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Monday, January 30, 2017

Frank Herbert's Dune: review and analysis

Rating: 5/5

The best thing about science fiction as a genre is the freedom to set the imagination flying and at the same time creating a world that mimics our real world in some ways. Science fiction is also about looking at alternative long term possibilities. Dune is a sci-fi novel by Frank Herbert written in 1963. The basic theme is of a duke’s son avenging his father who was killed in a conspiracy set up by his rival Baron and the emperor of an inter-galactic empire itself. The book is filled with wonderful quotes that touch upon the theme of how religion is closely linked to the survival needs of a civilisation. It is more than just a story as it also highlights the viewpoints of the author and the agenda he wants to promote through subtle suggestions. Being a complex combination of philosophy, science and politics, some very interesting concepts are detailed in the novel which have parallels in the real world. Here I touch upon some of these aspects.

Ecology and sanctity: The planet Arrakees is a rich source of a spice called Melange (oil?). It is mostly a desert region (the middle east?). The guild and other houses (the west?) seek to maximise profit from the melange present on this planet with no concern for their welfare. Even though, to an outsider, the Melange is the most precious commodity, but the inhabitants’ pressing concern is the scarcity of water. Due to the scarcity induced value, these inhabitants base their sacred customs around water. For example, when someone cries over the dead, it is said that the person who is crying is honouring the dead with his body’s water. The custom is a reminder of value of the scarce commodity. It also emphasises how ecological balance was an important issue for Herbert. Dune arose out of the notes for a magazine article Frank Herbert planned to write about sand dunes. He also worked as an ecological consultant in Vietnam and Pakistan later.

Conflict and development: The inhabitants have a credible threat of destroying the spice if they are attacked by the other houses. However, if they didn’t have this ability it would have meant that they would probably have been better off if the planet didn’t have spice at all (resource curse versus the ability to destroy a resource in an organised manner). Therefore, a weak civilisation loses out from having resources, while a strong one gains from them. Since the landscape of the Fremen was difficult, it made them biologically strong, disciplined and infused a military culture within them. Moreover, they had a huge advantage in their home due to better acclimatisation to local conditions.

Animal domestication: Sandworms perhaps open our eyes to the possibility of the potential advantage aboriginal Australians and other civilizations would have had over Europeans, if humans had not killed off large mammal species in far off lands after their initial spread from Africa.

Religion: Selfish interests are the most important theme in the book. The role of religion is that it creates a diversion from selfish interests to interests of the community. Following of the Prophet has the same role in the novel. The life of the main protagonist is in many ways similar to the story of Prophet Mohammed. An interesting aspect of the origin of a new religion is the planting of myths within the native community (Fremens) over several generations by a specific cult (Bene Gesserit). There is also looming threat of the Jihad in the name of the Prophet after a few generations. This Jihad is projected to be a specific need of the gene to manage its declining variety within a civilisation by mingling with outside populations, often forcefully. There is also an idea in the recent scientific literature that people are more altruistic toward people with more similar genes, ceterus paribus. Terms such as Ramadhan, Hajj, Sunni, Sharia and Islamic names clearly show the direct relation with Islam. The book also demonstrates people’s psychological need for an idol to revere and the author's distaste for that. Herbert borrows concepts related to meditation, importance of an accomplished teacher from Zen Buddhism which he adopted as a religion. In the religion section of the appendix, he explains how Islam originated from Christianity and partly altered by Prophet's own beliefs. It can be visualised how Islam was used to unite unorganised clans and using such unification, Prophet took over a city.

Condition of women and politics: A little mention needs to be made of the role of women who are used for diplomatic alliances with politically or economically strong houses. However, in the tribal Fremen communities, the women are projected as reasonably independent, owing perhaps to equal economic power in working at the factories that are not very strength intensive as well as the nomadic culture of the tribe. The theme of human breeding has also been taken up by the author and displays the author’s contempt for it. The privilege and the insecurities of those in power are adequately portrayed.

Homosexuality: The main villain Harkonnen was homosexual. Fenring, a eunuch was also portrayed as an evil character highlighting perhaps Herbert’s own bias at the time of writing the novel. It is noteworthy considering that his own son Bruce Calvin Herbert was a gay rights activist.

Character naming: The choice of name is specifically interesting. The main protagonist’s name is changed from a Christian name (Paul) to an arabic name (Muad’dib). The main villain is Vladimir - a slavic name. This is an interesting choice given that U.S.A. was in a situation of cold war with Russia at the time of writing this novel. Thus, author uses and perpetuates the image of Soviet Union as villain. There are italian sounding names (missionaria), native south american houses. Atreides is a greek name. These houses represent different cultures.

Character idealisation- In some of their works, fiction authors put an idealised version of themselves as a character who does what they wanted to do. In Orwell’s 1984, it was Winston Smith who tries to break out of the shackles of the society he is living in. Much like Winston Smith, Orwell himself wrote propaganda pieces for the government for a couple of years and had a terrible distaste for his work which he later left. I feel in Dune that character is the planetologist Pardot Kynes, father of Liet-Kynes who takes a long term view and believes in gradual ecological change through conscious human action.

Note: Some details from the analysis have been skipped in order to avoid spoilers.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Cycle of Life and Death

"Death, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not.” 

- Epicurus

I have always considered death as the ultimate calm; a state of perfect serenity; the blackness that covers all the light; an eternal night. But now I have started to think of death as something more. Life and death are the two alternate roles we play. These are not opposites but complementary to each other and feed on each other to survive. Think of someone who has been buried into the ground after dying. They are decomposed by microorganisms and converted to soil. The nutrients from the soil are absorbed by the plant in order to make it grow. In the process the soil itself becomes alive by being a part of a living part of the plant. When the plant is harvested for its fruits, vegetables and grain, a part of the plant dies again. And it soon becomes alive when it is eaten by someone and forms the basis for all our body parts including the brain and the heart.

Death is certainly not the eternal oblivion we make it out to be. It is a transition between lives. A person disintegrates into a billion parts and each part is transferred to a new body. This is how we live forever as parts of a whole. We see this process of dead being resurrected to life everyday around us. In this view, life is death for the dead.

Our DNA contains all the information on how to convert the nutrients into a living organism. Given the advances in cloning, the future in which we will be able to use the algorithm hidden in our genetic code to resurrect someone who has died does not seem far. But since memories form an important part of a person’s identity, we first need more research about how information is stored in the brain so that the person with the same characteristics and identity can be resurrected. This is one of the roads that we can follow to achieve immortality.

Want to read more about immortality? Read below:

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Life comes from life from life from life... from non-life

"At the foundation of everything there is a binary demarcation. The continuum arises because of our inability to observe closely. The fundamental theory of everything is a yes or no."
Take an arbitrary unit and arrange a large combination of this unit in a specific pattern. Now imagine one pattern within another pattern within another and so on till we have a large number of repeated patterns. These patterns constitute our universe, and at a higher level – the multiverse. And a fundamental question is the origin of life in the universe. Jeremy England, a physicist at MIT gave his theory on evolution of life based on the second law of thermodynamics and postulated that species evolve in a way so that they can expend energy in the most efficient way. His argument unified the nature of living and non-living and said that if we shine light on a stone for sufficiently long duration, it will eventually start moving and behaving like a living thing.

Life is a combination of elements. Our DNA is composed of nothing but basic elements such as Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorous and Hydrogen. Over a span of billions of years, these  and other elements, guided by different sources of energy interacted with each other, rearranging themselves and trying different formations. When the right combinations merged and arranged in various patterns, a continuum was formed from non-living to the living. There can be no doubt that some species existed at the boundary between the two and could not be classified in either category. The first living species came into existence and possibly perished soon owing to the lack of information on how to replicate themselves. This was the simplest form of life.

Soon a stable life developed which was a life form that knew how to pass on the information to make life repeat. What was being transferred in form of the genetic code was an algorithm to replicate the order of atoms which will enable an organism to survive and increase its population. A study done by V.N. Tsytovich based on computer simulations suggested that electrically charged dust particles suspended in plasma display lifelike properties by arranging themselves in double helical structures and evolve into more stable forms to survive in plasma. The study by Tsytovich shows that there is no sharp classification between the living and non-living. Species such as viruses and prions (that are self propogating combination of proteins with no DNA) demonstrate that no matter where we draw the boundary, there will be some varieties standing at the doorstep to life.

Gradually species have evolved from the single celled prokaryotes to more complex and stable arthropods, land plants and mammals to over 8 million estimated species. Even though all known life on earth is carbon based but life outside earth is as likely to be founded upon very different elements such as Silicon and Germanium instead of carbon. This unfamiliar form of life might drink Sulphuric acid or ammonia instead of water. These material will exhibit very different chemistry under different temperatures, pressure and mix of radiative energy. Thus, neither carbon nor water are prerequisites for the existence of life outside earth. For all we know, with the extensive possibilities in front of us, we might find life at an unexpected time at a place where we least expect it. We will then be able to solve some of our existing curiosities but raise many more questions in front of us.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A majority of votes did not mean a majority support for AAP in Delhi

The Delhi Legislative Assembly Elections, 2015 resulted in huge upsets for both BJP and Congress who could only win 3 and 0 seats respectively, whereas the AAP won the remaining 67 seats. This landslide victory for Aam Aadmi Party was already on the cards even though a majority of voters did not consider them as the most deserving contestant. This post explains why a large number of voters did not vote for their favourite party but for their second favourite.

Before the arrival of AAP, Delhi had two major parties – BJP and Congress. And for a vast majority of voters, all other parties or candidates were not the top ranked, so how voters ranked them did not matter in deciding the election result. There could be only two types of voters – BJP supporters and Congress supporters. The introduction of AAP expanded the set to six possible voter types:
Here's my interpretation of types. Type 1 voters support Congress and oppose the Hindutva forces of BJP. These comprise a majority of Congress supporters. Type 2 support BJP but would prefer a change of party due to opposition to Congress because of corruption in previous years. Type 3 are the ones who do not want congress to win at any cost but would give chance to a new party and type 4 are AAP supporters who oppose Hindutva forces of BJP. Type 5 and 6 supported their respective parties but believe that AAP as a new party will not be able to manage the Indian capital.

In the 2013 Delhi elections, the number of BJP (33% votes, 31 seats) supporters exceeded both AAP (29.5% votes, 28 seats) and Congress (24.5% votes, 8 seats). Also, independent candidates received 10% of total votes cast with 1 seat. Once Arvind Kejriwal resigned as the Chief Minister of Delhi, it was clear that Congress is not going to win any significant number of seats in the 2015 re-elections and here is why AAP victory was a near certainty in the following elections.

Since the type 1 voters did not want BJP to win at any cost, they indulged in strategic behaviour and voted for their second favourites AAP instead of Congress (who were doomed to lose). If they had not done this, then BJP would have won more seats and that would have been a worse result for them. Most of the people who supported independent candidates were more likely to support AAP over BJP as they are more likely to give chance to a new party instead of the old established ones. So most of them also voted in favour of AAP candidates to prevent the victory of BJP as they got to know that the independent candidate is unlikely to win over AAP candidate. So the outcome of 2015 elections did not represent the actual support for AAP, but instead strategic voting by groups of congress supporters and independent candidate supporting voters who considered AAP the second best party.

The 2013 election result showed the true preferences of voters as they were largely unaware of the likely outcome and various opinion polls showed widely varying estimates of number of seats for each party. This lack of information reduced the scope for strategic behaviour. Also, since only a very short time passed between 2013 and 2015 elections and there was not much change in the political environment of Delhi, preferences can be taken to be almost constant. The voter turnout increased only marginally from 66% to 67% between the two. So, the set of voters was nearly identical across the two elections. Out of the total votes caste in 2015 elections, AAP secured 54.8% votes, BJP 32.3% votes, whereas Congress could garner only 9.7% of total votes cast. The votes cast in favour of independent candidates reduced to just 0.5%. This increase of votes in favour of AAP by 24.8% of voters is explained almost entirely by the sum of decline in Congress votes by 14.8% and independent votes by 9.5% compared to the 2013 elections. Based on this we can say that type 1 voters comprise roughly 14.8% of the voters whereas type 5 (or those congress supporters who did not indulge in such strategic behaviour) were roughly 9.7%.

Many people blame introduction of Kiran Bedi as BJP's Chief Minister candidate instead of Dr. Harsh Vardhan for their defeat. But a single glance at the election data will give her some relief as BJP's vote share in 2015 elections remained almost the same as 2013 elections, registering only an insignificant fall of 0.7%. Often we only look at the outcome, oblivious to the misrepresentations that keep happening in the background.This was one of those cases when Arvind Kejriwal was lucky to get more support than actually existed for him.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Unearthing the Earth’s History

The answer to the development of universe still lies somewhere within the universe

 We have often wondered and speculated how our own planet might have appeared billions of years ago. What if there was a possibility of watching earth’s evolution in real time? Even though those times have already passed, the image still lingers somewhere in the space. We can observe galaxies that are billions of light years away from us. The images that we see from those galaxies today show the position and conditions of those galaxies from billions of years ago. An observer placed at those galaxies will view images of Earth from billions of years ago. What if we discover some mirrors in space that are at distances in magnitude of light years from us. If our planet is aligned at an appropriate angle from those mirrors, then they would reflect light back from earth and show us images from far away times of our own planet. These images when viewed at high resolution might be able to tell us so much about the history of our own planet and even show us the formation of the Himalayas or the breaking apart of continents.

If discovered, what will be the nature of these objects? Will they have the properties of a white hole or just a reflective glass? A white hole is the opposite of a black hole. The gravity of a black hole is so strong that it doesn’t even allow light to escape and everything is concentrated at the point of singularity. But the white hole will emit everything from the singularity so that nothing can enter it. Even if such bodies are a theoretical possibility, they will be hard to recognize. This is because when we see one, we will feel as if we are looking at another galaxy or system and hence there is a possibility that we might have already missed it out despite observing it.

Depending on where the mirror is placed, we can watch images from different time periods. Closer mirrors show more recent past. If multiple mirrors were discovered we will be able to view different eras. The speed of the video will depend on the speed of the mirror relative to earth and light. If it starts moving away from earth at speed tending to the speed of light, we will constantly observe a single image. At the other theoretical extreme, if it moves towards the earth at the speed of light and assuming that it doesn’t crash with our planet, we will see the entire history in one single moment of infinite images. Stationarity with respect to the earth implies real time images from the past.

White holes are considered unstable. In contrast to black holes, they will act to decrease the entropy of universe and therefore, their existence for elongated periods of time is in violation of the laws of thermodynamics (even though it’s a mathematical possibility). So another possibility is manually placing huge mirrors at far off galaxies. But this will require travel at a speed faster than light. To solve this problem, the mirror will be placed through a shortcut- a wormhole in space, which is the only way to defeat light in a race. Now suppose the mirror is placed x billion light years away from us. It will start reflecting the images from x billion years past. Those images will take an additional x billion years to reach the earth. As a result only the generation born x billion years later will be able to view the past. This has an easy resolution – once a transceiver has been placed through the wormhole, information will be relayed back to the earth through the same wormhole. Thus the discovery of a wormhole – a bridge through space will be useful in another way to add to human knowledge.

Irrespective of the likelihood of such possibilities, a thought about them brings us closer to the understanding that in the universe, space and time might not really have different natures and one can blend into the other. If planets were humans, we might just as well look at the situation as a metaphor of an old man looking in the mirror just to discover the child he used to be.

Image Courtesy: Google