Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Homi Bhabha Centenary Symposium, Examination systematics and Ramakrishna Mission.

Let me just jot down a few things that have been intriguing me off-late from my latest trajectories of life.

The topics covered are in this sequence.

1. Homi Bhabha Centenary Symposium
2. Examination systematics (inspired from the state in TIFR)
3. Ramakrishna Mission 

On the first count I will explain 9 observations during the function including description of brief meeting with Prof.Rajaram {for the n^th time!} and meeting Prof.Govind Swaroop and Nobel Laureate C.N.Yang. On the second count I plan to make 5 suggestions on how to improve its credibility as I am seeing from the dismal state of affairs of this particular system in TIFR. And on the last count I will narrate some disappointing aspects I observed about Ramkrishna Mission on my latest visit to their branch in Bandra in Mumbai. 

The central connecting idea (as is with most of my writings) among these pot pourrie of thoughts is mostly summarized by a poignant statement by Pip in Charles Dickens's legendary novel "The Great Expectations" brought again to my memory by the writings of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen,

" In the little world in which children have their existence there is, nothing so finely perceived and finely felt as injustice"

* First 9 reflections about the Homi Bhaba Symposium lectures that are going on in TIR to mark his birth centenary.

1. Seems it has become fashionable among the foreign speakers to do some amount of pandering to India even though it was obvious that their attempt to connect their talks to India or Homi Bhabha was looking deliberate and contorted.

Why not just give a straight and professional scientific talk?

{Like what Shiraz did! He never ever mentioned Homi Bhbha in his talk and straightaway got to the busieness of explaining the current state of the search for Quantum Gravity. And as usual he gave a pretty much of an audience-capturing talk though nothing he said looked new to me because I have heard these stories from him and others many times earlier. But I am sure it was exciting to whoever heard them for the first time. Shiraz's talk is always also an exciting performance to watch!}

2. The orchestra by Zane Dalal from the School of Performing Arts and the dance presentation by the troupe of Dr.Mallika Sarabhai would win hands down in terms of quality with respect to almost all the other technical seminars. It is not clear to me why the government should give more funds to fundamental research rather than to development of artistic schools! I wonder whether apart from Nobel Laureate C.N.Yang's lecture any other lecture would be comparable to the above artistic performances interms of effect of capturing the audience's imagination.

I think the Indian scientists need to realize that when they are on the stage giving a seminar they also have a certain responsibility to catch the audience's attention since for many many topics in science the society doesn't seem to have any ovious reason to feel obliged to listen to what they have to say (like for most of mathematics and topics like particle physics and String Theory!)

Like the artists who perform, scientists too need to ensure that their performance is attractive to the people. Though never compromising on quality like the stunning lectures of Prof.Manjul Bhargav who sets an example of how to get the balance right. And one can't forget the legendary Feynman in this count!

3. I find it completely incomprehensible why all the Indian speakers and many of the Indian scientists attending the talk have to come dressed in some suit with a tie! Does India lack so much creativity in fashion that there is no other dress that people can find except that archaic British dress!? First of all it is so monotonous to see a number of black suits going around and further it seems so much weird to see so many Indians tip-toeing a particluar old-fashioned dressing style. As mostly over the last 3 years I am wearing some hand-embroidered khadi kurtas bought from the Gandhi Ashram in Sevagram. I just love the comfort these clothes have compared to anything else I have ever worn!

4. When will the Indian scientists (especially the mathematicians) stop talking of what science happened before 1965?

(thats so demoralizing to the students and so much repelling to prospective students to think of joining a place where people talk of what happenned before 1965 in a forum whose catchline contained the word "frontiers"!)

Has nothing interesting been done in TIFR in mathematics in the last 34 years that we still have to talk of what Seshadri, Ramanan and Narsimhan and Raghunathan did? Where are the young people? (Wasn't the catchline of the function "Science and Technology at the frontiers"!?) Isn't the audience already sick of listening to the same old things? (not taking away anything from these stalwarts and especially my great teacher Ramanan but still one can't ignore that the mathematics scenario today has moved universes away from the shadows of Bourbaki and Seminaire Cartan!) Why not have talks focussed on say the kind of mathematics that gets discussed in the blogs like Secret Blogging Seminar?

On the contrary to the above general depressing scenario with most Maths and Physics talks I was very impressed that the biology talks (the stunning seminar by Prof.Vidita Vaidya of TIFR on how emotional shocks and psychological stress during certain specific periods in childhood have detectable imprints at the molecular level of neurophysiology of the animal) and the chemistry talks and the climate change talks (the awesome talk by Swaminathan warning against blind use of genetic engineering but instead coupling organic farming to newer technologies) and the enriching talks on imaging by Knut Urban or Sunil Sinha focussed on what exciting things have happenned in the last 4-5 years and the string theory talk by Shiraz also went only as much back as 1997.

Can't we have it as a rule that the speaker cannot spend more than 10% of their allotted time on things done before 20 years from the date of the talk (or may be their microphones will get automatically switched off!) ?

5. I simply could not understand why so many of the top-notch officials in the DAE and BARC and TIFR paid homage to Prof.C.N.R.Rao. Even in Prof.C.N.R Rao's speech I simply could not find what was exciting about whatever he was talking of. Some new inorganic analogue (BCN) of Graphene has been found and some new properties of Graphene have been found. So? Whats the big point being made? I couldn't see the talk going towards some central principle or some bigger perspective and I somehow could not notice any error bars on any of the graphs he showed. I am not sure whether an experimental data has any value without the error bars or is this understanding of mine applicable only in Physics and not to Chemistry? I have earlier interacted with some Graphene specialists in my life (like Prof.Krishnendu Sengupta and Prof.Mandar Deshmukh) and heard their talks too.

{I first learnt perturbation theory in Quantum Theory from Prof.Krishnendu. His teaching was penetratingly insightful.}

6. As I briefly mentioned a little ago I was feeling pretty frustrated to see the average crowd age to be close to 50 probably! Where are the young people?

Where are the scientists in the age group of 25-35?

Why aren't they on the stage talking of what they are doing?

I understand as part of the celebrations a Young Scientists colloquium was held but even then the mathematics speakers were of the age around 50 and they never seemed to talk of the kind of things that I see getting discussed in the recent geometry seminars around the US. Something looks a bit disturbing. At that colloquium again the other subjects did seem to have put up a better show than mathematics in terms of how recent the topics were and definitely in terms of age of the speakers!

7. I met Prof.Rajaram Nityananda yet again (I had done a course on GR with him during my undergrad at CMI and he is the Director or NCRA and I have had many many exciting interactions with him over the last 4 years initially over emails to learn relativity! ). We yet again debated on whether it is very special that laboratory results match only when the Riemann-Christoffel connection is chosen and not any other of the infinite possible connections and about my point that Einstein's equations doesn't seem to use all the geometric information that is available from the connection on the space-time manifold. It is a coarse grained theory in some sense. But it seems it will take me much further studies and further research to convince Prof.Rajaram of my point which he currently dispproves of.

I wonder if there is a reformulation of Einstein's Theory purely in terms of the connection on the tangent bundle of the space-time manifold with no reference to the metric. Why is that not possible if gravity is to affect only the curvature of space-time which in general is completey determined by the connection with no referece to the metric? May be a wild imagination of mine but if realized that should convincingly prove Prof.Rajaram wrong.

Or what is more likely is that Prof.Rajaram is actually correct but his motivation based on mere experimental evidence is not convincing enough. Isn't it simply possible that there are einstein-like theories of gravity which use some other connection rather than the Riemann-Christofel one but just that experimental precision is not good enough to distinguish? Or may be Riemann-Christoffel connection is the only one that works but just that there is some deeper theoretical reasoning that rules out all the other infinite possibilities rather than just Prof.Rajaram's hand waving.

Will take me a lot of hard-work to decide whether my aesthetic motivation is realizable or is Prof.Rajaram's conviction of its impossibility.

8. I met Prof.Govind Swaroop. I wanted to meet the designer of the breath-stopping GMRT which I visited a month ago. This unparalled huge machine was built completely indigenously headed by this man. (he says that he designed that as an aftermath of a new-year drinking bout on 1st January 1982!) Even today there is no match for that telescope anywhere in the world. Unless Australia comes up with SKA, GMRT will have its monopoly for may be another 5-10 years. Over manythings Prof.Govind was grieving about the state of teaching in India and that Government is mindlessly opening up new institutes when there is a complete deficiency of competent teachers and on the other hand 5000Crores of instruments is lying unused in the Indian laboratories with nobody to use them. And Prof.Govind Swaroop on knowing that I am an ex-student of CMI got very excited and said that I am one of the lucky few to be from one of those very few state-of-the-art undergraduate institutes of India, 'the Seshadri's place". {I am now sure he has no clue of the state of the Physics departmnet of CMI!}

He told me that he has written an open-letter to the Prime Minister recently which will get printed soon in Current Sceince.

9. I attended a discussion session with Nobel Laureate C.N.Yang where I came to know from him of his extreme frustrations and failures in his life during his college life and as a graduate student. I was quite surprised to hear this legendary scientist talk about his struggles and failures in his life till much later in his career when he did his major works which left an indelible mark on history of science. How he got thrown out of the laboratories for his clumsiness and got a joke about him "Where there is a bang there is Yang" and hence his hopes of becoming an experimental physicist crashed and he didn't like any of the theoretical physicists in UChicago. Hence for quite sometime he felt his career was going no where and he usd to write letter of disappointment and frustration to his friend in China about how he is feeling less and less convinced that Physics is his right career! Good to know the ordinary human stories behind the magic realism that science history books will paint.

Incidentally the lecture of C.N.Yang about motivating the connection on bundles approach to gauge theory from vector potentials and Aharonov-Bohm effect was almost exactly similar to a student-seminar I had given during the second year of my undergrad.


* Recently a lot of my energy has gotten drained and have been feeling tired as a result of struggling for hours explaining to my electrodynamics instructor in TIFR as to why I deserve more marks in the exam than what he has given me. And these cause immense disturbances to the mind and hence I went to the Ramakrishna Mission in Bandra to spend some time there. I will tell you about some reflections I made there at the end of this writing.

Somehow all this seems a bit embarrassing to be fighting for a few marks in an examination though I understand deep down that my life will not be judged by my marks in some course. The serious judge can find many many more credible parameters to measure me! But I feel thse struggles are necessary as small steps to bring in the much needed clarity and transparency in the grading policies as I have seen in both CMI and TIFR. It is a fight for justice in the long run. It is my struggle to get myself heard with the administration that the students have a right to free and fair judgement and explanation if they are made to sit in exams and that such things can't be left hanging at the mercy of the vagaries of the instructors.

I analyze 5 aspects of marking schemes in exams that needs to be rectified to make it more credible are:

These are drawn specifically from my harrowing experiences with the highly debatable marking schemes in examinations in TIFR and to some extent also in CMI. Today I am student at the receivng end of such situations. Tomorrow I will be an instructor and will be answerable for the justness of the schemes I devise. Hence these questions of justice in examination are of utmost importance that one needs to answer just as Pip mentioned earlier had felt.

1. The sub-division of marks among the questions should be announced publcily in the exam paper and not decided dynamically as a function of class performance and whose answer script it is. I have often been in situations where a difficult question I could do was deleted from the evaluation because most of the class couldn't do it and the instructor needed to save a situation of the class average dropping weirdly low!

2. The marking schemes should be uniform for everone and not dependent on whose answer script it is. I have often been a victim of marking schemes where somehow the instructor perceived me to be a "strong" student and hence decided to correct my answer scripts with greater stirctness and gave me less marks for the same answer for which a "weak" student would get more marks. Differential marking schemes look not only unfair but also wrongly change the student-teacher relation from being partners in learning to that of being contestants against each other!

And very often the instructors have made such schemes public with a dubious explanation that it is unfair to have uniform marking schemes when the students are from diverse backgrounds and departments. What a counter progressive idea orthogonal to free market society!

In some sense differential marking schemes also removes the anyway very little incentive that exists for working hard for a course!

Such practices seem to be deliberate efforts to make appear on paper as if the education system is working very efficiently by artificially cutting out the competitive aspect through unevening of the playing ground.

3. If one is going to have open-book exams then one should be framing questions very clearly stating what all can be directly used from the book and what not. It gets very troublesome for the student if he/she is expected to anticipate what knowledge he/she can borrow from the book. And in general very rarely have I seen Physics question papers which are set with a level of precision which can leave no room for ambiguity. Fortunately probably because of the nature of the subject, my experience with mathematics question papers have been considerably better.

4. The notion of accountability seems to be a bit skewed between teachers and students. After the exam when the instructor says that "As I have said in the class that..." , I have no way to prove that the instructor never ever said such a thing in the class! There is simply no record of anything that the instructor ever said and hence as a student I find it impossible to put up a strong case when I feel that what the instructor said in the class was incorrect. The students simply have no evidence to prove their point whereas as a student my assignment and exam answer sheets are written and hence there is always evidence for whatever I said. And students can get penalized for writing wrong things in the exam but nothing seems to work the otherway!

I think it should become mandatory that after every class the instructor should make available on the web-page a scanned copy of his lecture notes. That will add a lot of accountability to the entire system and if the instructor's teaching is very good then the students will actually benifit from reading the notes. It might also act as an incentive to the lecturers to teach better.

This is regularly practised by Prof.Sunil Mukhi and Prof.Shiraz at TIFR who either get their lectures video taped or put up the lecture notes. Students benifit a lot from this and I think such inspiring practice should become mandatory.

5. Given the current state of corruption in the examination system it will do good if the instructors and the graders interview the students based on what they have written in the answer scripts to check whether the answers are copied or self one. This may look too much of a policing or too much of work for the administration but the time has come for the administration to do a serious crackdown on the matter of corruption in examinations and assignments. May be we can have system of doing these interviews on randomly selected students on random questions in the exam to reduce the burden but woould send-out the efective message. Given the apalling level of corrption in exams and assignments that I see in the courses in TIFR I think such steps are necessary to stop the ongoing collapse. In the TIFR course exams that I have sat through I see students adopting every possible unfair means in the examinations ranging from simple copying to full fledged round-table discussions to excange of answer scripts to even going up to a fellow batchmate to have a chat about some question! The levels of corruption in the examinations and courses is very very demoralizing to us minority few who are working fairly.

While TIFR is busy lavishly celebrating the 100th birth anniversary of Homi Bhabha I think it is worth reflecting whether Bhabha would have been happy seeing such a situation in his institute where people can getaway adopting every possible unfair means in the examinations and assignments! And most dangerously this socially ingrained corruption and a vacuous sense of crime and guilt permeates across all intellecual stratas of the students from the "weak" to the "strong"!

In dark times as now I think I have made a contrinution to Indian science simply by never ever adopting any unfair means in any examination right since I was in nursery to graduate school. I have a squeaky clean reputation in this respect and I think it is all because of my mother who inculcated this basic sense of fair play in me right since I went to nursery. And I never doubted the worthiness of fair play inspite of innumerable apparent counter-evidences. Though it should be a trivial thing to do but in such times as these it seems to me to be a big achievement!

As I grew up I naturally extended this policy of complete transparent fair play to matters of money and human relationships. In a relationship with me there is onething the otherside is guaranteed of and that is complete truthfulness from me. {Though as Morpheus said "I promised you the truth but never said that it is going to be easy". Now choose. Red pill or the blue pill? :P }

My mother would not be so saddened to see me lose if I played fair and put in my best for the goal. Right since childhood she also inculcated in me this basic principle of never setting my ambitions low and then to put in everything in capacity to attain it. And even if I fail she would tell me not to compromise on the ambition. This idea also goes back to my mother's father too with whom I had intensive interactions while he was alive who followed this principle of never lowering the ambitions inspite of every hurdle on the way. (His case is a slightly more poignant one since he could keep such ideas inspite of being one of those millions whose property got burnt in Bangladesh by the rioters during the partition of 1947 and he came into India as a refugee.) Anyway my mother is the greatest person I have ever met in my life and there is definitely far much more to write about her than the format of a blog can sustain. Probably someday I will write a book about this woman whom I know so well and in whom I see an embodiment of the essential human spirit of never letting any limitation curb efforts to excel. The babies in the paediatric wards of the horpitals will unfortunately not remember the perfectionist doctor who looked after them just after birth and who was more stressed by their illness than their mothers. My mother definitely develops some magcal bonding with any baby instantaneously. Her eye of detail and struggle for absolute perfectionsism in every aspect of life has strongly gone down with me. (Though my mother is never satisfied with my efforts for detail no matter how much I put effort into it! Oneday after I had given a talk on Klein-Gordon Field theory to Prof.Shiraz and failed to answer some of his penetrating questions he had told me "Learning should be 100% and not stop at 95%". My mother promptly agreed with Shiraz's philosophy when I told her of how Shiraz grilled me in QFT. I have learnt a lot more from Shiraz's questioning sessions than by reading books on the same topic.)


Now let me come back to my recent adventure with Ramakrishna Mission. It is not the first time I have been to any of their branches. Almost periodically I seem to get to know people closely who are someway or the other associated to them. And all of them have badly failed to motivate me to join them or belive in many of their principles. I have strong objections to the entire idea of religion or any method which uses "faith" as a substitute for logic. I am strongly in support of the path of reason, reasearch and deductive logic and proof systems. Somewhere down there is a small hope in me that oneday all understanding shall be reduced to axiomatization (though for this statement people like Biologists mights call me naive and artists might call me philistine)

The only 2 things I seem to appreciate about Ramakrishna Mission are:

1. The beautiful quality of the music their produce. I have bought about 3 CDS from them and earlier too I had a collection. The music is distinctive of them and has an amazing soothing effect.

2. Most of their institutions maintain large halls and open spaces where anyone can walk in and sit. This is wonderful given that even research institutes like TIFR hardly provide any large silent space anywhere in the campus to sit and think. The somewhat of a library reading room of TIFR is cramped and more than that the air condition is freezingly distractive. And more over such large open places should be maintained since they can be used as shelters in times of calamities.

But what I found very weird was the ritual of praying and doing a "pooja" of Ramakrishna's marble statue like one sees of every other God's sculpture in most Hindu temples. Why have they made that man into a God? He was a social reformer in many ways and lets not convert him into a soource of something that can be used to cut out logic.

Hero worshipping is getting dangerous for India!

{And such increasing hero worhipping attitude among the scientific student community of India also looks very amusing and ominous! Our education system seems to have created a lot of paper tigers in the student community}

It felt very terrible when I saw that Ramakrishna Mission seems to make money by selling goods that are used in pujas like those weird candle stands and corals etc etc. And my shock didn't end their. They seem to print books for children which have tremendous religious under-pinning! I saw them selling colouring books and drawing books for children which are about drawing and colouring picturs of Hindu Gods and Goddesses and elemnts of Hindu puja! And then I had another revelation when I saw in their shops books to teach the english alphabets to children where for each letter the representative character was some God! Like they had S for Saraswati and Z for Zeus! I find it hard to understand how it is very different from a news report I had read at some-poiint that in terrorist training camps the children are taught the alphabets like "G for Grenade"!

I find it hard to swallow such a base system spanning across the world where every action has religious undertones and even education to children! It looks so contrary to the whole idea that education should be teach people to think. Ramakrishna Mission seems to go so contrary to such simpl ideas by enforcing such particular religious biases even when teaching alphabets to children. The stinking undertone of myth is so very contrary to the age of logic and science that one aspires for and identifies with modernism.

I have a doubt that may be I will have similar sights if I visit book shops of other religions too.

Just that the interwining of beautiful music to religion seems to be a deep knot to cut through. Most of the religions have been source of beautiful music like the aratrikams of Ramakrishna Mission or Sufi music from the middle-east.

I wonder whether the human civiliation could have reached such beautiful music without going through the intermediate issue of myth and religion. Or were they just not imaginative enough to seek out alternatives? Thankfuly today modern music seems to have come quite far away from religious content. But it still looks hard to find a way to preserve the beautiful music like that of aratrikams born out of religions without accepting the asociated slag of myth and religion.

May be we can solve this problem if we think a little more harder.

These days I am voracously reading through the book "The idea of justice" by Amartya Sen. The initial part of the book isn't very well -written and gets slightly repititive but its very likley to get insightful as it progresses as I am already feeling. One more step among my many to get a better undersatnding of the notion of justice and the notion of fairness as in distribution of resources and products. The jeopardy of the Indian education system necessiates my journeys along myriad of directions to get a higher, global and deeper perspective!

1 comment:

snowprincess said...

In India,people love Hero Worshipping or making some one Omnipotent.So we have Krishna as a God,Budhha as a God,Ramkrishna as a God,Chaitanyo as a God.May be,by this way,the followers of these great men try to attract the attention of common people.
Recently I have read a book "LOTA KOMBOL" by Sanjiv Chattopadhya.He is one of my favorite author for his sarcastic writing based on a common bengali life.But later I was a bit upset reading the two volume of Lota Kombol.The initial part was fantastic,full with humor and sarcastic description of a common Bengali teen age boy.But eventually the Hero worshiping and believe in miracles have swallowed the fun to read.
The Hero worshipping is not only common in common people.I remember a lecture session hold here at IIT in last November titled " The Journey of Optics With Noble Laureate Charles Cao" where a famous professor who was supposed to talk on the recent development in Optical Fiber Communication,started saying the biography of Cao and said why Cao should be more respected than other noble laureate for being a part time Phd fellow during his major work.
Any way,the post reflects the logical mind of a young Indian.All the best.