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.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

India's Escape from Freedom: An article from the past

In December 1992 the situation in India was rather tense following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (December 6). There followed riots in many cities including Bombay - as it was then called - which peaked in early January 1992, with 60 deaths on a single day. Most of the affected were poor and homeless, many of whom left Bombay together with their meagre belongings. Many say the city changed forever from that day. In March 1993 the city was rocked by an awful series of bomb blasts and things got even worse.

Together with colleagues in TIFR, I volunteered to help at a "refugee camp" in Malad where doctors had gathered to provide medical assistance to the poorest slum dwellers - not those who had a small shack with a tin roof and some pots and pans, but those who had four bamboo poles connected up with plastic sheets. It was a grim experience. Not being a doctor I had little to do but observe the affected people. Injured or not, they all looked dazed and blank. With very good reason, for they had done nothing to deserve what had happened to them.

A month later in February 1993 I read Erich Fromm's book "Escape from Freedom" about the psychological roots of Nazism, written at a time when this ideology was still very much in existence. The ideas in this book inspired to write an article in the Indian context. It was published in a Bombay newspaper that has since folded, and I don't have a copy of the original, but have fortunately saved the tex file.

The situation in India today is somewhat different, but a few observations in the article may resonate. For example the "intol******" word featured even back then!

The link is here:

Sunday, November 22, 2015

How democracy works elsewhere

This evening the Mayor of Vienna hosted a reception for the delegates at The World Academy of Sciences meeting. It was held in the grand ballroom (or whatever it's really called) of the Rathaus, or City Hall. The room is five miles long and looks like this:

The food didn't risk winning any awards, but was quite OK. The wine was plentiful. The live jazz band played standards of Antonio Carlos Jobim, evoking an altogether different city from Vienna.

But the fun part was the ride back to the hotel. The taxi driver was shaped like a wine barrel and, as P.G. Wodehouse would have delicately put it, "pickled to the gills". I was slow to figure this out and risked life and limb by sitting in front, next to him. Here is the dialogue as I recall it:

Driver [while accelerating to the speed of light]: So how was our mayor?
Me (vaguely): Oh, he was great.
Other occupants of our taxi: The mayor wasn't there.
Me (embarrassed): Oh he wasn't? Well someone gave a speech. Maybe it was the Deputy Mayor.
Driver: The Deputy Mayor is a woman of Greek origin. She's called Vassilakoy.
Me: Well, it definitely wasn't her.
Driver: Was it a young man who spoke well?
Me: Yes that was it. He did speak well.
Driver: That's the second Deputy Mayor. You know how politics works, one from every party.
Me: Could you please try killing fewer pedestrians as you drive? [I didn't say that out loud, only in my mind]
Driver: He speaks well, right! Well he should. He makes 20,000 Euros a month. So, he really better speak well.
Me: [Eyes closed as we nearly crush a few cars in the next lane]
Driver: I probably pay one cent of his salary. So, if he doesn't speak well, I can go to him and say "hey you should speak well".
Me: Yes you should definitely do that. We've reached our hotel. [totter out and say a quiet prayer of thanks]

Friday, November 20, 2015

Albie Sachs and "soft vengeance"

The most moving lecture at the Vienna meeting of The World Academy of Sciences that I'm presently attending was a talk by Albert Sachs, anti-apartheid campaigner and former constitutional judge from South Africa. He has a colourful history. During the apartheid era he was exiled to England and later Mozambique, where in 1988 the South African security services placed a bomb in his car. He survived the attack but lost an arm as well as an eye. What happened after that is something to which I'll return below.

The "Grootboom dilemma" that you see in the title of his talk refers to the case of a poor woman called Mrs Grootboom who, along with several other shanty dwellers, was served an eviction notice because their shanties were on private land. The High Court was sympathetic to the shanty dwellers and ordered the government to provide them "rudimentary shelter irrespective of the availability of resources". On appeal, the Constitutional Court (with Albie Sachs as one of the judges) again sympathised with the shanty dwellers and ruled that "the state was obliged to take positive action to meet the needs of those living in extreme conditions of poverty, homelessness or intolerable housing". But at the same time, this court held that "land invasions" were not acceptable.

The above details are available on Wikipedia. But what moved me greatly during the talk was the question that Albie Sachs repeatedly raised and that had clearly exercised him as a judge: how could the state not intervene on behalf of people living in distressing conditions? And at the very same time, how could the state allow people to grab private property? The talk beautifully evoked the tension created by these two contrasting, but important, legal and constitutional concerns. What came across was that the judges did not blindly uphold one, or the other, of these concerns. Rather, they pro-actively convinced the government to find a compromise solution and ease the living conditions of the homeless as expeditiously as possible.

In the end though, Mrs Grootboom died before permanent housing could be found for her and her family. Albie Sachs said the image of her lying in her bed with a plastic sheet for a roof and the rains due to arrive, kept haunting him. "What have I done to deserve this?" he imagined her wondering.

I don't want to go into too many details of the impact this discussion had on me. But I will admit to an enormous feeling of shame that I personally have not focused much of my life on improving the lives of socially deprived people in India. I see it as a sign of the greatness of the South African courts, as well as the government, to have taken so seriously their obligations towards the poor and deprived.

Now let me return to the impact of the bomb. Albie Sachs recuperated in London and then returned to South Africa to help in drafting the new democratic constitution after which Nelson Mandela made him a judge of the Constitutional Court. On the way, he came up with the notion of "soft vengeance" which is in the title of his autobiography on which a  recent movie has also been based. This notion is based on the Gandhian view that "an eye for an eye will make the world blind". In the case of Sachs, this could have been taken quite literally - he had lost an eye, as well as an arm, and South African nationalists were vowing to avenge this on his behalf. But Sachs disagreed with vengeance based on violence. He felt that helping to bring in democracy and working for the poor were, in fact, his soft vengeance. I'll leave you with his words on the subject:

"The whole achievement of our wonderful new democratic constitution is soft vengeance. It totally smites the horror, the division, the hatreds, the separations of apartheid but it does so in a way that is benign and creative and humanising. It's a far more profound vengeance than doing to them what they did to us."

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Polarised optics

Polarisation can be useful in physics, but it's a danger to society. There is widespread discussion in India on this topic these days, but very little attempt to highlight what's so bad about it. So I'd like to contribute my bit to the discussion.

Though we often forget, in fact we all have multiple identities. Within India we have a regional identity, a linguistic identity, a gender identity, a religious identity, a class identity, a caste identity and a professional identity, to list just a bare minimum set. Some may deny having one or other of these identities (e.g. one sometimes hears the pious declaration "I don't believe in caste"), and that's also an available option. We are also free to add other identities, e.g. one's allegiance to a particular soccer team.

Our multiple identities force us to maintain an active thought-process. In principle we may want to uphold all our identities, but usually we focus on some of them and compromise on others. These compromises will vary from day to day and it takes mental work to figure out what is most important at any given time. I believe this is really what keeps human beings going. In contrast a single identity would enable us to be mentally lazy as we can just pick some representative of our group and follow everything they say. Our diverse identities also help us internally: they create interactions between multiple parts of ourselves that result in our becoming more complex, more subtle and more interesting.

Let me offer this thought-experiment: if a marathi female physicist and a kannada male physicist are both given a national award at the same time, they would be most likely to congratulate each other in a friendly spirit and try to set up a collaboration between their labs. The same people might get worked up over language if they live near the contentious border of their two states, or about gender if there is a debate about sexism in academia. And in all these cases they would have completely forgotten their religious identity, if any. As long as their disagreements remain within acceptable limits of behaviour, such a process is a very positive one and leads to a healthy society.

Another example comes from the world of Hindustani Classical Music, one of the greatest surviving art forms in the world and an essential feature in the soundtrack of India. Its evolving history led to repeated intersections between the lives of orthodox hindus and equally orthodox muslims. In those days it was particularly sacrilegious for a member of one community to live inside the house of another but guru-shishya-parampara often required this. It is documented that muslim teachers generously permitted their hindu students to run separate vegetarian kitchens within their houses. Both sides would follow their religions closely but not too closely: many of the muslim vocalists enjoyed a drink or three, and the caste hindus were not above "tasting" a morsel or two of "non-veg" from time to time. Through the slight cracks caused by such violations, a new shared identity seeped out and gave the world the most sublime and creative music.

To digress briefly, there is an amusing corollary. Given two people who have almost all identities in common, they are likely to squabble about the few remaining differences. It has been remarked that no regional hatred comes close to that felt by residents of one Swiss canton towards those of the neighbouring canton. Likewise, for Bengalis the terminal struggle can be between the relative supremacy of prawns or Ilish. But these squabbles dissipate instantly if a Swiss person meets, say, a German (with Bengalis the struggle never dissipates! Joke!!). For the same reason, if Martians decided to invade South Asia then all the fractious neighbours on the subcontinent would instantly make peace.

To return to the main point - what's going on in India, not for the first time, is an attempt to make us forget who or what we are in pursuit of a uniform religious identity. It is an attempt not just to make hindus feel more hindu, but also to make muslims feel more muslim. This is a singularly anti-national and unpatriotic activity, but it's very profitable for religious leaders and the politicians who are loyal to them. The more we assert our religious identities, the more these people can assert power and control over us. It's no secret that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are frequently quoted in an almost approving tone ("you make fun of our gods? Try doing that in Saudi Arabia"). Similar comments emerge with regularity from the American Bible Belt in pursuit of their fundamentalist brand of christianity. Religious fundamentalists may appear to dispute each other's truth but in reality they depend on each other for sustenance, as nicely highlighted in this article. They are successful in that all too many people are happy to suspend their better judgement and line up alongside.

Fortunately for the nation, even in today's atmosphere other identities continue to trump religion at regular intervals. For an eloquent example, read this recent open letter from a malayali. By itself it may seem a little polarising on regional lines, but when seen as a counterpoint to religious polarisation it serves an important purpose.

It's important to point out that we are not only seeing polarisation in favour of religious conservatism, but also in the opposite direction. One sees some liberals giving up their rational thought process, their commendable breadth and diversity, to stand up against communalism in a unipolar way. The moment a communal argument or statement rears its head, we start up a shouting chorus and link it (often incorrectly) to all previous/future occurrences of everything vaguely similar. Occasionally I see this happening in myself too and it makes me uncomfortable.

So I would like to take a moment to praise all my friends who have shown some diversity in their liberalism. For example I enjoy the noisy arguments about the return of national awards as a form of protest. In my view there really is no "right" or "wrong" about this. Some people have done so and it is their right, others can argue against it and they have valid points to make too. So liberals are divided over this, but united in their disapproval of communal/religious polarisation. This sort of nuanced range of views, much more than a unipolar stand of opposition, is what makes liberalism strong. I would also like to praise those conservatives who still hold shades of opinion rather than just aligning with whatever is going on. I'm not referring to the right-wing politicians who've recently sensed an opportunity to bash their own side, but to those who argue coherently that certain things this government is doing should be supported while other things should be opposed. That is the way many liberals including myself responded to the previous government, and indeed it is the only healthy response to any government in a democracy.

In conclusion let me say that I'm all for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and would like to facilitate a cleaner India in any way I can. At the same we must build a genuinely modern Indian society based on fraternity amid diversity, and we shouldn't accept anything less than that.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Emergent memories

ie emergency
On 26 June 1975, I woke up to find my father looking extremely worried and reading the newspaper. "Something very bad has happened", he said. A State of Emergency had been declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, opposition leaders arrested, democratic rights suspended and censorship imposed on the press. My mother looked worried but would not say anything. Soon thereafter both my parents advised me to be careful not to talk about politics at St Xavier's College, where I was studying for my B.Sc. Anyone could report anyone else and have them arrested and "put away" on the slightest pretext. I was also warned to be careful what I said on the phone, since phones could be tapped.

The press reacted to censorship with a certain spirit -- the Indian Express featured a blank editorial, which you can see on the left. The Times of India featured a fake obituary thus: "O'Cracy, D.E.M., beloved husband of T. Ruth, loving father of L.I. Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justicia, expired on June 26." I can vividly remember my father showing me that obit, and the thrill of horror I felt on reading something so delightfully subversive.

At the time, my father was a judge of the High Court at Bombay. He was less guarded at work than he had advised me to be, and made little secret of his dislike of Mrs Gandhi and her vile politics. Among other things, she had called upon the judiciary to be "forward-looking" and "committed" to her "progressive" cause. Presently I learned from my father that the High Court judges had stopped eating lunch together. One faction among them was now committed, the other refused to bend before the imperious dictator. They could no longer stand each others' company.

Things were already unpleasant in the judiciary before the Emergency. A few years earlier three Supreme Court judgements had gone against Mrs Gandhi, in each of which a certain Justice A.N. Ray had opined in her favour though he had not been able to prevail against his fellow judges. In 1973 Mrs Gandhi broke judicial tradition by appointing him Chief Justice of India, superseding three judges more senior than himself whose crime had been to deliver judgements that went against her.

Things came to a head in April 1976 when four of the five seniormost judges of the Supreme Court handed down a judgement in "A.D.M. Jabalpur vs. Shukla", better known as the Habeas Corpus case. The issue at hand was that people were being arrested and imprisoned without trial. Could they challenge their arrest in a court of law? The Supreme Court voted no, by a 4-1 majority. Thus, those arrested without valid cause were doomed to remain in jail with no legal recourse. 

The "no" voters in this case were Chief Justice A.N. Ray, along with Justices M.H. Beg, Y.V. Chandrachud and P.N. Bhagwati.  Justice Beg went on to make the following sickening statement: "We understand that the care and concern bestowed by the state authorities upon the welfare of detenues who are well housed, well fed and well treated, is almost maternal." But there was also a dissenter, Justice Hans Raj Khanna, who
eloquently wrote: "The Constitution and the laws of India do not permit life and liberty to be at the mercy of the absolute power of the Executive." He was duly punished for this. Following a pattern she had previously established, Mrs G. later elevated Justice Beg to the top position superseding Justice Khanna.

Wikipedia tells us:

"Both Justices Chandrachud and Bhagwati did much to subsequently atone for their majority opinions in the habeas corpus case"

but is touchingly shy about telling us what exactly they did by way of atonement.

My father was shattered at the betrayal, by Supreme Court judges, of the Indian Constitution and the principles of democracy. Meanwhile a smaller version of Delhi played out in the Bombay High Court, where my father himself had annoyed certain members of Mrs Gandhi's coterie, notably one Ramrao Adik, by failing to show "committment" to Mrs Gandhi in his judgements. In return, Mrs G had him transferred to the Kolkata High Court. I quote from a 2013 article in the Hindu:

"Mass transfers of 16 independent High Court judges, including A.P. Sen, Chinnappa Reddy, B.J. Divan, Sankalchand Sheth, J.R. Vimadalal and P.M. Mukhi, from their parent High Courts were made."

I feel proud to see my father described as "independent", though I must also admit the author of the above article was his close friend.

The rest of this story is painful so I'll be brief. The threat of vindictive transfer, coupled with the appalling Supreme Court judgement and its impact on the morale of the judiciary, affected my father's health and he suffered a heart attack in June 1976, followed by a lengthy period in hospital, subsequent release and then a final attack that took him away forever on September 6, 1976. He did not live to see the end of the Emergency.

I should have written this story much earlier. What's motivated me to do so now is the rubbish going around that those who protest against today's lynchings and bigotry and blame today's government for it, were silent during the Emergency. Well in our family we were not silent during the Emergency, so please do shut up.

P.S. The full article from which I briefly quoted above was written two years ago. It recalls events during the Emergency in the context of the UPA-II government's proposal to appoint a Judicial Appointments Commission. Three days ago this proposal was shot down by the Supreme Court, and there seems to be a confrontation brewing between the present (NDA) government and the judiciary.