Category Archives: Creative

At times I get a little more creating and translate a story, review a book, share my thoughts on a quote, or write something on the fictional side. Here they are…

The Razor’s Edge by W Somerset Maugham

May be it is only my tendency to see philosophy everywhere, but I honestly believe Maugham’s works are the classics they are because of their deep philosophical underpinnings. Their strong plots and Maugham’s masterful storytelling help, but what makes them timeless is the fact that Maugham gives voice to the restlessness of our hearts, and puts in words the stirring uncertainties of our souls. Our questions have always been the same. Where do we come from? What are we doing here? And where are we headed? Quo vadis?

Of all the books of this kind that I have read, and I have read many, The Razor’s Edge takes on the last question most directly. When Larry says, out of the blue, “The dead look so awfully dead.” we get an idea of what his quest, and indeed the inquiry of the book, is going to be.

Larry Darrell is as close to human flawlessness as Maugham ever gets. His cynical disposition always produced vivid characters that were flawed human beings. We are used to snobbishness in Elliott Templeton, fear and hypocrisy in the vicar of Blackstable, self-loathing even in the self-image of Philip Carey, frivolity in Kitty Garstin, undue sternness in Walter Fane, the ludicrous buffoonery of Dirk Stroeve, abysmal cruelty in Charles Strickland, ultimate betrayal in Blanche Stroeve, fatal alcoholism in Sophie, incurable promiscuity in Mildred — an endless parade of gripping characters, everyone of them as far from human perfection as you and me.

But human perfection is what is sought and found in Larry Darrell. He is gentle, compassionate, single-mindedly hardworking, spiritually enlightened, simple and true, and even handsome (although Maugham couldn’t help but bring in some reservations about it). In one word, perfect. So it is only with an infinite amount of vanity that anybody can identify himself with Larry (as I secretly do). And it is a testament to Maugham’s mastery and skill that he could still make such an idealistic character human enough for some people to see themselves in him.

As I plod on with these review posts, I’m beginning to find them a bit useless. I feel that whatever needed to be said was already well said in the books to begin with. And, the books being classics, others have also said much about them. So why bother?

Let me wind up this post, and possibly this review series, with a couple of personal observations. I found it gratifying that Larry finally found enlightenment in my native land of Kerala. Written decades before the hippie exodus for spiritual fulfillment in India, this book is remarkably prescient. And, as a book on what life is all about, and how to live it to its spiritual fullness in our hectic age, The Razor’s Edge is a must read for everybody.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I didn’t “get” Catch-22 the first time I read it. That was some twenty years ago, may be I was too young then. Halfway through my third read a few weeks ago, I suddenly realized – it was a caricature!

Caricatures are visual; or so I thought. Catch-22, however, is a literary caricature, the only one of its kind I have read. Looking for a story line in it that ridicules the blinding craziness of a cruelly crazy world is like looking for anguish in Guernica. It is everywhere and nowhere. Where shall I begin? I guess I will jot down the random impressions I got over my multiple reads.

Catch-22 includes one damning indictment on the laissez-faire, enterprise-loving, free market, capitalistic philosophy. It is in the form of the amiable, but ultimately heartless, Milo Minderbinder. With inconceivable pricing tactics, Milo’s enterprise makes money for his syndicate in which everybody has a share. What is good for the syndicate, therefore, has to be good for everybody, and we should be willing to suffer minor inconveniences like eating Egyptian cotton. During their purchasing trips, Yossarian and Dunbar have to put up with terrible working conditions, while Milo, mayor to countless towns and a deputy Shaw to Iran, enjoys all creature comforts and finer things in life. But, fret not, everybody has a share!

It is hard to miss the parallels between Milo and the CEOs of modern corporations, begging for public bailouts while holding on to their private jets. But Heller’s uncanny insights assume really troubling proportions when Milo privatizes international politics and wars for everybody’s good. If you have read The Confessions of an Economic Hitman, you would be worried that the warped exaggerations of Heller are still well within the realm of reality. The icing on the cake comes when someone actually demands his share — Milo gives him a worthless piece of paper, with all pomp and ceremony! Remind you of your Lehman minibonds? Life indeed is stranger than fiction.

But Milo’s exploits are but a minor side story in Catch-22. The major part of it is about crazy Yossarian’s insanity, which is about the only thing that makes sense in a world gone mad with war and greed and delusions of futile glory.

Yossarian’s comical, yet poignant dilemmas put the incongruities of life in an unbearably sharp focus for us. Why is it crazy to try to stay alive? Where is the glory in dying for some cause when death is the end of everything, including the cause and the glory?

Along with Yossarian, Heller parades a veritable army of characters so lifelike that you immediately see them among your friends and family, and even in yourself. Take, for instance, the Chaplin’s metaphysical musings, Appleby’s flawless athleticism, Orr’s dexterity, Colonel Cathcart’s feathers and black-eyes, General Peckam’s prolix prose, Doc Daneeka’s selfishness, Aarfy’s refusal to hear, Nately’s whore, Luciana’s love, Nurse Duckett’s body, the 107 year old Italian’s obnoxious words of wisdom, Major Major’s shyness, Major — de Caverley’s armyness — each a masterpiece in itself!

On second thought, I feel that this book is too big a chef d’oervre for me to attempt to review. All I can do is to recommend that you read it — at least twice. And leave you with my take-away from this under-rated epic.

Life itself is the ultimate catch 22, inescapable and water-tight in every possible way imaginable. The only way to make sense of life is to understand death. And the only way to understand death is to stop living. Don’t you feel like letting out a respectful whistle like Yossarian at this simple beauty of this catch of life? I do!

The Unreal Universe – Reviewed

The Straits Times

pback-cover (17K)The national newspaper of Singapore, the Straits Times, lauds the readable and conversation style used in The Unreal Universe and recommends it to anybody who wants to learn about life, the universe and everything.

Wendy Lochner

Calling The Unreal Universe a good read, Wendy says, “It’s well written, very clear to follow for the nonspecialist.”

Bobbie Christmas

Describing The Unreal Universe as “such an insightful and intelligent book,” Bobbie says, “A book for thinking laymen, this readable, thought-provoking work offers a new perspective on our definition of reality.”

M. S. Chandramouli

M. S. Chandramouli graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras in 1966 and subsequently did his MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. After an executive career in India and Europe covering some 28 years he founded Surya International in Belgium through which he now offers business development and industrial marketing services.

Here is what he says about The Unreal Universe:

“The book has a very pleasing layout, with the right size of font and line spacing and correct content density. Great effort for a self-published book!”

“The impact of the book is kaleidoscopic. The patterns in one reader’s mind (mine, that is) shifted and re-arranged themselves with a ‘rustling noise’ more than once.””The author’s writing style is remarkably equidistant from the turgid prose of Indians writing on philosophy or religion and the we-know-it-all style of Western authors on the philosophy of science.”

“There is a sort of cosmic, background ‘Eureka!’ that seems to suffuse the entire book. Its central thesis about the difference between perceived reality and absolute reality is an idea waiting to bloom in a million minds.”

“The test on the ‘Emotionality of Faith,’ Page 171, was remarkably prescient; it worked for me!”

“I am not sure that the first part, which is essentially descriptive and philosophical, sits comfortably with the second part with its tightly-argued physics; if and when the author is on his way to winning the argument, he may want to look at three different categories of readers – the lay but intelligent ones who need a degree of ‘translation,’ the non-physicist specialist, and the physicist philosophers. Market segmentation is the key to success.”

“I think this book needs to be read widely. I am making a small attempt at plugging it by copying this to my close friends.”

Steven Bryant

Steven is a Vice President of Consulting Services for Primitive Logic, a premier Regional Systems Integrator located in San Francisco, California. He is the author of The Relativity Challenge.

“Manoj views science as just one element in the picture of life. Science does not define life. But life colors how we understand science. He challenges all readers to rethink their believe systems, to question what they thought was real, to ask “why”? He asks us to take off our “rose colored glasses” and unlock new ways of experiencing and understanding life. This thought provoking work should be required reading to anyone embarking on a new scientific journey.”

“Manoj’s treatment of time is very thought provoking. While each of our other senses – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch – are multi-dimensional, time appears to be single dimensional. Understanding the interplay of time with our other senses is a very interesting puzzle. It also opens to door to the existence possibilities of other phenomena beyond our know sensory range.”

“Manoj’s conveys a deep understanding of the interaction of our physics, human belief systems, perceptions, experiences, and even our languages, on how we approach scientific discovery. His work will challenge you to rethink what you think you know is true.”

“Manoj offers a unique perspective on science, perception, and reality. The realization that science does not lead to perception, but perception leads to science, is key to understanding that all scientific “facts” are open for re-exploration. This book is extremely thought provoking and challenges each reader the question their own beliefs.”

“Manoj approaches physics from a holistic perspective. Physics does not occur in isolation, but is defined in terms of our experiences – both scientific and spiritual. As you explore his book you’ll challenge your own beliefs and expand your horizons.”

Blogs and Found Online

From the Blog Through The Looking Glass

“This book is considerably different from other books in its approach to philosophy and physics. It contains numerous practical examples on the profound implications of our philosophical viewpoint on physics, specifically astrophysics and particle physics. Each demonstration comes with a mathematical appendix, which includes a more rigorous derivation and further explanation. The book even reins in diverse branches of philosophy (e.g. thinking from both the East and the West, and both the classical period and modern contemporary philosophy). And it is gratifying to know that all the mathematics and physics used in the book are very understandable, and thankfully not graduate level. That helps to make it much easier to appreciate the book.”

From the Hub Pages

Calling itself “An Honest Review of The Unreal Universe,” this review looks like the one used in the Straits Times.

I got a few reviews from my readers through email and online forums. I have compiled them as anonymous reviews in the next page of this post.

Click on the link below to visit the second page.

The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil

It is not easy to review a non-fiction book without giving the gist of what the book is about. Without a synopsis, all one can do is to call it insightful and other such epithets.

The Age of Spiritual Machines is really an insightful book. It is a study of the future of computing and computational intelligence. It forces us to rethink what we mean by intelligence and consciousness, not merely at a technological level, but at a philosophical level. What do you do when your computer feels sad that you are turning it off and declares, “I cannot let you do that, Dave?”

What do we mean by intelligence? The traditional yardstick of machine intelligence is the remarkably one-sided Turing Test. It defines intelligence using comparative means — a computer is deemed intelligent if it can fool a human evaluator into believing that it is human. It is a one-sided test because a human being can never pass for a computer for long. All that an evaluator needs to do is to ask a question like, “What is tan(17.32^circ)?” My $4 calculator takes practically no time to answer it to better than one part in a million precision. A super intelligent human being might take about a minute before venturing a first guess.

But the Turing Test does not define intelligence as arithmetic muscle. Intelligence is composed of “higher” cognitive abilities. After beating around the bush for a while, one comes to the conclusion that intelligence is the presence of consciousness. And the Turing Test essentially examines a computer to see if it can fake consciousness well enough to fool a trained evaluator. It would have you believe that consciousness is nothing more than answering some clever questions satisfactorily. Is it true?

Once we restate the test (and redefine intelligence) this way, our analysis can bifurcate into an inward journey or an outward one. we can ask ourselves questions like — what if everybody is an automaton (except us — you and me — of course) successfully faking intelligence? Are we faking it (and freewill) to ourselves as well? We would think perhaps not, or who are these “ourselves” that we are faking it to? The inevitable conclusion to this inward journey is that we can be sure of the presence of consciousness only in ourselves.

The outward analysis of the emergence of intelligence (a la Turing Test) brings about a whole host of interesting questions, which occupy a significant part of the book (I’m referring to the audio abridgment edition), although a bit obsessed with virtual sex at times.

One of the thought provoking questions when machines claim that they are sentient is this: Would it be murder to “kill” one of them? Before you suggest that I (or rather, Kurzweil) stop acting crazy, consider this: What if the computer is a digital backup of a real person? A backup that thinks and acts like the original? Still no? What if it is the only backup and the person is dead? Wouldn’t “killing” the machine be tantamount to killing the person?

If you grudgingly said yes to the last question, then all hell breaks loose. What if there are multiple identical backups? What if you create your own backup? Would deleting a backup capable of spiritual experiences amount to murder?

When he talks about the progression of machine intelligence, Kurzweil demonstrates his inherent optimism. He posits that ultimate intelligence yearn for nothing but knowledge. I don’t know if I accept that. To what end then is knowledge? I think an ultimate intelligence would crave continuity or immortality.

Kurzweil assumes that all technology and intelligence would have all our material needs met at some point. Looking at our efforts so far, I have my doubts. We have developed no boon so far without an associated bane or two. Think of the seemingly unlimited nuclear energy and you also see the bombs and radioactive waste management issues. Think of fossil fuel and the scourge of global warming shows itself.

I guess I’m a Mr. Glass-is-Half-Empty kind of guy. To me, even the unlimited access to intelligence may be a dangerous thing. Remember how internet reading changed the way we learned things?

A French Eulogy

[This is going to be my last post of a personal kind, I promise. This French eulogy was an email from my friend Stephane, talking about my father who was quite fond of him.

Stephane, a published writer and a true artist, puts his feelings in beautiful and kind words. Some day I will translate them and append the English version as well. It is hard to do so right now, but the difficulty is not all linguistic.]


Nous sommes très tristes d’apprendre le départ de ton père. Il était pour nous aussi un père, un modèle de gentillesse, d’intégrité et de générosité. Sa discrétion, sa capacité à s’adapter à toutes les choses bizarres de notre époque, son sens de l’humour et surtout son sens des responsabilités sont des enseignements que nous garderons de lui et que nous espérons transmettre à notre enfant.

Nous avons beaucoup aimé le texte que tu as écrit sur ton blog. La perte de quelqu’un de si proche nous renvoie aux mêmes questions de l’existence. Qu’est-ce que la conscience? Comment évolue-t elle avant la naissance et après la mort? Combien y a t-il de consciences possibles dans l’univers? La multiplicité de la conscience totale, la faculté d’éveil de chaque conscience, la faculté d’incarnation d’une simple conscience dans le vivant, végétal, animal ou humain… Tout ceci est surement une illusion, mais aussi un mystère que les mots de notre langage ne font qu’effleurer et survoler. De cette illusion reste la tristesse, profonde et bien “réelle”. Ce que tu as écrit sur la tristesse me fait penser à un poète (ou un bouddhiste?) qui évoquait l’espoir et le désespoir comme d’une frontière symétrique à dépasser afin d’atteindre le principe créateur des deux oppositions. Ce principe, il l’a nommé l’inespoir, un mot étrange qui n’existe pas car il contient deux opposés à la fois. Ainsi, je pense souvent à ce mot quand je regarde les étoiles la nuit, ou quand je regarde ma fille en train de dormir paisiblement. Je trouve notre univers d’une beauté totale, évidente, inexprimable. Puis je réalise que tout est éphémère, ma fille, ceux que j’aime, moi, et même les galaxies. Pire, je réalise que cet univers, c’est une scène de sacrifice où “tout mange”, puis “est mangé”, des plus petits atomes aux plus grandes galaxies. À ce moment, je trouve l’univers très cruel. À la fin, il me manque un mot, un mot qui pourrait exprimer à la fois la beauté et la cruauté de l’univers. Ce mot n’existe pas mais en Inde, j’ai appris qu’on définissait ce qui est divin par ceci : “là où les contraires coexistent”. Encore une fois, l’Inde, terre divine, me guide dans mes pensées. Est-ce que c’est vraiment un début de réponse? Je pense que ton père y répond par son sourire bienveillant.

Nous pensons beaucoup à vous. Nous vous embrassons tous très fort.

Stéphane (Vassanty et Suhasini)

PS: It was difficult for me to reply in English. Sorry… If this letter is too complex to read or to translate in English, just tell me. I’ll do my best to translate it!

Manoj Thulasidas a écrit :
Bonjour, mon cher ami!

How are you? Hope we can meet again some time soon.

I have bad news. My father passed away a week ago. I am in India taking care of the last rites of passage. Will be heading back to Singapore soon.

During these sad days, I had occasion to think and talk about you many times. Do you remember my father’s photo that you took about ten years ago during Anita’s rice feeding ceremony? It was that photo that we used for newspaper announcements and other places (like my sad blog entry). You captured the quiet dignity we so admired and respected in him. He himself had chosen that photo for these purposes. Merci, mon ami.

– grosses bises,
– Kavita, me and the little ones.

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

I don’t get symbolism. Rather, I do get it, but I’m always skeptical that I may be getting something the author never intended. I think and analyze too much instead of just lightening up and enjoying what’s right in front of me. When it comes to reading, I’m a bit like those tourists (Japanese ones, if I may allow myself to stereotype) who keep clicking away at their digital cameras often missing the beauty and serenity of whatever it is that they are recording for posterity.

But, unlike the tourist, I can read the book again and again. Although I click as much the second time around and ponder as hard, some things do get through.

When I read Siddhartha, I asked myself if the names like Kamala and Kamaswami were random choices or signified something. After all, the first part “Kama” means something akin to worldliness or desire (greed or lust really, but not with so much negative connotation) in Sanskrit. Are Vasudeva and Givinda really gods as the name suggests?

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Siddhartha is the life-story of a contemporary of Buddha — about 2500 years ago in India. Even as a young child, Siddhartha has urges to pursue a path that would eventually take him to salvation. As a Brahmin, he had already mastered the prayers and rituals. Leaving this path of piety (Bhaktiyoga), he joins a bunch of ascetics who see the way to salvation in austerity and penances (probably Hatayoga and Rajayoga). But Siddhartha soon tires of this path. He learns almost everything the ascetics had to teach him and realizes that even the oldest and wisest of them is no closer to salvation than he himself is. He then meets with the Buddha, but doesn’t think that he could “learn” the wisdom of the illustrious one. His path then undergoes a metamorphosis and takes a worldly turn (which is perhaps a rendition of Grahasthashrama or Karmayoga). He seeks to experience life through Kamala, the beautiful courtesan, and Kamaswamy the merchant. When at last he is fully immersed in the toxic excesses of the world, his drowning spirit calls out for liberation from it. He finally finds enlightenment and wisdom from the river that he had to cross back and forth in his journeys between the worlds of riches and wisdom.

For one who seeks symbolism, Siddhartha provides it aplenty.

  • Why is there a Vaishnava temple when Siddhartha decides to forgo the spiritual path for a world one? Is it a coincidence or is it an indication of the philosophical change from an Advaita line to a patently Dwaita line?
  • Is the name Siddhartha (same as that of the Buddha) a coincidence?
  • Does the bird in the cage represent a soul imprisoned in Samsara? If so, is its death a sad ending or a happy liberation?
  • The River of life that has to be crossed — is it Samsara itself? If so, is the ferryman a god who will help you cross it and reach the ultimate salvation? Why is it that Siddhartha has to cross it to reach the world of Kamala and Kamaswamy, and cross it back to his eventual enlightenment? Kamala also crosses the river to his side before passing on.
  • The affection for and the disillusionment in the little Siddhartha is the last chain of bondage (Mohamaya) that follows Siddhartha across the river. It is only after breaking that chain that Siddhartha is finally able to experience Nirvana — enlightenment and liberation. Is there a small moral hiding there?

One thing I noticed while reading many of these great works is that I can readily identify myself with the protagonist. I fancy that I have the simple greatness of Larry Darrell, and fear that I secretly possess the abominable baseness of Charles Strickland. I feel the indignant torture of Philip Carey or Jay Gatsby. And, sure, I experience the divine urges of Siddhartha. No matter how much of a stretch each of these comparisons may be. Admittedly, this self-identification may have its roots more in my vanity than any verisimilitude. Or is it the genius of these great writers who create characters so vivid and real that they talk directly to the naked primordial soul within us, stripped of our many layers of ego? In them, we see the distorted visions of our troubled souls, and in their words, we hear the echoes of our own unspoken impulses. Perhaps we are all the same deep within, part of the same shared consciousness.

One thing I re-learned from this book is that you cannot learn wisdom from someone else. (How is that for an oxymoron?) You can learn knowledge, information, data — yes. But wisdom — no. Wisdom is the assimilation of knowledge; it is the end product of your mind and soul working on whatever you find around you, be it the sensory data, cognitive constructs, knowledge and commonsense handed down from previous generations, or the concepts you create for yourself. It is so much a part of you that it is you yourself, which is why the word Buddha means Wisdom. The person Buddha and his wisdom are not two. How can you then communicate your wisdom? No wonder Siddhartha did not seek it from the Buddha.

Wisdom, according to Hermann Hesse, can come only from your own experiences, both sublime and prosaic.

Constraints of Perception and Cognition in Relativistic Physics

This post is an abridged online version of my article that appears in Galilean Electrodynamics in November, 2008. [Ref: Galilean Electrodynamics, Vol. 19, No. 6, Nov/Dec 2008, pp: 103–117] ()

Cognitive neuroscience treats space and time as our brain’s representation of our sensory inputs. In this view, our perceptual reality is only a distant and convenient mapping of the physical processes causing the sensory inputs. Sound is a mapping of auditory inputs, and space is a representation of visual inputs. Any limitation in the chain of sensing has a specific manifestation on the cognitive representation that is our reality. One physical limitation of our visual sensing is the finite speed of light, which manifests itself as a basic property of our space-time. In this article, we look at the consequences of the limited speed of our perception, namely the speed of light, and show that they are remarkably similar to the coordinate transformation in special relativity. From this observation, and inspired by the notion that space is merely a cognitive model created out of light signal inputs, we examine the implications of treating special relativity theory as a formalism for describing the perceptual effects due to the finite speed of light. Using this framework, we show that we can unify and explain a wide array of seemingly unrelated astrophysical and cosmological phenomena. Once we identify the manifestations of the limitations in our perception and cognitive representation, we can understand the consequent constraints on our space and time, leading to a new understanding of astrophysics and cosmology.

Key words: cognitive neuroscience; reality; special relativity; light travel time effect; gamma rays bursts; cosmic microwave background radiation.

1. Introduction

Our reality is a mental picture that our brain creates, starting from our sensory inputs [1]. Although this cognitive map is often assumed to be a faithful image of the physical causes behind the sensing process, the causes themselves are entirely different from the perceptual experience of sensing. The difference between the cognitive representation and their physical causes is not immediately obvious when we consider our primary sense of sight. But, we can appreciate the difference by looking at the olfactory and auditory senses because we can use our cognitive model based on sight in order to understand the workings of the ‘lesser’ senses. Odors, which may appear to be a property of the air we breathe, are in fact our brain’s representation of the chemical signatures that our noses sense. Similarly, sound is not an intrinsic property of a vibrating body, but our brain’s mechanism to represent the pressure waves in the air that our ears sense. Table I shows the chain from the physical causes of the sensory input to the final reality as the brain creates it. Although the physical causes can be identified for the olfactory and auditory chains, they are not easily discerned for visual process. Since sight is the most powerful sense we possess, we are obliged to accept our brain’s representation of visual inputs as the fundamental reality.

While our visual reality provides an excellent framework for physical sciences, it is important to realize that the reality itself is a model with potential physical or physiological limitations and distortions. The tight integration between the physiology of perception and its representation in the brain was proven recently in a clever experiment using the tactile funneling illusion [2]. This illusion results in a single tactile sensation at the focal point at the center of a stimulus pattern even though no stimulation is applied at that site. In the experiment, the brain activation region corresponded to the focal point where the sensation was perceived, rather than the points where the stimuli were applied, proving that the brain registered perceptions, not the physical causes of the perceived reality. In other words, for the brain, there is no difference between applying the pattern of the stimuli and applying only one stimulus at the center of the pattern. The brain maps the sensory inputs to regions that correspond to their perception, rather than the regions that physiologically correspond to the sensory stimuli.

Sense modality: Physical cause: Sensed signal: Brain’s model:
Olfactory Chemicals Chemical reactions Smells
Auditory Vibrations Pressure waves Sounds
Visual Unknown Light Space, time

Table I: The brain’s representation of different sensory inputs. Odors are a representation of chemical compositions and concentration our nose senses. Sounds are a mapping of the air pressure waves produced by a vibrating object. In sight, we do not know the physical reality, our representation is space, and possibly time.

The neurological localization of different aspects of reality has been established in neuroscience by lesion studies. The perception of motion (and the consequent basis of our sense of time), for instance, is so localized that a tiny lesion can erase it completely. Cases of patients with such specific loss of a part of reality [1] illustrate the fact that our experience of reality, every aspect of it, is indeed a creation of the brain. Space and time are aspects of the cognitive representation in our brain.

Space is a perceptual experience much like sound. Comparisons between the auditory and visual modes of sensing can be useful in understanding the limitations of their representations in the brain. One limitation is the input ranges of the sensory organs. Ears are sensitive in the frequency range 20Hz-20kHz, and eyes are limited to the visible spectrum. Another limitation, which may exist in specific individuals, is an inadequate representation of the inputs. Such a limitation can lead to tone-deafness and color-blindness, for instance. The speed of the sense modality also introduces an effect, such as the time lag between seeing an event and hearing the corresponding sound. For visual perception, a consequence of the finite speed of light is called a Light Travel Time (LTT) effect. LLT offers one possible interpretation for the observed superluminal motion in certain celestial objects [3,4]: when an object approaches the observer at a shallow angle, it may appear to move much faster than reality [5] due to LTT.

Other consequences of the LTT effects in our perception are remarkably similar to the coordinate transformation of the special relativity theory (SRT). These consequences include an apparent contraction of a receding object along its direction of motion and a time dilation effect. Furthermore, a receding object can never appear to be going faster than the speed of light, even if its real speed is superluminal. While SRT does not explicitly forbid it, superluminality is understood to lead to time travel and the consequent violations of causality. An apparent violation of causality is one of the consequences of LTT, when the superluminal object is approaching the observer. All these LTT effects are remarkably similar to effects predicted by SRT, and are currently taken as ‘confirmation’ that space-time obeys SRT. But instead, space-time may have a deeper structure that, when filtered through LTT effects, results in our perception that space-time obeys SRT.

Once we accept the neuroscience view of reality as a representation of our sensory inputs, we can understand why the speed of light figures so prominently in our physical theories. The theories of physics are a description of reality. Reality is created out of the readings from our senses, especially our eyes. They work at the speed of light. Thus the sanctity accorded to the speed of light is a feature only of our reality, not the absolute, ultimate reality that our senses are striving to perceive. When it comes to physics that describes phenomena well beyond our sensory ranges, we really have to take into account the role that our perception and cognition play in seeing them. The Universe as we see it is only a cognitive model created out of the photons falling on our retina or on the photo-sensors of the Hubble telescope. Because of the finite speed of the information carrier (namely photons), our perception is distorted in such a way as to give us the impression that space and time obey SRT. They do, but space and time are not the absolute reality. “Space and time are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live,” as Einstein himself put it. Treating our perceived reality as our brain’s representation of our visual inputs (filtered through the LTT effect), we will see that all the strange effects of the coordinate transformation in SRT can be understood as the manifestations of the finite speed of our senses in our space and time.

Furthermore, we will show that this line of thinking leads to natural explanations for two classes of astrophysical phenomena:

Gamma Ray Bursts, which are very brief, but intense flashes of \gamma rays, currently believed to emanate from cataclysmic stellar collapses, and Radio Sources, which are typically symmetric and seem associated with galactic cores, currently considered manifestations of space-time singularities or neutron stars. These two astrophysical phenomena appear distinct and unrelated, but they can be unified and explained using LTT effects. This article presents such a unified quantitative model. It will also show that the cognitive limitations to reality due to LTT effects can provide qualitative explanations for such cosmological features as the apparent expansion of the Universe and the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR). Both these phenomena can be understood as related to our perception of superluminal objects. It is the unification of these seemingly distinct phenomena at vastly different length and time scales, along with its conceptual simplicity, that we hold as the indicators of validity of this framework.

2. Similarities between LTT Effects & SRT

The coordinate transformation derived in Einstein’s original paper [6] is, in part, a manifestation of the LTT effects and the consequence of imposing the constancy of light speed in all inertial frames. This is most obvious in the first thought experiment, where observers moving with a rod find their clocks not synchronized due to the difference in LTT’s along the length of the rod. However, in the current interpretation of SRT, the coordinate transformation is considered a basic property of space and time. One difficulty that arises from this formulation is that the definition of the relative velocity between the two inertial frames becomes ambiguous. If it is the velocity of the moving frame as measured by the observer, then the observed superluminal motion in radio jets starting from the core region becomes a violation of SRT. If it is a velocity that we have to deduce by considering LTT effects, then we have to employ the extra ad-hoc assumption that superluminality is forbidden. These difficulties suggest that it may be better to disentangle the LTT effects from the rest of SRT. Although not attempted in this paper, the primary motivation for SRT, namely the covariance of Maxwell’s equations, may be accomplished even without attributing LTT effects to the properties of space and time.

In this Section, we will consider space and time as a part of the cognitive model created by the brain, and illustrate that SRT applies to the cognitive model. The absolute reality (of which the SRT-like space-time is our perception) does not have to obey the restrictions of SRT. In particular, objects are not restricted to subluminal speeds, even though they may appear to us as if they are restricted to subluminal speeds in our perception of space and time. If we disentangle LTT effects from the rest of SRT, we can understand a wide array of phenomena, as shown in this article.

SRT seeks a linear coordinate transformation between coordinate systems in motion with respect to each other. We can trace the origin of linearity to a hidden assumption on the nature of space and time built into SRT, as stated by Einstein [6]: “In the first place it is clear that the equations must be linear on account of the properties of homogeneity which we attribute to space and time.” Because of this assumption of linearity, the original derivation of the transformation equations ignores the asymmetry between approaching and receding objects and concentrates on receding objects. Both approaching and receding objects can be described by two coordinate systems that are always receding from each other. For instance, if a system K is moving with respect to another system k along the positive X axis of k, then an object at rest in K at a positive x is approaching an observer at the origin of k. Unlike SRT, considerations based on LTT effects result in intrinsically different set of transformation laws for objects approaching an observer and those receding from him. More generally, the transformation depends on the angle between the velocity of the object and the observer’s line of sight. Since the transformation equations based on LTT effects treat approaching and receding objects asymmetrically, they provide a natural solution to the twin paradox, for instance.

2.1 First Order Perceptual Effects

For approaching and receding objects, the relativistic effects are second order in speed \beta, and speed typically appears as \sqrt{1-\beta^2}. The LTT effects, on the other hand, are first order in speed. The first order effects have been studied in the last fifty years in terms of the appearance of a relativistically moving extended body [7-15]. It has also been suggested that the relativistic Doppler effect can be considered the geometric mean [16] of more basic calculations. The current belief is that the first order effects are an optical illusion to be taken out of our perception of reality. Once these effects are taken out or ‘deconvolved’ from the observations, the ‘real’ space and time are assumed to obey SRT. Note that this assumption is impossible to verify because the deconvolution is an ill-posed problem – there are multiple solutions to the absolute reality that all result in the same perceptual picture. Not all the solutions obey SRT.

The notion that it is the absolute reality that obeys SRT ushers in a deeper philosophical problem. This notion is tantamount to insisting that space and time are in fact ‘intuitions’ beyond sensory perception rather than a cognitive picture created by our brain out of the sensory inputs it receives. A formal critique of the Kantian intuitions of space and time is beyond the scope of this article. Here, we take the position that it is our observed or perceived reality that obeys SRT and explore where it leads us. In other words, we assume that SRT is nothing but a formalization of the perceptual effects. These effects are not first order in speed when the object is not directly approaching (or receding from) the observer, as we will see later. We will show in this article that a treatment of SRT as a perceptual effect will give us natural solution for astrophysical phenomena like gamma ray bursts and symmetric radio jets.

2.2 Perception of Speed

We first look at how the perception of motion is modulated by LTT effects. As remarked earlier, the transformation equations of SRT treat only objects receding from the observer. For this reason, we first consider a receding object, flying away from the observer at a speed \beta of the object depends on the real speed b (as shown in Appendix A.1):

\beta_O ,=, \frac{\beta}{1,+,\beta}            (1)
\lim_{\beta\to\infty} \beta_O ,=, 1           (2)

Thus, due to LTT effects, an infinite real velocity gets mapped to an apparent velocity \beta_O=1. In other words, no object can appear to travel faster than the speed of light, entirely consistent with SRT.

Physically, this apparent speed limit amounts to a mapping of c to \infty. This mapping is most obvious in its consequences. For instance, it takes an infinite amount of energy to accelerate an object to an apparent speed \beta_O=1 because, in reality, we are accelerating it to an infinite speed. This infinite energy requirement can also be viewed as the relativistic mass changing with speed, reaching \infty at \beta_O=1. Einstein explained this mapping as: “For velocities greater than that of light our deliberations become meaningless; we shall, however, find in what follows, that the velocity of light in our theory plays the part, physically, of an infinitely great velocity.” Thus, for objects receding from the observer, the effects of LTT are almost identical to the consequences of SRT, in terms of the perception of speed.

2.3 Time Dilation
Time Dilation
Figure 1
Figure 1:. Comparison between light travel time (LTT) effects and the predictions of the special theory of relativity (SR). The X-axis is the apparent speed and the Y-axis shows the relative time dilation or length contraction.

LTT effects influence the way time at the moving object is perceived. Imagine an object receding from the observer at a constant rate. As it moves away, the successive photons emitted by the object take longer and longer to reach the observer because they are emitted at farther and farther away. This travel time delay gives the observer the illusion that time is flowing slower for the moving object. It can be easily shown (see Appendix A.2) that the time interval observed \Delta t_O is related to the real time interval \Delta t as:

  \frac{\Delta t_O}{\Delta t} ,=, \frac{1}{1-\beta_O}          (3)

for an object receding from the observer (\theta=\pi). This observed time dilation is plotted in Fig. 1, where it is compared to the time dilation predicted in SR. Note that the time dilation due to LTT has a bigger magnitude than the one predicted in SR. However, the variation is similar, with both time dilations tending to \infty as the observed speed tends to c.

2.4 Length Contraction

The length of an object in motion also appears different due to LTT effects. It can be shown (see Appendix A.3) that observed length d_O as:

\frac{d_O}{d} ,=, {1-\beta_O}           (4)

for an object receding from the observer with an apparent speed of \beta_O. This equation also is plotted in Fig. 1. Note again that the LTT effects are stronger than the ones predicted in SRT.

Fig. 1 illustrates that both time dilation and Lorentz contraction can be thought of as LTT effects. While the actual magnitudes of LTT effects are larger than what SRT predicts, their qualitative dependence on speed is almost identical. This similarity is not surprising because the coordinate transformation in SRT is partly based on LTT effects. If LTT effects are to be applied, as an optical illusion, on top of the consequences of SRT as currently believed, then the total observed length contraction and time dilation will be significantly more than the SRT predictions.

2.5 Doppler Shift
The rest of the article (the sections up to Conclusions) has been abridged and can be read in the PDF version.

5 Conclusions

In this article, we started with an insight from cognitive neuroscience about the nature of reality. Reality is a convenient representation that our brain creates out of our sensory inputs. This representation, though convenient, is an incredibly distant experiential mapping of the actual physical causes that make up the inputs to our senses. Furthermore, limitations in the chain of sensing and perception map to measurable and predictable manifestations to the reality we perceive. One such fundamental constraint to our perceived reality is the speed of light, and the corresponding manifestations, LTT effects. Because space and time are a part of a reality created out of light inputs to our eyes, some of their properties are manifestations of LTT effects, especially on our perception of motion. The absolute, physical reality generating the light inputs does not obey the properties we ascribe to our perceived space and time. We showed that LTT effects are qualitatively identical to those of SRT, noting that SRT only considers frames of reference receding from each other. This similarity is not surprising because the coordinate transformation in SRT is derived based partly on LTT effects, and partly on the assumption that light travels at the same speed with respect to all inertial frames. In treating it as a manifestation of LTT, we did not address the primary motivation of SRT, which is a covariant formulation of Maxwell’s equations, as evidenced by the opening statements of Einstein’s original paper [6]. It may be possible to disentangle the covariance of electrodynamics from the coordinate transformation, although it is not attempted in this article.

Unlike SRT, LTT effects are asymmetric. This asymmetry provides a resolution to the twin paradox and an interpretation of the assumed causality violations associated with superluminality. Furthermore, the perception of superluminality is modulated by LTT effects, and explains g ray bursts and symmetric jets. As we showed in the article, perception of superluminal motion also holds an explanation for cosmological phenomena like the expansion of the Universe and cosmic microwave background radiation. LTT effects should be considered as a fundamental constraint in our perception, and consequently in physics, rather than as a convenient explanation for isolated phenomena. Given that our perception is filtered through LTT effects, we have to deconvolute them from our perceived reality in order to understand the nature of the absolute, physical reality. This deconvolution, however, results in multiple solutions. Thus, the absolute, physical reality is beyond our grasp, and any assumed properties of the absolute reality can only be validated through how well the resultant perceived reality agrees with our observations. In this article, we assumed that the absolute reality obeys our intuitively obvious classical mechanics and asked the question how such a reality would be perceived when filtered through LTT effects. We demonstrated that this particular treatment could explain certain astrophysical and cosmological phenomena that we observe. The distinction between the different notions of velocity, including the proper velocity and the Einsteinian velocity, was the subject matter of a recent issue of this journal [33].

The coordinate transformation in SRT should be viewed as a redefinition of space and time (or, more generally, reality) in order to accommodate the distortions in our perception of motion due to LTT effects. The absolute reality behind our perception is not subject to restrictions of SRT. One may be tempted to argue that SRT applies to the ‘real’ space and time, not our perception. This line of argument begs the question, what is real? Reality is nothing but a cognitive model created in our brain starting from our sensory inputs, visual inputs being the most significant. Space itself is a part of this cognitive model. The properties of space are a mapping of the constraints of our perception. We have no access to a reality beyond our perception. The choice of accepting our perception as a true image of reality and redefining space and time as described in SRT indeed amounts to a philosophical choice. The alternative presented in the article is prompted by the view in modern neuroscience that reality is a cognitive model in the brain based on our sensory inputs. Adopting this alternative reduces us to guessing the nature of the absolute reality and comparing its predicted projection to our real perception. It may simplify and elucidate some theories in physics and explain some puzzling phenomena in our Universe. However, this option is yet another philosophical stance against the unknowable absolute reality.


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God’s Blunder

Scriptures tell us, in different ways depending on our denomination and affiliation, that God created the world and everything in it, including us. This is creationism in a nutshell.

Standing in the other corner, all gloved up to knock the daylight out of creationism, is science. It tells us that we came out of complete lifelessness through successive mutations goaded by the need to survive. This is Evolution, a view so widely accepted that the use of capital E is almost justified.

All our experience and knowledge point to the rightness the Evolution idea. It doesn’t totally preclude the validity of God, but it does make it more likely that we humans created God. (It must be just us humans for we don’t see a cat saying Lord’s grace before devouring a mouse!) And, given the inconveniences caused by the God concept (wars, crusades, the dark ages, ethnic cleansing, religious riots, terrorism and so on), it certainly looks like a blunder.

No wonder Nietzsche said,

On the other hand, if God did create man, then all the stupid things that we do — wars, crusades etc. plus this blog — do point to the fact that we are a blunder. We must be such a disappointment to our creator. Sorry Sir!

Photo by The Library of Congress

Sex and Physics — According to Feynman

Physics goes through an age of complacency once in a while. Complacency originates from a sense of completeness, a feeling that we have discovered everything there is to know, the path is clear and the methods well-understood.

Historically, these bouts of complacency are followed by rapid developments that revolutionize the way physics is done, showing us how wrong we have been. This humbling lesson of history is probably what prompted Feynman to say:

Such an age of complacency existed at the turn of the 19th century. Famous personas like Kelvin remarked that all that was left to do was to make more precise measurements. Michelson, who played a crucial role in the revolution to follow, was advised not to enter a “dead” field like physics.

Who would have thought that in less than a decade into the 20th century, we would complete change the way we think of space and time? Who in their right mind would say now that we will again change our notions of space and time? I do. Then again, nobody has ever accused me of a right mind!

Another revolution took place during the course of the last century — Quantum Mechanics, which did away with our notion of determinism and dealt a serious blow to the system-observer paradigm of physics. Similar revolutions will happen again. Let’s not hold on to our concepts as immutable; they are not. Let’s not think of our old masters as infallible, for they are not. As Feynman himself would point out, physics alone holds more examples of the fallibility of its old masters. And I feel that a complete revolution in thought is overdue now.

You might be wondering what all this has to do with sex. Well, I just thought sex would sell better. I was right, wasn’t I? I mean, you are still here!

Feynman also said,

Photo by “Caveman Chuck” Coker cc

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Once, I had some doubts about my sanity. After all, if you find yourself questioning the realness of reality, you have to wonder — is it reality that is unreal, or your sanity?

When I shared my concerns with this philosophically inclined friend of mine, she reassured me, “Sanity is overrated.” After reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I think she was right. Perhaps she didn’t go far enough — may be insanity is way underrated.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance defines insanity as the process of stepping outside mythos; mythos being the sum total of our combined knowledge passed down over the generations, the “commonsense” that precedes logic. If reality is not commonsense, what is? And doubting the realness of reality, almost by definition, is stepping outside the bounds of mythos. So it fits; my concerns were indeed well-founded.

But a good fit is no guarantee of the “rightness” of a hypothesis, as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance teaches us. Given enough time, we can always come up with a hypothesis that fits our observations. The process of hypothesizing from observations and experiences is like trying to guess the nature of an object from the shadow it projects. And a projection is precisely what our reality is — a projection of unknown forms and processes into our sensory and cognitive space, into our mythos and logos. But here, I may be pushing my own agenda rather than the theme of the book. But it does fit, doesn’t it? That is why I found myself muttering “Exactly!” over and over during my three reads of the book, and why I will read it many more times in the future. Let’s remind ourselves again, a good fit says nothing about the rightness of a hypothesis.

One such reasonable hypothesis of ours is about continuity We all assume the continuity of our personality or selfhood, which is a bit strange. I know that I am the same person I was twenty years ago — older certainly, wiser perhaps, but still the same person. But from science, I also know for a fact that every cell, every atom and every little fundamental particle in my body now is different from what constituted my body then. The potassium in the banana I ate two weeks ago is, for instance, what may be controlling the neuronal firing behind the thought process helping me write this essay. But it is still me, not the banana. We all assume this continuity because it fits.

Losing this continuity of personality is a scary thought. How scary it is is what Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tells you. As usual, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

In order to write a decent review of this book, it is necessary to summarize the “story” (which is believed to be based on the author’s life). Like most great works of literature, the story flows inwards and outwards. Outwardly, it is a story of a father and son (Pirsig and Chris) across the vast open spaces of America on a motorbike. Inwardly, it is a spiritual journey of self-discovery and surprising realizations. At an even deeper level, it is a journey towards possible enlightenment rediscovered.

The story begins with Pirsig and Chris riding with John and Sylvia. Right at the first unpretentious sentence, “I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning,” it hit me that this was no ordinary book — the story is happening in the present tense. It is here and now — the underlying Zen-ness flows from the first short opening line and never stops.

The story slowly develops into the alienation between Chris and his father. The “father” comes across as a “selfish bastard,” as one of my friends observed.

The explanation for this disconnect between the father and the son soon follows. The narrator is not the father. He has the father’s body all right, but the real father had his personality erased through involuntary shock treatments. The doctor had reassured him that he had a new personality — not that he was a new personality.

The subtle difference makes ample sense once we realize that “he” and his “personality” are not two. And, to those of us how believe in the continuity of things like self-hood, it is a very scary statement. Personality is not something you have and wear, like a suit or a dress; it is what you are. If it can change, and you can get a new one, what does it say about what you think you are?

In Pirsig’s case, the annihilation of the old personality was not perfect. Besides, Chris was tagging along waiting for that personality to wake up. But awakening a personality is very different from waking a person up. It means waking up all the associated thoughts and ideas, insights and enlightenment. And wake up it does in this story — Phaedrus is back by the time we reach the last pages of the book.

What makes this book such a resounding success, (not merely in the market, but as an intellectual endeavor) are the notions and insights from Phaedrus that Pirsig manages to elicit. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is nothing short of a new way of looking at reality. It is a battle for the minds, yours and mine, and those yet to come.

Such a battle was waged and won ages ago, and the victors were not gracious and noble enough to let the defeated worldview survive. They used a deadly dialectical knife and sliced up our worldview into an unwieldy duality. The right schism, according to Phaedrus and/or Pirsig, would have been a trinity.

The trinity managed to survive, albeit feebly, as a vanquished hero, timid and self-effacing. We see it in the Bible, for instance, as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We see it Hinduism, as its three main gods, and in Vedanta, a line of thought I am more at home with, as Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram — the Truth, ???, the Beauty. The reason why I don’t know what exactly Shivam means indicates how the battle for the future minds was won by the dualists.

It matters little that the experts in Vedanta and the Indian philosophical schools may know precisely what Shivam signifies. I for one, and the countless millions like me, will never know it with the clarity with which we know the other two terms — Sundaram and Satyam, beauty and truth, Maya and Brahman, aesthetics and metaphysics, mind and matter. The dualists have so completely annihilated the third entity that it does not even make sense now to ask what it is. They have won.

Phaedrus did ask the question, and found the answer to be Quality — something that sits in between mind and matter, between a romantic and a classical understanding of the world. Something that we have to and do experience before our intellect has a chance to process and analyze it. Zen.

However, in doing so, Phaedrus steps outside our mythos, and is hence insane.

If insanity is Zen, then my old friend was right. Sanity is way overrated.

Photo by MonsieurLui