December 23, 2006

I had already quoted Hoodhboy once before when writing about Salam.

Now, (via 3 quarks daily) I came across another one of his speeches titled “Re-Imagining Pakistan” – It’s the Commencement lecture by Pervez Hoodbhoy at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, December 9, 2006. It is quite an interesting read resonating well even with the Indian context…

First, I wish for minds that can deal with the complex nature of truth. Without minds engaged on this issue there cannot be a capacity for good judgment. And, without good judgment a nation will blunder from one mistake on to the next. Now, truth is a fundamental but very subtle concept. The problem is that things are usually not totally true or totally false. Still, some things are very true and others are very false. For example it is very true that I will be killed if I stand on the tracks in front of a speeding train. And it is very false that the earth rests on the horns of a bull. But these are quite easily established; separating true and false is often extremely difficult….

My second wish is for many more Pakistanis who accept diversity as a virtue.
So I am not asking for unity, but acceptance of our differences. Let’s face it, we’re all different. The four provinces of Pakistan have different histories, class and societal structures, climates, and natural resources. Within the provinces there live Sunnis, Shias, Bohris, Ismailis, Ahmadis, Zikris, Hindus, Christians, and Parsis. Then there are tribal and caste divisions which are far too numerous to mention. Add to this all the different languages and customs as well as different modes of worship, rituals, and holy figures. Given this enormous diversity, liberals – who are rather good people in general – often talk of the need for tolerance. But I don’t like this at all. Tolerance merely says that you are nice enough to put up with a bad thing. Instead, let us accept and even celebrate the differences! …

My third, and last, wish is that Pakistanis learn to value and nurture creativity. Creativity is a difficult concept to define but roughly I mean originality, unusualness, or ingenuity in something. If nurtured from an early age in children, it leads to great writers, poets, musicians, engineers, scientists, and builders of modern industries and institutions. No one can dispute that creativity is a good thing. But how come Pakistanis – with some important exceptions – have done so poorly on the world stage? Why are there only a dozen or two internationally known Pakistani inventors, scientists, writers, etc for a nation of 165 million people?…..

There cannot be creativity in a society where students learn like parrots, where the teacher is an unchallengeable authoritarian figure “jo aap kay baap ki tara hai”. Except at a few leading universities, the written word – even if it is in a physics textbook – is slavishly followed. The students in our public universities are just overgrown children, including the ones who are in their mid- or late twenties. In fact they prefer to be called girls and boys, not women and men. For recreation they do not read books but walk aimlessly in bazaars and waste time in pointless chatter. Most have never read a single classical novel, either in Urdu or English. In my department – the best physics department in the country – their only contribution to what you see around is the huge birthday or “mangni” greeting cards displayed on bulletin boards. Teachers insult them, throw them out of class, and encourage deference and servility….

Meanwhile, closer home, Abi links to a TOI article on IITs by Pankaj Jalote titled “Slip Sliding Away”. (Pankaj Jalote was a prof. at IITK who has now moved to IITD. He has written similar articles before.)

IITs have been slipping in the global university rankings for the last few years. In our euphoria about India’s progress, such reports are mentioned in passing and then promptly forgotten.

IITs have made a name for themselves largely on the success of its graduates, and less on the strength of its R&D output. And most global ranking of universities are predominantly based on R&D.

The performance of IITs (and other such institutions in India) is likely to continue dropping globally. This is not to say that they are static — indeed the R&D output from IITs is increasing, but relative to others it is slipping.

Interestingly, the relative decline is not because established R&D centres in the US and Europe are becoming bigger, but because newer entrants from China, Korea and Singapore are doing much better.

The central reason for the decline of IITs in relative ranking is the archaic academic governance structures that exist in Indian institutes…

Re-Imagining seems to be the call of the day. The question is will people heed that call ?

Update[30/12/06] : Now it’s Kalam’s turn (PDF file)! (via Abi again )

“…While I was preparing for this talk, suddenly a thought occurred to me. I chose to call randomly a few of my friends, from different walks of life and ask them “When you hear of IIT, what strikes your mind first?”

The first person, I called was a Professor in the United States of Indian origin and he is an accomplished educationist and an India lover. He was frank enough to say that it conveyed immediately nothing. He said, 20 million children are born in India every year.. [few of them] are being admitted to the IIT. They are the best children in India. Wherever you put them they will do very well. The value addition by IIT is very low to the students it admits.

He felt that, there may be many hidden Ramanujans and Einsteins amongst the vast majority of the students whom the IIT system does not touch. The greatest challenge .. is to find a mechanism to identify those needles in the haystack.

Then I called another friend, who was a General in the Army. He said innocently that we have nothing to do with IITians. What he meant was while many students from regular engineering colleges join the Army, “We have not come across any IITian joining the Army in the last two decades”.

Then I asked another well known professor, who was not in IIT system, but from a well known post graduate institution. He said that, it is a great challenge for the Professors in IITs to teach the students.

I called a former Director of one of the IITs and a teacher who had been in the IIT system since its inception. The Prof. said that IIT means striving for excellence and discipline.

Then I talked to one IT friend and asked him what his views are? His reply was that IIT takes the best students and delivers the best to the world. He felt that, the direct benefits for the nation in terms of knowledge products and Intellectual property is rather minimal.

I talked to a distinguished alumnus of IIT, last night. He was very happy that, the IIT had given him the ambience of a centre of excellence and an opportunity to learn and grow. He was quick to add, that they selected the cream and the output is also the cream. The cream of the cream goes to the US and they become the best. The best in and best out. It is ironical that the IIT which is mandated to produce the best minds for teaching and research is unable to attract the best faculty today…

Then I asked a friend of mine who had held senior position in the Government in the science and education management, his reaction was that the IIT stands for a brand India. However, of late it has become an exclusive institution in a world which should become more and more inclusive and converging. Today more children from urban affluent families who can afford to pay Rs. 10000 per month on education alone could dream of joining IIT. There are around 8% of girl students in IIT, while the general average over 30% in engineering. Many institutions of same caliber as IIT in the western world, have been contributing much more to the industry than what we see IITs in India. The industry – IIT interaction has to become an icon to put their brand on many products that will be used by the public on a daily basis – there should be little bit of IIT in every Indian….”



December 23, 2006

Unsurprisingly, I am late for Carl Sagan Blog-a-thon(See here for a list of posts) . It’s ten years since sagan died.

(Hmm.. Lately my blog has reduced to a series of posts in memorial of different anniversaries ! I promise my readers that I will try to come up with something else for the next post..)

Carl Sagan affected so many of us in so many different ways. I still remember reading Cosmos [Amazon] when I was younger and being awed by the wonder of it all. If you hadn’t noticed before, the quote just beneath this blog’s title comes from sagan.

Sagan is no more. But the spirit which drove him still survives in his wife Ann Druyan who is equally unflinching in supporting science and its popularisation. I could clerly recognise that spirit, for example, when I heard Druyan answer a question in the middle of a discussion about science and religion.

The greatest legacy of Sagan, in my eyes, is the realisation that a culture without science is as impoverished as a culture without art or music. Given how few people realise that fact (with my limited experience, I can safely assert that even most science students don’t realise it) world really needs more sagans today.

These are two videos of sagan I could get hold of at youtube.
Carl Sagan on Alexandria
Part 1

Part 2

You might also like to read this post – “Casting out the demons” by Jennifer Oullette.

2006 – Year of Maxwell ?

December 17, 2006

(Crossposted to BlogPhysica )

I just realised(via a physicsweb article ) that this year is supposed to be the 175th anniversary of the birth of James Clerk Maxwell. Quite in the year to realise it I suppose 😉

So what impression of Maxwell would you have gained if you had met him in his prime, as a young Scottish undergraduate Donald MacAlister did in Cambridge in 1877? You would surely have been charmed, but perhaps also surprised to meet – as MacAlister put it – “a thorough old Scotch laird in ways and speech”. As the proprietor of an 1800 acre Scottish estate, Maxwell had all the qualities of the better kind of Victorian country gentleman: cultivated, considerate of his tenants, active in local affairs, and an expert swimmer and horseman too.

Few would have guessed that this “Scotch laird”, so disarmingly old-fashioned even in 1877, was a scientist whose writings remain astonishingly vibrant in 2006 and the greatest mathematical physicist since Newton. In addition to his work on electromagnetism, Maxwell also contributed to eight other scientific spheres: geometrical optics, kinetic theory, thermodynamics, viscoelasticity, bridge structures, control theory, dimensional analysis and the theory of Saturn’s rings. He also worked on colour vision, producing the first ever colour photograph…

Even if his achievements are somewhat overshadowed in the public’s eye by those of Einstein, whose successes were marked by a great series of events last year, it is a measure of Maxwell’s standing that 2006 – the 175th anniversary of this birth – has been dubbed Maxwell Year.

Anyway, this gives me an excuse to return back to writing about Maxwell about whom Feynman famously remarked

From a long view of the history of mankind — seen from, say, ten thousand years from now, there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.

I guess I should add that the revolt of 1857 would also pale into provincial insignificance….

Since I have already linked once to poems by Maxwell , I will now link to one of the oldest biographies of Maxwell – the one written by Lewis Campbell and William Garnett (Link to PDF file).

The 1997 Digital Preservation of “The Life of James Clerk Maxwell”

..There are very few biographies of Maxwell. The most comprehensive biography was written by a life-long friend, Lewis Campbell with help from William Garnett. It is considered a primary historical reference on Maxwell. Published in 1882, shortly after Maxwell’s death, it is today found only in the rare book rooms of large libraries. However, now the entire text of the book with figures included is available here…

It is a long and interesting book filled with a lot of anecdotes written at a time when mechanical theories of ether were still in vogue. This of course, does not undermine its significance in History of physics . …

To quote what Weinberg wrote three years ago in his “Four Golden Lessons” addressed to a Scientist

Finally, learn something about the history of science, or at a minimum the history of your own branch of science. The least important reason for this is that the history may actually be of some use to you in your own scientific work. For instance, now and then scientists are hampered by believing one of the over-simplified models of science that have been proposed by philosophers from Francis Bacon to Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. The best antidote to the philosophy of science is a knowledge of the history of science.

More importantly, the history of science can make your work seem more worthwhile to you. As a scientist, you’re probably not going to get rich. Your friends and relatives probably won’t understand what you’re doing. And if you work in a field like elementary particle physics, you won’t even have the satisfaction of doing something that is immediately useful. But you can get great satisfaction by recognizing that your work in science is a part of history.

Philip Ball

December 13, 2006

For sometime now, I’ve been reading a popular science book titled Designing the Molecular World: Chemistry at the Frontier by Philip Ball(you can find a short biography at his site). It’s a decent book which I will recommend to anyone who is interested in popular science.

So, Imagine my surprise when I found his blog titled homunculus(via Highly Allochthonous) ! It is filled with some great scientific writing.

Just to give you a taste –

Are chemists designers?
Not according to a provocative article by Martin Jansen and Christian Schön in Angewandte Chemie. They argue that ‘design’ in the strict sense doesn’t come into the process of making molecules, because the freedom of chemists is so severely constrained by the laws of physics and chemistry…

Chemists won’t like this, because they (rightly) pride themselves in their creativity and often liken their crafting of molecules to a kind of art form….

It’s flat, it’s hot, and it’s very weird

Graphene, that is. I have been talking to some fellows about this new wonder-stuff, which wowed the crowds at the American Physical Society meeting in March. Mainly to Andre Geim at Manchester, who is one of those wry chaps you feel you can inherently trust not to load you down with hype. I’m working on a feature on this for New Scientist, which will delve into the decidedly wacky physics of these single-atom-thick sheets of pure carbon. It’s not your ordinary two-dimensional semimetal (yes I know, name me another), mainly because the electrons behave as though they are travelling at close to the speed of light. So here’s an everyday material in which one can investigate Dirac’s relativistic quantum mechanics, which normally applies only in the kind of astrophysical environment you wouldn’t want to end up in by mistake…

Further, I came across an article titled Newton’s Curse written by him in his webpage. It talks about the ‘alchem’ical interests of Newton.

And here is an excellent article titled Beyond Words : Science and Visual Theatre which I liked a lot. The summary reads

Science is becoming increasingly visible in the theatre, where it is often regarded as a fertile source of ideas and metaphors. I argue that we should not overlook the potential of science as an abundant well of visual imagery for the theatre. Scientific research and discovery can provide new physical languages for theatrical expression, and new ways of looking at and depicting the world. Scientists at the nexus of experiment and discovery have often seen things never before observed by human eyes; such visions, recreated or re-imagined for a theatre audience, can stimulate the kind of wonderment that is central to the theatrical experience.