Friday, March 26, 2010

A biology lab travelling on the oceans.

This is a photograph of the boat Tara Oceans on which I happened to land today by an absolute stroke of luck. 

I generally don't blog about some particular incident but almost always about an assimilation of ideas from a string of events in life. But this time I am going to change this pattern for this unique case. 

It was my first experience of meeting and interacting with an international scientific expedition group. This is very different from the life of a regular scientist. Of course I also heard accounts from these scientists of meeting with pirates near Somalia and how the French Army escorted them when while they were passing the gulfs near Arabia.

Basically this is a small sail boat on which a bunch of French and German biologists (mainly from University of Heidelberg and EMBL)are traveling around the world looking at the distribution of organisms (especially photo-plankton) around the oceans of the world. This will be a path breaking experiment which will do a comprehensive study of the effect of the human civilization on marine life. Remember that half of the oxygen that we breathe comes from the planktons in the ocean. We wouldn't be there without the oceans.

Ofcourse these sientists pointed out that world population crossed the maximal sustainable limit of nature around the 1980s! So the planet having to support a population so much in excess of its upper limit is straining the ecosystem of the oceans to dangerous limits. And this is much more fragile than the one on the lithosphere.

It is a 3-year program during which these people will travel around the globe's coasts sampling the data. Anybody familiar with biology would know that doing on-line analysis of organisms in a solution is near impossible. But precisely thats what these scientists are doing on board continuously using their very sophisticated instruments. To get a feel of the technology remember that to do microscopy one almost always needs a completely disturbance free region. Ocean waves 100 meters away from a microscope on land can be fatal to the experiement. Now comare that these people are able to do amazing levels of microscopy while traveling on the oceans! 

This team arrived in Mumbai today and their next stop will be Malaya and then to the Antarctica. The lead scientists landed up in TIFR to give a talk about it and I happened to be in that talk. I was supposed to go to my class on cosmology after that talk but then the cosmology prof (Alak Ray)  came and told me with a cheeky smile that he is cancelling the class since he is goin aboard Tara Oceans. It took some minutes for this information to sink in. And then I realized that the biology department has organized a trip for lottery selected 40 students from their department to this amazing floating travelling laboratory. First thing I was told was that I am not allowed to tag along. My cosmology prof was somehow the only non-biology person to be specially invited to the trip.

And the TIFR bus left at 5:30Pm with those few lucky biology students in it.

But then its me the desperado and I wasn't the one to sit around taking that. I came to know that at 6Pm the speed boat would leave from the Gateway of India heading towards this ship. And it was already 5:40Pm. On the spur of the moment I just packed in my camera and left with a friend of mine from the neutrino physics department. I asked the taxi to drive to the Gateway as fast as he could. But even on reaching there we couldn't figure out from where the boat was leaving. And almost when we were planning to come back,I spoted the TIFR biology crowd in an obscure corner. And I also spotted the biologist with whom I had recently done a biology project

And I hung around as the Tara Oceans sent in speed boats to take the bio people to the ship. After sunset when the last boat arrived, I jumped in. And I didn't regret it. 

Since I was in the last batch to arrive on the boat we got a longer time to move around and see this floating laboratory. And the German scientists were more than happy to show us around and explain stuff.

I am pasting below photo of this awesome sailing on the oceans molecular biology laboratory that I saw.

 One of the scientists (most probably German) explaining this crucial machine that goes down into the waters to collect samples. It can typically go inside for about 120m though they can in principle send it down for 2000m
This is where they purify the ocean water to extract out the organisms from it which is the ultimate objective of study.

This is the entrance to the kitchen and the bedroom and the living-room and the microscopy room of this floating molecular biology laboratory.
The kitchen. These French and German scientists have learnt to cook Biriyani.

A closer look at the capsule that goes underwater

The living room and library of scientists floating around the oceans. It is in the lower deck.

The store-room for the scientific apparatus and food supplies.

The other end of the kitchen with the fruit supplies hanging from the top in the net.

The scientists in front of the control room on the uppermost deck 

Unfortunately  blogger doesn't give me a method of uploading the videos I shot of the descriptive talks that the leader of Tara Oceans gave to us on board.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Right Answer

A student's life in India is a progress in skills of getting the right answer but probably never being taught how to ask the right question or ever been inculcated the skill to distinguish between what is an important question and what is not. Nobody ever gave any credit for asking a good question but the social hype has overvalued to the extreme the debatable worth of a right answer.  I remember as a child vividly watching on television a guy in Kolkata being taken around in almost a chariot with garlands round his neck for scoring the highest marks in the Class 10 board exams of West Bengal board. His only claim to fame seemed to be that he could get the right answers to some questions in some exam on some day. The image disgusted me so much. But paradoxically I see the same psyche prevalent in bigger and bigger proportions in the other institutions too where I happened to land up in the following years like the CMI Physics department and TIFR physics department.

As I made my way across the rest of the school life and the BSc. and half of my MSc. the biggest thing I realized is that every thing I studied at a point turned out to be a special or approximate case of something larger that I studied later. And almost always in subjects especially like Physics, every answer has limits of validity and in more and more complicated areas of Physics there are more and more subtle assumptions behind every answer. Hence the notion of a "right answer" to make any tangible sense has to be continuously be confined to narrower and narrower regimes to remain "right".

Somehow I was born so foolish that every time I am told a statement in maths or physics, I go around looking for the assumptions made in getting to that and then I try to figure out what would happen if I tweaked those assumptions. And very often this has resulted in me asking a question about it in class and now I have learnt that it is the biggest sin to commit as a Physics student in India.

One of my recent attempts at pursuing such assumption tweaking can be seen in this article of mine on the Hall-Effect. Probably not terribly exciting but gives me a personal sense of satisfaction to have brought an idea to a reasonable conclusion.

Possibly the biggest thing to realize about science is the simple fact that the most important questions have no answers!  And a point so amply emphasized and aptly illustrated by say the mesmerizing lectures by Prof.Alak Ray at TIFR.  Or as Prof.Kailash Rustagi (from IITB who taught me a course in TIFR) said to me once that "If you ask a question for which the instructor has no answer then it is surely a good question....a student is remembered for the questions asked in class"

Such sentiments are only too rare.

Such simple things were never in the priority list of any education system in India that I have seen. It is always busy trying to figure out the "top" based on ability to produce right answers in some examination. Wonder how come India is not the must sought after research destination even though since childhood every other person I knew was so busy trying to "top"! Probably the reasons are also not so hard to seek.

A few more Pink Floyds might sing a few more "Another brick in the wall" but we shall dedicatedly keep building the walls and we shall continue to be fossilized in the walls. The Great wall of China between countries. The Berlin Wall within a country! Walls between houses. Walls between persons. Walls between Physics and Maths. (the word "maths" has been reduced to almost a slang in the physics departments) Walls inside the brain. Walls inside the heart.  Rabindranath only wasted his energy writing, "Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls"

Rabindranath was too foolish a person to understand the worth of being able to generate the "right answer" and probably out of his innate stupidity arose those immortal words.

Thankfully Led Zeppelin inspired me to buy a "Stairway to heaven" so that I could climb over those walls.

I remember when the day before my electrodynamics exam in TIFR, I was struggling with a particular assignment problem and then I realized from a batch-mate that expectedly this was solved in the back of some obscure book. And the solution involved some complicated identity about fourier transforms which I had never seen before and I asked this noble person to explain to me where this queer formula comes from. With extreme disgust written on his face and with a heavy accent this guy replied to me "Pehle copy kar dete hain taki kal marks mil jaye. Kahan se aya kyun aya yeh baad me socha jayega." (a rough English translation would be "let me just copy it for now so that I get the marks tomorrow. Where it comes from and how it comes from is something we can think later")

I am very puzzled as to what research is supposed to be about if I am to accept "facts" unquestionably. Probably for such students "research" means what it states literally "to re-search" i.e somebody had written it in some website and now you conquer the world by being able Google it out! I somehow fail to understand how come some of the brilliant profs of TIFR whom I find admirable fail to inspire most of the students into adopting certain basic minimum sense of ethics. But then probably most of them might have not done research had somebody assured them 3 delicious meals a day for free.  A conjecture.

Even if the above conjecture might look like a poetic hyperbole, at least I had the shocking experience where I as the organizer of the student-talks was once forced to delay the seminar because all of a sudden just before the talk most of the potential audience and the speaker wanted to spend time eating bowls of dried puffed rice mixed with some raw vegetable slices and mustard oil etc. It is a very characteristic food of rural Bengal.  It is a preparation that is usually distributed in the refugee camps established for the homeless in the aftermath of calamities like say a flood or earthquake. 

(Not a dish that appeared ever anywhere in my list of preferred food items but that is an orthogonal point.)

In this same fateful electrodynamics course the instructor has surgically removed any detailed discussion of the foundations of special relativity since he didn't perceive them to be "useful" though I am going to stick my neck out to say that probably very little else in theoretical physics is so very important as them. At any rate we could have spent at least 1 class discussing the subtle issues about its axiomatization.  But then going by the generic pattern of the courses it is not very surprising since almost systematically all subtle aspects of every subject gets omitted where there is no clear notion of a "right answer".

{It is a different fact that in that relativistic electrodynamics course nothing of any substance or authentic value was ever discussed! }

This over-importance to the "right answer" has very often been extended to a point where people sadly fail to distinguish between what is conceptually important and what is practically useful. And subtle concepts have been dangerously compromised on the shameful pretext of not being "physically relevant". Very often raising my suspicion that it is just an excuse to cloak lack of understanding of the finer notes. Again a conjecture. But then again probably these are not crimes committed consciously but it is part of the general psyche of a society which has gotten into what I would call the  "third-world mentality" where you continuously compromise on quality for the sake of quantity.

Scientific research is probably the most vulnerable place to try out this mode of thinking where the cost can be astronomical of  only focusing on a perception of usefulness (usually contorted!) neglecting conceptual importance.

I am not so worried about being useful than I am keen to be correct.

Knowing better I never went back to ask him whether he ever figured out where that equation comes from. I lost the marks in the exam.  And this statement from the TIFR student reminds me of similar statements from college-mates reported by Tejaswi in IITK (he is also a student of Physics) in this blog article in his quote of "arre yaar. ye sab hamaare liye nahi hain. bas formula bataado, aur ham lagaadenge".(translated in english inside his blog) (Had it not been for the objectionable language in the blog used I might have greatly applauded the insight of this article of Tejaswi)  I think Tejaswi hugely overestimates the reach of this attitude when he says that with this we might have remained in the stone-age. 

{Aside: Incidentally I had a brief interaction with Tejaswi some 6 years ago in our KVPY camp in Class 11. Then it was a completely different me though. Coincidentally the 3 photographs on the top of that page are from our camp! I can recognize Radhika Marathe in the second photo and Shatajit Mazumdar and Nerella Tejaswi Venumadhav in the 3rd photo.}

No wonder I rarely ever risk discussing publicly anything in science that seriously interests me.

Who knows when I will run into the risk of facing this self-defeating attitude so carefully nurtured by the course work where all one needs is to get the "right answer". Now you go and beg borrow or steal for it. As long as you can get it, you are the greatest genius ever born.  You might be taken out in chariots with garlands round your neck for having located that amazing obscure website which happened to have complete worked out solutions for the assignment. 

I love discussing science and thats why I seek scientific discussions. Most often I don't seek scientific discussions because I want to learn something since I am sure I can learn on my own almost anything that I want to learn and almost always better than what most people can teach me. It is always exponentially more efficient for me to learn something on my own than to learn it from someone and most often given certain amount of time I seem capable of knowing any particular topic of my interest far better than most people with whom I might have otherwise discussed it. Especially in Physics. And increasingly so in mathematics.

If I am really interested in learning something from someone then those of my serious and hard academic discussions happen behind closed doors with some specific inspirational profs of TIFR  or over hundreds of emails with some specific people in my peer group in other institutes around the world or at MathOverflow. It is just too risky to try to have discussions in public or in most of the courses where the society seems to be predominantly interested in being given someway or the other a right answer as shortly and as soon as possible instead of trying to explore all the possibilities of the subject.

I wonder if this feeling of urgency to agree upon a right answer very soon and proceed anyway irrespective of how flimsy the conclusion might be, is somehow related to the post-colonial mentality. I feel that under such a spell one always lives under a self-defeating "race" against time as if trying to compensate for the all the time lost under some oppression.

Of course I give student-talks to share some excitement Anyway most people who see me everyday get to know at most only 10% of all the academic activities I do in a day.

But then again let us be wary of trying to measure work in terms of hours put in. That sounds only applicable if I am ploughing in the farms, which I am not. The reason why I find it hard to rationalize when the administrators try to measure a course in terms of "contact hours".  As if I am going to be ever grateful for all the hundreds of hours spent sitting through those dozens of courses in TIFR most which while I sat in, I kept wishing I was never born!

This has many curious manifestations in the administrative techniques in regions where the illusion of a "right answer" gets harder and harder to erect like in experimental physics projects or advanced reading courses. There we have come up with contorted bureaucratic methods to bring in the all-so-familiar sense of accountability which seem to be more counter productive than anything else and driven by a misplaced sense of paranoia. 

Like the bizarre question that I was asked at the beginning of my experimental physics project interview "How many hours and weekends did you spend in the lab?"! Me being me clearly refused to answer such insulting questions and had requested the administration to stop asking such questions which so directly seem to send out a signal to the student that he/she is being suspected to be a cheat with no prior evidence. Especially I found this offensive when my project guide (Prof.Roop Mallik) was pretty happy with my efforts.

Or in advanced reading courses where the proxy for the right answer somehow seems to be spending "25 contact hours" with the guide and ratification of the plan by higher authorities! A technique which seems to start off with the assumption that students are in general going to be dishonest.

Thankfully I am in the Department of Theoretically Physics of TIFR where at least reading courses have not been banned like I hear has happened in  some other departments. I get to hear so from students in those departments. I personally think that reading courses are extremely important things.

We seem to be so haplessly searching for a bureaucratic peg to hang on to when the illusion of "right answer" seems so difficult to erect and delude oneself into believing in it.

A different situation is seen if I say ask a question like "What is AdS?". This is a question which has a pretty precise notion of a right answer. But I find it quite puzzling that almost all students who I know to be working on what is called the AdS/CFT conjecture by Maldacena find it impossibly hard to give me an answer anywhere near being what might be called respectable.

Do people start research also like that? I don't understand how generations habituated to passing courses by looking up answers in websites and solution manuals is expected to do  research. I somehow see a contradiction or may be a miracle!

I see a lost opportunity of  benefiting  the society if such levels of check had been put in the right place for assignment evaluation and course examinations where every possible means of corruption gets adopted freely across all intellectual stratas. And it is so much more easy even for a person with average IQ to see that by being dishonest in a reading course the only person losing is he/she him/herself.

Probably the daunting task of confronting situations where "right answers" are not defined also explains the dangerous absence of arts departments from the research institutes I am familiar with. An education system which completely cuts out studies along sociology,music,economics,movies etc has little hope to mould complete people. I definitely find the priority lists very hard to justify where electronics courses are compulsory for Physics students but nobody is encouraged to study about the theories about the socio-economic roots of international terrorism. I am not very sure I can think of any argument which will make the later less important than the former.

Obviously understanding terrorism is an example of an extremely important question where a "right answer" is extremely hard to agree on. No wonder many of the greatest thinkers of out times have spent so much effort on this one single issue. 

Sometimes I feel that the overarching importance given to right answers as compared to exploration of the boundaries has basically been reversing the civilization as we know it. At one point humankind was frightened to death seeing the storms and the lightning and they conjured up gods to erect a "right answer".

In the academic circuits that I am familiar with, I continuously see this attitude to create demi-Gods to give the "right answers". The importance of being able to get the right answer is so huge that from where it comes and how it comes has become immaterial. So now if there comes by a person who can give the "right answer" for free we have a solution to all our problems! No need to think. No need to read. No need to explore. No need to struggle. Just ask this new found God! And the best of all there is now no need to debate.  Debate is probably the thing that most science students I know of are scared about. That is extremely risky business since that runs into the danger of having to question everything that one believes to be true. And it is obviously so easy and safe to believe than to think! Especially if one can find a "God of right answers" to believe in.

The question of belief is so very complicated a theme that I dare not enter here lest this blog article becomes tremendously complicated and long.  Just would like to mention that I am yet to rationalize the existence of "pujas" like "saraswati puja" etc in research institutes!

Now once the society has erected this demi-God who seems to have the right answer to every question which most people seem to face on a day to day scale, we start hero-worshiping.  Thats the beginning of starting to slip down a slope from where return is hard to fathom. Now science and logic and rationale and thinking are all at stake and bartered for in exchange of a idol to hang on to. How simple it is to try to hang on to an unanimously created illusions of God than to independently try to think through everything. No wonder we have such charismatic politicians when even research societies seem so amply capable of creating super-powers within their nanoscopic world. 

And now corruption begins. The system has got the seeker of the answer into a time and resource crunched situation where the seeker badly needs nothing but the right answer for survival and here comes the demi-God who can provide for it. What a perfect case for monopoly! The giver can so well give utter crap wrapped as the right answer and seeker will not even question or try to test or reason what is being given since the system simply doesn't give him/her the chance to do so. The giver soon realizes the immense power that has gotten vested in it and how much it can be used to propagate one's own dogmas in the garb of right answer. Now the giver can extend its sphere of influence irrationally beyond where expertise could even faintly be justified!

Since all you asked for is just the right answer and not the justification.

The giver slowly accretes a gang of cronies around and an system of patronization of mediocrity begins where the ratification by this created super-power is the last word. Scientific rationality and logic got sacrificed long ago at the altar of search for easy answers. 

Now even if the giver's worth is provable within the narrow domains of may be Quantum Field Theory, the giver's opinion can go down as a law about much complicated questions like the caste system or the Telengana issue! Since seekers have all found an illusion of magical power to hang their sagging thinking on they are ever so ready to accept the most flimsy arguments in support of say something in Indian politics because the giver of the "right answers" was correct with curvature of space-time!

It is so easy to accept an answer and believe it because of precedence in orthogonal arenas than to think and verify afresh in each realm of activity.

I prefer the later any day. 

It is sad that the world I know sinks so deeply into this logical paradox from where recovery will require nothing less than a miracle.  I don't know what or how much of argument or proof is necessary to convince a society of the irreversible dangers of hastily looking for the right answers.

When the situation is looking so very gloomy and it is suffocatingly dark all around, sometimes I do see a flicker of light or hope when say Prof.Rajesh Gopakumar in his speech says " this age of continuous updates in the iPhone let us not forget the slower processes of building edifices of knowledge.."

I was fortunate to have been interacting with him over two weeks recently when I was learning from him the techniques that he has recently established for exactly computing heat kernels on homogeneous spaces like S^3.