Archive for March, 2009

This mixing of oil and water — it happens a lot!

March 31, 2009

Just that in materials science we call it unmixing!

TDR: Thanks for that. Why do you think a pretty significant amount of your students did complain about you? Why do you think that is?

PV: I think that sometimes when you have some students and some instructors they mix like oil and water. That could just be the explanation. It happens all the time, Tyler. Sometimes when a person goes into a corporation, they mix like oil and water. Sometimes when a person goes into a fellowship at a research institution like the one that I’m at now, the supervisor and the fellow mix like oil and water. It just happens a lot.

From this must-read interview with Prof. Priya Venkatesan 🙂

Link via Scott at Shtetl-Optimized whose post is a must-must-read too!

Sports and the symmetry of rules!

March 30, 2009

Ram Guha in the Hindu:

This spring, we commemorate the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. As the son and grandson of scientists, and as an agnostic myself, I suppose I have been shaped by the world that the Victorian scientists made and unmade. But — like so many of my readers, again — I owe a very great debt to the Victorian games-makers as well. The two may be connected — for, the beauty of such games as tennis and cricket is made possible only by the precision of its rules. The swerving aces of John McEnroe would have not been possible had the service box been somewhat smaller. Had the pitch in cricket been more than 22 yards long, the advantage would have rested even more securely with the batsman. The beauty of modern sport is a product in good measure of the symmetry of its rules. And so, while I shall concede that in the history of humankind Darwin is indisputably a more important figure than Pélé, I would still like to believe that it is in the realm of sport that we find the most appealing syntheses of Science and Art.

Take a look!

J H Franklin on scholarship

March 30, 2009

A few interesting quotes by John Hope Franklin, the historian who passed away recently, that I found here (link via InsideHigherEd):

“The very essence of the life of the mind is the freedom to inquire, to examine, and to criticize. But that freedom has the same restraints abroad that it has at home: to state one’s position, if impelled by personal conviction, with clarity, reason, and sobriety, always mindful of the point that the scholar recognizes and tolerates different views that others may hold and that his view is independent, not official.”
The American Scholar

“I have never regretted the decision to remain a student and a teacher of history. …I have been a student and advocate of the view that the exchange of ideas is more healthy and constructive than the exchange of bullets.”
Charles Homer Haskins lecture
April 14, 1988

“You can’t have a high standard of scholarship without having a high standard of integrity, because the essence of scholarship is truth.”
Winston-Salem Journal
Aug. 6, 1989

I liked the last one about standards of scholarship and its correlation to standards of integrity.

Science blogging in India

March 29, 2009

Arunn at Unruled Notebook has a must-read post about Indian scientists and Science blogging — the comments on the post are great too.

Having said that, I do have one issue with one of his assertions pretty early in his post; and that is this:

Primarily because science blogging, can be done by those who do the science in the first place; Scientists.

Personally, I believe blogging is the best medium suited for science for the simple reason that it is a medium where, if the participants are willing, the discussions can be free, frank and less inhibited. For such a discussion to happen, however, the bloggers should consist of both scientists and non-scientists (by profession) and scientific in their attitudes and temper. Thus, if the Hindu Science and Technology edition Q&A session, for example, becomes an open forum run by Hindu so that questions can be asked by anybody, and can also be answered by anybody, along the way, preserving all the wrong and not-so-correct answers also with the corresponding discussions as to why those answers are not correct, then, as far me, it would qualify as science blogging even if most of the people who participate in the forum discussions are not practising scientists by profession.

So, while I do welcome and look forward to more and more  Indian scientists and academics start blogs and discuss science and non-science in their blogs, I would also love some non-scientists to start blogging and start thinking aloud about problems and issues in a more science oriented way. And, if they do, I would include them also as part of the Indian science blogosphere.

The real achievement of DKP

March 29, 2009

Sriram Venkatkrishnan pays his tributes to DKP, who turned 90 yesterday:

It has been a life of struggles against odds with success crowning it. No wonder Ariyakkudi referred to her as Paadu Patta Ammal (the lady who had worked hard). Today, it is often erroneously said that Pattammal is the first lady artist and that she was the first woman to sing pallavi. In reality, she needs neither to glorify her. She showed that women from all backgrounds could succeed in the fine arts provided they had grit and determination. Therein is her real achievement.

By her own admission (and from my own experience too), DKP, when she sings, can bring tears to the eyes of the listeners — lay and trained, alike —  in an interview that would ever remain green in my memories she talked of how Chellamma Bharathi was moved by her renditions of Bharathi songs, and how a senior musician, after listening to her Bhairavi, exclaimed with tears in his eyes “Ippadiyum or Bhairavi-ya Kuzhande — Is there a Bhairavi like this too?”. So, to Sriram’s last line, I will add that her other real achievement is also that she connected with her audience at all levels — musical, intellectual and emotional. May we have the pleasure of listening to her a lot more!

The ecology of “Music on Record” — c. 1898-1914

March 26, 2009

That was the title of the talk, delivered by Prof. Vibodh Parthasarathi of CCMG, Jamia Millia Islamia, delivered at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT-Delhi.

Though the visuals (posters/advertisements/photos), the clips of the early recordings from that period, and even a short movie of the record making process are best enjoyed only in being physically present in the talk, for those of you who might be interested in reading about some of the stuff that was discussed, here is a paper from Prof. Parthasarathi titled Not just mad Englishmen and a dog: ‘The colonial tuning of “Music on Record”, 1900-1908 (pdf).

One aspect that I would have loved to hear more about is how the musicians and artists themselves regarded the recording process and why — this is only a minor quibble (and, it got some attention during the discussions that followed the talk anyway).

If you get a chance, you should not miss listening to the presentation — if only for the clippings and the pleasure of looking at the posters from that era. In the meanwhile, the report linked above is a good one too — if you have such inclinations.


[1] It was not very pleasant to learn about Gandhi’s refusal to meet Gauhar Jan (in spite of his Congress accepting her funding).

[2] I also understand that the practice of the singer giving her name towards the end of the records (which Sheila Dhar notes in her book), was, initially, to facilitate the workers at the gramophone manufacturing units in England and elsewhere to be able to label the records correctly — which later on, became a fashion and, to some extent, even a fetish.

A bookseller, Darwinism in nonsense literature and depictions of Dodos

March 26, 2009

Few links from Telegraph:

[1] Shyam G Menon on T N Shanbag of Strand Book Stall:

He was also sure that since Strand’s core strength was books, he would be happier with customers who came for books than for a cup of coffee. I doubt the longevity of this faith in a world ruled by business models, but I admire that man for having devoted his life to the printed word and making it accessible to more and more people. Visit the Strand website and you will know what I mean. After a mention of its founding in 1948, the highlights are on its discounts. Strand was the first in the world to offer 20 per cent discount; it now offers up to 50 per cent. The world’s biggest book chain in comparison was late to offer discounts and still does no better than 20 per cent. For me, such an approach, plenty of books and a store owner like Shanbhag, are all that matters. The cappuccino can wait.

Just this morning I was discussing with a colleague of mine about the service, sincerity and the discounts at Strand, Bangalore which made book buying such a pleasure (not to mention Kadambam next to it, as long as it lasted — which was not for too long).

[2] Somak Ghosal on Sukumar Ray and his depictions of Darwinism in his nonsense literature:

… the true force of Darwinism in nonsense literature comes through in the works of Sukumar Ray (1887-1923), the poet, printer, humorist and illustrator from Bengal. From his early poem, “Khichudi”, Ray disclosed a playfully witty, yet empathetic, understanding of the inner lives of animals. He not only created a menagerie of fantastic creatures here, but also endowed each of them with a fantasy life. In the poem, the duck (hans) fuses with a porcupine (sajaru) to become hansjaru, the caterpillar chooses to merge with the goat for mysterious reasons. Some of these strange meetings are self-conscious, as if out of some evolutionary design the best of two disparate worlds have conspired to become one: the lion with horns like the deer or the giraffe with the torso of a grasshopper. Such a mix-up, of herbivore and carnivore or winged and terrestrial beings, hints at — and parodies — an evolutionary process (like Darwin’s natural selection) that allows only the best features to endure by coming together.

The Darwinian urge in nature to favour the fittest is also explored in the figure of Kimbhut, another bizarre assembly of body parts giving rise to a hotchpotch animal. In the poem, “Kimbhut”, a sniffling, disgruntled creature longs for the voice of the cuckoo, the tail of an iguana, wings of a bird, the elephant’s snout, and the kangaroo’s legs. The end product is so fearfully ugly that it only inspires jeers. That Ray was deeply fascinated by Darwin is evident from the mini-biography he wrote for the young readers of the Sandesh magazine, which he edited. In that article, Ray explained the scientific premises of Darwin’s theories — why weaker species, unable to adapt themselves to changes in the environment, become extinct, how bodily features evolve through use and disuse.

The rationalism of this piece also pervades the origins of Ray’s nonsense animals, even though wish-fulfilment need not always bring a happy ending.

Reminds me that I should get that Rupa published translation of one of Sukumar Ray’s books (about some owl or something, if I remember correct).

[3] S G on the depictions of the Dodo:

Like the search for the most authentic portrait of Shakespeare, the debate over what the dodo looked like is yet to be over. A Dutch illustration going back to 1598 shows a gawky little creature with tiny wings like stumps, looking like a Walt Disney cartoon. In 1651, Jan Savery painted the dodo as an obese, smug bird with ugly, beady eyes. George Edwards painted it as a colourful, glamorous bird in 1759.

These striking disparities were not due to artistic errors alone. In its natural habitat, on the island of Mauritius, the dodo may have been a slim, even unremarkable, bird. When explorers started taking dodos to Europe, the birds lost touch with their natural diet. As their eating habit changed, so did their body structure. Still the bird proved inedible for humans because of its coarse, tasteless flesh. But dogs, cats, rats and pigs ate up its eggs, leading to its extinction in the 17th century.

Happy reading!

The relevance of Snow

March 26, 2009

And his Two Cultures ideas — Peter Dizikes at NY Times Book Review (link via John Hawks):

There is nothing wrong with referring to Snow’s idea, of course. His view that education should not be too specialized remains broadly persuasive. But it is misleading to imagine Snow as the eagle-eyed anthropologist of a fractured intelligentsia, rather than an evangelist of our technological future. The deeper point of “The Two Cultures” is not that we have two cultures. It is that science, above all, will keep us prosperous and secure. Snow’s expression of this optimism is dated, yet his thoughts about progress are more relevant today than his cultural typologies.

After all, Snow’s descriptions of the two cultures are not exactly subtle. Scientists, he asserts, have “the future in their bones,” while “the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist.” Scientists, he adds, are morally “the soundest group of intellectuals we have,” while literary ethics are more suspect. Literary culture has “temporary periods” of moral failure, he argues, quoting a scientist friend who mentions the fascist proclivities of Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats and Wyndham Lewis, and asks, “Didn’t the influence of all they represent bring Auschwitz that much nearer?” While Snow says those examples are “not to be taken as representative of all writers,” the implication of his partial defense is clear.

Snow’s essay provoked a roaring, ad hominem response from the Cambridge critic F. R. Leavis — who called Snow “intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be” — and a more measured one from Lionel Trilling, who nonetheless thought Snow had produced “a book which is mistaken in a very large way indeed.” Snow’s cultural tribalism, Trilling argued, impaired the “possibility of rational discourse.”

A very interesting piece!

The death and re-birth of books

March 26, 2009

The contemporary moment wherein the book on dead trees is (probably) dead and is being reborn on the net (understandable given all the good karma it did that it gets such an exalted reirth):

The U Mich announcement, as well as the e-Duke announcement represent the first steps it experimenting with alternate systems of revenue capture that are trying to come to grips with the fact that the Internet allows for 1) massively larger audiences, but only if 2) you can figure out how to market and promote your product. The books are not necessarily open access, but at this point, it’s too early to expect a radical shift; and probably a good sign that presses are willing to experiment at all, given the financial situation.

The concerns it raises are the same as always: will books in this new regime get the same editorial and peer-review attention they got in the old one. I suspect the answer is yes, because that’s what university presses do best, but part of the challenge is for these presses to convince academic audiences that this is true; that just because a new monograph is available for free online, and for a reduce price as a print-on-demand book, this does not reflect anything about its quality, does not mean it has been remaindered, and does not mean that the author paid to have it published. The difficulty of making scholars realize this should not be underestimated—as I continually discover, the majority of them are living not just in the 20th century, but in the 19th… sigh. Kudos to U Mich for joining us in the contemporary moment.

Hope those at the recently established IISc Press are listening and will join the movement at this momentous moment!

HowTo: develop multiple choice questionnaire

March 26, 2009

Nine primary guidelines at Tomorrow’s Professor Blog — here is the intro:

Multiple-choice items have a number of advantages. First, multiple-choice items can measure various kinds of knowledge, including students’ understanding of terminology, facts, principles, methods, and procedures, as well as their ability to apply, interpret, and justify. When carefully designed, multiple-choice items can assess higher-order thinking skills as shown in Example 1, (below) in which students are required to generalize, analyze, and make inferences about data in a medical patient case.

Multiple-choice items are less ambiguous than short-answer items, thereby providing a more focused assessment of student knowledge. Multiple-choice items are superior to true-false items in several ways: on true-false items, students can receive credit for knowing that a statement is incorrect, without knowing what is correct. Multiple-choice items offer greater reliability than true-false items as the opportunity for guessing is reduced with the larger number of options. Finally, an instructor can diagnose misunderstanding by analyzing the incorrect options chosen by students.

A disadvantage of multiple-choice items is that they require developing incorrect, yet plausible, options that can be difficult for the instructor to create. In addition, multiple-choice questions do not allow instructors to measure students’ ability to organize and present ideas. Finally, because it is much easier to create multiple-choice items that test recall and recognition rather than higher order thinking, multiple-choice exams run the risk of not assessing the deep learning that many instructors consider important.

Take a look!