Hello and welcome to the Room of Lives. I am your host Neel. In this very first episode, I want to tell you about who I am and what this podcast is about.
In brief, I was born and raised in India, and I’m currently a PhD student in physics, neuroscience and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
The Room of Lives podcast is a series of long in-depth conversations that I’ve had with interesting people from a whole spectrum of backgrounds, and also thoughts, stories and experiences that I want to share from my own side.
Some of my conversations have been with young PhD students in various disciplines like physics, biology, neuroscience, information studies, and architecture. Others have been with other people that I have met from various walks of life, such as a reporter of the biggest Austin daily newspaper, a teacher of the blind, a young violinist and modern music creator, the mother of a guy who is in a maximum-security prison for building the largest anonymous market on the dark web, and an ex-blackhawk pilot who has been healing himself and other veterans of trauma using traditional plant-based medicine and psychedelics from Latin America.
The thing with the Room of Lives podcast is that each of these conversations is centered not around a topic, but around the whole person, and so we’ll be discussing anything about their life, experiences, work and passions that they find interesting. So we’ll talk about their personal lives, about philosophy, technology, science, causes, really whatever they’re passionate about.
And when it comes to those episodes where I discuss my own thoughts and experiences, here are some of the topics that you can expect: The connections that I see between Western neuroscience and eastern spirituality on questions of the nature of the self and of reality, the idea of life being a simulation both from the perspective of modern technology as well as ancient Hindu philosophy, my thoughts on nudism, and the story of my own personal spiritual journey, including what I have learned from meditation and various psychedelics.
Okay, so that was a quick summary. Now I’m going to go into some more depth about myself, how I meet so many people, how this podcast came to be and what the podcast is going to be like.
So first things first, my full name is Abhranil Das, and I go by Neel when I’m in the United States. Abhranil, which is my first name, means ‘blue sky’. Abhra means sky, nil (or Neel) means blue. The literal translation of Das is ‘slave’. Now I don’t know if any of my ancestors used to actually be slaves, or… yeah, I don’t really know about that. But anyway, most people in the US call me Neel and so I’m just going to go by Neel on this podcast.
I was born in Kolkata or Calcutta, which is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal. It used to be the capital of India under the British. I was born to middle class parents. When I was growing up — actually in the years following independence — West Bengal was under a Communist government for a long thirty-seven years. And I think we have had — and people will corroborate this — that we have had a sort of a long tradition of intellectual exploration. A lot of the intellectuals and writers and artists and filmmakers of India have come from West Bengal, and definitely I can attest that as I was growing up, I felt this intellectual influence everywhere.
My dad is a retired geologist. My mom was a cartographer, and my sister who’s four years older than me, she works at a bank. And they were all in India. My mom passed away last year. The rest of my family live in India. My sister now has twins who are about a year old. So that’s about it. I wanted to tell you a little bit about what my family does.
When I was a kid, I was interested in science and especially physics from a very young age, and my dad used to keep fueling that interest. I mean, he was a geologist himself. so I remember that when I was a little kid, the first kind of career I wanted to have was to become an astronaut. A lot of kids want to become astronauts. And eventually I decided that I want to become a space scientist. And I don’t think I really even knew what that meant, but I knew that I wanted to become a scientist and I really liked space, and I felt like that was being more of a scientist than an astronaut who simply just goes out to space. Maybe I was also, I also when I grew up a little bit more, I realized that it’s not very easy to be an astronaut, ’cause not a lot of people go out to space, but it’s easier to become a space scientist, I guess.
Towards the end of high school and at the start of my undergraduate, I wanted to become a theoretical physicist. And so at the end of high school, I started doing a five-year integrated Masters in Science at IISER-K, which is short for the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research at Kolkata. In the final year, I guess, or the final couple of years of my high school and the first year of my undergraduate, I wrote, essentially, a book, like a 232-page book on the mathematics of how we see things, specifically about the geometry of perspective projection. You know, how the farther that something is, the smaller it gets, and kind of the general effect that that has on the shapes of things and how motion is perceived and how binocular vision, which is looking at things with two eyes, can give you information about how far away things are et cetera. So I just kind of like sat and wrote this myself, and I worked all the math out, and when I was in undergrad, a German company called Lambert Academic Publishing approached me and they eventually published the book. I don’t advertise this as much any more because although I’m very proud of the book itself, and all the stuff that I wrote, Lambert Academic Publishing goes around seeking manuscripts from a lot of people, and it’s not really peer reviewed. So, anyway, but I did write a book, so there.
So towards the end of my integrated Master’s, I kind of veered away from my dream of becoming a theoretical physicist towards studying nonlinear dynamics and the physics of complex systems, and partly the reason for this is that I did not understand quantum mechanics, and used to be super frustrated about that. And I had a really good professor towards the end of my Master’s of nonlinear dynamics. I eventually did my Master’s thesis under him, and so when I finished my masters and I was applying for a PhD in physics abroad, I knew that I wanted to do nonlinear dynamics for my PhD, so among the places that I applied to, I got selected like half of those places and eventually I ended up at the University of Texas at Austin. And they have a whole Center for Non-Linear Dynamics. But things kind of didn’t really go in the direction that I had planned. For one, when I came here, I found out that the Center used to do more… the Center used to do the kind of nonlinear dynamics research that I am interested in more, sort of, back in the day in the ’90s and these days, the kind of research that goes on at the Center is mostly experimental biophysics or very highly mathematical stuff kind of only tangentially related to nonlinear dynamics. And I wasn’t so interested in that, so I kind of, just sort of, sat around for a bit, in different group meetings. I attended the group meetings of a mathematical physics group that I eventually did not join.
Then at some point, I got an email from a theoretical and computational neuroscience group that was being led by a professor with a physics PhD, although the group itself was in the department of neuroscience, and so the email was about ‘do you want to learn about the dynamics of the brain using physics?’ And I’d always had an interest in cognitive science. And so this particular blend of nonlinear dynamics and complex systems with trying to understand the brain was like the perfect fit for me. So I started doing my research in that group. Eventually for a couple of factors, I left that group after maybe two-ish years of working with them. And then I joined a different group, kind of overlapping area. So this new group where I’m still working, their focus is on using mathematical… using theoretical and computational approaches to try and understand various aspects of how vision works in the human and other animal brains. So it’s kind of like computational neuroscience and mathematical psychology.
Also, because I was a theoretical physicist, one of the requirements of the physics department here is that you have to work with an experimental physics group at some point. And so for that I worked in an experimental nonlinear dynamics group, where they were studying how these things called internal gravity waves propagate through the body of the ocean. You can’t see these waves on the surface, but these are a sort of waves of water that are created because of the gradient in the salinity and density of the water as you go deeper and deeper into the ocean. And so there are these waves that propagate through the body of the ocean waters and they can be very important for a variety of factors: they can carry a lot of material and heat and bio-material like planktons from one place to another and up continental slopes. So I did some computational work for them and it was fun to kind of be in their lab and see their table-top experiment inside a tank of water, and they would do experiments on that and it was kind of fun to see that.
So that’s sort of a description of all the different kinds of research that I have done since I started grad school at UT Austin.
As a result of all of my experiences and my sort of unpredicted meandering trajectory through graduate school, I’ve had some very fundamental changes in my conception of what kind of research I want to do in future. If I do stay in academics after my PhD, I think at the moment, if you ask me this question several months later the answer might be different, but the kind of research that I feel now that I want to do is research into consciousness, or the effect of psychedelics on the human mind, or the effect of things like meditation and what can they teach us from a scientific standpoint. So I feel like I kind of want to do work that bridges spirituality and science.
Okay, so let me tell you a little bit more about myself. I currently live in Austin. I actually have a pretty cool living situation. I live in a house just north of campus, and the house is owned by a retired American couple, and they live downstairs. My landlord is a retired physicist. He used to be a relativist, and then he went on to work in a private company, and he has many different patents to his name for having invented different things. My landlady, she is an artist. But in the past, she also used to work as administrative staff in the Physics Department at the University of Texas here and at some point they started hosting students from the University at their house. So they live downstairs, and they host students upstairs, and I’ve been living in their house for, I guess, the past four or five years now.
And it’s… the house is kind of run like a co-op. We cook for each other, we pick a day of the week to cook for the whole house, and we sit and eat dinner together. I’ve had a rotating cast of roommates. I don’t think that’s the right usage of ‘rotating cast’. I just mean that I have had many roommates. And it’s been a lot of fun for me. So that’s where I live right now.
And what are my hobbies? Well, I like to listen to a lot of music. Most of it is electronic music of various forms: psychedelic ambient music, just plain ambient music, electronic dance music, downtempo. Loads of electronic music. Sometimes I listen to alternative rock. Austin is actually called the ‘live music capital of the world’, and for good reason. Since I moved here, I have attended many live music shows, and it’s all really great. I’ve been able to see a lot of my favourite bands up close. If I have to name a couple of favourite bands, I would say on the electronic frontier some of my favourite bands are ones that you have probably not heard of, like Carbon-Based Lifeforms, and Ott, and Abakus, and Solar Fields. On the rock, or the alternative rock front, some of my favourite bands are Radiohead and Muse, I guess, yeah. And then there are other bands that you wouldn’t have heard of, like smaller bands.
I also used to play the drums when I was an undergrad, and for a while when I was in grad school in Austin, before being kicked out. There’s actually a podcast episode with my friend Stefan Eccles where we discuss our past, our musical past, and I tell you a little bit more about my musical history.
Okay, so music is a big hobby. Another set of big hobbies are, I really like physical/outdoor activities. I really like, I like climbing. I used to do long distance running, but then I kind of hurt my knee doing the Austin Marathon, so I don’t run any more. But I like swimming, climbing, which is bouldering. I like camping, kayaking, cycling. Yeah, I guess that’s about it. Yeah, I like traveling a lot. I like reading about technology, or just reading in general. I used to have a blog when I was in high school, and I used to be pretty prolific, but then I kind of stopped writing as much.
Yeah, other things of note. Yeah, something that is very significant, to me, at least, in the last several years, is I’ve had a very significant spiritual evolution in my life. And I think I want to take some more time to talk about it in some dedicated podcasts because I feel like there’s enough interesting stuff there to tell other people about.
I have done various drugs. I’ve done pot of course. I’ve also done MDMA which is ecstasy. I’ve done LSD, I’ve done magic mushrooms (psilocybin). And I plan to do DMT at some point. I don’t want to do stuff like heroin, cocaine or opioids.
Recently, I’ve started getting very excited about the Latin world. I made some friends from Colombia, and I really like them. I started learning Spanish from DuoLingo. It’s a pretty nice app. I just took a bus down to Mexico this summer and I had a fantastic time, and I plan to go back down there in December, and eventually I actually want to backpack around a lot of the Spanish-speaking world, like countries in Central and South America.
Okay, so that was just a bunch of stuff about me I guess that hopefully sort of compactly manages to summarize me as a person, and you can decide whether you find me interesting or not.
Now to tell you a little bit about how this podcast thing started. So, already when I was in undergrad at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in India, I sort of started a series of talks by students. I guess I just called it the student colloquium. I gave a talk, and I guess a couple of other people gave talks too, but the thing didn’t really continue. Now, when I started graduate school here at UT Austin, I was really very glad to discover that my friends, who were mostly physics graduate students, were interested in a whole variety of different topics, in philosophy, and politics, and a bunch of stuff that far exceeded just the stuff that they were working on in their labs and offices. So my friends in physics grad school and I… we had this tradition of going out, usually on Thursday evenings, to a bar for trivia night. And I remember that my interest there was not so much the trivia, but to have conversations with these people, and I always found that fascinating, but it used to be kind of a pain to always try and speak over the loud music. And I started thinking, is there a way to have a slightly more formal space for people to come and talk about things that they are interested in, and for other people to just come and listen?
So I started this thing called the Molotov Seminar at UT Austin, and I gave the first talk. And I kind of envisioned this as… I just booked a room in the physics building really… and I just envisioned this as a place where periodically my friends and I would gather, and we would just share our thoughts on ideas and stuff that we just want to talk about. And in the beginning I thought it would just be like nerdy stuff like things in physics and math that catch our attention. And so the first talk that I gave was actually about something in physics. It was about left-right asymmetry, or symmetry, in electrodynamics. But the very second talk was about Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, and the thing just became this very general venue for people to come and give talks about anything. And so eventually there were both speakers and attendees from outside the physics department, and eventually unaffiliated with the university.
This last Friday, which was yesterday, I hosted my 77th Molotov Seminar. I guess I’ve been doing it for about four years now. So I have met a lot of people through the process of organizing these talks. I have been to almost all of those talks. Although I’m the organizer, I didn’t go to, I guess, two of the talks, ’cause I was out of town. So, having sat through seventy-five talks by people from all sorts of backgrounds, talking about all sorts of things — you know, they might be from physics, but they are talking about philosophy — and I feel like that has had the effect of making me grow as a person a lot, and I’ve been able to connect many dots, and I… I feel like I’m much more well-informed about the connections between things than the average expert in any particular field. So that has been really great for me. I’ve become a lot better at soft skills like social skills, managing people, getting them to do things without pissing them off, of holding my own in socially high-pressure situations, and in general, much better skills of interacting with people who I may not know very well. So yeah, that makes it easy for me to meet a lot of people that I otherwise would not have met.
A lot of people wonder why it’s called the Molotov Seminar. So, I’ll just put in a word about that. At the time that I was creating the seminar series, there already existed another series of talks that would be organized by students in a mathematical physics group, and it was called Whizkey seminar. But I have heard that they had, on more than one occasion, actually sneaked whiskey into the talk room, and that’s not supposed to be legal. Anyway, so when I was contemplating what to call my seminar, I thought, okay, why not continue this tradition of naming it after some sort of alcohol? And a Molotov cocktail contains alcohol, but you’re not supposed to drink it, you’re supposed to light it on fire and throw it at people who are oppressing you. So I thought, okay, that’s a pretty explosive twist on this alcohol-based trend of naming talks. So I was pretty happy with it. It also has the same number of letters as ‘seminar’, so writing ‘Motive Seminar’ usually makes for a pretty aesthetically pleasing logo. It also has the same number of syllables as ‘seminar’. So I think ‘Molotov Seminar’ sounds pretty good. So, that’s about the Molotov Seminar.
Okay, for a while, I… well, okay, so there was this guy called Aaron Conrado, who is a molecular biology graduate student, and he came and gave a talk about molecular biology at the Molotov Seminar. And he used to be a host of a student-run radio show. So there’s a student-run radio station called KVRX 91.7 FM, and it’s run by the Department of Communication I guess, or the media center, at UT Austin, and there’s like a radio station office there from which they run radio shows. And so he used to be a DJ or a host of this radio show called ‘They Blinded Me with Science’, in which they would invite graduate students to come and talk about their research. And they were having some vacancies, some graduate students were leaving, the people who used to be hosts of the show. And so Aaron asked me if I wanted to, to try my hand at hosting that show, and I was very excited. So for a semester, or maybe a couple semesters, I co-hosted the show ‘They Blinded Me With Science’, and it was a lot of fun, although I used to be a little bit nervous.
At some point I realized that my plate was too full, so I didn’t want to continue co-hosting the show, but Aaron and I started discussing the possibility of starting our own podcast. He was someone who was interested in science communication, and he was kind of thinking about what he wanted to do after his PhD. And so we met at this taco place and we discussed the possibility of doing a podcast together where we would invite graduate students and talk to them about research, sort of along the lines of that radio show. At some point I realized, soon after my conversation with him, that… I realized two things. One, that things would be slow if I kept depending on him. And we are both graduate students, we are both busy. So for conversations to happen, where I’m in the room and Aaron is in the room and our invited guest is in the room, things would be kind of slow, and it’s kind of hard to get all the logistics together. And I was feeling like too impatient at the time to get this podcast thing started. So that’s the first thing. And the second thing I realized was that maybe I didn’t want to stay committed or restricted to the idea of just interviewing science students about their science. That’s something that Aaron wanted to do, but I already noticed with the Molotov Seminar that it kind of took a shape of its own. And I wanted to be open to that possibility with my podcast as well.
So, I told Aaron, that I just wanted to start doing this podcast thing by myself, but I would still very much like him to be the first person that I sit down and have a conversation with, for my podcast. So that’s what I did Aaron Conrado was the first person that I interviewed for my podcast. And like I said, we talked not just about the science, but about his personal life and experiences.
And so in the beginning when I was envisioning the podcast and working on the podcast, it used to be graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin, mostly science students who I would have conversations with, and my vision was a sort of a platform to showcase young scientists who are getting into science. Because if you think about it, I feel like in an era where we are so dependent on science and technology, there still exists a severe disconnect between the usual public media and public psychology of the people, and the world of scientists and how science gets done, and who does it, and how does it function. The only bridges are established scientists who have become these media personalities, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, or other people that I could name, but all of these people are older. Most of them are not doing active science any more, a lot of them are retired, and they’re very well-respected people who rarely doubt themselves. So they sort of project this traditional image of what a scientist is supposed to be: this sort of infallible person who is kind of older and knows what they’re talking about, and they’re wearing a lab coat sometimes or whatever. It’s someone that you can sit and listen to very respectfully and nod along, but it’s someone that you can’t really identify with, so… so one of the goals that I envisioned for my podcast would be to talk to young scientists, with all their frailties and doubts and self-defeating thoughts and all sorts of uncertainty, going into science, still kind of shaping themselves and the way that they relate to science and the way that they think, with all of their imperfections and all of their doubts. And talk to them not just about their science, but about their personality, about their lives, about what drives them, to see where their curiosity comes from, where their passion comes from, so that when you listen to these people, hopefully you get a sense that well, these are people kind of like me, and they’re just excited about this one thing, and they’re not a separate species of humans called scientists.
And I realized, both from my experience of hosting the Molotov Seminars, and also just going around and meeting people in grad school, that if I think about it, I am surrounded by a really fascinating community of people. Graduate school is like a treasure trove of meeting people who, for many years, have thought deeply about things and are greatly fascinated about something that most people wouldn’t even know about, and they are very often can very intelligently and articulately talk about these things. So I felt like it’s kind of like a treasure that’s just lying by the wayside. And I could just go out, and using my existing network of people that I know, I can start interviewing them, and I can interview them on this personal level where I talk about all spheres of their life as well as their interests.
So this was sort of the original idea, and I kind of started doing this and it kind of stayed on that track for a while. But just as with the Molotov Seminar, eventually I started branching out to people who were unaffiliated with science or not graduate students at all. For example, I told you that I interviewed a reporter of the Austin-American Statesman, and she told me about this very colourful and interesting account of her personal life, and her family, and all of these other people that I’ve interviewed are not from grad school.
And so it basically went in the direction that I kind of anticipated when I decided early on that I didn’t want the podcast to simply be a profile of grad students in science.
So at the time, speaking right now, I have done about, I guess, 14 or 15 interviews. And each of these interviews is anywhere between 2 to 4 or 5 hours long, so these are pretty long-ass fucking interviews yeah? But they have all been very exciting and interesting for me.
So the format of this podcast is going to be the following. When it comes to these conversations that I’ve had with people, no matter how long the whole conversation was, I have tried in almost all cases to not edit any content out. So if I don’t edit any content out, then the whole conversation that you would have to listen to would be like several hours long. And I understand that that’s too much to ask for. So what I did was, I kind of designed my conversations with these people as a sequence of topics. So I would send them an email in advance asking them, okay, what is it that you are interesting in talking about? And then they would write me back a series of topics about their own lives and passions and interests. I would combine it with other stuff that I already know about that person, so I might know that, okay, I want to talk to this guy about meditation a little bit, even if they have not mentioned it, and I would kind of write down, in an order, these topics that I want to touch on when I’m talking to them, such that later on you can break down the whole conversation into a chronological sequence of sub-episodes with its own topics. So, for example, if I’m interviewing my friend Stefan Eccles, there might be an episode, or a sub-section that is its own episode, on his work in theoretical cosmology. And then the next part of the conversation would be its own episode where he tells me about his experiences making music, and then the following part of the conversation would be an episode where he tells me about growing up Mormon, and how he has evolved in terms of his religious and spiritual ideas, et cetera.
So the format is long unabridged conversations, but divided where possible into sections that become their own episodes.
And when it comes to the episodes which are monologues, or sometimes they’re discussions with someone else, about a topic that I just want to say something about, if that conversation ends up being very long, I’ll also try to divide those up into sub-sections where possible.
All the episodes and transcripts are available at roomoflives.com. If you like the episodes and you want to donate, you can send me Ether at abhranil.eth. For those of you who are not familiar, Ether is the crypto-currency that fuels the Ethereum blockchain, and abhranil.eth is just the name or address of my Ethereum wallet, so if you just type it into your browser, nothing is gonna happen.
So that’s about it as far as what to expect from this podcast. But once again, I’m sitting here telling you right now about what I see the podcast as being currently, but in future if I continue doing this, it might take some other shape, so no guarantees.
Before I sign off today, there’s a couple of acknowledgements regarding this podcast.
My friend Yorgos Stratis who is a physics PhD student, also he is in my cohort, he is the one who first told me that I can rent out — or I can check out — these very good quality microphones from the UT Austin fine arts library that I can use to record my podcasts, and so that’s what I do.
And then my room-mate — well not really room-mate, he lives in the same house as me — Behnam Arzaghi. I met him at a meditation retreat, and now he lives in the same house as me. And I actually interviewed him for my podcast; he is the young violinist and music creator that I mentioned earlier. And he is the one who composed the intro music for my podcast. He also has a podcast of his own called the Austin Reader. And so I encourage you to go and check it out if you are interested.
And I guess for the introductory episode, this is going to be it. So I hope that you’re going to enjoy listening to this podcast.