Archive for January, 2009

Styles of brilliance

January 31, 2009

Dave at The Quantum Pontiff ponders:

Like many an arrogant kid before me, when I graduate from high school in my podunk hometown (no, it wasn’t marshy, and I say podunk with all the warm feelings of a idyllic childhood), I was filled with confidence that I was one of the smartest people I knew. Oh, I’d never say it, and yes I knew I was good mostly at only one small thing, mathematics, but I’m pretty certain looking back that I was a pretty confident ass. As you can well imagine, then, transitioning from my high school to Caltech, an institution filled with near-perfect-SAT-scoring students, Nobel laureate faculty members, and a wide range of just frickin’ brilliant people, resulted in a large dislocation in my perspective concerning my own capabilities. But over time, I began to realize that, while I wasn’t the sharpest cookie in the cookie jar, every once in a very rare while I could do something worthy of interest to my fellow genii in grooming (mostly jokes, mad rantings, or random acts of bizarreness, if you must know.) Thus I came to the perspective that there was no such thing as a universal genius, that possibly, just possibly, there are people who are good at differing things—little genii of their own domains. It’s often disheartening to sit in a room with a large number of brilliant people, until I remind myself of this fact. And Monday, while doing exactly this form of sitting, I began to ponder the different ways in which these people have their own styles of brilliance. Or, in short, I made a list.

His incomplete list (as Dave himself describes it) consists of problem solvers, random generators, field jumpers, connectors, communicators, and the refactoratti. The one class that I think he misses are the problem mongers — those whose genius lies in picking holes in existing solutions (with or without offering solutions).

Not what but how!

January 31, 2009

What can researchers and educators do to help students develop scientific-reasoning ability? Relations between instructional methods and the development of scientific reasoning have been widely studied and have shown that inquiry-based science instruction promotes scientific-reasoning abilities (24-29). The current style of content-rich STEM education, even when carried out at a rigorous level, has little impact on the development of students’ scientific-reasoning abilities. It seems that it is not what we teach, but rather how we teach, that makes a difference in student learning of higher- order abilities in science reasoning. Because students ideally need to develop both content knowledge and transferable reasoning skills, researchers and educators must invest more in the development of a balanced method of education, such as incorporating more inquiry-based learning that targets both goals.

From this paper in the recent issue of Science by L Bao et al on how knowing scientific facts does not always translate to scientific reasoning skills.

Updike’s The dance of the solids

January 31, 2009

Peskin, at cosmic variance, reminds of Updike’s Neutrino poem while paying his tributes to the writer who passed away recently:

Every particle physicist knows Updike’s poem “Cosmic Gall,” the number one popularization of neutrinos:

At night, they enter at Nepal
and pierce the lover and his lass
From underneath the bed …

In a similar vein, I believe every materials scientist should know of his The dance of the solids, which, Scientific American reproduces here to mark his death:

These verses were composed after John Updike had read the September 1967 issue of Scientific American, which was devoted to materials. They appeared in his book Midpoint and Other Poems, and are reproduced with the generous permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. We are posting it to mark Updike’s death today at the age of 76.

Have fun!

Sentences: isolative attention to

January 31, 2009

Press one part of speech into service as another, as Don DeLillo does in “She was always maybeing” (an adverb has been recruited for duty as a verb) and as Barry Hannah does in “Westy is colding off like the planet” (an adjective has been enlisted for verbified purpose as well). A variation is to take an intransitive verb (the sort of verb that can’t abide a direct object) and put it in motion as a transitive verb (whose very nature it is to enclasp a direct object). That is what Fiona Maazel is up to with the verb collide, which abandoned all transitive use ages ago, in her sentence “Often, at the close of a recovery meeting, as we make a circle and join hands, I’ll note the odds of these people finding each other in this group; our sundry pasts and principles; the entropy that collides addicts like so many molecules.” Or take some standard, overworked idiomatic phrasing—such as “It turned my stomach”—and transfigure it, as Barry Hannah does in “I saw the hospital in Hawaii. It turned my heart.” Or rescue an ordinary, overtasked verb from its usual drab business and find a fresh, bright, and startling context for it, as Don DeLillo manages with speaks in “You will hit traffic that speaks in quarter inches” and as Barry Hannah does with the almost always lackluster verb occurred in “… a single white wild blossom occurred under the forever stunted fig tree.…” You can also choose to prefer the unexpectable noun, as Diane Williams does with history in “We can come in out from our history to lie down” and as Sam Lipsyte does with squeaks in “Home, we drank a little wine, put on some of that sticky saxophone music we used to keep around to drown out the bitter squeaks in our hearts.” Or you can choose a variant of a common word, a variant that exists officially in unabridged dictionaries but has fallen out of usage—if, that is, you have reason enough for doing so. In Fiona Maazel’s sentence “This was not how I had meant to act, all tough and abradant,” not only does the unfamiliar adjective abradant, with its harsh d and t, sound more abrasive than the milder, everyday abrasive, but its terminal t has been bookended with the initial t of tough, lending symmetry to the adjectives coupled at the sentence’s end. And you can take the frumpiest, the ugliest of the so-called vocabulary words—the Latinate monstrosities that students are compelled to memorize in SAT- and GRE-preparation classes—and urge them into a casual setting, where they finally shine anew. Fiona Maazel pulls this off in her sentence “The floor tiles appeared cubed and motile.” The choice of the unusual sentence-ending adjective, which in other contexts might risk coming across as thesaurusy and pretentious, most likely resulted from the writer’s unwavering alertness to the alphabetics of the noun in the subject slot of her sentence. The upshot of this morphological correspondence between tiles and motile is that the subject’s embrace of its second adjectival complement is much stronger than that which would be achieved by the two words’ merely syntactic functions alone. Finally, you can fool around even with prepositions. Prepositions often attach themselves adverbially to verbs and thus form what are known as phrasal verbs, such as check out and open up and see through, but you are not legally bound to use the orthodox preposition with a verb. Don DeLillo breaks from established usage in the sentences “She was always thinking into tomorrow” and “She moved about the town’s sloping streets unnoticed… playing through these thoughts….”

Granted, there can be a downside to the kinds of isolative attentions to the sentence I have been advocating. Such a fixation on the individual sentence might threaten the enclosive forces of the larger structure in which the sentences reside. Psychiatrists use the term weak central coherence to pinpoint the difficulty of certain autistic persons to get the big picture, to see the forest instead of the trees. A piece of writing consisting ultimately of an aggregation of loner sentences might well strike a reader as stupefyingly discontinuous, too dense to enchant. But the practices I have been trying to discuss can also result in richly elliptical prose whose individual statements converge excitingly in the participating reader’s mind. These practices account in part for the bold poetry in some of today’s most artistically provocative fiction.

Gary Lutz, here; via Amitava Kumar who got it from Maud who got it from Morning Coffee at Rumpus!

Extraordinary piece, by the way, if that excerpt hadn’t already convinced you!

Moments of desperation (and, skeletons in the closet) while doing research

January 31, 2009

Recently, I learnt about the book Handbook of materials modelling, edited by Sidney Yip. Published a couple of years ago, in two volumes and running into nearly 3000 pages (not to mention — costing around Rs. 50,000 approx.), it seems like a veritable gold mine if your interests are in modelling and materials science. One of the “perspective” articles in the book by Bulatov (provocatively titled Dangers of “Common Knowledge” in materials simulations) caught my attention; and, the frustration described in the very first paragraph is real and I too have experienced it many times.

For someone entering the field of materials simulations, it may be difficult to navigate through the maze of various ideas and concepts existing in the literature and to make one’s own judgment about their validity and certainty. Monographs and chapter books make it easier for a beginner to prepare for reading the literature describing the state of the art. Yet, even while reading a textbook, a novice may get the discomforting feeling of “not digging” a certain statement. If and when this happens, the first urge is usually to re- read the passage and think harder and, if that fails, to re-view the preceding discussion trying to pay more specific attention to the facts and logic behind the elusive idea. Then, depending on one’s patience, it may become necessary to read other texts or talk to more experienced people. But what if all of this fails to clarify the point in question? What if the misunderstanding persists through the years and continues to nag even after most of the other, initially difficult, ideas happily find their proper place in one’s mind. It is quite natural then to begin to doubt oneself: why does no one else have this difficulty? Is it only I who is stupid? Eventually, the feeling of desperation subsides, often replaced by a conditional acceptance: “I don’t dig it but I can live with it”.

Bulatov goes on to discuss some technical (the non-usability of periodic boundary conditions for 3D dislocation dynamics simulations) and some basic (the dislocations always glide on planes that have the largest interplanar spacing) misconceptions which were blindly accepted by the community as common knowledge. Though the details presented in the article might only be of use to the practitioners in the community of dislocation dynamics simulations, his take home lesson is valid for almost all of us:

… my only and rather evident conclusion is that it is a good practice to remain agnostic about the ideas and concepts prevalent in any field of research, materials modeling included. Others may have their own “skeletons in the closet” waiting to get out in the open. This brief article was my way of doing just this.

Making the Indian political process more efficient

January 31, 2009

Ram Guha has some suggestions:

First, promote bipartisanship on issues of national security and foreign policy. The Congress and the BJP are equally guilty here. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Srinagar, as the first prime minister to do so in more than a decade, Sonia Gandhi asked the Congress ministers in the state government to boycott his speech. More recently, when several years of peace were threatened by the Amarnath controversy, L.K. Advani worked to intensify the conflicts between Jammu and the Kashmir valley, when he could have instead chosen to collaborate with the government to resolve them. On the question of terrorism, too, the BJP and the Congress seek to wound the other party rather than to make common cause in the national interest. When the idea of India is itself in peril, there must be no place for the politics of vindictive opposition.

Second, promote lateral entry into government. One reason Western states are better run than ours is that top jobs are not a monopoly of party apparatchiks and civil servants. Rather, qualified technologists, lawyers, entrepreneurs and journalists are encouraged to enter government in posts suited to their skills. Why should a successful businessman not be eligible to be made commerce secretary, or a brilliant scientist education secretary?

Third, restore Parliament as a theatre for reasoned debate, which it indeed was for the first quarter-century of its existence. The first few Lok Sabhas met for some 150 times a year; now, we are lucky if Parliament convenes for 80 days a year. And when they are not on holiday, the members of parliament seek not to speak themselves but to stop others from speaking.

Fourth, put pressure on political parties to voluntarily adopt a retirement age. No one more than 70 years of age should be permitted by their party to contest elections or hold office. In a young country and fast-moving world, to have octogenerians running state governments or seeking to be prime minister simply won’t do.

Fifth, act on the EC’s suggestion and include, on the ballot paper, the category “None of the above”, to be inserted after the list of candidates for each constituency. The right not to vote, and to make it known that an individual will not vote , is a natural extension of the democratic right to choose a particular candidate or party to represent oneself.

Though Guha calls his proposals realistic, it is not clear how things would work out; for example, if the majority choose none of the above, what happens? Re-election? How costly would that be? Will the candidates in the original list be allowed to contest again? Why or why not? Apart from his second suggestion, which might be rather easily implementable, the others need strong political will (which is not going to be present unless the current bunch of politicians find that it indeed is in their interest to do so). Some of the others, like the last one discussed above also seem to lead to practical issues that are to be thought through. Having said that, it still is a list that is worth talking about, adding to and deleting from!

On gatekeeping and grading

January 29, 2009

Chad has a couple of interesting posts at Uncertain principles; one is on “gatekeeping”:

I think there is a legitimate need for something like the “gatekeeping” function in a lot of disciplines. I’ve spent a lot of time teaching introductory physics to would-be engineers and doctors, probably more time than I’ve spent teaching physics majors. I’ve also seen a lot of those intro students graduate with majors in something else, usually for good reason.

Particularly in the pre-med track, but also in engineering, you get a lot of students who are trying to pursue those majors for the wrong reasons. They’re pre-med because their parents want them to become doctors, or they’re engineering majors because they did well in science classes, but engineering seems more practical. These students might have the raw ability to be decent doctors or engineers, but they don’t know why they’re on those tracks.

The proper “gatekeeping” function of the introductory classes is not so much to weed out the “unfit” (though there’s a bit of that), but rather to select out those who are really interested in those subjects from those who are just stumbling along with no clear purpose. Many of those weeded out by the “gatekeeping” classes would be fine doctors or engineers, but they might be great linguists or economists or historians. Part of the purpose of “gatekeeping” classes is to make those students stop and think about whether they’re doing this because they really want to, or because they think they ought to.

This is, of course, no excuse for driving people out of their chosen career path by really bad teaching. I’ve heard a (possibly apocryphal) story about a faculty member who gave three dreadful lectures in the first week of a class, and came in the next Monday to find the class reduced by a third. “Still too many,” he said, and gave three more dreadful lectures. The next Monday, with half the initial number of students, he completely changed styles, and was interesting and engaging for the rest of the semester. While it’s occasionally tempting, that sort of thing is deeply irresponsible.

The real trick to these classes is to balance three competing goals: to cover the necessary fundamentals for the upper-level classes, to force students to think about whether they really want to pursue this major, and to be engaging enough to help everybody in the class learn what they need to know. It’s not easy to get them all right at the same time, but they’re all valid and important parts of the educational process.

The other is on grading:

My first few years teaching, I worried about this quite a bit. I talked to different faculty in the department about what they did, and to a few people in other departments. In my third year or so, though, I realized that it just didn’t matter.

The catalyst for this realization was a student who wasn’t happy with his grade. He’d been a decent student in the class, and I thought the grade I gave him was perfectly respectable, but he was hoping to go to med school, and thought he should’ve been a step higher.

I was bothered by this, because he had been a good student, so I went back and recalculated his grade using every one of the methods other people had told me about, from explicit numerical “curves” to setting the mean for the course at a target letter grade, and going one letter up or down for each standard deviation away from that mean. And every one of them came back the same way.

Take a look!

Seismology breaks up with the Richter scale

January 29, 2009

Did you hear the news? Green Gabbro not only has the break-up story but also the one about their falling in love in the first place:

I wince every time I see a newspaper article talking about the Richter scale (here it’s from the New York Times last November). Don’t get me wrong, I love the Richter scale – but I love it like you will always love the ex who taught you how to have a real relationship, even though it didn’t work out in the end. Seismology’s relationship with the Richter scale was deep and meaningful, and they will always think fondly of their time together, but they are no longer right for one another.

Take a look!

Why is it that every act of hooliganism in this country is committed in the name of Rama?

January 29, 2009

It probably is a question worthy of a sociology thesis — and, probably, there is one too — if you know of any, let me know; having said that, though I am not a sociologist, the nagging question remains: why is it that almost every act of vandalism and hooliganism that is committed in the name of saving our culture is committed in the name of Rama? There are several things that come to my mind; first is, for example, the fact that, of the two epics, unlike Mahabharatha where is the enemy is of your own blood (brother / grandfather / teacher / uncle…), in Ramayana, the enemy is the other and he is a demon. Associated with this difference is the fact that in Ramayana, Rama and his army never did any wrong while the methodologies employed by both the sides were questionable at times in the Mahabharatha. Thus, the legitimacy that you think you derive by associating yourself with Rama might be better than what you might be able to derive by associating yourself with Krishna and his obviously questionable ways! What is more, for hooligans who are committing crimes against women, any reference to Mahabharatha might draw unwanted attention to their own brutish acts. Finally — and I think this is very important — Ramayana had always been reinterpreted according to the times — be it Kamban who made Rama a vegetarian, or Rajaji who says that Sita’s agnipravesha is probably a later addition. From this point of view, that Rama’s name is used for devilish actions might just be a reflection of the depraved times in which we are living. If so, keeping A K Ramanujan’s essay on multiple renderings and readings of Ramayana in mind, if you get to read a version of Ramayana in which Rama’s army went into a madhushala to abuse and molest the women there “for the sake of the honour of the mothers and sisters” you should not be surprised; what is more, such a Ramayana might even explain why men were not held to similar standards by a reference to Sugriva and his men (with the exception of Hamuman, we are told), who, even after the passing of the rainy season, spent their time in drinking and merry making instead of arranging for search parties for Sita; and, remember, at that time, in spite of his anger, Rama had only asked Lakshmana to give a warning to Sugriva and remind him of his duty but did not punish him!

The famous paradox of Great Speciator Hypothesis

January 28, 2009

Grrlscientist explains the paradox and its resolution in a story that involves Ernst Mayr and Jared Diamond, among others, with some oh so… lovely photographs! A must-read!