The Aryabhata Complex: Ancient Science In Modern India

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A strange fact about modern India is this - by a large majority of its people, the zero is not seen as the beginning of mathematics, but rather as its end. A large number of Indians feel that by inventing the zero, ancient sages had explained away everything that could be known, so that the generations after them would not have to. The more we regress; the tighter we hold on to our pride. 

The history of science and mathematics is a global heritage; and while India has made its contributions - they are too far separated in time, and too few to merit any arrogance. The sooner we recognize and accept this, the faster we can make amends. 

Instead of exaggerating the little that is known, perhaps more effort should go in re-assessing the vast corpus of pre-print manuscripts that lie ignored and unexplored in India. More than any other fundamentalist phantom of our culture, this is actually endangered. Vikram Chandra has quoted extensively some words by scholar Dominik Wujastyk in his recent book Mirrored Mind of which I reproduce here the most horrifying:

A back-of-an-envelope calculation based on estimated figures and attrition rates suggests that several hundred Sanskrit manuscripts are being destroyed or becoming illegible every week. It is inevitable that some of these losses will include unique, unknown, or otherwise important works. 

His paper also shows that the number of manuscripts that need attention is mind-boggling: 

How many Indian manuscripts are there? The National Mission for Manuscripts in New Delhi works with a conservative figure of seven million manuscripts, and its database is approaching two million records. The late Prof. David Pingree, basing his count on a lifetime of academic engagement with Indian manuscripts, estimated that there were thirty million manuscripts, if one counted both those in public and government libraries, and those in private collections

For anyone coming to Indian studies from another field, these gargantuan figures are scarcely credible. But after some acquaintance with the subject, and visits to manuscript libraries in India, it becomes clear that these very large figures are wholly justified.

The Jaina manuscript library at Koba in Gujarat, which only started publishing its catalogues in 2003, has an estimated 250,000 manuscripts. The Sarasvati Bhavan Library in Benares has in excess of 100,000 manuscripts.There are 85,000 in various repositories in Delhi. There are about 50,000 manuscripts in theSarasvati Mahal library in Thanjavur in the far South. Such examples are easily multiplied acrossthe whole subcontinent. And these are only the public libraries with published catalogues. Aone-year pilot field-survey by the National Mission for Manuscripts in Delhi, during 2004 2005,documented 650,000 manuscripts distributed across 35,000 repositories in the states of Orissa,Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and field participants in that project report that they only scratched the surface. 

References

  1. Aspects of manuscript culture in South India, by Peter Richardus
  2. Indian Manuscripts, by Dominik Wujastyk

[ Image: Chitrabandhakavya manuscript from the Ramamala Library, courtesy Benjamin Fleming

नयी सूचना: Scholarships, Registrations & More

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We are now one day away from embarking on a nine month journey, as you may have heard. So here are some clarifications and new facts. 

The workshop is being hosted in the ZetaTrek mailing list which has been active for three years. One might ask, but what the hell is ZetaTrek? Okay, so a quick recap. 

In short, it is a collective of non-specialist people ( some might call them amateurs or laypersons) who have been trying to solve the mathematical puzzle known as Riemann Hypothesis. It has about 65 people from 12 countries and growing. It is like a citizen science project, but a lot more insane and long-term ( it has no deadline for 10,000 years at least). If you have more time, the reference links contain more information on this. 

The new Age of Re:discovery workshop has been talked about at length in the previous few posts on this blog. In short, it is about applying the ideas from history of science to space travel and contemporary urban living. I know that doesn’t mean much, but go and read the posts…that will clear up a lot of things. 

Late registrations for Re:discovery

We already have over 20 new registrations from 5 countries, apart from the 43 members of ZetaTrek. You can still register by tomorrow, before we start. The details for that are here. After tomorrow, late registrations are also acceptable. The motivation for that is simple, all who register for this workshop become eligible for a lifetime membership of ZetaTrek. These are all highly interdisciplinary and long projects, so we encourage you to join even if you’re late. 

Scholarships ( Already awarded, please do not apply now. )

We have received a donation to sponsor two worthy candidates for the 9 month workshop. The benefactor is Benedict Noel - a long time ZetaTrek member, with the intent to promote the public understanding of science. Especially for aspirants who may be financially challenged. 

The scholarship basically means that your workshop is free if you’re selected. There is no stipend. It just means you don’t have to pay the $180 fee. Nor does it make you eligible for a lifetime membership of ZetaTrek. 

Anyone from anywhere of any age, country or sex can apply for this. All you have to do is write me a mail in 150-250 words about yourself and why you’d like to join, and how you will contribute to the project(s). The email address is mentioned below. The deadline for these two openings is Feb 1. 2014. So hurry!  

Your subject line should be: The yellow-green orangutan, flip flops in a brick-walled city.

Internships

Quite unexpectedly, people have begun asking me if we offer employment. No, we don’t because we means essentially one full-time employee ( that is me, a.k.a Rohit Gupta, @fadesingh on twitter or Compasswallah ) and we cannot afford to pay salaries yet. We can barely fund our own frugal life of a “flea in the blowtorch of history”. 

*sigh* Never mind. 

However, one such student has been offered an internship in exchange for a free workshop and a couple of books. As an intern, you are expected to share at least some of my workload, which is huge. The first intern is Ajinkya Kulkarni from BITS, Goa ( @junkicide on Twitter.  ) Congratulations to you and to us! 

For any other offers of partnership, suggestions, or queries please email me directly on the Gmail ID “fadebox”. 

References

  1. A Quest To Solve One of Math’s Great Puzzles
  2. See the "Media" section for more links on ZetaTrek. Warning: the old posterous links will not work, and we had since ported the blog to tumblr. 
  3. Press release by Khanabadosh
  4. Interview with Compasswallah in a Bombay daily. 

Press Release by Khanabadosh: The Age of Re:discovery

compasswallah:

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Starts: January 29, 2014

Ends: October 19, 2014

To register email: kforkhanabadosh@gmail.com

For additional details: http://compasswallah.tumblr.com/

Excavation of the past and contemplation of the future are the same intellectual undertaking. - Maharaja Sawai Jaisingh II of…

The Chemical Tantric’s Combinatorial Cabinet

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Chemistry is the interface through which life interacts with life. Only when we look at chemistry as molecular commerce, do we realize that the great carbon cycle is akin to a Silk Road of the biosphere. 

During the nine-month expedition approaching us fast, one of our main concerns will be to investigate the role of chemistry in the history of other sciences, such as biology, metallurgy, geology and medicine. 

Consider the medieval European practice of mixing chemicals to create a medicine ( an alchemical offshoot still prevalent in some parts of the world, and known in India as rasa shastra or ayurveda) - which we call iatrochemistry. This is a hybrid culture where the chemist is also the doctor, and he mixes the potion for your ailment. There is no reason why, with adequate know-how, in the near future - it could be big part of the “do-it-yourself” culture. The first-aid kit is just a sign of the times to come, not to mention - the contraband distilleries strewn across the Indian subcontinent. Cooking food at home is a form of alchemy that still remains short of its true destiny - a full blown chemical cornucopia. 

A wonderful exercise for the future iatrochemist would be to design the best medicine cabinet for his patrons. The perfect selection of chemicals, which when mixed - cure the maximum number of ailments in different mixtures, a permutational cabinet of healing potions, or the chemical tantric’s combinatorial cabinet

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( A similar artistic project is the Spice Mix Supercomputer by The Centre for Genomic Gastronomy.) 

Re:discovering Chemistry 

It was through chemistry that we discovered electricity and its myriad phenomenon from Volta to Maxwell. It is through chemistry that we took the first photographs, and learnt how to preserve our memory; or how to preserve food with saltpetre for long-distance journeys, so we can blow up foreigners with the same substance. 

If we were to re-stage a chemical experiment from the 17th century today, we would find it a challenge far from trivial. An experiment needs specific substances which may not be readily or cheaply available, it requires apparatus which may have gone extinct. To bypass this technical problem  might require significant creativity and innovation. 

The medieval explorer’s ship was a hostile place in many ways, and so is a spaceship of the near future. One must make judicious use of technology, and one needs to be frugal. In a sense, life during a long voyage on the ocean, or in space - presents challenges very similar to dwellers in earth’s densely populated megacities or sparsely populated deserts. Such as Tokyo, Bombay, Cairo or Calcutta; the Atacama desert, the Kalahari or Antartica.

In the urban jungle, your little domestic cubicle, your cellular room or studio - becomes your laboratory and treehouse. It is the do-it-yourself (D.I.Y.) utopia of which internet hobbyists have merely scratched the surface. 

The many triumphs of physics in the 20th century do not mean that chemistry has yielded all of its secrets. Between the physics of atoms and how large molecules behave ( such as proteins ) there is a wide No Man’s Land that remains to be accounted for in the ledgers of science.

For one, chemistry is now at the center of debates about the origin of life

The Social Life of Chemicals

Seen through that lens, this workshop is also about the ecology of materials, and the relationship of living spaces with culture, and the rest of the planet or universe. More than that, it is about the fundamental connections between various sciences that allow us to live maximally in minimum resources. Making a different kind of planet is also a form of traveling through space (without even moving?). 

With that in mind The Age of Re:discovery becomes a contemporary and urgent cultural exercise. As if we were taking the lessons of yesterday in the context of tomorrow, but applying them today.

To the casual observer in the year 2014, centuries of maritime discovery are long gone and its technology obsolete; the space age is at least a few decades away on the fringes of his lifetime. So there is little that might seem relevant to the contemporary world about our new project, The Age of Re:discovery which links the two ideas above. 

Nothing could be further from truth. 

——- Workshop Details ———- 

Update: Here is a short YouTube video we’ve made introducing the workshop, its calledThe Rickshaw Observatory

Registration: This is an independent platform without any institutional funding. Participants are expected to contribute a fee of $180 (approx. Rs. 11300) for the entire duration. You can pay using our online ticketing facility DoAttend, or Paypal ( the Gmail ID is “fadebox" ). Please contact us at the same address for any further queries or assistance.

[Previously In The Age of Re:discovery: The initial announcement, the post on the Chinese chariotlighthouses of the futuremetaphorical engines and the mind palace. ] 

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[ Image: From here, described as…During a uroscopy for a female patient, a woman from the window above empties her chamber pot onto the iatrochemist. On the table before him are a mortar and pestle, a variety of flasks and containers, a human skull, an hourglass, a celestial globe, and books. A cello, traditionally a symbol of love and warning about sexual promiscuity, is seen in the left foreground. Here are some more paintings with a similar theme.]

Engines Of The Future Alchemist

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As Google searches through information, can we devise an engine that searches through concepts?

I want to share some thoughts here, on how we could create a conceptual space of all possible combinations of matter and mechanism, of all possible objects, and search through them for useful designs. As an example, let me transport one object through such a conceptual space -  from maritime history to the space age. 

Let me put it very simply first: metaphors are like hyperlinks in your mind palace

Compass, Cannon, Conveyor Belt

The cannons employed in war, on land or on sea, often came equipped with a gunner’s compass.  Perfect angling of the muzzle would ensure that that cannonball, under the parabolic curve of gravity ( also called projectile motion ), would fall on its distant target. The video game Angry Birds is a good illustration of this geometry. 

What use could be a gunner’s compass in a small space ship, the future equivalent of a freight truck? With enough accuracy and low gravity, we could eject cargo from one ship and throw it to be received by another at slow velocity, like a conveyor belt in space. Except, there is no belt. 

Not a great invention, but what we’ve created is essentially a metaphorical mechanics. In conceptual space, metaphors perform the function that hyperlinks do on the world wide web, they connect one concept to another. Multiple metaphors emanate from any given concept and link to other concepts through multiple pathways. This topological space can be searched by a hybrid intelligence - human and algorithmic. 

Take another problem which can scale from sea to space. Sailors in the night, wondering which one of the many lighthouses in the distance denotes the port of their destination. A metaphorical mechanics may have been employed by Charles Babbage while proposing a solution. He gave numbers to lighthouses, communicated by the blinking of lights, using the same mathematical codes as used in telegraphy.

We want to look inside this ecology of materials and ideas, and how they lead to one another. Scientific instruments and devices are also concepts, and have their own genealogy, evolution and social life like a species of vertebrate animals, insects or radiolaria. They can be seen as a genus who have their own ecology and commerce. 

Fritz Zwicky is better known as the astronomer who coined the term “dark matter”, but he was a man of varied interests. One of these he called morphological analysis, which is a way of taking a finite number of concepts and mixing them up, quite promiscuously - to create many new concepts - a kind of conceptual alchemy, if you will.

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Bombastic as always, Zwicky wrote: 

While the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Incas, the Germanic races and others each had their individual style of life which pervaded their art, science, statecraft and daily activities, their respective styles do not seem to have been consciously known to them. The prediction may here be ventured that if we or our successors are destined to achieve a new style, it will be a conscious style for the first time in history. Its essence will be the knowledge of a basic totality of things, a basic totality at least as far as the determining parameters are known to us. Later generations may learn to know additional parameters, and progress thus never comes to an end. The prediction is, that if the earth and humanity are going to survive at all, the next cultural style will be that of the age of morphology.

We shall call morphology the study of the basic patterns of things. Morphology, we claim, is going to be the prime symbol of the activities of modern man in the near future.

This is very reminiscent of Hermann Hesse’s novel Das Glasperlenspiel ( or ‘the glass bead game’) where a similar game is played in order to concoct a “synthesis of all human knowledge”. 

One of the primary quests in the 9-month online workshop The Age of Re:Discovery will be to design and implement such a game engine. You are welcome to join us on this adventure.

[Image: A Dutch-Whaler Close-hauled in a Breeze painting by Claesz Rietschoof 1651-1719] 

The Blueprint Of Re:discovery (Part One)

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Over the next few posts, I will briefly cover some of the salient ideas that I have picked from a large corpus of history for the upcoming workshop. ( The registrations are currently open and anyone can join.) One may think of this as a broad outline of the syllabus. However, the actual texture of the workshop will be more fluid than solid. 

There will be three main threads braided together into one story for the duration of nine months - 1) instruments, 2) maps and then 3) Re:discovery , or how maritime science might translate into the needs of space travel. 

Some highly exotic instruments will be discussed, and in some cases the participants can attempt to build a working prototype. My personal favorite instrument of antiquity is The Yellow Emperor’s South Pointing Chariot.

Oh, I love the magnetic compass but this chariot is a geometric marvel that predates the compass by hundreds of years. Besides, the compass will be of little use in the absence of magnetic fields. But how will the south-pointing chariot fare in outer space?

There are rumors of a version used for ocean navigation: 

….although the carriage was twisted and turned in a hundred directions, the hand never failed to point to the south. Under the Jin, moreover, there had also been a south-pointing ship…

Whether this is credible or not, this glorious instrument will be the Suez canal of our journey into the ancient waters of Chinese science. 

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More soon! But if you’re made it this far, you deserve a little treat. Actually, its more like a treasure