Archive for January, 2012

Instrumental community of Cyrus C M Mody

January 29, 2012

When I started my PhD in mid-nineties, nano was the in-thing. I remember a reputed electron microscopist whose made a presentation, in which, he pointed out to a particular feature in a transmission electron micrograph and said “Previously, I used to call this a particle; nowadays, we call it a nanoparticle”. That pretty much summed up our attitude towards nano too. Many of us felt that nano was all hype and that there was nothing exciting or intellectually challenging in nano (I do have a friend who calls his blog nono-science!).

A few years into my PhD, I did get exposed to two new viewpoints on nano. One point of view, given by a reputed researcher in nano area, is that nano is a good pedagogical tool which can be used in training a new researcher in materials science and engineering to understand some of the fundamental concepts of materials science; this is because, many a processes and properties of materials, which are generally not considered as important in the typical length scales become important in nano-scale making it an interesting and useful area of study. The other was that nano has some uses in military and medical sciences because these are two areas in which other considerations override cost considerations; otherwise, in actual engineering practice, one might never use nanomaterials at all. Both these points of view are still true to some extent.

Reading Cyrus C M Mody’s Instrumental community: probe microscopy and the path to nanotechnology has given another view point on nano. The first is that nano was a response to “perceived declines in the disciplines”:

Over time, many surface scientists came to believe that nanotechnology provided the best way for them to revive or transform their discipline while retaining much of their knowledge base. As Jun Nagomi puts it

strictly classical surface structure determination is dead as a field. Or extremely mature, and not very fundable. So what I do now I can honestly bill as being related to nanotechnology. But when you look at the actual kinds of materials I’m working with, I’m still working with metals and I’m still working with semiconductors.

The other is that the decline in industrial funding is the reason why nano became popular:

Usually, though, governments created new academic nanotechnology institutions to occupy the niche once held by the big corporate labs. As Jim Murdy puts is

Bell labs is just a shadow of what it once was, and IBM has had to scale back much of its operation as well. So they are not the dominant force they used to be globally across surface science or nano….If they go away, we still have very good people, they just tend to be more in the universities than in an industrial lab. Universities have different strengths. They generally have a harder time getting good equipment. An industrial lab had stuff universities drool over….  That in some sense what IBM and Bell labs did–they brought a bunch of very good people abd put them in a central location at the same lab and equipped them well. To an extent that’s what the [National Nanotechnology] centers are meant to do at the universities.

Finally, Mody also makes the most interesting point about the identification of probe microscopy with nanotechnology and the reasons for it: the short answer — interdisciplinarity.

What is nice about Mody’s book is that he makes these points convincingly and in an extremely readable book. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. If you like anthropology or history of science or science and technology or any combinations thereof, this is the book to read. I strongly recommend it.

One more bonus thing that I learnt from the book is the philosophy of Prof. Virgil Elings on the need for and teaching of instrumentation. As the following quotes indicate they are quite provocative and interesting:

One lesson from the master’s program that Elings carried into DI was that “the areas that students had done undergraduate work in made little difference in their ability to design instruments. Any deficiency, except of knowledge of math, could be repaired by some reading and talking with other students. All those esoteric courses made little difference.”

The MSI program was clearly quite different from a traditional academic degree program. It was, for some students, ” a rude awakening from the spoon-feeding of most undergraduate experiences.”

Elings became convinced that formal academic pedagogy was counterproductive: “[S]chools at all levels, practically down to kindergarten, do almost nothing to foster innovation and invention….[A]cademia can afford to spend some time on innovation since, in my opinion, a lot of what is done now is a waste of time.”

Have fun!

Cahn’s 2011 Kyoto prize commemorative lecture

January 15, 2012

The talk is available here; have fun!!

Instrumental community by Cyrus Mody

January 15, 2012

Following Doug’s recommendation, I ordered a copy of Cyrus C M Mody’s Instrumental community: probe microscopy and the path to nanotechnology. I have just started reading the book; I will post updates as I read through. From the first few pages, here are some interesting thoughts:

In several cases, however, we will see that the best opportunities–for both commercial and academic actors–lay in moving probe microscopy away from marketable applications.

That is, a market for probe microscopy developed not because th probe-microscopy community’s members focused solely on applied research with commercial value, but because the community’s members were moving in many directions at one. Probe microscopists pursued almost every gradation of basic and applied, curiosity-driven and problem-driven research.

Another interesting idea that came up early in the book is the ability for small university labs to pursue research which can have huge economic potential, and the impact of this on the academia-industry interface.

On the whole, a nice one (even though I have hardly read ten pages) and strongly recommended!

The album with Vijay Siva on the cover in Gandhi cap

January 15, 2012

Yes; that is the one I am looking for for quite sometime now! Vijay Siva mentions it here:

One of my concerts of patriotic songs during the 50th year of Independence was released as an album. And the album cover has me wearing a Gandhi cap!

But the album is elusive!

NB: Any pointers will be appreciated!

The mystery of Early Yield – A study in crystals

January 15, 2012

I mentioned Dirda’s On Conan Doyle a couple of days ago; I finished the book and it is strongly recommended; it will make you look for more Conan Doyle books and read them.

My own introduction to Conan Doyle happened through Amar Chitra Katha classics (The Hound of Baskervilles) and Poonthalir (The lost world). And, I have been a fan ever since, though, I read the originals in English much later.

Finally, for what it is worth, here is my tribute to Doyle.

Cahn in conversation

January 15, 2012

A nice ten minute clip of a conversation with John Cahn at YouTube (especially, for the metallurgists and materials scientists among you!)

Credit where credit is due!

January 12, 2012

Samuel Arbesman writes in Wired on the new ways to measure science:

For too long, the measurement of scientific contribution has centered on the publication. Whether through the number of articles, the citations those articles have by other articles, or even other far more complicated metrics, most scientists are still measured by a derivative of the research article, the basic technology of scientific publishing that is well over 300 years old.

But science is much more than that. It’s ultimately about being involved in making discoveries and creating new knowledge. It’s creating data, helping others, commenting on previous work, and even using Twitter and blogging. If you help someone out or mentor a student, isn’t that worthwhile as well? How can we begin to measure a person such as Szilard?

Let’s take the example of being helpful. Alexander Oettl of Georgia Tech has studied the importance of this trait, despite its lack of appreciation. He combed through acknowledgments within the immunology literature, in order to find the most helpful scientists — those who read article drafts, provide helpful research advice, or even just act as sounding boards for ideas. And then he looked at what happened when these extremely helpful people died.

Oettl found that even if these people had only been moderately productive when it came to actually authoring papers, the productivity of their collaborators dropped by over 10 percent when these cooperative scientists died. Unfortunately, while simply being helpful is an important contribution to science, it often gets overlooked in academia.

A nice one. Take a look.

The piece reminded me of something that I read more than an year ago — Joseph Fox’s short note in DelawareOnline on Richard Heck’s Chemistry Nobel Prize in 2010. In the context of Arbesman’s article, I believe it is worth quoting from Fox’s note:

But what makes the Nobel to Heck even more inspiring is the absolute purity of the award. Heck has always been exceedingly modest about his accomplishments. Never self-promoting, Heck always gave generous credit to others in his field, and he never engaged in the politics of science. Rather, Heck devoted himself solely to chemistry, and made his contributions at the most fundamental level. As someone who was truly ahead of the curve, it took decades for the scientific community to fully appreciate the significance of his fundamental contributions: Heck’s seminal studies were conducted in the late 1960’s, but he did not receive a major award for his work until 2004. Yet, his day has come, and to see Heck recognized on this grandest of stages is absolutely remarkable. Something is right in the world when the Nobel prize goes to such a modest individual, based so purely on merit. It reminds me of why I went into science in the first place.

PS: I got the link to Arbesman’s piece via Doug at Nanoscale views. And, hat tip to Prof. Fox for sending me a soft copy of his editorial note!

Dirda on Conan Doyle

January 10, 2012

Here is a review from Bookslut; I got a copy and had read the first fifty pages; and, yes, it is strongly recommended!

Measuring inequality

January 10, 2012

Here is a nice description of how it is done:

The standard measure of inequality is the Gini coefficient. It is equal to one if all income goes to one person; if one woman owned everyone in an economy, fed them what she liked and made them work according to her will, if all income belonged to her and everyone else was her slave, the Gini coefficient in her monarchy would be one. If, on the other hand, everyone got exactly the same income, the Gini coefficient would be zero.

If people are ranged from the poorest to the richest, and if the cumulative proportion of the population is plotted against the cumulative proportion of income it commands, one gets a Lorenz curve. If everyone got the same income, the proportion of income and the proportion of population would be the same, and a graph of one against the other would be a 45-degree straight line. If all the income went to one person, the graph would hug the x-axis till it reached that last person, and then rise vertically. The ratio of the area between the Lorenz curve and the 45-degree line to the total area under the line is the Gini coefficient.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has recently been looking at trends in income inequality. The countries with least unequal incomes amongst those for which OECD got data (mostly for 2008) are the Czech Republic and Scandinavian countries — Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland — all with Gini coefficients of 0.25 or less. Czech Republic was communist; the Scandinavians have extremely progressive taxation, and their people are honest in paying taxes. The countries with most unequal income are Mexico, Turkey, the US and Israel, with Gini coefficients of 0.48, 0.42 and 0.38 and 0.38 respectively. Most OECD countries cluster in the range of 0.25 to 0.33.

Take a look (I find, by Googling, that Gini coefficient of India is about 0.325 at present and it is increasing).

Beteille’s condemnation and Ramachandra Guha’s hope

January 10, 2012

Here is the last sentence from an article of Andre Beteille in EPW (4 October, 2008, which I could get thanks to JSTOR subscription of the Institute):

It would appear therefore that the people of India are destined to oscillate endlessly between the two poles of constitutionalism and populism without ever discarding the one or the other.

I got a reference to the article from Ram Guha, who is hopeful in spite of what Beteille has to say:

But we must live in hope. Perhaps, in reflecting in the New Year on the events of the last half of 2011, elected politicians may be compelled to honour their Constitutional obligations more seriously. And perhaps, on the other side, civil society activists will now act with more sobriety and less self-righteousness. To both sides I urge a close reading of the full text of André Béteille’s essay, published, under the title ‘Constitutional Morality’, in the issue of the Economic and Political Weekly dated October 4, 2008. In my view, the essay should be mandatory reading for all thinking, reflective, Indians, in whose ranks I would (hopefully and generously) include the likes of Kapil Sibal, P Chidambaram, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Arvind Kejriwal, and Kiran Bedi.

Take a look, and if possible, get hold of Beteille’s piece; as Guha notes, he wrote it before the ascendancy of Team Anna!