Tag Archives: culture

Prelude to Cosmos: Neil deGrasse Tyson interviewed by Bill Moyers

Cosmos featuring neil degrasse tyson

Tonight is an exciting night of television for anyone interested in discovering how the universe works. For those of us committed to sharing our understanding of the universe, it is particularly exciting and trepidatious to think about turning on the telly at 9:00PM tonight—tuning it to the Fox network (or National Geographic) of all places—for the reboot/revival, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, of one of the most successful science documentary series on television ever: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

You can watch that whole original epic series on youtube now, in case you are of a younger generation who missed it entirely, or if you (like Salman Hameed at Irtiqua) want to relive the moments of your youth when Sagan lit that luminescent candle in the dark, and perhaps changed the course of your life. I can but hope (with no little trepidation) that the new Cosmos lives up to that legacy, and indeed takes it further to light up a whole new generation (of Fox TV watchers, no less) to the wonders of science.

If Neil deGrasse Tyson was able to excite Seth MacFarlane—the “creative engine” of juvenile, puerile, sexist comedy (making a ton of money) for Fox, who came up with the boob song (for Oscar 2013) which still makes me cringe—into putting his considerable wealth and clout into producing this Cosmos reboot with a lot more showbiz whizbang, and getting Fox to broadcast it (alongside NatGeo), then there is hope for many of us already excited about science but frustrated by increasing public ignorance of, and hostility towards science. But I don’t want to burden Tyson, or one show, with too many expectations – just… take me on an astonishing ride. That is all I ask! And that is what this trailer promises, so buckle in:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBTd9–9VMI&list=RDkBTd9–9VMI

As you wait for the series to premiere tonight, you might also want to revisit this recent in-depth three-part interview with Tyson by Bill Moyers, which aired last month, and ranged widely, tackling not just the show and a cosmic perspective:

… but the nature of science, its increasingly irreconcilable relationship with religion, and Neil’s relegation of God to “an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance”:

… to the dark politics of the US which has held back this country from remaining the leader of science in the world:

Join me, and enjoy the ride starting tonight!

An American Age of Endarkenment

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. The full transcript as well as audio of me reading it is available in the archives. Here I share an expanded version of my essay lamenting the decline of American support for science.

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It is a peculiar moment to be a scientist in America.

For decades, the United States of America has not only been the world’s leader in advancing the frontiers of scientific discovery, it has also been a powerful beacon attracting scientists and students seeking enlightenment through science from the far corners of the world.

That beacon was set alight by a whole generation of scientific geniuses, some born here, many migrating over from Europe escaping the great wars of the 20th century. It burned especially bright in the decades following World War II when America donned the mantle, not only of the political and economic leader of the free world, but also its scientific and cultural leader. It set the stage for unprecedented social progress and economic development driven by America’s investments in its universities.

That beacon is what brought me to these shores, just another graduate student among the countless immigrants streaming into the nation thirsting for higher education in science, and a chance to participate in expanding that frontier of scientific discovery. Just another particle in the torrential brain-drain flowing out from nations across the world that America was happy to soak up and nourish and allow to flourish among its elite universities.

That beacon, alas, began to dim towards the end of the 20th century, and has been allowed dim even further in the first decades of this 21st century which was supposed to be the real era of science and technology enlightening a new age of progress in human history. This is an age which is fulfilling that promise in many ways, yet America, that leader which led us to this threshold, has faltered, and dropped the baton of scientific progress.

It was no accident that the beacon of science burned so strongly in America 50 years ago. It was an active choice by the American people, through their government, to fund science and technology, and higher education in general, that established America as the world’s leader. That depended, of course, on the relatively high levels of taxes collected by the government and invested back into the country’s physical, social, and cultural infrastructure as it recovered from the depths of first Great Depression to soar up into the astonishing heights reached by what’s been called the Greatest Generation in this country.

Yet, at the heights of that arc of progress, many Americans somehow decided—were persuaded by forces of a new endarkenment—that paying taxes, and investing in public goods was somehow inimical to the American drive for freedom from tyranny. Government of the people, by the people, for the people bizarrely became painted as a new tyranny that must be starved of taxes and drowned in a bathtub. It astonishes the world that these forces have succeeded in turning the US government lights off, quite literally this October, and starving higher education and science of the funding that made it the world’s leader.

This too, is no accident, this dimming of the beacon of science in the leader of the free world. For just as its universities and science laboratories defined this nation in the late 20th century, it has also been defined by what Isaac Asimov famously described as a constant thread of anti-intellectualism “winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’”. That anti-intellectual strain flourished in the shadows even as the beacon of science and technology burned bright, and is now doing its best to douse the light in the name of freedom.

It is no accident, it may indeed be part of America’s self-contradictory DNA, that the land that attracted and nourished and became home to the largest number of Nobel Laureates in the sciences also has the highest proportion of people among developed nations who don’t accept the facts of biological evolution. That the nation with the largest number of climate scientists, and the most comprehensive coverage of weather on television with whole channels dedicated to it, is also home to the greatest number of climate change and global warming denialists.

It is no accident, therefore, that America has slipped from its position of the world’s leader even as its beacon has been doused and starved of the public funding which kept it burning brightly for so many decades. That other nations are picking up on this, and beginning to surge ahead, by following America’s earlier lead in investing in higher education and science and technology to fuel social and economic progress. That my own native country India has just sent an unmanned probe—rather cheaply and efficiently—to Mars at a time when even Neil de Grasse Tyson must keep lamenting at every opportunity the death by a thousand budget cuts being administered to NASA, that jewel in America’s scientific crown. As he asked: How much would you pay for the universe?

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India’s cheap rocket carrying its exciting mission to Mars, and a bid to claim the baton of space exploration seemingly dropped by the US after decades of leadership.

It is not too late for America to regain that lead, to relight the beacon, by renewing its commitment to invest in the public goods that made this country great. To rediscover its own heritage of how government is a force for good when allowed—nay, made—to invest in the public goods that brought the greatest prosperity for the greatest number of people. That. one hopes, is one of the lessons to be learnt from the recent government shutdown, which hit particularly hard the enterprise of science in this once—and hopefully again—beacon of enlightenment for the world.

It sure is a peculiar time to be a scientist in America, but it doesn’t have to remain so.

“Where the mind is without fear…”?

Rabindranath Tagore’s hopes for India, from his Gitanjali

Today is India’s independence day, for 66 years ago the country freed itself from British rule, and for the first time actually became a nation, even as its people were torn asunder in one of the bloodiest, but somehow least talked about passages of violence in the history of the incredibly bloody 20th century. A nation whose history, for all its Gandhian non-violence, started in blood, and remains quite bloody with wars aflame both within and without. A nation that is a multitude of nations, where your identity starts with your language, your caste, your village, your region, yet one where a resurgent militant nationalism is being hammered into us from all directions on this independence day. I can hear the chants of Vande Mataram from the windows of my sister’s flat in Thane, where citizens of the housing society are milling about celebrating this independence day with a local flag hoisting and performances and competitions among local children.

Yes, it is Vande Mataram echoing through the windows, a chant that since its inception has been used by gatherings of people to “work themselves up into a patriotic fervour by shouting the slogan “Vande Mataram”, or “Hail to the Mother(land)!“, originally a challenge to “Hail to the Queen”! A chant that also started out as part of an invocation of Goddess Durga, and an expression of Bengali nationalism. Which is largely why the secular minded leadership of the Indian National Congress only accepted the first two verses as a national song, and eventually adopted Rabindranath Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana as the official national anthem. Tagore, who was one of the first to sing Vande Mataram in the context of the Indian freedom struggle, at the 1896 Calcutta Congress Session, later offered this nuanced critique of the song:

“The core of Vande Mataram is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it. Of course Bankimchandra does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end, but no Mussulman [Muslim] can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as ‘Swadesh’ [the nation]. This year many of the special [Durga] Puja numbers of our magazines have quoted verses from Vande Mataram—proof that the editors take the song to be a hymn to Durga. The novel Anandamath is a work of literature, and so the song is appropriate in it. But Parliament is a place of union for all religious groups, and there the song cannot be appropriate. When Bengali Mussulmans show signs of stubborn fanaticism, we regard these as intolerable. When we too copy them and make unreasonable demands, it will be self-defeating.”

And so Tagore’s song became the national anthem for a nation with secular aspirations, and remains a reminder of that legacy. Yet the spirit of its sibling national song seems to resonate more now in an India many of whose citizens seem eager to shed that cloak of secularism and embrace a more militant Hindu nationalism. Meanwhile the official national anthem too is used, in a manner Goebbels would have approved, to whip up patriotic fervor everywhere, from the cinema multiplex in Bombay’s malls to the television in our living rooms. It has been the law (intermittently) in some states to play the national anthem before every every movie screening, in between advertisements for dental hygiene products and the latest masala fare whipped up by B/T/H-ollywood. Recent versions are accompanied by über-jingoistic visuals that start with scenes of army jawans hoisting the flag in the snowy wastes of Siachen where far too many of them have also shed blood for far too little but nationalistic pride. And the expectation during these cinematic renderings of the anthem is that everyone in the audience stand up in respect, or be subject to abuse, even if they are not citizens of India. One has to wonder how effective this has been, however, given the ill-will and strife prevalent between different communities and regions within this nation.

Meanwhile, on the telly, this independence day started with speeches (from the Prime Minister on down) and parades designed to show off the nation’s military might. Never mind that today’s jingoistic military display came in the wake of a horrific tragedy last night when the fully armed torpedoes in an Indian navy submarine accidentally blew up in Bombay harbor killing 18 crew members. Not exactly the kind of fireworks that should have lit up the skies of south Bombay for independence day.

Independence day fireworks over Bombay harbor? Not exactly…

Interspersed among news coverage of the parades and last night’s tragedy, and “independence day special” broadcasts of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua”, in between commercials for axe body spray and “red bull gives you wings”, even the telly exhorts us to stand up for the national anthem many times throughout the day. I wonder how many people actually stand up in their living rooms in front of the idiot box, welling with patriotic pride…

I can’t help but think we would have been much better off as a people, as citizens of a peaceful, inclusive republic, had we heeded the other thoughts Tagore had on the concept of nationalism, for instance in his speeches in America over a century ago:

In spite of our great difficulty, however, India has done something. She has tried to make an adjustment of races, to acknowledge the real differences between them where these exist, and yet seek for some basis of unity. This basis has come through our saints, like Nanak, Kabir, Chaitanya and others, preaching one God to all races of India.

In finding the solution of our problem we shall have helped to solve the world problem as well. What India has been, the whole world is now. The whole world is becoming one country through scientific facility. And the moment is arriving when you also must find a basis of unity which is not political. If India can offer to the world her solution, it will be a contribution to humanity. There is only one history – the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one. And we are content in India to suffer for such a great cause.

He went on to add:

A parallelism exists between America and India – the parallelism of welding together into one body various races.

In my country, we have been seeking to find out something common to all races, which will prove their real unity. No nation looking for a mere political or commercial basis of unity will find such a solution sufficient. Men of thought and power will discover the spiritual unity, will realize it, and preach it.

India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.

Alas, in the more than hundred years since he spoke these words, we have progressed, if anything, farther away from his ideals, and deeper into the slumber from which he hoped this nation of many nations would awake “into that heaven of freedom“:

WHERE THE mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action-
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Human rights should begin at home

Ever since I first considered becoming a parent, I wanted a daughter. My partner concurred, vehemently. We have two now, lovely beings both, growing up all too fast for us to prepare them for the world that lies ahead. We wanted daughters because there aren’t enough in India. Our country loses, gets rid of, far too many daughters, in utero, in infancy, in youth… and we felt it our responsibility to do a little to redress the skewed sex ratio. We won the chromosomal lottery, twice, on that count.

We have two daughters to offer to this world. How do we offer them a safer world to explore?

Amid the seemingly endless orgy of violence that appears to be endemic to our cultures, from India to the US, violence directed against women in particular, Eduardo Galeano’s words have been haunting me. Growing up in the traditional family culture he describes, I was quite stunned when I first read him, decades ago. I keep returning to them now, as a parent myself to two daughter, trying to change this culture, starting at home:

THE CULTURE OF TERROR / 2

Extortion,
insults,
threats,
slapping,
beating,
thrashing,
whipping,
the dark room,
the icy shower,
enforced fasting,
forced feeding,
the ban on leaving the house,
the ban on saying what you think,
the ban on doing what you feel,
and public humiliation
are some of the methods of punishment and torture traditional to family life. To punish disobedience and discipline liberty, family tradition perpetuates a culture of terror that humiliates women, teaches children to lie, and spreads the plague of fear.

“Human rights should begin at home,” Andrés Dominguez told me in Chile.

From “The Book of Embraces” by Eduardo Galeano.

Whether it is guns or men’s penises, in India or the US, the talk these days is all about tougher laws, bans, hangings, castration, capital punishment, stemming from an angry desire for vengeance in the wake of heinous crimes. Maybe these will bring some change for the better. I sure hope so. But the violence, like the misogyny, is too deeply embedded in our cultures for these to be sufficient deterrents. It lies too deep, and too close to the surface of our daily domestic lives for us to see, acknowledge, and attempt to stop it.

The violence is within us, reinforced by these traditions which “humiliate women, teach children to lie, and spread the plague of fear.” Therefore, any lasting change to the culture of violence must also start within us, when we challenge these traditions, change them, teach new ones to our sons and daughters: based on respect and kindness, rather than power and obedience.

I sense the implacable anger of women in India right now, and hang my head in shame for my gender, for what we men have wrought against our better halves.

Bringing more daughters into this world is only half the answer. We need to raise our sons better too, in better families rebuilt without the traditional violence shadowing our daily lives. We need to change the culture so that it doesn’t continue to warp them in the ways it has already warped us into accepting so much violence as routine.

Human rights must begin at home.

Hoodies and the beasts within our multicolored skins

In his very second outing, the newest Doctor Who (a white guy… ever wonder why the last remaining Time Lord in the universe keeps choosing to be reincarnated as a parade of white guys?) and his newest (and whitest; again, where’s the kick-ass black beauty Martha Jones who accompanied him for a season?) companion land on a strange sort of ship which is really home to all of Britain transported into outer space somehow. 

But something is awry (of course), as the Doctor soon notices (of course). Within about five minutes he is out checking glasses of water for something amiss, and suddenly points Amy Pond (his lily-white companion) towards a little girl sitting on a bench all by herself, crying.

The little girl is also white, of course.

The camera pans back towards the Doctor and Amy just before he darts forward. As Amy begins to follow him, from behind her we see a dark hooded figure emerge from the shadows, evidently following them.

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This is a point where I should worry about my 10-year-old daughter S (brown like me; too dark-skinned for my Indian parents’ liking), curled up beside me on the couch as I watch this new episode of a show which elicits a mixed fear/fascination response from her. A budding sci-fi fan growing up on the Harry Potter franchise and moving into more grown-up stuff, she loves the idea of Doctor Who – but, at this point, is also rather terrified of the show. Especially its penchant (like much British sci-fi) to throw children into harm’s way as is happening on the screen right now.

Normally, a scene like this one (see from c.6min into this clip) where a girl is crying and a darkly hooded figure emerges to apparently stalk our leads – such a scene would cause S to hold her breath, followed (when the hoodie appears) by her either bolting from the living room, or at least burrowing into the sofa cushions behind my back.

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Yet, as this hooded figure approaches the camera, her clutching my arm anxiously, and we can see his dark skin, the whites of his eyes, and then his full black face…

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…something surprising, and wonderful, happens: her fingers relax and S lets out her breath in an audible sigh of relief! Not a reaction even the creators of the show would have expected or wanted, I imagine, because the scene is clearly playing on our fears. And what’s more fearful in our culture than a black guy in a dark hoodie emerging from the shadows to stalk a pale white girl? 

So I ask her why she isn’t scared. She says because it turned out to be an African guy, and African-Americans she finds reassuring, so she doesn’t think it is a bad guy. As the story progresses, we learn, of course, that he is indeed not a bad guy. Yet, despite the obvious tropes being used on screen, this ten-year-old brown girl didn’t fall for the manipulation, saw right through it, because her gut told her that black was the color of trust and comfort and reassurance.

I wish I could say I taught her that.

I remember that little moment from a couple of years ago, for comfort and hope now, during these weeks when much of white America has seemingly gone crazy over fear of overly pigmented skin. It is suddenly OK (again) to kill black boys in hoodies. Or to beat brown women (in hijab? does it matter?) to death for simply being in this country. And even outrage over fictional characters in futuristic fantasies turning out to be black in a movie! There is of course also the country’s first black president, who is apparently responsible for every ill in society now. But this isn’t anything new – its just flared up now for some reason, is all. As my friend Danielle Lee (black, and proud!pointed out in a powerful blog post earlier today, having pigment is a hazardous thing even in science, as in many other areas of ordinary life in America (and elsewhere too).

How then did my little girl, born of parents from a culture that is among the most racist in the world (black/white – pffft!! Indians discriminate based on a whole gradient of shades of wheatish in our brown skins! Have even turned our dark-skinned gods blue because that is somehow better than being black! And slavery? Ha! See how elegantly our caste system has made people completely internalize slavery for thousands of years!), raised in a definitely-not-post-racial America, somehow overcome all this cultural programming to instinctively find trust and reassurance in a darkly hooded black face, instead of running away screaming?

She wasn’t even thinking about all this, of course. She has probably forgotten the incident entirely, moved on. At 12, she imagines herself as Katniss now, and will therefore be really righteously angry if she reads what the racist morons have tweeted about Rue being black

Wish I knew where (if) our parenting went right. I would take credit, happily! And if I could, bottle whatever it is that resulted in her healthy human attitude. Because clearly, the world needs more of that.

Stephen Fry & friends on the life, loves and hates of Christopher Hitchens

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taOBFURZvcA?wmode=transparent]

Irritant as Hitchens was to people on the right and the left, he sure was hard to ignore. Much as I wish he hadn’t lost his head over Iraq and the “clash of civilizations” in the MIddle East, I am glad he went after many holier cows from Kissinger to Mother Teresa. This celebration of his life is particularly illuminating to listen to for the gentle way that Stephen Fry probed Rushdie about the possible origin of the particularly sharp animus Hitch had for the Islamic countries. Forty-five minutes well spent listening to quite the array of intellectuals speak of their relationship with Hitch… I’m glad we get to listen in.

The Queen’s Hankey and a tradition full of crap in a world with no toilets

Is this wonderful Catalan tradition, which has to be more authentic than the nativity story, because while scholars may dispute long into the holy night about whether there really were three wise men chasing a meteor that night, we can be absolutely certain that somewhere probably not too far away from that mythical manger there was somebody very real squatting behind a tree or a rock…

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Do click the BBC link to view the lovely video report in which I love how the BBC’s camera is coy about the Queen’s clay derrière…

…is it the origin of this more recent tradition?

Meanwhile, all over the world, real people, in this 21st century, continue to have to squat in the fields and the woods, so that tradition continues to be very real – but can you imagine this?

Or are you, like so many in America and elsewhere in the developed world with our fancy and water-wasting toilets, more enamored of different, more polished and shinier crap (including, if you’re a tourist in Catalan, clay figurines of Queen Elizabeth II, shiny gold crown on her head and Mr. Hankey under the royal behind), buying which has now also become synonymous with the nativity?

So in keeping with these age-old-yet-still-fresh traditions, let me wish you all a Very Crappy Christmas!! After all, whatever we know or don’t know about the savior Jesus, we can be absolutely sure that that is one bodily function he shared with the rest of us mortals. Unless you want to suggest that God and his Son are two eternally constipated dudes… which would not make for a very spiritual experience!

 

Things not to do in the cinema: the Wittertainment Code of Conduct (not in 3D)

http://s.ytimg.com/yt/swf/watch_as3-vflofTU0v.swf

You do listen to their (now miraculous and up-for-sainthood!) weekly show regularly, don’t you, if you claim to be any kind of cinephile?

Here’s the poster version of the above Code of Conduct for you to print out and share at your own local cinema:

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