Saturday, May 21, 2011

Luck and Wonder

Seeing as how real life almost never throws up unexpected surprises, this one really was unexpected. A couple of months ago, on a whim, I decided to try and purchase a subscription to this magazine online. The billing page clearly mentioned that only credit cards would be accepted for payment, and I being of the noble ilk of financial pragmatists did not possess one. But I went ahead and entered my debit card’s details, fully expecting a big, red sign to pop up, politely asking me to stop wasting their carefully rationed time. And thereby ending my spot of whimsical summer pastime of course. Instead, to my utter horror, a pleasant green icon lit up the screen the moment I was done with the done button, informing me of the success of the transaction. My shock seeped away quickly, once my brain clicked into gear and I started on the fine print.

“They didn’t ask for my password/PIN, did they? Ha!”

“Your subscription will be activated once your credit card is verified, and the transaction completed.”

I promptly forgot all about my little dalliance. A couple of days later, I received an email telling me how sorry everyone at Kalmbach Publishing was that they had to cancel my subscription as my ‘credit card’ had failed verification. There was an attached offer to get myself an account with Kalmbach to track all my subscriptions (or it could have been about buying garden fresh pink roses for all I remember), but the sense of closure was so complete that I ignored it and promptly forgot about promptly forgetting all about my little dalliance.

... Until one fine rainy day in the heart of the Deccan, when I stepped out of the house on my way to work. There were two shiny tan envelopes lying there, unceremoniously dumped in Tommy’s half of the portico. If your heart just skipped an expectant beat, that’s just me playing with your mind, because the sight did nothing for mine then. My father had subscribed to every single finance magazine on the planet, and this was probably just one of them. Curiosity (there’s a reason they always wrap interesting stuff in the dullest of envelopes) made me open one of them, and then the other, quickly, because I was to find these inside.

I spent all of five minutes staring at wondrous pictures from the bottomless gallery of the cosmos, before my conscience caught up with me. (I know, I know. I tried the Chinese water torture on the pesky little thing. It didn’t work. It’s probably already barking mad.) I already knew that no money had been deducted from my account because I had checked already, parsimonious twerp that I am. So, it really was an issue of conscience, not enlightened self-interest. Shooting off that polite errata-kind-of-email (“Sir, there seems to have been a mistake...”) to the folks at Kalmbach was easy. I half hopefully wondered if the mail would go into someone’s junk folder and be not read at all, and if I’d get to keep the cake and eat it.

Actually, I still hope that happens, and I will continue to do so until Mr. Year decides to shuffle off into 2012. The many delightful hours I have spent with my two free copies of Astronomy magazine have reminded me that it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything about astronomy. I don’t want to write about sky watching again (this post’s already dragged on, I don’t want to make it a novella), so I’ll make do with a little dash of the something that makes astronomy endlessly fascinating for me.

For me, the most wondrous description that I’ve ever read can, fittingly, be found in a Stephen Baxter novel. I don’t recall which one exactly, but I know it was one of the Manifold trilogy (all of which I encourage you to read). I could wax lyrical on what it is, but I’ll leave that bit to yourselves, pointing you instead to a factual Wikipedia entry on the topic. One of the characters, a sentient squid if I remember correctly, actually gets to see what you’ve just read about, and I’ve been jealous ever since. If only, if only, if only, if only, if only. It would be wondrous, awe-inspiring, humbling and crippling, all at the same time.

Ever since I discovered this site – if you’re interested in the breadcrumbs it was through the description of a Topcoder development contest backed by NASA – I’ve spent many hours just looking at it, and obviously many more monkeying around inside. Again, I won’t bother describing it – check it out for yourselves. The media player takes an inordinate amount of time to load but I promise you it’s worth the frustration.
In the May edition of Astronomy, there was an article on detailed simulations of asteroid strikes. A bunch of astrogeeks at Purdue have made this site, and the article had distilled down two of the simulations into a descriptive piece. Here’s a sample: If you were to be about 30 kilometres from the impact site of a 2.4 kilometre wide comet, you’d see a fireball about 60 times the size of the sun. For context, that’s about a third of the sky from the horizon to the zenith. You’d be hit by a wind of speed 1,900 km/h about 4 minutes later. For context, that’s about 6 times 1.5 times the speed of sound. You wouldn’t hear a thing as waves of silent destruction would strip the flesh from your bones.
That’s all for now. I enjoyed those wonder pieces so much though, that I’m sure you’ll find me returning to the theme again in the future. If you aren’t gobsmacked out of your pants, and if you aren’t feeling really, really tiny right now, then sorry, you’re way too self-centred to ever be an astrogeek. I mean that in the politest sense of course. :)


  1. great post...enjoyed reading...

  2. "way too self-centered", surely no way. See Lone, the thought of imagining a fireball 60 times the size of the sun, does delight the romanticist in you, but, I know some people, phlegmatic in their disposition, would take it as passively, as the immensity of a supernova explosion. I for one, have always been fascinated by sheer size and numbers and extent of anything.

    I know how you feel when you come across such data; most likely you are awestruck, and fathom your minuscule presence in this colossal Universe. For others, they are unaffected by data, for them, it's the concept that matters. They'd probably sit down and try to regenerate the same data on their study desks and leave it for us , to imagine the almost unimaginable. It somehow is incident on the same romanticist vs. rationalist debate, which we've had innumerable discussions on. If I am wrong, you should correct me.

    People are not self-centered, they just cannot associate themselves with wonder we feel, whilst dissociating themselves from the reasoning behind it.

    I want people to have a sense of wonder too, but then again, disparity doesn't warrant a need to speak disparagingly of the ones who are in discordance with your idiosyncrasies.

    Hope I get lucky with 'NewScientist', someday, the way you got luck with 'Astronomy' :)

  3. I know you like to pigeonhole everything about romanticism and rationalism, but they aren't even at the opposite ends of any spectrum! The pursuit of rationality (in terms of science) is best driven by a sense of wonder (romanticism).

    And I disagree with your insinuation that 'romantics' are happy with feeling awed about stuff and not actually contributing to the advancement of science, while you need 'realists' who clamp down on the wonder to get some real work done. I repeat: I disagree, I disagree, I disagree. I'm sure you'll respect Einstein's opinion on this more than mine. He always maintained that it's only a sense of awe or wonder bordering on mysticism that motivates the pursuit of science.
    Surely it's not the fact that they have to spend hours and hours and hours staring at photo slides trying to spot miniscule changes with only a minute chance of success that motivates astronomers?

    I know you view the term 'self-centred' as being pejorative, but look at the term itself stripped of all associated baggage: I think it's a perfect fit. In any case, I meant it more from the sense of anthropocentrism (human centrism) than referring to any individual people. The point remains: if you don't have a sense of wonder (or cannot develop one), you can never be an astrogeek. Do you disagree?

    I also think it's not 'some' people who can't feel a sense of wonder. It's most people. I point you to my canonical example again for proof: look how popular astrology is in relation to astronomy. It's fascinating how the loss of wonder is unconsciously assumed to be the sign of advancement into adulthood. Let the children dream, we adults have work to do, don't we?

  4. >I know you like to pigeonhole everything about romanticism and rationalism
    Excuse my limited knowledge!

    >The pursuit of rationality (in terms of science) is best driven by a sense of wonder (romanticism).
    Agree. Though my contention is that the romanticists alone, might not be able to conjure up physical forms which they can romanticize upon. Wonder sure does take you places, but for some (unlike me), lingering on the wonder, is a thing better left for children. Wonder can last for a lifetime, or it can be ephemeral, but wonder an unfeigned motivator in the biggest of pursuits.

    >And I disagree...motivates astronomers
    I never implied that, which is further implied by my explanation of the previous '>'

    >I know disagree?
    Glad you clarified that you actually meant anthropocentrism when you said self-centered. Now it does seem like a perfect fit. And I can't and I don't disagree with the last part.

    Again, the inclination towards astrology is more driven from a sense of wonder towards the surreal, just that it's the same self-centered attitude, that stops them from realizing the bigger picture. Life is full of wonder too, with its multitudinous vagaries and its vicissitudes. Adults start taking Life itself for granted, nothing much can be expected in any other regard :)

  5. @SUB - Thanks a lot!

    Ha ha, I guess now I see what you meant by 'snide'. First, that typo in the first sentence (it should read 'into' and not 'about') was a terrible one, and second, the statement alluded to all those discussions on the topic we had. By itself, I agree it sounds terse. Apologies.

    I still don't fully agree with you on astrology, it's about as far away from any sense of wonder as possible: in fact, it's worse. It's sucking the wonder out of inherently wondrous things by looking at them through the lens of: 'how does it affect my day today?'

    I don't know, do you think this head-down sort of mentality among adults is irreversible? Maybe it's a necessary side effect of the highly competitive, over crowded world today, but say at some point in the future (or just hypothetically), the population drops drastically and there won't be any fighting over resources, just gentle cooperation and no need to be dog-eat-dog in your outlook towards life. People will have more free time, and more time to muse and ponder. What do you think? Maybe things will be different then, as might have been the case with the first humans to lead settled lives. Or is that all stuff and nonsense? :)

  6. >I still don't fully agree with you on'
    Doesn't the idea of somebody predicting your future with astute accuracy, fill you with wonder? Would you not wonder how this is even possible? I think the reputation of budding astrologers always is derived from grapevines. People experience something, they say another thing, the lister interprets another thing and so the cycle continues ad infinitum. Even if 1 out the 100 things an astrologer predicts turns out to be true, the person who has consulted the astrologer is mesmerized by the guy's sheer canny. But the underlying wonder is what manifests itself in blind faith and the ultimate treason of reason, and so the astrologers work their soporific charm over the wondrous subjects, who seek something more than reason, to give their life, meaning and substance.

    >I don't know...nonsense?
    I'm sure this mentality is reversible. But to drive the backward reaction, you'd need a catalyst. I think a child has the power to incite the same enthusiasm and the wonder that he carries in himself.
    Getting preoccupied with all the worldly affairs is still and option, and as it is not bequeathed upon anyone, and molting it off shouldn't be that hard either. People don't really give it a try. I know for one, that if you consciously keep the child in your heart alive, the sense of wonder will never cease to exist either. Your hypothetical world is not nonsense at all. But my point is that all hope is still not lost and by willfully rekindling our sense of flickering wonder, time after time, we can keep the spirit of science, and the child in us alive and kicking.

    I'll leave you with a question, do you need to keep alive the child inside you, to wonder, or you could still keep the sense of wonder without keeping the child in you alive?

  7. The idea of someone predicating my future with absolute accuracy does fill me with wonder. If it happens, which it doesn't. I see that you concede the point, and I totally agree with you about how astrology works - the whole concept is rooted in confirmation bias (which you described neatly). But I still don't agree that it has anything to do with wonder - it's firmly born from a desire to find an internal locus of control in a wild, complicated world. People want to feel in control of their destinies, to get *rid* of the wonder of happenstance from their lives I would even argue. One honest question: how many people actually feel a sense of wonder when they're dutifully checking their daily horoscopes?

    (PS: This discussion is highly tangential to the post. :) There's a post where I've talked about why astrology is more appealing to most people than astronomy. Still, a good debate's a good debate. :))

  8. Not many do check their horoscopes with a sense of wonder but then there is much more to astrology than just horoscopes, as you'd know.
    I assume you've read
    If you haven't, you probably should

  9. Yes. :| Unfortunately, my sister is my diametrical opposite in these matters, meaning that she has every possible document on personality traits and how they are influenced by the stars. As for Linda Goodman, she typifies the response of astrology to the modern scientific age: people are no longer satisfied with accepting prescriptions, they want at least one level of explanation. And these guys provide it, just one, with applications of their favourite terms 'energy' and 'force' which would make any physicist (or anyone who remembers anything from eleventh standard for that matter) turn in his grave, after immediately falling dead and getting buried first. :)

    Actually, there are the honest astrologers out there who unabashedly claim that astrology has nothing whatsoever to do with science: they agree that it cannot be explained using science as it's beyond it, that the astrological 'forces' cannot be perceived by those without the sight, or with any level of sophistication in detecting equipment. Notice how these guys are sneakily building a Russell's teacup. I wonder what they're doing with all that astronomical data though.

    About that link you shared on Facebook, I've made my peace with the 'astrologically minded' (i.e., everyone out there, so it was a bit necessary to keep sanity). Things *are* changing, as you'll probably admit. The pseudoscience (and the open rejection of science) that today's astrologers resort to is a welcome first step I think, as it indicates that they're feeling the heat of rationality (:P). Also, outside of political circles, I think the number of people who make significant life choices based on horoscopes has reduced significantly, which is nice.

  10. Fascinating. No, really. And very humbling too. I never get free magazines. But, I do get mt neighbour's newspaper if that counts. :P