Archive for June, 2010

Quantum plasticity

June 24, 2010

I never thought I would see these two words together in the title of a paper!

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A must-read!

June 20, 2010

Milk and honey

The muddy water from a stagnant pool
in his land
which drinking deer had stirred up
was far sweeter to me
than the milk and honey here.

(what the girl told her friend, back home after a brief period of elopement)

Kurinji
–Kapilar

Ainkurunuru 203

Make it larger!

Hear me, potter:
Like a little lizard
that travels with a cart,
perching on the wheel,
I had travelled all the way with him
crossing many a wilderness.
Have pity on me,
and make his funeral urn
a little oversize.

–Anon

Purananuru 256

From the must read translation, Love stands alone: selections from Tamil Sangam Poetry, translated by M L Thangappa and edited by A R Venkatachalapathy. Here is the review in the Hindu, and here are some excerpts from Hindu literary review. The review from the Telegraph was also very positive.

Why teachers of mathematics should read Landau and Lifshitz

June 18, 2010

In this (quite enjoyable) polemic, V I Arnold, who passed away recently, tells why (link via Anant-Observations):

A teacher of mathematics, who has not got to grips with at least some of the volumes of the course by Landau and Lifshitz, will then become a relict like the one nowadays who does not know the difference between an open and a closed set.

Do read the entire essay.

Good seminar behaviour

June 14, 2010

There are some very useful tips to developing good seminar behaviour at this post of Tomorrow’s Professor blog:

When assessing seminar behaviors one can ask, How does a person contribute to the seminar? To what degree does he or she engage in the following three kinds of behaviors?

A.  Introduce substantive points: …

B. Deepen the discussion: …

C.  Facilitate group exploration: …

A very useful and interesting piece.

Failures are stepping stones to…

June 14, 2010

Research. In this very interesting article in BioMed Central, Gregory Petsko writes about three phases of drug testing during the development of newer drugs. The first phase is for the assessment of toxicity of the drug to humans and is tested on healthy population. The second phase is for assessing how well the drug works with patients with the disease. The third phase tests are for assessing the effectiveness of the drug in comparison to what is available at the moment in the market.

Apparently, 19 out of 20 drug trails fail. And, most of them fail at phase two. And, the interesting point that Petsko makes is:

My main point is that the Phase II failures represent an enormous, untapped resource for the biomedical sciences – a resource that could go a long way towards solving the problem of low productivity, in terms of cures, that plagues both industry and academic medicine.

You see, the Phase II failures have all passed Phase I, so they have been shown to be safe in humans. They failed for efficacy. They failed because they did not effectively treat the disease they were intended to treat, even though they showed biological activity in assays and model systems. There are hundreds of them – perhaps more than a thousand. I don’t know the number because drug companies bury those failures. They don’t want to release a lot of information about the molecules in question because, among other things, they fear that will give their competitors too much of an insight into what they are working on. But here’s the question I would like you – and them – to ponder. What if those drugs were not tried on the right disease?

We now know that many quite different diseases share common pathways and processes in the cell. Cancer is a disease of abnormal cell survival; in Alzheimer’s disease the survival pathways have failed. Alzheimer’s patients have significantly lower risk of many cancers. What if the cure for Alzheimer’s disease is sitting on some drug company’s shelf, as a potential cancer drug that failed in Phase II? (A biotech company called Link Medicines is currently testing one such failure to find out.) Gaucher disease and Parkinson’s disease both involve lysosomal damage and display aggregates of a protein called alpha-synuclein; Gaucher carriers are at elevated risk for Parkinson’s. What if a drug intended to cure Gaucher disease, one that failed in Phase II, is actually a treatment for Parkinson’s? (Another biotech company, Amicus Therapeutics, is beginning to investigate that possibility.) Recent studies show that people diagnosed with psoriasis are at greater risk of developing heart disease; in fact, in patients with severe psoriasis who are younger than 50 years old, the risk is comparable to that seen in diabetes. How many Phase II-failed psoriasis drugs have ever been tested in heart disease clinical trials?

A very interesting piece!

PS: While you are at it, these two pieces on mammalian pheremones are interesting too:

On the scent of sexual attraction

Darcin: a male pheromone that stimulates female memory and sexual attraction to an individual male’s odour

Why universities should invest for the long term

June 12, 2010

Universities become great by investing for the long term. You choose the best scholars and teachers you can and give them the resources and the time to think problems through. Sometimes a lecturer turns out to be Malcolm Bradbury’s fluent, shallow, vicious History Man; sometimes he or she turns out to be Michael Baxandall. No one knows quite why this happens. We do know, though, that turning the university into The Office will produce a lot more History Men than scholars such as Baxandall.

Accept the short term as your standard—support only what students want to study right now and outside agencies want to fund right now—and you lose the future. The subjects and methods that will matter most in twenty years are often the ones that nobody values very much right now. Slow scholarship—like Slow Food—is deeper and richer and more nourishing than the fast stuff. But it takes longer to make, and to do it properly, you have to employ eccentric people who insist on doing things their way.

From Anthony Grafton’s Britain: The disgrace of the universities; link via Abi (the first link of which post is also a must-follow).

A book on anthropology and history with Indian flavour

June 1, 2010

Even though I bought a copy of Bernard S Cohn’s An anthropologist among the historians and other essays nearly six or seven years ago, I had a chance to start reading it only this summer. I have completed reading nearly one third of the book. The book, being a collection of essays, is highly uneven. Having said that, it is an enjoyable, if slow, read; and, strongly recommended if you are interested in anthropology, history and India.

The first essay titled An anthropologist among the historians: a field study is the one that I enjoyed the most till now; almost the whole of the essay is quote-worthy. Here are a couple of  interesting bits:

One’s initial entry into the society of historians in the archives is likely to be through the circumstance that someone else has a volume that you need. Is he working on the same subject as you are? Will his work block yours? Or is his work peripheral to yours? Will his work in the records provide a path for you? You gingerly sound out the holder of the volume you want and usually find that he is working on a different but related subject. Most likely the difference is chronological; he needs the records because they cover the end of his period and you are planning to begin at this point. But a bond is formed. First the interaction consists of the exchange of irrelevant or widely-known citations. Someone working on a closely allied subject rarely tells you his best finds. You must wait until he publishes and you can trace the footnotes legitimately. Similarly, you may wait until he publishes and you review his book to hit him with an important but little-known document or reference that you have found.

Anthropologists are slightly uncomfortable in the classroom. Some pace to and fro; some sit on tables; some sit among the students. The anthropologist’s lecture notes are on scraps of papers and backs of envelopes. His lecture notes  don’t represent a fixed capital which he adds to from time to time. He is always short on lecture notes. He encourages diversionary discussion, and, no matter what the lecture topic, he can usually introduce some anecdotal material from his field work.

The other essays, even though they do not flow with the same ease as the one mentioned above, still are full of insightful facts/observations; here are a few samples.

In 1893 Tilak, along with Annasahib (an orthodox Brahman), organized as a public festival the worship over a ten-day period of the Hindu god Ganesh. The manifest reason for the celebrations was to prevent lower-caste Hindus from participating in the Mohurram festival of the Muslims as had been the custom up until this time.

The famous old division of Right-hand and Left-hand castes in South-eastern India is probably a result of an ancient juxtaposition of populations originally inhabiting different regions.

One way of looking at the history of the study of caste is as a history of the discovery of the levels of the system. This discovery is very much tied to the methods of study and presuppositions of those doing the study. In the Dharmashastras and Vedas studied by the orientalists one finds varnas. If one sends out assistants and surveys with questionnaires, as did the administrators, one finds jats, and jatis; if one does long-term, intensive fieldwork in one place, one finds brotherhoods.

I was not aware of the communal aspects of Tilak’s Ganesh festival nor did I come across the Left-hand and Right-hand caste classification till I read Cohn.