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.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Prawns and greens pasta

I occasionally used to post recipes on this blog, but haven't done so in a long time. Among other things, doing so helps me recover a forgotten recipe. The recipes I post are usually self-invented, but inspired by something I ate or read about somewhere. I only post them when the result is incredibly delicious. All the ingredients are freely available in Pune, where I live.

So if you love prawns, hop into the kitchen and get going:

Serves 2-3:

250 gm prawns, peeled and deveined
One large zucchini, diced
A handful of rucola ("rocket" or "roquette" or "arugula")
Two celery stalks cut in small pieces
3-4 tomatoes, blanched and peeled, then cut into large chunks
Long pasta (spaghetti or better, linguine or fettucine)
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small teaspoon of mashed/chopped garlic
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
1 cube of vegetable stock, crushed into a coarse powder and used in place of salt.


1. Gently warm olive oil in a pan. Add garlic and parsley. Do not overheat the oil.
2. Allow this to cook slowly until garlic is very slightly browned.
3. Add celery, then zucchini. Sprinkle with half the vegetable stock (reserve the other half until later).
4. When the zucchini starts to brown a little, add the prawns and stir. A minute later add the tomatoes and the remaining stock. Cover and keep on LOW heat for about 8-10 minutes until the zucchini starts to soften. The tomato chunks should not disintegrate and the prawns should not be overcooked.

5. Turn off the heat. The pan should contain a nice watery prawn-flavoured gravy. Add the rucola at this point. Check for salt. Do not try to evaporate or thicken the gravy.

The sauce when it's done
The final dish
6. In a pot, heat plenty of water, add a tablespoon of salt and throw in the pasta. Cook for about a minute less than recommended on the package. Then drain and mix the pasta with the sauce. Stir well and cover, with the heat either turned off or very low, for about 1-2 minutes.

7. Serve

I love this dish for its mix of bright colours and subtle flavours. What makes it special is the way the zucchini and tomatoes absorb and echo the perfume of seafood. It needs to be made with some delicacy. If you're Indian you will surely ask if it's OK to add onions, cheese or chillies. The answers are i) NO, ii) NO and iii) NO.

On the subject of cheese with pasta, I must recount a memorable dinner in Venice circa 1990 with Dutch friends. Since I speak Italian, I was doing the ordering. One of them ordered pasta with clams and then told me to ask the waiter for parmesan cheese. I said this was a no-no in Italy: no cheese with seafood. Unconvinced, she spotted some bowls of grated parmesan on a nearby shelf, picked up one, brought it to the table and spooned the cheese over her pasta. When the waiter came by next, I thought he noticed the cheese bowl but he said nothing. Afterwards my friend ordered chocolate mousse for dessert. As I conveyed this order, the waiter came very close to me and whispered: "One wonders if the lady would like parmesan cheese with that"...

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Thoughts on the gallows

I am opposed to the death penalty. But I have some strong disagreements with many of my liberal friends who commented when Yakub Memon was hanged a few days ago. That I also don’t agree with the views of conservatives on this subject goes without saying, but I’ll say it at more length below.

The death penalty is a stage in the progress of ideas about justice. There have been more barbaric things in the past, such as mob lynching, which is now treated as unacceptable wherever there is a developed legal system. A mob can neither verify the guilt of the accused nor decide what punishment should be imposed. These conclusions must be reached by attention to hard facts, careful investigation and a calm dispassionate approach – in other words, a legal and penal system. An important part of such a system is a range of punishments that can be calibrated to fit the degree of the crime.

In the evolution of legal systems, the death penalty was present just about everywhere, from the Christian to the Islamic to the Chinese world. Wikipedia tells us that “By 1820 in Britain, there were 160 crimes that were punishable by death, including crimes such as shoplifting, petty theft, stealing cattle, or cutting down trees in a public place.” Meanwhile back home, the Agni Purana recommends the death penalty for “polluting ponds and temples” according to the book “Crime and Punishment in Ancient India, C. A.D. 300 to A.D. 1100” by Sukla Das (see page 72). By the above rules, a good fraction of the British and pretty much everyone in India would be dead by now. Executions were frequently public and people would come to watch - along with their children - and even applaud. This is understandable: if a picnicker throwing a plastic bottle into a lake in India were publicly hanged today, I too would come and applaud! But at least I understand that I'm joking. Reality used to be much less funny,  and it hasn't changed much in some places.
During the 20th century two important developments took place across the world. One is that courts started not to impose the death penalty even when the offense was severe and execution was an available option in law. We can assume that in doing so, they were guided by an evolution of public beliefs. Public executions were also deemed unseemly and largely stopped. The second development is that, also keeping up with public opinion, parliaments started to abolish the penalty completely or make it so extremely rare that in practice it would never be used. As a result, today 159 countries have actually or virtually abolished the death penalty, while only 36 countries actively practise it. The situation  by country is summarised here and there is an illuminating colour-coded world map. I found it intriguing that Gabon, Latvia, Benin, Mongolia and Madagascar have recently abolished the death penalty, and considerably less surprising that Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Somalia still carry out public executions. Capital punishment is banned by the Council of Europe, and the United Nations General Assembly tried to ban it a few years ago but were opposed by many countries, notably China, India, the United States and Indonesia.

What was the evolution of public opinion and belief that led to a slowdown in executions and eventually an outright ban in so many parts of the world?  This stemmed from a growing ethical discomfort with the fact that anyone should take it upon themselves to execute another person, no matter what that other person may have done. If murder is abhorrent in the first place, civilised society harms itself and its own level of civilisation if it carries out an act of the same level of abhorrence. One of the most influential writers on the subject was the 18th century Italian jurist and philosopher, Cesare Beccaria, who according to Wikipedia:

"openly condemned the death penalty on two grounds: first, because the state does not possess the right to take lives; and secondly, because capital punishment is neither a useful nor a necessary form of punishment"

The article goes on to say:

"Beccaria developed in his treatise a number of innovative and influential principles: 
  • punishment had a preventive (deterrent), not a retributive, function; 
  • punishment should be proportionate to the crime committed; 
  • the probability of punishment, not its severity, would achieve the preventive effect; 
  • procedures of criminal convictions should be public; and finally, 
  • in order to be effective, punishment should be prompt"
I have not read Beccaria in any detail, but I strongly agree with these observations. The third point in the above list is something I've been saying for many years, even when I deal with penalties for academic ethics violations (sadly capital punishment is not an option in this context!! Sorry, joke over.). Namely, what prevents crimes is a relatively milder punishment that is applied on transgressors with certainty, rather than a harsh punishment that may totally ruin the lives of some while letting others go free.

I fear that few in India, even among the highly educated, have reflected on principles of natural justice or tried to understand penology. Indeed, as a society we are not really past the mob lynching stage. With the most minimal factual information, people will recommend the death penalty for anything that makes their blood boil. I've had the unpleasant experience of arguing at length with Facebook friends who feel that rapists, for example, should be hanged. I understand their anger but they rarely seem to understand that justice delivered in anger is not justice. They also don't understand that the principles one is arguing over do not imply any particular "sympathy for the accused", they are principles and have nothing to do with any specific accused.

I would suggest (to whom?) that in India we have more well-informed discussions and debates on justice and on penology, and slowly try to move our society in the direction of abolishing capital punishment. But let's not have these discussions in the context of a horrific case like the 1993 blasts or the Delhi gang-rape. The discussions need to be rational and free of an emotional background.

So, back to the late Yakub Memon. If anyone simply says that whatever he may be guilty of, they don’t believe in capital punishment and therefore he shouldn't have been hanged, then I fully agree. Indeed this is my precise view. But some very strange things have been said about this case on social media. First of all, a view has circulated that he was hanged merely for being the brother of a criminal. However the charges against him are rather explicit according to this article in the Hindustan Times:

"According to the charges, key conspirators Tiger Memon, along with Dawood Ibrahim and his brother Anees Ibrahim, had called some of their trusted men, including Yakub, to Dubai between December 1992 and January 1993 to chalk out a plan to execute the serial blasts in Mumbai. It was alleged that Memon had played a key role in the execution of the conspiracy. He was also accused of giving financial assistance to the terrorist activity. It was alleged that Memon had, through his contacts, arranged Rs 21.90 lakh for the execution of the plan. The prosecution had alleged that the Memon family played an active role in the blasts and that their own vehicles were used to plant bombs. Yakub was also accused of distribution of arms and ammunition, detonators and explosives to other accused." 

I cannot verify that these are the exact charges, nor can I be certain that he was indeed guilty of them. And I sense that among many liberal thinkers there is a suspicion the courts were biased in condemning him to death, or that they did so based on insufficient evidence. But (given that we are not party to additional information) we must also contemplate the possibility that he really did everything listed above. If so, he was aware that large numbers of innocent people were going to die in bomb blasts and he materially conspired to make this happen. For this, it seems quite clear he would be deserving of the highest punishment in the land. In this context I disagree with a lot of the whataboutism going on these days: what about Maya Kodnani? what about the Staines killers? what about anti-Sikh riots and Gujarat riots? Well what about them indeed. If anyone implicated in those events was wrongly acquitted, bailed or whatever, that would be a miscarriage or delay of justice and it should certainly be talked about or challenged. But this is no reason to deny Yakub Memon the maximum punishment for knowingly conspiring in a truly awful crime.

The maximum punishment today in India is capital punishment and this is what he got. I've already mentioned that in itself this punishment is morally repugnant to me, and now I would like to bring up one more of its limitations: if evidence were to emerge tomorrow that he is not guilty of the charges (and we have no basis to argue whether that can happen or not) it would be too late to do anything about it. Significant numbers of people executed, typically for murder, have been found innocent after they were dead -- a famous case is that of Timothy Evans. This is another very powerful argument against the death penalty.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The cult of sycophancy

I've lived and worked in India for over thirty years now but never come to terms with the cult of sycophancy. This concept does exist in some form all over the world, but India is very special. Here, groups seem to naturally subdivide into the leaders and the led, and immediately something else kicks in: the followers turn into craven sycophants and flatterers of their leader. The leader quickly starts to enjoy, develop and promote it. The relationship grows, with more flatterers clustering around each leader-figure, who (if he/she is any good at this) manages them with favours.

However, it would be a mistake to think the favours always have to be substantive. If they were, I would be referring not to sycophancy but to simple reciprocity which, though ethically inappropriate, is a very different thing. With sycophants the favours are mainly psychological and consist of a very guarded, almost royal, acceptance of the follower by the leader. The benefit to the follower seems to lie mainly in the thrill of being accepted as a follower -- apparently the more you rub your own face in the dirt, the tastier the dirt becomes!

In politics, examples are not hard to find. Supporters of each political party consider this to be a weakness only of their rival party, but the reality is different. I won't dwell on examples outside India, but here Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi, as well as all the Thackerays, had/have a huge cult of sycophancy around them, and to a lesser extent this also applies to people like Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, L.K. Advani in his time and even most recently Arvind Kejriwal. All the above cults are somewhat eclipsed in grandiosity and absurdity by the admirers of Dr J. Jayalalithaa, as I believe she calls herself. Sycophancy necessarily involves building up the leader to be much more than he or she can possibly be: the late Devakanta Baruah secured a place in history for his infamous statement: "India is Indira, Indira is India".

But that is politics and more generally public life (religion and cinema are other good examples). Personally I populate a different world altogher, the smaller and more private circle of academia. This is built around faculty who teach and do research, and students. Being a naive person I always felt that sycophancy was less likely to thrive in this environment, where each person has an important goal to achieve that can only be achieved through hard work. Yes I know, silly me. Over thirty years I've learned more and more about how things often work in this domain, and it never fails to annoy and upset me.

But first the good news. During this long period I've been fortunate to come across many people who were surrounded by no cult and who did excellent and admirable work. I can think of several physicists I've known personally, and even worked with, who were inspiring in this regard. Any momentary weakness (on the part of myself or anyone else) to "admire" them would be met with a change of subject or even a sharp remark. The implication was that one must keep a strong focus on the work. Admire the work if you like, not the person. Such people were not entirely selfless, rather they exhibited a form of enlightened self-interest. If you decline the opportunity to be flattered, your reputation actually rises higher and higher and (I believe) last longer and longer. So in this sense, accepting sycophancy is merely a short-term thrill.

And yet, so many in Indian academia do go in for the short-term thrill. Looking at all the Directors, Vice-Chancellors and Presidents of Academies, it's self-evident that the vast majority of them have reached where they are either by being sycophants or commanding a large army of flatterers, or both. Indeed there is no clear distinction between the giver and receiver of sycophancy - each one takes from the people below and gives to the people above. It is deeply ingrained in our academic hierarchies, where the word "dignitary" occupies an unseemly and entirely inappropriate place.

In this regard, a recent comment from a friend and colleague visiting from a US university made a major impact on me. "In the US, a Director is just one among us - the person who happens to be doing the job at the moment. I understand that in India a Director means something different, someone who is seen at a much `higher' level than everyone else, enjoying powers over everyone". How true.

This may be slightly off the main point but I must relate a little anecdote. Some years ago I was tasked with inviting the legendary Murray Gell-Mann to a conference in India. So one night, when it would be morning for him, I looked up the webpage of the Santa Fe Institute, dialled a number and was amazed when it was answered with "Gell-Mann speaking". He was courteous and chatty even though he did not in the end come for our conference. On another occasion I wrote to the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and received a personal reply on the following day. But mails to a Director of an Indian institution (even my own, when I was in TIFR) would simply go un-answered.

Getting back to the issue, I'll conclude by pointing out many fall-outs of the sycophancy cult in Indian academia: (i) At least in academically strong institutions, everyone agrees that a scientist is to be judged by the quality of his/her work. However even in such insitutions, administrators are never judged by what they do, only by "who they are" (e.g. how many powerful committees they are in) and which powerful persons are backing them, (ii) Discussions about academic ethics are resisted by senior academics in positions of power. Offhand, I can't think of a single Director/VC/Academy Chair in India who has enthusiastically promoted greater sensitisation on the subject. The best ones simply tolerate some discussions/workshops on this issue and the worst ones don't even permit that, (iii) Our academic achievement is stuck where it is - small pockets of excellence but no larger push for collective achievement. It seems to be that the more we owe to our immediate leader, the less we owe to our country. So sycophancy in academia is deeply anti-national.

One wishes Mr Narayan Murthy had thought of mentioning some of this when he gave his recent talk at IISc.

Friday, May 29, 2015

What about whataboutism?

"Whataboutism" is a type of argument, often in the context of politics, that goes like this: person A says something (X) is very bad, and in response person B says "but what about Y" where Y is something different that (usually) is also very bad. The term was apparently coined during the Cold War, when apologists for the Soviet Union would respond to any criticism by counter-criticism of the United States. Another version of whataboutism is the "fallacy of relative privation", typified by the following hypothetical conversation: when dinner is delayed, Person A says "I'm hungry" and B replies "but there are children starving in Africa".

Whataboutism is a special case of the popular fallacy "two wrongs make a right" which, as an argument tactic, is rather pathetic. After all if X is bad, then the fact that Y is also bad does not make X any better. Sometimes the intended implication is different: "you say X is bad, but you've never said Y is bad. This proves you are dishonest and therefore your views on X are not respectable". In this form, whataboutism is recast as an ad hominem attack: A is a crook, therefore anything A says need not be believed. This is also illogical, for A may be a crook and yet what he/she says on a specific occasion may be true.

Although whataboutism and ad hominem arguments come up all the time (and I'm sure I unconsciously use them myself on occasion), they seem to be particularly popular among the right-wing trolls who have positioned themselves all over social media these days. I would not bother to blog about trolls but it disturbs me when (a few) friends and colleagues take such arguments seriously. When the BBC documentary on a gangrape in India, "India's Daughters" was recently released (and swiftly banned) a significant section of the Indian middle-class said, in effect, "but what about rape in Western countries?". It takes hardly a moment to accept that whatever happens in any other country, India's record on the safety of women is dismal. I could not understand why the film was treated not as an opportunity to reflect on ways to improve the situation, but as an occasion to counter-attack people who (whatever their other faults) are not responsible for rape in India. As I fully expected, months after this controversy erupted it's business as usual. The documentary has been seen by everyone who wants to see it (basically because nothing is banned on the internet), but its possible role in stimulating discussion and action on women's issues has effectively been diminished.

To be fair one shouldn't entirely blame right-wingers. A meme circulating on social media these days points out that a TV channel (CNN-IBN) which praised the first-year's performance of the current government is owned by Mr Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries. It concludes with a photo of Mr Ambani having a friendly chat with the Prime Minister. This is pure and simple ad hominem (or "ad channelem", if you prefer), the implication being that the channel chose to praise the government because of its owner's vested interests. By itself, this meme leaves us no wiser whether the first year of this government has indeed been a success or not. I have to say, though, that (perhaps because of my own political sympathies), I'm inclined to consider an ad hominem attack against a TV channel as less illogical than one against an individual.

The point in any case is that such arguments deflect the original discussion entirely away from the topic at hand, and on to generalities and personalities. This is their purpose. For many people, any mention of India's poor record on various things (women's safety, human rights, the environment, the treatment of minorities) induces guilt and shame above everything else. This in turn creates the urge to deflect the discussion and all the illogical arguments come in handy. What I've never understood is why anyone would feel personally guilty or ashamed of their country's poor record on issues unless they personally have a poor record on the same issues. It speaks of a level of identification which I personally cannot aspire to (thankfully).

Let me conclude with a telling joke that surely deserves an Indian version. This is from Wikipedia.

In a 1962 version, an American and a Soviet car salesman argue which country makes better cars. Finally, the American asks: "How many decades does it take an average Soviet man to earn enough money to buy a Soviet car?" After a thoughtful pause, the Soviet replies: "And you are lynching Negroes!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Memories of a Dead Head

I realise that science administration may not be everyone's favourite topic, so today I want to talk about the Grateful Dead instead. I can reveal that at the tender age of 17 or thereabouts, I became an officially certified Dead Head, the name given to fans of this rock band. It all started when my cousins in Delhi got hold of a couple of albums of the Dead, as they are known to their fans. I quickly became a convert. So much so, that eventually (with consent) I pinched my cousins' long-playing record of "American Beauty", one of the Dead's seminal albums, and still have it in my possession. It plays rather well, even though I vividly remember their dog once jumping on it while it was playing on their turntable.

Rock music has long been one of my passions though it has steadily become a guilty pleasure as I grow older. In 2003 I attended the Rolling Stones concert in Bombay and was relieved that everyone there was in their forties/fifties, as I was. With hindsight I can see now that it was the entire combination of power chords, pounding rhythms, exploration of meaning with an anti-establishment attitude, and (occasionally but importantly) brilliant poetry that attracted me to rock music, and still does.

Still, rock music is one topic and the Grateful Dead are quite another. One wonders if they even qualify as a rock band. Some of their albums (like American Beauty mentioned above) are described on Wikipedia as "folk rock and country music". And yet, if it wasn't for the Dead, I wouldn't be caught dead listening to country music! So what is it about them, exactly?

They lack much of the obvious appeal of rock bands -- they are nothing much to look at, they did not dress up or perform stunts on stage, they have few hit songs and never sought commercial success. They don't use power chords or pounding rhythms very much - quite the opposite, in fact. The Dead were always a "Zen" thing. With a very light rhythm and bass section and a singer (the late Jerry Garcia) who always sounded as if he had a bad cold, the only obvious redeeming feature was Garcia's amazing lead guitar -- melodic, gentle and sweet as honey. I strongly recommend this live version of "Uncle John's Band" from 1974, a peak period for them. You should be delighted by the incredibly subtle guitar solos sprinkled throughout (particularly if you're a fan of either jazz or Indian classical music). You may also notice Garcia's out-of-tune singing at various points, no doubt related to the massive ingestion of chemicals for which this band was collectively famous. Though I suppose we can't rule out that he also had a cold.

But it was not Garcia alone who made the band what it was. It was an extremely collective effort with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh playing key roles in composition and vocals, along with Ron McKernan in the early days. In fact the first song I remember hearing was the beautiful "Box of Rain", Lesh's outpouring of affection for his terminally ill father:

What do you want me to do,
To do for you to see you through?
A box of rain will ease the pain
And love will see you through.

If there was one thing that rock bands rarely did, and still rarely do, it's write songs for their fathers. So that was very special, right there. But the other song I remember from those days was "Dark Star", a long, rambling spacey blues that was sung (out of tune as usual) by Garcia. It was mostly a vehicle for his guitar playing, but also featured the memorable lines:

Shall we go, you and I
While we can?
Through the transitive nightfall
of diamonds

One has to remember that in those days pretty much everyone was seeing strange things in their mind's eye, but few could put them down quite so compellingly. Much of this was due to their resident poet Robert Hunter, who was a member of the band but didn't perform any instrument other than poetry. You can read the full lyrics of Dark Star here. In the process you will learn another special thing about the Dead: there is an entire website devoted to analysis and interpretation of their lyrics. For this song, one reader has contributed the following gem:

"Each haiku-like verse of "Dark Star" captures an image in transition, and does so in very economical language. The star crashes; reason tatters; searchlights seek; the mirror shatters; a hand turns to a flower; a mysterious lady disappears."

So how did I become an official Dead Head? In 1974 or so, I wrote an airmail letter to an address I found in a magazine. A month later (I know this sounds unreal today) I got a reply from one of their staff saying "We didn't know there are fans in India, that's great! I will put your letter up on the notice board for the band to see". This was followed by a gift of an LP, From the Mars Hotel, which arrived quite warped in the post but I was able to play it after it had settled down for a few days. Sadly I don't seem to have this LP any more, nor the letter.

I did manage to see them live, and can even tell you the exact date and venue: 23 April 1977, or 38 years ago last week, at the Civic Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. I was then doing my Ph.D. in Stony Brook and hitched a ride with other fans to see them. It was not their best concert - there were issues with the sound, and the crowd was rather listless. It included a bunch of Hell's Angels who sat around looking tattooed and mean, as is their habit. And (did I mention?) Garcia sang mostly out of tune. But it was the Dead for sure, and thanks to modern technology I possess the actual recording of the entire concert. This is due to another remarkable quirk of the band. Every concert they ever performed for which "soundboard" recordings exist, only excluding those marketed as live albums, is available for free on a dedicated Grateful Dead section of I recalled the venue and the approximate year and was able to track down the precise concert. It even has the disappearing vocals during "Scarlet Begonias" that I can distinctly remember.

The cosmic-sounding name Grateful Dead arose for its own fascinating reasons and seems to have influenced their work. Among other things it led them to record an album called Blues for Allah and I recall they even performed it in Egypt in the shadow of the pyramids (I remember this story from the old days, but can't find internet evidence about such a concert. Still, do read this excellent article about the title song).

Their lyrics, if not their lifestyle, reflected a keen interest in philosophy and the mystery of life and death. If you saw the video of Uncle John's Band linked above, you may have noticed the lovely thought "Like the morning sun you come, and like the wind you go". Famously, their song about touring, "Truckin'", has the chorus "what a long, strange trip it's been." I'll leave you with the full lyrics of their haunting song Ripple which says what many bands have tried to say, only somewhat better. The concept of "ripple in still water" is borrowed openly and directly from Zen philosophy. Do listen to the original version of the song, which Garcia even managed to sing vaguely in tune:

If my words did glow
With the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played
On the harp unstrung

Would you hear my voice
Come through the music?
Would you hold it near
As it were your own?

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go, no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

It's a hand-me-down
The thoughts are broken
Perhaps they're better left unsung
I don't know, don't really care
Let there be songs to fill the air

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall, you fall alone
If you should stand then who's to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home

Thursday, April 23, 2015

I told you so

I was casually browsing some old articles and letters stored on my computer and found a letter of mine published in Current Science in January 2003. I had mostly forgotten what I'd written in it, but it turns out to be closely related to the issues in my last two blog postings.

While no one seems to have disputed any of the suggestions I made, approximately zero percent of them have been implemented in any institute I know of in India. In view of several disasters that have struck Indian academia in the last few years, I'm really tempted to say "I told you so"! Of course my suggestions were hardly original, these are standard procedures in much of the developed world. Sadly it seems quite clear that we in India claim to aspire to excellence but won't put in place the things that would help lead to it.

The original letter can be viewed here, but for the reader's convenience I'm reproducing the full text below.

Science Administration

The editorial ‘Requiem for a missing generation’ has done well to raise pertinent questions about science administrators and governing bodies of science institutions in our country.

I would like to make a few observations in this connection. The present set-up of science administration in India is inherently feudal. This was perhaps understandable at the time the system was set up, but it is now a serious liability. A feudal approach to administration is inherently personalized and based on the whims and prejudices of a small number of ‘eminent’ persons. In such a system, senior administrators are given power without accountability, their appointments are based on cronyism rather than administrative merit, and the administration functions in its own interests rather than the interests of the institution.

In order to pass to a new system, we must codify and implement modern administrative principles, namely consultative, transparent and accountable functioning. A few examples would be the election of Chairpersons and Deans by the Faculty for limited terms, the public announcement of search committees and inviting of nominations for Directorial candidates, and the regular rotation of Governing council members (following consultation with faculty members). Institutions should be subjected to regular peer reviews which critically examine both their science and their administration. Also, those practices in which age or seniority are deemed to be the equivalent of wisdom should be discontinued. Committees should be constituted based on genuine suitability for the given purpose, and we should not panic if the youngest member is made the Chair.

It would also be useful to have a written statement of what tasks are expected to be performed by administrators such as Chairpersons, Deans and Directors, and their performance should be honestly assessed. Reappointment to such positions should be based strictly on past performance. The mission statements of institutions should be formulated or updated, along with their rules and bye-laws (which, for many Indian scientific institutions, have remained essentially unchanged since independence, and today seem rather antiquated and irrelevant).

In this context, I cannot help recalling a famous piece of folklore from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, that a Senior Professor was entitled to commandeer an Institute vehicle, even if another member had already booked it! This pernicious practice may now be forgotten, but it symbolizes the old system, in which it did not matter what was being done so much as who was doing it. It is high time we moved to a new system where personal power and privilege is largely irrelevant and is replaced by consensual, principled functioning in the interests of science.

1. Editorial, Curr. Sci., 2002, 83, 1297–1298.

Department of Theoretical Physics,
Tata Institute of Fundamental Research,

(Current Science Vol. 84, 25 January 2003, page 123)

Postscript: I just re-read Prof. Balaram's editorial "Requiem for a missing generation", to which my letter was a response. The editorial is also remarkably prescient about recent developments!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Checklist for hiring in academia (II)

Last Sunday I quoted an article in Nature about hiring at top levels in academia. I listed some of the recommendations from that article about how such hiring should be done, and today I'd like to continue the discussion by looking at the instruction "Articulate the offer clearly".

There are several aspects to such articulation. If hiring is being made to a definite institute or agency, the goals of that institute/agency should be stated. Is it dedicated to teaching, or research, or both? If the last, then in what combination? What areas fall within its scope? What standards would it realistically like to achieve and what resources would it provide in order to achieve those standards? Does it have some additional responsibilities besides its primary mission (e.g. mentoring another institute, providing some assistance to the underprivileged etc). An important detail is the duration of the position, and the agency/committee/board to which the hired person would report. Finally, the role to be played by the person has to be eludicated in some detail, including the degree of autonomy that he/she would, or would not, enjoy.

If you seek the opinion of any senior academic in India on this matter (though I haven't personally tried), they would most likely brush it aside impatiently with "it's all obvious, isn't it. If someone of any calibre is applying for a position then they would know about the institute and its goals, they would figure out whom they report to, and they would dynamically work out the role they have to play". Readers are invited to verify/falsify my hypothesis by asking a senior person of their choice...

Personally I'm all in favour of articulation, and I'm not completely alone. In 1996 the Lord Porter Committee, which carried out the first-ever academic review of TIFR, recommended that TIFR should formulate a brief statement of its goals and put this up prominently in the institute. They even offered a draft of such a statement. It was briefly discussed in the faculty, where someone humorously suggested it should be put up prominently outside the Registrar's office! (This was a comment on the series of dubious Registrars at TIFR from the late 1980's for the next three decades. These gentlemen all held the view that faculty members were the main problem. A research institute without faculty, like the famous hospital without patients in Yes Minister, would evidently have suited them better). Anyway, this recommendation of the Porter Committee was buried and, to my knowledge, there is no such statement of goals in existence even two decades later.

People may still be wondering why articulation of a job offer is important, so let me try to articulate this here ;-). Different people carry different models in their mind of what a particular institute is intended to achieve, and what the role of the chair/registrar/director/board of governors really is. In my three decades at TIFR I could identify widely varying models that were implicit in the discussion. Later when the Hyderabad campus of TIFR came into existence the debate sharpened and people came up with truly divergent models that, at the root, were based on entirely divergent assumptions. Today, looking at the five IISER's and the differences between them, one can see that varying models are still the norm.

I'm referring to variations not just in fine details but in major conceptual issues. Given an institute X, is it predominantly a teaching institute where a little research is done? Or the reverse? Does the institute train students primarily for its own benefit (because they contribute to research) or for their benefit (because they, or rather their parents, are taxpayers)? Are faculty members in an institute considered part of a pyramidal decision-making structure that evolves academic goals and standards, or should such goals and standards be decided exclusively by the top bosses? Do students have any statutory rights and authority (in some institutes they are part of the Senate). Is it ethical for a Director/Vice Chancellor to institute major changes that affect faculty and students without consulting them? Or even against their will? Besides ethics, is such a thing practical? Is the Institute responsible to raise funds for its faculty's research or is that the sole responsibility of faculty members? I have posed each of these questions as either/or, but in fact there is a continuum of possible answers and I believe it helps to know where on this continuum the true answer lies in every case.

Look at the recent history of TIFR, BARC, the other DAE research institutes, IISc, IIT's, IISER's, central and state universities. The newspapers are full of stories about controversies and disagreements (as a widely known example, consider FYUP). I claim that these have at least part of their origin in the lack of articulation of what the institution is for, and what the role of the Director/VC is supposed to be.

I'm sure many readers will also cite political interference (then, as well as now) as another important source of controversy. That could be true enough, and I can propose a related solution. When a citizen puts her faith in a politician at the voting booth, she should be asked to "Articulate the offer clearly". That would perhaps be hard to record or take into account, but it would keep Arnab Goswami busy for years, and for a change this is something the nation really does want to know.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Checklist for hiring in academia

A few weeks ago, Nature carried an opinion piece titled "Leadership: Ten tips for choosing an academic chair". Although "chair" is in the title, the article broadly addresses the decision-making process for the selection of "Departmental chairs, deans, facility directors and other leaders". Though this is obviously an important topic, discussions on it are rare in India and usually lacking in factual information about the decision-making process. This in turn is not surprising, because the decision-making process in our country tends to be a tightly guarded secret.

Part of the Nature article recounts the hiring process for a chair of clinical academic medicine. What I found more interesting than the article itself was an attached 10-point "Checklist for high-level hiring". (Apparently Nature too has realised that the only thing people read these days are 10-point lists!). I thought of picking out a few of these criteria and asking how well we follow these in India.

(i) Articulate requirements clearly in the job advertisement.
(ii) Articulate the offer clearly.
(iii) Ensure accountability in the selection process. 
(iv) Seek strong emotional, personal and social skills.

Note that my numbering does not correspond to the order in the original list.

On point (i), the authors of the Nature article say: "Before candidates can be considered, the hiring committee must clearly state the standards required in clinical ability, research and teaching." I looked at a couple of recent advertisements for the top job at two prestigious institutes in India, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai (here) and the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre, Bangalore (here). The former says:

"He/She should have an excellent publication record and be highly regarded in both national and international academic circles. Desirable: Apart from the above essential qualifications, the candidate is expected to be familiar with administrative and financial matters, preferably in Government set up."

The JNC advertisement says:

Essential: The candidate should have a Doctorate degree in the area of physical sciences/chemical sciences/life sciences /any other related interdisciplinary area. Desirable: (i) Post-doctoral research (ii) Original published work of high standard and (iii) Evidence of high professional eminence by way of recognitions like fellowship of academies, national/international awards in science etc.

I find this somewhat baffling -- apparently a degree is essential, but having good publications and an international reputation are merely "desirable"! The IMSc advertisement does better, stressing that publications and an international reputation are essential.

One notices that nowhere in either advertisement is any meaningful statement made about the goals of the institution or the qualities required (as opposed to qualifications) of the candidate. Both ads are fairly dull and prosaic, worded in early 20th century English and scarcely inspiring. 

I'll end here for now and leave points (ii), (iii) and (iv) for another time. Meanwhile I invite readers to post an advertisement for a comparable position (Director/President of a research institution) from some other country, so we can compare the approaches taken. Among other things, I would love to know if literary gems like "Professor or Scientific Officer/H in PB - 4 with the Pay Band of Rs. 37400 - 67000/- plus Grade Pay of Rs. 10,000/-" are universal, or unique to Indian culture.

This blog might be back

It has been two and a half years since I joined IISER Pune, and in all that time, I did not manage to complete a single research paper. However this finally happened last week and the result is here. I don't expect it will change the world (but see below), still it has been a pleasure to get back to research mode. I'm sure it was also a pleasure for my very bright student Sagar, for whom it's his first paper. I also think (and hope) it will get easier to produce more papers from now on. Entanglement entropy is a rather new field for me, with connections to multiple branches of physics. In recent years it has come to interface closely with gravitation and string theory, indeed the most striking development in this area during the last decade has come from this direction.

About changing the world, I recall my very first paper. It was a tedious and difficult calculation suggested by my advisor that I carried out on my own and completed in May 1979. When I showed him the draft he said, in his usual acerbic way, "It's fine, though it probably won't bring down the government". Of course he was wrong: the Janata government fell just a couple of months later.
But back to IISER: it's fascinating to reflect that my lack of output was not literally due to a lack of time (although between chairing a Department, being Dean of Student Activities and teaching a course of 200 students the time does tend to all get used up). Rather, it was a question of my head not being "in the right place". The drying up of this blog was further assisted by my going on Facebook regularly -- that is a low-investment, high-return option but certainly doesn't encourage creative writing.

In the next posting (soon after this) I want to comment on a recent article in Nature: "Leadership: Ten Tips for Choosing an Academic Chair". It touches on issues of what is/is not good science leadership that have concerned me a lot in recent years. I find it instructive to think about it within the Indian context. So, do stay tuned.