Archive for November, 2010

On a career choice, or, why I love being a professor

November 27, 2010

From here (Via Abi):

I suppose the question that’s left is why I’m staying at Harvard — that is, why I still like being a professor.  (And thank you to those of you who think the obvious answer is, “Who else would hire you?”)  I enjoy the freedom of working on whatever I find interesting; being unrestricted in who I choose to talk to about research problems and ideas; having the opportunity to work with a whole variety of interesting and smart people, from undergraduates to graduate students to CS colleagues all over the globe to math and biology professors a few buildings down; the ample opportunity to do consulting work that both pays well and challenges me in different ways; the schedule that lets me walk my kids to school most every day and be home for dinner most every night; and the security that, as long as I keep enjoying it, I can keep doing this job for the next 30+ years.

The job is never boring.  On any given day, I might be teaching, planning a class, working with students, thinking, writing a paper, writing some code, reading, listening to a talk, planning or giving a talk, organizing an event, consulting in some form, or any other manner of things. In the old days, I wrote a blog.  These days, I’m administrating, making sure our classes work smoothly, our faculty are satisfied and enabled to do the great things they do, and we’re able to continue to expand and get even better.  Once I wrote a book, and someday I hope to do that again.  Perhaps the biggest possible complaint is that there’s always something to do, so you have to learn to manage your time, say no, and make good decisions about what to do every day.  As someone who hates being bored, this is generally a good feature of the job for me.

While we are on the topic, let me also link to another piece on what it means to be a professor by Walter Noll (pdf); it is a very fine piece as the excerpt below will tell you; have fun!

When I am being asked what I do for a living and then answer that Iam a professor, the next question invariably is: “What do you teach?” This shows that to most people, a professor is just a glorified teacher. The university administration expects me to do research as well as teaching, and it is assumed that these are the only important duties of an academic. In fact, sometimes I get questionnaires in which I am asked how I spend my time: what percentage on “teaching” and what percentage on “research”. I amvery uncomfortable when answering such questions. Recently I realized thatI have spent most of my professional life neither with “teaching” nor with”research” in the narrow sense: rather, I have been mostly occupied with professing my subject: mathematics. There are important distinctionsbetween a teacher, a researcher, and a pure professor. Let me make themclear.

The teacher’s focus is on his students. His task is to convey a fixedbody of knowledge to his students and to worry about the best way to do so. He normally follows a textbook and a “syllabus”. A very important part ofhis job is to assign homework and to give tests to find out how much hisstudents are learning. He pays attention to what the students think of himand his performance. He sympathizes with his students’ worry about theirgrades.

The professor’s focus is on his subject. He “lives” his subject andcannot easily switch it off, even while lying in bed awake or on vacation. Herecreates the subject in his mind each time he lectures on it. He cannot know, in the beginning of a course, exactly how and in what order he will present the material. He may even, in the middle of the course, change his mind about what material to include or exclude. He always tries to find anew approach to and better insight into the subject of his course. He almost never gives a course twice in the same way, and he considers it anathema to2have to follow a textbook and a syllabus. He is pleased if some studentsfollow and appreciate his efforts, but he finds homework, tests, and grades anuisance. As the famous British mathematician G.H. Hardy put it in his bookA Mathematician’s Apology: ” I hate ‘teaching’, and have had to do very little,… ; I love lecturing, and have lectured a great deal to extremely able classes;…”

The researcher’s focus is on the discovery of new results. He is the creator of new knowledge. His nightmare is to get stuck in his search or to learn that what he has found has already been discovered shortly before by somebody else. Priority is very important to him and will sometimes induce him to rush into print prematurely.

The professor’s focus, on the other hand, is on understanding, gaining insight into, judging the significance of, and organizing old knowledge. He is disturbed by the pile-up of undigested and ill-understood new results. He is not happy until he has been able to fit these results into a larger context.He is happy if he can find a new conceptual framework with which to unifyand simplify the results that have been found by the researcher. Before goinginto print, he lets his ideas ripen. Priority is not an issue for him.

I and most of my colleagues are teachers and researchers as well as professors in the senses described above. Most are very good professors, but many are only mediocre teachers or just adequate researchers. I know only one who is very good in all three categories.

The Tacit Dimension of Polanyi

November 18, 2010

I have known about Polanyi’s contributions to materials science — explanation of metal plasticity using the concept of dislocations. I have also heard from my friend Rajesh that Polanyi turned a philosopher later in his life. However, as I was reading The Tacit Dimension (the link takes you to the flipkart site where you can order your copy — and, yes, it is that recommended) of Michael Polanyi,  I associated the author with his son John who also won Nobel prize — primarily, because I did not know that Michael himself won a Nobel.

I enjoyed the book very much; I have already recommended the book to several of my friends (and, my father had read it too). I did find the read a bit slow and difficult at the beginning. The first chapter is called Tacit knowing; the second is called Emergence; the third — A society of explorers. The book runs into some 100 pages; my copy also has a foreword by Amartya Sen.

Whether one agrees with all of what Polanyi has to say or not, what is not questionable is the fact that this is a very thought provoking book. There are deep insights in the book which make you pause and think. It is also written in such a nice style that once you fall into the rhythm of the book, the reading is thoroughly enjoyable.

Here are some passages that I found interesting in the third chapter of the book — for your reading pleasure, and as a teaser:

[1] As late as 1914, the controversy over quanta was still sufficiently alive to serve as a joke at a dinner party in the home of the great Walther Nernst in Berlin. A graduate student named Lindemann (who later became Lord Cherwell), said of a fellow student who had just married a  rich girl, that he had hitherto been equipartitionist, but now believed in quanta.

[2] Quantum mechanics was discovered in 1925 by three authors so independent of each other that they were thought at the time to have given mutually incompatible solutions to the problem. Thus seen, the growth of new ideas appears altogether predetermined. The mind of those making discoveries seems merely to offer a suitable soil for the proliferation of new ideas.

Yet, looking forward before the event, the act of discovery appears personal and indeterminate. It starts with the solitary intimations of a problem, of bits and pieces here and there which seem to offer clues to something hidden. They look like fragments of a yet unknown coherent whole. This tentative vision must turn into a personal obsession; for a problem that does not worry us is no problem: there is no drive in it, it does not exist.

[3] Any tradition fostering the progress of thought must have this intention: to teach its current ideas as stages leading on to unknown truths which, when discovered, might dissent from the very teachings which engendered them. Such a tradition assures the independence of its followers by transmitting the conviction that thought has intrinsic powers, to be evoked in men’s minds by intimations of hidden truths. It respects the individual for being capable of such response: for being able to see a problem not visible to others, and to explore it on his own responsibility. Such are the metaphysical grounds of intellectual life in a free, dynamic society: the principles which safeguard intellectual life in such a society.

Have fun!

James’ The Private Patient

November 17, 2010

Not as great as some of her other novels and even a bit disappointing; however, even when it is bad, James is good enough  to make you put a night out or two to finish the novel. Worth a read, surely. Here is an extract, if you are interested.

A must-visit place in Hyderabad

November 10, 2010

We happened to spend our Diwali in Hyderabad. We visited the Jawaharlal Nehru Zoological park, which, I think is one of the must-visit places if you happen to be in Hyd. Some sections of Ramoji film city is also very educational, if you are interested in movies and stuff. I also liked the science museum where we visited the Dinosarium and saw the reconstruction of Kotasaurus Yamanapalliensis. Who knew that Hyd could be such a geeky vacation spot? In addition, a visit to Hussain Sagar and Eat street, shopping for Hyderabadi pearls and Pochampalli sarees are other fun things to do!

Discovery of the sulfa drugs

November 1, 2010

I read Thomas Hager’s The Demon under the microscope: from battlefield hospitals to Nazi labs, one doctor’s heroic search for the world’s first miracle drug.

It is a great read; I strongly recommend it. It talks primarily about Gerhard Domagk and his work.

As a kid, I remember taking sulfaguanidine; the book talks about the discovery of sulfa drugs and how it changed the way drugs are discovered, the way medicines are sold as  well as the way medical care is provided.

I have only two complaints — I would have preferred the footnotes along with the text (even though such an approach slows down the reading) and, I would have preferred some pictures — of the players in the story, of the paintings and places that Hager talks about, along with may be the structures of some of the chemicals that make an appearance.

PS: Thanks to Doug for the recommendation (and, Flipkart which got the book delivered to me within a few days of my ordering it). Now, I am looking forward to the arrival of the second book that Doug recommended, The alchemy of air.