On the varieties of change

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

A block of tungsten and a bottle of sodium

I have been thinking a lot about change recently. 2020 seemed like a good year to do this, for several reasons. There was the political turmoil in the United States where I live. There was the global pandemic. There was the birth of our daughter. There were a few projects I worked on related to long term change on evolutionary timescales. All of these issues gave me the opportunity to think about change and some of the paradoxes associated with it. Everybody defines change in their own way, and some changes may be more important to some of us than to others, so how we react to, adapt to and enable change is ultimately very subjective. And yet we all have to deal with some very objective measures of change, at the very least those pertaining to life and death. So the paradox of change is that while it impacts us on a very subjective, personal level and each of us perceives it very differently, on another level it also unites us because of its universal aspects, aspects that can help us define our common humanity.

There was of course the pandemic that forced great changes. A way of life which we took for granted was suddenly and irrevocably changed. Careers and lives ended, we hunkered down in our homes, stopped traveling and started looking inward. For some of us who had been caught up in immediate matters of family, the pandemic even came as a welcome respite in which we got to spend more time with our significant others and children. We stepped back and reevaluated our life on the treadmill. For others, it posed a constant challenge to get work done, especially with kids whose schools were closed. For my wife and me, the pandemic was a chance to spend more time with our newborn daughter and avoid the stresses and boredom of the commute and stresses of physical meetings in the office. What can be unwelcome change for one can be unexpectedly welcome for another. In this particular case we were privileged, but the tables could well be turned. Read more »

Computer Simulations And The Universe

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

There is a sense in certain quarters that both experimental and theoretical fundamental physics are at an impasse. Other branches of physics like condensed matter physics and fluid dynamics are thriving, but since the composition and existence of the fundamental basis of matter, the origins of the universe and the unity of quantum mechanics with general relativity have long since been held to be foundational matters in physics, this lack of progress rightly bothers its practitioners.

Each of these two aspects of physics faces its own problems. Experimental physics is in trouble because it now relies on energies that cannot be reached even by the biggest particle accelerators around, and building new accelerators will require billions of dollars at a minimum. Even before it was difficult to get this kind of money; in the 1990s the Superconducting Supercollider, an accelerator which would have cost about $2 billion and reached energies greater than those reached by the Large Hadron Collider, was shelved because of a lack of consensus among physicists, political foot dragging and budget concerns. The next particle accelerator which is projected to cost $10 billion is seen as a bad investment by some, especially since previous expensive experiments in physics have confirmed prior theoretical foundations rather than discovered new phenomena or particles.

Fundamental theoretical physics is in trouble because it has become unfalsifiable, divorced from experiment and entangled in mathematical complexities. String theory which was thought to be the most promising approach to unifying quantum mechanics and general relativity has come under particular scrutiny, and its lack of falsifiable predictive power has become so visible that some philosophers have suggested that traditional criteria for a theory’s success like falsification should no longer be applied to string theory. Not surprisingly, many scientists as well as philosophers have frowned on this proposed novel, postmodern model of scientific validation. Read more »

The Immutable, Dusty Path

by Gautam Pemmaraju

He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness.

6a00d83451bcff69e2012875a9ed93970c-300wiThe narrator of WG Sebald’s The Emigrants informs us that the lonesome painter Max Ferber, worked in a studio in a block of ‘seemingly deserted buildings’ located near the docks of Manchester. His easel, placed in the centre of the room, was illuminated by “the grey light that entered through a high north-facing window layered with the dust of decades”. The floor, the narrator observes, was thickly encrusted by deposits of dried up paint that fell from his canvas as he worked, which in turn mixed up with coal dust, and came to resemble lava in some places. Thinking inwardly that “his prime concern was to increase the dust”, the narrator watches Ferber over the weeks working on a portrait, ‘excavating’ the features of the posing model. The melancholic painter’s tenebrous kinship with the accumulative debris of his days strikes him as profoundly central to the artist’s very existence, for as Ferber says to him, the dust itself “was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure”. Ferber had come to love the dust ‘more than anything else in the world’, and wished everything to remain unchanged, as it was. In the neon light of the transport café bearing the unlikely name of Wadi Halfa, Ferber’s haunt, and where the two often met after the day’s gloomy exertions in the ‘curious light’ of the studio that made everything seem ‘impenetrable to the gaze’, the narrator observes the dark metallic sheen of Ferber’s skin, particularly due to the fine powdery dust of charcoal. Commenting on his darkened skin, Ferber informs his companion that silver poisoning was not uncommon amongst professional photographers and that there was even an extreme case recorded in the British Medical Association’s archives:

In the 1930s there was a photographic lab assistant in Manchester whose body had absorbed so much silver in the course of a lengthy professional life that he had become a kind of photographic plate, which was apparent in the fact (as Ferber solemnly informed me) that the man’s face and hands turned blue in strong light, or, as one might say, developed.

Atmazagaon1In Carloyn Steedman’s Dust (2001), an intriguing collection of essays on a most curious set of concerns, she writes that in the early 19th century “a range of occupational hazards was understood to be attendant on the activity of scholarship”. She makes clear the distinctions between Derrida’s seminal meditations on Archive Fever (see some interesting entries here, here & here), the febrile “desire to recover moments of inception; to find and possess all sorts of beginnings”, from Archive Fever Proper. There was a specific attention to dust and the ill effects it had on artisans and factory workers, during the 19th century and the early 20th century. She points to Charles Thackrah’s investigations into the occupational diseases arising from various trades, particularly in the textile industry, wherein the employments produced ‘a dust or vapour decidedly injurious’. In John Forbes’ Cyclopeadia of Practical Medicine of 1833, Steedman writes, there was also an entry on ‘the diseases of literary men’, a subject of interest among investigators, albeit, for a short thirty year period between 1820 to 1850. In Forbes’ view, the ‘brain fever’, no mere figure of speech as Steedman points out, was a malaise of scholars caused predominantly “‘from want of exercise, very frequently from breathing the same atmosphere too long, from the curved position of the body, and from too ardent exercise of the brain.’”

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