Before I go to the grocery store

What is our place in the universe? To know this, it is important to know who we are and where we came from. Anthropologists believe that modern humans have existed on earth for roughly 300,000 years. If I used my calculator correctly that translates to 0.008% of the time all life has existed on this planet. Indeed, we are not even a blip on the radar of time!

What were our ancestors like? As I mentioned, modern humans evolved 300,000 years ago from an earlier species. We know from bones that at least 150,000 years ago, humans had the same anatomy- the same brain size and capacity for thought that we have today. Did they have history and art and culture like we do? Did they express love and hope and sorrow? We do not know because their lives are lost to us. All of modern human is confined to the last 10,000 years. Written history is even shorter, around half that time. Our collective memory is short.

We know that modern humans came out of Africa 50,000 years ago. Then, there were two catastrophic bottleneck events that nearly wiped us out, and reduced modern human populations to a few thousand people (from whom we are all descendants). That was the closest that our ancestors came to extinction and because they survived we can watch IPL cricket matches today on flat-screen TVs.

But though all of our history is 10,000 years old, a few of our Paleolithic ancestors left us some of our finest art. Let me end on an upbeat note before I go to the grocery store to pick up cashews for pulao that is being cooked today.

This cave painting at Chauvet-Pont d’Arc from 36,000 is one of the OLDEST works of art that humans created that we have found. Isn’t it gorgeous?

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(The paintings of these lions at Chauvet-Pont d’Arc are twice as old as the bison paintings at Altamira mentioned in “Agantuk,” which are ~16,000 years old)

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Tea time

No one could have predicted in 1690 that in 50 years tea would become the national drink of England. Tea was perhaps the first truly global commodity. The East India Company had a wildly successful marketing campaign to popularize tea in its early years, but all of it came from China. Along with tea, came all the paraphernalia, cups and plates, colloquially still referred to as “china”.

Back then, the well-known tea merchant, Twining’s opened both a coffee-shop and a tea-shop, and was more convinced that coffee would pick up sooner.

It is fascinating how tea, an ancient Chinese drink (that they still drink without sugar or milk) took off in England at the same time that sugarcane became widely available. The English were the first to popularize and widely consume tea with milk and sugar.

A few years later, tea cultivation was introduced in India to break the trade imbalance with China caused by tea importation. Tea in India has never looked back since.

Hokusai and the pursuit of perfection

Hokusai is by far the most famous Japanese artist in the world. The Great Wave off Kanagawa from “36 Views of Mount Fuji” is well known everywhere.

Hokusai was a creative genius but he was very humble. He painted all his life and was famous, but is known to have said- “I didn’t do anything worthwhile until I was fifty.” He also said, if I can keep painting until I am 110, I will finally learn the true nature of things.

One story about Hokusai demonstrates his genius. He was asked to participate in the drawing competition at the royal court of Shogun Tokugawa Ienari. For his depiction of the Tatsuta River in Japan with red maple trees, he drew a bold, blue curve on a white canvas with his paint brush and then chased a chicken with its feet dipped in red ink across the curve to make the leaves. Needless to say, Hokusai was the winner!

A is for aleph

Take a good look. This looks like an ox’s head, and comes from an Egyptian hieroglyph. This is the aleph, the first symbol of the ancient Phoenician alphabet. The Greeks had no sound for it, so they flipped it around and called it Alpha. That’s our letter A now.

The Phoenicians were responsible for popularizing a brilliant concept- the alphabet.

For a time, hieroglyphics, cuneiform and alphabets were all used together. Hieroglyphs were for display, cuneiform was for bureaucracy, and the alphabet and numbers were for trading.

The Egyptians used hieroglyphics for thousands of years… but if you thought they were dead, well they’re back now 😂😊😉🤔👍🏽👌🏾

But more on writing… literacy and numeracy of the greatest inventions of human history, and we have no idea whose brilliant ideas they were. The oldest verifiable use of number comes from the Sumerians. The oldest known alphabet is the Phoenician one.

People had been speaking and counting for thousands of years before writing and numbers were invented, but only fragments of that past remain.

It still amazes me that the entirety of early cultures (including all of the Vedas) relied on the capacity of humans to remember. Sanskrit, for example, was formalized as a written language much much later. And that is why we have “sruti” and “smriti” to categorize the early Hindu texts… these were books that were heard and remembered though it feels weird to call them “books” after that realization.

The expanding universe

It is Monday morning and I feel miserable like the rest of you, so I’d like to share a few random thoughts on the creation of the universe and how Einstein was wrong.

Einstein assumed like Newton did before him that the universe was static- that it did not move or expand. To account for this, after developing the general theory of relativity, he introduced a “cosmological constant” to his field equations.

Of course Einstein changed his mind and agreed the universe was expanding after Hubble’s astronomical experiments. He got rid of the “cosmological constant”.

But “expanding” is a terrible way to put it because you immediately follow up with the question- what is the infinite universe expanding into?

“Stretching” is a better word. The universe is stretching like a rubber band. Gravity would predict that the stretching of the universe would slow down, but it is actually speeding up! And like a rubber band, the universe might actually snap from stretching.

(No one knows for sure if and when this will happen).

Up until the mid-90s the consensus was that the stretching of the universe was slowing down due to gravitational potential energy of stars and galaxies would finally exceed the kinetic energy of expansion. You could extrapolate this back to a rapid collapse- the Big Crunch- when everything would fall back into a heap. But this isn’t happening- the universe is stretching, not falling.

For the longest time, people felt that dark matter alone (created during the Big Bang) provided the extra gravitational pull to keep the galaxies together. But it isn’t.

The current theory is that there is a “repulsive” or opposite gravitational force called dark energy that has outbalanced true gravity for the last 6 billion years. So though Einstein was wrong, we need his cosmological constant to balance the equation against gravity. But no one really knows why the universe is expanding faster.

Regarding the creation of the universe, scientists can’t get to the Big Bang but can extrapolate to tantalizing close- to less than a microsecond of when it happened! Note that the Big Bang Theory doesn’t actually say what banged or why it banged.

But what happened before the first microsecond is mysterious to everyone. No one knows how the universe was actually created.

Another Paris

No city is a postcard. Not even Paris.

I took a lot of photos of a grand, magical city. That is only one snapshot. My lasting image of Paris will be the sad look of a poor Syrian refugee and her small child begging on a cold, wet Easter Day at Place de la Concorde at the same spot where Napoleon’s million-man army marched across Europe’s grandest boulevard.

The romantic movies about Paris will show you a sanitized Left Bank and Montmartre. They will not show you the Paris in which Eastern European migrants play classical violin in Metro stations that reek of urine. They will not show you the sad faces of the homeless refugees or the marginalized African immigrants.

The French Revolution did not resolve the tension in Paris. Neither did La Belle Époque. Nor did the liberation of the former colonies. These are convenient myths. The tensions of poverty, multiculturalism, and race are there in Paris, as in all major cities, to see if you have the eyes to notice it.

A brief history of the history of timekeeping

We take for granted that things are as they should be often without understanding why. Clock hands move “Clockwise” because they followed sundials. If human civilizations had developed primarily in the Southern Hemisphere, “clockwise” would be in the opposite direction.

Do you ever wonder why there are 60 seconds to a minute and 60 minutes to an hour? Blame the Babylonians. They loved the number 60 and used it as a base for their mathematics. There are many theories as to why the Babylonians liked 60, but the most plausible is that 60 is a useful number that can be divided by many others like 1,2,3,4,5, and 6 (and the Babylonians didn’t use fractions). That’s why there are also 6X60=360 degrees in a circle.

The single greatest development in time-keeping was the pendulum. Galileo was said to have thought of it on seeing the periodic motion of an incense bowl in the nave of a monastery. Though Huygens was the first to apply it to clocks.

Before train travel become common in the mid-1800s there was no concept of standardized time. Every town decided it’s own time based on the position of the sun, and kept an official clock.

In Bangla, we use “muhurta” quite differently from its original meaning, roughly corresponding to 48 minutes of standard time. We use it synonymously with “palak”, the time for the blink of an eyelid!