Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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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Richard Feynman has always been one of my role models. I have many role models but not that I like everything about them, just some particular traits. However for Feynman I was never very sure what i liked but I really like him. I hardly discussed Feynman with anyone but I gradually noticed that he was very popular, with a popularity amongst people who had heard of him rivaling Einstein.

[Richard Feynman: Image Source, Wikipedia Commons]

I never thought about it seriously on why he became so popular as he did, I mean there have been many physicists who did fundamental work but people have hardly heard of them. Take for example Poincaré and Einstein, Poincaré worked on the same things as Einstein and did very fundamental work, but people today have hardly heard of him but everybody knows Einstein. However the reasons for Einstein becoming popular are not very difficult to understand.

I had been provoked to think about it a few times after some discussions on a forum on Feynman that I own, a brief discussion in comments on Reasonable Deviations and once with a professor of mine. However I never thought about it beyond a point.

I have not read anything related to Feynman over the past year or so, but last week I just took out Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track from my own personal library and just read some letters that I had marked in my first reading a couple of years back as very incisive and insightful. I came across the foreword to the book by Timothy Ferris again and also a couple of reviews by Freeman Dyson on books on Feynman in Scientist as Rebel. I entirely agree with the analysis these two gentlemen give. And I would like to share it and add my own ideas and thoughts.

Being a great scientist and being famous are two separate things, like Ferris rightly points out that for every great scientist who became a public figure like Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Werner Heisenberg there are others who have done fantastic work like Subramanyam Chandrashekar, Linus Pauling etc who did not.

Let’s take a case from the above: Werner Heisenberg.

After the first world war, the dominant mood in Germany and in most of Europe was of doom. Dyson mentions in a review of the book “Weimar Culture, Causality, and Quantum Theory, 1918-1927: Adaptation by German Physicists and Mathematicians to a Hostile Intellectual Environment” that a theme song that represented this mood was Der Untergang des Abendlandes or Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, after the German defeat on the eastern front the book took Germany by storm and within some years almost everybody had read it and everybody talked about it. Even people who strongly thought that Spengler was indulging in false rhetoric were highly influenced by his work.  He said that the decay of the western civilization must bring with it a destruction of the rigid ideas in Classical Physics and Mathematics. Quoting him:

Each culture has its own new possibilities of self expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return. There is not one sculpture, one painting, one mathematics, one physics, but many, each in its deepest essence different from the other, each limited in duration and self contained…Western European physics let no-one deceive himself has reached the limit of its possibilities. This is the origin of the sudden and annihilating doubt that has arisen about things that even yesterday were the unchallenged foundation of physical theory, about the meaning of the energy principle, the concepts of mass, space, absolute time, and causal laws generally.

There were many similar works to follow up by other authors that built upon this environment. At about this time Hermann Weyl and Schroedinger were highly influenced by Spengler’s work and the mood in the country and the rest of Europe that was of revolutionary expectation. So, when Heisenberg actually came up with his theory it at that time was seen to challenge the primacy of causality in Physics. It was revolutionary.

[Werner Heisenberg]

The point being that Heisenberg became famous for reasons that largely were extraneous to his actual work. His work came in a period of great intellectual and philosophical turmoil and expectation. And hence he became as famous as he did.

Feynman worked with the Manhattan project and gained some notoriety from it but seldom made any headlines otherwise, and his work was not “revolutionary” in the broad sense above so again it is not clear what made him famous.

Actually that way Feynman was not a “revolutionary” at all. Quoting from Scientist as Rebel:

Great scientists come in two varieties, which Isaiah Berlin, quoting the seventh-century-BC poet Archilochus, called foxes and Hedgehogs. Foxes know many tricks, hedgehogs only one. Foxes are interested in everything, and move easily from one problem to another. Hedgehogs are interested only in a few problems which they consider fundamental and stick with them for years or decades. Most of the great discoveries are made by hedgehogs. most of the little discoveries by foxes. Science needs both hedgehogs and foxes for its healthy growth, hedgehogs to dig deep into the nature of things and foxes to explore the complicated details of our marvelous universe. Albert Einstein was a hedgehog, Richard Feynman was a fox

Feynman was a great storyteller as is apparent from “Surely You are Joking..” and “What do you care What other people think“. People of all ages always like storytellers. And his stories were very very spicy, very funny and very interesting. And through this his personality came to be known. Feynman’s appeal as Timothy Ferris rightly points out was more in his core conduct as a working scientist. His enthusiasm, freedom and integrity, reflected the spirit of science in action.

Feynman loved his freedom. He wrote home while on the Rogers Commission probing the Challenger Space Shuttle crash:

“I am completely free, and there are no lovers that can be used to influence me”

He always advocated in his own style freedom of choice for his students. Something that resonates with almost all of us when we look around at the rigid ideas about what is right and wrong and loads of bureaucracy. Most of us sometime or the other are harried by the “politically correct” ideas that infest social structure and academia. Feynman embodies a welcome change that finds favor with most people. As Dave Brooks wrote about him:

Feynman is the person that every geek wants to be: very smart, honored by the establishment even as he won’t play by its rules, admired by people of both the sexes, arrogant without being envied and humble without being pitied. In other words he is young Elvis, with earth shaking talent transferred from the larynx to the brain cells and enough sense to have avoided the fat Vegas phase. Is such celebritification of such scientists good? I think so, even if people do have a tendency to go overboard. Anything that gets us thinking about science is something to be admired, whether it comes in the form of an algorithm or an anecdote.

Another thing about Feynman was his integrity and humility. As Ferris rightly puts it and I agree with him from my own personal experience, once someone gets in a position of power he or she starts wielding that to defend their own views. As Einstein himself once remarked:

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

[Source: American Physical Society]

Such use of position though in a psychological way understandable, can be extremely irritating for the newbie, which everyone is at some point right? Feynman never got into that business. Again quoting Ferris:

He remained the instinctive rebel who sympathized with the students in the hall than the sage on the stage

He was a great authority himself. However he always preferred clarity of thought than anything else. He extremely disliked authority and honors. He thought they had no point and it was a rotten system in which a group of individuals would decide who is “good enough” to get an honor. He nearly declined the Nobel prize but later decided to take it at the insistence of his wife Gweneth. He said this when asked if it was worth winning the Nobel:

I don’t know anything about the Nobel prize. I don’t understand what it is all about and what’s worth what. And if the people in the Swedish academy decide that X,Y or Z should win a Nobel prize then so be it. I won’t have anything to do with it. It’s a pain in the neck. I don’t like honors, I appreciate it for the work I did and for people who appreciate it. I notice that other physicists use my work. I don’t need anything else. I don’t think there is any sense to anything else. I don’t see any point that some one in the Swedish academy decides that this is work is noble enough to receive a prize. I have already got my prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding things out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors. It bothers me, honors bother me, honors as epaulets, honors as uniforms. My pappa brought me up this way, I can’t stand it, it hurts me.

Feynman was always willing to admit his ignorance. Most of the times people around us talk in a way that is “clearer than they ACTUALLY think”, he never got into the trap. If he did not know anything then be it. He was never afraid of being uncertain and admitting that he did not know something. Look at the video below and let him talk about it himself (05:00 onwards)

A lot of people have read “Surely You are Joking..” but few have read the great Feynman Lectures in Physics. He was a great teacher, always taught in a racy non-linear style which was as if he was thinking out aloud instead of reading from notes prepared in advance. I still read some chapters from the Feynman lectures whenever there is the time. If you have such a teacher in your lifetime, it would be one of your greatest achievements. We are only lucky that we can have access to such books. Also one thing to note is that Feynman never really wrote a book, all the books that bear his name are actually compilations edited by somebody else, mostly from his audio-tapes.

In fact his seminal paper on the famous Feynman diagrams would have never been published had it not been for coaxing by friends. There is a funny anecdote regarding that, but let’s not get into that. For about a year after his work on Feynman diagrams he refused to publish it. He said he was just too lazy to do it, he could talk to anybody who wanted to listen about it. But he would not publish it. He frequently said he was a fool and extremely lazy. People avoid saying that, but he was just reflecting on human condition. Again something that strikes a chord equally amongst the less gifted and the well gifted.

The world has known him as a great scientist, a great teacher and a great clown. But in Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track we see another side of him. That of a wise counselor. He is not trying to be smart in any of the letters, just trying to be clear. He never spoke of his research or what he wanted to do in those letters, but they were only meant to help those who wanted to learn. The letters are a pleasure to read. Do read them if you have not.

And to think that people around us have SOME work and they start cribbing that they are just too busy to reply to a letter or even a text message, and here you had a great scientist, a Nobel laureate, a great teacher writing personally to the letters he used to get from all parts of the world, doesn’t it sound too good to be true? Every single letter in the collection is personal.

As Dyson writes:

I described him in a a letter to my parents as “half genius and half buffon”. Here in the letters he is neither a genius nor a buffon, but a wise counselor, interested in all kinds of people, answering their questions, and trying to help them the best he can.

He wrote letters to Kings, scientists, politicians, students, fans and just about anybody. Amongst these letters are some letters to his first wife Arline. Which describe day to day difficulty they had between their marriage and her death from TB. For most of these years Feynman was at the Manhattan project and Arline was at a nursing home some sixty miles away.

His letters to his second wife, Gweneth are full of anecdote about his travels. Some writing about the stupidity and snobbery of kings and some writing about the wonderful things in life.

He is famous as a great joker who played to the crowd. The prankster who found it was cool to break safes at Los Alamos or when it comes to trying to decode the Mayan Hieroglyphics or talking about adventures in topless bars. Feynman admired people with practical skill and said philosophers had no use. He controversially maintained that it was only through science that one could admire the true beauty of nature. He was a person of strong opinions.

But inspite of being a joker, a regular guy the general public could connect to and a genius he was a wise man.  When people came to him for help or wrote to him about problems, he spoke truth. His answers to most problems made a lot of sense and they still do. Be it concerning freedom, life, government etc. He mostly made great sense. I liked this part by Dyson most,

Like Einstein and Hawking he had come through times of great suffering, nursing Arline through her illness and watching her die, and emerged stronger. Behind his enormous zest and enjoyment of life was an awareness of tragedy, a knowledge that our time on Earth is short and precarious. The public made him into an icon because he was not only a great scientist and a great clown but also a great human being and a guide in time of trouble.

Recommended Reads and References:

1. Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track

2. Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman!

3. What You care what other people think

4. No Ordinary Genius

5. The Scientist as Rebel

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I started writing this post on 18 June with the singular aim of posting it by 22 June. The objective of this post was to celebrate the life and ideas of Tommy Gold (May 22, 1920 – June 22, 2004) on his fourth death anniversary. But after that I did not have much access to the Internet for reasons I had posted about earlier, and so sadly I missed that date. After that I did not edit and post it as I thought there would be little point. Now I think it is okay to  post it instead of deleting it all together. A tribute to Thomas Gold would still be the aim though I regret I could not post in time.

[Image Source]

Quoting Thomas Gold (Source):

New ideas in science are not always right just because they are new. Nor are the old ideas always wrong just because they are old. A critical attitude is clearly required of every scientist. But what is required is to be equally critical to the old ideas as to the new. Whenever the established ideas are accepted uncritically, but conflicting new evidence is brushed aside and not reported because it does not fit, then that particular science is in deep trouble – and it has happened quite often in the historical past. If we look over the history of science, there are very long periods when the uncritical acceptance of the established ideas was a real hindrance to the pursuit of the new. Our period is not going to be all that different in that respect, I regret to say.

This paragraph reminds me of a post on Gaping Void, a blog that I just discovered two days back on the fantastic Reasonable Deviations. The post, titled Good Ideas Have Lonely Childhoods is highly recommended to read, as a vast majority of good ideas are heretical and this post is on a heretic. Infact this post on Gaping Void prompted me to publish this forgotten draft!

Thomas Gold was a true renaissance man, a brilliant polymath and a controversial figure who Freeman Dyson has described as a modern heretic. Gold was born as an Austrian and was educated in Switzerland and the UK, Initially he worked with Hermann Bondi and Fred Hoyle and then later accepted an appointment with the prestigious Cornell University and remained there till his death.

Gold portrays the typical rebel scientist, with a penchant for controversy and working against general and strongly held theories. Gold worked across a large number of fields- Cosmology, Biophysics, Astrophysics, Geophysics, Space Engineering etc. Throughout his career Gold never cared about being wrong or of the opposition. He had this knack of turning out to be right. He however was not afraid to be wrong, infact he has been very famously wrong two times and he took both times in good humor. Such was his intellect that he never cared of any opposition and his ideas have always been very interesting. I hope to chronicle some of his major ideas here.

Coming back, as I said he has been famously wrong two times:

1. First was the steady state theory. Gold along with Fred Hoyle and Hermann Bondi developed and published the steady state theory of the universe in 1948. The three thought that it was impossible to think that all of matter could be created out of an initial singularity. The theory proposed that new matter is created continuously and this accounts for the constant density of the expanding universe. Though this seems to have violated the first law of thermodynamics the steady state had a number of supporters in the 50s and the 60s but the discovery of the cosmic background radiation which basically is a remnant of the big bang or explosion was the first major blow to it and over time its wide acceptance declined to only a very few cosmologists like Jayant V. Narlikar, who very recently have proposed alternatives and modifications to the original idea of steady state like the quasi steady state. However whatever said and done, the competition between the Big Bang and the Steady State spurred a lot of research which ultimately has helped us understand the cosmos better as good competition always does.

2. His second major incorrect idea was proposed in 1955, when he said that moon’s surface was covered with a fine rock powder that is electro-statically supported. He later said that astronauts would sink as soon as they landed on the moon. His theory influenced the design of the American Surveyor lunar landing probes to a very large extent. But their precautions were excessive and most of the fears were unfounded, though when the Apollo 11 crew bought back soil samples from the moon, it was indeed powdery though nowhere close to the extent Gold had proposed it to be. However a lot of astronomers credit a lot of development in planetology in subsequent years to Gold’s initial work and ideas on the lunar regolith.

[The famous photo of the footprint on the Lunar Surface: The Lunar soil was powdery as predicted by Gold but nowhere to the extent he had thought so. Image Source : Wikipedia Commons]

On both the occasions Gold took “defeat” in good humor, the trademark of a good scientist is that he is never afraid to be wrong. He once remarked:

Science is no fun, if you are never wrong!

In choosing a hypothesis there is no virtue in timidity and no shame in sometimes being wrong.

The second quote is not supposed to be humorous by the way.

On most occasions however, Thomas Gold had this knack of turning out to be right inspite of facing intense criticism initially. Some of his heretical ideas that turned out right were:

1. Pitch Discriminative Ability of the Ear: One of the first of Tommy Gold’s ideas that was received with much hostility and was summarily rejected by the experts of the time was his theory and experiments on hearing and pitch discrimination. In 1946 immediately after the great war, Gold got interested in the ability of the human ear to discriminate the pitch of musical sounds. It was a question that was perplexing the auditory physiologists of the time, and Gold fresh from working with the royal navy on radars and communications thought of the physiology of hearing in those terms. The human ear can tell the difference when a pure tone changes by as little as one percent. Gold thought that the ear contained a set of resonators finely tuned, whereas the prevailing view of the time was that the internal structure of the ear was too weak and flabby to resonate and all the interpretation of the sounds and tones happened in the brain, with the information being communicated by neural signals.

Gold designed a very simple and elegant experiment to prove the experts, the professional auditory physiologists wrong. The experiment has been described by Freeman Dyson in his book, The Scientist as Rebel as he himself was a part of the experiment. Prof Freeman writes:

He (Gold) fed into the headphones a signal consisting of short pulses of a pure tone, separated by intervals of silence. The silent intervals were atleast ten times as long as the period of the pure tone. The pulses were all of the same shape, but they had phases that could be reversed independently….Sometimes Gold gave all the pulses the same phase and some times he alternated the phases so that the even pulses had one phase and the odd pulses had the opposite phase. All I had to do was to sit with the headphones on my ears and listen while Gold put in the signals with either constant or alternating phases. I had to tell him from the sound whether the phase was constant or alternating. When the silent intervals between pulses was ten times the period of the pure tone, it was easy to tell the difference. I heard a noise like a mosquito, a hum and a buzz sounding together, and the quality of the hum changed noticeably when the phases were changed from constant to alternating. We repeated the trials with longer silent intervals. I could still tell the difference, when the silent interval was as long as thiry periods.

This elegant experiment showed that the human ear could remember the phase of a signal after it has stopped for thirty times the period of the signal and proved that pitch discrimination was done not in the brain but in the ear. To be able to remember the phase, the ear should have finely tuned resonators that continue to vibrate during the period of silence.

Now armed with experimental evidence for his theory that pitch discrimination was done in the ear, Gold also had a theory on how there could be very finely tuned resonators made up of the weak and flabby material in the ear. He proposed that the ear involved an active – not a passive – receiver, one in which positive feedback, not just passive detection is involved. He said that the ear had an electrical feedback system, the mechanical resonators are coupled to the electrically powered sensors so that the overall system works like an active tuned amplifier. The positive feedback would counteract the dissipation taking place in the flabby internal structure of the ear.

Gold’s findings and ideas were rejected by the experts of the field, who said Gold was an ignorant outsider with absolutely no knowledge or training in physiology. Gold however always maintained he was right. Thirty years later, auditory physiologists armed with more sophisticated tools discovered that Gold was indeed correct. The electrical sensors and the feedback system in the ear were identified.

Gold’s two papers on hearing published in 1948 remain highly cited to this day.

2. Pulsars: One of his ideas that was rather quickly accepted was his idea on what a Pulsar was. After being discovered by radio astronomers Gold proposed that they were rotation neutron stars.

[A schematic of a Pulsar. Image Source: Wikipedia Commons]

After some initial disapproval this idea was accepted almost immediately by the “experts”. Gold himself has written this on this matter in an article authored by him titled The Inertia of Scientific Thought:

Shortly after the discovery of pulsars I wished to present an interpretation of what pulsars were, at this first pulsar conference: namely that they were rotating neutron stars. The chief organiser of this conference said to me, “Tommy, if I allow for that crazy an interpretation, there is no limit to what I would have to allow”. I was not allowed five minutes floor time, although I in fact spoke from the floor. A few months later, this same organiser started a paper with the sentence, “It is now generally considered that pulsars are rotating neutron stars”.

3. The Arrow of Time: In the 60s Gold wrote extensively on The Arrow of Time, and held the view that the universe will re collapse someday and that the arrow of time will reverse. His views remain controversial till today and a vast majority of cosmologists don’t even take it seriously. It remains to be seen if Gold’s hypothesis would be respected.

4. Polar Wandering: In the 1950s while at the royal observatory, Gold became interested in the instability of Earth’s axis of rotation or the wandering pole. He wrote a number of papers on plasmas and magentic fields in the solar system and also coined the term “The Earth’s Magnetosphere”. In 1955 he published yet another revolutionary paper “Instability of the Earth’s Axis of Rotation“. Gold made the view that large scale polar wandering could be expected to occur in relatively short geological time spans. That is, he expressed the possibility that the Earth’s axis of rotation could migrate by 90 degrees in a time of under a million years. This effectively means that in such a case, points at the equator would come to the poles and points at the poles would come at the equator. Gold argued that this 90 degree migration would be triggered by movements of mass that would cause the old axis of rotation to become unstable. A large accumulation of ice at the poles for example might be one reason why such a flip could occur. His paper was ignored largely for over 40-45 years, largely because at that time the research was focused on plate tectonics and continental drift.

In 1997 a Caltech professor Joseph Kirschvink, who is an expert in these areas published a paper that suggested that such a 90 degree flip indeed happened at least once in the past in the early Cambrian era. This holds much significance given the fact that this large scale migration of the poles coincides with the so called “Cambrian Explosion“. Gold’s work was finally confirmed after being ignored for decades.

5. Abiogenic Origin of Petroleum: When I first read about the theory of abiogenic origin of petroleum promoted by Tommy Gold and many Soviet and Ukrainian Geologists, I was immediately reminded of my old organic chemistry texts that spoke of the abiogenic origin theory given by Mendeleev almost 150 years ago. This was called Mendeleev’s Carbide Theory and it died after the biological theory of petroleum origin was widely accepted.

Speaking as a layman who has little knowledge of geology, petroleum etc, I would say any theory of petroleum origin must broadly explain the following points:

1. Its association with Brine.

2. Presence of N and S compounds.

3. Presence of biomarkers, chlorophyll and haemin in it.

4. It’s optically active nature.

According to Mendeleev’s Carbide theory:

1. The molten metals in the Earth’s interior combined with carbon from coal deposits to form the corresponding carbides.

  • Ca + 2C ---> Ca C_2
  • Mg + 2C---> Mg C_2
  • 4Al + 3C---> Al_4 C_3

2. The carbides reacted with steam or water under high temperature and pressure to form a mixture of saturated and unsaturated hydrocarbons.

  • Ca C_2 + 2H_2 O---> Ca(OH)_2 + C_@ H_2
  • Al_4 C_3 +12H_2 O---> 4Al(OH)_3 +3C H_4

3. The unsaturated hydrocarbons underwent a series of reactions such as hydrogenation, isomerisation, polymerisation and alkylation to form a number of hydrocarbons.

  • C_2 H_2 ---> C_2 H_4 ---> C_2 H_6
  • 3[C_2 H_2]---> C_6 H_6


This theory got the support by the work of Moissan and Sabatier and Senderen. Moissan obtained a petroleum like liquid by the hydrogenation of Uranium Carbide, Sabatier and Senderen obtained a petroleum type substance by the hydrogenation of Acetylene.

However the theory was in time replaced by the theory of biological origin as it failed to account for:

1. The presence of Nitrogen and Sulphur compounds.

2. Presence of Haemin and Chlorophyll.

3. Optically active nature.

After almost hundred years, the abiogenic theory was resurrected by the great Russian geologist Nikolai Alexandrovitch Kudryavtse in 1951. This was worked on extensively by a number of Russians in the coming two decades.

In the west Thomas Gold was the only major proponent of it. And this is his most controversial theory, not only because it was opposed by powerful oil industry lobbyists but also because Gold faced much flak for plagiarism, something that Gold refused to acknowledge, in his later works he cited the works of the Russian scientists in the field. He maintained that he was simply not aware of the work done by the Soviet Geologists and that he cited their work once he became aware of it. Gold proposed that the natural gas and the oil came from reservoirs from deep within the Earth and are simply relics of the formation of the Earth. And that the biological molecules found in them did not show they had a biological origin but rather that they were contaminated by living creatures. He remained critical of the proponents of the theory of biological origin as then it could not be explained why there were hydrocarbon reserves on other planets when there had been no life on them. This theory remains controversial, Gold could not live to defend it. However an elegant experiment performed provides some evidence that Gold could indeed again be right.

Dyson wrote the following on an EDGE essay in this regard:

Just a few weeks before he died, some chemists at the Carnegie Institution in Washington did a beautiful experiment in a diamond anvil cell, [Scott et al., 2004]. They mixed together tiny quantities of three things that we know exist in the mantle of the earth, and observed them at the pressure and temperature appropriate to the mantle about two hundred kilometers down. The three things were calcium carbonate which is sedimentary rock, iron oxide which is a component of igneous rock, and water. These three things are certainly present when a slab of subducted ocean floor descends from a deep ocean trench into the mantle. The experiment showed that they react quickly to produce lots of methane, which is natural gas. Knowing the result of the experiment, we can be sure that big quantities of natural gas exist in the mantle two hundred kilometers down. We do not know how much of this natural gas pushes its way up through cracks and channels in the overlying rock to form the shallow reservoirs of natural gas that we are now burning. If the gas moves up rapidly enough, it will arrive intact in the cooler regions where the reservoirs are found. If it moves too slowly through the hot region, the methane may be reconverted to carbonate rock and water. The Carnegie Institute experiment shows that there is at least a possibility that Tommy Gold was right and the natural gas reservoirs are fed from deep below. The chemists sent an E-mail to Tommy Gold to tell him their result, and got back a message that he had died three days earlier.

6. The Deep Hot Biosphere: I am yet to read this book, though I have been thinking of reading it for almost a year now.

[The Deep Hot Biosphere, Image Source : Amazon]

In this controversial but famous theory Gold proposes that the entire crust of the Earth uptill a depth of a few miles is populated by living creatures. The biosphere that we see is only a very small part of it. The most ancient part of it is much larger and is much warmer. In 1992 Gold referred to ocean vents that pump bacteria from the depth of the Earth in support of his views. A number of such hydrothermal vents have since then been discovered. There is increasing evidence that his yet another controversial theory might just be right. Even if it is not, the evidence collected will help us understand our planet much better.

[A Black Smoker Hydrothermal Vent]

Finally Quoting Prof Freeman Dyson on him again:

Gold’s theories are always original, always important, usually controversial, and usually right.

References and Recommended Reads:

1. The Scientist as Rebel : Chapter 3 – Freeman Dyson (Amazon)

2. The Inertia of Scientific Thought – Thomas Gold

3. The Deep Hot Biosphere – Thomas Gold

4. Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society – Freeman Dyson

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I am a pacifist but i don’t intend to write here about peace directly. I thought of writing about things related to the monumental tragedy of bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but in a rather indirect way. This is a “Non-Linear” post and is basically in three parts.

I believe August 6 and 9 will remain in human memory for eons for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I am an optimist and i don’t think there will be any large nuclear conflict in the medium term future. On the latter date 63 years ago the city of Nagasaki was obliterated, Leaving 80,000 people dead by the end of 1945 (140,000 dead in Hiroshima) and a large number continued to suffer for a much longer time after that.

[The city of Nagasaki before and after the atomic bombings, Source: Wikipedia]

Threnody For the Victims of Hiroshima

One thing that I have always imagined was thinking about how it would be like to be in a city that gets hit by an Atomic (Fission), Thermonuclear or a Neutron Bomb. And let me tell you it is one thing that is almost impossible to imagine. Also then there are a number of things, like your position and what you were looking at. If you are in the inner radius near ground zero, i don’t think there would be any time to react to anything. Seeing the bomb drop and being present at ground zero is even harder to imagine. Now being somewhere far, say 3-4 Kilometers from ground zero, is again really hard to imagine. It is really hard to think what would go in the mind in a short span of a few seconds if you do  get to see the wave approaching and destroying everything on its way for some moments.

My girl once gifted me a few CDs on my birthday (which was a very sweet gift, but let me not digress), and introduced me to a wonderful quote by Aldous Huxley (1931):

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

One of my favorite compositions is “Threnody For The Victims of Hiroshima“, it is a masterpeice by Krzysztof Penderecki. When I first heard it, I thought it was rather creepy. However after hearing it a few times, it started growing on me and it is only sometime back that I started marveling  at the intensity of this composition and admiring the depth it had. One afternoon I got into thinking that it was a composition on which no video cover could be made. It was impossible for me to assign any image to that music, which made a video on it impossible. This is somewhat related to the above paragraph where I expressed my inability to imagine what it would be like during a nuclear explosion on my city. And very rightly so, this composition is dedicated to the victims of the twin bombings.

[All copyrights rest with the composer and the producer ]

A black screen in my humble opinion represents best the composition and speaks a thousand words for the dead and the mentally shocked.

Pale Blue Dot

[Pale Blue Dot: The image of the Earth taken by the Voyager I from a record distance]

Carl Sagan was a wonderful man, an elegant speaker and a man of great learning. I have read almost all books by him and also thoroughly admired and enjoyed the Cosmos television series. One book that I particularly liked was “Pale Blue Dot“, a book based on the photograph by the same name. A photograph taken by the Voyager 1 from a record distance of 6.4 billion Kilometers that shows the Earth as an obscure dot in a beam of scattered sunlight. The video below has Sagan speaking from the book. Having him talk is something else, such is the effect of his voice. I think this is one piece that everyone of us should see once in while!

Such is the beauty of this part that it is worth quoting it:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

The Geeta of J. Robert Oppenheimer

[J. Robert Oppenheimer, Source: Wikipedia]

J. Robert Oppenheimer is probably best known as the father of the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer was over-educated in a number of fields other than his forte, that was Physics. He was known for his mathematical acumen, erudition over theoretical physics, knowledge of eastern philosophy and languages particularly Dutch and Sanskrit.

On a personal front, Oppenheimer was emotionally troubled almost all his life often slipping into  depression. He was a chain smoker (which ultimately caused throat cancer and subsequent death) and neglected food for long periods in times of emotional and intellectual discomfort. A lot of his colleagues have said Oppenheimer had a self-destructive tendency, and with his insecurities and melancholy he worried his friends. People associated with him generally fell into two categories, ones who thought he was a silent man of great learning and a brilliant genius, while some thought he was unstable and a pretentious person.

General Leslie Groves was appointed the project director of the Manhattan project and inspite of doubts about Oppenheimer being a possible security risk he made him the scientific director. Many of the generals and people in the defense staff have maintained that inspite of Oppenheimer’s communist inclinations and doubts about his loyalty (that time any communist in America was viewed with suspicion, take for example the rise  of Mc-Carthy as an example of the narrow-mindedness prevalent at the time ), Manhattan project would have never been completed without him. He was so indispensable for the project and for keeping the people from diverse backgrounds working on it together.

[Trinity : The first ever nuclear explosion]

Click to Enlarge

After the end of the great war Oppenheimer became an outspoken critic of the arms race and supported the establishment of an international agency that would have been in control of all the nuclear arsenal. He opposed the development of the Hydrogen bomb initially on technical grounds. Increasingly worried about the danger to humanity from scientific discoveries he lectured on peace till his death, and also joined with Einstein, Bertrand Russell and formed what later became the world academy of art and science in 1960. He had to pay for his outspokeness, for decisions he took that appeared to be plagued with confusion, his leftist leanings and the ire of the politicians that he attracted as a result of his outspoken character after the war in the form of a very publicly humiliating hearing in 1954, which resulted in his security clearance being revoked. For the remainder of his life surprisingly Oppenheimer never showed much resentment for the hearing and it seems he took the humiliation rather gracefully.

In a rare recording in 1965 Oppenheimer was persuaded to quote again the phrase from the Bhagwad Gita  that he claimed crossed his mind when he saw the Trinity explosion.

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita, Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi armed form and says “now I become death the destroyer of the worlds”. I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

In this rare footage, Oppenheimer has tears in his eyes, in what seems to be due to intense guilt and regret.

A lot of people think Oppenheimer was a hypocrite, a moral monster who was instrumental in making  the bomb, for scouting for both the locations over which the bomb was eventually dropped and for supporting the development of the Hydrogen bomb and other devices and that he was a person who was a poser, who lectured on peace but yet supported the bomb and its development and even its use in WW-II.

I think this is unfair on the man, for those who have read stuff on Oppenheimer would know that he had a deep interest in some eastern scriptures, particularly the Bhagwad Geeta. It won’t be wrong to assume that the Geeta had a very marked impact on Oppenheimers thinking and his philosophy on life and duty. The ideas in the Geeta in a way marry the seemingly inherent contradictions that were apparent sometimes in what Oppenheimer spoke about and clear the fog over some of his ideas on peace and support for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and even scouting for a place for bombing.

The Geeta like many other scriptures is subject to interpretations and obviously Oppenheimer’s interpretation is bound to be different. However his knowledge and his interest in the Geeta were enough for him to formulate a code on ethics and life loosely based on the principles of it. Oppenheimer never said in the open what the importance of the Geeta in his life was, but there is enough circumstantial evidence to show that it was indeed very important.

After the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki he was dispirited by the continuation of the development of nuclear weapons and constantly wrestled with moral and ethical problems as he thought he was instrumental in handing over humanity the means of its own possible annihilation. He at this time revisited the Geeta, his old favorite and drew power from it which steadied him in his work and worldview.

Also like i said earlier, the Geeta makes comprehensible some acts of Oppenheimer that were otherwise difficult to grasp for example not only did Oppenheimer build the bomb, he maintained till the end that he did the right thing and yet he always said that he had blood on his hands. Let us try to see that there was no real contradiction in Oppenheimer’s views about peace taking the Bhagwad Geeta as the base. It makes it understandable why a man of such a great persona would become inactive and confused at times and why a man of peace would build the atomic bomb.

Oppenheimer studied Sanskrit at Berkeley in 1933 with Indologist Arthur Ryder and acquired a deeper knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita that he had read in the original tongue. Much later in life Oppenheimer was to call the Geeta the most beautiful philosophical discourse in any known tongue. He kept a copy of the Geeta always at hand on his desk and often gifted the Geeta as a gift to many of his colleagues. often his own translation. An indication of the impression that the Geeta had made on him.

The Geeta is the single most important sacred text for the Hindus and is a piller of Hinduism. The importance of the Geeta in Hinduism is perhaps the greatest as compared to the other scriptures. It is essentially on philosophy, ethics, code of conduct and life and is set in midst of the Mahabharata (to be precise the Geeta is from the Bhishma Parva of the Mahabharata), the longest epic in the world. Things in the Geeta are told in the context of a story of good against evil. The story has a royal family in which all the cousins grow up together but as they grow up to be men they are torn apart due to a quarrel resulting from the royal inheritance. The differences are only resolved by war. Arjuna, the third oldest of the five Pandavas is shown to be a warrior and an archer unparalleled in history.

The geeta begins with Arjuna riding onto the battlefield with lord Krishna, the 8th avatar of Lord Vishnu but on seeing amongst enemy ranks his own friends and relatives, his heart breaks. He is confronted with the prospect of killing his own people and with the fact that if he did not fight it would mean more humiliation for the Pandavas. Depressed by this, he refuses to fight. He is given solace by Krishna, who is being Arjuna’s charioteer.

The geeta has 18 chapters in the course of which Krishna counsels Arjuna on why he should take part in the war. The arguments given are diverse and take care of even the slightest doubts. Inspite of the lengthy nature of his discourse, Krishna’s arguments can be summed up in some very basic points, out of which these seem to have had a major bearing on Oppenheimer’s conduct and view of duty and life :

1. Arjuna is a soldier, his duty is only to fight.

2. Krishna (god or fate) will decide on who lives and who dies, so there is no point in mourning or rejoicing over results. There should be a detachment from the result and one should only focus on the work. “Worry only about the job at hand, don’t worry about what the result would be”.

Oppenheimer’s position was like that of Arjuna before the war. Arjuna was the younger brother of Yudhistra who was more intelligent, a better man than Duryodhana, his cousin who is driven by hate. Duryodhana was so blinded by hate that he tries to kill his cousins, the Pandavas to rule. Krishna’s message to Arjuna was clear. He MUST fight. The message would have been equally clear to Oppenheimer. One other important idea in the Geeta is the idea of duty. Another is of fate, The Geeta espouses that duty and fate should not be mingled together and that one should only focus on his duty and not worry about what is responsibility of others (in his case the politicians and President Truman for example). This and many simple yet profound ideas defined how Oppenheimer acted. He only did his duty as a scientist and as the director, he did what he had to do.

Professor James Hijiya gives a very beautiful commentary of this aspect. I would recommend you to read it (link given below). It is not possible to analyze most of Oppenheimers actions on a blog post. It might need a book. So I would direct all interested to that link. It is short and makes a brisk read for those who get scared by volume. Please read to get the whole point of me mentioning the Geeta of Robert Oppenheimer in this post. I believe that the man who made the atom bomb did not sin. That is my point. And though I greatly admire J. Robert Oppenheimer, that is not the reason why I think that he did not sin, and that he only did his duty.

Recommendations and References:

1. Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima – Penderecki

2. Pale Blue Dot– Carl Sagan

3. The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer – James Hijiya. Click Here >>

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I dedicated some of the previous articles to the Orion Project only. I tried to briefly review the old project, its demise, then the new designs that have been put forth, and then put a personal opinion on what the problems are with Orion like projects without discounting the obvious advantages.

This video is more of a historical prospective to the Project. Makes a fascinating view!

In this TED talk:

George Dyson tells the amazing story of Project Orion, a massive, nuclear-powered spacecraft that could have taken us to Saturn in five years. With a priceless insider’s perspective and a cache of documents, photos and film, Dyson brings this dusty Atomic Age dream to vivid life.

(Text from the caption to the TED talk )

George Dyson is the son of the celebrated thinker, mathematician and physicist Freeman Dyson. George is a historian and a philosopher of science.

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The Project Orion still has iconic status in the eyes of many to this day, and i will not conceal the fact that the notion really had fascinated me when i first read of it in a newspaper years ago in a passing reference in a much bigger article on the space age. My eyes lit up and i started imagining how space travel could change (or rather could have!). ;)

Though i was planning to continue to write on Swarm Intelligence based routing for some more articles and then was thinking of going to dynamic programming and speech recognition. I decided that i would write on the Orion first. I hope to dedicate the next three or four posts only on this milestone project!

The video below is an excellent BBC excerpt from “To Mars by A-Bomb” (2003) showing some footage of the tests during the Orion years with some commentary from Freeman Dyson (who also happens to be a man i greatly venerate and is one of my heroes!) and Arthur C Clark. This is a rather short video! Do have a look!

I would give a short introduction to those who are not familiar with Orion.

We are used to space-ships using conventional fuels. For rating the efficiency of such fuels one parameter is Specific Impulse. It is stated in seconds and it indicates how many kilograms of thrust are obtained by the consumption of one Kg of the propellant in one second. This value is more or less characteristic of the type of propellant used, however there can be variations due to operating conditions and engine design. Therefore the higher the specific impulse the lesser the propellant is needed to gain a given amount of thrust.

Stanislaw Ulam in 1947 proposed Rocket propulsion using nuclear explosions, or pulsed nuclear explosions. He realized that nuclear explosions had not yet been contained in a combustion chamber. So instead it was proposed that the Orion design would work by dropping fissionable explosives out of the rear of the vehicle and catching the blast with a thick metal pusher plate.

The key components of the Orion are as in the figure.

Orion Design

Photo Courtesy: NASA Archives

The project initiated in 1958 under Ted Taylor and Freeman Dyson. This was the first such think tank assembled since the Manhattan Project. Orion offered both very high thrust and very high specific impulse. The potential it offered was enormous, Freeman Dyson has been quoted as saying that a single mission could provide with a permanent moon base and that it was possible to fly to and return back from Pluto in under one year. The orion could touch speeds upto 0.1 c according to some estimates and could carry as large as 8 million tons of mass, which could be as big as a city!!

The project died, due to concerns with the fallout due to each launch. Though Dyson maintained that conventional explosives could be used for launching the Ship out of Earth’s atmosphere and then nuclear fuel would take over. The Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 is said to have killed the project.

Even though the project died it was significant for its time in terms of stimulating possible engineering concepts.

Related Posts on this Blog:

1. Possible Rebirth of Project Orion?

2. Problems with Orion like projects

3. George Dyson on Project Orion

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All Electrical Engineering students at some point have seen this image in their Image Processing textbooks.


I had always wondered who this lady was, and how did she enter these image processing texts. She did not seem to be an Engineer by any yardstick ;-) This picture has been used as a test image by most image processing students and researchers, in all sorts of image processing algorithms such as de-noising, compression etc. I was always amazed with the usage of this particular image. A friend of mine, a non-engineer was surprised to see the image in a text, and she remarked “Is this an excuse for geeks to have pictures of pretty ladies in their books? “.

I first came across this image in the textbook authored by Gonzalez and Woods. I decided to find out for myself who this was. I actually thought maybe (just maybe) it was a generated image? but then ruled that out as a possibility in view of the degree of “real-ness” of this image.

Searching for the Lena image was a bit difficult initially as i had no real key-words for it. However some months back i did discover the image with the string “Lena” below it. That was it! I Googled it and found out that that image was actually very famous, that it had a wikipedia entry, and there had been discussions on the image and its source at length. It was a Swedish model by the name of Lena Söderberg who had posed for the 1972 November Playboy edition, and the image was a cropped version of the same.

And Lena has many fans. Here is a rather funny poem on the image.

Sonnet for Lena

O dear Lena, your beauty is so vast
It is hard sometimes to describe it fast.
I thought the entire world I would impress
If only your portrait I could compress.
Alas! First when I tried to use VQ
I found that your cheeks belong to only you.
Your silky hair contains a thousand lines
Hard to match with sums of discrete cosines.
And for your lips, sensual and tactual
Thirteen Crays found not the proper fractal.
And while these setbacks are all quite severe
I might have fixed them with hacks here or there
But when filters took sparkle from your eyes
I said, “Fuck this shit. I’ll just digitize.

by Thomas C

Reading on Lena (I mean the test image) was amusing.

Jamie Hutchinson in an article in the May 2001 newsletter of the IEEE professional Communications Society writes about the pictures history.

Alexander Sawchuk estimates that it was in June or July of 1973 when he, then an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California Signal and Image Processing Institute (SIPI), along with a graduate student and the SIPI lab manager, was hurriedly searching the lab for a good image to scan for a colleague’s conference paper. They got tired of their stock of usual test images, dull stuff dating back to television standards work in the early 1960s. They wanted something glossy to ensure good output dynamic range, and they wanted a human face. Just then, somebody happened to walk in with a recent issue of Playboy.

The engineers tore away the top third of the centerfold so they could wrap it around the drum of their Muirhead wirephoto scanner, which they had outfitted with analog-to-digital converters (one each for the red, green, and blue channels) and a Hewlett Packard 2100 minicomputer. The Muirhead had a fixed resolution of 100 lines per inch and the engineers wanted a 512 × 512 image, so they limited the scan to the top 5.12 inches of the picture, effectively cropping it at the subject’s shoulders.

A more amazingly amusing account that even discusses the debate regarding the picture can be found on the page of DAVID C. MUNSON, JR. of the CMU here.

An excerpt from his writing.

I think it is safe to assume that the Lena image became a standard in our “industry” for two reasons. First, the image contains a nice mixture of detail, flat regions, shading, and texture that do a good job of testing various image processing algorithms. It is a good test image! Second, the Lena image is a picture of an attractive woman. It is not surprising that the (mostly male) image processing research community gravitated toward an image that they found attractive. The Woody Allen buffs among you may be interested to know that the Lena image appeared in the movie Sleeper. Tom Huang pointed this out to me. In the scene where Allen awakes in the year 2173, he is asked to identify a number of artifacts from the past, including photographs of Joseph Stalin and Charles de Gaulle, and the issue of Playboy Magazine containing Lena.

and regarding the debate he writes:

Well, quite understandably, some members of our community are unhappy with the source of the Lena image. I am sympathetic to their argument, which states that we should not use material from any publication that is seen (by some) as being degrading to women. I must tell you, though, that within any single segment of our community (e.g., men, women, feminists), there is a complete diversity of opinion on the Lena issue. You may be surprised to know that most persons who have approached me on this issue are male. On the other hand, some informal polling on my part suggests that most males are not even aware of the origin of the Lena image! I have heard feminists argue that the image should be retired. However, I just recently corresponded with a feminist who had a different point of view. She was familiar with the Lena image, but she had not imagined that there could be any controversy. When I offered an explanation of why some persons are offended by the use of the image. she responded tartly. A watered-down version of her reply is, “There isn’t much of Lena showing in the Lena image. This political correctness stuff infuriates me!”

A very amusing story, i had never imagined that that one picture in an image processing text-book would have such a big history!

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