Archive for the ‘BOOKS’ Category

Science and Humanities: Can the twain meet?

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

Mint, 7 August 2014

Earlier this week, I wrote on the new novel In The Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman, which I thought was an exceptionally fine piece of literature. I posted my piece on Facebook, and soon enough, came the first comment. “I started reading it but after 100 odd pages lost steam,” wrote a friend who claims her first love is history. “Also read reviews that were harsh if not downright insulting.”

So I looked for the bad reviews. And the first one I encountered was the one published in Mint! The reviewer, whose taste and writings I have always admired, has called In The Light “painfully overwritten, self-indulgent and pompous”. Which is fine, since every man is entitled to his opinion about a book or its writing style. But he also dismisses Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which underpins the entire novel, as an “obscure mathematical theory”.

I wrote back to my FB friend: “One reason for bad reviews may be (and it’s nobody’s fault, certainly not the author’s) that there is a huge gulf between the sciences and the humanities. Neither side can appreciate the other reasonably well. So someone with zero interest or minimal knowledge in mathematics or quantum physics may be unable to get the connections Rahman makes throughout the book between abstract scientific knowledge and real life. This can’t be helped. A pure scientist may be totally puzzled by great poetry. As for me, since I’ve dabbled a bit on both sides, I found these connections to be remarkable and profound, and that is what made me love the book so much.”

The Mint reviewer (I hasten to add again that I am an admirer of his work) has casually mentioned W.G. Sebald, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and William Boyd in his piece, but believes that Godel’s theorem is “obscure”. Now I can lay a bet (all—OK, half—the money in my savings bank account) that if you take a random sample of scientists and mathematicians anywhere in the world, at least 80% would never have heard of Sebald or Boyd. Maybe 40% would have heard of Bellow or Roth, but few would have read them. On the other hand, asking a mathematician if he knew Godel’s theorem is like asking a Bengali if he is aware of Rabindranath Tagore.

This is the gulf.

This disconnect was first—or at least most famously—made public by British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow, in the prestigious Rede lecture in 1959, which he titled The Two Cultures. Snow posited that the intellectual life of “Western society” (in 2014, we can replace that with “the world”) was split between the sciences and the humanities. The literary elite, he said, was contemptuous of “the illiteracy of scientists”, yet were flummoxed when asked if they could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. “Yet”, said Snow, “I was asking something that was the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a word of Shakespeare?” “I now believe,” said Snow, “that if I had asked an even simpler question—such as, What do you mean by mass, acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read?—not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the Western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.”

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in a given system, entropy—disorder, in plain English—will keep on increasing. It is obvious that a keen mind could apply this as a metaphor to a lot of non-thermodynamical real-life situations, macro or micro.

The philosophical implications are immense. As they are for many theories of physics and mathematics—from Newton’s Laws of Motion and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, to recursive mathematics and of course, Godel’s Theorem. They pertain as much to life as to the matters or abstractions they are ostensibly about.

People trained in the sciences suffer from the same syndrome. Especially in India, those who have studied science or applied science (medicine or engineering, for instance) naturally assume, on no empirical basis at all, that the rest of the populace is less intelligent than them. The vast majority of male engineers I know (and I know quite a lot of them) believe that poetry is strictly for “arts students” and women. When they read a work of fiction, they read purely for entertainment or to pass the time, and bring the same level of attention and expectation to Hamlet as they would bring to The Da Vinci Code.

Around a decade ago, I spent a year interviewing a large number of highly successful IITians. When I asked them what they now felt had been lacking in their IIT education, the most common answer was that they should have been exposed to the humanities far more in addition to the engineering stuff they did. They thought they emerged from their engineering schools with a real handicap, smug in the belief that every problem had one right answer which could be arrived at through quantitative methods. They had little knowledge of human life as it is, and the human mind as it works, which the humanities give you a much better feel for.

The other problem with an education that is exclusively limited to science is that it—at least overtly—does not impart any sense of ethics to the student. Today’s newspaper reveals that a bunch of hackers operating out of a small town in Russia have stolen 1.2 billion user IDs and passwords. I am quite sure that they did it simply because they took it as a challenge—to see if they were good enough hackers. I think they are quite incapable of thinking through the ethical or moral dimensions of what they have done. No wonder so many computer nerds have social lives that suck.

And of course there is that old accusation that science has wrought so much evil because the scientists were only bothered about solving a problem or inventing something new, without thinking through the consequences. Nuclear bombs, chemical warfare, the coming era of eugenics, and so on. However, this is where I draw a line. None of the three greatest butchers of the 20th century—Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong—were science students. Hitler tried his hand as a painter, and Stalin studied in a seminary. In fact, what I find astonishing is that so few of our world leaders have been science students. With the exception of Angela Merkel, who is a trained physicist, I don’t think the current leader of any significant world power is a science graduate.

I have no idea how many of them even have a more than rudimentary grasp of the big scientific issues or where technology is taking us. Britain of course has a long tradition of Oxbridge graduates who majored in PPE—Philosophy, Politics and Economics—as a direct route to entering politics and rising to the top. The current UK Cabinet has six PPEs, including Prime Minister David Cameron and foreign secretary William Hague. The leader of the Labour Party, Ed Milliband, is also a PPE. Former Prime Ministers include Harold Wilson (Labour) and Edward Heath (Conservative).

A principal problem with learning science or mathematics, I think, is that these are areas where everything builds on everything that came before it. So if you had a bad teacher who was unable to make you understand quadratic equations, you would never get the next step—factorization of polynomials. However, in, say, history, if you missed out on the Non-Cooperation Movement, it does not in any way hamper you from getting to know all about the Civil Disobedience Movement. So, one bad teacher, or one missed step can forever handicap you and even turn you completely against the subject itself.

This is a tragedy about which not much can be done. It’s just the nature of the beast.

The real problem of course is that no education system has been able to build a bridge between the “two cultures”. And the most galling part of this is that there need not be this gulf and this necessity of a bridge.

But the void exists and sometimes it can be extremely irritating. For instance, I was actually asked once, by a dear—and extremely humanities—friend: “If I offer you a kg of beauty and a kg of scientific knowledge, which would you take?” I felt like throwing up. Someone who is not dazzled by Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and someone who cannot appreciate the sublime beauty of an equation like e=mc2 (to give two very famous examples) are both missing out on a hell of a lot.

What a science education should finally instil in a person is a “scientific temper”—a rational way of looking at the world. If you emerge as a university gold medallist in chemistry, but filled to the brim with only formulae and no clue about the ethos of scientific thinking or the philosophy of inquiry, you will be a stunted human being.

Indeed, even a good humanities education should also end up providing you with a rational and logical way of looking at things. If you studied history, and did not learn from the mistakes and follies of those who have gone before you, what have you really learnt?

A scientific temper and a logical outlook in no way impedes either innovative thinking or inspirational leaps. The last steps of deriving most great mathematical theories, just like great works of art, come from epiphanies that the neurosciences cannot explain.

But, given that entropy will always keep increasing—just look around the world—rational thinking is perhaps the one thing humankind needs the most, and needs it desperately. If the two cultures meet and understand that they have much more in common and enormous treasures to share, if they agreed that a scientific temper is not just about not abusing your laboratory assistant, the world would be a far far better place.

This is true, and I think, this is the sort of truth that Godel’s Incompleteness theorem refers to: claims that are truths but cannot be proved.

Love, reality, truth and Godel

Monday, August 4th, 2014

Mint, 3 August 2014

You will have to take my word for it that I hadn’t read any review of In The Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman before I read the book. I bought it off the Net simply because the author seemed interesting: born in rural Bangladesh, educated at Oxford, Cambridge, Munich and Yale, former Wall Street investment banker and human rights lawyer. The book seemed certainly thick enough at 550 pages to carry me through a few tedious days of planned hospitalization.

And I discovered that a stunning piece of literature had just dropped into my lap, unheralded and unexpected. In The Light is, quite simply, an astonishing feat. It is certainly the finest novel I have read this year and for many years. In its ambition, scope, scholarship, philosophical depth, sensitivity, quality of writing and stylistic manoeuvres, it far outstrips anything written in English by any subcontinent-origin author, at least anything I have read.

It’s a prodigiously hungry novel. It wants to encompass all of human existence and beyond—the very concept of reality. The unnamed narrator puts it woefully simplistically when he says that the story of Zafar, his friend (and the novel’s protagonist) is “the story of the breaking of nations, war in the twenty-first century, marriage into the English aristocracy, and the mathematics of love”. Yes, all that is there: the Bangladesh Liberation War, the near-surreal confusion in post-Taliban Kabul, deadly ISI intrigues, the strange self-imposed constraints that the British upper class work under, heartbreak and more. Yet, to define this book in such narrow terms is like saying that Ulysses is about a day in the life of an advertising canvasser called Leopold Bloom, or Gravity’s Rainbow is about the German V2 rocket.

But we figure out as we go along that the man telling us Zafar’s tale is not the most perceptive of human beings, and is a deeply flawed character, not above betraying his closest friend in his greatest hour of need.

One morning in September 2008, the narrator finds his long-lost friend standing at the doorstep of his South Kensington home. The two men, now in their late 30s, had studied mathematics together in Oxford, and had been colleagues in a Wall Street investment bank. Though both are South Asian, they could not be more different in their backgrounds. The narrator is the scion of an extremely wealthy and influential Pakistani family, and his father is a physics don at Oxford (his grandfather bought him his house in plush Kensington even before he got his first job). Zafar grew up in a dirt-poor little-educated Bangladeshi immigrant family in London and has made his way up in the world through sheer merit. Indeed, he learns early in his boyhood that his real father is an unknown Pakistani soldier who raped his mother, the sister of the man he knows as his father, during the 1971 Bangladesh War.

Both are at a crucial point in their lives. Post-Wall Street meltdown, the narrator is about to lose his job for trading in “mortgage-based securities, collateralized debt obligations, credit derivatives, and everything else that was now being laid for a bonfire, while my own firm was tying me to the stake, to satisfy a public’s lust for blood” (Among other things, In The Light provides the most succinct and lucid explanation of what caused the securities market crash that I have read). His marriage is also quietly—not so much collapsing, but decaying away. And Zafar, who hasn’t met his friend since having a nervous breakdown eight years ago, needs to tell the story of his life, he needs to confess. Only by laying himself bare to someone can he hope to achieve some peace, both emotional and intellectual.

Though it moves between London, Oxford, New York, Princeton, Islamabad and Kabul, with a brief interlude in Bangladesh, In The Light is essentially a lengthy rumination on perception, knowledge and truth. Almost the entire story is told through a conversation between the two friends that carries on over the course of five months, and like most such conversations, is hardly linear. There are major digressions into seemingly tangential topics, tales are dropped halfway and picked up several chapters later, Zafar’s spoken reminiscences are mixed up with the narrator’s own private memories, and the structure of the narrative resembles an elaborate and convoluted route plan pencilled over a complex topology. The narrator recalls his father mentioning that the properties of sub-atomic particles become known only when the particles rub against each other. The interaction between the two men helps them know themselves, and in the narrator’s case, is perhaps a path to redemption and growth.

The fundamental question this novel asks is: Can we ever know the truth about anything? Rahman takes on the big issues of life—love, betrayal, race, class, greed, faith, belonging and exilehood—drawing on discoveries and perspectives from a dazzling array of disciplines and connecting them subtly with insight and imagination—evolutionary biology to literature, sociology to quantum physics, psychology to cartography, and above all—or rather, underlying lying it all—mathematics.

“Mathematics is unique in all human endeavour,” says Zafar (in this case, echoing his creator, who has said in interviews that he believes that mathematics is the most creative of all arts). “Nothing that is proven in mathematics…can be assailed or undermined…Mathematics,…pure mathematics, the product of the human mind turning to face itself, turning into itself, and finding in the realm of necessary consequences, where no contingent fact is to be seen or heard or smelled or tasted or touched—it discloses a beauty that exhausts human comprehension and a certainty the senses can never touch. No other effort in this world can deliver a thing of such exhilarating beauty that is also true in that way, IN THAT WAY, I say, whose beginning and end are one and the same, which requires no venture beyond the cranial cage, no reliance on the perceptions that deceive or the memory that corrupts, no appeal to anything experienced.”

But if mathematics provides a truth that is immutable, and independent of even the existence of any life in the universe, the true nature of all human inquiry has always been to represent or translate reality in order to understand it. “Consequently, the loss of information and understanding that every act of representation involves is the effect of an act of destruction that serves a need…Every time we want to understand anything, we have to simplify and reduce and, importantly, give up the prospect of understanding at all, in order to clear the way to understanding something at all.”

In essence, says Rahman, we reduce reality to a metaphor we are comfortable with, because metaphors “take us back to a familiar vantage, which is to say that a metaphor cannot bring anything nearer. Everything new is on the rim of our view, in the darkness, below the horizon, so that nothing new is visible but in the light of what we know.”

Yet mathematics ends with Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, stated and proved by the Austrian mathematician Kurt Godel. Zafar is obsessed with the theorem (like several other very bright people I have known personally), and the entire superstructure of In The Light rests on this mathematical truth. In its simplest form, what the theorem says is that within a given system, there are claims which are true but which cannot be proven to be true.

The implications are shocking and of infinite range. In specific terms, it proves that mathematics cannot be proven to be consistent—consistency being the simple assumption that, given a set of axioms, using logical reasoning, it is not possible to derive two different statements which contradict each other. In philosophical terms, the theorem implies two equally valid possibilities—that there are no absolute truths, and there is an infinite number of truths, but which we can never know for certain to be true. Does God exist? Yes, and I can use Godel to say so without fear of being proved wrong. No, and I can use Godel to say so with total certitude.

In The Light ends with the realization that Zafar—as well as the narrator—comes to: that “understanding is not what this life has given us, that answers can only beget questions, that honesty commands a declaration not of faith but of ignorance, and that the only mission available to us, one laid to our change, if any hand was in it, is to let unfold the questions, to take to the river knowing not if it runs to the sea, and accept our place as servants in life.” This is, without doubt, a religious statement.

Zafar’s restless quest is driven by his deep sense of exile, of rootlessness. In The Light begins with a quotation from Edward Said: “Exile is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” Zafar is the product of a violent assault by one culture (West Pakistan) upon another (East Pakistan). He is born in the district of Sylhet, which was the only province in then-Eastern India where a referendum was held to decide whether it should go to Pakistan or merged with Assam. Though the result went in favour of Pakistan, the area of Sylhet where Zafar comes from (“that corner of the corner of the world”) voted to be merged with Assam but was anyway given to Pakistan (Coincidentally, my family comes from that same area, and I have never been there. I cannot deny that a little bit of the thrill I got from reading In The Light derived from that fact.).

He is brought up by two people who are not his biological parents, in an alien land whose very language his “parents” cannot muster beyond a point. He goes to an university—Oxford—crammed with the elite, and falls in love with Emily, from an impeccably upper-crust British family, who is the evolutionary end-product of centuries of behavioural conditioning: “doors opening and closing; the liminal presence of unspoken affairs; the air of good manners in which honest interest about the truth of people seemed vulgar; and above all the exquisite handling of information, the withholding and release, like an inch on the reins of a dressage horse; all these things were of essence to the conduct of their lives.”

He is sent off to Afghanistan on a mission never fully explained to him, but something to do with the reconstruction work in that country. But every person he meets seems to have his or her own hidden agenda, including a mysterious and powerful Pakistani spymaster whose allegiances are multi-layered and chameleonic. “Some people think that chess is about the pieces,” he tells Zafar. “But in fact, it’s about the board. And you learn only from playing game after game.”

Zafar is never and nowhere at home. He finds himself situated constantly in the gulf between races, cultures, classes, the East and the West (“The West always sees the East through itself”), between the sciences and the humanities: “Bridges are fragile things. A bridge belongs to nothing, to nowhere. The mind settles on the emptiness between its ends, a region of suspended animation.” As a child, on his first visit to Bangladesh, he walks across a railway bridge in rural Sylhet, only to see it collapse immediately afterwards, taking the train which he had been on till minutes ago, down into a swirling river.

Zafar’s life, to a significant extent, reflects Rahman’s own. Like Zafar’s, Rahman’s parents migrated to Britain when he was a child. Like Zafar’s father, Rahman’s worked as a bus conductor and a waiter in London. Both got a seat at Oxford to study mathematics, and both studied law afterwards (Rahman at Yale, Zafar at Harvard). Both worked as investment bankers and human rights lawyers. Rahman has admitted that he has suffered from the same inability to communicate with his parents as Zafar did. Zafar has the same enthusiasm for carpentry that Rahman has. In The Light, thus, is intensely autobiographical, a work of almost heroic honesty.

That honesty is enriched by the gift of mathematically precise and precisely mathematical analysis. Rahman’s is surely the most intelligent and philosophical voice to come out from subcontinental roots since Salman Rushdie (who is an extremely different writer, so there is no basis at all to compare the two, except on the parameter of numinous talent).

Yet, this breathtaking debut novel is not really about Bangladesh or Pakistan or Afghanistan or South Asia. Its themes are absolutely universal, and the several story lines are metaphors—yes, the metaphors that keep us from understanding the true nature of reality—for the biggest questions that have haunted the human mind for ever.

Zafar’s journey an allegory of an eternal quest. That quest will never end, and the two friends who talk their through the book—one scarred repeatedly and nearly broken by life, and the other less of a man because he has never been scarred—come to realize the one unimpeachable truth that we have been allowed in this world. That the quest will be never-ending.

But, as Godel proved beyond doubt, even that truth cannot be proven. We progress only in the light of what we know. Or think we know.