Monday, July 25, 2011

The Radiowalla

The Sun sulks gloomily behind the clouds, prowling far beyond similar looking drapes and windows, its powerful strides now like a ritual dance that has lost its function. The gaze of its tired eyes has grown so weary behind the bars that when it finally pierces the darkness of a lonely room, nothing seems to change. Almost. A sigh escapes its lips, plunges across a distance of a hundred million miles, and dies a silent death in two lonesome brown eyes, eyes now numbed to nuances by many endless nights of restless and anxious slumber. The dying breath of this wistful sigh lights up the dreams in these lonesome brown eyes. Earlier, they had been prancing about, shimmying to the groovy beats of a suppressed desire, happy in their conjoined obscurity. Now, as they scamper around scared, ashamed at their sudden nakedness and the immediacy of its unfamiliarity, a formless memory disturbs the treasured comfort of a sound sleep.

“Kinaare door hote hote bahut door ho gaye. Paani ki chhapaakon ki awaaz bhi doob gayee.”
Samar rears his head from his pillow, like a dog looking up from his bowl. He strains his ears to determine the reason for this rude awakening but no culprit presents itself. The dreams have abandoned their ship and simply vanished into the uncharted waters of his unconscious mind. Disgusted, he pulls the blanket right over his head in a desperate attempt to salvage the wrecks of those half dreamt dreams that had been so unceremoniously scuttled by their cowardly captain. His eyes are all scrunched up due to the effort of trying to remember. But uhun, nothing. As he relinquishes his vice-like hold over his mind, the formless memory casts a silvery shadow on the canvas of his imagination. Was that it? He lies motionless beneath the sheets, like a sniper stalking his target. He dares not breathe too loudly, lest he warn it of his presence. But wait, what’s that? What strange presence lurks around the corner?

“Dil mein aise sambhalte hain gham jaise zewar sambhalta hai koi. Toot gaye, naraaz ho gaye.”
The invasion of his senses commences without so much as a warning but the look of comprehension in his eyes speaks of relief. Of course. It’s a Sunday today and he can hear The Radiowalla playing his favourite audio cassettes on the ancient 2-in-1, the last surviving relic from his college days. It’s only purpose in his little room was to serve as a reminder of an era he supposedly remembered but was unable to recall. As time drags itself forward, rising and falling to the rhythms of this lazy summer afternoon, The Radiowalla waits for this fluid memory, shimmering and changing its form as effortlessly as dreams slipping in and out of consciousness. And while The Radiowalla’s gaze expectantly pierces the walls of his room, searching for a connection that has probably been buried beneath several layers of regrets, Samar settles down comfortably in his bed, honoured at being granted audience with this elusive companion.

“Haath se angoothi utaari, wapis kar di. Baahon ke kangan utaare, aur saat pheron samet lauta diye. Lekin woh, woh baaki zewar jo dil mein rakh liye, unka kya hoga?”
Mohammed Rafi’s haunting voice fills the corridor, creeping and curling around corners, fighting admirably for breathing space with the soulful strumming of a guitar. But then Kishore Da starts crooning in his inimitable voice and everything else dims in comparison, as if paying homage to the undisputed master. When the song ends, The Radiowalla switches the 2-in-1 to radio mode and finds Love Guru doling out relationship advice to a heartbroken lover who has recently been spurned by her beloved. He and Samar listen patiently to this Love Doctor, searching for clues to the solution of their own tragic love lives. But the Love Guru’s cheerful rant only serves the purpose of disillusioning them. Fortunately, his banter is cut short by The Radiowalla’s impatience. He twists the knob, searching for some long lost program on the shortwave channels but waves of static flood the corridor like an angry tide. A little disappointed, he slips the cassette back in and they listen to Gulzar’s commentary on a favourite track, both of them quiet, but not quite alone.

“Ye fursat ruki hui nahin hai. Koi thehari hui, jami hui cheez nahin; ek junbish hai, ek harkat karti hui kaifiyyat.”
A memory is too vivid to be confined by the limited scope of a letter or a song. It’s an experience in itself, a private story that hasn’t been yet articulated into words. It is like a flowing stream that can be described only when it has been allowed to run its course. The Radiowalla had been trying to find the missing parts, hoping that their sum would translate into something he had lost to the pages of time. But in his moment of enlightenment, when he had first glimpsed the sensual dance of a hushed whisper, Samar realised that memories are much more than just the sum of their parts. He considered sharing this epiphany with his estranged neighbour but he knew his borrowed wisdom would be wasted on the resolve of The Radiowalla. Besides, what about the weekly trips down memory lane? Would they persist despite this setback? Would The Radiowalla still cling to the parts or would he set out on a quest in search for their sum?

“Ye ladi hai lamhon ki, jhaalar bana li hai iski. Kabhi pehan leta hoon, kabhi utaar deta hoon.”
What heady trip, you say. What psychedelic high, you ask. Bhupinder’s luscious voice finds its way around the narrow passage, caressing every nook and corner in turn, pleading and cajoling with Samar’s unconscious memory, eventually evoking a steady stream of vignettes from his past – a blissful summer afternoon spent sleeping under a mango tree, a tense cold winter night on the terrace, a wet evening beside his window. Alone, they would have been reduced to being ornamental reminders of some eventful days. But together, they overwhelm the senses, projecting a black and white movie on the backdrop of his mind’s eye. A movie that is as much a part of the unforeseeable future as it is the jewel of a forgotten past. Samar immerses himself in this experience instead of trying to hold onto it and a sigh of gratitude for The Radiowalla escapes from the most jealously guarded depths of his heart.

“Ek roz zindagi ke roobaroo aa baithe. Zindagi ne poocha, ‘Dard kya hai? Kyun hota hai? Kahan hota hai yeh bhi toh pata nahin chalta. Tanhayee kya hai aakhir? Kitne log toh hain, phir tanha kyun ho?’ Mera chehra dekh kar zindagi ne kaha, ‘Main tumhari judwa hoon. Mujhse naraaz na hua karo’.”
Then all of a sudden, as if the elements were conspiring to tease these unlikely friends, it starts to rain as Sheila begins gyrating to the rhythms of her Jawani. The sky grows darker still under a blanket of rain until the weather-beaten Sun is no more than a half forgotten memory itself. The Radiowalla, as surprised as Samar, sees this as a sign from God. So while Samar shakes himself out of his reverie, Sheila’s suggestive singing is cut short by an impatient groan from The Radiowalla. It is believed he still adheres to his ritual every Sunday, waiting patiently for his own private moment of enlightenment. Waiting patiently for his songs to commence their erotic dance.

Owed to: The Panther, Kishore Da, and of course, my Radiowalla.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

On God, the Dice, and some Primordial Molecules

Where does one start when one undertakes the phenomenal task of philosophising about such fundamental questions as the origins of life and the nature of time itself? Should one commence at the beginning of time? The apocalyptic or dystopian end of life as we know it? Or does one appreciate the insignificance of human existence on the cosmic timescale and refrain from making any assumptions whatsoever? Over the course of the last few months, I have been prodded, stimulated, and occasionally distracted from the ‘real’ problems of the world by some of my readings on these subjects. I concluded, perhaps presumptuously, that it would be a learning experience, if nothing else, to give some semblance of an order to what have been up till now just wispy strings of thoughts. That is all.

Explaining, says Richard Dawkins, is a difficult art. You can explain so that the reader understands your words; and you can explain so that he feels the essence of what is being conveyed. This article, though, aims for no such lofty ideal for its subject matter is, quite literally, too vast. What I do wish to attempt, however, is to at least hint at the complete picture and impress upon you the sublimity of it. This endeavour, I should warn you, just skims off the tip of the iceberg. Maybe not even that! But, hopefully, it will sufficiently pique your curiosity and prompt you to pursue one or several of the avenues that might open up. I do not make any claim as to the originality of the ideas mentioned here; indeed most of the conclusions have been drawn from articles and books by people far more admirably placed than me along the ‘imaginary’ axis of intelligence. It goes without saying, however, that any factual errors are entirely my own.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
— Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5
Like God, people have the tendency to take time for granted. After all, it has existed as far back as anyone can tell. Not surprisingly, it is rather difficult to accept the fact that prior to a certain moment in time, there was nothing. No atoms. No laws of physics. Not even time itself. Modern cosmology stipulates that this momentous event – The Big Bang – happened about 14 billion years ago and most physicists now take this to be a given. At this time, all the matter in the universe was on top itself, forming a ‘singularity’ of infinite density. More importantly, what this means is that the state of the universe after the Big Bang would not depend on anything that happened before since all the deterministic laws would have broken down during the Big Bang. Events before the Big Bang are not defined because there is no way to establish what could have happened then. This kind of beginning to the universe, and consequently time, has the downside of needing an external agency to kick-start it. (No wonder that despite tremendous strides in scientific achievement, we still have creationist hypotheses not only being believed in but also fostering controversy and superstition.) Since this wasn’t such a scientifically sound premise, several theories were proposed in the past to get around the conclusion that universe was once not reduced to a singularity. I have taken the liberty of discussing one of them here.

The Steady State Theory (1948) by Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold, and Hermann Bondi proposed that matter is constantly being created so that the density of the universe remains constant over time. The theory asserts that the universe is constantly expanding but it does not change its appearance over space and time. This principle – also known as the Perfect Cosmological Principle – essentially means that the universe has always been there, with no definite beginning or end. However, the discovery of microwave background radiation in 1965 proved to be a death blow for the Steady State Theory as there was no way it could be satisfactorily explained by the tenets of the hypothesis. The steady state model was therefore discredited by the scientific community and it is now agreed that the Big Bang Theory is the most accurate explanation for the origin of the universe; one that is supported by scientific evidence and experimental observations. (Life, it seems, is not without a sense of irony. It was Fred Hoyle who first came up with the term Big Bang during a radio broadcast in 1949 and what came to be known as the Big Bang Theory originated from ideas originally proposed by Monsignor Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest of the Roman Catholic Church).

The Big Bang Theory relies on General Relativity to extrapolate the expansion of the universe backwards in time, yielding a singularity of infinite mass and density at a finite time in the past. However, beyond this point, general relativity (and all other physical laws) breaks down. Big Bang Theory can not and does not provide an explanation for such a state of the universe. It only seeks to describe the events that happened after it. Indeed, there is a limit up till which the extrapolation described above is even theoretically possible. This limit – known as the Planck Epoch – is the shortest possible unit of time and represents the period during which the fundamental forces of nature were possibly unified. A new quantum theory of gravitation – scientific models that unify quantum mechanics with general relativity – is needed to break this theoretical barrier and understanding this earliest era in the history of the universe remains one of the greatest unsolved problems in physics. So who would up the clock work for the first time? What caused the Big Bang? God?

Some of the recent work by physicists Stephen Hawking and James Hartle has tried to do away with the idea of singularities altogether by introducing the notion of ‘imaginary’ time. It suggests that space and imaginary time together are fixed in extent but without a boundary, similar to the surface of the Earth which is finite but without any edges. (Try imagining a four dimensional curved space with three axes in space and one along imaginary time). The no boundary proposal maintains that the laws of physics hold everywhere, in imaginary time, which implies that the state of the universe can be uniquely determined at any instant in imaginary time. But if one can calculate the state of the universe in imaginary time one can do so in real time as well. If they are right, the universe still started from a single point in real time, the reasons being determined by its corresponding state in imaginary time, and thereby has a definite age to it. But this point wasn’t a singularity and it expanded uniformly by borrowing energy from the gravitational field to create matter. The concept of imaginary time and extra dimensions might seem straight out of a sci-fi novel that talks of wormholes or hyperdrives. But not a very long time ago, even submarines were science fiction. Interestingly enough, some of the predictions of the Hartle-Hawking no boundary state are consistent with observation but it remains to be seen whether it can stand the test of – you guessed it right – Time.

Once the universe started expanding and the laws of physics came into existence in their present form, it was a only matter of time (actually, somewhat like 200 million years) before slightly denser regions of nearly uniformly distributed matter gravitationally attracted nearby matter, thereby forming stars, galaxies, gas clouds, and other celestial structures observable today. The earliest Solar System material was formed around 4.56 billion years ago and within 10-20 million years, Earth and other planets of the solar system had formed out of the disk shaped mass of gas and dust left over after the formation of the Sun. Initially molten, the outer layer of Earth cooled to form a solid crust once water started accumulating in the atmosphere. According to the best available estimates, life appeared on Earth within 1 billion years of its formation. This brings us to the second important question – how did life originate?

[Here I would like to point out that I am intentionally skipping out on the discussion on Fermi’s Paradox – the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations. There are about 100 billion billion planets out there which are roughly suitable and as noted astrophysicist Carl Sagan aptly surmised, it is an awful waste of space if we are alone. Even so, I will try to briefly broach this subject later.]

Before life begins and evolves into anything complex, one must seek to answer the more elementary question – what does it take to be alive? What minimum requirements must one meet in order to nourish life? Atoms can move, change their form, and do all sorts of callisthenics. Would you consider them alive? In his excellent book The Blind Watchmaker, Rickard Dawkins explains that there are three properties necessary for life to sustain and, more importantly, renew itself through the processes of ‘natural selection’ – replicability, mutations or errors in replication, and the power to exercise influence over the process of its own replication. There must come into existence, through the laws of physics, these self-copying entities or “replicators”. The very first replicators were probably not DNA molecules for they are far too complex to have arisen spontaneously – the odds against such an event happening are astronomical; even the life of the universe is not enough. They were cruder, simpler versions of DNA molecules that used even simpler building blocks present in their environs to churn out copies of themselves.

So we have these replicators going at it like rabbits. Each progeny is exactly the same as its ancestor and continues to behave in the same manner. In a perfect world, where the supply of raw materials is infinite, this population of molecules would have grown indefinitely. However, that is never the case; which underlines the significance of the other two properties. Occasionally, as should be expected, errors in duplication occur that produce an ‘offspring’ molecule that is either better suited or ill equipped to face its environment. In case of the former, it becomes more adept at the game of survival and is able ‘live’ long enough to pass on the errors it inherited to successive generations of daughter molecules which slowly outnumber the original ancestor type as the struggle for resources heats up. The forces of natural selection weed out any of the ‘weaker’ molecules in this colony, thereby producing increasingly sophisticated descendants that are better adapted to survive in their environment and which evolve over the course of millions of generations into complex life forms. But how did these replicators come into existence? What were the first entities that possessed these properties?

There is no magical wind that breathes life into mere bones and flesh, even if that is what the Book of Genesis or other religious scriptures would have us believe. (Had Darwin lived in the medieval ages, he would have probably been the focus of a massive inquisition, subjected to some pretty humiliating ridicule, and then subsequently burnt at the stake.) So there must be a rational explanation for the first ‘living’ compounds. The family of theories which holds favour with a majority of the scientific community is based on an organic primordial ‘soup’. It presumes that ancient earth had an atmosphere composed primarily of gases like methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and water vapour, with a bolt of lightning thrown in for fun – the Miller-Urey Experiment for the more scientific minded. Long story short, this particular hypothesis claims that the simplest forms of self-replicating molecules came together in this primeval soup in the form of simple organic compounds like amino acids and then evolved into better and bigger things – namely the RNA/DNA/protein genetic machinery.

Another interesting school of thought, which I have chosen to discuss here and which gained ground during the 1980s, was proposed by Graham Cairns-Smith. Known as the Clay Theory or the inorganic mineral theory, Cairns-Smith’s view of the DNA/RNA/protein machinery is that it came into existence relatively recently, about 3 billion years ago, after usurping a function that was previously served by self replicating inorganic crystals like the silicates. Once this happened, DNA proved to be so efficient in storing and reproducing genetic information that the original system was cast aside. This conjecture gains credence when you consider the fact that the initial process of replication should have been crude enough to come into existence by ‘chance’ or single-step selection. Now, in crystalline form, atoms or molecules have the tendency to slot together in a particular fashion because of the stability such an arrangement. The same atoms may choose to crystallise into more than one type of configuration. Every part of this crystal is exactly the same as another – endless rows of atoms extending in every direction. So far so good. But how about reproduction mechanisms? Mutations, errors, and consequent adaptation or extinction?

[Here I must impress upon you the importance of reproduction for all life forms; more vital than the capacity to survive is the ability to reproduce because that is the single most important factor ensuring the continuance of the collective genetic pool. It would seem counter-intuitive but we exist for the benefit of genes rather than the other way around. We are nothing more than mules relaying this genetic information from one generation to another. Genes first came together in cooperative structures, like a living organism, just so that the community could prove to be beneficial for all the constituent genes. Otherwise, they would still be competing replicators in the primordial soup.]

Coming back to the crystals, atoms or ions floating around freely in solution have a tendency join the layers of atoms on the surface of a crystal that is introduced into the solution – a process known as seeding. They simply latch onto the existing structure and keep on adding layers to it. Crystals have also been known to form spontaneously in super-saturated solutions; but that is not very relevant to this argument. What’s more important is that when they these atoms/ions do crystallise, microscopic flaws may appear in the structure of the crystal – a layer cleaved in half or inclined to other layers at an angle. As the crystal grows, it sometimes snaps under the strain (such parameters for a particular arrangement would be governed by physical laws), thereby spawning a generation of daughter crystals. The properties and flaws of the ancestral crystal type are preserved in successive generations unless there is another accidental mistake in crystal growth – in other words, mutations. If one type has a greater tendency to ‘bend and break,’ we would have a very simple version of natural selection going – the solution would exhibit progressively higher concentrations of the ‘fitter’ crystal, the one with the shorter reproductive cycle.

Masses of clay crystals of a particular form might also have the power to exert influence over their external environment in order to improve the chances of further replication. For example, a ‘stickier’ variety of clay is likely to cause sedimentation in a river bed, creating an environment conducive for crystallisation from the silt. By damming, it might even manipulate flow of the stream, thereby extending its influence to other previously ‘uninfected’ territories. Some crystals might make conditions hard for ‘rival’ crystals that compete for raw materials while some might become ‘predatory’ by breaking up their competitors and using their elements as building blocks. The possibilities seem endless once natural selection is set on its course! The clay does not ‘want’ to continue existing but these are just incidental consequences of the properties inherent in the crystal. Imagine the poor crystals pondering over existential questions like us!

As these simple replicators become more and more complicated, they devise tools – catalysts, blueprints etc – that assist in their reproductive process. Organic compounds have often been closely associated as catalysts in synthesis of inorganic compounds. Even champions of the primordial soup hypothesis concede that inorganic compounds were vital to some of the organic reactions that led to the origin of life. So we can very well turn the argument on its head, take a leap of faith, and speculate that the first proteins and nucleic acids like RNA were actually synthesised by the complex clay replicators for their own purposes. The fact that this doesn’t seem so incredible is why I feel this audacious theory may be right! The final act in this elaborate ‘tragedy’ is staged when these very tools affect a “Genetic Takeover” from their clay vehicle, becoming an independent modus operandi for reproduction; a means that proved to be so successful that it has continued till date. But, have you ever asked of yourself, for how long?

The process of biological evolution proceeded at a snail’s pace at first. It took billions of years to evolve from the earliest single celled animals to multi-cellular organisms but it took only a fraction of that time for prehistoric mammals to evolve into humans. And there are not a whole a lot of aeons separating us from the apes. With the human race, evolution seems to have reached a critical stage, comparable in significance to the DNA. Development of language and modern modes of communication means that the amount of information can be passed down from one generation to another, non-genetically, is growing exponentially. And that is not just meant as a figure of speech. Over the ten thousand years of recorded history, there has not been perceptible change in the genetic map of humans – a few million bit errors at most. However, millions of new books are being written every year that add to the collective information database of our species. We might as well go out on a limb here and say that this amounts to a new phase in our evolution, one that proceeds not by altering the information stored in the genes but through “external transmission”. What this means is that though we might not be any brighter or inherently stronger than our cave dwelling ancestors, we differ from them because of the vast reservoir of knowledge at our disposal. A reservoir which we are ill-equipped to utilise efficiently and which more often than not is influenced by our primitive aggressive instincts, referred to as Thanatos or the death drive in post-Freudian literature. What could earlier be passed off as loss of land or conquest of women folk might now result in a nuclear winter.

It is easy to argue that feats of modern science like genetic engineering might allow humans to overcome restrictions like intelligence, the death drive, and even mortality. But that very argument should force us to consider the nature of life that will succeed ours. If the humans do not succeed in killing each other, they will eventually run out of resources here. Since interstellar travel is no longer a figment of our imagination, we might even have NASA launching missions to colonise planetary systems in other galaxies through DNA stored in cryogenic capsules. But nothing travels faster than the speed of light and even the distances in the observable universe are astronomical. The sheer numbers involved suggest that humans will have to resort to machines in order to implement the inter-galactic version of neo-imperialism. With the amount of intelligence required by the machines to be imbued with in order to undertake such explorations, it is not very incredulous to foresee a future where sentient mechanical beings will take over the mantle of evolution from human beings. After all, life does not need us to sustain itself. We could very well have machines capable of reproduction and self-design, thereby meeting all the requirements necessary to be considered alive. If this seems fantastic it is only because our brains have been built by natural selection to assess risks and probabilities that are commensurate with our lifetimes of a few decades. Not the geological or astronomical timeline that seems to extend forever in both directions.

During our space travels, we (or the sentient machines) might get to meet some exotic alien civilisation. But given the fact that our scientific reasoning has not misled us so far and that God has not been playing dice in other parts of the universe, the chances of that happening are low. Here’s why. We have seen that it takes billions of years for life to evolve intelligence and it is only ONE of the several possible outcomes. Moreover, life does not need intelligence to survive. There are millions of bacteria living in the most inhospitable of conditions and they seem to be doing just fine. They were here when we weren’t and they probably will be long after we are gone or until the Sun swells up into a red giant and swallows everything from Mercury to Mars. As if that were not enough, it is a minor miracle that our beloved mammals weren’t wiped off the face of the Earth by a comet or gigantic meteorites while they were mating copiously and furiously contributing to the gene pool. Space is huge. Extra-terrestrial collisions keep happening all the time and 5 billion years is a long time to mess around with the odds. Dinosaurs learnt it the hard way and so might we. (The comet Shoemaker-Levy put a huge dent in Jupiter and that is when Jupiter’s is 11 times the size of Earth and has 64 satellites and its ice rings serving as gargantuan guards). Even if these insane odds were to be ignored, intelligence does not seem to have any long-term survival value. Humans have enjoyed killing not just each other but everything around them as well. What is to stop the aliens from dying as well as a consequence of their own stupidity?

All things said and done, it is indeed a feat of Nature that we exist and possess the faculties which allow us pose and debate questions like these in the first place. That fact can not be denied and should only inspire awe. If it took life the better part of the last 3.5 billion years to evolve into such organised complexity, it is because it is so beautiful. If we do not have answers to some of the questions, it is because Big Science and modern cosmogony are the areas where reason and religion often fight for breathing space. However, at the end of the day, one must get one’s sleep. So in light of all this nonsense, it doesn’t seem too imprudent to ignore the harsh, mind-numbing realities of science and deliberate over some existential questions, now does it? I will leave you to it; it has already been to much of a mind-fuck. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Articles/Books which elaborate on the ideas mentioned here:
A Brief History of Time by Stephen hawking, published 1988.
Clay Theory on the Origin of Life:
Fermi’s Paradox:
Life in the Universe:
Miller/Urey Experiment:
Public Lectures by Stephen Hawking:
The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, published 1986.
Image Courtesy: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal