Through twists of light

Two centuries ago a French engineer noticed something special about light from the sun and discovered the phenomenon of polarisation of light. Now using that property of light scientists have developed a  technique to spot the presence of water and other biological molecules on the many Earth-like planets. With more powerful telescopes being built, they might just be able to search for life through the twists of light.

In search of light through the twists of light Science Oxford, 20 March 2012

Becoming a Strategic Self-Deceiver

A few weeks ago David Brooks of the New York Times asked his many readers for a gift, “If you are over 70,  I’d like you to write a brief report on your life so far, an evaluation of what you did well, of what you did not so well and what you learned along the way.”

His reason to make such a request was clear, “These essays will be useful to the young. Young people are educated in many ways, but they are given relatively little help in understanding how a life develops, how careers and families evolve, what are the common mistakes and the common blessings of modern adulthood.” From the many essays that he received, he tried to extract a few general life lessons. One of those many fantastic lessons took me somewhat by surprise.

Beware rumination. There were many long, detailed essays by people who are experts at self-examination. They could finely calibrate each passing emotion. But these people often did not lead the happiest or most fulfilling lives. It’s not only that they were driven to introspection by bad events. Through self-obsession, they seemed to reinforce the very emotions, thoughts and habits they were trying to escape.

Many of the most impressive people, on the other hand, were strategic self-deceivers. When something bad was done to them, they forgot it, forgave it or were grateful for it. When it comes to self-narratives, honesty may not be the best policy.

Self-development is something I am passionate about and self-examination enables me to pursue that passion. Even though I won’t call myself a self-examination expert by any length, reading the above made me question what is it that I exactly do when I work  on self-development. I don’t want an obsession to improve myself to lead to an unhappy life!

But, while re-reading the paragraph, I realised that the more impressive people were ‘strategic self-deceivers’. So they selectively chose to lie to themselves about certain mistakes they made or about certain faults they had and moved on with life, eventually living an impressive life.

So was the route that I took for self-development through self-examination wrong? Not entirely. To be able to successfully deceive oneself would require one to know themselves well enough. Self-examination is then a necessary tool.

What I seem to be able to gather from this reflection is that self-examination can be a double-edged sword. It can lead to giving us the exact information we need about ourselves to enable us to build our confidence or, if over done, it can lead to reinforcing the very thoughts and habits that one wants to overcome.

But now let’s come to the more interesting part of the lesson – strategic self-deception.

Philosophers argue that one cannot, in principle, be successful at self-deception. The reason being that one can not try to convince oneself of something being false when they know that it is true. But leaving the philosophers aside, there are practical ways in which we employ self-deception, I would argue, everyday. I am ready to bet that any of you reading this is probably deceiving yourself of multiple truths right now (of course, if you are able to recognise what exactly it is that you are deceiving yourself about then you will have failed at self-deception!).

An example of self-deception is when we try to forget the pain associated with a certain event. It could be a break-up or the passing away of a loved one. We may be capable of accepting what happened and moving on but the shorter, faster route is to lie to oneself. It may also be an intermediate step in acceptance (when unsuccessful at pulling off this self-deception, we are supposed to be in denial).

Forgetting events, overcoming fears, facing danger and taking risks, all to a certain extent involve self-deception. We know, at some level, that we are very bad at analysing risks and to be able to do something risky (like bungee jumping) we have to convince ourselves that it is not as risky as it seems. In that self-deception enables the person to take risks that he would not normally.

A strategic self-deceiver is one who is able to trick themselves about the right things. Of course, knowing the right things is the more difficult part.

Elements of Life

As far as we know, there are very few planets in the universe which are just like our planet Earth. The elements it is made from have played a critical role in allowing life to exist here.  However, there may be planets out there whose composition is very different. There is a huge range of possibilities – perhaps there is no oxygen, only sulfur or very little phosphorus but a lot of arsenic. Could life exist on such planets? Scientists have thought about this question for decades. To answer it, we need to understand more about DNA, the molecule of life, the elements it is composed of and consider the results of some unusual experiments.

The elements of life – InfoChem, November 2011 Issue

Letting go off expectations and goals?

Leo Babauta writes about living a life with no goals and without expectations. Yes, the blog is called zen habits and may be its only zen monks who are able to do what Leo wants people to do. That would have been ok if he wrote this for zen monks alone. But that is not the case, he writes this for everyone. I find this to be a problem.

David Damron wrote about why Leo is wrong about goals. His five reasons are that:

  1. A goal can teach you how to handle your emotions
  2. Focus on a goal can deliver measurable results
  3. The journey is more appreciated when you set your sights on “Destination X”
  4. There’s faith that you will achieve a goal by just being and then there’s faith in focused action that you will achieve a goal
  5. A community is far likelier to back a goal than a way of life

Leo’s rebuttals to all those points run around one argument – I have lived a life without goals and I know that it works better. I suppose that his arguments for living without expectations may also lie on the same thread of arguments.

At present, I find this philosophy of living very hard to digest. If you can live a life like Leo where you are self-employed and make enough money to support your family then it might be possible to live that way.

Yes, theoretically I’d love to be able to live without goals or expectations. I’d like to do whatever takes my fancy like spend my time climbing the mountains, swimming the seas and enjoying the peace. All would have been well if I was in a Himalayan monastery supported by philanthropy to search for the ‘ultimate truth’. But that is not the case, I live a life that we have built for ourselves after many millennia of organised human effort.

I am not trying to be philosophical when I say that this life that I am able to live is better than the life that I would have had, had everyone of us lived without goals or expectations. It is a better life from a utilitarian perspective. Sure there are many more who are poor and suffering from the time when Buddha walked the earth. But there are also many many more who are able to experience new things, live longer and have the ability to contribute to humanity than those who did in Buddha’s times.

We have achieved what we have through innovation and hard work.

Many times the achievement has been possible only because of organised hard work. Organisations and institutions would fail without goals and a clear vision.

One may argue that at least for innovation it might be better to live a free life. We can explore and learn new things and in the process develop new things. Sure that is one way to look at innovation. Innovation is very a murky area to explore but one thing we know is that there is no fixed formula to innovate. But in certain situations, we might have been able to innovate only because we were pushed by goals and expectations.

I am not trying to destroy Leo’s idea. I think there is value in the advice but it has limited applicability. If everyone adopts this philosophy of living without goals and expectations, many things will not work and we may not progress.

Asteroids likely source of Earth’s water

Bad Science examples from the media: Indian Express, April 29, 2010

Ice asteroids likely source of Earth’s water: Study

Astronomers have for the first time detected ice and organic compounds on an asteroid, a pair of landmark studies.

The discovery bolsters the theory that comets and asteroids crashing into Earth nearly four billion years ago seeded the planet with water and carbon-based molecules, both essential ingredients for life.

Working separately, two teams of scientists using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii found that the 24 Themis, which orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter, is literally covered in a thin coating of frost.

It had long been suspected that the massive space rocks that bombarded our planet after the formation of the solar system contained frozen water, but the two studies, published in Nature, provide the first hard evidence.

Still, a mystery remained: How could frozen water persist over billions of years on an asteroid hot enough to vapourise surface ice?

Only if that layer of frost were continually replenished by the slow release of water vapour released from ice in the asteroid’s interior, the researchers reasoned.

In other words, 24 Themis some 200 kilometres (125 miles) in diameter almost certainly contains far more water locked in its minerals than anyone suspected.

===========

This article has many flaws. At the very outset, the headline itself is misleading. Unfortunately the piece has fallen to the common temptation of sensationalising the news with an unholy bargain of the truth. Unlike what the headline implies, the asteroid Themis 24 is very much a solid mass covered with a thin layer of ice and not wholly made out of ice. If you want a sensational title, isn’t it good enough to just say “Asteroids likely source of water on Earth”?

Secondly, the article has been sadly stripped of so many important data points that it fails to make the point. For example, when asking the question “How could frozen water persist over billions of years on an asteroid hot enough to vapourise surface ice?” the writer gives no background to the reader about why is it hot enough to vaporise the surface ice. If the piece of rock is in between Mars and Jupiter then a common man would assume that the surface temperature compared to the Earth (which is much closer to the sun) would be lower. Thus, if Earth can have surface ice, then why can’t an asteroid? Although this logic is flawed in itself, it raises many more questions in a reader’s mind such as, is it because the asteroid has no atmosphere? or is it because it travels at a greater speed than earth? and so on. Also, the mystery question is wrongly posed as it should be ‘millions’ (what authors claim by their modelling) instead of ‘billions‘.

Thirdly, there is no mention of the timeline in any of the Nature articles and points to the classic error of ‘making up information’ for the sake of it. I suppose that the writer has come to a conclusion (if at all he has given this article any thought) that first sign of life was seen 3.5 billion years ago thus obviously, water would have come to Earth sometime before that. Thus, the use of “nearly four billion years ago.”

Fourthly, “Only if that layer of frost were continually replenished by the slow release of water vapour released from ice in the asteroid’s interior, the researchers reasoned.” This sentence will only confuse the readers ever more. Why does the ice in the interior of the asteroid sublime only to deposit back as frost on the surface? The more probable reason, as mentioned by the researchers, is ‘impact gardening’ which is the phenomenon of small bodies hitting the surface of the asteroid and churning up the subsurface ice. The impact might also be able to trigger the sublimation of subsurface ice, the authors believe. There is no mention of that in this article!

Finally, “24 Themis — some 200 kilometres (125 miles) in diameter — almost certainly contains far more water locked in its minerals than anyone suspected” is absolutely wrong. Humberto et. al clearly mention that “Although many asteroids show absorptions in this region, they are well matched by hydrated minerals. The spectral features of 24 Themis are significantly different from those in other asteroids and we show that it is accurately matched by small ice particles.” The point the authors make is exactly opposite. There isn’t hydrated minerals or ‘high concentration hydrated minerals’ that the authors observe but water in it’s free form as small ice particles.

As science writers we have the responsibility to communicate science correctly and such obvious mistakes will only create more doubts and lead the readers astray.

ResearchBlogging.org Rivkin, A., & Emery, J. (2010) Detection of ice and organics on an asteroidal surface. Nature, 464(7293), 1322-1323. DOI: 10.1038/nature09028 & Campins, H., Hargrove, K., Pinilla-Alonso, N., Howell, E., Kelley, M., Licandro, J., Mothé-Diniz, T., Fernández, Y., & Ziffer, J. (2010) Water ice and organics on the surface of the asteroid 24 Themis. Nature, 464(7293), 1320-1321. DOI: 10.1038/nature09029