J.B.S. Haldane, On Being the Right Size

JBS Haldane was an Indian geneticist and evolutionary biologist, and a fervent populariser of science. Yes, Indian, because he died an Indian citizen and a professor at the Indian Statistical Institute at Calcutta. I was in fact quite surprised to learn about Haldane’s Indian connection myself; I am told a friend of my father’s had the opportunity to work for Haldane. He was born a British citizen and was a professor at Cambridge and at the University College London before he left Britain for India over objections to Britain’s international policies. He saw in India “the closest approximation to the free world”, which should give those of us who think badly of this country some pause:

Perhaps one is freer to be a scoundrel in India than elsewhere. So one was in the U.S.A in the days of people like Jay Gould, when (in my opinion) there was more internal freedom in the U.S.A than there is today. The “disgusting subservience” of the others has its limits. The people of Calcutta riot, upset trams, and refuse to obey police regulations, in a manner which would have delighted Jefferson. I don’t think their activities are very efficient, but that is not the question at issue.

He was also a card-carrying Marxist, but had his reservations about whether communism would work in the real world. Which brings me to the essay from the title of this post. I was pointed to it by Prof. Mahendra Verma. The essay(text here) came up because we were talking about camber and lift and powered flight. Haldane’s essay is a joy to read, and his keen interest in, and insight into, various branches of science (the social sciences included) beyond biology is evident.

All too often, people tend to ignore the limitations that physics imposes on life. Haldane talks about the limitations that the ability of flight imposes on the animal possessing it. There is, for example, a simple physical reason that objects that fly cannot be too large: the power required to fly grows faster than the size of the object (assuming the shape of the body doesn’t change). Therefore, for instance, “An angel whose muscles developed no more power weight for weight than those of an eagle or a pigeon would require a breast projecting for about four feet to house the muscles engaged in working its wings, while to economize in weight, its legs would have to be reduced to mere stilts.”

I do have an interesting (to me) technical point to make about the section of the essay that’s about flight. In the essay, Haldane says:

It is an elementary principle of aeronautics that the minimum speed needed to keep an aeroplane of a given shape in the air varies as the square root of its length. If its linear dimensions are increased four times, it must fly twice as fast.

The amount of lift (or drag) that a body can produce in a flow is a function of the Reynolds number (a non-dimensional parameter that combines the velocity of flight, the size of the body, and the resistance from the medium). The square-of-velocity rule that Haldane implicitly assumes is only valid for large Reynolds numbers. For a bird with a wingspan of about 1 metre, flying at about 1 metre per second in air, the Reynolds number is about 100,000. This falls in the regime in which the velocity-squared rule can indeed be applied.

The drag on a sphere as a function of the Reynolds number is still a problem of active interest. At low Reynolds numbers, the drag is proportional to velocity (if you know about the Stokes drag (= 6πμrv), you know this). But the drag increases more quickly than the velocity, becoming proportional to the square of the velocity for large Reynolds numbers (which is to say large velocities, if you assume that the same body as before is being used).

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Jon Stewart on Israel

This is an American election season, which means that the war-rhetoric flows thick and fast from people running for public office in America; war-rhetoric centred around their professed hatred of the idea that Iran might build itself a nuclear bomb, and their unquestionable love for Israel.

Part of the reason for this love for Israel is rather ghoulish: about 40% of America’s voting population believes that the rapture is going to occur within their lifetime. And central to the story of how the rapture will happen is for the Jewish people to regain the promised land, Israel. This happened with the dying breath of the empire on which the sun never set, and anything that threatens the status quo must be neutralised. Oh, what happens to the Jewish people when the rapture does come, you ask? The Earth will split and swallow all of them into a lake of fire, yes sir.

Talking about a Benjamin Netanyahu speech, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, America’s best news source, makes the point that we might well see a nuclear(?) war in the middle east because politicians in Iran, Israel and America can’t stop out-flanking each other on the crazy talk, on account of all three nations have elections coming up. The political stance on Israel in America ranges all the way from ‘I unequivocally support them and might bomb Iran’ to ‘I unequivocally support them and will definitely bomb Iran’.

There are, however, some politicians willing to say something against this idiocy: ‘Israel is not about to be destroyed… with his crazy analogies, the Prime Minister is diverting attention from Iran to his fearmongering’, or ‘Netanyahu’s words on Iran sound like a calculated preparation for a reckless adventure’, or ‘Israel is making a mistake in its unwillingness to recognise a Palestinian state.’ All of which were said by members of the Israeli Knesset.

‘Because apparently in Israel, you are allowed to publicly criticise the Israeli government and still hold public office.’

Der Leiermann – The Organ-grinder

The title of this post is the name of a Franz Schubert composition and a poem by somebody called Wilhelm Mueller that I simply love. I came across the song in the movie ‘In Bruges’. The poem itself is in German, and I had to find a translation to understand the words; but the music is so appropriate to the mood of the poem that one almost doesn’t have to. The music is haunting and simple, and captures the sheer melancholy, the starkness, of the emotion in the poem that is so gripping.

Wilhelm Müller:

Der Leiermann

Drüben hinterm Dorfe
Steht ein Leiermann,
Und mit starren Fingern
Dreht er, was er kann.

Barfuß auf dem Eise
Schwankt er hin und her;
Und sein kleiner Teller
Bleibt ihm immer leer.

Keiner mag ihn hören,
Keiner sieht ihn an;
Und die Hunde brummen
Um den alten Mann.

Und er läßt es gehen
Alles, wie es will,
Dreht, und seine Leier
Steht ihm nimmer still.

Wunderlicher Alter,
Soll ich mit dir gehn?
Willst zu meinen Liedern
Deine Leier drehn?

Wilhelm Müller:

The Organ-Grinder

Way behind the hamlet
stands an organ man
and with freezing fingers
grinds the best he can.

Barefoot on the snowbank
swaying to and fro –
and his little plate has
ne’er a coin to show.

No-one comes to listen,
no-one comes to greet,
and the dogs are growling
at the old man’s feet.

And he lets it happen,
lets it as it will –
cranking – and his organ
never staying still.

Strangest of the Ancients,
must I walk with you?
Will you grind my Lieders
on your organ, too?

There are several renditions of the song by tenors. All the ones I’ve heard are good. Find the ones by Andreas Schmidt, Thomas Quasthoff, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

I found the translation of this and another poem, along with an essay on Schubert’s passion for his work, and much else besides, on this website. I’ve copied the translation to ‘Der Leiermann’ here, but please do go to the original website for everything else.

Brahmins have become a ‘minority’

I’ve written about caste-based reservation in the past, more than once. Caste-based reservation has been mainstream political fait accompli in this country since independence. However, there is a small but vocal group of people taking the contrarian position on this and arguing that brahmins are in fact the most oppressed community. Like in this video:

Now, most of the video is just a display of some mixture of hubris and self-pity from people who think they deserve better: “I’m a Brahmin and this is what my life has come to. But I tell you I will starve to death, but not clean toilets for a living.” There’s nothing I can say or do that will make their lives better, and barring that, I have no right to say they shouldn’t be bitter about how their lives have turned out.

What I can do, however, is list the statistics that the video quotes, sometimes with references, and show you how the makers of the video are trying to mislead you. My comments are in red, right under each statistic quoted (or simply made-up) in the video. Read the entirety of what I have to say, if you have the time. If you don’t (or won’t), here’s the short-version: the makers of the video have deliberately misquoted statistics, taken statistics out of context, or simply made up data that you or I have no way of checking. So:

1. 50% of the rickshaw-pullers in Patel Nagar in Delhi are brahmins.

I leave to you to guess how the makers of the video went about determining this statistic. More importantly, I leave you to guess why they think this statistic matters in making national policy. ‘75% of the brahmins living in the house next to me are idiots. I therefore demand that the government announce free special teaching for brahmins.’

2. In the 5-18 age group, 44 per cent brahmin students stopped education at the primary level and 36% at the matriculation level.

That’s 80% of Brahmins who have no more than a class 10 education? Does that seem reasonable to you? Here’s a study from the Azim Premji Foundation that compiles data on education and caste and other social factors. Go to p. 36:

Almost all empirical studies in the field of primary education, in different parts of the country, demonstrate the fact that the social status in terms of caste affects the schooling patterns of children. Scheduled caste and backward caste children have a lower chance of enrolment, grade attainment and completion of primary schooling compared to the upper caste children. (Acharya 1994, Unni 1996, Duraiswamy 1998, Dreze and Kingdon 2001, Vasavi and Mehendale 2003, Jha and Jhingran 2002, Ramachandran Vimala 2003, Visaria and Visaria 1993, Kanbargi and Kulkarni 1991, Sheriff 1991, Kaul 2001, Sipahimalani 1996, Vaidyanathan and Nair 2001, Reddy Shiva et al. 1992).

3. The last 400,000 brahmins of Kashmir are refugees in their own country.

The ouster of the Kashmiri pandits from Kashmir had nothing to do with their being brahmin. (Also, Kashmiri pandits are refugees in India, not in their own country.)

4. 75% of domestic help and cooks in Andhra are brahmin.

This is bull. I know of no census that goes around asking domestic servants for their caste, but I’m hardly all-knowing so I did a search which, not surprisingly, turned up nothing. That you can make up random statistics doesn’t make you right. And it definitely doesn’t mean you should be allowed to set national policy.

5. 70% of brahmins rely on their hereditary vocation. Hundreds of families survive on Rs. 300 a month as priests in temples. (Department of Endowment Statistics)

Hundreds of families and 70% of brahmins in the country are not the same thing. A class 2 kid could have told you as much. Maybe the makers of the video were right about the education statistics… NOT.

6. At TN’s Ranganathaswamy temple, a priest’s salary is Rs. 300 a month and one measure of rice per day. Govt. staff at the temple receive Rs. 2500 a month.

More than enough reason to quit the priest’s job and take up the better paying job, wouldn’t you say?

7. Brahmins and other upper castes constitute 36% of the population of the country (National Sample Survey ’99 report).

The first caste-based census since 1903 was done last year, and the statistics are still being worked out. Depending on how you define ‘other upper castes’, this statistic can always be defended. 

8. ‘Brahmins of India’ by J. Radhakrishna says that all purohits today live below the poverty line.

And if J. Radhakrishna says it, it must be true.

9. A paper by D. Narayana, Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum (CICRED Seminar on Poverty and Health, Feb 2005) shows (if you follow the link and look at the paper, you’ll see that the paper deals with one grama panchayat in Wayanad, and that trying to decide national policy from this sample would be stupid. But the people making the video haven’t even quoted statistics from the paper truthfully)

(a) 69.8% of brahmin and upper castes never went past 12th class.

Compare this to what was said in (2). Did these people think that nobody would bother to check if the numbers add up? Moreover, that the number quoted above is typical of all castes in that panchayat, and university education is dominated by the upper castes (25% of the upper caste population has a university education.)

(b) 52.4% of brahmin and upper caste farmers don’t own land bigger than 100 cents.

Compare this number to the number for other castes (85% for OBC, 78% for SC/ST), and you’ll know that the makers of the video are not so much ill-informed as actively disingenuous and divisive.

(c) 53.9% of the upper caste population is below the poverty line.

More bull. The number for the entire country is about 35%. SCs and STs in this country are poorer than the upper castes, and at least the SC/STs seem to be getting relatively poorer (according to this study about the 1990s and this study from 2010.

10. 70% of the people employed by the 1783 public toilets in Delhi are upper caste hindus.

Whichever bodily orifice the makers pulled this number out from, I have to ask what this obsession with public toilets is about. Gandhi was an ‘upper caste hindu’ and cleaned his own toilet. I believe his reasoning was that the toilet wasn’t going to clean itself.

I discovered after I wrote this that somebody else has talked about this video as well, although I see nothing even remotely approaching skepticism. As I’ve shown here, though, pretty much every statistic used in the video is ‘fudged’ in the sense that it’s either used out of context or simply made-up.

‘To be or not to be’: The free-will debate

Jerry Coyne has been writing about this for a long time now, as have several other people including Daniel Dennett and, now, Sam Harris. It is, of course, a question fundamental to how we human beings perceive ourselves in the grand scheme of things. Most people are unnerved by the possibility that they really don’t have free will.

This has been doing the rounds on the EMU circuit. Somebody pointed the rest of us to this article by Jerry Coyne about the illusion of free will. I’ve been talking to some people myself (hat tips: Aurko Roy, Parul Singh). In fact, Jerry Coyne has been writing about this for a long time now, as have several other people including Daniel Dennett and, now, Sam Harris. It is, of course, a question fundamental to how we human beings perceive ourselves in the grand scheme of things. Most people are unnerved by the possibility that they really don’t have free will.

The conventional (religious or religion-inspired)  position is that we do have free will. It isn’t hard to figure out why: how do you justify heaven and hell if you had no choice in what you did? But like many other things, the existence of free will is a scientific question in that it is testable. The only answer we should be willing to accept is a scientific one. And people have tried to do this. There are experiments, for instance, that show that subjects have already made their decisions long before they are consciously aware of their decisions, suggesting that the conscious will of the subject had no role to play in the decision.

The implications of accepting that free will is nonexistent are dramatic (\end{understatement}). Terms like good and bad would lose all relevance when it comes to people’s actions. Would you, for example, punish people for crimes if they had no control over what they did? The utilitarians among us might say that punishment should nevertheless be meted out for crimes because this would simply be some sort of negative reinforcement against the causes of the crime; that there is a human being involved should change nothing about the argument. I think it is safe to say that it would be more humane to take these findings into consideration. Like Jerry Coyne says, this is already in some ways a part of jurisprudence (a murder committed by somebody with no control over their actions because of a brain tumour is punished less severely).

What, if any, impact will this have on our daily lives? I think I agree with Jerry Coyne that the answer is ‘basically nothing’. The illusion of free will is too deeply ingrained for us to do something about it (we also don’t have the will to do it, if you think about it). But it must give us pause to realise that we’re basically automatons in a mindless universe. Sort of like this.