Friday, January 31, 2014


IISc started its undergraduate program in 2011. Even with a small annual intake, we now have some 350 UG students at IISc. With such an abundance of youthful enthusiasm, exuberance, enterprise and energy, it was only a matter of time before a major student festival came to our campus, and it's already here: Pravega.

The techo-cultural festival starts today with many different kinds of events, competitions, workshops, and pro shows over the next three days. Lots of stuff to look forward to!

I know quite a few of the Pravega team members, and I also know they have been putting in tons and tons of work for well over six months. I have also seen (perhaps a very small part of) their capacity to not only plan and organize an event of this scale, but also negotiate through the many tight spots they have faced along the way.

Here's wishing the Pravega team all the best!

* * *

While IISc did host such fests earlier (there was Vibrations in the nineties, and Miditha in naughties), Pravega is special because of its sheer scale and because it's the first fest led by our UG students.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


  1. Moises Velasquez-Manoff at Opinionator: What Happens When the Poor Receive a Stipend?

  2. Andrea Peterson in The Switch: How one publisher is stopping academics from sharing their research

  3. Sunshine: Graduate Application in Public Health: A Personal Insight into the US Application System. With the growing trend of American universities using a common application process for entry into their undergraduate and graduate programs, a timely critique of the process that is being used right now for admission to public health schools in the US.

Prof. Gautam Desiraju on doing science in India

In a short, interesting interview in Chemistry Views, Prof. Desiraju, a colleague at IISc, shares his views on a variety of things. What might be of interest to this blog's readers are his views on doing science in India; they appear in his answers at a couple of places. First, about his own career in India:

Tell us a bit about your career path, please.

My career path has been highly unusual. For a start, I did my Ph.D. in the US and returned to India in 1978 in search of a job. Most Indian students in the 1970s did the reverse. They took a masters or doctorate in India and then fled to the US. My American training at the University of Illinois has been an abiding strength throughout. For example, I had no doubt that I would not accept, even as I attempted my tentative steps in the world of chemistry, the highly feudal and paternalistic model for science that prevailed in India. It still lingers on, albeit flabby and inefficient. The very fact that I have gained international recognition even while working in and against this oligarchic set-up, reiterates that one can follow one’s convictions if taught the truth.

I dared to follow my dreams and this led to a new subject, crystal engineering. I have been very fortunate in that two ideas I tried to build up on, namely the concept of the weak hydrogen bond, and the concept of the supramolecular synthon, led to broad support and success.

The second excerpt is his answer to a question about chemistry research and education in India:

What is the current status of chemistry research and education in India?

There is not much to write home about. A country of our size, talent, and resources could have achieved much more in the last four or five decades. We have been crippled by a feudal administration cum research set-up, a pseudo-socialistic model of governance, and a lack of adherence to strict standards and accountability, basically an old boys’ network with a lot of technical incompetence thrown in. There is little interaction between academia and industry, or between chemistry on the one hand and chemical engineering, biology, and physics on the other. Domination of the research and education scene by a handful of aging individuals has led to stagnation in recent years.

On the brighter side, the opening up of educational avenues in regions of the country that had traditionally been deprived of these advantages in the past, through initiatives of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), has led to an expansion of the base of the educational pyramid. This can have only good consequences because an increase in the number of educated students must by definition, weaken the feudal apparatus that has controlled science in India for many years.

Friday, January 10, 2014

My Popular Science Books in Tamil

Three of my popular science books in Tamil language have been published now by Tamizhini and Amrutha publishers.

Details with links to Introductions are available in Tamil here


The books should be sold in Tamizhini and Amrutha book stalls (No. 436 and 437) in the 2014 Chennai book fair between Jan 10 (today) and 22, at the YMCA grounds, Nandhanam.

Online ordering should commence after the book fair. Shall update.

Do also spread the word around.

Monday, January 06, 2014

American Universities, Chinese Students

... In 2007, the U.S. State Department issued roughly 40,000 F-1 student visas to residents of mainland China. (Visa numbers may not correspond exactly with enrollments, but can be a useful measure.) By comparison, 46,000 visas were issued to students from South Korea that year, 34,000 to India, 22,000 to Japan, and 15,000 to Taiwan.

Five years later, visas for South Korean, Indian, Japanese, and Taiwanese students had all declined. Chinese students visas, meanwhile, quadrupled, to 189,000 in 2012, more than the total number issued to students from North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Oceania combined. [Bold emphasis added]

More on these astonishing numbers, and the drivers behind them, in Kevin Carey's piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

"Now hurry back. I'm running out of things to do."

Via Inside Higher Ed, here's a university president revealing what he does in a lonely campus during the holidays:

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Navin Kabra's SCIGen Hoax

Consider this:

Seems like an impressive conference, and getting a paper published in this conference should be a big achievement on any student’s resume, right?


We submitted to two fake papers to this conference – one was complete gibberish auto-generated by using the online fake paper generator at SCIGen, while the other was auto-generated gibberish interspersed with completely ridiculous statements, movie dialogues, and other random things. Both these papers where accepted by this conference.

More on the saga at his blog post: How I published a fake paper, and why it is the fault of our education system. Mid-day also has a story on Kabra's sting operation. [links via Retraction Watch, and Santosh Sali's comment].

* * *

I have seen far too many cases of poor quality journals and conferences (including at least one scamference) that are ripe for this sort of "sting operation", and I am glad that Kabra has taken to trouble to out someone savvy enough to exploit the demand for such conferences, but hapless enough to get caught in his net.

Sting operations that target conference organizers are entertaining, all right. But, the real curse, which Kabra has written about in the original as well as follow-up posts, is on the demand side -- more specifically, institutional rules that put a gun to people's heads and say "Publish! Or else .."

In the past, these rules put a lot of pressure on faculty members in universities and colleges (irrespective of whether they had access to decent research facilities); the Kabra episode tells us that they have unleashed their corrosive effect on masters and bachelors students as well.

So, basically, there's this huge army of people with a "paper" to submit and/or present; when they are unable to find respectable venues for their papers, someone or the other sets up shop to exploit them. There's a lot of money to be made, after all. And, thanks to our shitty institutional rules, a lot of people become "willing victims" of such scams.

And this is what we are seeing all over the map in India, especially in certain engineering disciplines.

Annals of Improbable Careers

We have covered cases of materials engineers (actually, metallurgists -- a word that has gone out of fashion in my tribe) who went on to become an iconic founder of a milk cooperative, a journalist, and a chief minster. Another recent case saw the rise of a mechanical   engineer as Delhi's youngest chief minster.

Now, here's a wonderful essay in Mint by Harikrishna Katragadda on his career in (business) photography after an electrical engineering degree from IIT-M. I'll just have to stop at one extended (but chopped up) quote, but really, the entire essay is worth quoting in full!

I was good at math and physics in school. Which meant that like most good Andhra boys, I was expected to become an “ingineeru”, get a job and get married with a fat dowry. ...

... When I cleared the mother-of-all-engineering-entrance exams, the Indian Institute of Technology-Joint Entrance Exam (IIT-JEE), my parents gave me no option but to join electrical engineering at IIT, Madras. I did not want to be an engineer. I had wanted to study physics at IIT.

I got into photography literally by accident. ...

My move from physics to photography baffled my parents. For them, cameras come out of the closet only during weddings and vacations. My maternal grandmother was inconsolable. A proud woman, she had ruled like the feudal mistress of a large mansion in Vijayawada in her day. She refused to accept photography as a legitimate profession, certainly not after an IIT degree. She had grand visions of how I would become CEO of a company after my IIT, and drive her in a Mercedes car. Much to her horror, I was chasing grumpy CEOs for a photo-op and I drove an old beat-up Ford to work. There was also the predicament of “Which Andhra girl would marry a photographer?” Peace returned to the family home after we agreed on my job description as “someone who takes pictures of Americans and foreigners”.