Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Notes from Japan 3: Language

It's hard to spend any time in Japan and not get involved, at least a little bit, with the language. Spoken Japanese is melodious and quite easy to recognise and pronounce. Possibly the first thing a visitor would notice is the abundance of "gozaimasu", a suffix which indicts respect for the person being addressed. The last "u" is virtually silent, so it sounds more like "gozaai-maaaas" with the last syllable always stretched out. You can say "ohayo gozaimasu" which it taken to mean "good morning", though more literally it means "it's morning", plus "respect". You can say "arigato gozaimasu" which implies thanks plus respect. There is a kind of past-tense version which is "gozaimashita", which indicates that you are being shown respect when your meeting is over. So if you are leaving a restaurant, or a bus, you can say "arigato gozaimashita". This is also stretched out and sounds like "gozaai-maash-taa".

It goes without saying that most things in Japan happen in Japanese, and English translations are available quite rarely. This is less surprising when one realises (and many English-speaking visitors fail to realise this) that tourists from China, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong make up 70% of all tourists to Japan. Given that a typical Japanese restaurant is a small mom-and-pop affair with 10-15 seats, you can hardly expect them to have menus in 4-5 different languages. Of course in tourist areas, and in large restaurants, there is inevitably an English menu. Kyoto city buses have announcements in English, as do fast trains. Somewhat to my surprise, the foreigners' section at the Sakyo Municipal Ward where I went to register my Japanese residency, did not particularly know English, but that too is explained by the statistic I offered above.

As one might guess, the sheer helpfulness and courtesy of Japanese people by and large obviates any problem that a tourist might face. And if you are here long enough you start to absorb a lot of phrases. The ones I have committed to memory are those recited on buses. I'm not sure how it works elsewhere in Japan, but Kyoto buses are quite a production. The driver wears a collar microphone and talks to the passengers continuously while driving. Every time the bus is about to halt, at a bus stop or even a traffic signal, he will say "tomarimasu" (to indicate "I am stopping"). As I explained above, this is pronounced "tomari-maaaas" and the drivers seem to enjoy lengthening the last syllable. When it starts off again he says what sounds like "tokimasu" or "gokimasu" or possibly "ikimasu", I haven't been able to figure it out. I know that "ikimasu" means to go. And when a stop is anticipated, a woman's recorded voice will say "Tsugiwa [stop name]. Tomarimasu. Tobira-ga hiraka made, sono made omachi, kudasai". Which very literally means "Next [stop name]. Stopping. Door opening until, then until, wait please." The whole thing is very charming and just filled with courtesy and kindess.

In Japan you exit the bus from the front and pay (or show your pass) to the driver before exiting. Some drivers will thank every customer getting off. At Kyoto station the entire bus empties out very quickly, with most passengers having a pass that they just wave at the driver. Particularly the more elderly drivers, who adhere conscientiously to the Japanese code of politeness, get all worked up and shout "hai, arigato gozaimashita, arigato gozaimashita, arigato gozaimashita" at the rate of one per second for about forty repetitions. It's truly amazing because a single generic "thank you" will not do, each passenger has to be acknowledged individually.

One ritual that I like happens at the start of a meal, even in a university cafeteria. Everyone solemnly does a "namaste" to the food and says "itadakimasu" (let's eat) before starting. We Indians do this too, at least the more traditional ones. But I've never seen it in a cafeteria context.

Speaking Japanese is far far easier than reading it. Perhaps another blog post on the written language will be appropriate, at another time.

To conclude, there is the legend that Japanese people never say "no" and therefore, if you are confused about directions and ask someone "is that the direction in which I should go?", they will reply "yes, and then please turn around and go in the other direction".

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Notes from Japan 2: Looking inwards

If India became seriously rich as a result of several decades' concentrated hard work, it would look like Japan in many ways. For example I live in a locality of Kyoto which is made up of tiny lanes with tiny houses crammed next to each other, which brings to mind (but only symbolically) the lanes and by-lanes of a Mumbai slum. It is more than likely that these neighbourhoods were very poor at one time. The rapid industrialisation of Japan, and consequent rising affluence, led to a decline in population growth and a gentrification of the poorer areas.

What is interesting is that this gentrification did not (at least in Kyoto) follow the path of building skyscrapers everywhere. Rather, the entire area east of the Kamo river - Higashiyama and Sakyo districts - is low-rise. The lanes are scrupulously tidy and each house has a microscopic front yard with a bonsai tree or some rocks, or tiny garden gnomes, or all of the above. In some cases there is just enough space to hold a kei car, while the most affluent houses that are lucky to be on wider lanes will display a Crown Athlete, a hybrid car the size of a small airplane. (My own lane is so narrow that a taxi cannot make it in.) The atmosphere in these areas is serene, excessively so. On the first 15 minutes of my 20-minute walk to work, I typically see one or two human beings, sometimes none.  After 7 PM there is essentially no chance of seeing anyone on the street.

The serenity is one evidence of a very important fact about Japanese culture - the emphasis on looking inward, focusing on one's own duties, keeping to oneself. To be sure, bustling Osaka and Tokyo (and even downtown Kyoto) are far from serene, but if you look carefully at the gigantic crowds you see that most people are quietly occupied with themselves. Alternatively, they are occupied with being a nuclear family: typically a young couple with one child, immersed in its own world though interacting with others from time to time. This is not intended as a negative judgement, simply a fact of Japanese life. Presumably it originates in the ancient Shinto religion and has been reinforced by Buddhism.

In contrast, in India the keyword is to busy oneself with everyone else's business. And actually, this too is not intended as a negative judgement. The warm mutual engagement of people in every locality in India is what makes it such a cheerful place. Neighbours exchange food, front doors are kept open, privacy is unknown. The result is an exuberant culture that provides a fascinating (and, for me, essential) change from the orderliness of Japan.

A dose of looking inwards would, however, be very beneficial if India is to prosper. I would love it if the "bastis" (shanty towns) of all our cities were transformed into neat little localities of the Kyoto type -- retaining the narrow winding lanes, but with proper hygiene, electricity and sanitation. It can be done, but requires both vision from above and self-discipline from within.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Notes from Japan 1: Food and drink.

This blog has been dormant for nearly six months. Now that I'm into the last week of a 3-month visit to Japan, I feel this is a good time to write down a series of notes. In these, I'll try to summarise various features of Japan that I found striking and that had an impact on me

One of the topics that always comes up in Japan is food, so let's start with that. No two things in the universe differ in conception as much as Japanese and Indian food. Some of the differences are self-evident: Indians use strong flavours and cook food for a long time, while Japanese use subtle flavours and cook food quickly and lightly, or not at all. When it comes to meat and fish (what we call "non-veg"), Indians have a very restricted palate. While 70% of Indians are "non-vegetarian", most of them eat eggs and chicken, a smaller number eat mutton while coastal Indians eat a limited variety of fish. Beef and pork are also eaten in India, but both are subject to taboos by different communities and in consequence they are banned in the cafeterias of government institutes (in practice, neither is served in virtually any cafeteria that caters to a diverse population). I should mention that in India, alcohol too is banned from the campuses of government institutes and also many private institutions.

Contrast this with Japan - there are three distinct types of eel eaten here: unagi, anago and hamo. Dozens of varieties of fish are sold in supermarkets, along with octopus, squid, shrimp and roe (fish eggs). Popular meats include pork, beef, chicken (but not lamb or goat, to my knowledge). Occasionally one also finds horse meat, or -- at the other end of the scale -- crickets and other insects. Japan has dedicated restaurants for offal (called horumon or sometimes "hormone") which, we are told, includes esophagus, heart, pulmonary artery, uterus, mammary, diaphragm, pancreas, intestine and rectum. The average Indian, even a hardened fan of "non-veg", is no doubt finding this hard to read! But it gets more intense. At a sushi restaurant in downtown Kyoto, a signature dish is a kind of fish that is kept swimming in a tank and taken out only after the order is placed. Its meat is sliced into sashimi and the skeleton, with head and tail intact, is mounted artistically on the same plate. Your host will then point out that the tail of this skeleton keeps gently waving -- a sign that the fish was alive until very recently. After you finish the sashimi you can ask for the skeleton to be deep-fried, it is then crunchy and absolutely delicious.

No doubt, one can spin the above into a tale of a cruel populace that lacks respect for living creatures. But I'm afraid Indians would have a hard time to convincingly do that. While they are alive, I suspect Japanese animals (of all shapes and sizes) are treated a lot better than their counterparts in India. Given that food here is lightly cooked and often raw, hygiene also has to be of the highest standard.Anyway I don't wish to attack or defend anyone's way of life. I just find it remarkable that there are very few taboo foods here.

Vegetables and fruits are, of course, a bit of a casualty in Japan. A single large eggplant or tomato can cost as much as a filet of salmon (say, 3 US dollars), while just yesterday I saw large peaches in Nishiki Market for the equivalent of 8 US dollars (over 500 Indian rupees) each. Personally, I'm looking forward to resuming my high-fruit-content diet as soon as I arrive in Pune next weekend!

One striking fact is that the north-east of India as well as all the "far east" countries including Japan, China, Korea and Southeast Asia seem to include a large variety of animals and seafood in their diet. They are also similar in another regard: unlike the middle-eastern and Indian cultures (and some Anglo-Saxon cultures too), alcohol is quite simply a normal thing. It can be served pretty much anywhere and on any occasion. Advertisements for restaurants often show a nuclear Japanese family sitting at a table with bottles of beer in front of the parents and ice-creams in front of the children. Alcohol can be consumed together by, say, faculty and students. At my farewell party in Kyoto, held in front of a seminar room, liquor strong enough to power a small airplane was shared by all amid growing noise and hilarity. A faculty member approvingly told me the students would continue drinking until all the liquor was finished, often till 2 or 3 AM. In restaurants where Japanese people go to drink, customers become noisier and more drunk as the evening wears on, but the "predictable" outcome does not happen. There is no molesting of other customers or aggressive behaviour to strangers.

Admittedly there is a slight change since 1990 when I first came to Japan: today it is not possible to dispense alcohol (or cigarettes) from a vending machine unless you swipe a card that proves you are an adult. So under-age drinking is certainly frowned upon. But for adults, the sky is the limit. By the way, I don't claim there is no alcoholism in Japan or that it isn't considered a problem. Just that there is absolutely no impediment to consume. In sharp contrast, very strong impediments have been placed in the way of smoking, another Japanese tradition. It is  now illegal to smoke on the street in Kyoto and this is quite strictly enforced. This is not because cigarettes are "taboo", but because of the very clear health implications.

From a conservative Indian point of view (not mine, of course) the high levels of meat and alcohol consumption should have caused Japan to turn into an immoral, reckless, debauched, violent society. And nothing can be farther from the truth - indeed everyone knows this is a civilised, hard-working nation where the creation of wealth co-exists with a love of intellectual pursuit, aesthetics and art. Japan boasts 22 Nobel laureates, not at all bad for a nation whose population is a little larger than that of Maharashtra. And India has a four times higher rate of gun-related deaths per capita than Japan. If you are looking for a country that has unrestrained vigilante lynch mobs, then only one out of India and Japan fits the bill and I'll leave the correct answer as an exercise.

So these are some observations for every Indian, left-wing or right-wing, liberal or conservative, to chew upon - or swig - as per their preference.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

How many wrongs make a right?

The proposition "two wrongs don't make a right" is readily accepted but I haven't met anyone who really believes it in practice. Most of us, rather than deciding for ourselves what we consider right and wrong, tend to focus on a definite wrong that bothers us enormously, and then conclude that the opposite must be right.

As I pointed out to a mathematically inclined friend this morning, "two wrongs make a right" defines the group Z2, and this naturally extends to "N wrongs make a right" which describes the cyclic group ZN. People may quibble about why a beautiful unimodular complex number like an Nth root of unity could possibly be called a "wrong" in the first place, but we'll let that pass. The point is that life is not based on any cyclic group. Wrongs accumulate and they never cancel each other out.

A fair person will observe that Israelis and Palestinians have both committed multiple wrongs during their conflict. The same is true at various times of the US and the USSR, the US and Iran, Iran and Iraq, Irish Protestants and Catholics, Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalas and (I hesitate to say this for fear of a jail sentence, but will say it anyway) India and Pakistan. It's also true of left- and right-wingers in today's India. Only a person who has no observational powers, or who has put those powers on hold for some reason, could fail to see that the ongoing political flare-up in India between students and the government involves wrongs on both sides.

This brings up two big questions: (i) between two wrongs, shouldn't one focus on the greater wrong? (ii) since wrongs tend to perpetuate each other, doesn't the fault lie with whoever committed the "first" wrong? Anyone who can answer these questions has figured out life's problems extraordinarily well and must be able to sleep peacefully at night. I, however, struggle with both questions and it costs me a fair bit of my sleep. By now I've given up on finding complete answers and I'm not sure such answers exist at all.

On an apparently unrelated note, I recently watched Bridge of Spies and it moved me to reflect about the cold war between the US and the USSR. When I reached the US in 1976 as a Ph.D. student, the cold war was very much a reality. Communist sympathisers were considered "anti-American" and publicly reviled. This extended to anyone seen as "anti-American", a catch-all phrase for those who opposed the government or its policies in any way. I came in at the tail-end of this phenomenon, which had peaked in the 1950's (McCarthy era) and again in the 1960's (anti-Vietnam-war movement). The latter period was marked by frequent conflicts between university students and the US government, which brought the police and army on to campuses on several occasions.

Volumes have been written about these periods but I'm not a historian, and I know the history of that period primarily through rock music - of which I'm a huge fan. An epic song that highlights the student-government conflicts of the 1960's is For What It's Worth, penned by Stephen Stills and originally performed by his band Buffalo Springfield (the incredible Neil Young was part of the band and is briefly seen in this video looking remarkably young!). Here's a relevant excerpt from the song (the full lyrics are here):

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking' their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
It goes on to say:

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away

(for rock music fans, I believe Neil Young played the superb "paranoid" guitar sequence during the first line of this verse).

One point which is largely forgotten nowadays is that student demonstrations on US campuses grew increasingly violent during that period. On the one hand there is an iconic image (seen below) of a student showing flowers to angry gun-toting policemen:

but there was also another side that is rarely admitted to in rock songs. I quote from this website:

However, increasingly violent protests - while still representing only a small minority of the movement - ended up alienating most Americans from the anti-war cause as well. Government agents would routinely infiltrate anti-war groups, encouraging them to  use violence in order to marginalize the movement further. 

The anger and violence built up until a peak was reached in 1970 with the Kent State Shootings in which four unarmed student protestors were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard on the campus of Kent State University. This incident is commemorated in another great rock song, Ohio by Neil Young, who was by now part of a supergroup with Crosby, Stills and Nash. The video features chilling visuals of the event and ends with the statement "No one was ever held responsible for the deaths of the four students". Neil Young's song has the powerful lines:

What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground? 
How can you run when you know?

The backdrop to the shootings is interesting and not so widely known. On May 1 1970, a campus demonstration was organised to oppose President Nixon's expansion of the Vietnam war into Cambodia. A major campus building was set on fire and there were other acts of violence during the demonstration. The next day, as the Wikipedia entry tells us, Governor Rhodes of Ohio responded thus:

During a press conference at the Kent firehouse, an emotional Governor Rhodes pounded on the desk and called the student protesters un-American, referring to them as revolutionaries set on destroying higher education in Ohio. "We've seen here at the city of Kent especially, probably the most vicious form of campus oriented violence yet perpetrated by dissident groups. They make definite plans of burning, destroying, and throwing rocks at police, and at the National Guard and the Highway Patrol. This is when we're going to use every part of the law enforcement agency of Ohio to drive them out of Kent. We are going to eradicate the problem. We're not going to treat the symptoms. And these people just move from one campus to the other and terrorize the community."

He added:

"They're the worst type of people that we harbor in America. Now I want to say this. They are not going to take over [the] campus. I think that we're up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America."

By May 4 the protests had escalated. 2000 students gathered on campus despite a University ban on the protest. Students threw rocks at the National Guardsmen who were still on their campus and taunted them as "pigs". Soon thereafter, the National Guard opened fire and not only killed four students but injured 9 more including one who was paralysed for life. The horrifying situation came to an end when geology professor Glenn Frank urged students to vacate the area with the following short speech:

I don't care whether you've never listened to anyone before in your lives. I am begging you right now. If you don't disperse right now, they're going to move in, and it can only be a slaughter. Would you please listen to me? Jesus Christ, I don't want to be a part of this ..

The event led to a nationwide strike by a staggering four million students. Today it is widely considered a tragedy and a blot on the history of the United States.

So how many wrongs made a right? Clearly there were wrongs on both sides. Protesting students went far beyond their guaranteed right of freedom of expression and indulged in violence. Whether there were infiltrators or not, it's clear that students did many unacceptable things over a period of many years.

In this recorded interview after the Kent State Shootings, President Richard Nixon started by saying "We think we've done a rather good job in Washington" in handling similar protests. He then went on to basically blame rock-throwing students and defend the National Guard, and ended with a brief U-turn by showing some sympathy for the dead students and vowing to deal better with campus protests. This was Nixon's standard slippery, double-faced behaviour (if you don't believe me, listen to the interview). The Vietnam war came to an end in 1975 with the humiliating escape of the Americans from Saigon. By that time Nixon had resigned in disgrace as he faced impeachment for the criminal Watergate scandal. He has gone down in American history as a crooked trickster.

I'm not sure what universal lessons can be extracted from this story. If the Kent State students had not protested violently, the shootings may not have taken place. But history has judged their protest as sincere, motivated by opposition to an unjust and pointless war. It was the government's even more violent and disproportionate response that alienated its own citizens, many of whom were not Vietnam war protestors to start with. So this particular incident ended badly for four students, but even more badly for the US government and the image of the nation.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Laughing Buddha

I'm taking the opportunity to restart my blog while on vacation in Thailand. Each time I visit this country, I'm impressed by the role that religion seems to play in daily life. Perhaps there is also a darker side that I don't know about, but my impression as a visitor is that Thai people follow a gentle religious practice focused on simplicity and personal responsibility. They are primarily Buddhists, but have great respect for Hindu gods and scriptures. Indeed the Hindu epic Ramayana has been transformed into the national epic of Thailand, the "Ramakien", written under the supervision of Kings Rama I and II in the 18th and 19th century. In this story Hindu gods and personages acquire Thai-style names, for example the names Vishnu and Brahma translate to Witsanu and Phrom, while Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughna are Lak, Phrot and Satrut. Clothes, weapons and natural surroundings have likewise been converted to the Thai context, but the the essential narrative remains intact.

Interestingly the Ramakien was translated back into Sanskrit by Prof. Satya Vrat Shastri, who according to Wikipedia "has written many important poetic works in Sanskrit, the most important being his rendition from Royal Thai into Sanskrit, of the Thai version of the Ramayana, viz., Sri-rama-kirti-maha-kavyam, upon royal request, and with a Foreword by the Princess of Thailand". He is presently an honorary professor at the Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies at India's leading anti-national university.

Thai religious practice can pose quite a challenge to orthodox Hindus from India. In Thailand it is possible to be devout and still believe in the right of women to work. Indeed Thai women are said to constitute 47% of the workforce, and this shows clearly on the streets. As far as food and drink go, devout Thai people eat pork, chicken, duck, beef, many varieties of seafood, as well as insects like water beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, bee larvae and ant eggs (all of which I saw being sold in the local market) plus of course a generous quota of vegetables and fruits. Alcohol is freely available and can be bought just about anywhere. So the impact of religion does not seem to go anywhere near inhibiting people's consumption of the fun things in life (well, maybe ant eggs are fun for those who eat them). I don't think orthodox Muslims care too much for Thai habits either. The southern and predominantly Muslim part of Thailand has an ongoing insurgency which has apparently transformed itself from separatist to jidhadist over the last couple of decades. This is a complicated story, as the insurgents seem particularly annoyed with moderate Muslims from Thailand and Malaysia.

In the last few days I've visited half a dozen Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai. Some are extremely popular with tourists but others are quite deserted and one of them was completely empty (in Thailand this means no security guard either). Each of them has signs urging you to sit or kneel if you are near the front, partly to not block the view for others, and partly I suppose for devotion. Personally I'm a great fan of religious devotion, as long as it's my own choice and doesn't come with any annoying baggage (I'm also an atheist but I understand the Buddha is fine with that). So in each of these temples I've been sitting down and enjoying the silence, punctuated by the gentlest tinkling of tiny bells placed at strategic corners, and praying to the Buddha for enlightenment to descend on my countrymen. When He responds (as I'm sure He will), India will give up its modern, mean-spirited, bullying, violent and materialistic approach to religion. Each Indian will be allowed their own religous practice and their own choice of food. Religion will help us be more self-disciplined, organised and responsible. We will re-read our scriptures and realise their deep meaning. Religion will go back to being a gentle and personal activity, and India will turn once more into a place of peace and contentment.

One thing puzzles me, though -- while these thoughts were going through my mind, I noticed that the Buddha seemed to be laughing.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Leave those kids alone

When I was 12, my school decided to hold aptitude tests to help the students determine what career they would be suited to pursue. I did quite well in overall aptitude, but completely failed to show the desired result -- a strong preference for science over the arts, or vice versa. The priest in charge of this test looked rather blankly at me and said I could do either one. So I went to my parents and asked them what to do. Their response was immediate: "you decide".

It was a long time before I understood how unique my parents were in this regard. Whether it was a matter of spending evenings out with friends, or spending my (very limited) pocket money, or making career choices, the response was pretty much the same: "you decide". But at no point did I feel they were washing their hands of my problems. I sensed that they cared a lot, and both of them were known for their strong opinions on everything, but they held back trying to influence me so that I would feel responsible for my own choices.

There was one caveat, though: I was made to understand that if I wanted money from my parents (even as pocket money) then I had to be accountable to them for it. One day, early in my undergraduate days, I managed to get a National Science Talent Scholarship which paid a small monthly stipend. My parents promptly suggested I stop taking pocket money from them and use this scholarship to pay for my college lunches and other small expenses. I was outraged -- was it not my right as a college student staying at home, to get pocket money from them? Shouldn't I be banking my scholarship money for future use? My mother's response was "you'll thank us for this later on". And she was absolutely right. There is hardly anything that can beat the feeling of being independent. Though let's not exaggerate here, I was staying at home and eating dinner and breakfast at home so I wasn't quite independent in any true sense. Still the idea stayed -- if I spend my parents' money then I'm accountable to them, if I spend my own then I don't owe any explanations. I think this made me more responsible with both kinds of money.

Another peculiarity of my parents was that they rarely took my side, or propped me up, in social situations. If I was playing with cousins who were visiting our house and a conflict arose over toys, it was "let them have the toys, they are our guests". If the same conflict arose when we were in their house, it was "let them have the toys, we are their guests". This was so infuriating at the time. But when I look at kids whose parents followed the opposite dictum: "yes darling you shall have the toys and I will fight everyone in town for your right to have them" -- well, these kids have largely become psychological wrecks, and it's no surprise. Nothing can lower your self-esteem more than to know that whatever you possess is due to parental assistance and not due to any effort coming from within yourself.

These days there is a meme circulating on Facebook that completely gets on my nerves. Here is a screenshot:

This obviously comes from parents obsessed with themselves and their own self-importance. It would be funny if it were not so tragic. I've encountered so many examples of children ruined by this attitude. There was a boy in my school whose mother's obsession was to make him a genius. She would contact successful students who were a year ahead of him (myself, in particular), copy their notes and pressurise her son to learn everything before his year even started. The inevitable result was that he was the only student in the entire school to get a third division in his final year. Later I learned that he had died from drug abuse.

Most cases are less dramatic, but I have seen a bunch of kids growing up around me -- children of friends and relatives -- and the style of parenting is quite visible on the children. To be sure, important roles are also played by genetics, by the environment outside the home and even by epigenetics, so we can hardly blame (or credit) parents for everything. And yet, when things don't seem quite right with a growing child, there is so often a readily visible parental obsession behind it.

One particular model that I think is very damaging (and is the opposite of the model I grew up with) is that of the family as a fortress. In this view, the family is organised on the basis of strongly expressed loyalties. Each member publicly gushes about the other. Mothers say how wonderful their children are. Fathers post pictures of themselves with their "brood" as though somehow they are their patron saints and benefactors. Children are careful not to question the model because they would pay a price for disloyalty. Instead they quickly learn to exploit the system by paying lip service to it. If any member shows a weakness, the rest of the family steps in to cover it up. It all sounds lovely up to a point, but the missing ingredient -- individual responsibility for oneself -- ensures that this is a fragile and damaging arrangement. In the long run it rarely fools anyone outside and doesn't much benefit those inside either.

To close on a positive note, I would like to tell a story about my mother. Once a neighbour came over and gushed about how her son had scored 72% in the exams. She went on and on about his brilliance for ages. My mother smiled patiently through it all but said nothing. When the neighbour left, I exploded: "Ma, why didn't you tell her that I got 95% in the same exam?". There was a hint of pride on my mother's face when she replied "We don't tell other people these things, dear".

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


I recently gave a talk titled "Goals, Models, Frameworks and the Scientific Method" at a leading Indian institution. This was based on my Current Science article with the same title, which you are welcome to read here. In the article and talk, I attempted to de-confuse the word "theory" into three distinct words: goal, model and framework. Then I explained that "string theory", my field of research, should be thought of as a framework rather than a model.

After the talk, I met the former Director of this Institute over tea and he pointed out that there had been many books and articles that were very critical of string theory. I told him that my talk and article were partly a response to these. He smiled pleasantly and replied "Anyway, I take some pleasure in the discomfiture of string theorists". I'll confess that his comment left me a little discomfited at that moment. But as things turned over in my head, I realised it was a nice illustration of my favourite German word, "Schadenfreude", which translates as "pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others" (actually I have other favourite German words, like "Weltschmerz" and "Bremsstrahlung", not to mention "Schweinhund", but we'll leave these for another day.)

Wikipedia tells us that this pleasure is particularly acute when the unfortunate person is seen to have deserved their misfortune. And I suppose we all indulge in a bit of Schadenfreude, myself included. It can be quite harmless and enjoyable. For example, today the nation is enjoying the spectacle of Congress workers managing to burn themselves while attempting to burn an effigy of the Prime Minister. This is such fun! But when the desire to see one's rivals suffer takes root in organisations, communities or countries, and outstrips the desire for everyone to succeed together, then there is something to worry about.

Here is an interesting example from academia. The Superconducting Supercollider planned in Texas some decades ago would certainly have found the Higgs particle (and perhaps others) much before the LHC, had it been completed. The project was aborted in 1993 when the US Congress refused to fund it, following Congressional hearings in which - in particular - the project was opposed by physicists in disciplines other than high-energy physics. In this Scientific American article, David Appell writes:

When the SSC was finally canceled, the late Rustum Roy, professor of materials sciences at The Pennsylvania State University, expressed his joy to the New York Times. “This comeuppance for high-energy physics was long overdue.” Roy said.

And here is what Steven Weinberg, in this article for the New York Review of Books, says about the same event:

I took little pleasure from the observation that none of the funds saved by canceling the SSC went to other areas of science.

Even though Weinberg comes off looking much better, one can't help suspecting there was Schadenfreude on both sides. But no scientist seems to have gained from the cancellation -- and scientific progress lost a number of years.

On this subject I have a small personal tale to tell. In the mid 1990's I was visiting the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton and had the chance to dine with the legendary Freeman Dyson (he's still going strong at the age of 92, but at the time of this story he was a mere lad of 72 years!). Dyson was boasting about having successfully opposed the SSC. "Colliding tables and chairs! You can't possibly make any sense out of it" he declaimed at dinner. His point was that hadron colliders inherently produce a huge mess of particles and it would be impossible to spot the new one, if any. So he believed a proton-proton collider at those energies simply could not uncover the Higgs. Unfortunately for Dyson, the LHC is precisely such a hadron collider and it has worked spectacularly well. So I'll confess to some Schadenfreude about Prof. Dyson's incorrect prediction.

As for the discomfiture of string theorists, if that brings a ray of light into anyone's humdrum lives, we really shouldn't grudge them.