Friday, January 22, 2010

Think big to do big

Given that it is the start of yet another Gregorian year, I plan to talk of some positive things. The Gregorian year is just an excuse anyway to decide on "a" day to do this.  So I decided to talk about some of the positively memorable aspects about Chennai Mathematical Institute (CMI), my undergraduate alma mater. 

There are definitely somethings about CMI that I miss badly in TIFR.  The most important thing is attitude. Not everyone in CMI was say as hard working as some exceptional people in CMI were but large fraction would appreciate a progressive idea. At least many would value an idea even if not all of them would contribute to it. While in CMI I used to feel sad that many who value an idea or benefit from it but would not contribute to the idea. Like there were students who would consistently come to many of the student-seminars without ever giving any student-talks. At that  time I used to feel sad that these people are not getting involved actively enough.

But now after an year and a half in TIFR I feel that even those students of CMI were doing something pretty important.  The situation can get sharply worse if one lacks even non-contributing appreciators.

In TIFR I find it exceedingly hard even to find people who will at least encourage an effort by just their mere presence.  Haven't yet given up all hope since I see some faint glimmers here and there but then its isn't trivial to keep hopes high. 

Reminds me of a comment by Narayanmurthy (of INFOSYS fame) which he made in a different context in an interview to BBC . "in India it is easy to lose hope and to set ambitions low"

There was something intrinsically "international" about the attitude of many CMI students with whom I had important interactions. The way they thought was very often not tied to any locality or a nation. There was a general appreciation of something "good" irrespective of the regional identity of that good thing. It manifested in simple basic things like together watching a beautiful French film like "Amelie" and also manifested in more deeper ways when people engaged in complicated debates after having jointly watched a 'TED' talk.  I remember the complicated debate on existentialism that ensued as the aftermath of Arul motivating some of us to watch a TED talk by Richard Dawkins. Not that these debates always had a profound depth but just that people found it worth their time to even spend 5 minutes thinking about such a topic raises the general atmosphere quite a few notches above TIFR.   {Anyway Richard Dawkins came back to CMI minds many many times like later through Nivedita's support for the theory of "selfish gene"}

I do strongly miss this "global' outlook in TIFR where very often discussions can get highly local in nature and concerns being discussed would be very hard to appreciate for say a visitor from Nigeria to the institute. Its a different fact that even I find it hard to appreciate the worth of many of the coffee-table-dinner-table discussions in TIFR.  Very often the discussion might involve precise details of the geography of Kolkata or the bars in Mumbai which somehow never featured in my priority list in life. 

I somehow do value quite a lot a principle that those efforts aren't very important whose root cause can't be explained to a stranger to the discussion. Like if we are discussing theory of spin precession in quantum theory, a physics acquainted student from say Norway can equally participate in it as a physics acquainted student from Kolkata.  (A history student might find it harder but not impossible and anyway requirement of subject affiliation doesn't seem narrow to me like requirement of geographic affiliation since subject knowledge is much easily acquirable. Its more to do with the objectivity of the requirement.) Unlike say a discussion about Uttam Kumar (some actor in Bengali films) which will make no sense to a visitor from Japan and even he is forced to see a movie of his with Japanese subtitles might still find it hard to appreciate it!

"being appreciable to a geographically disconnected audience"  is in my opinion a good guiding principle while judging whether the current direction of effort is meaningful.  I do have a strong feeling that very often sustainability and reach of an endeavour is governed by whether its worth can be felt by someone culturally and geographically disconnected from the people putting in the effort.  Like you don't have to be acquainted with Japanese culture to appreciate a movie by Kurosawa. It cuts across boundaries in a self-contained way. And I have heard similar comments by many foreign appreciators of Satyajit Ray's movies that they appeal to people who have never ever even heard of Bengal.

The situation is much more obvious for scientific pursuits. I don't need to know the country Germany very well to appreciate Quantum Theory though most of its creators were German.

This issue of non-locality of pursuits is seriously tied to the issue of progress of knowledge. I somehow value highly the fact as to whether I have learnt substantially new things by the end of a day or have I just say sharpened my high-school skills which would be the case if I say spent the whole day doing numerical simulations on Mathematica.

Like in TIFR when I proposed to a table of mathematics students, "Hey, You know what these Reshetkhin-Turaev invariants in topology are? Lots of people seem excited about it and they say that it is connected to quantum field theory. How about some of us trying to learn this stuff?"  The response was a sarcastic laughter probably because I did not use enough epsilons and deltas in my statement to make it sound worthy enough of a TIFR maths student. 

When I proposed to a bunch of TIFR physics students, "Hey let us try to learn some of this work that Schoemmer Pries and Theo Feyd and Reshethkhin are doing on  Topological Field Theory. Seems it is interesting." Again people laughed at me probably because I didn't use enough order of magnitude estimates or Mathematica in my statement to make my statement look worthy enough.

When I proposed that we should have courses on 'How to write better scientific documents?" or that we should start efforts on LaTeXing courses by scribing and hence adding to free knowledge on the web again people laughed at me.

When I proposed to have a regular web-page to update the sports activities of  TIFR (like regular inter departmental cricket and badminton or these days many people are practicing for marathon these days) again people laughed at me.

When I proposed to donate money to the Wikipedia which is extensively used in TIFR for assignments again people laughed at me.
(I convinced my mother about the virtues of free knowledge movement enough that she donated 100$ to WikiMedia)

When I proposed that we should have courses on "How to teach well? or How to grade well?" (like the one's in Harvard where they try to train people about grading well) again some of the so-called best physics students of TIFR laughed at me. 

When I proposed to some maths students of TIFR to start actively joining the discussions of MathOverflow (from which I have been benefiting a lot) again they laughed at me.

Probably I haven't been saying things which add numerically to the CV or the mark sheet or worse I probably don't propose things which will enhance getting big pot-doc positions. 

Wonder why I don't feel like tuning my activities to generate either marks or to enhance my post-doc chances or enhance my salary. Wonder why I day by day see an essential conflict within the Indian set up between trying to learn and trying to create credentials.

At the end of the day what happens because of the narrowness and locality of efforts is that these efforts are largely disparate and don't add up.  More seriously this "local" attitude to life severely affects one's approach to science in general. One might just end up having solved a few "locally" interesting problems without having evolved a "program" or a larger picture.  (the word "program" very often is an euphemism to the "Langland's Program"!) 

This reminds sharply about what Gelfand had to say about the 4-colour problem that it was a very hard problem to solve but then even if it is solved he doesn't see it to have led to any non-trivial effect on mathematics. He thinks that it was just another hard problem but having no deeper implications. 

Gelfand saying this makes things more palatable and on a personal scale too I would be wary of working on a 'problem" just because it looks hard. There are many hard problems. But is the world dying to know their solutions? Will the world change from the way it is just because some scientists cracked some arcane problem which they can only appreciate?

Coming back to my dear old CMI. The fact which made CMI stand out of the crowd was this essential sense of importance. Among many of us in CMI we had a priority list which was very different from students in ANY college of India. At least what was considered important by quite a number of us. It was very important to understand that there are  functions which can be infinitely differentiable at a point and yet have no Taylor expansion.  It was important to understand why a group is what it is. It was important to understand why a Dirac monopole is a Hopf Fibration. It was important to understand the equivalence between claiming a complex valued function to have a complex linear derivative and it satisfying the Cauchy-Riemann equations. It was important that a wave-function in quantum theory could be undefined on a set of measure 0 and yet be a perfectly good wave-equation. It was important to ask when is an automorphism of a group inner. It was important to understand the difference between defining a basis on a set to generate a topology and to define a basis for a topological space. It was exciting to understand how filters can be used to simplify the proof of the Tychonoff's theorem.  It was very exciting to debate whether social work is devalued if the workers are paid. It was a matter of great concern if the little children in the neighbouring construction site at TCS did not have enough pencils and paper to write.  Many of us would take notice if a public email used too many "!" or "...". Some of us would spend the whole bus journey from Siruseri to T.Nagar debating whether an acclaimed scientist can be respected if he is say convicted in a rape case.  And we spent months debating over dinner tables whether all forms of academic help should be charged and how to decide which service deserves how much money. More often than not we debated n the reach of quantification of human values and services. "To what all can one attach a dollar value?" was a pertinent theme of many CMI discussions I have been in. And not to mention the innumerable debates on free knowledge and on open source. Its pros and cons were debated to death and probably it was one thing about which there was a working consensus that open source is the way to go.  The good and bad of Wikipedia was a recurrent theme. Quite distinct from this CMI attitude is the atmosphere in many colleges of India where Windows defines the horizon of softwares and pirated software is unquestioned.  And many of these debates were generated in the innumerable public mailings through our internal emailing system. And Alan Turing like Richard Dawkins was another pretty frequent element of discussions. And some of us would have discussions far after the sunset during those extensive regular bus journeys trying to understand whether "love" is necessarily sexual and trying to understand whether to "date" someone comes necessarily with sexual undertones.  And we would also debate whether "free will" could be suspended for the sake of the discussion and whether democracy is somehow orthogonal to the whole idea of having the freedom of "choice".  And some us sent 100 SMSes to each other in 1 day to resolve such debates.

How insane some questions may sound but it is important that we debated what millions across India would take for granted.  It was this sheer spirit to question what could be taken for granted that marked for me the libertarian spirit intrinsic to CMI and intrinsic to the sharp progress in thinking that much of the participants in those discussions showed and they continue to affect the world wherever they are.

Is this fraction of people still there in CMI? 
A fraction of people who would spend time to "think big" rising above local needs and preferences and personal histories and experiences?

I somehow feel that it is extremely crucial that the education system inculcates the idea to question everything around and to rise above local issues of salary and food and bus fares and photocopying of class notes and crushes on some one and thoughts of a happy married life.  The education system need to train to think of the same questions on a more general framework of economics, educational administration and free knowledge movement and relationship dynamics and theories of marriage stability.  Progress of a society is crucially hinged on having the ability to think in the large and to think in ways not attached to geographic,linguistic and cultural features but in terms of intrinsic dynamics of being human. 

When we in CMI started the social organization of "Spark" for teaching the kids of the construction workers in the neighbouring TCS campus none of us had either the experience or the know-how to go about it. But then the crucial thing about the effort which I would like to emphasize inspite of the short-lived nature of the effort is the fact that our plannings were not constrained by our abilities of resources. We did "think big" at every stage.

An effort has little chance of success if the goals and plans are made within the limitations of resources and abilities one fathoms to have. It is important to first plan towards a desired target (hopefully big) and the try to build up resources and abilities to fulfill them. 

My maternal grandfather used to say this very often "You aren't going to achieve anything if you start with a mediocre aim"  He always warned of the recursive disaster of thinking small since in that case not only is your aim small but even your efforts are limited by not just your abilities but also by your perception of what your abilities are!

I somehow strongly feel that what was crucial to the meteoric rise of CMI on the academic scene of India was this "international" attitude  among may students coupled to efforts not limited by perception of abilities. So what if I have to call a few floors in a building in the market in T.Nagar my college and have to live in dilapidated hostels, I still can think better than the best anywhere in the world.  It was very easy to try for simpler things and mediocre things being in a shabby setting but some of the CMI students I know did not let their efforts and thoughts be limited by the mediocrity of the set-up around. 

On small scale this affected the choice of books we read in CMI for our courses. Many of us read the best graduate texts in the world to keep ourselves at the cutting edge although Internet was the only window we had to glimpse at the frontiers. One can write an entire article on how the 24 hours broadband internet connection of CMI coupled to a computer-per-student ratio positively affected all its activities.  This also couples to the active blogging from CMI. Even those who did not blog would actively read the blogosphere. Blog was quite a part of CMI.

This is a very important feature of thought that identified CMI at one point and it is crucial that this is spirit is maintained at any cost whatsoever. Efforts need to be taken to ensure that CMI always has this crucial fraction of high-calibre people who will use the extreme freedom of the institute to put in efforts to think and work along such "global" questions rising above local issues and limitations and always lift the atmosphere away from sinking into questions like "when will the semester end and when will i eat home cooked food again?"  Some people whose thoughts are not hindered by their personal background and experience but is fuelled by a greater view of what is fruitful at large.

Although I can't ignore the reality that for some getting grades in the exams was too important to look at any of the above questions and they never featured in any of these discussions. Respecting their choice to do so, I hereby completely ignore the world which they inhabited inside CMI completely orthogonal to the CMI in which I lived.

Inspite of all the ethical vacuum and the almost-non-existence that I felt with the Physics education of CMI, on mathematical and social fronts I gained from it far more than I could have gained from any other college in India that I have heard of.

Are we sure that enough is being done to maintain an atmosphere where students can ask questions and discuss issues deeper than what I described above in the CMI I saw?


premraj said...

I really appreciate this anirbit . This article shows one values of education rather than its enifits. its a wonderful sharp fusidilation on the stereotyped education system and visisons of the present day competitive chaps.
just like you were being laughed at, same is at my end.
when we were being taught fluid dynamics I proposed that in the laminar flo the streamlines are just like the magnetic field lines , lets explore whether there is osmething like pressure field, iwas scoffed at by the teachers , even by a kvpy and maths olympiad qualifier.
keep on writing this type of masterpieces.

Anirbit said...


Thanks for your encouragement.

About your point regarding magnetic field lines and fluid dynamics have anything to with each other. You idea is absolutely correct.

There is a lot of literature about how electrodynamics and fluid-dynamics have similar structure. This is very well explored in books on what is called "magnetohydrodynamics". You should look at the beautiful books by Dieter Biskamp on this and of course read Landau's writings on this.

premraj said...

thanks a lot anirbit , also for prescribing me the names of these wonderful books.
waiting for your next write up.

AK said...

Good point... I can say the same about my undergrad eng. college in Chennai (actually outside Chennai!). Everything was mediocre about it but the students and some lecturers had the spirit to engage in deep discussions about seemingly trivial stuff. I found it profoundly lacking during my PhD. I feel the main reason is that once people 'get' to some place with name and fame, they somehow think it is below par to question the basics or try a second take at the fundamentals.

PS: Never heard of CMI, thanks for introducing it to me.

Anirbit said...


I wonder what you called as "trivial stuff". None of the issues of discussion at CMI that I alluded to were trivial stuff. Those were issues which run deep into science or sociology and most often don't have a clear yes/no answer.

In the CMI that I lived, it was important to many that people discuss and debate such complicated questions even if it has no direct bearing on the grade sheet.

Sid said...

I completely agree that the most important thing is attitude. But, attitude is not something which can be painted on a person. It is a by-product of his previous experiences. For a person to have a , daresay "good" attitude, he would have to question each and every action he does as to why he does it and is it completely under his control or is he just responding to nearby influences. Not many people are willing to do that. One of the aspects of this attitude is what you correctly pointed out as a "global nature". But, even most people with the "good" attitude have gotten it only because of their past experiences.

For someone to acquire a "good" attitude at this stage, he would need 2 things. One would be a reason to acquire it. Most people who have it, have acquired it due to various reasons such as plain curiosity and fascination. The second requirement would be discipline. Without discipline, it is very easy to lose the reasons in face of the everyday distractions of the modern world. The most you can do is show them the first part by showing them your fascination. But, without discipline, it would just be overwhelmed and lost in their local events, resulting in this "local" attitude. The unfortunate thing is that you cannot teach discipline. People who have a "good" attitude have acquired discipline because their reasons(such as curiosity) were found at a time when they had much less distractions in their local surroundings. Since these kinds of reasons are common to all human beings intrinsically, this is what brings about an "international" attitude since it transcends the local events and goes to the heart of human nature and the nature of the world.

In my opinion, the ability to truly appreciate mathematics is the most "global" outlook of all. Physics is quite fascinating(alongside real art and music), but mathematics exists independent of the physical universe around us. Great mathematicians must have seen something pure and transcendental about mathematics to devote their life's pursuit to it. If you have not read it already, I would recommend reading the article "The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences" by Eugene Wigner.

Sid said...

I find your enthusiasm regarding learning new things(like the Reshetikhin-Turaev invariants) quite encouraging. I feel that having someone to discuss what you are learning about is very effective for many reasons. One obvious one is the diversity of views. No matter how good one is, he can never look at all aspects of something on the first run. Another important one is the chance to teach one other, thereby improving not only one's knowledge, but also(vitally), the ability to teach.

Sadly, Teaching is a much-neglected art these days. Good teaching can create fascination and interest , or take it much higher than it already is. It can provide different view to the subject and the very best teachers make it seem that the subject had to exist as a logical extension of the current knowledge of the student. On the other hand, bad teachers can completely kill a subject and make it seem as something far removed from the world and as a pointless exercise. In the face of such bad teaching, students find their everyday distractions more exciting and this is one of the major causes of a "local" attitude(atleast with regard to the sciences). Even if a student does not have enough discipline, an excellent teacher can move the student purely on interest.

Its nice to know that you join the discussions of MathOverflow. It is a very unique website in that the people there are quite serious about it and very high quality(relative to the rest of the web) discussions ensue. The closest that can come to it is the Physics Forums, although it is mostly useful if you have doubts about textbooks and such. Also, there is a partly useful newsgroup visited by the likes of John Baez, although a lot of spam comes through.

Anyway, I really hope you can keep your ambitions in spite of the discouragement you seem to get.

Vijay said...

Hi Anirbit,
I enjoyed this post on CMI and TIFR and learnt a lot from this. Thank you,

Anirbit said...


Thanks a lot for your encouragement.

I hope people like you will become the next generation of teachers in India who can reverse the current trends.

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