Friday, February 19, 2010

Letters from Germany

I recently observed that neither on my home-page nor on my blog I had ever written about my adventures in Germany 2 years ago when I went there as a part of the Indian delegation to the Lindau Nobel Laureates-Students interaction program. I was selected to that meeting towards the end of my 3yr BSc.(Hons.) degree in CMI. It is a joint program between DFG and DST and in 2008 many Nobel Laureates in Physics came to meet selected students across the world at this annual event.

The connecting portal for Indian aspirants for this year is this.

Today trying to recollect and write out everything that fascinated me during that entire trip would be a very hard job and hence I decided to compile together here excerpts from various emails that I wrote to my mother and sister, during this journey through Germany.

Of all that happened and I saw during this journey the most lasting impressions on me was my experience of giving a talk on behalf of the Indian delegation at Bonn in the DFG headquarters, a visit to the Nazi Holocaust Memorial at Berlin,a walk through Berlin on a chilly rainy evening to visit the old churches in the city, the chocolate brown roses in the Island of Mainau and the white roses in Bonn and a western classical concert in the Island of Lindau.

The date of when the original email was written is mentioned on the top before the start of the excerpt.

The writings on 6th and 8th July 2008 are most reflective to me.

Never mind the many "..." in the mails.
They were written in different states of the mind.

Written on 30th June 2008

Dear all,
Its a grand experience. 550 representatives from 67 countries.

I have heard what 5-star hotels are like but the treatment we are getting here will be underestimated if it is called 7-star. The schedule is very packed and internet access times are weird. So it is very difficult to even write emails.

The boat trip across Lake Constance was an experience beyond words. I have never seen such a romantic and exhilarating atmosphere. Can't think of a better place to go on a honeymoon!

Sunset on Lake Constance in the backdrop of the Alps mountains was breathtaking.
And the music was amazing and the food was awesome.

On the ship I had discussions with Kapil Sibal (the science minister of India)

Deepti, I and Vikrant watched the Germany-Spain Euro Final with a HUGE group of German fans in a huge park in a open air screen. I had heard a lot about the football crazy German people but watching it with a 1000 other Germans is an experience. The atmosphere was crazy and sounds and shouts were defeaning and every German was drunk.

{Here you get 10 beer cans for 1.5 euros and hence people drink alcohol more than water. Almost every food here has some alcohol in it. Here in almost every meal we are offered alcohol {the costliest quality of white wine, red wine and beer and beer shots (40% vodka!)}. Some of the people in the group are drinking like anything. (notable the guy from Jadavpur University is probably drinking a few liters of wine everyday!).

Of course I have not had any alcohol. I am having pork in breakfast and turkey meat in lunch. Turkey is amazing to taste.

We had interactions with the teams from Canada,Germany,Bangladesh,Pakistan and attended 3 of the Nobel Laureates lectures. On the ship we had personal discussions with Prof.Grunberg who won the Physics Nobel in 2007. Nobel Laureates are amazing people. You can talk and laugh with them like anything.

Nandini , I and Shreayas are walking all around Lindau and during such a walk we had interactions with the Chinese team. They are very nice.  We had ice-creams here as our first expenditure.

Will write later,



Written on 1st July 2008

Dear All,

Yesterday I missed the guided tour of Lindau because I  was writing the email. Later we who had missed just walked out and joined the group at a later spot. Given that this is a 3km x 11km island one can find out something pretty easily. Today I am missing lunch to write this email. The timing of the internet access is such that one has to miss something to write a mail.

There is a tremendous lack of communication within the group and I think even today some of us have missed the lunch with the US team. Everybody seems to have left and some of us here have no information as to where they are.

It seems that yesterday was the formal welcome ceremony in the presence of the countess and the ball-dance. So we all wore our sherwanis and sarees. Expectedly the Indian contingent turned out to be the most colourfully dressed ones.

The Chinese press took some photographs and videos of me wearing the Sherwani! And some newspaper from Poland also took photographs of me and Shreyas in Sherwanis with Nandini in her green sari. { Many German guests here came out to compliment Nandini saying that "You look beautiful"..she got the heads turning here!}

Today at breakfast table a Chinese lady joined me and she said that she had noticed me dancing in the ball-room and thats how she recognized me. She said that she had spotted me because of the conspicuous sherwani.
When the ball dance started the only ones to go out were Swastibrata, Krishanu and Ankit. We all just kept standing watching. Ankit balled with the wife of the president of the US Department of Energy. She said that she has 3 daughters and she wants to marry them to Indians! Krishanu got royally dumped after sometime by the lady because he couldn't dance. And the German man who took Swastibrata was so huge that she shied out after sometime.

The lady in the Pakistani team refused to dance because she is already engaged!

It was looking pretty unsocial with us not participating in the dance when all the other countries were on the floor. So finally some of the Indians started dancing together and that attracted a lot of attention.

Anita (the Punjabi lady in our team) invited me to dance with her. That was the ice-breaker for me. First time ever on the dance floor! We tried to do a waltz but  couldn't get it very right. She taught me how to do it and we tried doing the ball dance for about 20 minutes. It was a very new kind of an experience.

I think Deepti took photos of me doing the waltz with Anita. Some say it looked pretty nice!

21 years of socially ingrained inhibitions are not that easy to shed!

Ultimately the entire team joined in and we all set up huge circles in the center of the room and Anita led us. We tried typical Bollywood group dances and the rest of the countries got excited about it and joined in. Some of the German ladies did the Bhangra pretty well and one of the German guys danced with Shreyas with great vigour.

Then we tried Bavarina dances with the other Europeans and that worked out well.

Nandini tried to do a ball dance with me but that didn't work out very well since I couldn't match her energy. After 1 hour of shying away she turned out to be a very enthusiastic dancer!

Nandini, Krishanu, Shreyas, Bhargav, Ramesh and Akhilesh danced very enthusiastically and led the whole crowd. After sometime I,Shiva and Prathiba took to the sombre role of photography being unable to match their energy.

Then we played punjabi rocks etc in the hall and all the countries joined together to dance with them. It was a celebration of India ultimately. Members from all the countries joined together to form concentric circles and danced to the music of punjabi Bhangra.

But of course some of the Germans danced the waltz amazingly. I have taken many photos and videos of that. I found a couple here who did that in an awesomely elegant way. I videotaped them.

Of course one should mention that the German lady who was doing that was too beautiful to be believed to be real.

Prathiba and Deepti planned to return home at 11:30Pm. Prathiba asked me to escort her to the hotel since she is "scared" of the drunk Germans on the street! {What a protection to look!!} Thats when I returned back (with her). Others came back at about 1Am and I heard that the dancing got more energetic and fast as the night went on. I heard that the Indian team was given special applause by the other countries for having completely changed the atmosphere.

Anyway lot of other things to tell....but I am missing a lot now...wonder where the USteam-Indian team lunch is happening!!



Written on 2nd July 2008

* I attended lectures in Condensed Matter Physics by Nobel Laureates like Prof.Hansch, Prof.Grunberg, Prof.Giaver, Prof.Von Klitzing, Prof.William Phillip and Prof.John Hall.

* I attended a special discussion session with Prof.William Phillip and also had a 3 hour long dinner table discussion session with him. We discussed a myriad of academic and non-academic things.

* I attended lectures in structural biology by Nobel Laureates Prof.Deisenhofer, Prof.Huber and Prof.Michel.
  I attended a special discussion session with Prof.Huber on the topic of determination of protein structure.

* I attended lectures of Prof.Veltman and Prof.David Gross.
  Prof.Gross was thoroughly excited about LHC and its prospects of discovering Supersymmetry.

The Condensed Matter Physics Nobel Laureates whose lectures I attended all seem very excited about the idea of using BEC trapped in optical lattices to produce Quantum Computers. Prof.William Phillip almost took a detailed class on the idea of trapping BEC in optical lattices. There is a lot of discussion abong the Nobel Laureates about the idea of nano motors and how some of these have been partially achieved using laser cooled atoms. Everybody is talking about the experiment where a set of Bucky Balls with Rubidium ion trapped in it was rolled through a carbon nano-tube. They even showed videos of this. They have designed atomic conveyor belts using these trapped BEC.

There is also a lot of discussion about the idea of using trapped BEC in optical lattices as a simulator for the Bose-Hubbard model and then to use it to study the "2D Superfluid-Mott transition". They are referring to this web-site :

Prof.William Phillip is thoroughly excited about this and we has long discussions about these. He explained the idea of splitting a BEC into many lumps and then transporting them through optical lattices. He also referred to the rotating bucket of Superfluid experiment by Prof.Leggett.

Written on 3rd July 2008

Dear All,

Few short comments:

*  People in Germany are pretty clumsy. In every eating place we have been (the restaurants or the Lindau dining hall) the waiters would collide against each other and crash the glass plates and glasses. Even in flight the German waiter crashed all the dishes he was carrying. Today at lunch the waiter at the lindau meeting crashed a pile of dishes while washing them!

* There is no dress code in the meeting except for the special receptions. People are wearing anything and everything. Only a small minority are in formals. Some of the ladies in the meeting are wearing a little more than a lingerie. {Anyway Germany seems very open about dressing sense}. The president of the Lindau council today was wearing a blue shirt with a red pant. {You people prevent me from wearing such things!}. Germany is very free about public display of affection. We saw a couple stand and kiss on the top of the Lindau tower gate which is about 70-80ft above the sea and looks down on 3 countries. Such a romantic idea!

   Nobel Laureate Josephson has come wearing a completely crushed laboratory apron!

* Today another Nobel Laureate was talking about the "3Am effect"! That all good ideas come around that time.

Yesterday I was mailing a few profs and I sent a detailed mail to Prof.Baskaran about some of the interesting Condensed Matter Physics ideas being discussed here. Prof.David Gross was explaining how various connections have been found between String Theory and Condensed Matter Physics and how methods of one are getting used in either. Polchinsky and Subir Sachdeva (from Harvard) are holding a workshop on this next year at UCSB. I am planning how to apply for that!

I attended Nobel Laureate David Gross's lecture and discussion session. It was exciting. So many people came to attend it that initially the hall that was booked for it proved to be too small. So Gross and everyone walked into the dining hall and we had the session at dining hall. Gross sat on the dinner table and talked. It was a session on understanding the current situation with String Theory. He is very optimistic and said "Now nobody can kill String Theory"   but said that we must be prepared to change a few ideas in the wake of the LHC  {the largest and costliest experiment in Physics in history that will be done starting next month}.

During the walk Prof.Gross and I had a conversation. He was asking where I am joining and under whom I plan to work etc. He obviously knows Shiraz and was referring to him. He asked whether I am from IIT. As usual IIT happens to be the only institute in India that they know of. 

Yesterday afternoon Shiv Teja (the guy from IIT who is joining UIUC) and I took a bus from Lindau and went on a trip to Germany. We took a 1 hour bus ride through various towns and villages of Germany. There is a small bridge across the Lake that has to be crossed to get into Germany . On the bus ride we met the Austrian team. They are very nice. They took photographs with us.

Prathiba and Deepti didn't join us since they said that the idea is absurd and we won't be able to make it back for lunch and the concert. But we did!

Yesterday Prathiba, I, Deepti and Vikrant went out and had ice-cream at 11:30Pm and we spent the evening on the Lion tower gate of Lindau. It is an amazing view from there. Then we 4 roamed around a lot. Here sun sets at about 9:30Pm and by the time our official obligations are over all the shops close down. So we are being able to buy nothing except ice-creams whose shops remain open till late at night.

Prathiba and I went on a photographic spree all around the coast which is the common meeting point of Austria, Switzerland and Germany. We were almost competing on our 2 cameras as to who can take better photographs. Today Prathiba and I plan to go shopping in the evening. If we can.

Many people in the group are getting very physically weak. Hemwati Nandan fell down unconscious while asking a question to Nobel Laureate Prof.Smoot. He had to be hospitalized and German hospitals did all checks on him from CT Scan to ECG! Prathiba is also periodically getting weak. She needed extra glucose to get to work yesterday. She was suffering a fall of blood pressure and is going dizzy. So she gulped down spoons of Lemon Rasna that I am carrying with me.

Yesterday I came to know that Prathiba is 2 times Gold Medalist in Physics (BSc and MSc) from Madras University. Now she is in the second year of PhD at IITM.

Anyway I ate beef today. Nothing great to taste.
Pretty much like mutton which I don't like.

Yesterday we attended the western classical music program to which we were invited. It was an amazing experience to listen to a live performance of Beethoven. It was a transcendental experience. The concert group playing it consisted of 7 people from 6 different countries!

Day before yesterday we had a special dinner with the Chinese and Nigerian teams. They were also very nice people. It so happened that some Nobel Laureates decided to come to that meeting. It was going to be completely arbitrary as to who gets to sit with whom and the number of Nobel Laureates was much more than the number of tables.  At the last moment there was an arbitrary change in the seating arrangement and it so happened that I got to sit with Nobel Laureate Prof.William Phillip (about whose non-academic lecture I had told you earlier)!

So I had a 3 hour long in-depth dinner table discussion with Prof.William Phillip. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997 for discovery of Laser Cooling. For million reasons academic and non-academic he completely mesmerized me. Firstly he is a hard core experimental Physicists with pretty strong theoretical base and who doesn't rule out the possibility that String Theory might be right.

 Through discussions with I discussed with Phillip the following questions in details: 

        1. The issue of dissemination of scientific information among researchers across the globe.
        2. The issue of fund allocation among various branches of science say String Theory or Atomic Phyiscs or Algebraic Geometry. Who decides and how to decide.
        3. Is it a good idea to let scientists take over this decision making process from the politicians?
        4. Is it a possibility that scientific research becomes financially self-supporting and disjoint from the corporate world?



Written on 6th July 2008

Dear All,

Life is getting very complicated and very hectic. One thing is very clear..the next time I leave India it is going to be with some very high quality laptop. It is impossible to connect back home without it. There are only 2 laptops here and knowledge of how to connect it to the  wifi is very limited. So it is getting very bothersome as to how to get hold of a laptop and how to connect it to the net. I am finally doing it from the professor's laptop who is accompanying us and with his help.
There is no guarantee  when and from where I can contact next. Yesterday night Prathiba and me went around the entire Lindau searching for a cyber cafe but could not find a single open one.

I am going almost without sleep for the past few days. Today we arrived at Munich from Lindau on bus. Tomorrow early morning we will leave for Berlin. It is a 8hr bus journey from Munich to Berlin. Even today it seems that I will not be able to sleep.

Today as soon as we landed in Munich we were taken on a guided tour of Munich. We had to walk miles. Then Shiva, I and Jyoti took an adventurous trip all across the city  to Munich to see the Olympic stadium and climb the Olympic tower of Munich. Thanks to Shiva's road sense we managed it. It was a breathtaking view of all of Munich from the highest point in Munich..the tip of the Olympic Tower at an height of 204m.

We had earlier arranged for food. We got back in broad daylight at 9Pm. Prathiba had arranged for the plates and the food. We bought in Indian food and she distributed it. Shiva, I , Prathiba, Sampoorna and Jyoti had it together. Prathiba is the first non-vegetarian Tamil I am seeing!
Earlier today we went to the German Technical Museum. It was beyond imagination. It had a complete mine and dissected aeroplanes in it!

We have walked miles after miles over the last few days and now the calf muscles and the foot sole is paining like hell.

On the last day of the Lindau meeting we went to Austria on bus and foot. Austria is just too is green green and green all around...all you see is lakes and green fields.

The last function of the Lindau meeting was on the Island  of Mainau and it needed us to take a ship trip across lake Constance. It was beautiful beyond description. We went by the side of Switzerland and the scenic beauty was breathtaking. The ship trip was just like a dream sequence. I can't imagine a more beautiful place. It was just like an oil painting straight out of the medieval times. Almost like Lindau, Island of Mainau can also be aptly be called "The land of roses". Roses of all colours grow there all across the island. They grow just like bushes.

In the island of Mainau, I was so absorbed in photographing that I got lost twice! First time I happened to run into the Pakistani team. The Pakistani prof was very nice. We chatted for a long time and he brought me back to the known places. The next time I got lost I ran into Deepti who also got lost in the Island. Then Deepti and I trekked across the Island to find our way back. The only problem was that she was in her trekking shoes and I was in my kolhapuri with my flat blue punjabi. It was painful walking across the island in kolhapuri.

After returning from Mainau island (where Gross gave the closing speech) the following people immediately left for a quick trip to Austria:  Prathiba, Shiva, Jyoti, Deepti, Vikrant, Anita , Anupam and me.
I am taking photos at the rate of about 200 a day. My batteries are failing me. I am transferring my photos into my pen-drive and Shiva's laptop.

A lot more to write......



Written on 8th July 2008

Dear All,

This is going to be a completely disorganized is night 2 Am now (a soft German opera is playing in the background in this hotel lounge) and I have to wake up tomorrow at 6Am to catch the bus...tomorrow we travel from Berlin to some university and then to there is no guarantee that I will be able to contact again...

Today it rained in Berlin (it was very romantic) and there is a certain amount of chill...the temperature dropped fast and all I had in the street was that red sweater...some of the Germans took out jackets!...I caught cold!...but Shiva is in his half shirts!

Anyway the hotel I am currently in is probably one of the most aristocratic hotels here...the cost is 200Euros a night...everything you touch here is carpeted and bathroom is in itself a beauty to see with glass partitions inside my room i have a mini bar attached with all types of costliest wine, beer and cognac filled in the fridge....Shiva and I are living together.

Abhishek Bhattacharya (the great mathematician "Bhotcharge" of South Point and now in Jadavpur University) found me out at the canteen of Technical University of Berlin and pounced on me from behind while I was paying the bill and we met after 3 years. Its ironic that it took us both to come to Berlin to meet! He is doing his internship in the telecommunications lab at TUB. We had lunch together and he is completely unchanged. We talked and laughed for  more than an hour.  He was at Lindau a few days ago and I missed him by a whisker there.

We both realized that we are completely unchanged when he gave his trademark shout in the canteen "Kire Onirbit" the utter surprise the other german students there.

He has visited one of the Hitlers concentration camps and he was telling me what a frightful experience that was..Bhotcharge is planning to take me and Shiva on a trip to the gas chambers at Auschwitz....Bhotcharge has gone to East Berlin too and he was telling me that he has seen active Nazi groups there.

Anyway yesterday given the tremendous interests of me and Prathiba, as soon as we landed in Munich we visited the "Holocaust Memorial" (the amazing achitecture built in Berlin in memory of the Jews killed by the Nazis) and the amazing glass tomb of the German Parliament......When I was in class 9 I had read about this exciting glass structure in readers digest as one of the best architectural specimens of the 20th century...yesterday I visited was breathtaking.

We also saw a  piece of the Berlin wall. Every corner of Berlin bears testimony to the Nazi movement and the destruction of the WW2...the city can send shivers down the weak spines.

Again at the insistence of Prathiba we found out an Indian restaurant and had lunch there....a punjabi dhaba where I and Prathiba shared a 7Euro plate of Chicken Curry and others had vegetarian food....The shop is called "Bolliwood-Berlin"....In Munich we had lunch at an Indian restaurant called "Indian Mango"....these places give unlimited rice to Indian customers....but tonight Shiva and I went on a walking trip of a few kilometers to one of the oldest churches of Berlin...and hence no dinner...he had 2 cup-noodles and thats what we had...he took some chocos and complan..but I didn't.

Shiva did his 6th semester of IIT at NU Singapore and his last summer internship at US and hence he is more experienced about living outside India.

Within the group now there are a lot of sub-groups...each goes out in its own plan...In mine and Shiva's group..the ladies in power happen to be Prathiba and Deepti...they have taken posts of finance ministers and hence it is impossible to buy anything while going to the shop with them...Prathiba and Deepti have measured out how much money to be spent where and hence they have prevented us from buying anything interesting since whatever I find interesting they call it too expensive.

The men are finding it impossible to ignore the precautionary force of the ladies Prathiba and Deepti. Prathiba is also the disciplinarian in this sub-group who is also controlling our voice levels...but giving us scary looks every time the men speak at decibel levels higher than what she has set as the maximum decent level...she says "You are spoiling the Indian reputation!"

Other officials are asking us as to how come we are so silent than the other Indian groups in the past. 
The "Prathiba effect"!

No cuckoo-clocks....the cheapest ones are 50euros and they look bad...the good ones are 150 euros each!

I visited the Technical University of Berlin. As usual the only university that they associate to India is the IIT. Seems that the IITs and TUB are setting up joint collaborations. Except for their nano technology and telecommunication labs I found TUB pretty much non-impressive.

I had done a training program in the best LASER lab in India at Indore.
Compared to that the laser lab of TUB is just childish and crude.

They have spent 5.5 million Euros in setting up the nanotech lab there! No wonder in India experimental Physics is suffering like this. They have expansion plans of TUB nanotech to 35million Euros in the next 4 years! I was amazed by their water and air purification system in the nano tech labs. They purify water to 18megaohms of electrical resistance and air to 10 ppm! (compare to the fact that normal european air has 1billion ppm)

In TUB the telecommunication lab is run by T-mobile and it costs 135million Euros!

The amount of funding available in this world in certain areas of research is just unthinkable and then it seems to need justification that String Theory is suffering from such an intense fund crunch.

It was a theme emphasized over and over again by the Nobel laureates that without extremely sophisticated laboratories further progress in experimental Physics is just impossible since the effects we are looking for today are so subtle.

But my experience with the German research tells me that the difference is simply in money and attitude. Indian science is still not so bold to try any new idea. But probably such huge financial support brings in this courage. Indian scientists need to get far more aggressive than they are and need to build in some more amount of killer instinct to be always the first one to achieve the breakthrough.

Indian science is still far away from developing that uncompromisingly ruthless attitude that nothing but the best shall be pursued and everything even slightly mediocre shall be trashed.

But the only way to break this cycle seems to me be to pump in a few milllion euros into Indian science. The rate at which technology seems to be evolving in Germany it seems to be well beyond the reach of Indian science in any near decade unless something is changed drastically.

Today Prathiba, Shiva, Jyoti and I saw a rally in Berlin protesting the US led attacks in Iraq. We took the leaflets...the statistics was scary...Prathiba is completely anti-US..Shiva is the diplomat.

Today we were given a special reception by the Indian Embassy at  Berlin at the "Tagore Hall"...we had idlis!
{Prathiba and I felt connected to home-town Chennai!}

Now it is 3Am..and I am hungry! 

The soft German opera in the lounge sounds ever more romantic in this chilly and silent night that has befallen on Berlin.



Written on 13th July 2008

"Yesterday I came back from the 58th Nobel Laureates-Students meeting (18th in Physics) at Lindau, Germany. {I am currently in Delhi finishing off the final formalities}

It was an experience of a life time over and above the amazing feeling of representing one's motherland in an international conference. During this I met and talked and had dinners with various Physics Nobel Laureates. It was a great time interacting with them. Apart from the technical exchanges it was a powerful experience to feel the courageous creative spirit of the Nobel Laureates and the attitude of challenging every supposedly known idea to break presumed barriers.

After the meeting we went to a trip across some of the best universities of Germany at Berlin, Bonn, Hamburg and Munich. During these we were hosted some exotic dinner trips on cruise liners across Lake Constance and the River Rhine. During one of these trips I had a meeting with Mr.Kapil Sibal (Minister for Science and Oceanography for India). He was telling me about the formalities been completed for establishing 2 Max-Plank institutes in India.

On the end of the journey a joint meeting was held at the headquarters of DFG (German Research Foundation) at Bonn along with the delegates from China. At that meeting at the conference hall in Bonn, I gave a speech as the spokesperson for the Indian delegation.

DFG is launching a special program for collaborations with India through its new upcoming huge program called "New Passage to India".  Many of the big institutes in Germany are part of this program.

It would be a great impetus to CMI if CMI Physics can become a part of this endeavor.

I am trying to understand from them how CMI can specifically gain from these collaborations that are going to burst onto the Indian academic scenario within the next few years. Unprecedented amount of collaborations are going to come and CMI Physics I feel can grab these to build an international image and get out of its current state of complete anonymity.