Monday, June 23, 2008

Either to laugh or to cry

Probably a great talent a person can have is to be able to laugh at one's own mistakes and inabilities.

Before I start saying anything let me give a standing ovation to the marriage scene between Elizabeth (Keira Knightly) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) in the movie "Pirates of the Caribbean-At World's End".

The scene mesmerized and enamoured me (over and above the fact that I found Keira Knightly awesome in the 3 parts of the Pirates of the Caribbean). The bride, the groom and the priest all of them complete the formalities while in the thick of the battle and the couple hold each other and say "I do" while with their other hand they both continue to sword fight the enemies. What a scene! What a deep and subtle message! Undoubtedly it is the best marriage scene I have ever seen on the screen and probably one of the best scenes I have ever seen in any movie.

Of course this doesn't over-rule the fact that I found Jhonny Depp completely overwhelming. He is definitely one of the Gods of acting. Jack Sparrow is probably the most intriguing and complicated characters I have ever seen on screen. Apart from his continuous choice of precisely those options which are exactly midway between being black or white, what provoked me most was that all his choices seem to be disastrous in the short-run and beneficial in the long run.

There was a time when I was dead scared of mathematics and I was on the brink of deciding to quit science because of my inability to understand mathematics. I distinctly remember when I ran into a restaurant after my first algebra exam in CMI and started to cry. {Then I ordered a lot of spicy food to drown my sorrows in it. Expectedly I failed in that exam.} Today I suppose the situation has changed to some moderate extent. Life has come a long way since then and today I at least love certain topics in mathematics like Topology and Differential Geometry (advanced forms of geometry) and have also been able to give seminars in mathematics which have been appreciated by the audience. Today mathematics is an integral part of my daily life and is central to my career choice. But there are certain things about which my situation never seems to change and the chances of it changing is growing slim by the day.

I first fell in love with a class-mate of mine when I was in Class 4. That was when I for the first time wrote a letter to a lady proclaiming my love for her. That was when I should have detected my fundamental inability to understand almost half of the world called "women". But yes, I live and learn. Sometimes a bit slowly. That was obviously not the last time I fell in love and I did spend 2 days crying when a "relationship" of mine with a lady fell apart an year ago.

Over these years and more so over the past 1.5 years I have given considerable thought over this whole issue of "relationship building" and more I try to understand exponentially more it seems to be getting complicated. What happened with mathematics seems to be a rare kind of phenomenon in my life and something that seems unlikely to happen in other fields. Human relationships are undoubtedly the most non-linear dynamical system that exist and with women involved in it the system invariable tends to a singularity. {Sometimes I think I understand why mathematicians call neighbourhoods of such points as "basin of attraction" !)

There are a lot of things which somehow society assumes that "naturally" people will understand and don't need to be taught. Except for a few classes in school from my biology teacher, the education system never found it worthwhile to teach the students about the process of human reproduction. I had to myself sift through quite a bit of literature and medical text-books to understand it. But I am not sure whether most people have either the energy or the resources to read proper scientific texts about such basic things which are probably more important things to understand than the lineage of Mughal kings who ruled India or when is a locally euclidean space not a manifold or Quantum Theory.

Here I would like to note that the only time ever in school history that I got a 100/100 was in biology and almost always I scored more in biology than other subjects. All credits to my mother who is a doctor and who enthusiastically taught me a lot of biology. But somehow I was more attracted to the space-time and Quantum Theory and chose Physics as my career. Later I fell in love with Topology.

Similarly the education system also relied on fate to teach me about human relationships and how to build them successfully. Probably almost people are born with these intrinsic abilities and hence don't feel the need to be taught these things. I was probably somehow born with a complete vacuum inside me about these things. It was not until I entered college that I realized that I have fundamental problems in understanding human emotions and handling emotional bonds. Hence over the past 1 year I have been making deliberate efforts to get something done in this area.

I have spent considerable amount of time reading articles and magazines and books about human relations and emotions and how to interpret them. My lack of personal experience about most such things was a great road-block to me in understanding these things. I had t rely a lot on my imagination. Almost always I felt like a robot from some another planet trying to understand human beings or probably like the 'Tin-Man' in the 'Wizard of Oz'. I read quite a bit about topics like "stability of marriages", "marriage counselling", 'How to build a happy family?" etc etc

I spent quite some time trying to understand what a "marriage" means and what are its dynamics and needs for stability. I intrinsically have always felt convinced that there is something very good about this concept and that it is above all other things and something that distinguishes human race from all others. Humans are not the only ones to have the concept of "family" but I am not aware of any other species who have the idea of "marriage". For others things just seem to end at the level of "mating partner" but for humans it goes far beyond that. Today when the society is giving serious thoughts about the idea of homosexual marriages we really need to understand the concept of "marriage" in far greater detail.

I have a sort of firm belief in the concept of the "holy wed-lock". I can't see any argument in favour of promiscuity and domestic violence and even in their mildest forms they seem to me to be the most dastardly of all crimes. The sanctity of the marriage and mutual love and respect among the partners in it seem to be the defining lines for me for a successful civilization. Further I can't see any strong argument against being very possessive about one's love. As far as I feel and understand and what seems most logical about "love" (as in what should lead to marriages) is a mix of sexual attraction and a strong form of preference among the partners for each other for almost every sphere of life.

But then unfortunately or fortunately the above two though the most important are not the only things that can keep marriages together. It is easily possible for a person to effortlessly maintain the above 2 principles and yet fail to build relations.

Recently I read 2 more articles about such things titled "Things to do before you say 'I do' " and "How to keep your wife happy". {Probably most people understand these things "naturally" and find these things "obvious" but one must remember that there exists poor mortals like me who need to study these things to understand them.}

Mostly what were said in those articles were things I had vaguely felt through my brilliantly 'successful' relationship efforts. But what surprised me most about those articles is the following point that they had to make:

As far as I feel about the whole idea of 'love' and "marriage' is that ideally it should lead to the lives of the two people to get intimately intertwined to put into effect the lines 'What is yours is mine and what is mine is yours'. After two people are in love with each other I fail to understand what is the justification of still having a "personal space" where you still have an individual life disjoint from the life of the other person.

The articles seemed to be advocating that even post-marriage one needs and should maintain (and accept that the other person also maintains) that personal space and one shouldn't try to mix the two lives totally. They seemed to say that if two lives are totally and intimately mixed then this proximity can be choking for either of them.

I find this above philosophy very confusing and currently beyond my intelligence levels. Somehow this seems to me to be in contradiction with the philosophy that I had come to believe that love and marriage are a process of transition from thinking in terms of "I" and "You" to thinking in terms of "We".

I am currently unable to resolve the paradox between the above philosophy (which I think is right) and what the articles had to say.

Probably this article was born out of this paradox.

...and the system

Contd..from my last article.

This whole idea of creating something starting with a blank paper continues to fascinate me. Somehow this always seems to me to be the most interesting thing to do. { I am an admirer of Yanni and as Yanni puts it "creation is the most powerful act of deliberation"}. Somehow I never felt comfortable with the idea of "emulating" someone or trying to "follow" someone. "Fashion" and "vogue" don't make much sense to me. {Except with one or two teachers, I have always hated the idea of sitting in a class and listening to some professor speak}. I look at history from a distance. Because XYZ has "succeeded" by doing this doesn't seem to me to be reason enough to start off doing that.

I try to bring to science the fundamental instinct of an artist. All I see in front of me is a blank sheet of paper on which I am going to paint and not the works and thoughts of other people cluttering it. Probably this attitude has brought me into conflict with many teachers because I have refused to accept what they said and I insisted in starting afresh. I can't accept something just by being told of it irrespective of who is telling it. I accept something only when I am convinced of it. This process has its possible pit-falls but I see immensely larger gains from it which clearly they cannot reap who follow what they are told.

This starting-from-a-blank-page approach at least keeps me away from all forms of bias which people who live in sync with the society tend to develop. As a result of this process of thinking developed alone, I ran into severe social conflicts when I went to a big school in Kolkata (St.Xavier's, Park Street) and later CMI (Chennai Mathematical Institute).

But only when I entered college I realized that my ways of thinking and opinions about most things starting from most mundane daily things is very different from the rest of the world. The fact that society's opinions about most things is contrary to mine came as a root shock to me after all these years of having spent a life of mostly struggling with one's own self and developing ideas alone.

It has been a long struggle in coming to terms with the world outside. I have had to pay severe costs for this but yes I live and learn. Today I have learnt to maintain that safe distance from the world outside whereby I can interact with it through a selectively permeable membrane which lets me know all the alternatives that exist in the society and lets me compete them against my self-analysis to decide what is right. So that I am aware of the socially prevalent alternatives but I am not going to be biased towards whatever the mass applauds.

But I have always said that thoughts developed on one's own in loneliness have a clear advantage over socially generated ones in that the former has considerably higher chance of being original or innovative or path-breaking. What is iconoclasm and unorthodox today will become the standard of tomorrow. The standards of tomorrow are almost always born out of some thoughts in loneliness of some person today who refused to go with the social flow.

Somewhere down the lane the Indian education system (in which I have little or no faith and I condemn it to the core) strips the students off this basic element of courage to think beyond the norms and socially accepted correctness. I find the entire attitude of the Indian education system to be so much in conflict with the entire spirit of research and innovation. It has taken me great pains to fight this system and its menacing influence. I have had my share of losses due to this but what I have rescued from the jaws of Indian education is my natural courage to think out of the track. Its a natural courage every child is born with but most give it up to the devilish system in lieu of acquiring social acceptance.

I strongly feel that even today the Indian education system is largely under the shadow of education principles as instituted by the British Rule that is a mechanism to churn out clerks and not thinkers. The methods of learning by rote and repetition seem to be dangerously predominant. As an example I would like to mention this series of mathematics books by an author called Keshab Chandra Nag which was the predominant book when my grandmother was in school and that is still used by thousands of students in West Bengal and even in notable schools like South Point High School (Kolkata). This series of books is a typical example of insightless and pre-historic methods of teaching mathematics where the entire focus in on practice with arithmetic and algebraic manipulations with complete neglect of building concepts and understanding the subtleties of precise mathematical definitions. As if the students are expected to grow up to become calculating machines.

The parents of the students are also feeding the vicious circle by not taking efforts to expose the children to more modern methods of mathematics by exposing them to internatioanally acclaimed books. They too are looking for (a condonable and mediocre attitude) short term results in terms of rank in school examination as opposed to recognizing the importance of people of a nation being good in mathematics.

These parents should probably take efforts to read the articles on the web by Fields Medalist mathematician Terence Tao on the social importance of quality mathematics being encouraged in a country.

Today I am trying to continue the process of change in more sophsticated forms. At a primary level I am trying to learn a lot of geometry at the same level of abstraction and formalism like any other professional mathematician and trying to understand its subtle inter-windings with Physics. I believe that many more people will join me in this endeavour and we will completely change how Physics is done in India. For these endeavours of mine I am having to face tremendous criticism and sarcasm from various students and professors in Physics and Mathematics but it only adds to my determination to continue on my path to prove them wrong.

Fortunately in this path I have also found help and support from some people in my peer group (mainly from CMI) and professors, some of whom have shown considerable amount of faith in my endeavours. When most in CMI turned down my seminars as being unworthy these people could feel the excitement that I was trying to convey to them of how so called "abstract" mathematics completely revolutionizes how we look at Physics and shatters through socially predominant notions of what is correct and what is not. This is one of those attitudes that would have been considerably difficult for me to develop had I always lived in resonance with the society.

Let me end by remembering the famous song "Hum honge kamyab ek din...Man mein hai vishwas" ("We shall overcome someday..I do believe")

Two kinds of people..

In this article I am trying to just jot down various thoughts that have been going on and off my mind for the past few weeks. These will probably build up towards something more concrete in the next few articles.

Over the past few weeks I have been very busy trying to pack up for my trip to Germany for the Physics Nobel Laureates-Students meeting and alongside I have been trying hard to meet my own set deadlines to finish two expository articles that I have been writing in topology ( a branch of mathematics about which I am absolutely passionate). One of them was of an elementary nature and the other was slightly advanced (in the sense that it involved structures like locally trivial bundles and covering spaces). Now these writings are complete and I have sent them to some of my mathematics colleagues for reading it and commenting about it. Hopefully someday I will teach topology and Physics to some class and I will then use these articles as teaching materials.
Now that these personal mathematical commitments are over I can get to writing about non-academic aspects of life that are equally important to me as my professional pursuits i.e Geometry and Physics.

With respect to human relations people are crudely of two kinds although a spectrum of fine shades might exist between these two :
1. People who have had a life in sync with the general society and hence don't feel that they are particularly in need of people in their lives.
2. For various reasons people who have had a life which is pretty much disjoint from the society or the only connections been very formal. Hence they have spent a considerable amount of their times in lives alone.

There are various points that intrigue me about the attitudinal differences I observe between these two kinds of people. Mostly people of the first kind tend to huddle together and people of the first kind try to have very intimate relations with a very select number of people.
By and large I fall into the second category and one central feature that I feel that I have in these respects is a natural tendency to talk/interact with people whenever such a chance comes. Like I have spent hours teaching other people various topics in Physics and Mathematics which others in general would prefer to spend at least by studying things on their own. My inclination towards the process of teaching and having discussions and debates has a strong element of trying to build long term relationships with people. I somehow feel that relationships built through intense academic exchanges tend to be very strong compared to just psychological or physical bonding.

But this process of spending time alone has resulted in me doing a lot of introspection and self-analysis of various things that I see happening all around be it the Gujrat riots or Einstein's Theory. Very often the opinions and thought processes one forms out of such thinking done alone tends to have a strong individualistic flavour and very distinctive from the opinions that a person of the first kind forms out of the social interactions. This process has its gains as in giving a direct vent to creativity and originality and also has its pit-falls in terms of developing a bias because one might not be aware of alternative arguments if the analysis has been done alone.

This has its pros and cons. Knowing about the presence of alternative arguments that are present in the society can sometimes act as quick check to whether the self-analysis has some obvious flaw. On the other hand the very fact that some alternative thinking has strong social backing might make it so compelling that one tends to go with the flow and not take efforts to do the self-analysis almost like taking the wisdom of the crowds on blind faith.
So one needs to maintain a very subtle balance between doing a thorough self-analysis in loneliness and being aware of the alternative arguments that are socially prevalent.
More often that not the radical ideas that have changed the world have been born out of thoughts done alone of some person. More often than not these thoughts when propounded were ridiculed by the then existing society since it was in conflict with the socially backed idea at that time.

The most complicated situation arises when a person of the second type starts non-trivial interactions with a person of the first type.

The second type person is like then a butterfly just emerged at the end of a process of metamorphosis undergone in cocoon and the person of the first type is like a person from another planet who has never seen any flying living creature. Some of the likely things that this alien can do are the following:

1.This alien can start with a fresh mind accepting the fact that there exists creatures which can fly and then start appreciation the novelties of the butterfly. This way he takes the risk of sending out vibes to his society that he is keenly interested in this new creature as compared to trying to mould this new creature into one of its own types.
2. Can get so scared of this new phenomenon that it tries to run away or tries to kill the butterfly.
3. Tries to fence sit by observing this new creature from a distance so that he keeps his side with his society too.

Among the people of the second kind there exists a great variation with respect to what a person does with this huge of lonely time. Some of the prominent ethical possibilities are:

1. One can devote it to indulge passively into music, painting, photography, cinema etc. By passivity here I mean doing things like listening to music but not taking efforts to learn to sing or play an instrument or watch movies but not study about its technical details with the aim of making or acting in a movie.
2. Indulge actively in the above non-academic activities.
3. Devote it to intense academic work and pursue some technical subject like say Physics or Geology in great details.
4. Read a lot of books on varied topics. Again this can be active or passive. Passive approach would be to read about adventures but not take the efforts to embark on a trip.

Due to various reasons and circumstances I have spent quite a chunk of my life alone. Not that I have always been in boarding schools and hostels but there are more subtle forms of loneliness that a person can have to face. About an year ago in another article I had discussed this aspect of my life. This constant lack of companions of my age group had various profound effects on my life. Some of which are:

1. I was inclined towards drawing and painting since I ever picked up the pencil. I became more and more addicted to it. I used to spend 5-6 continuously with my pencils,pastels and brushes. When I used to start on a painting, I would keep working on it for days and nights. It had a magical effect on me. I would not even feel hungry or thirsty when working on a painting . Thats what was predominantly always on my mind since kinder-garten till about class 9. Almost the whole day I would primarily keep thinking about what would be the next experiment I would try to do with my paints and brushes. Experiments continued with colours and medium. Apart from formal classical art (my predominant form), I painted egg shells at one time and the once tried making colours on my own and once I tried painting with bird feathers. Then I did some abstract painting.
Unfortunately no one ever taught me to do oil-painting but I self-learnt that. So oil-painting was more exciting to me since I learnt to do it completely on my own. I think some of my best works are still those that I did in oil-paint. (Apart from my dearest works in Chinese-ink and monochrome watercolors. I loved drawing old shattered buildings in Chinese-ink and my favourite monochrome watercolor was when I painted from a photograph the boat traffic at Chittagong Port in Bangladesh)
Once I moved to West Bengal I didn't like my art teacher and I almost completely independently worked on my own developing my own style. (Anyway thats what has happened almost fully for Physics and to a great extent with Mathematics) Somehow my art teacher in Orissa gave me more freedom and encouraged me to develop my own genre. He only pointed out errors in technique but never told me to change style.

2. Given that I never had anyone to share any thoughts or views with I had still quite a bit of time left after drawing and painting. So thats when I started the following activities:
a) I started writing poetry. {But this had some other associated issues to which I will come in the next article}
b) I started writing stories. But I soon realized that I am not comfortable with this and I dropped it. But I read quite a bit of English stories especially the classical novels. My Bengali was pretty bad till about I was 13-14 years old. Then I made great efforts to learn to read and write Bengali just to be able to read the exciting stories by Satyajit Ray (the same film director who was awarded the Oscar, the Golden Lion and many more.) Later I went on to read some short stories and novels by Rabindranath Tagore.
c) I started watching movies of Amitabh Bachchan. {Yes. I am crazy about him. By the time I was in class 6, I had watched a considerable amount of his movies and I was enamoured about him. Even today he never fails to mesmerize me.}
d) The undercurrents of science had begun (thanks to the fact that when I was in my kinder-garten I started reading the book "Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking and got excited by it and then by two other books "Giant Book of Facts" and 'Dorking Kindersely Science Encyclopaedia") and I had started to feel an inclination towards the whole idea of "research".

It wasn't very clear to me then as to what "research" was all about but I felt that it was all about "creating" just like I was trying to draw something interesting starting with a blank piece of paper.

continued in the next article.....