Archive for February, 2011

A mother’s death

February 28, 2011

Meghan O’Rourke on writing a mother’s death:

Trying to let her go, I found that I was only hungry for more of her. A mother is a story with no beginning. That is what defines her.

The piece also, inevitably, goes on to muse about Orpheus:

She told me that she wanted to die in our living room, where she could look at old things. A great blue heron had begun coming to our lawn and perching on a rock by the small pond at its foot, and she liked to keep an eye out for it. In her last weeks, I would sit next to her, rubbing her feet, watching her gaze out the window—she looked past us, like an X-ray machine. Already left behind, I wanted to call out, like Orpheus, “Come back! Come back!”

Yet the story of Orpheus, it occurs to me, is not just about the desire of the living to resuscitate the dead but about the ways in which the dead drag us along into their shadowy realm because we cannot let them go. So we follow them into the Underworld, descending, descending, until one day we turn and make our way back.

Must-read of the day!

Happy National Science Day

February 28, 2011

Happy national science day to the readers of this blog.

Since we celebrate the national science day on the day of the discovery of Raman effect, here is some writings of Raman to dip into. His popular articles from magazines and newspapers like Hindu are great read, by the way.

For science to become a way of life, politics is essential. We owe the current scientific progress in India, partly at least, to enlightened politicians who decided to make science as the basis of their politics:

Our politics must either be those of magic or of
science. The former of course requires no argument or
logic; the latter is in theory at least entirely based on
clarity of thought and reasoning and has no room for
vague idealistic or religious or sentimental processes which
confuse and befog the mind. Personally I have no faith
in or use for the ways of magic and religion and I can
only consider the question on scientific grounds.

That is Jawaharlal Nehru; so, it is time to read some of those pioneers also.

By the way, I found that Gandhi could be contrarian and thought-provoking when it comes to discussions on science based politics. Reading Gandhi to see how far one agrees with him or how one may refute his arguments can be quite challenging and fun.  Personally, I found that I neither agree with Nehruvian science policies nor with Gandhian — completely and unequivocally; personally, I have come to the conclusion that we have to have Nehru’s scientific temperement — to make progress, but be tempered by Gandhi’s admonitions to keep us on track for such a progress to be sustainable.

Finally. here is a video of an interview with Feynman to watch, wherein he talks about taking the world from another point of view. In this interview, he tells about the kind of people with whom he finds he can have an useful conversation (about 1.40 minutes into the video). After fumbling a bit (and that is great to see how he fumbles and recovers from the fumble, by the way), Feynman calls some people as deep — those who have stretched themselves to the maximum thinking about some stuff so deeply that they have reached mysteries on all sides of their understanding; Feynman says that talking with them gives him the thrills. And, for me, science is one of the areas where such deep thinking is fairly easily available — to anybody who puts in a bit of effort. So, this science day, do also spend time browsing through some of these videos in YouTube and wonder about the things that you have taken for granted till now.

Have fun — that is what science is all about in the end!!

A link to some tamil poetry

February 27, 2011

Once in a while, I get an urge to pick a book of tamil poetry — Andal, Bharathiyar, Valluvar, Thiruvasagam  or Sangam ones and read. The other day, I was browsing through VVS Iyer’s Kamban:  a study published by Delhi Tamil Sangam and felt like reading Kambaramayanam. Today, while browsing Jeyamohan’s blog, I came across a link to the site called Dravidaveda; I am parking the link here for those of you who can (and want to) read Divyaprabandham (as well as for myself when the urge strikes me next time); the site is nice with poetry along with urai.

Teaching: the required catalyst for research to flourish?

February 27, 2011

Deaton quotes Feynman on how teaching helps research (link: via Abi):

Richard Feynman, in his essay The Dignified Professor, explains why he would never work with Einstein and co. at Princeton, even though the schedule and environment was designed to incubate great thinking.

When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don’t get any ideas for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they’re not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come.

Nothing happens because there’s not enough real activity and challenge: You’re not in contact with the experimental guys. You don’t have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!

Here is Jay Parini in his The art of teaching:

I don’t care what they say: it is possible to write and teach at the same time. In fact, I have a hard time writing without teaching.  (Sabbaticals are always disastrous interludes for me, a time when I tend to sink into depression, writing more slowly, thinking a lot less clearly.) Teaching organizes my life, gives a structure to my week, puts before me certain goals: classes to conduct, books to reread, papers to grade, meetings to attend. I move from event to event, having a clear picture in my head of what I must do next. Without the academic calendar in front of me, I feel lost.

I am in a place where teaching is both crucial and a major chunk of job description. I also find that teaching brings discipline to my non-teaching efforts. Occasionally, it also brings a new thought thanks to the smart and inquisitive students. And, I tend to agree with what Feynman and Parini are alluding to (even though I neither have their kind of teaching experience nor their kind of research/writing output — of course, the hope is that someday I may).

HowTo: present a paper

February 25, 2011

Leslie Lamport tells how; via.

Extinction too is a way of life

February 25, 2011

Even musical instruments become extinct, and in not so far in the past:

The Tirupamburam lineage traces its ancestry to a vocalist – Amritakavi Kuppiah Pillai, who had learnt music from Muthutandavar. His son Aiyan Pillai followed in his father’s footsteps but grandson Sesha Pillai became an exponent of the Saranda, a now extinct musical instrument.

Next was Swaminatha Pillai, who, born in 1840, chose to become a nagaswaram artist. His son Natarajasundaram, born in 1869, followed in his father’s footsteps and with his brother Sivasubramania Pillai, formed the first nagaswaram duo. Natarajasundaram Pillai is today better remembered for being the first to publish in the Tamil script Muthuswami Dikshitar kritis with notation.

Given the array of musical choice, it was perhaps no wonder that Natarajasundaram Pillai’s elder son Swaminatha Pillai chose a new line – that of a flautist. It was left to his brothers to continue the nagaswaram tradition.

Fringe benefits of peer reviewing

February 25, 2011

No! I do not mean “You can have free access to our journals for an year using this code; thanks for reviewing for us” mails that you get when you finish reviewing. ArunN makes an important point that FSP missed in her post on the benefits of peer reviewing:

Female Science Professor in Review well or die discusses the losses incurred by bad peer reviewing. According to her:

Bad reviewers and review-shirkers are annoying, especially since they rely on the reviewing work of others to get their own papers published, but I don’t think there should be any major overt punishment of bad reviewers. Although it may seem that review-shirkers are getting away with something, they are losing the opportunity to play a role in the peer review process, to be a constructive influence in their field, and to be respected by editors and others for their reviewing wisdom and efforts. That’s their loss, and an appropriate consequence for being a bad reviewer.

She misses one more important loss.

Peer reviewing provides an early peek into what is going on in your field of research expertise. As a researcher, this gives you invaluable insight about the cutting edge of your research field and what your peers are actually working on.If you do a bad peer review thereby stop receiving review requests eventually, but expect to do good research, you actually deprive yourself of this vantage of constant touch with the cutting edge.

And, ArunN goes on to argue that this vantage is true even if the paper itself is not cutting edge. I can not agree with him more.

In praise of RKN

February 25, 2011

Jabberwock has some nice things to say about RKN (and, I am quoting the relevant sections of the post in full because it is that quote-worthy):

One myth about Narayan should be quickly dispelled: that his writing is “simple” in the sense that you can just pick up one of his books and race through them. This notion has been perpetuated by some of today’s mass-market writers who seek to validate their own non-literariness through association. For example, Chetan Bhagat has admitted to being influenced by Narayan’s no-flourishes style, which might create the misleading impression that Narayan can be read in the same way that you can read a Bhagat novel (it took me barely an hour to finish Five Point Someone). Certainly there is a basic directness in Narayan’s prose – an emphasis on narrative rather than “style” – but sentence by sentence, his best work has the refinement, the carefulness, the knack for observation and description, that you expect in good literary fiction. There’s little that’s casual about it.

Consider this early passage from The Vendor of Sweets:

The bathroom was a shack, roofed with corrugated sheets; the wooden frame was warped and the door never shut flush, but always left a gap through which one obtained a partial glimpse of anyone bathing. But it had been a house practice, for generations, for its members not to look through […] A very tall coconut tree loomed over the bath, shedding enormous withered fronds and other horticultural odds and ends on the corrugated roof with a resounding thud. Everything in this home had the sanctity of usage, which was the reason why no improvement was possible. Jagan’s father, as everyone knew, had lived at first in a thatched hut at the very back of this ground. Jagan remembered playing in a sand heap outside the hut; the floor of the hut was paved with cool clay and one could put one’s cheek to it on a warm day and feel heavenly.

The prose here is functional, but it’s also assured and humorous, and commands the reader’s full attention (the passage is randomly selected, by the way; you can open the book almost anywhere and find another like it). One also senses a pioneering Indian writer in English trying to create a visual picture of his world for the foreign readership that he knows his books will reach – it’s ironical that many people take jingoistic pride in the idea that Narayan was a provincial man who never wrote for the West.

Aye! Aye! Sir!!

The teaching triangle or pyramid?

February 23, 2011

Jay Parini, in his Art of teaching, says, that for instruction, all you need is a student, a teacher and some log to sit on. Generalizing the log, and calling it the tools, one sees that the teaching triangle has for its vertices the tools, the teacher and the student. All three are essential for teaching to happen. However, what ties together all these three vertices is the subject of discussion. Thus, it is more of a pyramid with the subject of discussion forming the fourth vertex.

So, what happens, if any of the vertices disentangle from any other? Obviously, the pyramid collapses. When I am teaching and/or preparing to teach, I continuously worry about my holding on to the vertices of students, subject and tools. While I have control (or, at least I tend to think that I have control) over the subject end and tools end, sometimes, I tend to lose the students — individually or, worse still, as a group. Of course, this might be due to the fact that I have not yet mastered the tools and the subject well enough to make students stick to the task of instruction and sharing. But, the feeling that in spite of your best efforts students get disentangled from the process for reasons outside of your purview and control does pop up occasionally; and, it is quite frustrating when I get such a feeling.

ArunN points to a piece in Chronicle which talks about the problem of students disentangling from the other vertices, the possible reasons and causes for this disentanglement (some of which do lie outside the college campus) and some hints as to what helps in preventing such disentanglement:

Arum and Roksa point out that students in math, science, humanities, and social sciences—rather than those in more directly career-oriented fields—tend to show the most growth in the areas measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the primary tool used in their study. Also, students learn more from professors with high expectations who interact with them outside of the classroom. If you do more reading, writing, and thinking, you tend to get better at those things, particularly if you have a lot of support from your teachers.

The piece seems to be the first in a series; may be it is worth while to follow it up and think on some of the issues discussed!

Update: Another piece about teaching; I can see one difference though; unlike patients who do want to be cured of their current ailments, students might be happy with their current status, or, might want something else which is not part of the mandate!

Ultrafast nanodiffraction and detection of nanoscale propagating waves

February 23, 2011

Electron microscopes are the eyes of a materials engineer and physical metallurgist; and, the interpretation of an electron microscopic image is not straight-forward, making this process of looking at structures at the atomic and meso-scale levels both exciting and challenging. This is the reason why, even though I never looked at any structure under the microscope, I still am excited about advances in microscopy — my more knowledgeable colleagues will then be able look at things and tell us what they find, which, in turn might give us some ideas and understanding of structures and hence their properties.

Here is a paper in the latest PNAS on nanodiffraction to study wave propagation at the nanoscale:

Coherent atomic motions in materials can be revealed using time-resolved X-ray and electron Bragg diffraction. Because of the size of the beam used, typically on the micron scale, the detection of nanoscale propagating waves in extended structures hitherto has not been reported. For elastic waves of complex motions, Bragg intensities contain all polarizations and they are not straightforward to disentangle. Here, we introduce Kikuchi diffraction dynamics, using convergent-beam geometry in an ultrafast electron microscope, to selectively probe propagating transverse elastic waves with nanoscale resolution. It is shown that Kikuchi band shifts, which are sensitive only to the tilting of atomic planes, reveal the resonance oscillations, unit cell angular amplitudes, and the polarization directions. For silicon, the observed wave packet temporal envelope (resonance frequency of 33 GHz), the out-of-phase temporal behavior of Kikuchi’s edges, and the magnitude of angular amplitude (0.3 mrad) and polarization Graphic elucidate the nature of the motion: one that preserves the mass density (i.e., no compression or expansion) but leads to sliding of planes in the antisymmetric shear eigenmode of the elastic waveguide. As such, the method of Kikuchi diffraction dynamics, which is unique to electron imaging, can be used to characterize the atomic motions of propagating waves and their interactions with interfaces, defects, and grain boundaries at the nanoscale.

Have fun!