Quantum Readiness:

Quantum Readiness: Friday evening talks

Friday evening talks are on Quantum phenomena.

We are currently at the start of a second quantum revolution, that will shape science and the world economy, re-defining the speed, and scale of scientific and technological expansion. Quantum Technologies are the next big opportunity. The White House report on 7th October 2020: https://quantumzeitgeist.com/summary-of-white-houses-new-report-on-quantum-computing/?fbclid=IwAR0LgusOpDwDl26269TQimZJaAxKiUj1xE0ZIOnwvPgj-ozvf6TdesG4vx8
The trillion dollar Quantum gold rush: https://youtu.be/wKN8wBl4X1M

The time slot for my scheduled WhatsApp posts is between 8pm to 9pm IST (GMT+5:30)on Fridays. But you can access them at any later time as per your convenience. My posts will remain there until you deliberately delete them. 
Schedule of these Friday WhatsApp talks for November and December 2020. 
The Quantum Track: on Friday evenings 
WEET01: Quantum Magic : Friday 6th November and Friday 4th December
WEET02: Quantum Concepts: Friday 13th November and Friday 11th December 
WEET03: Quantum Computing: Friday 20th November and Friday 18th December
WEET04: Quantum Biology: Friday 27th November and Friday 25th December

Brief 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 building blocks of Quantum technologies are wave-particle duality, superposition, spin, quantum tunnelling and entanglement. Quantum engineers work on practically implementing them. This one hour session attempts to describe these concepts. An appreciation of the key concepts is critical because Quantum is no longer about the very small, but also about macroscopic phenomena such as superconductivity and Quantum Biology.

WEET03: Quantum Computing
This one hour session is about the nature and future of Quantum Computing. With Quantum Supremacy having been demonstrated by Google in October 2019, and the global 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. Quantum Computing will drive the future acceleration in the economy re-defining its speed and scale.

WEET04: Quantum Biology
Quantum biology is an emerging field with the current research being theoretical that requires further experimentation. Though the field has only recently received much 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. One of the promising real-world application of Quantum Biology is more-efficient solar cells.

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 IST(GMT+5:30). 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
  • (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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Questioneering ?

Questioneering : the skill of asking incisive questions.

I have read and heard many anecdotes from the lives of great men and women and they have had a very powerful impact in shaping my mindset and worldview. One such story is about Isidor Isaac Rabi, the Physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in the year 1944 for his discovery of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. Rabi was once asked what made him choose  a career in Science. His reply surprised everyone. He said “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: So? Did you learn anything today? But not my mother. “Izzy,” she would say, “did you ask a good question today?” That difference — asking good questions — made me become a scientist.”

The essayist Robert Louis Stevenson in his well known but short 2 page essay ‘ El Dorado’ ( http://web.thu.edu.tw/ccj/www/El%20Dorado-Robert%20Louis%20Stevenson.pdf ) says “ Desire and curiosity are the two eyes through which he sees the world in the most enchanted colours: it is they that make women beautiful or fossils interesting: and the man may squander his estate and come to beggary, but if he keeps these two amulets he is still rich in the possibilities of pleasure.” The essay closes beautifully with “for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.”

Please watch this 18 minute video on why you should question everything? https://youtu.be/EmbwS-maS0A

Asking questions to make sense of the world is natural to us as children, until social conformity requires us to stop asking questions, especially from those in authority. It seems that children aged about 4 years ask the most number of questions. On average, kids under four ask an average of 73 questions per day, some over a grueling 14-hour stretch. But there was an instance of a 3 year old girl who asked her mother about 400 questions in a day. 

Read More: Ever Wonder How Many Questions Your Kids Ask Every Day? | https://wnaw.com/study-shows-kids-ask-parents-an-average-of-73-questions-a-day/?utm_source=tsmclip&utm_medium=referral

We need to overcome the hesitation in asking questions and learn to ask better questions by appreciating the attributes of a good question. 

It may come as a surprise to many that the Indian Constitution is perhaps the only one where the citizens have been cast a duty to ask questions. 


It shall be the duty of every citizen of India-

(h) To develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform;

Developing the spirit of enquiry and a Scientific temper begin with asking questions. That is why I began this piece on Questioneering ( the skill of asking incisive questions) with the story of Rabi’s mother checking whether he had asked a good question at School. 

In a world where all the answers are known, or can be easily obtained, value is created by understanding what questions to ask. The single biggest mistake that many leaders are making in today’s disruptive environment is executing the right answers to the wrong questions. Questioneering introduces a decision making model to enable citizens of  the digital age to discover the high-value questions and execute the high-value answers.

Clayton Christensen says that having a questioning mind is a key and fundamental attribute of an Innovator. Questioneering provides a new way of approaching complex problems and reaching break through innovation.

Questions are also an important mode of social interaction. Though ‘how are you is a greeting, not a question’, there are a number of questions that can be used to start a conversation with almost any person. Right now perhaps the most common conversation starter is the coronavirus. Here are a few examples of questions that may be good conversation starters, whether in person or in remote mode.

1: What are you most grateful for, right now, in this moment?

2: Working on any exciting personal projects lately? 

3: What’s working well for you right now?

4: what do you do to get rid of stress?

5: What shows, podcasts, blogs or WhatsApp courses are you watching/pursuing right now?

6: What would be your perfect weekend?

7: What are you looking forward to in the future?

Sometimes the answers to questions may also change with time.

There is  a delightful story about Albert Einstein. The story is that one year when he was teaching at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, it was time to set examinations. When Einstein handed over the exam papers to his teaching assistant, the assistant noted that it was the same paper that Einstein had set for that class the year before. The assistant queried the master, “Isn’t this the same exam you gave this class last year?”. “Yes, yes it is.” replied Einstein. Emboldened, the assistant asked, “But how can you give the same exam to this class two years in a row?” “Becuase,” Einstein replied, “the answers have changed”.

And Veblen observed that the outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where only one grew before.

Asking questions has been listed at number 3 of 8 habits of quiet winners: https://medium.com/the-ascent/8-habits-of-quiet-winners-a38f7eca1599

They ask more questions than they give answers to.

Giving answers is boring to them. They prefer to ask questions and see where the conversation takes them. They see questions as a gateway to more ideas. And ideas have the potential to bring them closer to the next quiet win.

Nobody has all the answers. You don’t learn by giving answers. Quiet winners succeed by asking more questions than everybody else

Here is a link to a very interesting and stimulating article in the New Scientist on the biggest questions ever asked : https://www.newscientist.com/round-up/biggest-questions/

Descartes’s statement “ cogito ergo sum” became a fundamental element of Western Philosophy.  “Thinking is just the process of asking and answering questions.”


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The Countdown to Success: 55 words of inspiration

The Countdown to Success: 55 words of inspiration:

As an academic of almost 55 years, I have often been told that we are inclined to take almost an hour to make a point, and our background building itself takes more time than the span of attention of the young. 

In this VUCA ( volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world) living in an age of brevity of instant messaging with WhatsApp, I began to reflect upon what age old wisdom I could share with the youth of today,perhaps as Tweets.

So I created a countdown beginning with an inspirational message in 10 words, then one in 9 words and so on in decreasing order, till finally I was down to one word.

And amazingly, the one word Philosophy of ‘ Excel’ or a two word mission of ‘ Just Shine’, which is the sole purpose of the sun, while it burns fiercely inside are just amazing. The opposite of excellence is mediocrity, which should be avoided and the purpose of all motivational and inspirational messages is to help us transcend mediocrity and achieve our full potential. 

Here it is:

{10}: An inspirational thought in 10 words “Arise, awake and stop not till the goal is reached “: Swami Vivekanand

{9}: Get inspired in 9 words ” Let noble thoughts come to us from all directions”: Rigveda

{8}: Get motivated by 8 words : ” The harder I work, the luckier I get” : Thomas Jefferson

{7}: Stay away from financial crises with 7 words : “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” : William Shakespeare

{6}: Your real freedom in 6 simple words : ” No one can imprison my mind”: Mahatma Gandhi

{5}: Guide your life with 5 words: ” Be a lamp unto yourself ” Gautam Buddha

{4}: Being responsible in 4 words : ” God does not play dice” : Albert Einstein

{3}: Going Solo in 3 words” Ekla Chalo Re”: Rabindra Nath Tagore

{2}: A life’s mission in just 2 words: ”Just Shine”…. like the Sun

{1}: The one word world view : “Excel”: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence therefore, is not an act but a habit: Aristotle

I posted this on my blog, more than 5 years ago, on August 19th, 2015. Here is the link : https://mmpant.com/2015/08/19/the-countdown-to-success-in-55-inspirational-words/

I used them in closing a TEDx talk that I did again around 4 years back. Here is the link https://youtu.be/Ve0roK3wVgI. My 55 words of inspiration are at 18 minutes, towards the end of the talk.

And more recently, during the lockdown it was again included towards the closing of an interview, at 41 minutes, to which the link is here: https://youtu.be/3DPWEfpmMmk

Many of you will recognise 55 as the sum of the first 10 natural numbers. Some of you may even remember the formula n(n+1)/2 as the formula for the sum of the first ‘n’ natural numbers. 

There is a well-known story of the Mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. When Gauss was still at primary school, one day Gauss’ teacher wrote the numbers from 1 to 100 on the blackboard and asked the class to add together all the numbers from 1 to 100, assuming that this task would keep the class occupied for quite a while, so that in the meantime he could catch up on some other work that he had to do.  But Gauss amazed his teacher by coming up  after a few seconds, with the answer as 5050. When asked to explain how he could do this adding of 100 numbers so quickly, Gauss explained that there were fifty pairs of numbers when he added the first and last number in the series, the second and second-last number in the series, and so on. For example: (1 + 100), (2 + 99), (3 + 98), . . . , and each such pair has a sum of 101. And then he multiplied 101 by 50. 

For the purpose of this post, I tried to create some alternative sets in the same pattern. 

Here is the 2nd set:

10 words : Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future: Oscar Wilde

9   words: Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition: Steve Jobs 

8  words: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong : Murphy’s Law

7  words: Success is where preparation and opportunity meet: Bobby Unser

6  words: A stitch in time saves nine: a well known proverb whose origins are not known

5  words: I think, therefore I am : Rene deCartes

4  words: I have a dream : Martin Luther King

3  words: Clarity preceded success: Robin Sharma

2  words: Power corrupts : Francis Bacon 

1   word: Gratitude :It is not just a word, it is a way of life: Rob Martin

I am sure that many members of this group will be able to suggest several other alternatives to these set of inspirational and motivational phrases. Please do share them in this group. Even if you are not able to contribute a full set of 55 words, even if you suggest a partial set, it would be appreciated. This will be a step towards making this a more active learning community. 

Here is yet another set : the 3rd set 

# 10 words :  I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious: Albert Einstein

#9   words: We build too many walls and not enough bridges: Isaac Newton

#8  words: Success is not final, failure is not fatal: Winston Churchill

#7  words: Commitment is an act, not a word: Jean-Paul Sartre

#6  words: We must cultivate our own garden: Voltaire 

#5  words: Creativity is just connecting things: Steve Jobs

#4  words: You ought to dream : Ernest Hemingway

#3  words: Knowledge is Power: Francis Bacon

#2  words:  Hasten slowly : Augustus

#1   word: Dream : I have a dream : Martin Luther King Jr

And finally a 4th set: 

10 words: Father forgive them, for they know not what they do: Jesus Christ 

  9 words: No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking: Voltaire

  8 words: Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change: Stephen Hawking

   7 words: The unexamined life is not worth living : Socrates

   6 words: Work expands to fill the time: Parkinson’s Law

   5 words: You cannot predict the future: Stephen Hawking

   4 words: Stay hungry. Stay foolish: Steve Jobs

   3 words: Genius is patience : Isaac Newton 

   2 words: Look within : Marcus Aurelius 

   1 word: Imagine: Imagination is more important than Knowledge : Albert Einstein

By combining these inspirational sentences from different sets, one can create several combinations of 55 words of inspiration. If we just had the first 2 sets, then we had 2 choices for each of the 10 sentences. This gives rise to 2x2x2x2x 2x2x2x2x2x2=1024 possibilities. With 3 sets it gives rise to 59049 possibilities. With the 4 sets that we have, we could have 1048576 possibilities for the 55 words of inspiration. If we prepare 10 sets of these, the possibilities would become 10000000000. Just one more example of how complexity can arise out of simplicity. 


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What are vanity metrics?

What are vanity metrics?

What are metrics?

About 250 years ago  Lord Kelvin said:  “I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science, whatever the matter may be.” 

In today’s age of big data and data analytics, with its deluge of data, it becomes important to assign meaning to the data. 

Metrics are quantitative values of commonly used measures for assessing, comparing, and tracking performance or progress. Often a group of metrics will be used to build a dashboard that management or analysts review regularly to maintain performance. 

In this  digital age, it’s become easier than ever for educators  to track the various metrics of their students. However, the metrics commonly tracked by educators can often be non-factors in the actual success of the educational efforts, while the useful ones may go untracked.

Vanity metrics?

Here is a very good example of a vanity metric :  

CBSE, in collaboration with Intel, organised the ‘AI For Youth’ Virtual Symposium from October 13-17, 2020.

During the symposium a Guinness World RecordsTM attempt was made for ‘Most users to take an online Artificial Intelligence lesson in 24 hours’ on October 13 &14, 2020

 To know more about Symposium – https://bit.ly/3d0AwNW For any other queries – help@aiforyouth.org

Vanity metrics can be fickle, misleading, and appealing for all the wrong reasons. Vanity metrics are metrics that make you look good to others ( like being in the Guinness book of records) but do not help you understand your own performance in a way that informs future strategies.

Vanity metrics should be  contrasted with actionable metrics which is data that helps you make decisions and helps your mission  reach its goals. 

How many views make a YouTube video a success? How about 1.5 million? That’s how many views a video an organization, DoSomething.org, posted in 2011 got. It featured some well-known YouTube celebrities, who asked young people to donate their used sports equipment to youth in need. It was twice as popular as any other video that Dosomething.org had posted to date. Success! Then came the data report: only eight viewers had signed up to donate equipment, and zero actually donated.

Characteristics/ attributes/ features of vanity metrics: 

It can be very hard to sift through data and figure out what actually helps versus what just looks good. If you’re unsure if a metric is a vanity metric, a quick shortcut is to ask: “Can this metric lead to a course of action or inform a decision?” If the answer is “no” or “I don’t know,” then you should probably re-evaluate it.

Smart, actionable metrics help you make a decision. They provide feedback and context for what your goal  is and whether or not you’re moving towards it. 

Another clue is whether or not you can manage cause and effect within your data. Observing random occurrences isn’t helpful. 

Is the data a real reflection of the situation?

Often, data can be manipulated or spruced up with extra effort. Data fallacies abound. Vanity metrics may be hard to identify. The central question to ask yourself when considering a metric is whether or not it will help your business achieve its goals.

In direct opposition to vanity metrics, there exist actionable metrics. Actionable metrics are actual, useful statistics that can provide educators with reliable data that they can then use to objectively improve their eLearning experiences, making actionable metrics far more desirable than vanity metrics.

Examples of vanity metrics in education: 

Any metric can be a vanity metric, it all depends on the analysis. However, below are some of the most common examples of metrics prone to being vanity metrics. The education market space is full of vanity metrics, such as:

  • Institutional Ranking in various ranking systems
  • Area of the campus 
  • Number of books in the library 
  • Salary Packages of your graduating students
  • GER in higher education
  • Percentage of GDP spent by the Government on education

Some common vanity metrics in relation to eLearning include:

  • Module completion rate.
  • Course completion rate.
  • Module views.
  • Course views.
  • Number of questions answered.
  • Number of words typed.

But do these metrics measure what really matters? Do they convey the achievement of your mission? Do they build credibility for the delivery of your value proposition and brand promise?

Parents enthusiastically embrace traditional talking points (e.g., test scores or elite college lists), as they go out into the community as ambassadors for the school–or at least to defend their school decision. These are numbers they can understand and correlate to the common language of other parents.

Bad metrics are most common when there is  lack of clarity on what success looks like and doesn’t have strong, accurate feedback loops to access progress. 

Here are some examples of what could be real actionable educational metrics?

I am sure that you have thought of many other important parameters that could really be used for meaningful and actionable learning metrics. Look forward to your sharing them. 

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The Yaksha Prashna:

The Yaksha Prasna: 

The episode of Yaksha Prashna in the Mahabharat is well known. Here is a link to the Wikipedia article on the topic : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yaksha_Prashna

My own initiation to the Yaksha Prashna was when I first heard of “ क़िम आश्चर्य? “ ( What is the surprise?) ” in my early childhood. Then later through the ‘ महाजनो येन गतह सपंथा“ Mahajana yen gataha sapantha” and as a grown up when someone introduced me to “ किममोदित”…..

It turns out that all these were sub-questions to the last question asked by the Yaksha. It was this exhortation to follow the path trodden by the great (“ महाजनो येन गत: सपंथा “) that fostered my interest in reading biographies and auto-biographies. Even obituaries. It seemed to be the foundation for the famous words of Isaac Newton “ If I have seen further ( than others) it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants”. I also drew inspiration from the lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “ Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time” 

Here is a link to Sanskrit and English translation of the Yaksha Prashna : https://ia801308.us.archive.org/29/items/Sanskrit_EBooks_Assorted_Titles/Yakshaprasna%20Sanskrit%20English.pdf

Of late, I have become more interested in the questions themselves than in the answers. Knowledge seeking is about the questions that we ask. In Quantum Mechanics, at one level, the answer one gets depends upon the experiment ( question) that has been set up. Father GP Thomson  in the year 1897 experimentally demonstrated that the electron is a particle, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for this in the year 1906. His son JJ Thompson  in the year 1927 experimentally demonstrated that the electron is a wave, and for this was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1937. 

A true illustration of “ जाकी रही भावना जैसी ,प्रभु मूरत देखि तिन जैसी “. 

I am placing below the extract of the 33rd question, from the PDF whose link is given here: A 10 page PDF : https://www.themathesontrust.org/papers/hinduism/yakshaprashna.pdf

The Yaksha asked,—“Who is truly happy? What is most wonderful? What is the

path? And what is the news? Answer these four questions of mine and let thy dead brothers revive.” 

Yudhishthira answered,—“O amphibious creature, a man who cooketh in his own house, on the fifth or the sixth part of the day, with scanty vegetables, but who is not in debt and who stirreth not from home, is truly happy. Day after day countless creatures are going to the abode of Yama, yet those that remain behind believe themselves to be immortal. What can be more wonderful than this? Argument leads to no certain conclusion, the Srutis are different from one another; there is not even one Rishi whose opinion can be accepted by all; the truth about religion and duty is hid in caves: therefore, that alone is the path along which the great have trod. This world full of ignorance is like a pan. The sun is fire, the days and nights are fuel. The months and the seasons constitute the wooden ladle. Time is the cook that is cooking all creatures in that pan with such aids; this is the news.”

A video about the Yaksha Prashna (20/minutes) : https://youtu.be/VCY2Dtv8Oqc

And this (~ 10 minutes clip ) from BR Chopra’s Mahabharata : https://youtu.be/vJF-CalS7LQ

But the one question  that has stayed with me is the following: Yaksha:

किमाश्चर्यम् (kim Ashcharyam) – What is that which is most wonderful (most surprising)?


अहन्यहनि भूतानि गच्छन्ति यमालयम् | शेषा: स्थावरमिच्छन्ति किमाश्चर्यमत: परम् ||

Day after day countless creatures go the abode of Yama (die), yet those that remain behind desire immortality. What can be more wonderful/surprising than this?

What I find interesting here is that Yudhishthir has not elaborated on this. Is he extolling the power of the human spirit that refuses  to accept the limiting status quo, or is he pointing towards ‘wishful thinking’ as a fatal flaw of humanity.  “ The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. Take for example the observation about the force of gravity from times immemorial that “ what goes up must come down”. That statement was true until October 4th 1957 when the Soviet Union launched a Sputnik which kept orbiting the earth, instead of falling back immediately. Even after the telegram was well established as a means of communication over wires using the Morse code, when Marconi demonstrated that he could do this wirelessly, the Italian minister for Telecommunication remarked that Marconi  be sent to the lunatic asylum at Rome. Marconi wrote to the Ministry of Post and Telegraphs, then under Pietro Lacava, explaining his wireless telegraph machine and asking for funding. He never received a response to his letter, which was eventually dismissed by the Minister, who wrote “to the Longara” on the document, referring to the insane asylum on Via della Lungara in Rome. Later Marconi shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics in recognition of the contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.

Like the launch of the Sputnik overcoming the force of the earth’s gravitational pull in October 1957, it seems that humans are close to understanding the forces and processes that cause ageing and death. Death will be optional and ageing curable by the year 2045 say some genetic engineers : https://www.thinkspain.com/news-spain/30425/death-will-be-optional-and-ageing-curable-by-2045-say-genetic-engineers

In the Mahabharata epic, Bhishma Pitamah had the boon of choosing the time of his own death. Advances in medicine and technologies could make this facility available to larger numbers. At that time only Sanjay could see what was happening in a far off place and describe it to Dhritarashtra. Now we can all do it with a television, and even with a mobile phone. 

If this ‘ death being optional’ seems unbelievable, do reflect upon it for a while. First, just because something has been the norm in the past, does not mean we should accept it and applaud it. The average life expectancy sometime in the past was around 30 years of life. Huge numbers of children died before the age of five. Some may say that is natural. But humans can do and did do better! Second, in the past, the world had slavery and caste discrimination. Some may say that is natural. But humans can do and did do better.

Third, in the past, smallpox was present all over the world, killing huge numbers of people. Some may say that is natural. But humans can do and did do better.

Most religions assume the inevitability of death, and then proceed to suggest how we should lead our lives, and what we may expect after death. But when death itself becomes optional, we will perhaps need a new religion that will tell us how to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life, and when to exercise the option of death. I think in the spirit of Industry 4.0 or Education 4.0, we may call it Religion 4.0. 

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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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