How to Consume Science, #1

Talking about Science makes you seem cool and authoritative in most circles. That’s problematic, because what’s revered is seldom questioned. And what’s seldom questioned doesn’t have to be clearly understood. What’s not understood gradually becomes inaccessible.

Fields and industries that hope to benefit from cross-domain application of scientific ideas/techniques wouldn’t want these concepts to become inaccessible or obscure. One way out of this problem could be to consume science the way any idea should be consumed: with doubt.

But. We don’t usually talk about why facts need to be doubted. Schools and textbooks explain theories, but don’t usually talk about the nature of human knowledge. It’s possible to spend years practicing science, without ever regarding it as just another set of tools that can be used to build a model of reality.

And science is just that: an academic domain with its own limitations and fallibility. Science is made by people. Anything that’s made by humans is a social construct, and will therefore be one of many ways of interpreting what we observe. A very reliable one, sure. But always error-prone and with its own limits.

Now. If it has limits, we should know what they are if we are to use the scientific method to our advantage.

So. Before we try to design scientific business experiments, let’s talk about science: what is it anyway, and what should we remember while consuming it?

I. Science exists in the right now

Scientific truth is subject to change over the course of history. Whatever is scientified “truth” right now isn’t necessarily real, or may not remain “true” for very long.

Debunkings, discoveries, and paradigm shifts have always altered our perception of reality. We believe something to be absolutely true, and then someone goes ahead and proves it wrong. What we know to be true keeps changing with time.

Science is about being as objective as we possibly can in this moment. It’s about finding answers that serve us best in the right now. And then hope that future findings won’t deviate much from these current truths.

II. Science is a social construct

Scientists work with tools that are of human origin:

  1. Words come from human languages, all of which are inherently biased and burdened with history.
  2. Mathematical tools are also made by people, but all of the talk about their being right + rational makes it easy to misread math. We often assume a particular way of regarding a thing as the way of regarding it.
  3. Scientific models are often informed by ideas/schemas of their time. Because when you’re out to describe or explain something, you’ll draw upon the concepts you’re already familiar with.

Science seems to explain an external objective reality, which lies outside the realm of human bias & perception. But because it is made by people, and because people have no access to an objective reality (if such a thing even exists), all that science can really give us is this: a deeply subjective narrative of the universe & everything in it.

How to Read a Book, #1

As with most things in life, it helps to get practicalities out of the way first.


I visited my parents recently, and spent the afternoons browsing my library. While the old books brought great comfort, the reunion left me wondering if I’ve been treating books well at all these past few years.

As a child, I used to keep books in pristine condition, going as far as to wrap the most loved ones in clear plastic. There was never a stray mark or a stain or a dog-ear in sight.

My years of training to be a physicist changed everything. Suddenly, important formulae had to be readily accessible, and the most valuable bits of information had to jump out of a page at first glance. Over the years, I came to highlight, underline, and record marginalia with reckless abandon. And, slowly, books from across genres came to be treated that way.


Onwards to scattered thoughts on the matter of highlighting — or taking notes — while reading, and how that informs the (re)reading experience.

Does it help retain information better? Does it make texts look less beautiful/appealing? Does it pollute the reading experience? Does it introduce an inescapable bias into every subsequent reading?

The advantages seem too significant to be ignored:

  1. Desecration as GPS
    I find that notes and highlighted text help me locate specific sentences in physical books faster and with increased efficiency. When it comes to books that have deeply influenced me, I tend to remember the general position of what I’m looking for — how far into the book it is, and if I should be scanning the left or the right side — but landmarks always make locating things easier. I have no spatial memory of words read on-screen, so this benefit remains confined to the analogue world. (Not that this could beat digital search anyway.) 
  2. Build a Time Machine (Or: Taint Today, Soil Tomorrow)
    Note-taking allows access to historical opinions/selves that I may have forgotten about, and helps me trace my own evolution. Books record the exact context in which thoughts were formed: right alongside the writer’s original words. In doing so, I find that physical books aid superior recall of historical thoughts by maintaining close resemblance to their birth environment. The act of holding an old book again, reading half-remembered print, looking at my own handwriting, and inhaling an aged version of a familiar scent transports me to a historical state of mind like no journal ever could. Context could also be captured in a journal, of course, but not in such great depth, or with such accuracy and precision. It’s difficult to find a satisfactory substitute for the familiar tactile/visual/olfactory stimuli that a physical book offers.

And then there’s the dark side of defiling texts:

  1. Mark = Bias (Or: Memory is fallible, as is note-taking)
    When rereading a book that I remember almost nothing about, foreign marks distract and even take away from the rereading experience. I find that their visual weight guides the eye towards highlighted bits, and negatively impacts the consumption of surrounding information. This makes it very difficult to remain unbiased, even in the absence of any recollection of the material being consumed. Reading sullied text becomes an act of consuming censored broadcast, in that only a few words are let through and the voice of my past self (or another reader) drowns out the writer’s.

Right. More later.




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On Technology & Human Subjectivity

I have begun to think about technology with due suspicion. Increasingly, technological development seems to do with the idea of producing, altering, or marketing human subjectivity.

Human subjectivity is being outpaced by technological advancement at a steadily increasing pace. Most of us don’t have a healthy relationship with our immediate world. The very goal of my devices seems to be to abstract me from my surroundings.

One seemingly irreversible change that bothers me a lot is the way seeing is giving way to recording. It’s an unfortunate example of the internal being brought to the sphere of the external, and of experience being reduced to its announcement.

The response cannot be Luddite rejection, of course. Not anymore — modern technology is too deeply integrated with our lives. We have to keep up, but we also have to think about technology with due suspicion. This wide-eyed celebration of convenience, efficiency and innovation just won’t do.

On the Representation of Human Relationships in Literature


Most of the books I’ve read in the past few years placed a heavy focus on romance and love. Even the ones that didn’t deal with these themes explicitly had subtexts that had to do with them. Now this isn’t to say they weren’t tolerable, — some of these books happen to be my favourites — but I wish so many books (even films and songs, for that matter) weren’t so obsessed with love. There are many other kinds of human relationships that we could explore instead.

One problem I have with a lot of books about romance and love is that they seldom scratch past the surface of a certain experience to talk about something bigger, or at least signal such a move. Few even care to wonder about the possibility of such transcendence. They’re mostly content with appealing to a reader’s sympathy/desire/joy and, in doing so, rely wholly on the process of self-identification of the reader with the narrative. As readers we, too, have come to internalise that.

And love sells, of course, — even I know that — but I’m thinking about this purely from an ideological/principled point of view; the economics of it is largely immaterial to me. Moreover, it’s never a one-way traffic when it comes to art: the concept of “what sells” is shaped as much by the (expectation of the) audience as by the creators/distributors of artistic production.


The most obvious solution is to pick the books I read more carefully. but, as an aspiring writer, I must also try to do what little I can to correct this imbalance.

So, for months I’d been looking for a more interesting dynamic to examine, — something that doesn’t have such a huge, pervasive, constricting cultural myth built around it as romantic love does — and now a brief conversation on Facebook has presented me with an answer. I am going to spend the next few years of my life exploring our relationships with things (esp. technology), animals, ideas, and places instead — in short, our relationship with the inanimate/abstract/nonhuman.

This isn’t just about rejecting trends but also about trying to understand the underlying assumptions/principles that inform them. To reject these trends properly, I will have to first understand what it is I’m rejecting. Familiarising myself with these assumptions/principles can also inform my perspective in a different way, — intent does matter, after all — and that’s what I need to start working on.

On Scientific Research

While talking to a friend about breakthroughs in science, I told myself to record what I said to him. So: a brief note, because I often find myself telling people this same thing: most scientific research is incremental in nature.

Science, in all its self-corrective glory, is a collective enterprise. Scientists build upon existing work, — instead of creating a new framework from scratch each time — in the hopes of finding yet another missing piece of the puzzle that the community labours to solve collectively. Disproportionate glory is often bestowed on the ones that find the last (or the first) missing piece of a puzzle but it does little to change that science is, above all, a collective enterprise. Scientific revolutions are rare and major breakthroughs depend on the body of knowledge available to you. You have to be working on the right problem at the right place at the right time with enough funding/resources/genius at your disposal to create a tectonic shift.