04 August 2010

Vedanta and Modern Physics

Two weeks ago I had an email conversation with Sharan Prakash, a high school student who is interested in Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Sharan points out that the book 'Vedanta and Modern Physics' by Dr. U. Chandrasekharyya (Lokashina Trust, Bangalore, 2006), which discusses the Vedanta philosophy of the Indian philosopher Adi Shankaracharya (born around 788), refers to the Nyaya-Vaisesika theories of atomic elements advanced by the Samkhya prakriti philosophies, in which a deeper reality is identified where mind and matter are not considered to be separate.

In contrast to dualistic religious views of the world, where matter is one domain and mind another, Advaita Vedanta philosophy by definition implies the continuity of mind and matter, i.e. a non-dualistic interpretation of reality.

Sharan says that according to Vedanta, the world in which separate atoms exist is part of the illusion of Maya, and that a deeper underlying reality exists behind this. In other words, Indian philosophers of the middle ages refer to atoms when they talk about the mind and not as the basic units of reality (which is reflected in the mind).

Not being a specialist in Indian philosophy I accept Sharan's comments as an invitation to deepen my discussion of Indian philosophy and science in lecture 14. I hope that someone more knowledgable than myself (and possibly more knowledgable than Sharan Prakash, who says that as a mere high school student, he may not be a valid authority) can add to this discussion.

03 July 2010

The German chemical industry and the precautionary principle

Bisphenol A is an organic compound with similarities to hormones. It is used in plastic containers, plastic baskets and other plastic goods as a softener, giving the products flexibility. Suspected to be harmful to humans for many years, it has come into the limelight since about 2008 when reports appeared in the press about possible harmful effects. A 2010 report from the United States Food and Drug Administration raised further concerns regarding exposure of fetuses, infants, and young children.

The German magazine Spiegel now reports that three weeks ago the president of Germany's Federal Environment Authority suggested that producers of plastic articles containing Biphenol A should begin to use alternative softeners as a precautionary measure. This further illustrates what I said in the postscriptum to my course: that society has to move from unlimited innovation to protection of the health of our planet. A suggestion from a government authority is of course only a small timid step in that direction, and because it does not have the power yet to enforce precautionary action it is met with blanket opposition from industry: The expert for product safety of Germany's Chemical Industry Federation says that "from the point of view of customer protection" there is no reason for a ban.

Real protection of the health of our planet and its inhabitants will only come when the onus of proof shifts from the government to industry and the role of science shifts from limitless innovation to verification that new products do not pose harm to users and environment.

Source: Der Spiegel nr. 24 of 14 June 2010 p. 16: "Gesundheitsrisiko Weichmacher?"

09 March 2010

Hiroshima and the fall of Berlin - getting the timeline right

In lecture 29 I said: "Hiroshima and Nagasaki had shown that the USA had the bomb. It soon became clear that before long they would also have long range missiles that could reach the Soviet Union without the need of bombers flying over it." The next two paragraphs then go into a discussion of the reasons why Stalin wanted the Red Army to enter Berlin before any other allied forces could reach the city.
Some have interpreted my text as saying that the motivation for Stalin's move towards Berlin was the release of the atomic bombs over Japan. As one reader wrote: "You say that 'Hiroshima etc had shown that the USA had the bomb'. Wasn't the Fall of Berlin in April–May 1945 and the bombing of Hiroshima in August of that year?"
This is of course correct: The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred after the Red Army had reached Berlin and the war in Europe had ended. But the Soviet Union had been well aware of progress with the Mahattan project for quite some time and did not need the proof of actual bombs falling on cities. My text muddles the timeline and can be misleading.
Because my policy with the lecture notes is to leave them standing as they are and use this blog for updates I only added a link to this note in the original lecture 29.

05 March 2010

The changing character of war

In Lecture 29 I said that World War I was the last "classical" war, a war in which the casualties were found mainly amongst the soldiers. Beginning with World War II military conflicts produce more casualties among the civilian population than among the soldiers (a fact painstakingly avoided by the media, which report every death among the occupying forces in Afghanistan but rarely mention the much larger death toll among Afghan civilians).
A recent review of a study of returned servicemen after World War II illustrates the deveelopment with some interesting observations. When the soldiers returned home from the battlefields of World War I the civilian population acknowledged their suffering and greeted them with a sense of guilt: "While British state pensions and policies were ungenerous, civilian volunteers stepped into the breach, flocking to donate money and time to hospitals, rest homes, philantropies and cultural associations that sought to ease disabled veterans' isolation and pain."
In contrast, soldiers returning home after World War II were ignored, their stories of suffering paled in comparison with those of survivors in bombed-out cities. Instead of a hero's welcome, or at least understanding for trauma and depression, they found a lack of empathy and faced the disintegration of their private lives: "Divorces went up, from 4100 decrees absolute in England and Wales in 1935, to 15,600 in 1945, to 60,300 in 1947." Veterans from the Vietnam war did not fare better.

Reference: Susan Pedersen: Suitable Heroes. A review of Demobbed: Coming Home after the Second World War by Alan Allport. London Review of Books 32(4) 25 February 2010, pp. 11-12.