Genes, brains, and unpredictability

About fifteen years ago, I wrote an essay with the above title, based on a talk that I had given at the Dongguk University in Seoul. The subtitle of the talk, Developments in the sciences and reflections on what it means to be alive, was my attempt to integrate some ideas of complexity in dynamics, namely the chaos theory that is one of my main research interests with what I was learning then about the human genome. It was delivered to an audience that largely consisted of ordained monks, Dongguk being a Buddhist University, and was later published in Current Science (Bangalore).

The article is somewhat dated, but a recent news item rang a few bells…and as it happens, I’ve talked about chaos theory and fractals in recent posts. So I thought I would risk putting up the essay here in case there are things that bear retelling, bear being refuted, and perhaps bear being corrected. Here goes.

The most dramatic statement of the reductionist approach in the biological sciences is the ‘astonishing hypothesis’ of Francis Crick that something as central to our sense of self, namely the human soul, is in effect ‘no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules’. Recent advances such as the sequencing of entire genomes (the human genome being a well-publicized example) or the elucidation of some of the neuronal mechanisms associated with memory, for instance, appear to support this point of view, that we can eventually possess the recipe for human individuality. This essay contends that the essential limitation of such a programme stems not from the remaining problems of working out the details, but from the fact that living systems are fundamentally complex. Drawing on the ideas of deterministic chaos and complexity theory, it is proposed that while the broad contours of the connection between biological functioning, genetic information and the organization of its nervous system will be accessible, the unique developmental trajectory of any organism – that which constitutes the essence of individuality and confers a notion of being alive – will remain beyond the realm of precise scientific prediction.

Genes+brainIn our never-ending quest to understand more about the relationship of man with the rest of the universe, spectacular advances in modern science have made it possible to ask increasingly detailed questions about the essence of what it is to be human. On the one hand, the process of unraveling the DNA of any organism and deducing the sequence of nucleotides that make up this long and complicated molecule has become a routine task, routine enough to be automated to the point where it can be carried out by robots, and fast enough that the entire genome of any organism can be sequenced within a few years at the most. On the other hand, increasingly sophisticated experiments and techniques have made it possible to probe brain function in increasing detail, to the extent that a map – howsoever primitive – of the brain and its functions is slowly emerging [1].

What does this hold for the future? Will relentless scientific onslaught on such problems eventually, as this picture seems to suggest, give a completely deterministic description of any ‘living’ organism? Although ultimately we are interested in describing humans, we can start with less ambitious goals: can we hope to capture the essence of what it means to say, that any organism, however primitive, is alive?

It seems unlikely, given the complexity of the problem. But it is not unlikely for the obvious reason that getting a complete description of something as complex as a living creature is difficult. As already alluded to, there have been significant advances in understanding the brain (human or other), tremendous progress in sequencing DNA in order to get at the genetic structure, and so on. The unlikelihood lies in the essential unpredictability of complex systems [2]. Mathematical developments in the study and exploration of nonlinear phenomena and studies in the theory of chaos [3] since the 1960s have contributed to a major paradigmatic shift in the physical sciences. The discovery that completely deterministic systems can show dynamical behaviour as ‘unpredictable as a coin toss’ has had profound consequences on the way in which any number of physical phenomena have been viewed and analysed.

The issues that have been raised by these advances, namely the successful completion of genome projects, the brilliant breakthroughs in neurobiology research and the revolution of chaos theory, strike at the roots of some of the fundamental questions that have occupied human thought for centuries. There is a zeitgeist bringing together a number of different strands of thought so that we seem nearer the goal of understanding the questions themselves. In the process, we may be close to some of the answers. These will not be complete, but the offer of any answer, however partial and however incomplete, on what it means to be human is one that must be accepted and explored, as must the concomitant necessity to re-evaluate the reductionist programme in the natural sciences.

Genome projects: Finding all the genes

The announcement of the (essential) completion of the sequencing of the human genome is both a scientific event of great significance and an event of great importance. That a group of scientists and entrepreneurs could, within the span of a few years, completely unravel the structure of the DNA of any individual is a tour de force, among the highest scientific achievements of man.

What exactly has been done? It requires some background in order to fully appreciate the significance of the Human Genome Project, or any other genome project.

One of the major advances in biology in the last century has been in deciphering the importance of the DNA molecule and the laws of inheritance. It has been a long journey from Mendel onwards, a journey that painstakingly crossed a number of milestones, starting from the idea of the ‘gene’, through the discoveries of chromosomes, the DNA molecule, its structure and the genetic code [4].

We are still learning the details, but the major facts are largely known. In essence, they are that each organism, be it a mammal or a bacterium, has within each of its cells, a DNA molecule which carries all the information required for its functioning. The information lies encoded in the structure of the DNA molecule, which is a double-stranded polymeric entity composed of four different kinds of molecular subunits, adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine, denoted A, T, G and C. The size of the DNA molecule and the order in which these subunits are placed determine the function, the biochemistry and therefore the biology of the organism. How big is the DNA molecule? It is more useful to characterize the size of the DNA in terms of the number of subunits comprising it and since the molecule is a double helix, as was discovered by Watson and Crick, it is actually enough to know the sequence of one half of it: one strand of the double helix of DNA determines the other half, the other strand, by complementarity (A hydrogen bonds with T, C with G). On the molecule itself, the information is carried on certain portions of the DNA whose function it is to carry out any number of tasks such as the synthesis of proteins, the initiation of reactions and other tasks involving regulation within the cell or for groups of cells.

Each organism is unique. It is unique in its DNA. However, we have all – all life on this planet, that is – evolved from a single event that took place around 3.5 or so billion years ago. That event of creation laid the foundations for all life forms on earth, which therefore share a common genetic code and a common evolutionary history. In this history, the DNA molecule has played a central role, as the replication of the DNA molecule allows for both deliberate and accidental errors, and mutations which are internal catalysts for evolution. Another important catalyst for evolution comes from the physical environment, which, as we observe, continuously changes, putting forward a continuously changing set of challenges to any organism which may evolve in order to adapt and must adapt in order to survive.

The DNA of a human – the human genome – contains 6 billion or so bases, namely it consists of a long series of the letters A, T, G and C placed in a particular order. Does this make man? At one level it does, because the 3 billion letters on one strand of the DNA contain all the information needed to make the individual.

What has been done so far is to get a very detailed map of this molecule, so that almost all the regions containing the genes are known in great detail. Spectacular advances in chemistry and molecular biology have made this almost a matter of routine. Since one now knows the complete list of the 3 billion letters one after the other, the next task is to find all the genes. For a number of other organisms, especially yeast and several bacteria, this task has been accomplished in totality. For the human genome this task is somewhat more complicated, but it has, in essence, been done.

What of it, then? The prospect that every single gene on our DNA or on that of any other organism’s DNA can be known is one that has fueled the hope that eventually we will be able to understand an organism from the most fundamental level upwards. This is the sense in which I wish, in this essay, to explore what it means to be human, or more generally, what it means for any organism to be alive.

Are we more than the sum of our genes?

Finding the genes on the DNA is one part of the task of decoding the DNA [5]. Finding out what exactly the genes do is much more involved. As we realize now, a given trait is not always the result of a single gene and groups of genes need to act in concert to produce so called ‘genetic’ effects. Indeed, rarely is a single gene responsible for any characteristic in any organism, which, by its very nature, is an entity of enormous complexity. (In a sense, we were fortunate that Mendel chose to study those traits in peas wherein there is a nearly one-to-one correlation to genes.)

Today it is believed that not more than 40,000 genes are all that are involved in determining the function of an organism as large and as complex as man. For a bacterium it can be much fewer: some have just around 1000 genes in all. While it is generally true that the more ‘advanced’ the organism, the more the number of genes that are required for it to function, the reverse is not necessarily true, so the relationship between the complexity of an organism, length of genome and number of genes is a complicated one.

One of the big targets of the genome projects is to try to identify the gene or the set of genes that is responsible for a given medical condition, say diabetes or asthma or cancer. Already the genes that cause certain kinds of cancers or other diseases such as Huntington’s disease or the predisposition to Alzheimer’s, etc. have been ‘identified’. The hope that by discovering the genetic cause of a disease one can find a cure for it provides a very strong impetus for such studies.

But is there more that one can expect from genome projects? Are there genes for other aspects of our behaviour? Can we hope to understand not just the genes that may cause specific diseases or conditions, but also genes that may determine different behaviours in organisms as complex as us?

What indeed do we mean when we say that one organism is more complex than another? Or that one thing is more complex than another? Complexity, most simply defined, is measured by how much it takes to fully describe an object: the more complex something is, the more you can say about it [6]. Even with this admittedly limited notion of complexity, it is clear that humans are more complex than any other organism on the planet. The distinction usually takes the form of enumerating what it is that humans do which sets us apart from other living things – some of these are language, emotion, philosophy, a sense of religion and culture. There is evidence that we are not the only beings with some of these attributes, but we are likely to be the only ones with all of them developed as highly.

One other feature of complex systems is the phenomenon of emergence: the whole has properties that the parts need not have [2]. Emergence is a collective phenomenon. Consciousness is an example: it is a property of the human brain, but an individual cell that goes into making up the brain is not, in any sense, conscious. Simpler examples can be found. A molecule of water is not a liquid, but a collection [7] of molecules of water has this property. Thus emergence is at once both simple and profound, and most significantly, it is an important attribute of complex systems.

The question thus becomes: Are all these attributes that we take to define the human condition dependent, in any direct and determinable way, on the genes we possess? And therefore then, are these a consequence of the DNA in our cells? In a trivial way, the answer is, of course, yes. The DNA must determine everything since it contains the blueprint for all that goes into making us. But the question is directed more specifically: How is this thought, this memory, this action, governed by this set of genes? Or is it? We are a very long way away from a comprehensive answer to any of these questions. These are among the most profound that can be posed (Who are we? How did we come here? Where are we going?), but in some limited spheres, some crucial experiments are being carried out to determine the physical basis – if determinable – of particular emotions.

The astonishing hypothesis

The most explicit statement in support of this level of reductionism is that by Francis Crick who, in 1990, advanced what he calls ‘the astonishing hypothesis’ [8]. Crick is concerned with that most ephemeral of human qualities, the soul. The main thesis, Crick states, is that ‘You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more that the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules’.

9780671712952The idea of the soul, that there is more to us than just a complex interaction between molecules, is central to the mind–body problem. How does one understand the emergence of consciousness above and beyond the billions of cells that make up a human brain? Must there not be more to a being human than biochemistry?

Apparently, from some points of view, at least, not. Crick’s astonishing hypothesis is remarkable not just because this is a daring idea. It forces one to examine, to the extent that current knowledge allows; just how much of brain function is presently understood and how much, it can be inferred by extrapolation, can be understood. Many of the experiments described by Crick relate to visual perception and while they are not near explaining awareness, they give some indication of the level of effort that will be needed to understand the visual system completely. The inescapable conclusion, however, is that this will, eventually, be within the realm of the possible.

What is the immediate consequence of this chain of reasoning? If a ‘complete’ understanding of visual awareness is possible, then, presumably, so is essentially every other sensory awareness. By slow degrees, therefore, by more and more experimentation, it should be possible to get to the molecular basis of each emotion. To what extent is this an accurate estimation of what is possible?

The role of selection

It is necessary to appreciate that evolution may have played a role in the process. Is the nature of human thought a consequence of the way in which our brains have developed? This is a question that has occupied many seminal thinkers and in particular some physical scientists who have attempted to analyse the nature of scientific thought. For instance, in 1921, Einstein, while discussing the significance of mathematics in the development of scientific thought, remarked [9] ‘. . . an enigma presents itself which in all ages has agitated inquiring minds. How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought that is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality? Is human reason, then, without experience, merely by taking thought, able to fathom the properties of real things’? Fifteen years later, he went on to say [10], ‘The very fact that the totality of our sense experiences is such that by means of thinking . . . it can be put in order, this fact is one which leaves us in awe, but which we shall never understand. One may say “the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility” (Kant)’.

Has evolution shaped us for reasoning? Would there have been some form of Darwinian selection that gave an advantage to those with the ability, or at any rate, the trait that would lead eventually to the ability, to make a model of reality in the brain? This evolutionary advantage, amplified over time, has led to the human brain that has great skill in describing the world. At the same time, then, the brain has also retained all those features that helped it along the path and gave selective advantage and among these could be those attributes of the human mind that we find so difficult to describe and define – creativity, imagination, emotion, philosophy and religiosity, for instance.

Therefore, argues Hamming [11] in an insightful article on the effectiveness of mathematical thought, ‘We can cope with thinking about the world (only) when it is of comparable size to ourselves and our raw unaided senses . . . . Evolution, so far, may possibly have blocked us from being able to think in some directions; there could be unthinkable thoughts’.

What about other, thinkable, thoughts? If evolution has ensured the development of the human brain with its billions of interconnected neurons to be capable of mathematical thought, are there other aspects of consciousness that are similarly the product of evolution? Indeed, perhaps the sense of soul has also conferred evolutionary advantage, bringing us to this stage of humanness. To a limited extent some recent experiments give indication that this may be so.

Religion, memory and brain function

Regardless of whether (or how) consciousness is an emergent property, one aspect of human behaviour merits some discussion, namely, the pervasive practice of religion [12]. It is a fact that religious experience and religious feeling is central to what one may term the human condition. There is no culture, however primitive, which does not have some manifestation of it, and in less primitive cultures, traditional religions have been replaced by other communal activities. In a sentence, religion may be necessary for human evolution.

This point of view has been bolstered by experiments [13] carried out by Ramachandran and his research team, on what they term a God module in the human brain. This could underpin an evolutionary instinct to believe in religion. ‘There may be dedicated neural machinery in the temporal lobes concerned with religion, which may have evolved to impose order and stability on society.’

It is well known that any thought process or emotion is correlated with specific neuronal activity. The temporal lobe connection to artistic creativity has been known for some time; patients with temporal lobe epilepsy often manifest a characteristic obsession with philosophical issues and become excessively religious [14]. Similarly, recent experiments on memory, for instance, where magnetic resonance imaging of the brain is used in real time, go even further. They correlate specific mental activities with specific regions in the brain. Thus every thought, it is suggested, can ultimately be traced back to a specific sequence of activity of a specific set of neurons. There are, admittedly, billions of these which are interconnected in a complex co-dependent web, but nevertheless, the problem of thought is reducible, in some sense, to the behaviour of a complex network, each unit of which one can understand in as much detail as one wishes [15].

On the matter of memory, significant progress has been made in understanding the mechanisms of memory at the neuron level. It is now believed that memory is encoded in the brain as a spatio-temporal pattern of activity in the neural network and stored by modifying the connections between the neurons themselves. Recall involves retracing the pathways through the network, involving specific molecules, activation of different molecular networks, and even perhaps, most unexpectedly, it may involve the DNA. Neural networks may be modified by the rapid activation of many genes. Will a similar deterministic description of consciousness also become possible?

The nonlinearity of almost everything: Deterministic chaos

A major paradigmatic shift, the so-called third revolution in physics, in the latter part of the last century, has been the discovery of deterministic chaos [3]. This is the realization that very simple (but nonlinear) systems have the potential to display dynamical behaviour as complicated as one can imagine. It is not possible to give a full description of chaos theory here, but the implications of the theory are profound enough to warrant being described. These have become summarized as the ‘butterfly effect’, namely the possibility of systems being so unpredictable that the quality of a prediction is sensitive to effects as unimaginably small as that of a butterfly flapping its wings thousands of miles away. Nonlinearity makes it possible for small effects to get magnified exponentially rapidly, so that the very small translates into the very large very quickly.

Untitled1The generality of the arguments, which are ultimately mathematical in nature, makes chaos theory applicable to a wide variety of disciplines. What are its implications? When applied, for instance, to systems such as the weather, chaos theory says that accurate prediction is not possible beyond a certain time frame. When applied in other contexts, it often gives a rationale for the intrinsic unpredictability of certain phenomena and gives an escape from the certainty of Laplacian determinism by which it is claimed that the past and future of the universe can be predicted by an ideal observer who knows the positions and velocities of all the particles and the laws governing their motions. Chaos theory says that for nonlinear systems this is in general impossible because the smallest error in specifying the positions and velocities would, in the presence of chaos, magnify so rapidly as to make all predictions meaningless. The only requirement is that there be chaotic dynamics in the nonlinear system; our present understanding is that indeed, chaotic dynamics is abundant, in the sense that most nonlinear systems will have the potential to show chaos. Indeed, the more complicated the system, the more likely this becomes and in systems as complex as those we are considering here, like the brain or a cell, for instance, it is a certainty that the system will, in all senses of the word, be chaotic.

Having chaos does not preclude all forms of prediction, however. The property of complex systems to have attractors, namely a set of states to which the system eventually settles, allows for some level of prediction. The motion on attractors can be chaotic, in which case these are termed strange attractors: the chaos makes precise prediction impossible, but the existence of attractors makes it possible to give some idea of what behaviour will obtain.

Studies of models of many cellular processes, their chemistry and biochemistry show the presence of chaotic dynamics and attractors. There is also evidence that brain activity, as evidenced by EEG signals, may show deterministic chaos. Experimentation in this area is still in its infancy, but the methods of chaos theory have found some application in these studies and they suggest that there may be complex attractors that describe the dynamics of electrical signals in the brain. This observation is consistent with current models of neuronal activity. Any mathematical model of neural networks has a dynamics that is chaotic, showing extreme sensitivity to perturbations.


If a completely deterministic description of any living organism was possible, one somewhat disturbing consequence would be the necessity to re-evaluate some of our beliefs about what it means to be alive or what makes us human. A concept which is central to this is that of free will [16], that our consciousness allows us to determine our actions rather than that our actions are merely the outcome of the inexorable laws of motion of the several billions of atoms and molecules that constitute our being. Where, for instance, is there any scope for choice, creativity or argument?

indexFull determinism appears to go hand in hand with complete predictability, at least in principle. But experience, be it with humans or with other species, shows that one of the main features of a ‘living’ organism is that there are aspects to its behaviour that are only approximately predictable.

I believe that a reductionist approach to biology is ultimately untenable for a variety of reasons, but the principal one is this. If every gene were to be known (and in principle they all will be), if every biochemical network in every cell were to be known (and, again, they can eventually all be determined), if every neuron in the brain could be described in as much detail as possible with all its connections, as deterministic as the resulting system is, it will be chaotic [3]. The unpredictability of the detailed behaviour of a system as complex as a living organism is itself an emergent property.

This is in contrast to our knowledge, say, about the structure of atoms and molecules, which are described by the laws of quantum mechanics. The quantum theory, which is intrinsically non-deterministic, has built into its structure the uncertainty principle. Yet this theory is capable of precise predictions, which can agree with the results of experiments to an astonishing level of accuracy. Shortly after the solution of the Schrödinger equation for the simplest atom, namely hydrogen, Dirac remarked, in 1929, that ‘The fundamental laws necessary for the mathematical treatment of large parts of physics and the whole of chemistry are thus fully known, and the difficulty lies only in the fact that application of these laws leads to equations that are too complex to be solved’. He was correct in a gross sense, because once the right equation is known, all that remains is to solve it, however difficult and intractable that might be. But as he also mentioned, this was not going to be easy. Even today, with the computational power that is currently available, accurate calculations for all but the smallest molecules are intractable. In a deeper sense, he was wrong because several features of the real world cannot be embodied within something as microscopic as the Schrödinger equation, collective behaviour and emergent properties being among them. Yet, the complexity that he refers to is nothing like the complexity of systems such as those we are discussing here. Complex atoms or molecules are difficult to describe exactly because of the sheer computational difficulty, although the underlying equations are linear. Owing to the intrinsic nonlinearity, the level of complexity of a living organism is entirely in a different class.

What then of the soul or what it means to be human? While it may be true that all human genes will be discovered very shortly and that we will gradually acquire more and more knowledge about the circuitry of the brain in all its detail, the sheer complexity of this ‘system’ which has inbuilt dynamical chaos necessarily precludes complete description. This is not only true for us, but also, in a fundamental way, even for the lowest organisms. In this sense, unpredictability is both the consequence, as well as the defining quality of what it means to be alive.

The original essay appeared in Current Science in the 10 June issue of 2001, and already then I acknowledged two articles where some of the ideas presented here find resonance. These are ‘Is the genome the secular equivalent of the soul?’ by Alex Mauron, Science (2001) 291, 831, and the final chapter of Matt Ridley’s Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, London, 1999. The one obvious error that needs correction is that the human genome appears to house only about 25000 genes, and not 40,000 as stated, the estimate that was prevalent when the article was written.
  1. Blakemore, C., Mechanics of the Mind, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977.
  2. Waldrop, M. M., Complexity, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1992.
  3. Gleick, J., Chaos: Making a New Science, Viking, New York, 1987.
  4. See, for example, Watson, J. et al., Molecular Biology of the Gene, Complete Volume 4/e, Benjamin-Cummings, New York, 1987.
  5. For a pedagogical review, see Tiwari, S., Bhattacharya, S., Bhattacharya, A. and Ramaswamy, R., Curr. Sci., 1996, 71, 12–24.
  6. Informal description attributed to Parisi, G., in a talk by Virasoro, M. at the TIFR, Mumbai, 1996.
  7. The question of how many molecules of water can have the property of being ‘liquid’ is a tricky one. One or two is too few, but a few tens or hundreds may be enough. Here I mean more like an Avogadro number, of the order of 10 or so, as in a glass of water.
  8. Crick, F., The Astonishing Hypothesis, Simon and Schuster, London, 1994.
  9. In an address to the Prussian Academy of Science in Berlin on 27 January 1921.
  10. Einstein, A., Physics and Reality, reprinted in Einstein, A., Out of My Later Years, Citadel, Secaucus, NJ, 1956, p. 61.
  11. Hamming, R. W., Am. Math. Mon., 1980, 87.
  12. There are many common points between science and religion.Central to the quest that either discipline entails is a search for what is perceived as the ultimate ‘truth’. However, as Eddington stated nearly 70 years ago, ‘We have no creed in science, but we are not lukewarm in our beliefs. The belief is not that all the knowledge of the universe that we hold so enthusiastically will survive the letter; but a sureness that we are on the road. If our so-called facts are changing shadows, they are shadows cast by the light of constant truth.’
  13. The actual experiments that were carried out were as follows: Ramachandran and his colleagues studied highly religious volunteers and those whose religious beliefs were not known. The subjects were shown a list of 40 words, which included sexual, violent, religious and ‘neutral’ terms. Responses were measured to track the amount of communication between parts of the brain. The non-religious group showed sweaty palm activity (a gauge for arousal and an indirect way of measuring certain neural activities) when presented with sexual terms. Patients with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE), though, were disproportionately aroused by the religious words, leading the Ramachandran team to conclude that human beings may have evolved specialized circuitry in the brain for the purpose of mediating religious experiences, and that the TLEs are at the extreme end of the spectrum. The experiments further point to a specific location in the brain – the temporal lobe – where this activity takes place. Some details are to be found in Ramachandran, V. S. and Blakeslee, Sandra Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, Quill Press, New York, 1998.
  14. Coen, C. (ed.), Functions of the Brain, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986.
  15. Amit, D. J., Modeling Brain Function, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989.
  16. Searle, J., Minds, Brains and Science, the 1984 Reith Lectures, BBC, London, 1984.


Meditations on Meditations

marcusa-weapons-quote-jpgAs I mentioned in a comment on a recent post, I’ve been reading Marcus AureliusMeditations. Its not the kind of book one just happens upon, there is a time when one turns to the thoughts of a long dead Roman and finds enough there that rings true today, an echo across the centuries…

Its difficult enough to avoid the comment banal, that there has been no essential change in human nature in all of recorded human history, so I shall get it over with as soon as possible. As a fraction of evolutionary time, all recent history is vanishingly fleet, so it would be almost surprising if one did not find that there are words of Marcus Aurelius that sound like a discourse on contemporary events.

Meditations is a book designed to be dipped into, randomly, letting serendipity guide you to something that strikes, at that time, in that place… Which is always useful when looking at our situation on campus. The other day, for instance, I chanced upon his comment,  That which does no harm to the state, does no harm to the citizen. (He repeats this idea many times in many ways- for instance in the quote I mentioned in my Convocation address this time around, That which is good for the swarm is good for the bee.) In the case of every appearance of harm apply this rule: if the state is not harmed by this, neither am I harmed.  This adapts so well to us here and now: That which does no harm to the University, does no harm to the UoH faculty/student/staff. In the case of every appearance of harm apply this rule: if the University is not harmed by this, neither am I harmed.

Of course, this is only part of the quotation, since Marcus A goes on to say, But if the state is harmed, thou must not be angry with him who does harm to the state. Show him where his error is. In the face of those that harm the state or the University by throwing a spanner in the works- usually a legal one- it is difficult not to be angry… The amount of working time that is wasted in responding to those that file frivolous lawsuits against the University due to slights imagined and entitlements assumed,  as well as to those that demand information that they have a right to, but demand for the wrong reasons… One could do so much that is useful with that time. But it does seem that MA was also plagued by similar demands, when he says,

marcus_aurelius_caesar…remember withal that no man properly can be said to live more than that which is now present, which is but a moment of time. Whatsoever is besides either is already past, or uncertain. The time therefore that any man doth live, is but a little, and the place where he liveth, is but a very little corner of the earth, and the greatest fame that can remain of a man after his death, even that is but little, and that too, such as it is whilst it is, is by the succession of silly mortal men preserved, who likewise shall shortly die, and even whiles they live know not what in very deed they themselves are: and much less can know one, who long before is dead and gone. 

So much for legacies, and so much for the grand design. A deep message that runs through Meditations is that we are all connected–the intelligence of the world is social.  This is fractally true, at level after level: more so the closer we look, the more connected we seem to be. So to adapt this aphorism to our time and place, the intelligence of this University is also social. This community needs to cohere: it can either be well-arranged […] or just a chaos huddled together, but still, it is our University, and it behooves us all to do the best we can with it, by it, and for it.

My chaos theory

butterfly-effectFor many years now I have been working in the area that is popularly called chaos theory. One idea that is central to this subject is that for systems that are nonlinear- namely those that do not give an output that is proportional to the input- small changes can have huge consequences. This is variously termed the butterfly effect or (more sedately) sensitive dependence on initial conditions. (The field is replete with evocative names- beyond chaos, there are attractors, some of which are strange, and so on… the image of the “butterfly” on the left is actually a view of an oscilloscope, and comes from a study of the equations that more or less created the field back in 1963…)

Untitled1The basic idea is a simple one. Were one to plot the evolution of a system schematically as a graph on a sheet of paper, then for nonlinear systems it can happen that starting at one location, the large black dot in the figure on the right, one sets out, over time, to move along the blue line, looping back and forth, to reach the point A after some period of time.

But were one to start every so closely from the point- even imperceptibly away from there, say the change that might be effected by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, one would be on the red orbit, staying close to the blue for some time, but eventually moving away in as unpredictable a manner as possible, landing up at B at the same time when the blue line reaches A. The small change in “initial conditions” results in large changes in outcomes…

One is used to this, of course. Setting off marbles (in my head, but also, possibly in reality) from two nearby spots on a mountain peak, could easily lead to them rolling into different valleys- very different outcomes indeed. The “system” of the preceding paragraphs is a catchall for any situation with many variables that change over time- indeed anything that can be suitably abstracted and described by a set of attributes. Systems that have been studied by the methods of chaos theory range from the weather and climate to cardiac problems and the stock market, very diverse areas of interest indeed.

Regrettably, though, the terminology of chaos theory has spawned any number of largely incorrect definitions in the urban dictionary, not to mention the very contrived movies that draw upon the name, and so the public perception of this rather simple and deep idea can be quite flawed. But the metaphor has substance beyond that, whether applying to something as unpredictable as the weather or whether applying to the unpredictability of the human condition… Small changes, different choices, perturbations in the environment- how different the outcomes could have been!

2013-08-05-diamonds2Surely this strikes a chord. I can recall reading the first papers that described the chaos theory in the late 1970’s  and being fascinated by what the implications were. Complexity could come out of very simple structures, the only requirement was nonlinearity. And anybody who has gone shopping, for potatoes or diamonds, it hardly matters which, knows that the price is not a linear function of weight. Other examples can be drawn, but the basic lesson is that most natural systems are nonlinear, and so one should find the effects of chaos everywhere. And one does, all the time!Untitled

For many  who come to the UoH- the students, the teachers, or for that matter, the administrators- there is a lesson here. What changes should one make, what little extra effort to put in, what to do, or not do… the eventual result can be so different, depending on the initial conditions. In the end, I suppose that state A and state B, whatever they are, should both be acceptable, both being logical outcome of living in a complex world. Does it really matter if a meeting is held on one day or another? Does it matter that colleagues and friends show consideration or not? An exam on one day or another, a lecture given or not?  One cannot but think of what might have been, what some other small initial differences in wisdom or generosity might have led to.

But then again, one makes choices, and as Frost put it so eloquently, the difference eventually comes about from the road taken… Or was it the road not taken?

To learn, to teach, to understand…

500004277-03-01At the Institute for Advanced Study where I spent a sabbatical some years ago, the photograph on the left was in the hallway outside my office: Oppenheimer with von Neumann, standing in front of the computer that they had built in a shed on Olden Lane, where the Crossroads Nursery School and Infant Center now stands.

Few American scientists have been publicly as deeply introspective as J. Robert Oppenheimer. Or as eloquent. His knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita stood him in good stead, when just before testing the bomb, he is said to have taken inspiration from the verse:

In battle, in the forest, at the precipice in the mountains,
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him

although where precisely in the Gita this appears is in some doubt. Nevertheless, the lines capture the angst of someone coming to grips with what must be done, however distasteful that might be. Later, when speaking to the Association of Los Alamos Scientists in November 1945 he drew attention to the value of a scientific approach.

I think that we have no hope at all if we yield in our belief in the value of science, in the good that it can be to the world to know about reality, about nature, to attain a gradually greater and greater control of nature, to learn, to teach, to understand. I think that if we lose our faith in this we stop being scientists, we sell out our heritage, we lose what we have most of value for …

Of course the context was different, and the times were morally complex, Hiroshima and Nagasaki having happened a short while earlier then, but the sequencing- learn, teach, understand- seems so apposite. After so many years of working in an University, and after countless discussions with colleagues across disciplines, I think that this is true of all areas of study and not just the sciences, that true understanding comes only after teaching.

Today this is a particularly fine message to share. Happy Teacher’s Day!

Independence Day 2014: Our USR

Members of the UoH Community,

TMy warmest good wishes to all on the occasion of the nation’s 68th Independence Day. Each year we collect to celebrate our independence, and to reaffirm our belief in the democratic values that hold us together as a country, even as we find our regional boundaries changing.

This is the first Independence Day celebration for the University of Hyderabad as we find ourselves located in the new state of Telangana. The transformation comes with new hopes and fresh challenges, even as we strive to find our feet in the new circumstances. One thing is clear, we are the premier research University of the new state, and we must pay our role to educate and we must fulfill our destiny, to educate, to enable, and to liberate.

The sense of liberation offered by education was beautifully captured by the students of our University at a recent show that they had, at the Salar Jung Museum. The title of the show was (taken from two lines from a poem, The moon is a kiteHow strong the Breeze, How precious the Flight.

The University is committed to providing a strong breeze- sometimes as a strong gust that pushes you off your feet, sometimes as a tornado, that churns up your thoughts and makes you re-evaluate your positions, and sometimes as that strong but gentle wind that slowly moulds your ideas and passions into values that will last. The winds of change blow gentle sometimes, but often not, and the University is a place where we willingly enter to experience that change.

soaringAnd the flight- how valuable it is when truly earned! The degrees are just one small part of it: the true value of the education that the University provides comes in the opportunities it gives to change ones life. And as so many of our students have discovered, sometimes while they are here, but more often after they have left, the University is a great springboard that can help you to reach as high as you want to. The wings you earn at the University will allow you to soar as high as your ambitions can take you.

In terms of resources, the past year has been a difficult one: we have had to bear the full brunt of the economic downturn. Our funding has been way below what we have needed, and indeed below the level that a University such as ours merits. We have been ranked among the top universities in India for the year 2014 in three independent surveys, by India Today, The Week and Careers 360. Ours is among the best Universities in the country and always ranked number one in the South. The NAAC puts us consistently at the top end of their scale. When excellence is recognized, it also needs to be nurtured, so we can only hope that with the change in the scenario at the centre, there will be some relief on this front for us all.

But there are things that we can justifiably be proud of. Our faculty and students have been recognized nationally and internationally for their research. One significant feature of our research over the years is the growth of the applied component – the number of patents that are filed and that are awarded have been increasing steadily.

I think that this is a welcome development, that the work that is done in the University should be more applicable and relevant to our society, to our times. Our University- as we all widely recognize- is a haven, a refuge that provides a wonderful environment in which we can pursue our academic and intellectual activities. We are very fortunate to be able to live and work here, and I believe we all appreciate the deep privilege that we have.

It is important that we should reflect upon how we can give back to the society that nurtures us. For many years now, there has been the notion of a “Corporate Social Responsibility”, recognition that any entity, particularly a corporation that makes profit, has both a social and a moral responsibility to the society in which it exists. We must pay attention to the manner in which we use public resources, else those very resources will be irretrievably lost to us by overuse and misuse. In our country, this social responsibility or CSR has been quantified, and on 1 April this year, the government of India implemented new CSR guidelines requiring companies to spend 2% of their net profit on social development.

What Social Responsibility does a University- our University say- have? We have usually answered this question implicitly, be it by doing what other universities do, by responding to directives that come from time to time from the outside, by admitting students from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, by having policies, explicit or implicit, that address a range of abilities.

Today I would like to suggest that we must take the opportunity to make our University Social Responsibility – our USR if you will- explicit. We must look more closely at the real needs of our society and each segment of our UoH community can do its own bit to address these needs. To start with, let us remember that our campus is in our custodianship, and we must nurture it carefully to provide a lung for the city. Our lakes must add to the water table. Our campus should be a refuge, not just for us, but also for the flora and fauna of Telengana, for the region. We should be careful keepers of the land and not owners or exploiters. This is a responsibility that devolves upon us all- the students, the teachers, and the staff- as we live and breathe here.

Our teachers share the USR in the most fundamental ways- we must live up to our label of being a research University, the best in the country. Our research must strive to be applicable and useful, and there is not an area of enquiry that does not have a chance of being so. Application is not just a matter of patents and products- research that opens our eyes, teaches us new perspectives, gives us new vision, new ideas- all these come from any field, and it is imperative that we make this our responsibility in as explicit a manner as possible.

But beyond that, we must participate in society more meaningfully. Opening our doors to as many students who can be accommodated is one- for every student here, there are almost 20 who could not be here. We therefore must address this need as soon as possible, and as effectively as possible. USR would suggest that we need to evolve at least as much as our society is evolving, in what we teach, how we teach it, and how we prepare our students to cope effectively with the India that is just outside our walls, and the India that lies beyond, both in space and in time.

UntitledInteracting with the city and beyond the limits of Hyderabad is important, especially in this day when local and global are so interchangeable and mixed into one another. Holding our conferences in the city- as the IAMCR that we concluded last month, the Dynamics Days conference that we held in Chennai, or the Women’s World Congress that we will have next week- is one way. Integrating into the fabric of our city, state or country in as involved a way as possible is another feature of what I see as our USR, and doubtless there are other ways that will occur to each one of us.

There is nothing very new in this. We have long used our truly national days- 26 January and 15 August- to reflect upon our journey as a nation, and to set agendas for the future. The social responsibility that I am alluding to today has always been a part of our consciousness, especially when we realize how fortunate we all feel to live in a free country, and in a society which, while imperfect, has sound democratic values. For long our gaze has been an inward one, which looks at our rights and privileges. We need also to turn it outward, and look at our responsibilities as a University, as we help to create the India of the future, the India that we all dream of: an India of prosperity, an India of progress, and an India of equality.

Jai Hind!

Taking Wing

10561790_10152201109211053_3239163086169552431_nThere is a brilliant art show in town at the Salar Jung Museum, a group show by the outgoing MFA students of our University. Paintings, sculpture, prints, installations- its all there in great variety and the exploration of different techniques and themes is amazing!

As the pictures in this post attest, there are artists finding their sophisticated expressions through a variety of media, and scattered across the gallery one can see installations made of matchsticks, lace, umbrellas, scupltures constructed out of wood, scrap… literally anything that could be used. The range is, to put it mildly, spectacular.

IMG_1135IMG_1136How strong the breeze, How precious the flight– the title of the show is taken from the feminist poet Andrea Gibson’s  The Moon is a Kite. The fragment brings to mind a wonderful image, of the fledgling artists finding their wings and taking strength from the training here- the breeze- to launch themselves into the wide open world- the flight. And as the dreams in one of the installations, the dreamcatcher on the right, swirl around in the gallery, the choice of title seems very appropriate…

But more, there is actually a double bonus at the Salar Jung- the adjacent gallery is home to another UoH linked show, by our honorary alumnus K. G. Subramanyam, the legendary artist who so graciously accepted an honorary doctorate from our University last year. Titled “New Works”, the scale and scope of the paintings on display belie the artist’s 90 years-  Mani-da, as he is more popularly known has admirable discipline, and the phenomenal ability to work in concentration. The few images of the paintings on display give an idea of what feasts await the visitor.

IMG_1138IMG_1131We are very fortunate to have such great persons associated with the University, and are very happy that the students’ show was inaugurated by him. One could not have asked for a stronger breeze to lift them up and propel them into the uncertainties of the everyday world and the vicissitudes of life beyond studenthood.

The show is on until the 16th of August for all to view and enjoy. By going out and showing our work in a public space, the University affirms, yet again, that we are not just of the city, we are a University for the city of Hyderabad…

Bend it like Zohra

zsAt recent meetings of the Academic and Executive Councils of the University, we had decided to confer the degree of Doctor of Arts (honoris causa) on Zohra Segal, doyenne of Indian theatre and cinema. Since she wrote to say she was unable to travel to Hyderabad, this was to have been presented to her daughter at our convocation on October 1 this year (see the correspondence below),  but now will be given posthumously.

I had written to her daughter, the Odissi dancer Kiran Segal on 25 June:

Dear Ms Sehgal [sic], I am very pleased to convey the information that the University of Hyderabad wishes to confer the degree of Doctor of Arts (honoris causa) upon your mother, Mrs Zohra Sehgal. We would be most honoured if she would accept this degree at the next convocation which will be on October 1, 2014.

The Departments of Theatre Arts in the Sarojini Naidu School would also like it if she would kindly agree to give a distinguished lecture at the University around that time and interact with the faculty and students.

We do hope that she will agree to be with us in October and I look forward to hearing from you. With regards, etc.

to which I got the very gracious response on 30 June:

zohrasegalDear Mr. Ramaswamy,

Thank you very much for the honour that your University is bestowing upon me! I am now 102 years old and therefore unable to travel anywhere. I hope you understand.

I still remember my visits to Hyderabad in days gone by & I must say that in each visit I had a lovely & delightful audience. In the past whenever I had visited Hyderabad, the ‘culture’ & ‘sensitivity’ of the Urdu language prevailed but, unfortunately it is rapidly fading!

As a suggestion and if it suits you, my daughter Padmashri Kiran Segal could come & receive the Degree and read out some excerpts from my ‘time spent in theatre’.

With best wishes, Padmavibhushan Smt. Zohra Segal

A suggestion that we are very happy to accept, and we look forward to having Kiran Segal with us at the next convocation.

There is a touch of sadness that she is no longer with us, but in her 102 years, she did so much in so many spheres. As a member of the Uday Shankar Troupe, then the IPTA, and of course the various movies that she acted in, including Bend it like Beckham. The demure photograph on the left dates from her time as a dancer, while the more characteristic one above is more recent, and wonderfully conveys the sense of mischief she brought to many of her acting roles.

Either way, she was a great ambassador for Indian theatre, and we at the UoH salute her several contributions to the performing arts!