Sunday, August 28, 2005

Tennis- The toughest sport?

Is Tennis the toughest sport on the planet? Justin Gimelstob of Sports Illustrated certainly thinks so.

Monday, August 22, 2005

India's Employment Guarantee Scheme

Poverty is the biggest problem facing 3rd world countries like India. Like almost all governments in these countries, in India too, rhetoric & populism always triumph over practical sensible approach to poverty alleviation. Thus, true to tradition, Indian's coalition government has come up with the idea of providing guaranteed employment to the rural poor (Here is another take on this). If this smacks of long buried communist socialist ideology of yore then this is because it is. If 50 years of India's experimentation with socialist model should have taught us anything then it is that free lunches do not work. How is government going to create those millions of promised jobs out of thin air is anybody's guess. What is really going to happen is, most of the money is going to end up in the coffers of corrupt officials, and whatever is left will go as "salary" for non-existent jobs, thus hardly contributing to any meaningful sustainable employment. It is a pity that we have two of the most brilliant economists heading the government and the ideas they come up with are these socialist nonsenses. They really do not have to look far to find ideas that work. A cursory look upwards towards Beijing or Shanghai is enough to find a model which will assuredly provide much needed employment to millions. India needs to open up its economy more to let retailers and manufactures come in, bring billions of dollars into the economy & give it a much needed boost. Software and outsourcing industries can provide jobs only to high skill english speaking graduates. Inspite of all its hype, this industry provides jobs to only close to a million people out of a potential workforce of 300 million. Manufacturing and retail companies require a large number of low-skilled, low wage people to work at their factories & stores thus automatically creating jobs for low-skilled semi-literate people. If Indian government can just let free market work & get out of the way then those jobs will be accessible to millions of Indian poor. That will be a real "employment guarantee."

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Einstein's Cosmos

A few months ago, I had the good fortune of laying my hands upon Brian Greene's wonderful book, Fabric of the Cosmos. The book fascinated me enough to write a review of sort on my puny little corner of the web world. It turns out that this book had really woken up a dormant physicist somewhere inside me and I have been itching to know more about this wonderful pet subject of physicists called the Universe. A name which is synonymous with physics is that of Albert Einstein, the iconoclastic genius, arguably the most influential scientist of all times. Brian Greene had spurred me enough to know more about Albert Einstein and his revolutionary theories. So, I headed to Fulton County public library to pick up whatever I could find on the Man of the Millenium according to Time magazine. Two books lay there, side by side, both remarkably similar in their outer appearance, similar cover, similar titles and almost the same number of pages. The similarity did not end there, both are written by scientists, one by Barry Parker other by Michio Kaku both physicists, and aspire to fill a gap in the vast popular literature on Einstein by focusing more on his life as a physicist rather than being run of the mill biographies. The book by Barry Parker, though self contained, is part of a trilogy on Albert Einstein and the one by Kaku is not, that probably is the only difference between the two. So reading one book was as good as reading both.

I decided to start out with the book by Michio Kaku, Einstein's cosmos, for no other reason than that his is a name I had heard before. The book is divided into three parts, corresponding to three pictures which Einstein came up with in his quest to understad the Universe. The first picture, that of racing a light beam, inspired him to come up with Special Relativity. The second one , on the equivalence of acceleration & gravity, gave mankind General Relativity and the third one was his unfinished quest for a unified theory combining Quantum Theory with General Relativity. The book is very well written and gives a basic grasp of Einstein's ideas and true magnitude of his genius. Einstein's contribution to science , and consequently to humanity, is unfathomably deep and far reaching. His theories have opened up vistas unknown before his time and so fundamentally shaken the roots of science that modern science would have been decades , if not centuries, behind if not for him. Kaku is successful in his attempt to provide basic insights into Einstein's work and also the thought process Einstein may have gone through during the course of his discoveries.

Equally interestingly, Kaku gives a fairly detailed description of Einstein's personal and public life well enough for this book to qualify as a semi-biography. The anecdotes from Einstein's life are quite informative and entertaining. The book is full of famous quotes from Einstein who incidentally was quite a genius at making a smart quip as well. To sample some of those, when Einstein was troubled by the inherent randomness in nature implied by quantum theory, he quipped "God does not play dice." When asked to describe relativity for a lay person, he replied "Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity." Writing about the importance of time, he remarked, "The only reason for time to exist is so that everything doesn't happen at once." Emphasising simplicity in the matters of science Einstein said, "Things should be as simple as possible, but not simpler." There were many many more which will need a couple of more posts if I desire to dwelve into them.

One thing which came off as something of a great surprise to me was Einstein's disdain for pure mathematics. Einstein was no slouch in mathematics but his skills apparently were a far cry from the likes of Newton, the scientist & mathematician who alone can qualify as Einstein's equal.To Einstein, abstract mathematics was "superfluous erudition", and the physical picture was the king. After his discovery of Special Relativity, a theory which came in for a lot of attention of mathematicians because of its inherent "beauty", he famously remarked "Since the mathematicians have started to tackle Special Relativity, I myself do not understand it." Einstein was the kind of genius who never thought in terms of mathematics. He always thought in terms of vivid physical pictures , mathematics to him was merely a book-keeping device invoked only when he needed to work out tedious details. It was quite a contrary to his contemporaries who got so lost in intricate mathematics and the intellectual entertainment it provided that they forgot what they were dealing with are physical objects not mathematical constructs.

Another surprising fact is regarding his Nobel Prize. Einstein had done enough work to get 4-5 nobel prizes in his lifetime and his theories are still generating nobel prizes for other scientists. Interestingly enough, Einstein did not get his Nobel for General Relativity, the work he is best known for. His Nobel came for his explanation of Photoelectric effect, a relatively minor work in his long & distinguished career. According to the book, the Nobel committee could not understand General Relativity and did not want to award a Nobel Prize in something they themselves did not understand. In his acceptance speech, Einstein completely ignored photoelectric effect, and talked about his most cherished creation General Relativity instead.

After finishing up the book, I could not help but get philosophical again. The Universe is trillions of light years vast, billions of years old and full of exotic things like stars, planets, black holes, atoms, quarks, electrons and what not. However, inspite of all its apparent complexity , there is a strange order , an order which unbelievably can be described by few mathematical expressions. Isn't it incredible that one man sitting in a quiet room on an incredibly small & insignificant planet can figure out that order underlying the Universe. Not only he can discover an order in a mind numbingly chaotic world, he can make predictions which fly on the face of common experience but are still startingly accurate. To me this is simply exhilirating.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Saving us from ourselves

Today is the 60th anniversary of that fateful day when Little Boy created the biggest cataclysm known to humanity. The day when time stood still and death danced in all its naked glory. 6th August 1945 was a defining moment in the histroy of mankind as it showed that how much power man has mustered in its short stay on earth. Luckily, the last 60 years have not seen anything like those fateful days in Japan, but is it possible that we will be so lucky for next 60 as well. The major nations of the world have enough nuclear power in their arsenal to destroy the world several times over. The potential to cause utter destruction exists, more than ever, so consequently a threat exists. How far-fethched is the scenario that some day this potential may fall into the wrong hands? Can one ever be sure that this is not possible? It is certainly possible because there are enough nuclear weapons & there are enough mad men on the loose (For an extremely well-written take on this, go here). Some of those mad men have great political power & enough resources to be able to acquire those devil's toys. A positive probablity, however small, can not be ruled out that one mad man may have control over a significant amount of nuclear power one day. On a long enough time line, any event -however improbable- is going to occur. The scary part is that we donot know how long that time line is simply because we can never have a realistically accurate estimate of the threat. The only way to be sure of avoiding another Hiroshima or Nagasaki is to completely destroy all nuclear weapons & impose a worldwide moratorium on their development. Ironically though, it may take another one of those to save humanity from humans.