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!

Faraday and the Royal Society

A bookbinder’s apprentice got enthralled by a volume of Encyclopaedia Britannica and a slim book of chemistry written for English ladies of the day. He then went on to change the course of history by developing the basic principles that power all of modern society.

More than anyone else, Michael Faraday was the “purest” experimental scientist. He’s the reason why we have practical applications for electricity.

In Faraday’s time, there were only around 100 professional scientists in England, but each was a giant. Everyone wanted to be a member of the Royal Society and hang out there. Among other things, the Royal Society published the first scientific journal. Some of the most epic feuds of all time (in science at least) happened at the Royal Society- Newton vs. Hooke; Faraday vs. Davy. Think about it: the guy who coined the most important term in biology, “cell” vs. the father of modern physics; the guy who was one of the greatest chemists of all time vs. the guy who made electricity practical for humanity…

And these guys hated each other on a personal level!

Climate change and a horror story

Here is a fantastic, nearly implausible story about how climate change in the early 1800s lead to one of the most iconic horror stories in history.

The year 1816, was known throughout Europe as “the Year Without a Summer”. There was snow in June and July and massive food shortages. Overall, there were drastic weather changes globally. The cause of the summerless 1816, was the massive eruption of the volcano Mt Tambora in 1815, on the Indonesian island of Sambawa. This was the largest volcanic eruption in human history. For reference, the eruption of Mt. Tambora was 1,000 times greater than the eruption of the impossible to pronounce volcano that caused travel disruptions in Iceland in 2010! At least 70,000 died immediately from the eruption of Mt. Tambora and ~200,000 the following year.

Fast forward to 1816. To escape the dreary weather back in London, a young group of poets decided to go to Switzerland. On Lake Geneva, they encountered major thunderstorms due to volcano-induced climate change, and were forced to stay indoors and tell ghost stories.

As it happens, during one of these thunderstorms one of these poets (Lord Byron) asked the rest of the group to write ghost stories. Present in Geneva that evening were PB Shelley and Mary Godwin (later Shelley).

In Geneva, Mary Godwin conceived the story we now know as Frankenstein.

Climate change created Frankenstein, literally!

Urdu is Greek to me

A peculiarity of the Washington D.C. area is that many of taxi-drivers are South Asian immigrants, mostly of Pakistani origin. I don’t know if it is the shared first-generation immigrant experience or the sense that you can tell another brown person in a language you share, things you wouldn’t otherwise share with complete strangers, but I’ve had some interesting conversations on taxi-rides of various durations.The introduction phase as I enter the cab usually follows a pattern. The cabdriver takes a quick look at me and asks, “Where are you from?” to which I answer “India”. The next question directed to me is, “do you speak Urdu?” to which I reply, “Hindi”. The taxi driver then dismissingly responds, “Ah, ek hi baat hai… It’s the same thing.” And then we proceed to converse in a completely intelligible language.

Of course, after I find out the cab-driver is a Pakistani who speaks Urdu to my Indian Hindi, I unconsciously search for differences in our languages. More often than not, the speaker uses the (aap) aao/baitho verbs that I typically associate with Punjab/Haryana, instead of the aayen/baithen of formal airline announcements or the daily-use North Indian aiye/baithiye. In other words, my Urdu-speaking cab-driver in North Virginia usually sounds like a Punjabi Hindi-speaking cab-driver in Delhi. How disappointing!

So what exactly is Urdu?

Of course there are volumes written on this topic, and I’m sure all of them are right. But I’ve realized that I never really thought of this question in a meaningful personal way.

I learned rudimentary Hindi after I had already picked up Bangla quite well. As such, like many non-native speakers of the language, I searched for similarities with Bangla. My first exposure with very Sanskritized Hindi was in watching the hugely popular Mahabharat (scripted by the late Dr. Rahi Masoom Raza). I was elated. Here was a Hindi with kintu/evam (instead of the more common magar/aur) that sounded very much like an educated man’s Bangla. I’d argue that because of mutual intelligibility with other Indic languages through copious use of Sanskrit, Ramayan and Mahabharat immediately made Hindi approachable to non-native speakers at a scale that even Bollywood had not achieved.

A few years later The Sword of Tipu Sultan aired on national television. Probably, by most measures, it could be called Urdu or Urdu-influenced. It introduced me to qaum and watan-parasti. But, ironically, as I think back to those days now, I never considered it Urdu either.

So what did I think was Urdu back then?

Urdu was always the other language, the one I didn’t understand. Anything I understood was Hindi. Regardless of whether it was a kavita or shayari or geet or ghazal, if I could make sense of nearly all the words, it was Hindi. There was no empiric formula: zindagi was as much Hindi as jivan was. Of course if Mahadevi Verma had been written in Nastaliq it would be Urdu to me. Faiz was always Urdu to me, but I’m sure Greek to many people who do claim to understand Urdu.  

But the important point that I’ve come to realize only now is that Urdu was always defined in my mind as an exclusionary construct- the other language, the one I couldn’t make sense of in script or speech. It was the language that other people who lived elsewhere, particularly in Pakistan knew. I’m not sure how this otherisation developed in my mind, but definitely the difference in script played a major part.

Of course by virtue of living in the United States, I’ve got plenty of friends and coworkers both Pakistani and Indian. When we speak, we shift back and forth seamlessly between English and Hindi or Urdu or whatever the mutually intelligible language is. Sometimes, they insert words that I’m not exactly sure I know the meaning of, and I’m sure I do the same. But the structure of the common language is the same. And, through the process of coming in touch with new words originating from Persian or Arabic or Sanskrit, to the ones I know, I’m increasing my stock of synonyms. I think both our languages are better for it.