Geek Nation Proudly Acknowledges Indian Science

book jacket for a collection of reports on what scientists in India are doingBeing an American non-scientist, I can say if I represent many Americans we have no idea what scientists around the world are doing. I don’t remember how I came across Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World, by Angela Saint (2011) but I loved the steampunkish cover so checked it out of the library to see what it covered.

As usual, I have let my books stack up and now I am behind and need to return some to the library and this is one of them. Unfortunately, the paper back book is printed on very cheap paper and is already yellow and faded and feels rough like molecules of paper are flaking off to touch. The print has dulled from black to a middle gray, and the type is 12 points or so but hard for me with my bad eyes to read.

This is the long way of saying, I didn’t read the whole thing. The random passage reading makes me wish my eyes could take it, but they can’t. It is fascinating to get a view into India’s science juxtaposed as she does with some of the millennia of Indian living, such as the Hindu attitude towards cows.

Their civilization is so ancient compared to the few hundred of America, and ours took some of the best but some of the worst from Europe as a jumping off point. (The Enlightenment = good, Puritanical notions = bad). But American science has been and remains on the super speed exponential growth continuum and we have gone from taking baths is bad for you (or maybe cold baths are “bracing” rather than miserable) to antibacterial soap everywhere and laws mandating hand washing.

Of course, with the current government, science is not being treated like something God gave us brains to figure out, but prefers the dogma of ancient times when some people thought the world was flat and about 5 days walk in any direction. (I exaggerate, maybe it was 5 days walk by camel or horse!)

Some things seem to be a universal need through all time: how to tell if someone is lying or telling the truth? Torture has long been the go to technique and remains popular with Republicans and religions. Police and judicial systems really need to know, but even “lie-detectors” can be beat.

Chapter 5, The Mindreading Machine, seems to have solved the problem in a fascinating way. But like so many advances, there are reasons to be skeptical (perhaps), but then fingerprints were once not accepted as indisputable proof of unique individuals.

There have been unscientific assessments of “criminality” before, such as phrenology referenced briefly on p. 146, basically claimed the bumps on human skulls had meaning as to personality characteristics. Then there was the group that decided to measure all the features of criminals and compile them into a method of determining criminals by the lengths of their noses or similar silliness (crainiometry  and anthropometry).

But lie detectors differed by seeking to measure the THOUGHTS of a person, in particular, nervousness and involuntary bodily responses when trying to lie. Many science fiction and fantasy stories have this dilemma of telling truth from lies, betrayal and trust, as a source of conflict in them.

Books about how to read body language turn out to be pretty accurate and body language is one reason why audio does not communicate as much FACTUAL information for our brains to process than the full use of all senses. We are not even necessarily conscious of why a person seems menacing or contemptuous or lying, but it is scientific fact that there are things that happen in the brain that cause visible manifestations of what we are thinking about.

Personally, I would like all elected politicians to have to be on lie detectors whenever they speak. Yes, I understand the benefit of white lies, and the necessity of lies by omission as a necessary evil in this world, but things have gotten so out of balance now that even presidents and senators and every stinking politician seems to lie without remorse or even acknowledging that what they are saying is, in fact, completely and utter nonsense and worse: deliberately false or opposite “alternative facts” from provable reality.

The author describes the high-profile murder case of Aditi Sharma, an Indian woman from a middle-class family “who was hooked up to a truth machine in a government forensic laboratory in Mumbai.”

The last thing I heard, she failed the test, and now it’s being used as evidence against her. (p. 147)

Knowing nothing about Indian law, I can only assume she was not permitted to refuse the test, and they may not have any conditions like our 5th Amendment that allows you not to incriminate yourself. In fact, I am not sure our 5th Amendment rights are all that solid, since, while you CAN refuse to take a breathalyzer test, that is statutorily an admission of guilt. This seems to me to violate the spirit of the 5th. Ditto urine testing which is a Republican favorite for welfare recipients and corporations just because they can.

The author cites how under policed India is and that is why the government spent resources to help police cope with the degree of crime.

I will not go into the entire list of social ills and systemic problems that lead to criminality in many cases. That requires a change of the human heart, not scientific inventions.

The author goes to “a slummy district of Mumbai called Kalina” where scientists at the Directorate of Forensic Science Laboratory are “experimenting with a truth machine.” (p. 148)

She met with Dr. Sunny Joseph to learn about the truth machine.

Although it’s routine for forensic teams in Western countries to collect fingerprints, DNA, sperm and blood samples from crime scenes, forensic science is fairly new to India. Back in 1897, the Kolkata police did set up the world’s first fingerprinting bureau — before even Scotland Yard in London — but for some unknown reason, this early foray into forensic science didn’t spread to the rest of the nation. When a terrorist bomb hit a market in New Delhi in 2008, for example, newspaper reported that officers rushed to clean the crime scene with buckets of water, which meant that, by the time investigators arrived to collect the forensic data they needed, there was none left. In fact, many Indian police teams don’t use forensics at all. (p. 149)

Dr. Joseph had studied the brain in people with obsessive compulsive disorder which seemed to be located in the brain “near the back of the skull, known as the anterior cingulate.”

And this taught Joseph the basic principle behind the truth machine used in this laboratory: that many aspects of human behavior, personality and action are localized in sections of the brain. Not quite in the order that phrenologists imagined centuries ago, but actually still quite specific. (p. 150)

Details of brain research are incorporated as well as the “hardware behind the Brain electrical Oscillations Signature test . . . a common, hundred-year-old piece of technology know as the electroencephalogram. ”

It comprises a skullcap and wires, and it detects tiny fluctuations in brain activity. It works because the brain sends tiny but measurable nerve signals to different parts of the body using small electrical impulses (each between a nanovolt and 100 microvolts, which is roughly the amount of power needs to light a hundred-thousandth of a light bulb). From the scalp, it’s possible to detect these tiny signals. The drawback is that the readings are fuzzy, making it difficult to pin down activity to an exact part of the brain. (p. 154)

“Different mental states produce their own frequencies.” Low states are drowsy states, high are alert. These can be recorded.

She mentions an American scientist, Lawrence Farwell, who pursued similar uses for the electroencephalogram. The concept involves showing  a suspect “some photographs of different crime scenes, and when he or she spotted one they recognized or which had some personal significance to them, their brain might produce the characteristic P300 bump on an electroencephalogram.” (p. 155)

He has failed so far, she says to get his method accepted as reliable evidence in the American courts.

In India, the story is different. The inventor of the Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature test — a psychologist from Bengalurur called Champadi Raman Mukundan — used research similar to Farewell’s when he was developing his software. Joseph tells me that Mukundan created a complicated set of algorithms, which process the data that comes out of an electroencephalogram (not just the P300 wav, but other factors too), and that he uses this to decide whether or not the suspect is telling the truth.” (p. 155)

The author also asked him ‘if suspects are scared of sitting in that bare white room, having their fate decided by a machine, however powerful it may be.”

He pauses, swivels away from his computer monitor and looks squarely into my eyes. “I’ll tel you. I’ll tell you. They are so, so much relieved to be here. They’re so much happy to be here with us, because we’re not scary. We talk to them nicely. Just imagine,” he says. “This is better than the police. You can imagine in India the way the police must be dealing with them.” (p. 154)

You can read the book if you want more details, but the gist of it is that the woman accused of murder had to have had the experience of doing so for her brain to respond with the measurable activity registered.

The author states that she is skeptical. Dr. Joseph assures here that experiences can’t be planted by the police. I to am skeptical. What about hypnosis where people respond to cues by doing absurd actions, like barking like a dog? Or the known euro plasticity of the brain to be able to visualize IN YOUR MIND’S EYE, repeatedly doing something so often, you train your body to respond faster to an oncoming tennis ball and improve your tennis game?

Under lengthy interrogation, where police might repeat false things over and over it might corrode reality, like our mainstream media today and the politicians who repeatedly lie to the point that some people believe them and refuse to believe any evidence and facts to the contrary. Gaslighting is a well-known psychology technique to make people doubt their own lived experiences.

And then of course, from my point of view, I have to say that widespread misogyny and sexism makes me question whether or not the algorithms developed were based on male brains for female brains because surely there would be differences just like women have different symptoms of heart attacks and are dismissed and denied they are actually sick because their brains may respond differently from standard (aka male) data.

I have been researching pain and the measurement of pain for some time now. It really bothers me that there is no objective measurement of pain. I have lightly investigated the possibility of frequency or electrical tracings as a method of identifying an exact source of pain (versus referred pain) and degree of pain (too relative). I wonder if this process could be used for that?

The lack of billions of dollars for funding in India compared to the US for such things as ERD pills really becomes apparent in some of her descriptions of the places research is done.

I also admire anyone who can master multiple languages, and the Indian people end up learning multiples plus English plus Latin for all the medical terms and more. I suspect that Indian scientists are better than Americans for remembering things and probably diverse thinking because of the nature and complexity of their history and contemporary lives. Average people (which I think may too often mean American people, can remember 7 digits on average (plus 2 some say).

When I look at Indian names and their written language, I think wow, I could never learn that. And example of the name of a town the author also visits is: Thiruvananthapuram. This word was too long for me to remember hardly any of it. I had to hold the book in one hand with a Post-it note demarcating the word and my thumb moving along as I added letters to this post with one finger-typing.

Clearly, if my brain were hooked up to the thinking machine, there would be a minimal number of brain sputters and sweating palms and all kinds of biological stress responses just trying to remember how to spell a city name. So I am not sure if we can directly correlate active electrical impulses in the brain with “remembering” a crime scene per se.

If the murder victim had died in the home that the murderer and victim lived in, surely that would demonstrate the “experience” of being in the house. Seeing a knife photo from a kitchen after that might lead the mind to jump and ASSUME, trying to build a story around it as all brains do to make sense of the world, that the knife was her own knife and she might be tricked into imagining that knife in her hand. The brain cannot distinguish between ACTUALLY HOLDING A KNIFE and IMAGINING holding a knife.

I question the assumptions of the science and the conclusions of the meaning of the data responses to accurately be interpreted as REAL versus imaginary. Similarly, a common story trope exists based on reality that some people feel guilt of death EVEN WHEN NOT BY THEIR OWN HAND, such as escaping from a burning building and not saving another person even if it was never possible. So the brain would surely visualize the guilt, the leaving of the other person, and possibly the screams and imagine the terror on the dying by fire victim’s face. EVEN IF THEY DID NOT EXPERIENCE that at all.

When science is going to make life and death decisions for people, we are in trouble if we do not substantially question the basis of all decisions at every step of the way. Perfect duplication of results done by another group of scientists, test subjects, and large scale cohorts must be rigorously tested.

While it would be nice to imagine a completely unbiased and objective measurement of validity of  people and their actions, I remain skeptical. Too much sexism, prejudice, and beliefs are hard coded without realizing it even in objective algorithms. Maybe the percentage of impulse would be less for a tiny woman or conversely, for a large man. Older or younger, Male or female. Educated or not. Untouchable caste or upper class.

But boy, I would like to see a device that could prove politicians the liars and  criminals we know too many are.















The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel

book jacket photo of the ladies of the titleThe Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel (2016)

I saw her talking about this, her latest book, on BookTV and reserved it immediately from the library. There was a queue.


Her book, Longitude, is one of my top ten favorite books that I loved so much I bought it. Even though I owned that copy book jacket photo of the clock an the inventorwhen the illustrated version came out, I really wanted it too, but had begun my mostly successful attempt to stop cold turkey my buying books addiction (owned more than 3,000 at one time) so settled for savoring the library’s copy of it.


She has some other good books too, the link on her name as author takes you to her Goobook jacket painting snips of Galileo and one of his daughterdreads page where another one I liked, Galileo’s Daughter is on the list.


This one is sad as I recall. How could it not be?


Like the recently book to movie , Hidden Figures, that shows women HAVE ALWAYS BEEN THERE in some way or other WHEN ALLOWED but too often erased from the records kept at the authority of men, I hope The Glass Universe also get a film treatment of it. Be sure to check Book TV for her discussion of it to though because that was delightful.

The really short version is that the director of the Harvard University Observatory had the brilliant idea to take photographs of the night sky for a long term (decades) documentation project. Hmm, I was just rereading the first few pages and am a little confused who first had the decades long concept. Dr. Henry Draper was the astronomer who began taking photographs of the night sky on glass plates coated with chemicals to react with the starlight. But whether Henry initially planned it to be decades long or Pickering decided to is not clear at the start of the book. Some of both perhaps, since they were friends as were all the astronomers of the day, being so few and so specialized.

Mr. Draper had been a professor at New York University and planned to pursue a project with his own observatory to resolve “the seemingly intractable age-old mystery of the chemical composition of the stars.” (p. 5) Mr. Draper had been awarded medals and was elected to prestigious scientific organizations for his STELLAR PHOTOGRAPHY. [Stellar in the photography of stars rather than as an adjective of achievement.] He died suddenly, unexpectedly, too shortly after retirement to make much photographs as he planned, just 300.

Professor Edward Pickering was the Harvard Observatory director who contacted his widow, Mrs. Anna Palmer Draper, after Henry’s death to offer to help. Pickering had previously offered Henry Harvard resources to “decipher the spectral patterns by measuring them with specialized equipment at Harvard.” Henry had declined, expecting to be able to make his own equipment. He died before he could do so.

November 15, 1882 is the night Sobel opens the story with, which was when Henry collapsed and then died 5 days later from pleurisy that infected his heart. Henry, 45 years old,  had been out hunting two weeks before in the Rockies and suffered exposure when stranded without shelter from a sudden blizzard.

While this is the story of “underdogs” getting a chance to shine, it is hard to reflect on the societal forces that got everyone to this precise set of circumstances in the first place. In 1882 women couldn’t vote, and couldn’t do much of anything beyond wives and mothers. However, the sister schools of the Ivy League had been founded and [white] women were getting higher education at a superior level. They studied mathematics and other coursework that demanded intellectual rigor rather than how to wash dishes.

Mrs. [Mary] Anna Palmer Draper is defined with her “maiden” name because she was an heiress. She lived with Henry in the home her late father built from his income as a “railroad and real estate magnate” named Cortlandt Palmer.

She and Henry were notables among notables. Thomas Edison was at dinner party the night Henry took ill.

I am not sure if Henry Draper was the first to “see” that stars were different colors in the scientific discovery sense, probably not since people have been star gazing forever I think. But he did figure out how to take the photographs “through a prism that split starlight into its spectrum of component colors. Although the photographic process reduced the rainbow hues to black and white, the images preserved tell tale patterns of lines within each spectrum — lines that hinted at the stars’ constituent elements.

Henry’s father was also a man of wealth. He was “the first physician in the family to mix medicine with active research in CHEMISTRY and ASTRONOMY. Obviously, having a parent with money, education and expertise in these fields made Henry Draper possible. Had he been poor, a woman, another race, whatever brilliance of his mind grasped that a photograph could be made using a prism that would show meaningful scientific information could not have happened. The average poor, non-educated, or otherwise socially disadvantaged might never see a prism or heard the word or have the significance explained to them to make the intellectual leap that colors of the stars showed chemical composition.

BIG DIGRESSION, not related to the book, but for photographers
Skip this part if you have no interest in night photography.

I know the stars have colors because I have been a night photographer for over ten years now. Not a stellar photographer with the equipment to move along with the rotation of the earth so that the stars remain stationary to the photograph plate (sensor) since that takes special equipment, but easily available today. I generally like the kind of night photographs that show the star “trails” recorded by long exposure and the earth rotation which makes it look like the *stars* are moving in a photograph.

The direction the camera is pointed, BTW, changes the “direction” the stars move. Point north and you will get the stars circling around the North Star. If you are interested in more about night photography, I personally recommend Lance Keimig workshops. He is also in the group, National Parks at Night, where you will see many variations on photographing the stars at night.  I participated in at the Zion National Park location in 2016. He has written The Definitive book on night photography, The Nightskye, now in it’s second edition.

Dennis Mammana is an actual sky photography, or I guess the proper term is astrophotographer. Plus he is an actual astronomer. He lives in the darkest town on the continental United States. FYI, if you go, rent vehicle in advance and make sure it is 4 wheel-drive with high ground clearance. I was fortunate that a last minute idea to hop out to see San Diego just because I had never seen it before using a really cheap (alas now bankrupt) air travel company, that he happened to do be doing a photographing the night sky at Borrego Park which I discovered 2 days before my flight and reserved a spot for and attended to my great enjoyment. Except the car part. No four wheel drives were left to rent, so it was a bit tricky, but we drove in a caravan so if I got stuck in the massive deep sand tracks, someone *might* be able to get me out. No extra room to maneuver in places though! Dennis is a great guy, kind and knowledgeable.

Okay, back to the book.

I  am too lazy to Google for more details as to how women who did math became known as computers. Obviously when contemporary people talk about computers they picture a machine. I suspect that since the job was to compute numbers, that’s why the original people that did those computations became called computers. Again too lazy to check if there were men computers at that time as well, or did the drudgery and detail already be deemed “women’s work” like typing became.

Anyway, Sobel mentions the “meagre wages” the workers got without digressing off on a comparison to what the professors made or what the Observatory director made. This is not the book for that. But the sheer injustice of it all just burns me up.

The book jackets gives a nice summary paragraph about the main women characters of this book:

They helped discern what the stars were made of divided the stars into meaningful categories for further research, and even found a way to measure distances across space by starlight. Their ranks included Williamina Fleming a Scottish immigrant originally hired as a MAID who went on to identify TEN NOVAE and more than THREE THOUSAND VISIBLE STARS; Annie Jump Cannon, who designed a stellar CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM that was adopted by astronomer the world over and is still in use today; and Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne, who in 1956 because the FIRST WOMAN PROFESSOR of Astronomy at HARVARD — and Harvard’s first female department chair.

Annie Cannon is my favorite because the classification system she developed is astonishing; a work of art really as much as science.

Good book, worth a read as hers all are but particularly fascinating post “Hidden Figures” historical depiction of how it used to be that some of us lived through but this one is back further by a century so to speak, falling in the 19th Century at the start. That is, before World War I, and way before the Enigma and the “computing machine” used to solve it (IBM was already making computing machines by WWII).

One little example of the tasks another woman (one of six already employed as computers at Harvard) is described as:

No, Mr. Pickering told her, as far as he knew the practice [employing women as computers] was unique to Harvard, which currently retains six female computers. While it would be unseemly, Pickering conceded, to subject a lady to the fatigue, not to mention the cold in winter, or telescope observing, women with a knack for figures could be accommodated in the computing room, where they did credit to the profession. Selina Bond, for example, as the daughter of the observatory’s revered first director, William Cranch Bond, and also the sister of his equally revered successor, George Phillips Bond. She was currently assisting Professor William Rogers in fixing the exact positions (in the celestial equivalents of latitude and longitude) for the several thousand stars in Harvard’s zone of the heavens, as part of a worldwide stellar mapping project administered by the Astronomische Gesellschaft in Germany. Professor Rogers spent every clear night at the large transit instrument, noting the time individual stars crossed the spider threads in the eyepiece. Since air — even clear air – BENT the paths of light waves, shifting the stars’ APPARENT positions, Miss Bond applied the mathematical formula that connected Professor Rogers’s notations for atmospheric effects. She used additional formulas and tables to account for other influential factors, such as Earth’s progress in its annual orbit, the direction of its travel, and the wobble of its axis. (p. 9)

The first lady mentioned, Williamina Fleming, the one who was a Scottish immigrant met a far better fate than she would have otherwise because her husband abounded her while she was pregnant, but they kept her on at Harvard regardless. She even had funds and the courage to go back to Scotland to have the baby, left him in the care of her mother and grandmaster, and still had a job and money enough to come back to continue work at Harvard.

This is a woman who otherwise in other places, indeed most times and places, including today, would have been shamed, shunned, and forced into a life of poverty, child care, and possibly only left with prostitution as a way to pay for food for herself and her son. What a disgrace this world still remains over a century later. she’s the one who identified TEN NOVAES and more than 3,00 visible stars.

The book has an excellent bibliography, decent index, and a timeline that needed some graphic designer to make it visual, but one can get the gist. The center has a section of color photographs (at least those that had color) so it is fun to see the people mentioned in the book.

last note: I am a bit confused about something but just want to finish this and get on to other things I must do. The woman who was a maid — for Mrs. Henry Draper, in another place is referred to as the developer of a classification system, but then Annie Jump Cannon is the one who designed the Henry Draper classification system. Google and see what’s what if you wish.





The War on Science by Shawn Otto

book jacket
The War on Science:
Who’s waging it, Why it matters, What we can do about it by Shawn Otto (2016). Some of the people who wrote blurbs for the book are listed below and links to books where appropriate are included. Fabulous book, and if I hadn’t got Tuesday and wednesday mixed up on my phone calendar, I could have heard in speak. I was so very disappointed in myself for that. Buy the book; 500 pages is a long library read.

The following books are posted just to illustrate how big of a deal this book is showing writers who wrote the foreword and blurbs. Keep going past this for the actual blog content.

the-physics-of-star-trekforeword by Lawrence M. Krauss (he’s the guy that wrote the great The Physics of Star Trek)

book jacket photo of Bill NyeWriters of blurbs for the book include:Bill Nye (The Science Guy)


deep-economyBill McKibben, Michael E. Mann, Walter Mondale



Maria Konnikova (author of Mastermind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes)

Ben Bova — award-winning author of the Grand Tour sethe-transparent-societyries and former editorial director of Omni

David Byrne, scientist and award-winning author of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose between Privacy and Freedom?
[I don’t think we’ll be getting a vote.]

Continue reading The War on Science by Shawn Otto

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

book jacketThe Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines by Michael E. Mann (2012)

I saw this author on Book TV I think. I didn’t understand the part about the “hockey stick” but it is a graph he put together “demonstrating that global temperatures have risen in conjunction with the increase in industrialization and the use of fossil fuels.” from the front jacket copy.

This book is an approachable, good read that has illustrations and extensive notes (pp. 365 to 371 small print) and a bibliography.

Continue reading The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

The Gene by Ted Everson

book jacket with dha strand backgroundThe Gene: A Historical Perspective by Ted Everson (a Greenwood Guide to Great Ideas in Science series), 2007

What an excellent book! Probably a good series; I will have to pick up some of the others at the library. I was planning on just skipping to some of the contemporary issues, like how GMO has changed food (for the worse in my opinion although I have read that some changes really are beneficial, i.e. not all are equal. However, it seems to me (being from farm country) that if you have to buy seed from specific sources for the profit of investors, and said seeds are not going to reproduce, thus forcing the farmers to buy new seed each year, that is morally, ethically, and uniquely modern wrong. The lawsuits about privatized seeds crossing into another’s farm and suing that farmer for unfair use or some such crap is appalling. Indeed many aspects of our actual lives have or may become privatized and then it will be a true dystopia, like “The Water Knife” describes (water have and have not), or news reports of Nestle chairman saying water isn’t a right, and proprietary food will be next. There aren’t enough antique seeds left in the world to sustain non-proprietary food seeds. Similarly I am concerned that there will be patents on gene splicing that could cure multiple sclerosis (imagine what that or cancer cures would bring in for revenue! 🙁 from research funded by the government of course).

Anyway, the book covers some of this, and ethical issues like pre-existing condition clauses in insurance (but as long as Obamacare holds, that is less a concern than it was in 2007.

The really interesting part was the first chapter actually! The history. I assumed there wouldn’t be much since genes were not discovered until modern times, but it turns out Aristotle and some others had a clue! Fascinating to see how such ancient people could figure out so much only to have it squelched by religions. Pity as a species we have seemed to killed off all the best in senseless wars and even noble wars, because clearly there are no longer people like Aristotle possible.

Good read, well written.