Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

I recently discovered a series of three lectures by the legendary physicist Hans Bethe given in 1999. Bethe was a professor at  Cornell University almost all his life and these lectures given at age 93 had been made public by the University quite a while ago.


[Hans Bethe at the blackboard at Cornell in 1967: Image Source and Copyright – Cornell University ]

These lectures are on the Quantum theory for expert and the non- expert alike. Due to some engagements I am yet to view them, however I am still posting them as I am sure these as given by Bethe himself would be great.

From the Cornell University Webpage for these lectures:

IN 1999, legendary theoretical physicist Hans Bethe delivered three lectures on quantum theory to his neighbors at the Kendal of Ithaca retirement community (near Cornell University). Given by Professor Bethe at age 93, the lectures are presented here as QuickTime videos synchronized with slides of his talking points and archival material.

Intended for an audience of Professor Bethe’s neighbors at Kendal, the lectures hold appeal for experts and non-experts alike. The presentation makes use of limited mathematics while focusing on the personal and historical perspectives of one of the principal architects of quantum theory whose career in physics spans 75 years.

A video introduction and appreciation are provided by Professor Silvan S. Schweber, the physicist and science historian who is Professor Bethe’s biographer, and Edwin E. Salpeter, the J. G. White Distinguished Professor of Physical Science Emeritus at Cornell, who was a post-doctoral student of Professor Bethe.



View Introduction (Quick Time Required)

The introduction has been given by Edwin E. Salpeter and Silvan S. Schweber.

Lecture 1


View Lecture 1 (Quick Time Required)

Lecture 2


View Lecture 2 (Quick Time Required)

Lecture 3


View Lecture 3 (Quick Time Required)



View Appreciation (Quick Time Required)

Note: All the images above and also the text giving an introduction to the lectures are a copyright of Cornell. Please comply with the terms of use associated with them.


1. Download Apple Quick Time

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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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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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Before I make a start I would want to make it very clear that inspite of what that the title may suggest, this is not a “sensational” post. It is just something that really intrigued me. It basically falls under the domain of image segmentation and pattern recognition, however it is something that can intrigue a person with a non-scientific background with a like (or dislike) for Franz Kafka’s work equally. I keep the title because it is the title of an original work by Dr Vitorino Ramos and hence making changes to it is not a good thing.

Note: For people who are  not interested in technical details can skip those parts and only read the stuff in bold there.

Franz Kafka is one writer whose works have had a profound impact on me in terms that they disturbed me each time I thought about them. No, not because of his writings per se ONLY but for a greater part because i had read a lot on his rather tragic life and i saw a heart breaking reflection in his works of what happened in his life (i see a lot of similarities between Kafka’s life and that of Premchand albeit that Premchand’s work got published in his lifetime mostly, though he got true critical acclaim after his death). Yes i do think that his writings give a good picture of Europe at that time, on human needs and behavior, but the prior reason outweighs all these. Kafka remains one of my favorite writers, though his works are basically short stories. He mostly wrote on a theme that emphasized the alienation of man and the indifferent society. Kafka’s tormenting thoughts on dehumanization, the cruel world, bureaucratic labyrinths which he experienced as being part of the not so liked Jewish minority in Prague, his experiences in jobs he did, his love life and affairs, on a constant fear of mental and physical collapse as a result of clinical depression and the ill health that he suffered from, reflected in a lot of his works. Including in his novella The Metamorphosis.

W. H Auden rightly wrote about Kafka:

“Kafka is important to us because his predicament is the predicament of the modern man”

In metamorphosis the protagonist Gregor Samsa turns into a giant insect when he wakes up one morning. It is kind of apparent that the “transformation” was meant in a metaphorical sense by Kafka and not in a literal one, mostly based on his fears and his own life experiences. The Novella starts like this. . .

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

While rummaging through a few scientific papers that explored the problem of pattern recognition using a distributed approach i came across a few by Dr Ramos et al, which dealt with the issue using the artificial colonies approach.

In the previous post i had mentioned that the self organization of neurons into a brain like structure and the self organization of an ant colony were similar in more than a few ways. If it may be implemented then it could have implications in pattern recognition problems, where the perceptive abilities emerge from the local and simple interactions of simple agents. Such decentralized systems, a part of the swarm intelligence paradigm look very promising in applying to pattern recognition and the specific case of image segmentation as basically these may be considered a clustering and combinatorial problem taking the image itself as an ant colony habit.

The basis for this post was laid down in the previous post on colony cognitive maps. We observed the evolution of a pheromonal field there and a simple model for the same:

[Evolution of a distribution of (artificial) ants over time: Image Source]

Click to Enlarge

The above is the evolution of the distribution of artificial ants in a square lattice, this work has been extended to digital image lattices by Ramos et al. Image segmentation is an image processing problem wherein the regions of the image under consideration may be partitioned into different regions. Like into areas of low contrast and areas of high contrast, on basis of texture and grey level and so on. Image segmentation is very important as the output of an image segmentation process may be used as an input in object recognition based scenarios. The work of Ramos et al (In references below) and some of the papers cited in his works have really intrigued me and i would strongly suggest readers to have a look at them if at all they are interested in image segmentation, pattern recognition and self organization in general, some might also be interested in implementing something similar too!

In one of the papers a swarm of artificial ants was thrown on a digital habitat (an image of Albert Einstein) to explore it for 1000 iterations. The Einstein image is replaced by a map image. The evolution of the colony cognitive maps for the Einstein image habitat is shown below for various iterations.

[Evolution of a pheromonal field on an Einstein image habitat for t= 0, 1, 100, 110, 120, 130, 150, 200, 300, 400, 500, 800, 900, 1000: Image Source]

The above is represented most aptly in a .gif image.

[Evolution of a pheromonal field on an Einstein habitat: Image Source]

Now instead of Einstein a Kafka image was taken and was subject to the same. Image Source

The Kafka image habitat is replaced by a red ant in the second row. The abstract of the paper by the same name goes as.

Created with an Artificial Ant Colony, that uses images as Habitats, being sensible to their gray levels. At the second row,  Kafka is replaced as a substrate, by Red Ant. In black, the higher levels of pheromone (a chemical evaporative sugar substance used by swarms on their orientation trough out the trails). It’s exactly this artificial evaporation and the computational ant collective group synergy reallocating their upgrades of pheromone at interesting places, that allows for the emergence of adaptation and “perception” of new images. Only some of the 6000 iterations processed are represented. The system does not have any type of hierarchy, and ants communicate only in indirect forms, through out the successive alteration that they found on the Habitat.

Now what intrigues me is that the transition is extremely rapid. Such perceptive ability with change in the image habitat could have massive implications at how we look at pattern recognition for such cases.

Extremely intriguing!

Resources on Franz Kafka:

1. A Brief Biography

2. The Metamorphosis At Project Gutenberg. Click here >>

3. The Kafka Project

References and STRONGLY recommended papers:

1. Artificial Ant Colonies in Digital Image Habitats – A Mass behavior Effect Study on Pattern Recognition. Vitorino Ramos and Filipe Almeida. Click Here >>

2. Social Cognitive Maps, Swarms Collective Perception and Distributed Search on Dynamic Landscapes. Vitorino Ramos, Carlos Fernandes, Agostinho C. Rosa. Click Here >>

3. Self-Regulated Artificial Ant Colonies on Digital Image Habitats. Carlos Fernandes, Vitorino Ramos, Agostinho C. Rosa. Click Here >>

4. On the Implicit and the Artificial – Morphogenesis and Emergent Aesthetics in Autonomous Collective Systems. Vitorino Ramos. Click Here >>

5. A Strange Metamorphosis [Kafka to Red Ant], Vitorino Ramos.

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[Photo Source : NASA]

Freeman Dyson is a professor emeritus of Physics at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton. Prof Freeman has always been one of my heroes and i regard him as one of the coolest physicists alive today.  I was introduced to him and his work through “What Do You Care What Other People Think” by Richard Feynman years ago.

He thinks ahead of the present generation and is also conspicuously agnostic which i dare say goes against the mainstream in science today, where being politically correct is one problem. These two things lead to very contrasting views on the man. Many in the scientific community, mostly due to the latter thing about him refer to him as a dreamer and many others portray him as a dreamer mad scientist for ideas such Dyson Spheres, Dyson Trees etc, ideas that are too fantastic for most people to digest.

Dyson had also been involved in the fantastic idea of the Project Orion, on which i have dedicated quite a few previous posts. Again many regard the idea of using nuclear fuel to power space ships as absurd, but i have always believed that it is a wonderful idea and i have also tried to write why. Many people think that Dyson has only been involved in such fantasy science, however one must note that he has made many important contributions to quantum physics and mathematics also or “mainstream science”, I have always believed that Freeman Dyson deserved the Nobel prize for QED along with his fellow researchers, he probably missed out due to the three limit on the number of people getting the prize at once. During a discussion with Robert Bradbury, he wholeheartedly agreed with my thinking! A quick search on Google scholar for him indicates about 1600 publications that have his name on the main text. And one must remember that Dyson never took a PhD, probably the only only one to reach IAS without one. Though i am not sure about that.

Below is an excerpt from an essay by Dyson that discusses the need for heretics or people thinking “out of the box” and how the progress in the society is based on such thinking, even if it is utterly and totally wrong! This essay is a little old, but i decided to post it anyway!

The excerpt is originally from his book: A Many-Colored Glass – Reflections on the place of life in the Universe. A second source is here.


In the modern world, science and society often interact in a perverse way. We live in a technological society, and technology causes political problems. The politicians and the public expect science to provide answers to the problems. Scientific experts are paid and encouraged to provide answers. The public does not have much use for a scientist who says, “Sorry, but we don’t know”. The public prefers to listen to scientists who give confident answers to questions and make confident predictions of what will happen as a result of human activities. So it happens that the experts who talk publicly about politically contentious questions tend to speak more clearly than they think. They make confident predictions about the future, and end up believing their own predictions. Their predictions become dogmas which they do not question. The public is led to believe that the fashionable scientific dogmas are true, and it may sometimes happen that they are wrong. That is why heretics who question the dogmas are needed.

As a scientist I do not have much faith in predictions. Science is organized unpredictability. The best scientists like to arrange things in an experiment to be as unpredictable as possible, and then they do the experiment to see what will happen. You might say that if something is predictable then it is not science. When I make predictions, I am not speaking as a scientist. I am speaking as a story-teller, and my predictions are science-fiction rather than science. The predictions of science-fiction writers are notoriously inaccurate. Their purpose is to imagine what might happen rather than to describe what will happen. I will be telling stories that challenge the prevailing dogmas of today. The prevailing dogmas may be right, but they still need to be challenged. I am proud to be a heretic. The world always needs heretics to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies. Since I am heretic, I am accustomed to being in the minority. If I could persuade everyone to agree with me, I would not be a heretic.

We are lucky that we can be heretics today without any danger of being burned at the stake. But unfortunately I am an old heretic. Old heretics do not cut much ice. When you hear an old heretic talking, you can always say, “Too bad he has lost his marbles”, and pass on. What the world needs is young heretics. I am hoping that one or two of the people who read this piece may fill that role.

Two years ago, I was at Cornell University celebrating the life of Tommy Gold, a famous astronomer who died at a ripe old age. He was famous as a heretic, promoting unpopular ideas that usually turned out to be right. Long ago I was a guinea-pig in Tommy’s experiments on human hearing. He had a heretical idea that the human ear discriminates pitch by means of a set of tuned resonators with active electromechanical feedback. He published a paper explaining how the ear must work, [Gold, 1948]. He described how the vibrations of the inner ear must be converted into electrical signals which feed back into the mechanical motion, reinforcing the vibrations and increasing the sharpness of the resonance. The experts in auditory physiology ignored his work because he did not have a degree in physiology. Many years later, the experts discovered the two kinds of hair-cells in the inner ear that actually do the feedback as Tommy had predicted, one kind of hair-cell acting as electrical sensors and the other kind acting as mechanical drivers. It took the experts forty years to admit that he was right. Of course, I knew that he was right, because I had helped him do the experiments.

Later in his life, Tommy Gold promoted another heretical idea, that the oil and natural gas in the ground come up from deep in the mantle of the earth and have nothing to do with biology. Again the experts are sure that he is wrong, and he did not live long enough to change their minds. 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. Now that he is dead, we need more heretics to take his place.

Thought provoking indeed!

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