Archive for June 15th, 2008

On footnotes in academic tracts

June 15, 2008

The ever entertainingly informative Mary-Claire vanLeunen has, among other things, the following to say about footnotes in her classic A Handbook for Scholars:

There are scholars who footnote compulsively, six to the page, writing what amounts to two books at once. There are scholars whose frigid texts need some of the warmth and jollity they reserve for their footnotes and other writers who write stale, dull footnotes like the stories brought inevitably to the minds of after-dinner speakers. There are scholars who write weasel footnotes, footnotes that alter the assertions in their texts. There are scholars who write feckless, irrelevant footnotes that leave their readers dumbstruck with confusion.

The footnote should never be your first choice for expressing an idea. …

On the other hand, vitality is a greater virtue than unity any day. The footnote is an awkward tool, inelegant, all thumbs, but it has a breath of life to it. In many contexts the appearance of a footnote parallels the moment when we draw our chairs closer to a speaker and bend forward: Now we’re getting to the good stuff, now we’re getting to the heart of it. Clumsy and halting though footnotes undoubtedly are, they’ve given us too much enlightenment and pleasure for us to turn our backs on them now. By using footnotes judiciously you can fill your reader in on general information he lacks, satisfy his curiosity about fine points, whisper delicious tidbits in his ear, and share with him an occasional small frolic.

The first and last sentences of the quote above reminds me of a book of V S Ramachandran, in the preface of which, while talking about the footnotes that he has inserted in the book, he says that Oliver Sacks once told him “The real book is in the footnotes, Rama”.

In any case, in this post, I want to give an example of another type of footnote that does not explicitly appear in the listing of vanLeunen above — one in which, with a wave of his or her  hand, the author dismisses an entire tract on line of scholarly activity as wrong or pointless.

Here is Thomas S. Kuhn, somewhere towards the middle of his The structure of scientific revolutions (Yes; finally, I have managed to find not only the time but also the perseverance to read the book, which, shortly, will allow me to use the word paradigm in my conversations, writing and blogposts 🙂 :

No wonder that some historians have argued that the history of science records a continuing increase in the maturity and refinement of man’s conception of the nature of science.*

* For a brilliant and entirely up-to-date attempt to fit scientific development into this Procrustean bed, see C. C. Gillespie, The edge of objectivity: an essay in the history of scientific ideas (Princeton, 1960).

Note that Kunh’s book was published two years after Gillespie’s!

I have also seen a similar footnote in one of the classic materials science monographs, which runs somewhat along these lines: I solved this problem in the year XXX. Nearly twenty years later, so-and-so [who is the author of another classic monograph, by the way] tried to solve the same problem and got his answers wrong.

Though not related to any footnotes or academic tracts, since we are talking about rubbishing one’s peers, no discussion is complete without quoting the story of how Eshelby got his FRS: Eshelby, it seems, was sore that he was not elevated to the rank of Fellow of the Royal Society. So, in one lecture, he described all of the then current theories on a particular topic and what was wrong with each of them, and then wrote the names of the authors of each one of them, and, finally wrote “FRS” after each of the names in big, bold letters. Apparently, he was elected an FRS that year and never repeated the performance!


On maintaining readerly hygiene and Dyson on doing Science

June 15, 2008

Caleb Crain while introducing a collection of quotes in a blog post:

For the talk I gave about the Internet at the n+1 panel on Tuesday night, I brainstormed by collecting quotes. I only ended up using one of them, and now have on hand a relatively unused miniature commonplace book about the Internet. Well, not exactly about the Internet, because it didn’t exist when most of the writers below wrote. They were in fact concerned with such topics as readerly hygiene in the face of textual surfeit and the threat that mass culture poses to the hierarchies that traditionally defended intellectual and artistic labor. Close enough for my purposes. Emphases added.

A nice post (link via Jenny).

It is via Jenny again that I got the link to this piece on Dyson, wherein he gives his opinions on ideas, concepts, people, and issues, including this one on doing science:

When I’m doing science I’m just scribbling on pieces of paper. That’s all it is. On occasion I will compute something on a computer. I’m an old-fashioned mathematician who works with equations. My tools are just a pen and piece of paper. I’m 84, so I’m definitely over the hill. If I were starting today as a scientist, I’d certainly study biology. I’d probably be much better at doing biology today than I used to be, because it is now much more of a theoretical subject. Now you can do biology pretty well with computers. When I was a boy, you had to do wet biology, working with real animals. On the other hand, astronomy is still exciting too, and pure mathematics as well. All three are things I’ve been doing.

Take a look!

The stories that photographs tell

June 15, 2008

At our ancestral home in my village, among the many photographs of relatives distant and near, politicians, gods and goddesses, there hangs a black-and-white photograph. It is the photo of my father’s grandfather, my paternal grandparents, the eldest daughter of my grandparents, and my grandfather’s nephew. And, of course there are stories about the absence of my father’s grandmother as well as for the presence of grandfather’s nephew in the photograph. In fact, most of the family stories I learnt in relation to photographs of this sort, and, at times, after hearing some family story, I tried to understand the described events with respect to the photographs.

And, some of the stories that were related to me about the photographs are fairly detailed — who took the photograph for example, and when — before so-and-so was born but after so-and-so’s seemantham and so on — and, I was told on good authority that the one in which my grandfather looks a bit tired is because it was taken on an Ekadashi day (when he was fasting).

I remembered all those photographs when I saw this nice piece by Malavika Karlekar in the Telegraph:

By the 1870s, the camera entered the lives of the Indian landed elite and the growing middle class; it was invaluable in the depiction of family life and newly-acquired professional roles where it became de rigueur for men with or without their families to be framed for posterity. Elaborate formal attire, the pose and the positioning of persons, were of vital importance; in the case of a married couple, how each spouse was seated or standing individually and in relation to one another often indicated relative status within the marital bond. Individuals or families in groups stood or sat elaborately dressed, framed against the backdrop of phantasmic studio sets — distant lakes, castles, tropical forests — that looked beyond everyday realities. This juxtaposition of the mundane with the imagined can be viewed as an image of the colonial encounter, where both ruler and ruled were involved in the intricate practice of redefining themselves; make-believe too had a role in this complex process.

The piece by Karlekar is not only the social history of family portraits in colonial India, but also a tribute to a Gandhian:

Some families, more than others, have been conscientious in the preservation of family photographs, diaries, memoirs and other random writings, a case in point being that of the Sulemaini Bohra Tyabjis of Gujarat. Family archivist Salima Tyabji has painstakingly organized, arranged and curated the many photographs of this amazing family (most of which are in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library); it is almost possible to reconstruct a family history and indicate social change on the basis of these visuals alone. For instance, several document Abbas Tyabji’s metamorphosis from a Western-educated fun-loving professional to a devout Gandhian, the camera zeroing in infallibly on changed dress codes, demeanour and pose. The recently published biography by the historian, Aparna Basu, brought out by the National Book Trust, tells us about this metamorphosis of the by-then-elderly Abbas. This informative little text recounts how he came to be referred to as the ‘chhota Gandhi’ — an ironic epithet, as Tyabji was 17 years older than the Mahatma.

Basu has relied on his diaries and public papers held by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library as well as published and unpublished biographies, and “an unending stream of letters” between him and M.K. Gandhi. The present photograph that Basu uses in her book clearly belongs to Abbas’s pre-Gandhian phase (picture). In this family photograph taken at Abbas Tyabji’s Bombay home, the photographic establishment has almost re-created a theatrical set, the central characters being Abbas (seated in the middle without head gear), and wife Ameena who is next to him. As the photograph was being taken at home, the photographer was able to devote more time to its composition, very likely with inputs from the family.

What is particularly interesting is that nobody engages with the camera: not one of the 17 people looks straight at it — and yet there is a certain dynamism in the visual. The photograph forces the viewer to give it more than a passing glance. Abbas’s head is almost at right angles while Ameena looks askance, with somewhat downcast eyes. A close examination of each person’s pose indicates that there is nothing accidental about any of them. Generations and genders are mixed, clothes, postures, demeanours composed — if not dictated — and arranged to give it a certain dramatic quality. There is movement in stasis and several sub-groups within the larger assemblage in this conversation piece, that is like many group portraits by the 18th-century British painter, William Hogarth, with all the “atmospherics of a domestic drama”. Clearly considerable thought — if not debate — ensued before the shot was taken. And as it is likely to have been taken in the 1880s, if not the 1870s, the entire event would have taken quite some time, perhaps even half a day.

Here is the wiki page of Abbas Tyabji (with a nice photograph of Tyabji with Gandhiji). Though Karlekar does not mention it, Salim Ali, the foremost of Indian ornithologists is the nephew of Tyabji.