Personality Blender.

I remember sitting in the new building’s relatively large auditorium on my first day of freshman year four years ago. Starry-eyed and intoxicated with the transition from middle school (years of fun and frolic) to the four years of high school that were apparently meant to be the bridge to the rest of your life, I was both scared and excited. I remember being the only student who opted for 11 subjects in grade 9, which invited the nickname “Mr Genius.” More than that, I remember having no clue where I would end up at the end of high school. I didn’t even know about the very existence of any university other than Stanford and Harvard.

I’ve spent the 2102400 minutes between the present and that first day working not for some extrinsic goal, but for myself. I’ve never seen the college admissions mania as something that requires you to mould yourself to wherever you’re applying, or mould yourself to the general applicant pool, or try and resemble that one Russian kid who interned at Google, won the International Math Olympiad, and got his start-up acquired by a Fortune 500 company. On the contrary, rather than fitting myself to a college, I’ve always wanted to fit a college to me, and that’s imparted in me a variety of passions, hobbies, and goals for the future.

Looking back, there’s so much I’ve done and so much that has happened that I would’ve never imagined. It seems only yesterday that I received my first full chemistry grade, played football with my friends, fell just short of my personal goal for my IGCSEs, and took my first step in a whole new world. During this insanely long time period, I never once thought about looking back and seeing how far I’ve come. I can’t imagine going back and telling 9th grade Mehul that he would be here right now.

No matter which college I go to and where I’m accepted, I’m satisfied with the knowledge that I didn’t do what I had to or what was instructed to, but I did what I wanted to, and that should be enough to set me apart from anyone else out there. I’ve taken away something memorable from each experience, from each day, whether be it an academic trait I previously undervalued or a character flaw I worked to correct.

Over the course of the next few months, I’ll be applying to some of the best and definitely the most enriching universities in the world. It excites me and it scares me. I’m afraid of the countless possibilities the future holds, of that lingering doubt that I might not get into this place. At the same time, I’m proud of what I’ve done and excited to continue doing that. Over the past few years I’ve gone from having no clue what to do, to developing visible interests in engineering, computer science, and astrophysics.

While computer science and engineering are domains I feel naturally attracted to, the former being a field wherein I’ve interned, hacked, and programmed, nothing invokes as much awe as astrophysics. This leaves me with a huge decision to make before I apply, what do I want to do at college? Do I want to write code and study algorithms? Do I want to make robots and machines? Do I want to point my eyes into the deepest depths of the cosmos and maybe try exploring it? The answer is, irrefutably and undeniably, is all of them. I’ve never been a person who does just one thing. It’s why I took 11 subjects in grade 9, I can’t stand not doing enough. Even right now, despite being told about the intensive and demanding and 24×7 nature of the college applications process, I want to continue exploring and learning in other domains.

I feel like the world has made it necessary for you to be one person. You’re either an engineer or a computer scientist, there’s no ‘both here. There’s no way to do stuff simultaneously. This leaves me with having to choose between what I feel like is me. It’s like asking me to throw away one interest, neglect another, and choose one as the thing that will define my life.

This is all the more important because both cricket and writing were prominent items on this list of ‘who I am.’ Ask ninth grade me what I wanted to become, and he would probably say “either an astrophysicist, or a player in the Indian cricket team, or an author, or a programmer.” While my list of items that define me may change, the mere fact that I have a list cannot. This certainly makes me question myself, should I let this unidirectional-ness change me? Or should I try and change it on my own personal level?

When talking about the college applications process, everyone says that it is inherently transformative. That while working on your applications and taking a deeper look at yourself than any university will do when putting you up against 50k other applications, you learn who you are and you know what you want to do. I find this notion to be quite absurd, I don’t see any point to applying somewhere if you don’t even know who you are per say. I know I want to go into computer science, mechanical engineering, and astrophysics, all 3 of these collectively. There may be no option to do so, but that’s what I want, and that’s what defines me.

This all connects back to me always doing what I’ve wanted to. You may look at my resume and break it down into a person who has a passion for STEM or a guy with a flair for writing, all of that comes together: my passion for programming, my ardor for engineering, my curiosity in understanding the universe, and my love for writing to make what is irrefutably a personality blend that is, me.

Summary of Reading – August ’20

Astronomy (Andrew Fraknoi et al.) – A bit too heavy at times, and way too much extra material that is exciting but definitely can’t be done in a single day or such. Got some really nice visuals and challenging quantitative problems, definitely would recommend as a free astronomy textbook available on the internet.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – I took an extraordinarily long amount of time to finish reading this book, and it is definitely one of the longest books I’ve ever read. Sammy’s arc, which started when he realised his own nature and started accepting it albeit secretly to coming to odds with the fact that everyone knew about it and living with no secrets was totally brilliant. Both Sammy and Joe started out with clear hurdles and goals. Sammy with his gender and Joe with his family. While I did find the book to be quite stretched at times, the insane amount of characterisation and growth that went into everything was quite astounding. One thing that did stand out was how Rosa waited twelve+ years for Joe to come back, which ordinarily isn’t something someone would’ve done. I think the entire committee on the investigation of comic books was portrayed to be quite antagonistic, and it was, and to me, that stood as symbolic of how systems larger than any individual tend to ignore individual motivations and escape the truth when an alternate explanation is equally plausible

Taking a look at UV-flash accompanied Type Ia Supernovae

This post is a report/summary/discussion on a research paper published by Northwestern University, and a research article published by science daily on the paper in question.

Spectacular ultraviolet flash may finally explain how white dwarfs explode

Date: July 23rd 2020

Source: Northwestern University

White dwarfs are stars that have burnt up all of the hydrogen they once used as fuel. The inward push of gravity is balanced by electron degeneracy pressure. Fusion in a white dwarf’s core produces outwards pressure, which is balanced by the inward push of gravity due to the star’s mass. A type Ia supernova occurs when a white dwarf in a binary star system goes over the Chandrashekhar limit due to accreting mass from or a  merger with its companion star. Ultraviolet radiation is produced by high temperature surfaces in space, such as the surfaces of blue supergiants.

The research article details an astronomical event wherein a type Ia supernova explosion, a relatively common phenomenon, is accompanied by a UV flash, an incredibly rare phenomenon. This is pointed out as the second observed occurrence of such an event, making it innately important and intriguing. The supernova was first observed in December, 2019, using the Zwicky Transient-Facility in California. The event was dubbed as SN2019yvq, and it occurred in a nearby galaxy that lies 140 million light years from planet Earth in the Draco constellation. 

The given figure is a light curve for the observed type Ia supernova. A light curve plots the brightness of an object against time, as to showcase how its brightness/magnitude varies with time. This technique is used in other domains and applications like transit photometry. This light curve plots the absolute magnitude of 2019yvq, the event this paper looks at. The light curve of a supernova usually reaches a peak quickly, then gradually “cools off” with lowering intensity and brightness. This is demonstrated above.

What set this particular type Ia supernova apart was the aforementioned UV flash. What makes a UV flash important in this event is that it indicates very hot material in the white dwarf. This is presumably because of the explosion heating the material which was responsible for emitting light. The study offers four potential explanations behind the event: a consumed companion star that became so large that is exploded, leading to a UV flash; radioactive core materials reacting with the outer layer to make it very hot; an outer layer of helium igniting a carbon core; and two white dwarfs colliding and exploding. Understanding how type Ia supernovae work is key to our understanding of planetary formation as they produce iron, the most abundant element in the core of planets like the Earth. More importantly, type Ia supernovae can be used as ‘standard candles’ to measure extremely large cosmic distances. White dwarfs explode with the same brightness; hence their distance from planet Earth is inversely proportional to how brightly they seem to explode as observed from the Earth.. Further dividing type Ia supernovae on the basis of UV flashes would make the use of these cosmic yardsticks more accurate. Determining distances more accurately extends to working towards bigger challenges like how can we model the universe’s expansion accurately, what is dark energy, and how much of ‘stuff’ is dark energy.

The implications of classifying type Ia supernovae further would lead to improved cosmic distance measurements, enabling insights into the nature of cosmic inflation and dark energy. Furthemore, the very act of attempting to classify type Ia supernovae with UV flashes could lead to the discovery of an entirely new astronomical event, which could catalyse a sub-domain of astronomical study. They add a more reliable and robust method of distance measurement to a gallery of techniques: radio astronomy, stellar parallax, cepheid variables, the Tully-Fisher relation etc. What type Ia supernovae add to this ‘gallery’ is the ability to measure incredibly large cosmic distances due to how bright their explosions are in absolute terms. This phenomenon offers improved accuracy over incredibly large distances. 

Another pressing question is determining whether or not type Ia supernovae with UV flashes constitute a threat to us, if say, one occurs in our galactic neighbourhood. After observing a greater number of such events, a ‘safe distance’ could be determined below which such a supernova would have a sterilizing impact on life on Earth. According to the paper, the flash is of 19th magnitude as observed from planet Earth. At a distance that is 10^6 times smaller, 140 light years, this would be 10^12 times brighter, or a magnitude of -11. 

To conclude, discovering why these UV flashes occur and what they mean for cosmic distance measurement using type Ia supernovae can provide inroads into other pressing problems, like dark matter and dark energy.

Summary of Reading – July ’20

Speaker for the Dead (Orson Scott Card) – Very beautiful and elegant. The slow pace and the depth of understanding here, along with the level of detail and complexity works well with the pace, seriousness, and action of the first book in the series. It’s great to see Card take a respite from pure action and thrill and focus a lot on world-building, which sets up the sequel to this book pretty well. It’s amazing how similar the situation set up by the ending is to the plot of the first book, an invitation for xenocide. 

I really like how the story progresses and how Card transitions the murders (apparent) of Pipo and Libo to something done for a very honourable and specific purpose. What seemed like a monstrous act was instead an event of transformation, of sending your best to the afterlife (which is very real for the piggies). It also enabled that evident and missed gap of communication that would be present between any two species, and that’s how Card made the human interpretation of Pipo’s and Libo’s deaths look horrific but then made the human interpretation itself look very biased. Personally, I thought Pipo was killed by stumbling onto one of the Piggies’ closely guarded secrets, one they would kill to protect, and that the same fate befell Libo, albeit independently. It wasn’t so, they both were killed for refusing to kill and send their brothers to their third lives (also note how important ‘third’ is now compared to what ‘third’ was at the start of the book). 

Ender’s level of control and influence is also brilliant. How he uses his skills to unravel the situation almost perfectly, and guide everyone towards a rebellion is amazing. It’s beautiful character development. Over the course of two books, Ender goes from being a compassionate killer to a wonderful father and a man who has fully redeemed himself by bringing the species he destroyed back to life and nurturing a new species so as to prevent them from the same fate the buggers met. 

It’s also quite interesting to read about the ecology on the planet. How every living thing shares a plant-animal life cycle. Raises a lot of questions about our basal assumptions for any form of alien life. 

Xenocide (Orson Scott Card) – One of the best books I’ve read so far, and that’s saying a lot. While the scientific reasoning behind many things may not be sound (anything at all regarding philotes i.e), the book more than makes up for it through world-building, action, and plot. It brings so many concepts and worldviews and beliefs together that it is just exhilarating. The concept of genetic enslavement was rather interesting to read about. The people of Path were genetically enhanced to be more intelligent than any other human being, but had a specific gene engineering inside them that led them to believe in the power of the gods and that the gods spoke to them to keep them on their path, making them slaves to Congress. I like how the plant itself is named path, and how the tampered gene is an attempt to make everyone fall onto the designated path, but as the story ends, the planet goes on to forge its own path. We also see genetic enslavement in the form of the descolada. I find the entire concept to be dictatorial and bizarre, and also worrisome as it isn’t that hard for something like that to be done irl. 

In terms of storytelling, Peter’s return might just breathe back the intense action and absorbance of the first book into the series. It was definitely a huge surprise. However, the brilliance of Peter’s return is equally matched by Novinha’s stupidity. I mean, what was Novinha even doing? Why did she become a nun? While the dependence of every single character on mysterious religious power is troubling, as any advanced future society should’ve freed itself of the shackles of religious belief by then, what’s even more disturbing is the big question: what happened to Jane? I take it she will be weakened, but what happens? The ending felt like a small calm before the storm, and I personally believe that this is great, as the next book heralds the arrival of the fleet, Peter’s bid to destroy Congress, and the end of Ender’s journey.

We are the Nerds (Christine Lagorio-Chafkin) – Not as good a read as I expected it to be, primarily because I use reddit a lot and I expected an account of its history to be based more on the product rather than the people running it or the social lives of the people running it. Before reading this book, I was expecting an account of reddit’s journey as a product, not as a business. Furthermore, the book goes off on various tangents, everything from Ohanion’s relationship with Serena Williams to Aaron Swartz and net neutrality. While I feel this may have been necessary to attract a larger audience (Aaron Swartz attracts tech-savvy people and Williams is just famous), it isn’t related to reddit whatsoever. However, there were some aspects of this book I found fascinating. One of these was Huffman’s return, which sounded quite poetic. I was surprised by how he wasn’t able to fit in and needed a counsellor/therapist. I also found the entire “spezgiving” saga to be quite childish, but it really brought out how big businessmen/women are the same people as us, and how they’re prone to the same mistakes. I also found it interesting to read about how people are targeted online and the internet’s potential to be downright toxic (seeing as I’ve encountered a very small portion of this toxicity myself), but how its countered by the internet’s ability to be wholesome, helpful, and amazing. The best example of this, in the book, was perhaps Barack Obama’s reddit AMA, or perhaps the “Mr Splashy Pants” thing. While there were some likeable facets to the book, it doesn’t really do justice to its title.

Summary of Reading (June ’20)

Rafa (Rafael Nadal) – I’ve never really been that engrossed with tennis so reading this book was an insight into a world I’ve never really been a part of, but it was fun nonetheless. Major parts of the book seemed like they were devoted to more tennis-tuned readers, given that there’s a lot on game specifics and a lot of tennis terminology that went flying over my head. I found it really insightful to read about the impact his social and mental stability had on his physical stability and his game. I especially found the sections on the the importance of family to Nadal, and how his circle of stability helps him. It was also inspiring to read about having such a concrete routine that you’re at the court of 5 am no matter what and no matter how much sleep you were able to get. He talks a lot about having a very focused mental state during the game, and filtering everything out but the game so that you have very high concentration, and I relate to that not just because I’ve played cricket in the past, but because that state of mind where nothing else can impact you and all your mind is bent on particular task is something I try to attain and do attain while programming or reading. The sections on humility are also wonderful to read, but also mildly humorous sometimes, especially the parts where he talks about how his uncle and coach, Toni, makes him perform small, irrelevant gestures like not walking in the middle of the group and not violating dress codes etc. I also enjoyed reading about Mallorca and the societal setup there, the amount of peace Nadal gets is incredibly valuable given not many athletes can afford that in the modern world, and seeing him talk about how important a factor that is is brilliant and wholly justified. This book deviated from my usual sci-fi adventures, but I enjoyed it but found the sections on describing games for long periods of time a bit too much.

The Three Body Problem (Cixin Liu) An incredible book that brings together two vastly different story-lines in a manner I am yet to see. The book starts out in mundane manner, throwing you straight into the action wherein the antagonist’s father dies, forming the motivation for an act we see quite a while later. Everything that occurs at the starts: the countdown, weird results from experiments, the universe flashing, seem to be pure sci-fi elements that the author eithers fails to or doesn’t explain. The beauty of this book lies in turning that around into something that is rational and believable. Even more so, it’s amazing to see the Three Body video game turn into something that exists in the real world. Of course, abandoning the question of how life even came to be on such a world, it’s fascinating to see alternate theories play out as to how the environment functions, and see hundreds of years of scientific progress occur in the span of a few pages. The different scenarios that play out: solar trygzys, triple sun days, chaotic eras and so on make this book incredibly fascinating. Add to that the depth to which all characters have been created; we have Wang who is oblivious to the grand scheme of things but a good man at his core, then we have Dang Shi who is oblivious to the big picture and not a man of science, but the guy who always solves the problem through his core set of principles, and lastly we have Ye, an almost psychopathic personality with a deep hatred for humankind, such that she’s effectively brought and end to it. Learning about the 3 body problem was an incredible experience for me. I also loved the author’s note about how most ideas that take off fall back to ground because of how the gravity of reality is too strong.

Delta-V (Daniel Suarez) – Very much new, and very relevant. While some of the things in the book were downright outlandish, how Suarez portrayed everything and how real he made the dangers of space travel seem to be made this book amazing to read. The candidate smelection process had a lot of time and space devoted to it, and it payed off with it being one of the best pre-climax sections I’ve personally read. In fact, I’d say some of the stuff in the entire candidate selection section was better than the rest of the book and the climax. It was really good at hooking me on. Some stuff that stood out during the candidate selection process: the high-co2 atmosphere puzzle solving event, the psychological test, and most importantly, how bonds were being formed. When the actual crew went up to hotel LEO to pursue other projects, I thought that the book was dying down, and I personally vouched for the chosen crew dying in their first attempt and the actual crew substituting for them, but what Saurez did was much better, although admittedly a bit rushed. I also couldn’t quite comprehend why a spaceship that had 14 billion dollars invested in it had a lot of software errors that made living unbearable and potentially fatal for the crew. I mean, come on, if you have 14 billion dollars, surely you can have a nice programming team as well who don’t mess their job up. The entire concept of mining was made so much better by the sample schematics attached by Saurez towards the end, they really payed off. The arrival of the Argo was also surprising, and Joyce’s downfall was also kind of expected but tragic nonetheless. The worst part of the book, in my opinion, was how the new investors treated the astroanuts. That seemed like pure fiction, rather than the rest of the book, which was genuinely believable and inspiring. This book also hammered into me the sort of challenges future astronauts can face, and the sacrifices they might have to make. It really drove the point home; space is hard.

Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card) – Pretty good read. What really held me back was the sheer outlandishness of a boy of eleven years of age leading an entire army and being representative of the Earth’s military WHILE not even realizing he was doing this. I know its purely fictional, and the story is quite impressive, but the entire notion of such a young person doing all that is beyond me. Another thing I did not understand was why Mazer Rackham didn’t lead the armies. He told Ender that he wouldn’t be alive until the date of the future battle, when instead that same battle was Ender’s training. The simple explanation for this is that Ender is better than Mazer. That being said, no matter how good Ender is, why would the authorities choose a 11 year old boy with an incredible skill set over an experienced veteran and celebrated hero? That doesn’t make any sense to me. I love the elegance in how Ender is compassionate at heart and Peter is more hurtful, but how events reverse roles, making Ender seem hurtful and Peter seem compassionate. Throughout the book, Ender’s desire to not be like Peter holds him back and dominates him, whereas Peter’s desire to be more compassionate drives him to greater heights. It’s a stunning depiction of how events in the real world can pan out, and how roles can be reversed even when characters are not. In very cliche fashion, I’m going to say that the character I bonded the most with was the main character, Ender, but only because of his tendency to look at things the way they were and not the way they were conventionally taken to be. The best example of this is how each team thought of the battleroom as horizontally aligned, but Ender was the only one who viewed it as a place where you’re going down towards your enemy and not straight, and that changed a lot. His tendency to tackle the rules is also brought out by the match against two teams, where he sends a man through the gate rather than eliminating the two teams. The ending is a bit heartbreaking, especially when Ender realizes that he didn’t just obliterate the opposite side which had its own culture and legacy, but also sacrificed soldiers on his side without knowing so, and seeing how the guilt of this plays out is fascinating.

Recursion (Blake Crouch) – A book that takes science and throws it out the front door. The reasoning that time has no linearity, and that the past, the present, and the future exist as one just makes no sense. The simplest way to gauge time is drink tea; your cup of tea cools down gradually, that’s the progression of time. However, time isn’t a thing in this book. Instead, it’s a virtual construct made by our brains to make everything much more simple. And guess what this means, you can travel back and forth, but not in time, in your memories. Now, in normal conditions, this would be time travel, but since time apparently does not exist in this book, or is as traversable as a physical dimension, this is just memory travel. The part that struck me the most was how Helena and Barry were not able to figure out how to nullify everything after the original timeline in what was about 198 years, when Slade did that on his own in just a single timeline. Both of them thought about it so much that Barry, who was a police detective in the first timeline, became an astrophysicist/quantum physicist in the second and was trying to calculate the Schwarzschild radius of a memory (what?). Both of them didn’t think about returning to the previous timeline by activating a dead memory. It’s only logicial that if you can time travel, the only way to nullify your existing timeline is to go back and cut out the event that birthed your existing timeline. Instead, Barry and Helina decided to try and find a way to remove dead memories themselves rather than the events that created those dead memories, had they decided to try and pursue the latter in 198 years, they would’ve succeeded. I also don’t get why people need to be killed to be sent back into their own timeline, or why the U-shaped building building just appeared and caused mass FMS rather than it being there forever and people getting FMS when the cut-off date finally came.

Currently Reading

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon)

The Brain (David Eagleman)

What is Intelligence?

Reading Homo Deus by Yuval Harari really made me think about some stuff. Here’s what I concluded about the nature of intelligence:

I’m going to go out on a limb and say drawing conclusions from a given amount of data can be defined as a reasonable metric for intelligence. For instance, in math classrooms the most intelligent students are those who can work through problems with ease and in the absence of exterior help. However, machines can do the same in a matter of nanoseconds. In fact, machines have already replaced humans in terms of calculation, with pocket calculators now a classroom tool and supercomputers enabling us to explore much larger numbers like the googolplex. Now, machine learning is replacing humans in the broad area of problem solving. Artificial Intelligence is being used to diagnose patients with various maladies, effectively reducing a doctor’s job from diagnosis and cure to just cure, which may be cut down even more due to the development of robotic surgery tools.

It’s safe to say machines are more intelligent than humans in the modern world. Machines are already pioneering and establishing new frontiers for humankind. From Mars, where mechanical probes are more commonplace than humans, to the Marianas Trench, where remotely piloted submarines have been before us. The advent of artificial intelligence will seal what is surely the intellectual dominion of computers over humankind. This begs a very important question, what makes us unique?

The first two candidates that come to mind are curiosity and sentience. On a side note, Octopuses display both those traits. With a separate brain in each of their eight tentacles, a camouflaging ability that puts chameleons to shame, and a profound tendency to form emotional bonds with everyone they meet and memorise them. Octopuses are to us what velociraptors were to Dr Alan Grant in Jurassic Park; thank god they dwell in the ocean and not on the surface.

Another pressing question isn’t whether or not sentience makes us unique, but whether or not it makes us weak. Machines lack emotions, most people call that a drawback, but is it? Imagine this scenario:

It’s the year 2050, and humankind has a noticeable presence on Mars, with upto ten thousand people calling themselves ‘Martians.’ A disease outbreak the likes of which have never been seen before occurs, killing every single Martian. A ship departs from Mars, bound for Earth. Now, a human gateway operator in a space station orbiting Earth has two alternatives, destroy the ship from Mars using a nuclear warhead to prevent a potential outbreak on Earth, or let it pass and risk an extinction-level event. Here’s a twist, his wife and kids are aboard the ship. This creates a situation where there’s room for doubt, which leads to potential for catastrophe, and when a few lives come in the way of all life, catastrophe does occur. Now imagine a benevolent AI operating the space station. Weighing the

lives of those aboard the ship against life on planet Earth, it would pull the trigger and hence end the risk of another outbreak.

Movies and books about future civilizations and artificial intelligence always contain fascinating plot twists where all of a sudden love emerges as the differentiator between humans and machines. Machines go haywire, and the humans win. Interstellar ends with love ‘transcending reality,’ and being the one ‘force’ that saves the entire planet from starving. Why? Because a father loved his daughter very much. Imagine an artificial intelligence program in place of Darth Vader, would it have given in to fatherly love, killed the Emperor, and ensured the victory of the light side in ​The Return of the Jedi?​

What makes machines efficient is their lack of emotional judgement. Did Curiosity, the rover, ever feel lonely on a planet from which Earth is visible as nothing more than a speck? No, it didn’t. Computers’ lack of sentience and their astounding computational and logical powers make them dominant over us.

Summary of Reading – March ’20

Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari – Scary, impactful, dire, and exciting. As Harari clearly stated towards the end, the book outlines probabilities and not prophecies for the future, but each advancement in technology and each step forward in dataism he predicts bifurcates into multiple, significant impacts on us, humankind. The book pens down paths towards everything from extinction events akin to humans wiping out animal populations, to a downfall of liberalism and a completely deskilled society. Being a practitioner of data science, Harari’s message was something that just didn’t have deep implications, but also seemed real enough to be taken seriously. Another thing that stood out for me is Harari’s explanation of capitalism as a distributed data processing system, and how no single person knows the great machine works, but the great machine keeps on working; how politicians are genuinely oblivious to the working of their nations, because the working of their nation is dependant on how everything falls together and how social forces interact. I compared this to the Foundation Saga as well, where individuals play no role in the greater scheme of things, but what Harari predicts is of a much larger magnitude: humans will play no role at all.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson – Worth a read. I had a decent idea about the stuff Tyson talks about in this book beforehand, but that didn’t prevent it from being enjoyable. I especially loved the descriptions of various elements in the cosmic sense: where they came from and their role within the universe. His entire commentary on dark matter and dark energy was also catching, especially how the effect of both counter-acts Einstein’s cosmological constant, which I’ve never heard of before. I especially remember Tyson pointing out how Einstein’s greatest blunder wasn’t the cosmological constant, but instead labelling the cosmological constant as his greatest blunder. He doesn’t betray the purpose of his book, delivering the wonder of the cosmos to all audiences, which is unique given how most books of the non-fiction, science genre pretend to be easy to grasp for anyone at all but end up being warped and confusing for most.

Summary of Reading – February ’20

Talking to Strangers; Malcolm Gladwell – I think Gladwell set the bar too high with Outliers and David and Goliath. Don’t get me wrong, talking to strangers is a wonderful book but it’s in no way as impactful or as relatable as the two aforementioned books. What made outliers stand out is that it resonated with our desire to succeed and be the outlier in a group of people. What made David and Goliath stand out is the simple fact that everyone has faced a ‘Goliath’ per say at some point in their lives. Gladwell’s primary point over the course of the book is that we really don’t know how to talk to strangers, and while that is elaborated on, the book just isn’t as good as outliers. I think this is a textbook case of an author trying to unsuccessfully grow out of his own shadow. Regarding the book itself, it’s definitely an interesting read. The main lesson I took away from it is that I shouldn’t default to truth and trust everyone I talk to on face value, but also shouldn’t assume everyone is something they don’t appear to be. There’s a broad grey area in there, that’s where I should operate socially. Also, another thing I took away is that jumping to conclusions on what is clearly insufficient data isn’t really comprehensive, and mowing down on it will be helpful.

Origin; Dan Brown – The ending destroys the entire book. Brown spends the entire book building up to a huge scientific discovery, over which people have been killed and monarchs have been allegated, but throws all that tension and suspense down the drain with a discovery that fails to honor the time and effort that went into making it look exciting. Brown tries to balance science, religion, and technology, yet fails miserably. The twist at the end that Winston conducted and oversaw everything, especially the assassination of his creator, is pretty harrowing and way more impactful than the premise of the book itself. I also loved Kirsch’s character, everything from how he collected his old PCs to his Tesla publicity stunts and his pure attention-grabbing nature (relatable). Also, the king’s secret, a.k.a, his gay relationship with the bishop seemed like a complete publicity stunt to me, totally redundant and added nothing at all to the story. Seemed like an attempt at creating something that was barely marketable.

Artemis; Andy Weir – Definitely had the same level of complexity as The Martian, but fails to be as impactful. Really suffered from the protagonist giving too many personal anecdotes, which either came off as either funny or jargon. Also suffered from doing stuff that was either over-explained, or totally unnecessary. Artemis is a continuation of that long tradition of authors not being able to grow out of the shadow of their best-sellers. On the other hand, I loved the setting, and the attention to detail when it came to depicting Artemis. That entire union between a purely sci-fi world and the politics that dominates everyday life on modern day planet Earth is beautiful. The effort that goes into preventing Artemis from being entangled into the web that is crime syndicates and gang wars is also commendable.

Ready Player One; Ernest Cline – Hands down one of the best books I’ve ever read. The pure geekiness, the thrill of playing the game, and all that energy throughout the book are contagious. Every little detail, from Parzival’s X-Wing to countless DnD references. The story, in itself, is quite a rollercoaster. Cline takes the simplicity of solving a series of challenges and applies it to an endless virtual world that is the largest economic asset in reality. Countless planets, endless possibilities; everything from playing your way through movies as the lead character, to programming decades-old computers. There’s a subtle commentary, through the inclusion of the IOI, on how excessive regulation and order (being told what to do the entire time) is deplorable, and doing things for the fun of it is many times more rewarding. Definitely the type of book that can get someone hooked onto programming to a greater extent, and heaven for gamers. It played on my inner tech-savvy personality.

Summary of Reading – Dec’19/Jan ’20

A Century is Not Enough (Sourav Ganguly) – Focused primarily on Ganguly’s fighting spirit during his toughest times, and how he got himself to bounce back no matter how low the odds seemed to be. While we do get an interesting snapshot of his cricketing journey, it definitely would’ve been much more exciting had he spent more words on the IPL, or about his life before representing India. What the book conveys, in my opinion, is don’t give up no matter how much you’ve already done, don’t take your position for granted. On a general basis, not that good a book because it focuses solely on the mental aspects of Ganguly’s game, and has sparsely located personal anecdotes and experiences.

Prelude to Foundation (Isaac Asimov) – A step as compared to Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth. What I took away from the initial stages of the book was the contrast between what psychohistory is in the main trilogy, and how unsure Seldon is of it in the book. Really just showed no matter how improbably or irrelevant something seems at the start, its potential really can’t be measured. The different cultures/societies introduced was also fascinating, especially Dahl. What made Dahl stand out, for me, was just how close equality seemed to be, but the irony involved with Dahlites both wanting equality with other sectors across Trantor, and having factions/ranks within their own societal order (no heatsinkers in the house etc.). The ending was also pretty awesome, especially with Hummin being revealed as Demerzel, but then being revealed as Daneel (robot) who was implementing the zeroth law of robotics the entire time. That part where Daneel reveals who also has another plan he doesn’t want Seldon to know about is also pretty telling, with him obviously referring to Gaia. Really served as the sort of reference that made everything much more connected to the later books (chronological).

The Culture Code (Daniel Coyle) – Not that bad, but not excessively good either. The monotone style of writing made reading the book a tad hard (although a short length rescued it). It was interesting reading about how having techniques that promoted open-mindedness in the form of having the ability to question anything, even the management, was pretty interesting. Some parts were inspirational, not that good a read but still worthy trying, especially if you’re taking a shot at being an effective leader.

Forward the Foundation (Isaac Asimov) – Nearly not as good as Prelude to Foundation. I hated how lonely Seldon became at the end. Plus, I’m not a huge fan of Dors being a robot from the very start. How Seldon’s love “made her human” was pretty emotional, but that reveal was way too forged. Also didn’t like Raych and family moving away, and then Seldon sending Wanda away for her own good. Huge difference between the Seldon here, and the Seldon portrayed in the original Foundation book. Also wanted a closer look at Gaal Dormick. I think the Foundation Saga would’ve been decisively better without the two prequel books, they seem like dead weight to me.

Taking a Look at the Entire Foundation Saga

I finished reading Asimov’s Foundation Saga yesterday, and truth is, it has blown my mind. The sheer number of characters, worlds, plot-lines, and events dotted throughout the entire saga is insane. Science fiction doesn’t get any better than this.

Having a story that spans over half a millennium inadvertently led to tons of characters being introduced and cast away. I think what really stood out for me here is that the individual really is powerless, and effectively irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. What one person does can’t ever impact what larger social and economic forces will eventually do. The best example here is the collapse of the empire’s effort to encircle and besiege the Foundation, regardless of the main characters of the time who tried to play their parts as heroes but later realized they have no position within Seldon’s timeline.

I really wanted Asimov to dive deeper into how psychohistory works. We really don’t know anything, apart from the fact that the prime radiant is the single most important tool available to the Second Foundation, and that it’s a predictive science. The only semblance of ‘work’ we have is people like Yugo Amaryl and Seldon staying locked in their offices almost the entire time (with the story detailing what happens when they’re not working). Another thing that I really didn’t get was the contrast between the Trantor we see at the start of the first Foundation book, and the Trantor we see at the end of the second prequel series book. Foundation started off with depicting Trantor as this colossal metallic world, technologically advanced and densely populated with vibrant civilians. However, the Trantor we see at the end of Forward the Foundation is a bleak, dull world with no semblance of life. A world stumbling in its own steps. In fact, the entire premise of the first book was that the glory of Trantor would be tarnished with time and large forces, but the second prequel presents an already worn out Trantor. Lastly, I really don’t see how the empire’s “slow” disintegration into barbarism takes place over a single lifetime. While the Foundation grows strong over hundreds of years, the entire galactic empire splits apart within a maximum of fifty years. Weird.

However, the entire saga clearly had its highs. I absolutely loved Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. Here are some of my favorite moments from the entire saga:

  1. Bayta Darell shoots Ebling Mis/Reveals the Mule’s identity – Maybe the most well-executed twist I’ve ever seen in writing. Executed to perfection, such that every single event that occurred before seemed to fall into place and conform to this obvious pattern everyone missed. What struck me even more was the Mule leaving Bayta free of being manipulated by his psychic powers simply because she was the first person in his life who genuinely showed caring for him. Powerful. I think what Asimov meant to convey here was that emotions can play a huge role too in any story. Succeeded to some extent.
  2. The Mule finally conquers Terminus – I really adore the twist that comes with Seldon’s recording being not even remotely close to what’s actually happening. It’s utterly shocking, and after two books which kept Seldon and his psychohistory as the bedrock of the entire story, pretty impactful too. Really just conveys the gravity of the situation, and how big a threat the Mule is.
  3. Seldon’s hearing – Seldon vs Trantor, or rather the Empire is entertaining. It’s a classic play on those science versus politics debates we still have today. Seldon’s assertion of how “Scientific Truth is beyond loyalty or disloyalty” is also pretty chilling.
  4. The Mule’s showdown with the Second Foundation – I enjoyed this entire scene just for the thrill it provided. Psychic powers versus psychic powers was pretty eventful. Really caught my attention. Every person trying to double cross the other and control the situation as per his plan, and every single move turning out to be part in a different person’s setup, so much so that even the reader didn’t know who was who until the Mule was defeated. However, I was a bit shocked by how the Second Foundation sacrificed the people of an entire planet just to defeat the Mule.
  5. The Second Foundation’s location is revealed – I think this is the zenith of the entire saga. Everything really just falls down from here. At this point, everyone is wondering whether the Second Foundation is located at Terminus, Trantor, or another obscure world in an infinitesimally large galaxy. I sort of spoiled it for myself by flipping through the first book, and realizing how Seldon told Gaal Dornick that some would stay behind for another purpose. The part of this entire reveal that really struck me wasn’t the reveal itself, but how Trantor is the place where the “Stars end,” which is quite poetic and somewhat stunning. Brought out some nostalgia as well.
  6. Salvor Hardin subdues Anacreon – Liked this thing simply because of the way Hardin brought an entire empire to its knees using the wonder of science, or rather the dependency of an entire empire on it. A bit like Rick bringing down the value of the galactic currency to null.
  7. Foundation’s Ending – The dialogue about the sun and spear was brilliant. Really put the notion of this ant that the Foundation was at the point facing the mammoth that was the empire, set the tone perfectly for the second book in the series (admittedly this drops off a bit at the start of the second book). I view this entire thing as a giant octopus unfurling its tentacles.

What I loved about the saga was the fact that it explored nearly every facet of human existence, and the sheer quality of science fiction it had. Countless characters; degrading and improving technology; falling and rising galactic empires.