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Posts Tagged ‘Soviet Union’

A week ago I observed that there was a wonderful new documentary on you-tube, put-up by none other than author and documentary film-maker Christopher Sykes. This post is about this documentary and some thoughts related to it. Before I talk again about the documentary, I’ll digress for a moment and come back to it in a while.

With the exception of the Feynman Lectures in Physics Volume III, Six not so easy pieces (both of which I don’t intend to read in the conceivable future) there is no book with which Feynman was involved (he never wrote himself) that I have not had the opportunity to read. The last that I read was “Don’t You Have Time to Think“, a collection of delightful letters by Feynman written over the years (Note that “Don’t you have time to think” is the same as “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations”).

Don't You Have Time To Think

A number of people including many of Feynman’s close friends were surprised to learn that Feynman wrote letters and so many of them. He didn’t seem to be the kinds who would write the kind of letters that he did.  These give a very different picture of the man than a conventional biography would. Usually, collections of letters tend to be boring and drab, but I think these are an exception.  They reveal him to be a genius with a human touch. I have written about Feynman before, like I have covered points in an earlier post which now seems to me to be overtly enthusiastic. ;-)

Sean Caroll aptly writes that Feynman worship is often overdone, I think he is right. Let me make my own opinion on the matter.

I don’t consider Feynman god or anywhere close to that (but definitely one of my idols and one man I admire greatly), I actually consider him to be very human and some one who was unashamed of admitting to his weaknesses and who had a certain love for life that’s rare. I only am attracted to Feynman for one reason : People like Feynman are a breath of fresh air in the bunch of supercilious pseudo-intellectual snobs that are abound in academia and industry. A breath of fresh air especially for the lesser mortals like me. That’s why I like that man. Why is he so famous? I have tried writing on it before. And I won’t do so anymore.

I’d like to cite two quotes that would give my point of view on the celebrity-fication of scientists, in this case Feynman. Dave Brooks writes in the Telegraph in an article titled “Physicist still leaves some all shook up” February 5, 2003:

Feynman is the person every geek would want to be: very smart, honored  by the establishment even as he won’t play by his rules, admired by people of both sexes, arrogant without being envied and humble without being pitied. In other words, he’s young Elvis, with the Earth  shaking talent transferred from larynx to brain cells and enough sense to have avoided the fat Las Vegas phase. Is such celebrity-fication of 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.

I remember reading an essay by the legendary Freeman Dyson that said:

Science too needs its share of super heroes to bring in new talent.

These rest my case I suppose.

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The only other book of Feynman that I have not read and that I have wanted to read for a LONG time is Tuva or Bust! Richard Feyman’s Last Journey. Unfortunately I have never been able to find it.

Tuva or Bust! Richard Feyman's Last Journey

There was a BBC Horizon documentary on the same. And thankfully Christopher J. Sykes has uploaded that documentary on you-tube.

This is a rare documentary and was the last in which Feynman appeared. It was infact shot just some days before his death. This documents the obsession of Richard Feynman and his friend Ralph Leighton with visiting an obscure place in central Asia called Tannu Tuva. During a discussion on geography and in a teasing mood Feynman was reminded of a long forgotten memory and quipped at Leighton, “Whatever happened to Tannu Tuva”. Leighton thought it was a joke and confidently said that there was no such country at all. After some searching they found out that Tannu Tuva was once a country and now a soviet satellite. It’s capital was “Kyzyl”, the name was so interesting to Feynman that he though he just had to go to this place. The book and the documentary covers Feynman’s and Leighton’s adventure of scheming of getting to go to Tannu Tuva and to get around Soviet bureaucracy. It is an extremely entertaining film to say the least. The end for it is a little sad though. Feynman passed away three days before he got a letter from the Soviets about permission to visit Tannu Tuva and Leighton appears to be on the verge of tears.

The introduction to the documentary reads as:

The story of physicist Richard Feynman’s fascination with the remote Asian country of Tannu Tuva, and his efforts to go there with his great friend and drumming partner Ralph Leighton (co-author of the classic ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman’). Feynman was dying of cancer when this was filmed, and died a few weeks after the filming. Originally shown in the BBC TV science series ‘Horizon’ in 1987, and also shown in the USA on PBS ‘Nova’ under the title ‘Last Journey of a Genius’

Find the five parts to the documentary below:

“I’m an explorer okay? I get curious about everything and I want to investigate all kinds of stuff”

Part 1

tatu1Click on the above image to watch

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Part 2

tatu2Click on the above image to watch

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Part 3

tatu3-2Click on the above image to watch

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Part 4

tatu4Click on the above image to watch

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Part 5

tatu5-2Click on the above image to watch

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After I got done with the documentary did I realize that the PBS version of the above documentary was available on google video for quite some time.

Find the video here.

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Michelle Feynman

Michelle Feynman

As an aside :  though Feynman could not manage to go to Tuva in his lifetime. His daughter Michelle did visit Tuva last month!

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One of the things that has me in awe after the documentary over the last week is Tuvan throat singing. It is one of the most remarkable things that I have seen in the past month or two. I am strongly attracted to Tibetan chants too, but these are very different and fascinating. The remarkable thing about them being that the singer can produce two pitches as if being sung by two separate singers. Have a look!

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Project Tuva : Character of Physical Law Lectures

On the same day I came across 7 lectures which were given by Feynman at Cornell in 1964 and were put into a book later by the name “The Character of Physical Law”.  These have been made freely available by Microsoft Research. Though some of these lectures have already been on youtube for a while, the ones that were not needless to say were a joy to watch. I had linked to the lectures on Gravitation and Arrow of Time previously.

Project TuvaClick on the above image to be directed to the lectures

I came to know of these lectures on Prof Terence Tao’s page, who I find very inspiring too!

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Quick Links:

1. Christopher J. Sykes’ Youtube channel.

2. Tuva or Bust

3. Project Tuva at Microsoft Research

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I picked up these images at Wired two days ago and just could not fit in the time to put them up earlier.

There is a remarkable quote by Einstein

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the the universe.”

It isn’t definite to me if I liked this quotation earlier. But I am NOW wholly convinced that I love it. And this new found unequivocalness for it is due to the following:

As a kid, I used to have a large collection of encyclopedias. I remember reading about the Aral Sea in the picture atlas, and that it mentioned that there was increasing salination of the sea water and that it would disappear in some decades.

Over the years that time, we were fed with doomsday scenarios all the while. Like all the coastal cities would be soon under sea due to rising ocean levels, and that the Himalayas would soon be ice free etc etc. Over a period of time you get fed up with such idle talk and since you don’t see anyone giving convincing answers, you tend to believe that nothing like that is true. Secondly, the eternal optimist that I am, I just probably wished that what that encyclopedia said about the Aral was some “minor” problem.

I last read about the problem many years ago and after that never came across anything on it. And just a couple of days back was shocked by these images. I have only one word for them : Tragic!

The images are from 1973, 1987, 1999, 2006 and 2009. The two recent images were released by the European Space Agency, the earlier ones were taken by the United States Geological Survey.

Aral Sea - 1973

Aral Sea - 1973

Aral Sea - 1987

Aral Sea - 1987

Aral Sea - 1999

Aral Sea - 1999

Aral Sea - 2006

Aral Sea - 2006

Aral Sea - 2009

Aral Sea - 2009

[Image(s) Source : Wired Science]

The South Aral Sea, the remnant of the original lake that you can see to your left on the above image is also expected to vanish by 2020, thankfully the North Aral sea (the part on the right) has been saved due to a world bank funded dam project.

The Aral sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake at roughly around 68,000 sq kms is now just about one-tenth that size. The trouble started when it was decided by the Soviets in 1918 that the two rivers that drained into the Aral – The Amu Darya and Syr Darya would be largely diverted to the deserts to develop them into cotton growing lands. The Soviet plan worked and cotton became one of the most important exports from that area. By the 1960s massive amount of water was being diverted and the sea began to shrink steadily. And how that happened is spoken out loud by the pictures.

The death of the Aral is extremely sad. It’s death has left it’s once thriving fishing industry destroyed, the diverting of the rivers has mostly reduced the two rivers to a shadow of their former selves. The Aral served as a climate moderator in the largely arid lands there, it’s death might herald major environmental catastrophe in the region.

This is a prime example of what human stupidity could lead to and leaves me short of words to describe my anguish at the same.

It has a number of things to say:

Ignoring warnings which have clear proof is just plain stupidity. There is ample proof for example of climate change and its bad impact. For example, I have been visiting the Himalayas once every few years since 1991. And the change there is apparent, as compared to the 80s the glaciers that make up the Ganges have shrunk by several kilometers. I don’t know what the solutions are, nor am I comparing the Aral problem with it. I understand that the Aral was a different kind of a problem. Different because it was known to the Soviets that the lake would dry up from the start. Climate change can not be compared to it as we do not yet fully understand a number of things about it, so how effective the correctives would be is debatable. It would be for our good if that debate is settled soon with good and incisive scientific evidence.

It also is a comment on how totalitarian regimes can be dangerous. In such regimes, since a decision taken can not be opposed, such a decision could either lead to major dividends/progress as it would be implemented very rapidly or major catastrophe as was in the above case.  Soviet officials were aware that the Aral would sooner or later evaporate. In 1964 Aleksandr Asarin noted that :

“It was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo. Nobody on a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans, even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea.”

Ofcourse he was right, there is rarely any way to convince or reason with or oppose supercilious totalitarian regimes even if their decisions are clearly suicidal. I am tempted to make a political comment on two present day countries (one a totalitarian state and one a liberal democracy) here, but would avoid the temptation.

Anyhow, the images above disturbed me enough to lose sleep.

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