Tuesday, December 20, 2011

MIT's Experiment in Online Higher Ed

It's called MITx, and it'll be launched soon by MIT.

MITx will offer a portfolio of MIT courses through an online interactive learning platform that will:

  • organize and present course material to enable students to learn at their own pace
  • feature interactivity, online laboratories and student-to-student communication
  • allow for the individual assessment of any student’s work and allow students who demonstrate their mastery of subjects to earn a certificate of completion awarded by MITx
  • operate on an open-source, scalable software infrastructure in order to make it continuously improving and readily available to other educational institutions.

It's the third bullet point that makes this really interesting for students. While MIT has stated clearly that it's not getting into the business of offering course towards an MIT degree [see the FAQs], a certificate of completion awarded by MITx will still be attractive to many, many students worldwide.

Interestingly, this is precisely the idea that I first heard from Prof. M.S. Ananth over three years ago in a meeting to discuss the second phase of NPTEL. According to his grand vision, students all over India could use NPTEL course material, register for exams conducted by IITs, receive grades and certificates from the IITs. However, the idea appears to have gone nowhere.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Meta-university Takes Shape

Shaswati Das reports in today's Hindustan Times:

Cross-university education will no more remain a dream for students in Delhi. Pursuing two courses simultaneously at Delhi University (DU) and Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) or graduate students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) trying their hands at technical courses offered at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) may soon become a reality.

To make this possible, four city-based institutes — DU, JMI, IIT and JNU — will join hands to tap their best faculties and make cross-discipline education available to students.

These are just early plans; as learn a little later, "Meanwhile, the institutes are awaiting further clarity on the matter to decide the future course of action."

Still, a fascinating development.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Dr. S.R. Valluri on "Instant Excellence and Achievement"

An Indian 'experiment' from the 1990s is worth recalling for its resemblance to the shenanigans of a few Saudi universities. It is all the more remarkable since the institution that tried the experiment is now one of the top institutions in India.

The scientist who broke this story is Dr. S.R. Valluri, former director of the National Aerospace Laboratories, Bangalore. In an op-ed in The Hindu (dated 2 November 1995) entitled Whither Ethics in Science, Valluri questioned the ethics of various actions of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bangalore. [I can't provide a direct link since The Hindu archives don't go so far back.] The op-ed criticized JNCASR (and its leadership) on several counts, but here are the parts that are relevant to the issue at hand:

Were it not for the serious nature of the implications, one can only observe with amusement the efforts of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) in Bangalore to project an image of instant excellence and achievement. The centre has been attempting to achieve this image of "making rapid strides" by identifying some scientists from other institutions as its honorary faculty, and including in its annual report (January '95) a list of their publications, without mentioning there itself, their places of full time employment and where the work was actually done, thus making them appear as if they are the centre's own achievements.

It is tantamount to a whole scientific institution being less than truthful in matters of science.[...] [T]his practice violates the very ethics and culture of science. ... By this practice the centre's own credentials have come under a cloud.

... One ... wonders how the scientists concerned could have countenanced the omission, in the listings in the centre's report, of their affiliations with their own parent organizations which have been nurturing them. This denial of the credit by the centre is less than fair.

To give them benefit of the doubt, we have to assume that the scientists concerned acquiesced without examining its implications. Such things are happening as the senior scientific community has not cared to give enough thought to evolving and putting into practice a self-regulating code of ethics for the practice, management and administration of science in India.

[Snip, snip, snip]

The JN Centre deserves all the financial support it needs for its full time staff to work inhouse purposefully. But flaunting borrowed finery and basking in reflected glory has unfortunate implications for the cause of science and even for their own image considering the reputation of the scientists who are associated with the centre. [...]

The op-ed goes into some detail about some of the other actions by JNCASR, which, as I said, need not concern us now. It drew a response from the late Prof. Raja Ramanna; since I have not read that letter, I'm not quite sure why he chose to get involved. But Valluri got a chance to reiterate his points in a follow-up letter (published in The Hindu on 28 November 1995). Here's the relevant part of his rebuttal:

... I stand by what I have said in my article. ... The clarifications given by Dr. Ramanna are extraneous to the points I have raised in my article.

I have specifically raised three questions in my article. One is directly concerned with ethics in science. In instances I am personally aware, the honorary faculty [at JNCASR] did mention their places of full time employment and did indicate their honorary association with the JNCASR, and did acknowledge the financial support that they received from it. the JNCASR, however, deleted all reference to the place of full time affiliation of its honorary faculty, while taking credit for their research by listing their publications in its Jan '95 annual report (pages 38 to 56). It could have been considered accidental and not taken seriously if it happened once or twice. But that it was deliberate is indicated by the fact that about 200 listings or more belong to this category. It even took credit for the work of at least one honorary fellow who did not receive any support and who did his work entirely in some other organization. By such a practice, while the JNCASR takes credit for such research, it implicitly denies the same to the parent institutions which have been really nurturing the honorary faculty, while they may have received some financial support from the JNCASR also. In matters of science, such practices are unethical, as credits in progress of science are built on historical records. If everybody indulges in this practice, chaos will result.

In both his original article and in his rebuttal to Ramanna's response, Valluri does not mention the name of the the man at the helm of JNCASR at that time: Prof. C.N.R. Rao. It was clear, however, that Valluri placed the responsibility for the ethical violations on JNCASR's leadership. When Prof. Rao's autobiographical memoirs -- Climbing the Limitless Ladder: A Life in Chemistry -- were published sometime ago, I was curious to see how he dealt with this dark episode in his career as a top scientific administrator. This is what I found on p. 92:

One or two scientists made personal attacks on me at that time ... Another criticism was that in one of the early reports of the Centre, the Academic Coordinator had also included the publications of some of the honorary professors. No one expects a new centre to become famous from papers of others, but the criticism was that the Centre was using the reputation of others to become famous instantaneously. All this was far from the truth. ... Fortunately for me, all my colleagues including Raja Ramanna came to my defence at that time. I also made sure that subsequent reports of the Centre did not list papers of honorary professors even if their research was supported by JNCASR.

I'll just state that Rao appears to have misread Valluri's critique as a "personal attack." Valluri was careful to point to specific acts of "omission and commission" with a view to forcing a course correction. That his criticism was right -- and stingingly so -- is proven beyond doubt by the fact that Rao "made sure that subsequent reports of the Centre did not list papers of honorary professors."

* * *

All in all, this unholy experiment offers an excellent test to check if an institutional policy / action is right. The leader just has to ask, "Would it survive if Dr. Valluri decides to write an op-ed about it?"

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Academic Scam of the Year

It was only a matter of time, and this should not be surprising at all to those who have been watching JEE toppers being claimed by several different cramschools as their students [link, link]. I heard about the scam from a highly cited researcher from India a while ago, and it's great to see some fabulous reporting by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee of Science on the audacity of it all:

At first glance, Robert Kirshner took the e-mail message for a scam. An astronomer at King Abdulaziz University (KAU) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was offering him a contract for an adjunct professorship that would pay $72,000 a year. Kirshner, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, would be expected to supervise a research group at KAU and spend a week or two a year on KAU's campus, but that requirement was flexible, the person making the offer wrote in the e-mail. What Kirshner would be required to do, however, was add King Abdulaziz University as a second affiliation to his name on the Institute for Scientific Information's (ISI's) list of highly cited researchers.

“I thought it was a joke,” says Kirshner, who forwarded the e-mail to his department chair, noting in jest that the money was a lot more attractive than the 2% annual raise professors typically get. Then he discovered that a highly cited colleague at another U.S. institution had accepted KAU's offer, adding KAU as a second affiliation on ISIhighlycited.com.

Kirshner's colleague is not alone. Science has learned of more than 60 top-ranked researchers from different scientific disciplines -— all on ISI's highly cited list -— who have recently signed a part-time employment arrangement with the university that is structured along the lines of what Kirshner was offered. ... [Bold emphasis added]

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Seth Myth

Mihir Sharma is turning into a one-man demolition squad. First came his review of India Calling, and what do we have now? The Age of Seth, a most delicious tear-down of Suhel Seth's Get To The Top: The Ten Rules For Social Success.

If you have seen Seth on TV -- and he appears there far too often -- it is very easy to hate the man. Here's Girish Shahane's post that's largely about Seth, the TV commentator. A memorable line: "He makes points forcefully and articulately, but never with any hint of insight."


  1. Namit Arora at 3 Quarks Daily: The Bhagavad Gita Revisited: Part 1 Given the big bang summary -- "Why the Bhagavad Gita is an overrated text with a deplorable morality at its core" -- I can't wait for Part 2!

  2. Sunshine has an article in Amreekan Desi: The FOB who became ABCD:

    Her acclimatization experience did not come without some ten dozen embarrassing experiences when she made a fool of herself. But she learned well. She learned that light switches worked differently, bathrooms were restrooms, baths were showers, notes were bills, bills were checks, and checks were also checks. She learned to run hot water without burning herself. She learned not to use the word dicky for car trunks, and learned that a fast food chain was called Dick’s. She learned that it was actually okay to ask for boxes for leftover food, and capsicums, brinjals, and lady’s finger had their own names here.

    She learned to drop the words sir and madam, and address her professor, as old as her grandfather, using his first name. [...]

  3. Rahul Siddharthan: An h-index for test cricket batsmen.

    Suppose we modify it as follows: the nh index is that value of h, for a given n, such that on h occasions the batsman has scored nh or more runs. For examples, the 10h index would be: if on 5 occasions I have scored 50 runs or more (and I have not scored 60 runs or more on 6 occasions) I have a 10h index of 5. For n > 1, basically, I am giving more importance to higher-scoring innings, and also benefiting those who played fewer matches (most older players played far fewer games than Tendulkar and can’t remotely approach either his career aggregate, or his h-score).

Potato Chips, Class and the Language of Food

A good one from Improbable Research: A research paper that analyzes the blurb on packages of potato chips:

Authenticity in America: Class Distinctions in Potato Chip Advertising,” Joshua Freedman and Dan Jurafsky [pictured here], Gastronomica, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Winter 2012), pp. 46-54. The authors explain:

“Our study uses the language of food to examine the representation of socioeconomic class identity in contemporary America by comparing the advertising language on expensive bags of potato chips with that on inexpensive chips. We find that the language on expensive chip bags indeed emphasizes factors that are more representative of higher socioeconomic status, such as more complex language and more claims about health. We also find support for Pierre Bourdieu’s hypothesis that taste is fundamentally negative: descriptions on expensive chips, unlike on inexpensive chips, are full of comparison (“less fat,” “finest potatoes”) and negation (“not,” “never”’), suggesting a goal of distancing the upper classes from the tastes of lower socioeconomic classes. Finally, our results expand the relationship between authenticity and socioeconomic status. Previous scholars suggest that the desire for authenticity is solely linked with upper-class identity; we find, however, two distinct modes of authenticity. For the upper classes, authentic food is natural: not processed or artificial. For the working class, by contrast, authentic food is traditional: rooted in family recipes and located in the American landscape. Thus, the authentic experience is linguistically relevant for both classes—an example of the rich meanings hidden in the language of food.”

Human Piano

A great performance / demo from 2009 by Bobby McFerrin (the same guy who gave us #kolaveri of the 1980s):

* * *

Thanks to The Kid Should See This for the reminder.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

N-dimensional Spheres in N-dimensional Boxes

In an imaginary world of high dimensionality there would be an automatic and perpetual potato famine, for the skin of the potato would occupy essentially its entire volume.
-- Herbert Callen, Thermodynamics and Introduction to Thermostatistics [1985].

Things do get weird in higher dimensions. Brian Hayes has an awesome essay in American Scientist on another one of those weird things -- the volume of an n-dimensional sphere is a vanishingly insignificant fraction of the volume of its bounding cube:

... Both the n-ball and the n-cube grow along with n, but the cube expands faster. In fact, the curse is far more damning: At the same time the cube inflates exponentially, the ball shrinks to insignificance. In a space of 100 dimensions, the fraction of the cubic volume filled by the ball has declined to 1.8×10–70. This is far smaller than the volume of an atom in relation to the volume of the Earth. The ball in the box has all but vanished. If you were to select a trillion points at random from the interior of the cube, you’d have almost no chance of landing on even one point that is also inside the ball.

What makes this disappearing act so extraordinary is that the ball in question is still the largest one that could possibly be stuffed into the cube. We are not talking about a pea rattling around loose inside a refrigerator carton. The ball’s diameter is still equal to the side length of the cube. The surface of the ball touches every face of the cube. (A face of an n-cube is an (n–1)-cube.) The fit is snug; if the ball were made even a smidgen larger, it would bulge out of the cube on all sides. Nevertheless, in terms of volume measure, the ball is nearly crushed out of existence, like a black hole collapsing under its own mass.

How can we make sense of this seeming paradox?

Kevin Carey on the Best Kind of Student Loans

The US Should Adopt Income-Based Loans Now:

Under an income-contingent loan system, like those in Australia and Britain, students pay a fixed percentage of their income toward their loans. Payments are automatically deducted from their paychecks by the IRS, just like income-tax withholding. Self-employed workers pay in quarterly installments, just as they do with their taxes. If borrowers earn a lot, their payments rise accordingly, and their loans are retired quickly. If their income falls below a certain level—say, the poverty line—they pay nothing. After an extended time period of 20 or 30 years, any remaining debt is forgiven.

In other words, nobody ever defaults on a federal student loan again. The whole concept of "default" is expunged from the system. No more collection agencies hounding people with 10 phone calls a night. No more ruined credit and dashed hopes of home-ownership. People who want to enter virtuous but lower-paid professions like social work and teaching won't be deterred by unmanageable debt. [...]

The concept has been proven to work—Australia and Britain have used it for years—and both liberals and conservatives have reason to get on board. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman proposed the idea all the way back in 1955.

Indeed, income-contingent loans are such a good idea, one might wonder why they don't exist already. [...]


  1. I have no idea about how great BigRock.com is as a company, but its ads are great!

  2. C.K. Lewis hates Twitter.

  3. Onion TV: Breaking News: Some Bullshit Happening Somewhere. Charlie Brooker's classic is still the best of this genre. Yes, we have seen both before.

Thursday, December 01, 2011


  1. A Beautiful Prize: Nature Materials editorial on this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

  2. Female Science Professor: Imperfectionist. "Over the years, I have marveled at some of the weird things that people put in reference letters." Example:

    "In my opinion, Applicant X is an excellent scientist. Now let me tell you about my credentials. Attached is my CV."

  3. Perverse Incentives in Academia.

  4. The latest entry in Annals of Awesome Book Reviews is behind a paywall, but you can read the first several paragraphs in Evgeny Morozov's post [via Improbable Research]. Here's a sample:

    This is a book that clatters around in a dark closet of irrelevancies for 450 pages before it bumps accidentally into its index and stops; but that is not a criticism, either, because its author finds it gratifying and refreshing to bang unrelated facts together as a rebuke to stuffy minds. This book infuriated me; but that is not a defect in it, because it is supposed to infuriate people like me, and the author would have been happier still if I had blown out an artery. In short, this book is flawless, because all its deficiencies are deliberate products of art.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Good Old Days

In sharing his memories of a friend who passed away recently, Swarup writes about his own father's tenure as the Head Master of a village school:

It seems that those days some of the students would not come to school during busy farming days. Apparently, the first Head Master would go to the farms and persuade the farmers to send the students to school.

I'm now reading the biography of Prof. K.S. Krishnan, and early in the book, the authors -- D.C.V. Mallik and S. Chatterjee -- write about the American Mission College, Madurai, that Krishnan attended after finishing high school in 1914:

...[Rev. Zumbro, Principal, American Mission College] used the age-old method of sending 'beaters' to the city and the nearby villages to announce the vacancy of seats. When people gathered in response to the loud beating of the drums, they were treated to a persuasive speech, originally prepared by Zumbro, that extolled the virtues of modern higher education and how American College was the place where this was readily available.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Quick Note

While it has always been nice to see people becoming "followers" of this blog using the "Friend Connect" feature in the side bar, I never quite figured this feature out. I mean, aside from allowing one to declare one's interest in a blog (which I have done at several places), it didn't seem to do much else. Now, it turns out even Google is not quite clear what to do with it, and the company has announced that it's killing this tool. I don't know if this is of any consequence to anyone, but I just wanted to note that it'll soon be gone forever.

FWIW, I have set up a Google+ page for Nanopolitan. I don't foresee any (special) activity there -- I just wanted to claim the name +Nanopolitan before someone else did.


  1. B. Aravind Kumar: A Question of Ratings. "As many as 44 universities were bracketed under ‘C'. [... It is likely that many of the 44 deemed-to-be universities could be reverted to college status again."

  2. Christopher Shea: Fraud Scandal Fuels Debate Over Practices of Social Psychology. "Even legitimate researchers cut corners, some admit."

  3. Emily Ramshaw and Ryan Murphy: Payments to Doctors by Pharmaceutical Companies Raise Issues of Conflicts. "Dr. Stanley Self, a part-time psychiatrist at Texas’ state-run Rusk psychiatric hospital, earns $166,000 a year from the state. He also earned at least $145,000 from drug companies in 2009-10, largely for speaking engagements. ..."

  4. Noah Smith: Niall Ferguson does not know what "Western Civilization" means. "... By "Western," Niall Ferguson is not referring to a geographic region, a political system, an economic system, or a religion. He is not even referring to a specific set of countries. He is referring to a set of people; people who have pale pinkish skin, fine wavy hair, and prominent eye ridges. By "Western," Niall Ferguson means "white people." Asian Americans may have American passports, Ferguson thinks, but civilizationally speaking they are permanent foreigners. ..."

  5. Andrew Hill: Inside McKinsey. "The world’s most prestigious consultancy prides itself on its intellectual prowess and ethical standards. But this year, an insider trading scandal surrounding former McKinsey luminaries has left staff and alumni reeling"

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Perfect Terrorist

A chilling profile of David Headley (the guy who scouted the targets of 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai) by ProPublica's Sebastian Rotella. About an hour or so, over at PBS Video.

Economic Efficiency

From Cosma Shalizi's fable on Pareto optimality and economic efficiency:

And so, in yet another triumph, the market mechanism has allocated a scarce resource, viz., the turkey, to its most efficient use, viz., being turned into artificial shit. What makes this the most efficient use of the scarce resource? Why, simply that it goes to the user who will pay the highest price for it. This is all that economic efficiency amounts to. It is not about meeting demand, but meeting effective demand, demand backed by purchasing power.

Video Links

  1. A neat video on the Montessori method: Superwoman was already here! [via Christopher Shea]

  2. Errol Morris: The Umbrella Man: "On the 48th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Errol Morris explores the story behind the one man seen standing under an open black umbrella at the site."

  3. A TEDx talk by Jay Smooth: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race [see also this shorter video How to tell people they sound racist].

  4. Oh, what the heck. Here's Kolaveri. It has traveled as far as Salman Rushdie and Mark Liberman.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Department of "Awesome-if-true": 37 % of those who got through JEE didn't use "specialized coaching'"

A good catch by commenter Raj:

Candidates appearing for JEE prepare either through “self study” or through “specialized teaching (other)”. Data (Table A8) for JEE 2011 shows that 295618 out of 468280 (63.1%) have prepared using “self study”. Out of the 13196 candidates who qualified, 4912 (37.22%) have used the “self study” mode.

What are the odds that the sociological data collected by JEE is just deceptive fluff? [And, yes, this probably means the income effect is tainted as well].

Monday, November 21, 2011

Stats for JEE-2011: Income Effect

Just skimmed through the report on JEE-2011. It has all kinds of sociological data (though not fine-grained enough for us to perform our own analysis). Here's an interesting set of data on the candidates' parental income.

According to parental income

Table A13 shows the zone wise distribution of candidates according to annual income of parents. Out of the 468280 candidates who appeared, 146882 (31.36%) had a parental income of less than 1 Lakh. 195220 candidates (41.69%) had a parental income between 1-3 Lakhs. Another 19.3% have a parental income between 3-6 Lakhs, while 4.87% have parental income between 6-10 Lakhs. 12520 candidates (2.67%) have parental income exceeding 10 Lakhs. The percentages for qualified candidates for the five slabs of parental income are 17.1%, 31.7%, 30.47%, 11.86% and 8.86% respectively. The income slabs used in JEE 2010 data analysis was more or less similar. However it is observed that a large percentage of appeared as well as qualified candidates belong to the low to middle income groups.

The report doesn't tease out the implications on the income effect on JEE outcomes, but we certainly can. When we do that, we find a clear trend:

Income No. of JEE Takers No. of JEE Qualifieds Pass %
Less than 1 lakh 146882 2258 1.54
1-3 lakhs 195220 4183 2.14
3-6 lakhs 90560 4021 4.44
6-10 lakhs 22835 1565 6.85
More than 10 lakhs 12520 1169 9.34
Total 468280 13196 2.82

In other words, a candidate from the top income slab is 6 times more likely to get through JEE than one from the lowest slab. This advantage is "only" 4 times when the comparison group is from the second lowest slab (which also has the largest number of candidates).

Website of the IIT System

In an interesting move, the IITs have come together to create a website for the entire system. And they have made a good start by populating it with all kinds of interesting documents of historical / archival value.

This page has reports of various IIT-related committees, right from the famous Sarkar Committee Report (which prepared a blueprint of sorts for the IITs) all the way to the infamous Kakodkar Committee report (which we had a chance to discuss sometime ago).

All in all, a good initiative with a great potential as a must-visit site for all things IIT.

* * *

This page features reports on the entrance exams conducted by the IITs in the years 2010 and 2011. The reports on JEE 2010 and 2011) are worth checking out!

Saturday, November 19, 2011


"It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides."
--John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism

From Brad DeLong's post:

* * *

Here's a juicy put-down, found in Paul Krugman's post:

"He’s a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like."
--Ezra Klein (about someone called Dick Armey)

Friday, November 18, 2011

"Can Well Behaved Women Make (Academic) History?"

Female Science Professor in The Chronicle: Can Well-Behaved Women Make (Academic) History?:

... [In responding to sexist slights] my tendency [is] to react in a calm, polite way, perhaps with a bit of humor or gentle sarcasm. Except in extreme cases, I prefer not to respond to insulting remarks with anger, and I try to move on with the research, teaching, or service task at hand.

It is important to note that I do not let every offensive remark pass without comment. For example, if I am serving on a hiring or awards committee, I speak up when I hear colleagues make derogatory or unfair comments about female (or any) candidates. The comments I tend to ignore are the ones directed at me, when I have to make a choice about how to respond in the context of my work environment.

My choice to react calmly and politely stems from several sources, including my personality (I dislike confrontation and argument) and my belief that this approach has been effective for me over the years.

This response from a law prof is seems appropriate: "... if you are regularly subjected to comments like the one you described ('You are only here because we needed a woman on the committee"), as well as the denigrating remarks you have heard directed at other women, then your department - and perhaps your college or university - has a legal problem that is waiting to blow up."

Library as a Social Hub: What about the Books?

I'm not sure how many will agree with this rant about where some of the university libraries (in this specific case, it's the one in New Castle) are headed; I find it difficult, for example, to even see his point about research skills being all about negotiating through musty / dusty old shelves. But there are some good bits:

The place, when busy, now often feels like a cross between an airport, Disney World, a social services drop-in centre and a primary school. Management no longer sees it as a centre of learning, a place set apart to provide the student with resources for study and research, but rather as a transient, exploitable ‘space’, an extension of the full-on uni experience, with added books, to be moulded to whatever ‘lifestyle’ the management thinks students find attractive or will demand. But the worst was yet to come.

This summer, management started removing books. The reasoning was explained in a loop heralding ‘Phase 1 of the great transformation’ that played endlessly on a TV at the library exit: ‘Welcome back to your refurbished Robinson Library. You asked, we listened... We have moved loads of shelving to make room for more study spaces. We’ve shifted crate-loads of the less-used stock to provide more light, more room and a more comfortable space to study in. And created a greater variety of study areas. Choose the one that best suits your work-style!’ And the final picture — empty chairs with the words ‘Now that Phase 1 is all done, we are just waiting for you to fill the empty spaces!’ Phase 2, it promises for 2012, will continue this noble mission.

The Social Graph?

It's neither social nor a graph. So argues Maciej Ceglowski, founder of Pinboard.com. It's heavygoing at first, but patience pays! Here's something from the second part that shines:

Social networks exist to sell you crap. The icky feeling you get when your friend starts to talk to you about Amway, or when you spot someone passing out business cards at a birthday party, is the entire driving force behind a site like Facebook.

Because their collection methods are kind of primitive, these sites have to coax you into doing as much of your social interaction as possible while logged in, so they can see it. It's as if an ad agency built a nationwide chain of pubs and night clubs in the hopes that people would spend all their time there, rigging the place with microphones and cameras to keep abreast of the latest trends (and staffing it, of course, with that Mormon bartender).

We're used to talking about how disturbing this in the context of privacy, but it's worth pointing out how weirdly unsocial it is, too. How are you supposed to feel at home when you know a place is full of one-way mirrors?

We have a name for the kind of person who collects a detailed, permanent dossier on everyone they interact with, with the intent of using it to manipulate others for personal advantage - we call that person a sociopath. And both Google and Facebook have gone deep into stalker territory with their attempts to track our every action. ...

Prejudice against Ugliness

Jon Stewart's The Daily Show tackles the economics of prejudice against ugly people.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Ugly People Prejudice
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Infosys Prize - 2011

Congratulations to my colleague, Prof. Sriram Ramaswamy, for winning this year's Infosys Prize in Physical Sciences. And it's great to see one of the two Social Sciences Prizes going to Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

Here's the Jury's citation for Sriram:

Prof. Sriram Ramaswamy's work on the mechanics and statistics of active matter has given birth and shape to this rapidly growing field. He has used simple yet powerful arguments based on symmetry and conservation principles to uncover the strange laws governing the collective behavior of active particles in a medium, which could be motor proteins walking on cytoskeletal filaments, or schools of fish swimming in an ocean and forming a pattern. He was the first to conceive of an order parameter description of living matter that was connected to stresses and strains, to elasticity, hydrodynamics and thermodynamics. The body of work by Ramaswamy and his group, starting and illuminating an area considered by many to be the most interesting recent departure in the science of soft matter, has led to a large and growing collection of theoretical predictions and their verification. It has led to significant, controlled experimentation on real biological systems as well as on relevant non-living model systems.

This page has info on all the Prize winners, including their bio, and a detailed write-up about their work.


  1. At the Chronicle: Trends in international enrollments in US Universities: International Enrollments at U.S. Colleges Grow but Still Rely on China. The accompanying interactive map has more info on the top countries sending students to the US. China tops the list with over 157K (up 23% from last year), and India is second with 103K (down 1 %). [The table of institutions with the most international students is also interesting].

    Biggest surprise (at least for me)? On a per capita basis, Saudi Arabia sends seven times as many students as China.

  2. Peter Singer: Should we ban cigarettes?.

  3. The Scientist: Libel case against Nature starts.

    Opening arguments in the libel trial against the venerated scientific journal Nature got under way last week in London’s High Court. Egyptian physicist Mohamed El Naschie is suing the publication for running a 2008 news story that he claims damaged his reputation. The article alleged that El Naschie self-published numerous papers in the Elsevier-owned theoretical physics journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals, where he served as editor-in-chief for 17 years. The Nature story ... also claimed that El Naschie listed several honorary professorships and other affiliations that journalist Quirin Schiermeier could not confirm.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Prof or Hobo?

This 'quiz' is funny, though I'm not able to figure out who's being mocked.

Here's another such quiz: Donald Judd or Cheap Furniture [via Fabio Rojas]

Awesome Comment of the Day

Olaf Storbeck blogged last weem about an upcoming conference to discuss "the merits and demerits of repeating oneslf." The immediate provocation for the meeting appears to be the outing of Bruno Frey as a serial self-plagiarizer.

Justus Haucap chimes in with an awesome comment:

Olaf, I heard there will be only one paper, but read and re-read numerous times.

Friday, November 04, 2011

The Power of the Unconscious

Let's say you see / hear some stuff that makes an impression on you. And then you seem to start seeing similar stuff at a rate far higher than what you think is normal. Does this phenomenon have a name? [Update: It does: Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. In a kind-of-BM, the moment I saw Nishant-Dasgupta's comment giving me the name, I knew I had asked the same question and got the same answer several years ago].

Anyways, here's a bunch of links that came my way within the last three days:

  1. David Eagleman in Discover: Your Brain Knows a Lot More Than You Realize

    The Knowledge Gap

    There can be a large gap between knowledge and awareness. When we examine skills that are not amenable to introspection, the first surprise is that implicit memory is completely separable from explicit memory: You can damage one without hurting the other.

    Consider patients with anterograde amnesia, who cannot consciously recall new experiences in their lives. If you spend an afternoon trying to teach them the video game Tetris, they will tell you the next day that they have no recollection of the experience, that they have never seen this game before—and, most likely, that they have no idea who you are, either. But if you look at their performance on the game the next day, you’ll find that they have improved exactly as much as nonamnesiacs. Implicitly their brains have learned the game: The knowledge is simply not accessible to their consciousness.

  2. Shreeharsh Kelkar: Propositional Knowledge and Tacit Knowledge: The Case of Tennis. Commenting on an article by Jonah Lehrer, he points out the role of coaches [and others] in translating "propositional knowledge of physics" into a bunch of practices that allow players to flaunt their "tacit knowledge".

    Lehrer points out - correctly - that that laws of tennis are ultimately the laws of physics but the speed of the game means that no player actually computes the trajectory of the ball using Newtonian mechanics while playing. Instead the knowledge is displayed tacitly, in the way their bodies move, in the way they adjust their footwork and their racket motion, etc. In Michael Polanyi's terms, this is tacit knowledge - knowledge that is expressed in action but is hard to express propositionally. [...]

    "The top-ranked guys are all intuitive physicists," Hofmann says. "They know how the ball will bounce even if they can't explain why. This is what allows them to change their strategy based on the surface."

    I don't want to de-emphasize how talented the top tennis players are. But this makes it seem as though that that the only way of bringing propositional knowledge of physics into the game is if the players start calculating in their heads. If you look at the role of knowledge in tennis, as simply something that gets displayed on courts, then, sure, there's only tacit knowledge. But if you look at the world of tennis as a network (channeling Edwin Hutchins and Bruno Latour), then the propositional knowledge of physics comes into it at a number of different points: [...]

    Coaching: Coaches help to get a lot of propositional knowledge on to the courts. What's a "good" service action? How much back-swing should you have while playing a stroke? Is a long back-swing bad for grass? A lot of this is backed up by actually thinking about physics and it gets incorporated into a player's game. Novak Djokovic recently improved his service by making a "minor" adjustment - but this may have been key to his recent success because he is able to get some free points on his serve (69 more aces, according to the article).

  3. Samuel McNerny in Scientific American: A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You are not Your Brain

    Lakoff and Johnson to publish Philosophy in the Flesh, a six hundred-page giant that challenges the foundations of western philosophy by discussing whole systems of embodied metaphors in great detail and furthermore arguing that philosophical theories themselves are constructed metaphorically. Specifically, they argued that the mind is inherently embodied, thought is mostly unconscious and abstract concepts are largely metaphorical. What’s left is the idea that reason is not based on abstract laws because cognition is grounded in bodily experience (A few years later Lakoff teamed with Rafael Núñez to publish Where Mathematics Comes From to argue at great length that higher mathematics is also grounded in the body and embodied metaphorical thought).

    As Lakoff points out, metaphors are more than mere language and literary devices, they are conceptual in nature and represented physically in the brain. As a result, such metaphorical brain circuitry can affect behavior. For example, in a study done by Yale psychologist John Bargh, participants holding warm as opposed to cold cups of coffee were more likely to judge a confederate as trustworthy after only a brief interaction. Similarly, at the University of Toronto, “subjects were asked to remember a time when they were either socially accepted or socially snubbed. Those with warm memories of acceptance judged the room to be 5 degrees warmer on the average than those who remembered being coldly snubbed. Another effect of Affection Is Warmth.” This means that we both physically and literary “warm up” to people.

  4. And here's a great quote from Vaughn Bell:

    ... The drive to "understand ourselves", the mantra of 21st century pop psychology, often produces more complex, more acceptable, "reasons", but little additional understanding of what causes us to react as we do. Ironically, this is where psychology has helped me out the most. There are causes we will never know about and sometimes it’s better to live with the ambiguity. I suspect we understand ourselves better by knowing the limitations of our insight.

Thursday, November 03, 2011


From Edison vs. Westinghouse: A Shocking Rivalry at Smithsonian [with a guest appearance by Nikola Tesla]:

The concern at Edison [that their DC technology could be wiped out by AC technology from Westinghouse] was palpable, as sales agents around the country were demoralized by Westinghouse’s reach into rural and suburban areas. But Thomas Edison had an idea. Surely Westinghouse’s system must be more dangerous, what with all that voltage passing through the wires. “Just as certain as death,” Edison predicted, “Westinghouse will kill a customer within 6 months after he puts in a system of any size.” [...]

When New York State sentenced convicted murderer William Kemmler to death, he was slated to become the first man to be executed in an electric chair. Killing criminals with electricity “is a good idea,” Edison said at the time. “It will be so quick that the criminal can’t suffer much.” He even introduced a new word to the American public, which was becoming more and more concerned by the dangers of electricity. The convicted criminals would be “Westinghoused.”

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


  1. Three Biggest Myths about Women in Tech by Allison Scott and Freada Kapor Klein.

  2. Do Government School Teachers in Tamil Nadu educate their own children in Government schools or Private Schools? by Satyanarayan at Education in India.

  3. The New Einsteins Will Be Scientists Who Share, adapted from Michael Nielsen's Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science.

  4. Chart: One Year of Prison Costs More than One Year at Princeton by Brian Resnick at The Atlantic.

Drug Reps' Tactics

After posting Dr. E.A.S. Sarma's warning about the potential for conflict of interest created by research funding by industry, let me follow it up with a link to Dan Ariely's description of drug reps' tactics in getting doctors to compromise on their ethics:

... One clever tactic that they used was to hire physicians to give a brief lecture to other physicians about a drug. Now, they really didn’t care what the audience took from the lecture, but were actually interested in what the act of giving the lecture did to the speaker himself. They found that after giving a short lecture about the benefits of a drug, the speaker would begin to believe his own words and soon prescribe accordingly. Psychological studies show that people quickly start believing what is coming out of their own mouths, even when they are paid to say it. This is a clear case of cognitive dissonance at play; doctors reason that if they are touting this drug, they must believe in it themselves — and so they change their beliefs to match up with their speech.

The reps employed other tricks like switching on and off various accents, personalities, political affiliations, and basically served as persuasion machines (they may have mentioned the word “chameleon”). They were great at putting doctors at ease, relating to them as similar working people who go deep-sea fishing or play baseball together as peers. They used these shared experiences to develop an understanding that the physicians write prescriptions for their “friends.” The physicians, of course, did not think that they were compromising their values when they were out playing with the drug reps.

That last sentence sums it up nicely: the trick is to play this game in which doctors become "willing victims." There's quite a bit of literature on such shady tactics (some of which could be quite unsubtle): see, for example, articles by Marcia Angell and Daniel Carlat. There have also been several news stories.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

E.A.S. Sarma: Premier Scientific Institutions and Conflict of Interest

Dr. E.A.S. Sarma has written a letter today to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about an issue that is worth discussing.: if our scientific institutions "are forced to function as consulting institutions [to industry] in order to raise resources, their independence and credibility are adversely affected," and "... their professional objectivity will continue to get eroded."

The letter has been doing the rounds on various mailing lists and, with Dr. Sarma's permission, I am reproducing it here in full:

Dear Dr. Manmohan Singh,

  Subject: Premier scientific institutions- Conflict of interest

As a part of the economic liberalization measures launched in 1991, the government had rightly encouraged many public institutions to become self-reliant by raising resources on their own to minimize their financial dependence on the government, thereby enhancing their own functional autonomy. It has certainly enabled many such institutions to become self-sustaining and have a greater freedom in their functioning. It has been a positive development.

However, during the last couple of decades, some of the premier scientific institutions that constitute the backbone of India’s scientific and technological research have, no doubt, gained some financial independence from the government, only to be pushed into the waiting arms of the industry and MNCs who have been trying to poach on their knowledge in return for funding! In some cases, the institutions which are expected to provide objective inputs to the government on scientific and technological issues have fallen prey to the industry and lost their credibility as professionally independent institutions.

There are several such premier scientific institutions. National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), for example, is the only institution that has the capacity and the credibility necessary to advise the government on the coastal environment and help Ministry of Environment & Forests (MOEF) in determining the CRZ parameters in an objective manner. National Environmental and Engineering Institute (NEERI) is an institution that could have played a pivotal role in advising MOEF on environmental issues. Similarly, on seismic and other geophysical concerns, National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI) is the institution on which the concerned government agencies would necessarily depend for an independent appraisal. If these institutions are forced to function as consulting institutions in order to raise resources, their independence and credibility are adversely affected, as it has already happened. Many of these institutions have undertaken consulting work, giving rise to a conflict of interest in their respective roles. As long as they function as paid consultants of the industry, their professional objectivity will continue to get eroded.

On the other hand, institutions such as Indian Institute of Science (IISc) are engaged in frontier research in crucial areas of national importance, such as, genetic science and engineering. Any dependence of these institutions on the industry, especially MNCs, to raise resources will cause a large scale flight of knowledge and intellectual property to the funding companies, to the detriment of the national interest. I am not sure whether the expert committees such National Knowledge Commission have adequately applied their mind to this aspect. This is far too an important issue that can be ignored by the government, as many MNCs and external agencies have already started poaching on the precious knowledge wealth of the country.

Against this background, I would request you to take the initiative in identifying and prioritizing such institutions and formulating a well thought out scheme to strengthen the institutions professionally and provide them government funding so as to enhance and maintain their independence in the true sense. If these very same institutions are assured of government funding, it will go a long way towards protecting the national interest in terms of the enormous intellectual property that these institutions are capable of building.

In my view, the government should constitute a group of eminent persons to consider the issue I have raised in depth and detail. The persons to be chosen to be the members of such a group should have the necessary vision and they should have the national interest at heart. The names of eminent scientists like Prof. Pushpa M Bhargava readily come to my mind in this context. There are several others who could be identified in advising the government on the issue I have raised.

I hope that you will take the lead in constituting such a group to advise the government on the modalities.


  Yours sincerely,


Dr. Sarma was a member of the Indian Administrative Service during 1965-2000. His website is here.

Five Pics and a Video

  1. Best Statistics Question Ever.

  2. SMBC: How Academics Call Something Boring (By Discipline).

  3. I am the 96% (#OWS)

  4. Abstruse Goose: Spherical Cow.

  5. Noise to Signal: Angry Birds in Bed.

  6. Sean Carroll (at Cosmic Variance) calls this "a hard-hitting expose on the slick con called 'science' that is scamming America."

    The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
    Weathering Fights - Science: What's It Up To?
    Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Public Fireworks

Jeff Jarvis has a new book titled Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live: "Jarvis explores the promising ways in which the internet and publicness allow us to collaborate, think, ways—how we manufacture and market, buy and sell, organize and govern, teach and learn," according to the blurb.

Evgeny Morozov has written a cracker of a review -- words like evisceration, demolition, take down are pale descriptors of what Morozov achieves in his 7000 word essay. "This is a book that should have stayed a tweet," is about as mild as Morozov gets.

Jarvis offers a rebuttal, inviting a second set of fireworks from Morozov. [" ... It’s one of those cases where the whole is much, much less than the sum of the parts."]

In a post assessing the Jarvis-Morozov confrontation, Tom Slee asks, and answers, the question: "what, then, is the point of the hours Morozov spent writing a 7,000 word review if he won't reach Jarvis's core constituency?"

... There are two other audiences that such pieces can reach. One is to shore up those who broadly agree with Morozov's perspective (yes, like me) that there is an ulterior motive, a very familiar and old-fashioned one, behind this talk of sharing and publicness. We cannot read every new book, watch every new TED talk, attend every conference and yet we do need to stay current and stay informed. I am not going to read Public Parts because there are so many other things to read, but I cannot afford to be completely ignorant of it. Morozov's review does the job for me.

The second is more important. Many people are attracted by the romantic rhetoric of openness, sharing, and the end of existing institutions, but not all have yet sorted out the political consequences of a commitment to these virtues. There are still people on the fence - and it's important for these people to know that, no matter what progressive-sounding language is used, some of the most idealistic arguments for sharing are made by those who will mine the data you provide in order to build fortunes from advertising. To shape that debate and to keep a political space open for an Internet that does not simply follow the venture-capitalist idea of progress, we need fact based arguments, so kudos to Morozov for doing the necessary work in this case.

Interview of Steve Jobs' Biographer

Steve Kroft of the 60 Minutes show interviews Walter Isaacson, whose biography of Steve Jobs is just out. The interview is in two parts -- since embedding has been disabled, you'll have to watch them both at CBS's YouTube channel : Part 1 and Part 2.

Part 1 says Jobs spent some 7+ months in India -- this appears to be the time just before Wozniak and Jobs started making the first personal computers which launched them into the big leagues. It leaves you wondering if there was a deeper connection ...

But it is Part 2 that I found a lot more absorbing. It has a moving section about his family, and his battle with cancer, before winding its way down to his last days (we'll have to forget the really cheesy bit at the end, though).

Check them out; if you have only 15 minutes, watch Part 2.

[For a serious Jobs fan, CBS has even more: Steve Jobs Family Photo Album, What Steve Jobs Said about His Rivals, and Steve Jobs, the Boss: Defiance has its Rewards.]

Sunday, October 23, 2011


  1. A Silicon Valley School That Doesn't Compute:

    Schools nationwide have rushed to supply their classrooms with computers, and many policy makers say it is foolish to do otherwise. But the contrarian point of view can be found at the epicenter of the tech economy, where some parents and educators have a message: computers and schools don’t mix.

    This is the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, one of around 160 Waldorf schools in the country that subscribe to a teaching philosophy focused on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks. Those who endorse this approach say computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans.

  2. James Fallows: Hacked! Fallows recounts the scary tale of the hacking of his wife's GMail account, and its aftermath. The second part has some solid advice about how to protect your online life.

    What about the rest of us, who are not security professionals? I asked that of every person I interviewed. Many of their recommendations boiled down to the hope that people would think more about their life online. “We’d like people to view their information life the way they view other parts of their life,” Andrew Kovacs of Google said. “It’s a good practice to review your financial situation every so often, and it’s a good practice to review your passwords and online-account information too.” Another official compared “cloud hygiene” to personal hygiene: you feel bad if you don’t brush your teeth or take a shower, and you should learn to feel bad if you’re taking risks online.

  3. India Today profiles Prof. Dan Shechtman, winner of this year's Chemistry Nobel. [Copy-paste operation is broken on that site -- so, no excerpts!]

Let's round it all out with this cartoon from SMBC:

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Disciplinary Condescension

[Richard Muller] basically appears to have suffered from nothing more than characteristic physicist arrogance, the belief that people in lesser sciences just don’t know what they’re doing. (Economists experience this all the time, but we make up for it by being equally condescending to sociologists.)

That's from Paul Krugman's comment on "one prominent skeptic who actually believed that the data was being manipulated has reported in detail on his efforts to produce clean climate data. And guess what: his data overwhelmingly confirm what climate scientists have been saying."

Onion on This Year's Nobel Prizes

Fans of Victorious Nobel Laureates Riot in Stockholm. The Chemistry Prize gets a special mention in this short news item:

"Fuck yeah, rapidly solidified alloys shown by means of electron diffraction to possess icosahedral symmetry—a little phenomenon known as quasicrystallinity, bitches!" said one chemistry fan who helped overturn a parked car as a mob chanted the name of prizewinner Daniel Shechtman.

Links ...

  1. If you see this video about Facebook [Make sure that you turn on English subtitles], you'll see how prescient this "news bulletin" from Onion News Network was.

  2. Calvin and Hobbes on corporate behaviour.

  3. Daniel Kahneman: Don't Blink! The Hazards of Confidence.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Quality of Students at the IITs

The BusinessStandard has published two responses to a recent allegation by N.R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys that IIT students are not as good as their seniors, and his identification of the cramschool culture as the main reason behind this deterioration in quality. The responses are from big hitters from the IIT system: Prof. Gautam Barua (Director, IIT-G) and Prof. S. Prasad (former Director, IIT-D). NRN gets results!

Here's Barua:

So how do we improve the “quality” of IIT graduates? Based on the points above, the obvious answers are to increase the numbers of those who are really interested in a career in engineering or science, and to reduce the cases of mental fatigue. As far as the latter is concerned, the IIT Council has been discussing this issue and it has been decided in principle to do away with the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) and instead use school results and the results of an aptitude test to decide admission. The wide variety in school board exams is sought to be handled by using the percentile rank of a student as the absolute marks of the school result. This will mean that the marks a student obtains will depend on her rank in her Board and on the size of the Board in which she is appearing.

And here's Prasad:

It is nobody’s case that the admission processes of the IIT system are perfect. Having reduced the question paper to a multiple-choice, objective test, imperfections have crept in, which the coaching institutions have exploited. Therefore, it is impossible to guarantee that everyone who has cracked the Joint Entrance Examination is brilliant. There is no doubt that there is great scope for improving our admission processes and factoring in more information about the candidate than performance in a single test. Perhaps factoring in school results, as is being considered, will help. Perhaps we need to include a component of subjective testing, as used to be done in the past. There are many dimensions for bringing in such improvements.

In other news, the IITs announced their most serious attempt to address the issue of student quality: students now need to score 10% in each subject (and 35 % in the aggregate) in JEE-2012.

Namma Metro

Namma Metro -- Bengaluru's very own Metro Rail system -- will go live sometime today [more here, here, , here, here].

An editorial in DNA has declared the arrival or Bangalore 3.0! .

Right now, it covers only a 7 km stretch from M.G. Road downtown to Baiyappanahalli in East Bengaluru -- in a direction away from where we are, but one of the lines will come our way (it's still about a kilometer from our Institute). All in all, when the entire project is finished, a fairly large part of our great city will come under Namma Metro's benevolent coverage. [There's also at least one special line that will connect the city to the airport, some 35 km from downtown.]

Historic day for all of us at Bengaluru.

* * *

Churumuri has fabulous pictures of the MG Road station -- taken one day before the launch. Eye Candy!

Prof. Balaram's Editorial on This Year's Chemistry Nobel

The latest issue of Current Science features this editorial: Seeing is Believing: Quasicrystals and the Demise of Perfect Order. [More on the "demise of perfect order" below].

In his editorial, Prof. P. Balaram summarizes the history of the discovery of quasicrystals and its aftermath, interleaving them with musings on two other high profile discoveries from the 1980s -- high Tc superconductivity and Fullerenes.

Towards the end, he gets to the Linus Pauling's intense -- and intensely misguided -- opposition to the idea of quasicrystals ("there are no quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists," he quipped), and concludes that the "duel over the nature of quasicrystals seems mild" when one actually considers some of the "past battles in science" that have been far more vicious. How vicious? He quotes from Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man:

Who would think that only in 1900, people were battling, one might say to the death, over the issue whether atoms are real or not. The great philosopher Ernst Mach in Vienna said, No. The great chemist Wilhelm Ostwald said, No. And yet one man, at the critical turn of the century, stood up for the reality of atoms on fundamental grounds of theory. He was Ludwig Boltzmann…. Did Boltzmann just argue? No. He lived and died that passion. In 1906, at the age of sixty two, feeling isolated and defeated, at the very moment when atomic doctrine was going to win, he thought all was lost, and he committed suicide.

Balaram has produced an engrossing essay, but he gets one thing wrong -- that quasicrystals, somehow, imply a "demise of order." As my colleague Prof. S. Ranganathan said in an e-mail conversation (excerpted here with his permission):

... To echo Mark Twain, Perfect Order might as well say "The report of my death was an exaggeration," ... Quasicrystals are as highly ordered as crystals. What they lack is strict translational periodicity, but they sport "forbidden "rotational symmetries -- they are quasiperiodic. ... The divorce between order and periodicity is the beauty of Shechtman's discovery. [bold emphasis added]

* * *

Update: Here's another another great quote I received from Prof. Ranganathan; I'm reproducing his e-mail in its entirety:

From Mark Twain to G K Chesterton via Martin Gardner:

A sort of secret treason in the Universe

G. K. Chesterton once suggested that an extraterrestrial being, observing how many features of a human body are duplicated on the left and the right, would reasonably deduce that we have a heart on each side. The world, he said, "looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait." Everywhere there is a "silent swerving from accuracy by an inch that is the uncanny element in everything . . . a sort of secret treason in the universe."

The passage is a nice description of Penrose's planar worlds.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Awesome Video of the Day

An absolutely awesome video demo from the great folks at Quantum Levitation [Link via Doug Natelson at Nanoscale Views.

Or, view the video at Quantum Levitation.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Quote of the Day

There are some moments in history which will be milestones recognized by future generations. This is one such milestone.
-- HRD Minister Kapil Sibal

He inspiring words came at the launch of Aakash, India's very own Tablet PC. Here's the video [or watch it at YouTube]:

More coverage at ToI and NYTimes' India Ink blog. [Update: See also the official press release.]

The tablet runs Android 2.2, and has a 7-inch resistive display, 256 MB of RAM and 2GB in a flash drive. And it has 2 USB ports. This neat little package -- made in India -- will be available at retail stores for about $60. This NDTV story has lots of positive things to say about the device. And you can see it in actioin in this video, which also features an August 2010 interview with Mr. Sibal [Here's a preview of the device from that episode]

Here's another NDTV interview of Mr. Sibal [or watch it there]:

Awesome News of the Day

Prof. Dan Shechtman has won this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The news is all the more awesome because Prof. Shechtman is a fellow member of the tribe in the land of Materials Science and Engineering -- see his official web page at Technion.

Prof. Shechtman's Prize is for his pioneering work on quasicrystals (in aluminum-manganese alloys) which showed a five-fold rotation symmetry -- the kind of symmetry that was (then) forbidden in 'normal' crystals. I can go on and on, but there's nothing better than a video in which Prof. Shechtman himself explains his work:

YouTube Link

One of the interesting bits in the story is the strong, intense opposition to the idea of quasicrystals from Linus Pauling -- a Chemistry Nobel Laureate, and a mega-giant in chemistry. Prof. Shechtman needed to overcome the skepticism (and sometimes, open hostility) of many, many scientific colleagues who just couldn't believe his results and their radical implications. In one of his talks here at IISc, I remember him talking about scientists who said, basically, "Here's what Pauling says, and here's what Shechtman says. Now, who would you believe?" And many of those who said this were chemists who were sure that Pauling could never go wrong.

I think it is absolutely wonderful that it is the Chemistry Prize that has gone to Prof. Shechtman.

Congratulations to Prof. Shechtman!

* * *

Update: Way back in 2005, I wrote a post about three mini-revolutions that shook materials science / condensed matter physics / solid state chemistry in the 1980s. The discovery of quasicrystals was one of them, with the other two being high Tc superconductivity and C-60 (Buckminsterfullerenes, fullerenes or buckyballs). While C60 won the 1997 Chemistry Prize, the work that laid the foundation for the discovery of high Tc superconductivity won the 1987 Physics Prize.

The discovery of quasicrystals had to wait a while for the Prize, but the timing is exquisite -- it won it in the International Year of Chemistry!

Update 2: The Information for the Public issued by the Nobel Foundation does a good job of summarizing some of the history behind the discovery of quasicrystals, and ends with "an important lesson for scientists." Some excerpts:

When Shechtman told scientists about his discovery, he was faced with complete opposition, and some colleagues even resorted to ridicule. Many claimed that what he had observed was in fact a twin crystal. The head of the laboratory gave him a textbook of crystallography and suggested he should read it. Shechtman, of course, already knew what it said but trusted his experiments more than the textbook. All the commotion finally led his boss to ask him to leave the research group, as Schechtman himself recalled later. The situation had become too embarrassing. [...]

[Immediately after Shechtman published his work] the discovery now reached a wider audience, and Daniel Shechtman became the target of even more criticism. At the same time, however, crystallographers around the world had a moment of déjà vu. Many of them had obtained similar diffraction patterns during analyses of other materials, but had interpreted those patterns as evidence of twin crystals. Now they started digging around in their drawers for old laboratory notes, and pretty soon other crystals began to appear with seemingly impossible patterns, such as eight- and twelvefold symmetries. [...]

An important lesson for science

Daniel Shechtman’s story is by no means unique. Over and over again in the history of science, researchers have been forced to do battle with established “truths”, which in hindsight have proven to be no more than mere assumptions. One of the fiercest critics of Daniel Shechtman and his quasicrystals was Linus Pauling, himself a Nobel Laureate on two occasions. This clearly shows that even our greatest scientists are not immune to getting stuck in convention. Keeping an open mind and daring to question established knowledge may in fact be a scientist’s most important character traits.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Slinky Physics

The question is posed in this video, but you don't need to see it to appreciate the ultraslomo demo. Watch:

YouTube link.

The follow-up video is pretty good too. Love it where Prof. Rod Cross says, "We study physics because a lot of unexpected things happen. It's those unexpected things that make physics interesting"

Death of a Nobel Laureate

The alleged controversy about what the Nobel Foundation would do has been put to rest. But this is truly moving:

... Dr. Ralph Steinman ... actually used his discoveries in the laboratory to try to save his own life. His career-long quest had been to develop a vaccine against cancer for humans, having shown 20 years ago that such a treatment could be effective in mice.

Four and a half years ago, after he was found to be jaundiced from a spreading pancreatic cancer, he began tailoring an experimental vaccine against his own tumor. The idea was to use the principles learned in the experiments on mice and in the laboratory to produce immune cells derived from his dendritic cells, a class of cells that he discovered in 1973.

After a piece of Dr. Steinman’s cancer was removed, a colleague, Dr. Michel Nussenzweig, grew it in the laboratory to produce enough material to send to at least 20 researchers at Rockefeller University and at least five other laboratories around the world. Dr. Steinman organized the work among the researchers who developed the experimental vaccine.

Dr. Steinman received standard chemotherapy for his cancer as well as the experimental vaccine, which other doctors at Rockefeller University injected under his skin, Dr. Nussenzweig said Monday in a telephone interview. ...

“Ralph believed strongly that it would work,” Dr. Nussenzweig said. “Obviously, it did not work or he would be here now, but possibly it prolonged his life.” The research, he added, will continue.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Suing scientists for inaccurate predictions

Stephen S. Hall has a grim report in Nature: Scientists on Trial: At Fault? "In 2009, an earthquake devastated the Italian city of L'Aquila and killed more than 300 people. Now, scientists are on trial for manslaughter."

For a shorter version, try the BBC story.

Geoffrey Pullum's battle against critics of the passive voice

He has been at it for quite sometime now, and here's his latest: Mistakes Are Made (but Using the Passive Isn’t One of Them):

... do the writing tutors of the world really think we should not report that a politician has been shot until we can specify the gunman? Do they honestly think it’s wrong to say that the lights are left on all night in an office building without supplying a list of the individuals who controlled the switches? We really have to get over this superstitious horror about passives. It’s gone beyond a joke.

NYTimes' India Ink on Stand-Up Comedy Scene in India

It's interesting and all, but is it really the case that "Indians are beginning to laugh at ourselves"?

Friday, September 30, 2011

Nobel Season: Meet the Ig Nobels

I liked the coverage in The Guardian and The Chronicle. Here's the full list at the Improbable Research website.

The Chronicle focuses on the Literature Prize, because the Prize-winning article appeared in its pages back in 1996: How to Procrastinate, and Still Get Things Done. It was by John R. Perry, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford, who "deemed the tardiness of his award "quite appropriate" given the nature of his essay." [Perry has expanded on this theme in several follow-up essays -- all available at at Structured Procrastination.]

Here's the Guardian, leading off with the research on wasabi:

How do you wake a deaf person in the middle of the night if there's a fire? Squirt a cloud of wasabi at them, of course. For the Japanese researchers who came up with the horseradish-based alarm system, it was a lifesaving piece of work, but on Thursday night they entered the history books with the award of the Ig Nobel prize for chemistry.

The Japanese scientists and engineers who came up with the 50,000-yen (£400) wasabi alarm tried hundreds of odours, including rotten eggs, before settling on the Japanese condiment – a favourite of sushi lovers. Its active ingredient, allyl isothiocyanate, acts as an irritant in the nose that works even when someone is asleep. "That's why [people] can wake up after inhalation of air-diluted wasabi," said Makoto Imai of the department of psychiatry at Shiga University of Medical Science, one of the team that won this year's Ig Nobel for chemistry.

Nobel Season: 100th Anniversary of Marie Curie's Second Nobel

The Smithsonian magazine features a profile -- by Julie Des Jardins -- that "[examines] the story of [Curie's] story—how she lived, but also how she has been mythologized and misunderstood." Here's an excerpt from near the end of the article:

With the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s, Curie’s reputation as a remarkable scientist came to the fore. The physicist Rosalyn Yalow, in an essay she wrote at the time of winning her own Nobel Prize in 1977 for research involving radioactive compounds, said that Curie was her inspiration. Biographers attempted to depict the brilliance and complexity of this outsize character. A new play, Radiance, written by the actor and director Alan Alda, focuses on her relationships with Pierre and Langevin as well as her science. A new graphic novel, Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss, examines Curie’s life in the context of radioactivity’s impact on history. It has a glow-in-the-dark cover.

It’s taken a century, but we can finally appreciate her as a multifaceted woman of uncommon intensity, intelligence and will—a woman of courage, conviction and yes, contradictions. After a century we see her not as a caricature, but as one of the 20th century’s most important scientists, who was, at the same time, unmistakably, reassuringly human.

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Update: Back in 2006, after I read an excellent biography of Marie Curie -- Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith -- I posted some excerpts from that book: here, here, here, and here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

S.S. Bhatnagar Prize

The much awaited Bhatnagar Prizes for 2011 were announced yesterday, and it is absolutely thrilling to see my colleague and friend Prof. U. Ramamurty among the awardees. [The list is here (pdf); the previous year's lists are available at this page]

And it's great to see a couple of other familiar names in the list: Prof. S. Balasubramanian, a friend from JNCASR, Bangalore, and Prof. K.N. Balaji, a colleague in the Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology at IISc.

Hearty congratulations to them, and to the other Bhatnagar awardees from elsewhere.

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Update: One of the Prize winners in math has a very interesting background -- see Swarup's post: A Swamiji Wins Bhatnagar Prize.