Archive for November, 2008

Disclaimer: This is not a post contrary to the nature of this blog. This is not a political post as some might think. My blog is basically about science and I mention I have an interest in people and minds, and this is what this particular post is about. No politics or political opinions in this post at all.

I think my job and aim (one of them) in life is to do good science and I think politics should be kept out of science. Scientists though entitled to have strong opinions on these matters should focus on their primary work and not take their opinions (unless very necessary) beyond general coffee break discussions.

Edit(1 Dec 2008): I realize that there could be a confusion by what I meant by the above paragraph, a clarification is issued in the comments here.


Terrorism invokes a wide range of responses depending on the crowd one is looking at. One that is common from most societies goes along these lines – “Outrageous”, “Cowards”, “Retards”, “Beasts”, and  one could add to that a lot of censored words also. Which is almost immediately followed by diatribes on societies and religions either out in the open or in hushed tones.

There has been a major terrorist strike in the Indian city of Mumbai today morning, killing scores and more importantly aimed to destabilize a country growing in clout rapidly (eyewitness account on the attacks). Ofcourse the terrorists would never succeed in that for a multiplicity of reasons, however this is not the objective of my post. India has been under attack by terror for more than one and a half decade now, more than what any other country has faced in the world.

After such strikes there are a number of animated discussions with people thumping their desks and asking angrily: Where is security for the citizen? Where are the security forces? Where are the Intelligence and spy agencies? Where is the government? Is it sleeping? And a number of other totally understandable questions which are expected from and SHOULD come from any citizen who would get angry or upset after such incidences. A lot of people say: destroy terrorist hideouts, destroy terror networks, kill all terrorists etc. Fair enough. But the basic question that most people duck is what actually makes terrorists? What prompts a young man to hold a gun and indulge in suicidal behavior and kill innocent people indiscriminately, almost heartlessly?

I had been reading on this for some time now, for almost three four years, and also I have some gifts in terms of sound observational powers to do some people watching to understand and make sense of things. Over the past couple of years, books that have resonated with my own understanding of the situation which i don’t claim to be above that of a novice, but nonetheless that of a concerned world citizen have been:

1. A review by Freeman Dyson of Dan Dennett’s book “Breaking The Spell”. Dyson has become one  writer on science and human nature whose opinions I greatly respect. Though I don’t agree with a considerable chunk of his ideas, they are most thought provoking anyway. And in my opinion thought provoking ideas are the most important.

2. Daniel Dennett: Breaking the Spell;

3. Marc Sageman: Understanding Terror Networks;

4. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney : Kamikaze Diaries – Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers;

A Memetics Based Social Prespective:


Daniel Dennett’s thesis is interesting, thought provoking and to a large extent true. I have written on this on a previous post. Since then there has been considerable refinement in my thoughts on it. And though I lost my patience in the post that time, I would largely still agree with Dennett’s idea. Taking some parts from that post with considerable editing (the quote below has also been taken from my previous post, this is a part of a presentation that Dan Dennett made at TED):

So you are out in the woods or this pasture, and you see this Ant crawling up this blade of grass. It climbs up to the top, and it climbs and it falls and it climbs and it falls and it climbs, trying to stay at the very top of this blade of grass. What is this Ant doing? What is it in aid of? What goals is this ant trying to achieve by climbing this blade of grass? What’s in it for the ant?

And the answer is NOTHING! There is nothing in it for the Ant. Well then, why is it doing this? Is it just a fluke? Yeah it is just a fluke.

It is a Lancet Fluke, it’s a little parasitic brain worm that has to get into the stomach of a sheep or a cow in order to continue its life cycle. So salmons, you know swim upstream to get to their spawning grounds and Lancet Flukes commandeer this passing Ant, crawl into its brain and drive it up a blade of grass like an all terrain vehicle. So there is nothing in it for the Ant, the Ant’s brain has been hijacked by a parasite that infects the brain inducing suicidal behavior.

An analogy to the above is seen in humans, For example terrorists can be seen in parallel to the “Ant” I mentioned above with their brain been hijacked by “virulent ideas” (parallel to the lancet fluke) inducing suicidal behavior. Such “ideas” are more or less embedded in their brains and removing these toxic ideas is rather difficult if not impossible. This “embedding” of “virulent” ideas is caused by a number of socio-economic factors like anger towards other cultures, trauma, ignorance, anger over repression, social injustice and probably also hate. Such embedding takes place culturally over a long period of time, after which it becomes a part and parcel of the vector (human) carrying it. If one hears stories of how the world has been cruel and unjust and how the world is out to destroy your own world from childhood, that person  will definitely be filled of hate. There are many other “ideas to die for”, like a lot of people have laid down their lives for Communism, Capitalism, Love can be said to be another brain parasite that can induce “abnormal” behavior. Others may be freedom, religion, etc.

Please Note: “Parasite” and “abnormal” are used in a neutral context. Let us say that an idea that alters behavior considerably is a “parasite” (treat it just as a word than a harmful word) and the resulting altered behavior is “abnormal”. Please do not take the literal meanings of these words used. I don’t mean to say that love is a “parasite” in the literal sense. ;-) . (Note ends).

Basically “Ideas” are like lancet flukes, entering the brains of their hosts and encouraging them to work for the continuance of the idea rather than the host or his/her progeny. On the other hand, some ideas (say like love) doubtless make their hosts more fit to survive and propagate, at least through this one mechanism, in a way they are similar to genes (that is why i mentioned that the basic scheme here is to apply evolutionary principles to how we think and behave).  And ofcourse ideas mutate – this leads to what is called the misinterpretation of the original idea by the masses.

This memetics based synthesis explains to some extent why terrorists are generally from poor, uneducated and sometimes extremely orthodox and fundamentalist backgrounds and societies. But Dennett’s treatment which speaks of virus like ideas propagating, getting mutated and propagating further, though nice and reasonable has some problems. It could be one part of the various reasons to what makes terrorists and terror networks, it (social unrest, brainwashing etc what I have covered above) though a necessary condition might not be a sufficient condition. One more reason could be what is explored and reviewed in the next part.

I was reading the review of Dennett’s book by Dyson which introduced me to two books, both extremely interesting. In most of the west and elsewhere too, the idea of looking at terrorists is looking at them as mad zombies, who are totally dehumanized, with their thought process driven by hate alone.

This view is challenged by the two books Dyson’s review introduced me to.

Kinship Amongst Cell Members:


Marc Sageman is a professor of psychiatry and ethnopolitical conflict at the University of Pennsylvania. Sageman was a foreign service and CIA officer and was posted in Pakistan in the late 80s at the time of the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan and had worked closely with the Mujahideen which made him intimately familiar with the working and structure of such networks. He in the book writes that as contrary to popular belief the bonds holding the people together in terror groups are more personal than political. Citing good evidence Sageman asserts that economic backwardness, ignorance, religious zealotry and the likes are not enough to attract the youth to terror organizations (as I mentioned at the end of the previous part), one of the prime reasons is to escape alienation. Quoting him:

Despite popular accounts of the 9/11 perpetrators in the press, in-group love rather than out group hate seems to be a better explanation for their behavior.

Such kinship gives rise to semi-independent cells and dispells the notion that recruitment in terror organizations is top-down as believed. Such comradeship also makes it difficult for intelligence agencies to track or find out information about secret operations. I will now talk about another interesting piece and then will return to Sageman’s work.

The image of the Kamikaze pilots at the end of the second world war in America was similar to what terrorists have today. The Kamikaze pilots were Japanese aviators involved in suicide missions against the allied shipping towards the end of the war, their aim being to destroy as many ships as possible.

uss_columbia_attacked_by_kamikaze[USS Columbia Attacked by a Kamikaze Suicide Mission: Wikipedia]

The book by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Kamikaze Diaries:Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers, contains extracts from diaries of Kamikaze pilots who knew they were going to die in suicide missions. As opposed to western ideas about the Kamikaze pilots, their diaries were absolutely clear in thought, free from illusions and astonishingly lucid. Some of the pilots who had had western education wrote down their tragic views of life in clear poetry. These were simple young men, neither brainwashed nor nationalistic bigots. Their diaries give a poignant point of view of the war from their frame of reference.


Now the connection that Dyson drew from the two books was extremely interesting and made perfect sense to me once it was mentioned, something of the sort: oh! why didn’t this occur to me! He goes on to elaborate, that though we don’t have first hand testimonies from many terrorists involved in suicide missions, and most probably these terrorists were not even hardly educated as well as the Kamikaze pilots, and were probably more influenced by religion and hate. However it can’t be said that they are zombies, but are fighters in a secret brotherhood that gives meaning and purpose to their lives. they are like good soldiers enlisted for an evil cause. Like the Kamikaze pilots they are motivated mostly by kinship to their comrades than by hate towards the enemy. Once the operation has been decided on by the ideologues (Dennett applies to these people very well. Not so much to the common person), it would have been unthinkable not to carry it out.

Though there are considerable differences between 1945 and 2001-08, both Sageman and Dyson write and I almost totally agree that there are a lot of similarities. The minds of the Kamikaze pilots could give clues to what goes on in the minds of terrorists on suicide missions. Thus to really prevent youth from being lured to such organizations we need to understand first what our enemies stand for and how they work.

I think the three probably unrelated references make a good case on what drives a young lad to become a terrorist. How can we prevent this from happening? This I think readers would have a better view. Also I am not trying to suggest that intelligence and other policing is to be reduced in any way.

Recommended Reads and References:

1. Review of “Breaking the Spell (link below)” By Freeman Dyson on NYRB.

2. Breaking the Spell: Religion as  Natural Phenomenon – Daniel Dennett.

3. Understanding Terror Networks – Marc Sageman.

4. Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers – Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney.

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The idea of spherical robots is not new, however they are still interesting and Rotundus, the spherical robot that happened to be in the Popular Science best of ’08 is very interesting.

groundbot[Groundbot, Image Soure: PopSci]

Click to Enlarge

The Rotundus is driven by a pendulum inside the spherical casing. This pendulum controlled by a motor gives the robot direction. Getting the pendulum to move forward makes the robot to roll forward and moving it left or right gives it the ability to steer. The makers of this robot hope to make it autonomous with improvements. They hope to integrate in it a GPS so that it can follow specified routes to patrol and to incorporate radar sensors to help move about obstacles. They also plan to give it sufficient power to move up on slopes.


[Rotundus: Image Source]

From Popular Science:

The GroundBot is a spherical sentry designed to roll up to 6 mph through just about anything—mud, sand, snow and even water. Two gyroscopically steadied wide-angle cameras and a suite of sensors give remote operators a real-time, 360-degree view of the landscape, letting them zoom in on prowlers or detect gas leaks, radioactivity and biohazards. Originally invented by Swedish physicists to explore other planets, the GroundBot features a tough design that requires almost no maintenance and can also be programmed to run autonomously. Its sealed shell protects its interior against grit and allows it to survive steep drops, while a rubber skin dampens vibration and provides traction. To get rolling, the robot simply shifts its weight. Its center of mass is suspended from a pendulum inside the sphere, so motors just push the pendulum to the front, to the back, or to the side. Lithium-ion batteries provide up to 16 hours of spy time.

The advantages of a spherical robot are manifold, its design is extremely non-complicated. It offers good protection to the sensors and equipment sealed inside the sphere. Rotundus is very light, just about 25 Kilos, but the low weight advantage is multiplied as the rotundus is sealed. That means that it has a low density and can thus float. Thus it may be used to operate on-road, off-road and over water! Sealing the bot has other advantages than simply allowing the robot to have low density so that it can float, it also ensures that no sand can get inside to interfere with the motors and etc. The sealing also makes the robot of good use in gas leak scenarios as electrical sparks (if any) in the inside are sealed off. The design also makes the robot a very silent operator.

Check the following video showing the Rotundus roll along in snow:

A group of Rotundus robots may be used as helper bots along with the new Mars rover, the SUV sized Mars Research Laboratory that is expected to be launched by next fall.

The Rotundus has some obvious limitations. Like it can’t operate properly inside buildings as it can’t move up stairs. For such purposes biologically inspired bots remain the best bet IMO. See some of them here, really cool research:

Quick Links:

1. Rotundus

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I wrote rather passionately about J. Robert Oppenheimer in one part of a previous post marking an anniversary of the first nuclear bombings. Those interested in Oppenheimer’s life might be interested in reading that part.

I read American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Buy it) by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin between 14-29 October. And it is amongst the best biographies I have read. It is a very different book, it is not inspiring like some biographies on great men are. It is not philosophical or based on some mad pursuit. I have never seen such a well researched biography before. Sometimes I found the details about Oppenheimer’s personal life nauseating, but that just indicates the amount of surveillance he was under.

This book is not inspiring, it is haunting*.


[American Prometheus- Kai Bird, Martin Sherwin. Image Source ]

A Pulitzer prize winner (2006), this book chronicles the life of physicist, administrator, poet, American patriot and the father of the atomic bomb from his very early days to his last. The authors delve into every aspect of Oppenheimer’s life from his birth, to his time in England and Germany as a student. His leftist days at Berkeley, his love interests, his role in the Manhattan project, his public humiliation in the security hearings of 1954 at the height of the red scare and his quiet life after that, till his death. Twenty five years of research by the authors culminated into a devastatingly sad biography of one of the most famous men of all time.

The prologue in the book quotes George Kennan (1904-2005) the famous American diplomat now known as the father of the containment policy during the red scare as saying the following about him:

“In the dark day of the early fifties, when troubles crowded in upon him from many sides and when he found himself harassed by his position at the center of controversy, I drew his attention to the fact that he would be welcomed in a hundred academic centers abroad and asked him whether he had not thought of taking academic residence outside this country. His answer, given to me with tears in his eyes: ‘Damn it, I happen to love this country’

The book is divided into 5 parts and 40 chapters, each part covering a stage in his life. I would request all who get the opportunity to read this book, even those who have personal enmity with science and scientists but read once in a while about general things.

Some sections of the book are striking and stunning and represent major turning points in the book and just stand out.

While reading I observed that the authors place very clearly facts about the “Apple Incident” in which I was interested ever since I read about it, where in a state of depression and enormous emotional distress in his troubled student days at Cambridge, England in the autumn of 1925 Oppenheimer placed a “poisoned” apple on the desk of his head tutor, Patrick Blackett (few people know that Blackett was an adviser to Jawaharlal Nehru). The authorities learned of the incident and after some talking with his parents he was allowed to stay at Cambridge subject to the condition that he visit the psychiatrist as per a mandated chart. Oppenheimer gradually recovered and thrived in his golden intellectual days at Gottingen, Germany shortly afterwards when he produced some fundamental research and became known as one of the best quantum physicists of the time. The time bracket from this period at gottingen to his days as the Director of the Manhattan Project were his best days. By the end of 1945 Oppenheimer was one of the most famous physicists of the time.


[The above photo of Oppenheimer’s porkpie hat was the cover of Physics Today in May 1948, exemplifying the high regard and respect Oppenheimer commanded at that time. Image Soure]

Taking a brief digression, I’d cite two of my favorite quotes from the book:

After the emotional turmoil of his student days in England, Oppenheimer was always trying to be above that. His guiding principles were discipline and work. Quoting him from a letter to his brother.

Discipline is good for the soul is more fundamental than any of the grounds given for its goodness. I believe that through discipline, though not through discipline alone, we can achieve serenity, and a certain small but precious measure of freedom from the accidents of incarnation…I believe that through discipline we learn to preserve what is essential to our happiness in more and more adverse circumstances, and to abandon with simplicity what would else have seemed to us indispensable.

There is another fantastic quote attributed to P.A.M Dirac, the legendary physicist who was known to be eccentrically single minded to his dedication of science. Once Oppenheimer gave him several books as a gift. Dirac politely refused and remarked:

Reading books interfered with thought.

The Beast In the Jungle: I mentioned just a paragraph earlier that there were some very strong parts in the book that represented a watershed in his life. Some of them were just stunning. Like this part named “The Beast In the Jungle“. Until this section of the book Oppenheimer had been doing fine even though the number of his enemies were increasing. It was after this chapter that his decline began or rather accelerated.

The authors mention that Oppenheimer had harbored a vague sort of a premonition that something dark was in store for him in the future for a while. In the late 40s he read a novella by Henry James written in 1903 titled “The Beast in the Jungle“. James’ story was one of obsession, tormented egotism and as the authors put it, of existential foreboding. The story is very short, I have placed a link below to read the book from, for those interested. I could finish it under a couple of hours only. The basic plot of this story is as (from wikipedia):

John Marcher, the protagonist, is reacquainted with May Bartram, a woman he knew ten years earlier, who remembers his odd secret: Marcher is seized with the belief that his life is to be defined by some catastrophic or spectacular event, lying in wait for him like a “beast in the jungle.” May decides to buy a house in London with the money she got from her Great-Aunt who passed away, and to spend her days with Marcher curiously awaiting what fate has in store for him. Marcher is a hopeless egoist, who believes that he is precluded from marrying so that he does not subject his wife to his “spectacular fate”.

He takes May to the theatre and invites her to an occasional dinner, but does not allow her to get close to him. As he sits idly by and allows the best years of his life to pass, he takes May down as well, until the denouement where he learns that the great misfortune of his life was to throw it away, and to ignore the love of a good woman, based upon his preposterous sense of foreboding.

Oppenheimer was struck by the charge of the story and asked his friend Herb Marks to read it. After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the authors write citing evidence Oppenheimer lived with a similar feelings that someday he would be struck by his “beast in the jungle” which would alter his whole life. Oppenheimer knew he was kept track of and that people in the Govt and the intelligence were looking for evidence to destroy him. As it turned out, his beast in the jungle was Lewis Strauss, who destroyed him.

Einstein and Oppenheimer: The parts on Einstein in the book were interesting.

Oppenheimer and Einstein at IAS[Einstein and Oppenheimer at IAS: Image source]

The book mentions Einstein in numerous instances throughout. However the ones related to Oppenheimer are the ones that I intend to touch upon.

Einstein could not understand why Oppenheimer was so keen on maintaining access to Washington and the echelons of the government. Einstein by instinct disliked politicians, and figures of authority. I quoted him in one previous post on this:

To punish me for my contempt of authority, fate made me an authority myself.

Einstein was always uncomfortable with attention is a well known fact to all those who admire him. There was this unforgettable quote in the book by him. On Einstein’s 71st birthday, Oppenheimer was walking him to his residence and Einstein said:

You know, when it’s once been given to a man to do something sensible, afterward life is a little strange.

Einstein suggested to Oppenheimer that he resign just taking into account the sheer outrageousness of the attacks on him. Einstein had left Germany when the Nazi nationalist frenzy swept the country and never set his foot on Germany again. He believed that the rise of McCarthyism in America was alarming, and he thought that Oppenheimer would end up humiliating himself.

As the authors note that Einstein’s instincts were right. He confided to a friend:

Oppenheimer is not a gypsy like me, I was born with the skin of an Elephant; there is no one who can hurt me.

and he thought that Oppenheimer was the reverse.

I would once again suggest the book to everyone who can set his/her hands on it. I would also congratulate the authors for the extremely gripping and compelling biography, it is amazing to think that the authors could piece together research spread over 25 years in such a wonderful way and I am already not able to get myself to complete a 60 page report on a project based on Support Vector Machines, in which I don’t even have to “piece together” things.

* This line is in no way borrowed from, or inspired by the newsweek review on this book.


1. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer – Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin

2. The Beast in the Jungle – Henry James (Download it from Project Gutenberg)

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I got linked to by a blog today morning and I wanted to see what it was about. It turned out to be a web-log on the author’s digital photography, compositions of multiple images taken by him and images post processing. Some of the processed images are beautiful. Consider a sample:


[The Spirit of Autumn]

The above image christened The Spirit of Autumn is actually a composition of 3 different images taken on a digital camera. The resultant image was then processed further in GIMP (GNU based image manipulation tools) to get a wonderful output.

2678796319_0db988b36d[Through a Glass Wetly]

I am strongly attracted to painted abstract art, and very rarely to digital art (though I like ingenious fractals and mathematical figures) however this work is truly deserving of a hearty applause. Interestingly, the author pursues photography as a hobby. You can check out some of his other art work at his web-log here.

Image processing is one of my most favorite subjects and I have been involved in projects concerning some Image Processing too, however I think I should move beyond looking at MRI scans or X-rays once in a while and try my hand at post processing photographs taken by me (using tools ofcourse, not algorithms as such) to TRY and get as spectacular results as obtained by DJ Lenfirewood as above. LOL.


1. Download GIMP

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About two months back I came across a series of Reith lectures given by professor Vilayanur Ramachandran, Dr Ramachandran holds a MD from Stanley Medical College and a PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge University and is presently the director of the center for Brain and cognition at the University of California at San Diego and an adjunct professor of biology at the Salk Institute. Dr Ramachandran is known for his work on behavioral neurology, which promises to greatly enhance our understanding of the human brain, which could be the key in my opinion in making “truly intelligent” machines.


[Dr VS Ramachandran: Image Source- TED]

I heard these lectures two three times and really enjoyed them and was intrigued by the cases he presents. Though these are old lectures (they were given in 2003), they are new to me and I think they are worth sharing anyway.

For those who are not aware, the Reith lectures were started by the British Broadcasting Corporation radio in 1948. Each year a person of high distinction gives these lectures. The first were given by mathematician Bertrand Russell. They were named so in the honor of the first director general of the BBC- Lord Reith. Like most other BBC presentations on science, politics and philosophy they are fantastic. Dr Ramachandran became the first from the medical profession to speak at Reith.

The 2003 series named The Emerging Mind has five lectures, each being roughly about 28-30 minutes. Each are a trademark of Dr Ramachandran with funny anecdote, witty arguments, very intersting clinical cases, the best pronunciation of “billions” since Carl Sagan, and let me not mention the way he rolls the RRRRRRRs while talking. Below I don’t intend to write what the lectures are about, I think they should be allowed to talk for themselves.

Lecture 1: Phantoms in the Brain

lecture1Listen to Lecture 1 | View Lecture Text

Lecture 2: Synapses and the Self


Listen to Lecture 2 | View Lecture Text

Lecture 3: The Artful Brain


Listen to Lecture 3 | View Lecture Text

Lecture 4: Purple Numbers and Sharp Cheese


Listen to Lecture 4 | View Lecture Text

Lecture 5: Neuroscience the new Philosophy


Listen to Lecture 5 | View Lecture Text

[Images above courtesy of the BBC]

Note: Real Player required to play the above.

As a bonus to the above I would also advice to those who have not seen this to have a look at the following TED talk.

In a wide-ranging talk, Vilayanur Ramachandran explores how brain damage can reveal the connection between the internal structures of the brain and the corresponding functions of the mind. He talks about phantom limb pain, synesthesia (when people hear color or smell sounds), and the Capgras delusion, when brain-damaged people believe their closest friends and family have been replaced with imposters.

Again he talks about curious disorders. One that he talks about in the above video, the Capgras Delusion is only one among the many he talks about in the Reith lectures. Other things that he talks about here is the origin of language and synesthesia.

Now look at the picture below and answer the following question: Which of the two figures is Kiki and which one is Bouba?

500px-booba-kikisvgIf you thought that the one with the jagged shape was Kiki and the one with the rounded one was Bouba then you belong to the majority. The exceptions need not worry.

These experiments were first conducted by the German gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Kohler and were repeated with the names “Kiki” and “Bouba” given to these shapes by VS Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard. In their experiments, they found a very strong inclination in their subjects to name the jagged shape Kiki and the rounded one Bouba. This happened with about 95-98 percent of the subjects. The experiments were repeated in Tamil speakers and then in babies of about 3 years of age. (who could not write) The results were similar. The only exceptions being in people having autistic disorders where the percentage reduced to only 60.

Dr Ramachandran and Dr Hubbard went on to suggest that this could have implications in our understanding of how language evolved as it suggests that naming of objects is not a random process as held by a number of views but depends on the appearance of the object under consideration. The strong “K” in Kiki had a direct correlation with the jagged shape of that object, thus suggesting a non-arbitrary mapping of objects with the sounds associated with them.

In the above talk and also the lectures, he talks about Synesthesia, a condition wherein the subject associates a color on seeing black and white numbers and letters with each.

His method of studying rare disorders to understand what in the brain does what is very interesting and is giving insights much needed to understand the organ that drives innovation and well, almost everything.

I highly recommend all the above lectures and the video above.

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It is logical to believe that there exist millions of planets in the “vicinity” of our part of the universe alone. However, limited due to tools and the extremely vast distances to be dealt with, we have only been to locate about 300 extra-solar planets, and these have been located indirectly. That is, by observing gravitational wobbles by tracking the star over a period of time it can be known if it is tugged at by an object like a planet.

Why is it difficult to Image the actual planets, one might ask? Well the reason is simple, the distances we deal with are so huge the star simply outshines the planet, making it very difficult to image the planets moving around the star. How does one avoid this problem? The idea is very practical. A occulting bar is used to block out the brightest part of the star’s image so that the blinding light is reduced. Other more specialized techniques can improve things by reducing the light further.

Also another strategy used by professional astronomers looking into deep space for planets over the last two decades has been to focus on systems expected around young stars. The reason being that if the formation of the planetary system is recent the planets would be significantly brighter from the heat of their formation. Much like our early solar system. It would be very difficult to look into space for a planet that is nestled in a star system like that of our Sun of today. This is because the planets would be very very faint (as they would be older and hence colder) and hence very very difficult to image.

However for the first time we have ACTUALLY been able to see extra-solar planets. This is a HUGE step, culminating from years of painstaking observations and focus. These planets are gaseous and probably will have no trace of life. However, the fact that we have been able to image them has a LOT of meaning. Some astronomers have said that it might not be very fantastic to think that we might in a very short time vector be able to observe some Earth like planet that is more likely to have life (carbon based, atleast of the type we know), now this is something that one could not even THINK of some years ago. It was probably fantasy to think we could be able to image planets like our own, now suddenly it looks quite possible.

The first image below, taken by the Hubble telescope shows a ring of dust surrounding the star Fomalhaut (derived from the Arabic فم الحوت fum al-ḥawt, meaning “mouth of the whale”) which is only 25 light years away in the constellation Piscis Australis. This star can be seen with the naked eye in the night sky. The lower right inset image is a composite image from the images taken in 2004 and 2006. Paul Kalas and his team of the University of California at Berkeley found out the planet.  This planet completes orbit around its star every 872 years.

fomalhaut[Image Source: HubbleSite]

The radial streaks are scattered starlight. The planet’s temperature is 260 degrees, quite cool compared to other exoplanets. This dot is about three times the weight of Jupiter and about three times as far from the star as compared to how far Pluto is from our sun. This dusty ring around Fomalhaut is suspected to be something like the Kuiper belt of our solar system.

This star system was expected to have planets in 2005.

The following is a video on the same:

A ring of dust surrounds the star Fomalhaut. Images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004 and 2006 show that a white dot just inside the dust ring moved in the intervening two years. Researchers believe the dot is a planet that weighs no more than 3 Jupiter masses and lies about three times as far from its star as Pluto does from the Sun (Courtesy of Paul Kalas/UC Berkeley)

Yet another fantastic finding was the discovery of a planetary trio orbiting the star HR 8799 in the constellation pegasus. About 130 light years away, the planets found are from 7-10 times the size of jovian Jupiter. With the farthest of the lot sitting at a distance of 68 AU from HR 8799 (1 AU is the distance between the earth and the Sun). These planets are still glowing because of the heat resulting from contraction after their formation. Their orbit was measured by far IR techniques at the Keck and Gemini North telescopes in Hawaii.


This near-infrared composite image shows the nearby star HR 8799 (multi-coloured blob) and its three planets (red dots at upper left, upper right and just below the star). The planets are 7 to 10 times as massive as Jupiter (Image: National Research Council Canada).

Wow! I am awed once again by the ability of astronomers to find out even the most obscure of dots amongst a nasty conundrum of dots. And even more by the discovery itself. And let me not talk about the images we have above.

I have always harbored a fantasy, that is to be on the crew of humans who get to travel to such a far off land on a Super Daedalus or Super Orion type space-ship. It would take some years (space-ship time). But ofcourse when I return to Earth I would not find anybody I know. For, centuries would have passed as per Earth time by the time I get back. ;)

Onrionesque Reality Home >>

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These comic attempts are intended for a very narrow audience (complexity scientists (which are not the same as scientists with complexes)), so don’t be surprised if you don’t find them funny… (they are silly anyway)

From Complex Humour

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