Zürich from a Scientific Lens

Note: I don’t usually publish what I write in my journal but this just has to be an exception.

July 8, 2017

Image may contain: sky and outdoor

Entry 1 As I head to Zürich, I cannot help but feel an elevating sense of excitement. I have been there once before on Ankit’s invitation to visit ETH Zürich’s computer science department but I barely explored anything else in that visit. This time, however, I have fully planned the trip. As soon as my train reaches Zürich in 20 minutes, I will put it into execution.

I will begin by visiting the ETH Bibliothek (ETH Zürich’s library). Image may contain: people sitting and indoorThen I will wander across the building of ETH Zürich. By 1045, I will enter the Swiss National Museum, followed by a visit to the Kunsthaus Zürich (the Zürich Museum of Fine Arts) at 1230. At 1415, I will take a walk in the Chinese Garden in Zürich followed by a visit to Lake Zürich. At the end of the day, I plan to take the train on platform 31 at 1802 back to Lausanne and reach my room by 2054. Here’s to an educational, informative and exciting adventure!

Image may contain: one or more peopleEntry 2 As I sit here in the main wing of ETH Bibliothek, I cannot hide my admiration and amazement at the cultural wealth and beauty of the ETH Zürich campus. I wonder how Einstein must have felt while studying here and later in his life teaching here. How Von Neumann attended lectures in these auditoriums while pursuing his undergraduate degree here. Twenty one Nobel laureates have been part of this wonderful place. An even larger number have set foot in it.

No automatic alt text available.Entry 3 Once again, I find myself in the main building of ETH Zürich but this time after having visited and marvelled at the splendour of the Universitat Zürich Zoological Museum, the Swiss National Museum and the Zürich Museum of Fine Arts (I visited them in the order I mentioned them). As a science enthusiast, it is unneccessary to mention the fact that I liked the Zoological Museum most. It contained the skeleton of a mammoth and the fossilized skeleton of one of  the first fish species to evolve tiny legs for crawling onto land. That skeleton (or the individual it belonged to) may as well be my ancestor! (and an ancestor to the homo sapiens, our species).

No automatic alt text available.

The Swiss National Museum contained a display on migrants including Albert Einstein mentioning how he moved to Zürich after completing school, studied at ETH Zürich and kater in developed the general theory of relativity here before migrating to the United States. The Zürich Museum of Fine Arts technically had a ticket not covered by my Swiss Pass but the nice attendants there (secretly) gave me a free ticket. No doubt it contained amazing stuff. Unfortunately, I have not learnt to understand or critique art yet but I took lots of pictures (of all three museums) so maybe some day when/if I manage to learn the skill of comprehending artistic expression I can take a look at the pictures and experience some of the admiration and awe that comes with comprehension and which I sadly missed today.

Image may contain: 3 people, people standing

I returned to the ETH Zürich main building because my phone’s battery was almost completely drained due to all the camera, mobile data and GPS usage. Since I need my phone to find my way in Zürich, it was a necessary delay. There are only two things left in today’s plan. the Chinese Garden and Lake Zürich. Due to the extra stop made at the Zoological Museum, I might end up having to give up on one of the spots if I intern to catch the 1802 train back to Renens but I will try my best to make the most of the remaining time.

Image may contain: 1 person, textEntry 4 Change of plans. I just fiund and ETH Bibliothek pamphlet titled “Einstein’s Zürich”. The pamphlet mentions ten places relevant to Einstein’s life and work in ETH Zürich’s many buildings spread all over Zürich and other places. My new plan is to spend the remaining time I have before the train arrives in visiting as many of these ten places as possible.

Entry 5 I succeeded in visiting four of the ten places. The first being ETH Zürich itself. The second Einstein’s residence between 1886 to 1888 and from 1889 to 1900 at Unionstrasse 4. It even contained a memory plaque commemorating Einstein. The third was Einstein’s residence from 1900 to 1901 and fourth place was the site of ETH Zürich’s old physics department where Einstein was a full professor of theoretical physics from 1912 to 1914. The site now has the ETH Zürich electrical engineering department. It started raining after that so I was forced to hurry to the Zürich central train station. Overall, this was a truly amazing day. Quite possibly, one of the finest days of my life.

Image may contain: plant


Carl Sagan Facts


There are two types of scientists: Carl Sagan and people who aren’t Carl Sagan.

Carl Sagan can divide by zero.

When you search for “Science” on Google it says “Did you mean Carl Sagan?”

When Carl Sagan’s hypothesis contradicts experimental observations, the universe apologizes.

Carl Sagan can recite π. Backwards.

Carl Sagan already postulated the Grand Unified Theory. He’s just giving other physicists a chance to figure it out themselves.


Carl Sagan doesn’t need to do a control experiment. He is always in control.

Google is Carl Sagan behind a proxy.

Carl Sagan can code in C and make it look like Python.

Physics wears a “Carl Sagan is my homeboy” T-shirt.

Carl Sagan can make an apple pie from scratch without first inventing the universe.

Carl Sagan doesn’t solve the weekly crossword puzzle. He solves the Millennium problems instead.

“Proof by Carl Sagan” is a valid way to prove a theorem in Mathematics.

The Candle in the Dark

By Muhammad A. Tirmazi

Note: The title of this poem has been derived from the title of the book: “The Demon-haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark” by Carl Sagan.

The darkness does indeed haunt
The unknown does surely daunt
And Ignorance tempts one to flaunt
And concoct comforting fables
To replace the answers we want

Yet there is one way
To let Nature convey
Its mysteries and lay
Its beauty before one’s gaze
And help one seize the day

If one dares to learn
The language Nature yearns
To use to express and adorn
Its passions and wonders
One can, against the tide, burn

The heroes of the past
Those whose ideas last
Are not the conquerers who cast
The curse of mysery and death
In search of splendors shiny and vast

Pythagoras will be remembered long
After Hitler, Napoleon and Mao Xi Dong
Are lost to history and all the wrong
They committed drowned in oblivion
And Euclid’s legacy will be forever strong

The fluxions of the one who unweaved
The rainbow shall forever seed
Awe and wonder, and breed
Curiosity in generations to come
While none shall recall Victoria’s greed

The mathematical principles in print
Of Natural Philosophy that hint
At the workings of planets, glint
In an immortal shine. While none
Know of the master of mint.

In the same light shall forever shine
The identity that dares to align
The five symbols deemed divine
Of Euler, Hero, Babylon, Unity, India
In a melodious intertwine

This profound and beautiful embrace
Of logic and proof, a race
To unravel the secrets of space
Is perhaps the most noble of goals
We humans shall ever grace

No amount of inquisitions and popes
Can ever stifle the hopes
Of using science to grope
Into the darkness and discover
The candle that lights up our scope

The candle in the dark
Will always be a mark
Of humanity’s courage to embark
On a quest to understand the cosmos
From dark matter right down to the quark

For only if we continue to prod
Into the unknown and applaud
The triumphs of those who trod
And discovered wonders undreamt of,
Shall we know the mind of God

Scientific Tweeting

Twitter is like a library. There are all kinds of books but which ones you want to read is entirely your choice. Most people just issue a retarded Jane Austen novel to kill time with, but some use the library to read textbooks on Science, Mathematics and Medicine. If you fall under the latter category, then here are some amazing twitter handles for you to follow…

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s tweets are so epic, they’re even featured in his book. I found his book, Space Chronicles – Facing the Ultimate Frontier, at a bookstore and took a picture. Here take a look,


Yes! NASA’s Voyager actually has an official twitter handle. Awesome, right? If you don’t think that’s awesome then you’re bad and you should feel bad.

This one doesn’t seem to be official but it’s pretty well informed and, quite frankly, posts more interesting and cool tweets.

Epic epic epic epic EPIC epic epic epic EPIC!!!! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the official twitter handle of NASA’s curiosity rover.

A tribute to Carl Sagan. Gives you a regular dose of profound and meaningful Carl Sagan quotes.

Incredibly informative.

And that’s it. Some of the best and most informative accounts on twitter. As a side note, there’s also this wannabe newb who has practically no followers at all and would appreciate some new ones…


What’s the Deal with Billions and Billions?


Carl Sagan’s association with the term “billions and billions” is so popular that there’s actually a term called sagan which is synonymous to billions and billions. Sample usage: “There are sagans of stars in the Milky Way”. Ironically, although he often mentioned millions, trillion and miscellaneous -illions of things, Carl Sagan never actually used the term “billions and billions” exactly in Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. It was actually popularised by the comedian Johnny Carson who parodied Sagan. Luckily, Sagan took it to be good-natured humor and titled his last book Billions and Billions.

Here’s a collection of all the ‘-illions’ mentioned in Cosmos: A Personal Voyage:

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson faced a similar situation with the hilarious “We got a badass over here” meme nowadays. The meme is probably based on an interview he gave to the Youtube Channel BigThink, where he discussed Isaac Newton and his achievements. Once again, like Carl Sagan and the term billions and billions, Tyson never actually used the phrase “We got a badass over here” in the interview. It’s kind of hilariously unfortunate, in my opinion. 😀


Here’s the original interview, where Neil deGrasse Tyson discussed Isaac Newton:

And here’s a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson discussing the meme, it’s hilarious:

A Civilization Grading System?

Somewhere in the concluding paragraphs of a previous post, I wrote:

..we may in the distant future, …conquer the solar system, nigh, the galaxy, in the same way we conquered the earth.

This gives rise to a lot of questions. What does the term “conquer” mean in this context? Does it allude to physical occupation? Vanquishing, perhaps? Or utilizing all resources? And how do we measure our progress, anyway? For now, we don’t have any other species to compare with. What should we make our long-term goal?  What are our objectives?


Answers to some of the above questions were suggested by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev. He created the Kardashev Scale, which is a way to measure a civilization’s technological advancement by looking at the amount of energy it is able to utilize. Basically it’s like a civilization grading system. Here’s a brief explanation of the Kardashev Scale, by Dr. Michio Kaku:

In other news, the Perimeter Institute published an interesting article on their website on what famous scientists (mostly physicists) did in their spare time. It’s a very good read. Check it out here.

Stalking Hawking

If newspapers can write articles upon articles concerning the personal lives and scandals of stupid celebrities and politicians, why can’t I write a blog post sharing internet links about one of the greatest physicists of our era? So here goes…

I found a hilarious interview of Stephen Hawking the other day conducted by British comedian John Oliver for his show Last Week Tonight.

Also take a look at other episodes of Last Week Tonight such as the one that deals with net neutrality. The show is funny and intelligent.

There’s also a playlist uploaded by the Science Channel containing Stephen Hawking narrating ten of his favourite jokes…

On top of that, the youtube series, “Epic Rap Battles of History”, produced an entertaining fictional rap battle between Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking:

Oh, and did I mention an interesting television broadcast featuring Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and the science-fiction writer Arthus C. Clare called “God, The Universe and Everything Else” ?

Lastly, be sure to read three of my favourite popular science books written by Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time, A Briefer History of Time and The Grand Design.

How to become a Theoretical Physicist – Part 3


Work Hard in College

One really needs an excellent (not just good or great, I mean excellent) GPA to get into a reputable international grad school. It is not just helpful, but absolutely essential to target a perfect 4.0 if one plans to move up about  a thousand places in the rankings and get admitted to grad schools like MIT or Stanford. One needs recommendation letters that say things like, “He’s the best student I have ever seen.”

If your undergraduate degree was not obtained from a top-ranked college, it is necessary to convince highly ranked graduate schools that the university you got your undergraduate degree from was way, way too easy for you. Doing this is only possible if you have consistently outstanding grades.

Don’t Waste Time doing Extra-curricular Activities

Unless they include research in a field related to your major with a professor or at a research lab, I don’t think extra-curricular activities increase your chances of getting into a good graduate school. In other words, if you want are applying for a doctorate in physics, having been part of model united nations clubs or religio-political student associations in your undergrad years won’t really help you much.

On top of that, taking part in an unnecessarily large amount of extra curricular activities can make students lose focus in their studies, resulting in lower GPAs.

Once Again, The Internet is Your Friend

I listed several helpful educational resources on the internet in my previous posts. Here are some more:

Ask Other Physicists

The biggest advantage of having an internet connection and access to science-related forums like the one I mentioned above is that you can discuss your problems with physicists around the world and listen to their advice. Often it turns out that they have been through similar problems and/or know a good solution.

Question Yourself

Ask yourself why you want to become a physicist in the first place. If it is for fame or money, then I don’t think physics is the right career for you. At any rate, I don’t think that’s the right attitude. Get a PhD in Physics only if you are genuinely passionate about it and want to make your own contribution to human knowledge and know more about the world.

Also, get rid of your ego. You don’t have to be right all the time. Sometimes it is far more noble to accept your mistakes, learn from them and move forward. That’s what science is all about.

Becoming A Theoretical Physicist – Phase 2


One of the biggest challenges I have faced is to keep myself motivated and interested. I try to keep myself involved in ‘sciency’ stuff to prevent the (very improbable) chances of me giving up all together and start studying something like business or worse… the humanities. Oh, the humanity! (Get it? Lame joke, I know. My sense of humor is non-existent)


The biggest problem I am encountering is lack of motivation and the tendency to procrastinate. COSMOS comes in handy whenever morale gets dangerously low. Seriously, it’s the best television series ever. I’ve watched all thirteen parts COSMOS: A Personal Voyage thrice. For now, I’ve only watched one part of COSMOS: A Space-Time Odyssey. I try to catch the show on the National Geographic Channel whenever possible.

The Internet is your Friend


There are lots of awesome channels on Youtube that keep me interested and up-to-date on science related stuff. The ones I watch regularly are:

  • Sci Show
  • VSauce
  • The PBS Idea Channel
  • Minute Physics
  • Minute Earth
  • Sixty Symbols
  • Numberphile
  • Computerphile
  • CGP Grey
  • MentalFloss
  • Vihart

On top of that there are also channels and websites that actually help me (and a lot) in understanding the stuff I self-learn. Two of my favourite are:

Social Media is Your Enemy

Facebook is the biggest waste of time humanity has heard of. I once watched a TED Conference by some electronic (or telecommunication) engineer where the growing innovation in Africa was discussed. In the middle of it, the guy said something like,

So…why is most of the innovation now happening in Africa? Because the rest of the world is busy checking their facebook.

I agree with him completely. Twitter’s even worse.

Social Media is also Your Friend

Okay. Believe it or not, I found out a neat way to convert both Facebook and Twitter from the irrational and illogical overly argumentative hatred-inciting intolerant lunatic asylums they are to significantly more informative and educational (yes, educational!) places. Here’s what I did.

Facebook: Unliked all religio-political, nationalistic, meme-ridden, humorous, sports-related and miscellaneous nonsensical pages and left out only strictly scientific and informative pages. Some nice ones I left out include:

  • From Quarks to Quasars
  • I F***ing Love Science
  • Our Place in the Cosmos
  • Bill Nye – The Science Guy

Next, I un-followed most of the overly political or religious people in my friend list along with all the people who tended to share a lot of time-wasting stuff like cliched jokes and memes and people I didn’t really care that much about. (I didn’t unfriend them, just un-followed them. This way I can avoid seeing their posts in my news feed and yet not declare social warfare against them).

Twitter: Followed a similar procedure. Un-followed most people, leaving out only people who gave educational, informative or inspirational tweets. Some of the people I still follow include Neil de-Grasse Tyson, Dr. James Grime, Numberphile, CarlSaganQuoted, ThisDayinMath etc.

Avoid Sports and News like the Plague

Another redundant waste of time. I tried a bunch of rehab tactics to reduce my cricket-watching addition. First, I cut out watching all the preliminary matches. Waste of time. If there’s a big competition, I don’t start keeping track of the Pakistani team until it reaches the semi-finals (it almost always reaches the semi-finals because we’re awesome).

Next, I don’t watch the first half/innings/whatever-it’s-called anymore. Most of the stuff gets done in the second half anyway. If it’s a fifty over match, I only watch the first ten and the last ten overs. That’s when all the boundaries are usually made. The rest is just mindless running between the wickets. In T20s, I only watch the last 5-6 overs. Also, if it looks like Pakistan’s losing, I just leave. No point watching the rest of the game. Even if, by some chance, Pakistan manages to win, someone will tell me anyway.

I don’t watch news, like, at all. My main sources of news and international political analyses are passing conversations with my mother, and I usually forget most of it by the end of the hour. Life is exponentially happier when one is socially irresponsible, unaware of contemporary global issues and completely unpatriotic.

Read Science-Fiction

I like Science Fiction. Some of my favourites are:

  • Contact by Carl Sagan
  • The Martian by Andy Weir
  • The Time Machine by H G Wells
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

Write Blog Posts about Physics

Like this one.


Calculating π ( Pi ) with Python


For fun I decided to write a python script to calculate the mathematical constant \pi (Pi). Here’s my code

# Author: Muhammad Ahmad Tirmazi
# Date: January 4, 2014
from decimal import *
import math

class PiCalculator(): #Calculates Pi
    def __init__(self, prec):
        getcontext().prec = prec # the precision
    def nilakantha(self, end): # Nilakantha's series
        op = '+'
        x = Decimal(3)
        for n in range(2, end, 2):
            if (op == '-'):
                x -= ( Decimal(4) / Decimal((n * (n+1) * (n+2))) )
                op = '+'
                x += ( Decimal(4) / Decimal((n * (n+1) * (n+2))) )
                op = '-'
        return x

    def gregory_leibniz(self, end): # Gregory-Leibniz's series 
        op = '+'
        x = Decimal(0)
        for n in range(1, end):
            if (op == '-'):
                x -= ( Decimal(4) / Decimal(2*n - 1) )
                op = '+'
                x += ( Decimal(4) / Decimal(2*n - 1) )
                op = '-'
        return x

    def ramanujan(self, end): # Ramanujan's series
        y = Decimal(0)
        for n in range(0, end):
            y += ( Decimal(math.factorial(4*n)) * Decimal((1103 + 26390*n)) )\
              / (Decimal(math.pow( Decimal(math.factorial(n)), 4)) \
                 * Decimal(math.pow(396, 4*n)) )
        y *= ( Decimal(2) * Decimal(math.sqrt(2)) ) / Decimal(9801)
        y = Decimal(1/y)
        return y

    def chudnovsky(self, end):
        y = Decimal(0)
        for n in range(0, end):
            y += ( Decimal(math.factorial(6*n)) * \
                   Decimal((13591409 + 545140134*n)) )\
              / ( Decimal(math.pow( \
                  Decimal(math.factorial(3*n)) * Decimal(math.factorial(n)), 3)) \
                 * Decimal(math.pow(-640320, 3*n)) )
        y *= ( Decimal(12) / Decimal(math.pow(640320, 1.5)) )
        y = Decimal(1/y)
        return y        

    def in_built(self): # Stored Value by Python implementation
        return Decimal(math.pi)

I did a test-run allowing ten iterations to each method:

def main():

    calc_pi = PiCalculator(10**3)

    pi_s = calc_pi.in_built()
    pi_n = calc_pi.nilakantha(10)
    pi_gl = calc_pi.gregory_leibniz(10)
    pi_r = calc_pi.ramanujan(10)
    pi_c = calc_pi.chudnovsky(10)

    separator = "\n\n\n********\n\n"

    print("Stored Value: ", pi_s, separator)
    print("Nilakantha: ", pi_n, separator)
    print("Gregory-Leibniz: ", pi_gl, separator)
    print("Ramanujan: ", pi_r, separator)
    print("Chudnovsky: ", pi_c, separator)
    input("press any key to continue")


I compared my results with this. The Gregory-Leibniz method was accurate only to the first digit. Nilakantha to the first 2 digits. Chudnovsky was accurate to the first 14 digits and Ramanujan’s method turned out to be the best so far by yielding 16 accurate digits.

Next, I decided to give the Nilakantha and Gregory-Leibniz methods a bit of an advantage by allowing then 10^4 iterations each, while I increased the iterations of the Chudnovsky and Ramanujan to only 15.

 pi_s = calc_pi.in_built()
 pi_n = calc_pi.nilakantha(10**4)
 pi_gl = calc_pi.gregory_leibniz(10**4)
 pi_r = calc_pi.ramanujan(15)
 pi_c = calc_pi.chudnovsky(15)

This time Gregory-Leibniz was accurate to the first 4 digits and Nilakantha to the first 11 digits. Chudnovsky’s and Ramanujan’s methods still gave an accuracy of 14 digits and 16 digits respectively.

Overall, it was a pretty educational experience. I found out that for the number of iterations I tried out (unless I made a mistake), the methods, in order of decreasing accuracy are:

  • Ramanujan — 16 digits on 15 iterations (Most Accurate)
  • Chudnovsky — 14 digits on 15 iterations
  • Nilakantha — 11 digits on 10^4 iterations
  • Gregory-Leibniz — 4 digits on 10^4 iterations (Least Accurate)