Architectural styles adapt very fluidly to weather and techniques. This adaptability is so abundantly clear when you compare the architecture of 19th and early-20th century Mumbai to contemporary fashions in England. The Gothic Revival in its late Victorian guise transmuted into the iconic Indo-Saracenic style buildings of Mumbai. I think of this as F.W. Stevens using the medieval sources of inspiration of George Barry, transplanted to India, rather than the details of his style. The sea-front around the Gateway of India was realigned for the visit of George V of England. The buildings in the immediate neighbourhood were built in the 1910s and 20s, and were influenced by the Edwardian style, in the same way that Stevens adapted Barry. The detail that you see in the featured photo marries the Edwardian spirit to an update of the late Maratha style of construction from a century earlier. Notice also the flat terrace, a very Indian feature.
The exuberance of the sea front disappears in the row just behind it. On good days you may call this row harmonized . On bad days you might call it industrially repetitive. I walk through this road now and then with my take-away latte, admiring the solidity of the buildings. To me it appears to be an Edwardian reworking of the basic Victorian style, but quick and commercial. Floors of Gothic arches alternate with the classical. Symmetry is a driving motive. The decorative elements of the Edwardian style are entirely missing. The houses in the row are distinguished mainly by their colour. Notice the top floor; the unadorned cornices for some protection against the rain, and the simple sloping roof, are the only nods to the local weather. I am glad that this style covers only two roads. A city full of these houses would be oppressive.
Decades ago I stood in front of Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer on show in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna (the featured image is a detail taken from Wikimedia Commons). So, when The Family decided to stream Helen Mirren’s movie The Woman in Gold, I jumped to the conclusion that I knew the sad ending of the story. I had not known that this was piece of art that the Nazis had stolen. George Clooney’s movie Monuments Men had told the story of a platoon of soldiers tasked by the US president Franklin Roosevelt to recover the stolen artworks before Hitler’s orders to destroy them could be carried out. Herman Goering had set up a clearing house for stolen art in the Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris. An older movie with Burt Lancaster, The Train, had told the story of how the French resistance had delayed a train full of stolen art from leaving Paris just before it was liberated by the Allies. After watching Mirren’s film, we talked of corrupt governments and stolen art, still residing in museums in Berlin, London, Paris, New York, as well as the 21st century theft of Iraqi heritage.
Other movies led to other thoughts. Watching Anthony Hopkins as the butler imagined by Kazuo Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day, I asked myself about the economics of the Nazi era. There is a whole Wikipedia page on the businesses that collaborated in the Holocaust. Goering, Hitler, von Ribbentrop, are recorded as having looted art, and in a government that allows looting of one kind, surely other kinds of theft must have happened. The Nazi era is still under academic investigation, and the wealth of material available today is stunning.
In 1946 the Journal of Business of the University of Chicago carried an article by Arthur Schweitzer which concluded, “In terms of status and privileges, public property of state and party occupied the first place; German big business and hereditary farms as well as quisling owners composed the group of preferred private owners. German small business and non-quisling owners suffered under extensive and deliberate discrimination.” This basic view has held up remarkably well over the last seventy five years.
Further nuance has been added. Germa Bel of the University of Barcelona argued in a paper published in 2009 that the “Nazi regime transferred public ownership and public services to the private sector. In doing so, they went against the mainstream trends in the Western capitalist countries, none of which systematically reprivatized firms during the 1930s. Privatization in Nazi Germany was also unique in transferring to private hands the delivery of public services previously provided by government.” The paper comes to the following conclusion “Ideological motivations do not explain Nazi privatization. However, political motivations were important. The Nazi government may have used privatization as a tool to improve its relationship with big industrialists and to increase support among this group for its policies. Privatization was also likely used to foster more widespread political support for the party. Finally, financial motivations played a central role in Nazi privatization.”
This adds a whole new layer of our understanding of the corruption in that government. It wasn’t just stealing art, or gold teeth from cadavers; the Nazis were stealing from the German people, taking from the general populace, and feeding part of the stream of money into the hands of “preferred private owners” in order to cement their hold on political power. The world war and the Holocaust were so reprehensible that it is hard to look away to see this other aspect which was equally part of the Nazi corruption of government.
When I hear about Egyptian geese I think of the species Alopochen aegyptiaca, native of the Nile and sub-Saharan Africa, and considered sacred by the ancient Egyptians. I saw them for the first time when we visited Kenya a couple of years ago. The featured photo was taken on the banks of the Mara river. The coloured patch around its eye makes it instantly recognizable, although the rest of the colouring varies a little. But now, in a paper which will appear in April in the paywalled Journal of Archaeological Science, Anthony Romilio of U Queensland has identified another extinct goose from ancient Egyptian paintings.
The panel in the picture above is part of a larger painting which was originally on the north wall of the chapel tomb of Itet, wife to King Sneferu’s vizier, Nefermaat, and likely to have been the king’s daughter-in-law. The original is now in Cairo Museum, and a fascimile can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum in NYC. A description in the website of the Met says ” The artist took great care in rendering the colors and textures of the birds’ feathers and even included serrated bills on the two geese bending to graze.” It is this level of detail in the paintings from the tomb which set Romilio thinking about the species. A series of measurements convinced him that it is not a living species. The red breasted goose, Branta ruficollis, seems to be the closest in appearance, but it has not been spotted south of the Mediterranean, nor have remains ever been identified in ancient Egyptian archaeological sites.
“Artistic licence could account for the differences with modern geese, but artworks from this site have extremely realistic depictions of other birds and mammals,” Romilio is quoted as saying in a press release from UQ. It is interesting that the Sahara was a lush landscape about 10,000 years ago when Nile-dwelling humans began to move into this landscape. The process of desertification began at about the time of the unification of the upper and lower kingdoms, in around 3100 BCE. Romilio has worked on reconstructing taxa of extinct animals of ancient Egypt from ancient Egyptian artwork, and is an author of a book on this subject.
The eye is so easy to fool! I’d posted the featured photo in colour before. Just for fun I decided to convert it to black and white. I was surprised that it works. Perhaps because the yellow of the tiny flowers is so luminous that although the whole plant is in shadow there is enough contrast there. That got me thinking about decomposing it by colour. I dialled down the saturation of everything except yellow, and the eye still saw it as not very different from before. You really have to put the two next to each other to remind yourself what the difference is. And even then you may not notice that in one photo the leaves are not green.
Are we thinking right in our response to the pandemic? The world locked down again and again to flatten the curve, to prevent hospitals from being overrun. Wuhan was absolutely locked down at the beginning, and that stamped out the disease in that city completely. In other cities we thought it wouldn’t hurt to go for a walk, and perhaps talk to the people we see. Surely meeting one acquaintance in a couple of weeks would not change things, we reasoned. Was that right?
If the disease spreads evenly, that is every infected person has the same chance of passing on an infection, then even very mildly leaky lockdowns do not prevent a single death! When you study the total number of deaths, it seems to make no difference whether the lockdown was leaky, or whether there was no lockdown. The only difference is the availability of health care, and whatever that implies. Strange!
So lockdowns were thought of as a tool to “flatten the curve”, not as a long-term solution. But that step involved an assumption. It turns out that if you have epidemics (like the flu or COVID-19) which depend on super-spreading events, then the situation could change. The simple expedient of closing every place in which, say, more than 20 people can gather, can cut the transmission of the disease by a large factor. This saves many lives. Strange!
It seems that the maths works out. Not quite as transparent as 2+2=4, but apparently quite as definite. But I am always left a little doubtful by mathematical arguments in which every assumption cannot be tested in real life. Maths is a bit like that photo in yellow; an approximation of the real world. Some scenes can be captured in yellow, others not. Believing blindly in mathematical models of the world led people to theories of the aether once. It leads others to believe in market economics today. Both could have been right, but without extensive testing we would not have known better. You don’t want to make the same missteps again with epidemics. The world is stress-testing epidemiology now. I wonder how the subject will change in a couple of years.
After reading about mudskippers yesterday, I eventually connected them with a bit of information I’d forgotten. In the time that mangrove forests and mudskippers were beginning to evolve on the western shores of the Tethys Ocean 50 million years ago, the earth went through a climate catastrophe. Geological eras have names that I find fascinating. This was the beginning of the Eocene epoch, the name means the dawn of modern times. If you want to be more specific, you might call it the Ypresian age, a 8 million year blink of time starting 56 million years ago. What I remembered was that in the Ypresian age the earth went through a heating event that we call the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal maximum (PETM). Temperatures across the earth were between 5 and 8 degress Celsius higher than it is today.
At this time the continents had not yet reached where they are today, as you can see in the map above, but they are not completely unrecognizable. The deep oceans saw a tremendous extinction; between a third and a half of ocean species died out. The oceans became acidified and hot. Their levels rose, water saturated the air. The poles warmed more than the rest of the world. As a result, the Antartic was forested and ice free, and tropical rain forests covered southern Germany. Canada, as far north as what is today Baffin Bay, had swampy conifer forests regularly ravaged by forest fires. The part of India which is now the Thar desert seemed to have had extreme rains and weathering during that time, whereas northern Spain was a parched desert. It is hard to prevent a large body from heating up, so mammals became smaller. This may have had many consequences, but one that has been followed up is that it encouraged a rapid evolution in the ancestors of today’s horses.
Although the map of this world looks almost the same as ours, this hot and rain-drenched world is not suited for agriculture. Estimates of our carbon future showed that in “business as usual” scenario we will be there by the end of the century: in the time of the grandchildren of the millennials. There is a reason that projections stop at the year 2100: no climate simulation remained believable beyond that. Very recently though, a climate model was able to reproduce the PETM using reliable estimates of the amount of CO2 then present in the atmosphere, by following the small-scale dynamics of clouds more accurately. This simulation seems to say that the future temperature rise could be more extreme than had been predicted. We live in unsettled times.
On December 31, 2019, WHO declared that an emerging new disease had been reported by China. The Family and I were on a trip, and like most others across the world, did not pay much attention to this news. Within a few days, the news from China began to take up more of the news cycle. The disease acquired the name COVID-19, and the virus that caused it was gene sequenced in China, found to be new, and dubbed SARS-CoV-2. I had a full year of business trips and vacations planned, and knew that I had to keep an eye on this. (New words: COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2)
On 30 January, 2020, WHO declared that the disease was a pandemic. On the same day, a traveler returning to India was found to have the new disease. This was the first reported case of the disease in India. Wuhan and its surroundings had been locked down for days. I’d already talked to my colleagues in Wuhan, and they told me of their tedium. It was hard to imagine spending weeks inside the four walls of a flat, energetic children cooped up in the same space, looking out at deserted streets. Little did we know that the world was to follow suit. (New word: pandemic)
In February we made a small trip to see the winter’s birds (the featured photo of the black-shouldered kite, Elanus caeruleus, comes from that trip). The news was beginning to get dire. Countries were locking down flights. Italy was badly affected; on a call with her sister in Milan, The Family heard sirens from racing ambulances in the background. I was on conference calls with colleagues across the world trying to decide whether to move schedules for meetings. A divide was perceptible: people from Europe, the USA, and Australia were sure that this would pass in a couple of weeks, and no long term measures were necessary. People from East Asia were convinced that it would take longer to normalize. Indians and South Africans on these calls were not sure, but tended to be cautious. (New phrase: contact tracing)
When the first large cluster of infections was detected in Punjab, it had been brought in by a traveler returning from Europe. Soon a clutch of cases brought by tourists began to spread in Rajasthan. The Family and I shared a laugh with our extended families about the passing phase of reverse racism on the streets: any white tourist was given a wide berth, and there were mutterings about why they should stay home for now. I began to teach myself epidemiology just in time to understand the advise that was soon being offered on safety. But then, the government of India decided to shut everything down very suddenly. (New word: lockdown)
The resulting human tragedy of unemployment and displacement was enormous. For a while we, like the rest of the middle class, remained hopeful, because the skies cleared up due to the lack of new pollution. Then the monsoon storms reminded us that planet was still warming from older pollution. And the new obsession with cleaning meant that more plastic and detergents were being pumped into the earth. In the beginning we cleaned obsessively. The Family brought her professional expertise to the matter and found safe ways to disinfect food: soak fresh food in brine for half an hour. Sealed packages could be dunked in soap water and then washed. Brine and soap water could be reused, since they do not allow the growth of bacteria and viruses, so buckets full of them could be reused, saving on water usage. (New word: social distancing)
Locked down at home, we realized how important our internet connectivity was. New services for video conferencing were quickly adopted. Our meetings went online, and suddenly that part of our work had been revolutionized. We forced the pace of moving work on-line. The Family and I decided early on that we had to fight back at the black depression that threatened us. We decided to keep a strict routine, and eat only healthy food. We shared household chores, and cooking, learnt new time-saving techniques, and set aside time for watching movies and TV, and meeting friends and family through video conferencing. (New word: Zoom)
Now, one year on, Mumbai is opening up. Today, on 1 February, 2021, the local trains are starting up again. What did we learn? What did we change? First, that when you are afraid of a respiratory disease, mask yourself. This would be enough to slow down the disease. Quick deaths, although in the millions now, turned out to be not the most likely bad outcome of the infection. People have reported recurring breathing difficulties, heart disease, extreme fatigue. These symptoms pass in a few weeks, or months, for most people, but others have continuing problems: the COVID long-haulers. With all this knowledge, the second lesson is internal, one that most people I speak to seem to have learnt. It comes out in little ways: your life is important, its quality is important, family and health are important, socializing is important, being chained to a machine is secondary. We do not yet know how things will evolve. Vaccines are available, but it will be a decade before most people get it. In the meanwhile new variants of the virus are appearing, cases of reinfection are being discovered. Perhaps the disease will be a thing of the past in another three to five years. Or perhaps we will learn to live with a deadly disease, as earlier generations had learnt to live with small pox. New ways of working, new politics, new power groups have already begun to emerge, and they will be part of the new normal. (New phrase: new normal)
For all of us this has been a journey into ourselves, finding what we are capable of, learning new skills. Like most people, we spent more time cooking than before. I tried to learn how to identify the birds around me by their calls. I kept a record of the days through my photos (the ones above are my photographic journey through the year) and through occasional blog posts.
The port of Old Goa was founded in the 15th century CE by the Sultan of Bijapur, captured by the Portuguese in 1510, and served as the capital of Portugal in the east until it was slowly abandoned after several epidemics in the 18th century. Of the several churches here, the one that drew me is the Basilica of Bom Jesu, which contains the remains of Francisco Xavier, the accidental traveling missionary who was sent to Goa by the Pope at the request of the Portuguese king, and was responsible for setting up the infamous Goa Inquisition. The local Konkan name for Old Goa is Saibachem Goem, ie, Goa of the saib, Xavier.
The church is a huge building made of the local laterite stone, with several interior courtyards. The large wooden entrance door was rather plain, but set in an imposingly tall doorway made of marble. It was glowing red like newly cut stone, not at all what I’d expected of a church built in the 16th century. I suppose the facade must have been blasted clean with sand and water just before I arrived (I should remember not to visit often, because this treatment cannot be very good for the stone). The ASI has been in charge of the upkeep of the church since it was declared to be a world heritage site, and although the local chapter of the organization has been accused of negligence, they are pretty competent in the matter of preservation.
Looking more carefully at the stone I realized that the cleaning was not too recent. The stone had started weathering again, and moss was growing in the mortar. I suppose it must have been cleaned for the 500th birth anniversary of Xavier, a couple of years before I visited. The rain here is extremely heavy, and even when I visited, at the end of a monsoon season more than a decade ago, it was raining continuously. The amount of moss I saw was consistent with just a couple of years of growth. A service was on, and people kept arriving. All of them came on foot, and I wondered who was the lone person who had come here on a bike.
Except for the very ornate altar, the church was quite plain. After the service was over I admired the altar, but the light was too bad for photos. The gallery of art work on an upper level was closed for the day. I looked in at the crypt of Xavier, and the famous glass casket where most of his body is interred (some parts have been taken to Rome and Macau). The casket bears beautiful work, almost 400 years old, by Goan silversmiths depicting scenes from Xavier’s life. I wished the light was good enough to take photos of the details.
Xavier’s life is well known and very well documented; even his Wikipedia entry is enormous. I find it interesting that he was part of the millennia-long power struggle between the Eastern and Western Christian churches. When he arrived in India and began traveling to convert local people to Christianity, he visited the tomb of the apostle Thomas in Mylapore, and would have been aware of the many sects of older Christians in India, several of which had attended the very early Synods which codified the doctrines of Christian faith. Perhaps this was even at the heart of his championing the establishment of an Inquisition in Portuguese India. I’m sure that there are many studies of the religious and political climate which drove him east to Borneo, Japan, and eventually to China, where he died in 1552. I wonder though whether the urge to travel was not among his motivations.
After 1687 CE, Newton’s ideas on gravity were available to the world through successive editions of his book, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. To many it seemed that the universe had suddenly been understood. Poets wrote heroic verses: Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said “Let Newton be” and all was light. That was Alexander Pope writing Newton’s epitaph. Almost two hundred years later, Wordsworth in his posthumously published poem “The Prelude” wrote about Newton: The marble index of a mind for ever Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone. But other thoughtful people were not so (what is the word?) sanguine. Tides could be understood, but the details were devilish. More observations revealed strange anomalies in the motions of the known planets, and eventually led to the discovery of new planets, even to a new theory of gravity: Einstein’s (but that is a different story, and as Aragorn says at the black gate of Mordor, “Today is another day.”)
The paintaking computation of tides eventually told us that within this wonderful theory of Newton lurk dangerous waters. Tides require computations of the three way dance of the earth, the moon, and the sun. And these turned out to be rather difficult. About the time that Einstein was thinking about gravity, Henri Poincare was thinking about this three body problem, and discovered something as astounding. He found that within the seemingly determined motions of the planets lurk dangerous instabilities, some of which eventually became known as chaos. The three body problem, and its modern descendants, such as the study of the stability of the solar system, gave rise to the headlines that I saw. This is the discovery that there are unstable orbits which can throw small bodies (think spacecrafts and asteroids) into rapid transits across the solar system, and even eject them with high velocity into interstellar space. Some of this was known for about 50 years, but this is a systematic study, and a great addition to our knowledge. Maybe one day, if we can set up a space shipyard, travel across the outer solar system can be a matter of decades rather than centuries.
But after this long detour through history and the solar system, let me get back to my original question. What is discovery? If someone gives me the rules of the world, do I know the world? The answer is clear to anyone who has struggled to learn chess. It need not be less clear when it comes to science. Newton and Einstein discovered some of the rules of gravity, but much of the game remains to be played. Is the confusion due to the fact that in science you first need to discover the rules, and then discover what it means to play them? Perhaps we should have two different words for these two uses of the word discovery.
“What a lovely moon,” The Family said as I took the featured photo of clouds at sunset. Often we do not agree about the proper scale of things. I was looking at ephemeral sunlight on passing clouds, things which would fade in two minutes. She was looking at things which change slowly, and would take two weeks to come to fruition. I scanned the sky. Moon? I looked at her, followed the direction of her gaze, and asked “What? Where?” “Right there, where I’m pointing.” I looked along her arm and shook my head “No.” She took my head in her hands, turned it, port to starboard, then a little adjustment horizon to zenith. “There. You see it now?” “Mmm. Oh yes. Nice.”
I fixed that bearing in my mind and zoomed a little to see that wonderful sliver of the new moon. Such a constant in our lives: the periodic unchanging appearance of the new moon. But actually, the earth, the moon, and the sun dance a slow dance, mediated by tides and gravity. If we had enough time, say about 50 billion years, the earth and moon would be tidally locked: the day would be about 1130 hours long, and the moon would stand still above a single place on earth. Unfortunately this will never happen, because in a mere 5 billion years the sun will eat the earth. Tidal friction is that small! The length of the day has increased by about 1/4 of a minute in the last 100,000 years. That is the time from which we have the oldest human architectural remains.
I zoomed a little more. The constancy of astronomy has been the way wandering armies and ships have told direction and time from as long as our records tell us. When you continue the imaginary line between the poles of the earth, it points towards Polaris, the pole star, today. But this direction moves in a little circle every 26000 years or so. As a result, the direction towards the rising sun on the day of the equinox changes with the same period. The Babylonians had found that this direction points towards the constellation of Aries. By the late years of republican Rome, the direction had moved to the constellation of Pisces. This was a shock to the Romans, and gave an impetus to the spread of the imported Indo-Persian religious cult of Mithra (मित्र, Mitra, the Vedic god of sunrise). All the trappings of conspiracy theories of today (secrets which can be discovered merely by looking, cabals and secret handshakes, governments keen to hide facts) come from that history, a sign of the trauma caused by the knowledge that the skies are changing. This fact is forgotten again and again. Shakespeare had Julius Caesar declare “I am as constant as the Northern Star.” Ironical, since this particular lack of constancy was creating an immense ferment in his armies. Even otherwise, this is an anachronism, since there was no pole star in Caesar’s day. By Shakespeare’s time, when the earth’s axis had moved to Polaris, the equinox had moved further towards Aquarius, and the pole towards Polaris. Not so constant, after all, and much faster than tidal locking. Two million times faster!
I put the dust cap back on my camera and we resumed walking. The deeply peaceful surroundings, and the view of the Panchgani plateau on one side, can make your mind wander. But my time was here and now, and The Family said we should walk back to the hotel before dark, “Time for tea,” she said. Our meals are as constant as the moon and the tides; we seem to change daily, but we are more constant than the Northern Star, in our own ephemeral way.
Every twenty years or so, we can see Jupiter and Saturn come very close in the sky. This is called the great conjunction. I’d been looking at the two planets in the sky since the last full moon, watching them draw closer and closer. Today they looked like a single bright star to my naked eye. I could separate them by using my camera to zoom in. That’s the featured photo, displayed one pixel for every two on my sensor. The disks of the planets are clearly visible. The brighter planet, Jupiter, shows as a disc. The fainter planet, Saturn, looks slightly elongated; that is the best I can do about capturing the rings of Saturn with this camera. I may have done better if I’d bothered to set up a mount, or gone down to the lawn where the common sense of distancing was forgotten in the excitement of viewing the planets through a good telescope.
Why is one planet more dim? Because Jupiter is both larger and closer to us, it seems to be brighter. The different colours have an interesting explanation. Both are gas giants, with atmospheres of Hydrogen and Helium. But the colours come from the small amounts of other gases they have. Jupiter’s atomosphere has a little water and ammonia, and it is the latter which gives the yellow tinge. Saturn’s has in addition phosphene and hydrocarbons, which give it a much redder colour.
A great conjunction happens roughly every twenty years (the fact that it happened on the night of the solstice was a lovely extra), but it is not always visible at night. In the previous millennium it would have been clearly visible only thrice: in 1226 CE, during the lifetime of Genghiz Khan, then again in 1563, in the early days of the Mughal emperor Akbar in north India, and the last days of the Vijayanagar kingdom in the south. The last time it was visible was in 1623 CE, in the reign of the Mughal emperor Jahangir in India. It will be visible next in 2080 CE. Everyone alive today is lucky to have lived through such a rarely visible event, but today’s generation of young adults and children are specially lucky; most of them will see this spectacle twice in their lifetimes.