Saturday, March 30, 2013


  1. My colleague Vishwesha Guttal has some very good advice for students who write to professors asking for short-term positions: How to write an email/application for a short-term or summer research internship/project?

  2. Lisa Wade at Sociological Images: How many PhDs are professors? [Some data on the academic job market in the US].

  3. William Bowen in CHE: Walk Deliberately, Don't Run, Toward Online Education.

  4. Frances Woolley at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative: Why "Culture" is a Lousy Explanation.

    ... [Culture] has no only trivial predictive value. Will the preference for sons persist over time, or will it gradually fade away? Cultural explanations cannot say: culture simply is what it is.

    Another problem with "culture" is that it can explain anything. People in Uttar Pradesh select for sons?" It must be their culture. People in Kerala don't select for sons?" It must be their culture. Since "culture" is compatible with any conceivable set of facts, it is not falsifiable.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


  1. Via Rahul Siddharthan, we have a link to the blog of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), with posts by Prof. K. VijayRaghavan and other officials at DBT.

  2. Rahul's post talks about institutional leaders who blog, and includes a link to the blog of Prof. Ram Ramaswamy, Vice Chancellor, University of Hyderabad. I would like to add links to the blogs of Prof. Pankaj Jalote (Director, IIIT-Delhi) and Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi (former Director, LNMIIT, Jaipur, and currently Dean-Academic Affairs at IIT-K).

  3. Librarian shares his opinion on books coming out of an academic publisher, and the publisher sues him for libel. See the coverage at IHE and CHE.

  4. Finally, PHD Comics has a two-minute video on Gino Putrino's PhD thesis research: How to Build an Artificial Nose.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Prince Rupert's Drop

A cool demo of the very interesting form of fragility of the toad-shaped glass object called Prince Rupert's Drop [hat tip: Biswajit Banerjee at iMechanica]. And also an excellent use of high-speed photography in popular science.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

If Milgram made videos of his experiments ...

... would they have gone viral? I don't know -- but this one did:


  1. Hari Pulakkat in The Economic Times: IITs undergoing silent revolution to create robust technical research ecosystem and governance.

  2. Jordan Weissmann in The Atlantic: The Ph.D Bust: America's Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts.

  3. Gillian Tett in The Financial Times: How bankers believed their own hype.

    The results [reported in a paper by Princeton economists] were striking. Before conducting the research, the economists had expected that securitisation experts would be good at judging when to sell properties and how to avoid housing market losses; after all, they were close to the front line of the mortgage industry and supposed to know all about real estate. But in reality, the number-crunching showed “little evidence of securitisation agents’ awareness of a housing bubble and impending crash in their own home transactions”, as the paper says. The supposed experts “neither managed to time the market nor exhibited cautiousness in their home transactions”. Furthermore, they actually suffered bigger losses on housing than the random “control” group of lawyers who were not “experts” on housing at all.

  4. Edward Jay Epstein in NYRB: An 'A' from Nabokov

    [Nabokov] then described his requisites for reading the assigned books [in his course on European Literature of the Nineteenth Century]. He said we did not need to know anything about their historical context, and that we should under no circumstance identify with any of the characters in them, since novels are works of pure invention. The authors, he continued, had one and only one purpose: to enchant the reader. So all we needed to appreciate them, aside from a pocket dictionary and a good memory, was our own spines. He assured us that the authors he had selected -— Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, and Robert Louis Stevenson —- would produce tingling we could detect in our spines.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


  1. Khushal Khan: A Pakistani Student in India.

  2. Christie Aschwanden in Double X Science: The Finkbeiner Test.

    In the spirit of the Bechdel test, a metric that cartoonist and author Alison Bechdel created to measure gender bias in film, I’d like to propose a Finkebeiner test for stories about women in science. The test could apply to profiles of women in other fields, too.

    To pass the Finkbeiner test, the story cannot mention

    • The fact that she’s a woman
    • Her husband’s job
    • Her child care arrangements
    • How she nurtures her underlings
    • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
    • How she’s such a role model for other women
    • How she’s the “first woman to…”

    And since I have not linked to the Bechdel test so far, here's the awesome comic strip that explains it: The Rule.

  3. Ken Fisher in Ars Technica: To save science, try celebrating “high quality ignorance”. To save science, try celebrating “high quality ignorance” Getting the public excited about science means changing perceptions.

    This post is worth just for a short summary of metaphors (and other kinds of explanations) used for describing what scientists do:

    Today, three new scientific papers are published every minute. What do scientists do with all of this? They strategically ignore it. The “point of science is not knowing a lot of stuff,” Firestein said. “Knowledge is a big subject, but ignorance is a bigger one.”

    Scientists, Firestein continued, are not putting puzzles together. That implies there's actually going to be a final puzzle fitting together perfectly. They’re also not peeling an onion of knowledge, working toward some core truth hidden by layers of undiscovered reality. Scientists aren't even examining the tip of the iceberg, believing some massive truth lies below. All of those models are wrong, he said, because they assume scientists are primarily concerned with amassing a body of facts.

    Firestein said George Bernard Shaw was delightfully right when he noted that “Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating 10 more.” And Firestein said this was a good thing: “We use knowledge to create high quality ignorance.” [...]

The Future according to AT&T

Via Sociological Cinema: A set of seven ads fro AT&T from 1993-94, put together and shared by Adam McBride on YouTube. These predictions from the early internet years look pretty good!

Sunday, March 17, 2013


  1. Veenu Sandhu, Indulekha Aravind and Ranjita Ganesan in The Business Standard: Charity bazaar. "Indian businessmen and philanthropy have never walked hand in hand. But change is in the air."

  2. Peter Whoriskey in The Washington Post: Doubts about Johns Hopkins research have gone unanswered, scientist says. A grim story involving a paper in Nature, in which one researcher gets fired after raising questions about research in his own group, another commits suicide, and a correction is being issued.

  3. Christopher Drew and Jad Mouawad in NYTimes: Initial Tests of Battery by Boeing Fell Short.

  4. Two cool cartoons by Dan Piraro (whose comics are posted at the Bizarro Blog).

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Funded Research at IIT-B

It's always good to see data on our academic institutions' dependence on public funding for research. Here's some for IIT-B in this Indian Express report (figures in crores of rupees; 1 crore = 10 million):

Financial Year Government Agencies Indian Industries International Organizations Total
2007-08 56.80 13.60 2.70 73.10
2008-09 52.07 14.28 6.39 72.76
2009-10 81.49 13.76 6.99 102.25
2010-11 154.91 15.37 9.50 179.79
2011-12 162.68 18.33 8.93 189.95

The more than 2.5-fold increase in funding is largely due to the sharp increase -- note especially the three-fold jump between 2008 and 2010 -- in government funding, whose share of the overall kitty has gone up from a little under 78 % in 2007-08 to just over 85% in 2011-12.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Classic Truths

Exams are over for the kid. Obvious that for the continuance of World peace it is imperative that I should attend to her vacation needs. The first 'vacation read' book purchased was Ramayana, in English, by C. Rajagoplachari. That stirred my childhood memories and I 'borrowed' it from her for a night.
She appeared to Hanuman at once adorable and pitiful, like the holy word torn from its context by infidels, like prosperity sunk in unmerited ruin,like shattered hope and faith betrayed, like frustrated fulfillment, like intellect muddied by insanity, like blameless purity besmirched by foul slander. 
The context (p. 323) should be clear to all of us reading it from the region called India, the land of Three Hundred Ramayanas [pdf].

Such creative and original similes to explain the plight of a woman abducted from her husband. One of the several reasons we must read our (Indian) classics in our lifetime, irrespective of what 'organized education' prescribes to us.

If one ventures into the corresponding original passages of Valmiki for comparison, one would appreciate the sincerity and command of language(s) of Rajaji. Take for instance, riDHim nipathithAmiva. The English equivalent goes "like  prosperity sunk in unmerited ruin". While 'riDHim pathithAmiva = prosperity sunk in ruin', we have 'riDHim nipathithAmiva = prosperity sunk in unmerited ruin'. Even the 'ni' of the original is embellished into its English equivalent.

The last simile (in the quote above) is unbeatable, both in the original (aBUthEna apavaTHEna kIrthim nipathithAmiva)  and the English equivalent of Rajaji. I for one could never think of a sentence like that in English, even after blessed with a lifetime of a sea-turtle. Overwhelming instances that justifiably advice me to quit writing -- barring the professional necessities -- altogether in English.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Theoretical Physicist Goes Online, Meets a Bikini Model

One thing leads to another. And, ... he gets jailed in Argentina for smuggling 2 kilograms of cocaine into that country.

Maxine Swann has the riveting, if grim, story of Prof. Paul Frampton of the University of North Carolina:

Two weeks later, on Nov. 12, Frampton’s trial began in a small wood-paneled courtroom, where he sat before three judges. On exhibit in front of the judges was a collapsed black cloth suitcase with wheels wrapped in yellow cellophane.

Frampton’s long-held defense — that he was duped because he had a childlike understanding of the ways of the world — began to unravel. The prosecutor opened his cross-examination of Frampton by citing a text message retrieved from Frampton’s confiscated cellphone. “On Jan. 22 at 9:46 a.m.,” he said, “you wrote from Ezeiza airport to the person you understood to be Denise Milani: ‘Was worried only about sniffer dogs but more.’ ” As his interrogation of Frampton continued, he read other text messages sent from Frampton’s phone. One at 9:52 a.m.: “Need to know if your loyalty is with the bad guy-agent & bolivian friends — or good guy, your husband?” And another at 9:56 a.m.: “SIRU” — the Hotel Siru, where they were planning to meet in Brussels — “IS AMBUSH.” 10:14 a.m.: “Your naivety is bad for me, us. This is millions. NO SIRU, OK?” At 11:19 a.m., Frampton sent Milani an e-mail: “This stuff is worth nothing in Bolivia, but $Ms in Europe. You meet me at the airport and we do not go near the hotel the ‘agent’ suggested. Stay at another hotel.” At 11:47 a.m., there was another text message: “Monday arrival changed. You must not tell the coca-goons.” At 12:16 p.m., he wrote: “WHY ARE YOU IGNORING ME? AT THIS LAST MOMENT. WE DID NOT DECIDE HOW TO MEET TOMORROW IN BRUSSELS AND KEEP COCA & LIVES. AT SIRU WE MAY LOSE BOTH!!” At 1:06: “We may do cool 1,000,000.”

Frampton explained to the judges that these messages were jokes. [...]

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Madhavan Nair's Complaint to CAT

After a lull of about a year, there's some news about administrative actions against Dr. Madhavan Nair barring him from holding a government position [see these   posts]. The CAT order is specifically about his appointment as Vikram Sarabhai Distinguished Professor by ISRO, dismissing Dr. Nair's "plea on the grounds that it [CAT] had no jurisdiction on the issue.

Plagiarism in NSF Grant Applications

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is investigating nearly 100 cases of suspected plagiarism drawn from a single year's worth of proposals funded by the agency. [2011 is the 'single year' in this sentence]

... In 2005, the NSF IG conducted a pilot study of nearly 1000 pending proposals and found that roughly 2.5% contained "significant amounts of unattributed text," NSF code words for plagiarism. Subsequent smaller studies have largely replicated those findings, Kroll says.

Testifying before the House of Representatives science committee during a 28 February hearing on management challenges facing NSF and other science agencies under the committee's jurisdiction, Lerner said that "extrapolating across the 45,000 proposals NSF receives annually suggests 1300 proposals could contain plagiarism and 450 to 900 could contain problematic data."

More at Science Insider.

Academic Misconduct and Lawmakers

Russian lawmakers join the hall of shame peopled by German   ministers (and several other politicians as well), a Romanian prime minister, and a Hungarian President.

Here's the background to how an anti-corruption political group got interested in outing academic fraud by lawmakers:

... Navalny and his allies have worked to expose instances of graft and embezzlement by Russian officials, as well as their alleged ill-gotten gains and hidden properties abroad. In recent months, however, the investigative spirit led them elsewhere. They were attracted by Russian officials’ amazing academic achievements.

Russia is a highly educated nation, so it may not be a surprise that about half of its lawmakers hold academic degrees. What is amazing, however, is that in many cases their degrees are not indicative of an academic background. Dozens of legislators got their degrees after they had made it to the Duma. How did they find the time for extensive reading and research, as well as writing and defending a dissertation, while deliberating on bills, discussing policy ideas, and meeting with voters?

When Navalny’s allies began looking into this puzzle, they were almost immediately rewarded by unseemly findings.

Friday, March 08, 2013

How to Travel Incognito

London based publishers Prion have sometime now been re-publishing most of the classics from around fifty to hundred years back, from the stiff-upper-lip-Brit humour (notice the 'u') to the more unabashed slap-the-back American ones. Authors include (complete list) E. F. Benson, Saki, Jerome K. Jerome, Max Beerbohm to Anita Loos, James Thurber, Mark Twain, S. J. Perelman across the pond to the relatively obscure E. M. Delafield (Diary of a Provincial Lady). I picked a relative unknown for me, How to Travel Incognito written by Ludwig Bemelmans.

Ludwig Bemelmans, born in Austrian Tyrol in 1898 and a colorful personality in his times, was raised by his uncle who was a successful hotelier. The book has a nice introduction by Robert Warnick on Bemelman's real-life adventures -- shot a staff in his Uncle's hotel and ran off to America by 16 with two pistols to "fend off hostile Indians". Bemelmans is not exactly obscure, for he is a popular author for children and has written more than fifty books, most of them light-hearted and humorous. How to... is also written in similar style. It is a collection of easy adventures by the protagonist, semi-autobiographical, set in 1950s France.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Remembering Shreeram S. Abhyankar

Shreeram S. Abhyankar, one of India's leading mathematician, passed away in Nov 2012. Here is a very informative article on his life and work in the Asia Pacific Mathematics Newsletter by Prof. Sudhir R. Ghorpade of the Mathematics department of IIT Bombay
Another obituary from the Nov 2012 issue of Current Science by Balwant Singh

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Scientific Legacy of Jožef Stefan

How many scientists have a law, a constant, a dimensionless variable and a problem named for them? And go on to be hailed as a great teacher of the subject? I know one. Jožef Stefan.
In 2009 I wrote a post on a paper that discussed about the scientific deeds of Jožef Stefan. The author of that paper, Prof. John Crepeau, after reading that post, invited me to write a chapter for an e-book on Stefan that he was editing. As he had already lined up several experts by then to write on specific contributions of Stefan, I was commissioned to write the last word -- chapter -- to summarize things in a chapter titled "The Scientific Legacy of Stefan".

Yesterday, that book Jožef Stefan: His Scientific Legacy on the 175th Anniversary of His Birth got published. Here is the preface. You can purchase separate chapters; write to me for a pre-print version of mine.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Expertise of Wine Experts

The title of the Vox EU article says it all: "Wine tasting: Is 'terroir' a joke and/or are wine experts incompetent?". The article describes research that debunks the alleged expertise of wine experts; one of the conclusions is this:

... [A]lleged experts repeatedly cannot tell a superstar wine from a cheaper bottle. Like many cultural commodities, it seems that the quality of wine is not an objective trait. Rather, these commodities become whatever we want them to become.

More interestingly, this sort of study has a pretty rich history. Here's a short description of a study from the 1970s:

The story started in 1976: Steven Spurrier, a well-known English wine trader and owner of the Caves de la Madeleine in Paris, and US-born Patricia Gallagher, from the French Académie du Vin, turned things upside-down by organising a blind tasting of four white Burgundies, four red Bordeaux1 and 12 California wines (six whites and six reds) in Paris; the last were virtually unknown in Europe. The nine judges were judged to be extremely competent wine connoisseurs – sommeliers, producers of famous wines, a wine journalist, and owners of Michelin-starred restaurants. The tasting ended up ranking a California wine as winner, both for whites and reds.

Boxed out nano seconds of fame

Today's Education Plus supplement of The Hindu daily carries an article Virtual learning spaces. It has some of my views on blogs as a boxed item (only) in the print edition. My thanks to the article author.

Ironical that the boxed item on 'online resources' doesn't appear in the online version of the article. Perhaps, in line with the purport of the article, it is meant to inspire only the off-line readers to go online.

I remember speaking to the article author about three months back on this over the telephone. What has appeared is, understandably, a heavily condensed version of it. Where it reads "...the blog... deals with nanoscience," understand it as the author's original writing.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

A Criminal Googles for His Crime

Felix Salmon has put together several examples like this one:

In their investigation into the art theft, [officials] found that Mr. Istavrioglou had searched the Internet for reports about the robbery after it took place but before the story became news.

Reminded me of this ancient post; the underlying story, unfortunately, is lost to link-rot.

[Update: Apparently, there's a category of crimes called Google Murder Cases. Grim stuff.

The link-rotted 2005 story has also been reported on elsewhere.]

Saturday, March 02, 2013


  1. Top 10 things I did right or wrong in grad school (Update - try this Google-cached link; thanks, Swarup!): PPT Slides of a talk by Gregg Morrisett to grad students at Harvard taking a course on professional development. [Hat tip: Michael Mitzenmacher's comment on Matt Welsh's post urging grad students to learn how to give a talk].

  2. Ross McKenzie: What makes a good undergraduate research project?

  3. Chris Arnade in Scientific American Blogs: Why It’s Smart to Be Reckless on Wall Street.