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

Foreign Universities: Sobering News from Singapore

Jason Lane and Kevin Kinser ask in CHE: How Loyal Are Overseas Branch Campuses to Their Host Countries? In dealing with this topic, they provide several examples, almost all of them from Singapore:

A couple of weeks ago, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business announced that it would leave Singapore and shift its Asian operation to Hong Kong. The reasoning seems to be strategic. Its contract with Singapore was concluding in 2015, and Hong Kong offers better access to the rapidly expanding Chinese market. Similarly, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas has signaled that it may be leaving Singapore after its last batch of students complete their study in 2015. In this case, the university couldn’t agree on the student subsidies paid by its host, the government-sponsored Singapore Institute of Technology. And, in the midst of its global expansion, New York University also recently revealed it was closing its Tisch campus on the island nation after it also failed to reach a new financial arrangement with the Singapore government.

Sunday, August 25, 2013


  1. Ram Guha on intellectual dadagiri:

    By tradition and temperament, Indians are extremely deferential to those older, richer, and more powerful than themselves.

    This is so even in the realms of science and scholarship. Once an intellectual has achieved a certain status, he uses it to mark out a clear hierarchy between himself and those younger or less well known. [...]

    Accustomed to displays of loyalty and servility, India’s most distinguished intellectuals often fall prey to self-love. When CV Raman left the Indian Institute of Science to start a new research centre, he named it after himself.

    Thirty years later, a distinguished agricultural scientist did exactly the same thing. India’s most celebrated chemist presided over the naming of a scientific centre and even of a road junction named after him. India’s two most famous economists have allowed the naming of fellowships and prizes, and even professorships, after themselves.

    Guha does talk about a couple of truly exemplary leaders: Prof. Obaid Siddiqi at NCBS, and Prof. V.K.R.V. Rao at the Delhi School of Economics.

  2. Anubhuti Vishnoi in The Financial Express: For the new IITs, IIM faculty, the question: what will our spouses do?

  3. Seema Singh at The First Post: How IIT-JEE is becoming the stronghold of CBSE, urban students.

  4. Akshaya Mukul in ToI: Now, collegium of scholars to select higher education institute's chief:

    To deal with this chronic problem, the HRD ministry has decided to establish a collegium of scholars that would prepare a directory of academics for leadership positions like vice-chancellors or heads of institutions of central educational institutions. There are more than 100 autonomous educational institutions under the HRD ministry. Earlier, the provision of having a collegium was part of the National Commission for Higher Education & Research Bill. But since it looks improbable that any of the HRD bill would get Parliament's nod, the ministry had decided to take the executive route.

Tail Wags the Dog

  • Exhibit 1:

    Under the proposed rules, foreign institutions that figure among the top 400 universities in the world — according to rankings published by the Times Higher Education, ... Quacquarelli Symonds, ... or Shanghai Jiao Tong University — will be able to set up campuses [in India]. [Bold emphasis added]

  • Exhibit 2:

    In a bid to get back on the top of the global best institutes of technology chart, a team of four IIT directors would hold talks with officials of the Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD) and the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings here on Wednesday. [Bold emphasis added]

* * *

"Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist huckster-peddlers from university rankings." [With apologies to Keynes...]

Theory and Experiment

Experimentalist commands, "Emma, please insert NMR data here!"

Theorist begs, "Do you have any data that will fit my theory?"

And Yogi Berra says, "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is."

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Universities and Money

Specifically, the possible effects of the source of money on universities' priorities.

In the Indian context, Dr. E.A.S. Sarma expressed his deep concern in a 2011 letter to the Prime Minister: "if our scientific institutions "are forced to function as consulting institutions [to industry] in order to raise resources, their independence and credibility are adversely affected," and "... their professional objectivity will continue to get eroded."

On the other hand, dependence on government as the lone source of money has its own problems. See this scathing ToI op-ed by Ashis Nandy (2004) for a discussion of higher ed dystopia made possible by political meddling.

On possible solution is to diversify one's source of funds, as argued by Ram Guha (in a 2007 EPW essay on the state of Indian universities):

Fifth, a university must encourage a pluralism of funding sources. It must not rely only on state patronage, but raise money from fees, from its alumni, and from private corporations. By diversifying its portfolio, so to speak, the university reduces its dependence on a single source of patronage, while also engaging with (and making itself relevant to) a wider swathe of society.

* * *

All that is just a preamble for a couple of links from the US in recent weeks:

  1. The first one is from Derek Bok, former President of Harvard: The Ambiguous Role of Money in Higher Education.

    n view of these multiple influences, one may again ask whether having to raise so much money from multiple sources, with all its attendant temptations and costs, is the best way to finance higher education. Yet what other system can one suggest? For all its disadvantages, the current modus operandi seems much like democracy—the worst possible system ... except for all the known alternatives. After all, American universities, especially selective colleges and research universities, are much more amply supported than their counterparts abroad. They are better protected from disruptive fluctuations in government financing, not to mention the vagaries of politics that often affect how public funds are distributed. It is doubtful that higher education as a whole would do better by having all its funds provided by a federal government that is subject to the pressure of powerful interest groups and prone to earmarking appropriations for projects of questionable value that are dear to the hearts of individual lawmakers.

    Could American higher education have achieved the level of financial support it has enjoyed under any other system? Policy makers in other advanced nations do not seem to think so. Instead, they are trying to wean their universities from an exclusive dependence on government support and encouraging them to follow our example by seeking funds from a variety of sources.

    That said, it is still important that there be some limits to the influence of money. [...]

  2. The second link is about the possibility of chilling-muzzling effect imposed by donor preferences. Alice Walker, the author of Color Purple, seems to be the latest victim of this effect, along with the Center for Education of Women at the University of Michigan. Go read her post: In Case You’ve Ever Wondered How It Is Done: Censorship by Purse String: "An Invitation to speak at the 50th Anniversary for the Center for Education of Women at the University of Michigan has been withdrawn."


  1. ChemBark: A Disturbing Note in a Recent SI File ["SI" stands for supporting information for a research paper available at the journal's website]. The disturbing note is this:

    Emma, please insert NMR data here! where are they? and for this compound, just make up an elemental analysis ...

    A part of the discussion is about the meaning of the phrase "just make up".

  2. Charlie Stross: Snowden leaks: the real take-home.

  3. Jag Bhalla: Is Economics More Like History Than Physics?

  4. Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed: Change at NYU: "New York University trustees sent out an e-mail Wednesday that officially said that John Sexton's presidency would end by 2016..." Much of Sexton's current troubles are specific to NYU's governance.

    Sexton is also known for his bold experiments in opening NYU campuses abroad -- Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. These experiments in globalization of higher ed are worth following; it will be interesting to see if (and in what form) they survive his departure.

Conflicting Expectations on Middle Management

In David Evans's post on From Faculty to Chair, you find this key insight:

The biggest thing I learned in my four years in that position was how to begin to balance the interests of my department and discipline with those of the college as a whole. It’s a cliché to say that the chair’s main role is to ensure the smooth running of the department and to advocate for it at the higher levels of the institution. That’s true, but my main discovery was that the chair’s mediating role also went the other way—to advocate for, or at least make possible, the functioning of institutional policies and initiatives at the departmental level. [Emphasis added]

This is something that many people miss when discussing the actions of their chairs, deans, directors, and so on. Just because these chairs/deans/directors were our colleagues until just the other day (implying that they truly share our views on "what is right" for our department/college/institute), we tend to assume away their other constraints and compulsions.

This came to me very clearly in 2009 when the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations were being implemented in a way that riled up a lot of IIT faculty who were sore with their directors for not coming out in open support of "their cause", and for not being their strong advocate at MHRD. Words like "betrayal" and "traitor" were in the air.

The underlying assumption, I think, was that the director's sole mandate was to represent them upstairs. It was shocking to see, therefore, that the director was actually acting as if he was MHRD's representative -- or worse, MHRD's mole! -- in their midst.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A new, field-specific, citation-centric rating / ranking of universities

It's described in a paper entitled Ranking and mapping of universities and research-focused institutions worldwide based on highly-cited papers: A visualization of results from multi-level models by Lutz Bornmann, Moritz Stefaner, Felix de Moya Anegon, Ruediger Mutz.

It just looks at one metric for each institution for each research field: the fraction of papers in the top 10 percentile of papers in that field.

Since this is a field-specific exercise, it is slightly better than university level ranking (even after discounting their unsound/stupid methodologies). I would still rank it as a bad exercise since it encourages people to see the research enterprise essentially as a race to get into the top 10 percentile of papers.

Anywasy, what makes it worth blogging is the time-sink interactive web app [password provided on demand] created by the authors that allows you to see for yourself where the good places (and the bad places) are. Proceed with caution -- you might end up spending a lot of time over some metric of colossal insignificance. [See this for example].

For the pointer, I blame thank Doug Natelson.


  1. Economic Logician: Top Economics graduate programs are not as good as you think.

  2. Felix Salmon: Jeff Bezos and His Journalists.

  3. Paul Krugman: The Good Web. "When it comes to useful economic analysis, these are the good old days."

  4. Ben Zimmer at Language Log: Frances Brooke, destroyer of English (not literally)

  5. xkcd cartoon on Increased Risk.

Cost of Education in US Public Universities

Since we were talking the other day about the figure of Rs. 340,000 as the (alleged) cost of education at our IITs (and since the said figure appears to come out of questionable calculations), this passage (n an article arguing for free public higher ed in the US) leaped out at me:

The first step is to calculate how much it would cost to make all public higher education free in the United States. In 2008-9, there were 6.5 million full-time-equivalent undergraduate students enrolled in public four-year universities and 4.3 million enrolled in community colleges. In 2009-10, the average cost of tuition, room, and board for undergraduates at public four-year institutions was $15,014; at two-year public colleges, it was $7,703. If we multiply the number of students in each segment of public higher education by the average total cost, we discover that the cost of making all public universities free would have been $97-billion in 2009-10, with an annual cost of $33-billion for all community colleges—or a total of $130-billion. [Emphasis added]
-- For Public Colleges, the Best Tuition Is No Tuition by Robert Samuels at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Cost of Education at IITs

"IITs say they spend Rs 3.40 lakh per student per year."

This is from a news report on how education at an IIT is subsidized to the tune of about 75%, even after a recent fee hike from Rs. 50,000 to 90,000. This factoid is also mixed up in a larger story about "financial autonomy" of of the IITs.

The student-faculty ratio in the IITs is about 16.5, according to Mr. Shashi Tharoor, the junior minister for HRD.

The teaching-related expenditure at IITs, then, is something like Rs.55 lakhs per faculty.

That's all.

* * *

In related news, MHRD has " advised India’s central universities to increase tuition fees across all streams ..."

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Pronab Sen on "Steep Poverty Decline" during 2004-11

Ideas for India gets Ashok Kotwal, its Editor-in-Chief, to interview Pronab Sen, Chairman, National Statistical Commission, "on the recent poverty figures that show a steep decline in poverty in India between 2004 and 2011." This bit is particularly revealing:

There are various stories floating around to explain the poverty decline. Some say it is on account of poverty alleviation schemes such as MNREGA, some say growth has trickled down. This story is slightly different. How can one sort out which of these makes most sense?

Through much more rigorous technical work than I have seen up to now. Too much of the discourse is based on either ideology or seat-of-the-pants analysis or casual empiricism. I am afraid that I too am guilty of all three.


  1. Latika Chaudhury What constrained the expansion of education in British India?

    The overall enrolment patterns provide strong evidence of India’s limited achievement at the primary level, but relatively superior performance at the secondary level. As late as 1891, only one out of 10 primary school-age children were enroled in any type of school. The number of students enrolled steadily increased in the 20th century, but even by 1941 only about one-third of school age children were enrolled in school, with sharp regional differences. Secondary and collegiate level enrolment was more remarkable — enrolment more than quadrupled between 1891 and 1941 with more than 6% of school-age children attending secondary school by 1941.

    Variations across regions and social groups

    However, these enrolment levels mask the tremendous regional variation within India. At every level, the more advanced coastal provinces of Bengal, Bombay and Madras out-performed the interior provinces of Bihar and United Provinces. Tremendous variation across social groups was also evident - certain religions such as Christians and Jains were among the most literate in colonial India. At the other end of the spectrum, tribal groups living in geographically remote parts of the country had the lowest literacy rates (less than 1%). Average Muslim literacy at 6.4% was below Hindu literacy at 8.4%, but there were significant regional differences. Among Hindus, there were large differences by caste — Brahmans at the upper end of the caste spectrum averaged 33%, while lower castes averaged 1.6%.

  2. Natasha Sarin and Sarah Cannon: Larry Summers: Two Women's Perspective

  3. Triggered by a horrible FoxNews interview of Reza Aslan, author of a recent book on Jesus, Adam Gopnik pens a short piece on the historical narratives about Jesus.

    As always in these things, the interpretation involves picking out some texts as core while dismissing others as late or interpolated, with the criterion for choosing between them seeming to be, more or less, whether stories float your boat rather than what truths can be shown to walk on water. If you privilege the radical, Zealot Jesus—the one who eats with prostitutes and dismisses kosher diets and rails against Caesar —you have a hard time explaining the unworldly, Sermon on the Mount Jesus, and a still harder time explaining the purely hieratic, apolitical non-human savior-from-heaven Jesus who emerges in Paul’s letters in the decades after Jesus’s death. If you like the messianic son-of-man Jesus, you have a hard time explaining what it was that riled up the Romans. If you go for the angry activist Yeshua who drove the poor money changers from the Temple (many of them no worse than the kinds of currency-exchange folks you see at airports), you have a hard time explaining how he emerged so quickly as Paul’s Christ, a figure so remote from politics or life itself—no personal stories with wise sayings—as to lead to the rational suspicion that Paul did not intend to indicate anyone of earthly existence at all.

  4. NYTimes on the Colin McGinn affair, and the broader debate about sexism in academic philosophy: A Star Philosopher Falls, and a Debate Over Sexism Is Set Off.

  5. Ruth Starkman: Confessions of an Application Reader: Lifting the Veil on the Holistic Process at the University of California, Berkeley.

  6. Meena Menon: Of Maal and Men: "We protest about rape, dowry deaths and the murder of unborn girls, but most of us end up ignoring men who consider it their right to stare at women."

Saturday, August 03, 2013


  1. Ashok Thakur, Secretary to the Government, Ministry of Human Resource Development: Despite teething troubles, new engineering admission process represents much-needed reforms.

    First, let's remember what the previous system meant for students and parents. At a personal level, my first realisation of the devaluation of school education came more than a decade ago when my son asked me if he could stop attending school classes and instead concentrate on coaching classes for the IIT-JEE exam.

  2. Seema Singh: How we forgot Bhargava vs Padmanaban in the Bhagwati vs Sen spat:

    ... it could have ... benefited one and all if we had a “scientific” debate on the subject by some senior scientists. How about the most respectable pro-GM scientist G Padmanaban, professor emeritus and former director of IISc pitched against one of the founding fathers of biotechnology in India, Pushpa M Bhargava who is now one of the most ardent critics of the use of GM technology for solving some agri issues. Incidentally, the American journal Science organized a debate between the two a few months ago, conducted by editor Bruce Alberts. Alas, such debates don’t carry much charm for mainstream Indian media, both newspapers and magazines.

  3. Ezra Klein on sexism in high places: Funny how gender never came up during Bernanke’s nomination. Or Greenspan’s. Or Volcker’s.

    See also Krugman's op-ed: Sex, Money, Gravitas.

  4. Prof. Sukant Khurana: A Personal Tribute to Prof. Obaid Siddiqi.

  5. MIT releases the report on Aaron Swartz case. See >The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed for a summary of its contents, and links to reactions.