Archive for April, 2009

The Walajahpet connection to Tyagaraja

April 29, 2009

A must-must read piece by Sriram Venkatkrishnan:

Venkataramana Bhagavatar deified Tyagaraja and perhaps regretted the economic necessities that made him migrate. He therefore taught his son music and when the latter was 16, he was sent to Tyagaraja to learn further. The introduction happened perhaps when Tyagaraja visited Walajahpet during his pilgrimage tour of 1839. Krishnaswami Bhagavatar learnt the violin while studying music under Tyagaraja’s guidance. This is the only instance of a father and son being disciples of the bard.

Rather uniquely, father and son were to write the earliest biographies of Tyagaraja as well. And rather refreshingly, there are hardly any myths. While Venkataramana Bhagavatar was to write of a second brother of Tyagaraja’s called Panchapakesayyah who died despite Tyagaraja’s earnest prayers to God to save him, latter day biographers have waxed eloquent on how Tyagaraja revived a dead man! The manuscript of Venkataramana Bhagavatar ends with Tyagaraja’s marriage to Kamalamba, sister of his short-lived first wife, Parvati.

Krishnaswami Bhagavatar’s biography traces the entire life of the composer including his visit to Madras. Significantly, neither father nor son mentions the famed tale behind the composition “Nidhi chala sukhama,” though both independently state that Tyagaraja was above material considerations. In addition Krishnaswami Bhagavatar wrote that ruler Serfoji invited Tyagaraja to the court many times only to have him refuse.

Take a look!

High praise for A life’s music 

April 28, 2009

Jayan at BrainDrain strongly recommends Andrei Makine’s A life’s music:

This is one of the best novels I have read this year. Spanning a mere 100 odd pages, it has magic of writing in every pages. Very poetic, very intense style of writing. Very rich in imagery and emotion. The writing and description is very picturesque as if we are watching a movie.

Gem of a novel. Highly recommended.

I have to locate the book!

Marriage 2.0

April 28, 2009

Why are marriages not being web-cast? Yesterday, I was at a friend’s place and, with the busy exam schedules of their children, they are forced to miss three marriages that was taking place a 1000 kms away at their native towns and villages; and, we were thinking how great it would be if the video (which is the norm in many of the south Indian weddings) recordings are also web cast!

On rising early!

April 27, 2009

H. B. G. Casimir portrays the following picture of George
Gamow in Copenhagen in the late 1920s:

Like many theoretical physicists he kept late hours and did
not like to get up early. Above his bed he had a picture
with a lowing cow, bleating sheep, a crowing rooster and a
sleeping shepherd with, underneath, the poem:
When the morning rises red
It is best to lie in bed
When the morning rises grey
Sleep is still the better way.
Beasts may rise betimes, but then
They are beasts and we are men.

Hendirk B. G. Casimir, Haphazard Reality: Half a Century
of Science (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 118.

From this piece on George Gamow by Eamon Harper in Physics in Perspective, Vol. 3, pp. 335-372, 2001. Some of the photographs in the piece are very great too. Have fun!

Abi calls Guha’s bluff by calling his piece fluff

April 27, 2009


Now, go read Ram Guha’s latest fluff on IISc.

* * *

Guha’s thesis — that IISc should “establish and make active a proper centre of humanistic studies” — is eminently worth supporting; and it certainly has my support.

Here’s my problem with Guha’s piece. Among the many arguments to support his thesis, he has chosen one that betrays a certain disrespect to the existing scholarship. From B.V. Subbarayappa’s history of IISc, one can learn quite a bit about the real efforts (summarized here) to get humanities included in the Institute’s mandate. Many of these efforts were led by Burjorji Padshah — the one person who put his very soul into seeing the IISc project through.

Does Guha acknowledge any these efforts? No.

What he does instead is to go on and on about virtual efforts by Patrick Geddes, who wrote five letters to Sister Nivedita about the kinds of things that IISc should do. In doing so, he connects these two figures — Geddes and the good Sister — to IISc in a way that is not quite justifiable. They were, at best, peripheral players in IISc’s prehistory. As Guha himself admits, “One does not know whether Geddes’s [letters to Sister Nivedita] reached” Jamsetji Tata, so he’s not even sure if Geddes’s ideas had legs.

If Guha wants to bring them centrestage, that’s fine; but he needs a lot more than “hey, look what I found in the National Library of Scotland.”

Can Guha now rise up to the challenge and pen a proper history of IISc (say, in five pieces) for the Hindu?

The Open-House stories

April 26, 2009

I had the good fortune to be one of the coordinators from our Department for the Institute Open House held on the 18th of April. We had plenty of crowd in our Materials Science lab — to take a look at our crystal structure and defect models, to look at the creep experiment, to see the shape memory alloy, and of course, to see liquid nitrogen and ductile to brittle transition. One of the highlights from the Department is the demonstrations/exhibitions of the products developed by our design students; many of these products have made it to the newspapers too.

Here are the links to the news stories:

[1] Nivesh Pandya and Rajesh Kumar Dwivedi’s potato sowing machine

[2] No power fridge, room heating fan, and water saving dish washer

[3] Foldable (into a suitcase) table and chair, winter fans, and no-power refrigerator

Here are a couple of photographs of Chandrabhan Prajapati’s “no-power refrigerator” which was a real hit!Solar refrigeratorSolar refigerator poster

Finally, one of our grad students. Mohd Zaheer Khan Yusufzai’s poster on friction stir welding of mild steels also got an award (and, one of the first prizes) from the alumni.

It was great fun getting to know many of our students and their work, as well as interacting with students from outside and explaining them some of the things that we have been doing!

Update: A couple of photographs — of the manual farming machine of Aniruddh and Karan. In his mail to me Karan explains:

In hills, step farming is done and the main problem is that the tractors cannot be taken there for various agricultural purposes like ploughing, leveling, seeding etc. Humans can easily access the hills for this purpose and hence manual power can be utilized to make a small vehicle which can do these tasks altogether. The tasks performed by the vehicle are as follows: 1. Ploughing 2. Seeding 3. Leveling 4. Spraying 5. Storage while working The advantages of the multi-tasking vehicle are: 1. It can be easily taken anywhere into the hills for agricultural purposes. 2. It requires manual power, which is available in plenty. 3. There is no consumption of fuel.

Karan -- farming machineFarming machine close-up

IISc: give thyself a gift

April 26, 2009

Ram Guha in his second piece on IISc:

As I noted in my last column, the Indian Institute of Science has consistently maintained high academic standards since its inception. It has been a model and inspiration for later initiatives in scientific research and teaching, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology. But if one is to make a criticism of this outstanding institution, it would be that its pursuit of knowledge has not been holistic enough. It has done excellent work in all branches of science and technology. At the same time, it has neglected the study of the social sciences and the humanities. In this respect it has been unlike its Western counterparts, such as Stanford University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example. These institutions are also known for their contributions to scientific and technical research, yet they have also had high-quality departments of economics, political science, anthropology, and history.

… To establish and make active a proper centre of humanistic studies would, in this centenary year, be the Indian Institute of Science’s most appropriate gift to itself.

By the way, while I wrote about Geddes’ connections to Raja Rao and Nivedita, I did not know that he had some suggestions for IISc also — which should be added to the list of Geddes’ gifts to us — albeit one that we failed to accept!

Rutherford on writing and a self-important official

April 25, 2009

In 1903, Rutherford wrote to his mother: ‘I have not taken into account Solomon’s injunction, “Oh, that mine enemy would write a book”.’

[Rutherford’s opinion] of a self-important official: ‘He is like a Euclidean point: he has position without magnitude.’

— Abraham Pais in Inward Bound

Programming as writing

April 22, 2009

Brue Eckel:

We’re writers.

Most people can put words together into sentences. They can communicate adequately without being great writers. Most programmers can write some kind of program. It probably won’t be very good, but most companies don’t really need it to be very good. Most companies only need basic programming skills. A college degree in computer “science” from anywhere is good enough, and the job is just a job. It doesn’t require much in the way of continuing education, conferences, workshops, or someone who is so interested in the craft of programming that they are always trying to learn more.

Such people can write, but it’s just basic writing. They are not essayists or novelists — and keep in mind that there are lots of articles and novels that get published that are not particularly well-written or worth reading. Obviously such things seem to sell well enough to make the effort and risk worthwhile all around.

But someone who dedicates themselves to writing, who goes through the struggle of figuring it all out and discovering their own place in the world — this is a very different kind of writer (of prose or programs) than the average programmer. This person can produce more functionality faster, and the results will be clearer and deeper than ordinary code.

Finishing a novel is a very impressive feat. Doing something that might be worth publishing — that’s an even greater feat. But the vast majority of published novels aren’t worth reading. Only a small fraction of writers create something really worthwhile, and no one, really, knows how they do it. Each good novelist comes to their art in their own way. And what about nonfiction? Every year there are about 5000 novels published, and about 50,000 nonfiction books. Most of those nonfiction books are merely functional, not great reading. But they contain useful information and enough people buy them to make it all worthwhile (to the publisher, at least).

This answers one of the biggest questions — why you can’t replace a programmer with just any other programmer and get similar results. It also suggests that you should evaluate what kind of project you’re creating when you decide who your team should be, and how it will run. The creation of mysteries and young adult fiction and so-called “bodice rippers” and the vast sea of nonfiction books all have their own particular structure and constraints (you’d be surprised at how rigid and controlling publishers are about these things, as if they are manufacturing some kind of basic commodity — “the murder has to happen in the first 10 pages” etc.). None of these are the mass-market bestsellers (“killer apps”) that are sold by the author’s voice and style (few of which I find readable). The mass-market bestsellers usually don’t coincide with the great writers, since most people don’t have the patience to read these meta-craftsmen, just as most programmers don’t read the source code for compilers.

Although stakeholders won’t necessarily understand the intricate details of the writing and publishing process, they typically understand that there are different types of writing, and that the craft of writing is a weird, unfathomable and artistic process which can’t guarantee results. So even though “software is writing” is not necessarily going to increase the predictability of what we do, it may at least help non-programmers to understand its unpredictability.

Some more on writing physics

April 21, 2009

Let me call your attention to another peculiarity about writing physics, pertinent to this very lecture. Humanists read papers. Physicists give talks. The tradition of talking informally is so strong that most physicists are shocked when they discover that people in other disciplines read their talks from a prepared text. This is only the third or fourth time in my life that I’ve done it. Only sissies read their talks. Since the invention of the overhead projector an exception to this rule has gradually emerged. It’s OK to read your talk provided you write it on plastic and project it on a screen so everybody else can see what you’re reading. With this compromise you get neither the precision of the written language, nor the spontaneity of informal speech. It’s an art form that seems to have become particularly popular with university administrators.

I’m lecturing to the weekly physics colloquium at Harvard in two weeks. Lecturing at my alma mater makes me nervous. There’s a deep fear that at the end somebody will stand up and say “What, we gave you a degree? Hand it back!” Not that it matters very much at this stage, but these old anxieties die hard. What I’d like to do is read them a paper I wrote several months ago for a festschrift, in which I tried very hard to home in on “quantum nonlocality” in the hope of demonstrating the absurdity of some of its claims. You can’t do that without taking exquisite care with your verbal formulations. It just won’t work as an informal talk. It has to be read. But I worry that people will be so scandalized by this bizarre behavior that they will be unable to listen to what I say. It’s unfortunate that physics has become so rigidly informal.

Having traveled back to my college days, let me conclude as I began, back in high school. I took a test that was supposed to tell me what to do with my life. I think it was called the Kudor Preference Test. You were asked questions like “Would you rather spend an hour reading to an invalid or taking apart a clock?” You answered the questions by punching holes in an answer sheet with a pin.

They told me afterwards that the test showed that I had two great interests: science and writing. So, they said, I should aim to become the editor of a science journal.

Implicit in this recommendation is the distinction, remarked on earlier in this series by Jonathan Culler, between writing and writing up. Clearly the proprietors of the test knew that scientists produced papers, but evidently they thought that this was writing up — not writing. Writing was done in editorial offices; in laboratories you only wrote up.

But writing physics is different from both writing up physics, and the editorial refinement of written-up physics. While there has to be something there before the writing begins, that something only acquires its character and shape through writing. My transformation of the spoon into a dome with mosaics is clearly not writing up physics. I like to think it is writing physics. The distinction between the two might shed some light on current debates in the “science wars” between physicists and social constructivists. The physicists believe that there is a clean distinction between objective truth and mere social convention. They view physics as a process of discovering and writing up objective truths. Social constructivists — at least the ones I find interesting — maintain that objective truth and social convention are so deeply entangled that it’s impossible to separate the two. For them physics is not writing up. Physics is writing.

Who would have thought, before Einstein’s 1905 paper, that simultaneity was a convention — not an objective fact — that clocks were not a useful invention for the recording of objective time, but that time itself was a useful invention for characterizing the correlations between objective clocks?

The issue in the debates of the “science wars” is not whether the physical can be disentangled from the social – the real, from the conventional – but whether their deep entanglement is trivial or profound — a fruitful or a sterile way of looking at the scientific process.

The great Russian physicist L. D. Landau was said to have hated writing. He coauthored an extraordinary series of textbooks in collaboration with E. M. Lifshitz, who did all the writing. From my perspective Lifshitz operated in a coauthor’s paradise. He was linked to nature through Landau, who was in deep nonverbal communion with her, but had no investment whatever in the process of articulating that communion.

It is also said that even Landau’s profound technical papers were actually written by Lifshitz. Many physicists look down on Lifshitz: Landau did the physics, Lifshitz wrote it up. I don’t believe that for a minute. If Evgenii Lifshitz really wrote the amazing papers of Landau, he was doing physics of the highest order. Landau was not so much a coauthor, as a natural phenomenon — an important component of the remarkable coherence of the physical world that Lifshitz wrote about so powerfully in the papers of Landau.

So the testers were right about my interests — just wrong about how I ought to exercise them. They ought to have said, “You like science and you like writing, so be a scientist. Go forth young man and write science.”

From the Mermin piece, from which, I quoted in my earlier post. And, before I forget, a must-read piece!