. Playboy and National Geographic are essentially same, they show you things that you are never going to see by yourselves. They create a reality away from reality in which the viewer is lured in and then stuck in a quagmire. In this state, the opinions can be changed, altered as per the desires of the creators.

This thematic idea is captured very well in this couplet by Piyush Mishra in a song from Gulaal.

जैसे हर एक बात पे डिमॉक्रेसी में लगने लग गयो बैन

Just like in democracy there is a ban for everything in democracy.

The banning of books or that of materials which the state or a group of people seem inappropriate is perhaps the easiest way to

https://web.archive.org/web/20090413002834/http://title.forbiddenlibrary.com/

On the same theme, some of the stand-up comedians in India have expressed their opinions in this video I am Offended.  It is a good watch, particularly the intolerant times in which we are. This video, I think points to many of the issues that we have considered here particularly in the current social Indian context.

Two works resonate the idea of censorship and banning of books very well. They are Nineteen Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451. In both these works, the core idea is the control of ideas, information and knowledge. So much so that the language to be used by the people is restricted. Certain words are removed from public memory by force. Any use of these words is akin to treason. Nineteen Eighty-Four has Thought Police, who control and report what is said. Even saying  thinking about something taboo is a crime.  We can see a certain trend in the contemporary Indian context. This MO has been effectively used to discredit dissent. Using in the age of connected computers this becomes even easier. It is easy to target people sitting in the comfort of your bed, in a sustained and meticulously planned manner. The so-called Keyboard Warriors are now being employed for making life hell for dissenting people. Anything goes.

Seemingly normal works of literature can be banned by using various contexts at different times and places. Just have a look at the list of books banned by governments across the globe. You will see many familiar titles there, and some of the reasons for their ban are even more bizzare. In the Indian context, history is highly coloured. The general public seems to consider historical fiction works as the history. I am a bit acquainted with Maratha history and seeing it being portrayed in a highly problematic manner in many of the popular titles makes me cringe. Yet, these titles remain on the best seller list. People reading these take them to be the de facto history without any need for evidence to the events depicted in these. When challenged about historical facts they cite these works of fiction as if they are some well researched historical documents supported by evidence. One can imagine what kind of conceptual edifice one will create with such misconceived notions about the past.

Alan Moore has interesting views on being a writer:  Words are magic, they can change and transform things. If we think about this, this indeed is the case. Ideas in the form of words do dictate our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. Ideologies in the form of literature does control our life. So, a writer can write against what is popularly accepted. There are writers who are conformists, and there are writers who will swim against the flow. And it is the later ones who will find their work on the banned list more often than nought. Ideas and words are far more dangerous than mere physical humans. Writing in this era of perpetual ephemeral nature of electronic media makes this case even stronger. Entire works of a particular theme can be removed in a blink of an eye. Electronic media though makes it easy for the authors to publish and disseminate their work, it can also be controlled and removed as easily as with a simple click. Force and intimidation are used when direct banning is not possible. Don’t feed the trolls. When such a thing becomes the norm, we start to self-censor, the worst form of censoring. Because the moment you start to nip the thoughts in the bud, your entity changes.

It is forbidden to dream again;
We maim our joys or hide them:

George Orwell categorises the intentions for writing into these four

  • Sheer egoism: 
  • Aesthetic enthusiasm:

  • Historical impulse:

  • Political purpose:

The last of these he expands

Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

This is where authors who usually end up on the list of banned work find themselves. Perhaps the world-view that the author subscribes to is something against the incumbent and the inherent traditions of a given milieu. Whatever the reasons, mere words can make those in power feel threatened or humiliated. So it indeed the case that words do have magic, if it was not so we would not have works being banned at mere thought.