Saturday 31 October 2020

The Alchemy of Air - 9 - Ten books that influenced me

I picked up this book from the now defunct Landmark bookshop at Spencer’s, along with Darwin’s Armada by Iain McCalman. The latter book was extraordinarily delightful and informative, describing the ocean voyages of four scientists, all biologists. I knew about Darwin and Wallace (my blog is named after Wallace), their co-discovery of Natural Selection, and the great divergence in their fame and fortunes. I also knew a bit about Thomas Huxley, famously called Darwin’s Bulldog. But the book gave very detailed information about their backgrounds, their voyages, adventures, travails, mishaps, discoveries, surprises, collaborations, friendships, mutual admiration, Wallace falling out of favour; absolutely riveting stories of nineteenth century biology, some of which I knew.

Of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, the heroes of Thomas Hager’s book, I knew nothing. My friend and high school chemistry teacher Mohan Krishnamurthy, says he spent a month teaching the Haber-Bosch process to his students, but I don’t remember reading it at all in school.

Or ever hearing about it. Anywhere.

I only vaguely knew that NKP, Nitrogen(N) Potassium(K) and Phosphorus(P) are important elements in fertilizers.

Hager’s book was eye opening in every single way. About agriculture, about chemistry, chemical engineering, about Germany, German industry, industrial espionage, guano, South America, the first and second world wars – I learnt so much about everyone of these areas. Along with Guns, Germs and Steel and Sivakamiyin Sabatham, I rank it the most informative in multiple domains that book I have read. A year or so later, I found his other book, The Demon under the Microscope, equally amazing, informative, and brilliantly narrated.

Hager talks about how vital nitrogen is to life – it is an essential element in every protein, in DNA, so in every plant and animal cell. But while Earth’s atmosphere is 80% nitrogen, it is in a form unusable except by a few microbes, or when it is transformed by lightning into usable nitrogen compounds. (This raises questions about evolution about which there are no books or any research that I have come across.)

The book starts with William Crookes’ challenge to the world’s scientists, to solve the Malthusian threat of famine to a growing human population. I was only aware of Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution. This book made me realize that Haber-Bosch had really given us the first Green revolution of the twentieth century.

The first two chapters survey the state of agriculture and fertilizers, across space and time  - ancient Rome, medieval China, colonial India, the Prairies in America and steppes in Russia. Saltpeter and other nitrogen fertilizer sources, are also raw material for explosives, and hence their critical for military use. The next three chapters discuss mountains of guano in South America, nitrates in the Atacama desert, how they were shipped to European and American farms, and the political and social turmoil in Peru and Chile.

The next section explains, first, Fritz Haber’s discovery of the process of making nitrogen form the atmospheric air. Haber succeeded where much more famous scientists before him failed. The book gives a brief history of the development of the German chemical industry, and companies like BASF. Haber’s success was astounding, but not sufficient. To make fertilizer on an industrial scale, required a vast number of other inventions, financing, investment and Government backing; and this was mostly overseen by Carl Bosch, an expert in metallurgy, who didn’t mind working physically with everything. The complexity and enormous difficulty of translating a laboratory invention to factory production, is superbly illustrated by the challenges that Bosch faced and the solutions he came up with. Hager narrates this in great detail, satisfying and enlightening for the engineer and scientist, not too difficult to understand for the lay reader. As difficult an accomplishment in writing as whatever Bosch accomplished in industrial production. This section is the core of the book and explains the development of the Haber-Bosch process, and its global success in averting famines and providing alternates for guano.

The third section explains the work of Haber in producing chemicals weapons for Germany, for WW1; his marital troubles because of this apparently unseemly activity; the conflict in Europe about whether he should be lauded as a man who fed the world, or a war criminal who produced deadly weapons. Haber, a Jew, converted to Christianity, feeling more German than Jewish. This didn’t help him a decade later, when Hitler rose to power. The book describes the terrible sufferings Germany went through after its defeat in the WW1, humiliation, hyperinflation, economic crash and the rise of Hitler and anti-Semitism. All this was new history to me; the social history is as fascinating as the scientific and technological one. BASF and Bosch came up with processes to make petrol substitutes from coal. Germany had a lot of coal but no oil, and this was vital. The Haber-Bosch process was also vital for German manufacture of ammunitions, especially explosives. The decline and disappointment of Haber and Bosch, the two scientists, as Germany conquered and colonised Europe and then was devastated by Allied Forces, is well narrated in this section. This also explains why these two people are almost unknown to most of the world, in spite of their inventing perhaps the most useful scientific process of the twentieth century.

There are surprising facts scattered around the book. For example, the Romans had a god of manure! India’s Gangetic plains were a major source of the best nitrates, and were exported to Britain both for fertile and ammunitions. This aspect of colonialism was unknown to me. Until reading these books I thought America is most influential country of the twentieth century; but I think Germany was at least equally influential. We see the world through an Anglo-American perspective, because of the dominance of English and Hollywood, and global media in general.

In 2013, I responded to an email within the THT email group about some strange phenomena in Indonesia, with a strange explanation. I replied to the group that the strange phenomenon had a name – the Wallace Line. This instigated Badri Seshadri, who was in the email group, to tell me I should start a blog and write such things there, for public consumption, rather than restrict it to a small group. I had already started the blog in 2012 on the Mayan Long Count date, but I hadn’t made it public. So I wrote about Haber-Bosch, based on Hager’s book, as my first public blog essay. Even Badri and Prof Swaminathan were quite impressed; usually they are the ones impressing other people. And my blog made its way into Badri’s blog honor list – a list of some of the most popular writers and most influential writers in Tamilnadu, all 100x bloggers. Badri wrote about this book in Tamil, in greater detail than I did. I reviewed this book at Gandhi Study center that year; in Tamil; and the small audience of about twenty-five stayed put.

I discovered Vaclav Smil via Hager, and a couple of years later Bill Gates stumbled upon Vaclav Smil too, featuring him often in his blog. Smil is an energy expert, an amazing analyst and opens up new worlds and perspectives also. But he is very technical, which doesn’t seem to suit the general public. But I find his books extraordinary also. For that too, I am doubly thankful for Hager’s book.

Literature essays in my blog

Chemistry essays in my blog

Agriculture essays in my blog

Saturday 24 October 2020

Buddha and the Sahebs - 8 - Ten books that influenced me


I picked up Charles Allen’s The Buddha and the Sahebs at the Eluru Library in Boag Road, Thyagaraya Nagar. It opened up a facet of Indian history that I was almost totally unaware of until then – the European contributions to the rediscovery of India’s past and its enormous role in shaping India’s present and future.

It was as shocking and eye-opening as The Lexus and the OliveTree which made me understand how unaware I was of current affairs, or Sivakamiyin Sabatham, which made me aware of my ignorance of Indian history and Tamil culture. The history I learnt in school, PS Senior Secondary school in Mylapore, was basically half about some aspects of India’s past, and half about British colonialism and India’s independence movement.

A common complaint among Indians nowadays, especially those who take up learning about Indian history in their twenties or later, not from academia but from reading books, tweets, blogs and attending lectures, is that there is too much stress on Guptas and Mughals and almost complete neglect of every other aspect of Indian history. Tamils feel the pang that Cholas and Pandyas are left out, Kannadigas about Hoysalas and Chalukyas, Telugus about Kakatiyas and Satavahanas and so on. Another complaint is that Leftists took over academia, obliterating the noble and glorious accomplishments of not just these dynasties but of poets, scientists, artists, philosophers of that period. While there is some truth to such allegations and angst, reading this made me aware of how widely, deeply, passionately and dispassionately, European scholars, primarily English, and some Indian collaborators had researched vast swathes of India’s buried past; and how much Indians owe an enormous debt to such scholarship. Allen and the geniuses in his book –William Jones, James Prinsep, Alexander Cunningham and others – almost turned me into an Anglophile.

Allen’s book is perhaps the most perfect and scholarly riposte that I have read, to Edward Said’s critique of colonial scholarship – “Orientalism”.

I found Said’s book practically unreadable; Allen’s book is unputdownable.

I later discovered that Allen followed in the footsteps of John Keay, several of whose books I have also enjoyed reading. I think that Indian academics have tossed out the baby of Orientalist scholarship along with the bathwater of European colonial exploitation, at least as far as school textbooks are concerned.

I read this book around 2009 or 2010 I think. I had read some other history books on India before this – Nilakanta Sastri’s History of South India, Abraham Eraly’s Gem in the Lotus (where I first read about Ajivakas), AL Basham’s The Wonder that was India, Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India, al Beruni’s Indica, Travels of ibn Batuta; and several others I don’t remember.

The Buddha and the Sahebs starts with the discovery, in the late eighteenth century, of several isolated pillars in some major cities lke Delhi and Prayagraj (Allahabad); and remote places like Vaishali, Lauriya Nandangarh and Sanchi in India. Some of them, like that in Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi and the Allahabad pillar, had inscriptions, not only in Persian in the Arabic script but also others in an archaic Nagari script and a then unknown script which no living Indian could read or recognize. Curious and adventurous Englishmen kept stumbling upon mounds, temples, buried and destroyed monuments, broken idols, abandoned cities, coins, and all kinds of objects, whose existence was a surprise and whose history was a closed book to the most learned Indians of that time. The bureaucrats and scholars brought over from England by the East India Company, to help the businessmen make money, collect taxes and administer society, found endless wonders wherever they looked – if they looked. The formal establishment of a society to study Indian history, geography, culture, literature, law, economy, music, science, medicine, religion etc organized the information they collected across the length and breadth of the land. The very act of organizing, discussing and theorizing produced a wealth of information that astounded eager audiences in Europe, who only had vague notions of what India was from Arabian tales, ancient Greek and Roman travelogues, and the chaotic, disjointed, and sometimes fanciful accounts of sailors and merchants.

The company’s adventurers not only explored India, but also all its surrounding territories – Nepal, Tibet, Burma, Ceylon. The recent field of archaeology was yielding rich treasures in Europe itself, about ancient Rome and Greece; and newly conquered old civilizations like Egypt and Mesopotamia. Some of the Indian pundits who were first skeptical and cautious about the English sahebs, later recognized that some of them were truly curious and eager scholars, and began to both help them and learn all the new fields of knowledge that the European Enlightenment, Renaissance and the  Industrial Revolution had to offer.

Allen explains the travels, discoveries, missteps, surprises, of these Orientalists, who published them under the auspices of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. The tales are as riveting as are their adventures. Their ignorance was sweeping in its scale; what amazed me was how much Indians too were ignorant of their own past, and substituted myth and legend and hearsay for actual history, with no sense of the scale of the eras or the volume and dimension of the events of their past. All of this is presented in school text books in bland and dull prose, as though Indians always knew all this history.

I had a chance to present this exciting story of the rediscovery of India’s past a few times; once at the Indianoil, Patna branch, thanks to a friend, Ganesh, who helped me travel and enjoy several places in Bihar. A second time for INTACH, at the New College in Royapettah, Chennai. And afterwards for THT and Ethiraj college.

The first reading of The Buddha and the Sahebs effected a substantial transformation in my understanding of history. And of the political social and cultural motives that inspired people and institutions to ignore and obfuscate it.

Literature essays in my blog

History essays in my blog

The Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Discovery of India's past

Tuesday 20 October 2020

Brhat Samhita - 7 - Ten books that influenced me

I stumbled upon Indian astronomy. And Varahamihira.

In 2004, I attended a series of weekend talks conducted by Dr Devadoss, an astronomer of Chennai, at the Birla Planetarium, Kotturpuram. It was about astronomy in general, but he mentioned the twenty seven stars in the Indian almanac and enumerated their English and Latin names. For the first time, the idea that India had a long and hoary history in astronomy that I was completely unaware of, struck me. But I didn't pursue it then.

At a series of talks by Dr Chitra Madhavan, on Indian history, at the Musiri house, I encountered Prof Swaminathan, who later gave a series of talks on the Oral Traditions of Sanskrit. This was a eye-opening, mind blowing, paradigm altering experience, as profound and as transformative as reading Sivakamiyin Sabatham or visiting Ellora.

Later I came to know that Prof Swaminathan and others were conducting a series of talks under the banner of Tamil Heritage Trust. He invited me to participate in a discussion about what other programs we could conduct. While others suggested Indian art, sculpture, painting, with such themes as Ajanta, Hampi, Tanjavur etc. I suggested Indian science, particularly astronomy.

"Wonderful", said Prof Swaminathan. "You give a talk on Indian astronomy". And he gave me a book titled Facets of Indian Astronomy by KV Sarma. Around this time, the mathematician and polymath N Balasubramanian (known to aficionados of tamil fiction as short story writer Nagupoliyan) announced he would start teaching Sanskrit. He had also attended Swaminathan's Oral Traditions lecture series at Badri Seshadri's invitation.

My father got suddenly ill and died around that time, on October 5, 2010. My astronomy lecture was scheduled for November 2010.

Preparing for the talk on Indian astronomy helped occupy my mind. Eerily, my father himself had to go to court regularly following my mother's death in 1981, and I suspect work helped abate the grief. For me also, preparing for this lecture, was a way to help dull the grief of my father's passing.

I searched for and stumbled upon several websites about the astronomy and mathematics of other ancient cultures during this time. My plan was to have a ten minute preamble about the Astronomy of Ancient cultures but I learnt a ton of stuff. Prof Swaminathan suggested that I turn it into two lectures, the first on ancient astronomy of other civilizations; the second on Indian astronomy. Which I did.

My first talk on Astronomy of Ancient Cultures went fine, if somewhat long, to a limited but attentive audience, with Deepavali fireworks exploding all around us. The second talk was postponed twice, to February, to accommodate Kathie Brobeck and Blake Wentworth, American speakers who were visiting India at that time.

In the meanwhile, my friend VSS Iyer gave me the soft copies (PDF files) of translations of ancient Sanskrit texts including Aryabhata's Aryabhatiyam, VarahaMihira's Brhat Samhita and Pancha Siddhantika, Bhaskara's Siddhanta Sironmani; and Surya Siddhanta. The Sanskrit classes of Balu sir were going along, and I visited the KV Sarma Library a couple of times with him. Balu sir, as a Sanskrit scholar and mathematician, had a deep interest in and knowledge of mathematics and astronomy in Sanskrit. He also personally knew KV Sarma and had interacted with him over the decades. He was well known among the Sanskrit/mathematics circle, especially by Dr Mamata Dash and Dr Sinirudhdha Dash, who were shishyas of KV Sarma, and then and now run the KV Sarma library and foundation.

And so I had a little more time to read the Sanskrit books and their translations at leisure. The mathematics and astronomy were in Aryabhata were delightful, if cryptic and confounding even for Balu sir. But the polymath Varahamihira is the one who struck a chord.

Especially his mangum opus Brhat Samhita

This was more about astrology than astronomy; but it really seemed to be about everything that Varahamihira could see or feel, on earth, not just in the sky. There were chapters on various planets. 

No surprise, right? But also a chapter on Comets. Oddly, no other classical Indian astronomer discussed them. A chapter on planetary conjunctions. Rain. The star Canopus (Agastya). The consellation Ursa Major (Sapta Rishi).

Then it got freaky. A chapter on Diamonds, pearls, rubies. Chapters on Cots; Seats; umbrellas. Perfumes. Pimples. Temples.

Cows, dogs, turles, horses, elephants. Rainbows, dust storms, thunderbolts. Commodities and their prices.

Who else in the world could discuss pimples, temples, thunderbolts and planetary conjunctions in one single book?!? Not even Isaac Asimov. No wonder al-Beruni was flummoxed by Varahamihira, in a way no other he was not by any other Indian jyotisha.

The chapter on Agastya is the one that pulled me in hook line and sinker. Ten beautiful poems, extolling and adoring Agastya in marvelous metaphors and imagery, not distinguishing between the rishi and the star.

The crowning touch was a chapter whose English title is "On the praise of Women" (Stree prashamsa). It may drive any modern feminist into a wordless fury, and probably drove Vatsyayana to jealous sighs. One suspects that Chidambaram Iyer, the translator was very tentative in the translation of this chapter, especially the last shloka about the actions of Shiva, when the apsara Tilottamma came to worship Shiva and Parvati.

Another interesting aspect was his eclipse proof, in a chapter titled Rahu-chaara, which I have explained in this essay

While the astronomy and mathematics in other Sanskrit books enthrall and delight with me their knowledge of and explanation of science and mathematics, it is the polymath spirit of Varahamihira and his unabashed delight in life and exposition as a rasika in Brihat Samhita, that captured my heart. And taught me, along with Richard Feynman and Alfred Russel Wallace, not to look at science drily and in detachment, but with delight and pleasure.

Related Links

Literature essays in my blog

Astronomy essays

KV Sarma Library and Foundation

Sunday 11 October 2020

Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection - 6 - Ten books that influenced me


For almost  every biologist, Charles Darwin is the supreme scientist, the pitamaha of the field. Alfred Russel Wallace is almost always mentioned as an afterthought, the also ran. And invariably only as someone who also discovered Natural Selection. The story is more complex and I have written elsewhere about him.

Wallace not only lived longer, explored more places and animals, observed uniquely, imagine wider and wrote better. Not only did he write better than Darwin, he wrote better than almost any other scientist in any other field. And he wrote so well and so lucidly, unabashed in his firmness of thought and felicity of expression.

This collection of essays is one such wonderful example. I found it in the Anna Centennial Library, started reading an essay or two, and was struck with wonder. I didnt know whether to marvel at the English, at the flow of thought, the breadth and depth of observations and inferences, their significance to biology, or how almost nothing I had read in scientific literature is so simple or elegant.

After reading this I started reading other original sources in English. I discovered that JBS Haldane, Thomas Huxley, Stephen Jay Gould, Nick Lane and Matt Ridley are other authors who I could read and understand at first go. Strangely the other books and essays of Wallace are not so easy to come by. No bookstore stocks them, only some are in Amazon. I particularly took a liking to his essay titled the Philosophy of the Birds' Nests; even the topic should astonish and provoke curiosity.

The obscurity of Wallace and his neglect by the scientific community were governed primarily by atheists, and to some extent Marxists, capturing scientific laboratories, journals, academia, media, entertainment etc. Religion has been more successfully attacked, mocked and derided in the twentieth century than in all previous centuries combined. Wallace's experiments with spirituality, and his speculation that the unique evolution of the Human race could not have come along by natural selection alone, were an existential threat to the atheistic dogma that governs science nowadays. But that is a pity, because he was truly a marvelous writer.

I hope you read and enjoy this book.

Alfred Russel Wallace - my essay in the Indian Express series 

சொர்கத்தின் பறவைகள் (my Tamil essay on Wallace)

Literature essays in my blog

Sunday 4 October 2020

Sivakamyin Sabatham 5 - Ten books that influenced me

Until this one, I listed English books. Sivakamiyin Sabatham was the perhaps the most influential Tamil book that I have ever read. Even more so than, Ponniyin Selvan, also written by Kalki. The latter is rated a far better books by most avid fans of Kalki, especially so by avid fans of Tamil historical novels. 

Until 1999, I used to think of India as a language of great literature and religion, but not of science and technology. This book totally changed my mind. So did some other books I read after I returned to India, and lectures I attended on various aspects of Indian culture, tradition, technology, thought, music. Almost all of these were missing from my school and college education. This transformed my concept of the world, of India, of education, of culture, and so many other things.

I also had a low opinion of monarchy and a high regard for democracy, until I read this book. One of the three heroes of this book, Mahendra Varma Pallava, was an extraordinary king, a polymath, a VichitraChitta. The Phantom and Tintin and Sherlock Holmes and such fictional heroes excited me in my childhood. Mahendra Varma and Alfred Russel Wallace and Brahmagupta and such others excited me in the last couple of decades.

This book also made me understand why India and other cultures had kings, advisors, sabhas, royally commissioned art and literature, and so on. Kalki in this story captured the spirit of the era in a way, not even a library of history books could do.

It is hard to state in a few paragraphs how much I learnt from this book, how much it inspired me to things in front of my eyes that I hadn't even noticed, how ignorant I had been of my own culture and language and art and science, how much it motivated me to reexamine all of these. I was fortunate to know enough Tamil to read and enjoy it. No other novel except Ponniyin Selvan has been as delightful a read in Tamil either. Kalki, the author, combined in his Tamil idiom and style, the humour of Wodehouse, the historical flourish of Walter Scott, the adventure of Alistair Maclean and Robert Louis Stevenson, the poetic feeling evoked by Wordsworth and Byron and the Brownings, and an emotional connection to art which no English writer I had read ever evoked about western art.

There is an English translation of this book by Pavithra Srinivasan, for those who cannot read Tamil. Venkatesh Ramakrishnan wrote a sequel in Tamil to Sivakamiyin Sabatham, titled Kanchi Taaragai.

Tamil essay on Sivakamiyin Sabatham

My essays on Literature