Wednesday, March 21, 2018

What would you do if you only had a year to live? 3 Lessons from the life of Stephen Hawking

What would you do if you only had a year or two to live? Seriously, take a pause from reading this article and think of how you would spend the last two years of your life if that's all you were left with.
Hawking (23) with his bride in 1965
Now my guess is that many of us would probably try to go the hedonistic route, i.e., we will try to fulfil as many of our pleasure-oriented desires. This may manifest in terms of drinking, seeking sexual gratification, or simply trying to check-off items from our bucket list, such as traveling to certain places in the world.  If we have big familial responsibilities, we may also try to earn as much money as possible before dying so that we can ensure some financial security for our family members when we are no more around to provide for them. That was certainly the theme of the hit TV show Breaking Bad. Some of us may also decide to simply spend more time with our loved ones, or if we are the religious kind, spend praying so that we have a better afterlife. Now I am not here to criticize any of these responses. In fact, all these responses may be valid in their own right. However, just because our response is reasonable does not mean that it is also optimal or the wisest response.

Stephen Hawking was 21 years old when he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig's disease, a disease where the death of motor neurons causes you to progressively lose control of all your muscles, ultimately reaching a point where you even fail to breathe and die. Hawking's doctors gave him about two years to live. We now know that Hawking went on the live till the age of 76, over half a century longer than what his doctors had predicted. This happened partly because Hawking suffered from a specific type of ALS that progressed much slower than the more common form of ALS, and also because of the technological advances that enabled him to stay alive with the help of machines.

Pursue your passion even if it were the last year of your life
Of course Hawking didn't know he would live so long. As would have happened to anyone of us in his situation, he went into a state of depression on receiving the news about the disease from the doctors. And he almost decided to drop out of the graduate school that he had recently enrolled in. However, after the initial phase of shock was over, he decided to continue his pursuit of Ph.D. with a renewed vigor. Now this may seem an unusual choice. But if you know that you enjoy science the most, why would you spent the last years of life any other way but in the pursuit of science?

So do you know what you are most passionate about? Are you spending the bulk of your current life pursuing that? Or are you simply dilly-dallying your life away? This may not be your last year of life, but it may very well be too. We will never know for sure until we are face to face with death. So why waste our life away? Or wait until the time when we are confronted with a fact that we have a year or two to live? Why not live our life as if it were our last year on Earth? Aren't we wasting our life if are living any other way?

Using a lot of technical jargons is not smart. Being able to communicate a complex topic in manner that an average man can understand is.
I learnt about Hawking for the first time when I was in my high school. That was the time when multiple copies of his most famous book A Brief History of Time had arrived at the city library where I grew up. The librarian who was a good friend of mine recommended me the book. I picked up Hawking's book with excitement, but I must confess that I found it a hard read, and did not also complete the book. However, that was a reflection of my lacunae in comprehension rather than Hawking's lacunae in expressing things simply; I know this for sure in retrospection.

There have been many great scientists throughout history, but very few of them have also been successful in communicating their ideas to the general public. Now a scientist need not take up the role of disseminating knowledge to the public. However, when they do and do it effectively, they help immensely in popularizing science.

My Ph.D. advisor Dr. Philip Podsakoff, who is one of the top 3 most highly cited management researchers in the world, used to say, "You should have so much clarity about your research that you should be able to explain it to your grandma in a manner that even she understands it." Needless to say, some of our grandmas may be extremely knowledgeable and may easily be able to delve into the depths of our research. So my professor's intention was not to make any gendered statements. He simply was describing the characteristics of a good thinker. A good thinker is not stuck in technical jargons and equations, and can easily express the main ideas of a complex topic in a manner that even an average person with no technical knowledge can understand it. But irrespective of how good or bad we may be in expressing complex ideas in simple and clear ways, we all can improve.

Scientific research is difficult but it need not be devoid of fun. Just don't take yourself too seriously.
Stephen Hawking once hosted a big party at his university. He had written out invitations to many people for that party, including his colleagues and many other famous scientists. Unfortunately, no one showed up to the party. The reason was simply because Hawking sent out the invitations only after the party was over. He did this to playfully make the point that time-travel is not possible. His logic was that if time-travel were possible, then people from the future would have known about his party and somebody from the future should have showed up at his party through time-travel.

Hawking may have lived most of his life as a quadriplegic, dependent on machines for his survival and to communicate with the world, but that did not diminish his verve for having fun and cracking jokes. He is known to have placed several bets with some of his colleagues on competing theories. Despite his genius brain, he was not always right and lost some of those bets. One of the famous bets he lost was to John Preskill from Caltech, where Preskill's argument that information could escape from Black Holes was found to be true. Hawking had argued the contrary, and conceded his defeat by buying Preskill an encyclopedia of baseball for Preskill. Such friendly competitions not only helped in the progress of science but also made the pursuit of science fun. Unfortunately, not all of us pursue science with a spirit of play. So we can all learn a lot from Hawking. If a great mind such as Hawking didn't take himself too seriously, what excuse do we have? We are all fallible. So instead of justifying our faulty research or hiding it, we need to learn to acknowledge it and even celebrate our failures. That's the only way science can move forward.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

What's wrong with Papon's kiss and the people who came in support of him?

Most Indian readers of my blog would be aware of the kiss controversy that erupted last week when Papon, a 42-year old Bollywood singer, kissed the lips of an 12-year old girl. The girl was a contestant on a music show where Papon is a judge. The kissing incident happened off-stage, I believe in Papon's vanity van where the contestants and some crew members of the show were celebrating the festival of Holi.

I had read about this incident in news but hadn't given much importance to it, because I am not a big fan of celebrity gossip news. In fact, one of my pet peeve is that Google Now feeds me with a disproportionate amount of celebrity news that I don't care much about. Like most other celebrity news that come my way, I had simply read the headlines but hadn't bothered to find details about the incident. However, today I stumbled on the original video of the incident, and watching it made me very angry.

First things first, I strongly condemn Papon's behavior, but even before I discuss the reasons behind it, I must acknowledge that both the girl and her parents have come in support of Papon on this issue. You can watch their response to the incident in the last video shared in this blog post.

Why Papon's behavior needs to be condemned?

1) A potential case of workplace sexual harassment.  There is a big movement going on around the world (including India) over the last several months called the #MeToo movement, where thousands of people have voluntarily shared their experience of how they were sexually harassed in the workplace. I see the kissing incident also as a potential case of workplace sexual harassment, because it happened in the context of the workplace and involved touching someone in a way that goes beyond the acceptable norms within a society.

People have been arguing that the intentions of Papon were good and that he is a good man, which may all be true, but those are no excuses for he kissing somebody else's kid. Papon has explained his behavior by claiming that he is an "emotionally expressive person" and that 's how he expresses his emotions with everybody. My point is that your intentions may all be good, but you could still be accused of sexual harassment, because it can easily be perceived as sexual harassment, especially when you pull a kid's face towards yourself and plant a kiss on her lips. No excuse of you being an "emotionally expressive person" is going to prevent you from being sued for sexual harassment.

2) Kids can't give consent. To be fair to Papon, you could argue that this was a first-time incident (at least, as far as we know). He did not continue to "express his emotions physically" after people expressed their displeasure about it. Some people don't consider a behavior harassment if the victim didn't object to the perpetrator's behavior. In other words, a behavior is seen as harassment only if the perpetrator persists despite the victim's objection. However, the problem with this argument is that kids are unable to give consent and express their displeasure assertively. That is the very reason we have laws against statutory rape and child marriage. In fact, even adults find it difficult to be assertive, especially when they are in low power situations of the workplace. That is the reason I condemn Papon's behavior irrespective of who have come in support of him.

3) Kids are a vulnerable. They need our protection. We need to teach them about "good" and "bad" touch instead of justifying a potential perpetrator's behavior. What angered me most about the incident was not so much the action of Papon (although it did, and I have already explained that). It was also not the silence of the otherwise vocal human rights conscious Bollywood celebrities. What upset me the most about the incident was the mindless way some people came in support of Papon's actions. Below are some examples.

In the first video that I shared on this post, you see some Bollywood heroine (I don't know her name; let me know if you do) trivializing the incident completely by disparaging the people who filed a legal case against Papon. Specifically, she said, "Those who have filed a legal case against Papon are the kind of good-for-nothing people who have nothing better to do." Unfortunately, this is a common strategy employed by some people. Since they can't argue against your arguments, they will simply put you down.

In another article I found, a Bollywood lyricist coming in support of Papon by calling the incident an "unfortunate camera angle and a goofed-up peck-in the cheek gesture." Interestingly, Papon has also given the same "unfortunate camera angle" excuse. Again, there may be some truth in the "unfortunate camera angle" argument, but still what right does an outsider have to even kiss the cheek of a 12 year old girl?

We see in the below video, actress Dia Mirza indirectly supporting Papon by first claiming that she can't comment on the incident because she doesn't know much about it, but then going on to exalt Papon to the heights of a saint.

The most disgusting video: Unfortunately, the worst case of putting a potential perpetrator on the pedestal of God was done not by some outsider but by the girl's parents and the parents of some other contestants. You can see that in below video. They literally say several times, "Papon Sir is like God! How can people even think about this God in such lowly terms?" They also put words in the mouth of the girl by prompting her to speak highly of "Papon Sir" when she is speaking in the video..

The reason I found this video the most disgusting is because parents are supposed to protect their children. They are not supposed to legitimize an adult's inappropriate behavior towards their child. Again, to be fair towards these parents, may be they are very simple-minded people who can't help but see the best in everyone. However, I can never condone such behavior if anyone acted in a similar way towards my nieces or nephews, for example.

Many of my friends know how fond I am of my little nieces and nephews. But despite being their beloved uncle, I have never kissed them on their lips, not even when they were toddlers. There are certain boundaries that should always be respected. To express your love for somebody you don't have to pull them and kiss them.

Thankfully, kids in India are now being taught about the differences between a good touch and bad touch. I came to know about it just two weeks ago when my five-year old nephew in his childlike excitement shared with me on phone all the new things that he had learnt in school that day. One of those things was about the difference between good touch and bad touch. Now, that gives me hope for the future generation of the world... We should certainly not destroy children's innocence, but in the name of protecting innocence we should also not endanger children's lives by making them believe that it is alright for anyone to touch them inappropriately.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Bho Shambho - Raga Revathi

On the occasion of Maha Shivaratri, the festival that celebrates Adi Guru Lord Shiva, I recorded this beautiful composition in Raga Revathi. The composer of this song is Swami Dayananda Saraswati.

By the way, there have been at least two famous monks by the name Swami Dayananda Saraswati in India. The first one lived in the 1800s and was the founder of the Arya Samaj. He is known for his immense contribution to the revival of the Vedantic philosophy and for his work for women's rights, especially widow remarriage and women's education. The composer of this song is the second Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who was also a renowned teacher of Advaita Vedanta and the disciple of Swami Chinmayananda. He lived from 1930 to 2015, and as per Wikipedia was also the spiritual guru of Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi.

Coming to this song, I am grateful to my friend and colleague Dr. Rama Cousik, who taught me this song. I would also like to mention her son, Tejas Cousik, who sings this bhajan much better than I ever will.

By the grace of Lord Shiva, may we all learn to gain complete mastery over our body, mind and emotions. Happy Maha Shivaratri to all!

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Friendship: The Smart Way to Success & Happiness

When I was in high school, I used to do what we called "joint study" with a friend. My friend and I used to study together to prepare for the entrance examinations that we needed to take to get admission into any good professional program. My friend wanted to pursue a career in engineering and I in medicine. Despite our divergent career goals though, we found great value in working together. The subjects of physics and chemistry were common to both the engineering and medical entrance examinations. So it made sense that we studied those subjects together. However, the subject on which we spent the maximum amount of time was math. Math mattered for engineering but not for medical entrance examinations, but the reason we spent most of our time working on math was simply because we both loved the subject. We loved solving math problems, especially the complex calculus ones. We competed with each other on who could solve these problems faster. Sometimes my friend won and sometimes I, but who won anytime was immaterial. What mattered was that we were having more fun competing with each other than either of us had when we worked alone. And this friendly competition also made us stronger and faster in our problem solving skills.

It was not all work for us though. When we were not working, we of course chatted about girls and fantasized about our possible futures. We also played a lot of chess, and deliberated about the books that we were reading at that point of time. We weren't voracious readers by any means. For example, some of my current friends had read all the major works of Shakespeare and Dickens by the time they completed high school. I had read none of these classics, except for the super-abridged versions that appeared in form of chapters in our English textbook. However, I did read some fascinating books during my high school years because, thanks to the excitement with which my friends described them. Some notable books that I read through this process were Mario Puzo's The Godfather, Charles Berlitz's The Bermuda Triangle, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, and yes, of course, David Reuben's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex: But Were Afraid to Ask. Today I am a fairly voracious reader, and a significant credit for this goes to my cool friends who made reading a "cool" hobby to pursue.

With my classmates from high school during a reunion three years ago (The best time I had in recent years)

Another photo from the high school reunion

Self-help guru Jim Rohn once said that we are the average of the five friends we spend most time with. As a social science researcher, I am often critical of the grandiose claims made by self-help gurus. However, there is a lot of truth in Rohn's observation, if not in the absolute literal sense, because whether we are the average of our five closest friends is an empirical question that Rohn never performed. However, there are innumerable studies in social psychology and organizational behavior demonstrating how strongly we are influenced by the environment we live in, and more specifically by the people we interact with on a regular basis. Our individual levels of knowledge, health, wealth, success and happiness are all deeply intertwined with how our closest friends fair on these parameters.

Dancing with friends from undergraduate days
With my classmates from undergraduate days and the head of our institution

Based on the insights I have gained through my personal experiences and research, I have come to the conclusion that there are two ways of living life: the hard way and the easy way. The hard way is the one we take when we try to build a good habit all by ourselves. It is the method where we rely on our willpower to better ourselves and accomplish a goal. But this is the hard way, because even the strongest among us falter when it comes to our willpower. If you don't believe me, just look back at the number of times you failed in sticking to your New Year's resolutions.

With my Masters degree buddies

So what is the easy way? The easy way is the one we take with our friends. We truly are the company we keep. It may be difficult to pull ourselves out of bed every morning and run for 10 kilometers when we do it all by ourselves, but it is 1000% easier when we do the same with a friend. It is difficult to push ourselves to the limit when we are training by ourselves, but it is easy when we have a friend competing with us. It is difficult to sustain your interest in a hobby when you are doing it by yourself, but it is easy as a breeze when you share that interest with a friend. It is easy to be successful when you have friends to inspire you, push you and learn from.

My classmates and running buddies during PhD

With my music friends during PhD

According to studies conducted by Gallup Inc., at the workplace we are significantly more engaged, productive, happy, and contribute to higher profits for the organization when we work with people we consider close friends. Friendship even makes marriages happier. According to John Gottman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, " Happy marriages are based on a deep friendship." The research done by Gottman and his colleagues show that friendship within marriage is five times more strongly associated with happiness in marriage than physical intimacy within marriage.

We all want to be successful and happy in our lives. I have never met a person who wants otherwise. However, foolishly we try to attain these things the hard way. Is it surprising then that we never come close to realizing our full potential? When I reflect back on my life, I certainly have found it easy to achieve things when I worked for them along with my friends. We all get excited at the beginning of our endeavors, but as time passes we find it very difficult to sustain motivation. Friends make it easy to sustain motivation. Let's make use of our friends to enrich each other's lives. Let's choose our friends wisely. And let's nurture these friendships. That is the smartest way to achieving success and happiness in life.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Mata Saraswati Sharada

Here is a Saraswati bhajan on the occasion of Vasant Panchami. Vasant Panchami marks the beginning of the Spring season in India. It is celebrated in honor of Maa Saraswati, the goddess of learning and all forms of music and art. The bhajan I sing here is from the 1977 movie Alaap. Based on Raga Bhairavi this bhajan was composed by Jaidev, one of my favorite music directors. 

Song: Mata Saraswati Sharada
Composer: Jaidev
Original Singers: Yesudas, Lata Mangeskar and Dilraj Kaur
Raag: Raag Bhairavi
Taal: Teen Taal (16 beats)