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.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Nearly two weeks ago the first research paper was published by the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) collaboration at the LHC (Large Hadron Collider). The paper has the sort of snappy, headline-grabbing title we have all come to associate with high-energy physics experiments: "Transverse-momentum and pseudorapidity distributions of charged hadrons in pp collisions at sqrt(s) = 0.9 and 2.36 TeV". It was submitted to the Journal of High Energy Physics and published by them here on February 10.

While the results of this paper are not earth-shaking (and still less earth-swallowing!), it's a landmark of sorts and has occasioned me a great deal of satisfaction for various reasons, which, this being my blog, I can share with you.

First a summary of the contents: the LHC scattered protons against protons (as will be its habit for many years to come) during its commissioning in December 2009. The CMS detector, a "cylindrical onion" in the eloquent words of its publicity team, measured charged particles emerging from the collisions during two 2-hour periods at this time. The beam had an energy of 0.9 TeV in the first part of the run and 2.36 TeV in the second part. The former measurements provided a useful confirmation of previous results while the latter represent the highest energy measurements at a collider to date. The paper says nothing about finding new particles, nor was this expected since the LHC will take a while to reach its planned energy of 14 TeV and more importantly its planned luminosity.

Here's one tiny reason why I'm gratified. Of the 2400 or so authors on this paper, I've taught three or four in the TIFR graduate school and elsewhere. This is perhaps no great achievement on my part but I'm entitled to feel mildly pleased. After all they might one day co-author a Nobel prize-winning paper (and the prize itself may go to the collaboration rather than just its boss?? Who knows, the world is a changing place.)

And yes, you read the number of authors right. The first 15 pages of this 35-page paper are a list of the authors' names and affiliations! So much for the days when we thought high-energy physics had gone too far by inflicting as many as 100 authors on us...

Here's a second and more serious reason to be happy. Publication of a paper indicates that the LHC is seriously back on track and working well, and so is the CMS detector. There's a long road ahead and I'm glad they finally seem to be on it.

On to the third reason. I'm delighted that they chose to publish in JHEP. I've been on the editorial board of JHEP since it started in 1997 and it's survived a number of critics: those who claimed an electronic journal was an un-refereed journal (these people were either deeply confused or lying, but they sat on major committees either way), those who said it was "just a string theory journal" and those who simply said an online journal wouldn't work. JHEP is short of perfect, and I hear complaints about it a lot, but in terms of impact factor it's become the leading journal in High Energy Physics and the decision by CMS to publish there is an affirmation of this role.

My fourth and last reason to be happy: the concluding lines of the paper are as follows: "Open Access. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited." JHEP's policy is that papers from subscribing institutions are Open Access and CERN is a subscribing institution. So from my point of view, the best things in life are still free.

Here's hoping this paper is the start of a history-making career for CMS and the LHC.

Book recommendation

Ram Ramaswamy who runs the online bookshop Scholars without Borders, recently posted this book review on his blog.

I can testify from personal knowledge that the second half of the book, by Prof. Mukunda, is an excellent review of Lie groups, Lie algebras and representations. I attended his lectures on this topic in 1987 and enjoyed them greatly. The book can be purchased online from SWB ;-)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

My mother and the changing world

My mother, who passed away at the age of 84 on this day eight years ago, grew up in colonial India. Though not quite a freedom fighter, she was proud of the single night she had spent in jail for participating with fellow students in a protest against the British. She and my father were well-read and highly engaged with the world around them (at some point they were also highly engaged to each other... sorry, couldn't resist!).

Many years later, in the 1980's and 90's, she marvelled about the way the world had changed. She could hardly believe that Britain, in her childhood the world's most important country, had moved off to a corner of the global stage while the USA and the Soviet Union had taken over as world leaders. Then the Soviet Union fell, and so did the Berlin wall, and she was again amazed that these formerly unimaginable events could take place.

Another comment that stuck in my mind was her comment about the quality of Japanese goods. My father was a maniac for electronics (and modernity in general) and went to great trouble and expense to buy a Sony tape recorder in the early 1960's. On that occasion my mother recalled that, in her youth, "Made in Japan" had been a synonym for shoddy, cheap stuff, but now Japan had emerged as a key player in advanced technology.

Today, had she been around, she might have been amazed at the growing optimism that India is emerging from its backwardness and poverty and that "Made in India" may not forever have a negative connotation. I hope that this change continues in the right direction and that wherever she is, she is not only surprised but also happy about it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Vignettes from the Intercity

Every Monday morning I take the Intercity Express to Pune, where I teach an undergraduate course in Quantum Mechanics at IISER. On Tuesday evenings, I anti-commute. The train journey is extremely pleasant. Modern technology allows me to browse the net (I use Tata Photon +, which is generally very good but unfortunately works only as low-speed CDMA in Pune!). At this moment we are somewhere around Karjat and the net is fast.

Today's vignette: a young woman orders two cups of tea from the vendor on the train. As he is pouring the tea into paper cups, she starts to complain that she doesn't like the "malai" (clotted cream) floating on it. The vendor graciously offers to take the tea back. She foolishly tries to stack two full paper cups on each other, leading to a major spill. When she asks "how much" the vendor says, even more graciously, "how can I charge you when you haven't even drunk it?". Thereafter he vanishes and returns with malai-free tea for the lady.

A few minutes later I hear a passenger whining to the same vendor: How can you charge an odd amount like 23 rupees for an omelette? Who has 2 and 3 rupees' change these days? The vendor replies: Sir, I don't fix the rates. They are determined by the railways. But don't worry, I will give you change.

A few minutes later another passenger to the vendor: Why is it so freezing cold in here? The vendor (who doesn't handle the air-conditioning, obviously) replies: It's just been reduced sir. Passenger (whining tone): but why is it always so cold in here? Vendor: Maybe so that people buy more of my tea and coffee, sir (and he laughs lightly). The passenger laughs back.

Where do Indian Railways find such amazing people to work for them?

Monday, February 1, 2010

How to make a point

When we don't like what someone is saying/thinking/propagating, particularly in the political sphere, we tend to shout at them. By "shouting" I don't necessarily mean raising one's voice, but it certainly indicates rising temper. People shout a lot on their blogs, and I've done far more than my share in the past.

But it's always greatly bothered me that anyone (myself included) should have to descend to the low level implied by "shouting" when there are better ways to make a point. As a nice recent example, I quote a dialogue from a blog maintained by a physicist called "Lubos". I won't link to his blog, which you're free to look for if you want, and I won't say more about him here precisely because it's hard for me to do so without shouting. In fact I suggest you don't visit his blog since you'll very likely end up shouting.

Instead (like me, on this occasion) try to appreciate that this particular debate has a clear winner, and it's not the one who shouted. Rather, it's another blogger called Eman, about whom I know nothing except for the admirable and even inspiring tone of her (or his) postings. The following exchange (I've corrected a few obvious typos but left others in) says it all. Please read.


reader Eman said

Dear Dr.Lubos

Thank you for your blog. I have a comment about the following: "On the other hand, I do feel that the assassinations of their key nuclear folks could be the most human way to stop the nuclear threat coming from Iran". Do you think if Arab countries started targeting Israeli nuclear scientists, would the world justify what they are doing? As the western world see Iran as a threat, Arab countries share the same fearing regarding Israel? I don't see targeting scientists human at all.

My Regards


Dear Eman,

Thanks for your comments. Well, I am not an Arab which might be the reason why I don't share the thinking you attribute to the Arabs but do share the thinking you attribute to the West. They're not "equally" valid. One of them is correct and the other one is wrong.

First, Israel probably has its nuclear weapons already. It's too late to target Israeli scientists.

Second, it's clearly not what the assertive Muslims want, anyway. Israel is dangerous for them by its very existence, because it shows that Allah doesn't have and can't have the control even over the Middle East, so He clearly can't control the world. They're bothered by the very existence of a state of a highly achieved nation - the Jews - and they want to remove it off the map. We've heard many of these things and continuing terrorist attacks at various places show that these are not just words.

This threat - especially from Iran - must be taken seriously because millions of lives could be at stake. 20th century nuclear technology in the hands of 1st-millenium-style religious bigots is simply a dangerous combination that must be prevented. It's being prevented by a combination of diplomacy and military decisions that could include bombing of the military sites in Iran and probably bigger ones in the future. This could bring some casualties. Assassinations of the individuals who actually do this research could be more human - a question would be whether it would be enough. It's surely not perfectly human, but there are no perfectly human solutions to certain big enough threats that Israel and the West is facing.


reader Eman said...

Hello Dr.Lubos
I think the west don't understand the arab world well. I am an Arab. Arabs is bothered from Israel, because it occupied an Arab Land. Israel has been established by expelling the natives (palestanians) out of their homeland. Before 1948 Israel was not on the map. There were only palestanians. I don't call for expelling jews from palestine, but a fair solution for Israeli people and palestanians. There are alot of Arab christians who share the same fearing towards Israel, they are not muslims to think they want God to control all the middle east. I don't hate jews, they are my human fellows. But I wouldn't at all support any kind of unjustice toward any race .

And what Israel is doing with palestanians is for sure unjustice.




Dear Eman,

please try to learn how to spell "Palestinians" (which is nothing else than Arabs who live on the full territory of Israel).

Israel was not on the map in 1947 but only Jews were on the de facto (cultural and political) map in 1000 BC, 10 BC, 100 AD, and so on.

1948 is closer than the dates above - but all of them belong to the distant history. We live in 2010 and Israel surely IS on the map. Could you please kindly notice and stop assuming that it's not on the map and/or dreaming that it is not on the map?

I think it's very obvious that the existence of people like you in an alive form is a direct threat to the lives of millions of Jews who live in their old homeland.

Best wishes


reader Eman said