Monthly Archives: April 2003

The Ceiling Painter


      WE lay too much stress on formal education. When we want to show how much we know we think it is important to list our degrees and the great universities that gave us those degrees. But is that real knowledge. Doesnt real knowledge just need one thing :” a LOVE for learning”. Isnt this love a necessary and sufficient condition for a life devoted to search for knowledge:

      all thoughts, all passions, all delights

      whatever stirs this mortal frame

      all are but ministers of love

      that feed his sacred flame

      In today’s VERITAS we will go back in history to get inspiration from a man who was so learned that transformed how man thought about expression in art. This man had no formal education. His name is Michelangelo Buonarroti.

      He was born in Caprese, a small village in italy in 1475. Since his childhood he wanted to be an artist and sculptor. He went against his father’s wishes and became an appretice at LOrenzo di Medici’s school. AT the age of 15 he realized that knowledge from books and from other people was not enough. He gave up his training and decided to search for true knowledge on his own.

      The most beautiful thing for Michelangelo was the human form. He wanted to capture this beauty with the intensity of thought and movement in his paintings and statues. He decided to study the human form in detail before capturing it in his art. He studied the ancient sculptors who knew how to represent the beautiful human body in motion,with all its muscles and sinews. However, he was not content with learning the laws of anatomy secondhand. He wanted to hold the parts of the human body in his own hands. He wanted to examine every muscle, every bone,every tissue and understand how these organs contribute to the shape of the body. He decided to cut open bodies for his studies. We must remember that dissection of bodies was considered against the law and religion in those days. He bribed the caretaker of the city cemetery and dug up bodies for study. When ths city slept he would go to the cemetery and cut open bodies. He would carefully draw every part. He would go deeper and deeper till a particular body was completely discovered. By the morning he would be filled with blood and stink. He would come back night after night to gain knowledge of the body that he considered was the supreme work of God. His knowledge of anatomy shows in his art. Never was the human body captured in painting and statues in so much intensity before.

      One of his most famous works is the ceiling of Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.The pope Julius II convinced him to do this work. The frescos that Michaelanglo painted on the ceiling are his interpretation of various scenes from the Old Testament. Lying on his back on scaffolding high above the chapel floor, Michelangelo painted some of the finest images of all time. This work took him four years to complete( 1508 to 1512). The ceiling of the church is 100 feet above the floor. Imagine…. for four years he would go to work every morning… he would be climb 100 feet above the ground( the height of a 10 floor building), he would be suspended on a wooden platform. He would paint holding his brush and raising his arm above his head. Try and hold your arm in the air above your head for 5 minutes. You would get tired. Michaelanglo painted in that position for 4 years. Modern artists would paint in their studios and then place the paintings after they are done. Not Michaelanglo! He wanted to paint directly on the ceiling.

      After 4 years of work he got very sick. He got so used to the position of work that if he was given a piece of paper to read, he could not read it at eye level. He would have to raise it above his head and look up to read it properly.

      See the attached picture. This is one of the many paintings that Michaelanglo painted on the ceiling. THis painting is known as the “Creation of Adam”. It shows God touching the hand of Adam to give him life. The small images next to God portray various angels. Now see the background on which God is placed. Some experts think that that depicts the mid-sagittal outline of the brain. mid-sagittal image of the brain is what you will see if you cut up the brain through its middle in a vertical plane. What Michaelanglo thought while choosing that particular background is something that we will never know. But it shows us how influenced he was by human anatomy.




  Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:                 

  Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:                 

  Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,                          

  Correct old time and regulate the Sun;                              



Disorder and Life


      This VERITAS is about a question that has always bothered me.

I believe that the question is a fundamental one. However the answer to this question poses many more deeper questions.

      According to the laws of Physics the disorder in a system always increases with time. This is the second law of thermodynamics.

All other laws of Physics are symmetrical with respect to past and future. i.e if you replace time with -time in any equation of Physics you would get an equivalent equation. Any equation of Physics except the law of increase of entropy. According to this equation you cannot decrease the entropy( or disorder) of an isolated system.

Imagine sweeping all the dust on the floor to a corner. Now close the room and visit it again after a few years. You would find that the dust has spread all over the place and is no longer in the corner where you swept it. We must remember that both these states are equivalent from the point of view of Energy. Enargy has not entered the room.

The disorder in our closed system( room) has increased because of its internal processes.

If you see dust all over the floor on a certain day and swept neatly in one corner after a year, you would know that this could not have happened itself. Someone would have done it. 

      So in a certain sense the law of Entropy defines the arrow of time. Future is a state of disorder. Past is a state of order. ( please do not apply this statement in a context outside Physics. The term “order” has a very specific statistical meaning for this law to make any sense).

       You can imagine a egg breaking as a event that goes from past to future. However if you are shown a movie of a broken egg combining to form a whole egg you would immediately realize that this movie is wrong or the sequence of time is being reversed.

      But there is something that seems to move from relative disorder to order as time goes on. I am talking about life. As we grow older from the initial state of being children our physical state is actually growing in order. When we die our bodies decompose and the state becomes that of disorder( or Entropy). Does this mean that life is a process which does not respect the law of increase of Entropy?  But we all know that the laws of Physics are universal laws. They apply to EVERYTHING ( and that includes living organisms). How can that happen? This is the question that has always bothered me.

      I found a good answer to this question in a passage from the book: “What is life” written by Erwin Schrodinger( of the Schrodinger’s equation fame). According to Schrodinger, a living organism maintains itself in a state of high order by extracting order from the environment around it. In Schrodinger’s words ” The living organism feeds on Negative Entropy”. We must remember that the law of entropy increase applies to only a closed system. A living organism is not a closed system. It constantly acts and is acted upon by the environment around it. The organism+environment is a closed system and the law of increase of entropy applies to it. The living organism to achieve order constantly decreases order around itself. How do we do that? Our life processes take some inputs from the environment around us and output someting that is less ordered. We eat highly organized material. We convert that into lot of disordered stuff and output that. We grow by eating that food( we attain order), our environment gets more disordered.

      We get a few insights from this answer:

1) We eat only living organisms and not other chemicals because living organisms have a very hign degree of order. COnverting that order into disorder would help us a lot more that converting a chemical ( lower order) into fumes.

2) An organism cannot survive alone. The whole order-disorder converstions are based on the presence of lots of organisms of varying order in the environment.

3) An organism that just taken in material from its environment cannot exist. The output is fundamental.

      However this answer poses some other very interesting questions:

1) Can we define life as a process that constantly tries to maintain its low entropy state(high order state)?

2) How did life in the beginning realize that order can be achieved by the processes we talked about.


A little poem that celebrates disorder(in not exactly the same sense:-))


            by Robert Herrick


A SWEET disorder in the dress

Kindles in clothes a wantonness :

A lawn about the shoulders thrown

Into a fine distraction :

An erring lace which here and there

Enthrals the crimson stomacher :

A cuff neglectful, and thereby

Ribbons to flow confusedly :

A winning wave (deserving note)

In the tempestuous petticoat :

A careless shoe-string, in whose tie

I see a wild civility :

Do more bewitch me than when art

Is too precise in every part.