Monday, December 30, 2013


  1. Academics hide snarky, clever comments in the acknowledgements section -- Meredith Carpenter and Lillian Fritz-Laylin in Slate.

  2. The Guardian compiles geeky jokes: Scientists tell us their favourite jokes: 'An electron and a positron walked into a bar…'.

    The article leads off with this one:

    Two theoretical physicists are lost at the top of a mountain. Theoretical physicist No 1 pulls out a map and peruses it for a while. Then he turns to theoretical physicist No 2 and says: "Hey, I've figured it out. I know where we are."

    "Where are we then?"

    "Do you see that mountain over there?"


    "Well… THAT'S where we are."

  3. Absruse Goose's take on fundamental-ness scale for academic fields.

  4. For comparison, here's the xkcd version -- Purity.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Pardoning Turing

Here's a great post at The Guardian by Ally Fogg on why the pardon is "entirely, profoundly wrong" though it "will be welcomed by many", and is "undoubtedly a gesture of humanity, compassion and progressive values."

In announcing the pardon today, the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, said: "A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man." Turing was certainly an exceptional man but the tribute could not be less fitting. It says that the British state is prepared to forgive historical homosexual acts providing they were performed by a national hero, academic giant or world-changing innovator. This is the polar opposite of the correct message. Turing should be forgiven not because he was a modern legend, but because he did absolutely nothing wrong. The only wrong was the venality of the law. It was wrong when it was used against Oscar Wilde, it was wrong when it was used against Turing and it was wrong when it was used against an estimated 75,000 other men, whether they were famous playwrights and scientists or squaddies, plumbers or office clerks. Each of those men was just as unfairly persecuted, and many suffered similarly awful fates. To single out Turing is to say these men are less deserving of justice because they were somehow less exceptional. That cannot be right. [Bold emphasis added]

[The royal pardon arrived within weeks of the Naz Foundation verdict that it is constitutional (again) to prosecute gays Section 377. See this post by Siddarth Narrain at Kafila unpacking the "unreason" of the Supreme Court judgement. See also the relevant posts (too many to link directly to) at Law and Other Things.]

Saturday, December 14, 2013

2013 Dec Music Season Reviews

The 2013 Margazhi Music Season in Chennai is going on. My reviews for the Tamil news daily Dinamalar can be read on page 7 in the Chennai city edition, Sunday through Thursday. The first four are already up between 9 and 12/12/13.

Their e-paper update is also prompt (Click and choose, Chennai in the top View Sub-Editions bar and choose page 7; click on the article and it opens into a separate readable page).

Of course, you can also read the reviews from the music section in my Tamil blog.

(For English-only readers: Sorry; shall post a consolidated write-up towards the end of the month, when I could make time for this.)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sexual Harassment Charges Against a Retired Supreme Court Judge

It all started with a post -- Through My Looking Glass -- by Stella James who alleged that she was harassed by a "recently retired" Supreme Court judge back in December 2012 when she was interning with him. She elaborated a bit more in an interview to Legally India. While a a three member committee set up by the Supreme Court is inquiring into this case, several things have happened:

  • Another intern leaves a Facebook comment supporting James' allegations.

  • Mihira Sood writes an opinion piece at Legally India: In one of India’s ‘most sexist professions’, harassment by powerful men is rife.

  • Nikhil Kanekal's story at Outlook leaves several clues that help reveal the alleged perpetrator -- see this post at Law and Other Things for further clues.

  • Indira Jaising, Additional Solicitor General of India, pens an open letter to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court demanding greater transparency in the functioning of the inquiry committee. It's filled with scathing remarks about the legal profession, the attitude of the judges, and even the "architecture of the Supreme Court".

  • An NGO called Lawyers Collective has asked the Supreme Court to follow its own policy -- called the Vishaka Guidelines -- in dealing with this case.

  • In a MInt column, Farah Rahman draws the parallels between this case and the allegations of harassment made by Anita Hill against the Justice Clarence Thomas during his Senate confirmation hearings. Her column ends on a hopeful note:

    One result of Hill’s decision to come forward with the allegations was that it brought the issue of workplace sexual harassment to the fore and the hearings brought the issue live to anyone who had a television and could bear to watch the hearings. The year after the hearings, 1992, saw a record number of women run for office and win. There is no question that Hill’s decision to out the truth was brave, unprecedented and paved the way for women to speak up and take charge. This is also happening now in India.

Narendra Modi: "Vote for the Louts"

Freudian slip, or misspeak? In either case, this fabulous fail of a tweet is way too funny:

Urged people to start voting early, vote for the Louts & give BJP a chance to serve them once again.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

More links

  1. Dhimant Parekh: Of Rains, Cows and a Picture: "For that moment, we four [three men and a cow] were all in one world, in one picture."

  2. G. Lakshmi: Handwriting:

    I hated articles that expounded the relationship between handwriting and character/future/talent/life. According to all these articles, I was a potential criminal, utter failure and possibly not worth living.

  3. Anil Kumble's Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi Memorial Lecture: Perception and Practice:

    He first led the team at 21, when every other player was senior to him. He must have worked hard at appearing almost casual in his stroke play, as if to suggest that cricket was the easiest game in the world— in fact so easy that he could play the best bowlers with just one good eye. The effect on his team was phenomenal. The perception of ease communicated itself to the many who were inhibited, diffident and under-confident.


  1. Wildlife photographer, author of Secret Lives, and IISc alumna Natasha Mhatre writes about the hard work that went into the wonderful potter wasp pic that won the first prize in the National Wildlife Federation photo contest. Key quote: " I didn't click it, I didn't snap it, no, no, I stalked it and I made it."

  2. Mathematical eye-candy: John Baez has an animated picture of the Enneper Surface drawn by Greg Egan.

  3. Vi Hart: How I Feel About Logarithms: "I like the number 8. I like the way it smells like 2 and 4 with a hint of 3 in a cubic sort of way ..."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Faculty Power!

Two links. First, from The Telegraph: Carrot for IIT directors:

A former IIT director, however, said the new system [of assessing the performance and effectiveness of IIT directors] would encourage the directors to appease the faculty members.

“Since the selection panel will receive feedback from the faculty, the director will not take any tough decision (that might annoy the teachers). The administration will concentrate on appeasing the faculty,” he said.

Second, from Forbes: The Toughest Leadership Job Of All (It's Not What You Think:

The most powerful group within a university is its tenured faculty. If they refuse to listen to you, you can’t fire them. That’s the whole idea behind academic freedom. But it makes moving in a new direction fraught with peril.

As one college president told me, “You don’t say, ‘Professor Smith, I need you to make this change.’ Instead, you say, “Professor Smith, I have a great idea I’d like to run past you. I really need your input in order to make this work, and I wonder if you have any thoughts about how to improve my idea and how to implement it?”

Can you imagine Steve Jobs saying that? Brilliant as he was, he’d last eight nano-seconds as the president of Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, USC, UCLA, Caltech ...

Sexual Harassment at Tehelka

The charges of sexual harassment against Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal are very serious, and I am amazed that he has tried to "manage" the crisis by sending a wishy-washy, euphemism-filled e-mail to his deputy (and on down the line). Finally, goaded by intense public pressure, Tehelka appears to be thinking about following the law -- Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013; it may actually set up a committee to inquire into the charges.

Some links:

Outlook Blogs: Tarun Tejpal Faces Sexual Assault Charges, and Sexual Assault Charges Against Tarun Tejpal: Reactions

Nivedita Menon at Kafila: Sexualized workplaces, predatory men and the rage of women.

Priya Ramani at Mint: Sorry Boss, We Found Our Voice.

Reetika Subramanian at Ultra Violet: Of Penance and Justice.

Ultra Violet: Atonement is Insufficient: The Rule of Law Must Prevail: NWMI Statement on Tehelka

* * *

Update: Police Begin Sexual Assault Inquiry into Editor

Jessica Benko on Randomized Trials and Poverty Reduction

A neat article on the use of randomized trials in economics research into poverty reduction: The Hyper-Efficient, Highly Scientific Scheme to Help the World’s Poor. "Hyper-efficient" is probably hyperbole, considering how some of the insights and solutions needed several years of hard field work.

... One of the most cost-effective ways to boost attendance came as a big surprise: treatment for intestinal worms, which caused absenteeism to drop by one-quarter. And it wasn’t only the schools receiving treatment that benefited. Attendance also rose at nearby schools as the overall transmission rate in the region dropped. The researchers calculated that, on average, deworming “buys” one extra year of school attendance for just $3.50, less expensive than any other intervention tested. This unexpected finding has led researchers to found an initiative called Deworm the World, which has worked in partnership with governments and NGOs to treat 37 million children.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Research Focus Areas - 2: How to Make a List

Read first, the earlier post for context.

Let us suppose a list has to be made by an academic department with established research program, spelling out their research focus for the future. How to make the list? Here is a scheme. Can this procedure be bettered in the Indian context?

1) Check the present strength -- core competence -- of the department. Analyse what the existing faculty members have been doing as successful and significant research in the recent past and choose some or all of those topics.

2) Do the analysis in 1), but put all of the topics that have been worked so far, by grouping them together (using band-aid) into impressive phraseology a.k.a the said focus topics

The major difference between 1) and 2) is, the topics of 1) will be a sub-set of those made in 2) thus excluding possibly few faculty members from the 'research focus' of the department.

Research Focus Areas - 1: To Have or Not

1) An academic department should promote diversity in research (as many topics as its faculty strength). 2) An academic department should promote only few focused research areas. Which one do you believe is the 'right way' forward for an Indian academic department that has an established research program?

You may agree that the 'few topics of research focus' is a model adopted in the USA. The topics are decided primarily by the availability of research grants, which is determined largely by entities and policies that may not be connected to the department. So, the 'focus topics' get renewed or transmogrify every few years. This re-sizing of the legs to the available size shoes is accepted as the norm in that model. Of course, growing new legs in place of a numb or phantom one is possible.

The 'unity in diversity' model is more in line with the philosophy of what academia should be. Essentially democratic, housing all possible knowledge, without characterizing them as (only) useful. This model promotes all research topics pursued by the faculty members and likewise distributes its annual funding equally. It does encourage group research in similar topics by teams, but can only expect such groups to seek their additional funding (for some concerted research effort or common resources) from external sources.

So, question: Which one of these models do you think an Indian academic department with an established research program should follow? Any other (better) model for Indian academia?

Some open thoughts to get us discussing:

Monday, November 18, 2013

Arunn's Essay on C.N.R. Rao

If you can read Tamil, I strongly recommend my co-blogger Arunn's essay on Prof. Rao and his career.

* * *

Here at IISc, we had a charming little event to felicitate Prof. Rao on the Bharat Ratna award. His arrival was greeted with a standing ovation from all the faculty gathered at the Faculty Hall. Prof. Rao gave a short, sweet and very gracious speech in which recounted some of the key events in his life at our Institute.

The Strange Case of Prof. Joy Laskar

NYTimes has a long story on Prof. Joy Laskar who was fired by Georgia Tech three years ago for "misusing university funds" and arrested on "state racketeering charges" (but not charged -- at least, not so far). At the end of the story, I have no idea about what he did wrong (and neither does Laskar, the story seems to imply). Bizarre:


On googling, I found Joy Laskar's Story, a website maintained and updated by Joy Laskar and his wife Devi Sen Laskar. This time line appears to indicate he has won several legal battles against Georgia Tech.

* * *

At the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, where he was a professor of electrical engineering, Dr. Laskar did research on chip design. He mentored dozens of Ph.D. students and, over the years, started and sold a number of tech companies. The last one, called Sayana, created a promising wireless chip and was being courted by the likes of Samsung and Qualcomm.

But on May 17, 2010, agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, wearing bulletproof vests, raided his university offices. A parallel scene played out at Dr. Laskar’s home, where his wife, Devi Laskar, found armed agents in her driveway. While agents went through the house and confiscated files and computer equipment, she went to a coffee shop to call a lawyer.

“What were they looking for?” Dr. Laskar said in disbelief, recounting the event recently. “Cash under the bed? Chips in the ceiling?”

The day of the raid, there was to be an auction for Sayana. It never happened. Instead, Dr. Laskar was suspended without pay from his tenured position. He was later arrested on state racketeering charges and eventually fired by Georgia Tech, accused of misusing university resources.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Congratulations to Prof. C.N.R. Rao

He joins Bharat Ratnas C.V. Raman (1954), M. Visvesvaraya (1955), and Abdul Kalam (1997) to take the S&T count to four (out of forty three).

Gopal Raj at The Hindu and Pallava Bhagla at NDTV have written credible summaries of the Prof. Rao's career, while The Hindu has the first reactions from India's science biggies.

Prof. Rao is probably getting annoyed by all the news coverage portraying him as the "other" Bharat Ratna. Grating though they may be, the twin spotlight on Prof. Rao and Sachin Tendulkar, and the inevitable parallels between them -- dependable consistency, prolific scores, centuries, child-like enthusiasm coupled with a professional approach, and the sheer length of their career at the highest level -- do have the virtue of getting a lot of people to relate better to Prof. Rao's pursuit of science.

* * *

Update: G.S. Mudur's piece in The Telegraph is also pretty good.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Rick Webb Proposes a Taxonomy of Plagiarism

Plagiarism comes in different types (A, B, C, and D, with 'A' being the mildest), forms (oral or written), and flavours (ordinary, grievous, and extreme)!

Useful for discussing plagiarism cases.

Recommending Albert Einstein

Over at Letters of Note, Shaun Usher featured recently two letters of recommendation for Einstein written by Henri Poincaré and Marie Curie for a professorship in theoretical physics at ETH-Zurich. Einstein was 32 when the letters were written (1911), some six years after his Annus Mirabilis ("the extraordinary year") that saw the publication of his landmark papers on photoelectricity, Brownian motion and special relativity; his other major paper on general relativity would arrive some five years later.

The letters themselves are awesome little gems. Poincaré gets straight to the point with these opening lines:

Mr Einstein is one of the most original thinkers I have ever met. In spite of his youth, he has already achieved a very honourable place among the leading savants of his age. [...]

Curie, too, is quite effusive in her praise:

I have often admired the papers published by Mr. Einstein on issues dealing with modern theoretical physics. Moreover, I believe that theoretical physicists agree that these papers are of the highest order. In Brussels, where I participated in a scientific conference in which Mr. Einstein also took part, I was able to appreciate the clarity of his mind, the extent of his documentation and the depth of his knowledge. If we consider that Mr. Einstein is still very young, we are right to have great hope in him, and to see him as one of the leading theoreticians of the future. [...]

But both of them end their letter by highlighting the benefits to the institution:


The future will show more and more the worth of Mr Einstein, and the university intelligent enough to attract this young master is certain to reap great honour.


I think that the scientific institution willing to give Mr. Einstein the work he desires, either by appointing him an existing chair or by creating for him the chair in the conditions he deserves, could be greatly honored by such a decision and would certainly be providing a great service to science.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Joseph Stromberg on the Polywater Fiasco

Slate has a wonderful contribution to narrative history of a key episode in "pathological science" (a term used by Denis Rousseau in his paper; Rousseau himself was involved the work that led to the quick death of the polywater myth) -- The Curious Case of Polywater: In the 1960s, scientists discovered a new form of water. How did they get it so wrong?. It's filled with insights into hidden biases in research, bandwagon effect, and competitive international politics. Towards the end, it makes the right connections to similar episodes, including cold fusion. Great stuff!

Here's an excerpt on some of the sociological and political factors that fed the polywater frenzy:

Just before the team submitted a draft of their analysis for publication, Uncle Bob told me, he coined a catchier term for the chemical everyone had been calling anomalous water. “That just didn’t seem right as a name to me, so I wanted to think of something better,” he said, handing me the original June 27, 1969, issue of Science, which he’d held onto for all these years. “The properties,” his team wrote in the paper, “are no longer anomalous, but rather, those of a newly found substance—polymeric water or polywater.”

The response was beyond anything they could have imagined. The new findings, catchy name, and prestige of the journal Science led the press to take notice of polywater for the first time. Within days, my great-uncle’s team was interviewed by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Saturday Evening Post, and dozens of other outlets, as I saw from the yellowed clippings he’d kept in a gray folder. Some articles speculated that the work—both his team’s and the Soviets’—might one day lead to a Nobel Prize.

Over the next few months, polywater—and its uncanny resemblance to the world of science fiction—struck a nerve with the public. “It really caught on, because of the fact that it was water,” Uncle Bob told me. “If it had been an unusual structure of something else, nobody would have cared. But everybody uses water—your life depends on it.” Soon, he was fielding calls from industry reps inquiring about polywater’s commercial potential, perhaps as an industrial lubricant or a means of desalinating seawater. The government, fearful that a polywater research gap had developed between the United States and the Soviet Union, took an interest too: the Advanced Research Projects Agency (which later became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) awarded a grant of $75,000 to Tycho Labs of Boston to mass-produce it. Once, after Deryagin stayed at my great-uncle’s house in Silver Spring while visiting the United States, CIA agents came calling afterward to debrief Uncle Bob about what had occurred.

G.B.S.N.P. Varma on science careers in India

The second article in the two-part series is out: In India, Rising Resources, Realistic Expectations. It talks about "some of the downsides of working in India compared to the fully developed West."

[Link to Part I].

Thursday, November 07, 2013

C.V. Raman's Speech ... in Russian!

The story behind this curious event is recounted by Mr. S. Narayan, the man who wrote that speech for him. It appeared in The New Indian Express today which happens to be Prof. Raman's 125th birth anniversary:

One bright morning, Dr. Raman told me with a beaming smile that he had been invited to visit USSR as a State Guest to receive the prestigious award. He added that he would very much like to address the Soviet Academy of Sciences at Moscow in the Russian language during his visit. The Russian Language which I had taught him in those few weeks was too rudimentary to undertake such a mammoth exercise.

Nothing is impossible for a great scientist like him. He immediately hatched a plan and suggested that I should give him a scripted text of the speech which he would practice to deliver. A couple of days later, Lady Raman told me during a repartee that her husband used to practise the speech delivery by heart like a school boy, something she could not decipher. On hearing his wife's jibe, Dr. Raman told me he was ready to deliver the speech. At the rehearsal session, he waxed eloquence over his heavily Tamil-accented Russian speech. Both lady Raman and myself had a hearty laugh. While appreciating his sincere effort, I told him that nobody would understand him if he spoke with that accent. I then gave him a cassette with the speech delivered in my voice. With the help of this cassette Dr. Raman fine- tuned his speech.

* * *

Two asides: (a) Today's Google-doodle celebrates Prof. Raman's 125th birthday. (b) The author of the TNIE piece was a lecturer in our department at IISc for a brief period in the 1950s.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Mid-career Academic : Award :: Pregnant Woman : Nausea

This out of the box analogy appears in a post from J. Devika at Kafila about a new award instituted by the University of Calicut. Here's an extended quote:

... If you are in the business of reading and writing in Kerala then you MUST receive some award by mid-career — it’s a bit like experiencing nausea and tiredness in early pregnancy. You MUST have it, it is the surest sign of being pregnant, and sometimes to enjoy people’s kindness towards a pregnant woman, you need to get vomiting soonest possible. You can’t get into a conversation about pregnancy with other women without being able to recount your experience of being nauseous and tired.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Starting your S&T career in India

G.B.S.N.P. Varma's article -- Science Careers in India: Part 1. In India, Abundant Opportunities -- in Science Careers is something you could point to if you know people looking to start their careers in academic institutions as well as R&D labs in India. It hits the two main big-picture buttons: abundant opportunities and benign funding environment. [The second part will appear sometime this week].

Bonus for IISc folks: quite a few of our colleagues are featured in the article: Vishu Guttal, Prof. Maria Thaker, and Sriram Ramaswamy (who's now Director at TIFR's Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences in Hyderabad).


  1. Megan Garber in The Atlantic: Computing Power Used to Be Measured in 'Kilo-Girls'. "The earliest computers were human. And, more often than not, female."

  2. Nick Rowe: What will really old, stupid and uneducated people do?

  3. East Meets West: An Infographic Portrait. Brain Pickings channels a set of infographics from a Chinese-German artist. All are stereotypes, but some are funny.

  4. Beautiful science, Zen art, or both? [hat tip to FYFD]

Monday, October 28, 2013

Robert Shiller on sharing this year's Nobel with Eugene Fama

He doesn't really hide much, does he?


See also: How Shiller helped Fama win the Nobel by Barry Ritholtz.

* * *

But the [efficient markets] theory is commonly thought, at least by enthusiasts, to imply much more. Notably, it has been argued that regular movements in the markets reflect a wisdom that transcends the best understanding of even the top professionals, and that it is hopeless for an ordinary mortal, even with a lifetime of work and preparation, to question pricing. Market prices are esteemed as if they were oracles.

This view grew to dominate much professional thinking in economics, and its implications are dangerous.[...]

And ...

Professor Fama avoids theories that describe these risk premia as even possibly reflecting irrational behavior, and I think he’s wrong about that. [...]

I would not ... recommend that monetary or fiscal authorities seek inspiration from his theories on how to stabilize the economy. He doubts the existence of any bubble before this crisis, and his philosophy would have let banks fail at the beginning of it.


An ad that promotes ostentation with a positive social message. When I saw it yesterday, the view count was at 33,000; now it's over 164,000.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

How do people react when someone says, "I'm a math major"?

On his G+ stream, +John Baez posted this video, and said this in his commentary:

I can't honestly say "math is hard" for me - at least, not compared to other things. For me it's always been one of the easier things to do well. However, that just meant I got far enough that I met people who were a lot better at math than me: actual geniuses. So her advice that you should give yourself some slack - that applies to me too. Trying to gain a sense of self-worth from doing something better than other people is self-defeating. I'm happiest when I forget that baloney and focus on the beauty of the task at hand. [Bold emphasis added]

Here's the video:

Saturday, October 26, 2013


  1. Economist: Trouble at the lab. "Scientists like to think of science as self-correcting. To an alarming degree, it is not."

  2. Economist on science in China: Looks Good on Paper. "A flawed system for judging research is leading to academic fraud."

  3. Richard van Noorden in Nature: Brazilian citation scheme outed. "Thomson Reuters suspends journals from its rankings for ‘citation stacking’."

  4. Krutika Mallikarjuna at BuzzFeed: How to Science as Told by 17 Overly Honest Scientists.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Talk at IISc about Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

This talk will address the history of sexual harassment as an employment concern and the issue in India - leading up to the Vishaka guidelines. More recently, Parliament has enacted a law on Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace.The talk will focus on the new act and duties of employers as well as how complaints can use the Act to have complaints of sexual harassment addressed.

The talk is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. tomorrow (Thursday, 24 October 2013), and the speaker is Aarti Mundkur, Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore. Here's the speaker bio:

Aarti Mundkur is a founder member of the Alternative Law Forum (ALF), Bangalore. She was with ALF for 11 years mainly for women in distress, domestic violence and sexual harassment. She also served on the Juvenile Justice Board, Bangalore for two years. She has a masters degree in social work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and a degree in law from Bangalore University.

How to Nail a Diploma Mill

The BBC method involves a dog and its CV:

However, Newsnight found that getting the [American University of London] to provide a qualification without any study at all was easy. [...]

The real "Pete" is a dog living at Battersea Dogs' Home The programme drew up a one-page fake CV for a management consultant Peter Smith, known as Pete, living in South London, which included 15 years of made-up work experience and a fictitious undergraduate degree from a UK university.

The real Pete was actually a dog living in Battersea Dogs' Home.

* * *

Hat tip: Inside Higher Ed.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Samar Halarnkar Profiles Bhatnagar Prize Winners

Two of his recent Mint columns have been on the research by Prof. Yamuna Krishnan (NCBS) and Prof. Bikramjit Basu (IISc). Do check them out; from what Halarnkar says in the first -- "In the weeks to come, Frontier Mail will tell you what these scientists do and why it is important" -- we will get to read soon about the others as well.


[Aside: Given that CSIR cannot rouse itself to put together a citation to accompany what are arguably the most prestigious awards in India -- see my little rant at the end of this post -- I think Halarnkar is performing a great service through these articles]

* * *

  1. Those incredible DNA machines

    Krishnan, who did her doctorate at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and post-doctoral work at the University of Cambridge, UK, has shown how DNA can be artificially woven into longer strands, like a weaver’s tapestry, or a child’s matchstick house. “Just in the way we make architectures on the macro scale with matchsticks and fevicol, we can do the same with DNA,” Krishnan tells me over email from Boston, where she has just given two lectures. Much like using fingers to assemble matchsticks, Krishnan uses chemicals called enzymes to manipulate strips, or sequences, of DNA to create nanoscale architecture: new structures smaller than 100 nanometres, invisible to the human eye. These DNA sequences can be copied, cut or pasted to create nanoscale machines of living matter. In contrast with non-biological options, DNA devices are biocompatible (unlikely to trigger the body’s immune system) and biodegradable (they can disintegrate harmlessly once their work).

    This May, in a paper published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, Krishnan and her team demonstrated for the first time how two nanomachines constructed from DNA could test acidity in two different places inside a living cell, an advance from running a single DNA nanomachine at a time. Abnormal cellular acidity is a marker for many diseases, and the use of DNA devices promises tools for future probes or disease therapies.

  2. The Bone Creator

    At the heart of Basu’s investigations is electricity, more precisely the mastery of extremely mild electric currents, which course through and serve as the language of living cells. The idea that electricity informs cells how to grow is not new. Living things have a constant, though very gentle, flow of electricity. Over decades, scientists have even fiddled with voltages to create frogs with eyes on their back and hearts in the wrong places.

    What Basu does is apply electricity to grow bone, cardiac, nerve and even stem cells (which can grow into other types of cells) atop an artificial substrate, or surface, somewhat like butter on toast—except that this butter must spread itself on the diner’s urging.

    This is not easy. The bioengineer requires a precise knowledge of when and how much electric current to apply to cells growing on foreign foundations. “Cell division should not be affected and the cells should not die,” says Basu. “When two cells talk to each other, the material has to facilitate that crosstalk.”

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Elsevier Editors on Research Ethics

Via Ivan Oransky at Retraction Watch: The latest issue of Editor's Update, a periodical of sorts from Elsevier, is the first of a two-part "Ethics Special" with commentary from editors of Elsevier journals on publication ethics. In one of the articles -- Research misconduct – three editors share their stories -- Prof. Henrik Rudolph, Editor-in-Chief, Applied Surface Science, drops this bombshell:

The frequency of academic misconduct has been rather stable since Applied Surface Science started using EES in July 2005. Close to 10% of the papers we receive show some sign of academic misconduct, but since the total number of submissions is increasing, the absolute number is also rising. The most common issue we see is too large an overlap with previously published material, i.e. plagiarism. Cases are evenly divided between self-plagiarism and regular plagiarism. These submissions are most often identified in the editorial phase (by the managing editor or editor) and are rejected before they are sent out for review. [Bold emphasis added]

Monday, October 14, 2013

"You Complete Me"

What started as a romantic quote, got parodied in several films (e.g. this brilliant scene in The Dark Knight)before graffiti artist Banksy gave it his treatment.

* * *

Banksy is involved in this replication (of sorts) of the Joshua Bell experiment [Hat tip to Michael Nielsen]:

The Great Indian Debate: Lassi or Ladoo?

DNA reports that some IIT-KGP students are petitioning their alumnus and Senior VP at Google +Sundar Pichai that Google should choose Lassi as the name for the Android version to come after KitKat (which follows Jelly Bean, ICe Cream Sandwich, Honeycomb, etc., all the way down to Cupcake). Someone else suggested Ladoo, presumably because he is a big-time fan of Chhota Bheem.

"[But] Lassi or Ladoo is a definite no-no," according to a "market research professional" quoted by DNA.

The MRP may not have given his reasons, but I will give mine: Lassi and Ladoo are just too damned generic (like Cupcake and Donut). KitKat certainly appears to be a bad mis-step, and I suspect Googlers might want to correct for it by looking for something with character, class, and charm. And a lot of oomph.

My inner Banarasi has just the right thing for them:

Lavang Latha!

* * *

I'm visiting my alma mater in November for this mega event. The last time I visited some 15 years ago, I recall returning with a bag of these luscious little packages filled with sin and bliss.

Saturday, October 12, 2013


  1. Hugo Horta at University World News: Understanding the pros and cons of academic inbreeding.

  2. A Nobel Prize Winner on Why We Need Foundational Research: An interview of James E. Rothman, a Physiology/Medicine Prize winner this year, by New Yorker's Lisa Rosenbaum.

  3. Joshua Gans at Digitopoly: Harvard Business School Publishing crosses the ‘evil’ academic line.

  4. Sharon Begley (Reuters, March 2012): In cancer science, many "discoveries" don't hold up.

  5. Sara Rimer (NYTimes, November 2004): When Plagiarism's Shadow Falls on Admired Scholars.

  6. Survey - Science Fraud: The Hard Figures.

Shoba Narayann's Views On Women In Science Have Evolved

From this in October 2008 (see also: my post on that column):

I am a feminist. But I also feel that the male and female brains perform differently. Men are better at some fields than women. Although he got a lot of flak for his “gaffe” about women not being good at math, I happen to agree with Larry Summers. There are exceptions—Sujata Ramadorai being one—but in general, women somehow don’t do so well in math. None of the Fields Medal winners so far has been a women. Part of the reason why women don’t excel in certain fields could be that they don’t “grab” us. Engineering, for instance, is a male-dominated field perhaps because it doesn’t engage the female mind as much as say, photography or design.

... to this in October 2013:

So the first thing is to make everyone aware of this “unconscious bias” in their signalling. In a famous experiment, two identical CVs were sent to university professors. One CV belonged to a fictional “John”, and the other (identical) one belonged to a fictional “Jennifer”. John got more job offers and a higher starting pay. Just based on a male name. Jennifer was more “likeable”. It wasn’t just the men who succumbed to this bias. Women bosses offered John a higher pay too. So don’t tell me you are a feminist as if that makes it all okay. No matter how concerned a father you may be; no matter if you are a feminist—man or woman; no matter how evolved you think you are, the way we all react to girls is fundamentally different from the way we react to boys.

It may have taken Narayan 5 years to get to this point; still, it's always good to see this kind of change in the views of a regular columnist in a major media outlet.

DBT's Stand on Research Ethics

The Department of Biotechnology (DBT), an arm of the Government of India that funds scientific research especially in biological and biomedical sciences, has issued a statement devoted to "the handling of allegations of research misconduct", and it is "intended to address situations where this foundation of integrity may be compromised."

The statement is a modified version of that from the Wellcome Trust-DBI India Alliance (which is acknowledged right at the beginning as being the primary source). It provides guidelines for individual organizations:

  • The organization has the responsibility to "investigate all allegations of research misconduct made against its staff and students."

  • The organization also has the responsibility to notify DBT "at the earliest opportunity ... whenever there is prima facie credibility in allegations of a serious nature"

  • The organization must "have in place formal written procedures for dealing with allegations of research misconduct"

This is a great initiative, and I am very glad to see DBT taking the lead to address this policy vacuum. I hope the other funding agencies will follow suit.

It is not clear if this statement has any teeth. I am saying this only because the it has only two instances of the word "must," as in "the organization must do this"; most of the other sentences go, like, "the organization is expected to this."

Which raises the question: what Will DBT do if an institution chooses to ignore one of the two "musts" in the statement: "must have in place formal written procedures ..."?

The statement is also incomplete in the sense that it leaves certain things out -- for example, it does not talk about anonymous whistle blowing. Also, it has nothing to say about making the results of misconduct investigations public. I presume the document will be updated to fill these gaps over time; but it will happen only if the broader scientific community feels filling such gaps is important.

I am not sure how long the DBT statement has been in place (Vishu Guttal, a colleague at IISc, sent me this link a few days ago).

It will be very interesting to see how our universities, IIXs, and R&D labs respond to it.

As I said, it's a great initiative; still, it's only a start.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Computers and Mathematical Proofs

Apparently, mathematicians take a dim view of the use of computers in proving theorems. This blog post from the Heidelberg Laureates Forum gets a mathematician to articulate why:

Efim Zelmanov spoke up first, saying, “A proof is what is considered to be a proof by all mathematicians, so I’m pessimistic about machine-generated proofs.” He mentioned the four-color theorem, which was the first major proof to be solved using a computer, in 1976. One hundred twenty-four years after it was first proposed, Kenneth Appel and Wolfgang Haken cleverly reduced the problem to checking the properties of 1,936 maps by computer. The result was hundreds of pages of hand analysis combined with thousands of lines of computer code. Many mathematicians hated this, not accepting the proof because it was impossible to check by hand. Michael Atiyah chimed in with a similar perspective: “We aim to get understanding in mathematics,” he said. “If we have to rely on an unintelligible computer proof, it’s not satisfactory.”

Here's another story from 2004 on the proof of Kepler's Conjecture on "the most efficient way to pack oranges":

A leading mathematics journal has finally accepted that one of the longest-standing problems in the field -- the most efficient way to pack oranges -- has been conclusively solved.

That is, if you believe a computer.

The answer is what experts -- and grocers -- have long suspected: stacked as a pyramid. That allows each layer of oranges to sit lower, in the hollows of the layer below, and take up less space than if the oranges sat directly on top of each other.

While that appeared to be the correct answer, no one offered a convincing mathematical proof until 1998 -- and even then people were not entirely convinced.

For six years, mathematicians have pored over hundreds of pages of a paper by Dr. Thomas C. Hales, a professor of mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh.

But Dr. Hales's proof of the problem, known as the Kepler Conjecture, hinges on a complex series of computer calculations, too many and too tedious for mathematicians reviewing his paper to check by hand.

Believing it thus, at some level, requires faith that the computer performed the calculations flawlessly, without any programming bugs. For a field that trades in dispassionate logic and supposedly unambiguous truths and falsehoods, that is an uncomfortably gray in-between.

See also: Dana Mackenzie in The American Scientist: The Proof is in the Packing.

Frontiers In Faculty Hiring: Setting Them Up For Success

Sreeradha Basu and Shreya Biswas have a story on the kinds of things IITs are doing to attract faculty: not just higher start-up money and travel grants for conferences, but also sign-up bonus, better housing, help in finding a position for spouses, etc. It's about time young faculty received some love:

In the past 10 months, IIT Kanpur has offered two to three top-notch candidates start-up grants of as much as Rs 1 crore, up from the usual Rs 25 lakh. During this time, it has made offers to 50 candidates, of whom some 30 have joined. "We have to think of ways to circumvent the fact that we have pay scale constraints," says Indranil Manna, director, IIT Kanpur.

IITs are focusing on research prospects, which academics often give more importance to than compensation. IIT Roorkee, for instance, has invested Rs 185 crore in research infrastructure in the past two years to attract potential candidates. An initial research grant of Rs 10 lakh is given to every individual who joins, says IIT-R director Pradipta Banerji. In the past few months, three faculty members have submitted proposals worth Rs 3.5 crore, which they will get.

IIT Kharagpur is toeing a similar line. The institute has increased the faculty start-up grant from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 28 lakh, which is now given within a month compared with six to 12 months earlier. "We are also giving total grants of Rs 14 crore for special research that is competitive and collaborative. If we see a huge interest in this, we will increase the overall quantum of grants next year," says PP Chakarabarti, director, IIT Kharagpur.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

War on Course Packs

ToI has an AFP story on the war course packs unleashed by the Cambridge University Press, the Oxford University Press, and Taylor & Francis:

A cramped, one-room shop tucked away in Delhi University seems an unlikely battleground for a publishing war that, academics warn, threatens quality of and access to education in the world's second most populous nation.

The busy shop, where photocopiers churn out papers for a steady stream of students for a small fee, is at the centre of a court battle brought by three venerable academic presses over the interpretation of India's copyright law.

The lawsuit, filed by Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Taylor & Francis against Delhi University and the shop threatens production of "course packs" -- de facto "textbooks" made of photocopied portions of various books.

Course packs are common throughout much of the developing world -- where most university students cannot afford to purchase new or even second-hand textbooks -- and are seen as key to the spread of education there.

Many leading academics, including Prof. Amartya Sen, have taken a stand against the lawsuit by the publishing companies. On his Google+ stream, Prof. Tim Gowers of Cambridge posted a petition against the lawsuit, and offered this comment:

... It doesn't sound like a straightforward case to me -- probably CUP and OUP are technically in the right but not necessarily right to enforce that right so vigorously. In any case, I'm happy to give it more publicity, since it raises interesting and important issues.

From the comments on Gowers' post, I got a link to Prof. Shamnad Basheer's op-ed in The Hindu that lays out the arguments against the publishers' moves. The op-ed ends with this call:

In the end, this lawsuit must be seen for what it is: a highly pernicious attempt to fill the coffers of publishers at the expense of students! It must be resisted with all the moral and legal force we have.

Punishment for Inflated Claims in a Press Release

When misconduct in scientific research is proved, the punishment is graded according to the severity of the crime. Fabrication gets you fired (Jan Hendrik Schon, Diederik Stapel, Elizabeth Goodwin, Hwang Woo Suk, ...), while falsification (some minor forms, at least) and plagiarism get you some sanctions (you can't apply for a grant for n years, or your students get reassigned to some other group).

I know of only one case where someone was sent to jail, not quite for research miscondut, but for his use of fabricated data in a grant application. In other words, he was jailed for cheating the government using false information.

Here's a case of someone who was sentenced to house arrest for six months for saying certain things in a press release -- even though everything in the press release is factually correct!

Harkonen’s crime, according to the U.S. government, a federal jury and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, was willfully overstating in a press release the evidence for benefit of a drug his company made.

The press release described a clinical trial of interferon gamma-1b (sold as Actimmune) in 330 patients with a rapidly fatal lung disease. What’s unusual is that everyone agrees there weren’t any factual errors in the four-page document. The numbers were right; it’s the interpretation of them that was deemed criminal. Harkonen was found guilty of wire fraud in 2009 for disseminating the press release electronically. [...]

If you applied this rule to scientists, a sizable proportion of them might be in jail today,” said Steven N. Goodman, a pediatrician and biostatistician at Stanford University who submitted a statement supporting Harkonen’s appeal. [Bold emphasis added]

Monday, October 07, 2013

Science's Misguided War on Open Access

Science in the title refers to this journal.

A journalist at Science sent a bogus article to a bunch of journals and found -- surprise, surprise -- that more than half of them accepted it for publication.

Yeah, peer review at a lot of journals is a joke. What's new?

What's new is that Science chose to spin its experiment as showing the utter badness of the very concept of open access journals.

How did it come to this conclusion? By making a conscious decision to target only open access journals in its experiment.

I guess only a journal with the stature of Science can accept a study with such a strong conclusion without using a control group!

More importantly, coming from a journal that has had some serious peer review problems -- the who's-who of fraudsters, from Jan Hendrik Schön to Hwang Woo Suk to Diederik Stapel, have exploited its weakness for Sexy Science -- this spin is deeply dishonest. And people are calling it out on it. [also see the links in this   post].

I think Michael Eisen owns the internet this week with these opening paragraphs:

I confess, I wrote the Arsenic DNA paper to expose flaws in peer-review at subscription based journals

In 2011, after having read several really bad papers in the journal Science, I decided to explore just how slipshod their peer-review process is. I knew that their business depends on publishing “sexy” papers. So I created a manuscript that claimed something extraordinary - that I’d discovered a species of bacteria that uses arsenic in its DNA instead of phosphorus. But I made the science so egregiously bad that no competent peer reviewer would accept it. The approach was deeply flawed – there were poor or absent controls in every figure. I used ludicrously elaborate experiments where simple ones would have done. And I failed to include a simple, obvious experiment that would have definitively shown that arsenic was really in the bacteria’s DNA. I then submitted the paper to Science, punching up the impact the work would have on our understanding of extraterrestrials and the origins of life on Earth in the cover letter. And what do you know? They accepted it!

My sting exposed the seedy underside of “subscription-based” scholarly publishing, where some journals routinely lower their standards – in this case by sending the paper to reviewers they knew would be sympathetic - in order to pump up their impact factor and increase subscription revenue. Maybe there are journals out there who do subscription-based publishing right – but my experience should serve as a warning to people thinking about submitting their work to Science and other journals like it.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Academic Writing

Two links from my G+ stream.

The first one is a Calvin and Hobbes strip.

The second is Josh Freedman's piece in McSweeny's: I fear my dissertation is not having the world-changing impact I thought it would. Money quote: "I still don’t get this Twitter thing, which turned out to be a huge impediment. My dissertation title itself happens to be more than 140 characters, so there were additional difficulties."


  1. Max Nisen in Business Insider: How Winning Awards Changes People. A commentary on the working paper entitled Prizes and Productivity: How Winning the Fields Medal Affects Scientific Output by George J. Borjas and Kirk B. Doran.

  2. Pam Belluck in Well, a NYTimes blog: For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov. Commentary on this study (paywalled).

  3. Drew Desilver at the Fact Tank: Chart of the Week: The world’s most popular web sites. [via Matt Yglesias]

  4. Laura Sydell at NPR's All Things Considered: Record Label Picks Copyright Fight — With The Wrong Guy. The "wrong guy" is Harvard's Lawrence Lessig.

  5. Gillian Tett in FT: Geeks can be girls.

Global Rankings: Why Do Indian Policy Makers Take Them Seriously?

Over at University Ranking Watch, Richard Holmes says what sounds to me to be quite plausible: a few high profile, highly cited papers could make a huge difference to an institution with a small research base. He cites two examples from this year's THE-TR rankings: the Tokyo Metropolitan University and the Panjab University, and suggests that their high profile papers are possibly related to the LHC collaborations.

In an op-ed (which he has posted on his blog with data tables) on the inconsistencies in global ranking exercises, Prof. Gautam Barua, former director of IIT-Guwahati, echos this view:

The high scores of Panjab and IIT-G vis-à-vis IIT-D could be explained by this. Panjab University's high energy physics group (and to a lesser extent IIT-G's) is part of global experiments at CERN and Fermi Labs, and papers from that project have very high citations. Thus, a small of group of international collaborations are providing a high score. Isn't the median number of citations per faculty a better measure than the average (there are other issues, for example, citations in the sciences are usually much more than in engineering)?

The global ranking exercises like THE-TR and QS rely on pretty dubious measures, including something called the reputation survey. Even on the so-called objective measures (such as citation metrics, which come with their own problems), they have screwed up -- remember Alexandria? Thanks to folks like Richard Holmes, we know how their "mistakes" and corrections and flip-flops have led to wild fluctuations in the ranking fortunes of Malaya over the years.

When a bunch of money-grubbing entities come along and tell the world that they will rank universities across the globe (irrespective of the vast differences among them), and end up doing a demonstrably shoddy job of it year after year, shouldn't we laugh them off the stage?

No! We treat them like they are superstars.

We welcome them to our living room, and have a tête-à-tête in which we ask them to "educate" us on what we need to do to get more Indian institutions in their top 200 or top 400 or whatever.

And we give their top-400 lists a privileged position in our higher-ed policies.

Forget about growing a spine -- it's time people grew some self-respect.

Friday, October 04, 2013

A Genome Biologist meets St. Peter... The Pearly Gates. An evaluation ensues to decide whether he goes to Heaven or a warmer place. Sample this:
GB: Hey, I'm not worried. I was a good scientist, a good citizen, a good family man, I think, too. I never...

St Peter: Yes, yes, I'm sure, but you see, none of that matters. The only thing that matters is your IF.


St Peter: Your impact factor. That's all we use now. If your IF is above 10, then you enter here. If it's lower, well...

GB: My impact factor? What the hell - oops, sorry - is that?
Did he manage to enter Heaven?

(What goes, when Abi upped the citation count of a recent citation-rant...)

Trust the West to Find the Best

Here's one from the Interdisciplinary Department of Huh?-Who-knew?

The awesome twosome, Times Higher Education (THE) and Thomson Reuters, informed us all that we have had this hidden gem among us all along: Panjab University is the best in Asia in citations [bold emphasis added]:

Ranked in the 226-250 bracket in The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-14 announced in London, Panjab University (PU) is ranked 32 in Asia. But besides the fact that PU is the best among Indian universities - even leaving behind the IITs - it is also the best in Asia when it comes to its research being cited in journals and studies across the world.

PU's score for citation, 84.7 on a scale of 100, is higher than the University of Tokyo, Japan, which has been otherwise ranked 1 in Asia and has a world ranking of 23 as per the study. Tokyo's citation score is 69.8. The citation score was based on the frequency with which research of those from PU was used by other researchers.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Moronicity of Relying on Citation Counts

It is well known that papers in mathematics cite less than, say, those in biomedical research (obligatory link a favorite post by Cosma Shalizi). Moreover, papers in mathematics are outnumbered by a huge margin by those in biomedical research. Put together, they take us to a blindingly obvious conclusion: math, as a research activity, might as well be dead for a university interested in raising its position in the ranking pecking order based primarily on a single citation-based metric.

Even within the same field, competent papers in a new, emerging sub-field (e.g., fullerenes in the 1980s, carbon nanotubes in the 1990s, and graphene in the 2000's) acquire lots more citations (and do so a lot more easily and quickly) than equally competent papers do in an old, established field (fullerenes in the 1990s, carbon nanotubes in the 2000s, and presumably, graphene in the 2000-teens).

All that's just a preamble to a link to yet another cry for sanity, this time from economics (now, that's a surprise!): Citations: Caution, Context, and Common Sense by David Laband at Vox. In a section headlined "Citation counts provide limited information," the author gets to what a blind, moronic insistence on citation metrics might mean within the field of economics:

[...] During the course of my 32-year career as an academic economist, the field of economic history has been slowly, but surely, dying off. Papers written by historians of economic thought rarely, if ever, are published in top economics journals and draw relatively few citations as compared to papers written on currently fashionable subjects such as the economics of happiness or network economics. Does the fact that a historian of economic thought has a much lower citation count since 2000 than a network economist imply that the latter is a ‘better’ economist than the former?

The answer to this question depends entirely on how one defines ‘better,’ and in turn, on why the one is being compared against the other. But the fact is such comparisons are being made constantly now, in a wide variety of academic and institutional settings, all over the world.

Convocation Speeches

It has been a loooong while since one of these posts appeared here. Here are some classics (one of them is pretty old, and the other two are from this year).

  1. Tim Minchin at the University of Western Australia (2013): video (also embedded below), text.

  2. George Saunders at Syracuse University (2013): text, noisy video.

  3. David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College (2013): audio at YouTube, text.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Prof. Venky Ramakrishnan on Bicycles

The Nobel laureate has penned an opinion piece for The Telegraph (Kolkata) about the benefits of bicycles -- to the cyclists, to the cities, to the environment.

It's great to see him committing some sociology, and even quoting Arundhati Roy:

I suspect that the indifference or even contempt towards cyclists has its roots in the increasing segregation of the well-off from the rest of India.

The prosperous classes have effectively seceded from the masses, as pointed out by Arundhati Roy. They live in their own private bubbles, never encountering public spaces let alone the public.

They go from their home into their car from which they leave their gated compound, only to emerge in an equally private space, whether it is their place of work or their club, a restaurant or a friend’s home. They never encounter the general public except as people to serve them as domestic servants, waiters, shop attendants, etc.

They only observe the streets through the windows of an air-conditioned car, or perhaps from a speeding motorcycle. If advertisements are to be believed, they don’t even look like the masses, but rather like tanned Westerners. They certainly do not bicycle. And given the poor infrastructure and the condition of the streets, who can blame them?

By abandoning the larger society, the well-off in India are impoverishing themselves. They may live in luxurious, well-equipped homes, but their world has shrunk dramatically into a self-made prison.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sendhil Mullainathan on Mental Bandwidth

The Mental Strain of Making Do With Less:

Imagine that you are attending a late-afternoon meeting. Someone brings in a plate of cookies and places them on the other side of the conference table. Ten minutes later you realize you’ve processed only half of what has been said.

Why? Only half of your mind was in the meeting. The other half was with the cookies: “Should I have one? I worked out yesterday. I deserve it. No, I should be good.”

That cookie threatened to strain your waistline. It succeeded in straining your mind. [...]

Many diets also require constant calculations to determine calorie counts. All this clogs up the brain. Psychologists measure the impact of this clogging on various tasks: logical and spatial reasoning, self-control, problem solving, and absorption and retention of new information. Together these tasks measure “bandwidth,” the resource that underlies all higher-order mental activity. Inevitably, dieters do worse than nondieters on all these tasks; they have less bandwidth.

Dysfunctional Academia: A Resignation Letter

In a a resignation letter, an (ex)-EPFL student (revealed to be one FeuDRenais, who shows up in the comments section) takes a cold, hard look at all the dysfunctional aspects of academic life (probably, the STEM side of it). An excerpt:

(6) Academia: Statistics Galore!

“Professors with papers are like children,” a professor once told me. And, indeed, there seems to exist an unhealthy obsession among academics regarding their numbers of citations, impact factors, and numbers of publications. This leads to all sorts of nonsense, such as academics making “strategic citations”, writing “anonymous” peer reviews where they encourage the authors of the reviewed paper to cite their work, and gently trying to tell their colleagues about their recent work at conferences or other networking events or sometimes even trying to slip each other their papers with a “I’ll-read-yours-if-you-read-mine” wink and nod. No one, when asked if they care about their citations, will ever admit to it, and yet these same people will still know the numbers by heart. I admit that I’ve been there before, and hate myself for it.

Thanks for the e-mail pointer go to Pradeepkumar.

"IIT Directors Reject Kakodkar's Model for Financial Autonomy"

Anubhuti Vishnoi has a news story on an apparent display of spinal stiffness and intellectual autonomy:

Arguing that IITs are not just teaching institutes, IIT directors have suggested that the institutes continue to be funded considerably and in fact be treated as "strategic assets of the nation". To be taken up at the IIT council meeting slated for September 16, this view of IIT directors on the Kakodakar Committee's recommendations on governance, autonomy and finances says that "the proposed model is not consistent with the funding pattern of any reputed public research university". "If IITs are to become institutes with an international profile, the expenses are likely to increase significantly compared to the current amounts and this must come from the Government rather than student fees and overheads", the IITs have said.

Since the quotes appear to be from a letter to MHRD, it would be nice to see this document in full. I wonder if it is available in the public domain.

Ramachandra Guha on Current Science

For Guha, it all started with Prof. Balaram's editorials:

I first began subscribing to Current Science for Balaram’s editorials. These sometimes analysed the less salutary aspects of science (as when he wrote about the politics of prizes or the prejudices against women scientists), sometimes noted anniversaries of important or critical discoveries, sometimes explained the origin and spread of new sub-fields, sometimes spoke of the need for scientists to communicate to a wider public. The last injunction he put into practice, for his own editorials were written in an elegant, understated style.

Soon, I found other reasons to read Current Science. For one thing, it carried well-researched essays on climate change and on biodiversity conservation, two areas that I had an interest in. For another, it had really excellent obituaries. [...] This was a journal that cared about the traditions and histories of the men and women of Indian science. The obituaries it carries (averaging one or two an issue) are a model: sketching the scientist’s intellectual development, his or her major contributions, while not forgetting to mention personal landmarks (where born, where died, whether married, how many children, etc).

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


  1. Conversation with a Field Biologist in India -- Vijaysree Venkatraman interviews IISc alumna Swati Diwakar who is now a faculty member in the Department of Environmental Studies, Delhi University.

  2. Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity. An in-dept report on HBS's sustained, persistent and on-going experiment in which "Harvard Business School gave itself a gender makeover, changing its curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success."

  3. Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers? -- an NBER working paper by David N. Figlio, Morton O. Schapiro, Kevin B. Soter. Their answer to the question: No!

Sunday, September 15, 2013


  1. Now that the UGC has issued guidelines for foreign universities to set up shop in India on their own (i.e., not necessarily with an Indian partner), a reality check.

  2. Japan debates reforms in its system of entrance exams. [Previous posts on Examination Hell: 1, 2].

  3. 25 nerdy jokes from many fields. Example: "There are 10 types of people in this world. Those that know binary, and those that don’t."

Now Online: Volume 1 of Feynman Lectures in Physics

A gorgeous new website now hosts this classic! Enjoy.

* * *

The other two volumes will also presumably go online -- but I haven't seen any info on such plans.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Of Cellphone Radiation and Sparrows

[UPDATE: Harmful but not lethal an article from the print edition of today's The Hindu newspaper has some content from the essay below.]

A wave has a wavelength, usually thought of as the length of a successive crest and trough. When continuous and unobstructed, a wave repeats this ‘crest+trough unit’ endlessly. If we stand at a location, how many such crest+trough units pass us in a given time determines the frequency of the wave. Longer the wavelength, shorter the frequency of a wave.

Sea waves and sound waves require medium (matter) to propagate. But electromagnetic (EM) radiation are waves that don’t require a medium to propagate. Sunlight is an example, called the visible radiation. All such EM waves we put to use can be placed in a slot in the electromagnetic spectrum, a continuous band of several wavelengths (and hence, frequencies) as shown in the accompanied graphics.

In photoelectric effect electrons are released from metals subjected to EM radiation bombardment. Importantly, this effect depends on the frequency of the incident radiation and not on its intensity. This was shown in 1905 by Einstein and is a direct proof of the quantized nature of electromagnetic radiation. In 1922, he won his Nobel for this proof. Take home point? Higher the radiation frequency of the EM wave, greater the ‘damage’ caused by that radiation.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Automated Management

I have been avoiding this sort of blogging for some years now, but then...

The body of an unsolicited email I received now reads:
Dear (My name),
This is from the Editorial Board Office of Journal of Management Science and Practice (MSP).
We recently read your paper titled “Thermal management using the bi-disperse porous medium approach ”
Considering your research in related areas, we cordially invite you to extend this paper and publish a new research in our journal.
You are welcomed to submit your papers online at (link)
Best regards,
Editorial Assistant
The concerned paper is about controlling temperatures and overheating of electronics by using metal porous media of two different length scales (small and large pores mixed together). Tempted to say the email invitation reiterates what I have been suspecting (typecasting) for long about 'management' subjects.

This trend of copy/paste invitation of relevance from 'research journals' with a 'business model' is a major hindrance in research publishing and is a contributing factor that galvanizes the myopic equation "Open Access = BAD" even among well-meaning academics in editorial boards.

Sunday, September 01, 2013


  1. A BBC news story on affirmative action policies in Brazil's federal universities. Almost all the arguments -- for affirmative action and against -- sound so familiar!

  2. Mail Online on the extent of faculty crunch in India's "top institutes".

  3. Greg Mankiw: A Carbon Tax That America Could Live With.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Mint Photo-essay on CeNSE

It's nice to see the Centre for NanoScience and Engineering (CeNSE) in our Institute being featured in this photo-essay by Aniruddha Chowdhury in today's Mint:

... CeNSE has already trained over 550 researchers from across the country and has currently over 100 PhD students and also researchers who can join through the Indian Nanoelectronics Users Program (a joint hands-on-training programme run by CeNSE and the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, for accelerating research and development in nanoelectronics) to do projects here. “We are looking at not only creating an environment for research but also for incubating start-ups and encouraging students to develop lab prototypes which can be adopted by the industry,” says Prof. Rudra. “This will dispel the belief that research doesn’t pay,” he adds.

The INU program is something that's worth highlighting -- through this major outreach activity, researchers all across India gain access to the excellent experimental facilities at CeNSE.

* * *

On a lighter note: During its toddler years, CeNSE made a big splash all across the campus with colorful notices for its seminars. One of those notices certainly got, well, noticed.

Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan

Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan is one of the renowned Carnatic music singers considered on par with the female legends who made their concert entry in the 1940s like M. S. Subbulakshmi, D. K. Pattammal and N. C. Vasanthakokilam. Ananthalakshmi was the first to cut a full length Tamil LP for HMV company. She passed away on May 15, 2013.

TTN and I could share our thoughts in the August 2013 issue of Sruti, the magazine for performing arts. Here is the pdf version of the article for download.

Check also the more detailed Tamil language tribute I wrote for Solvanam, a web magazine. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

The real nano-emoticon

Yesterday, Arunn posted a schematic diagram that used emoticons to explain something in the paper.

But a real nano-emoticon was made and imaged way back in 20006 2006 by Paul W. K. Rothemund; here's the the paper [pdf]. It was featured on the cover of Nature:

As gimmicks go, it was way more cool than the corporate logo produced in 1990 by lining up individual atoms ("Artists have almost always needed the support of patrons (scientists too!)."). Twenty-two years later, researchers from the same firm produced this gem: A Boy and His Atom:

Quote of the Day

Ballmer’s reign has done more to defang Microsoft than the Justice Department could ever have hoped to do.
-- Nicholas Thompson in the New Yorker: Why Steve Ballmer Failed.

Note the key word: "defang."

Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore

The book by Robin Sloan is a wild ride of a crass-free, violence-free, coitus-free, murder-less, humorous, 'unputdownable' treasure hunt mystery set in modern San Francisco and New York and old world "Griffo Gerritszoon serif". The new clerk at a bookstore, a recently jobless art-school graduate and amateur web-designer cum programmer, wonders why the regular customers borrow not the popular titles but only from a 'wayback list' of titles stacked in the back, books with content that make no apparent sense or meaning. The linear quest picks up pace and intrigue involving secret societies, fantasy games, computer geekery (with Ruby programming), more mysterious bookstores with unreadable old books, dungeons with well-lit tables and clamped books, art-world props, prime numbers, pages of description about Googleplex and stenography since the times of Aldus Manutius -- the earliest publisher from Venice. It all ends in a satisfactory if not scholarly whimper, a la the climax of The Name of the Rose (of Eco).

Along the way, we get to meet colorful characters with groovy names like Ajax Penumbra and Maurice Corvina, with bookstore owners who are averse to computers and telephones (leave alone iPhones), sinister overseers professing no harm greater than the burning of books written by authors they need to chastise, with friends (Neel Shah) who became millionaires by perfecting the art of making digital boobs and girlfriends who are geek-programmers working for Google and yearning immortality. The mystery is solved by the ingenuity of an individual brain and not by the servers of Google, who not long ago wanted to digitize all the old world knowledge. A not too subtle message that I don't mind sucking up to.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Nanostructured Emoticons

From the graphics of "Core-Shell Nanostructured Catalysts" a recent paper published in Accounts of Chemical Research.

Not sure if this would constitute a "chart duck" (a.k.a. decorative clutter) according to Edward Tufte, but could be a first for smileys to appear in research journal graphics.

[hat tip: Lakshmi]

Monday, August 26, 2013

High Level Hires from Abroad

The non-resident Indian scientist [Shreemanta Parida], appointed two years ago as chief executive officer of a government vaccine research programme, resigned last month and returned home to Berlin, saying India’s science bureaucracy had prevented him from working.

Scientists familiar with Parida’s plight say his 25-month stay in India is a tale of how an entrenched science bureaucracy stonewalled a newcomer, senior administrators failed to curb the harassment, and good intentions deteriorated into bitter acrimony.

There's a lot more on this train-wreck in G. Mudur's report in The Telegraph.

* * *

Some observations:

  1. Mudur's report reminded me of another very high-profile train wreck: the disastrous tenure of Nobel Prize winner Robert Laughlin at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. WSJ carried a detailed analysis of that episode by Nicholas Zamiska in May 2007 [linked in this post].

  2. Way back in 2002, Prof. Shobo Bhattacharya, who was then a scientist at NEC Research Center in Princeton, New Jersey, was chosen to head the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. While Prof. Bhattacharya completed his full term with no untoward incident, his appointment was used by some bigwigs of Indian science establishment to tut-tut about the lack of home-grown science leaders in the next generation. Do read the article in Science [requires subscription, though]; it has some truly juicy quotes!

    The article in Science, and the worthies behind those juicy quotes, received a stinging rebuke from Prof. P. Balaram through an editorial in Current Science.

  3. Just a few days from now, Prof. Ashish Nanda of Harvard will take charge as Director of IIM-A [see his early views on his new job here and here.

    Let's wish him luck!

* * *

One final thought. Any resemblance between the contents of this post and these famous first lines in a textbook is purely coincidental!

“Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the same work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics.

Perhaps it will be wise to approach the subject cautiously.
-- David Goodstein, in States of Matter