Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Net? I own it!

Here is an anecdote I heard years ago about a senior French physicist. He came from an extremely wealthy family that had endowed academic institutions and owned many businesses including a bank. He was also the head of a lab in Paris.

Now his lab hired a young Russian physicist - around the time the Soviet Union started to collapse and many Russians left for Western Europe and the US. However, at that time West European institutions were rather wary of Russians and so this young physicist was given a merry run-around by the French bank where he was trying to open an account. In desperation he went to the head of his lab and said "could you do something, this bank is refusing to open an account for me". The HOD responded: "This bank? I OWN this bank!". And so the account was opened.

Something vaguely similar happened to me when I got to Gex recently. I was worried whether my landlord (whom I had contacted in response to an ad on the CERN housing service website) would know enough about the internet so that my connection would be up and running right away. I certainly didn't fancy long weekends in the French countryside disconnected from the "real" world.

Well, it turns out my landlord not only knows something about the internet, he's actually one of the inventors of the World Wide Web! You can find more information about him here.

Monday, July 28, 2008

I'm from India and I expect a clean desk!

I'm in Geneva for a month, at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) where the world's most gigantic particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, is approaching its final stages. It seems likely it will be turned on while I'm here, quite a thrill from a historic point of view ("I was there when they turned it on"). In practical terms though, there's little difference between the ongoing tests and those that will take place after it's functional. Data collection will start much later, and interpretation even later than that.

During this month I'll try to keep up a thread on LHC on this blog - the gossip one hears as well as a bit of the physics involved. But today I'd like instead to comment on Switzerland, or rather Geneva which is not exactly the same thing (as the Zurichers would surely point out).

I've been here many times before (even lived here for a year in 1990). But when I arrived day before yesterday, my first striking impression of Geneva airport was this. I'm in a lift waiting to go up when an Englishman wheels his trolley in. We go up in silence. He wrinkles up his nose, glares at the floor of the lift and says "dirty". He's quite right, it smells of urine. As he wheels his trolley out, his wife smiles and says "thank you" to me (I have no idea why - perhaps for not peeing in the lift?).

This is Switzerland??

Though the Theory Department of CERN is in Switzerland, I'm staying in the town of Gex, in France. For those who don't know, the border in these parts is mostly a formality. You drive down a road and presently see a booth labelled "Douane" and/or "Zoll" ("Customs") for the country you're leaving, and another similar booth for the country you're entering, but no human being is visible in either booth. You just keep driving (slowly, otherwise someone comes out of the booth and yells at you) and you've changed countries.

Actually I came out of Geneva airport on the French side. That was fun. First I exited to the Swiss side, then got my baggage, then went up a floor, then entered a door labelled "France" where - again - no human being was to be seen at the desk, and 10 feet later, I was in France.

Now it used to be that Switzerland was expensive and France was cheap. Also Switzerland was clean and France was dirty. But neither stereotype can be relied on any more, it seems. France is horrendously expensive (and the Euro is 67 rupees or 1.6 dollars!!). And, from what I've seen so far, spotlessly clean. I spent all weekend wondering, without reaching a conclusion, what it is about us Indians. We admire spotless cleanliness of public places when we see it. Kiti chhaan aahe! Therefore we do understand what it is. But as for doing anything to have it in our own land ... no no no! Spit! Thook!!

And then this morning I came to work at CERN and, much as I appreciate their kind hospitality and excellent academic atmosphere, Switzerland shocked me again. The toilets stank (I mean it). My office desk hadn't been dusted, apparently, in the 18 years since I was here on sabbatical. The window blinds are covered with grime. The floor tiles ditto. I actually went to the loo, got a bunch of paper towels and washed my own desk, peeling off layers of dirt. I imagined going to a secretary and saying "Excuse me, I'm from India and I'm used to having a clean desk to work on!".

But that would be too much. Maybe the cleaning budget at CERN went to help out the LHC which has had severe cost overruns. And maybe some drunk "used" the airport lift. But in general, everything's beautifully clean here on both sides of the border, there are flowers everywhere, the sun is shining and the hills are alive with the sound of music - rather than the sound of mucous!

Friday, July 25, 2008

I deceive, therefore I am

I'll start by quoting the following description of "sophistry" verbatim from Wikipedia:

"A sophism is taken as a specious argument used for deceiving someone. It might be crafted to seem logical while actually being wrong, or it might use difficult words and complicated sentences to intimidate the audience into agreeing, or it might appeal to the audience's prejudices and emotions rather than logic, i.e. raising doubts towards the one asserting, rather than his assertion. The goal of a sophism is often to make the audience believe the writer or speaker to be smarter than he or she actually is..."

Sadly so many of my fellow-countrymen, in the grip of emotions stronger than their logic, tend to fall easily for such arguments. As for the people who put forward the arguments, the last line of the above quote gives away their motivation. My stand on sophistry is not particularly sophisticated: whenever I see it coming, I turn tail and run for my life. Well, sometimes I don't run fast enough and then it comes up and enfolds me in its tentacles and before I know it, I've wasted days and days trying to debate with people who can't, or won't, think straight.

But this post isn't about me, rather it's about today's newspaper (HT) which reports a nice little example of sophistry in politics. Under the headline "Cremations for free from August 1", the paper describes a proposal of this city's Municipal Corporation which, in its original form, would have made cremations free for families below the poverty line, but has now been revised to apply to everyone. Explaining the rationale, a BJP corporator came up with this gem: "The [Municipal Corporation] should not distinguish between the rich and the poor".

What a heart-warming resonance this line has (assuming you're alive, I suppose!). And how entirely free of logic.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Theory of Every Thing

The ongoing Monsoon Workshop in String Theory at TIFR has provided many amusing little comments for me to recount. If I forget most of them before I can blog about them, it's because the science has been so inspiring.

I'll relate one mildly amusing comment at the end of this posting, but first the science. Today there was a talk by Sean Hartnoll called "Towards an AdS/CMT correspondence" where "CMT" stands for Condensed Matter Theory. It's an attempt to use string theory (actually "M-theory") in 11-dimensional spacetime to understand the physics of quantum critical points in 2-dimensional systems. Some renowned condensed matter theorists like Subir Sachdev are part of this effort.

I can't judge how successful the effort has been so far, and I know there are skeptics, but I feel this is a truly amazing era to live in. From being "only" a Theory of Everything, String Theory is becoming a Theory of Every Thing - capable of shedding new light on familiar phenomena from superconductivity to quark-gluon plasma to hydrodynamics. I'm a woefully narrow particle physicist but seeing what's going on, I wish I had studied all the 9 or so classic physics textbooks by Landau and Lifshitz when I was younger! Meanwhile true-blue plasma physicists and condensed matter physicists are boning up on something called "supergravity in anti-de-Sitter spacetime" which, a couple of years ago, they would have with good reason considered to be mumbo-jumbo (prior to 1997 even most string theorists thought it was mumbo-jumbo!). This kind of cross-fertilisation must surely be the right way to address the hard unsolved problems of physics. I hope I can eventually become part of the effort myself, though I foresee lots of remedial training first.

Now the amusing part. Noted string theorist Kentaro Hori came here over the weekend from Tokyo, via Hongkong. I pointed out to him that the only nonstop flight from Tokyo to Mumbai is by ANA, but it's a "Business Jet", i.e. 30-odd seats and only Business Class. Kentaro remarked "people in our field only travel Economy. Now my younger brother, he travels Business and even First Class." I asked what he worked in, imagining finance or perhaps law. But the answer was "Biology".

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Partial exit from the graceful exit

Recently I suggested on my blog that there should be a procedure whereby Indian scientists in research institutes who are not sufficiently productive be given a "graceful exit" and continue in Universities where they can teach and also do some research. I had marshalled in support of my argument the fact that the Perimeter Institute in Canada has limited-tenure appointments.

The blog resulted in a total of 25 posted comments to date. Reading these comments and thinking about it some more, I began to realise that while the problem I had identified was undoubtedly present, my solution was probably wrong. I was approaching things from the wrong end by suggesting the creation of a "repulsive potential" from the institutes, which would hopefully send several people into the arms of the universities. In practice this might instead send people elsewhere, for example abroad. One does not attract objects to a point by repelling them from everywhere else, but by creating an attractive central potential. So clearly the goal is to make Universities more attractive than they presently are.

The problem is that every time the Universities become more attractive (e.g. by salaries going up) the research institutes become even more attractive (e.g. by salaries going up even more). I plan to cogitate a bit more about this and then maybe come up with a revised proposal to solve the graceful exit problem.

Comment number 25 on my earlier blog came from Joe Polchinski who made several valuable points, one of them being that Perimeter Institute has given up its own limited-tenure system as it isn't working for them. I guess that was the final blow to my pet idea.

But as I said, the problem is real and I intend to continue seeking a solution on this blog until something semi-serious emerges.


My long absence from this blog was due to a very intense week of the ongoing Monsoon Workshop in String Theory at TIFR. The workshop has been really wonderful and inspired me considerably, even if the monsoon itself has not showed signs of life in a longish while and is now making us all nervous about the state of our state (perhaps the rains will come back if we rename "monsoon" in Marathi??).

I'd like to relate a small vignette - which might not make sense to my non-scientist readers (if so, I apologise to them). A few days ago, Juan Maldacena delivered a superb public lecture here on black holes and spacetime. That evening the string theorists at TIFR took him out to dinner (at Khyber, if you want to know). Several of us were intrigued by his Powerpoint presentation, which had a number of animations depicting such things as the infinite time dilation at the horizon of a black hole. So we showered him with questions about how he had made his Powerpoint - which he was quite happy to answer. At this point my colleague Atish came up with the following gem: "The string theorists want to know how you made your Powerpoint, while the non-scientists want to know how you discovered the AdS/CFT correspondence"!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Indian journalists are "paanchvi fail"!

For those of you who thought some minimal intelligence was required to be a journalist in our country, think again.

Here is a quote from Deccan Herald last Sunday:

"Fugitive Nazi held in State.

Hubli, DHNS: A former top Nazi colonel was arrested on Saturday from the Khanapur forests on the Karnataka-Goa border. Col Johann Bach, a high-ranking officer in Hitler’s elite Waffen SS (Schutzstaffel), was absconding for more than 50 years. He had moved into Calangute in Goa a few months back and had settled down under a fake identity. But the 88-year-old Bach’s activities in Calangute betrayed him and soon the intelligence wing of Perus Narkp, the Berlin-based German Chancellor’s Core, was on his trail."

Perus Narkp?? Johann Bach?? Surely there's something black in the dal? But no,our leading papers including Deccan Herald, Asian Age, Deccan Chronicle, Daily Times, Indian Express, Times of India, Telegraph (Calcutta) and many more fell for the fake press release. If they couldn't guess that Perus Narkp was an anagram for "Super Prank" (played apparently by a bunch of Goan bloggers, see this blog site for more details) then surely the implausibility of a "Marsha Tikash Whanaab concentration camp in East Berlin" should have alerted them?

Having watched the declining standards of Indian journalism over the years, it doesn't surprise me that we have finally reached a stage where no knowledge of anything is required and a complete imbecile can finally be a reporter - even at the once great Times of India!

It must be said though that The Hindu and Hindustan Times appear to have not fallen for the ploy. Given all the other things I hold against them, this point must nevertheless be chalked up to their credit.