Archive for the ‘science’ category

Museums – not quite the old Magic Shop!

17 January 2012

I remember visiting a museum as a child. An avid reader, I longed to enjoy the magic others experienced when they visited museums and such-like wond’rous places . Not only did I want to visit them, but wanted them very much to be like The Magic Shop!

From "Vor dem Weihnachtsladen" by Heinrich Zille (1875)

I got my wish when I went on a school trip to the museum in Pune. I do not recall its name now. It had lots of dusty bare rooms with glass panels containing objects, dull, and uninteresting, with short captions which told nothing of their stories. There was a tall, bald, curator – he spoke an alien language. Very soon, I wanted to go back home but had to endure the endless tour. If you entered from one end, you could leave only after going through a winding path through all the rooms.

It was a GREAT LETDOWN to a child.

Dusty glass shelves of objects which had no tales to tell...(Image:Édouard Riou, 1868)

So what went wrong? There was a great disconnect between the three of the entities involved, me , the objects and the museum staff. I had come expecting to get a taste of Wellsian magic, but I would not have minded if I had heard the objects tell me a more prosaic story. But they would not speak to me.

To me the objects looked like caged animals in a zoo; pathetic, listless copies of the original which lived enchanted lives somewhere far away. The objects could not speak to me. Plucked out of context from their surroundings where they would have been not just meaningful but magical.

Like a smoking cannon on the walls of a besieged fortress, or a quill on the table in Newton’s study in his house where it seemed that the great man himself would enter any moment to make won’drous new discoveries in science and maths, or the bones and tools of prehistoric cavemen unearthed from a cave where one could see the same vista they did hundreds of thousands of years ago. There was nothing to tell me their stories, and the museum people did not bother.

Cabinet of curiousities in the Boston Museum of Science. Note that there was no prohibition against photography in the museum. (Image:Daderot)

I’m sure, they thought me a nuisance. They objected to my dropping the wrapper of the sticky sweet on the floor, unmindful of the fact that that they had not provided me a waste basket anywhere. They grudgingly sent a beadle to show me the way to the public convenience. They cared not that I was thirsty after many hours of a hot summer day. They were only interested in shooing me past the sword that fascinated me, rudely interrupting my dream where I stood warding off a host of pirates intent on taking over my ship; indeed shooing me past everything else. We heard more instructions abut the need not to touch, or shout or run; we learnt nothing more than they were a particularly unpleasant form of adult. I resolved that I would be different.

...rudely interrupting my dream where I stood warding off a host of pirates intent on taking over my ship. (Image:Capture of Blackbeard, by JLG Ferris (1863–1930)).

As a young captain, I was shown a few books by a Colonel about a magic art that the Americans had developed called Interpretation, but alas he would not lend those sacred books to me. No matter, from what I could read in them in a few moments they were in my hands, I gathered that in America, educated, informed and most of all interesting people take the people around historical places, preserved great homes, archives, museums and made these places accessible to the visitors.

The Interpreters had studied the culture, literature, history and geography of the place – they had learnt all that and more. And when people came to see these objects, they found that there was a knowledgeable friendly person who told the stories and recreated the magic. An interpreter was not someone who prattled unendingly but aroused your curiousity, but was interested in you as a person and cared that you got to know about your heritage. The interpreter aimed, not at sating you, but tantalisingly to whet your appetite with free pamphlets to take along, signposts and charts to help his story at just the right places and links to online knowledge where you could learn to find more.

The objects in such places lay in familiar surroundings , each along-with the others in a nostalgic panorama of the past, where it was easy to visualise the story and where a hint of imagination would allow you to transport yourself to the past.

Such a museum is then a place where the objects, encouraged gently by the interpreters tell the stories and answer your queries. A fun place to learn. A veritable time machine. And there was no disconnect in such places.

Recommended Reading

This post arose due to a chain of posts initiated by various authors in the recent past. In part, it is a complement to Pradeep Mohandas’s blogpost listed below. It is likely that there will be more on this blog from me on this topic :

Quote : Arvind Gupta

26 July 2011

Slum-side smile

And somewhere there are engineers helping others fly faster than sound.  But, where are the engineers helping those who must live on the ground?”

Arvind Gupta

Indian toy inventor and populariser of science

quoting from an old OXFAM poster

Read his story.


Reference

Open science! by L. Shyamal

9 August 2009

Introduction to today’s Guest Opinion Piece

The primary problem Indian naturalists face is lack of access to suitable information and knowledge about their own biodiversity.

Very often, this knowledge exists but is locked up in the minds and notes of experts. The common man is denied access to the fruits of  research, very often most of which has been funded by public money. Among the many inequalities in India, a de facto caste  system separates those involved in science from those interested in science.

Since this blog has by its licensing voted clearly and categorically for open science, I had the privilege of requesting Shyamal, a practitioner of making science open and accessible to all, to comment on this. Being a friend, he has obliged.

Open science!

by

L.Shyamal

Ashwin asked me to write about my rationale in contributing to science articles on Wikipedia and with some reluctance I have decided to try and articulate some of my reasons and it turns out that the linking ideas are more tortuous than I had first imagined.

Trying to think about how one acts requires an “out of one’s mind” experience! Probably the reason for the craziness of philosophers and the unreadability of their writings.

Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour

In the genre of unreadable French philosophy  are ideas from a French scholar named Bruno Latour, whose obfuscated writings have even prompted academic practical jokes (see Sokal affair), but some secondary interpretations of whose work are enlightening. Latour is a philosopher who has looked at science critically, a discipline that many would imagine is well-defined and not in need of any further thought.

Having been on several Indian campuses that ostensibly deal with science, I have often wondered if there was something completely faulty in the foundations.

India is perhaps unique in having a constitution that prescribes a “scientifc temper” as the duty of every citizen. This is dangerous country to tread on, especially when one does not have the required “clout”, academic or otherwise and even more so when most professional Indian scientists lead double lives, with even biologists (who in some other countries top in atheism) holding strong religious views, believing in miracles and praying that their papers get published. It would seem as if religious hierarchies are reflected in the hierarchies of science.

Indeed, questioning scientists is often made to look like blasphemy. When a scientist/ex-president touts the idea of linking rivers, it has be a “scientifically sound” idea right? Wrong, scientific ideas are always open to question and the scientific legitimacy/authority of an idea does not automatically transfer to all ideas produced by the same person.

Linus Pauling, one of the rare individuals to have received two Nobel prizes, had ideas on prolonging life that are today considered cranky. It is worth examining some ideas on science and breaking some myths. Latour suggests that real progress in science can only be made by breaking hierarchies and boundaries.

Thor Heyerdahl on 'borders'

Thor Heyerdahl on 'boundaries'..

Samuel Johnson - oet, essayist, moralist, novelist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer...

Samuel Johnson - poet, essayist, moralist, biographer, editor and lexicographer...

A famous quotation by Samuel Johnson, best known for his pioneering work in creating a dictionary of the English language, says –

“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries”.

While Isaac Newton said (supposedly during one of his rare moments of modesty, but also disputed by some scholars who claimed he was mocking Hooke) that

“If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants”

Latour essentially clubs the ideas in these two quotes into what he terms as black-boxes, ideas that are used as founding principles to develop other ideas and the networks of links between ideas and their authors. He suggests that scientists gain legitimacy in their writings in journals by providing these linking ideas by citing other sources and stating in effect that-

“if you find me wrong, you are probably finding something wrong in all these others that I quote”.

This kind of legitimacy gain by garnering support is seen in many areas of scientific research. In others, one needs merely to be be descriptive, placing the facts and assuring the reader that the way the facts were gathered is “verifiable” and “repeatable“. Verifiability and repeatability are key to making scientific facts what they are.

Suppose, one heard that “Cherrapunji has the highest rainfall in India” – how does one determine if it was correct ? To determine if that claim was correct, one would actually have to measure rainfall in a uniform way in all parts of the country, but we do not measure the rainfall at every point and secondly we do not know if the man who makes the measurement in Cherrapunji is actually doing it right. (If I remember right, Alexander Frater found the local government guest-house cook in charge of taking the rain measurements and noted that he used used kitchen utensils to transfer water from the rain gauge into a measuring cylinder).

And yet despite the lack of “accuracy” it seems like the readings are “verifiable” in that if one took the water out of the rain gauge and poured it into a measuring cylinder onself, it would probably be the same as what our “cook” produces.

To a large extent, a lot of research data that is “verifiable” or “repeatable” is not actually verified or repeated as it is beyond the needs or means of most.

Now our governments tell us that they spent X million on developing Y which is supposedly good for all the people concerned. All of a sudden we have the Right to Information Act and we expect our government to tell us how they are spending the X million. None of this information is probably “verifiable” but the provision of that information gives us some “faith” in the path taken.

Scientific research takes the same route. Bruno Latour takes a huge step and brings in the thesis that politics and science are indistinguishable and suggests that there is convergent path. A guiding implicit principle in both politics and science is an inherent “equality” in the abilities of individuals.

What does any of this mean for people who are interested in biodiversity?

Most of us look at our natural world, but as “non-experts” we take it for granted that

(1) “experts” know everything

or

(2) as a “non-expert” one cannot contribute much to “expert” knowledge.

There are the fortunate few who are in a good position, for instance, to identify species based on their experience, access to collections, literature and other knowledgeable people. Some of these people have made that knowledge more widely accessible by digesting it into guide books. Field guides and other such literature enable further knowledge gathering by recruiting new observers who aid in refining information on distribution, knowledge on life-history and so on.

This kind of “democratization” of knowledge however can be seen by some “professionals” as undermining their expertise or monopoly.

Knowledge monopolies have been and will continue to be destroyed; Google Earth lets me find my way around, search for addresses of shops. At one level, there is nothing new in Google Earth, the underlying data is merely held locked up by the Survey of India, ISRO and the local telephone directories. Put them all together, make it cheaply accessible, leaving people to help themselves and the results are incredible.

Governments on the other hand are not even able to share information between their departments, a recent road underpass construction in Bangalore which was supposed to be done in a record 48 hours ended up taking two months because nobody could warn the roads departments of the water pipes and telephone wires that stood in their way!

While Governments often complain of the ways that such information can be misused, museum experts tend to point out that the lay public are unqualified to use knowledge.

This kind of circular reasoning has helped knowledge hierarchies sustain themselves and it seems that the flattening trend that has been introduced by Internet based ideas such as Google Earth, Wikipedia and The Internet Archive will have increasingly greater effects on the daily life of individuals and if Governments allow it, greater efficiency in governance.

Someone recently posted a photograph of a moth from Texas and based on a minimal education in entomology and access to information on websites I was able to identify it to down to the species level,   something that one simply cannot do for an Indian species because our experts (Where are they? Where does one find one?) probably expect formal letters requesting identification or perhaps even payments.

A lack of pro-activeness, plain laziness or wilful refusal to divulge information? Hard to tell, but “good science” is not just about a publication record but about making the path to knowledge more accessible and open to all and nothing is gained by obfuscating the path or by sanctimonious claims to knowledge that has been “revealed” to a select few.

Indeed it is hard to understand why the Zoological Survey of India, the Botanical Survey of India, and the Bombay Natural History Society, all of which receive public funds from the Ministry of Environment and Forests should not scan and make its library and specimen collections publicly available. In the meantime, as individuals, one can do their bit by sharing their daily learning and adding a drop of knowledge into the ocean.

Last week I happened on a beautiful and common cockroach. My one-time advisor Professor C A Viraktamath kindly identified it as a ”Therea petiveriana” and a little bit of browsing allowed me to put together whatever little appeared to be known about it on

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Therea_petiveriana

Now you should not trust any bit of information on that page, but the bits of information on that page can be followed up to the original sources and maybe some of the information that has been published in the cited journals will be found to be incorrect. These corrections should be published in a suitable journal and that Wikipedia page should then be corrected by providing a citation to the newly published research.

That to me is the process of making science visible.

Are Indian scientists interested?

Further Reading

* Pearson, D. L. and J. A. Shetterly. 2006. How do published field guides influence interactions between amateurs and professionals in entomology? American Entomologist 52: 246-2.

* Pearson, D. L. and Cassola, Fabio. 2007. Are we doomed to repeat history? A model of the past using tiger beetles (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae) and conservation biology to anticipate the future.
Journal of Insect Conservation, Volume 11, Number 1 / March, 2007  (Copy available on request from the butterflydiaries).

* Kristine  L. Callis, Lindsey R. Christ, Julian Resasco, David W. Armitage, Jeremy D. Ash,  Timothy T. Caughlin, Sharon F. Clemmensen, Stella M. Copeland, Timothy J.  Fullman, Ryan L. Lynch, Charley Olson, Raya A. Pruner, Ernane H.M.  Vieira-Neto, Raneve West-Singh, Emilio M. Bruna (2009) Improving  Wikipedia: educational opportunity and professional responsibility. Trends  in Ecology & Evolution 24(4):177-179.

* http://www.csicop.org/circumnavigations/rockets/

* http://www.worldviewsofscientists.org/IndiaReport.pdf

* http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?237780

* http://amasci.com/weird/sciattid.html

The End

Walk the talk! Some of the images Shyamal made for use freely by anyone! (Free license - CC SA 3.0 ).

Walk the talk! Some of the images by Shyamal made for use freely by anyone! (Free license - CC SA 3.0 ).

Find a list of images already made and to be  made by Shyamal here. His contributions to Wikipedia? Here!

A Decorative Beetle

12 July 2009


Calothyrza margaritifera - a Cerambycid beetle recently found in Pen.

Calothyrza margaritifera - a Cerambycid beetle recently found in Pen.

On a afternoon in early July, at Vavoshi near Pen, my father-in-law, Mr Nandan Kalbag spotted an intriguing beetle in black and white. It resembled a stylised Guy Fawkes mask of the kind that I remember seeing in ‘V for Vendetta‘. It was perched on a hanging flower-vase and was motionless. It stayed there awhile and after a couple of hours it was gone.

One of the big advantages of being a son-in-law of a man keenly interested in the natural world around him is a steady stream of images and anecdotes which permit me to vicariously enjoy those moments with him. In course of time, the image came to me, was bunged onto the InsectIndia yahoo-group. There it was picked up by a friend and forwarded to a Dr Hemant Ghate of the Zoology Dept of Modern College in Pune, a man desperately keen on beetles. After consulting with Dan Heffern, an American engineer turned coleopterist, a verdict was delivered – the culprit was identified as Calothyrza margaritifera which was described by Westwood in 1848.

Common names are a luxury available to enthusiasts of mammals, birds, butterflies, a few reptiles and amphibians. In the world of arthropods, there are very few common names. Calothyrza margaritifera – the name meant nothing to me. I don’t really know much about beetles – I am quite prone to mis-spelling them too; I forget they are ‘beetles’ not ‘beatles’. India has no recent handbooks on beetles for the amateur. It took a little patient digging online to find out a little more about this curious insect.

Calothyrza margaritifera is a longicorn or long-horned beetle; it belongs to the family Cerambycidae. Most but not all cerambycids have antennae longer than their bodies. These beetles are wood-borers and some are economically significant pests. Some small cerambycids mimic ants, wasps and bees. A member of this beetle family is considered to be the largest insect in existence today.

C. margaritifera belongs to the tribe Phrynetini of the subfamily Lamiinae. The beetle volumes of the Fauna of British India of the early twentieth century vintage are the only tomes available to the amateur naturalist of India. Unfortunately Charles Joseph Gahan, the author of the Cerambycidae section only wrote one volume which unfortunately excludes the Lamiinae, those taxa being reserved for the never written second Volume.

The known range of C. margaritifera embraces the Central Himalayas of India and Nepal, and extends across Myanmar to Thailand. The discovery of this beetle in Raigad district of Maharashtra is then an important range extension. Fortunately, the species has a very distinct look so that, strictly speaking, a specimen may not be needed to record the find.

Like most picturesque long-horned beetles, Calothyrza margaritifera demands a substantial price on the international specimen trade – prices typically range from ten to 35 dollars each. Most Calothyrza specimens show Thailand as their area of origin. One may think that the Biological Diversity Act of 2002 as amended may protect Indian beetles but there is ample evidence to the contrary on the internet, this site being one such example. Single Calothyrza margaritifera specimens, and occasionally pairs appear for sale in insect catalogues and sometimes on E-Bay!

We are often reminded of the need to preserve and protect our biodiversity by stories of how such and such organism s being investigated for new science, fresh discoveries and path-breaking insights. It may interest you to know that Calothyrza margaritifera is one of those. In this case, the vivid white of the beetle cuticle is being investigated at the nano-technological level. The vivid whiteness of the beetle’s cuticle is not the result of a hue but rather the nano-structure of pill-shaped chitin growths. The abstract of the paper, presented in a symposium on ‘Bioinspired and biointegrated materials as new frontiers for nanomaterials’ (Symposum M) on 10 Jun 2009 at 12:05 hrs this year in Strasbourg, can be found here.

What worries me most is that there are hundreds of such delicious scientific curiosities waiting to be discovered in our jungles which may never come into existence before the forests and their associated biodiversity are lot forever.

Image credit – Mr Nandan Kalbag (under Creative Commons 2.5 SA)

The cornucopia that is TED!

18 February 2009

One of the many wonders of the internet, my favourite one is TED.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment & Design. It showcases short 15 to 20 minute talks by some of the best minds in the world. These talks, or presentations, to be exact, are shown by streaming video free to anybody who accesses their web site –

www.ted.com

ted_logo

In my life, I can never hope to attend a lecture by Stephen Hawking and hear him speak of the birth of the universe, but thanks to TED, now I can.

Or I can hear Louise Leakey tell the fascinating story of ancestral humans.

And sitting in my bedroom at the computer,  I can visit the deep ocean and see its mysteries with David Gallo,

or explore Titan and Enceladus, the moons of Saturn along with Carolyn Porco.

Its not just the mysteries and wonders of nature, but also the triumph of the human spirit.

Peter Diamandis talks passionately of how the X Prize is helping liberate the common man from the tyranny of earth’s gravity.

You can watch Robert Full carefully draw out nature’s secrets such as how geckos use nanotechnology to create the stickiest living tissue of all, the paws of their feet.

Or even watch Robert Lang use math in origami to fold the most intricate objects and also to help deploy space telescopes and artery stents.

This list, though I end here, is not even complete in scope as artists, thinkers, teachers, innovators – thinking, passionate, caring people from all walks of life, walk up and deliver 20 minutes of fascination at the TED rostrum. At last count they had 383 short videos, over 120 hours of terrific viewing.

For Indians who can only dream of streaming video, each talk has a link to a zipped up MP4 file for downloading. Typically, they are about 50 MB, so there is absolutely nothing to prevent you from owning your own collection of favourite TED talks.

These talks don’t just educate, they network people and lead to synergistic collaborations.

A wish had just been made on winning the TED Prize for 2009 by Jill Tarter,  the Director of SETI – the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, a matter of immense importance to mankind (she was the role model for Jodie Foster’s character in the 1993 film Contact), when within minutes of hearing her stirring tale of man’s endeavour to search for the unknown, she was flooded by offers to help.

As the Wall Streeet Journal wrote about this…

”A computer scientist donated his patented search algorithms for better data analysis. Marketing experts offered to create Spanish-language Web sites to spread her message throughout Central and South America. A senior developer from Google Inc. volunteered to persuade his company to incorporate searchable star maps into Google Earth.”

By enthusing the world thus, TED and TEDPrize lead the way for all of us…

Personally, whenever I feel down, an hour’s watching of TED videos restores my faith in the concept of humanity and that life is worth striving for and it does make sense to do what you want, even if its just a small thing as a blog…

Note: This post reflects the personal opinion of the author and there is no relation of any kind with TED.com except as a registered user. Their logo is displayed under ‘fair use’ argument of copyright.