Sunday, November 25, 2018

Annals of Ranking: Which decades produced "better" Nobel Prizes in Science?

Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen have the click-bait article of the month in The Atlantic, Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck, with the following summary (abstract?):

Despite vast increases in the time and money spent on research, progress is barely keeping pace with the past. What went wrong?

Here's their methodology:

we ran a survey asking scientists to compare Nobel Prize–winning discoveries in their fields. We then used those rankings to determine how scientists think the quality of Nobel Prize–winning discoveries has changed over the decades.

As a sample survey question, we might ask a physicist which was a more important contribution to scientific understanding: the discovery of the neutron (the particle that makes up roughly half the ordinary matter in the universe) or the discovery of the cosmic-microwave-background radiation (the afterglow of the Big Bang). Think of the survey as a round-robin tournament, competitively matching discoveries against each other, with expert scientists judging which is better.

For the physics prize, we surveyed 93 physicists from the world’s top academic physics departments (according to the Shanghai Rankings of World Universities), and they judged 1,370 pairs of discoveries. [...]

Collison and Nielsen did this decade-wise comparison of Nobel winning discoveries across nine decades spanning the years 1901-1990 [The authors note that "[the prize-winning] work is attributed to the year in which the discovery was made, not when the subsequent prize was awarded"].

Not surprisingly, the two following decades (1911-1930) get the best ratings.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Graduate students as slave labour

Let's begin with the post titled Cruelty in Academia from December 2006. That was about grad students in several Indian universities.

Fast forward to a US university in 2018, and we get this: Professor used students as servants. UMKC knew and didn’t stop him. The report by MarĂ¡ Rose Williams and Mike Hendricks is about Ashim Mitra, an Indian-origin professor in the University of Missouri at Kansas City:

The [Kansas City] Star found that over Mitra’s 24 years as a leader in the UMKC School of Pharmacy, the professor compelled his students to act as his personal servants. They hauled equipment and bused tables at his social events. They were expected to tend his lawn, look after his dog and water the house plants, sometimes for weeks at a time when he and his wife were away. [...]

Through Mitra’s hints and direct threats, students said they feared he would have their visas revoked if they did not comply with his demands. [...]

When Kuchimanchi once told Mitra he wouldn’t be a servant, “he threatened to kick me out of the university and force me to lose my visa and lose everything. That was his ammo. Either fall in line or you would be thrown out. You didn’t want to be in that situation where you have to go back home empty-handed.” So he continued to do what Mitra asked.

This part of the report nails it:

At best, critics say, Mitra’s demands violated ethical standards and university policy. At worst, a U.S. immigration official told The Star, coerced off-campus labors would be tantamount to human trafficking.

Thursday, November 15, 2018


Vijaysree Venkatraman has a nice article on Prof. G.N.Ramachandran's work at the University of Madras in the fifties and the sixties: How a Madras scientist won the global race in the ’50s to crack the structure of collagen. An excerpt:

First, he needed to find a source of collagen. The shark fin collagen from the biochemistry department on campus didn’t yield great images. Good quality pictures were essential to cracking the collagen puzzle, he knew. Leather, it occurred to GNR, was largely collagen.

Not far from the university campus was a new institute – the Central Leather Research Institute. GNR decided to pay his neighbours a visit. As he made his way there, the leather choices in GNR’s mind were Kangaroo Tail Tendon or Beef Achilles Tendon. The deputy director of CLRI turned out to be a kindred soul, happy to help a fellow scientist. The beef sample was easy to obtain locally. But if kangaroo collagen was going to yield the best diffraction images – as the scientific literature said – the deputy director promised to get GNR samples from Australia.

Thus, GNR found himself some purified marsupial collagen to work with.

The only information available on the fibrous protein collagen was this: one-third of its total amino acid content was glycine. Using this fact, looking at the pictures he had taken, GNR made an intuitive leap. [...]

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Infosys Prize ...

Congratulations to our colleagues and friends Prof. Navakanta Bhat and Prof. S.K. Satheesh on winning the Infosys Prize in Engineering and Computer Science, and Physical Sciences, respectively. They join Prof. Sriram Ramaswamy (PS, 2011), Prof. Jayant Haritsa (EaCS, 2014), and Prof. V. Kumaran (EaCS, 2016) in the list of prize winners from IISc.

This year's other winners are Prof. Kavita Singh (JNU) in Humanities, Roop Malik (TIFR) in Life Sciences, Prof. Nalini Anantharaman (University of Strassbourg) in Mathematics, Prof. Sendhil Mullainathan (University of Chicago) in Social Sciences.