Fermi problems ?

What is a Fermi problem/ estimate? 

During the recent decades of Big Data, machine learning and deep learning together with powerful computing hardware, it is becoming a common practice to deal with voluminous data to seek solutions. As the 1991 economics Nobel laureate Ronald H Coase famously said “ if you torture data enough, it will confess”. 

During the Covid Pandemic, there was a frequent reference to enough data not being available to take relevant policy decisions. The situation reminded me of the brilliant Physicist Enrico Fermi after whom a method is named of making quick approximate estimates that can be made without having the full data. 

Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) was an Italian physicist who made significant discoveries in nuclear physics and quantum mechanics. In 1938, he received the Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of nuclear reactions caused by slow neutrons. This mechanism led directly to the development of atomic bombs and nuclear fission reactors. After receiving his Nobel Prize, he migrated with his family to the United States to escape the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, where he soon began contributing to the Manhattan Project.

Fermi was famous for being able to make good estimates in situations where very little information was available. When the first nuclear bomb was tested, Fermi was nearby to observe. To get a preliminary estimate of the amount of energy released, he sprinkled small pieces of paper in the air and observed what happened when the shock wave reached them. Being so close to the bomb on this and many other occasions exposed Fermi to dangerous radiation that led to his untimely death by cancer at the age of 53. Fermi was aware of the danger, but chose to work on this project anyway because he believed that the work was vital in the fight against Fascism.

Fermi often amused his friends and students by inventing and solving whimsical questions such as “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?”.

A “Fermi Question” asks for a quick estimate of a quantity that seems difficult or impossible to determine. Fermi’s approach to such questions was to use common sense and rough estimates of quantities to piece together a ball-park value.

For example, one way to estimate the number of piano tuners in Chicago is to break the process into steps: estimate the population; estimate the number of households in the population; estimate the fraction of households that have pianos; estimate how often each household has its piano tuned; estimate the time it takes to tune a piano; estimate how many hours a piano tuner would work each week.

In this case, it is possible to check the estimate by looking in the phone book to see how many piano tuners are actually in Chicago.

Fermi was famous for being able to make good estimates in situations where very little information was known. 

In the New Education Policy 2020, several references have been made to critical thinking. One way of encouraging this at School level may be the setting up of Fermi Questions Lab. A pool of questions can be created that is appropriate to the level of the learner. But instead of gradation by each year, it could be according to the stages proposed in the New education policy. 

So one set for classes 9 to 12 and another for classes 6 to 8. Younger children may not be able to appreciate and enjoy dealing with such problems. 

During the lab sessions here, students would choose questions from a pool of “ Fermi questions”. This activity may also be done in small teams to encourage collaboration and teamwork. The format of the submission of the report on each question could be :

1. Question: State the question and discuss how you will interpret it.

2. Wild Guess: What is your answer without any calculating?

3. Educated Guess: List the pieces of information you will need to answer this Fermi question more precisely. Estimate the value of each quantity in your list. Based on your estimates, what is your solution to the Fermi question? Show all your steps and use words to explain them.

4. Variables and Formulas: Choose variable names for each quantity that you estimated. Write a series of formulas or a procedure that explains how you used the quantities to find the solution. Try to simplify the process into a single formula that answers the Fermi question if possible.

5. Gathering Data: Perform experiments, conduct surveys, make measurements, or search for information that would help you to obtain a more precise estimate.

6. Conclusions: State your final answers to the question. Explain some possible sources of error in your procedure.

Fermi questions encourage creative thinking involving different solution strategies so they promote a range of problem-solving skills requiring students to be logical and inventive. Students would like Fermi questions because they are:

  • Open-ended problems
  • Have no exact answer, no definite solution
  • Interesting and motivating questions
  • Challenging and rewarding
  • Create a culture of questioning and curiosity

Fermi questions help develop much-need estimation skills and support the ‘feel’ of whether an answer is reasonable or not.

The Drake equation:

The same set f ideas that Fermi used to estimate the number of piano tuners in Chicago can be extended to estimate the number of communicating civilizations in the cosmos, or more simply put, the odds of finding intelligent life in the universe.

First proposed by radio astronomer Frank Drake in 1961, the equation calculates the number of communicating civilizations by multiplying several variables. It’s usually written, according to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), as:

N = The number of civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable.

R* = The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life.

fp = The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.

ne = The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life.

fl = The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.

fi = The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.

fc = The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.

L = The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

The challenge (at least for now) is that astronomers don’t have firm numbers on any of those variables, so any calculation of the Drake Equation remains a rough estimate for now. There have been, however, discoveries in some of these fields that give astronomers a better chance of finding the answer. More information on the Drake equation : https://phys.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Astronomy__Cosmology/Supplemental_Modules_(Astronomy_and_Cosmology)/Astronomy/Life_beyond_the_Earth/The_Drake_Equation

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What is a fallacy?

What is a fallacy? 

A fallacy is an argument based on unsound reasoning. Logical fallacies, those logical gaps that invalidate arguments aren’t always easy to spot. While some come in the form of loud, glaring inconsistencies, others can easily fly under the radar, sneaking into everyday meetings and conversations undetected.

Having an understanding of these basic logical fallacies can help you more confidently dissect  the arguments and claims you participate in and witness on a daily basis, separating fact from sharply dressed fiction.

My introduction to logical fallacies happened at a very young age, while I was still at school in a conversation with my father, when he pointed out that I was actually “begging the question”, when I was trying to make my point. This was a completely new and unfamiliar phrase to me, but it triggered my interest in logical fallacies. The next most commonly occurring fallacy that I encountered was ‘ergo hoc, propter hoc’. 

In this piece, I will share just 5 examples of common logical fallacies ( not a comprehensive list), and draw attention to ‘ the toolbox fallacy’ which is a common excuse that many of us adopt to avoid doing what we profess that we want to do and close with a link to video that analyses the logical fallacies in Donald Trump’s speeches in his past election (2016) campaign. 

1: Begging the Question

Begging the question is a fallacy in which a claim is made and accepted to be true, but one must accept the premise to be true for the claim to be true. This is also known as circular reasoning. Essentially, one makes a claim based on evidence that requires one to already accept that the claim is true. Circular arguments are also called Petitio principii, meaning “Assuming the initial [thing]”. This fallacy is a kind of presumptuous argument where it only appears to be an argument. It’s really just restating one’s assumptions in a way that looks like an argument. You can recognize a circular argument when the conclusion also appears as one of the premises in the argument

A few examples of “ begging the question”:

  • Everyone wants the new iPhone because it is the hottest new gadget on the market!
  • Fruits and vegetables are part of a healthy diet. After all, a healthy eating plan includes fruits and vegetables.
  • Student: Why didn’t I receive full credit on my essay? Teacher: Because your paper did not meet the requirements for full credit.

2: Ergo hoc, propter hoc: after this, therefore because of this :

If two things appear to be correlated, this doesn’t necessarily indicate that one of those things irrefutably caused the other thing. This might seem like an obvious fallacy to spot, but it can be challenging to catch in practice, particularly when you really want to find a correlation between two points of data to prove your point.

3: Ad hominem :

Ad hominem means “against the man,” and this type of fallacy is sometimes called name calling or the personal attack fallacy. This type of fallacy occurs when someone attacks the person instead of attacking the argument.

Person 1: I am for raising the minimum wage in our state.

Person 2: She is for raising the minimum wage, but she is not smart enough to even run a business.

In this example, the 2nd person  doesn’t address the issue of minimum wage and, instead, attacks the person.

4: False dilemma:

This common fallacy misleads by presenting complex issues in terms of two inherently opposed sides. Instead of acknowledging that most (if not all) issues can be thought of on a spectrum of possibilities and stances, the false dilemma fallacy asserts that there are only two mutually exclusive outcomes.

This fallacy is particularly problematic because it can lend false credence to extreme stances, ignoring opportunities for compromise or chances to re-frame the issue in a new way.

5: The Bandwagon fallacy : 

The bandwagon fallacy assumes something is true (or right, or good) because other people agree with it. A couple different fallacies can be included under this label, since they are often indistinguishable in practice. The ad populum fallacy (Lat., “to the populous/popularity”) is when something is accepted because it’s popular. The concensus gentium (Lat., “consensus of the people”) is when something is accepted because the relevant authorities or people all agree on it. The status appeal fallacy is when something is considered true, right, or good because it has the reputation of lending status, making you look “popular,” “important,” or “successful.” Politicians parade through the streets of their district trying to draw a crowd and gain attention so people would vote for them. Whoever supported that candidate was invited to literally jump on board the bandwagon. Hence the nickname “bandwagon fallacy.”

People can be quite gullible, and this fact doesn’t suddenly change when applied to large groups.

Just because a significant population of people believe a proposition is true, doesn’t automatically make it true. Popularity alone is not enough to validate an argument, though it’s often used as a standalone justification of validity. Arguments in this style don’t take into account whether or not the population validating the argument is actually qualified to do so, or if contrary evidence exists.

The toolbox fallacy is of a special  logical fallacy, that tends to justify not doing something ……..: https://henningjust.wordpress.com/2019/10/11/the-toolbox-fallacy/

There are many great examples, one is part of the story in the excellent movie Collateral, covered in this (~7 minute) video essay: https://youtu.be/sz4YqwH_6D0 

I am sharing the link to a very interesting video that analyses clips from Donald Trump’s speeches from his last (2016) campaign to illustrate a total of 15 times he uses logical fallacies. The fallacies are : Ad hominem, Bandwagon ,False cause, Black or white / false dilemma (3 times),Loaded question ,Anecdotal fallacy,Straw man,Appeal to emotion ,Slippery slope,Circular reasoning/ begging the question, Composition ,Common Sense and Personal incredulity.

Fifteen logical fallacies (~ 22 minutes)  in Donald Trump’s speech : https://youtu.be/w2CxDu7jiyE

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Abiogenesis and related matters:

What is abiogenesis? 

How do things begin? 

Being in the field of education for about 60 years, I have seen closely the beginnings of several new educational Institutions, such as the IITs, the IGNOU and several Universities. Establishments of new towns and townships from Chandigarh to Milton Keynes fascinated me. I was in School and vividly remember the beginning of the Space age with the launch of the Sputnik on 4th October 1957, as well as the adoption of the metric system for currency and weights and measures ….. The metric system in weights and measures was adoptedby the Indian Parliament in December 1956 with the Standards of Weights and MeasuresAct, which took effect beginning 1 October 1958. 

How do religions begin? I have been fascinated with how new religions take birth. Unlike the formation of a company, society or even a political party, there seems to be no Act of Parliament or a set process to launch a new religion and get it legally recognised. 

But the most fundamental and intriguing question is how did life begin? As I have shared in some earlier posts, life is about emergence and complexity. But these are labels. If we look at the key elements of life the DNA/RNA, the proteins and the lipids they are all chemical elements and their combinations that we have a fairly good understanding of. 

How did life begin ? The origin of life from non-living matter(a video of 14 minutes): https://youtu.be/nNK3u8uVG7o

Link to article in Encyclopaedia Brittanica : https://www.britannica.com/science/abiogenesis

Synthetic Biology : 

Imagine a future where synthetic jellyfish roam waterways looking for toxins to destroy, where eco-friendly plastics and fuels are harvested from vats of yeast, where viruses are programmed to be cancer killers, and electronic gadgets repair themselves like living organisms. The possibilities of synthetic biology, or ‘synbio’,  are limited only by the imagination. Its practitioners don’t view life as a mystery but as a machine – one that can be designed to solve a slew of pressing global health, energy and environmental problems.

The front man for the field would have to be the audacious Craig Venter. In 2010 his team created the world’s first synthetic life form – a replica of the cattle bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides. Dubbed ‘JCVI-syn 1.0’, its DNA code was written on a computer, assembled in a test tube and inserted into the hollowed-out shell of a different bacterium. Its creators embedded their names in watermarks in the DNA, along with two quotes. From writer James Joyce: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” From pioneering quantum physicist Richard Feynman: “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”

For Venter this was just one of many firsts. He holds joint credit for the first sequencing of the three-billion-letter DNA code of the human genome in 2001; in 2007 he became the first human to have their individual genome sequenced.

In 2016 he announced the answer to the meaning of life.  It’s 473- at least for M. mycoides. That’s the minimal number of genes the bacterium needs to survive. Venter’s team discovered this by stripping down JCVI-syn 1.0 to create JCVI-syn 3.0. The leaner life form has about half as many genes as its precursor.

Venter wasn’t just motivated by intellectual curiosity. A pared-down life form might serve as a chassis on which to build something useful to humankind. Bolt on the right handful of genes and you could have an ecologically friendly microbe factory to produce drugs or biofuels or artificial meat.

Such ambitions might seem doomed in a world where people are terrified by far more modestly engineered organisms such as GM crops. But synthetic biologists are an optimistic lot. They are working hard to win society over with their vision of creating a smarter, greener, more sustainable world.

A good video ( about 30 minutes) about synthetic biology : https://youtu.be/u1NBSBJRA3M

Synthetic biology gets less attention than genetic engineering but practitioners use many of the same techniques. There are long-standing examples, like Golden Rice engineered to produce vitamin A, which could be tagged with either label.

Historically, genetic engineers have tinkered with organisms. Synthetic biologists have a far bolder mindset. As Polish geneticist Wacław Szybalski put it at a conference back in 1973: “Up to now we are working on the descriptive phase of molecular biology … But the real challenge will start when we enter the synthetic phase … We will then devise new control elements and add these new modules to the existing genomes or build up wholly new genomes.”

Finally, Szybalski predicted, the work would move to building “other organisms”.

Synthetic biologists, quips Vickers, “are largely biologists masquerading as engineers or vice versa”. While they work with biology – genomes (DNA codes), transcriptomes (parts of the DNA that are uploaded) and proteomes (what proteins are being made) – they like to translate that work into engineering concepts and language.

In genetics speak, for example, regulatory stretches of DNA are called ‘promoters’; they are in turn  regulated by ‘repressor’ or ‘inducer’ molecules. In synbio speak, promoters are called ‘switches’ and the molecules that regulate them ‘actuators’. Working circuits of switches and actuators are ‘logic gates’.

Is designing a tailor-made organism as straightforward as putting together some circuit components? No, says Vickers, life is much messier. “We would like to be able to treat biology like it’s an electrical circuit, but biological complexity is confounding much of the time.”

Synthetic biologists develop their projects through standard engineering cycles of ‘design, build, test’. The design phase involves computer modelling of the components’ behaviour. The build stage involves the genetic engineering.

Even the simplest biological organisms have DNA sequences no one entirely understands. Take Venter’s minimalist life form, JCVI-syn 3.0, with its 473 genes. While all these genes are necessary for the bacterium to live, the team – which has spent decades studying M. mycoides – has no idea what a third of them do. “As a synthetic biologist I find this so humbling,” Vickers says.

If the genetic logic of simple bacteria is mysterious, synthetic biologists are likely to encounter far more spanners in the works as they attempt to move up the evolutionary tree.

An international initiative “ the Yeast 2.0 project” is rebuilding the yeast genome from scratch. Think of it as building a custom model racer rather than tinkering with a stock car. By starting with the nuts and bolts, scientists may be able to overcome the tangled legacy of millions of years of evolution to engineer a super-sleek genome in which they know how every gene contributes to life.

At least, that’s the hope.

Life may turn out to be harder to tame than the synthetic biologists initially thought.

The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to the two scientists who discovered and refined the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool. CRISPR allows for relatively simple editing of genes and could revolutionize medicine, agriculture and other fields.  First described in 2012, the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool has since proven itself one of the most valuable scientific discoveries of recent years. It can be used to snip out problematic genes, such as those that cause disease, and potentially replaced with something more beneficial. 

In just eight years, CRISPR has shown promise in treating a whole range of diseases, such as cancer, HIV, muscular dystrophy, certain forms of blindness and even ageing itself. 

The tool could also be put to work making hardier or more nutritious crops, for chemical-free pest control and for creating new designer bacteria that can perform a whole range of fascinating new tasks.

For kickstarting this groundbreaking field, the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to Charpentier and Doudna. This marks the first time a science Nobel Prize has been shared by two women.

Video ( ~18 minutes) about CRISPR and Nobel Prize 2020 : https://youtu.be/bkLvZwDaQLo

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Occam’s razor:

What is Occam’s Razor?

In recent times whenever the topic of conversation turns to education, the phrase ‘critical thinking’ is often used. The Prime Minister has emphasised that we need to teach “ how to think” rather than “ what to think”. Instead of waiting for a few years in which the CBSE, NCERT or NIOS would bring about a ‘curriculum’ and rules for its administration, I have created short WhatsApp courses that anyone can pursue right now on a mobile phone on critical thinking and thinking clearly. The main components of a course on critical thinking are logical fallacies, cognitive biases ( which find their way even into AI and machine learning models), inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning and Occam’s razor. In this post, I am drawing attention to the concept of Occam’s razor. This is an important concept, but except for specialist courses in logic or Philosophy, it is not taught to our School, College or University students including in professional education. A notable exception being the International Baccalaureate Diploma program. 

Way back in the 13th century, the Franciscan friar William of Ockham gave the world a rule: “Plurality must never be posited without necessity.” Put more simply, the simplest answer – that is, the answer that requires the fewest  assumptions – is generally the correct one.

In the ~700 years since Friar William laid down his maxim, logicians have turned it into a rule: Occam’s razor that simply states that of any given set of explanations for an event occurring, the simplest one is most likely the correct one.

Occam’s razor makes no absolute assertions. It does not claim that the simplest answer is always correct. It merely suggests that, among all possible  answers to a question  one’s best bet is generally the one that requires the fewest assumptions.

The shift in perspective from the Ptolemaic geo-centric view of the planetary system to a helio-centric one  by Copernicus is a great example of the application of this principle. Many other scientific paradigm shifts such as the tectonic plate theory by Alfred Wegener or Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution may be seen as examples of applying the Occam’s razor. Mendeleev’s organising the elements in the form of the well known periodic table is also an example of this. The reason Crick and Watson succeeded in finding the structure of the DNA as a double helix was perhaps their unwittingly applying Occam’s razor, whereas more established Scientists were not. 

If we fast forward to software development and coding, elegance in software also arises from the application of Occam’s razor, whether or not the coder, programmer or software developer is aware of this term. GOTOless programming is yet another example. And you can ignore this principle only at great cost if you are a user experience or user interface creator. 

I am sharing here links to a set of short videos that explain the concept with examples. The Copernican system and the tectonic plate model are covered in some of these. But some repetition helps in learning reinforcement. 

As future leadership would require choosing between alternatives and dealing with complex problem solving ( the topmost skill in the list of top 10 skills in the years 2015 as well as 2020 of the WEF:    https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-10-skills-you-need-to-thrive-in-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/  ) being able to apply this razor would be an invaluable skill. 

Occam’s razor is a vital tool in rigorous thought. By reducing the number of unsupported assumptions in an explanation, you reduce the likelihood of being wrong. That’s as true now as it was in the 13th century. 

Today is International teachers day ( October 5th), and teachers the world over have explored remote learning in the last few months, often  jumping to trying to replicate the physical classroom. Application of the concept of Occam’s razor may suggest other parsimonious alternatives that avoid the huge bandwidth required for video. I use WhatsApp. 

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The Midas touch :

What is the Midas touch? 

Most of you will recall the story of the King Midas. 

Here is an animated video (~12 minutes)on the story of King Midas : https://youtu.be/7IoF9IrZnXU

The desire to instantly transform stuff of low value to one of high value is a natural human desire. In fact, the alchemist’s life’s mission was to convert base metals into gold. And while this ambition was not really fulfilled, it gave birth to the Science of Chemistry and then to Pharmaceutical Science resulting in infinitely valuable life saving medicines. 

In our tradition also पारसमणि ( Philosopher’s stone ) was a mythical object in Alchemy, purported to transmute base materials into gold. 

For children, chocolate is perhaps more exciting than gold, and  a story was created  about a boy who turns everything his lips touch to chocolate (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chocolate_Touch). 

As we understood Chemistry we learnt that the results of chemical bonds can also be very dramatic and magical. Hydrogen for example is a combustible gas that burns with a blue flame and Oxygen is a supporter of combustion but water ( which results from their combination) puts out fire. Similarly the poisonous sodium and chlorine combine to form common salt which is essential for life. That is why Gandhiji’s whose 151st birthday we are celebrating protested at Dandi to assert the right to make salt. 

But gold is an element, which means you can’t make it through ordinary chemical reactions — though alchemists tried to do so for centuries. To make the sparkly metal, you have to bind 79 protons and 118 neutrons together to form a single atomic nucleus. That’s an intense nuclear fusion reaction.

Today is Gandhi Jayanti, and it is a good idea to reflect on what he thought of the significance of money. This is a story that I heard when I was a child, but I haven’t found any mention of this incident while searching the Internet. The story is that while addressing students at Allahabad University, Gandhiji was asked a question about what he thought of the role of money in a person’s life. He responded with a very simple demonstration. He asked someone in the audience  to hand him a coin. Then he held the coin grasped by the thumb and the index  finger (forming a circle) and fully stretched his arm. And he remarked that I can see this coin as well as the rest of the world. And then gradually he bent his arm and brought the coin very close to his eye eventually fully covering the eye. And remarked that now I cannot see the world. This story had a profound effect on me, on maintaining the balance between the pursuit of wealth and leading a life of service to  fellow human beings. For me personally, it was a more powerful story than that of Midas. Later on I appreciated that it was also linked to the concept of “aparigraha”. Aparigraha is the Yogic concept in which possessions should include only what is necessary at a particular stage in one’s life. 

Do you sometimes think that our obsession with turning everything into digital…. could lead us to a similar undesirable fate ? 

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Weekend Evening Talks ( with WhatsApp)

WEET: Weekend Evening Talks ( with WhatsApp): 

Since these are evening talks, the weekend is Friday, Saturday and Sunday. 

For our lunch-time learning, the weekend is only Saturday and Sunday. 

Friday evening talks are on Quantum phenomena. Saturday evening talks are on Learning and Sunday evening talks are on Thinking.

Time slot for scheduled posts: 8pm to 9pm. But you can access them at any later time as well. They will remain there until you deliberately delete them. 

Schedule of these WhatsApp talks  for October 2020: beginning Friday 9th October 2020:

The Quantum Track: 

Friday 9th October : WEET01: Quantum Magic

Friday 16th October : WEET02: Quantum Concepts

Friday 23rd October : WEET03: Quantum Computing

Friday 30th October  : WEET04: Quantum Biology

The Learning Track:

Saturday 10th October: WEET05: Awaken the Learner Within

Saturday 17th October: WEET06: The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge 

Saturday 24th October: WEET07: How Artificial Intelligence will transform Learning?

Saturday 31st October : WEET08: Questioneering??

The Thinking Track:

Sunday 11th October  : WEET09: Avoiding Natural Stupidity

Sunday 18th October:   WEET10: Ideas: their creation and spread

Sunday 25th October : WEET11: Developing Foresight

Sunday 1st November : WEET12: Thinking Clearly

Brief course descriptors :

WEET01: Quantum Magic 

The purpose of this one hour  session  is to illustrate the Quantum magic that leads from Quantum surprises to Quantum devices. While many Physicists have said that quantum mechanics is magic, the same expression is not used, for example, for relativity, classical mechanics, geology, chemistry or biology. But from semi-conductors to superconductors, photosynthesis and our sense of smell to the migration of birds, Quantum Magic is all around us. 

WEET02: Quantum Concepts

The conceptual building blocks of Quantum technologies are wave-particle duality, superposition, spin, quantum tunnelling, entanglement and decoherence. Quantum engineers work on practically implementing them. This session attempts to describe these non-intuitive concepts. 

WEET03: Quantum Computing

This one hour session is devoted to the nature and future of Quantum Computing. With Quantum Supremacy having been demonstrated by Google in 2019, and the race for solving really difficult problems of new materials, better batteries, pharmaceutical products and coping with climate change, this is perhaps the most exciting knowledge domain now. 

WEET04: Quantum Biology

Quantum biology is an emerging field; most of the current research is theoretical and subject to questions that require further experimentation. Though the field has only recently received an influx of attention, it has been conceptualized by physicists throughout the 20th century. Quantum biology is concerned with the influence of non-trivial quantum phenomena in living systems. 

WEET05: Awaken the learner within:

We are all ‘born learners’ but many factors and experiences make us reluctant and passive learners. This one hour session will rekindle in you the desire to learn well, and forever. There is a bit of warning here also of “use it or lose it”. You wouldn’t want your brain to become a ‘vestigial’ organ, like the appendix; being there but serving no useful purpose. 

WEET06: The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge 

The search for answers to deep questions, motivated solely by curiosity and without concern for applications, often leads not only to the greatest scientific discoveries but also to the most revolutionary technological breakthroughs. In short, no quantum mechanics, no computer chips, or no prime numbers, no cyber-security. 

WEET07: How Artificial Intelligence will transform Learning?

This recently all pervasive technology has been portrayed as the ultimate evil or the final saviour. The truth naturally will be somewhere in the middle. This session deliberates on how  AI will transform learning to serve humanity in an unprecedented manner.  

WEET08: Questioneering??

We were not only born learners, but naturally curious with a lot of questions. Research shows that children ask hundreds of questions every day. The growing up process required that we stop questioning and accepting the various authorities. This session draws attention to the importance of asking questions and how one becomes wiser for having asked good questions.

WEET09: Avoiding Natural Stupidity

The literal opposite of Artificial Intelligence is natural stupidity, and you would be surprised by its pervasiveness. Even if we may not be have the help of AI technologies to empower ourselves, we could significantly improve our lives, if we could cut down on the natural stupidity prevailing in our lives. 

WEET10: Ideas: their creation and spread

It is widely believed that we have evolved from hunter-gatherers, agricultural, industrial to a post industrial society driven by creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. And ideas are the currency of such a society. The goal of this session this is to give you pointers and examples of how you could play an important role in both generation of new ideas, as well as being a propagator or evangelist of useful ideas generated by others. 

WEET11: Developing Foresight

All of us can learn to anticipate the future. All sportsperson playing cricket, football or tennis for example have to guess ( successfully) where the ball is headed. Foresight is the secret ingredient of all success, because without foresight we cannot prepare for the future.

WEET12: Thinking clearly

Thinking clearly is an ability that is acquired by deliberate practice. It is often said that we need to learn how to think rather than what to think. There are often errors that creep into our thinking process-ranging from cognitive biases to envy and social distortions. This session points to such possible errors in our thinking process, and provides guidance on how to avoid them. 

Course access and delivery process: 

  • A WhatsApp group will be created for each talk. The group formation is not contingent on a minimum number enrolled. Even if there is only one person enrolled for a particular slot of a course, the course will be delivered to that person. 
  • I will be making my posts during the scheduled time slot of 8pm to 9pm. These posts may be in the form of text, images of PowerPoint slides, my audios, my videos or curated videos of others… But if you are unable to join the group during that time, you can access them at any later time as well. They will remain there until you deliberately delete them. 
  • About 10 minutes before the scheduled time of my posts I will post a message to the effect that the session is about to begin
  • If any course participant  has a query, question or observation, they may go ahead and make it right there. If this concerns the whole group, please make it in the group. If it is meant as a message to me, then please send me a direct message rather than posting it in the group.
  • If I can make a quick short and effective response, without losing the thread of the conversation, I will respond right then, else I will pool all these and make a special post in response. 
  • Towards the end of the session I will share the PowerPoint slides as a pdf file that can be used in ways that the learners find convenient.
  • You may keep posting your queries and comments even after the scheduled time for my posts is over. All the posts and conversations ( including audio) will remain with you until you consciously and deliberately delete them. This is the greatest advantage of this method 

Enrolment and fee payment: 

  • As the courses are being delivered through WhatsApp the enrolment process is simply that of sending a WhatsApp message to Prof MM Pant at +919810073724. 
  • The fee for each of the above courses is Rs 500/- and can be easily remitted through PayTM to MM Pant ( mobile number : +919810073724).
  • For those who would rather pay into a Bank account, the relevant information is : 
  • Madan Mohan Pant
  • HDFC Bank, Unitech Cyber Park, Sector 39, Gurgaon 

        A/c 26451000000301

        HDFC0002645

  • (The account number is 26451 followed by six zeroes followed by 301)

To know more, please send a WhatsApp message to Prof MM Pant at +919810073724

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L2W2: Lunchtime Learning with WhatsApp :

L2W2: Lunchtime learning with WhatsApp :

Schedule of WhatsApp courses for October 2020: 

For the Autonomous self learner track 

Time slot for scheduled posts: 12noon to 1pm

Monday 5th to Friday 9th : WLL01:  Learning with WhatsApp, other mobile Apps and MOOCs

Monday 12th to Friday 16th :WLL02: Dispositions for success

Monday 19th to Friday 23rd : WLL03: Learning Agility

Monday 26th to Friday 30th: WLL04: Getting a world class education is in your hands

For further information on these 4 courses : https://mmpant.com/asl/

For the School for the 2nd half of life: 

Time slot for scheduled posts: 12:30 pm to 1:30 pm

Monday 5th to Friday 9th: WLL05: MSAI: Making Sense of Artificial Intelligence:

Monday 12th to Friday 16th :WLL06: LH2L ( Learning how to learn)

Monday 19th to Friday 23rd : WLL07: Preparing for a 100 year life

Monday 26th to Friday 30th: WLL08: Death! Understanding it is critical to life 

For further information on these 4 courses : https://mmpant.com/msai/

For the SmartEducator track:

Time slot for scheduled posts: 1pm  to 2 pm

Monday 5th to Friday 9th: WLL09: Learning 321: Education in the 3rd decade of the 21st Century

Monday 12th to Friday 16th :WLL10: LH2L ( Learning how to learn)

Monday 19th to Friday 23rd : WLL11: Artificial Intelligence in teaching and learning

Monday 26th to Friday 30th: WLL12: ELAI ( Educational Leadership in the age of Artificial Intelligence)

For further information on these 4 courses : https://mmpant.com/smarteducators/

Course access and delivery model: 

  • A couple of days before the scheduled start of the course, a WhatsApp group will be created with the participants of the course as members. The group formation is not contingent on a minimum number enrolled. Even if there is only one person enrolled for a particular slot of a course, the course will be delivered to that person. 
  • I will be making a number of posts during the scheduled time slots. These posts may be in the form of text, images of PowerPoint slides, my audios, my videos or curated videos of others…
  • About 10 minutes before the scheduled time of my posts I will post a message to the effect that the session is about to begin
  • If any course participant  has a query, question or observation, they may go ahead and make it right there. If this concerns the whole group, please make it in the group. If it is meant as a message to me, then please send me a direct message rather than posting it in the group.
  • If I can make a quick short and effective response, without losing the thread of the conversation, I will respond right then, else I will pool all these and make a special post in response. 
  • Towards the end of the session I will share the PowerPoint slides as a pdf file that can be used in ways that the learners find convenient.
  • You may keep posting your queries and comments even after the scheduled time for my posts is over. All the posts and conversations ( including audio) will remain with you until you consciously and deliberately delete them. This is the greatest advantage of this method 

Enrolment and fee payment: 

  • As the courses are being delivered through WhatsApp the enrolment process is simply that of sending a WhatsApp message to Prof MM Pant at +919810073724. 
  • The fee for each of the above courses is Rs 2500/- and can be easily remitted through PayTM to MM Pant ( mobile number : +919810073724).
  • For those who would rather pay into a Bank account, the relevant information is : 
  • Madan Mohan Pant
  • HDFC Bank, Unitech Cyber Park, Sector 39, Gurgaon 

        A/c 26451000000301

        HDFC0002645

  • (The account number is 26451 followed by six zeroes followed by 301)

The schedule for November  2020 will be announced in mid-October2020, and will follow a similar pattern. 

To know more, please send a WhatsApp message to Prof MM Pant at +919810073724

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Complexity :

Scheduled post no.4:

  • What is complexity?

In the year 2016, the World Economic Forum released a comparative chart of the 10 topmost skills of 2015 and 2020: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Top-10-Skills-in-2015-2020-Source-World-Economic-Forum_fig1_323994818

While there is some shuffling of the rank number of some skills ( critical thinking has moved from no.4 in 2015 to no.2 in 2020, and creativity has shot up from no.10 in 2015 to no.3 in 2020, and some new skills are listed for 2020, in both the lists at the top we have “ complex problem solving”. If we want to be future ready or future fit as the Prime Minister exhorted in his convocation address at IIT Guwahati, acquiring the skill of complex problem solving may be the most important one.

It is well accepted that solvable problems may be classified into four distinct types: Simple, Complicated, Complex, and Chaotic. It turns out that you can neatly put almost every problem we face into one of these types, and each type requires quite a different strategy.

Simple problems are solved just by following the rules — there’s only one solution and it’s well known. Complicated domains are ones where the rules are known and predictable — but the rules are significant and cannot be instinctively understood without some training. Complex domains, though, are ones that cross multiple domains and one can’t predict whether a change in one part might affect another. And finally, chaotic domains are where, even when witnessing a change, one can’t be certain of cause and effect. They are often also referred to as ‘wicked problems’. Because of the complex interdependence the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

Complex systems research is now becoming more important in both the natural and social sciences. It is commonly implied that there is such a thing as a complex system, different examples of which are studied across many disciplines.

Complexity science was invented in the post-nuclear age when different scientists and social scientists came together during the Los Alamos experiment to invent the nuclear bomb. Having discovered that it was fun working with people outside their own narrow disciplines, a group created the Santa Fe Institute, the first think tank dedicated to complex, multidisciplinary thinking.

To deal with Complex Problems we have to agree on its definition to make any progress. The linked article (too long) explain the challenges in defining this field but starts with a definition which is:

“Complex Problem Solving tasks are situations that are: (1) *dynamic* because early actions determine the environment in which subsequent decision must be made, and features of the task environment may change independently of the solver’s actions; (2) *time- dependent* because decisions must be made at the correct moment in relation to environmental demands; and (3) *complex*, in the sense that most variables are not related to each other in a one-to-one manner. In these situations, the problem requires not one decision, but a long series, in which early decisions condition later ones.” http://lsa.colorado.edu/papers/manuscriptTIES.3.9.postReview.pdf

Complexity characterises the behaviour of a system or model whose components  interact in multiple ways and follow local rules, meaning there is no reasonable higher instruction to define the various possible interactions.

The term is generally used to characterize something with many parts where those parts interact with each other in multiple ways, culminating in a higher order of “emergence” which is greater than the sum of its parts. An example of emergence is the act of walking on 2 legs. On ne leg alone, we can just hop. But walking on 2 legs is more than just hopping with 2 legs. And a dance form has a greater elegance than robots performing similar motions. The study of these complex linkages at various scales is the main goal of complexity theory. 

The present situation is that “even among scientists, there is no agreement on a unique definition of complexity – and the scientific notion has traditionally been conveyed using particular examples…” Ultimately a generally accepted  definition of “complexity science” is “the study of the phenomena which emerge from a collection of interacting objects”.

Link to the Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complexity

Complexity in computation : 

In computer science, the computational complexity or simply complexity of an  algorithm is the amount of resources required to run it. Particular focus is given to time and memory requirements. 

The study of the complexity of explicitly given algorithms is called analysis of algorithms, while the study of the complexity of problems is called computational complexity theory. Both areas are highly related, as the complexity of an algorithm is always an an upper bound on the complexity of the problem solved by this algorithm.

       The field of complexity can be considered to have the following domains as its main constituents: 

  • Self organisation and emergence 
  • Non-linear systems and chaos theory
  • Network Theory 
  • Complex Adaptive Systems

Here is a short video (11 minutes) that provides an overview and briefly and simply describes the above 4 elements: https://youtu.be/i-ladOjo1QA

Here is another slightly longer video that relates complexity theory  to educational change (15 minutes)  : https://youtu.be/vk2s7gumXMY

Here is another 8 minute video explaining ‘emergence’ and systems thinking : https://youtu.be/KN6SaRmF_8c

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Cassandra’s curse:

What is Cassandra’s curse?

Warnings, Warnings Everywhere: Why We Sometimes Ignore Looming Disasters. After a disaster happens, we want to know, could something have been done to avoid it? Did anyone see this coming?

Many times, the answer is yes. There was a person — or many people — who spotted a looming crisis and tried to warn those in power. So why didn’t the warnings lead to action?

You can think of climate change, the economic consequences of the lockdown, inadequate preparation for the future, the initial stages of the Corona pandemic ( especially the US response), ….

Robert Malthus in 1798 drew attention to the fact that human populations grow exponentially  while the growth of the food supply and other resources needed to support a population is linear, and that this would lead to a catastrophe. Malthus believed there were two types of “checks” that in all times and places kept population growth in line with the growth of the food supply: “preventive checks”, and “positive checks”, which lead to premature death such as disease, starvation and war, resulting in a Malthusian catastrophe, that would bring the population to a lower, more sustainable, level.

The Club of Rome report “ Limits to Growth” in 1972 made the same point on the basis of a Mathematical model by Donella H Meadows, Dennis L Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William W. Behrens III, representing a team of 17 researchers. It was also criticised rather than serving as a wake up call. 

Around the same time, in the 1970s the famous futurist Alvin Toffler said that “ the illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and re-learn”. Having ignored this, we now have India’s demographic dividend transformed into a demographic catastrophe. 

One answer is the Cassandra’s curse? . The Cassandra metaphor (variously labeled the Cassandra “syndrome“, “complex“, “phenomenon“, “predicament“, “dilemma“, “curse“) occurs to one, when one’s valid warnings or concerns are disbelieved by others.

The term originates in Greek mythology. Cassandra was a daughter of Priam, the King of Troy. Struck by her beauty, Apollo provided her with the gift of prophecy, but when Cassandra refused Apollo’s romantic advances, he placed a curse ensuring that nobody would believe her warnings. 

Cassandra was left with the knowledge of future events, but could neither alter these events nor convince others of the validity of her predictions.

Link to Wikipedia article: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassandra_(metaphor)

The curse of Karna…. https://mythgyaan.com/three-curses-of-karna-mahabharat/  is a similar construct. His Guru Pharshuram curses Karna that “You will forget all your knowledge when you need it the most”. 

There is a similar curse on Nakul and Sahadeva, the youngest of the 5 Pandavas. Like his brother Sahadeva, Nakula could see the future and issue prophecies. However, soon after telling the prophecy, Nakula would completely forget all the visions and predictions, just like a dream. Sahadeva was a great astrologer as his brother Nakula, and he even knew about everything including the Mahabharata battle beforehand. But he was cursed that if he disclosed the events to anyone then his head would split into pieces.

It is a worldview that the world consists of opposite. The famous Physicist Paul Dirac had predicted in 1928 from his famous equation and the existence of electrons, that there should be particles he named positrons. Carl Anderson experimentally observed positrons in 1932. Today Positron Emission Tomography ( PET) is a very important imaging tool for medical diagnostics. 

So, if there is a Cassandra’s curse, there is also the “anti-Cassandra” curse: being always believed:

It is well known that Cassandra was cursed so that her prophecies would never be believed. But there exists also an opposite curse affecting charismatic leaders who are always believed by their followers. In the long run, leaders are deluded into believing themselves infallible and the results are often disastrous. We could call that the “anti-Cassandra” curse.

People are easily duped into following charismatic leaders, as it is well known. But, while the psychology of adepts is not so difficult to understand (we all may fall in the trap, at least occasionally), it is less clear what passes in the minds of leaders. Do they really believe that they are as smart and powerful as they present themselves to their followers? Or are they consciously misleading their adepts for personal gains? Of course, both possibilities may be true in different circumstances, but  in many cases, the leader is even more deluded than the followers.

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What is a Faustian bargain?

What is a Faustian bargain?

The legend of Faust is a thought-provoking tale from the middle ages, which has a surprising connection to our world today. The story is both inspiring and tragic at the same time. In one famous version of the tale from Goethe, Faust is an idealist scholar that becomes disillusioned with his limits to knowledge. Bored and suicidal, Faust becomes the target of the devil Mephistopheles who says he can satisfy Faust’s desire for unlimited knowledge and also promises him youth, pleasures of the flesh, and magical powers—for a predetermined period. In exchange, after the allotted time, the devil will claim Faust’s soul and forever be enslaved. The story of Faust has become a metaphor for a promise or tradeoff that at first seems appealing, but with time is revealed to be a bad bargain.

I am drawing attention to some aspects of modern life, that on closer reflection seem like Faustian bargains. You might see many more around you.

Is life extension today, a Faustian bargain: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmed.2017.00215/full

Video (  14 minutes) Scott Dewing: Our Faustian bargain with Technology : https://youtu.be/zZM2Gsnxtdk

Video ( 13 minutes) of Dr Anthony Grayling on AI and the Faustian bargain: https://youtu.be/ms9pfKOjoTw

For the curious, here are a few more interesting resources. And of course you may do your own research and find others. You are welcome to share any that you think are worth sharing. 

1: Article from Encyclopedia Britannica : https://www.britannica.com/topic/Faustian-bargain

2: Wikipedia article : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faust

3: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8871254/

4: https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/d/doctor-faustus/play-summary

5: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Faustus_(play)?wprov=sfti1

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