Tag Archives: 2008 VERITAS

Mysteries of the Brain Part – 19 – GENIUS

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Do geniuses have a different brain than the rest of us? Are their brains bigger?
Or do their brains have more neurons? We will answer these questions in today’s VERITAS.
And to help us answer these questions we have perhaps the smartest brain of all: Einstein’s brain.

 Ask anyone around you: who do you think was the most intelligent person ever? I bet more than 80% people will say Albert Einstein. Most people do not know what he really did but he has become the icon of genius for the modern world.

 When Einstein died in 1955 his brain was taken out by Thomas Harvey who performed Einstein’s autopsy. The brain was photographed and preserved for scientific research into the nature of genius. Harvey also weighed the brain. It was a modest 2.6 pounds. So Einstein’s brain was just of average size and weight. Harvey did take out Einstein’s brain for scientific study but he refused to part with it afterwards. He was removed from his job for not giving the brain to the hospital where he was working. It was only in 1970s that Harvey entertained requests by scientists to give them samples of Einstein’s brain.

 The brain of the great mathematician Karl Fredrich Gauss has also been studied by scientists and they have found nothing special in that. But Einstein’s brain received a special treatment from scientists who have devoted decades of research to find that one thing that we can identify
with his exceptional intelligence.

 In 1970s researchers working on mice found that the mice that lived in more mentally stimulating environments have more glial cells per neuron then mice that lived in less mentally challenging environments. Glial cells are the support cells for neurons. Glial cells are created and destroyed
throughout the individual’s life( neurons do not increase in number by more than a small amount). Glial cells provide nutrition, hold the neurons in place by forming a sort of glue and they also modulate neurotransmission.

 In the 1980s scientists found that Einstein’s brain had a much larger concentration of glial cells in one part of the brain- the Broadmann area no 39. This part of the brain is responsible for synthesizing information from several brain functions.

 In 1999 another set of scientists noticed some strange anatomical features in Einstein’s brain. Two features of the brain were missing:

1) The operculum region in the frontal lobe of the brain: This part plays an important role in speech production. It is well known that Einstein started speaking very late- his speech was unclear   even at the age of 9 years.

2) Sylvian fissure: This divides the frontal lobe and the parietal lobe. In Einstein’s brain there is no such division. Scientists have proposed that this may have resulted in a better communication between neurons of the frontal lobe and the parietal lobe.

 Also because of the operculum region not being there another part of the brain compensated and became 15% larger than normal: the inferior parietal lobe. And this part is responsible for mathematical thought and visual-spatial imagination. So the mathematical part of the brain developed at the cost of the part of the brain responsible for speech.

 So do these anatomical differences and glial cell numbers tell us why Einstein was a genius. We do not know for sure. We can only know when we have studied the brains of a lot of geniuses. If anatomical abnormalities cause a genius like Einstein then I would be very disappointed. It should not take an abnormal brain to create the theory of relativity. Genius should be the product of the love for knowledge and the ability to play with ideas.  I tend to agree more with Thomas Carlyle’s statement:

       ” Genius is the transcendent capacity of taking trouble”

regards
Kanwar

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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;
|======================================================|

Is the world getting more intelligent?

Friends,

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 The tremendous progress that the human race has made is because of our intelligence. And the progress in terms of science and technology seems to be accelerating at a breathtaking pace. Now it would also be interesting to know if human intelligence is also increasing with time. Were people a 100 years back more or less intelligent than what we are today? What can we expect of future generations? In this VERITAS we hope to answer these questions.

 But to answer there questions we need to first find a way to measure intelligence. One universally used method is IQ( Intelligence Quotient) tests. These tests measure the ability of the subject to solve various kinds of mentally challenging problems. There are two kinds of problems in an IQ test:

1) Crystallized Intelligence questions: These are problems related to things that we have learned in school: vocabulary and maths skills.

2) Fluid Intelligence questions: These questions minimize the reliance on specific skills and what we may have learnt in school. So these questions are unrelated to the education system. One example is to ask the tester to imagine what a shape would look like if it  is rotated along a specific axis. Similarly there are questions related to visual patterns.

Now, the IQ tests are always normalized so that the average is 100. It is a sort of bell curve centered around 100. So if someone has an IQ of 130 then it means that only 2% of the population will score more in an IQ test. So a person with an IQ of 130 is among the top 2% of the population in terms of the Intelligence test.

 Of course the IQ test number is just a number. It is not the final measure of your worth and should not be taken more seriously than a rough indicator. But it is definitely a useful number for the scientific analysis of a population’s intelligence. And we will use this number to see if average intelligence has increased over time.

 In 1984 a New Zealand scientist wrote a paper in which he described the changes in the IQ of the American population between 1932 and 1978. In that study Flynn observed that the average IQ of the American population increased by about 3 points per decade or about 10 points in 30 years( a generation). In 1987 Flynn published another paper in which he did a similar study in 14 countries around the world. His observations were similar: IQ definitely increases with time. But different countries showed a different amount of increase. In Holland the IQ of the general population increased by about 8 points between 1972 and 1982! This effect of IQ increase over generations is now known as the Flynn effect.

 Now, one would think that better education has caused this increase in average IQ. If this was true then most of the increase would be in the IQ measured by the “crystallized Intelligence questions”. But that is not the case! The “crystallized intelligence section” of the IQ test has shown a small increase over time. The real increase has been in the Fluid intelligence section of the IQ test. And this part does not depend on education. This part is related to abstract thinking, imagination and pattern recognition! So it seems that we are indeed getting smarter. Or rather, our children will be 10-15 IQ points smarter than us!

 There are varying theories trying to explain the Flynn Effect. Flynn himself has tried to explain this effect. Some scientists think that this increase is because of better child care and nutrition. This may indeed be the case- note that human height is also increasing over generations. Flynn himself has proposed that today’s world is more intellectually demanding, involves greater use of technology and has smaller families- this means that people are more used to manipulating abstract concepts than they were about a century ago. Flynn also gives us an example. If today we ask a question: what do a dog and a rabbit have in common. Most people will say that they are both mammals- and this is an abstract answer. Flynn noted that if you asked this question about a century ago people would have said: you catch rabbits with dogs and that is a less abstract and a more concrete answer. So it seems that the way we are thinking about the world around us has changed. We are thinking in more abstract terms now.

 I wonder what the effect of Internet would be on intelligence. I think this one technology has the power to change how we humans think and gain information. I would love to live a long life and see the smart new generation try to solve the greatest mysteries of science. It really is going to
be an exciting new world- a world in which I would be the guy with learning disorder caused by a lower than average intelligence!

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Kanwar

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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;
|======================================================|

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Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

What did Columbus do after 1492?

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We all know that Columbus discovered America in 1492. When we were in school we used to read about the “Great Columbus who discovered America after a great adventure”. And we thought that “The Great Columbus was a man
who followed his heart and not what the others told him about the world being flat and so he would topple off the edge if he tried to find a way to India by going west”.
Such stories are good for schoolchildren who need to be told about the great values of life by giving them examples of great people. But as adults we should go beyond the “greatness” of “great” people and find the truth. I got to know some “not so great” truths about Columbus from a very interesting book: ” The Cartoon History of the Modern world”
by Larry Gonick. I have talked about the “cartoon history” and “cartoon guide” series byLarry Gonick in previous VERITAS articles. These are really interesting books.
In today’s VERITAS we will find what Columbus did after discovering America.

Christopher Columbus’s plan was to find a path to India from the west. He convinced Queen Isabella of Spain and set off on a voyage to find a route to India by going west. Columbus had underestimated the circumference of the earth and his shipmates became quite irritable after more than a month at sea. To boost their morale Columbus promised a
pension of 25000 gold coins a year to anyone who could sight land. At 2 AM on Oct 12 1492 Rodrigo de Triana sighted land. But he was denied any pension because Columbus told everyone that he had seen the land first and Rodrigo only confirmed it. Columbus and his people landed on an island which he named San Salvador. It is now a part of Bahamas. He called the natives “Indians” thinking that this island was a part of India.

But Columbus was not nice to the “Indians”. His men raped the women and killed anyone who tried to stop them. Columbus took a few native “Indians” as a gift for Queen Isabella. Most of them died on the way back but a few survived. Columbus did not just bring people from the new lands. He and his men also brought a dreaded disease: Syphilis. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease and was previously unknown in Europe. The first outbreak in Europe in 1494 killed 5 million people. But that is another story. Columbus told the queen about the islands and the fact
that they were very rich in gold and that Spain should colonize them. This was actually not true. Columbus had never seen gold in the islands. But the Queen was convinced. So she sent 17 ships and 1200 men with Columbus to colonize the islands.

This time Columbus discovered several new Islands including Cuba and Jamaica. He founded a new  settlement  in a place that is now known as the Dominican Republic. Columbus was a cruel man. He killed a lot of native people. He told the natives that if they did not bring gold their hands would be cut off. Columbus should have realized that there is no gold on those islands. So he chopped off people’s hands and killed them. In two years more than 100,000 natives were killed and the rest were enslaved to work in Spanish plantations.

Columbus returned to Spain and in 1498 began his third voyage to the new world. He had left a lot of Spanish people on the new Islands to manage the settlements during his second voyage. But when he returned during the third trip he found that the Spanish settlers were unhappy and frustrated: they had not found any gold! So Columbus had to deal with rebellious settlers. He hanged some of them but some returned to Spain and complained to the Queen about Columbus, his ways and the lack of gold on the islands! So when Columbus returned to Spain he was arrested. The Queen appointed a new governor in the Spanish island of Hispaniola( now Dominican Republic).

But Columbus got out of jail and set off on another voyage to the new world- this time he wanted to reach the Malacca Strait. Now, Malacca Strait is in the Indian Ocean. So Columbus was still thinking that he had reached close to India. This time he reached central America and spent two months exploring that area. Their ship got damaged during a storm
and Columbus and his men got stranded on  Jamaica. They asked for help from the neighboring Spanish colony of Hispaniola by sending a message through some natives on a canoe but the governor of Hispaniola disliked Columbus so much that he ignored any messages for help. Columbus and his men stayed on the island for more than a year completely dependent on the natives for food and shelter. But the natives were getting impatient- they did not want to feed so many hungry mouths. So Columbus thought of an idea- he told the natives that he had supernatural powers
by predicting that the moon will “turn off” on a particular hour on a particular day. Columbus had used the almanac to predict a lunar eclipse! The natives were no doubt impressed and continued serving Columbus. After 18 months on the Island help finally arrived and Columbus went back to Spain in 1504. After all these voyages he was completely exhausted and he died two years later.

So was Columbus a “great man” for having paved the way for the European colonization of the Americas? Or was he just an opportunist looking to make riches by exploiting people of an untouched world? These are all difficult questions. But history is always a mix of the good and the bad and it is difficult to separate the two!

And here is a excerpt from a poem by Ogden Nash. Before reading the excerpt note that America was named after Amerigo Vespucci:

        So Columbus said, Somebody show me the sunset and somebody did and he set sail for it,
        And he discovered America and they put him in jail for it,
        And the fetters gave him welts,
        And they named America after somebody else,
        So the sad fate of Columbus ought to be pointed out to every child and every voter,
        Because it has a very important moral, which is, Don’t be a discoverer, be a promoter.

Kanwar

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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;
|======================================================|

Creative Commons License
Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Hadron Collider and the search for God Particle

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Friends,

          As we all know, a few days back the Large Hadron Collider(LHC) started functioning. Before it started functioning there were rumors that the world would end because the LHC would create Black Holes that would gobble up the earth. Now the fact that I am writing this article and you are reading it( hopefully) means that nothing of that sort has happened.
Lots of VERITAS readers asked me to write an article about what the LHC is really trying to find and why that is significant. In this article I hope to tell you about these things. But in this article I will not go into the technology behind the LHC. I will only talk about the importance of LHC for Physics.

   First let’s look at the name : Large Hadron Collider. Hadrons are particles made up of quarks. So a Hadron is a collection of “smaller” particles. Some examples are the proton and the neutron. On the other hand some particles like photon and electron are not hadrons because they are not composed of smaller particles(quarks). So the LHC is the world’s biggest particle collider which aims to collide high energy beams of protons( which are Hadrons). But collide protons for what purpose?

   The aim is to collide protons so that  Higgs Bosons is released. The word Boson means that the particle has integral value of spin( 0 or 1 or 2 etc). This is different from Fermions ( like electrons) which have half-integral spins( 1/2 etc). The Higgs Boson is a prediction of the Standard
Model of Particle Physics. Simply put, the Standard Model of Particle Physics is a theory that tries to describe three of the four fundamental forces of nature. It tries to explain and integrate electrodynamics, weak nuclear and strong nuclear forces. It does not try to explain Gravity.

  So the Higgs Boson is a prediction of the Standard Model. According to the standard model there exists a particle with spin 0 which is responsible for the property of mass. So things around us have mass because some particles like electrons and protons and neutrons have mass. And protons and electrons have mass because there exists a particle called the Higgs Boson. The LHC is trying to check if it actually exists and therefore if the Standard Model of Particle Physics is correct.

        The Higgs Boson has never been detected. In fact, it is the only particle in the Standard Model that has never been detected. It has never been detected because it can only be created ( in a form that enables it to be detected) at extremely high energies. And that is what the LHC is trying to create- blasting two beams of protons against each other at extremely high energies so that Higgs Bosons are released and detected.

 The Higgs Boson is so fundamental that some Physicists refer to it as the God particle. The Higgs Boson is so fundamental to theoretical physics that if it is not detected a lot of Physics will have to be rewritten. The Standard Model would have to be dumped and we will start particle
physics  from  scratch.

 But if the Higgs Boson is discovered we would get clues about another mystery- the mystery of dark matter. According to Physicists about 96% of matter in the universe is missing- unaccounted for. We know that there is matter because it causes gravity and other effects but we cannot “see” this matter. So this matter is invisible to all our detection but we know that it is there because it causes the galaxies to rotate in a certain way and the universe to expand at a certain rate. If the Higgs Boson is discovered we will make great progress to understand what Dark Matter really is and what it is composed of.

 Many TV channels said that the LHC is trying to create a Big Bang or Black Holes. That is not true. The LHC will hit the beams of protons at such high energies that a quark-gluon plasma would be created. This is actually a different state of matter- a state in which quarks and gluons( particles that bind quarks together) are roaming about freely. And this state existed in the universe just after the Big Bang. So the LHC will help us understand the properties of the quark-gluon plasma and thus help us understand the conditions that existed in the universe just after Big Bang.

       So the Large Hadron Collider is a very important tool that would help us understand the fundamental laws that govern the universe. It will not yield information that will help technology in the near future. The LHC exists only for the expansion of pure human knowledge. And there is no bigger achievement than widening the horizons of human thought and knowledge.  The Large Hadron Collider was built with a huge cost of
about 10 billion dollars. Some people called this a waste of money because this money could have gone to feed a lot of poor people. But in my opinion the unique defining characteristic of the human race is our love for knowledge and our constant attempt to understand the universe around us. Yes, we need food to feed the world’s poor but should we not be cutting the defense expenditure of countries to feed the poor?

 

More Dope : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fJ6PMfnz2E

 

Kanwar

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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;
|======================================================|

Creative Commons License
Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Descartes, The Doubter

A few weeks back I was having a discussion with my good friend Kavita  about Doubt and Belief. Any discussion about these subjects is incomplete without talking about Rene Descartes and his philosophy. In today’s VERITAS we will talk about Descartes and how his philosophy became the foundation of the modern Scientific method.
Most of the material for this VERITAS has been taken from Bertrand Russell’s ” The History of Western Philosophy” and E.T Bell’s “Men of Mathematics”.

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Descartes was born in 1596 in Indre-et-Loire in France. His father was a judge in a local court. He studied law after his schooling and earned a law degree in 1612. But he did not practice law. He wanted knowledge- real knowledge. He traveled around Europe and met people to gain knowledge from “the great book of the world”. But wherever he went, his friends followed him. So to secure a more complete quiet he joined the Dutch army in 1617. In the winter of 1619-1620 he was posted in Bavaria. It was on one of those cold winter days that he sat next to a stoveand thought about a philosophy that he would later describe in the “Discours de la Methode”. In 1622 he returned to France. He sold all his property in 1923 and invested it in bonds so that he could have a secure lifelong income. He went back to the Dutch republic in 1928 and spent the next twenty odd years there. These were the most productive years of his life in terms of his Philosophical and Mathematical work. In Amsterdam he had an affair with a servant girl, Helene Jans with whom he had a daughter in 1635. His daughter Francine died in 1640. In 1949 Queen
Christina of Sweden sent a warship to fetch him. She wanted him to be her personal teacher. All his life Descartes had been a late riser- he would never get out of bed before noon. But the queen insisted that her lessons should start at 5 AM. This early rising and the cold Scandinavian winter did not suite Descartes’ health.

  He died in 1650 of pneumonia in Sweden.

Now let’s talk about Descartes’ ideas. Descartes was a philosopher, a mathematician and a man of science.

In mathematics his greatest contribution was the invention of co-ordinate geometry. Many of us have studied this in our class 11 and 12th. For the others I will say this: coordinate geometry is the study of geometry using the algebraic description of shapes and figures. So instead of drawing a circle we can use the equation of a circle. There is, similarly ,the equation  of a line and an ellipse and sphere etc. It is a very powerful method and a great revolution in mathematics.

Now let’s talk about Descartes’ contribution to philosophy. In 1637 he published the “Discourse on Method”( also known as “Discours de la Methode”. In 1642 he published Meditations. These two books discuss his Philosophy which is based on doubt. Descartes refers to it as “Cartesian doubt”. Descartes believed that in order to have a firm basis of philosophy one should start with doubting everything. And then he would build on that.

His first step was to doubt sense perception. He knew that our senses sometimes tell us things that are not true. Now Descartes realized that if he doubts everything then there is no place to start his philosophy. So he decided that since he is thinking these thoughts and since he is doing the doubting therefore he must exist. So the foundations of his philosophy is “Dubito ergo, Cogito ergo, sum”. Which translates as ” I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am”.

So Descartes doubted sense perception. But he believed in thought. So in his philosophy “Thinking” is real knowledge. Sense perception is unreliable. He put forward the wax argument. He touches a piece of wax- it has a certain shape, feel and colour. He then places it on fire- immediately the shape, feel and colour changes. His senses( eyes, touch etc) tell him that this new form of wax is different from the old form. But the mind tells him that it is the same wax. So the senses have been fooled but the mind perceives the real truth. The perception of wax is not “a vision or touch or imagination, but an inspection of the mind”.

The method of critical doubt is of great philosophical importance. In fact if applied in a healthy manner, it is the basis of the modern Scientific method. But of course, the doubting has to stop somewhere( or for sometime) for this method to be useful. In Science it stops at experimental verification. In Descartes’ original philosophy it stopped at “I think”.

And finally let’s end by some quotes from the doubter himself:

“If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”

“It is only prudent never to place complete confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.”

Kanwar

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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;
|======================================================|

Creative Commons License
Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Mysteries of the Brain Part – 18 – TRUST

 

In this episode of the series we explore how and why we trust other people. What brain processes are involved in the social interaction of trust? Is there a hormone that is responsible for trust? We will study all this today. This VERITAS article is based on a Scientific American magazine article in the June edition of the magazine.

Human society is what it is today because we tend to trust each other- we even trust the people we do not know. If you go to a new city and ask for directions you are reasonably certain that the directions given by strangers on the street will be correct. We tend to trust each other except
in some very specific situations.

All animals, even less developed ones like fish and lizards display trust in atleast one interaction: sex. All sexually reproducing animals display this trust. The females of any species will let a male approach her when she is ovulating because the benefits of sex( offspring and genetic diversity) overweigh the danger of being harmed( or even eaten) by the male of the species. Scientists have found that in fish the release of
the hormone vasotocin reduces the female’s fear of being approached by a male when she is ovulation. Thus the trust displayed by a female fish on a male fish for sex is due to the hormone vasotocin.

In mammals the hormone oxytocin plays a huge role in female reproduction: from sex to labor to lactation. And Scientists have found that this hormone is responsible for all social interactions involving trust. So the complex trust that we humans exhibit on each other seems to have evolved from the trust that even simple creatures display during sex. And this trust is also due to a hormone in the blood-oxytocin.

To test their theory about the role of oxytocin in trust Scientists devised a “trust game”. They asked people to volunteer promising them 10$ if they play the game. In any game session two people played the game: let’s call them A and B. A and B did not know each other and they do not meet during or after the game. The game gives A 10$ and B 10$. Now A can give B some of his 10$. Let’s say he gives B x dollars. If that
happens then B will get his 10$ plus 3 times the amount that A gives him. So if A gives B 6 dollars then B gets 10$ + 6 X 3 = 28$. Now B can return some of the money that he made to A to thank him for making that extra money. But if A does not want to give any money to B he is not forced to do it- he can display a non-trusting behavior: what happens if I give money to B and he makes the extra money but does not give me
back any of it. Similarly B can act selfish: he can keep all the money without giving anything back to A.

The Scientists played this game with several sets of players and found that 85% of the ‘A’ people gave some of their money to B. And 98% of the “B” players went on to return some of their money to A. The researchers found that B players with higher levels of oxytocin returned higher amounts of money to the A players. These B players responded more positively to the trust placed on them by their A counterparts.

The researchers also calculated the change in oxytocin levels in B subjects when they got some money from A. If the A player sent more money to B the oxytocin level in the B players increased more compared to when less money was sent by A. So your oxytocin level increases when someone displays trust in you and since now you have more oxytocin level you tend to respond to the trust in a more positive way: you act more trustworthy!

And then the researchers went on to consider how our hormone levels change when someone displays distrust in us. And here there is a difference between males and females. If during the trust game a player A did not give any money or very little money to a male player B his(B’s) DTH( dihydrotestosterone) levels would increase. DTH is responsible for violent  behaviour in males. So when a male is distrusted he tends to exhibit a violent behavior.  However if a female B player did not get any money from A she would simply not return any. And if she received a small amount from A she will return a small amount back. There will be no change in her DTH levels but she does respond with : ” you gave me little so I will return little” approach.

The article says that our oxytocin levels may vary minute by minute and over our entire lifespan. And life experiences may retune the base oxytocin levels to a different level thus making us generally more trusting or less trusting.

This indeed is a very interesting study and something that paves the way for treating the hatred and distrust that exists in our society for people who follow different religions or are from different societies or countries. And one thing is for certain: if you place trust in someone his desire to become trustworthy increases. This is the moral of the story for me.

Kanwar

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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;
|======================================================|

The Spectator vs. the Actor

I have always loved reading Bertrand Russell. He was a mathematician and a philosopher. So his philosophical writings are based on sound logic and great thought. I had read a lot of his books in college but I never got around to reading the “History of Western Philosophy”. A few years back my friend Abhishek Datta said so manythings in the praise of this book that I decided to read it. I started reading this a few weeks back and I am loving every page. Each page of this book contains so much thought, so much knowledge that it is difficult to remain calm while reading it. This book is a masterpiece. If you read this book you will realize why Bertrand Russell won the Nobel Prize for literature.

 

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In this VERITAS I want to tell you about some very interesting observations made by Bertrand Russell about how Pythagoras’ philosophy influenced how people looked at philosophers and thinkers then and how we look at them today. But before I talk about Russell’s observation let’s talk about Pythagoras.

Russell says : ” Pythagoras was one of the most important men that ever lived, both when he was wise and when he was unwise”. He lived in the Greek island of Samos during the 6th century B.C. He had many disciples and founded a school of mathematics and philosophy in the city of Croton. But the citizens of Croton turned against him and his teachings forcing him to move to Metapontion. Very little is known about his personal life.

However we do know a lot about his philosophy and his mathematical contributions. He is known to have said : “All things are numbers”. He discovered the importance of numbers in music, shapes and everything around us. He considered numbers to be the theory behind everything. For Pythagoras, numbers are perfect- almost divine. He also discovered the Pythagoras’ theorem- in a right angle triangle the square of the hypotenuse is the sum of squares of the other two sides. But this theorem caused the biggest damage to Pythagoras and his philosophy.
Imagine a right angled triangle with the base and height of 1 unit each. Then the length of the hypotenuse would be the square root of 2. This is an irrational number. Pythagoras struggled but could not find any perfection in a number like that. This was a huge blow to Pythagoras’ philosophy that numbers are perfect and thus constitute the foundation of this universe.

Pythagoras formed a religious sect and the followers of this sect were known as Pythagoreans. Their love for numbers was just one part of their philosophy. And that was the soundest part of their philosophy. A huge part of their philosophy deals with fantastic and superstitious stuff. The Pythagoreans believed in the transmigration of souls- the soul reincarnates again and again in human or animal form. The Pythagorean religion also had a set of crazy rules. Some of them are:

1) To never eat beans

2) Not to pick up what is fallen

3) Not to break bread

4) Not to touch a white cock

5) Smooth the impress of the body on the bed after you get up.

…… and the list goes on and on. You may find all these rules absurd. But in my personal opinion all religions and their rules are absurd. The followers of a particular religion find the rules of their own religion wise and good but they find the rules of other religions absurd. And atheists like me find the rules of all religions absurd. So you may find the rules of Pythagorean religion silly but they seemed logical and good to the followers of that religion.

And now let’s come to Russell’s observation about how people in that time viewed philosophers and how it seems to have changed in the modern world. Russell’s observation is based on the following philosophy of Pythagoras: 
” There are three kinds of men, just as there are three sorts of people who come to see the Olympic games. The lowest class is made up of those who come to buy and sell goods. The next higher class are the people who come to compete in the games. And the highest people are the one who come simply to look on.”

Russell’s says that this philosophy of Pythagoras is opposed to modern values. Most people would consider cricketers or footballers grander than the “mere” spectators. Russell says that this is a change in our social system. Today we tend to give more importance to people of action but in ancient Greece the people of pure thought were considered the highest class. And the men of action worked for them. Russell says: ” The gentleman has had a long innings in philosophical theory because he is associated with the Greek genius, because the virtue of contemplation acquired theological endorsement and because the ideal of disinterested truth dignified the academic life”. Men of action are a produce of industrialization. Men of thought are a produce of aristocracy where the men of action serve the men of thought.

Russell says that it is to the ancient Greek social system that we owe Mathematics and Philosophy. So pure mathematics,pure science and philosophy are the products of an aristocratic system that considers pure contemplative thought higher than practical action.

It is for insights and observations like these that I read Russell’s books. This observation hit me real hard- I had never thought about it. But I realize that it is true. Today we tend to make heroes of cricketers and movie stars. But in the old days they were mere entertainers for the gentlemen and ladies who spent their lives discussing, thinking or reciting poetry. Today we do not consider a scientist great till he writes a book or wins a Nobel Prize – becomes a man of action and not just thought. But remember- all philosophy, science, music, mathematics is based on a world where pure contemplation is the greatest thing.

I sum it up with Pythagoras’ words: “The greatest purification of all is, therefore, disinterested Science, and it is the man who devotes himself to that, the true philosopher who has most effectively released himself from the wheel of birth”.

regards
Kanwar

|======================================================|
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;
|======================================================|

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Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Cell cleanup and your lifespan

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Friends,

Every few days our houses and desks get cluttered up and we need to clean them. A Similar process happens in our cells. In this VERITAS article we will study this very interesting topic and we will see how this cleanup process is related to old age diseases and how cancer researchers are using this process to fight the disease. We will also learn a very interesting fact: we can live longer by eating less!

 This article is based on a very interesting article that I read in the “Scientific American”.

 Before we start let’s understand some concepts:

 1) Cytoplasm: This is the fluid that fills a cell. The organelles of the cell ( eg nucleus, mitochondria etc) float around in the cytoplasm.

 2) Mitochondria: These are the cell’s power centers i.e they generate chemical energy that helps the cell survive. They also  control the cell’s growth and the cell’s death.

 3)Lysosome: These are the cell’s suicide bags. These organelles have “digestive juices” that can digest any other organelle of the cell. So this organelle has the ability to destroy any other part of the cell and then releasing its raw material for reuse.

The fluid the fills the cell i.e the cytoplasm gets filled with unwanted stuff/waste over a period of time. This is similar to the clutter that accumulates on our desks.  In order to keep the cell functioning properly this clutter has to be removed. This is done by a process called autophagy.

This is how the process of autophagy happens: A double layered membrane called phagophore surrounds any malfunctioning organelle
or any unwanted material in the cytoplasm. This double layered membrane surrounding the organelle moves to the lysosome and joins with it.
So now the phagophore + the “to be destroyed” organelle merge with the lysosome. The enzymes of the lysosome breakdown the organelle and
release its chemical building blocks for reuse by the cell. This is how a malfunctioning organelle or any other unwanted clutter in the cell is
destroyed.

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This process is important in all cells but in some cells like neurons it is extremely important. The reason why I say this is because most cells
are created and destroyed by another process known as apoptosis. However neurons stay with us throughout life. So it is extremely important
that they stay in perfect shape by constantly cleaning up any clutter that may have accumulated in them.

 Autophagy also plays a role in fighting diseases: if an infection causing organism enters the cell, the cell starts the autophagy program and tries
to destroy the organism. However disease carrying organisms also have a strategy to fight autophagy. Some organisms when surrounded by the
phagophore membrane make sure that it never fuses with the lysosome. So these organisms use the phagophore membrane to multiply!

Autophagy also works during starvation: if a cell is denied nutrients it has the ability to eat the less useful parts of itself in order to survive the period of starvation. So the cell tries to survive even if it means eating a part of itself. Autophagy becomes more active during periods of starvation.

 Now let’s talk about Cancer. Autophagy prevents cancer. If autophagy was not present the cell would become full of clutter and malfunctioning
organelles. These could cause the cell’s nucleus to malfunction thus causing uncontrolled reproduction which is Cancer. However sometimes
Cancer cells use autophagy to save themselves: if cells inside a cancerous mass are denied nutrients then the cell starts the autophagy process
and eats parts of itself to survive for longer periods of time.

 Several old age brain diseases are caused by a lack of effective autophagy. For example in Alzheimer’s disease neurons of the patient become full of clutter called ceroid( a dark yellow substance). This causes memory loss.  If autophagy was enhanced then these neurons will be cleaned of this material and memory will not suffer.

Scientists are trying to counter Cancer , Alzheimer’s disease and some infections by somehow controlling the amount of autophagy that happens in the diseased cells.

Autophagy also has a role in determining the lifespan of an individual. Several old age diseases like cancer and the degeneration of the brain are related to the efficiency of autophagy that reduces as we become older. We need to find ways to boost autophagy throughout our lives. One suggestion is to eat less. We have seen that restricted food supply enhances autophagy. Starved cells try and eat any thing they find in the cell and that could prevent cancer and mind degeneration.  So as you get older try and restrict your diet- it is good for your body and also your mind.

We worry about a lot of stuff around us but have we ever imagined how our building blocks deal with life. It is a battlefield at the level of our cells- they work so hard so that the larger animal can enjoy life. Life is a very complicated thing: at the level of our consciousness to the level of the smallest cell. It is beautiful and enormously complicated machinery that makes most decisions without us even knowing about them!

Kanwar

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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;

|======================================================|

Creative Commons License
Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Im Herzen von Zürichs alter Stadt

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The words “Im Herzen von Zürichs alter Stadt” are in German. The literal english meaning is “In the heart of Zurich’s old town” and that is where I was for two days last week. I love traveling. So I took two days off after my business trip to Israel and visited Zurich. Now I am not a mountains, lakes and hiking kind of a person. I am more of a history, culture and museums kind of a person. So the Swiss Alps is not exactly my kind of fun. But Zurich is a historical city and in this VERITAS I will describe the historical aspects of the city and I hope to convince history lovers to visit this charming city.

Zurich has been inhabited since the Roman times. In the Roman times this was a tax collection point for any goods that were trafficked on the Limmat river.  The Romans had build a small castle on top of a hill by  the side of the river. This castle lasted till the 7th century AD. By this time it had already got the name of Ziurichi. From 746 AD to 1351 AD Zurich was a part of the German empire. The German Emperor Charlemagne built a castle and a church here. But some historians attribute this to Charlemagne’s grandson Louis the German. But one fact is certain, a German emperor built a church here in 835 AD for his  daughter. The name of the church was Fraumunster(Minster of our Lady). All the land around Zurich was placed under the control of this church. The German emperor’s daughter Hildegard became the first abbess of this church. In 1045 the then Emperor of Germany, Henry III allowed the Church to collect taxes and mint coins. So the then abbess of the Church was effectively the ruler of the area. In 1230 a city wall was built. On the other side of the river Limmat another great Church called Grossmunster
was built between 1090 and 1230 AD. According to a legend Charlemagne was led to the site of this church by a stag. He founded a church there which later became Grossmunster.

In 1351 Zurich joined the Swiss confederation which at that time was a loose confederation of independent states. Zurich became the centre of Protestant movement in Switzerland in the sixteenth century. This was mainly due to the influence of the then preacher at the Grossmunster, Huldrych Zwingli. He was killed in 1531 during a war between the Catholic and Protestant cantons of the Swiss Confederacy. Zwingli’s Zurich Bible first appeared in 1531 and is still published.

In 1798 the French Revolutionary Army under Napoleon attacked Switzerland and the Swiss confederation was destroyed. On 12th April 1798 the cantons formed a new country known as the Helvatic republic. But this was more of a satellite state of France. In 1803 Napoleon restored the Swiss autonomy. After this Switzerland was to always have a central government but its cantons had a degree of self rule also. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna fully established the Swiss independence and Swiss neutrality. So Switzerland never fought a war after 1815.

Now, the history of Zurich after 1815 may not be interesting in terms of wars and political turmoil. But this lack of turmoil has a great side effect- it preserves history. The historical monuments stand in Zurich just the way they were created centuries ago. In fact the city of Zurich, especially the old town looks like a huge historical place. The old houses have been preserved beautifully and narrow stone roads criss-cross the old town. And the people of Zurich seem very proud of their history. I saw so many houses in which the date of construction has been proudly written outside the house. And many houses proudly display the history of the people who lived there on the front gate.

So that is how I spent the two days in Zurich- I walked through the narrow streets of the old town to see the charming houses and how proud people are of their history. And I tried to find older and older houses. And I found two houses that were built in the thirteenth century. And the oldest house that I found was built in 1218! And the hotel that I stayed in has been a guesthouse since  the sixteenth century! So I spent those two days walking in history- a beautiful experience.

And then I searched on the internet for some  famous residents of Zurich to see if I could find their houses. And I did! I first found the cafe which the famous German philosopher Goethe used to frequent. And then I visited ETH and the University of Zurich. Albert Einstein had studied at ETH( Federal Institute of Technology) . In fact ETH has produced so many great scientists like Pauli, Rontgen, Cantor, Dedekind, Minkowski, Weyl. It is a beautiful monument and an institute that has had a huge influence on Physics and Mathematics of the 20th century. Einstein later taught at the University of Zurich which is also a beautiful monument. And then I went looking for Lenin’s house. And I found that also- 14, Spiegelgasse. And I saw the fact that Lenin lived here in 1916 and 1917 displayed proudly outside the house. This is the house where Lenin planned the Russian Revolution!

 

ETH

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Walking through the streets of the Zurich’s old town was a beautiful experience. An experience that I will never forget. Every house, every street seemed to have a tale to tell!

And of course, any trip to Europe is incomplete without tasting the local delicacies. I tried the very interesting Swiss Fondue- they place a pot of boiling cheese in front of you and you dip pieces of bread in it and eat it. And I also tried the delicious sliced veal in Zurich style cream sauce served with rosti. And the wonderful swissmost crème is a perfect dessert to end a Swiss dinner!

So for a lover of history, a lover of culture and a lover of beauty Zurich is a great place. A place that you must include in your “places to visit before you die” list!

regards
Kanwar

|=============================

=========================|
 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;
|======================================================|

Creative Commons License
Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Why are we getting more allergic : The Hygiene Hypothesis

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 One of the tragedies of my life is that I am allergic to shellfish. I love the taste but I hate what happens to me after eating them. One day I was discussing my allergy with my sister who is a doctor and she asked me “Didn’t you notice that humans are getting  more and more allergies!”. I had never noticed that! It is true. I am allergic to shellfish. My grandfather who was a farmer in Punjab  was allergic to absolutely nothing( except some people!). And I noticed that my cousins who live in US have even more allergies than me. I know a kid who lives in England who is allergic to nuts, eggs and even wheat. That is bad! Are we humans getting more allergic? What could be causing this? Is it a side effect of economic development? In today’s VERITAS we will talk about a very interesting fact that my sister told me about allergies. It is called the Hygiene hypothesis- we are too clean for our own good.

    In the year 1989 David Strachan proposed the hygiene hypothesis. He was trying to understand why certain diseases like hay fever  or eczema are more common in families with 1-2 children and less common in large families. His proposal was that in large families  with lots of kids the children are exposed to more infectious diseases from one another and this makes them less prone to allergies.  He proposed that in smaller families children are not exposed to infections and thus develop more allergies. So he proposed a very  interesting relationship between infections and allergies- if you are exposed to more infections you will have less allergies as you grow older.

   This was a revolutionary proposal and doctors all around the world tested this. And most doctors found this relationship to be true. In some countries like Gambia in Africa more than 95% of the population have intestinal worms at some time of their lives.  But they have  NEVER heard of immune diseases(allergies) like Asthma, Crohn’s disease or multiple sclerosis. Doctors found that children who grew  up in farms which are not very clean almost never develop asthma. Doctors also noticed that children in developed countries have more allergies compared to children who live in developing countries.

  So there is definitely a relationship. But how does it work? The immune system is our defense against germs and other organisms like worms. It is not developed when we are born. It takes time to develop. During development it learns to recognize the enemies of our bodies. So if in childhood we get an infection our immune system learns to recognize the germs that carry that infection. It is  important that the immune system recognizes the disease causing agents because it may have to fight them repeatedly during  our life. But what happens if we do not get infections in childhood? What happens when in childhood we live in extremely clean environments?
What happens if in childhood we treat every infection with antibiotics? The immune system will not get a chance to recognize its real enemies. But the immune system has to do something! It turns its defenses against our own body or against harmless things around us. So when a child who has never seen an infection breathes flower pollen the immune system starts a fight against the harmless pollen to try and “kill” it causing more harm than good. That is an allergy. Similarly sometimes the  immune system thinks of the cells of our own body as enemies and starts fighting them. These are called auto-immune diseases. Some examples are diabetes type 1 and  rheumatoid arthritis.

Thus we see that it is very important for the immune system to know disease in order to develop properly. The immune system has to  be properly trained so that it can differentiate between the harmful germs and the harmless things around us and the useful cells within our own bodies. So do not deworm your children too often. Do not keep them extremely clean. Do not give them antibiotics whenever they  fall ill. Let their immune system be developed by infections and they will grow to healthy and allergy free adults. I really hope my kids are able to enjoy prawn curry without having their lips swollen- maybe for that I need to stop bothering about their coughs and colds.

       And speaking of the common cold, here is an excerpt from an Ogden Nash poem on the “common cold”. In this poem Nash feels bad when his doctor tells him that his problem is the common cold. Nash feels that his cold is special and not common.

                                                                       Go hang yourself, you old M.D,!
                                                                       You shall not sneer at me.
                                                                       Pick up your hat and stethoscope,
                                                                       Go wash your mouth with laundry soap;
                                                                       I contemplate a joy exquisite
                                                                       In not paying you for your visit.
                                                                       I did not call you to be told
                                                                       My malady is a common cold.

                                                                       Give ear, you scientific fossil!
                                                                       Here is the genuine Cold Colossal;
                                                                       The Cold of which researchers dream,
                                                                       The Perfect Cold, the Cold Supreme.
                                                                       This honored system humbly holds
                                                                       The Super-cold to end all colds;
                                                                       The Cold Crusading for Democracy;
                                                                       The Führer of the Streptococcracy.

       The complete poem is much longer and you can easily find it on the internet.

Kanwar

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=========================|
 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;
|======================================================|

Creative Commons License
Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.