Multiple Universes
Episode 4 of the PBS show Fabric of the Cosmos is truly mind bending. In this episode Brian Greene talks about multiple universes and how the math proves that many universes could theoretically exist. The evidence for this comes from the fact that the universe is expanding and the math of string theory. The possibility that there could be another copy of me in another universe with a blog which has more than ten readers is very disturbing.
You can watch all the four episodes of Fabric of Cosmos online.

Multiple Big Bangs and Hindu Cosmology

Recently Briane Greene was on National Public Radio regarding his new book The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos which talks about brain churning concepts like parallel universes. He also theorizes that the universe did not have a single begining, instead there were multiple big bangs which created multiple universes. At this point the host said it reminded him of Hindu cosmology.
I am not sure if Hindu cosmology talks about multiple universes and their creation and destruction, or just about the creation and destruction of one universe. Much before Brian Greene, Carl Sagan had noted in Cosmos

“The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond, to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long. Longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang. And there are much longer time scales still.
…A millennium before Europeans were wiling to divest themselves of the Biblical idea that the world was a few thousand years old, the Mayans were thinking of millions and the Hindus billions”

In his new book Indian Culture And Indias Future Michel Danino writes about the achievements of Āryabhaṭa (476 CE) like computing π, values of sines, diameter of earth, and computation of orbits of planets. Āryabhaṭa was also fascinated with the concept of yugas, in which the universe (in singular) is destroyed and re-created. He wrote “Time is without begining or end”

Briefly Noted: Creation (2009)

Creation (2009)In his new book, The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking states that God is not part of the grand design of the universe. In The Brief History of Time, he tried to grok the mind of God and left it at that. Now with the No-boundary proposal, top-down cosmology and the latest discoveries in M-theory, he argues that gravity and quantum theory are sufficient to explain how multiple universes are spontaneously created from nothing. If there is God maybe he could have chosen the initial state; he then goes on to say that even that would not be possible for there are laws for the initial state too.
More than 150 years back another Englishman too killed God. In this movie, Darwin is still working on his manuscript on the theory of evolution. In one of the earliest scenes Charles Darwin is visited by Joseph Dalton Hooker (botanist and explorer, who was once held prisoner by the King of Sikkim) and Thomas Henry Huxley (biologist). Encouraged by the abstracts he had seen and with the desire to see archbishops and their threats of eternal punishment removed from society, Huxley encourages Darwin to publish his book. But Darwin is not in the mood, “There is no book”, he dismisses. Huxley still does not give up. “You have killed God, sir”, he says, “And I, for once, say good riddance to the vindictive old bugger.” For Darwin, the church, however imperfect, is the one which holds society together. 
But Darwin had become a different man following the death of his daughter;he had prayed to God to save her. Following Annie’s death, Darwin’s wife sought refuge in religion, while he turned away from it like Mark Twain, who wrote novels like The Mysterious Stranger after the death of his daughter Susy.
He was convinced about his theory but had not published it due to his wife. He was worried that if he wrote about a world in which God, love, trust etc were not required and that the world just depended on survival, it would break her heart. His wife was worried that he would never enter heaven and they both would be separated for eternity.
The important thread in this slow movie is not Darwin’s relation with his wife, but with his daughter Annie to whom he narrated tales of his journeys. Annie appears to Darwin as hallucinations and in flashbacks as the script moves back and forth in time; she had died of sickness.The script finds patterns: in Annie’s death and the death of Jenny the Orangutan who too fell sick; in the water treatment Darwin and Annie took; in the suggestion of a pigeon breeder that relatives should not get married and a similar conversation between Darwin and his wife. 
In the final scene, Darwin walks with the manuscript, with his wife’s approval, and hands it over to the postman who rides off in his carriage.  The book was sold out in a day. His idea changed the world, except for few like US Senate candidate Christine O’ Donnell, who in 1998 wondered why monkeys are not evolving in front of her eyes.

The Lost-Wax Method

During the third millennium BCE that trade relations between India and Mesopotamia prospered: Burial sites in Mesopotamia had shell-made lamps and cups produced from a conch shell found only in India; Early Dynastic Mesopotamians were consumers of the Harappan carnelian bead. Also the Gujaratis were exporting hardwood and there are even unverified reports of spices from the Malabar coast reaching Mesopotamia. But now there is a debate over if a colony of Indians lived in Mesopotamia —  in a Meluhhan village — at that time[Trading Hubs of the Old World – Part 2]

During this period, texts from Uruk in Mesopotamia mention copper, mainly copper from Dilmun (Bahrain), which originally came from Magan (Oman). In return the Mesopotamians exported barley[1]. The Harappans too used copper extensively. While one copper source was Oman, the other was the Jodhpura-Ganeshwar culture of Rajasthan[2].
Skipping a few millennia, a 10th century BCE copper production center was discovered in the Negev desert and was claimed to be King Solomon’s mines, though there is debate over if there was a King Solomon. One of the artifact from that era is the twin-headed ibex and swords, found in Israel’s Cave of the Treasure.
Ancient artisans — in Mesopotamia, Greece, China — used a technique called the Lost-Wax method to produce works of art, but that technique is not used much any more. One place where this technique still survives is in Tanjavur district – the realm of the Chola empire. It was here, as Vilayannur Ramachandran explains, that Hindu artistes exaggerated feminine beauty to jolt the aesthetic sense of the viewers.
When a picture of the twin-headed ibex and swords was given to the sthapathi in Swamimalai he was able to create the same using a process which has been around for millennia.


  1. Nicole Boivin and Dorian Fuller, “Shell Middens, Ships and Seeds: Exploring Coastal Subsistence, Maritime Trade and the Dispersal of Domesticates in and Around the Ancient Arabian Peninsula,” Journal of World Prehistory 22, no. 2 (June 1, 2009): 180, 113.
  2. Jane R. McIntosh, The Ancient Indus Valley: New Perspectives, 1st ed. (ABC-CLIO, 2007).

In Mint: The Fight over Darwin

(This piece was published in the Sept 15th issue of Mint)
In 2009, while the world is celebrating Charles Darwin’s 200th birth anniversary, American scientists have a unique challenge: convince 60% of their fellow countrymen that God did not create man. It might seem odd that a country which has won the maximum number of Nobel prizes, sent man to the moon, and has the best universities in the world, takes the antediluvian creation myth in the book of Genesis literally.
A 2009 Gallup poll revealed that only 39% of Americans believed in evolution.  There were two reasons for this: education and religion. Among the high school educated, only 21% believed in evolution and 52% had no opinion; among those with a college degree, 29% did not believe and 30% had no opinion. For the religious, Darwin contradicts the word of God and those who attended church regularly were found to not believe in evolution.
To analyze the role of religion in this debate, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life asked major religious groups in United States on what they thought about evolution. The study found that at the bottom of the chart were Jehovah’s Witnesses: only 8% of their members believed in evolution. Slightly better were Mormons (22%), Evangelical Protestants (24%), Historically Black Protestants (38%) and Muslims (45%). Among the Catholics and Protestants, more than 50% believed in evolution.
A major problem facing America is that religious groups which deny evolution are out to impose their views as science on everyone by modifying science text books. In 2004, 150 years after Darwin published his seminal work, the Cobb County Board of Education in Atlanta affixed a sticker on thousands of public school textbooks which stated that evolution is a theory, not a fact. In Dover, Pennysylvania, the school board decided to teach that an “intelligent agent” created various species.
The same Pew Research poll which found that only 8% of Jehovah’s Witnesses believed in evolution also found that 81% of Buddhists believed in evolution along with 80% of Hindus. Like the story of creation in the book of Genesis, Hindus too have creation myths, but in India,  where the most American-Hindus are from, these creation myths stay in religious books, not in school text books. Also there are no Hindu or Buddhist groups questioning a fact which has been debated, analysed and tested for 150 years.
While various American Christian groups are vehemently anti-evolution, it cannot be generalized that it is a common behavior of all Abrahamic religions, since the group which stands third in ranking, after Hindus and Buddhists, are Jews with 77% believing in evolution.
The Pew religious survey found  one thing in common between American Hindus, Buddhists and Jews: members of these religions lead the religious groups in terms of education and were most likely to have a post-graduate degree. This ties with the Gallup poll which found that 74% of Americans who had a post-graduate degree believed in evolution. This also explains the frenetic effort among religious groups to subvert the education system
There is one more difference. In India, the syllabus is decided by the government — both state and central — whereas in United States, local school boards have the authority to decide tests, texts and teaching materials. Thus depending on the religious beliefs of the school board members, insane ideas can be taught and science can be redefined.  To prevent this, parents have to file law suits or vote the school board out – both disruptive activities.
Courts in United States have found that teaching “intelligent design”, a euphemism for creationism, violates the constitution. The creationists now are fighting for academic rights, so that educators can teach “a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”Fortunately, this is a fight we don’t have in India.

  1. A British film about Charles Darwin cannot find a US distributor.
  2. Texas public schools are required to teach Bible this year. According to second most powerful member of the Texas House, evolution is an anti-religious Jewish plot.

The Reading Brain

When asked why he did not introduce a iPod like book reader, Steve Jobs arrogantly said, “the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.” He was being dismissive of Amazon Kindle, which was sold out in a day and was buying time to develop the Kindle killer. Still the point that Americans read less is a valid one.

Tom Ashbrook recently had an interview with Maryanne Wolf, the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, which explains that reading shapes the human brain and by reading less we are going through devolution.

Thus the reading brain is part of highly successful two-way dynamics. Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design, and when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed, both physiologically and intellectually. For example, at the neuronal level, a person who learns to read in Chinese uses a very particular set of neuronal connections that differ in significant ways from the pathways used in reading English. When Chinese readers first try to read in English, their brains attempt to use Chinese-based neuronal pathways. The act of learning to read Chinese characters has literally shaped the Chinese reading brain. Similarly, much of how we think and what we think about is based on insights and associations generated from what we read. As the author Joseph Epstein put it, “A biography of any literary person ought to deal at length with what he read and when, for in some sense, we are what we read.” [Reading Lessons From Proust and the Squid]

Best Medicine for Depression

The surfer, Steven Kotler, was making his living as a writer, with the perfect apartment and perfect girl friend. Then he got the Lyme disease. On days he could make it to the kitchen from the bed, he would end up standing with a coffee pot in one hand and the tap running not sure what to do next as he had forgotten to do the most basic tasks. He lost his job, woman and his mind and started thinking of suicide. So he decided to do the best thing possible – go surfing in Costa Azul, Mexico and to his surprise he started feeling better.

In the book, West of Jesus: Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Belief Steven wondered why he got better. Another book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, explains the science and it has something to do with neurogenesis.

While it was known that our skin, liver and bones constantly regenerate, it was believed that neurons could not. Ramon y Cajal, considered one of the founders of neuroscience and a Nobel Prize winner wrote in 1913, “In the adult centers, the nerve paths are something fixed, ended, and immutable. Everything may die, nothing may be regenerated. It is for the science of the future to change, if possible, this harsh decree.”

The science of the future did not have to do anything to change this since the assumption itself was incorrect, but Cajal’s theory was held as dogma till 1962 when a scientist at MIT, Joseph Altman, decided to challenge it. Altman found that brains of adult rats, cats and guinea pigs generated new neurons. Later experiments by Michael Kaplan on the brains of adult rats, Fernando Nottebohm in bird brains and Elizabeth Gould in primates confirmed this theory.

The scientific community still did not accept that human brains could create new neurons but soon that Berlin wall too crumbled. Fred Gage and Swedish neurologist Peter Eriksson found through experiments conducted on the brains of terminal cancer patients that neurogenesis happened in humans; new neurons were born even in people who were in their fifties and seventies. The discovery that these new neurons matured and became part of the brain circuitry with new connections overturned conventional wisdom.

Researchers focused on finding the optimal conditions for neurogenesis by comparing the brains of mice with sedentary life style with physically active ones. Not surprisingly they found that ones which were physically active produced twice as many cells in their hippocampus than the armchair quarterbacks. Also observed was that it was voluntary exercise that produced brain cells and not coerced ones. This means that if your take a TV watching Google Reader addict and tie him on a treadmill his brain will remain unchanged whereas if he voluntarily registers for Ekal Marathon, there could be a burst in neurogenesis.

These new neurons were found to colligate in the dentate gyrus, a part in the hippocampus which forms distinct representations of multiple contexts, places and episodes. These neurons were also found to have more dendrites making it better connected and as a result enhanced the ability to connect new facts with old, retrieve memories and find patterns in disparate events.

Finally it was found that in people suffering from depression, the dentate gyrus had shrunk; such people were not able to find any novelty in life resulting in the philosophy, “Life sucks.” With exercise and the resulting neurogenesis the dentate gyrus was able to recognize novelty, recognize new experiences and bring back excitement into life. Consumer Reports advices, “Regular aerobic exercise is another effective antidote. It provides a time-out from unpleasant thoughts, generates feelings of well-being, and reduces depression.”

Exercise is what Steven Kotler did and he survived.

Technorati Tags:


Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves

Conquering Attention Deficit Disorder


(Image by altamar)

I decided to wash my car. As I start toward the garage, I spotted the mail on the hall table. I should go through the mail before I wash the car. I lay the car keys on the table, put the junk mail in the trash can under the table, and notice that the trash can is full. So I put the bills back on the table and take out the trash first. Since I’m going to be near the mailbox when I take out the trash anyway, I might as well pay the bills first. I see my checkbook on the table, but there is only one check left. My extra checks are in my desk in the study, so I go to my desk, where I find the bottle of juice that I had been drinking. I’m going to look for my checks, but first I need to push the juice aside so that I don’t accidentally knock it over.

At the end of the day: the car isn’t washed, the bills aren’t paid, there is a warm bottle of juice sitting on the counter, the flowers aren’t watered, there is still only one check in my checkbook, I can’t find the remote, I can’t find my glasses, and I don’t remember what I did with the car keys. [Age Activated Attention Deficit Disorder]

For a software engineer who is also an information junkie, life is equally hard due to attention deficit disorder. In the few minutes it takes to compile code, there is an urge to check Google Reader for updates. While going through blogs like Engadget, which has as many updates per day as the number of times N. Ram bows before China’s Ambassador to India, there is an impulse to skip most of the posts to reduce the unread count. By then Google News has updated and then you are deeply interested in what Nana Patekar did to Tanusree Dutta by which time the compilation is over and you forgot the code changes you made. And remember, the software engineer has not touched his Blackberry till now.

Multitasking essentially messes up the brain. The constant switching of tasks makes us concentrate on the act of concentration instead of the task. Immediately after the task is done, there is no recollection of what was done, like the case of the software engineer who read news during compilation and could neither remember the bug he had fixed nor the news he had read. Multitasking also boosts the stress related hormones and makes us grey earlier than our parents.

Constant multitasking results in the brain expecting you to perform many tasks at the same time. Soon you feel bored when you are just reading news. Eventually you might end up like actress Jenniffer Connelly who said, “I do like to read a book while having sex. And talk on the phone. You can get so much done.”

Before it gets that bad, something has to be done. You can remember fondly of your childhood when there were no iPods, cell phones or 24 hour news channels and delate technology for the distractions, but that does not solve the problem. To kick the multitasking habit effort is required and blogger John Richardson found a simple non-tech way.

Here’s how it works… Set a timer for 48 minutes. Close out all distractions and work continuously for 48 minutes. When the timer goes off, get up and stretch, get coffee, use the restroom etc, in the following 12 minutes. Repeat as necessary. [The Power of 48 Minutes]

There is nothing magical about 48 minutes; you could pick any convenient number. The point is to spent the time focused on the task. As sports psychologist H.A. Dorfman noted, “you have to build a structure of behavior and attitude. Behavior shapes thought. If a player disciplines his behavior, then he will also discipline his mind.” The goal should be to focus on the task, see only the eye of bird as Arjuna did, and let nothing else distract you. As Dorfman says about pitchers, “he should only think about three things: pitch selection, pitch location and the catcher’s glove, his target. If he finds himself thinking about something else, he should step off the rubber.”

In the article about Dorfman, David Brooks mentions, “there were intellectuals who thought the mind existed above the body, but that’s been blown away by evidence.” Buddhist monks will laugh at this confident assertion from the clerisy. According to Buddhist philosophy, sensations constantly arise in our mind which on repetation becomes strong emotion. When the cravings are strong, they over power the mind; we suspend judgement and act on the strongest impulse. Thus when the strong impulse to read news arises, we succumb to the craving unable to stop[1]

If by some means we are able to observe the sensation without reacting, the mind can remain balanced, peaceful and under our control. This control is possible by practicing mindfulness, and neuroscience has shown that mind can act on the brain and through pure thought brain activity can be changed. Through mindfulness it is possible to sustain attention on a task, re-orient the mind to the task when the attention is slipping, and exclude things which are not required for the task through executive control.

This is a problem that affects all of us and as Larry Wall says, “there is more than one way to solve it”, else…sorry, I just went to check news.


  1. William Hart, The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation: As Taught by S. N. Goenka, 1 (HarperOne, 1987).

Technorati Tags: , , ,

Looking for Galileos

So, was there a Big Bang from which the universe expanded into the present form.? The Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker metric, analysis of light spectrum from galaxies and the cosmic microwave background radiation all indicate that there was an initial state of infinite density and temperature.

But computational physicists like Neil Turok believe that the universe is anādi (without begining or end) and Big Bang is just one stage in infinite cycles of expansions and contractions.

Within a school of string theory known as m-theory, Turok said, “the seventh extra dimension of space is the gap between two parallel objects called branes. It’s like the gap between two parallel mirrors. We thought, What happens if these two mirrors collide? Maybe that was the Big Bang.[Physicist Neil Turok: Big Bang Wasn’t the Beginning]

The Catholic Church, always in search of Galileos, is against this theory. It is not that the priests have groked D-branes and NS-branes and all the extra dimensions to come with a scientific objurgation, instead they just dusted a timeless tactic: it goes against the scriptures

Wired: The Catholic Church hasn’t been very receptive to your ideas, either.

Turok: I think they like the Big Bang for obvious reasons. It’s a creation event, and they find that appealing. Whereas if you talk to most physicists, they’d prefer that there was not a creation event, because there are no laws of physics that indicate how time could begin. I’m not motivated by [theological considerations]. I’d be perfectly happy with a mathematically precise description of how time began. I see science and religion as being two completely different things. I don’t see science as relevant to the question of whether or not there’s a God.[Physicist Neil Turok: Big Bang Wasn’t the Beginning]

Technorati Tags: ,

Mindfulness for Stress Reduction

Historian Garry Wills was on stage with Dalai Lama one day and he asked the Buddhist monk what he would do if he ever got Tibet back. The Dalai Lama replied that he would enforce the separation of the Church and State, the American way. Gary Wills replied that a pre-requisite would be Enlightenment (not the Buddhist one, but the 18th century movement which includes Deism). The Dalai Lama smiled and went and wrote a book, The Universe in a Single Atom which is about the need for a dialog between scientists and those interested in spirituality.

Partly due to the efforts of the Dalai Lama and partly due to the adoption of Buddhist spiritual techniques by Americans there has been a scientific enquiry into what happens to us during meditation. These studies are being conducted in reputed universities and also at the National Institute of Health. Also there has been an adoption of mindfulness as a practice for stress reduction and this program is now offered in hospitals around the country.

In this video, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn who developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction talks about the program and the results.