A day at the museum

I still haven’t learnt on the food front – in my effort to optimise for both the daughter and myself this morning, I got her excellent breakfast and myself a terrible one. Actually I blame decision fatigue – there were so many stalls at the Munich Hauptbahnhof (central railway station, which is across the road from our hotel) selling what we wanted that I got confused on where to buy.

I wanted to buy croissant for her, and pretzel with Bavarian cheese for myself. After going round a zillion stalls, I bought them from the same stall I had bought croissant at last night (which the wife had for breakfast today and said was good). The croissant turned out to be excellent and was duly polished off by the daughter. I threw 3/4th of my pretzel in a dustbin on our way to the museum.

So our agenda for today was to visit the Deutsches Museum, reputed to be the largest science museums in the world. Now, science museums are the best museums in my opinion, since you generally have “something to do”.

The first museum I ever went to was the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum in Bangalore, where there are lots of fun activities, such as the chair on which you can rotate (and change speed by pulling in some discs). So the second museum I went to (the adjacent Government Museum in Bangalore) was a massive disappointment, as I tried pressing on the labels on the displays, imagining something might happen.

And despite not being the best maintained museum in Europe (it seemed rather “sarkari” to me), the Deutsches Museum didn’t disappoint. There were plenty of buttons to be pressed and pulleys to be pulled, especially in the physics section (I wished then that I had taken my daughter there when she was older, when I could have actually explained some of the science to her).

There were massive rooms full of boats and aeroplanes (the latter being Berry’s favourite room at the museum. She kept screaming “airplane” “airplane” there several times, and had great fun “navigating” a toy plane (see picture above). I tried hard to explain to her that some of the early aeroplanes (one of the Wright Brothers’s planes is on display at the museum, along with a few World War I planes) were actually aeroplanes. She recognised the Zeppelins as “airplane”, though!

We  saw stars and planets, and telescopes and yachts of different kinds. In the middle, we went to the museum cafe (which looked and felt like a sarkari canteen) and had excellent cheesecake. And I took her to the kinderreich (kids’ kingdom), a play area for kids.

As we were going through the last rooms of the museums, she started getting cranky. I took her once again to the aeroplane room, and she said goodbye to her airplanes. By the time we had walked to the metro station she had fallen asleep.

So there wasn’t so much of flaneuring on this second day, but I managed to see everything I wanted to see. For the most part, I had put her on her “leash” (to make sure she doesn’t run away too far), but then in the last part when she started tiring I put her in the baby carrier.

The first part of the “training” in travelling with me ends today. And I’m hopeful that I’ll have a proper flaneuring partner soon!

Geek Talk

So I was talking to the wife using Viber when Viber acted up and disconnected. This happened a couple of times. Then I moved to FaceTime, but that too had problems, and started acting up. Finally I got irritated and decided I wouldn’t mind spending some money for uninterrupted conversation, so picked up my phone and dialled ISD.

And I told the wife, “I was getting damn irritated with packet switching, so I moved to circuit switching”. And then we got talking on why Viber was so irritating, and we talked about Tanenbaum (both of us really loved that textbook of Networking) and acknowledgements and transmission of messages on unreliable channels – which can only happen by introducing redundancy – which becomes painful in a human-to-human direct conversation.

I have an engineering degree, and am fairly good at maths, and read a fair bit of economics and history, so keep popping up concepts from these in my regular conversation. Some people find it abhorrent, and wonder if I’ve landed from another planet, given that I talk this way. For example, I remember using  the word “incentivise” while answering a question at a quiz (which had nothing to do with economics). I often rationalise purchases saying they offer “option value” – real options are one thing that I think I understand. And so forth.

From this perspective I think it’s really wonderful that I’m married to someone who not only tolerates this geek talk but actively encourages and participates in it! Like the wife has now become a big proponent of the concept of option value (though admittedly she has just joined B-school so is yet to appreciate the finer points of the Black-Scholes-Merton model). I’m not sure if before she met me she would quote as regularly from Harry Potter as she does now (or maybe I’m taking too much credit). And she keeps peppering examples from physics and astronomy and electrical engineering in her normal day-to-day conversation.

And speaking of physics and option theory and sporting analogies, I get damn irritated when people describe curves as the one below as “hockey sticks”.

I’m Indian, and the only hockey I know is “field hockey”, whose stick looks like a J. So whenever someone mentions “hockey stick” I start imagining a J-shaped curve. As for the above curve, I sometimes (especially when I’m hanging out with banker types) describe it as “call option payoff”. When I’m hanging out with more scientific types, I describe it as “photoelectric effect”.

I wonder how our kids will turn out!

The moving solstice

Today is “Makara Sankranti”. If the name doesn’t already strike you, “Makara” is the Sanskrit name for “Capricorn”. The Makara Sankranti is supposed to represent the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, or the day when the Sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn.

However, we know that the winter solstice falls on the 21st or 22nd of December every year. Then why is it that the Indian version of the Winter Solstice falls on 15th of January?

I’m not sure if you remember, but a few years back, Makara Sankranti would usually fall on the 14th of January. After some back-and-forth movements, it has now settled on the 15th of January. You might have already noticed that this is unlike other Indian festivals such as Deepavali or Ganesh Chaturthi, whose dates according to the Gregorian calendar move every year (typically in a -11, -11, +19 cycle) over three years). This is because unlike Deepavali or Ganesh Chaturthi, which are observed according to the Lunar calendar, Makara Sankranti follows the solar calendar!

I recently read a book called “Solstice at Panipat”, about the third battle of Panipat in 1761 (my review is here). The Marathas went to battle four days after celebrating the Winter Solstice. The battle was fought on the 14th of January 1761, which means the solstice was observed that year on the 10th of January. So you see that the solstice, which is supposed to be observed on the 21/22 of December, was observed on 10th of January in 1761, and on the 15th of January in 2014.

This shows that there is an error in the Indian solar calendar. This error amounts to about 20 minutes a year, which means that the rate at which we are going, about 10000 years from now the Makara Sankranti (“Winter Solstice”) will fall in June, the middle of the summer!

That we know that the error in the Hindu solar calendar is 20 minutes a year allows us to calculate the last time the calendar was calibrated – we can date it to around 285 AD. Back in 285 AD, the calendar was calculated accurately, with the Winter Solstice falling on the actual Winter Solstice. After that, the calendar has drifted, and one can say, so has Indian science.

I’m informed, however, that this 20 minute error in the Hindu solar calendar is deliberate, and that this has been put in place for astrological reasons. Apparently, astrology follows a 26400 year cycle, and for that to bear out accurately, our solar calendar needs to have a 20 minute per year error! So for the last 1700 or so years, we have been using a calendar that is accurate for astrological calculations but not to seasons! Thankfully, the lunar calendar, which has been calibrated to the movement of stars, captures seasons more accurately!

I’ll end this post with a twitter conversation (I’m off twitter now, btw) where I learnt about this inaccuracy :

Update: The link to the tweet doesn’t show the entire thread. See that here.

Update: Here is a piece by astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar on the Makara Sankranti. Basically due to a change in the earth’s axis, our divisions of the night sky into 12 constellations are not stationary, and hence the date when the sun moves from “Dhanur” to “Makara” is no longer the solstice date.


The Takshashila Survey on Scientific Bias

Recently, my colleague Pavan Srinath put out a post on testing whether someone “defers to scientific reason above and beyond ideologies”. In his post, he made three statements, which he said are all strongly backed by scientific evidence:

The core argument in climate change is that the earth’s surface warmed significantly in the 20th century due to human-linked emissions of greenhouse gases.

The argument with nuclear safety is that health risks from nuclear power generation, both chronic and acute, have been grossly exaggerated and that due to an obsession with nuclear safety for the past 6 decades, nuclear power is now safer than most other sources of energy.

The argument with genetically modified crops is that they are just as safe as other crops, both for growing and for consumption. Additionally, crop modification through targeted molecular biology techniques is in fact less genetically invasive than conventional hybridisation techniques.

All three arguments have overwhelming scientific evidence on their side, and the nature of the scientific debate is very different from the public and political discussions regarding the same.

If you were not ideologically biased and if you were scientifically aware, he said, you would be extremely likely to agree with all the three above statements. If, however, you were biased to the “left” you were likely to agree with the first statement but not with the last two. If biased to the “right”, you were likely to agree with the latter two and not with the first.

We decided to test these beliefs by putting out a survey. The survey had exactly three questions – the above three statements that Pavan mentioned in his blog, and the respondent was supposed to agree or disagree with these statements on a five-point Likert scale. The “sample” on which the survey was administered was biased – most respondents we believe were connected on Facebook or Twitter (the two avenues we used to publicize the survey) to someone in the Takshashila community. It is very likely that most of the respondents were educated urban upper-middle-class Indians (this is a guess; we didn’t ask for these data points in the survey itself).

142 people responded to the survey. Most of these responses came within a day of our putting out the survey. Here are the results of the survey:

Firstly, we will look at the individual responses to each of the three questions:

Source: Takshashila Survey
Source: Takshashila Survey

This shows that opinion in favour of global warming is fairly strong.

Source: Takshashila Survey
Source: Takshashila Survey

While a majority of the people believe that health risks from nuclear power have been exaggerated, the opinion is not as overwhelming as it is on the global warming front. There still exist a significant number of doubters of safety of nuclear energy.


Source: Takshashila Survey
Source: Takshashila Survey

When it comes to GM crops, however, public opinion is largely divided. As many people agree that GM crops are safe, as do people who believe they are unsafe.

Next, we will look at interactions. The next three graphs here show bilateral “heatmaps” of responses to the three questions. The greater the redness of a particular cell in this map, the greater the number of respondents who fall in that cell.


There seems to be a positive correlation between these two beliefs that are towards different ends of the political spectrum. Among people who agree that global warming exists, more people believe that nuclear power risks are exaggerated than otherwise.


An interesting thing here is that extreme views on one issue are correlated with extreme views on another. Note that people who strongly agree on global warming are more likely to strongly agree or disagree with GM Food safety, while those who merely “agree” with global warming are more likely to simply “agree” or “disagree” with GM Food safety. Also notice the large mass of people who strongly agree with global warming but are neutral about the safety of GM Foods. This indicates that there isn’t as much debate and discourse on the safety of GM foods as there should be.


These are the two “right wing issues”. Notice that the top left and bottom right areas are almost empty. People who agree with one of these are more likely to agree with the other.

So how many of our respondents can be classified as being “scientifically aware” based on Pavan’s metrics? Given that Pavan states that someone who is scientifically aware should agree with all three statements, we will consider someone who has “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with all three statements as being “scientifically aware”. This number comes out to 27 out of 142 respondents or about 19%.

How many of our respondents are scientifically unaware? For this we will look at people who either disagree or strongly disagree with each of the above statements. There are only 3 people among those we surveyed who can be thus classified (and one of them has given his/her name as “Troll” so we may not take that seriously).

Then, again going back to Pavan’s definitions, how many left-wingers do we have? For this we will consider people who agree with the statement on global warming and disagree with the other two. There are 17 such people.  What about right wingers? These are people who disagree with the statement on global warming but agree with the other two. There are 7 of them. There are 63 respondents who have said that they are neutral on at least one of the three questions.

There is so much more one can do with these responses. I have anonymized the responses and put up the data here for your benefit. You are free to analyze it and draw your own conclusions. However, I would encourage you to share your conclusions with the larger community by leaving a comment on this post.