Thursday, February 25, 2010

In defence of mastery

When something newsworthy happens, I often find myself reflecting on which of my favourite opinions it justifies. I suppose that's only human.

In the present case I have in mind Sachin Tendulkar's record-breaking double century in one-day cricket. The first thing it goes to prove, which hardly needed proving, is that Sachin is one amazing Manoos. Certain political parties may want to give up trying to teach him about Marathi asmita and try learning it from him instead. But this point is so trivial that I needn't have bothered to make it.

What interests me more is that Sachin's performance is a blow in favour of mastery in a particular field. As a scientist, I've been disturbed for some years by the growing obsession about breaking barriers between subjects, being inter-disciplinary, being a well-rounded individual and all that. These ideas are surely important. But I feel things can get out of hand if we ignore the other side of the coin -- that serious achievement requires concentration, knowledge, technique and depth.

Imagine, if Sachin's trainers had taken the view that in addition to cricket it was essential for him to know football, tennis, golf and chess. He simply wouldn't have been what he is - a person who single-mindedly focuses on what he does best. And that would have been humanity's loss.

Now in discussing academic curricula, syllabi, student intake etc in various institutes, I keep hearing that one has to focus on breadth of knowledge when selecting students, and then instil further breadth when training them. I'm not against this as long as it's feasible and helpful, but sometimes it seems to become a goal unto itself.

Recently a colleague, talking about his institution's undergrad admissions process, observed that "with the kind of breadth requirements we have, one wonders if Ramanujan, who only knew mathematics, would even get admission". That's basically my point, and I think Sachin's achievement validates it.


jatkesha said...

Prof. Mukhi,

In an era of totally interdisciplinary stuff (there are flip sides of course), there are people who would argue that it is better being a jack on many things rather than working towards being a master at one.

I guess it depends on what you want to be. I would agree with you completely.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

You know, Sachin is not a bad bowler at all (44 Test wickets, 154 ODI wickets to date) and successive captains have called on him to bowl when unable to break a partnership. He is, of course, also a superb fielder. Both of these are in contrast to several batting "greats" of the past. Though his stints at captaincy didn't go well, captains have always consulted him on strategy. So I certainly wouldn't accuse him of having a single-minded focus on batting to the exclusion of all else: he is one of the most well-rounded cricketers ever. Saying he doesn't play football is a strawman.

Rahul Basu said...

Coincidentally there is much discussion going on in our institute about interdisciplinary research. Can't say much more about internal institute discussions on this open forum, but it's an amusing thought -- Sachin playing chess, soccer or kabaddi.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

My expanded thoughts here.

Anant said...

Consider this from C. V. Ramakrishnan:

"To succeed in his kind of work, Venki had to have knowledge of biochemistry, physics, mathematics and computer science. Because of this, he could make a discovery in nine years with the help of the laboratory while similar kind of work takes 30 years at other places. If you want to produce a scientist in this kind of inter-disciplinary researches which can be used for human as well as other systems, then you have to produce students like Venkat Ramakrishnan," the professor concluded.

Of course the Nobel Laureate went on to work on the ribosome with dogged determination for N years.

kapil said...

A few points:

1. Learning/knowing one topic well generally makes it easier to learn other things. Thus, interdisciplinary research usually flows from solid understanding of one area.

2. Learning a lot of different things (especially things one does not like too much or have an aptitude for) helps one "learn to learn".

3. Mastery is not only about doing well in the things you are good at but being sound in the things that you find hard.


Mind Without Fear said...

On the other hand, my spouse tells me of a physicist colleague who, when asked about some question on Newtonian mechanics ( or gravity I am not sure one at the moment ), typically replies that he ( the colleague ) is a GR person !!!! ( and presumably does not feel competent or obligated to answer a question on Newtonian Mechanics )

Sandip said...

Agreeing that serious achievement requires all that you mention in the post, Sunil, at the end someone has to recognize it as an achievement. People have to care about the stuff. When opening up a bandgap in graphene is what your community wants to achieve, being able to think in terms of chemistry is not enough. I guess thats where the interdisciplinary aspects in academic training is becoming important-the nature of the problems that need to get solved. How many people are your contributions affecting-that is the fundamental metric and I doubt if there's anything new about it?

Sundar said...

By the way there are also another category of people who take others admiration like these "masters" we call them "All Rounders" or "Polymath" or "Versatile"!

So Ramanujam is equally worth appreciation so is Maxwell, Rutherford, Faraday or those Autodidacts... :D

Mind Without Fear said...

In the context of this posting, it is perhaps appropriate if I bring up a recent article by Dyson - Birds and Frogs - and here is the link to the article

On a slightly different topic - and partly inspired by Anant's comment - I would like to point out something about Prof. Ramakrishnan. I had the good fortune to have known him in personal capacity - as I have known Prof. Mukhi too in somewhat similar personal capacity. Now, what was and happily still is striking about Venki is that while he takes his science and his interest in science seriously, he does not take himself and what others think of him too seriously. So, it mattered little to him whether people were thinking of him as specialist or a multi-disciplinary person. For a brief summer interlude in 1982 -or was it 1983 - I used to be a weekend fixture in their house and while I do not know about his science I did get a glimpse of what was important to him and his wife in life and a bit of their worldview. After 1994, we lost touch. Years later we met again this January - in face Jan 1 2010 - and it was a pleasant surprise to see that neither success nor fame has spoiled the person that I knew.

So, I guess the summary would be - whether single minded or not, follow your interest or destiny, assuming indeed that you have the luxury in life to make your interest your destiny.

Having known Prof. Mukhi, I cannot help thinking what he might be thinking now! That perhaps I have dropped names in the disguise of a comment in this context. But then again, I have the hope that he will forgive me for doing so ....

Ankur Kulkarni said...

My understanding is that the current push towards interdisciplinary research is it is due to the many low-hanging fruits that lie there. The attempt is more on discovering new fields rather than mastering predefined rules. In hindsight, when the interdisciplinary field emerges as a field in itself, these low-hanging fruits might not constitute the "serious achievement" that you talk of. In other words, I am not sure if there is a contradiction between mastery and interdisciplinarity.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Ankur: Thanks, I found that a particularly insightful comment.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Ankur, Sunil - sorry, this is getting rather silly. First, you seem to be suggesting that interdisciplinary research is something new. Physicists have been involved in biology for decades, if not earlier: Max Delbruck, Francis Crick and others were responsible for more "serious achievement" in the 1940s and 1950s (within a few years of working in biology) than all of string theory has produced in three decades. Other interdisciplinary examples that are now decades old are von Neumann's contributions to economics and computer science; Claude Shannon's creation of a new discipline, information theory, that drew on half-century-old ideas from physics; E T Jaynes's contributions to probability theory; etc. Each of these were "serious achievements" by any definition. Arcane mathematics does not, by itself, constitute serious achievement. The essence of science is testable predictions.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Rahul: Confucius say, man who stoop low get hernia.

If anything is silly, it's your perception of my original posting as an attack on something, rather than an attempt to emphasise something else.

From my perspective, the present discussion has spawned many useful comments, including some by yourself. I fully agree with you about the great achievements of Delbruck, Crick, Shannon et al. Re-reading my original posting, I don't find it's contradicted in any way by their impressive successes.

I would like to point out, though, that your statement "Arcane mathematics does not, by itself, constitute serious achievement" remains equally true if you put "testable predictions" in place of "arcane mathematics". It's possible to create a system in the lab that no one has actually created before, then make some predictions about it using well-established classical or quantum physics, then take measurements and find agreement. Unless this involves some new concepts or puzzles, it isn't worth much as science.

Against these content-free mantras I would like to counterpose an eloquent comment due to W.L. Bragg: "The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts, as to discover new ways of thinking about them".

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Sunil - my adjective "silly" was to Ankur's implication that interdisciplinary research is something new and the claim that early entrants who pick the "low-hanging fruit" are likely not to do something causing "serious achievement". You yourself imply that focussing on "breadth of knowledge" is some sort of new-fangled idea.

In fact the sort of extreme specialisation that we see in science is very much a phenomenon of the late 20th century and the "industrial" nature of modern research. If you go earlier than the 1960s, what we call "interdisciplinary" was the norm, and if you go to the 19th century, what we call "physics" was called "natural philosophy", and its practitioners (from Newton and Hooke on) had keen interest in sciences other than what we describe in physics textbooks today.

Apart from the examples I gave, I could mention Ronald Fisher's development of modern population genetics; the inspiration early neoclassical economists took from (obsolete) 19th-century physics; and much else. The current trend towards "breadth of knowledge" and "interdisciplinary research" is, if anything, a welcome return to the roots of science, not a revolutionary new paradigm.

Everyone agrees that making and verifying predictions using "well-established classical or quantum mechanics" does not push the boundaries of science -- that is precisely why those disciplines are well-established (and useful). It is when creating a new theory, or a new way of applying an old theory, that one needs to create novel and testable predictions. Not immediately perhaps, but in a reasonable span of time. A theory like Bohm's interpretation of quantum mechanics, which has no observable differences from the usual formulation, is of little interest. A theory that cannot be tested in the foreseeable future is not of much greater interest -- unless it turns out that the mathematical techniques are applicable elsewhere, but then it becomes another example of "interdisciplinary research"...

Ankur Kulkarni said...

Sorry I am arriving late. I made my comment and forgot to follow up on the discussion.

Rahul, I am not implying that interdisciplinary research is only about low-hanging fruits. In the context of the original post, wherein Sunil is irked by the current trends towards interdisciplinarity, I said that the *current* push is *due to* the many such fruits that may be lying there. And that one doesn't necessarily need mastery to pick them. (It is impossible to deduce from this that I am implying that all interdisciplinary research is about low hanging fruits, or that interdisciplinary research is a new phenomenon.) Needless to say, one may choose to pick a high-hanging fruit and produce "serious achievement". Such achievement would need mastery, and that too in multiple fields.

My point is that while lack of mastery and interdiscplinarity can coexist, lack of mastery and serious achievement rarely do.