Monday 30 January 2017

MacKenzie Lambton and Buchanan - S Muthiah

These are my note from S Muthiah's lecture in December 2016 at the Madras Literary Society. He spoke about three British men who contributed to Madras and its history

S Muthiah lecturing at MLS

Francis Buchanan-Hamilton added his mother's maiden name Hamilton to his own later in life. The story starts with William Jones who founded the Asiatic society of Bengal in 1784. Jones proposed that the Society study, "Man and Nature, what is performed by one or produced by the other." While in Calcutta the efforts were made under the offices of the Asiatic Society, in Madras, mostly there were individual efforts until the formation of the Madras Literary Society in 1812.

Three things one needs when one takes over and rules a country. An army, an administrative service and an understanding of what the country produces. The British did this well, and the Americans fail miserably at the third of these.

Buchanan moved up from the South to the Ganges studying agriculture, natural wealth and fauna. Buchanan was the third director of Calcutta botanical gardens. Pioneering botanical work was done in Madras before Buchanan, by Dr James Anderson. Experiments were performed first with a Nopalry in Saidapet, then at Anderson Gardens in Nungambakkam, across the current MLS premises. 

Buchanan was followed by Edinburgh doctors Johann of Copenhagen, appointed natural historian of East India company 1779. Then Roxburgh. Later Nolte commissioned local painters to draw watercolor paintings of South Indian plants, flowers, leaves etc. Nolte 's book is a treasure. Hugh Clayborn followed them. Said Nolte, "The Hindus excel in this kind of minute detail. Every detail of every leaf and flowers (250 thousand sketches) was captured by these artists."

Muthiah says we don't know who the descendants of these artists are. This knowledge is still the basis of the Botanical and Zoological surveys of India.

Anderson's house and perhaps Gardens, Nungambakkam
Colin MacKenzie He fought in the last Mysore war. Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, commanded the 33rd Regiment in Madras. He lost his way with the Army on the way to Mysore and Colin MacKenzie rescued him and showed him the right way. Later after the Battle of Assaye, Wellesley marched the Madras Regiment into a hail of Scinidia 's guns. He later said, "there is no equal to the Madras soldier anywhere in the world. "

MacKenzie became surveyor general of India. The practices he laid down are still followed. I was part of the Survey of India (said Muthiah) from 1968-1990 before satellites and GPS and we followed most of MacKenzie practices.

Mackenzie collection at GOML, Univ of Madras

Mackenzie's greatest contributions were to Indology. He collected seven thousand artefacts and number of books, mostly on palm leaves. Most of these were translated, mostly by Kavali Boriah and later, his brothers Ramiah and Lakshmiah. In 1821, three quarters of the collection was sent to Britain but much of this came back. This formed the nucleus of GOML, which added the Leyden and CP Brown collection. Mackenzie was the first of the Indologists of South India. To him more than anyone else, South India owes the records of its history.

Kavali Boriah, who assisted MacKenzie, was called the father of Indian epigraphy and paleography. 
The first Indian to write in English, he kept a journal in English.

William Lambton might make claim to greatest contribution to scientific knowledge about India. Trigonometric survey of India. Gave the shape to the map of India as we know it. Began at St Thomas Mount. First survey from Madras to Mangalore and then Kanyakumari and then the rest of India. One of the greatest achievements of nineteenth century.
Anglo Indians many from St George's school participated in survey. Much more dangerous than conquest of Wild West in America. Heat and dryness and rains and floods and snake and Tiger infested jungles. Lambton died at age of seventy near Nagpur. The trigonometrical Survey was continued by Lambton's assistant, George Everest, who completed the survey at the Himalayas, and was honored by having the highest peak named after him. Joshua d'Penny a Madras surveyor did most of the calculations for TSI for Everest. There is a Lambton peak near Ooty, which is all there is to honor his memory. More recently, a bust of Lambton was installed at the St Thomas Mount, to commemorate his accomplishment.

There is also a Lambton's pillar at the Meteorological office in Nungammabakkam, next to MLS.
William Lambton bust at St Thomas Mount

Lambton Pillar at Meteorological Office

Lambton climbed Tanjavur Big temple with the half ton theodolite, because there was no hill or any elevation in those flat plains to help the TSI. The theodoloite fell and damaged some part of the vimanam, and Lambton to wait months for it to be fixed. Perhaps the European face sculpted on it is Lambton as suggested by Venkatesh Ramakrishnan.

Notes of other lectures by Muthiah

0. William Jones and James Prinsep
1. Ellenborough - Abolition of slavery in India
2. Robert Caldwell - discoverer of Munda language family
3. Francis Whyte Ellis - discoverer of Dravidian language family
4. An Englishman's Tamil inscription
5. Did Macaulay undermine Indian education?
6. Erdos on Madras - A Hungarian mathematician's poem

Sunday 22 January 2017

கம்சிலோவின் உயிரின கணக்கு

Fascinating graph of Life on Earth - this blog in English 

கடல்வாழ் உயிரினமும் நிலவாழ் உயிரினமும் பல விதம் வேறுபட்டவை. உருவத்தில் மட்டுமல்ல, எடையிலும் அவை பிரம்மாண்டமாக வேறுபட்டவை! எடையா?
தாவரங்களுக்கும் விலங்குகளுக்கும் உள்ள வேற்றுமையும் நாம் யாவரும் அறிந்ததே. இந்த ஒப்பீட்டிலும், எடை வேற்றுமை வியப்பானது!

ஒட்டுமொத்த உயிரினங்களின் எடையை எப்படி அளக்கமுடியும்? கருத்து கணிப்பு போல் இதுவும் புள்ளிவிவரங்களை ஆராய்ந்து கணக்கிடும் விவரம். சராசரியாக ஒரு சதுர மீட்டரில், ஒரு சதுர கிலோமீட்டரில் எத்தனை உயிரினங்கள் உள்ளன, அவற்றின் தனிப்பட்ட எடை என்ன, இதனால் ஒரு சதுர கி.மி.யில் அவற்றின் எடை என்ன, இந்தந்த பிரதேசத்தில், நாட்டில், நிலப்பரப்பில், நீர்பரப்பில் என்று கணித்து வகுக்கும் அளவுகள்.

“உயிர்மண்டலத்தின் பரிணாம வளர்ச்சி” (Evolution of the Biosphere), என்னும் நூலை எம்.எம்.கம்சிலோவ் (MM Kamshilov) ருஷிய மொழியில் எழுதி, ஆங்கிலத்தில் மின்னா ப்ரோட்ஸ்கயா (Minna Brodskaya) மொழிபெயர்த்ததை, சில வருடங்களுக்கு முன் படிக்க நேர்ந்தது. மீர் அச்சகம், மாஸ்கோ, 1972 வெளியீடு. டைனாசர் காலம் சென்று பாலுண்ணி காலம் தோன்றி, மனித இனம் பூமியை ஆண்டுவருவது நம் கர்வம் கொண்ட கற்பனை. உயிரினம் மலையெனில் மனித இனம் அதில் ஒரு மடு. ஏன் விலங்கினமே மடு தான்.

உண்மையில், மரங்களே பூமியின் மிகப்பரவலான உயிரினம். பூமியில் முக்கால் பரப்பு கடலும் கால் பரப்பு நிலமும் இருப்பதால், உயிரினங்களும் அதே விகிதாச்சாரத்தில் இருக்கலாம் என்பதே நமக்கு இயல்பாக தோன்றும். இனங்களின் எண்ணிக்கையில் (வகைகளில்) தாவரங்களை விட விலங்குகளே அதிகம். ஜே.பி.எஸ்.ஹால்டேன் என்ற உயிரியில் வல்லுனர் தீவீர நாத்திகவாதி. அவரிடம் ஒரு நிருபர், “கடவுள் இருந்தால் அவரை நீங்கள் எப்படி வர்ணிப்பீர்கள்?” என்று வினவ, “கடவுள் இருந்தால் அவர் அளவற்ற வண்டு பிரியர்,” என்றார் ஹால்டேன். நாற்பதாயிரம் வண்டினங்கள் உள்ளன. மற்ற எல்லா இனங்களை விட, இனவகையில் மிக்க வாழ்வது வண்டு இனமே. .

இதோ கம்சிலோவின் கணக்கு!

நிலம்வாழ் உயிரினம்
தாவர இனம்
விலங்கினமும் நுண்ணுயிரும்
டன் * 10^12

கடல்வாழ் உயிரினம்

தாவர இனம்
விலங்கினமும் நுண்ணுயிரும்
டன் * 10^12

எண்ணிக்கையில் விலங்கினமும் நுண்ணுயிரும் அதிகமாக இருப்பினும், பெரும் மரங்கள் உயிரினத்தில் தொண்ணூறு சதவிகிதம் என்பது, வியப்பை அல்ல, எனக்கு பிரமிப்பை ஊட்டுகிறது.

Tuesday 17 January 2017

The Rediscovery of Brahmi, Asoka, and Indian History

The Road Roller of Bihar
While building a road in Bihar, in the early nineteenth century, the supervisor of the construction project noticed that the road-roller seemed to be narrower at one end and broader at the other. On closer inspection, he found some inscriptions on its side, which that Brahmin pandit of the nearby village was unable to read. He could not even identify the script (which he called the pin-men script) or the language of the inscription. It seemed to be a pillar from some monument. The road workers told the supervisor that the pillar had a lion capital, which they cut off, so the pillar could be more useful as a road-roller. Such was the fate Samrat Asoka’s pillar!

The road supervisor was James Prinsep, who discovered that the language was Pali, the script Brahmi,the capital destined to become India’s national emblem, the the king and his dynasty forgotten, by a country with teeming not just with history, but with people who cared not a whit about it. Ironically, most of us schooled in independent India are now familiar with Asoka and his pillar and utterly ignorant of Prinsep.

When Prinsep stumbled upon the pillar, he was a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which had been founded in 1784 by Sir William “Oriental” Jones, a polymath of tremendous accomplishment, to whose contribution to India was immense, and who is almost as spectacularly forgotten as Prinsep.

Sir William "Oriental" Jones

Jones & the Asiatic Society of Bengal

The East India company and later, the British government, were the funnels through which India was enriched by Western science and industrialization. The Asiatic Society was the funnel through which new fields in the humanities, like Geology, Numismatics, Archaeology, Anthropology, Economics, Art History, all recently evolving in Europe, enriched India. Jones, a child prodigy, master of 28 languages, and scholar of law, was appointed as a Puisne Judge of the Calcutta Supreme Court in 1783. He formulated an agenda to study the law, sciences, mathematics, history, geography, medicine, trade, manufacture, agriculture and religions of not just India, but all of Asia. He surmounted obstacles to quickly learn Sanskrit, and found such a similarity between it, Persian, Latin and Greek, that he proposed that they all had a common ancestry.

His oft quoted passage from his third lecture is : “The Sanskrit language, whatever its antiquity is of a perfect structure, more perfect than the Greek, more copious than Latin, more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both a stronger affinity, in roots of verbs and forms of grammar, than can have possibly been produced by accident. So strong that they…must have some common source…reason to believe Celtic, Gothic, old Persian also had the same origin as Sanskrit.” This heralds the beginning of Modern Linguistics and the discovery of the Indo-European Language Family.

Jones went on to translate the Manu Smriti to English to better administer justice. He also translated Kalidasa’s plays like Abinjana Shakuntalam, which took Europe by storm. He discovered that Chess and Algebra had Indian origins, wrote a treatise on Music, and studying Greek and Indian history, proposed that Sandrocottus mentioned by Megasthenes was Chandragupta. On further study, he also established the river Erranaboas was the Sone (originally called Hiranyabahu) and that Chandragupta last capital Palibothra must have been Pataliputra, now Patna, in Bihar (overturning Prayag, Kannauj, Varanasi etc as candidates). Jones also told a thrilled Europe that India had an ancient God called Buddha, perhaps of African origin, who founded a religion called Buddhism in India,now forgotten. Europe soon discovered that Buddhism was alive and well in the rest of Asia, but Jones’ discoveries launched an earnest inquiry into India and Asia’s history, that primarily relied on literature for the next three decades.

James Prinsep

And then James Prinsep arrived in Calcutta in 1819. A prodigy very different from Jones, with far humbler origins and far less accomplished youth, Prinsep nevertheless made dramatic impacts on the Asiatic Society and scholarship. After working in mints and civil administration, he turned to history in 1832. He transformed the field from ‘scholastic archaeologists’ to ‘field archaeologists’ or ‘travelling antiquarians.’ His intellectual successor Alexander Cunningham said of Prinsep, that between 1833 and 1838, “more of India’s history was reconstructed than before or since.”
The Society faced bankruptcy and a shutdown by Macaulay and Mill, who called Oriental studies “waste paper and accumulation of timber.” But Governor General Auckland restored its funding.

James Prinsep

Coins and PinMen

An army of Orientalist coin collectors, including Horace Wilson, Col James Tod, Charles Masson, General Ventura, helped unravel several aspects of history. Masson collected thirty thousand coins, which brought to light a number of Indo-Greek kings from Theodotus (225 BC), Apollodorus, Menander, Eucradites, Antialkides, Agathocles and Kanerkos (who was later identified as Kanishka by Prinsep). Some of these like the coins of Agathocles had legends in both Greek and Sanskrit (Rajane Agathakulasya). The Sanskrit script was the same as the pin-men script, in Prinsep’s road roller.

Several other pillars including the famous Feroz Lat in Delhi, Lauriya Nandangarh in Bihar and in Allahabad had been discovered, with the same pin-men script. The Allahabad pillar, for example, also had two other inscriptions, one of Samudragupta in Sanskrit in Nagari script and Jehangir in Persian. Comparing transcripts Prinsep realized that all three pillars had the same text, not just the same script! The script had also been found at slabs in Bodh Gaya; a stupa at Sanchi; and at Dhauli and at Udayagiri-Khondagiri, both near Bhubaneshvar. The Samudragupta, son of Chandragupta of the Allahabad pillar was of the Solar race, whereas William Jones’ Sandrocottus was of the Lunar race. 

Asoka's Pillar and Buddhist stupa in Vaishali, Bihar

Rock with Asoka's Pali edict in Brahmi script
at Dhauli, Orissa

Brahmi inscription at Karla caves, Maharashtra
Lower line reads "daanam" ( दानं )
Studying the Sanchi inscriptions, Prinsep observed that several of them ended in the same set of three characters. He brilliantly guessed that they were records of donations, based on similar later inscriptions at other stupas in Buddhist nations. Perhaps they were the phrase “-ssa daanam.” (-’s donation). Now he was confident that the language was Pali, not Sanskrit. With intelligent guessing, and dedicated effort, he decoded the script in six weeks! The Brahmi script was now readable, nearly 1500 years after it had been replaced by its daughter script Nagari.

Sanchi stupa Brahmi inscriptions
ending with daanam

Most of the pin-men (Brahmi) inscriptions began with the phrase “Devaanaampiya PiyaDassi laaja hevam aaha” (“Thus spake King Beloved-of-the-Gods PiyaDassi”), but, who was this king? That continued to be a puzzle. There seemed to be no PiyaDassi in Indian literature. 

Concurrently, Turnour, an Orientalist in Kandy was given a copy of the Mahavamsa, the History of Sri Lanka, by the Thero of the Saffragam monastery. He came across this passage : “King Devenampiya Tissa, induced Dammasoka, Ruler of several kingdoms of Dambadiva (Jambudvipa) to depute his son Mahindu and daughter Sangamitta to Auradhapura to introduce religion of Buddha.”

The Thero also gave Turnour the Dipavamso, which threw a flood of light : “218 years after MahaParinnirvana of Buddha, Piyadassi, son of Bindusara and grandson of Chandragupta, Viceroy of Ujjaiyini was inaugurated king.”

Thus, Devanampiya Piyadassi was revealed to be Dammasoka or Dharma Asoka, grandson of Chandragupta Maurya. The wide spread of his pillars and edicts, from Afghanistan to Andhra Pradesh, showed how vast an empire he ruled; it gave details of the Kalinga war, and of Asoka’s change of heart; and of his sending emissaries to spread Buddhism across the world.


Inscriptions of the period 300 BC to 300 AD turned out to be in the Brahmi script, in Prakrit or Sanskrit, and so, suddenly, six hundred years of history stood revealed, including the dynasties of the Kshatrapas, the Kushanas, the Shungas, the Satavahanas. The Hathigumpha inscriptions were of king Kharavela of the Mahameghavahana dynasty.

In the twentieth century, Tamil inscriptions in the Tamil Brahmi script were also discovered. The field of palaeography was enriched when it was realized that the Brahmi script is the parent script of both Nagari and Grantham scripts, the latter of which was the parent of scripts of the South East Asian languages like Thai, Burmese, Sumatran, Cambodian etc.

1. Buddha and the Sahibs by Charles Allen
2. The Asiatic Society of Bengal by O.P. Kejriwal
3. The Powerpoint presentations of S Swaminathan
4. Essays by James Prinsep, Journal of the Asiatic Society

Video of INTACT lecture Rediscovery of Asoka - lecture in 2013
Audio of 2016 DUJ Lecture on Rediscovery of Brahmi and Asoka - Part 1
Audio of 2016 DUJ Lecture on Rediscovery of Brahmi and Asoka - Part 2

My blogs on Western Orientalists
1. Ellenborough - Abolition of slavery in India
2. Robert Caldwell - discoverer of Munda language family
3. Francis Whyte Ellis - discoverer of Dravidian language family
4. An Englishman's Tamil inscription
5. A mathematician's Poem about Madras
6. Did Macaulay undermine Indian education?
7. Madras and its American connections

My History blogs
Three Perspectives on History - Caldwell, Mark Twain, PT Srinivasa Iyengar
Novel on Samrat Asoka - some speeches
Timelines of Gujarat and Tamilnadu
Timelines of Karnataka and Tamilnadu

Origins of Chemistry
Beginning of Electronics

Thursday 12 January 2017

Art and the Brain - Vilayanur Ramachandran

Dr Vilayanur Ramachandran, a professor at University of California, San Diego has written a book titled "Phantoms in the Brain." This book talks about patients with unusual problems that he discovered to be neurological, rather than psychological. Such patients, and their maladies, also gave him insights into how the brain functions. He also developed a fascinating theory into the nature of beauty and art, about which he spoke a few years back at Tamil Heritage Trust. Recently, he lectured on this topic organized by Apparao Galleries, and held at the Leela Palace Hotel.

These are my notes of that lecture, in Ramachandran's voice.

Vilayanur Ramachandran on Art and the Brain

When I visit India, I enjoy visiting the Kapali temple in Mylapore. I also try to go to several other temples. Sculptures in our temples, and bronzes, hold a strong attraction and have fascinated me for their beauty.

CP Snow wrote a famous essay titled "Two Cultures", about the Arts and the Sciences. His contention was that "Never the twain shall meet." I'm going to argue that Snow is wrong. Lord Reith said there are some people whom it's one duty to offend, and I'll exercise that duty.

Are there universal aesthetics? How does the brain respond to art? Noam Chomsky discovered a universal principle to language. I'll argue that there is a universal principle to art, not just across cultures, but across phylogenetic divisions. Flowers evolved to be beautiful to bees and butterflies four hundred million years ago, not to humans. We didn't evolve from bees, but we have arrived at a similar aesthetic to appreciate flowers.

Bower bird, a tiny brown bird, builds massive bowers from moss and twigs and cigarette foils and trash and other material to create a large bower, that people would not believe were created by a bird.
I recently visited Mamallapuram.

Some of the Victorian Englishmen had who visited India had contemptuous views on Indian bronzes. A Parvati bronze, they claimed, was ugly and unrealistic, and therefore, primitive. Waist is too thin, breasts are too big, face is not realistic, Indian art is not proportional - these were some of the critical comments. The irony was that some Englishwomen had their ribs surgically removed from to narrow their waists, to appeal more to English men, at the same time that they were faulting the Chola bronzes for unrealistic waists! I have seen the skeletons of such women in London. And modern western art, distorts perspective, but is lauded for "liberation from the tyranny of form."

The point of art is not to caputre realism (which a photo can do, but may not be called art).
The word rasa is often seen in Sanskrit literature, hard to translate, but an emotion Art tries to provoke. I study vision - my eyeball captures an upside down image of what you see, via  a cable - the optic fibre. But who sees that image? There is no second person inside your brain seeing it, or there would have to an infinite series of such persons. What the Brain creates is a symbolic image of what you see, and captured by billions of neurons and synapses.

Look at these pictures, this first one could be a young lady looking away or an old lady's left profile, it is a dual image.

Old Lady / Young lady illusion
A similar dual image is this duck / rabbit (facing opposite directions) - the rabbit's ears double as the duck's beak.
Duck / Rabbit Dual image

Art works because you can take advantage of these brain mechanisms, to titillate a viewer. A Necker cube is another such illusion, where the same cube can be seen in two different perspectives.

From these studies, I have drawn up what I called Seven Laws of Art. These are not final, there may be more.

Screen shot of Seven laws

Cultural variation in Art has been studied to death, it's called Art History.  I'm interested in the biological explanation behind the commonality.

Grouping is to escape predators. A lion behind foliage is not interpreted by the Brain as several fragmented lion colored objects, but as a lion. This evolved as an evolutionary mechanism to help in survival. This principle is exploited by fashion designers and artists.

Look at this picture. It seems to be just a bunch of dots, but some of you can see a Dalmatian. How many see it, raise your hands. Not everyone can see it right away, but once you see it, the dalmatian never goes away.
Dalmation - an example of grouping

Peak shift  If you show a rat squares and rectangles, and reward it with cheese when it moves towards a rectangle, it soon learns a preference for rectangles. When you then show it a narrower rectangle, it prefers that to an earlier reactangle. The rat learns rectangularity not a particular rectangle. This, is the essence of Caricature.You amplify a person, say Obama or Nixon and exaggerate what differentiates him from the average person. Draw Nixon with a more bulbous nose and larger ears than normal, and it looks more like Nixon than Nixon himself. This is what a Chola bronze artist accomplishes. He captures peak shift.

A biologist Timbergen studied how seagull chicks recognize their mother. He observed that the seagulls he studied had with red spot on the edge of their beaks. A chick pecks the spot and the mother bird regurgitates the food. Timbergen used a beak from a dead bird, and the chick pecked that for food. Next he used a long stick with red spots. A stick with three stripes caused high obsessive pecking from the chick's than the actual beak! This is also peak shift. Which artists have tapped into, and captured the imagination of public.

Principles of Understatement and Isolation These play a major role in art, too. Doesn't this contradict peak shift? No, the brain uses multiple parallel mechanisms. An outline of a woman's form captures more than color or attitude. The outline itself excites a viewer, more than other aspects and an artist who depicts this grabs the attention of the viewer.

Artistic metaphor Nobody knows what that is. Why are metaphors beautiful? Why not just say what is original or descriptive? Artists poets and novelists indulge in metaphors, and a master like Shakespeare profusely uses them. But it's not just artists. An average person's language, not just those of poets, can have upto thirty percent metaphors.


Q Is there such a thing as bad art? Isn't the beauty of art in the beholder's eye?
A Yes there is bad art, in the USA, we call it Kitsch. Once you have enjoyed fine art, Kitsch doesn't appeal anymore. I don't think one man's Kitsch is another's fine art.

Poetry and Art should be introduced early in the curriculum. Thanks to Macaulay, we teach grammar early in our system, which is not very useful. This will help us develop a taste of fine art and not indulge in kitsch.

Q You talked about humans, mammals and birds and their sense of beauty? Do another animals have such a sense of beauty too? Reptiles or fish, for example?
A Birds are diurnal, so are humans, and we see far better than we smell. So we have more in common with birds visually. Reptiles are olfactory, they sense the world primarily with smell. This is also why reptiles are not as colorful as birds. Humans have a very poor sense of smell, compared to their vision.

Q Does peak shift apply only to visual art or also to music or sounds?
A One third of the Brain deals with vision, and we have 150 years of research on visual perception. We are poorer in hearing, and there is less research about this area also.

But there is some universal element in appreciating art. Eight of ten times, in my experiments, Americans who have never heard Carnatic music can pick Durbari Kannada as evoking sadness and Mohanam as evoking Sringara. Can't explain this in left brain terms. Durbari Kannada, I suggest, uses peak shift to take parental separation anxiety and exaggerates it to evoke a separation anxiety from God.

Common principles cut across the senses, which come together in the parietal lobe.

Q We seem to like symmetry in art, but sometimes asymmetry appeals too. Do you think this is because of peak shift?
A Symmetry is universal. But a slight asymmetry can be very appealing. The purpose of art, for biologists, is to detect biological objects. Symmetry appeals because it indicates a living thing.

THT friends with Diane and VS Ramachandran 
Here is a video of his talk on this subject at another venue
He has spoken at Tamil Heritage Trust also, but unfortunately the audio quality is not very good

Updated May 2017 Swarajya interview of VS Ramachandran by Aravindan Neelakandan

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Alfred Russel Wallace - சொர்கத்தின் பறவைகள்

Monday 9 January 2017

Alfred Russel Wallace

January 8 is the birth anniversary of Alfred Russel Wallace. Last year, I was given an opportunity to write this essay for the online edition of New Indian Express by R Venkatasubramaniam. I share this now on my blog, partly named after him. 

Charles Darwin and Theory of Evolution are famous. But how many know that Darwin was not the only person who discovered either evolution, or its primary mechanism, Natural Selection? How many know of Alfred Russel Wallace, one of the greatest biologists the world has known?

Most of us learn from textbooks in schools. But often, text books, especially on science, are dry collections of facts, which offer neither context nor history to great discoveries or adventures. It is the great failure of poets, novelists and filmmakers, that they rarely laud the accomplishments of great scientists or engineers, even though the world we live in has been dramatically modernized, modified and made a wonderful place because of their superhuman talents and efforts.

Wallace was as great a scientist as Newton and Darwin!
Wallace as a young man

Alfred Wallace was born in England, in a family that was poor but educated. His father died when he was seven. So he joined his elder brother William as an apprentice surveyor. While traversing the countryside surveying land, he was fascinated by plants and began collecting them. Darwin was already famous in England, because he had traveled around the world for five years in a British ship called HMS Beagle, studying biology, and had written a very popular book, “The Voyages of the Beagle.” Darwin himself had been inspired by the travels and adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, a German scientist. Humboldt’s book “Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent” caused a sensation in Europe.

In India, even in school, we read about the travels of Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang, Buddhist pilgrims; ibn Batuta, a lawyer; and Marco Polo, a businessmen. Humboldt was the first modern scientist whose travelogues became famous. The New Continent was America; it was Humboldt’s accounts of the Amazon that awed and inspired Darwin and a whole generation of adventurous Naturalists. (The word science was coined only in the 19th century; before that scientists were called Naturalists or Natural Philosophers). Darwin himself traveled to South America, to the coral islands of the Pacific, to Australia and New Zealand. On the ship Darwin read Charles Lyell’s book on geology, and saw evidence of geological phenomena wherever he went, and understood how much geology influenced biology. He formed several ideas about evolution but did not yet publish them.

The young Wallace went to public libraries and read pamphlets written and printed by popularizers of Natural Philosophy. One book that inspired Wallace was Lindsey’s “Elements of Botany.”

In 1848, an economic recession gripped England; Wallace lost his job. He enrolled in Mechanical College, a low cost school set up by industrialists to educate poor youth. There he befriended Henry Bates, another keen naturalist. They read Humboldt and Darwin and dreamed of voyages to the Amazon and discovering new species. In those days, rich collectors in Europe were fascinated by collections of butterflies, beetles, fossils, exotic plants etc and would pay naturalists good money for rare collections. Wallace and Bates hoped to sell such collections to finance their travel and scientific pursuits. They got a chance to travel to South America. For four years they explored the Amazon and its tributaries, sometimes together, sometimes apart. They suffered from all kinds of diseases, barely escaping death a few times. Alfred’s brother who accompanied them was not so lucky; he died of a tropical disease, and Alfred only found out months later. Wallace meticulous collected thousands of species of insects birds reptiles; drew several thousands sketches, and shipped some to his agent in London, who sold a few. But he did not form any scientific theories or publish any papers.

In 1852, he set sail for England. (Bates continued in South America for seven more years.) Misfortune hounded Wallace. His ship caught fire mid-sea. He lost almost all his collections, painstakingly gathered over four years. Wallace escaped on a life boat with some others, but they almost died of thirst before they were rescued by another ship. Wallace returned to England almost as poor as he left it, but his agent had insured his collection, so he was able to salvage some money.

In 1854, Wallace set sail for Singapore, and explored the islands there for the next eight years. and wrote a book about their biology, The Malay Archipelago. He noticed something strange – the birds and animals of Bali were remarkably different from those of Lombok, though both islands were only fifteen kilometers apart. Species on one island, related to Australian species, were totally absent on the other with Asian species; and vice versa. He realized this was true of several islands. Wallace hypothesized that in the remote past one group of islands had been part of Asia, the other part of Australia, and their geological break up was reflected in their species differences. He drew a line on the map demarcating this geological break; this line was later named the Wallace Line by Thomas Huxley. The field of Bio-geography was born, created by Wallace!

He wrote letters to Darwin, who occasionally responded . His first scientific essay on speciation, excited Darwin’s geology guru Lyell, but neither Darwin nor other naturalists were impressed. 

Meanwhile, Lyell urged Darwin to publish his theory of Evolution, but Darwin delayed. Wallace mailed a second essay titled On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type, which hit Darwin like a bombshell. Darwin was astounded that someone far away with no scientific reputation had so brilliantly and concisely summarised Darwin’s theory.

He regretted having ignored Lyell’s advice on publishing. He lamented that he had lost his precedence of discovery. His conscience would not allow him to betray Wallace’s confidence. But Lyell and Hooker, another naturalist, persuaded Darwin to let them present Darwin and Wallace’s theories jointly, which they did at the Linnaean Society in June 1858.

It was then that Wallace’s greatest act of decency came shining through. He applauded Lyell and Hooker, and thanked them for not taking away the rightful credit of Darwin’s two decades of work and the fame discovery from Darwin! He even published a book titled Darwinism, which explained evolution more clearly and eloquently than Darwin!

1.      Darwin’s Armada, Iain McCalman

2.      Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection, Alfred Russel Wallace

My Blogs on Biology

1ஆல்பிரட் வாலஸ் கண்டு ரசித்த சொற்கத்தின் பறவைகள் 
2Smt Radhika Parthasarathy's Summary of my book review of Darwin's Armada

4. Plant fossils near Madras
5. SymbioGenesis - Lynn Margulis' Supplement to Theory of Evolution
6. கப்பலோடிய ஆங்கிலேயர்
7. Astounding Statistic - Domination of Land Plants

Thursday 5 January 2017

Books I read in 2016

This book list of what I read in 2016 in inspired by a similar list by Kishore Mahadevan (after prompts in earlier years by Ramanan Jagannathan and Jeyannathann Karunanithi )
First I list English books, by category. The Tamil books are listed at the end - a very short list, sadly.
I have blogged, recently, or in the past, about things i have learnt or enjoyed from these books. The web links marked in this essay are for such essays in my blogs NOT the books themselves.


  • The Age of Tirugnanasambanda by Sundaram Pillai
  • Ten Tamil Idylls by Sundaram Pillai
  • History of the Tamils by PT Srinivasa Iyengar
  • Pre Aryan Tamil Culture by PT Srinivasa Iyengar
  • Augustan Age of Tamils by S Krishnaswamy Iyengar
  • Origin of the Tamil Vellalas by Tamby Pillai
  • 2000 Years of Mamallapuram by NS Ramaswami
  • Pallava Art by Michael Lockwood
  • Seven pagodas on the Coromandel Coast by Captain MW Carr
  • Pattadakkal by ASI
  • Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern world by Jack Weatherford
  • Kanchi - The City of temples by Narayanswami
  • Mamallapuram THT Site Seminar Source Book by S Swaminathan

History - (read parts)

  • Madras Literary Society by NS Ramaswami
  • South Indian Inscriptions Vol I
  • The Ancient Art of Writing (Selections from History of Chinese Calligraphy)
  • The Art and Aesthetics of Form (Selections from History of Chinese Painting)
  • The Penguin Book of Modern Indian speeches
  • The Story of the Stupa by AH Longhurst
  • Ancient history of the Deccan by Jouveau Dubreuil
  • The history of Tinnevelly by Robert Caldwell
  • Madras Journal of Literature and Science
  • A Short History of Russia by Mary Platt Parmele

Grammar (read parts)



  • Around the Moon by Jules Verne
  • Five Weeks in a Balloon by Jules Verne
  • Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
  • Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
  • Tales from Kathasarit sagara (Amar Chitra Katha)
  • Great Sanskrit plays (Amar Chitra Katha)
  • Jataka Tales (Amar Chitra Katha)
  • Calvin and Hobbes (several books)

  • Panchatantra by Arthur Ryder (partly)
  • The Four Million by O Henry (partly)


  • Benjamin Franklin by Edmund Morgan
  • My Life and Work by Henry Ford
  • Edison, His Life and Inventions by Frank Lewis Dyer & Thomas Commerford Martin
  • James Watt by Andrew Carnegie
  • The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick
  • Tubes by Andrew Blum
  • The Cavendish Laboratory by Egon Larsen
  • Creating the Twentieth Century by Vaclav Smil


  • The Panda's Thumb by Stephen Jay Gould
  • The Demon under the Microscope by Thomas Hager
  • Oxygen by Nick Lane
  • The Fossil Hunter by Shelley Emling

Biology (read partly)

  • Contributions to the theory of Natural Selection by Alfred Russel Wallace
  • On the study of Zoology by Thomas Henry Huxley
  • The Naturalist on the River Amazons by Henry Bates
  • Life's Engines: How Microbes made earth habitable by Paul Falkowski


  • How to Fail at almost everything and still win Big by Scott Adams
  • What I saw at the Revolution - My years in the Reagan era by Peggy Noonan

General (read partly)

  • Lives of the Ancient Grecians and Romans by Plutarch
  • The Spirit of Japan by Rabindranath Tagore
  • Dreams to Automobiles by Len Larson
  • The Early History of the Airplane by Orville and Wilbur Wright

Chemistry (all read partly)

  • Vital Forces by Graeme Hunter
  • Familiar Letters on Chemistry by Frieherr von Justus Leibig
  • Experiments and Observations on Different kinds of Air by Joseph Priestley
  • Elements of chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier

Tamil (all read partly)

  • Purananooru commentary by UVe Swaminatha Iyer
  • Silappadikaram commentary by UVe Swaminatha Iyer
  • Madrasapatnam by KRA Narasiah
  • Paalarril oru Pagarkanavu - essays by Kalki
  • Magaraajanai Iru - essays by Kalki
  • Mamallapuram 2010 by R Nagaswamy
  • Thillaiyil oru Kolllaikkaaran by Anusha Venkatesh
  • Payana Katturai - Mamallapuram - by Kalki
  • Pullamangai by S Vasanthi

I read quite a number of things online (several in Wikipedia), including long essays. Scott Adams' blog was perhaps the most mind-altering.