Archive for December, 2006

On a spychopath!

December 31, 2006

Well, after I saw that word, I could not resist the temptation to do a blog post on the article 😉 Brian Cook mourns

a warm character, sacrificed on the altar of commerce—Casino Royale may attempt a meaningful pursuit of what makes Bond tick, but in the end, it’s all too willing to accept being a mere disposable pleasure.

Link via PTDR.

On Indian academic life

December 31, 2006

Here is a friend of mine on applying for faculty positions in India and women in Indian academia; of course, he posts once in six months or so–but then, those of us who knew Phani always knew that he is a man of few words! (Hat tip: Santa for the info on updation of the blog).

On Chola bronzes

December 31, 2006

Philobiblon reviews a Chola bronzes exhibition at  the Royal academy and is impressed by all those dancing Shivas and Karaikkal Ammaiyar.

Some (more) thoughts on reading Atwood

December 30, 2006

There are at least two authors I know of, for whom, the act of writing is closely connected with meditation (or rather, the extreme form of meditation, namely, tapas — penance). One is Raja Rao, for whom the word is a mantra, which, uttered in the proper fashion, can work wonders. The other is the Tamil writer La. Sa. Ra, who believes that if the writer puts his/her heart and soul in to his/her writing, then when he/she writes “fire”, the word will have the power to burn — and, having read his short story Jamadagni and felt the intensity of the writing, I would tend to agree. And, of course, there are other writers who are not so explicit, but echo the same sentiments; for example, Bharathiyar says, “When the true light dawns in the mind, the words uttered will have the light too”; and, Vivekananda is said to have meditated on each of Patanjali’s yoga sutras for a few hours before he dictated his commentary.

So, what is this tapas? According to Atwood, it is a journey to the land of the dead; and, hence the title of her book Negotiating with the dead. Atwood also indicates that this journey to the land of the dead is in some sense a result of the dichotomy between the mortal author and his immortal work. Thus, the thesis that Atwood prescribes to is that writing is a reaction to the fear of death. The examples that Atwood choose are mostly from the Western Canon — Gilgamesh, Odyssey, Orpheus, Dante, Aeneid, and so on. I would personally add the story of Nachiketas, the boy who went to the land of dead and brought the secrets of immortality (and, not surprisingly, knowledge is the secret of immortality — Amrutham tu vidya, and the Upanishad is called Katha) to the listing. Of the few encounters with the God of death in the Indian literature/folklore, both Nachiketas and Savitri have some parallels as well as differences from the other “meeting-the-god-of-death” stories that I have heard of. For example, Nachiketas goes to the God of death on his own volition (and not with the thought of bringing anything back–wealth, knowledge, a dead person, fame, etc–though, in the end, he gets all this and much more!).

Apart from these, the other things that Atwood says about the tradition of writing and story telling have their own parallels too in the Indian literary tradition. For example, one is usually asked to “Say a thousand, but do not write down even a single one” — of course, this is usually with reference to laws since what is written down becomes permanent while some of the laws are based on the time, place and environment and not for ever. Similarly, curses at the end of a book to those who will change even a line, or a word, or a comma, and instructions as to whom the contents of the book are meant are also well known. Finally, as A K Ramanujan points out, many a times the story telling ends in a very quaint note — apparently, in Andhra, they say, “Then the story went to Kanchi, we came home — katha kanchi-ki; manam inti-ki”; in Assam (or in Orissa?) they say “The other day I saw the King in the bazaar; but he wouldn’t recognize me”.

To summarise, Atwood’s Negotiating with the dead is a very enjoyable read; it is a must-read if questions about writing process (who, why and how) excite you. The book set me thinking (as you might have noticed from the comments above) about Indian writing/story telling tradition; in that sense, I think this can a be a nice complementary reading to A K Ramanujan. In fact, in some places, I guess the emphasis of Atwood is misplaced, while Ramanujan gets it right; for example, the writer feeling that the stories have a life their own could be more of a folkloric tradition and might not be specific to written texts, “their having been conceived, gestated and given birth to by the author”. The book also set me thinking about the parallels between scientific writing and the type of writing that Atwood talks about in her book; for example, compare the famous article of Poincare about mental processes involved in mathematical discoveries with Atwood’s journey into the other world, or “the art for arts sake, and hence good art should be of no use to anybody” argument with Hardy‘s apology for mathematics. Finally, the book also set me thinking about folkloric elements in Harry Potter series; may be there are a few PhD thesis to be written on that topic!

Get Atwood, curl up on the sofa with some hot coffee, and have fun — I can not envisage a better way of spending a Sunday afternoon!

Installment II of Negotiating…

December 29, 2006

Here is the second installment of goodies from Atwood‘s Negotiating with the dead.

  • Back in 1972, I did a one-person poetry-reading tour the length of Ottawa River Valley. This was then a remote area and not thickly strewn with book-stores; I went by bus, carted my own books with me to sell — I was good at making change, having once worked at a sports-equipment fair — and at one stage I hauled these books around behind me on a toboggan, due to a fresh blizzard. In the four small towns I visited, I was the first to appear within living memory, or possibly ever. The readings were packed, not because people loved either poetry or me, but because they’d already seen that week’s movie. The two best questions I got asked were, “Is your hair really like that or do you get it done?” and “How much money do you make?” Neither of these were hostile questions. Both were pertinent.
  • If you’re an artist, being a good man — or a good woman — is pretty much beside the point when it comes to your actual accomplishments. Moral perfection won’t compensate for your badness as an artist: not being able to hit high C is not redeemed by being kind to dogs. However, whether you are a good man or a bad man is not beside the point if you happen to be a good wizard — good at doing your magic, making “your marvellous clear jelly,” creating illusions that can convince people of their truth — because if you are good at being a wizard in this sense, then power of various sorts may well come your way — power in relation to society — and then your goodness or badness as a human being will have a part in determining what you do with this power.
  • Real life’s jagged extremes mixed with verbal artistry are a potent sometimes explosive combination. This is why so many people have faked such stories,… (Note that this is well before A Million Little Pieces).

Apart from these, there is some close reading of Wilde‘s Dorian Gray, Borges, Isak Dinesen, Alice in Wonderland, Henry James, not to mention Eliot, Tennyson, Keats, Yeats, and, of course, Bible.

Finally, there is also an interesting parallel that I can see between Atwood’s description of how female artists have to renounce marriage and children before walking the way of Art, and A K Ramanujan‘s analysis of women saints in medieval India, and how they also had to renounce family and children or stand the usual notions of the same on their head before they could be acknowledged as one.

Composites: Science special issue

December 29, 2006

Science recently ran a special issue on composites in the Materials Science section. Here are the links, if you are interested:

  • Introduction to the issue
  • A perspective on Composites in armor: Composite materials are traditionally regarded as materials that can save energy in large structures associated with transport. They are used to produce lightweight structures for fuel-efficient aircraft such as the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner; lightweight cars from Lotus, Ferrari and TVR; and high-speed trains, speedboats, and racing yachts. Now, however, some of the most interesting applications of composites are those where the materials are used to save lives and protect property by absorbing the energy of projectiles, impacts, and crashes.
  • A review on Simulating fracture patterns in composite materials; link via iMechanica (which took me to the issue in the first place; however, sometimes, as in the present case, the mechanicians forget to mention about anything other than what they have published).
  • A review on Nanoparticle-polymer composite.

Have fun!

Superplasticity in solid Helium!?

December 29, 2006

Recently, in the Nature News and Views section, Henry R Glyde wrote about the connection between extended defects (like grain boundaries) and flow without resistance in solid Helium. The last paragraph in his article sums up the experimental findings rather nicely:

Given the recently discovered dependence of rhos on sample annealing, and the correlation of superflow with grain boundaries, supersolidity seems to hinge on macroscopic, long-range defects such as grain boundaries or amorphous channels in the helium crystal. But at the same time, a superfluid density of the same magnitude is observed in helium confined in a nanoporous medium such as Vycor. It is difficult to imagine that extended defects could be the same in helium thus confined and in bulk helium. The situation is far from clear: revealing the secrets of this latest superfluid is very much a work in progress.

Now, consider the phenomenon of superplasiticity in materials science. Very crudely put, during superplastic deformation, due to applied stresses, the material flows plastically; such a flow can give rise to defects in the material (like voids and cracks) which will lead to failure. However, if there is an “accomodation” mechanism in the material that helps maintain the material integrity, the material can undergo plastic deformation of several hundred percentages (typically). Here is a (rather ancient) review of superplasticity, if you are so inclined.

So now, here is a thought: if solid Helium undergoes superplastic deformation with an accomodation mechanism that is infinitely fast, would that explain most of the observed features? I think so! (which explains the interrobang in the title).

Finally, there is an interesting aside; in the materials science literature, people speak of the so called constititutional vacancies (Yes; we wrote that paper–me and Abi). These vacancies are sometimes (wrongly) defined as the vacancies that exist at absolute zero temperature (ground state vacancies in the quote below). And, here is the experimental observation as summarised by Glyde:

Unfortunately, however, ground-state vacancies have not been observed in solid 4He. Thermally activated vacancies are found — but at temperatures above TC that are irrelevant to the establishment of superfluidity. Recent calculations also find that individual vacancies are not stable in the ground state of crystalline 4He. The vacancies instead coalesce or migrate to a surface; this is the mechanism by which thermal vacancies leave a classical crystal when it is cooled.

Have fun!

On a scientific rock star

December 29, 2006

All but forgotten today, Humboldt in the early 19th century was a scientific rock star. By the time he returned to Europe in 1804 after years exploring such wild territories as the Orinoco River in Venezuela and the volcanoes of the Andes, he was a continental celebrity, second in fame only to Napoleon. In the Americas, too, Humboldt cast a long shadow—even though he was a “foreign, aristocratic intellectual who visited the United States exactly once,” as Sachs writes. His ideas inspired a generation of quintessentially American naturalists and intellectuals, among them Thoreau, Poe, Emerson, Whitman, and the Hudson River School landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church. The centennial of Humboldt’s birth, in 1869, was “proclaimed across the whole North American continent,” writes Sachs. “It is possible that no other European had as great an impact on the intellectual culture of nineteenth-century America.”

From this book review in Audubon magazine; link via A&L Daily. Here are the passages about Humboldt’s philosophy and his writing style:

Explorers tend to be remembered as swashbuckling, flag-planting daredevils, but Humboldt was an egghead, a thinker who valued insight above conquest and glory. His lifelong goal was to comprehend how the earth’s natural systems are woven together, to understand the interdependent biological loops that link plants to animals to climate to soil. Humboldt made major contributions to plant ecology, geography, and vulcanology (the study of volcanoes), among other sciences; his crowning glory was probably the massive five-volume work Cosmos, which articulated a grand theory of natural history. Humboldt’s philosophical approach had many of the elements that presaged modern-day environmentalism, including a deep respect for wild places and the belief that human activities may have all kinds of complex and unforeseen consequences.

In his writing, Humboldt combined a passionate love of wilderness with an appreciation of the limits of science to reveal and control the mysteries of the natural world. In one passage from Sachs’s book, Humboldt clambers to the top of an Ecuadoran volcano, where he is shaken by constant volcanic tremors and nearly suffocated by fumes. Yet he is giddy with scientific delight, taking measurements all the while, and later writes: “In the New World, man and his productions almost disappear amidst the stupendous display of wild and gigantic nature.”

Looks like an interesting book! Before I sign off, here is Wiki on Humboldt. Have fun!

A time to look back!

December 29, 2006

Here is Nature on top ten stories of 2006; however, I think this Scientific American piece on the most important science stories of 2006 is a must-read.

For winter reading!

December 28, 2006

Over at MetaxuCafe, Otter has some interesting recommendations:

  • The Mother Tongue:

    In looking for easy to read books on philology, books for the amateur, I came across Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue. Better known for his travel memoirs A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country, this early work of his traces the history of the English language in a humorous way. Where most philologists take themselves much too seriously, Bryson finds humor in the fact that in the English language word pronunciations don’t always follow spellings, that the English language loves to steal words from other languages, and that no one has ever been able to regulate its growth.

  • Master of Souls:

    In these politically dangerous climes Fidelma must solve the murder of an abbess, a noted scholar, and a traitor. Tremayne once again has written a book that anyone who likes a good mystery just cannot put down. The action is continuous, the solution difficult, and the climax full of excitement.

  • Magician:

    These works are stunning in scope, original in content, and fast paced in plotting. There is never a dull moment and the characters have a depth that makes them near and dear to the reader. It is a vibrant epic and I look forward to reading the other books in the series, both those I have read before, and those that have come out in the 10 years of my hiatus.

  • The Left Hand of Darkness:

    I will recommend this book to you, dear reader, as an excellently crafted work of fiction. Do not accept its assumptions without forethought, and beware its overly simplistic answers. Learn its challenges, for we all face these, and understand the strength of friendships in its words, for we all need these.

  • The Memory Keepers Daughter:

    Generally, I don’t have time to sit and read a book from start to finish. (In truth, I didn’t last night.) But I just couldn’t let The Memory Keeper’s Daughter go. Kim Edwards’s novel of twins separated at birth, one normal and healthy, the other with Down’s syndrome is heartrending and painful.

  • Glory Road:

    Not a spectacular work, but one that is fun just to take to your favorite chair and laugh with. I giggled often as I read it. It is truly a writer at the top of his craft just having fun with language and the world that was changing rapidly around him.

  • Redeeming Love:

    It only took me two days to read this book in its entirety, so I think it evident that it was enjoyable, even for one (like me) who dislikes Christian fiction in general, and Christian romances most especially. The idyllic setting, the delve into human nature, and ultimate triumph of Angel and Michael’s love of God and each other all make this a most compelling and enjoyable read.

May be it is a bit late to give book recommendations now, after the holiday season is over; but then, we do have a long winter ahead; so, might be a good idea to carry this list with you during your next visit to the local library!