Sunday, April 20, 2014


  1. Sasha Sagan in New York Magazine: Lessons of Immortality and Mortality From My Father, Carl Sagan

    One day when I was still very young, I asked my father about his parents. I knew my maternal grandparents intimately, but I wanted to know why I had never met his parents.

    “Because they died,” he said wistfully.

    “Will you ever see them again?” I asked.

    He considered his answer carefully. Finally, he said that there was nothing he would like more in the world than to see his mother and father again, but that he had no reason — and no evidence — to support the idea of an afterlife, so he couldn’t give in to the temptation.


    Then he told me, very tenderly, that it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true. You can get tricked if you don’t question yourself and others, especially people in a position of authority. He told me that anything that’s truly real can stand up to scrutiny.

    As far as I can remember, this is the first time I began to understand the permanence of death. [...]

  2. Robert Frank in NYTimes: When Diamonds Are Dirt Cheap, Will They Still Dazzle?

    ... [What] will happen to the lofty prices of such goods if there is an inexhaustible supply of inexpensive perfect copies? Economic reasoning can help answer this question. It can also shed light on how new technologies might alter traditional ways in which people demonstrate their wealth to others, or might change what society embraces as tokens of commitment and other gifts.

Alberts et al: "Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws"

The long-held but erroneous assumption of never-ending rapid growth in biomedical science has created an unsustainable hypercompetitive system that is discouraging even the most outstanding prospective students from entering our profession—and making it difficult for seasoned investigators to produce their best work. This is a recipe for long-term decline, and the problems cannot be solved with simplistic approaches. Instead, it is time to confront the dangers at hand and rethink some fundamental features of the US biomedical research ecosystem.

That's the abstract of the PNAS paper entitled Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws by Bruce Alberts, Marc W. Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman,and Harold Varmus, each of them a biggie in science and in US science policy.

Link via DrugMonkey who has also penned a critique of this article; his post starts with a very perceptive tweet from Jonathan Gitlin: "This should be read as a mea culpa, given the authors’ roles in creating this problem in the first place."

Saturday, April 19, 2014

US Grad School Applications from India Jump 32%

A surprising finding reported by CHE [based on results of a survey (pdf) by the Council of Grad Schools]. The reasons for this year's uptick are difficult to pin down, but the CHE report points to harsh visa policies by the UK as a possibility:

... Indian numbers have been erratic. One year, first-time graduate enrollments climbed more than 30 percent, only to plummet 16 percent a couple of years later.

That seeming fickleness reflects the fact that education decisions in India tend to be highly susceptible to economic shifts, including fluctuating currency exchange rates and employment prospects, both at home and abroad. A significant share of Indian graduate students enroll in master’s- and professional-degree programs and thus often have to cover much of the tuition costs themselves.

The current application growth, however, comes as the Indian rupee has generally fallen in value against the dollar, suggesting that other factors may be in play. Ms. Stewart, of the council, cited tightening student-visa rules in Britain. A recent report found that the number of first-time students at English universities from India and Pakistan had halved since 2010, and some of those students, Ms. Stewart suggested, could have opted to apply to institutions in the United States instead.

"It’s very difficult to trace cause and effect," she said, "but it seems that we’re at least the short-term beneficiaries."

Any guesses for the second consecutive year of robust growth from India?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Rough treatment of seminar speakers is so 20th century

In a post on civility in academe, Nigel Thrift writes:

There is good news. As universities have become more diverse, I think they have become more civil. As a result, a firmer line is being drawn between disagreement and abuse.

In particular, I am struck by how much the conduct at research seminars has changed over the years. When I was starting my academic career, these seminars sometimes seemed to be regarded as blood sport. The idea was to undercut the speakers, not work with them. The atmosphere was driven by a combination of the testosterone-laden antics of young (nearly all male) radicals, the crustiness of some older professors, and a general presupposition that there must be something wrong with whatever work was on show, if only you could find the error. It was not just tiresome but often intimidating as well.

I have seen this sort of alpha male aggression in action, where a nutty professor interrupts the speaker (invited by the department, no less!) with a needlessly aggressive comment like "this is quite elementary; you should perhaps look it up in my intro text." His colleagues could only squirm in their seats while this charade played itself out in seminar after seminar. I've also seen this other fellow who would heckle the speaker with a loud laughter after asking some inane question or the other.

We seem to have come a long way from the bad old 1990s. The seminars these days do see some tough questions, but they rarely cross the line over to irrelevancy and/or intimidation.

Authors, translators, and "political publishers"

The English translation of a Tamil novel finds itself in a limbo because the translator and the publisher do not like the political views of the original author, Joe D'Cruz -- specifically, his statement explaining why he wants Narendra Modi to be the next Prime Minister of India. You can read D'Cruz's statement, as well as that from the publisher over at Outlook.

The key sentence in Navayana's press release is this: "However, there cannot be a place for such an author in a political publishing house like Navayana." [Bold emphasis added]

In an opinion piece in Outlook entitled Public Stories, Private Censorship, Gautam Bhatia says this case should disturb liberals as much as did Penguin's handling of Wendy Doniger's book:

... Navyana’s decision is problematic because it merely adds to a public culture where private and public censorship is becoming the norm rather than the exception. For every Salman Rushdie, for every Taslima Nasreen, for every Wendy Doniger, and for every Joe D’Cruz, the foundations of our society’s public commitment to free speech are weakened, and the fragile edifice moves one blow closer to crumbling. Free speech liberals should accept Navyana’s legal right to do what it did, but nonetheless condemn its actions with the same vigour that they condemned the actions of Penguin.

While I agree with the broad thrust of Bhatia's argument, I don't think he has an open-and-shut case here because, in addition to D'Cruz, the author, and Anand, the publisher, there is also V. Geetha, the translator, who has taken a strong stand that "I [Geetha] cannot bring myself to allow my translation to be published."

In the meantime, Anand is said to be reconsidering his earlier stand. Who knows, maybe Geetha will also relent, and let her translation be published.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

When philosophy professors go to hell

SMBC gives them a preview of what they are in for. Scary!

Does Pedigree Matter?

It does, according to a recent study summarized by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed. One of the findings, for example, is this: "[Those who earned their PhD from a top university] were 22 percent more likely than others to be employed by a research university."

Frankly, I am surprised that the correlation is not stronger.

Susan Watts: Society needs more than wonder to respect science

A very good column in Nature:

There is a fundamental difference between science communication and science journalism. At the science communication end of the spectrum sit the stories that show people how exciting science can be, the discovery of a wonder material, perhaps, or a new subatomic particle. Explaining the significance of sightings of the Higgs boson or of gravitational waves from the early Universe takes real skill.

Science journalism's job is to tell the stories that explore the murky underbelly of science, like the selling of bogus stem-cell cures to vulnerable patients. It is science journalism that will expose the rushed policy-making, the undisclosed profiteering, the conflicts of interest and the vested interests, the bad experiments, or the out-and-out frauds.

For both, you need to be the kind of person who asks “why” a lot. You need to enjoy coaxing sometimes shy, or reluctant, or just plain difficult scientists to tell you about their work — and then to feel enthused enough to want to tell somebody else.

But a journalist also needs to be persistent, and brave enough to find out the things that people don't want the world to know, and who often work hard to stop the world knowing — and to tell those tales too.

Two women's views on the Modi Masc

First, Mitali Saran's take in The Business Standard on the mantastic masculinity projected by the BJP leader and his band of macho men: Mr. Modi's Men:

If you've been listening to the BJP's campaign ads - and it's hard to miss them - you know that they say two things: First, that the pride of the Hindu nation and culture is paramount, and second, that Mr Modi will restore and nurture that pride. Mr Modi will never let the nation's head be bowed; Mr Modi will never allow this soil to be desecrated; Mr Modi will protect women; Mr Modi will be the alpha male leader we all fantasise about.

This language - pride, honour and protection - expresses fragility and fear, and spreads fragility and fear. It is used by people with brittle egos, who prefer sabre-rattling to rational discussion [snip, snip] It's the language of the kind of masculinity that thrives on domination, not cooperation, on homogeneity rather than heterogeneity, and on majoritarianism rather than individual rights. It values hierarchy, not equality, and sentiment over rationality. It presumes obedience and acquiescence, not irreverence and challenge. It is, in fact, the masculinity of an 8-year-old boy.

Second, a very cheeky Mumbai Mirror column by Shobhaa De on Why most women would never marry Narendra Modi ...

... So, here's the first cut on this sizzling topic: Narendra Modi - Stud or Dud? Namo is definitely not the sort of guy you want to take home to mother. He'd probably scare the hell out of her. You wouldn't want to introduce him to friends either (this is key... girls- friends must approve of boyfriends/husbands). As for getting Dad to hang with this guy - oooops! No chance. After all, Dad is the real 'chowkidar' in a daughter's life. Why hire another? Next criterion: Would Namo make a compatible travel companion? Doubtful. He'd probably make a speech wherever he finds five people. And the only sight seeing he'd be interested in would be restricted to helicopter surveys of expressways. Could Namo be a good listener (this is perhaps the single most important quality women look for in men)? The answer is an emphatic 'no'. Modi loves the sound of his own voice. And he doesn't listen to anyone - man or woman.

* * *

Thanks to Peter Griffin's G+ stream.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Sartorial Choices of American College Students

... As more and more students went to college, more and more went out into the world with new standards of dress. It is important to note that the number of college students grew tenfold in the first half of the 20th century.

Q: What types of obstacles or pushback did students experience from college leaders?

A: College leaders were far more interested in policing the activities of women and, in the 1940s, they developed elaborate dress codes as to when and where particular garments could be worn. Before that, dress codes were enforced by peer pressure or one-on-one interaction with the administrators. So, it was not until jeans, pants, and shorts on women that there was a need for written rules. More than downright outlawing garments, administrators controlled the parameters of when the clothes could be worn. The cafeteria was a highly contested space. For men, they were pushed to wear sport coats and ties, but many protested these rules or simply did not comply. There were very few repercussions for men; women were given demerits or grounded to campus for breaking dress codes. Of course, so much of this enforcement depended on the inclinations of school administrators.

That's from this interview, Deirdre Clemente, the author of Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style.

ChemViews Interview of Prof. Dan Shechtman

I really do believe that anyone who gets the Nobel Prize deserves it. But that doesn’t mean that whoever deserves a Nobel gets one.

Those are the opening words from Prof. Dan Shechtman in this wonderful interview he gave during last year's Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

The interview covers a wide range of topics, including the pivotal role of electron microscopy in the discovery of quasicrystals, and his own tenacious belief in the essential correctness of his discovery even in the face of strong opposition from stalwarts like Linus Pauling.

Very, very good stuff!

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Mathai Joseph and Andrew Robinson on What Ails Indian Science

Their opinion piece in this week's Nature -- Free Indian Science -- lays out (some of) the problems that hold Indian science back. The entire article is worth reading, so go read it now. I'll use this post to highlight some of the interesting points made by the authors.

Let me come right off and say that this is a great line:

Indian science needs public funding, but not government control.

Many people -- including some clueless journalists -- fail to realize that in terms of funding, academic institutions in India are the bit players; the biggies are the government labs, and it is good to see that Joseph and Robinson hammer this point home:

Nearly 60% of India's science budget2 is now spent on the CSIR, scientific departments and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) — an enormous and impenetrable empire set up in 1958. None of these national institutions has stimulated scientific excellence [...]

Joseph and Robinson also nail a key problem in the grants made by funding agencies to faculty members in academic institutions:

... [Although] research in the leading institutions is well funded, [...] the funding is subject to unsuitable restrictions applicable to the entire government bureaucracy. These include limited foreign travel and no travel support for research students, ruling out regular participation in leading conferences and research gatherings.

Their analysis of the problems that plague Indian science leads to a four-part solution. The first part is about insulating the funding agencies from government control:

The first step towards reinvigorating Indian science must be to create an empowered funding agency, staffed by working scientists, some of whom could be non-resident Indians. A possible model is the European Research Council, which deals with a complex of national governments no less formidable than India's 29 state governments, yet manages to focus on supporting research excellence. The crucial requirement is obviously that an Indian scientific research council be permitted to set its own criteria for the evaluation of research proposals, independent of direct government control, and disburse government funds accordingly.

There's a lot more in there -- go read the whole thing.

* * *

Thanks to Prof. S. Ranganathan for the e-mail pointer.

The Importance of Hiring Stars

Here's the abstract of an NBER working paper entitled Why Stars Matter by Ajay Agrawal, John McHale, Alexander Oettl:

The growing peer effects literature pays particular attention to the role of stars. We decompose the causal effect of hiring a star in terms of the productivity impact on: 1) co-located incumbents and 2) new recruits. Using longitudinal university department-level data we report that hiring a star does not increase overall incumbent productivity, although this aggregate effect hides offsetting effects on related (positive) versus unrelated (negative) colleagues. However, the primary impact comes from an increase in the average quality of subsequent recruits. This is most pronounced at mid-ranked institutions, suggesting implications for the socially optimal spatial organization of talent.

If it sounds forbiddingly academic, the Chronicle has a translation into plain English: How Hiring a Star Matters to a Department.