Friday, October 29, 2010

N.R. Narayana Murthy on how to attract young people to science

After the recent announcement of the Infosys Prizes, N.R.Narayana Murthy (Chairman and Chief Mentor, Infosys) was interviewed by Gopal Raj of The Hindu.


BTW, the Infosys Science Foundation's website has finally been updated with a page filled with a citation, bio-sketch and "scope and impact of work" for each Prize winner. I have also updated this post.

* * *

Here's Mr. Murthy's prescription for making a research career "attractive to young people."

The best students will always go to where they get the best jobs and pay, and that is to be found in industry these days. A research career on the other hand, means protracted training and less remuneration. So how does one make such a career attractive to young people?

I have suggested several times to various institutions that for every paper that is produced in a world-class refereed journal, they could give Rs. four lakh. So that if you produce four papers in a year, then you have got Rs. 16 lakh. Add to that a salary of Rs. six or eight lakh a year, then you have got a decent sum.

Limitless Ladder: Part 5. Review by a Chemist

That chemist is Ashutosh Jogalekar (aka Wavefunction). An excerpt from his review:

So how does one do high-quality research in a resources and cash-strapped developing country? Rao’s approach is worth noting. He knew that the accuracy of measurements he could do with the relatively primitive equipment in India could never compete with sophisticated measurements in Europe or the US. So instead of aiming for accuracy, Rao aimed at interesting problems. He would pick a novel problem or system where even crude measurements would reveal something new. Others may then perform more accurate measurements on the system, but his work would stand as the pioneering work in the area. This approach is worth emulating and should be especially emphasized by young scientists starting out in their careers: be problem-oriented rather than technique-oriented. Another key lesson from Rao's life is to not work in crowded fields; Rao would often contribute the initial important observations in the field and then move on while it was taken over by other scientists. This also keeps one from getting bored. Embodying this philosophy allowed Rao to work in a vast number of areas. He started with spectroscopic investigations of liquids, moved to inorganic materials and further worked extensively on organic materials. Among other things, he has made significant contributions to unraveling the structures and properties of transition metal oxides, ceramic superconductors and materials displaying giant magneto-resistance. All these had special physical and chemical properties which were directly a result of their unique structures. Rao co-authored an internationally recognized book- “New Directions in Solid-State and Structural Chemistry”- which encapsulates the entire field.

However, sometimes not having the right technique can prove significantly debilitating. In the 80s, the world of science was shaken by the discovery of ‘high-temperature’ superconductivity in a ceramic material. In fact Rao had synthesized the exact same material - an oxide of copper, lanthanum and barium - more than fifteen years ago. However, the compound became superconducting at 30 degrees Kelvin and could be studied only in liquid helium. Unfortunately Rao was unable to do measurements at this temperature because the only relevant material available in his laboratory was liquid nitrogen, which boils at 77 K. If liquid helium had been available, Rao might well have been the first person to observe superconductivity in this material. In 1987, two scientists at IBM who discovered the phenomenon were awarded the Nobel Prize.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Selva tweets:

Sampling of home library - Book 1: "One hundred years of solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The novel has one of the best opening lines.

Reminds me of Woody Allen's comment:

I took a speed reading course and read 'War and Peace' in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.

Links ...

  1. Voices, the IISc Newsletter: Snake Catchers of IISc.

  2. Aditya Sinha, Editor-in-Chief, The New Indian Express: Plagiarise and Be Damned: An excellent op-ed on the plagiarism by Aroon Purie, "one of [India's] most powerful media moguls."

    Hat tip to Space Bar who notes, "'s good to see a mainstream newspaper take on the issue and contextualise it."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dear Infosys Science Foundation ...

Update 2 (29 October 2010): Just noticed this afternoon that the website now has a new page featuring a citation, biographical sketch and "scope and impact of work" for each Prize winner.

Update (27 October 2010; 7:30 p.m.): The presentation (pdf) at the Prize announcement is available; it has a brief citation from the jury for each Prize. This page (contrast it with this page from 2009) is yet to be updated with links to further info for each Prize winner -- citation, bio, etc. (like in this page from 2009).

* * *

Dear Infosys Science Foundation,

It's great to see that "Science" is your middle name. Please do it justice by doing the right things for your Prize.

You see, the Prize announcement was not accompanied by a well-written citation describing the scientific accomplishments of each of the Prize winners -- Laureates, as you prefer to call them. It has been almost 24 hours since you made the announcement, and the citations are still missing on your website.

Perhaps I need to spell out the implications of the missing citation.

When the citation is missing, the "young Indians" that you wish to "inspire" through your Prizes get to see only the money, but not the science.

When the citation is missing, the scientific accomplishments of your Laureates take a back seat to the fact that they just became richer by 50 lakhs. What did they do -- win a lottery?

When the citation is missing, you are not "[endeavouring] to elevate the prestige of scientific research in India", you are just using the Prize to flaunt the wealth of your founders.

Finally, when the citation is missing, your Prize is not an Indian version of the Nobel, it's just a private sector version of those CSIR awards[*].

Bottomline: If you want your Prize to have the right sort of reputation and impact, you have to not just do it, but do it right.

* * *

[*]: See my rant -- at the end of that post from 2006 -- about the S.S.Bhatnagar Prizes being announced without the Prize citations.

* * *

Thanks to Pratik Ray who also noticed the lack of citations in the announcement.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Infosys Prizes for 2010

The Prizes have been announced.

First of all, congratulations to the winners!

Three things that are noteworthy about this year's Prizes:

  1. All the Prize winners -- except one -- are working in India. The lone exception is UCLA's Prof. Chandrashekhar Khare, who gets the Mathematics Prize. [Last year, Prof. Abhijit Banerjee of MIT won one of the Social Sciences Prizes; IIRc, his India-centric work was cited as the reason for considering him for what is essentially an "Indian" Prize. Perhaps Prof. Khare has some strong Indian connections].

  2. The Social Sciences Prize is shared by two women: Prof. Nandini Sundar and Amita Baviskar. They are the only women among the six Laureates this year.

  3. Prof. Ashutosh Sharma of IIT-K gets the Engineering Prize. [And the Jury for this Prize redeems itself after its null result of last year; see my rant about that fiasco]

Ram Guha on Politicians and Public Projects

Ram Guha's latest HT column -- That Family Feeling -- is about the wide gulf between Nehru's views and those of the ruling Gandhi family on naming public projects after their family members. The contrast is between

[Jawaharlal Nehru] had taken a vow that in the case of any school, project, or programme started in memory of his father (Motilal Nehru) or his wife, he would not participate in its inauguration.


At last count, some 400 government initiatives, institutions, projects and programmes were named after either Nehru, Indira or Rajiv.

In editorializing on this contrast, Guha takes an oblique swipe:

Jawaharlal Nehru would surely have been appalled by this use (or misuse) of public money for furthering ancestor worship. His rectitude and propriety stands in striking contrast to the behaviour of later members of his family. But it stands in contrast to the attitude of most other Indians too. For instance, one of India’s best-known scientists actually attended the inauguration of a circle named after himself in Bangalore.

The later Nehru-Gandhis may think that the ubiquitous naming of programmes and places after members of their family is not much more than their due. But that distinguished men of science fall prey to such vanity is a sign of how far we have moved from the time of Jawaharlal Nehru. [Bold emphasis added].

Some of you may know that the traffic round-about in front of the main gates of IISc is called "Professor C.N.R. Rao Circle". I don't know what it was called earlier, but it took its new name in the late 1990s.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Links ...

  1. Mark Liberman at Language Log: Merle Haggard's ex-wives. Has some great examples of hilarity produced by the absence of the final serial comma -- like in, "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God". Though these examples are not original to LL, you get them all here in one place.

  2. Bad news for British universities: "the amount of money going to higher education will decline by 40 percent over the next four years, from 7.1 billion pounds (about $11-billion) to 4.2 billion pounds (about $6.6-billion)."

  3. How do you "measure academic value in dollars and cents"? Texas A&M University shows the way: Putting a Price on Professors. [See also: A Tale of 40 Professors at Texas A&M by Richard Vedder.]

  4. Yet another story on Kota (Rajasthan), the cram school capital of India. This one is by Tim Sullivan of AP.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Links ...

  1. Ashutosh Jogalekar: Ethics and Indian Science.

  2. Rob Beschizza at Boing Boing: The New York Times Torture Euphemism Generator!

  3. Dave Marcus in NYTimes: A Father’s Acceptance: His Son Won’t Be Following His Ivy Footsteps

  4. Thorbjorn Jagland (Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee) in NYTimes: Why We Gave Liu Xiaobo a Nobel (Hat Tip: Rahul Basu)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Flash Opera!

While we are at it, here's "Do Re Mi" at a train station in Belgium (YouTube seems to have tons of these improvs from all over the place):

In case the embeds didn't work, here are the links.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

May be we should dedicate this link to Aroon Purie

Five Great Men Who Built Their Careers on Plagiarism over at

The article uses incendiary language that goes way over the top at times (seems like it's the preferred style at, but it builds its case against the five men with ample references.

Perhaps we should dedicate this link to Mr. Purie, whose special skills include plagiarizing under jet-lag and "[writing] an apology that is defiantly nonapologetic." Check out Rahul's post and Grady Hendrix's note.

Thanks to Nikhil Narayanan for the Buzz.

When an academic study is about a sponsor's business interests, ...

... shouldn't that fact be disclosed -- especially if the study goes on to claim that "the [Pohang Iron and Steel Company] project would directly and indirectly generate 8.7 lakh jobs, and would contribute 11.5 per cent to Orissa's economy by 2017"?

The culprit here is NCAER -- National Council of Applied Economic Research. And the report is here.

Here's Priscilla Jebaraj in The Hindu:

... it has not been publicised that Posco is a sponsor of NCAER. While the Korean steel giant is mentioned on the list of sponsors and partners on the NCAER website, there is no disclosure of this conflict of interest in the published study.

Instead, in the preface to the report, NCAER Director-General Suman Bery merely states that the organisation was “approached” to carry out a cost benefit analysis of the project, and adds that: “It is NCAER's hope, the policy planners would find the report relevant and useful.”

“We do have processes in place for vetting the professional quality of our work. Our normal procedure is to indicate who the sponsor was in the foreward,” Mr. Bery told The Hindu on Wednesday, admitting that Posco had paid for the study.

“We do keep our ethics policy under review. If we were to release the report today, I think there would be a somewhat tighter formulation.” [I have added the bold emphasis and the link to NCAER Sponsors page]

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On more on the Inter-Academy Report on GM Crops

This one is from Latha Jishnu in Down To Earth. Money quote:

It transpires that the academies held just one meeting, on June 1, before the report was compiled. In their own words it was “a brain storming meeting which was attended by a cross section of Fellows and nominees of the Academies”. The report does not list who was present but says the document is based on “a few introductory presentations”, the written comments by Fellows “and the documents brought to the attention of the meeting by different Fellows.” According to one insider, it was a meeting “where the decision had already been taken to push the case of Bt brinjal”. It is not as if there was no dissent. [Bold emphasis added] Some half a dozen scientists did raise concerns about safety and environment impact of GM crops but they were outnumbered by the pro-GM lobby of around 50 scientists.

Since the faculty salary is so low, ...

... a senior professor at IIT-KGP appears to have chosen some shady ways to augment his income:

[Amit Kumar Ghos], a senior professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, is under police investigation for allegedly using the IIT campus and brand to run an institute whose courses and diplomas have no legitimacy whatsoever. [It is ] perhaps the biggest scam to hit India's top engineering school ...

[It has been] alleged that Ghosh ran an institute called the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE) out of the Kharagpur campus, calling himself its President.

He even conducted their admission tests in his IIT office. Each student was allegedly charged a fee of Rs 27,000 for the course.

And here's the clincher:

Ghosh ... was ironically also the chief vigilance officer (CVO) of the IIT till recently.

Aroon Purie's Novel Excuse for Plagiarism

Jet lag.

See the posts by Rahul, Niranjana, Wanderlust.

Niranjana, who has earlier been a victim of plagiarism by Ms. Damayanti Datta, a deputy editor at India Today, is right to be indignant:

Your unmitigated gall in posting an explanation for your plagiarism of the Slate story ON MY BLOG while ignoring your plagiarism from this VERY SAME BLOG leaves me amazed. So Grady Hendrix deserves an apology because he’s from Slate, and I don’t because I’m an independent blogger? You couldn’t have demonstrated your stunning lack of principles better than with this incident. I never received a reply, let alone an apology to my complaint made eighteen months ago, though you were quick to disable comments on the article on your site. And yet, you’ve reacted remarkably fast to the outcry about the Slate article.

And Grady Hendrix, whose words found their way into the editorial by the India Today's jet-lagged Editor in Chief, offers a fitting response (see his comment on this post -- there's no direct link, so you'll have to scroll down a bit):

India Today has refused to respond to emails from myself and Slate, but I'm glad they're going to apologize. It must be very difficult for the staff of India Today that when Mr. Purie gets "jet-lagged" he steals things. I would imagine that whenever they see their boss yawning, or looking sleepy, all of his employees must frantically lock up their laptops and hide their wallets lest he lifts them. I've read about this kind of narco-klepto condition before (also known as "sleep-stealing") and it is truly a burden. My sympathy and prayers are with Mr. Purie in this difficult time as he searches for a cure to his condition.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Truthiness: Ben Zimmer on Five Years of Truthiness:

For many ... observers, ... there is something undeniably appealing about how truthiness signifies ersatz truth, so much so that the neologism has spawned numerous imitators ending in -iness — what the Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky has called “the Colbert suffix.” In 2007, Meghan Daum of The Los Angeles Times used “fame-iness” to refer to Paris Hilton-style celebrity, while Ben Goldacre of The Guardian mocked an author’s superficial footnotes as providing “an air of ‘referenciness.’ ” The latest in the “X-iness” parade is the title of Charles Seife’s new book, “Proofiness,” defined by Seife as “the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true — even when it’s not.” Seife, an associate professor of journalism at New York University, told me that the title is very much a homage to Colbert. He credits his wife with recognizing during the writing of the book that his topic was “the mathematical analogue of truthiness.”

Stretching it a bit, here's Scienciness: This is a news website article about a scientific paper:

In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of "scare quotes" to ensure that it's clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever. [And other such paragraphs that reveal the anatomy of "news website articles about a scientific paper"]

I know I'm in dangerous territory; but, having come this far, I might as well link (once again) to the classics in Newsiness, (incendiary) Blogginess, essentialist or pure Blogginess, and Storiness.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Conference Devoted to Studies of Rich People

Paul Sullivan's has a story in NYTimes -- Scrutinizing the Elite, Whether They Like It or Not -- on a recent conference on elites:

Many of the younger scholars said their goal was to do more than just look at tax returns and see who sat on boards. Instead, they said, they want to start looking at the relationships between the elite and the non-elite.

“If you look at the poor as a problem, you’ll be angry at elites or you’ll expect them to come up with a solution,” said Mr. Venkatesh, who took the most pragmatic line. “You have to come in accepting that there will always be poor people in society and there will always be wealthy people in society, and neither of the two reached that status by their own efforts.”

That’s not the usual description of this issue. But otherwise, you risk viewing the rich as rapacious thieves or seeing the poor as lazy freeloaders.

"Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science"

That's the title of The Atlantic profile of Dr. John Ioannidis who "has spent his career challenging his peers by exposing their bad science."

His 2005 paper in PLoS Medicine was on why most published research findings are false.

Still, Ioannidis anticipated that the community might shrug off his findings: sure, a lot of dubious research makes it into journals, but we researchers and physicians know to ignore it and focus on the good stuff, so what’s the big deal? The other paper headed off that claim. He zoomed in on 49 of the most highly regarded research findings in medicine over the previous 13 years, as judged by the science community’s two standard measures: the papers had appeared in the journals most widely cited in research articles, and the 49 articles themselves were the most widely cited articles in these journals. These were articles that helped lead to the widespread popularity of treatments such as the use of hormone-replacement therapy for menopausal women, vitamin E to reduce the risk of heart disease, coronary stents to ward off heart attacks, and daily low-dose aspirin to control blood pressure and prevent heart attacks and strokes. Ioannidis was putting his contentions to the test not against run-of-the-mill research, or even merely well-accepted research, but against the absolute tip of the research pyramid. Of the 49 articles, 45 claimed to have uncovered effective interventions. Thirty-four of these claims had been retested, and 14 of these, or 41 percent, had been convincingly shown to be wrong or significantly exaggerated. If between a third and a half of the most acclaimed research in medicine was proving untrustworthy, the scope and impact of the problem were undeniable. That article was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. [here's the link.]

The second half of the story -- by David Freedman -- has quite a bit on the sociology of research in medical science. Here are a few quotes:

  • Even when the evidence shows that a particular research idea is wrong, if you have thousands of scientists who have invested their careers in it, they’ll continue to publish papers on it,” he says. “It’s like an epidemic, in the sense that they’re infected with these wrong ideas, and they’re spreading it to other researchers through journals.”

  • the peer-review process often pressures researchers to shy away from striking out in genuinely new directions, and instead to build on the findings of their colleagues (that is, their potential reviewers) in ways that only seem like breakthroughs—as with the exciting-sounding gene linkages (autism genes identified!) and nutritional findings (olive oil lowers blood pressure!) that are really just dubious and conflicting variations on a theme.

  • The ultimate protection against research error and bias is supposed to come from the way scientists constantly retest each other’s results—except they don’t. Only the most prominent findings are likely to be put to the test, because there’s likely to be publication payoff in firming up the proof, or contradicting it.

  • Doctors may notice that their patients don’t seem to fare as well with certain treatments as the literature would lead them to expect, but the field is appropriately conditioned to subjugate such anecdotal evidence to study findings.

  • ... [B]eing wrong in science is fine, and even necessary—as long as scientists recognize that they blew it, report their mistake openly instead of disguising it as a success, and then move on to the next thing, until they come up with the very occasional genuine breakthrough. But as long as careers remain contingent on producing a stream of research that’s dressed up to seem more right than it is, scientists will keep delivering exactly that.

"Inviting a Bull to Gore You"

Isn't that a brilliant metaphor for the academies' report on GM crops?

Apparently, it's a popular Hindi saying, and I found it in this SciDev.Net editorial by T.V. Padma and David Dickson on the role of science academies in developing countries.

Here's the editorial's scathing comment on the science academies' penchant for staying in the sidelines:

... The academies were conspicuously silent when a former science minister introduced astrology as a science course, and they have not made any meaningful contribution to Indian science policy formation, or to parliamentary debates on contentious issues such as the presence in India of foreign universities, or liability for nuclear accidents.

Indeed, the fact that last month's Indian inter-academy report on genetically modified crops — intended to shed more light on the vexed issue of GM brinjal — was the first of its kind in India only underlines how inactive the academies have been in a country that prides itself as growing knowledge economy.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Technology in Higher Education: A New Initiative

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and four nonprofit education organizations are beginning an ambitious initiative to address that challenge by accelerating the development and use of online learning tools.

The new initiative, Next Generation Learning Challenges, focuses on the college years. It is looking for innovative tools that can be developed and shared across networks of colleges. The grants, for $250,000 to $750,000 each, are intended to scale up such efforts, so they become self-sustaining.

The money is for online courses and tools, and any software developed with it must be freely licensed.

That's from Steve Lohr's story in NYTimes: In Higher Education, a Focus on Technology.

Why this focus on higher ed?

Just how effective technology can be in improving education — by making students more effective, more engaged learners — is a subject of debate. To date, education research shows that good teachers matter a lot, class size may be less important than once thought and nothing improves student performance as much as one-on-one human tutoring.

If technology is well designed, experts say, it can help tailor the learning experience to individual students, facilitate student-teacher collaboration, and assist teachers in monitoring student performance each day and in quickly fine-tuning lessons.

The potential benefits of technology are greater as students become older, more independent learners. Making that point, Mr. Gates said in an interview that for children from kindergarten to about fifth grade “the idea that you stick them in front of a computer is ludicrous.”

But in higher education, there are several promising projects that have used online technology effectively.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Finding and the recognition of finding

At the cutting edge of science, it is not uncommon to find examples of scientists who had the first glimpse of an important discovery, didn't "see" it, and ended up watching helplessly as another group announced the "real" discovery. In such cases, assigning credit unambiguously is tricky business. For those who end up on the losing side of this business, it must be heart-breaking indeed.

Those thoughts were on my mind while writing the previous post, and I was reminded of a truly gracious article in which Prof. Eiji Osawa looked back at the history of the discovery of buckminsterfullerene — C60. While the 1985 discovery was credited to Kroto et al, there were several previous studies — including one in 1970 by Osawa himself — that hinted at this then novel form of carbon.

Here's an excerpt [I blogged a while ago about Prof. Osawa's article at Materialia Indica, where you'll find several other links as well].

Let us conclude our presentation by a comment on the relative importance between the well-known two steps in the process of discovery: finding and the recognition of finding (Berson 1992). Our inevitable conclusion, after observing such a large number of missed discoveries, is that the latter is much more important and difficult than the former. A finding is usually made by chance, as in the case of the C60 peak in the mass spectrum of laser-vaporized carbon clusters (Kroto et al. 1985). Hence there is not much one can do but to resort to serendipity.

The most crucial moment comes after a finding has been made. The most desirable situation would be that the discoverers themselves recognize the relevance of their finding and explain the relations with the then accepted body of knowledge, using a language that leads others to logically understand the significance of the [discovery]. Here a number of novel qualities are required: the imagination to grasp generality on the basis of a small piece of evidence, the talent to give an appropriate name (Nickon & Silversmith 1987) and the ability to communicate well with other scientists. It is truly gratifying to realize that the authors of the 1985 Nature paper had all these attributes.

Limitless Ladder: Part 4: The Race to the "123" Compound

Let's start with an excerpt from D. Balasubramanian's review:

Not every chapter in [Limitless Ladder] reads positive. His comments on bureaucrats and supplicants read depressing; equally so in science, when he loses priority on discoveries. A compound his lab made over two years ago was suddenly found by someone else to be a superconductor at 90K.

Here's another from P. Rama Rao's review:

In 1986, Rao came close to winning the coveted Nobel Prize. A pair of scientists at IBM’s Swiss lab found a known insulating metal oxide was indeed a high-temperature superconductor. Rao had worked on an identical family of metal oxides a good 15 years earlier. Alas, his work did not concern exactly that aspect the IBM researchers happened to investigate, winning the Nobel in 1987. Rao agonised over this incident but did not let up in his unrelenting pursuit of excellence, going on to make important contributions to high-temperature superconductivity and to several other facets of the new chemistry of materials.

The excerpts from the two reviews hint at a deep sense of disappointment and agony felt by CNR for missing out on something important, ground-breaking, even Nobel-worthy. They hint at high drama. They hint at pathos.

Since I had read these reviews before I read Limitless Ladder, I was primed for CNR's own telling of this momentous story in his life. Here it is:

In December 1986, there was a major revolution in physical sciences. A high-temperature superconductor had been discovered. The material had broken the long-standing 23K barrier and became superconducting at 35K. I did not know much about it until I met Prof. P.W. Anderson ... who was visiting Bangalore for an international conference ... [Soon] after my lecture, Prof. Anderson asked me whether I knew about this new high-temperature superconductor. When I told him that I had no knowledge of it, he mentioned that the material was an oxide with lanthanum (La), copper (Cu), etc. I asked him whether by any chance, it was related to LaCuO4. When he said yes, I told him of the work we had done on this family of oxides many years earlier. My first paper on this family of materials with P. Ganguly had been published in 1971. We immediately went to my laboratory at IISc and spent two hours going through all my papers. We had already shown that La2CuO4 was antiferromagnetic. I started to worry as to how I could contribute to the exciting area of warm superconductors.

I had many sleepless nights, until we discovered two months later, one of the first liquid-nitrogen superconductors, by employing a novel strategy. Till then, all the superconductors required liquid helium. This new compound YBa2Cu3O7 (called 123), characterized independently in Bangalore (at the same time as Bell Labs and Beijing), became superconducting around 90K (above the liquid nitrogen temperature). ...

These paragraphs convey -- in their own understated way -- the excitement of doing important work, CNR's intense competitive streak -- "I had many sleepless nights." -- and a sense of "the race is on.

But, there's nothing here about the work's aftermath.

There's nothing here about who got the credit for the 123 compound (while CNR mentions some unspecified "independent" work at Bell Labs and Beijing, Wikipedia credits two American groups).

There's nothing here about CNR's "agonizing over this incident" nor about the "depressing" story of "[losing] priority over his discoveries."

So, we are left wondering about the reasons for CNR's agony. Was it about losing the race to the 123 compound? Was it about getting into the race late, because he did not know about Bednorz and Müller's work until Anderson told him about it? Was it about not having probed the low-temperature properties of this class of oxides in his earlier work (starting in the 1970s)? If so, was it about not having the right equipment to do this kind of work in the 1970s and the 80s? Or, was it about something else altogether?

We don't know.

And CNR has chosen to not talk about it. While we may respect his choice, I'm not sure if it's the right one, because it makes his autobiography incomplete.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Goodhart's Law and Citation Spam

Alternate Title: How Thomson Reuters's Essential Science Indicators was fooled into naming someone "Rising Star in Computer Science 2008"!

* * *

Here's a version of Goodhart's Law:

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

I found this law in this absolutely wonderful article that establishes beyond any doubt how a journal editor, along with a bunch of his colleagues in the editorial board, gamed the system to get his journal -- IJNSNS -- the highest Journal Impact Factor in applied mathematics.

[The article is by Douglas N. Arnold (professor of math) and Kristine K. Fowler (math librarian) of the University of Minnesota. Thanks to Charles Day of Physics Today for the pointer].

In the excerpt below, IJNSNS is being compared to two truly top journals -- SIREV and CPAM -- in applied mathematics. The contrast in the way the three journals got cited cannot be more stunning:

A first step to understanding IJNSNS's high impact factor is to look at how many authors contributed substantially to the counted citations, and who they were. The top-citing author to IJNSNS in 2008 was the journal's Editor-in-Chief, Ji-Huan He, who cited the journal (within the two-year window) 243 times. The second top-citer, D.D. Ganji, with 114 cites, is also a member of the editorial board, as is the third, regional editor Mohamed El Naschie, with 58 cites. Together these three account for 29% of the citations counted towards the impact factor. For comparison, the top three citers to SIREV contributed only 7, 4, and 4 citations, respectively, accounting for less than 12% of the counted citations, and none of these authors is involved in editing the journal. For CPAM the top three citers (9, 8, and 8) contributed about 7% of the citations, and, again, were not on the editorial board.

Another significant phenomenon is the extent to which citations to IJNSNS are concentrated within the 2-year window used in the impact factor calculation. Our analysis of 2008 citations to articles published since 2000 shows that 16% of the citations to CPAM fell within that 2-year window, and only 8% of those to SIREV did; in contrast, 71.5% of the 2008 citations to IJNSNS fell within the 2-year window.

Right at the beginning of the paper, the authors summarize the arguments against the very concept of JIF, especially for a field like mathematics:

The impact factor for a journal in a given year is calculated by ISI (Thomson Reuters) as the average number of citations in that year to the articles the journal published in the preceding two years. It has been widely criticized on a variety of grounds:

  • A journal’s distribution of citations does not determine its quality.

  • The impact factor is a crude statistic, reporting only one particular item of information from the citation distribution.

  • It is a flawed statistic. For one thing, the distribution of citations among papers is highly skewed, so the mean for the journal tends to be misleading. For another, the impact factor only refers to citations within the first two years after publication (a particularly serious deficiency for mathematics, in which around 90% of citations occur after two years).

  • The underlying database is flawed, containing errors and including a biased selection of journals.

  • Many confounding factors are ignored, for example, article type (editorials, reviews, and letters versus original research articles), multiple authorship, self-citation, language of publication, etc.

Despite these difficulties, the allure of the impact factor as a single, readily available number—not requiring complex judgments or expert input, but purporting to represent journal quality—has proven irresistible to many.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Limitless Ladder: Part 3. Comparing Early Years of IIT-K with Those of the New IITs

CNR joined IIT-K in April 1963 as an associate professor. Here are a few snippets from Limitless Ladder about IIT-K's toddler years:

The campus of IIT Kanpur was still in the making. ...

The Institute itself continued to function in the Harcourt Butler Technological Institute (HBTI) in the city. The HBTI building had primitive facilities and there was no place even to enjoy a cup of tea. ...

When the new academic session of 1963 started, I began giving lectures to the new undergraduates in a make-shift lecture hall. The laboratory classes were held in the workshop ... There were no facilities worthy of mention in the campus, and one had to travel to the city several miles away to buy salt or sugar. ... It was a campus without roads or lights.

... Although there were no amenities, there was hope and idealism. [p. 49-52]

Did you get a sense of nostalgia in these descriptions? Now, let's fast forward 47 years, and see what CNR has to say about the eight new IITs that were created in the last three years:

... I have chaired the standing committee of the Council of IITs for sometime. ... I was taken by surprise when eight new IITs were suddenly announced in 2008 and students were admitted without proper discussion in the standing committee or elsewhere. There was neither a campus nor a director for any of the new IITs, even a year after the students were admitted. [...]

Interesting contrast, isn't it? [I don't want to sound as if I like the haste with which the IITs were set up; I simply take this unseemly haste as a rational response by state governments because they were not sure they would still have the IITs after the elections; what if the next government chose to shift these IITs to some other state -- like it happened with IISERs after the 2004 elections? They had good reason to fear policy uncertainty. CNR doesn't say anything about whether he had a role in the IISER-shifting episode in 2004-05; but he certainly was the Chair of SAC-PM during that time, and it certainly happened under his watch].

While all that was about the disconnect between perceptions about the old and new IITs, I want to point to yet another disconnect. And this one has to do with IISERs for which, I think, CNR would like to claim credit.

I worked closely with the Ministry of Human Resources and Development in 2005-2007. The minister (Mr. Arjun Singh) and the secretary (late Mr. Sudeep Banerjee) were highly cooperative in establishing the new IISERs ... [p.128]

CNR doesn't say anything in Limitless Ladder about the state of these new institutions during their early years, but he has said elsewhere that the IISERs "have been extremely well planned." It turns out that the IISERs' toddler years were not particularly different from those of the new IITs.

Limitless Ladder: Part 2. The Chemistry between CNR and Chemistry

"A Life in Chemistry," is the subtitle of CNR's autobiography. And he makes it amply clear that he would like his book to be largely about his career in science -- a 55-year long love affair with chemistry. Being no chemist, I have no way of approaching it other than through his publication record.

[Interestingly, CNR himself doesn't dwell too much on the deep chemical questions that occupied his mind at different stages in his career. The number of publications is mentioned as a shorthand for the kind of productive work he did. For example, here's how he describes his post-doctoral stint at Berkeley: "My research was progressing very well in Berkeley and I had a credible list of publications (totaling around 30)."]

If doing science is important, getting it published is equally important to CNR. As he puts it in the section on his grad school days at Purdue:

Prof. [Herbert C.] Brown used to day, "If it is worth doing, it must be worth publishing." [Michael] Faraday had said much the same many years earlier. In science, we "work, finish, publish." These statements have guided me all through my professional life. [p.30]

And he gets back to this theme -- the importance of publishing -- again on p.184:

Some scientists are conservative about publishing while others are prolific. While there is no simple rule about how much to publish or not to publish, there is no denying the fact that, as Benjamin Franklin as well as Faraday put it, the main activity of scientists is to 'work, finish and publish.' I am not ashamed of publishing. I have known great scientists who have published several hundred papers. Both Raman and Faraday published over 450 papers. I have also known extraordinary men who have published very few papers. I have known theoretitians, like Nevill Mott, who have published consistently and constantly for several decades. [p.184]

* * *

CNR's publication record is truly awesome. Here's a quick summary:

  • ISI Web of Knowledge lists over 1481 of his papers. And this was about a week ago! [Sure enough, the number today is 1482]

  • His papers have been cited over 39,600 times; i.e., over 26 citations per paper.

  • He has 17 papers with more than 200 citations each, 68 papers with more than 100 citations each.

  • His h-index is 88; i.e., 88 papers of his have been cited at least 88 times.

The best part of his record, at least to me, is that his record is just getting better with every passing decade. And this current decade is his best ever!

Figure: Year-wise publication record of CNR [Source: ISI Web of Knowledge]

  • Since the beginning of 2000, he has been publishing over 45 papers a year.

  • Nine of his 17 papers with 200+ citations -- and 23 of his 68 papers with 100+ citations -- were published during this decade.

  • Since 2004, his papers have been accumulting over 2000 citations annually.

CNR's science has led to many, many recognitions. Here's an excerpt from Prof. Rama Rao's review of Limitless Ladder:

[Prof. C.N.R. Rao] is among the world's most decorated scientists: fellowships of all Indian Science Academies, the Royal Society (London), the National Academy of Sciences (USA), the Royal Society of Canada as well as French, Spanish, Brazilian, Japan and Pontifical Academies, the first India Science Prize and several other Indian and international prizes. Space does not allow listing of all his accomplishments and honours. He is the premier Indian scientist, the unparalleled doyen of modern Indian science.

And honorary doctorates have been conferred on CNR by over 50 universities worldwide. [BTW, his website has a wealth of details.]

Looking back at his life's work, CNR is moved to express his deep sense of satisfaction. Here's the last paragraph from Limitless Ladder:

I end by recalling how satisfying my life has been. I have had a wonderful profession matched by an equally good family life. I have enjoyed my life as a scientist. I cannot think of a better way to live and I am getting to be happier as I am getting older. I have no regrets and would gladly do it all over again. ... [p.173]

Limitless Ladder: Prof. C.N.R. Rao's Autobiography

Starting today, I hope to have a bunch of posts built around Prof. C.N.R. Rao's autobiography, Climbing the Limitless Ladder: A Life in Chemistry (IISc Press - World Scientific, 2010). Let's see how far I'm able to go with this series.

* * *

[A note about terminology: I believe Prof. Rao's close associates call him Ram. Those outside this charmed circle refer to him as CNR; I'll go with CNR in these posts.]

* * *

I think it's important to say upfront what I think about the book.

Given Prof. Rao's scientific stature, his enormous influence in policy-making circles, the diversity of his interests and experiences, and his power over Indian science and scientists, the book is unusually slim -- all of 175 pages with some 30+ pages of (reprinted) essays tacked on at the end. Clearly, there's a lot more in Prof. Rao's life than he's willing to cover in his own telling of his life story.

This is disappointing.

Let me be frank: I read CNR's autobiography not only to learn about his scientific accomplishments, but also to learn about his journey to the very top of India's science policy-making machinery. From his perch, he exerts enormous influence on the direction of the country's scientific enterprise. I was naturally looking for for the forces that took him to the top, and the key milestones along his ascent. I found very little in the book that gave me a good sense of how this transformation happened.

I was also looking for CNR's take on all kinds of stuff related to his life in science and science policy: his formative years at IIT-K, the evolution of his research interests across decades, how he chooses his research problems, a sketch of the chemistry community in India (and the world), insights into institution building, comparison of funding patterns across countries, ideas on other ways of boosting science in India, &c, &c. On each one of these, Limitless Ladder offers precious little by way of description, argument or analysis.

This is disappointing and frustrating.

Even before reading Limitless Ladder, I had read fairly glowing reviews by D. Balasubramanian and P. Rama Rao [alternate link]. Reading the book after those reviews made me go, "OMG, this is surreal. Are we even talking about the same book?" I think I know the reason for this difference in our reactions: Balasubramanian and Rao have known CNR for a long time, and worked and interacted with him as colleagues on committees, delegations, and science academies (Balasubramanian was also CNR's colleague at IIT-K for many years). They probably know a lot about the kind of things I was looking for in the book, and therefore, didn't quite feel so strongly about the absence of a coherent discussion of any of them.

As I said, there's a lot more to CNR than there is in this book.

Having said that, I am sill glad that CNR chose to write this book, which has quite a bit to say about his life, his science, his public service, his heroes, his influences. More importantly, we get it all in CNR's own words.

* * *

What I want to do in this series of posts is to excerpt some interesting stuff from Limitless Ladder and, where possible, offer my own comments.

If you are able to join in with additional details and perspectives, it'll be great. My only request to you is to stick to the issues, and refrain from getting personal. (Yes, I'll be keeping a watchful eye on the comments).

Hindustan Times: "Plagiarism punch knocks out IITs"

See the update at the end.

* * *

According to Charu Sudan Kasturi's story in HT, plagiarism by Ashok Kumar & his students is not an isolated case within the IIT system:

Independent cases of plagiarism have hit three different Indian Institutes of Technology with scientists accused of stealing credit for others’ research, shocking the academic community and raising concerns about scientific ethics.

While you'll have to read the HT story for info on the other two cases, I'll just excerpt the last paragraph because it brings us the first reaction from Prof. Ashok Kumar of IIT-K:

IIT Kanpur’s Kumar accused the editor of Biotechnology Advances of “personal problems” with him for the retraction of the article. “Since the journal insisted, I agreed to a voluntary retraction. But... they have retracted the article unilaterally using inappropriate language in their retraction notice,” Kumar said.

There was a fear (see Rahul's comment in an earlier post) that students would end up getting all the blame in the IIT-K case. It turns out that Prof. Ashok Kumar is directing his ire elsewhere.

* * *

Thanks to Ravisankar for the pointer.

* * *

Update (11 October 2010): The Telegraph's G. Mudur alludes to the possibility of even bigger scandals at the IITs:

... [The] Society for Scientific Values, a 24-year old non-government ethics watchdog for scientists, is investigating complaints of scientific misconduct in two other IITs. [i.e., IIT-M and IIT-B]

He requested that the identities of the two other IITs not be revealed because the investigations into the complaints are still incomplete. One complaint claims researchers fabricated data, while the other claims that the same experimental data was used unjustifiably to generate multiple research papers.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tenure at MIT: Part 2. How to set junior faculty up for success

One more excerpt from the same article we saw in the previous post -- Unraveling Tenure at MIT -- about that great institution's approach towards its junior faculty, and how that translates into setting them up for success. This is something that our own institutions appear to do grudgingly and sub-optimally; some of you may already know that this is a pet theme of mine -- see here, here, here.

Part of the reason for MIT’s warmth toward tenure candidates is that it is in departments’ interests for them to succeed. For one, the recruitment process requires time and resources, and it’s often costly to support new junior faculty. They require lab space, some need a couple million dollars for lab equipment and help with funding before securing outside grants, and there may also be relocation costs for the faculty and their families. [Bold emphasis added]

“It’s expensive to hire a junior faculty member, amongst anything else, so we want to make sure that the investment in the junior faculty member is repaid, and the repayment is that they stay on as a senior faculty member,” says Sive.

But the departments’ friendliness toward new untenured faculty extend beyond financial reasons. “I tell the junior faculty that they are really the most important faculty at MIT because in twenty years’ time they’re going to be running the Institute... So there is tremendous, tremendous goodwill on the part of the senior faculty to help the junior faculty succeed,” says Sive.

Hudson felt the wholehearted support of the Physics Department. “The department is really amazingly friendly,” he says. “For some reason I think there’s this perception from the outside that because it’s hard to get tenure here that it’s somehow mean, and it is not at all like that.”

The generosity of his senior colleagues went beyond any of his expectations. When Hudson first arrived at MIT, he was assigned lab space in Building 24, but because of construction, there was no room for him to work for the time being. So, a couple of professors offered up their own facilities to him.

“That would never happen anywhere else,” said Hudson brightly. “They gave up their lab to me for like six months! That was like, ‘Welcome to MIT’!”

Tenure at MIT

If you ever wondered about what it takes to get tenure at MIT, this should interest you: Unraveling Tenure, a report at The Tech that "[reveals] one of the most subtle and misunderstood processes at MIT, and [explains how one professor, despite his popular teaching, lost because of it" [Thanks to Incoherent Ponderer for the pointer].

A couple of highlights from the article:

  1. So how are the recommenders chosen? According to [Prof. Patrick H.] Winston, the candidate and his or her mentor make a list of people whom the candidate would like as recommenders, as well as a list of people the candidate would not like. But it is up to the committee appointed to research the candidate to choose who to request a recommendation from, and the committee may choose people from both lists. The candidate never finds out who the committee chooses. [Bold emphasis added]

  2. How to build an international reputation is the tricky part. Winston acknowledges that tenure decisions are based on “short-term reputations,” and he recommends junior professors to tackle “the sorts of things that can end up producing results in a small number of years,” rather than large problems that require “ten years” before a paper can be produced.

    “Tenure is never about promise,” he stated. “It’s about accomplishment.” [Bold emphasis added]

Post-doc Gone Wild: Sabotaging a Colleague's Experiments

Do read this gripping story from Brendan Maher in Nature -- Research Integrity: Sabotage!.

It's about a post-doc who, by his own confession, "just got jealous of others moving ahead and I wanted to slow them down," and ended up sabotaging their work:

Postdoc Vipul Bhrigu destroyed the experiments of a colleague in order to get ahead. It took a hidden camera to expose a surreptitious and malicious side of science.

Maher also highlights a few other "malicious offences" which "seem quite widespread in science," and yet manage to stay under the misconduct radar:

Misbehaviour in science is nothing new — but its frequency is difficult to measure. Daniele Fanelli at the University of Edinburgh, UK, who studies research misconduct, says that overtly malicious offences such as Bhrigu's are probably infrequent, but other forms of indecency and sabotage are likely to be more common. "A lot more would be the kind of thing you couldn't capture on camera," he says. Vindictive peer review, dishonest reference letters and withholding key aspects of protocols from colleagues or competitors can do just as much to derail a career or a research project as vandalizing experiments. These are just a few of the questionable practices that seem quite widespread in science, but are not technically considered misconduct. In a meta-analysis of misconduct surveys, published last year (D. Fanelli PLoS ONE 4, e5738; 2009), Fanelli found that up to one-third of scientists admit to offences that fall into this grey area, and up to 70% say that they have observed them.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

A quick housekeeping note

I have activated an "email notification" feature which sends you a daily update on new posts on this blog. See the "Info" section at the top of the side bar. [I use Google Reader to keep up with the blogs I follow, so I never felt the need for an e-mail alert system until a friend asked me for it.]

If you wish to subscribe via e-mail, follow these three steps:

  1. Enter your e-mail address in the text box.

  2. This opens a new browser window / tab, where you verify you are a human.

  3. An e-mail is now sent to the address you just provided; click on the link in that e-mail. That's it.

The e-mails themselves will be sent by FeedBurner (see the FAQs), a service that I have been using for several years for "burning" this blog's RSS feed.

That's all.

QoTD: Otto Neurath on How Knowledge Works

We are like sailors who have to rebuild their ship on the open sea, without ever being able to dismount it in dry-dock and reconstruct it from the best components.
-- Otto Neurath (Wikipedia has a slightly longer version)

Found that quote in this article that starts off with an implausible story about the Titanic, and keeps you hooked all the way to the end.

I also found this Joseph Conrad quote that appeals to the materials engineer in me:

But all this has its moral. ... Yes, material may fail, and men, too, may fail sometimes; but more often men, when they are given the chance, will prove themselves truer than steel, that wonderful thin steel from-which the sides and the bulkheads of our modern sea-leviathans are made.
-- Joseph Conrad, Some Reflections on the Loss of the Titanic (1912).

Retracted papers: First reaction from IIT-K

The IIT-K plagiarism case has been picked up by ToI's Mathang Seshagiri, who brings us the first official reactions to the case:

An embarrassed IIT-Kanpur has constituted an inquiry committee. ''This is a very serious issue. We cannot accept plagiarism of any sort. But at the same time we want to examine the case carefully. I have constituted a committee of eminent people to examine the issue and we will take action based on their findings,'' IIT-Kanpur director Sanjay Dhande told TOI.

Update (10.10.10): This IE story talks about a 3-member committee:

The committee which comprises Professor Ashwini Kumar, Professor Somenath Bishwas and Professor Kalyanmoy Deb is expected to hand over its report in the next 10 days. It will be presented before the chairman of the board of governors of IIT-K on November 2. The institute’s authorities will contact national experts for a detailed investigation.

It also quotes Director Dhande as saying this:

Plagiarism is a major charge and if found true, a written notice would be served to the alleged persons. [Bold emphasis added]

Alleged persons?

Thursday, October 07, 2010


After the previous two posts, I needed a break from all the negativity.

I wanted to chill out on misconduct.

And what do I find on my Google Reader? Yet another revelation of shockingly brazen cheating.

Is Scientific Misconduct Rampant in China?

NYTimes and The Economist have now joined a long line of news outlets shining a harsh spotlight on too many Chinese academics and researchers straying from the straight path. That some of these outlets are Chinese gives us the impression that this is a real problem, and not something cooked up by shrill westerners who are too jealous / scared of China's ascent in science.

Here's a partial list of stuff that I have seen in the past year or so:

  1. October 2010: NYTimes: Rampant Fraud Threat to China’s Brisk Ascent.

  2. October 2010: The Economist: Scientists behaving badly; Recent events show China needs to clean up its scientific act.

  3. June 2010: China Daily: Academic corruption undermining higher education: Yau Shing-tung.

  4. April 2010: University World News: CHINA: Universities fail to tackle plagiarism.

  5. April 2010: Boston Globe: In China, academic cheating is rampant; Some say practice harmful to nation.

  6. March 2010: University World News: CHINA: Professor sacked for academic plagiarism

  7. July 2009: China View: Nearly half of China's science workers think academic cheating is "common".

Plagiarizing from Wikipedia?

[Via Retraction Watch.] This retraction notice made me go, "WTF were you folks thinking?" [see below for a quick comparison].

That the authors are from IIT-K -- who really, really ought to know better -- makes it even more damning. FWIW, the paper continues to be listed among the publications of Prof. Ashok Kumar, the corresponding author.

This is the first time I have come across IIT researchers being implicated in a plagiarism case. Let's see how the institutional mechanisms at IIT-K deal with this case.

* * *

Here's the text of the retraction notice:

This article has been retracted. Please see Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal (

Reason: This article has been retracted at the request of the editor as the authors have plagiarised part of several papers that had already appeared in several journals. One of the conditions of submission of a paper for publication is that authors declare explicitly that their work is original and has not appeared in a publication elsewhere. Re-use of any data should be appropriately cited. As such this article represents a severe abuse of the scientific publishing system. The scientific community takes a very strong view on this matter and we apologise to readers of the journal that this was not detected during the submission process.

From a limited, non-exhaustive check of the text, several elements of the text had been plagiarised from the following list of sources:

Dihydroxyacetone - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

StateMaster - Encyclopedia: Dihydroxyacetone

* * *

From a quick scan, I found this section in the paper

... In the 1950s, Eva Wittgenstein at the University of Cincinnati did further research with dihydroxyacetone. Her studies involved using dihydroxyacetone as an oral drug for treating children with glycogen storage disease (Wittgenstein and Berry, 1960). The children received large oral doses of dihydroxyacetone, and sometimes spit or spilled the substance onto their skin. Healthcare workers noticed that the skin turned brown after a few hours of dihydroxyacetone exposure. Eva Wittgenstein continued to experiment with this unique substance, painting dihydroxyacetone liquid solutions onto her own skin. She was able to consistently reproduce the pigmentation effect, and noted that dihydroxyacetone did not penetrate beyond the stratum corneum, or dead skin surface layer.

which is very similar to this section in the Wikipedia entry:

In the 1950s Eva Wittgenstein at the University of Cincinnati did further research with dihydroxyacetone.[4][5][6][7] Her studies involved using DHA as an oral drug for assisting children with glycogen storage disease. The children received large doses of DHA by mouth, and sometimes spat or spilled the substance onto their skin. Healthcare workers noticed that the skin turned brown after a few hours of DHA exposure.

Eva Wittgenstein continued to experiment with this unique substance, painting DHA liquid solutions onto her own skin. She was able to consistently reproduce the pigmentation effect, and noted that DHA did not penetrate beyond the stratum corneum, or dead skin surface layer.

* * *

Here is a partial list of recent misconduct cases from India: NCCS, Anna University, Kakatiya University, SVU, NIT-K.

The NCCS case went through many investigations; a high level committee is rumoured to have resolved the case in favour of the authors of a retracted paper, but its report has not been made public. In the Anna University case, the verdict went the other way, with the authors receiving different levels of punishment. There has been no news in the other cases about whether the institution even launched an official investigation.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Physics Nobel trivia

Here's the announcement. Here's The Guardian story, and here's the NYTimes story, from which I have excerpted some bits.

First, the names:

A pair of Russian-born physicists working at the University of Manchester in England have won the Nobel Prize in Physics for investigating the remarkable properties of ultrathin carbon flakes known as graphene, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Tuesday.

The physicists are Andre Geim, 51, and Konstantin Novoselov, 36. They will split the prize of about $1.4 million.

Now, some trivia that make you go, "this is how much fun doing science should be":

The graphene creation originated in what Dr. Geim and Dr. Novoselov call “Friday evening” experiments, crazy things that might or might not work out.

In one of them, Dr. Geim managed to levitate a frog in a magnetic field, for which he won an Ig Nobel — a parody award for “improbable research” — in 2000. On another occasion they produced a “gecko tape” that mimicked the way geckos and Spider-Man can walk on the ceiling. [...]

[Dr. Geim] is the first scientist to win both a Nobel and an Ig Nobel. He said he was happy to have both because the Ig Nobel was given “for something that forces people to smile.”

... Dr. Geim and Dr. Novoselov first succeeded in creating flakes of graphene by peeling them off piles of graphite — the material that is in a pencil lead — using Scotch tape.

... Dr. Geim once described the process as “very nonboffinlike” ... and an example of how you could do great experiments even if you did not have the resources of Harvard or Cambridge behind you. “You can still do something amazing,” he said.

Graphene also made it into popular culture, being featured in an episode of the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” last February. David Saltzberg, a physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who serves as the show’s scientific consultant, called graphene “the greatest thing since sliced pencil lead.”

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

If full professors got a 60% hike last year, how much should the grad students get?

More than a year after it adopted the Sixth Pay Commission scheme -- a deal that angered IIX full professors by giving them a 60% hike and back pay from January 2006! -- MHRD has decided that the grad students students also deserve a hike -- in the range of 11 to 33%.

HRD Ministry's sense of justice is as touching as its sense of urgency. We've got to admire its laser-sharp focus on making grad school attractive.


Students who graduate from the undergraduate B.Tech programme at the IITs with a Cumulative Grade Point Average of over 8, and those who clear the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering will now receive R16,000 a month during their PG research. They receive R12,000 a month at present.

PG degree holders in the basic sciences and students who have qualified in the National Eligibility Test will get R18,000 a month till their fifth year of PhD research. Students who hold PG degrees in engineering will receive R18,000 a month during the first two years of research and R20,000 a month during the next two years.

Shakespearian Nobel

Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. Some have greatness thrust upon them. Substitute “fame” for “greatness” and you have an updated version of Shakespeare’s quip that applies nicely to this year’s Nobel prize for medicine, which was awarded for the development of in vitro fertilisation (IVF). The born-famous was Louise Brown, the world’s first test-tube baby. The achiever of fame, celebrated at the time in newspapers and on television, was Patrick Steptoe, the gynecologist who created Ms Brown in his laboratory in 1978. And the man who has had fame thrust upon him, a mere 32 years after the event, is Robert Edwards, who spent more than two decades developing the science that IVF relies on. Dr Edwards was honoured for this work by the Karolinska Institute, on October 4th (though the prize will not actually be handed over until December). Steptoe died in 1988, and prizes are not awarded posthumously, so Dr Edwards scoops the whole pool of SKr10m ($1.5m).

That's how the Economist introduces the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.

See also Bob O'Hara's piece: Shock As Nobel Prize for Molecular Biology Given to Medic.

Links ...

  1. Richard Vedder in The Chronicle: A tale of 40 professors at the Texas A&M University:

    The 20 high paid professors made on average over $200,000 each, and with fringe benefits it cost $5,004,400 annually to compensate them for their services. They taught collectively 125 students last year, or roughly $40,000 per student; since a typical student takes perhaps 10 courses a year, the average cost of educating a student exclusively with this group of professors would be about $400,000, exclusive of any other costs beyond faculty salaries.

    To finance this extraordinary expenditure, let us look at the other 20 professors in our sample. They made almost precisely one-fourth as much on average, or just over $50,000 a year. With fringe benefits, it cost $1,250,697 to pay them. Yet these professors collectively taught 13,667 students (three taught over 1,000 students, and all the others at least 200), at an average instructor cost per student of under $100. It cost 400 times as much per student to educate the small number studying with the highly paid researchers as with the teachers with large classes. 80 percent of A&M's resources devoted to the 40 sampled professors went to the high paid researchers who taught less than one percent of the students.

  2. John Scalzi at Whatever: What I think about Atlas Shrugged:

    ... it’s a totally ridiculous book which can be summed up as Sociopathic idealized nerds collapse society because they don’t get enough hugs. (This is, incidentally, where you can start your popcorn munching.) Indeed, the enduring popularity of Atlas Shrugged lies in the fact that it is nerd revenge porn — if you’re an nerd of an engineering-ish stripe who remembers all too well being slammed into your locker by a bunch of football dickheads, then the idea that people like you could make all those dickheads suffer by “going Galt” has a direct line to the pleasure centers of your brain. I’ll show you! the nerds imagine themselves crying. I’ll show you all! And then they disappear into a crevasse that Google Maps will not show because the Google people are our kind of people, and a year later they come out and everyone who was ever mean to them will have starved. Then these nerds can begin again, presumably with the help of robots, because any child in the post-Atlas Shrugged world who can’t figure out how to run a smelter within ten minutes of being pushed through the birth canal will be left out for the coyotes. Which if nothing else solves the problem of day care.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Mashelkar likens the Inter-Academy Report on GM Crops to an op-ed!

If an ordinary mortal (OM) -- like you and me -- got caught for writing a book with tons of plagiarized material, and especially if the said OM remembered the shame he felt when he had to issue a public apology -- "This was entirely my fault; ... I am highly embarassed by this ... I sincerely apologise for this lapse" -- he would be extremely leery about wading into the muck surrounding the Inter-Academy Report on GM Crops.

If the OM also recalled the utter ignominy of having to withdraw a shitty report that he wrote (along with members of a committee he chaired) because of -- what else? -- its plagiarized content, he would refrain from saying citations are "trivial" -- especially in a report made to the people of his country on an important issue.

If the OM could not shut the f*** up, he would -- wouldn't he? -- at least muster all his courage and grace to say, "No comments," if a journalist sought his opinion.

But Raghunath Mashelkar is no ordinary mortal.

Here's the proof:

Raghunath Mashelkar, a former president of [the Indian National Science Academy], said that the presence or absence of citations is a "trivial" matter.

"Just as an 'op-ed' in a newspaper does not mention the names of experts the author spoke to while forming his or her view, sometimes committees and academy reports reflect a collective expert opinion and do away with citations," he told SciDev.Net.