Sunday, September 14, 2008

A rare positive experience

In this bizarre kind of life that I lead I get excited by any little positive thing that happens in my life..they are just so rare. And hence this article to share a positive thing that fell into my life by a sheer stroke of luck..may be what I will describe is a very commonplace thing in other people's lives but for me it was almost a dream come true given that my life has always been devoid of such things and I have only imagined of such things. {The description of the main incident starts after the first 2 paragraphs}

As I continue to get pulverized by the Indian education system (first in my St.Xavier's Collegiate School and then in Chennai Mathematical Institute and then in Tata Institute of Fundamental Research) which refuses to let me pursue my interest, my senses get numbed and my sensitivities and sensibilities get more and more blunt. I seem to have most senses like that of sorrow,joy,love etc ..nothing seems to touch me much unless in extreme. My emotional thresholds have been considerably pushed up. This system acts like an efficient gas-chamber which tries to smother a person into submission where he/she just follows what is told and is robbed off one's imagination and curiosity. After some time one starts to ask whether whatever seems natural is if the education system is right then I have to conclude that it is a crime to ask for a bare minimum amount of sleep in a day and it is a crime to ask to be left unperturbed so that one can study or follow one's own pursuits. It doesn't seem to be right to ask to be left alone so that one can follow what one is interested in.

These questions seem to have gotten old to me and I have at some level stopped asking them since I don't hope for any real change to happen. But yes in someways TIFR has been a slightly better experience for me since here I have more resources to study what I want to. Obviously the stupid compulsory courses keep strangling my life to a bare existence so that I have no more energies left to do what I want to do. I have to do all sorts of things to be able to steal a few hours out of the system to sit down for an hour or two and study things I these days I am attracted to the book on vector bundles by Milnor. The way the system expects me to study Physics seems so bizarre to me that after sometime I feel repelled from the subject and it takes quite a lot of effort to keep up one's interest in Physics. I keep homing that someday I will do Physics and Mathematics the way I want to and that I will create a system where everyone interested in the subject can pursue it the way he/she wants to.

I strongly believe that the role of a system is to provide advice and resources to help the people pursue their interest and NOT try to mould people into what it thinks is right.

Somehow by a sheer stroke of luck the system happened to do one such good thing to me among the million things it has done to damage me physically and mentally. Of course this flash in the pan doesn't cleanse it of its sins. Somehow this happened through my course in experimental physics course.

In the experimental physics course we were split into groups of 3 randomly and each group is supposed to perform 3 experiments given an approximate time of 4 weeks per experiment. The group allocation and experiment allocation was completely arbitrary. The first 3 amazing things that happened in this doubly random process are:

1. I got a group such that I gel very well with the other 2 people. Firstly it is very rare that I find people with whom I gel well and then to get them in the same group as mine is another bliss. Their names are Sambuddha (BSc from somewhere in West Bengal and then MSc from IITD) and Padmanath (BSc. from somewhere in Kerala and MSc from IITRoorkee). They too like me are in the Department of Theoretical Physics. Somehow we 3 have a lot of resonant frequencies. Something like this happened when the new first years came to CMI in 2007..I seemed to have a lot of resonance states with many of them like Dang,Pratish,Ashwin,Aditya,Hrishikesh,Atul and Rajesh.

2. Somehow the TIFR records mistook me to be a post-MSc student and hence grouped me with 2 other MSc students. I was the only BSc. student to have gotten into a MSc group and hence the nature of experiments that I got were also different and somewhat more to my taste. I just cant stand the idea of having to sit with a machine/apparatus for hours but the experiments we have been allotted were mostly of the kind which involved sophisticated data analysis of some complicated experiment done by other people. Of my 3 experiments, 2 happen to be of such a kind and hence many of the conservatives around are raising eye-brows about it that these are not "experiments" and especially BSc students like me should be exposed to more direct kind of experimental work. But I am thankful to whoever in the office did this error of feeding the data that I am a BSc student.

Somehow this age gap factor doesn't seem to make any difference in the group's interactions.

3. The first "experiment" we have gotten is to analyse bubble chamber tracks gotten from subatomic particles like muons and pions passing through liquid hydrogen. To top the situation the prof. who has been assigned to guide our group is Prof.Amol Dighe! Anyone who knows him knows what a "cool" guy he is. Probably years and years of education and work experience at US (at Chicago University and Berkeley ) has built in him a very dynamic attitude. He has been one of the spear-heads of research in theory of neutrinos in India and has hell lot of an experience behind him about analysing complicated experimental data. He is a core theoretical physics guy and is an extremely amiable person. He is the kind of guy who made it clear on the first day that there is no "right" and "wrong" way in Physics and that we should freely explore methods and techniques and come up with our own to suit the purposes.

Prof.Amol Dighe is sort of acting like the "ideal system" which I explained earlier who is providing us with resources and help and advice when we ask for it and is not making any periodic demands from us like "report at the end of the day what you have done"...he is not forcing any of his notions of right and wrong on us but subtly tells us the alternative ways he thinks and urges us to explore everything to find out what is optimal. Best of all he doesn't expect us to follow his word but to only try out everything and do what we find the most convincing.

Given his huge experience with sub-atomic particles he can tell us one alternative process of analysis for every algorithm we design. Most excitingly every idea that he gives is new to us and vice versa. So every side is interested to try out the other idea and figure out if that shows something new.

So cumulatively we are generating ideas at a very fast rate and if one plan of action doesn't work we almost always have another way ready to try out.

Hence it happens that 3 students from the Department of Theoretical Physics are doing a "theoretical experiment" (or "virtual experiment" as the critics like to call it) in the theory department under a theoretical physics prof. In case you have forgotten it is a part of the experimental physics course!

Coming back to the serious positive aspects of this experience:

More critically the balance of abilities in this group is very satisfying and is probably one of our greatest strengths apart from the fact that all of us seriously consider the ideas of the other. Sambuddha has considerable experience with high-energy physics which is crucial to understand the specific data at hand (he actually has 2 published papers in particle-physics) and Padmanath has experience in numerical computing for Physics and knows programming in Matlab,Mathematica,C++ etc. So Padmanath is the central programmer and he has amazing ability to debug programs and Sambuddha is explaining the physics at every step then I can mathematize the situation and Padmanath can code it.

I am sure I would not be able to write these huge programs that Padmanath writes and then debugs then patiently. No wonder he gives his killing look at me at times when I come up with a new algorithm to do the thing. Already we have tried and thrown about 4-5 methods before settling into the one that seems to keep the errors under control the best. Each algorithm is reached through an intense series of discussions on the black-board generally between me and Padmanth and sometimes Prof.Amol Dighe. After the session the black-board looks like the battle ground of Kalinga after the war and Padmanth knows that now it is his painful time to code all the exotic ideas that I have come up with. It is actually surprising that many of the basic mathematical techniques can get so complicated to program.

Ofcourse everything is being done on the laptop of Sambuddha. One should mention the terrific sense of humour of Sambuddha which keeps nerves under control when after 4 hours of algorithm designing and coding the program outputs sheer junk. He can laugh even when the output is as bizarre as we have got at times like at one point the output was such that the distance covered by the particle was an oscillating function and once it was a complex number!

Thanks to CMI I have considerably higher maturity with mathematics (especially calculus and geometry) than others so at every step of the analysis I am being able to chip in with detailed analysis and derivations and rigorously cross-check whatever others feel intuitively. So every algorithm that is thought of and program that is written at some stage goes through a thorough mathematical scrutiny by me for possible pit-falls and detecting unaccounted for special cases.

Further given my experience with higher dimensional geometry I am being able to take the data analysis to the level of detail where one can use the curvature effects of the chi-square surface and do serious analysis regarding the Fischer information. These are at some level purely concepts of statistics but I can see a clear advantage of being able to "see" them given my experience of having studied some amount of geometry in higher dimensions.

This is the first time that any of us are using our skills for any real situation. Especially this is our first experience of doing serious error analysis of data using Bayesian Statistics. So in effect I am having to learn a certain amount of about Statistics and Information Theory.

The central question we have been trying to figure out is to be able to determine the length of a curve and radius of curvature at various points given coordinates of a discrete set of points on it. The point is to come up with a consistent way of computing the curve length and curvature along with an error bound on it. It may sound simple but I assure you that you shall get unexpected surprises like we got when we did our first tries.

We still have a lot of errors to fix but somehow we seem relaxed about it given that we enjoy so much the process of doing it. This is probably the first time I am being able to work in a group and also enjoy doing it. It is probably sheer luck that got me into this amazing group with an exciting question to solve.

I wait for the sessions with the group very eagerly given that the rest of the courses are simply torturous and kill whatever abilities I have of thinking and imagination. Its the first time I have a little scope to explore my scientific creativity and let my ideas free to find out methods to reach a certain scientific goal. A few hours of blissful independence in an entire week of slavery.

1 comment:

Pratish Gandhi said...

sometimes the level of your passion amazes me