Archive for August 26th, 2011

Mathematics: art or science?

August 26, 2011

Today I heard Prof. M S Raghunathan on Mathematics: art that would rather be science? (pdf): his thesis was that mathematicians develop mathematics driven by their fascination with its beauty than usefulness; however, they tend to align themselves with scientists than artists. However, I found it curious that Hardy was not mentioned (I might be wrong about this since I came a bit late to the talk; for all I know he might have started with Hardy; but there was no reference to Hardy after I entered the hall — which was, at worst, after the first five minutes).

Prof. Raghunathan’s talk set me thinking about a couple of things that I find fascinating about mathematics: (a) Why do many people find mathematics hard (because, it is easy to make mistakes and hard to cover them up — I probably heard this first in Terence Tao’s blog) (b) Why do people have tendency to use too much of mathematics, unnecessarily (ostensibly to make a piece of work more respectable!).

On the whole, it was an enjoyable talk; and, I found some of his answers to questions (Are Indians more mathematically talented? Why do not we have a good programme to identify and nurture mathematical talent) quite sharp and funny!



Asking big questions!

August 26, 2011

A good post over at Savage Minds:

If you think of most books of the sort people used to write a hundred years ago but no longer do—Frazer’s Golden Bough, Spengler’s Decline of the West, let alone, say, Gobineau’s Inequality of the Human Races—there’s usually an excellent reason why they don’t. But in a way, Keith had it exactly right. The aim of the book was, indeed, to write the sort of book people don’t write any more: a big book, asking big questions, meant to be read widely and spark public debate, but at the same time, without any sacrifice of scholarly rigor. History will judge whether it’s still possible to pull this sort of thing off (let alone whether I’m the person who will be able to do it.)

At least in the English-speaking world, there have been two dominant approaches taken by scholars trying to reach a broader audience. One might be deemed the Pop Mode, familiar from people who most anthropologists dislike, like say Jared Diamond, or Evolutionary Psychologists, or in the area of money, perhaps Jack Weatherford. In Pop Mode, one affects an accessible and breezy style, much easier to understand than ordinary academic prose, but, rather than seriously challenging one’s audiences’ assumptions, essentially provides them with reasons they never would have thought of to continue to believe what they already assume to be true. (By the way, I didn’t make up this definition of pop scholarship, but now I can’t remember where I got it from.) The alternative is the exact opposite. I’ll dub it the Delphic or Oracular mode (this term I am making up on the spot, but I think it kind of works.) This is the approach of, say, Deleuze or  Baudrillard, or actually, almost any of the trendy French, German, or Italian theorists who gain followers outside of academia, usually in bohemia or among those working in the culture industry. Here the aim is usually to challenge as many common-sense assumptions as possible, but also, to do it in a style even more obscure than ordinary academic writing—so obscure, in fact, that its very obscurity generates a kind of charismatic authority, as devotees spend untold hours of their lives arguing with one another about what their favorite Great Thinker might have actually been on about.

Neither seemed particularly appealing, and anyway, the second isn’t really an option for an Anglophone scholar—we are generally only allowed to be secondary interpreters, or at best, perhaps, like Michael Hardt, Batman-and-Robin-style faithful sidekick, to some Continental oracle. What then the alternative?

Well, the book is my answer. An accessible work, written in plain English, that actually does try to systematically challenge common sense assumptions. The problem is that merely trying to write accessibly isn’t enough. I had to confront any number of other issues both about style and content, and some of the results are worth contemplating – or at least passing on. Here are three things I think I learned:

A must-read post!

Update: Thanks to Swarup (see the comment below), here is a link to an interview with the author of this post.

REUF: an idea that I like!

August 26, 2011

From Phd+Epsilon, I learn that there are specific workshops to deal with Research Experiences for Undergraduate Faculty:

As the title may suggest, the REUF workshop is intended for faculty in primarily undergraduate institutions, and the purpose is twofold: to give faculty new research problems that they can pursue themselves but also problems that can be suitable for research with undergraduates.

A nice idea — and a problem that I do face a lot; a large number of students (by my expectation anyway) do come to me and ask for research problems to work on, but, it is rather difficult to find problems on which undergrads can start working; of course, at present, I manage by giving pedagogical problems or attaching them with a masters or PhD student. But, it would really help if we can have a list of research problems on which undergraduates can work on their own.

A brief colonial history of nepotism?

August 26, 2011

Ashok Mitra in the Telegraph:

The colonial times saw the full flowering of this ethos, which defined an entrenched agrarian culture. Somebody from a middle-class background lucky enough to get promoted as burra baboo in a managing agency firm lost no time in filling the posts of petty clerks within his beat with his near and dear ones. Such gestures would be accorded tacit social approval; it was as if the individual was redeeming his debt to his extended family which had helped him get established in life. The expression ‘nepotism’ was yet to gain currency. Fellow-feeling — identity of interest with those around — was what mattered. It was extremely low-level economic equilibrium; a stagnant agriculture — at that point the prime source of national income — fostered a stagnancy of the mind. What is elliptically referred to as modernization was a lugubrious process, there was not that degree of competition for people to avail themselves of urban opportunities, the formidable head clerk had little trouble in crowding the office with members of his clan. Similar things happened within government precincts; a deputy collector and magistrate or a subordinate judge — the highest rung of the ladder an Indian could ordinarily aspire to reach — would consider it his bounden duty to get poor relatives or acquaintances selected as kanungos, muharirs or sheristadars. This mirrored the social conscience of the day. Many private banks, for instance, crashed because they thought nothing of making generous advances to either members of the family floating the enterprise or to close friends that in the end went unrequited.

Such a state of affairs continued more or less till the advent of independence. During the acute depression of the 1930s, a swelling of urban unemployment led to stray protests against reported instances of nepotism in public appointments. But it did not assume a serious form; a provincial chief minister (then designated as premier) could even brazen it out by claiming ‘helplessness’ since all his nephews, who had landed cushy government jobs, happened to be brilliant. The private sector, though, was yet unaffected by ramblings of nepotism-induced discontent.

Take a look!