Thursday, January 31, 2008

When poets met university administrators ...

... and talked to them using PowerPoint ...

Stem cells for repairing eye damage

I find it pretty interesting that this Scientific American report [will it also appear on the print version?] highlighting research at L.V. Prasad Eye Institute happens to be out on the opening day the All India Ophthalmological Conference.

Here's an excerpt:

A new vision research center opening in India today becomes the latest in a handful of facilities dedicated to exploring the potential of adult eye stem cells to repair vision damage. The Champalimaud Center for Translation Eye Research (C-TRACER), part of the LV Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad, India, will continue research begun by LV Prasad scientists, who use eye stem cells from living adults to grow new cells that are then implanted into damaged

The center's goal is to restore vision to some portion of the 65 million people worldwide—about 1 percent of the world population—considered to be legally blind, which the National Federation of the Blind defines as a central visual acuity of 20 / 200 or less in the stronger eye, even when aided by a corrective lens. Especially in developing countries in Africa and Asia, "most of these people are needlessly blind," says D. Balasubramanian, research director for both LV Prasad and the new facility.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

From the interweb tubes ...

Recently, Yale made available some of its courses online. All of them with videos. The physics section has just one introductory course, taught by Prof. Ramamurti Shankar.

The philosophy section also has just one course; it's from Prof. Shelly Kagan. Can you guess its title?


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Over at the Women and Math blog, Sujatha Ramdorai, winner of the Ramanujan Prize in 2006, describes her life as a mathematician in India (while there, check out their statistics page; link via Kuffir at BlogBharti):

I got married before I graduated and then continued to do my Master’s degree in mathematics, by correspondence. I was still unaware that a research career in mathematics was possible, the level of information dissemination was quite abysmal then even in cities! We moved to Bombay and here a few people vaguely mentioned `Tata Institute of fundamental Research’, however knowing little beyond the name! It was a sheer stroke of luck that I chanced upon the advertisement of TIFR calling for admissions to the Ph.D degree… I did my Ph.D there under the supervision of Professor Parimala Raman and have continued to work there after my Ph.D.

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Dhi and his wife are celebrating the news about their alma mater: the Indian School of Business stands at No. 20 in the Financial Times ranking of global business schools. Interestingly, ISB's partner (and mentor?) in the US, Northwestern's Kellogg, is ranked lower, at 24!

* * *

In this post by Feanor about an eccentric professor at IISc (no, there's no excerpt, you will have to click through to find out more about him), there's this thing at the end, listed under "References":

The Gaza Strip was what we called the section of road between the Central Library and the Physics department, which used to be carpet bombed by crows coming in every evening to roost in the lush trees surrounding the area. It was said that if a crow shat on one's head, one was condemned to do a PhD at IISc. I got hit only once - on the shoulder - so I escaped the academic horror of a doctorate from that institution.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

From the interweb tubes ...

GrrlScientist: Women, Science, Writing (an excellent post on gender bias in publishing, caused by a pretty innocuous-looking practice: single blind reviewing).

Peggy: Women in Science: The View from 1957.

Sunil Laxman: Book mini-review: Landing a job in academic biology.

Clive Thompson: Is the Tipping Point toast? [via Siva Vaidhyanathan].

Public Offering: Columbia Business School's blog [via Brayden King].

Bruce Schneier: Security vs. Privacy.

"Girl Friday at the University"

Over at Ultra Violet Meena Kandasamy tells us about the tough lessons that young women learn in "the two-hundred-year-old university":

Girl Friday’s Lesson #3:
Your guide is your Crusoe,
Your guide is your crucifix.
Get ready to toil.
Get ready for torture.

Here, she inevitably comes face
to face with the sexual harassment
committee– and its token woman–
that has spent its lifetime bailing out
bald, lecherous supervisors. Here, she
testifies; answers lewd questions;
drives tears back into her petrified eyes.
Here, she carries herself like a bowl
Of milk, ever-ready to shatter, or to spill.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Republic Day Awards: A sharp reaction from a reader

Graded awards like our National Awards -- Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan -- necessarily involve some judgement about the relative worth of awardees' contributions in their respective domains. This evaluation of relative worth can lead to strong disagreements.

Sidebar: Over at Law and Other Things, V. Venkatesan has a great discussion of the Supreme Court's 1995 decision (in the Balaji Raghavan case) that reaffirmed the legality of the National Awards.

* * *

The post on this year's National Day Awards drew a sharp comment from Renu, who decided to follow it up with an e-mail. My own take on awards is one of utter indifference; who gets what is not a matter that's worth spending too much time over, particularly when politicians are involved in the selection process. Renu's letter, reproduced below with permission, has some strong arguments (that you may strongly disagree with!). But, as I said, I maintain my indifference.

Here, then, is Renu's letter (after some minor editiing):

I am still puzzled over this year's honours list. Little in it makes sense. After my rant on your blog here is one more email to tell you how upset I am with our warped sense of appreciation.

Sachin Tendulkar has done what exactly to merit the Padma Vibhushan? I am certain, deluded as we are, and Ajit Wadekar is, we will never find the nerve to award him the Bharat Ratna. Even then has he done more than Mihir Sen (who for many years was the only man to have swum five high seas straits in one year) or Rajyavardhan Rathore who narrowly missed a shoting gold at Athens, or Bula Chowdhury and Bhaichung Bhutia? Is cricket such a profound field of endeavour?

But there seems to be some sense of proportion among our netas and babus. I was outraged that Dr. Varadhan, this year, merited only a Padma Bhushan compared to Sachin's Padma Vibhushan, till I looked up Dr. CNR Rao's bio and found that the great chemist too has only gone the distance to the Padma Bhushan [Note: this is incorrect; A Padma Vibhushan went to Prof. Rao in 1985].

It was bad enough of Vajpayee to award his surgeon a Padma Shri for a routine knee replacement, and Lata Mangeshkar, a mediocre gramaphone on a string, the Bharat Ratna. But the MMS/Sonia dispensation has decided to steal a march over the previous government by honouring Asha Bhonsle with the Padma Vibhushan and Ustad Fahimuddin Rahimuddin Dagar the Padma Bhushan. The good Ustad should deliver a thappad in the face of the government, and like the late great Hemant Kumar, decline this measly token of recognition. The Ustad is one of the guardians of a dying art, Dhrupad, that dates back millennia. Legend has it that the Ustad's ancestors learnt it by meditating on the primeval Aum of Paramasivan himself. Dhrupad predates today's the popular variants of today's Hindustani sangeet - its khayals and thumris. Dhrupad's practitioners will tell you that their art was already a hoary one by the time of Amir Khusro and Tansen.

So if we lack the head to appreciate the sciences, we lack a heart to appreciate our arts as well.

And surely we have no soul either. Neither does Vidyakar or Udavm Karangal, nor Dr. Bundeshwari Pathak of Sulabh Sauchalaya, nor Baba Amte, that peerless pioneer of rehabilitation services find any mention in this year's honours list. It is said that Gandhi lost nothing for having been looked over for the Nobel Peace Prize. Similarly in ignoring Baba Amte for the Bharat Ratna and the Nobel, it is these systems of recognition that are poorer and mired in mediocrity.


Sergio Sismondo in PLoS Medicine: Ghost Management: How Much of the Medical Literature Is Shaped Behind the Scenes by the Pharmaceutical Industry?

... This article enlarges the focus from ghost writing to the more general ghost management of medical research and publishing: when pharmaceutical companies and their agents control or shape multiple steps in the research, analysis, writing, and publication of articles. Such articles are “ghostly” because signs of their actual production are largely invisible—academic authors whose names appear at the tops of ghost-managed articles give corporate research a veneer of independence and credibility. They are “managed” because those companies shape the eventual message conveyed by the article or by a suite of articles. As discussed below, a substantial percentage of medical journal articles (in addition to meeting presentations and other forms of publication, which are not the focus here) are ghost managed, allowing the pharmaceutical industry considerable influence on medical research, and making that research a vehicle for marketing.

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While we are on the topic of ghosts, check out Gina Barreca' take on the gender differences among ghosts:

I noticed that most ghost stories written by women have, as their leads, female ghosts; I also noticed that it seems to be female ghosts haunting those b&bs and old hotels. Why is there such a difference between how women and men are haunted by a sense of the past, not to mention the differences between how boy ghosts and girl ghosts actually do the haunting?


Sarah Boxer has a great article in NY Review of Books with a simple title: Blogs. The article asks -- and attempts to answer -- these basic questions:

Are [blogs] a new literary genre? Do they have their own conceits, forms, and rules? Do they have an essence?

Over at A Blog Around the Clock, Bora called this piece "obligatory reading of the day." I agree with him. Go read it now recommends Laelaps' response to Sarah Boxer's piece (see his comment below).

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On a not entirely unrelated note, check out this little presentation about the future of media. Here's its hook: "In the year 2014, the New York Times has gone offline. The Fourth Estates fortunes have waned. What happened to the news?"

Link via Siva Vaidhyanathan's project The Googlization of Everything.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

All about power

The Winter-2007 issue of Greater Good is all about Power, and has at least two articles that are a must-read. The first one, Are You a Jerk at Work? by Bob Sutton, can be thought of as a summary of his recent book No Asshole Rule (which I'm reading now). Here's an excerpt from the section on how to deal with assholes:

My first tip is in a class by itself: Escape if you can. The best thing to do if you are stuck under the thumb of an asshole (or a bunch of them) is to get out as fast as possible. Not only are you at great emotional risk; you're also at risk of emulating the behavior of the jerks around you, catching it like a disease—what I call "asshole poisoning."

Indeed, experiments by psychologists Leigh Thompson and Cameron Anderson have shown that even when compassionate people join a group with a leader who is "high-energy, aggressive, mean, the classic bully type," they are "temporarily transformed into carbon copies of the alpha dog." Despite the risk of asshole poisoning, escape isn't always possible. As one woman wrote me in response to this advice, "I have to feed my family and pay my mortgage, and there aren't a lot of jobs that pay well enough to do that around here."

In those cases where a victim can't escape (at least for now), I suggest starting with polite confrontation. Some people really don't mean to be jerks. They might be surprised if you gently let them know that they are leaving you feeling belittled and demeaned. Other jerks are demeaning on purpose, but may stop if you stand up to them in a civil but firm manner. For example, an office worker wrote me that her boss was "a major jerk," but she found that he left her alone after she gave him "a hard stare" and told him his behavior was "absolutely unacceptable and I simply won't tolerate it."

The second must-read article -- titled The Power Paradox -- is by Dacher Keltner, and it is devoted to busting a bunch of myths about power that date back to Machiavelli's work. Here's an extract about what this power paradox is about:

... Years of research suggests that empathy and social intelligence are vastly more important to acquiring and exercising power than are force, deception, or terror.

This research debunks longstanding myths about what constitutes true power, how people obtain it, and how they should use it. But studies also show that once people assume positions of power, they're likely to act more selfishly, impulsively, and aggressively, and they have a harder time seeing the world from other people's points of view. This presents us with the paradox of power: The skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power.


In reality, there are only a few sources of alpha for investment managers. One of them comes from having truly special abilities in identifying undervalued financial assets. Warren Buffett, the US billionaire investor, certainly has it, yet this special ability is, by definition, rare.

A second source of alpha is from what one might call activism. This means using financial resources to create, or obtain control over, real assets and to use that control to change the payout obtained on the financial investment. A venture capitalist who transforms an inventor, a garage and an idea into a fully fledged, profitable and professionally managed corporation creates alpha.

A third source of alpha is financial entrepreneurship or engineering – creating securities or cash flow streams that appeal to particular investors or tastes. As long as the investment manager does not create securities that exploit investor weaknesses or ignorance (and there is unfortunately too much of that), this sort of alpha is also beneficial, but it requires constant innovation.

That's from Raghuram Rajan's article arguing for a different system of incentive pay for investment bankers.

Is Derren Brown psychic?

Find out for yourself (8 minute video).

Caution: It may transform you. Permanently.

* * *

The video has been around for over six months; I saw it only today, thanks to Parseval's pointer.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

From the interweb tubes ...

Here's a ranking of countries based on their h-index (based on publications during 1996-2006). As expected, the US leads with 793, and the UK (465), Germany (408), France (375) and Japan (372) fill the remaining slots in the Top Five. India is ranked at 25 with an h-index of 146. Yes, China is ahead at Rank 21 with a score of 161. [Thanks to Exon and John Hunter for the pointer].

Should a man convicted of murder be allowed to become a doctor? That's the question that a Swedish institution faced. How did it resolve it? NYTimes reports.

Natasha on the time-saving strategies of aphids:

The truly large time saving comes from a crazy trick called the telescoping of generations. Female aphids give birth to parthenogenetically produced female aphids who are already pregnant with the next generation. That amounts to a larger reduction of reproduction time. And it's what allows them to infest a plant in your garden in the short span of a few days. It's also what might allow them to develop quick resistance to the pesticides gardeners and farmers use. A granddaughter and daughter is exposed to everything a female aphid is exposed to and selective pressures needn't work independently on each generation, which I think should speed up the process of developing resistance.

Aurelie Thiele on the use of technology in education:

Some teachers have begun to use blogs as course webpages and link to course wikis so that the students can contribute too, i.e., take exams, post assignments. Of course that one course - if you follow the links above - is on web design to begin with, but borrows topics from history and literature, and TeacherTube and VoiceThread provide many tech-driven resources on non-tech courses. [...] One Dan Meyer even records his lectures when he has to be replaced by a temp, in quite an amazing way.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Republic Day Awards

The full list is in this press release.

Here are the awards under the Science and Technology category:

Padma Vibhushan
Dr. E. Sreedharan
Dr. Rajendra Kumar Pachauri
Padma Bhushan
Prof. Asis Datta
Prof. Sukh Dev
Mrs. Sunita Williams (USA)
Dr. Vasant Gowarikar
Padma Shri
Shri Bhavarlal Hiralal Jain
Dr. Joseph H. Hulse (Canada)
Prof. Kasturi Lal Chopra
Dr. Sant Singh Virmani (USA)

Among the other names, I could recognize a few academics: Prof. Kaushik Basu (Cornell economist), Prof. Padma Desai (Columbia economist), and Prof. Srinivasa S.R. Varadhan (NYU mathematician) have a Padma Bhushan each, while Prof. Sukhdeo Thorat (UGC Chairman) has a Padma Shri.

Previous posts on the Republic Day Awards: 2007 and 2006.

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Happy Republic Day, folks!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

IIT-M courses on YouTube


There are over a dozen courses as of now. IIT-M's Mangala Sundar Krishnan promises over 100 courses by this March.

From my feed reader ...

Niket: "If I were ever to be a dictator ..., my first job will be to remove the words “come tomorrow” from Indian-English dictionary."

Tabula Rasa: "[Snow] carries the deceptive facade of shimmering innocence but it is evil."

Gawker: "Now that I have a home, I am beginning to get a good understanding of how a home owner's life is different from, say, an apartment renter's."

Suvrat Kher points us to an interview of Sunita Narain by Karan Thapar; they discuss India's disastrous policies that encourage car ownership, and discourage public transport. For a change, Thapar lets his guest talk.

Aishwarya finds some fantastic gems in the Wikipedia entry for Anil Kumble.

And finally, check out this most awesome art illusion.

A passion for science

Our Institute will be celebrating its centenary during the year 2008-09. While the big bang inauguration will probably happen during the first major event (probably in May 2008), the IISc Centenary Lecture series had its kick off today, with the inaugural lecture by Prof. C.N.R. Rao titled Tall Oaks from Little Acorns: Birth and Growth of Solid State and Materials Chemistry. [I noticed that the lecture was being filmed; I hope the video will be made available online].

There was a technical core to Rao's talk, covering key contributions from his group to fields such as chemistry of oxides, high temperature superconductivity, colossal magnetoresistance, nanochemistry, chemistry of graphenes, etc. If the talk had only this stuff, it would have been pretty dry; but, thanks to Rao's flamboyance (and some caustic wit), his talk was lively, and kept the audience entertained. He mixed up the technical bits with lots of interesting anecdotes involving big names in science, personal experiences, quips, one liners, and yes, mild insults that he threw at neighboring sciences and their practitioners.

Rao started his work in India in an era when there was "no money, no grants, no travel support and no foreign exchange". Indian scientists had no access to fancy equipment; "If you needed a furnace that can go up to 1000 degrees Celsius, well, you built it yourself!"

The upshot of this poverty paradigm was that research problems had to be chosen carefully. They must be conceptually rich, and capable of attracting international acclaim, and yet doable with limited equipment that was available. Rao's positive spin on this rather grim state of affairs was to express his gratitude because it encouraged and rewarded clever thinking: "Poverty is great. It makes your brains work!"

Institutional poverty forced him to be resourceful in other ways too. At one point in his talk, he alluded to his ability to get expensive, high purity chemicals -- he mentioned pure titanium and benzoic acid -- from his associates and collaborators in other countries. At yet another point, he told the audience about hearing about the early work in mid 1980s on high temperature superconductors from Phil Anderson (a Nobel winner in Physics) who was on a visit to Bangalore.

His passion for science was in abundant display throughout the talk. It is this passion that's behind his phenomenal publication record. It is this passion that makes him talk excitedly about all the new areas that he would like to start working in. It is this passion that allows him to cite, in today's talk, a paper from the latest issue of Nature, and present the latest results from his lab. In short, it is this passion that keeps him going. This intense passion also gives him sleepless nights; he doesn't mind it, he says, as long as it's a scientific question that keeps him awake!

This passion also has a flip side: it makes him complain about the IT industry (he came very close to launching into a diatribe in today's talk, but backed off). It gives him a rough edge, which was evident in all the put-downs he directed at scientists in other fields (and against some in his own). At one moment, he makes a snide remark about a Japanese scientist publishing the same -- or at least very similar -- work in multiple papers, and at another, he bemoans a Nobel going to people who had cracked only a part of a problem (for example, he said, they didn't have the structure nor the composition of their material). At one moment he ridicules physicists for their reliance on Scotch tape for their graphene samples ("Chemists can do this far better!"), and at another, he disses organic chemists who aren't keen on synthesizing the kind of materials he's interested in. Fortunately for him, the audience was in a benevolent mood and chose to see some humor in these rather tacky remarks.

Rao devoted a section of his talk to his legendary publication record: over 1400 articles and papers, and 41 books! He said he learned the importance of publishing from his scientific heroes (Linus Pauling and Michael Faraday) and professional mentors and associates. He spoke with great admiration about Sir Neville Mott, who published four papers in the year he died -- at 93! Rao also took great pride in his own prodigious output of over 30 papers annually. [He used this opportunity to take a dig at some physicist friends of his who claimed they were working on revolutionary new ideas. Physics had to carry on without those revolutions, he said, because their ideas were never published!]

Towards the end of his talk, he turned to some of his current research interests. After describing graphene and its wonderful array of fabulous properties, he said, "This is such a wonderful time to be a chemist or physicist! I envy the young kids. They have a full life ahead of them to work on all these exciting problems!"

Saturday, January 19, 2008

What have some of my favourite academic bloggers blogged about lately?

"...[W]hen I do attend a seminar, I want my free food".
I remember two occasions in my grad-school life where I committed big mistakes but luckily caught them in the nick of time.
Sean Carroll
Giving talks, or presenting ideas more generally, is one of the necessary skills of academic life that we usually presume one just picks up on street corners. The idea that, for example, college professors should learn how to teach classes would be an anathema to most actual college professors. But there is a lot of skill involved, and practice and learning can really make a difference.
Incoherent Ponderer
How much do academic faculty make?
Doug Natelson
Nanotechnology: How to get into it, and where it is going.

Foreign scholars in India

K.S. Jayaraman has a short piece in about the flow of foreign scholars into India -- not just for a brief conference visit, but for longer term stays as post-docs (and students on exchange programs). All his examples are from IISc, so it's not clear how widespread this 'trend' is. The numbers he cites are also small (one Japanese post-doc who is on our Institute's Centenary Post-Doctoral Fellowship, and several French post-docs who are funded by a bilateral program), so it's not clear how important this 'trend' is.

Jayaraman doesn't mention it, but I think the example of Prof. Luoyi Tao who's on the faculty of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at IIT-M, is more important. It's indicative of the our institutions' willingness to hire a foreign national for permanent positions; it's also indicative of the kind of potential this route has for plugging the faculty shortage in our premier institutions.

In any case, what is clear from these examples is that we now have mechanisms -- involving funds from government sources -- that encourage hiring foreign nationals for longish stints, or even for 'permanent' positions. That is always a welcome thing.

Links: Education in India

How leaky is our education pipe? Here's what Dr. Mohd. Hamid Ansari, our Vice-President, said in his Convocation Address at St. Xavier's College, Kolkata:

Where do we stand today? Some hard facts confront us. About 2 crore children are born every year. Around 7 percent of the children do not attend school between the age group 6 to 14. Of the ones that do go through the primary and secondary schooling, about 75 lakhs appear in Class X and 38 lakhs in Class XII examinations. At both levels the pass percentage is 50-55 percent. Only 6 percent enter the university system and only 4-5 percent opts for vocational education.

* * *

Have you wondered about which states do well in primary education? Wonder no more. Caution: There are some interesting surprises!

* * *

Have you heard about IIT-B's latest plan to encourage alumni contribution?

... [T]he institute is building a 'Brick Wall of Fame'. The glass wall will have one lakh bricks, 30,000 for those who have passed out and 70,000 more, for students who will graduate in the years to come. Every donor of Rs 1 lakh will find his name on this wall.

"We will put up a plaque of every student who walks into the institute on this wall, and keep it turned the other way. When that student passes out and contributes to the institute, the plaque will be turned around to show his name," said Phatak.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"When they get older, they’ll curse their teachers."

Somini Sengupta has a piece on India's publicly funded school system [if you prefer visuals, here's a bleak slideshow]. Here's a quote from a volunteer from Pratham, an NGO that has done extensive national surveys of educational outcomes in our primary schools.

“When they get older, they’ll curse their teachers,” said Arnab Ghosh, 26, a social worker trying to help the government improve its schools, as he stared at clusters of children sitting on the grass outside. “They’ll say, ‘We came every day and we learned nothing.’ ”

* * *

It is always worth reiterating two other pieces of data about India's government-funded schools (taken from Pratham's Annual Status of Education Report (ASER-2007):

The school’s drinking-water tap had stopped working long ago, like 30 percent of schools nationwide, according to the Pratham survey. Despite the extra money, the toilet was broken, as was the case in nearly half of all schools nationwide.

* * *

Thanks to Amardeep Singh for the pointer.

Google India Women in Engineering Awards

This is a wonderful initiative.

I have been waiting to see this ever since I learned of Google's Anita Borg Scholarships in the US (and in Australia and Canada and Europe, too). I don't know why Google is using a different name for the awards for Indian students; couldn't Google have expanded the Anita Borg scholarships to India? This minor quibble aside, I have to say this is an absolutely positive development.

See if you are eligible and apply online before 31 January 2008.

* * *

The pic is a cropped version of this original in this album, which the official announcement linked to. [Minor quibble #2: instead of featuring pictures of women in non-engineering settings, the Awards site could have used a pic like this one.]

P. Krishna's talk on "Science and Religion"

Prof. P. Krishna served as a professor of physics at Banaras Hindu University until 1986 when he joined the Krishnamurti Foundation of India, Varanasi. He visited our Department yesterday and gave a lecture on "Science and Religion."

To be frank, I went in with the expectation that Krishna would offer a rebuttal to the recent flurry of books -- such as Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion -- that have denounced religion using some pretty strong language. He did nothing of that sort.

Science and religion, Krishna said, are complementary quests that arise from humans' innate propensity to inquire. The view that they are opposed to each other arises from a misunderstanding -- or, at least, a a narrow view -- of what science and religion are all about. Just as science is a systematic inquiry meant for discovering order in the external, observable world, religion too is a systematic inquiry that aims at discovering order in the inner world of human consciousness. Both of them go back to the very early days of humankind. Early humans certainly wondered about the seasons (for example), and their inquiry led them to science. Similarly, they also wondered about who they were, and if their life had a purpose; this line of thinking led them to religion. Posed this way, there is no antagonism between science and religion.

It must be clear by now that the religion that Krishna talks about is not the same as the 'religion' that we encounter in our everyday life. It's certainly not the faith-based entity that has been the butt of scorn and ridicule from the likes of Dawkins. From what I understood, Krishna's version of religion seems like a philosophical inquiry of a very personal kind. It is certainly not an enterprise that seeks to mobilize a community of adherents.

In his talk, Krishna pushed his analogy between science and religion (in the sense of inner-directed inquiry) in a very interesting direction. He said, "Just as technology is not the aim but a by-product of science, organized religion is also not the aim but a by-product of religion." If you loathe -- like I do -- organized religion, I'm sure you would hate this version of the analogy!

There were quite a few other strands woven around this main theme in Krishna's fascinating talk. But I don't want to transcribe it here, because the talk appears to be based on one of his articles, available on his website.

Let me end this post with a quote from his article whose title, incidentally, replaces the word 'religion' with 'spirituality'! Here's the part where Krishna discusses how religions -- byproducts of spirituality -- have divided us (as opposed to science whose laws are seen as universally valid):

... [It] seems to me, that we have not been intelligent about the spiritual quest. Look at what mankind has done. Just as there have been great scientists like Einstein, Newton, Galileo, Darwin and so on, there have also been great spiritual teachers. People respect those great spiritual teachers because they came upon a certain state of consciousness which was one of love and compassion, a universal consciousness which was not divided from the rest of the world. But what did their followers do ? The followers said, "This man is our guru, our teacher, our saviour, our leader, so let us worship him". They took his words and propagated them. They evolved a system, an organisation which became the church. The followers did not come upon the truth, they were satisfied with propagating the word. Suppose the scientists had done the same, if they had built a temple to Newton and said, "We are Newtonians, Newton is our leader, whatever Newton said alone is true and we are going to propagate it" and another group of scientists did that for Einstein and said, "We are Einsteinians", would we have called them scientists ? We would have said: "You have to learn science, study and discover the order in nature, come upon the understanding and knowledge of science, only then you are a scientist". But in the field of spirituality, we have been very gullible. If a man wears a certain type of dress, goes and does a certain ritual, lights the lamp in a certain way and so on, we accept him as a holy man. We have lost sight of the fact that this is also a quest, an enquiry. Unless a human being comes upon order in his consciousness, he is not a religious man. It has nothing to do with rituals, with the dress we wear, with the words we utter or the books we read. It has nothing to do with some ability or knowledge we have in our head either.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Plans of US doctorates of Indian origin

Period     Number of PhDs     Definite plans to stay in the US
1994-1997 501456.3 %
1998-2001 3855 66.5 %
2002-2005 358762.7

This data is from Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, a report from the National Science Foundation of the US. There are tons of data in the report, tabulated in this 124-page Appendix (pdf). The above data is from Table 2.33 on page 93.

Other interesting pieces of data about Indian students in the US:

  • There were 66,534 Indian grad students enrolled in the US universities in April 2006. This is up from 55,099 in April 2005. The bulk of them were in S&E programs (46,743 and 38,863), with engineering alone accounting for over 50 percent within this category (24,148 and 20,160).
  • The overall enrollment figures of 66,534, coupled with the PhD degrees (such as about 3,600 for the 2002-05 period in the sciences) tell us that less than 10,000 students are in the doctoral program. The vast bulk of the Indian graduate students don't go beyond their Masters degrees.
  • The number of undergrad enrollments is just 10,603 in 2006 and 10,000 in 2005. A little less than half of them are in Science and Engineering, and a little over a fourth of them are in engineering programs.

There are probably as many Indian undergrad students in the US as there are in four or five good sized colleges. By any yardstick, these numbers are extremely small.

The Indian graduate student population in the US, on the other hand, is anything but small. In particular, the number of Indians receiving PhD degrees in engineering from the US universities (I would estimate it to be about 500 -- see footnote) is comparable to those from Indian universities (779 in 2003).

Well, that's it after spending sometime on this report. If I find time (unlikely), I will dip into it later. If you find something interesting, share it with us in the comments section!

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Footnote: About 3,600 Indians received their PhDs in science and engineering during the four year period 2002-05; the average is 900 per year. Considering just over half the S&E grad students are enrolled in engineering, I assumed this to be the case at the PhD exit stage as well to arrive at an estimate of 500 engineering Indian PhDs from the US.

Free Information

Let me start with Aaron Swartz's announcement of the launch of, "a new community site for people who work with large data sets." The site has three sections for those who work on tools to (a) get hold of large data sets (web crawling, etc), (b) process large data sets and (c) visualize them.

Oh, by the way, have you tried the simplest way to start your own website? (I have). It's called Jottit, and it's yet another great -- and free! -- product from Aaron Swartz. Thank you, Aaron!

* * *

Larry Lessig gives us the good news that his new book, The Future of Ideas is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license. Which means you can download it from here.

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Wikipedia celebrated its birthday yesterday in an admirably understated way for a seven year old. There was just an entry in its "On this day" page for January 15.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

ToI swears by classical liberalism ...

... in its editorial pages. Here's Gautam Adhikari:

... [A]s long as a particular piece is worth offering to you, in our considered judgment, as a viewpoint, we publish it. That viewpoint may not coincide with our position on a subject but we print it regardless.

We take this stance because we are a ‘liberal’ newspaper in the classical sense of the term. Our job is to offer you a wide variety of opinions to help you reflect and form your own views. When we want to express opinions as a newspaper, we do so in our editorials.

Thus, we chose to publish Nandy’s and Praful Bidwai’s (January 2) critical views of Modi for much the same reason we carried columns favourable to Modi written by Swapan Dasgupta (December 30) and Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar (January 6). Our own take on the Gujarat elections we elaborated in a long editorial published on December 24.

Pinker on psychology of morality

Steven Pinker has a great piece in the Sunday NYTimes titled The Moral Instinct [Via The Situationist, where you'll find quite a few links related to Pinker and his article]:

The starting point for appreciating that there is a distinctive part of our psychology for morality is seeing how moral judgments differ from other kinds of opinions we have on how people ought to behave. Moralization is a psychological state that can be turned on and off like a switch, and when it is on, a distinctive mind-set commandeers our thinking. This is the mind-set that makes us deem actions immoral (“killing is wrong”), rather than merely disagreeable (“I hate brussels sprouts”), unfashionable (“bell-bottoms are out”) or imprudent (“don’t scratch mosquito bites”).

The first hallmark of moralization is that the rules it invokes are felt to be universal. Prohibitions of rape and murder, for example, are felt not to be matters of local custom but to be universally and objectively warranted. One can easily say, “I don’t like brussels sprouts, but I don’t care if you eat them,” but no one would say, “I don’t like killing, but I don’t care if you murder someone.”

The other hallmark is that people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished. Not only is it allowable to inflict pain on a person who has broken a moral rule; it is wrong not to, to “let them get away with it.” People are thus untroubled in inviting divine retribution or the power of the state to harm other people they deem immoral. Bertrand Russell wrote, “The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists — that is why they invented hell.”

A previous post on evolutionary origins of morality is here.

Pongal ...

Happy Pongal, folks!

Kolam for Pongal 2008

Photograph: Kolam by Wife, Niece and Friend. Kolam's size: 1.5 by 1.5 meters.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Annals of Journalism

This is to be filed under "This Day, That Age." Check out the Hindu editorial from exactly fifty years ago:

THE HINDU appears to-day with a new face. The front page is devoted to news instead of to advertisements. This change, though really just a technical one, has not been made lightheartedly to satisfy some passing whim but after considerable deliberation and in deference to the wishes of an overwhelming majority of our readership. It has not been an easy change for us to make either, because our former format featuring advertisements on the front page has not only stood the test of eighty important and highly competitive years but has made THE HINDU a distinctive publication among the great newspapers of the world. But the reading habits of the public have been changing fast in the last two decades, and a newspaper, alert and sensitive to public opinion, has to take note of what its readers desire and keep pace with the spirit of the times. We have moved into an age when events go rushing by in such headlong fashion that a reader to-day has often no time even to pause “to open his paper” for the news but must get it the moment he picks his paper up. The sweeping trend for newspapers has therefore been to move the main news of the day to the front page and to-day we join their ranks. Thus THE HINDU which throughout its long career has striven to give a lead to its readers on matters of moment, now takes a lead from its readers in the matter of its facial appearance. That is the significance of the change effected in our format this morning.

If you are so inclined, you might also want to read the accompanying column by N. Ram the Hindu's current Editor-in-Chief.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Fun links ...

Watch the TED talk by Yossi Vardi on the problem of local warming that exposes male bloggers to some serious dangers.

If you have been looking for a tool that you can use "to back up all of your sexist ideas with something that sounds a bit like science," your search should end here: The Evolutionary Psychology Bingo! [Link via Savage Minds].

While there, do check out the Libertarian Troll Bingo as well.

Update: Bonus Link! Top Ten Silly Patents Issued in 2007 compiled by Patent Troll Tracker.

Kuffir's comment

... the Afghans’ capacity to endure more and more conflict and trauma never ceases to amaze me.

I think it's a valid point. If you are wondering what he is talking about, read this post.

Links ...

Roxy Gagdekar celebrates a great event: Uttar Bajrange, a member of the Budhan Theater, is flying off to the US to start graduate studies in theater. [Acting Like A Thief, Kerim Friedman's 15-minute film on this theater movement is available here.]

Why Civil Services?: A personal story from Cosmic Voices.

The Envelope, Please: Sirensongs tells us about the callousness of our very own government towards foreigners.

Stunningly beautiful pictures of bridges.

The latest in Natasha Mhatre's series on wildlife photography (or, photography in general): Don't fear the shadows.

Peter Foster finds a gem: No more grovelling in Himachal Pradesh.

Birth of IISc

IISc Director and Current Science Editor P. Balaram's latest editorial is on The Birth of the Indian Institute of Science (pdf). After giving us a lot of little nuggets of information (which point to a decade-long struggle that preceded our Institute's birth) from official archives belonging to various organizations, he leaves us with this conclusion:

The full story of the IISc and the men who built it is yet to be written. If the right scribe is found, it should be a tale worth reading.

Diversity is Good!

Scott Page, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, is the author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies. Claudia Dreyfus of the NYTimes probes him on the benefits of diversity:

Sidebar: Scott Page's book has been reviewed by Crooked Timber's Henry Farrell. Three Toed Sloth's Cosma Shalizi has an article that goes into how Page's version of "diversity is good" is different from -- and stronger than -- James Surowiecki's "wisdom of the crowds" and the catch-all "division of labor".

* * *

Q. In your book you posit that organizations made up of different types of people are more productive than homogenous ones. Why do you say that?

A. Because diverse groups of people bring to organizations more and different ways of seeing a problem and, thus, faster/better ways of solving it.

People from different backgrounds have varying ways of looking at problems, what I call “tools.” The sum of these tools is far more powerful in organizations with diversity than in ones where everyone has gone to the same schools, been trained in the same mold and thinks in almost identical ways.

The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we’re in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place.

But if we have people with diverse tools, they’ll get stuck in different places. One person can do their best, and then someone else can come in and improve on it. There’s a lot of empirical data to show that diverse cities are more productive, diverse boards of directors make better decisions, the most innovative companies are diverse.

Breakthroughs in science increasingly come from teams of bright, diverse people. That’s why interdisciplinary work is the biggest trend in scientific research.

Sure enough, the interview gets to what this idea has to do with affirmative action.

Q. The term “diversity” has become a code word for inclusion of racial, ethnic and sexual minorities. Is that what you’re talking about?

A. I mean differences in how people think. Two people can look quite different and think similarly. Having said that, there’s certainly a lot of evidence that people’s identity groups — ethnic, racial, sexual, age — matter when it comes to diversity in thinking.

Here’s the bottom line: I myself am an affirmative action child. I got into the University of Michigan in the 1980s on a program. I’m from a rural part of Michigan. No calculus in high school. So I was given bonus points toward undergraduate admissions.

If the policy had been to consider mainly grades and SATs and not to make room for some geographic diversity, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten in.

Annals of Speed Dating

This article by Tanya Gold is from 2002, and it's great stuff [link via Chugs' Sunday Morning Links]. Gold "devised an experiment to find the definitive answer" to that one question that has been vexing womankind since FSM knows when: "what do men want?". Read her article for the full story ...

Update: I forgot to add this; an earlier post on speed dating is here.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Girish Wagh: The designer behind Tata Nano

After shining brightly on Ratan Tata [check out the interviews here and here], the spotlight now moves to the team that turned Tata's rather audacious dream into reality. The man behind the design and engineering team is Girish Wagh. Check out the articles: Economic Times, Times of India (and one more), The Calcutta Telegraph. CNN-IBN also carried an interview with the man.

Ideas that changed the rules of the game

Exhibit A: Apple's iPhone [Fred Vogelstein in Wired]:

... For decades, wireless carriers have treated manufacturers like serfs, using access to their networks as leverage to dictate what phones will get made, how much they will cost, and what features will be available on them. Handsets were viewed largely as cheap, disposable lures, massively subsidized to snare subscribers and lock them into using the carriers' proprietary services. But the iPhone upsets that balance of power. Carriers are learning that the right phone — even a pricey one — can win customers and bring in revenue. Now, in the pursuit of an Apple-like contract, every manufacturer is racing to create a phone that consumers will love, instead of one that the carriers approve of. ...

Exhibit B: Ikea [Tim Harford in Financial Times]:

... Ikea keeps its costs and prices low by enlisting its customers – their time, their cars, their ambitions as interior designers, and their inflated ideas of their carpentry skills.

The management experts Rafael Ramirez and Richard Normann pointed this out in the Harvard Business Review back in 1993. Ikea, they argued, was a success because it enabled “value co-production”. This infelicitous term partly refers to offering consumers a discount to build their own furniture. But it means much more: Ikea recruited its customers to the idea that they could not only put up shelves but they could design their own stylish living spaces, equipping them with tape measures and printing almost 200 million catalogues that also serve as design manuals.

Exhibit C: Google [Ken Auletta in New Yorker]:

In its 2004 annual report, Google, amending its basic corporate strategy, officially signalled its intent to be more than a search engine. The company announced that seventy per cent of its efforts would continue to be directed to its “core” mission, “our web search engine and our advertising network.” Another twenty per cent of its energies would be devoted to “adjacent areas such as Gmail”—the free e-mail accounts available to just about anyone who wants one—and the range of software that falls under the heading of “apps.” Finally, the report said, “the remaining 10 per cent is saved for anything else, giving us the freedom to innovate.” To other media companies, this sounded suspiciously like declaring, “We are in the search business, but we might be in your business.” Last spring, Google bested Microsoft, Yahoo, and the enormous advertising-marketing firm WPP to buy DoubleClick, the online advertising and marketing company. DoubleClick claims up to twelve billion daily transactions. Even without it, Google has amassed one of the world’s largest databases—a resource that has helped in altering its mission. “We are in the advertising business,” Eric Schmidt, Google’s C.E.O., told me not long ago.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Nano and the emission norms

Anand Giridharadas has an interesting back story on Nano, the new small car from the House of Tatas, which was unveiled today at the Delhi Auto Show:

... The company claims it will meet Euro IV emissions standards, going beyond what the law in India currently requires.

That is impressive in itself, but what is not widely known is what a turnabout that is from Tata’s original strategy. As my colleagues and I discovered recently in an interview with Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata Group, the original plan was to take advantage of a loophole in the law that would have allowed the car not to be classified as a car. Tata planned to register it as a “quadracycle” instead, a vehicle subject to weaker emissions and safety regulations.

Two years ago, Mr. Tata told us, he intervened personally, anticipating criticism. He mandated that the Nano meet passenger-car standards.

* * *

For a very interesting spin on Nano, go to Vivek's post.

Unsung heroes

First, the Women in Science blog has a great post about the six women programmers of ENIAC, "the first purely electronic, Turing-complete, digital computer capable of being reprogrammed to solve a full range of computing problems".

Scientific American has a podcast about a recent book -- Seth Shulman's The Telephone Gambit -- with compelling evidence showing that Alexander Graham Bell "plagiarized a key element of the telephone" from Elisha Gray. The podcast carries a fairly wide-ranging interview with the author of the book.

Finally, I must point to Olivia Judson's post about Alfred Russel Wallace, the 'other' scientist who had independently "arrived at the idea of evolution by natural selection.

How to deal with plagiarism

Apparently, this is still a hot issue. Here's a report about a recent discussion among the members of the American Historical Association:

... [T]hreat of lawsuits is clearly a huge issue for journal editors. The key word in dealing with these cases is “fear,” said David R. Goldfield, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who is editor of the Journal of Urban History.

While the journal editors all understood that fear, many in the audience spoke of other worries: of having their work copied or distorted and of having nowhere to turn. Some victims of plagiarism spoke of their frustrations over the lack of policing, and several suggested that a more aggressive approach is needed. One suggestion: Creating Web sites where people could submit work that they believe has been plagiarized for public view.

In the discussion, the journal editors talked about some of the difficulties they face in dealing with plagiarism allegations and some of the misconceptions they believe exist about the problem. Lessoff said that highly publicized cases about famous authors have created a false impression. “There is an illusion that rooting out plagiarism amounts to a moral crusade against the high and mighty,” he said. But based on his experiences and talking with other editors, most of the cases that do come up involve people who are “marginal or insecure in their professional positions.”

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Plagiarism alert ...

Here's a ToI report about a mathematics professor at Calcutta University:

[The American Mathematical Society] has cautioned universities and institutes worldwide not to refer to at least three of [Mahimaranjan] Adhikary's research papers as he had "copied them word for word" from works of foreign mathematicians. The incident puts a question mark on the checks-and-measures system of Calcutta University, where Adhikary worked for over three decades and was recently re-employed after retirement "considering his contribution to the field of mathematics". A red-faced CU has investigated the charges and found them to be true.

I have looked for info on this 'alert' from AMS; if you know of any update (or more info) on this affair, do let me know.

In the meantime, someone alerted me -- I'm sorry I don't recall who tipped me off -- about this website with serious allegations of plagiarism against an academic -- and a high ranking official -- at the North East Regional Institute of Science and Technology , affiliated to the North-Eastern Hill University.

Alison Richard on "What Makes a World Class University"

Prof. Alison Richard, Vice-Chancellor, Cambridge University, has been on a visit to several Indian universities. Mark Tully interviewed her for the HIndu, and a couple of days ago, she wrote a guest column in the Economic Times. Some excerpts from her column:

But what makes a university world class? [...] In my view, four factors make a university world class. First, it must show a commitment to breadth and excellence in all fields of human inquiry, not simply in a particular niche. Uniform excellence across all fields is an ideal that no university achieves in practice, but it is a fine ambition. One senses that universal, high ambition in great universities, coupled with real excellence in most fields, most of the time.

Second, world class universities engage in cutting-edge research whilst at the same time teaching the next generation, their students. Teaching and research are intrinsically bound together, with top researchers inspiring and mentoring their students. In turn, students themselves inspire and challenge their teachers.

Third, great universities must allow their researchers the freedom to experiment, succeed, and sometimes fail. They must be able to make grand mistakes as well as grand discoveries. It is often through making those mistakes that the grand discoveries are made.

This implies a degree of inefficiency, but it is a necessary inefficiency and a corollary of greatness. A university operating with a completely utilitarian mindset will forego the opportunities that a more open-ended system allows.

Finally, world class universities have permeable boundaries. This means encouraging interdisciplinary research and teaching; it means working with the private sector, for example, fostering and encouraging partnerships with industry; and it means encouraging international collaboration.

Prof. Richard and her team visited IISc two days ago, and she gave a lecture that reiterated and expanded on the views expressed in her column. Sadly, most Indian universities would fail two of the tests of greatness listed by her: coexistence of breadth and excellence, and coexistence of teaching and research. Many of them also fail the fourth test -- their ability to help crossing of disciplinary divisions.

Our 'great' institutions cater to only a few fields on knowledge (IITs for technology, AIIMS for medicine, NLSUI for law, and so on), and most of our 'universities' don't do any undergraduate teaching at all. It is important that we form of new institutions -- or transform existing ones -- so that we do away with these crazy divisions. In other words, what we need, first and foremost, are real universities; we can worry about their 'world-class-ness' later...

Sunday, January 06, 2008

National Knowledge Commission's FAQ on Higher Education in India

Through this story from the Hindu's Anita Joshua, we learn about the NKC's candid FAQ on India's higher ed system [caution: pdf]. While the FAQ covers many topics -- NKC's proposal for IRAHE, a 'super regulator' for college education, its ideas for expansion of our university system, tuition fees, etc -- Joshua focuses on NKC's views on the issue of reservations. On this issue, the Commission favours some variant of the 'deprivation index' system, proposed by Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande, and by Purushottam Aggrawal [Links here, here, and here]. Here's a quote from Joshua's report:

Sidebar: The National Knowledge Commission's comprehensive website is here.

* * *

Seeking to clarify its position on reservations, the NKC has stated that caste-based reservation is only one form of affirmative action.

While this is a position it took in the original note on higher education, the Commission in the FAQs has dwelt at length on the deprivation index it had mooted earlier.

Stating that deprivation of educational opportunities is a multi-dimensional problem, the Commission has pointed out that attention needs to be paid to different salient levels of deprivation faced by students.

This includes not just caste but also other indicators such as income, gender, region, place of residence and even the kind of schooling a student has had.

Like I said, there's quite a lot of stuff in the FAQ, and I think the NKC is right on pretty much everything. While I urge you to read all of it, let me just highlight an interesting proposal which, if implemented, will free our universities from their primary status as organizers of undergraduate examinations -- without really doing any undergraduate teaching!

The proposed Central Board of Undergraduate Education along with State Boards of Undergraduate Education would set curricula and conduct examinations for undergraduate colleges that choose to be affiliated with them. These Boards would thus separate the academic functions from the administrative functions and at the same time provide quality benchmarks. Governance would become much simpler. It is possible that some of the existing undergraduate colleges, particularly those that are at some geographical distance from their parent university, may wish to affiliate themselves to these Boards. New undergraduate colleges are bound to be an integral part of the expansion of opportunities in higher education. Where would these be located? It would be difficult for them to become autonomous colleges without a track record. It may be possible for some to join a cluster of autonomous colleges but this would be more the exception than the rule. It would not be possible for them to affiliate with existing universities which are already overloaded. Hence, they could be affiliated with the Central Board of Undergraduate Education or State Boards of Undergraduate Education.

IITs, JEE and RTI ...

Here's an interesting story from ToI's Manoj Mitta:

In response to notices sent by the Central Information Commission (CIC) on an RTI application, IIT authorities have given conflicting versions, putting the JEE under a cloud.

CIC member O P Kejariwal has threatened to take an "extremely serious" view if IIT Kharagpur, which conducted the JEE in 2006, did not disclose by January 15 how exactly it had calculated the cut-off marks in that test in each of the three subjects: mathematics, physics and chemistry.

I have been looking for an update on this case ever since this case came to my notice in July 2007. I'm glad to see this update from Manoj Mitta.

The 15th of January is a deadline for IIT-Kharagpur to 'comply with the [Central Information Commission's] directions "in full".' I am keen to find out what happens next. If you know of any fresh developments, please let me know.

* * *

Thanks to Dr. Bruno Mascarehas for the pointer.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Teach children that their brain is like a muscle

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has a great overview of her work on what motivates people -- and kids, in particular. Here's an excerpt:

In addition to encouraging a growth mind-set through praise for effort, parents and teachers can help children by providing explicit instruction regarding the mind as a learning machine. Blackwell, Trzesniewski and I recently designed an eight-session workshop for 91 students whose math grades were declining in their first year of junior high. Forty-eight of the students received instruction in study skills only, whereas the others attended a combination of study skills sessions and classes in which they learned about the growth mind-set and how to apply it to schoolwork.

In the growth mind-set classes, students read and discussed an article entitled “You Can Grow Your Brain.” They were taught that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use and that learning prompts neurons in the brain to grow new connections. From such instruction, many students began to see themselves as agents of their own brain development. Students who had been disruptive or bored sat still and took note. One particularly unruly boy looked up during the discussion and said, “You mean I don’t have to be dumb?”

As the semester progressed, the math grades of the kids who learned only study skills continued to decline, whereas those of the students given the growth-mind-set training stopped falling and began to bounce back to their former levels. ...

Here's a previous post on Dweck's research.