Archive for October, 2020

This book arrived today morning. I read the first page and the first few pages, and they all went over my head. I don’t know why I keep getting into these things. I thought that I have read many popular science books on quantum mechanics, and I thought that if I picked a textbook and started reading, the knowledge I gain will be more deep and it will be the kind of knowledge scientists acquire. But when I opened the book, it looked at me with contempt and laughed at me. And it threw all these complicated equations at me. I should have guessed when I first discovered this textbook. When I saw ‘Springer’ on the cover, all kinds of alarm bells rang in my mind. Springer books are classics, but they are hard and inaccessible to a normal person. They are meant for professionals and scientists in the field and for masters and doctoral candidates who study in premier institutes. Not for the likes of me. I use a simple rule while buying textbooks. I look at different textbooks online, I don’t ask people who know about it because I like discovering stuff myself, and if there is more than one book on the subject, I pick the biggest, thickest one. My reasoning here is that both thin and thick textbooks cover the same material, and if a book is bigger, it is because the author has taken more time and space and explained things better. I did the same thing here. Other quantum mechanics books were around 500 pages and Florian Scheck’s was around 700 pages. So I assumed that Florian Scheck has taken time and explained things in simple language. But my assumption was wrong, and it is Florian Scheck’s book 1 – Vishy 0.

In addition to the fact that it was published by Springer, which sent the alarm bells ringing, there were other clues that the book offered. If I had looked properly, I would have discovered them. For example, the author Florian Scheck is German. His name is a dead giveaway, of course. This book was initially written in German and it was used in German universities by German students for many years. It was translated into English only recently. A book written by a German professor / scientist for German scientists and students – well, it is a book which is going to laugh at punks at me. Florian Scheck also seems to be an old fashioned German professor – he loves classical music, his dad was a classical musician and he is deep into high-end physics in a way which someone like me can’t comprehend. He made me think of the great German scientists like Max Planck, who was an amazing scientist and loved classical music and performed classical music compositions when he had invited scientists for dinner. Of course, we have our dear old Einstein too, who loved playing the violin. Physicists playing classical music is a very German thing. Playing classical music and doing amazing research which is outside the realm of understanding of most of us science fans who are not scientists – this is a very German thing. I think I’ll put this book in the next room, light a lamp or candle and pray that one day it decides to be kind and come down to my level. I also hope that my mathematical muscle gets stronger that one day I can pick this up and read the first page, and understand it, and hopefully progress till page 10 or page 50. I will be happy if I can do that. Till then, I will keep to my George Gamov, Bill Bryson, John Gribbin, Christophe Galfard and occasionally dip into Roger Penrose.

Lots of admiration and love for all my scientist friends who keep reading stuff like this everyday, like it was a romance novel or cozy crime mystery! I admire you all very much!

Do you try reading a textbook when you like a particular subject? Or do you keep to popular books on the subject? How has your experience been? Do share.

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I always look forward to this time of the year, as the Nobel Prizes are announced at this time. While the Peace Prize and the Literature Prize are probably the most followed ones, and sometimes, the most controversial ones, I also try to keep an eye on the Physics Prize. A few days back I got a pleasant surprise when I discovered that one of the winners of this year’s Physics Nobel Prize is my favourite physicist Roger Penrose. Those of us who are fans of Roger Penrose have been following his work for years now, but he has been mostly a closely guarded secret, as mainstream followers of science have mostly not heard of him or have just ignored him. His English contemporary Stephen Hawking has been more famous for writing the bestseller ‘A Brief History of Time‘. Roger Penrose has mostly kept a low profile, but he was highly regarded in scientific circles for doing original work. But he was also sometimes controversial for bucking the establishment point of view and stating his own mind and calling a spade a spade and marshalling facts to prove his point of view, the kind of thing that scientists are expected to do – if facts contradict a point of view, believe the facts, not the point of view – but the kind of things contemporary scientists hate, when their own opinions and work are contradicted by someone with facts. In his book ‘The Emperor’s New Mind‘ he takes on Artificial Intelligence scientists and shows why they are wrong and this rubbed many people the wrong way, including veteran A.I. scientist Marvin Minsky. In his more recent works like ‘The Road to Reality‘ and ‘Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe‘, he takes on String Theory physicists and shows why most of their work is meaningless. Penrose shows an almost Einsteinian contempt for current fashion in science, that it makes us smile 😁 It also endeared him to fans like me 😊

In the picture : Roger Penrose’s three most famous books. All classics. The middle one ‘The Road to Reality’ is his masterpiece, I think.

I first discovered Roger Penrose years back when I was a student. I had gone to a scientific institute for an interview, and I was staying in the room of my friend’s brother who was doing his Ph.D there. This brother had Roger Penrose’s ‘The Emperor’s New Mind‘ in his bookshelf. I hadn’t heard of Roger Penrose before and I started reading it and before long I had finished 50 pages and every page gave me goosebumps. It was love at first sight and our love affair has continued ever since.

In the picture : Roger Penrose looking young and handsome while inspiring students at Oxford

Across the years, Penrose wrote other books. ‘The Road to Reality‘, which is a thousand page tome, in which Penrose gives an overview of the whole of physics as it stands today, is in my opinion, his masterpiece.

One of the things about Penrose is that in his books he doesn’t shy away from equations. There is a prevailing wisdom in the publishing industry that every equation included in the book reduces the sales of the book by half. So publishers talk to scientists who are writing books for general readers and try to dissuade them from including equations. But Penrose’s books are filled with equations. In the introduction / preface of every one of his books, Penrose apologizes for the equations and describes a way by which readers can try understanding them or still understand the book after skirting through the equations. It is one of the charming parts of the book.

All these are, of course, books that Penrose wrote for the general reader. His day job is that of a scientist, and and though I am familiar with some part of his work, I am not expert enough to comment on it. One thing I can say is this. Penrose is a huge fan of Einstein and his theory of General Relativity, and it shows in the way he gushes about them in his books. His own work for which he has won the Nobel Prize is closely related to Einstein and General Relativity.

These are beautiful days. Today is a beautiful day. My favourite scientist won the Nobel Prize for Physics. I have been smiling since I read the news. I never thought that this would happen, because Penrose is a theoretical physicist, but sometimes good things, beautiful things happen.

Congratulations Sir Roger Penrose! We love you and admire you!

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I decided to start October with ‘Uncle Vanya‘ by Anton Chekhov. This is my third Chekhov play after ‘Three Sisters‘ and ‘The Seagull‘.

Uncle Vanya‘ starts in typical Chekovian fashion. There is a country estate, there are family, friends and relatives there, they talk for most of the time and there is not much of a plot, there is inappropriate kind of love with one character being in love with another character’s wife or husband, some of the characters contrast the beauty of thought and ideas and aesthetic sensibilities with the humdrum and boredom and challenges of everyday life (I noticed this last thing for the first time when I watched the Russian film adaptation of Chekhov’s play ‘Platonov‘). There is even a gun which goes off in the end. All typical, vintage Chekhov. There are beautiful lines spoken by different characters throughout the play. Many of my favourites were spoken by a doctor called Astrov. The story ends in typical Chekovian fashion. Was it happy or sad? I am not going to tell you that 😁

I loved ‘Uncle Vanya‘. I don’t know why the play is called ‘Uncle Vanya‘, because another character, the doctor Astrov, has a bigger part in the story and speaks many of the beautiful lines. The translation by Laurence Senelick reads very well and is filled with footnotes in which Senelick explains the finer points of translation or describes what Chekhov or someone else thought about a particular line or scene. The play has a beautiful introduction by the translator which describes how the play came into being, analyzes the characters and the story and sets the play in context in the Chekhov pantheon. It is best to read the introduction after you read the play.

If you have a Russian soul – you don’t need to be Russian to have a Russian soul, some of us have a Russian soul though we were not born Russian – or if you have literary, artistic, aesthetic and philosophical sensibilities which are embodied in a Russian soul, you will love this play.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite lines from the play, spoken by, who else, but Astrov.

“Russian forests are toppling beneath the axe, the habitats of birds and beasts are dwindling, tens of thousands of trees are perishing, rivers are running shallow and drying up, gorgeous natural scenery is disappearing irretrievably, and all because lazy human beings can’t be bothered to bend down and pick up fuel from the earth. Am I right, madam? A person has to be an unreasoning barbarian to destroy what cannot be re-created. Human beings are endowed with reason and creative faculties in order to enhance what is given to them, but so far they have not created but destroyed. Forests are ever fewer and fewer, rivers dry up, wildlife is wiped out, the climate is spoiled, and every day the earth grows more impoverished and ugly.”

Well, Chekhov wrote these lines in 1898, and it has been 122 years, and nothing has changed. Human beings continue to be stupid. Einstein once said, “Two things are infinite : the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” Human beings continue to prove him right. It is sad and tragic.

Have you read ‘Uncle Vanya‘? What do you think about it?

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