Archive for January, 2012

My picks – 29th January 2012

January 29, 2012 Leave a comment

These are some of the links I read this week.

Categories: Links

My picks – 22nd Januray 2012

January 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Here are some of the links I was reading this week.

The first one has to be this. Unbelievable. This is the best piece I read this week. Can a scientist get any more eccentric? I am not saying anything about it. You HAVE to read it.

TED talk by Drew Berry. He talks about molecules inside our cells.

Thalaivar, Richard Dawkins, talks about his favourite, deep, elegant and beautiful explanation. There are 191 other respondents to the same question. I read a few of them. V.S.Ramachandran’s was interesting. You can read all the responses here.

How to identify quackery in medicine? Go through the red flags of quackery.

An extract from a book about London being the libel tourism capital. A must read.

I came across this interview of a science write, Amy Harmon. Clicking through some links, I found a list of articles. Some of them were interesting like this one about a person who found out through DNA testing that reveals that she has a gene which could cause Breast Cancer.

Read this to know, how dog breeding informs us about genetic diseases.

Top 10 popular Mathematics books. If somebody asked me what heaven is, I would say it would be a place where I can afford all the books I want to read. Sigh.

All about common colds.

What would I not do to be in this guy’s place? But that is how it always appears from outside, doesn’t it? Still…

Here is Carl Sagan’s Christmas lectures on the planets. With my internet connection, I need to sit for hours to buffer each of these videos. And there are no downloads offered. So, I will envy you if you get to see this.

To round off the list with some fun, here is a stand up comedy on religion. My younger brother sent this to me. Religion is such an easy target for comedians, dont you think?

Categories: Links

Our body tells us tales from our past

January 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Here is my new article for the New Indian Express. The title of the piece is not mine, but a couple of grammatical errors in it definitely belong to me. Have a look and let me know what you think about the article. Let me also know if you spotted the errors.

BTW, should I say “a couple of grammatical errors is” or “a couple of grammatical errors are” ?

As with everything else, with writing too, I have lots to learn.

Categories: Writing

Isha Kriya Meditation’s logic stuns me

January 17, 2012 2 comments

I had previously talked about Isha Yoga here, and today there was another email at my workplace. This time the email is about Isha Kriya Meditation. You can read about it, if you really want to waste your time, at their website.

See this gem.

This kriya will create a certain space between you and your body, between you and your mind. If at all there is any struggle in your life, it is because you identify yourself with these limited aspects of yourself.

Dualism is just plain wrong. An immaterial soul does not exist (if the concept even means anything). But this is not the reason why I write about this, since almost everybody believes in a soul.There are much worse examples on the FAQ for us to laugh at.

Here is what the website says about uttering the sound “Aa”.

As there is a physical body, there is a whole energy body… This energy that we generally refer to as either prana or Shakti, flows through the body in certain established patterns; it is not moving randomly. There are 72,000 different ways in which it moves. In other words, there are 72,000 pathways in the system through which it is flowing. So nadis are pathways or channels in the system. They do not have a physical manifestation; if you cut the body and look inside, you will not find these nadis. But as you become more and more aware, you will notice the energy is not moving at random; it is moving in established pathways.

Sound “Aa” is the only vibration which spreads right across the body because the manipuraka is the only place where the 72,000 nadis meet and redistribute themselves. When you utter the sound “Aa,” you will see the vibration will start about three-fourths of an inch below the navel and spread right across the body. This vibration can assist greatly in energizing your maintenance center. Activating this center will bring health, dynamism, prosperity and wellbeing.

Isn’t that funny? PG Wodehouse would not have been able to make me laugh so much. See the pseudo-scientific language of the paragraphs. Notice the part highlighted (by me) where it conveniently says they do not have a physical manifestation. If there is no physical manifestation, how does it interact with rest of the body? Madness.

But what really provoked me today was this impeccable piece of logic that came as part of the email.

For different levels of thought and emotion that you go through, your breath takes on different types of patterns. If you are angry you breathe one way, you are peaceful you breathe another way. You are happy, you breathe in another way. You are sad, you will breathe in a completely different way. Have you noticed this? Based on this conversely is the science of Isha Yoga: there are conscious patterns of breath which can leave you in a constant state of bliss and healthfulness.

Do you see what is wrong here? In case you could not spot it, I will let His Holiness Panditji Sri Sri Madhavananda explain.

For different levels of thought and emotion you go through, your hair takes on different types of patterns. If you are angry, you pull out your hair. If you are peaceful, you will comb it in a neat manner, and if you are happy, you will comb it in a fashionably. If you are sad, you will not comb at all. Have you noticed this? Based on this conversely is the science of  Hisha Yoga: there are conscious patterns of hair style that can leave you in a constant state of bliss and healthfulness. The next time you are not feeling happy, just comb your hair. You will feel happiness welling up in your soul.

Do you see it now? This is similar to concluding that if you want the sun to rise, all you need to do is to make the rooster crow by observing daily that every time the sun rises, the rooster crows. This is the example, my mother uses as an old saying, to mock others who use faulty logic. I cannot come to terms to the fact that this is the level of reasoning that so many people fall for.


My Picks – 15 January 2012

January 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Here is what I have been reading this week.

Here are a couple of videos for which I have not found time yet. I am hoping to see them this week.

Bend it like Einstein

January 14, 2012 1 comment

Einstein’s theory of General Relativity is considered revolutionary because it changed our ideas of both space and time. With this theory, space became a trampoline curving under the weight of heavy objects, and time became personal, with each of us having our own version of time. But when he proposed this theory in 1915, it did not become known to the common man immediately. That had to wait for 1919 when there was an experiment confirming what Einstein’s theory had predicted.

We all know that light travels only in a straight line. That is why we cannot see a TV running in the next room since the wall in between prevents the TV’s light from reaching us. One of the consequences of Einstein’s theory is that you can, see an object even though your line of sight to the object is blocked by a barrier.

Imagine you are watching a TV with 2 of your friends, sitting on your either sides. Now, suppose your spouse, wanting to grab your attention, comes and stands in front of you hiding the TV from your view. Your two friends can continue watching the TV, because there are rays from the TV directed at your friends too which are not blocked by your spouse. In this situation there is no way you can watch TV without either you or your spouse moving.

But when you consider a similar situation on a cosmic scale, things are different. Imagine a star far away from Earth. But suppose there is a black hole in between the earth and the star blocking our view. Would you be able to see the star? Our experience with the TV tells us that we cannot see the star. But actualy you can see it; that too not once but multiple times at the same instant (as shown below).

Multiple images of the same star at the same time. (Picture from Wikipedia, originally by NASA)

What happens is this. The light that comes from the distant star towards you is blocked by the black hole and you cannot see it. But, the star is sending out light in all the directions, and some of it is directed at your neighbors too. But since the black hole is a massive object its gravitation attracts the light that was going away from the black hole. But that light is not completely absorbed. So what ends up happening is that the path of the light that started off towards your neighbors, is bent slightly so that it eventually reaches you. It is as if, the light is taking a slight detour to avoid being pulled in by the black hole.

Light from a star bending around a massive obect.

Light from a star bending around a massive object (Picture from Wikipedia, originally by NASA)

Since the light comes from the side of the black hole, we would see the star as if it is by the black hole’s side and not behind it. Moreover, since such light would have started off in all the different directions, you can see light all around the black hole bending towards you. Thus what you see is multiple images of a single star. In many cases, what we observe is only a brightening of the star since the light that was meant for different directions is grouped and directed towards the observer.

This phenomenon called Gravitational lensing was the key experiment. It is called lensing, because a lens too alters the direction of light. The amount of this bending that relativity predicted was different from that of what was predicted by Newton’s theory of gravity. Only when this test was done, was the theory experimentally confirmed and the theory shot into limelight.

Does predictive texting make children do more mistakes?

January 9, 2012 Leave a comment

The news

Last week, there was this article in the Hindu, which talked about how the predictive texting feature of mobile phones leads to errors that affect relationships. I do not know if that is true, because I would assume that any such error can be easily explained to the other party in the relationship. But there was something else more curious about the article. What was it doing in the Science section of the newspaper? And then I noticed that it had the following sentence.

A study in 2009 found predictive text messaging changes the way children’s brains work and makes them more likely to make mistakes generally.

This sentence made me curious. Is it really possible to tease out such a connection from the complicate causes and effects of human behaviour? Did the study really find such a result? I tried googling a bit and I found some articles from 2009 which covered this study. Let me quote one of them.

In a groundbreaking study, Professor Michael Abramson analysed the mobile phone use of children aged between 11 and 14 and their ability to carry out a number of computer tests.

A quarter of the children made more than 15 voice calls a week and a quarter of them wrote more than 20 text messages a week.

When researchers studied the way in which the children handled IQ-type tests they found that increased mobile phone use appears to change the way their brains work.

Prof Abramson, an epidemiologist at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, said: “The kids who used their phones a lot were faster on some of the tests, but were less accurate.

“We suspect that using mobile phones a lot, particularly tools like predictive texts for SMS, is training them to be fast but inaccurate.

“Their brains are still developing so if there are effects then potentially it could have effects down the line, especially given that the exposure is now almost universal.

Some questions

The other two articles did not give any more information. None of them told me the number of children tested. I tried to get the original paper from a couple of my friends, but guess they don’t have access. But that need not prevent us from having a discussion on it. The article says, a quarter of the children wrote more than 20 messages a week. Frankly, 20 messages a week is not much. That is less than 3 messages a day. Some of the questions that immediately popped up in my head were these (I can keep adding to the list, but consider this be a sample).

  1. How many children were part of the study?
  2. Were the children monitored for the length of the messages they send? Were they just sending messages like “I am at school”, “I am on my way home”, “Happy Birthday” etc or were they sending out long messages?
  3. Are the kids really using “predictive texting” or do they prefer to key in each letter of the word individually by tapping the keys multiple times?
  4. What kind of IQ tests were done?
  5. Most importantly, how did the researches control for other factors to conclude that it is indeed texting that is causing the increased errors?

The first few questions are obvious, but let me explain the last point a bit. It is a common error to confuse correlation with causation. Just because two things always happen together, does not mean one causes the other. For example, just because two of your friends come to college daily at the same time, does not mean, one talks to the other to ensure that their arrival times are synchronised. It could just be that they both live in the same area, from where there are no buses to college, and so both wait for the same train every day to board. Thus their arrival at the same time (correlation) is not caused by either of them, but by a third factor of their using the same train.

Similarly, just because kids who are using texting on their mobile phones do not do well on IQ tests, does not mean texting causes them to do badly on IQ tests. An immediate thing off the top of my head is that this could be because those who are texting are not attentive in class (they are obsessed with the mobile phones) and thus do not give enough attention to their academics. This leads to lower IQ.

I will be the first one to admit that the previous conjecture is riddled with holes (after all sending just 3 messages a day cannot by any means, be called “being obsessed”). I do not suggest it seriously, but am just trying to point out what other factors could be possible. There are numerous other factors that could show such a correlation. A proper study would control these factors. In case of my specific theory about lack of attentiveness in school because they are on their phones, it must be ensured that the study takes into account the times when the child uses the phone.

But all this this assumes that there is indeed a correlation. There are too many pitfalls in the way the study could conducted that a false correlation can appear, especially when the plausibility of the mechanism is so tenuous. But to see all that, I need to see the original paper and I could not.

Somebody saw the paper

But one person has seen it and written about it. He makes a good point about accuracy and speed. But he also points out that the way the texting of the children was analysed was with a questionnaire. I am not kidding. They just asked children an estimate of the number of messages they were sending and did their study. It was not even asked whether they use that predictive texting or not? Is that not weird? But there is a final death blow to the whole paper.

He also points out something else. Though it appears on first impressions, that predictive texting leads to errors, does it really do that? Imagine you dont know the spelling of a word, and key it in wrongly on the mobile, you will end up with a junk word. So you have to do a few backspaces and then type it out correctly again. Such a mechanism only penalises an error and does not encourage it? So if at all anything, such texting should encourage children to get their spellings right. There goes the fundamental premise of the whole study.

Go read that whole post. After destroying any case for using “predictive texting” instead of “word completion”, he also questions the statistics involved. They don’t look good.


It is important to learn the lesson that whatever appears in a newspaper is not true (even if it is The Hindu). As with any field, mediocrity is rife in Science too. It is the newspaper’s job to filter out such stuff. But then again, there is mediocrity in journalism too. So it is upto all of us to be aware of such problems (Oh yes, there is mediocrity in blogging too, you are probably looking at one such example :-)). The subject of the study and the results are not very consequential (except for the money spent). But it provides a good case study to understand what could go wrong, and what we need to look out for. If we learn that, then the paper, even though faulty, would have served some tiny purpose.