Thursday, July 26, 2012

Witius, Altius, Fortius.

India’s strike rate at the Olympics has always been underwhelming. We’ve won just 0.16% of the 12,796 medals awarded in the last 116 years. Even poor Sangma would have fared better!

The positive way of looking at it is if there are around 950 medals at stake in London, the law of averages will guarantee us at least one. So we won’t be returning empty handed.

Feeling better, already? Let me cheer you up further by culling out some unintentionally comical names from the hallowed roster of medal-winning Olympians.

First up is Gustave Cabaret, the Frenchman who bowed out to two other competitors in the 1908 Olympics Continental Archery finale. I wonder if Mr. Cabaret was allowed to do a victory jig when he climbed up the podium to receive his bronze.

James Lightbody is another chappie, history shouldn’t take too lightly as he finished with a hefty haul of 3 Golds from 2 Olympic games. I am tempted to think that James wouldn’t have been as fleet footed had he been blessed with a less cruel name.

Harry Porter, the high jumper from the United States who went on to win the Gold in 1908, was lucky not to have been born in our era. Else, his critics would have lectured him to stick to Quidditch, every time he failed to clear the bar.

But Nastia Liukin wasn’t as fortunate. Although she won the All Round Champion title in gymnastics in Beijing, many Americans had nothing but pity for her as they heard their commentators address Nastia Liukin as ‘Nasty Lookin’!

Gold winners Irina Slutskaya, Ruth Fuchs, Fanny Fischer, Balazs Kiss and Misty Hyman faced a lot of snigger and were the object of ribaldry for similar reasons. ‘What was Misty’s mom smoking when she named her Hyman?’ was the oft-heard banter about the swimmer.

Some like Bruno Junk, Salvatore Morale, Daniele Masala, Albert Gutterson, Emile Champion, Nick Winter and John Child, escaped the scrutiny of the late night comedians as the limelight was on the more glamorous stars. But this Olympics expect no such favours. If the Usains disappoint, expect the Bolts from the blue!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

How Countries Got Their Names.

To most of us ignoramuses, Turkey is a textured bath towel. Tonga is a vintage horse carriage. Monaco is a salt-kissed biscuit. Congo is a misspelled African drum. Qatar is a BSNL lady saying ‘you’re on hold’. And Panama is a nostalgic whiff of strong tobacco.

Being clueless folks who cannot pinpoint West Indies or West Mambalam on a map, I thought it might help, if we took a crash course to improve our GQ (Geographic Quotient). Hence the excursion into country names.

Before we suit up for the deep dive, let’s first do a quick head count of the nations. According to reliable sources, at the moment, there are 196 sovereign states in our little world. When we put them under the microscope, you’ll uncover 5 types of nomenclature.

Type 1 is what I call the ‘Tribal Nation’. Simply put, they are nations that have been named after tribes of yore. Germany (from ‘Garim’ - a noisy Celtic tribe), France (from the spear throwing ‘Franks’), England (land of ‘Angles’), Iran (‘Aryans’), Afghanistan (‘Avaghanis’ or horseriders) and Kyrgyzstan (land of ‘forty tribes’) are celebrated case studies in this genre.

Type 2 is the ‘Dynasty Nation’. These are countries christened after kings and dynasties. China (a nod to the Qin dynasty), Korea (‘Goryeo’ lineage), Saudi Arabia (‘Saud’ family), Egypt (Home of the ‘Ptah’), Philippines (a tribute to ‘Prince Philip’ of Austria) and Mozambique (after Sheikh ‘Mussa Ben Mbiki’) are some eloquent illustrations.

Type 3 is the ‘Topographic Nation’. Here, some prominent topographic feature might have triggered the moniker. Examples include Malaysia (Tamil & Latin for ‘Hilltown’), Croatia (derived from the Indo-Iranian ‘Hrvati’ or River Saraswati), Bahamas (‘Shallow Sea’), Netherlands (‘Lowlands’) and Ukraine (‘Borderlands’).

Type 4 is the ‘Evocative Nation’. Countries of this kind sport meaning-rich names like Uzbekistan (Home of the Free), Burkina Faso (Land of Honest Men), Japan (Land of the Rising Sun), Costa Rica (Rich Coast) and Liberia (Liberty).

Type 5 is the ‘Trivial Nation’. Or a country with a fun name story. Italy (from ‘Vitulis’ or sons of bull god), Barbados (‘bearded ones’) and Spain (land of rabbits) typify this. Don’t you wish we had more such quirky names?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Quantum of Boredom

I was always under the erroneous impression that lawyers wrote the most unreadable prose. After browsing through hundreds of articles spewing mumbo jumbo on the Higgs Boson, I am convinced that this befitting accolade should be reserved for theoretical physicists, because they have this incredible gift of transforming the infinitely interesting to the most infinitesimally insipid things.

Analyse the ‘The God Particle’ kerfuffle to draw your own conclusions. Here was a conceptual particle that put the bang into the big bang and made the earth, the moon and everything around us, possible. And what do our physicists call this wonder particle? The oh-so-boring ‘Higgs Boson’. That’s like christening ‘Mozart’ as ‘Square Root 2’. Can’t get more sterile, right?

That’s the problem with the scientific community. In their anxiety to appear ruthlessly objective, coldly factual and dispassionately logical, they tend to lose the soul of their concept when they assign names to their ideas.

Just examine ‘The Standard Model’ of particle physics. Supposedly the grand theory that summates the building blocks of the universe. It doesn’t get bigger than this. And yet, they choose an utterly uninspiring assembly-line name like ‘Standard Model’. Surely the minds that can conjure up a beautiful experiment like the Large Hadron Collider can do better.

Sadly, sleep inducing names have always been a constant in the exciting history of particle physics. Except for the one rare leap of imagination when Murray Gell-Mann borrowed a whimsical sound he liked from James Joyce’s poem ‘Three Quarks for Muster Mark’, physicists have always preferred to hide behind the most yawn-worthy names.

The fundamental particle ‘Lepton’ was named after the Greek word for ‘fine or small’. ‘Baryon’, the composite particle made of three quarks, was derived from ‘Barys’ or ‘heavy’. The intermediate mass ‘Meson’ was called so, as ‘meso’ means ‘mid’. While the ‘Hadron’ was considered appropriate as ‘hadros’ cued ‘thick’ and the composite particle existed due to a strong force.

Add Muon, Electron, Gluon, Tachyon and Proton to the list and you’ll realise that all it takes to whip up something subatomic is a literal Greek word and the –on suffix. Makes you wonder if the next groundbreaking discovery is going to be a ‘Moron’!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Unsolved Mystery No. 5

Why do most flowers have five petals? Why is Friday, the most interesting day of the week? Why is ‘The Pentagon’ the most powerful military building in the world? Why do Muslims pray five times a day? Why did ‘Five Point Someone’ turn Chetan Bhagat into a blockbuster author? These are questions for which science and logic can offer no answer.

But occult and numerology can provide you at least five quick takes on why this is so: a) Things happen for ‘five’ as five digits form the basic scale of human measurement. b) The five senses of man are the real building blocks of reality. c) Without the five elements, there will be no cosmos. d) Planet Mercury, the ruler of five, is the controller of life. e) The fifth trump in the tarot deck is the Hierophant or god’s human representative on Earth. Naturally, he’s omnipotent.

Those born on the 5th, 14th and 23rd of any month are governed by Number 5 and are usually renowned for their business ability, intuition, diplomacy, sharpness, shrewdness, agility and eloquence. William Shakespeare, Handel, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Che Guevera, Ambedkar, Aamir Khan, Bipasha Basu, and Abhishek Bachchan are true blue high fivers.

The invisible power of five can even be felt in name numbers (which is the numerological score of your name). Roger Federer, Sachin Tendulkar, LK Advani, Karan Thapar and Ratan Tata are some powerful manifestations of ‘5’ in our times.

Among brand names, you’ll be fascinated to note that Gigabrands like Mercedes Benz, Jaguar, Volkswagen, Opel, Armani, Ralph Lauren, Playboy, Time, Reebok, Adidas, Victorinox and MTV have five written all over them.

Inspired by the huge success of five-ish names, many Indian companies have blindly jumped on to the bandwagon in anticipation of similar returns. Hatsun, the largest private dairy company in our country is a telling example.

Led by the numerology-driven CEO Chandramogan, Hatsun is immensely popular in Tamil Nadu for its Arun ice creams, Arokya milk and the just launched Ibaco ice cream parlours. The name scores of Arun, Arokya and Ibaco is 14 or 1+4 = 5! Hopefully that solves the mystery behind the name ‘Ibaco’.