Archive for April, 2011

The most important lesson

April 26, 2011

ZapperZ tells about the most important thing that he has learnt, and how this information comes as a surprise to many students:

But is that the most important thing that I’ve learned in becoming a scientist? When students asked me that question, they often expect that I would say that learning quantum mechanics, or electromagnetism, etc. would be the most important thing. So it comes as a surprise to many when I told them what I believe is the most important thing that I learned in becoming a scientist: Learning To Learn!

One of the things about being a scientist is that we always have to learn new things all the time! There’s always something that we haven’t heard of, something that is new, something we have never quite fully understand, or something puzzling. You are always faced with tying to find out about something. What we have acquired along the way, starting from undergraduate years to graduate school to postdoctoral work, and even through our early careers, is the ability and skill to learn. I’m not just talking about reading a book or paper and trying to understand something. I’m talking about knowing WHERE to look, WHO to ask, WHAT do I need to do to understand that, HOW do *I* understand something? We all work in different ways. Knowing how I, personally, comprehend something is very important, because I have consciously tried to discover when I can make something click in my head, and when it can’t. How the material is presented, how I organize my thoughts in my head, how I work things out on paper, etc. are all my own personal preferences and skills that I know help me to understand something. In other words, at some level, I know what makes me tick and how I can grasp something. To me, this is the most valuable and important thing I learned in becoming a scientist.

A nice piece!

Reinforce, and, not undermine, our institutions of democracy

April 26, 2011

Andre Beteille, befitting his credentials as one of the foremost sociologists of this country, starts his piece with a question/confession:

Who is a civil society member? This question, which has intrigued me for more than 20 years, came up again with the organization of the demonstrations in support of the lok pal bill in Delhi and other metropolitan cities.

Beteille is not willing to blindly accept what he is told, of course:

When I asked a friend who had been with the demonstrators at Jantar Mantar about the social composition of the gathering, he said that they were common people from every walk of life.

That is not how it appeared to me from what I saw on television.

And, there is more reflection, thought and self-appraisal:

I have nothing against the middle class to which I myself belong, but I find it absurd to describe such persons, who comprise a small proportion of the total population, as the ‘common people of India’. I did not see on the TV cameras many people who looked and acted like stone breakers, construction workers and other wage labourers who live in the slums of Delhi and can be easily seen on the thoroughfares of the metropolis. The question that I naturally ask as a sociologist is: are those people not also civil society members? This leads to a more disturbing question: am I myself a civil society member?

And then, there is the hard question:

Is there any kind of objective criterion, other than recognition by the media, which enables us to decide who is and who is not a member of civil society? Or is membership of civil society coterminous with membership of society as a whole so that anyone who declares himself a civil society member should be acknowledged as one?

Beteille does not hesitate to be harsh, when needed:

It is unfortunate that successive governments have shown themselves to be both inept and disingenuous in their conduct over creating the office of the Lok Pal. It is equally unfortunate that rallies and demonstrations had to be organized in order to get the government to do what it should have done in any case and done some time ago. The government now says that it is a good thing that the people have come together, and raised their voice against corruption in public life. If that is so, what was the government doing all these years? And why did the Opposition not do anything but allow the initiative to pass from Parliament to the streets?

Government and Opposition may thunder against each other in public, but they are also complicit in many acts of omission and commission that undermine the legitimacy of Parliament. It is a truism that the successful operation of democracy is the responsibility of the Opposition as much as of the government. When government and Opposition fail repeatedly to do what they ought to do in the ordinary course, people lose their trust in the institutions of democracy such as the legislature, the executive, and the political parties. Then they come together and try to solve through their own efforts the many problems that remain unresolved.

But, his concerns and message are very clear:

Some young persons who had taken part in the gathering said that it reminded them of Tahrir Square in Cairo, and that made my heart sink a little. There is a vast difference between the political orders in Egypt and in India. In India we have had for 60 years an institutional mechanism for the articulation of dissent and opposition that very few countries outside West Europe and North America have had.

We may not like the present members of either the government or the Opposition in Parliament. But we know who they are and how they happen to be where they are. They are there as the elected representatives of the people who have voted for them to be in Parliament. They will be in Parliament for a term of five years, and then go back to their constituencies to face the music. But who are the people who gather together in public places, speak in the name of civil society, and then disperse? How will we hold them to account if we find out six months or a year later that some of them, or many of them, have acted in bad faith?

Our situation is quite different from the situation in Tunisia or Egypt or Libya. There the army is waiting in the background to pick up the pieces after the crowds have dispersed. If in India the army stays where it should, it is in no small measure due to the place that the institutions of democracy, both government and Opposition, have created for themselves in the public consciousness. We all agree that those institutions are very weak; our endeavour should be to reinforce and not undermine them.

A nice piece; a must-read piece.

Reading: how much and what

April 24, 2011

I liked the suggestions –for grad students:

Averaging one day a week on reading is probably about right, but it may be a lot higher or lower than this during certain periods of grad school.

Of the time spent reading, about half should go towards solving immediate research problems. The purpose of this is getting unstuck, learning about alternate approaches, avoiding reinvention of known techniques, and learning how and what the current players in your field are thinking. Of the remaining 50% of reading time, half of it should go towards “deep background reading” — reading in the thesis area that goes a bit further afield and a bit further back in the chain of references than is absolutely necessary to get the work done. This reading will form the basis for the related work sections of papers and the dissertation. The last 25% of reading time is purely discretionary: classic papers, good books, new results from conferences, etc. This material is not expected to be directly relevant (though it may turn out to be) but keeps a person up to date on random interesting topics.

Via Abi (who has collected a few more grad school stuff in the post).

End semester and extra credits

April 24, 2011

A nice piece from PhD+epsilon on assigning work towards the end of the semester and giving extra credits to those activities to help students perform better in the course. I especially loved the one about making students read a novel and use that experience to teach:

Ender’s Game as a motivational tool: This is actually not something I have done, but my friend and fellow math prof Brian Katz has used it to great success in many of his classes. Ender’s Game is a sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card, about a young boy who is recruited to be a soldier in a space war with evil space bugs (it is actually quite good, if you’re into sci-fi, and if you’re reading my blog, then you probably are). Brian sees himself mirrored in the character of the instructor. This instructor puts all his young recruits through horrible, grueling training, and the kids don’t quite understand why they’re doing what they’re doing until way at the end of the book (and I won’t spoil it for you here).

Brian has his students read the book and then come in to his office and talk about it. He has this great way of asking his students questions that guide them to understand that they’re like Ender, the hero of the book, and that he’s like the instructor in the book. The students seem to have a much better idea of why Brian is doing what he’s doing, but he never has to find the perfect way to explain it. Rather he has them discover, through reading fiction, what his philosophy of teaching and learning is.

As a side note, Brian teaches many of his classes using inquiry-based learning (something I will definitely write about at some point). The main object of this teaching style is to show students to learn by doing, and in that sense it really is like learning a sport, learning to play an instrument, or training for a space war with evil space bugs.

Grain boundaries and electron microscopy

April 21, 2011

Grain coarsening is one of the favourite topics for popular discussion for materials scientists (because you can begin your discussion with beer heads and also you can set up some nice experiments with bubble rafts). Here is a viewpoint piece in Physics on the statistical mechanics of grain boundaries:

Thermodynamic arguments and a one-dimensional model help explain why the grain boundaries in an annealed polycrystalline material have an unexpectedly simple statistical distribution.

Electron microscopy is another favourite — microscopes are the eyes with which a physical metallurgist / materials scientist looks at his world. Here is a viewpoint on the electron beam interaction with matter:

To better interpret the information in images, electron microscopists are looking more closely at how an electron beam scatters inside of a specimen.

Both nice pieces — have fun!

Industrial research

April 5, 2011

And, doing it in University labs is something that was on my mind thanks to this post from Abi a couple of days ago. That is the reason why I found this post by Matt Welsh very interesting and informative. Not only does Matt tell us about the successful research carried out by Intel (using their own labs, of course), but also tells us why trying to do that kind of research in University setting is a bad idea.

Before the Labs opened, Intel Research was consistently ranked one of the lowest amongst all major technology companies in terms of research stature and output. I feel that the Labs really put Intel Research on the map by involving world-class academics and doing high-profile projects. They have attracted some of the top PhDs and offered a much more academic alternative to a place like, say, IBM Research.

One closing thought. Perhaps Intel realizes it can have far more impact by setting up large, high-impact research programs within universities rather than run its own labs. In some ways I can appreciate this point of view: help the universities do what they do best. But the way this is being done is unlikely to be successful. The first such Intel center on visual computing involves something like 25 PIs spread across eight universities. Each PI is only getting enough to fund work they were already doing, so this is an example of doing something that looks good on paper but is unlikely to move the needle at all for these research groups. This seems like a missed opportunity for Intel.

Something for Tatas and Prashants to think about!


April 2, 2011

To Dhoni and his men, for the consistency, for the team work, and the nail-biting finish!

A good piece

April 1, 2011

This autobiographical piece is very good; link via Jenny.