Superstitious Pigeons

By Anupum Pant

B.F. Skinner was an American psychologist, a behaviorist, and a social philosopher. He was also the inventor of the operant conditioning chamber – A.K.A the Skinner box, is a box which is used to study animal behaviour. For example, you can use it to train an animal to perform certain actions in response to some input, like light or sound.

Using one of his favourite animals, he designed an experiment where he trained a pigeon in order to examine the formation of superstitious beliefs in animals. Here’s what he did.

He placed a couple of pigeons in his setup which was designed to deliver food to them after certain intervals. Of all the things, the timing of food delivery by this apparatus wasn’t related to one thing for sure – behaviour or actions of the bird.

And yet, after some time in this automated setup, the pigeons developed certain associations which made them belief that the food came when they did something. They had developed superstitious beliefs.

For instance:

One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a ‘tossing’ response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return. – Wikipedia

The bird behaviour isn’t much different from what humans do…

The pigeons started believing in a causal relationship between its behaviour and delivery of food, even when there was nothing like that.

It’s almost like the humans blowing on the dice, or throwing it harder to make a favourable number appear. Even when blowing or throwing a dice harder doesn’t hold any causal relationship with the event of good numbers turning up.

During other times, when people bowl down a bowling ball and twist  their bodies towards right to make the ball go right, they have in fact unknowingly developed a superstitious belief, just like the pigeons that there’s a causal relationship between turning their bodies and curving of the bowling ball. In reality, there’s nothing like that. The ball goes where it has to, irrespective of how they turn their bodies.

Just like in the superstitious pigeon’s case, the food would have appeared anyway. The pigeon didn’t have to do something to get it.

via [Wikipedia]

Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham and Other Major World Religions

By Anupum Pant

So, despite being aware of its intimidating 3-hour length, with an open mind, I decided to watch the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate last night. For a better focus I chose a time when everything around was super quite (0000 hrs to 0300 hrs) and hence, I was able to attentively watch it right from the first second to the very last second. Before starting, I had my mind cleared of all the prejudices and was ready to embrace the most logical points coming from any one of them. Yes, I was even willing to accept that the earth is six thousand years old, if Ken Ham would have  produced sound arguments.

Bill nye vs ken ham
Bill talking about a tree in Sweden, Old Tjikko, that’s over 9,000 years old

Although there were no winners or losers in that debate, for me, Bill Nye’s arguments were clearly moving – in the sense that he was able to take me on his side with sound arguments and very specific data points. Specifically, both of their answers, for one question asked from the audience was probably a turning point in the debate. When some one asked – What would make you change your mind? Bill told the audience to bring in sound evidences and they would change his mind. Ken Ham disappointingly suggested that nothing could change his mind. Clearly, a person who was willing to accept good evidences to change his beliefs was the winner for me; not a stiff/adamant person.
All said, Ken ham was not able to persuade me to accept his argument that the world was around six thousand years old.

In fact, at the end of the debate when both of the speakers were done, I observed that Ken Ham silently moved into the darker background and surprisingly (surprising because it was Kentucky), several people from the audience started approaching Bill Nye for a handshake or an autograph. Although, it wasn’t clear why they had approached him, whatever it was, it was definitely some kind of an appreciation for Bill. Evidently, people were impressed with his arguments.

Also, not being well aware of the Christian belief, during an online discussion after the debate, I was surprised to find that despite having embraced Christianity, there is a chunk of Christian population that believes the world is indeed several billions of years old (It is the Creationists who believe in six-thousand-year-old-earth theory). This chunk of Christian population was on the side of Bill Nye. So, this was not a God vs. Science debate. It was exactly like it was advertised – Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham.

Now, that things were starting to get a bit clearer, I decided to explore what sort of beliefs, the three most followed religions held on this topic. This is what I found:

Christians (31.59% of the world population): The ones who interpret the biblical writing in a literal manner believe that the Earth is six thousand years old and discard the theory of evolution (molecule to man). However, there is a huge chunk of Christians, with a background in science, who firmly believe that the earth is indeed several Billions of years old and also to an extent, believe in evolution.

Muslims (23.2% of the world population): According to this about page, Islam does not take a fixed stance on the age of the Earth. They prefer to leave the knowledge to their deity. Their holy book, Quran describes that the creation of Universe took “six days”. Again, according to them, at that time, as the definition of day could have been different than what it is now, especially when the Sun did not exist then, they do not like to say that the universe got created in 6 x 24 hours. In other words, they have a view very similar to the Biblical writings, yet are pretty flexible about accepting new theories on the age of our universe.

In the 19th century the prominent scholar of Islamic revival, Jamal-al-Din al-Afghānī agreed with Darwin that life will compete with other life in order to succeed. He also believed that there was competition in the realm of ideas similar to that of nature. – Wikipedia

Hindus (15% of the world population): Among all the three, Hinduism, the third most followed religion, has a lot of new things to say about the age of the universe. Since 95% of followers of this religion live in a single country, and the religion itself isn’t missionary in nature, its views are not popularly known all over the world. Personally, the Hindu religion and the vast amount of documented science it has in its ancient holy books fascinates me more than any other extant religion (not more than science, if you consider it a religion).

The religion believes in a circular time rather than a simple linear time-line of the universe and suggests the universe is several trillions of years old. In fact the “kalp-chakra” – the life span of the universe – it mentions is the largest measure of time known to man. And the end, it states that the universe collapses and gets created again.

The fundamental books of Hinduism, the Vedas, are huge, believed to be around 3,800 years old and comprehensively document numerous mathematical and scientific calculations. These books contain writings that cover topics from almost every science or maths subject known to man. In fact, they depend so much on mathematics that the holiest Hindu number is believed to be 108 which is probably the most beautiful number in mathematics.

According to a Wikipedia page on views of Hinduism on evolution:

Most God-believing Hindus accept the theory of biological evolution. They either regard the scriptural creation theories as allegories and metaphors, or reconcile these legends with the modern theory of evolution.

My opinion?

If you ask me, Bill Nye was a winner in the debate because of the all embracing state of mind he held all along – as long as you can bring in logical evidences to prove your ideas.
Although Hinduism fascinates me to a great extent, I’m not a religious person. My views about things are in line with Bill Nye’s views – I’d believe in anything as long as you can show me a valid and logical proof (arbitrary or literary interpretation of written verses from a book aren’t valid proofs). Moreover, I’d be ready to even modify my views over and over again as long as you keep bringing me evidences that disprove the older views. That is how science works, that is how logic works and that is what Bill Nye believes in.

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Is Glass Liquid Or Solid

By Anupum Pant

Glass stories have tormented me for years. A few well informed gentlemen, over the years, have communicated to me anecdotes that have contradicted and shown glass as liquid or solid, without solid proofs that could have helped me believe just one of them. A few days back, like I cleared my doubts about the gas station and cellphone story, I decided to find this out too. So, what is it really? Is glass liquid or solid?

Glass is a liquid?

1. Antique glass panes: A couple of years back I was told (I don’t remember where it came from) that glass windows of very old buildings have glass panes that have been found to be thicker at the bottom. That, according to them, absolutely proves that glass is a liquid that flows very slowly. And apparently explains, how the lower parts of these old panes get thicker – the glass from the upper part of the pane flows down as time passes. I thought it would be something like the world’s slowest experiment; so it could be true.

Till today, I had believed the same. It turns out, I was wrong all along.

Explanation: Firstly, there is no statistical study ever conducted that proves, all antique window panes are thicker at the bottom. Secondly, even if all of them are really thicker at the bottom, the difference in thickness has nothing to do with whether glass is a solid or a liquid. The cause of thicker bottoms is due to the fact that glass manufacturing process that was employed at the time wasn’t able to create perfect glass panes (with uniform thickness). The process made it almost impossible to produce glass panes of constant thickness.

Or, you could simply wait for a few years to see if perfect glass panes stuck on skyscrapers today mysteriously turn thicker in the bottom.

If you think you can NOT take my word for it, I have a quote for you from a distinguished science textbook – Glass Science – below:

Glass is an amorphous solid. A material is amorphous when it has no long-range order, that is, when there is no regularity in the arrangement of its molecular constituents on a scale larger than a few times the size of these groups. A solid is a rigid material; it does not flow when it is subjected to moderate forces. – Doremus, R. H. (1994)

2. Glass is a Super-cooled liquid? : This misunderstood phrase from Gustav Tammann’s book is probably the origin of the myth that glass is a liquid. The quote “glass is a frozen supercooled liquid” has been misquoted hundreds of times with the word “frozen”, forgotten. Today, this misquotation has grown to such great levels that it is actually difficult to go down and extricate the original quote that contained the word “frozen” in it. One word can indeed make a huge difference.

Finally, glasses are only amorphous solids. Where the term amorphous and solid have been separately been explained clearly in the year 1994 by Doremus R. H.
Together, these two words mean the same as definition of two separate words put together. Glass is not a liquid.

If you haven’t read about the ancient Nanotech marvel, Lycurgus cup, you are probably missing something amazing about ancient glass technology.

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