Toys, Geim and Gupta

Recently I came across an editorial in Nature Physics, titled as Physics is our playground, which emphasized how playfulness has had an important role in some of the major inventions and discoveries in physics.

A particular example of this is the discovery of graphene, and how it has evolved into one of the most important topics in condensed matter science. Nowadays graphene is used as ‘Lego’ blocks to build higher order structures and the so-called ‘Van der Walls’ heterostructures are one of the most exciting applications of 2D materials. What started as a playful project in the lab has now turned out to be an important part of emerging technologies.

Two important inferences can be drawn from the playful attitude towards doing science :

First is that making modular elements and stacking them creatively can lead to emergence of new structures and function. Anyone who has used lego blocks can immediately relate to it.

Second is that toys are powerful research and teaching aids. Please note, that I emphasized research and teaching here. This is because toy-models are ubiquitous in research, and they help us create modular state of a problem in which unnecessary details are discarded and only the essential parts are retained. This way of thinking has been extremely powerful in science and technology (for example : see ball and stick models in chemistry and mega-construction models in civil engineering )

When it comes to toys and education, there is no better example than the remarkable Arvind Gupta (see his TED talk). His philosophy of using toys as thinking aids is very inspiring. Being in Pune, I have had a few opportunities to attend his talks and interact with him (as part of an event at science activity center at IISER-Pune), and I found his approach both refreshing and implementable. Importantly, it also showed me how creativity can emerge from constraints. To re-emphasize this, let me quote APS news article on Andre Geim :

“Geim has said that his predominant research strategy is to use whatever research facilities are available to him and try to do something new with the equipment at hand. He calls this his “Lego doctrine”: “You have all these different pieces and you have to build something based strictly on the pieces you’ve got.””

Now this is an effective research strategy for experiments in India !

Chomsky et al., on Chatgpt

Chomsky et al., have some very interesting linguistic and philosophical points on chatGPT/AI and their variants (see NYT link).

To quote

“The human mind is not, like ChatGPT and its ilk, a lumbering statistical engine for pattern matching, gorging on hundreds of terabytes of data and extrapolating the most likely conversational response or most probable answer to a scientific question. On the contrary, the human mind is a surprisingly efficient and even elegant system that operates with small amounts of information; it seeks not to infer brute correlations among data points but to create explanations.”

The philosophical and ethical viewpoints expressed in this article are indeed noteworthy. What probably is even more important is the linguistic viewpoint which amalgamates language with human thought process, and that is what makes this article more interesting and unique.

My own take on Chatgpt has been ambivalent because I do see tremendous potential, but also some obvious faults in it. About a couple of months ago, I did try to play around with it, especially in the context of some obvious questions I had on optical forces, and the answers I got were far from satisfactory. At that time, I assumed that the algorithm had some work to do, and it was probably in the process of learning and getting better. The situation has not changed for better, and I do see some major flaws even now. Chomsky’s article highlighted the linguistic aspects which I had not come across in any other arguments against artificial intelligence-based answer generators, and there is some more food for thought here.

This is indeed an exciting time for machine learning-based approaches to train artificial thought process, but the question remains whether that process of thought can somehow emulate the capabilities of a human mind. 

As humans, a part of us want to see this achievement, and a part of us do not want this to happen. Can an artificial intelligence system have such a dilemma?

Indian Philosophy and Independent thought

Today we mark the 75th anniversary of Indian independence from the British colonial rule. For a country of our population and size, it is indeed a great achievement that we have sustained to be a democratic nation. We continue to be a work in progress and there is a lot to learn and look forward to.

India today is awash in the tri-colour flag, which marks a symbol of our identity.

This symbol has a deeper philosophical meaning, and it has been wonderfully described by one of the great Indian philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (also first vice-president of India, and subsequently President of India) as follows :

“Bhagwa or the saffron colour denotes renunciation of disinterestedness. Our leaders must be indifferent to material gains and dedicate themselves to their work. The white in the centre is light, the path of truth to guide our conduct. The green shows our relation to soil, our relation to the plant life here on which all other life depends. The Ashoka Wheel in the center of the white is the wheel of the law of dharma. Truth or satya, dharma or virtue ought to be the controlling principles of those who work under this flag. Again, the wheel denotes motion. There is death in stagnation. There is life in movement. India should no more resist change, it must move and go forward. The wheel represents the dynamism of a peaceful change.”

Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Constituent Assembly of Independent India

The metaphor of wheel to go forward is noteworthy. It essentially states that we as a society should be forward-looking and evolve our thoughts as we make progress. Such a call for evolution of thought and progress is not alien to our civilization.

Lest we forget – Indian philosophy is not just a spiritual literature, it has immense depth and discussion on rationality and logic, and places emphasis on debates and arguments. So much so, that even our great, ancients poets such as Kalidasa uphold this rational spirit in their writings. To quote from his famous Malavikaagnimitram :

पुराणमित्येव न साधु सर्वंन चाऽपि काव्यं नवमित्यवद्यम्।

सन्तः परीक्ष्यान्यतरत् भजन्तेमूढ्ः परप्रत्ययनेयबुद्धिः ॥

-मालविकाग्निमित्रम् (महाकवि कालिदास)

The translation (source) from Sanskrit means :

All poems are not good only because they are old. All poems are not bad because they are new. Good and wise people examine both and decide whether a poem is good or bad. Only a fool will be blindly led by what others say.

-Malavikaagnimitram (Great Poet Kaalidaas)

My hope is that we as a society get inspired by these calls for rationality, and adapt empathy, humility, logical and scientific thinking as some of the core principles our lives. This is not only for a better India, but also for a better world.

After all, as one of ancient Indian philosophical text (Maha Upanishad, 6.71–75) says :

अयं निजः परो वेति गणना लघुचेतसाम्!!

उदारचरितानां तु वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् !!

which is transliterated as :

This is mine, that is his, say the small minded,

The wise believe that the entire world is a family.

Dear Indian people….Happy 75th Independence Day !

Scientific Philosophy and Mental Health

Many a times, we are oblivious to the impact that Science has on an individual mind. It gets drowned in the collective impact. Curiosity is probably the most natural feeling of humans. If done right, Science cultivates and elevates this feeling. It may positively impact mental well-being too.

Increasingly, in Indian academia, mental well-being of all the stakeholders (students, faculty, admin etc.,) has emerged as an urgent and important issue that needs attention. Especially in a country such as India, where a loose order emerges out of chaos in almost all aspects of life, it is important to stay connected with oneself. Scientific curiosity may cater to this vital need.

The connection with oneself via science, or broadly speaking with any form of curiosity (arts/sports), is something we must harness. A major part of human development is to connect with oneself AND with the society. In this age of social media, sometimes, we may forget the former and focus only on the later. We will have to remind ourselves that being curious about anything is not being ‘childish’ but being human. Scientific curiosity and questioning is fundamental to our living, and this affects everything we do in our life.

To conclude let me quote from Bertrand Russell’s The Value of Philosophy :

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination, and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.”

Science as in philosophy, does cater to the highest good of humanity. What we under-appreciate is that it goes beyond the call, and impacts an individual’s mind. Academia should be a place to foster such an impact at various levels: individual, local and global. Perhaps that is the meaning of an “University”.

Connection between science and empathy

Apart from ideas, and the utilitarian, materialistic benefits,what can science offer to the society? This is a question I repeatedly ask myself in understanding a related question: ‘why I do what I do?’. This question, in my opinion, is also at the heart of social relevance of the pursuit of science.

A vital aspect which scientific research can indirectly teach and train its practitioners and its beneficiaries is the ability to empathize.

Empathy towards a fellow living creature, and not just human beings, requires oneself to suspend ones ego and understand something from a different perspective. This act needs patience, and the result is almost always enriching.

A quote (mis?)attributed to Plato puts it succinctly:

The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world. It requires profound purpose larger than the self.”

One of the interesting aspects of scientific research is to study an idea or an object of interest from various different viewpoints. This ability to look at a particular thing from various conceptual angles enriches the understanding, and concomitantly clarifies the purpose.

Many a times one would be able to obtain an unexpected insight by looking at something from a different viewpoint.

The pursuit and the spirit of scientific enquiry essentially requires the same attributes as empathy, and hence the connection.

It is astonishing fact that we are witnessing a war among human beings in this day and age. Human beings are the most dominant creatures of our planet. This domination has already caused a severe problem in the form of climate change, and has drastically affected our own well being. War is the last thing you want at any circumstance.

If we have to overcome these problems,  we cannot ignore science or empathy. In an essense, ignoring them is like reversing the benefits of human intellectual evolution.

We humans can do far better than this…

64. Susskind’s view on philosophical Feynman

Ever since my students days, I have been studying various things written by Richard Feynman. His 3 volumes of lectures in physics has been one of the ‘go-to sources’ on basic physics. I have also enjoyed reading many of his lectures on advanced topics including nanotechnology and computing. Apart from all this, I have also been impressed by Feynman’s viewpoint on science, society and human living.

In the passing, I have read that he did not like philosophers, but I always felt that Feynman’s thoughts were deeply philosophical without the frills of sophisticated language.

Recently, I came across a wonderful conversation with Leonard Susskind, who was a close friend of Feynman and an accomplished physicist himself. In this video (around 40.18 min), Susskind indeed highlights the point that Feynman was indeed deeply philosophical in nature. He emphasizes that what Feynman did not like is the way philosophical discourse was conducted especially in the context of philosophy of science. This point kind of reinforced my impression of Feynman, and was heartening to see.

I do admire Feynman for making science interesting, but I am also very well aware of the fact that Feynman has been criticized for being sexist. Feynman was a scientific genius, but he had his flaws.

Anyway, the whole conversation with Susskind is educative. The best part is when he explains why he likes teaching (around 1.06 hr in the video), and it is worth a watch.