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What is Nature

LIVING WITH NATURE IN MODERN FORM - MISSION FOR THE TWENTYFIRST CENTURY

What is Nature

Article - 60

After Arulchelvar Dr. N Mahalingam had given me the unique opportunity of sharing my ideas with the readers of the Kisan World on topics close to his heart (and mine as well), it is now five years with the appearance of this article. Each article was a challenge for me. I need to read a lot, revisit many articles and books I had read before, as well as find latest updates of data and new information. Wikipedia was of great help; in addition I get many forwards from my professional friends.

Then is the challenge to compress my ideas with relatively simple language as the write up spans several specialist areas like science, technology, engineering, economics, sociology, government policies world over and India, procedures as well as softer aspects of popular perceptions. In the process, I learnt a lot.

I am also happy that the first 29 articles in the series came out as a book “Mission for the 21st Century in the Modern World” published by Ocean Publications, New Delhi during 2014. It is available through Amazon, Flipkart and other such e-traders. I had the good fortune of presenting a few copies to Arulchelvar. In addition a number of these articles in Kisan World are placed in my website after publication with a brief comment in the centre flash of the home page. Thus I am able to contribute my small mite to the “institution” of Kisan World. Arulchelvar had shared with me a number of ideas to make Kisan World a famous publication sought after in the world like some of the prestigious monthly/fortnightly publications on economics from abroad. He could not initiate certain steps due to his later ill health. I hope it will happen soon within a decade.

In this article I desire to explore and find some answers for the question “What is Nature?”

POPULAR VIEWS ABOUT NATURE

If one asks many persons as to what they consider as Nature, many different answers will be available. Invariably most people will associate Nature with lots of green vegetation, even vast tracts of green agricultural fields, green well maintained lawns in parks and houses forests, etc... Some other examples:

  • Nice clean sea-coasts
  • Green hillocks and mountains
  • Huge clean lakes
  • Nice cool weather with breeze

As against it, they will consider many modern high rise constructions, industrial and public areas etc... (even if they are well maintained) to be “against Nature”. But most of them live there; earn their income; and enjoy many goodies of modern life. Many who have not stayed in villages will consider rural life to be very close to nature, though many who live there suffer from uncertain incomes and resultant difficulties of life. Many of them cannot even access a doctor or a medical shop, when they get severe cough, fever or other gastrointestinal disorders, let alone complicated ailments.

Similarly there are views of a number of educated urban persons about the lives of forest dwelling tribal groups. They are close to Nature, but in reality their lives are very tough. The late Union Minister of State for Science and Technology, Shri Bachi Singh Rawat who hails from Uttarakhand, had pointed out to me many real life problems of people living there, so that we from TIFAC (Technology Information and Forecasting Council) could find some practical solutions to improve their lives. One such item led to the Mobile Diagnostic Clinic which was launched during 2002 and is operational even now. Others have followed it. There are a few other unfinished tasks as well, as the engineering strengths of our institutions and industry are poor. Many experts who came with teams to define projects used to praise the beauty of Uttarakhand and would say how well the description of it as Devabhumi (abode of Gods) fits. He used to tell them, “Thanks. people who come from outside and live for a week or two would really fall in love with it. But most of the ordinary people of the State of Uttarakhand, it is not a Devabhumi! Their day-to-day life is tough right from getting water, to sell vegetables, to almost everything. Just admiring Nature cannot solve their problems; they cannot have a decent income even after very hard work all round the year. Most young men have to go Delhi and rest of India to earn some living and send back home, some savings. Here life is tough and can you S&T persons find solutions?” We from TIFAC made some good contributions. But, in general, the focus of S&T community is different due to the policies of funding as well as due to the existing promotional procedures which emphasizes papers and citation and recognition of S&T personnel.

In theory, scientists explore Nature! Their concepts of Nature are different, within their own community, and also from popular perception. But scientists and technologists in their personal lives hold many different views about Nature as described above, like many others who are not trained in science. Even bright young students mostly look at Nature in popular terms. They like to go for slogans like “plant a tree and save the earth”. Most of them think that their duty ends there. About 15 years ago, I had an excellent interactive session with bright students who had won various awards; they were in 10+ (11and 12) and from some of the best schools in Delhi. I was to talk to them (introduce them to the TIFAC’s work of Vision 2020) and our book which had got published by then.

I intertwine my talks with suggestions that will be useful for those in the audience. Also put questions to them. In such an interaction, I asked them as to what profession they would like to choose. Almost all of them said “IT”! Of course that was the period of IT wave: TCS, WIPRO, Infosys making waves with well paid jobs and a whole set of auto industry growing around their employees. Then many goodies of life; house hold appliances; mobiles had started coming; telephones available more easily; a large number of TV channels, so much so that it was the beginning of “India Shining” slogan. Also slogans that India can forget sunset manufacturing industries and directly transition into a service sector led knowledge economy.

I asked them why? Most of them said that IT is the most environmentally clean sector; clean office spaces; nice air conditioned rooms; and excellent work place environment. Then I elaborated how an IT sector is made of. What about the computers which have so many electronics components, all them made in foundries, the frame of the computers, key boards etc., made of various high density plastics? The fibre cables running many kilometers made from a high energy intense process etc... etc... They all have to be manufactured; not all of them can be done in the nice office “environment” of a software IT company. Then what about transport of all these equipment, cables etc... from different parts of the world to different designations of India? They are made of conventional transport equipment: lorries (trucks) , rails, ships and planes. And above all many of the chemicals inside the PC’s they use are poisonous as also the chemicals in TV tubes.

They have not thought of these. But they were clear that they did not what to dirty their hands nor sweat outside an air-conditioned room. When I asked them why they don’t even mention agriculture, their facial expression was clear! I told them why not at least get into biotechnology related to agriculture, which they can do most of the time in nice air-conditioned rooms! Again “NO”! I am sure many of them would say that they love “Nature” . But for them it is nice clean sanitized areas of living, working, shopping, entertaining etc... They would want air conditioned cars or buses to travel; or go by air.

There are other set of persons who dabble with alternate medicines, organic foods etc... They think that is natural. Many of those who eat organic foods at a very high cost (they can afford!) use various other chemicals in their houses to clean and also to beautify themselves. (cosmetics, perfumes, mouth freshners etc...)

Thus there is a wide variety of understanding of what Nature is.

LAWS OF NATURE

What about laws of Nature? Most persons will leave it to Newton or Einstein! Or to ‘scientists’! Most of the enjoyments of modern life come from understanding how Nature operates: be it in agriculture for better yields; better quality or many other manufactured goods or health care related equipment, medicines etc..; even the invention of agriculture some 15000 years ago came about by keen observation of natural phenomena by our ancestors and application of the experiential knowledge around their habitats. So were early tools and medicines. Later the human “creation” (or invention) of several cross-breeds and domesticated animals, birds and plants were through human manipulation which was based on understanding how Nature works. Much of what we use in modern life be it rice, brinjal etc... or our pets are all such creations by human beings through cross-breeding.

The only difference of modern scientific and technological methods is their rapid expansion during the late 19th and during 20th centuries. Human knowledge about Nature grew exponentially. Spread of applications of S&T knowledge to “create” new products and processes became a major activity.

In a remarkable book “Physics of the Future, The inventions that will transform our lives” by Michio Kaku, Penguin Books (2012), says the following in the introduction to the book.

“Today, if we could somehow visit our ancient ancestors and show them the bounty of modern science and technology, we would be viewed as magicians. With the wizardy of science, we could show them jet planes that can soar in the clouds, rockets that can explore moon and planets, MRI scanners that can peer inside a living body, and cell phones that can put us in touch with any one in the planet. If we showed them laptop computer that can send moving images and messages instantly across the continents, they would view this as sorcery”. This will be so even for our ancestors from 17th century.

He adds in the next para “but this is just a beginning. Science is not static. Science is exploding exponentially all around us. Innovation and discovery are changing the entire economic, political and social landscape, overturning all the old cherished beliefs and prejudices”.

All these are possible because of the deep understanding of the laws of Nature by human beings, not just a few great icons like Newton, Einsteen or Darwin or Watson but humanity as a whole, with a large number of persons devoting full time to research on Nature (i.e. Science). In addition much larger number of practitioners like engineers, medical doctors, chemists, bio technologists etc... create products with their knowledge of Nature. Scientists often find out how such products come about; and in that process the more the humanity knows about Nature. It is this intertwined process of exploration of Nature / practice of using Natural Laws into actual products, has created the modern human society. Even the dynamics of such societies have some natural laws, which are discovered by social scientists like economists, psychologists, sociologists etc...

THE NEGATIVE SIDES

The scientists (theoretical and practical explorers of Nature) and the practitioners (engineers, medical persons etc...) are not just content with making discoveries and creating new products. With large scale application of the discoveries / inventions / innovations they also come to know about the negative side of the new applications, which could not be detected in the early stages, as they would not have enough statistical samples in actual situations to come to definitive conclusions. It is not just a hit and try. The very successes of science, engineering, medical applications etc... give new levels of capabilities to human beings.

The scientists, technologists and practitioners based on scientific method are not afraid of critiquing their own discoveries / inventions. They are not afraid of making their products obsolete! In fact that is the very methodology of scientific / technological / engineering / modern medical etc... enterprise! Understanding the details about environmental pollution, toxic side-effects of medicines or food supplements etc... are all the results of tireless work of scientists, technologists, various other practitioners and researchers. So much so most one of the recent modern technologies called Nano technology has specialized branch called Nanotoxicology.

Nature has with it both beneficial and non-beneficial aspects. Understanding natural laws can maximise beneficial aspects and minimise non-beneficial aspects. But there can be no a priori knowledge of what is good and what is bad, beyond certain limits. There has to be theory (not always perfect), experiment and actual empirical data. These require better measurements, which can detect defects in terms of a few parts per a million (ppm). Six sigma processes are of this type. If readers had followed Maggie Noodle case, the issues involved are in ppm. Such measurements were not possible say 50 years ago; now they are common place. Hence, the specifications of quality level keep changing.

DDT was a great saviour before for the whole of humanity, now considered hazardous because we now have measurements in terms of ppm which links it to hazards at the molecular levels to be declared as carcinogenic. Imagine if DDT was never used at all by the humanity, it won’t be 7 billion population as it is now. It would be staggering under one billion as it was during the beginning of the 20th century.

PROCESSES OF UNDERSTANDING NATURE

Nature does not lay before us all its laws; all its dimensions. The human beings have to struggle to understand nature. One should also remember that the Nature has no special “treatment” for the human beings, though in the evolutionary process of nature, human beings have acquired a special status now to the extent that they can manipulate the Nature with its own laws to their advantage. But they may get beaten up in the game, sometimes.

“Mother Nature appreciates the power of the exponential. A single virus can hijack a human cell and force it to create several hundred copies of itself. Growing by a factor of 100 in each generation, one virus can generate 10 billion viruses in just in five generations. No wonder a single virus can infect the human body, with trillions of healthy cells, and give you a cold in just a week or so.”

Nature is neutral to its creations. In that sense there is continual competition between many living beings in the biosphere. Human species is a part of it. Even the inanimate things have their roles. It is the atmospheric envelope that protects the lives on earth from the terrible cosmic radiation and harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun, the energy giver to the earth. A tilt of about 23 degree (inclination) to its own orbit around the sun gives us seasons. Thus the earth has several weather systems: winter, summer, etc... for both its hemispheres thus making most of its geographic land areas livable; so much of oceans are possible. Therefore the water vapor from them are available to the land area of the earth, so crucial for vegetation and to sustain life. That is the reason why space explorers look for water in other planetary bodies like moon and asteroids and in the planets.

There have been periods in earth’s long history, when it had gotten very cold, leading to the death of many species. It is estimated that about 95% the species which had evolved on the earth (since the first life appeared) have been wiped out. What is remaining is only 5%. Incidentally human beings were not the cause of extinction of all of these 95% species. They were due to several different natural phenomena. (Recall an earlier article Nature’s Perils.) Scientists continue their researches on them as well; recently even a new human-like species unknown earlier, Homo Nadelia, in South Africa has been found. Thus the scientific knowledge about our past, be it in biology, anthropology or even in history keep changing with new findings and with new tools of measurement. For example carbon dating, is a useful tool to determine the past more accurately. Also many computer processing methods are useful in deciphering scripts and reconstructing old images.

Since advances in science, technology, engineering, medicine, mathematics, life sciences, weather sciences and even social sciences are at an extremely fast pace, we also notice that within a generation, many new knowledge bases and new findings come in. Thus we find that what we had taken for granted as the “final” scientific findings during our school / college days, are changed during our working phase and sometimes totally changed when we grow older. So also with engineering products. I grew up in my child hood and even in college days without ever using telephone (let alone seeing TV). The fastest communication was telegraph. Since it was costly people had mastered the art of reducing words! Now volumes of text and imageries, audio, TV etc, are sent through internet, almost free of cost. (Of course we invest on PC’s or lap tops and broad band telephone connection!) I can cite about thousand such examples from my life starting from mid 1940’s These are due to the very processes of the science and technology and not due to any short fall of those who discovered or invented earlier. Such a statement applies to even findings such as assigning very bad health issues (cholesterol linkages) to yellow yolk of the egg; now doctors are giving it a clean chit (with medical / nutritional recommendations that one can consume upto 5 eggs with yellow yolk daily!)

I have explained the processes of “Science, Engineering, Industry and Markets”, in an invited paper with that title which has appeared in the Journal of Aerospace Sciences and Technologies, May 2014, with that title. It has copious quotes giving a number of examples.

Thus we should be satisfied with the fact that humanity collectively (not individually) has excellent capabilities to understand various processes of Nature, and use them to our advantage. But it is not a mastery over Nature, as it keeps on throwing up new challenges, as we learn more and as we use our knowledge more and more!

I had also expressed these findings, in a poetic form which has appeared in an international book as an initial epigram. It has been later printed in my collection of poems called “Ode to the Earthworm” published by Thamarai Publications (P) Limited, Chennai. (You can google yasurajankavithaigal to get the book in pdf form.) I am reproducing the poem below:

Science of Life
Pollens of flower, sperms of animals
Coded with messages internal
Busy in the acts of creation
Millions perish in action
The few successes are the great Creations!
Also succeed microbes many
Which disrupt the inner harmony
Of organisms big and mighty!
Bodies, anti bodies, biochemical wars
Evolutionary wisdom of immune systems
Nature’s beauty opens one petal
For the researcher with the knowledge tool
Trillions more waiting to be seen

(29-04-2006)

SPECIALIST VIEWS

What we had addressed in the earlier section is about the overall methods of science or scientific processes of understanding Nature. This process had many successes in the past and continues to do so even in terms of applying the knowledge for practical aspects of betterment of human life and society. We had also pointed out its limitation. We will have a quick view as to how some of the super specialists under the over all umbrella of science, engineering etc... such as physics, biology etc... view nature. Micro view of life scientist about Nature would be different from that of theoretical physicist and so on. If one asks a question as to what is software: Is it Nature or part of Nature, there would be different and difficult answers. For lay persons (even amongst scientists who only deal with their own narrow aspects of research and do excellent papers in that field) software would be a part of natural phenomena unearthed by “Computer Science” and used effectively as IT (engineering). Some may consider it as application of mathematics.

See some quotes from the Professor S N Mitra Memorial Award Lecture 2014 “Role of Formal Modelling in Building Robust Software System” by R K Shyamasunddar, which had appeared in print “Annals of the Indian Academy of Engineering” Vol. XII April 2015.

“The concept of computation existed long before the invention of computers. The notion of computing emerged through the pioneering formalization of the notion of algorithm (or automatic computation) in a variety of ways by a Church, Alan Turing, Emil Post and AA Markov. In 1968, Herbert A Simon argued that certain phenomena artificial in the sense “they are as they are only because of a system molded by goals and purposes to the environment in which it lives. If natural phenomena have an air of necessity about them in their subservience to natural law, artificial phenomena have an air of contingency in their malleability by environment”. The contingency of artificial phenomena created doubts as to whether they fall properly within the compass of science. It is relevant to quote Richard Feynman (1983) who says “Computer Science differs from physics in that it is not actually a science. It does not study natural objects. Neither is mathematics. It is like engineering about getting to do something, rather than..............” “..............computing being a science of the artificial holds the property that like mathematical structures the theory cannot be challenged by the theory of experiments...”

It can be seen the modern world of products and processes and various services resulting from them are so complex to understand, let alone comprehend. Still there are methods of sciences, engineering, medicine, software, mathematics etc... which are successfully used for certain applications. Even the climate change predictions are mostly based on various mathematical models with a few data from the past and present. They have to stand the “the results of actual experiments” of the future.

When one gets into various theories of universe(s) and evolution of universes, it is mind boggling. So are various researches to understand origin(s) of life in universe. The emerging neurosciences are likely to upset many of our convenient assumptions about human beings, their behavior (good and bad), the psychology etc...

OTHER MODES

I have not touched upon other aspects (outside the scientific methods) of understanding Nature from the early beginnings of human society, art, music, religion, spiritual practices and other occult methods. My familiarity with them is limited. However it should be pointed out that the dominant mode of understanding Nature and utilizing that knowledge / skills for human benefits appear to be with scientific methods, though there are some criticisms about its reductionist approach. We may have to see how other “holistic” methods are applied / used for a large sectors of humanity.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

We have attempted to describe Nature as it is understood in the beginning of 21st century, basically using the scientific methods as the norm. The limitations are also pointed out; but other options do not seem to exist. Nature unfolds itself to us (humans) through complex processes; it also seems to be very amenable to be expressed in mathematical formulas. Hypothesis making - exploring - experimenting - theorising - be ready for its falsification of some or all of them, is a part of growth of scientific knowledge. This process gives practical applications without necessarily (always) having a theory to back up, and continues to benefit humanity through engineering, medical practice, agriculture, etc... In addition social sciences also seem to be doing better in understanding social-economic process, through such methodologies of science, more using correlations as initial steps, through not always having clear causal connections. Even medical sciences and earth / ocean / atmospheric science use such methods.

Humanity will be better off by making “friends with these methods” in understanding Nature and being able to live with Nature, even while marching towards a population size of 10 billion by 2040 or 2050.

Many other inherent problems in human society such as disharmony, crime, vengeful jealousies, terrorism, extremisms etc., cannot all be solved by scientific methods. Nor can they easily brushed off to be a part of human “nature”. Even if it is were so, are there some solutions within the limitations of individuals? Such questions need to be asked, not necessarily always to arrive at a holistic answer (which may often be elusive) but to find out practical solutions to make lives of people better. There will be debates (or controversies) about solutions, but to wait for a perfect answer or a total consensus is not a practical option. Problems of individual human beings need to be solved well within their own perceptions of “speed of action”. In the Indian context (and perhaps in the context of most of the developing countries) decades have passed since the ruling elites promised many things and performed little on the ground. Generations have suffered physically as well as through the “agony of expectations”. Therefore there is a natural impatience, disbelief, cynicism and anger bordering on rage in some situations.

Amidst all these, there are also aspirations and hope. Let these prevail. If we understand the processes of Nature and act accordingly, chances of successes are very high. Let the processes of success be built on solid grounds of visible incremental benefit to each Indian for each year. (One year better than the earlier one and this succession goes forward!)

Let me wish the readers a Happy New Year 2016, when the mission for the 21st century is unfolded by each one of us.

This is the last article in this series. I thank Kisan world management and readers. Please visit my website www.ysrajan.com for my new Articles and Papers. My gmail id is ysrajan1944

Y S Rajan

22-09-2015