BOOKS PUBLISHED SO FAR
(in Australia, the UK, the US and India; and translated into 14 languages other than English)
Paperback, hardcover and Kindle editions on Amazon
Some of these stories contain graphic violent and sexual content
- The canal inspector
- The art of bribery
- Chaos and carnage
- All the fake news fit to print
- Abandoned by gods and mortals
- A peep show for gods and goddesses
- The Swiss swami
- The horror peep show
- A relic of the Raj
- At the police station
Hardcover, paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon (The first lesson of this book has been published independently as “seven brief lessons on walking” — see below)
Walking, thinking, learning, creating, worrying, sleeping, daydreaming, and procrastinating are many things we do every day. The way we do these things sums up our lives. This book focuses on what science says about what we do every day. Though I have inserted myself in some stories, they point towards a strictly scientific route to serenity, sensibility, and success — not personal or spiritual. Reading them requires absolutely no background in science.
Introduction: Success summed up in serenity, not silver
- Walk as if you are kissing the ground with your feet
- Take a long, slow breath in a mindful way
- Sleep well to keep yourself sane, smart, stimulating — and slim
- You may daydream now (permission granted by my eccentric teacher)
- The smack that taught an atheist to respect all religions
- Forget the pursuit of happiness
- Be free, be open, and have no goal
- The pain of unpopularity
- A lesson on learning to learn
- Fearful of failure? I’m not
- Don’t just chalk it up to circumstances
- Why not the day after tomorrow?
- You may now brag about yourself
- You’re now out of the proverbial box
- Weighing up your choices
- The power of expectation
- Step into your shoes before you step into someone else’s shoes
- Let your body do the talking
- Let your body do the thinking
- Blowing hot and cold on self-esteem
- Let’s measure your willpower: Don’t eat that doughnut!
- Prejudices polluting our unconscious minds
- Turn up the wattage of your smile
- Laughter is sunshine
- Older, a bit slower but smarter
Paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon
Paths are made by walking — Franz Kafka
May this little book help you turn the paths you make by walking into large paths of solace, serenity, sensibility — and success.
- Walk as if you are kissing the ground with your feet
- Hip hip hippocampus
- The first peripatetic
- Walk in nature toward a spring of longevity
- Walk in nature toward a spring of calmness and fresh ideas
- Walking by numbers
- I walk, think, therefore, I am
PAPERBACK AND KINDLE EDITIONS ON AMAZON
For thousands of years, sages and seers have examined our body features, from the top of the head to the soles of the feet, to read personality traits or to predict the future. Researchers are now discovering that our body characteristics, features, and gestures contain a wealth of information that provides unique insights into our behavior, learning, personality, and well-being.
This little book sifts science from speculation and explains what it truly says about you. Reading it requires no science background but only curiosity about your body.
HARDCOVER, PAPERBACK AND KINDLE EDITIONS ON AMAZON
I do not know whether Homer Simpson (of TV’s The Simpsons) really understands the laws of thermodynamics, but he has been seen storming around his house and shouting, “In this house, we follow the laws of thermodynamics.”
Well, the three laws of thermodynamics are not easy to follow. I thought if Homer could understand them, I should try to present ideas of science in a simple and interesting way so that everyone could understand them all.
This book provides a refreshing walk through science from the 6th century BCE to the 21st century. It explains 200 hypotheses, theories, laws, principles, equations, rules, and things that form the essence of science. The ideas are arranged in chronological order, though a list in alphabetical order is also included.
It is the perfect essence of scientific knowledge in one easy-to-read book. Read it from cover to cover curled up on the couch or dip into it at random when you have a spare moment. It’s an invaluable source for anyone interested in science.
COMPLETELY REVISED AND UPDATED 2022 EDITION
The first edition published in 2007 by Icon Books, UK, as ‘Why Aren’t They Here? The Question of life on other worlds’
Is there anybody out there? Are other life forms lurking in outer space – or are they already here?
This calm, intelligent and witty survey of the history of humankind’s search for extraterrestrial life brilliantly outlines the historical, fictional, speculative and emerging scientific opinions on what alien life might be like.
The fast-moving narrative examines facts, dispels myths and focuses on the possibilities lurking in space. In a popular and easy-to-read style, the author uses current research to speculate what life is like on exoplanets (or extra-solar planets), how we might communicate with it, and what Earth might seem like to visitors.
COMPLETELY REVISED AND UPDATED 2021 EDITION OF THE MOST POPULAR BOOK ON THE RIDDLE OF THE GREAT SIBERIAN EXPLOSION OF 1908
The first edition published in 2005 by Icon Books, UK
At 7.14 a.m. on June 30, 1908, a huge fireball exploded in the Siberian sky. A thousand times the force of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, it flattened an area of remote Tunguska forest bigger than metropolitan New York, forming a mushroom cloud that almost reached into space.
What was it? A wayward black hole, a crashing comet, a rogue asteroid, an exotic rock of antimatter or mirror matter, a methane gas blast from below, an alien spacecraft, a laser beam fired by extraterrestrials, or an early experiment in nuclear physics which got out of hand?
More than a century on, this grand dame of science mysteries still fascinates scientists and charlatans alike.
Australian science journalist and author Surendra Verma tells the incredible story of this famous fireball. He also examines the major theories – scientific and fanciful – and evaluates the new evidence that claims that the mystery has at last been ‘solved.’ Or, is it?
A murderous Nazi on the run now masquerading as a holy man, a crazy woman and her bewitched plants, a lonely and sad actress struggling to walk out of the ghastly shadows of her tormented past as a teenage girl, an artful master of misinformation dodging the officialdom with fake news, a mischievous Tibetan refugee girl and her pranks, depravity disguised as tantric sex, and buff envelopes stuffed with cash which make greedy officials run.
In this weird world, when a young woman starts on a journey to seek justice for the cold murder of her benefactor and the brutal rape of two destitute children she comes to a head with pure evil. The anguish of a child’s trauma penetrates deep into every human heart. But evil has no heart.
A touching tale of empathy and compassion of a woman as strong as the mountains surrounding her small, scenic hometown in the foothills of the Himalayas, in 1965 and earlier. When you put it down, you will feel you have been to a different world, a grim but real world that sadly still exists with a new cast of characters.
Be free, be open, and have no goal
In the 1930s, Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti warned: “Do not prepare the mind and heart for the future by shockproof coverings. This is mere self-protection but not intelligence. To be wholly vulnerable is to be wise.”
Let’s see what science says about these philosophical musings.
First, what happens in your brain when you are motivated to do a task? Four structures of the midbrain — called the limbic loop — drives our decisions, whether to act on external or internal stimuli. A small pathway from the limbic system pumps dopamine, the molecule of motivation, into the prefrontal cortex, the “executive” region of the brain right behind the forehead. When dopamine reaches the frontal cortex, we feel good. Dopamine-containing neurons play a vital role in brain networks that govern motivation and a sense of reward and pleasure.
Studies suggest dopamine is less about reward and pleasure than drive and motivation. Common sense says that dopamine is released when we perform a task and receive a reward. Experiments on baboons trained to perform a task and receive a reward show that dopamine is released just before they perform the task and just before they receive the reward, not after. If the reward was not a sure thing but only a possibility, even then, the release of dopamine increased substantially. However, when the reward was entirely expected based on the preceding cue, dopamine neurons didn’t respond to the reward. Strangely, pleasure declines when we anticipate a reward.
The emerging scientific view is that cultivating open-mindedness about the future leads to positive motivation. Dopamine excels at its task when you set a goal. But setting your mind on a goal and priming it with “I will” may turn off the tap of your reservoir of intrinsic motivation, especially if you think you would feel guilty or ashamed if you failed.
An intriguing experiment by psychologist Ibrahim Senay of the University of Illinois also confirms the wisdom that setting your mind on a goal may, in fact, thwart the intended goal. He looked at the problem by exploring self-talk: the voice in your head expressing your options, hopes, fears and so on. Suppose you want to join a gym to go on a regular exercise program. You could do it by talking to yourself in two ways: “Will I join the gym?” or “I will join the gym.” Which of these ways of articulating yourself is the best?
Senay asked a group of volunteers to work on a series of anagrams that required rearranging words such as “sauce” to “cause” or “when” to “hewn.” But first, he asked them to write either of the two apparently unrelated sentences, “I will” or “Will I,” 20 times on a sheet of paper. On average, the participants who wrote “Will I” solved twice as many anagrams as those who wrote, “I will.”
Why did asking yourself a question lead to better performance than telling yourself? Perhaps an unconscious form of the question “Will I” affected motivation. People were more likely to build their own motivation by asking themselves a question. Senay notes that by the unconscious form of the question “Will I,” the person comes up with their own reasons and gives more thought to what they stand to gain from pursuing a goal or task. He says that self-questioning can be a powerful motivator for change — one we can employ to create a sense of open-mindedness about our current life choices and priorities.
In a follow-up experiment, Senay changed the goal: how much the participants intended to exercise in the following week. After completing the same handwriting task (using only the phrases “I will” or “Will I”), the participants were asked to fill out a psychological questionnaire to measure intrinsic motivation. Motivation is the force that drives us to achieve our goals. Motivation is either extrinsic (it depends upon rewards such as money, prestige, or power) or intrinsic (it comes from a desire to perform the task for the enjoyment it provides). Senay got the same results in this real-world scenario: those who wrote “Will I” expressed a greater commitment to exercise regularly than those who wrote, “I will.”
By asking ourselves a question, we are more likely to build our own intrinsic motivation. It seems it’s a more promising way of achieving our goals. Senay’s research also shows how language provides a window between thought and action. It also shows the way we talk about our behavior can predict future action.
The forceful “I will” is not the way to achieve our goals. “Will I” makes the activity intrinsically attractive by placing it in the future. We are more likely to do it. When it comes to achieving goals, arguably Arianna Huffington, an American author and syndicated columnist, has the right advice. In her book Thrive, she says that the best way to achieve a goal is to drop it. Will you drop your goals? Can’t decide? If you have your dog or cat around — or even just in mind — it may help you achieve this goal (of answering this question) as well as generate more goals and feel more confident about achieving them. In an experiment, researchers assigned participants to one of the three conditions: a pet nearby, simply thought about a pet and no pet presence. Those who had their pet in their room, or their mind identified more goals and showed confidence in achieving them. In a second experiment, the participants performed a distressing mental task while their blood pressure was measured. Participants with their pets in the room or their minds had lower blood pressure than those with no pet presence. Can’t keep up with your new year’s resolutions? Think of your dog or cat.
It’s also worth thinking about the Buddha, the Enlightened One:
“When someone is searching,” said Siddhartha, “then it might easily happen that the only thing his eyes still see is that what he searches for, that he is unable to find anything, to let anything enter his mind, because he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search because he has a goal because he is obsessed by the goal. Searching means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.”
— Siddhartha to his friend Govinda, in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha
A tweet from science and philosophy worth retweeting: the future is not a closed answer; it’s an open question.
© Surendra Verma 2023
A smack that taught an atheist to respect all religions
The memory of the moment is imprinted on some stubborn neurons that refuse to die. Even after 70 years, when I look at my left cheek in the mirror and remember that moment, it seems deep red, and the pain still sharp.
I was 10 then, and I spent my summer holidays with my grandfather in a small, scenic town in the foothills of the Himalayas. One Sunday morning, he took me for a walk through the town’s narrow streets.
As we walked came to view the graceful curves of arabesque motifs on the dome of a majestic mosque, a marvel of Mughal architecture in that corner of the world. After a short walk, through the arched portal, I saw a vast expanse of the checkered marble floor, crowded with men in white skull caps kneeling with their faces towards Mecca. My grandfather, a not-so-devout-Hindu, stopped in front of the mosque, pressed his palms together and bowed his head as a sign of respect. His stern eyes demanded the same from me. I obliged.
After a few minutes, the street became quieter and steeper, and we were now in front of a Catholic church. Through the large stained-glass windows, I could see Christ on the cross, exquisitely carved in white marble. My grandfather stopped, pressed his palms together and bowed his head. His stern eyes demanded the same from me. I obliged.
Now we turned left into a wider street and walked downhill past a gurdwara, a Sikh temple, a simple whitewashed building proclaiming that elegance is ingeniously simple. From the street, I could see Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scriptures, resting on a low table covered with a white silk cloth. Again, my grandfather stopped, pressed his palms together and bowed his head. His stern eyes demanded the same from me. I obliged.
About a hundred metres later, we were in front of an ornate Hindu temple, full of statues dressed in garish garments. My grandfather repeated his ritual of respect for places of worship. But I exploded, “Why do we have to bow in front of every stupid temple?” I ran inside the temple and spat on a statue of a god.
My grandfather grabbed me and smacked me on my left cheek with a force I thought only Hercules could apply. “I don’t care whether you practice any religion, but you must always respect all religions,” the words erupted from his mouth like lava from a volcano. My grandfather was a man of peace and non-violence, the Mahatma Gandhi of our family. He always exuded happiness and contentment; I had never seen him angry.
Twelve years passed, and the memory of the childhood incident somewhat dimmed. My grandfather now dead, his body on a funeral pyre a few yards from the River Ganges. A crowd of hundreds of solemn mourners, a Hindu priest chanting a prayer and throwing something on the funeral pyre. I’m watching the ritual from a distance with scepticism, far away from the flames, and then suddenly I felt my left cheek burning and my grandfather’s voice thundering in my ears, “You must always respect all religions.” I pressed my hands together and bowed my head towards the funeral pyre.
And then I walked away, wondering, “How could I respect all religions if I don’t know anything about them?” I started reading English translations of scriptures, commentaries and other books on all major religions. I found the books all enlightening and saw no reason I couldn’t respect all the great religions of the world.
“You know, you are either a person of faith, or not,” says Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, “You either believe that there’s something beyond the material world that you can commune with, or you don’t. If you do believe it, then it helps to have a language to help you express that ineffable experience – to yourself, and to other people. And that is all that religion is – that language.”
I may not have that divine language, but at least I have an earthly language that lets me express equal respect for all religions, thanks to the memory of a burning sensation in my left cheek. And I always bow my head a little whenever I walk past a place of worship.
© Surendra Verma 2023
A myth that refuses to fade away
Decades ago, when I was in high school and published my first science article in a national magazine, my science teacher congratulated me and said something to the effect that we use only 10 per cent of our brain. I was sceptical as I believed that I had commandeered every brain cell—the word neuron was not popular then—in my little head to work hard to research and write in a language that was not my mother tongue.
Since then, I’m amazed by how often doctors, teachers, scientists and other professionals have uttered the silly phrase in my presence. If I had put a pretty penny in my piggy bank every time I heard or read this dictum about the limited capacity of our brains, the piggy bank’s belly would have burst years ago.
I wondered then why 90 per cent of the brain cells were lazing around while the 10 per cent were slaving away. Now I know there is no scientific evidence, even of moderate quality, to support this absurd claim.
In recent years, neuroscientists have scanned the brain with sophisticated big-name machines such as electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG), computerised axial tomography (CAT) and positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They have pinpointed numerous psychological functions to their specific parts. Their scans have not revealed any regions of the brain that are vegetative. Besides, if 90 per cent of our brains were doing nothing, there would be large areas of dead cells in our brains. No autopsy has ever revealed it to be true.
At any given time, not all neurons, the basic working units of the brain, are active; but no neuroscientist has ever found that 90 per cent of our brain is perpetually on vacation. Even at rest, the brain works at its total capacity. Brain scans show that our brains have a “default network”, a sophisticated network of brain areas that remains active when we are supposedly doing nothing. Of course, some parts of the brain are more active than others at any given time or during a particular activity.
For our body, the brain is an expensive organ to maintain; it uses too many resources: about 20 per cent of our body’s daily calorie intake. Evolution (intelligent design, if your brain is more partial to not-so-scientific ideas) would not have allowed such a wasteful organ to survive.
Yet, the myth of 10 per cent brain refuses to die. Ask 10 people in your workplace or anywhere else, and you will be surprised by the high percentage of people who believe in this myth. When someone tells you that we use only 10 per cent of our brains, they are probably using only 10 per cent of their brains.
Where does this myth come from? Some suggest that it came from William James, often referred to as the father of American psychology, who in 1907 wrote in an essay titled “Powers of Men”: “As a rule, men habitually use only a small part of the powers which they actually possess and which may they use under appropriate conditions … We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” In 1936, in his preface to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, one of the best-selling self-help books all time, the famous journalist Lowell Thomas attributed the claim “we use only 10 per cent of the brain” to William James.
The myth has been repeated in pop culture for nearly a century (Lucy, the 2014 science fiction movie highlighting that humans do not use more than 10 per cent of their brains, is one of the significant culprits). For this reason, it has been a boon to spruikers of brain-training programs claiming to enhance the brain capacity of your little darlings. A whole industry is based on this myth. Probably the self-help gurus would have to invent it if it didn’t exist.
To be fair, the myth has an advantage. It has undoubtedly motivated many people to strive for greater creativity and productivity. Which is a bloody good thing, you may say. But I shan’t.
© Surendra Verma 2023
A conversation with a river red gum tree on “saving the planet”
When for a few days, I heard a soft whimpering voice from the sky as I walked on a lonely track along a creek, I worried that I was suffering from psychosis.
The creek once was part of the walking track followed by the Australian Aboriginal Boon Wurrung people for many thousands of years. As I walk, I see a tattered and faded Aboriginal flag flying on a flagpole in a little park. A yellow circle in the centre of a rectangle divided in half horizontally, the upper half black and the lower ochre red reminding anyone who cared to find out of an ancient culture’s spiritual relation to the land and the sun — the planet and the cosmos. The ancient spirits sending me a message?
One day the voice was louder, “Hey mate, I’m talking to you.” I looked around and saw nothing. “Look up, mate.” The only thing I could see was the high canopy of a huge river red gum tree, a common eucalyptus species in these parts. Oh, the tree was talking to me, I realized. “What can I do for you?” I said, struggling to find the right word to address this old, majestic tree; “mate” seemed so ordinary and disrespectful.
“Could you please remove this plastic banner some idiot has wrapped around my trunk?” the tree asked gasping. “It’s killing me.”
I removed the banner and looked up. “From here I can’t read the writing on the banner,” the tree said. “What does it say?”
“Save the planet.”
“Is the planet dying?” the tree asked anxiously.
“Not really. The planet has been around for 4.5 billion years and still be here for another 4.5 billion years even if its atmosphere heats up by hundreds or even thousands of degrees. A big, rogue asteroid may nudge its orbit a bit if it hits it hard. That’s all.”
“Why then this silly slogan?” the tree exclaimed. “You should be shouting, save our species. Better still, save us from our silliness. Your stupid species is indiscriminately destroying the land and water with imperishable plastic and choking the air with noxious carbon. How could you save yourself from your excesses when you print a silly slogan on a plastic banner and leave it around to kill other species?”
My human mind had no answer. I nodded to show my concern.
The tree seemed genuinely angry. It continued, “I have been here for more than 200 years, and I’ve noticed the air becoming warmer. Too much carbon dioxide for us trees to breathe in and not many of us to breathe out oxygen.”
“Well, the level of carbon dioxide is going up every year. Now there are 415 molecules of carbon dioxide molecules in every million molecules in the air. It was 400 in 2013.”
“I don’t care about these numbers, but I do care about the numbers of our species of river red gum trees decreasing dramatically. I give a damn about your species. As you say, mate, the planet, though it’s atmosphere a little bit warmer, will still be here for another 4.5 billion years. Extinction is written in the stars of all species. I’m sure once your self-indulgent and self-destructing species have disappeared forever the planet will look forward to hosting a truly intelligent life that respects its own kind and the other kinds and its environment.”
Lost for words, I took a sip of water from my reusable water bottle.
“What’s that green sticker on the bottle?” the tree asked. “It looks like a eucalyptus leaf.”
“It says, save 2000 plastic bottles by using this reusable bottle and save the planet.”
I heard the tree laughing uproariously and then saying, “Silly slogans and symbols won’t save human beings; a little respect for the environment and the other species may. Where are the blackfellas who had a spiritual connection with the land around this creek and knew how to take care of it?”
© Surendra Verma 2020