Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Profiles of Mathematicians

It all started with The Heirs to Ramanujan's Genius: A profile of six Indian mathematicians by Dilip D'Souza in Mint on Sunday (which appeared two weeks ago), featuring Soumya Das (a colleague at IISc), Kaneenika Sinha (blogger and friend from IISER-Pune), U.K. Anandavardhanan (IIT-B), Amritanshu Prasad (IMSc-Chennai), Ritabrata Munshi (TIFR), Nikhil Srivastava (UC-Berkeley).

While I had to wait to get to that article by Dilip, several more landed in my inbox just in the last couple of days. And they are all absolutely fabulous. The first one -- The Singular Mind of Terry Tao -- is a profile of Terence Tao (UCLA) by Gareth Cook in NYTimes.

The world’s most charismatic mathematician: a profile of John Horton Conway (Princeton) by Siobhan Roberts in The Guardian.

Pure to Applied: a nice piece describing the work of Robert Ghrist (UPenn) by Kevin Hartnett in The Pennsylvania Gazette.

And just this morning, I found a great article about four mathematicians (all of them 65+ years of age) "racing to save the Enormous Theorem's proof, all 15,000 pages of it" in the July issue of Scientific American. Unfortunately, the online version is behind a paywall. Grab it if you get a chance!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Janaki Ammal

Scroll.in has a great article entitled Remembering Dr Janaki Ammal, pioneering botanist, cytogeneticist and passionate Gandhian by Geetha Doctor on the life and works of Janaki Ammal, a Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences right from its first year.

Vedic Planes

Siddhartha Deb has a great piece on Those mythological men and their sacred, supersonic flying temples in The New Republic. Subtitle: "What tales of ancient Vedic aircraft tell us about India’s place in the modern world."

Excerpts won't do any justice to the piece. So, go read the whole thing!

ISI, Nalanda, FTII, etc., etc.

  1. R. Ramachandran has an update on the Bimal Roy affair at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata -- A twist in the ISI tale.

  2. Arunabha Bagchi has an op-ed in The Stateman -- Autonomy of Learning -- in which he lists all the known cases of government interference in academic institutions and bodies such as ICHR. It's a very long list indeed.

  3. Bagchi, of course, starts with the now famous critique of the present government by Amartya Sen (published in no less an outlet than NYRB): The stormy revival of an international university.

Here's an excerpt from the first article.

After humiliating the former Director of an institution of national importance and vitiating the atmosphere, the government does an about-turn and tries to save face by appointing him head of a cryptology centre. [...]

The current events at the ISI have resulted in a legal notice being served on the Chairman and the institute by two ISI faculty members (who were at the council meeting on April 23), two petitions being filed in the Calcutta High Court against the government (one by three academics, including two ISI faculty members, one of whom is also a council member, and a member of the ISI society who is a professor at Calcutta University, and the second by Bimal Roy himself), an online petition (www.change.org) being signed by over 2,000 people, and an open letter to the President of India from the International Association for Cryptologic Research (IACR).

But the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI) does not seem inclined to resolve the issue in a fair, just and democratic way. Significantly, the Ministry, having made all the allegations against Roy, has not served any show-cause notice or a charge sheet, let alone institute, as demanded by the online petition, a “proper public investigation into the allegations… and a proper hearing by the council”.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Robert Shiller: "What to Learn in College to Stay One Step Ahead of Computers"

In an interesting NYTimes column, we find this bit of history of management education at Yale:

Like Harvard and other colleges and universities, Yale has been struggling with the broad issues for a very long time. It once experimented with an undergraduate business program, to prepare students for life beyond college, but shut down that program in 1954. In the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, antipathy to the business establishment increased. According to the former Yale Graduate School dean John Perry Miller, in his book “Creating Academic Settings” (J. Simeon Press, 1991), there was open “hostility” to the idea of business-oriented education at Yale.

Nonetheless, Yale produced many fine businesspeople. But because of this hostility, Yale did not start a business school until 1976, and even then denied that it was just a business school: Instead of offering a Master of Business Administration, it initially conferred only the more idealistic-sounding Master of Public and Private Management. Before 1976, the university had a great economics department, imbued with a lofty sense of pure theory and mathematics, but it was not focused on practical business education.

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Update: I don't know why, but all this history of management education at Yale somehow made my mind wander over to a post from 2010 -- Effects of a Liberal Arts Education on Managers!

Janet Napolitano: Higher Education [in the US] isn't in Crisis

In her WaPo review of a couple of books on US higher education, the president of the University of California system starts with a big splash:

Imagine, if you will, an American business that other countries, from China to Saudi Arabia, seek to emulate. A business that routinely accounts for the advances in science, medicine, technology, arts and humanities that have established the United States as the most innovative nation in the world. A business whose customers number about 20 million in this country alone, spanning the spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds. A business that conservatively contributes more than $400 billion annually to the U.S. economy. A business that is commonly recognized as one of America’s greatest contributions to civilization.

That enterprise is America’s system of higher education. [...]

Links: Tim Hunt Edition

  1. Maki Naro in Popular Science: The trouble with Nobel Prizes -- They're not magic medals of blamelessness.

    So don't write to me saying I don't care about science because a poor guy tarnished his own gold star by making a bad, sexist joke and got called out on it. Instead, ask yourself how much you care about science that you've allowed the past to supersede the future. Take a long look at the choices that led you to put science before people. Instead of blindly defending an old man with a medal, try to listen and reflect upon yourself and the society that led you to defend him in the first place. Then GTFO.

  2. Alice Bell at Open Democracy: After Tim Hunt: Another Science is Possible. "After the widespread reaction to Tim Hunt’s comments on women in science, it’s time to unpick the various hierarchies that stifle scientific debates and practice."

  3. Janet Stemwedel at the Forbes Science Blog: What if Tim Hunt had done it differently:

    So, let’s rewind the universe to a point in time before Tim Hunt’s trajectory intersected with the controversy. You might think the crucial moment at which to consider “what if” is when Hunt was asked to make some remarks to the luncheon. But let’s go back more than a year earlier, to spring of 2014, when Tim Hunt was interviewed for Lab Times. Here’s part of that published exchange:

    In your opinion, why are women still under-represented in senior positions in academia and funding bodies?

    Hunt: I’m not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me… is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.

    What if, after the interview, Tim Hunt had done some thinking about the underrepresentation of women in science, especially in senior positions? What if he had sought out some of the people clearly upset by the inequalities in outcomes and listened to them in order better to understand that upset? What if he had looked at the research on the various factors that still present barriers to entry and inclusion for women (among others) in science?

    If he had done that, then by June of 2015, asked to speak at the luncheon, he might have had a somewhat better understanding of the women scientists in his audience.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Sexism in Indian Science

Gayatri Jayaraman has a must-read article on The Secret Sexism of Indian Science. Lots of Bhatnagar Award winning scientists speak out.

Sexism in Indian science did not get enough space in Leelavati's Daughters, probably because it was (meant to be?) a celebratory volume on Indian women scientists. It is good to see it being discussed in Jayaraman's article.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

L'Affaire Bimal Roy: An Update

Wire.in has published An Open Letter to Arun Shourie on the Sacking of the ISI Director by the alumni of the Indian Statistical Institute. Needless to add, it has some rather uncomfortable questions. For example:

Did the ISI Council, at the meeting on April 23, 2015, move and pass a resolution accepting the recommendation of the Selection Committee to appoint Prof Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay as the Director of ISI with effect from August 1, 2015, as required under the bye-laws of ISI, which clearly states that “The appointment of the Director shall be made by the Council (emphasis added) on the recommendation made by a Selection Committee?”

We ask this because, to the best of our knowledge, earlier, at the same Council meeting on April 23, when an objection was raised relating to the appointment of an ISI Centre Head, you, as the Chairman, adopted the admirably correct democratic practice of seeking a majority vote in the Council to resolve the dilemma and validate the appointment.

If the answer to the above question is YES, would you please tell us how many Council members were in attendance during the meeting, how many voted in favor of or against the motion and how many abstained from voting?

If, however, the answer to the above question is NO, and yet the minutes of the meeting asserted otherwise, would you not agree that the purported “minutes” were factually incorrect and Prof Roy did no wrong in refusing to authenticate these minutes, as has been widely reported in the media?

Irrespective of the answer to the above question, would you please review the provisions of the ISI Act quoted in the order for us and assure us that by invoking its emergency provisions to divest Prof Roy of his powers and duties without enlightening him of the charges against him and giving him the opportunity to respond to these charges, the MOSPI violated neither the letter nor the spirit of the law?

Visa Hardball

At the lunch table the other day, the Visa Venkateswara   posts came up for discussion, and it occurred to us that, given her name, Goddess Visalakshi should be able to beat every Hindu deity hollow in this very popular and lucrative game. She is certainly losing out!

The materials-engineer-turned-journalist Sidin Vadukut has a funny post (funny only if you have not been hit by a stray ball in the game of visa hardball) -- Borderline Personality: Put Your Game Face On, Passport Control -- on India's e-visa scheme. Its funny-ness comes from his advocacy of strict reciprocity in dealing with travelers from different countries. For example:

USA: When visitors arrive at an Indian airport, immediately ask them to furnish the passport officer with passport photos that are no more than one hour old. Provide photo booths in the airport where visitors can take pictures at a nominal fee of ₹15,000 per photograph. When they have submitted seven copies of the photograph, allow them into the country after confiscating their footwear.

In any case, the reciprocity-in-the-visa-game is turning into a source of pain for Indians traveling to the US, and vice versa. While this has been happening on and off for quite sometime (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, with the earliest occurrence in this blog being from way back in February of 2006), the flare-ups make it to the press when the affected parties occupy positions far higher that that of a grad student or a professor. The latest celebrity to be denied a US visa is the Director General of CSIR!

Here's the The Economic Times report -- Indo-US ties: Denial of visas to scientists thorn in the flesh -- by Pallava Bagla who points out that India has been quite good at dishing out pain to the American academics who want to travel to India. The following excerpt is about the troubles of Dr. M.O. Garg, DG-CSIR:

This week, India's leading petroleum researcher Dr M O Garg, Director General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), New Delhi went livid on what he called was a 'denial of granting a US visa' for him to attend a scientific meeting in Columbus, Ohio. Garg heads India's largest network of 38 civilian labs employing over 4000 scientists with an annually budget of about Rs 3800 crore.

On June 1, Garg recounts that he spent almost half a day filling out screen after screen of questions to apply for his US visa which he calls was like writing down 'my janam-patri or life history', a day later in usual fashion he was finger printed and photographed. On June 3, he was asked to appear for the 'visa interview' which he did at 8.30 am and he recalls that 'questions for which the consular official already had answers' were popped to him which he says he patiently answered.

Then it seems his troubles began when he was asked to appear for another face-to-face interview at new window where he was now given a piece of paper with several questions and a 'tracking number'. Garg says having procured several US visas in the past this now meant to him that he was being 'singled out'.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Rolls Royce of Chalk - Part Deux

Gizmodo has a cute story -- Why Mathematicians Are Hoarding This Special Type of Japanese Chalk. Apparently, the firm that made these chalks is no more.

I posted a link to a post at the Williams College blog on the legend of Hagomoro chalks (this post is also fondly quoted in the Gizmodo story):

3. So what is the best chalk out there?

I have wrestled with this question and spent a bit of time pursing this over my sabbatical last year. There have been rumors about a dream chalk, a chalk so powerful that mathematics practically writes itself; a chalk so amazing that no incorrect proof can be written using this chalk. I can finally say, after months of pursuit, that such a chalk indeed exists. It is called the Hagoromo Fulltouch Chalk.

For those lucky few who have used it, it can truly be called the Michael Jordan of chalk, the Rolls Royce of chalk. [Bold emphasis added]

Visa Venkateswara: Part Deux

BBC has a pictorial story on temples whose gods specialize in visas. Chilkur Balaji temple is one of the two shrines covered there; the other is a gurdwara in the Punjab village of Talhan.

The essay features a priceless picture of toy airplanes offered by the devotees at Talhan; this alone is worth a click on that link!

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'Part Deux' is because this is the second time that this phenomenon appears in this blog. The first time was 9 years ago!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Ricardo Hausmann on The Education Myth

His Project Syndicate column argues that education is not what we should look to for economic growth.

... [T]hough the typical country with ten years of schooling had a per capita income of $30,000 in 2010, per capita income in Albania, Armenia, and Sri Lanka, which have achieved that level of schooling, was less than $5,000. Whatever is preventing these countries from becoming richer, it is not lack of education.

A country’s income is the sum of the output produced by each worker. To increase income, we need to increase worker productivity. Evidently, “something in the water,” other than education, makes people much more productive in some places than in others. A successful growth strategy needs to figure out what this is.

Make no mistake: education presumably does raise productivity. But to say that education is your growth strategy means that you are giving up on everyone who has already gone through the school system – most people over 18, and almost all over 25. It is a strategy that ignores the potential that is in 100% of today’s labor force, 98% of next year’s, and a huge number of people who will be around for the next half-century. An education-only strategy is bound to make all of them regret having been born too soon.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Fired: ISI Director Bimal Roy

Update: I'm adding more information and links at the end. See also the comments.

* * *

The firing of Prof. Bimal Roy from the post of the Director of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Kolkata, seems unusual because (a) a new Director is to take charge in less than two months (b) the said new-Director has also been identified, and (c) Bimal Roy is among the recipients of the 2015 Padma Awards. To top it all, the official order says the man is being fired "to prevent indiscipline and mischief, and to prevent the eventualities of administrative malfeasance."

Here's an excerpt from the order from MoSPI, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation:

... A number of general and specific matters of financial and administrative irregularities which show the direct or supervisory responsibilities for acts of omission and commission on the part of present Director, Prof. B.B. Roy, are available in the Ministry in the various files on the different subjects.

There is justified and reasonable apprehension that the present Director, Prof Bimal Roy may indulge in propagation of indiscipline and mischief, including acts of administrative and financial impropriety in the interregnum up to 31st July, 2015 (before the new Director, Prof S Bandyopadhyay takes charge on 1st August 2015)

After this news became public, the Chair of ISI Council, Dr. Arun Shourie, has defended the order from MoSPI, saying that the Government had no option.

Given the unusual combination of a blunt verdict and vague allegations about possible future crimes, it is surprising that no news organization has chosen to dig deeper. The silence of The Telegraph, in whose backyard all this stuff is happening, is not just surprising, but also deeply puzzling!

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Update 1 (20 June 2015):

  1. The Wire has a story (thanks to commenter Pulsereed) with some additional details culled from a petition seeking Justice for ISI, and from this Reddit thread.

  2. Outlook also has a story with original reporting by Dola Mitra: Portal Of Unease ("The ISI director is ruthlessly sacked as curtains are drawn shut in secrecy").

    Thanks to a comment (by "counterfeiter", an ISI alum), we now know of this Facebook page ("Justice for ISI") which features messages of support for Prof. Roy, and messages of protest against the Ministry; it also features video messages from ISI alums who are now academics in the US.

  3. The petition (which I have signed) gives some background information, and concludes with the following demands:

    1. Proper independent public investigation must be done regarding the Ministry's allegations against Prof. Roy, the charges against Prof. Roy must be presented to the council, and a proper hearing must be conducted by the Council, before deciding upon the next course of action.

    2. The audio recording of the Director selection meeting along with its transcript should be released immediately and investigated by independent authority.

    3. Till these investigations are over and the Council decides otherwise, citing valid proof, Prof Bimal Kumar Roy should be immediately reinstated at the position of interim Director.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Sir Tim Hunt: Part Deux

  1. "... [Yes], I made those remarks – which were inexcusable – but I made them in a totally jocular, ironic way. There was some polite applause and that was it, I thought. I thought everything was OK. No one accused me of being a sexist pig.”
    -- Sir Tim Hunt

  2. That assertion -- "I made them in a totally jocular, ironic way" -- is strongly disputed by Deborah Blum, who was there and who quized him about what he meant. [Update: She elaborates on those tweets in an essay at The Daily Beast.]

  3. Michael Eisen offers a different perspective on Hunt's self destruction, and it involves a previous event in Kashmir: Sympathy for the Devil?

  4. Geoffrey Pullum in CHE: 36 Words.

  5. #DistractinglySexy -- storified!

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Update (2 July 2015): Connie St Louis in The Guardian: Stop defending Tim Hunt.