April Fool’s Day and Science – Hmm…Now that’s a weird combo !!!

Well, after taking a month’s break from writing and work (Yeah, writing is fun !!) i have come back. And what other day could i have chosen than the April Fool’s Day. The day started with the various pranks put up by Google which at first shocked me and then brought a pleasant smile. To all of you who missed it here is a small compilation-

1). Gmail Blue

2). Google Nose

3). Google Maps & TREASURE !!

4). Youtube Closing Down

However, the reason for writing this post was not just cataloging all of Google’s Treasure trove of pranks, but more to celebrate the fact that science too can be funny !! Its not all geeky or nerdy as some may have let you to believe…

To celebrate this very fact, National Geographic came up with a list of famous Animal Hoaxes:

Rabbit Mother

animal-hoaxes-mary-toft-birth-rabbits_65814_600x450

Man-Dog Hybrid

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Global Warming Caused by … Sheep?

april-fools-day-animal-hoaxes-sheep-albedo_34040_600x450

Loch Ness Monster

april-fools-day-animal-hoaxes-loch-ness-monster-nessie_34038_600x450

Tasmanian Mock Walrus

april-fools-day-animal-hoaxes-tasmanian-mock-walrus_34035_600x450

Bigfoot

Frame 352 from the film, alleged to depict a f...

Frame 352 from the film, alleged to depict a female “Bigfoot” mid-stride. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Killer Bee Attack

april-fools-day-animal-hoaxes-killer-bees_34037_600x450

My personal favourite about the ultimate thing in science humour — IgNobel Awards

TED came up with its own list of quirky research in sciences which in past have won this honour !!

Category: Entomology
Year: 1994
Winner: Robert A. Lopez “for his series of experiments in obtaining ear mites from cats, inserting them into his own ear, and carefully observing and analyzing the results.”
Why he did it: Sounds uncomfortable, and it was by all accounts. Still, as Marc Abrahams reports in The Guardian, Lopez’s itchy experiment helped him prove that Otodectes cynotis mites could infect humans, which he suspected was the cause of at least one rash in a young girl who liked cuddling her mite-ridden cats.

Category: Public Health
Year: 2009
Winners: Elena Bodnar, Raphael Lee, and Sandra Marijan “for inventing a brassiere that, in an emergency, can be quickly converted into a pair of protective face masks, one for the brassiere wearer and one to be given to some needy bystander.”
Why they did it: The concept for this invention may seem silly, and the drawings in the team’spatent don’t help, but during a biological or chemical terror attack you probably wouldn’t care.

Category: Safety Engineering
Year: 1998
Winner: Troy Hurtubise “for developing, and personally testing a suit of armor that is impervious to grizzly bears.”
Why he did it: Well, to see if he could survive a grizzly attack. But, according to Wikipedia, the suit may also have applications in riots, explosions and other dangerous situations in which you’d want protection.

Category: Peace
Year: 2000
Winner: The British Royal Navy “for ordering its sailors to stop using live cannon shells, and to instead just shout “Bang!”
Why they did it: According to the BBC, the Navy decided to forego live ammunition for the childlike verbal “bangs” after the government drastically cut military budgets.

Category: Biology
Year: 2002
Winners: N. Bubier, Charles Paxton, Phil Bowers and D. Charles Deeming “for their report ‘Courtship Behaviour of Ostriches Towards Humans Under Farming Conditions in Britain.’”
Why they did it: According to the authors, an increase in ostrich farms and a lack of knowledge on how they breed in captivity spurred the research. Anecdotal evidence showed the birds got frisky whenever people were nearby, so the researchers decided to confirm whether it was true. It was. The authors concluded: “Courtship behaviour towards humans may be important in the reproductive success of ostriches in a farming environment.”

Category: Engineering
Year: 2010
Winners: Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse and Agnes Rocha-Gosselin “for perfecting a method to collect whale snot using a remote-control helicopter.”
Why they did it: Being a whale doctor isn’t easy, especially when your patient weighs multiple tons and is swimming in the ocean. One way to monitor health is to check the microbes living in and on the whale to see if they may be causing disease. As these winners have shown, it’s possible to collect at least some of those whale microbes with the marvels of modern technology.

Category: Physics
Year: 2003
Winners: Jack Harvey, John Culvenor, Warren Payne, Steve Cowley, Michael Lawrance, David Stuart, and Robyn Williams “for their irresistible report ‘An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces.’”
Why they did it: As this Abrahams Q&A with Wired explains, the research took place in Australia, where sheep shearing is a major industry. Dragging the sheep to the equipment is difficult and dangerous and the scientists researched various floor configurations and materials to see what which surfaces made the job easiest.

And finally, for all of you wondering about how in the name of devil did someone came up with the idea of April Fool’s Day. I came across an excellent article in Nat Geo blog wondering the same thing. It was quite a fun read.

April Fools’ Day: Why Is Today Prime Time for Pranks?

So, enjoy this day with pranks, pranks & many more pranks !!
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Well, finally i bid adieu to the Sasquatch/American BigFoot…

Photo of an unidentified animal the Bigfoot Re...

Photo of an unidentified animal the Bigfoot Research Organization claims is a “juvenile Sasquatch” “Jacobs Photos” . . Retrieved 2009-09-16 . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, urban legend has it that Sasquatch aka American BigFoot, the name given to an ape-like creature apparently inhabits forests, mainly in the Pacific Northwest region of North America and it has been some decades that people have been arguing about its reality. Last year in September 2012, Dr. Melba S. Ketchum announced with some big fanfare that she and her team from DNA Diagnostics Inc. have sequenced the genome (mitochondrial and nuclear) of sasquatch from all the alleged samples people have collected from some time. However, instead just verifying that Sasquatch is nothing but an urban legend they issued this press release:

“Our study has sequenced 20 whole mitochondrial genomes and utilized next generation sequencing to obtain 3 whole nuclear genomes from purported Sasquatch samples. The genome sequencing shows that Sasquatch mtDNA is identical to modern Homo sapiens, but Sasquatch nuDNA is a novel, unknown hominin related to Homo sapiens and other primate species. Our data indicate that the North American Sasquatch is a hybrid species, the result of males of an unknown hominin species crossing with female Homo sapiens.

Hominins are members of the taxonomic grouping Hominini, which includes all members of the genus Homo. Genetic testing has already ruled out Homo neanderthalis and the Denisova hominin as contributors to Sasquatch mtDNA or nuDNA. “The male progenitor that contributed the unknown sequence to this hybrid is unique as its DNA is more distantly removed from humans than other recently discovered hominins like the Denisovan individual,” explains Ketchum.

“Sasquatch nuclear DNA is incredibly novel and not at all what we had expected. While it has human nuclear DNA within its genome, there are also distinctly non-human, non-archaic hominin, and non-ape sequences. We describe it as a mosaic of human and novel non-human sequence. Further study is needed and is ongoing to better characterize and understand Sasquatch nuclear DNA.”

So, one would immediately say -Yay science proved it exists, right? The answer however will be a big emphatic NO. The prime reason is that science doen’t work on hearsay but on repeatable, well-designed experiments with no ambiguity in either the way its conducted or how samples are gathered. And this is where this so called genetic evidence fails big time.

One of the biggest red flags to this whole study is: How did she get her samples? After all, if she was working from a well-reliable source, that alone might be a big sensation because no physical evidence of Bigfoot exists on record. As it turns out, Dr. Ketchum says her DNA sample was obtained from a blueberry bagel left in the backyard of a Michigan home that, according to the owner, sees regular visits from Sasquatch creatures.

And if the sample gathering itself is in doubt, then how can anyone believe the results ? Another face-palm statement: Fully human mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from your mother, so she assumes that all Sasquatches had human women as relatively recent ancestors, but at the same time, the nuclear DNA is some bizarre menagerie that includes non-ape sequences? And frankly speaking, any biology student would tell you its hogwash !!

But all of this was from last year, and ever since then she has been trying to publish it in a scientific journal and recent news suggests that she has been unable to clear the peer-review stage. So, in response to this, she has decided to start over – recollect samples, do the whole sequencing again, and re-interpret the results…..Naaaaaaa, thats what any other scientist would have done. What she has done is to buy a journal !!  The Journal of Cosmology was available  she bought it and renamed it to De Novo.  One glance at the website and you are reminded of your art school classes in grade 8. The icons are mis-matched, the colour is horrid and the overall design is completely unprofessional. PZ Myers in is blog Pharyngula has it better:

Then she came out with a special edition. It’s Volume 1, Issue 1. It contains precisely one paper, hers.

You should be laughing by this point.

The online journal is a mess. The layout is funky-ugly, it’s difficult to figure out how to actually get to the paper, and when you navigate to it, it’s got a wretched little “Buy Now” button imbedded in a couple of intersecting blocks of color in a hideous table-like layout. It reminds be of the esthetics of JoC.

Anyway, it’s $30 to buy a paper so bad they had to build a custom journal around it to get it published. Not interested.

So, seeing all this mess i wish to bid adieu to Sasquatch !! May it continue to relive in our science fiction movies…

More on this:

  1. Sasquatch is ill-served, Pharygula, 2013.
  2. What I really want to see is the DNA sequence of an alien Grey, Pharyngula, 2012.
  3. Bigfoot in popular culture, Wikipedia.
  4. Is this Bigfoot … or is it a bear with bad skin?, Daily Mail, 2007.

A scientist applies for being the next Pope !!

Pope's Blessing

Pope’s Blessing (Photo credit: alykat)

Well, the world has been gaga over the sudden resignation of our (not-so) beloved Pope. In the wake of this, i am sure the Vatican folks are all busy finding a replacement. So, here comes a scientist (Dean Burnett) who has written a remarkably witty open letter to the Vatican for the position, which was published in Guradian recently. I say, GIVE HIM THE JOB !!

Here is the letter:

To: The Vatican (HR Department)

Name: Dean Burnett

Date: 11-02-2013

Reference: Vacancy CCLXVI (‘Pope’)

CV: [Attached]

PERSONAL STATEMENT IN SUPPORT OF APPLICATION: See below

Dear Sir/Madam/Holy Ghost

I am very interested in applying for the recently announced vacancy for the position of pope. I am sure you’ve received many applicationsalready, but I believe I would make an excellent candidate for the role as I could bring innovative new approaches and help increase diversity, which would have the effect of both motivating those involved in and enhancing the reputation of the organisation (i.e. The Catholic Church).

I have read the job description and although I admittedly do not meet all the specified essential criteria for the role (e.g. I do not regularly commune with God or any other unspecified deity) I feel that my strengths in other areas more than make up for my lack of direct experience.

Although I am not a practising member of the Catholic (or any other) Church, I am a qualified and enthusiastic scientist. I believe this makes me an ideal choice for the next pope, for a number of reasons. For example, I have had many jobs where it is compulsory to wear a white coat, and the wearing of long white garments appears to be the main duty of the pope. I also regularly lecture on the subject of neuroscience, so am extensively experienced at speaking in an unfamiliar language to rooms full of people who are struggling to stay awake, so it would be no trouble for me to offer Mass whenever required.

I am not a cardinal, but a recent check of my wallet reveals that I still have a membership cards for both GAMEBlockbuster Video and MVC, showing that I am clearly dedicated to declining institutions and have a robust if unrealistic belief in resurrection.

As an atheist scientist I cannot claim to be in regular contact with God per se, but I have regularly encountered professors with equivalent levels of power and influence who demand unquestioning obedience from those who serve them, so feel this has provided me with equivalent professional experience required for the position.

As a scientist pope, I could bring an element of rationalism and logic to the Catholic Church, which would better equip it to survive in more modern, enlightened times. I could provide numerous plausible-sounding theories as to the origins of the universelifeevolution, human consciousness and any other area that the Church feels it should have influence over. Whereas most scientists require evidence and peer review before their theories can be accepted, my being the pope would mean I was infallible so I wouldn’t have to go through this process; the simple act of me saying it would mean it is accepted by many as fact. This is a privilege enjoyed by only a few scientists, and one I definitely wouldn’t abuse, scouts honour!

I have performed a number of miracles in recent years. For example, I have managed to sustain a career in science in present circumstances, despite having very few notable publications to my name and a disastrous history of high-profile embarrassments.

I have managed to remain in my post despite these numerous blunders, so I would be able to bring this experience to my duties as pope. I can also turn water into wine, which is viewed as more of a “classic” miracle. It takes some time as it involves me pouring the water onto grapevines before growing, picking, sorting, crushing, fermenting, maturing, bottling and selling. But overall, it’s definitely water being turned into wine. With Science! (Unless that doesn’t count as a miracle, in which case it’s clearly magic).

I am not presently celibate, but as a teenager who was a big science fan with terrible acne, I am very familiar with the concept. I am also not a homosexual, as that would obviously exclude me from the role (NB. In the interests of transparency, I did once suck a penis, but I didn’t inhale so it doesn’t count). At the last count, I also have the required number of testicles to be pope (at least two). I also have experience with covering up crimes.

I believe these qualities and more make me an ideal candidate for the position, so I hope you will consider my application seriously. I realise the vacancy is somewhat above my pay grade, but I am looking for a higher paying position as I need money to provide for my family … I mean buy condoms … I mean jewels.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Vestrum fideliter

Dean Burnett

P.S. What’s the pension scheme like?

Freedom of Speech – How free should it be? – Opinion of a third world scientist

Free Speech

I usually write about science, the exciting new papers which come up, and occasionally on philosophy. So, why have i suddenly gravitated to writing on social policies or to say more accurately – Why do i want to question our society and write about it ?

My fellow colleagues (and me included) are all adept at talking about the philosophies of  heaven & earth,  discuss the latest transgressions of our beloved politicians over a mug of hot, steaming coffee. But the moment our coffee mugs are empty, we stop thinking about the world outside our closed walls. We go back in our small cocoons called university where we don’t think about the big, bad world outside but eat and think science.But occasionally something happens in that big, bad world which forces us to look beyond our glass domes.

The Outcry

Such an event happened this year at the Jaipur Literary Fest, considered as the biggest literary event in Asia, held annually in Indian city of Jaipur  since 2006. In a panel discussion on “The Republic of Ideas,” with IBN7 Editor Ashutosh, Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal, famed historian Patrick French, philosopher Richard Sorabji, and sociologist Ashis Nandy, which was moderated by, Urvashi Butalia. After an interesting discussion on the “promise” of the Indian Republic and Constitution, the exchange turned to the theme of corruption and the importance of the anti-corruption protests led by Anna Hazare.

In trying to deconstruct the sociology of corruption, Tarun Tejpal argued that we need to first understand the – “corruption” of  poor and the marginalised people in the society as an essential strategy to break the shackles of the suppressive nature of our rules, regulations and laws. Further on, he marked the “so-called diverse” Indian society as deeply divided, hierarchical and oppressive, our laws and societal rules, are mostly designed to “keep out” the oppressed from having their say. The corruption of “people like us” — an elitist which has both the resources and power to undermine the politico-judicial system — often goes unnoticed, and if discovered, rarely ever get prosecuted. The crimes of the “others,” in contrast, not only get prosecuted, but also generate outrage, in part because they do not have the necessary skills to successfully cover up their corruption.

“As long as this is the case, the Indian Republic will survive,”  said Prof. Ashish Nandy replying to Tejpal’s comments, citing the example of West Bengal, which he said was the State with the least extent of corruption. “In the last hundred years, nobody from the OBCs, SCs and STs has come to power there. It is an absolutely clean State.”

These remarks led to strong reactions from the audience, and one of the panelists  Mr. Ashutosh, said it was the “most bizarre statement” he had ever heard. Some members of the audience were also quite enraged to the remarks and asked Professor Nandy to retract them. Dalit activists, later on staged a demonstration against the so-called “offensive remarks,” and a First information report was lodged by tribal activist Rajpal Meena against Professor Nandy and Mr. Roy, for which the Section 506 (criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 3 (1) of the Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was cited . The police have started to investigate the matter.

Later on, despite Prof. Nandy’s clarying remarks saying that he was taken out of context, the media ire against him hasn’t cooled down. In giving a small summary the editor of Tehelka magazine has this to say:

Why does it matter ?

Ashis Nandy’s choice of words, phrases, and examples can certainly be questioned. He is not known as an organised and media-loving public speaker. One can also beg to differ with both his argument and analysis. For example, the way he didn’t clarify his statement by differentiating the  “corruption of the poor” and the “corruption of their leaders,” whose pure neglect of rules often results in them looting the very poor who also fall into their constituents. Nevertheless, Nandy’s argument that the “rules of the game” have been fixed by the ruling, elite class to which he too belongs, which remains a highly privileged lot, and hence, the deliberate neglect of those rules is an inevitable strategy for those seeking to survive and also for upward mobility, certainly has a lot of merit especially in India, where the income gap between rich and poor classes have widened. Clamping down on such nuanced utterances and confusing statements of the kind Prof. Nandy made will only make us a poorer democracy and Republic than what we already are.

Free speech is recognized in many western developed countries as the basis of their civilization. To disagree and be offended but still defend it to death. Voltaire famously said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” and this is also their basis for democracy. It is on this precarious and precious right does a healthy civil society and political society depend. All societies that engage in preserving ‘sentiments’ of either the oppressor or oppressed by curbing speech have failed and continue to do so. It is shameful for any politician to call for curbs on speech simply on offense, it is further shameful and immoral for a freethought humanist group to call for a curb on free speech of an individual. There has been no compelling logically coherent explanation given other than non-sequitur engaging question begging statements.

Freedom of speech by State is everything to freethought soaked society and to grow rational, humanist thinking. ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant’ has been said in the American supreme court, which has proven to be true. A society where all ideas are openly talked about and entertained no matter how abhorrent or distatesful, is a society that improves. America has done better than India and Pakistan partially due to this openness. What Ms. Mayawati has proposed is draconian, fascist and anti-humanist. Leaving aside there is a purposeful misunderstanding of a statement taken out of context in Prof. Ashish’s speech, even without context there is no logical and humanist excuse to jail him. It will remain an anti-humanist draconian and oppressive action which will only be of harm in precedent to freethought and freedoms.

The burden of proof lies with those who wish to curb a right. There is good review of free speech and its foundational premise in building civil society in the American court decision supporting Westboro Baptist Church. Idea of anti-racism is also open to criticism, which is the reason why there are racist academics who publicly engage in racist publications such as Satoshi Kanazawa. They are fought by social and academic boycott, not by legal sanction.

ACLU is known for protecting the civil liberties and is traditionally viewed as a liberal group. One of its finest moments came in  1978. I  am quoting that incident from ACLU’s website:

ACLU defended a Nazi group that wanted to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois where many Holocaust survivors lived. The ACLU persuaded a federal court to strike down three ordinances that placed significant restrictions on the Nazis’ First Amendment right to march and express their views. The decision to take the case was a demonstration of the ACLU’s commitment to the principle that constitutional rights must apply to even the most unpopular groups if they’re going to be preserved for everyone. Many now consider this one of the ACLU’s finest hours.

An important matter to take a note of is that this is not the first time when the largest democracy in the world, India has not clamped down free speech, which remains a fundamental right here. A simple look into Wikipedia for free speech violation gives me this huge list:

  • In February 2009, the police filed a complaint against Ravindra Kumar and Anand Sinha, the editor and the publisher respectively of the Kolkata-based English daily The Statesman. The police charged Kumar and Sinha under section 295A because they had reprinted an article from The Independent by its columnist Johann Hari. Titled “Why should I respect oppressive religions?”, the article stated Hari’s belief that the right to criticise any religion was being eroded around the world. Muslim protestors in Kolkata reacted to Hari’s belief by violent demonstrations at the offices ofThe Statesman.
  • In September or October 2007, the police in Pune arrested four Bangalore-based software-engineers for posting on the Internet an obscene profile of Chhatrapati Shivaji, a sixteenth-centuryMaratha warrior king, clad in female underwear.
  • In May 2007, a Buddhist group in Maharashtra’s Amaravati district said their religious sentiments were hurt, and filed a complaint against Rakhi Sawant, an actress, because she posed in a bathtub against a statue of Lord Buddha.
  • In March 2007, a newspaper editor BV Seetharam was arrested under the Sections 153A, 153B, and 295 of the IPC for allegedly promoting religious hatred. He had written articles criticizing the public nudity of the Digambara Jain monks.
  • In 2007, the authorities charged ninety-one-year-old Maqbool Fida Husain with hurting religious sentiments by painting Mother India as a naked woman.
  • In December 2006, a complaint was filed against cricketer Ravi Shastri for hurting the religious feelings of Hindus by his allegedly eating beef during a Test match in Johannesburg.
  • On 2 August 2006, two religious groups in Ahmedabad complained to the police that their religious sentiments were hurt because a garment-maker had printed text from the Hindu and Jain religions on clothing. The police filed the complaint as a matter under section 295.
  • In November 2012, Maharashtra Police arrested Shaheen Dhada (aged 21) for questioning the total shutdown in the city for Bal Thackeray’s funeral in a Facebook post, and also her friend Renu Srinivasan (aged 20) for liking her post. Although no religious issue was involved, the two were charged under Section 295 (A) for hurting religious sentiments, apart from Section 66 (a) of the Information Technology Act 2000.

So, in times like these when the world is considering India to be one of the next superpowers, how can a humble budding scientist like me stay quiet and listen to the regular subversion of free speech in my country. Sometimes its done in the name of religion, caste, political figure, some old archaic customs and what not !! You name it, and India will probably ban it in the name of protecting the cultural diversity and hate speech. What it needs is to define the boundaries, limitations and definitions of hate speech. Make free speech, really FREE.

In the end, i would like to reiterate the words of Shoma Chaudhury, Tehelhka’s editor:

“What is the whole idea of Freedom of Speech, without the idea of discomfort? If we are only going to speak in ways that would make each other feel comfortable, then we might as well give up on the idea of free speech in India.”

More on this:

  1. Two women arrested for Anti-Shiv Sena comments on Facebook, government orders enquiry, Economic Times, 2012.
  2. Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not respect, The Hindu, 2012.
  3. A Forgotten History, Outlook India, 2007.
  4. India’s First Blasphemy Prosecution, International Humanist and Ethical Union, 2002.
  5. Sacred text on clothes: fashion designer booked, Nerve, 2006.
  6. M F Husain loses home over nude ‘Mother India’, Express India, 2007.
  7. Case filed against Ravi Shastri for eating beef, Zee News India, 2007.
  8. Freedom of expression under attack, The Hindu, 2007.
  9. Pune cops book Orkut user, Times of India, 2007.
  10. Editor arrested for ‘outraging Muslims’, The Independent, 2009.
  11. Indian police probe Nandy caste remark (91live.in)

Some musings about mortality

mortality

Okay, i agree i am not 60 years old retired chap who has started worrying about the inescapable, insidious start of significant physical–and sometimes mental–decline leading to a sort of death anxiety. Rather, i am in my late 20’s, single chap who recently has had some time to ponder about all things in life-big and small. And among all those one of the biggies is definitely – Death. I know you must be thinking what about the other things in life – Love, relationships, career or kids, don’t they matter at all? I agree with this assessment of yours that there are too many things in life to ponder about other than death. For death, is not a continuation of life  as all the religious books loftily say (brag?) about but death is a sort of full stop  An ending to a life, to all his/her dreams, thoughts, wishes. For nothing progresses after death come knocking at your door. And if i remember correctly, this was indeed the reason i began to think about it.

Death or lets say Mortality (for those people who begin to equate the word death with the ghastly image of a tall hooded chap with a scythe in its hand or the Reaper, as is known in some circles) is indeed one of the neglected things in life. I am reminded of Saul Bellow‘s ruminations about it: Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are able to see anything. 

Despite being so important, we daily run and hide from it seeking shelter in humor, hedge against it with good works, shun reminders of our mortality. Yet we all share the reality of mortality, and we know it, try as we might to throttle our thoughts about it.

The previous evening i had a mild-tempered discussion with a friend who was quite sure that one can live one’s life without even pondering about death if you live by the name of god. His prime argument being you live on this earth as god’s creation, consume god’s gifts ( food, air etc) and then when we die, we simply shift our residences to the A-class facilities called Heaven. And the faithful buy their ticket to heaven by incessant prayers. At this juncture of our conversation, i was reminded of the definition of “prayer” by Ambrose Pierce in his Devils’s Dictionary:

Prayer: A petition that the laws of nature be suspended in favour of the petitioner; himself confessedly unworthy. 

I chuckled and decided to share in the joke hidden here.

“The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right.”

Somewhere in here is the realisation that nobody is in charge, and hence this call to prayer, this call to delay or deny the realisation of mortality is “self-cancelling” as the late Hitchens said.

Now, i understand this faith, but just didn’t see why we should believe in that. So, i decided to put my obliging friend on a test of faith. What about a devout fellow with a life-threatening metastasing  tumour, (or as Hitchens described it “blind, emotionless alien” ) wouldn’t he/she want to prolong his/her life to be with friends, family and kids? Or does he/she decide to give up earth and migrate to heaven? The answer in many cases comes to the fact that everyone appreciates the modern benefits of medicine and hence prolong their own life. So, saying that they don’t think about mortality would be simply wrong and quite a fallacious statement in itself. And invoking the argument that gods awards the appropriate cancers is strange, since you must also account for the numbers of infants who contract leukemia. Hence, both the arguments don’t work – devout people don’t think of mortality and they just want to go heaven. By the way, the evening ended by a toast to our status as a mortal animal and immortal friendships we make while alive

Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;

For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

(From, the ode of Calimachus to his beloved Heraclitus)

I still remember when as a kid living in the riotous aftermath of the bloody Babri Masjid demolition,  witnessing the terrible shock of bodies lying bruised, some killed. One would think the carnage which men undertook in the name of an invisible, inactive and hypothetical god  might have sensitized me to the effects of our dear friend, death. But alas, in all those sufferings and even when popping up this latest pill to alleviate my debilitating spine, i am constantly reminded of our perilous position. Death or Mortality is our constant companion, whether being brought upon us due to irrational acts of man or the unforgiving nature of blind chance it always strikes a note of fear.

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And i have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and

         snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

(From, T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock“)

So where does it leave me? I do realise that we are mere mortal animals and cannot avoid death by incessant/irrelevant prayers or even by the ever-mordernisation of medicine. I have seen death dancing in people’s eyes willing to kill for the same god who apparently also gives life to the victim. I have seen death in the faint- heart beats of a dying man. I have seen them all, you would say. And yet in some corner of my mind, i am still afraid of its cold embrace, it’s ever watching eyes and its constant companionship. But at least i am not blind to it and best of all i can count it to be my ever vigilant friend. Ahh don’t worry i am not being drawn into  Nietzsche.

Death has this much to be said for it:

You don’t have to get out of bed for it.

Wherever you happen to be

They bring it to you – free

(Kingsley Amis)

In an ode to the polemical genius, Christopher Hitchens