Thursday 29 October 2009

Sarvajnya: A 16th C radical encyclopedic poet

Sarvajnya: A radical encyclopedic

Shivanand Kanavi draws a portrait of Sarvajnya, the radical poet who strode through Karnataka of 16th century, about whose personal life little is known

A group of writers led by Diderot, d’Alembert, Rousseau and Voltaire, created the Encyclopedia in 18th century France and thus came to be known as Encyclopedists. They were all fired with a common purpose: to further knowledge and, by so doing, strike a resounding blow against reactionary forces in the church and state. The underlying philosophy was rationalism and a qualified faith in the progress of the human mind. Their work proved to be far more revolutionary and radical than their contemporaries had envisioned and had an indelible impact on the French Revolution.

Roughly two hundred years prior to the French enlightenment, strode a poet all over Karnataka who also called himself an encyclopedic—a Sarvajnya. Normally in the Indian tradition there is great humility and display of one’s learning is frowned upon. The word Sarvajnya is more often used to ridicule those ignoramuses who act as ‘know-all’s. But Sarvajnya was unabashed and truly used his poetic skills to comment on all sorts of subjects from the daily life of people. His poems talk about agriculture and different professions; about the joys and problems of family life; about the caste system; about hollow religious rituals; about all the four goals in life, dharma, artha, kama and moksha and so on with a great sweep and with profound wisdom.

His tools were biting satire as well as gentle humour. At the same time these aphoristic pearls of wisdom became so popular that one could find manuscripts recording them in ordinary villagers’ homes as well as in royal palaces. In fact over a period of time, they have become substitutes for proverbs. Rev Chennappa Uttangi (1881-1962) did a yeoman service by traveling all over Karnataka for nearly a quarter century from village to village to collect and edit over 2000 of Sarvajnya’s vachanas or poems and published them in 1924. Sarvajnya is spoken of with the same affection and respect, by the ordinary folk and the learned alike as Vemana in Telugu and Tiruvalluvar in Tamil.

Sarvajnya’s poems are marked by high poetic qualities as well. Besides using analogies, allegories, alliteration, puns and double entendres they use simple pure Kannada words. Sarvajnya not only used the folk idiom and language but also a common folk metre called the tripadi—three liner and raised it to great heights. His amazing control over the form of tripadi has led to literary critics comparing him to the mythological Bali who is supposed to have used three foot steps to cover heaven earth and hell.

His influence over later poets is deep and extends up to the present day. He was greatly admired by D R Bendre (1896-1981), who himself was one of the great poets of 20th century. Bendre said of Sarvajnya, “His poems are like an instruction manual to all writers. They are marked by: the most appropriate choice of words; correct analogies and metaphors; the truth in his examples and allegories; breadth of experience and nuanced sensitivity of observations. The morals in his vachanas are not dry preachings; they are filled with the sensuality of subhashita and mixed with subtle humour”.

However other than what we learn of his rational world outlook and honest expression we know very little of this towering itinerant iconoclast who strode Karnataka nearly 500 years ago. Dating him is also rough and is based on the fact that a work written in 1600 CE refers to Sarvajnya. As for the faith or caste he was born into again there have been guesses but no confirmation. His vachanas indicate his leanings towards Veerashaivism. But it would be a sign of extreme narrow mindedness to put this radical in a straight jacket of faith and caste. Some autobiographical poems imply that he was born in Masoor near Dharwad.

A few of his vachanas have been translated below by the author. As is usual in such cases, translation can only give a sense of their content but not the literary and cultural richness.

The Yogi has no caste, the wise one is not stubborn
The sky has no pillar to hold it up, the heaven
Does not have a ghetto for the outcaste, says Sarvajnya.

The world is born out of the unclean
The Brahmin however says “don’t touch me I am clean”
Then where was he born, asks Sarvajnya.

Bones, entrails, nerves, skin, holes, cavities
And fl esh with all kinds of excretion, constitute all beings
Where then is the justifi cation for caste asks Sarvajnya.

We walk on the same earth and drink the same water
We are all burnt by the same fi re, then where does
Caste and gotra come from asks Sarvajnya.

They bring drinking water from the same source and cook
But do not want to sit together and eat
Sarvajnya does not need such people.

The fi ngers count, the tongue multiplies
But if the mind is distracted
Then it is like a street dog says Sarvajnya.

Ganga, Godavari, Tungabhadra and Krishna
You dipped in all of them, but you did not realize the God
within you asks Sarvajnya.

If dipping in holy water the Brahmin jumps straight to
the heaven, then why won't a frog in the same water
Jump up too asks Sarvajnya.

If Sandal wood on the forehead takes you straight to
heaven then why not the stone
On which you make its paste, asks Sarvajnya.

If three holy threads take you to heaven
Then why not someone wearing
An entire rug asks Sarvajnya.

If a thick coat of ashes takes you to the heavens
Then why not a poor
Donkey wallowing in it, asks Sarvajnya.

In a crore of professions agriculture is the highest,
Agriculture leads to textiles too
Else the country itself would be in trouble, says Sarvajnya.

If you tell the truth as you see it they get upset
That is why it is very diffi cult to see people who speak
the truth as they see it, on this earth, says Sarvajnya.

And lastly,

One does not become a Sarvajnya through arrogance
By humbly learning a word from everyone
Sarvajnya became a mountain of knowledge

These are but a few samples. It is difficult to choose from a treasure house of over 2000 of Sarvajnya’s poems where he covers a vast number of topics in everyday life.

It is appropriate that recently the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu commemorated Tiruvalluvar and Sarvajnya through unveiling their statues in each other’s states. However, a more concerted effort should be made to introduce Indians to the rich diversity of cultures and literature from different regions and languages of India.

Reference: Sarvajnya Vachana Sangraha , Selected Vachanas of Sarvajna, Compiled by M.Mariyappa Bhat, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 1996

From: Ghadar Jari Hai, Vol III, Issue 3 & 4, July-Dec 2009

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Girish Karnad's play: Tipu Sultan

Tipu Sultan’s dreams

Shivanand Kanavi appreciates a play by Girish Karnad

‘Tippuvina Kanasugalu’ (Kannada), Manohar Grantha Mala, Dharwad
Also in English Translation: Two Plays by Girish Karnad - The Dreams of Tipu Sultan/Bali: The Sacrifice, Oxford India Paperbacks, Oxford University Press, 2005

The great warrior king Tipu Sultan, known as the Tiger of Mysore, stood valiantly in the way of wily British colonialism in India. His statecraft was forward looking and was marked not only by burning patriotism but also by administrative efficiency, agricultural development, manufacturing, international and inter-kingdom diplomacy, sericulture, gold mining and refining, pearl culture, toy making, foreign trade, rocketry and development of military technology and manufacturing. However the well known playwright Girish Karnad brings to our notice a little known fact that Tipu was also literally a dreamer. He actually kept a journal where he noted down his nocturnal dreams. Karnad weaves his play around this fact.

It would be great fun to watch a production of the play in appropriate historical surroundings like Delhi’s Purana Kila, but even a reading of the play leads to admiration for the heroic-tragic personality of Tipu as well as the craftsmanship of the playwright.

It is not easy writing historical fiction. There will always be critics looking for historical accuracy. However, if one wanted factual history, one should read a history tome and not fiction. On the other hand there are those who use their characters, historical or otherwise, to mouth the author’s own lemmas and dilemmas. The characters just become cardboard messengers of the author’s ‘message’ and never come alive. If one were to engage in a serious polemic or put forward a thesis then one could write an essay and not dabble in fiction. However we see a large number of authors succumbing to these two extremes. It is only truly good writers who raise their fiction above essays or polemical propaganda. This play proves that Karnad belongs to that select few.

True to the panoramic canvas of nearly twenty years of Tipu’s confrontation with British colonialism, involving three Anglo-Mysore wars, Karnad creates a cornucopia of interesting characters: the serendipitous historian Kirmani; Col Colin Mc-Kenzie who is studying Arthashastra and pushing for a definitive history of Tipu Sultan, typifying Orientalist scholarship when he says “we want to understand our enemy”; the upstart Arthur Wellesley pushed into the limelight by his brother, though he went on later to become famous as the Duke of Wellington after the battle of Waterloo; Richard Wellesley or Lord Mornington, the Governor General, scheming against Cornwallis and pushing his brother Arthur forward with a ‘plum’ position; the ambitious Cornwallis waiting to avenge his humiliation in America; the politically naive Maratha, Haripant, and of course the warrior-dreamer Tipu and his children.

Karnad raises several questions: regarding the clich├ęd British colonial statecraft of chicanery and divide and rule; the short-sightedness of Maratha tactics; Tipu’s lack of killer instinct and so on, but never imposes his own conclusions. He leaves many tantalizing loose ends so that the reader or the viewer can draw his own. He weaves historical facts regarding Tipu’s progressive statecraft effortlessly into the dialogue.

Many may not know that Karnad’s major as an undergraduate was mathematics. Perhaps as a result one discerns a precision and leanness and balance in his prose. Overall it is an enjoyable play that packs so much in so few pages.

From: Ghadar Jari Hai—The Revolt Continues, Vol III, No. 3&4, July-Dec, 2009

Monday 26 October 2009

History and Philosophy of Mathematics: C K Raju

Excerpts of this interview appeared in:
Ghadar Jari Hai—The Revolt Continues, Vol III, No. 3&4, July-Dec, 2009

Peepul ke Neeche

“Indian mathematics is practical whereas the European is metaphysical”

C K Raju has been arguing passionately through several lectures and books about the uniqueness of ancient Indian mathematics and how it influenced the rest of the world. He says what is taught as standard modern mathematics today, is based on theological positions taken by the Church after the Crusades. Shivanand Kanavi conversed with Raju on the results of his research in the history and philosophy of mathematics.

Shivanand: Dr Raju welcome to peepul ke neeche conversation. Having looked at some of your writings, I see that you have researched deeply into the mathematical tradition of India as well as that of Persia, Arabia and Europe. Could you give us an overview of exchanges between India and West Asia in the field of mathematics?

Raju: As I have stated in the book (Is Science Western in Origin?—C K Raju), the process of exchange with Arabs started with Barmakids (barmak from pramukh, Persian-Buddhists who were wazirs to Abbasid Khalifas--Ed), this was around 8th century CE, after the conquest of Persia by the Arabs. Besides the spread of Islam in Persia, Persian customs spread to the Arabs. There was a tradition in Persia of importing knowledge from all over the world. It was based on a philosophy which regarded knowledge itself as virtue, like the Socratic philosophy. So, to make people virtuous you gather knowledge from all corners of the world. It was begun by Khusrow Noshirvan in the 6th century. At that time Justinian closed all the schools of philosophy in the Roman empire and many philosophers took refuge in the court of Noshirvan. According to the Shahnama [of Firdausi] his wazir came to India and took chess, Panchatantra etc. back to Persia. There was also an astronomical tradition in Jundishapur (Gundeshapur) in Persia. This astronomy also traveled from India. Which is interesting, because Khusrow’s court already had the most knowledgeable people in the Roman empire and if the Almagest (Almagest is the Latin form of the Arabic name al-kitabu-l-mijisti, (The Great Book) of a mathematical and astronomical treatise proposing the complex motions of the stars and planetary paths, originally written in Greek by Ptolemy of Alexandria, Egypt, written in the 2nd century. The Almagest is the most important source of information on ancient Greek astronomy-Ed) or any other advanced astronomical text existed at that time then it would have been similarly collected and translated, but we do not hear about it. On the contrary, the Almagest itself starts off by addressing an unknown “Cyrus”. So it was probably constructed in Persia. Certainly, Greek knowledge was translated into Persian and later into Arabic. But, so far as astronomy is concerned we know that the very fact that first it went [from India] to Persia and then Baghdad shows that Greek knowledge at that point did not compare in any way with the present-day versions of Ptolemy’s Almagest. There was also a strong tradition of neo-Platonism which came through texts in Greek language [though probably it originated in Egypt]. This was called the “theology of Aristotle”, and that was the primary extent of “Greek” knowledge at that time. There was no Greek knowledge available from Byzantium at that time since all the schools of philosophy there had been closed. [We also know that Arabic knowledge travelled in the other direction, to Greek texts.] The proof is that Panchatantra is translated from Sanskrit to Pahlavi (and you find its reference in Firdausi’s Shahnama) and from Pahlavi it was translated into Arabic and then from Arabic to Greek. Among the Arabs it became the basis of a movement –Ikhwan as- Safa (the Brethren of Purity); so we know the route that knowledge took from India to Greek texts, and it also traveled directly [as in Ashoka’s time when Indian texts and medicinal plants went to Alexandria]. The process really took off with Bayt al hikma (The House of Wisdom at Baghdad) which was linked to Islamic rational theology which valued knowledge as a virtue. It was closely related to aql-i-kalaam, which meant Allah has given you aql and one must apply that aql in order to interpret the Koran.

SK: Which were the sources from which knowledge was gathered in Persia?

Raju: India was one of them. I already talked about Panchatantra, medicine. Indian mathematical texts traveled to Baghdad and they were translated by Al Khwarizmi. [Because of this movement to gather knowledge in Baghdad] the demand for books increased so much that paper technology came in from China into Baghdad. We also hear in some accounts that things came from what are called Greeks [but were from Alexandria in the African continent].

SK: Was there any exchange between Persia and Greece and Persia and India during Alexander’s (Sikander) travel through Persia up to India?

Raju: There is an account in the Zoroastrian book of Nativity that Alexander got his books from the Persian emperor and got them translated. The question is: what happened to them? Presumably, some of them [the looted books] went to Aristotle [Alexander’s teacher] and some of them went to the corpus of the library of Alexandria. Aristotle was supposed to be the first person in Greece to have a library so where did his books come from?

SK: That does not sound very different from Elgin’s marbles!

Raju: (Laughs) Yes. People have not talked about the sources of books for the library of Alexandria. It could not have been those small city states in Greece, which did not have the capacity to produce them. If you look at the trial of Socrates, there were supposed to be 600-odd jurors. If you take ten persons in the population for every citizen then there would still be only about 5-6000 people in Athens so how could they produce the books on the scale of the library of Alexandria—half a million books as is normally mentioned? Only a Persia or an Egypt could have done that.
In the case of Alexander, as with other military conquerors, knowledge flows towards them in the case of barbarian incursions.

SK: Such a large collection of books in those days must have been accumulated over a long time and must have preceded Alexander also.

Raju: Exactly! It must have taken a very, very long time. Papyrus was very expensive [so it also took a lot of resources].

SK: I said this because when I was in Deccan College, Pune, I found that they are putting together a Sanskrit dictionary and after eight volumes they are still in ‘a’since they are adding on contextual meaning as a word occurs in different canonical Sanskrit texts. They have chosen 1500 classical Sanskrit works to do so, which include natya shastra, vastu shastra, ayurveda, literary and philosophical texts and so on. If they are considering 1500 as fairly representative of canonical Sanskrit texts then to have hundreds of thousands of works it must have taken many centuries and many civilisational sources.

Raju: Exactly and that is the how the real corpus of books in the Library of Alexandria accumulated. In fact, how many Greek texts can we count? Nowhere in that neighborhood! There is no possibility that those small [Greek] states could have produced that kind of knowledge. So this entire myth making about Greeks has used this library of Alexandria. Possibly there were some texts in it that came from Greece, but nowhere in the range of half a million.

SK: There must have been Mediterranean exchanges..

Raju: The exchanges between Greece and Egypt were already taking place. Greek people like Plato, Herodotus [routinely] used to come to Egypt for higher studies. Greeks were copying Egyptian gods. Each Greek god has a counterpart in Egypt and in fact Herodotus says that explicitly.

SK: After all Egypt was a much older civilization by a couple of millennia. Did this exchange continue after the Baghdad period also?

Raju: Yes this culture of libraries spread in the entire Islamic world even in Cordoba, Spain during the Islamic period. Al Beruni when he came to India made it a point to collect knowledge of all kinds. The Baghdad book bazaar had become prominent, and this [tradition] persisted [in Islam] at least till the 12th -13th century.

SK: Arabs have been depicted as carriers and safe keepers of knowledge rather than creators of knowledge. Can you comments on that.

Raju: There is an enormous amount of evidence to the contrary. [The book mentions the case of Copernicus, where the Arabs were clearly the creators and the Europeans merely the carriers of knowledge. So] it is good to look at the question: how did this story start? (that Arabs were mere safe keepers of Greek knowledge).

SK: In fact they have been depicted as barbaric nomads killing each other, who did not have any culture till the British formed various nation states in Arabia. Thus there were Pharaohs and then there were Bedouins till the Anglo-Saxons came…

Raju: If you look at Arab literature (pre-Islamic) there is a depiction of a freewheeling society living in the desert. Post Islam, they conquered Persia and absorbed a lot of administrative structure of the Persians and then there was this culture of books and libraries. That itself shows that they had to produce books. It is a different matter that in a bazaar to get a higher price one might say not me but somebody more famous wrote this, or it was written a long time back and make it an antique etc. After all, a lot of things happen in a market. It is undeniable that Arabs were creative and made contributions so one should look at when did the story start that Arabs are only safe keepers. It started during the Crusades. They [the Christians of Europe] were fighting a religious war and Europe had a tradition of book burning. In fact, there were many fiats [by Christian emperors] right from 4th century to burn books. The library of Alexandria was burnt down. There was a tradition of burning heretical books which included secular knowledge. Within Christendom, there was not much of a culture of books and when they were fighting the Arabs they realized that they needed secular knowledge which was available in books. They captured Toledo which had a massive library [coming from] the Umayyad khilafat. It took a lot of time [for the church] to arrive at the decision to translate those books [and not burn them]. This needed a justification. That was concocted by saying that this knowledge belongs to Greece and the Greeks were theologically ‘correct’. This was regarding early Greeks mind you, since they were pre-Christian, whereas they [the church] had conflicts with later Greeks like Proclus, Theon etc. The advantage of inventing a person like Euclid was that you can attribute a philosophy to that individual which suits you.

SK: Is there any Church document or correspondence which discusses these things?

Raju: The church does not operate like that. They are not accessible. Even what the Church did in India is not accessible. If I wish to know what happened in India during the Inquisition then I don’t get access to that even if the records exist. It is not an open archive. I would rather not demand documentary evidence. In this entire [church] tradition, so many documents have been cooked up or forged. After all, even in Delhi, periodically fires go on in so many ministries and documents get burnt (laughs). Let us look at common sense and circumstantial evidence.

SK: What do you consider as Greek contributions, you have raised some questions about their arithmetical capabilities…

Raju: It is clear from their system that it was completely inadequate to do quick sums; forget about subtractions and divisions. I don’t know what their contributions were in science. I don’t have any evidence of that. May be in theatre or other things, however there is strong evidence that some ideas including Platonic ideas come from the mystery geometry tradition of Egypt.

SK: What is mystery geometry?

Raju: I have written a new book on Euclid and the mystery geometry of Egypt. If you see how Plato looks at geometry. He says it should be taught to students in his Republic, which is an ideal state. He has written about how its citizens should be trained—he particularly talks about two subjects viz music and mathematics—in order for their souls to be virtuous. The very word mathematics comes from mathesis, which means learning. What is learning? Socrates demonstrates it by calling a slave boy and asking him questions, thereby showing that the slave boy has an intrinsic knowledge of geometry. He says this is possible because the boy has a soul and the soul is recollecting the knowledge from the previous birth. In fact, the Platonic doctrine is that “all learning is recollection”. Mathematical truths are eternal, and since the soul is eternal, by sympathetic magic they [the eternal truths] arouse the soul. Thus the function of mathematics is to arouse the soul through introspection, by taking you away from the external world. This is the idea of mystery geometry. The practical applications are of no concern to us says Plato, the moral applications are more important.

SK: There are these well known names of Pythagoras and later Archimedes..

Raju: Pythagoras is a school which indulged in mystery mathematics of numbers etc. There is an exoteric part which is told to outsiders and there an esoteric part which is told to initiates. What is the evidence of Pythagoras and the proof of his theorem? [Deductive] proof is a concept post-12th century. At that time [in Pythagoras’ time] it [geometry] was only for arousing the soul. In the mystery tradition the soul knows what truth is and that [intrinsic knowledge of the soul] is the ultimate standard [of truth]. That belief about the soul came into violent conflict with [post-Nicene] Christianity, even though that notion of soul was very much part of early Christianity of Origen. From his notes the present day Bible is derived. He was declared a heretic. The doctrine of love was entirely a mystery tradition. But, after the Church and State came together in the 4th century you could not say that everyone would be saved. There had to be some advantage in becoming a Christian. It is like the state saying I am going to treat my citizens above those of other states. It brings in a boundary: this is ours and that is theirs. That is why Proclus was declared a heretic. Because he said mathematics deals with eternal truths, since the soul is eternal, therefore the cosmos should also be eternal. That goes against the [church] doctrine: for then there will be no creation and no apocalypse, so he was declared a heretic. So was the case of Hypatia and her father Theon (both prominent mathematicians from Alexandria—Ed). Clearly Christianity was uncomfortable with this interpretation of Elements and looked at it as heretical. Then Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) reinterpreted Elements and used it as a weapon against Islam. Basically at that point in time Christendom had realized that it was not possible to spread beyond Spain by force alone. Moreover Europe was still very poor compared to the Arabs and they still coveted that money [the Arabs had]. Even though it [the Crusades] was called a religious war, it was motivated by material concerns. Like the Iraq war, which is not based on moral concerns, but on the oil wealth in the region.
Since it could not be done by warfare the church realized that it also had to adopt the method of argumentation and discourse. Quoting the [Christian] scriptures would not work with the Arabs. Thus, a third ground had to be found. That was found in the neo-Platonism that had already fascinated Islam in the form of aql-i-kalaam or falsafaa. Therefore, Aquinas realized that reason was needed to influence the Arabs. Thus, after Augustine, there was a second period of change in the Christian theological doctrine in the post-Crusade era. It was called Christian rational theology and was an adaptation of Islamic rational theology. This tried to establish universal principles of ‘proof’ [to persuade the Islamic Arabs]. That is where Elements came in.

SK: But did this not create a dichotomy within Christianity, how do you reconcile faith with reason?

Raju: It did indeed. Initially a whole lot of books ascribed to Aristotle, were banned and placed on the Index, since they were thought to be contrary to the doctrines of the Church. But then there was a whole army of people working on it who were trying to reconcile these contradictory beliefs. So it took time for “Aristotle” to be accepted into the [Christian] system. There was a process of absorption via reinterpretation. Thus Elements was reinterpreted from the tradition of mystery geometry to something which gives you a universal ‘proof’.

SK: It is like Vedanta, which says everyone is a part of the Brahman, at the same time it coexisted with the caste system…

Raju: Yes, for example there is this famous story of Shankaracharya and the chandaal, where he prostrates himself in front of the chandaal, but later it is reinterpreted. It is said that chandaal was actually a reincarnation of Shiva etc..

SK: One of the important theses put forward by you is that mathematics has cultural foundations. Can you say that there is an Indian way of doing mathematics if so what are its features?

Raju: There are some clear cut features. In India there was just one notion of proof of praman which was applied everywhere: be it philosophy, mathematics or physics. The first praman was pratyaksh. Empirical means were accepted as proof. This you find in sulbasutras, in Aryabhata, and right down to Yuktibhasha. For example the so called ‘Pythagorean theorem’ could be proved by drawing the triangle on a palm leaf, and it could be shown that the square on the ‘diagonal’ was equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides. This could be shown by cutting, rotating etc. Whereas the European tradition would disagree and say that mathematics is purely metaphysical and by bringing in motion you are bringing in physics and it violates the basic idea of geometry as concerned with immovable space. That is one major source of tension. [Secondly], today the notion of proof is seen in a very rigid manner in a completely metaphysical way. How do you carry out deduction? on what logical basis? This is unclear in the Indian tradition. After all there are different systems of logic which are prevalent. There is the Jain system of syadvad and saptabhangi, there is Buddhist logic of chatuskoti and so on. In fact, in the debates between Naiyayikas and Buddhists over a thousand year period you find that they are not addressing each other’s issues because of differing concepts of anumaan [or deduction]. But Europeans declare their logic as universal, when it is not. There is a third aspect which I have called zeroism, which has to do with what is mathematics good for. In the neo-Platonic view it is good for the soul. The European view is that mathematics is good for providing proof. But in India, the aim of mathematics was not to provide praman but to do something vyavaharik, something practical, which is removed from soul etc. If I am doing something vyavaharik, I don’t mind making approximations. If I am computing, then the computer is going to make so many approximations. Many things are discarded or zeroed, and that is acceptable. However European mathematics demands perfection where you cannot discard the smallest entity. The belief in perfection comes from a religious view of mathematics. It then gets into theology that God made the world and he wrote the laws in the language of mathematics [which must hence be perfect]. In India it is calculations.

SK: The word for mathematics in India is ganit that is counting..

Raju: Yes it is numerical calculation. There are proofs and they can be empirical and one particular logic is not considered universal. [So proofs are not the focal concern.]

SK: When pratyaksh praman is not available you bring in inference etc. Clearly mathematics was considered something physical. Can you explain the concept of universalism that is prevalent in mathematics.

Raju: Universality is factually incorrect. The way mathematics was done in India was different from Europe. So the Indian place value system and algorithms or calculus took such a long time to be absorbed by the Europeans. Metaphysics is never universal. The moment mathematical proof becomes metaphysical it ceases to be universal. In fact it can become ‘universal’ only to the extent that it is demonstrable empirically (pratyaksh). Universality is just a European prejudice as they are ill informed about other cultures, so they declare universality from a parochial point of view.

SK: The crude way in which universality is put forward is by saying that 2+2=4, no matter where you are in Greece or Arabia, India or China…

Raju: It is not true, and I have argued it at great length in my paper presented in Hawaii. Let us say we are using a computer to add. 2+2 is a complicated case, so let us take 1+1, The answer could be 1 or even 0 depending on what kind of logic gate one is using. So, I have to specify and say I am using integers. But what are integers? If I do arithmetic with integers on computers say using a C program on a 16 bit machine it will not give 2 as the answer but something else unless I do rounding off. In order to specify what are integers I need infinite time and infinite memory. In a commercial transaction we get into an agreement saying Rs 2 plus Rs 2 would be Rs 4. But that is an agreement. It is not a universal truth. If I have two stones and if I take up two more stones then I get four stones but if I break one of them into two then I get five stone pieces. So I have to be careful about them as universal truths. At a practical level there is no problem. Even if there is no formal agreement or legal frame work, I would simply say you broke the stone. An agreement is not a universal truth or ultimate truth etc.

SK: The statement that numbers are metaphysical transcendental, entities is itself a metaphysical statement.

Raju: That is exactly the point. So long as you are in the domain of convenience it is fine. If you look at Indian texts they will have numbers with 18 digits. What will you do if you need more? you go to 20, 30 or 40 places for a particular purpose. Normally you don’t need more than 18 places. Yajurved goes only till 12 places. Aryabhat goes to 18 places. It is a matter of convenience, but you never go to an infinity of places. That is also how computer arithmetic is done. You round off after some time, and that is perfectly fine but then don’t talk about universal truth.
There is an example given in ethno-mathematics. Suppose I have borrowed two fish from you and I have returned two fish. It won’t do if I have borrowed two big fish and then returned two tiny fish. There is a sense of exchange and fairness involved, not universal truth.

SK: What is the European view on standard of proof etc.

Raju: There is the Platonic deprecation of the empirical. Then there is the clerical elevation of metaphysics over the empirical. The clergy said the metaphysical is a higher truth than the empirical truth. That is fallacious. Metaphysics is decided by a coterie.
What Hilbert did is that he analysed the Elements from this perspective: for example, the proposition 1.4 [of the Elements] or the SAS [Side-Angle-Side] theorem involves physical movement in space, like the Yuktibhasha proof of the “Pythagorean Theorem”. They said the empirical has got into mathematics, which [empirical] is perishable, not eternal, it involves motion hence physics, whereas geometry should be concerned only with properties of immovable space and so on.
So Hilbert said if this theorem is made a postulate then everything becomes metaphysical. Thus he removed the last vestiges of empirical elements in the ‘Elements’. Or at least he thought he did. But actually he could not because he had this notion of congruence which fails after proposition 1.35, the one which is used to derive the area of a triangle. There [in 1.35] congruence is not in the sense of being of the same shape but same area. Earlier propositions are about congruent triangles where you [may] just transfer attention from one shape to the other without moving them. Now [in 1.35] they are incongruent but they are equal in area. The word used in Elements is not “congruent” but “equal”. Equal again is related to equality of the soul as in say Advaita Vedanta which is also a political statement of equality of all people who might look dissimilar. The esoteric meaning is equality of dissimilar things. The way out taken by Hilbert is to define area. But how do you define area without defining length? But if you do define length then the entire Elements becomes trivial as Birkhoff showed with the metric. Thus by throwing out the empirical you start introducing peculiar and artificial things [like defining area without allowing length to be defined] Thus, Hilbert made mathematics completely metaphysical through his ‘axiomatic’ approach.
Now a lot of proofs in mathematics are based on reductio ad absurdum, which depends on two valued logic which would not be acceptable in the Indian tradition at all. So how are these proofs universal?
It is all based on and tightly tied to the [historical] perception that Aristotle the Greek did some logic etc. Of course, one does not even consider that what is called “Aristotelian logic” [might] actually have come from Naiyaikas, through the Arabs. It is a misnomer to call it “Aristotelian”. In my article on Logic for the Springer Encyclopedia of Non-Western Science, Technology, and Medicine, I have made this point that the Aristotelian syllogism is [historically] not to be found anywhere [in Greece]! There is a Stoic syllogism [in Alexandria], but then these things [Aristotelian syllogism] suddenly appear in Toledo and that is problematic.

SK: But syllogism is a very prominent part of Nyaya..

Raju: Yes that is the point, and we also know that Nyaya went to Baghdad. Anyway, the standard approach in mathematics is not universal but has been universalized. First there was the ignorance of Europeans and this ignorance has been universalized through the process of colonization. On the one side [in Americas] people are just killed off, and on the other side they are given Western education where they were given a fabricated history which made them feel inferior. The Indian elite in the 19th century swallowed this and found the solution in aping the west. This has persisted even after independence. My demand is Swaraj in science and in science education.

SK: The creative process is not deductive, otherwise rule-based machines could have done it. But post-facto deduction may be used to teach. However if again our students at the frontiers of research are not going to use the deductive approach then what is the use of even teaching this method?

Raju: Why is mathematics difficult? My answer to that is that math per se is not difficult. But if you look at the text of NCERT for 12th standard, and particularly in Hindi, you find terms like continuity, differentiability, formal real numbers, set theory etc. All this is extremely difficult to follow [in Hindi] even though I have studied all that. It is so terribly convoluted. Where are their primary axioms? They are in set theory, which enables me to axiomatically perform infinite processes, which I cannot ever hope to perform. With the axiom of choice I can have a choice function, I can claim its “existence” etc. It is only through such metaphysical and imaginary infinite processes that one can preserve the perfection of mathematics required by Western theology.
Apart from all these theological principles that have come in, you cannot teach set theory for 10th standard students, so you cannot teach the axiomatic deductive process today. I can do that only at the MSc level and very few people come to that level. The vast majority hence cannot be taught mathematics. You have to tell them a set is a collection of objects! A student has to be taught what is a ring and a field. What utter nonsense! It is very bad pedagogy.

SK: I see a great danger in this. The common perception is that Indians are good in mathematics and good with numbers. That comes from a different tradition than this abstract set theoretic one. By adopting this in our schools we are subverting ourselves!

Raju: That is right and that is the point I have made to the Knowledge Commission. Our culture has some good points and by dropping them we are subverting ourselves.

SK: A very senior executive the chairman of a large bank in Japan told me “We Japanese cannot do software because it is abstract we can do manufacturing very well. We can make things cheaper, faster, smaller etc but not deal with abstractions. Whereas Indian can do it well because they have a philosophic tradition which we lack.” I ventured to say “but you have Zen” and he just brushed it aside.

Raju: That is interesting. I hope it is true. But we are actually adopting counter cultural traditions. There is no discussion of all these things in the public space. I would like to build a quantum computer based on Buddhist logic of chatuskoti, but where is the space to discuss this?
We need to discuss what we need to teach. Somebody just sits behind closed doors and decides what should be taught and that is not correct. There is no reason. Just that we should continue to ape the west. This is how things are made ‘universal’ by a class which is educated in the western tradition and are treated as experts. If experts cannot engage in critical thinking then how do you expect the students to do it?
It is not possible to do computer arithmetic without discarding some part of a number. As soon as we start looking at what a floating point number is, we find that it is not part of a ring or a field or anything! The basic so called associative law is not obeyed. By the way, whose law? why “law”? These are all theological concepts, that the numbers must obey the law etc. All the standard algebraic structures are useless [for computer arithmetic].
In reality, there is a practical way of doing things which is embodied in the way these data types like floating point numbers are used, which is different from theoretical computer science. This encompasses a different philosophy which is closer to what I am talking about. I am talking about practical computation, where we can discard these things. But on what logic? not based on perfection or universalism! You tell me how many decimal places you need and I can procure them. That is where shoonyavad or zeroism comes in. Based on this zeroism I am conducting a course on “Calculus without Limits” in Central University of Tibetan Studies in Sarnath. I am demonstrating it to show how much simpler life can be without universalism or set theory etc.
If we say we are a secular state why should we bring in theology in mathematics, after all if I use Buddhist logic many of the theorems in mathematics will fail! We should teach secular and practical mathematics. We are doing it because the universities in the west are doing it. But those universities were erected for theological purposes. According to [Isaac] Barrow, Cambridge University was established to breed clerics!

SK: I think seeing the pragmatism embedded in western societies today I think if you build a quantum computer using Buddhist logic that can threaten the encryption involved US financial system then you would have proved your point and billions of dollars will be spent on research on alternative logic.

Raju: That is accepted. We do need to find applications, but for me the very fact that people will be able to understand much of mathematics using this new system itself would be a worth it. I don’t care if the west wants to do it or not. My son should be able to do calculations easily which he could not do earlier.

SK: I will give an example to illustrate what I was saying. Fuzzy Logic was invented by Lotfi Zadeh, a Iranian professor at University of Berkeley. There were people who called it cocaine of mathematics implying that he was high on drugs and invented this since it did not follow the normal Aristotelian binary logic. The Japanese picked it up and used it in all appliances like washing machines, TV etc. The Americans picked it up only in the 80s because they had launched an armed commando raid on Tehran in 78-79 during the hostage crisis. But the control systems of their military helicopters carrying the commandos could not stand the heat and dust of the desert. They crashed and the mission was a failure. Then they realized they needed fuzzy logic based adaptive control systems and they brought them in. In that sense they are not theological.

Raju: My concern is not to convert the west. My concern is if these theological concepts have crept into mathematics then that mathematics should NOT be taught in this country. We should teach secular mathematics. After all it is being used to condition people, inculcate inferiority in them through fake history etc.

SK: It is definitely driving people away from mathematics.

Raju: And these kids keep looking at pictures of a fake Euclid and a fake Pythagoras as white Caucasians which we see in text books, and grow up in awe of the west and say the solution to any problem is to ape the west. If we can break out of those things that itself would be an achievement.

SK: One last comment. Many have objections to the way the Indian mathematical results are written in the form of a sutra without explaining how they arrived at it or what is the justification for it. Is there any insight into how they achieved these results? Secondly, one person who wrote many results filling up many note books without giving proof is Srinivasan Ramanujan though it was in the field of analysis in the western tradition.

Raju: I am not arguing for an absence of process. To deny the value of deductive proof is one thing, and to say that there should be complete absence of process is another thing. I would assert that though there was the sutra tradition there were also Yuktibhasa, Yukti Deepika etc where they explain the process, perhaps due to Jesuit pressure! They were written after the arrival of Europeans in Cochin. A sutra has to be terse to make it easy to remember. It is a cultural matter [in the oral tradition] that here we are dealing with minds of human beings and hence the communication should be from one mind to another and not filtered through a derivation on a dead parchment where it is liable to be misunderstood. Right or wrong that seemed to have been the cultural tradition and an oral tradition. After all even Vedas are not written down. That is not a critical issue dealing with validity but a pedagogical matter.
Certainly a process has to be there and a justification [praman] has to be there. In my book [Cultural Foundations of Mathematics] I have shown [in Chapter 3] that there is complete praman for the infinite series in India, but the derivation is on different philosophical principles. I don’t say that first I should have set theory which allows me to do some infinite processes and then I should have an infinite set of numbers and then prove convergence and so on. That is the rigmarole of Western mathematics.
I want to sum the series and the stated criterion is that the sum should remain constant when I add two consecutive terms. How does it remain constant? Up to the level of accuracy and the decimal (or sexagesimal) places I need. This is similar to epsilon-delta [and the “Cauchy” criterion] but deals with a finite number of terms [and does not involve a infinite metaphysical process]. That is a perfectly good criterion.

SK: That is what physicists do when they sum any series like Raleigh-Schroedinger perturbation series. You calculate to the second order of approximation and if there is serious problem you go to the next order.

Raju: That is how all computer algorithms are done. It only ceases to be valid if you demand perfection! That is a perfectly practical attitude. It is not that process and proof are missing. It is just proof from a different philosophical position.
The first text book on philosophy that I picked up from my father said, there is no philosophical tradition in India but only poetry! For philosophy you have to read the Greeks! So now I can say that there is no mathematical tradition in Europe and it is all theology which was imported here through colonialism!
What happened with Elements is that it had come to India through Islam but it was not translated into Sanskrit till very late at the time of Sawai Jai Singh in 1723, long after the arrival of Jesuits in Jehangir’s court. There were two parallel distinct traditions. Akbar’s courtier (Abul Fazl) who wrote the Ain-e-Akbari talks about learning from the Elements. It was there in Arabic and Persian traditions but was not considered valuable by Indian mathematicians. It was considered something religious. Also, practically Pythagoras theorem comes at the end of the Elements where as Yuktibhasa starts with it, with a different way of proving it without the forty odd earlier results.
So I would say it is a religious belief which is being universalized and I find it highly objectionable. I would say, in fact, our principles are universal since they are empirical and physical. I would characterize present-day mathematics as European ethno-mathematics tainted by theology.

Monday 19 October 2009

Physics Nobel 2009

India’s Nobel no-list longer


New Delhi, Oct. 16: An India-born American has joined a century-old league of legendary physicists from India overlooked by Nobel prize selection panels while others were awarded for similar or derived research, some physicists said.

Narinder Singh Kapany, who pioneered the science of transmitting light through glass fibres, is in a league established in 1909 when Guglielmo Marconi received the Nobel prize for work on wireless telegraphy that relied on an invention by India’s Jagadish Chandra Bose.

The Royal Swedish Academy last week announced the 2009 Nobel physics prize for Shanghai-born Charles Kao for his work on transmission of light in fibres for optical communication and two others for their invention of an imaging semiconductor.

The groundbreaking work by Kao in 1966 led to the development of long-distance optical communications. But Kapany had constructed optical fibres and demonstrated the transmission of light across optical fibres of short lengths 12 years earlier.

The Academy itself has acknowledged Kapany’s contribution to fibre optics, citing his paper published in the journal Nature in 1954.

Science historians and sections of physicists believe the Nobel Committee appears to have distinguished between Kapany’s work involving short-distance transmission and Kao’s subsequent feat, which opened doors for long-distance transmission.

“The work on long-distance transmission was a logical extension of the earlier work,” said Kapany, who was born in Moga (Punjab).

“The (Nobel) Committee has its own methodology — but I’m fine with it. I fully accept this situation. Let’s leave it at that,” Kapany told The Telegraph, chuckling over the phone from Palo Alto (California).

A senior scholar of the history of physics at the University of Oldenburg, Germany, who has studied trends in Nobel prizes for many years, said he was not surprised at Kapany’s omission.
“There are cases where the first scientists who established something novel did not get the prize,” Falk Riess said.

“There are at least three other instances over the past century where contributions of Indian physicists appear to have been ignored by Nobel committees,” said Shivanand Kanavi, a physicist-turned-author who had documented Kapany’s contributions to fibre optics in a book Sand to Silicon, published five years ago.

Saturday 17 October 2009

The Telegraph: Kapany -Missed Nobel
Hat-trick of Nobel misses


New Delhi, Oct. 16: In at least three instances over the past century, Nobel committees appear to have ignored the contributions of Indians while picking physics prize-winners, according to Shivanand Kanavi, a physicist-turned-author. The three scientists are E.C. George Sudarshan, Meghnad Saha and Satyen Bose.

Narinder Singh Kapany, who pioneered the science of transmitting light through glass fibres but was overlooked by the Royal Swedish Academy when it chose to award Shanghai-born Charles Kao this year, is an addition to the list.

In 2005, several physicists argued that Indian-born US physicist Sudarshan should have shared the prize with Roy Glauber for his own contributions to quantum optics.

“The prize-winners are chosen by the Royal Academy, but no one has the right to take my discoveries and formulations and ascribe them to someone else,” Sudarshan had written in a communication to the academy.

In 1999, Falk Riess, of the University of Oldenburg, Germany, and his colleague Rajinder Singh used decades-old documents translated from the Swedish to describe how Meghnad Saha had not received the Nobel Prize despite outstanding research in astrophysics for which he had received two Nobel nominations in 1930.

Satyen Bose, who in the early 1920s helped develop Bose-Einstein statistics that explains the behaviour of some atoms when they are cooled to temperatures just a whisker above minus 273.15 degrees Celsius — the lowest possible temperature — also didn’t get the prize.

Kanavi, who has documented Kapany’s contributions to fibre optics in a book Sand to Silicon published five years ago, said that over the decades, three Nobel Prizes in physics have gone to research derived from Bose-Einstein statistics: superconductivity, superfluidity, and Bose-Einstein condensate.

Einstein had won the Nobel in 1921 for other work.

Thursday 15 October 2009

Narinder Singh Kapany: Missed Nobel for Fibre Optics

Nobel question mark
Dinesh C. Sharma
New Delhi, October 15, 2009

Most Indians may have never heard the name of Dr Narinder Singh Kapany.
However, it is due to his path-breaking invention of fibre optics made more than half a century ago that the world today enjoys high speed communication and medical procedures such as endoscopy and laser surgeries.

That's why when this year's Nobel Prize in physics was announced for transmission of light through fibre glass, Nobel watchers were surprised at the omission of Dr Kapany's name.
In its announcement, the Nobel committee noted that the award winning scientist, Charles K. Kao, had made a discovery in 1966 that led to a breakthrough in fibre optics. He calculated how to transmit light over long distances via optical glass fibres and his work led to the fabrication of the first ultrapure fibre in 1970.

But it was Kapany who had first demonstrated in 1954 at the Department of Physics, Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, that light can travel in bent glass fibres and even coined the word - fibre optics. His research paper entitled "a flexible fiberscope, using static scanning" appeared in scientific journal Nature in its January 2, 1954 issue. It was co-authored by his professor, Harold Hopkins. Kapany later coined the word 'fibre optics' in an article he published in Scientific American in 1960. His work led to development of medical devices such as gastroscope, endoscope and bronchoscope. All this work preceded the work of Kao, who has been awarded the Nobel this year.

It is for this pioneering work that Kapany has been widely regarded as the "father of fibre optics". The Wall of Inventions at the Massachusetts Institutes of Technology lists Kapany as the inventor of fibre optics and he was hailed by Fortune magazine in 1999 as one of the seven unsung heroes who have changed the face of the 20th century.

"Well, that's what the world says (that I am the father of fibre optics), but the Nobel committee has its own decision", Kapany said in a telephonic interview with Mail Today from his home in San Francisco.

Asked to comment on being ignored by the Nobel committee, Kapany said: "What can you say about this. It is known that Prof Kao started work in this field many years after me. He faced competition too… I don't think there should be any controversy about it. It is up to the Swedish Academy to decide. Whatever criteria they wanted to use, they have used."

Shivanand Kanavi - a physicist-turned author who documented Kapany's contribution in his book Sand to Silicon - said "in any discovery or invention, many people play a role and it would be wrong to say only one person did all the work. However, some people play a crucial role and show the way for further research. In the case of fibre optics, Kapany played such a critical role. There were others who had realised that glass cylinders or fibres could be used to transmit light, but Kapany was more successful than anybody else in solving the problems involved and scientifically demonstrating the same". Between 1955 and 1965, Kapany was the lead researcher in the subject and he published several papers.

In 1966, Charles Kao put forward the idea that glass fibres could be used for telecom and tirelessly evangelised it. "Kao richly deserves a share of the prize but it was based on the earlier pioneering work done by Kapany. So it is in the fitness of things that both Kao and Kapany share the prize," Kanavi said.

Kapany, who was born in Moga in Punjab, had his schooling in Dehradun - where seeds of his future work in fibre optics were sown. Kapany's teacher once told him that light always travelled in a straight line. This made the young boy think and he set out to prove his teacher wrong. He graduated from Agra University, worked for a brief while in an ordnance factory and then moved on to the Imperial College for doctorate in optics. In London, he worked for sometime at the Glasgow Optics Company.

He subsequently moved to the University of Rochester and then to the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he continued his research and invented a string of technologies and devices in fibre-optics communication, lasers, biomedical instrumentation and solar energy. He has over a 100 patents to his credit.

At 82, Kapany continues to invent. "I keep working. Only last week I had applied for a patent related to solar energy systems," he said.
Courtesy: Mail Today

Thursday 8 October 2009

Missed Physics Nobel 2009: Narinder Singh Kapany

How India missed another Nobel Prize
October 08, 2009

Shivanand Kanavi reveals how Narinder Kapany, the Father of Fibre Optics, missed out on a Nobel Prize this year.

First, it was Jagadish Chandra Bose at the turn of the century, who was the first to demonstrate wireless signaling in 1895. Later, he even created a radio wave receiver called the 'coherer' from iron and mercury. Though he showed no interest in patenting it, Bose demonstrated his inventions in Kolkata and London

Sir Neville Mott, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1978, in fact commented that Bose had foreseen the 'n' and 'p' type semiconductors, and was 'sixty years ahead of his time.' However, the Nobel Prize in Physics for wireless communication was awarded to Guglielmo Marconi in 1909, 14 years after Bose had demonstrated the possibility.

Then came Satyendranath Bose, who sent a paper on the statistics of quanta of light–photons to Albert Einstein. Einstein supported the paper and got it published in Zeitschrift der Physik in 1924, and that in turn gave birth to the now famous Bose-Einstein statistics and the term 'Bosons' for all those elementary particles that follow it.

Even though three Nobel Prizes have been awarded for works based on Bose statistics, the originator of the idea was never awarded one.

Moving on, G N Ramachandran deserved a Nobel for his work on bio-molecular structures in general and, more particularly, the triple helical structure of collagen.

E C George Sudarshan produced pioneering contributions to Quantum Optics and coherence, but his work was ignored, and Roy Glauber was awarded the Physics Nobel in 2005 for the same work.

And so to this week: The press release issued by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on the Nobel Prize for Physics for 2009 says 'one half' of the prize has been awarded to Charles K Kao 'for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication.'

What the Academy omitted to note was that Moga, Punjab-born Narinder Singh Kapany, widely considered the Father of Fibre Optics, and, in this capacity, featured in a 1999 Fortune magazine article on the 'Unsung Heroes of the 20th Century', had far the stronger claim.

Charles Kao in a 1996 paper put forward the idea of using glass fibres for communication using light; he tirelessly evangelised it and fully deserves a share of the Prize. However, the fact remains that it was Kapany who first demonstrated successfully that light can be transmitted through bent glass fibres during his doctoral work at the Imperial College of Science in London in the early fifties, and published the findings in a paper in Nature in 1954.

Since then, Kapany irelessly developed applications of fibre optics for endoscopy during the fifties and later coined the term Fibre Optics in an article in Scientific American in 1960. His body of work provided the basis for the developments of any and all applications in communications.

In a book published in 2007 by Rupa & Co titled Sand to Silicon: The Amazing Story of Digital Technology, I had written of the respective contributions of Kapany and Kao to the field of Fiber Optics. A relevant excerpt (pages: 154-159):

'Very few Indians know that an Indian, Narinder Singh Kapany, a pioneer in the field, coined the term (Fibre Optics) in 1960. We will come to his story later on, but before that let us look at what fibre optics is. It all started with queries like: Can we channel light through a curved path, even though we know that light travels in a straight line?'

'Why is that important? Well, suppose you want to examine an internal organ of the human body for diagnostic or surgical purposes. You would need a flexible pipe carrying light. Similarly, if you want to communicate by using light signals, you cannot send light through the air for long distances; you need a flexible cable carrying light over such distances.'

'The periscopes we made as class projects when we were in school, using cardboard tubes and pieces of mirror, are actually devices to bend light. Bending light at right angles as in a periscope was simple. Bending light along a smooth curve is not so easy. But it can be done, and that is what is done in optic fibre cables.'

'For centuries people have built canals or viaducts to direct water for irrigation or domestic use. These channels achieve maximum effect if the walls or embankments do not leak.'

'Similarly, if we have a pipe whose insides are coated with a reflecting material, then photons or waves can be directed along easily without getting absorbed by the wall material.'

'A light wave gets reflected millions of times inside such a pipe (the number depending on the length and diameter of the pipe and the narrowness of the light beam).'

'This creates the biggest problem for pipes carrying light. Even if we can get coatings with 99.99 per cent reflectivity, the tiny 'leakage' of 0.01 per cent on each reflection can result in a near-zero signal after 10,000 reflections.'

'Here a phenomenon called total internal reflection comes to the rescue. If we send a light beam from water into air, it behaves peculiarly as we increase the angle between the incident ray and the perpendicular.'

'We reach a point when any increase in the angle of incidence results in the light not leaving the water and, instead, getting reflected back entirely. This phenomenon is called total internal reflection.'

'Any surface, however finely polished, absorbs some light, and hence repeated reflections weaken a beam.'

'But total internal reflection is a hundred per cent, which means that if we make a piece of glass as non-absorbent as possible, and if we use total internal reflection, we can carry a beam of light over long distances inside a strand of glass.'

'This is the principle used in fibre optics.'

'The idea is not new. In the 1840s, Swiss physicist Daniel Collandon and French physicist Jacques Babinet showed that light could be guided along jets of water.'

'British physicist John Tyndall popularised the idea further through his public demonstrations in 1854, guiding light in a jet of water flowing from a tank.'

'Since then this method has been commonly used in water fountains. If we keep sources of light that change their colour periodically at the fountainhead, it appears as if differently coloured water is springing out of the fountain.'

'Later many scientists conceived of bent quartz rods carrying light, and even patented some of these inventions. But it took a long time for these ideas to be converted into commercially viable products. One of the main hurdles was the considerable absorption of light inside glass rods.'

'Narinder Singh Kapany recounted to the author, "When I was a high school student at Dehradun in the beautiful foothills of the Himalayas, it occurred to me that light need not travel in a straight line, that it could be bent. I carried the idea to college. Actually it was not an idea but the statement of a problem. When I worked in the ordnance factory in Dehradun after my graduation, I tried using right-angled prisms to bend light.'

'However, when I went to London to study at the Imperial College and started working on my thesis, my advisor, Dr Hopkins, suggested that I try glass cylinders instead of prisms. So I thought of a bundle of thin glass fibres, which could be bent easily. Initially my primary interest was to use them in medical instruments for looking inside the human body. The broad potential of optic fibres did not dawn on me till 1955. It was then that I coined the term fibre optics."'

'Kapany and others were trying to use a glass fibre as a light pipe or, technically speaking, a 'dielectric wave guide'. But drawing a fibre of optical quality, free from impurities, was not an easy job. Kapany went to the Pilkington Glass Company, which manufactured glass fibre for non-optical purposes. For the company, the optical quality of the glass was not important.'

'"I took some optical glass and requested them to draw fiber from that," says Kapany. "I also told them that I was going to use it to transmit light. They were perplexed, but humoured me."'

'A few months later Pilkington sent spools of fibre made of green glass, which is used to make beer bottles. "They had ignored the optical glass I had given them. I spent months making bundles of fibre from what they had supplied and trying to transmit light through them, but no light came out. That was because it was not optical glass. So I had to cut the bundle to short lengths and then use a bright carbon arc source."'

'Kapany was confronted with another problem. A naked glass fibre did not guide the light well. Due to surface defects, more light was leaking out than he had expected. To transmit a large image he would have needed a bundle of fibres containing several hundred strands; but contact between adjacent fibers led to loss of image resolution.'

'Several people then suggested the idea of cladding the fibre. Cladding, when made of glass of a lower refractive index than the core, reduced leakages and also prevented damage to the core. Finally, Kapany was successful; he and Hopkins published the results in 1954 in the British journal Nature.'

'Kapany then migrated to the US and worked further in fibre optics while teaching at Rochester and the Illinois Institute of Technology. In 1960, with the invention of lasers, a new chapter opened in applied physics. From 1955 to 1965 Kapany was the lead author of dozens of technical and popular papers on the subject. His writings spread the gospel of fibre optics, casting him as a pioneer in the field.'

'His popular article on fibre optics in Scientific American in 1960 finally established the new term (fibre optics); the article constitutes a reference point for the subject even today. In November 1999, Fortune magazine published profiles of seven people who have greatly influenced life in the twentieth century but are unsung heroes. Kapany was one of them.'

'If we go back into the history of modern communications involving electrical impulses, we find that Alexander Graham Bell patented an optical telephone system in 1880. He called this a 'photophone'. Bell converted speech into electrical impulses, which he converted into light flashes.'

'A photosensitive receiver converted the signals back into electrical impulses, which were then converted into speech. But the atmosphere does not transmit light as reliably as wires do; there is heavy atmospheric absorption, which can get worse with fog, rain and other impediments.'

'As there were no strong and directional light sources like lasers at that time, optical communications went into hibernation. Bell's earlier invention, the telephone, proved far more practical. If Bell yearned to send signals through the air, far ahead of his time, we cannot blame him; after all, it's such a pain digging and laying cables.'

'In the 1950s, as telephone networks spread, telecommunications engineers sought more transmission bandwidth. Light, as a carrying medium, promised the maximum bandwidth. Naturally, optic fibres attracted attention. But the loss of intensity of the signal was as high as a decibel per metre.'

'This was fine for looking inside the body, but communications operated over much longer distances and could not tolerate losses of more than ten to twenty decibels per kilometre. Now what do decibels have to do with it? Why is signal loss per kilometre measured in decibels?'

'The human ear is sensitive to sound on a logarithmic scale; that is why the decibel scale came into being in audio engineering, in the first place.'

'If a signal gets reduced to half its strength over one kilometre because of absorption, after two kilometres it will become a fourth of its original strength. That is why communication engineers use the decibel scale to describe signal attenuation in cables.'

'In the early 1969s signal loss in glass fiber was one decibel per metre, which meant that after traversing ten metres of the fiber the signal was reduced to a tenth of its original strength.'

'After twenty metres the signal was a mere hundredth its original strength. As you can imagine, after traversing a kilometre no perceptible signal was left.'

'A small team at the Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in the UK was not put off by this drawback. This group was headed by Antoni Karbowiak, and later by a young Shanghai-born engineer, Charles Kao.'

'Kao studied the problem carefully and worked out a proposal for long-distance communications through glass fibres. He presented a paper at a London meeting of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1966, pointing out that the optic fibre of those days had an information-carrying capacity of one GHz, or an equivalent of 200 TV channels, or more than 200,000 telephone channels.'

'Although the best available low-loss material then showed a loss of about 1,000 decibels/kilometre (dB/km), he claimed that materials with losses of just 10 to 20 dB/km would eventually be developed.'

'With Kao almost evangelistically promoting the prospects of fibre communications, and the British Post Office (the forerunner to British Telecom) showing interest in developing such a network, laboratories around the world tried to make low-loss fibre. It took four years to reach Kao's goal of 20dB/km.'

'At the Corning Glass Works (now Corning Inc), Robert Maurer, Donald Keck and Peter Schultz used fused silica to achieve the feat. The Corning breakthrough opened the door to fibre-optic communications. In the same year, Bell Labs and a team at the Ioffe Physical Institute in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) made the first semiconductor lasers, able to emit a continuous wave at room temperature.'

'Over the next several years, fibre losses dropped dramatically, aided by improved fabrication methods and by the shift to longer wavelengths where fibers have inherently lower attenuation.'
'Today's fibres are so transparent that if the Pacific Ocean, which is several kilometres deep, were to be made of this glass we could see the ocean bed!'

'Note one point here. The absorption of light in glass depends not only on the chemical composition of the glass but also on the wavelength of light that is transmitted through it. It has been found that there are three windows with very low attenuation: One is around 900 nanometres, the next at 1,300 nm and the last one at 1,550 nm.'

'Once engineers could develop lasers with those wavelengths, they were in business. This happened in the 1970s and 1980s, thanks to Herbert Kroemer's hetero-structures and many hard-working experimentalists.'

The excerpt ends here. While working on this book in 2003, and particularly this chapter, I had thought that with the world now firmly ensconced in the era of communications, it wouldn't be long before Narinder Kapany's pioneering work in the field was recognised with the Nobel Prize.

Now, I find that the name of the pioneer of fibre optics has been added to a very long list of Indians who, though richly deserving of the ultimate accolade, the Nobel Prize, have been mysteriously passed over by the august members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.