2009 marks the 200th year of Charles Darwin's birth. Darwin and Wallace's ideas of natural selection as a mechanism to ensure the enduring of favorable traits in successive generations have stood the test of time. Today, technology has brought us where we could be the first evolutionary creation capable of changing the path of the survival of the fittest - through weapons, through the new capabilities developing from life sciences, and also simply from the impact that we have in our natural world through the use of technology. An important role of an educational institution is to make us all civilized beings, and that means to me recognizing nature's seniority and equality of beings.

We all can in small ways contribute to making the world a better place to live. Good and easy causes are trivial to support. Good but difficult causes are hard to stand behind. As a native of India, one observes and admires many who work on the latter ones in a country with profound historical contributions and intellectual and social traditions, but also one with large disparities of wealth, and debilitating poverty. For some of my favorites, some of whom I am involved with, and tangentially the serious problems of this world (water, food, disease, education, opportunities), see the links in sidebar. In USA, “sustainability” and “green” are words that you can't miss these days, particularly in academia, but our support is more of the good and easy kind - almost as if anything can be colored green and it is “green”. Ever wonder why it is not Atilla the Great and Alexander the “Hun”? Teaching critical thinking skills is one that is at heart of the mission of educational institutions. We in academic institutions and the young students have to lead and help resolve the problems locally and globally. For “sustainability” and “green” we can individually lead in this effort through simple changes in our lives by minimizing energy consumption and reusing. Some examples: (a) Walk, if you don't have much to carry, any distance that can be covered in less than 25 minutes; (b) Stop using plastic water bottles, decline when offered at a meeting, bring your own reusable one filled with the good tap water that we are blessed with; (c) Take only one paper napkin at food places, take one more if need arises, use the printers only when absolutely have to, learn to live with display screens rather than paper; (d) Turn off lights after you, shut down the computing devices (nearly 10% of electricity consumption goes into them in USA); and the hardest one: (e) become vegetarian and choose locally grown food; the energy inefficiency is nearly 1 to 30 between plants and meat, and the effect is compounded by the cutting of forests to grow the feed.

Here, you will find some musings and interesting links related to life, science, and our place in society.

  • Science and Society, Nanotechnology and Us: The history of science and engineering as an important social force is relatively short. Most would date it to the Copernican revolution of sixteenth century, i.e., for less than a quarter percent of the time we have existed on this planet. With the advent of the scientific process - using abstract agnostic tools of mathematics, questioning, postulating, theorizing, predicting, verifying, believing enough in theories to go ahead but doubting enough to notice errors and faults - came the modern approach to learning and invention. Overcoming dogmas, even in the face of contradicting observations, has always been a challenge to society and always will be; the comfort of ‘business as usual’ can't be overstated. This holds true in scientific endeavor too. But the physical and life sciences, and engineering and medicine as their professional areas of practice, are among the few undertakings where revolutions can happen relatively easily. Einstein's theory of relativity - the “absoluteness” of the speed of light and gravity as a deformation in space-time; quantum mechanics as an entirely new mechanics to describe reality that is based on probabilistic approaches - indeed the philosophical understanding of reality as a result of observation; Gödel's theorem of the limits of provability within any axiomatic system; the genomic decoding of the basis of life and the understanding of metabolism, replication, and reproduction, these are ideas that were rapidly adopted in the technical community as they stood the test of the scientific approach. (for more, download PDF for an essay with Prof. Robert McGinn).
  • Society develops its approaches for harmony and collective good at a slow pace - at the time scale of of human development. Technology changes much faster. The changes brought about by modern technology and science are extremely rapid. This creates its own turbulence and issues. (for more, download PDF). For thoughts on scientist as a citizen, in the midst of this rapid change, download PDF , and the problems of earth under stress and its science and engineering context, download PDF .
  • One World: The past six decades have been one of progress for the world as a whole. With freedom coming to third world, it finally opened an opportunity for a large population to develop on their own terms. This development is very incomplete with the imprint of the historic conflicts, animosities, and wars for resources still very central in the world. But, the world is a more pleasant and open place where existential links abound. The young people and the world's educational, technological and learning links have fostered this world citizenship. One of the initiatives in NNIN has been a yearly winter school where USA students and faculty travel to the third world for graduate-level teaching and learning in an advanced subject area that is still unfolding, and following it with a week of experience in the community without the first world trappings. Lessons from this experience include the unity amongst the diversity that can be found in education, in the aspirations, in the daily living, and the human need to find satisfaction in a life harmoniously lived. (for more, download PDF for a talk at NSF.)
  • People First: People are the heart of an effective organization. For CNF, it is the staff and its user community helping and expanding the frontiers of research. The period of 2002 to 2003 was singular in changes at CNF. Building of Duffield Hall, moving from the old laboratory to a new building that stands above and around it, continuity in research work, finding workable compromises between vested individual and broader community interests for the new building, organizing and competing for the ten year national network, and acquisition of major new instrumentations with limited budgets, all happened simultaneously and left many of us with little time for sleep. Such periods, in hindsight, are either enervating - a time that we try to forget, or nourishing - an experience that we derive strength and learning from. Such periods also leave behind many memorable moments. I write this short commentary in gratitude to the CNF people and its community recalling some of the delightful irrationality of that period. (for more, download PDF)
  • Doosra Dashak (the second decade): A 21st century effort started by Anil Bordia to address problems created by centuries of misrule -native and British. The group conducts education workshops and camps by travelling to villages, and mentors and provides long-term support, focused on the 11-20 age year group, mostly adolescents, to help them recover from difficulties and breakdowns already encountered, and to make them a participant in larger social and economic development. (www.doosradashak.org)
  • Barefoot College: A home-grown rural college in India, nearly three decades old, that works on problems of the poorest with few or no alternatives: drinking water, girl education, health & sanitation, rural unemployment, income generation, electricity and power. The College particularly emphasizes conservation of ecological systems in rural communities. The College encourages practical knowledge and skills rather than paper qualifications. (www.barefootcollege.org)
  • Surya Bijlee (Solar Electricity): An organization that was the first to produce and propagate self-contained lighting units, affordable by the poor, for off-the-grid villages in India and subsequently adopted in Africa and South America. (www.suryabijlee.com)
  • Timbaktu Collective: Working in one of the poorest parts of India, prone to droughts, the organization works with marginal farmers emphasizing women, children, youth and Dalits who are the most affected chronic drought, unproductive land, unemployment and poor infrastructure. The organization has been tremendously successful with regeneration of forests in community land, revitalization of land for farming, water harvesting, rural banking, child education and empowering and building awareness. (www.timbaktu.org)
  • Association for India's Development: A volunteer movement promoting sustainable, equitable and just development. AID, with efforts throughout India, supports grassroots organizations initiates efforts in the interconnected areas of education, livelihoods, natural resources including land, water and energy, agriculture, health, women's empowerment and social justice. During 2008 December, as part of the international Winter School for Graduate Students (iWSG) run by National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), 12 students from US were at one of their locations near tribal belt at the border of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh and had a remarkably stimulating time (www.aidindia.org/main)
You may have noticed: water, land, health, education, and others are common themes for all these organizations. These are the problems of poverty, and some of these, water e.g., will also likely become the problem of the rich at the current rate. A beautiful book, again open, that I recommend is Radiant Raindrops (download PDF), written by Anupam Mishra, whose friendship and insights have tremendously enriched my life since early childhood.