Sunday, October 29, 2006

Yet another QOTD

The very purpose of existence is to reconcile the glowing opinion we have of ourselves with the appalling things that other people think about us.
-- Quentin Crisp

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Sepia Mutiny on Smita Narang's Web Vastu

Update: I found the Wired story online, and I thought it would be fun to submit it to Slashdot. To my surprise, it made it to the main page almost immediately, and slash-dotters are having a lot of fun ridiculing Web Vastu and trashing Narang's website.

Check it out; it already has 201 comments.

Dr. Smita Narang -- yes, she has a doctorate in Vastu, the "ancient science of direction" -- is going places. She and her work were covered by IBN-Live sometime ago; now, Siddhartha informs that she is featured in the print edition of the magazine Wired [Update: it's available online]; in the article, she even gets to analyze SlashDot's Vastu!

Thanks to Guru for the link to Siddhartha's post.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Quote of the Day

Today's quote dished out by Google's QOTD:

Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness.
-- Robertson Davies.

Desi filter-blogs

Between Patrix's announcement about DesiPundit's death and a later one about its rescue, the land of desi filter-blogging attracted several new residents.

Krish and Shivam have put together a group for running BlogBharti.

An anonymous blogger has started Desiblogging, and she (?) has chosen to specialize in highlighting what she calls "wicked" posts from desi bloggers.

Are there any others?

Oh, BTW, I'm now a part of the rescued, revitalized and expanded DesiPundit gang.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Happiness != Welfare

Robert Frank of Cornell says happiness is not the same thing as welfare. More importantly, while increasing GDP may not increase happniness much (his focus is on rich countries), it certainly contributes to a greater welfare; therefore, GDP growth is good. QED.

Many critics of economic growth ... argue that if money buys happiness, it is relative, not absolute, income that matters. As incomes grow, people quickly adapt to their new circumstances, showing no enduring gains in measured happiness. Growth makes the poor happier in low-income countries, critics concede, but not in developed countries, where those at the bottom continue to experience relative deprivation.

All true. But these statements do not imply that economic growth no longer matters in wealthy countries. The reason, in a nutshell, is that happiness and welfare, though related, are very different things. Growth enables us to expand medical research and other activities that clearly enhance human welfare but have little effect on measured happiness levels.

All this is quite appealing, but one of Mark Thoma's readers raises a valid point (do read the other comments there as well):

Well, I still think that growth as such is the wrong target. The author says that some growth promotes welfare, while some harms it, yet concludes that we should be aiming for growth, albeit intelligently managed growth, because that would have some positive correlation with welfare.

Then why not rather aim at welfare?

Bengaluru ...

My own comment on an earlier post in this blog led to my views being sought a while ago on the almost-imminent change in the name of this great city of ours. Now, Ken Moritsugu of USA Today has quoted some of what I said in this story:

T.A. Abinandanan, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and a transplant from the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, says such concerns are exaggerated. Besides, he adds, Bangalore has a bad image among Americans whose jobs have been outsourced to India.

"When 'getting Bangalored' has acquired a strong negative connotation," he says, "becoming Bengaluru can only be a good thing for this city."

That concludes yet another episode of My 15 nanoseconds of fame. Not just any old type of fame; we're talkin' International Fame!

* * *

Now, for those 15 nano-persons who are still reading this post, here's what I wrote to Ken:

While I'm not enthused by the name change, I don't have any strong reason to oppose it, nor do I find the opponents' arguments persuasive or convincing. So, I guess I 'm with the supporters of the name change !

Sure, the name change is a result of our politicians' desire to gain some short term advantage by claiming to take the city to its (linguistic) roots. However, if it makes the Kannada-speaking people happy without affecting the others -- like me -- much, we can't complain, can we?

Some people see grave dangers (to the city's identity, brand image, etc), but such concerns appear to me to be exaggerated. Quite a few cities in India have gone through such changes without a hitch (and in spite of similar warnings of similarly grave dangers): Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai (where I grew up), Thiruvananthapuram .... I'm sure Bangalore's new name will become the norm within a short time.

I also see another small positive in the name change: when 'getting Bangalored' has acquired a strong negative connotation, becoming Bengaluru can only be a good thing for this city!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Anatomy of a scientific fraud

Cross-posted at nanopolitan 2.0.

Just drop everything, and read the NYTimes story about Eric Poehlman's fraud which made him "only the second scientist in the United States to face criminal prosecution for falsifying research data." Here's the opening paragraph:

On a rainy afternoon in June, Eric Poehlman stood before a federal judge in the United States District Court in downtown Burlington, [Vermont]. His sentencing hearing had dragged on for more than four hours, and Poehlman, dressed in a black suit, remained silent while the lawyers argued over the appropriate sentence for his transgressions. Now was his chance to speak. A year earlier, in the same courthouse, Poehlman pleaded guilty to lying on a federal grant application and admitted to fabricating more than a decade’s worth of scientific data on obesity, menopause and aging, much of it while conducting clinical research as a tenured faculty member at the University of Vermont. He presented fraudulent data in lectures and in published papers, and he used this data to obtain millions of dollars in federal grants from the National Institutes of Health — a crime subject to as many as five years in federal prison. Poehlman’s admission of guilt came after more than five years during which he denied the charges against him, lied under oath and tried to discredit his accusers. By the time Poehlman came clean, his case had grown into one of the most expansive cases of scientific fraud in U.S. history.

The following paragraph, which appears in the second part of the long article, sums up the problem:

The scientific process is meant to be self-correcting. Peer review of scientific journals and the ability of scientists to replicate one another’s results are supposed to weed out erroneous conclusions and preserve the integrity of the scientific record over time. But the Poehlman case shows how a committed cheater can elude detection for years by playing on the trust — and the self-interest — of his or her junior colleagues.

Two other high profile cases of fraud in recent times -- Hendrik Schön and Hwang Woo Suk -- also make an appearance in the NYTimes story:

Most people involved in Poehlman’s case say that fraud as extensive as his represents an uncommon pathology, similar to what drove the South Korean scientist who claimed to have cloned human stem cells or the Lucent Technologies physicist who falsified extensive amounts of nanotechnology data. More frequent, according to a study published in Nature in June 2005, are smaller lapses in ethical judgment, like failing to present data that contradicts your previous research or inappropriately assigning author credit. Brian Martinson, who conducted that study with colleagues from the University of Minnesota, suggests that those gray areas, which many scientists inhabit at one time or another during their careers, portend a greater ailment for the scientific process. Minor transgressions, largely undetected and easily rationalized, can build up like plaque, compromising scientific integrity over time.

Do read the whole thing. It's long, but well worth it.


Dished out by Google Personal Page's QOTD feature:

Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality.
-- Bertrand Russell.

Peter Singer on gay sex and motorbikes

From this essay:

Anyone who has visited India and seen the sexually explicit temple carvings there will know that the Hindu tradition has a less prudish attitude to sex than Christianity. India's prohibition of homosexuality dates to 1861, when the British ruled the subcontinent and imposed Victorian morality upon it. It is ironic that Britain long ago repealed its own similar prohibition.

Fortunately prohibition of sodomy in India is not enforced. Yet it provides a basis for blackmail and harassment of homosexuals, and has made it more difficult for groups that educate people about HIV and Aids. Vikram Seth, the author of A Suitable Boy, recently published an open letter calling for repeal of the law that makes homosexuality a crime. Many notable Indians, including the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, have given it their support. A challenge to the law is before the high court in Delhi.

Pittsburgh Powerhouses

Having studied in a university named after these two sons of Pittsburgh, I just have to link to Matthew Price's review of Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon: An American Life:

... [T]hese Pittsburgh powerhouses helped define and shape an epoch of American capitalism when this country actually made things (who’s the Chinese Carnegie?), when Steel Town was true to its name—a belching, soot-covered mess otherwise known as “hell with the lid off.” Carnegie, a bumptious little Scotsman who swaggered as if he were twice his size, soared with iron and steel, smashing unions along the way—Carnegie’s tactic was to conciliate, then crush—as he piled up a vast fortune; when he sold Carnegie Steel to J.P. Morgan in 1901, he walked away with $120 billion (in 2006 dollars), which he used to underwrite a hodgepodge of philanthropic causes, foundations and charitable trusts. (Next time you walk by a branch of the New York Public Library, thank Mr. Carnegie). A self-taught, self-righteous know-it-all, he lectured the world—like George Soros, he wouldn’t ever shut up—in his voluminous writings on many topics, counseled the rich to give away their money, and embarked on a quixotic campaign to bring about world peace, even if part of the Carnegie fortune came from the U.S. Navy, which bought armor plates manufactured in Carnegie mills.

The life of Andrew Mellon offers a prim study in contrast with his fellow western Pennsylvania capitalist. Whereas Carnegie was a sunny extrovert, Mellon was a shy, pallid, unfunny, emotionally stunted man who loathed the spotlight. He was no activist, nor was he, as Mr. Nasaw writes of Carnegie, a “moral philosopher of industrial capitalism.”

An entrepreneur of genius, Mellon let his endeavors speak for themselves. Mellon money helped kick-start everything from Alcoa to Gulf Oil, and flowed through almost every sector of the American economy, from banking to gas, metals and mining. A discerning, indefatigable art collector, he was the driving force in the creation of the National Gallery. In his three terms as a tax-cutting Secretary of the Treasury, he saw the 20’s roar (even if he didn’t), then crash. ...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Listen to your unhappiness

We need to listen to our unhappiness, rather than to ease it with shopping or chocolate. This is because unhappiness is an early-warning system and ultimately a spur to change. Perhaps this is why politicians have become so keen on happiness: a happy electorate is not going to ask difficult questions or rock the boat.

Ultimately, nobody can deliver us happiness, not Tony Blair, not David Cameron and not our partner — that remains in our own hands (see box). Certainly the science of positive psychology has some guidelines to happiness but nothing revolutionary. When we ask today “What will make us happy”, it is basically the same question posed by Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago: “What makes life meaningful?” Maybe politicians should use this as benchmark for future legislation; it would certainly work better than economic prosperity.

From this essay by Andrew G. Marshall.

Demolition job

... his book is all too easy to put down.

And, that's one of the nicer things Scott McLemee says in his review of Jean-Noël Jeanneney's book Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge.

Friday, October 20, 2006

European universities

Here's the NYTimes story about the many ways the German higher ed system resembles its American counterpart. This caught my eye:

Classrooms have been overcrowded — and standards have slipped — since the 1970’s, when Germany began guaranteeing that any graduate of a gymnasium, the more academically rigorous part of the high school system, was entitled to a place in a university, paid for entirely by the state. [Emphasis added]

While on the subject of universities, here's something about universities in Sweden.

... Oxford and Cambridge have always compared themselves with one another, just as have American universities like Harvard, Yale, Colombia and Princeton. In many European countries the universities have, however, primarily been judged on the basis of age and distinction, and here the opposition to quality assessments has been stronger.

In Sweden too there are examples of hierarchies. Establishment and positioning has occurred in fits and starts, which is demonstrated by the progress of Stockholm University within advanced scientific research, at the expense of Uppsala. Linköping University has over recent years, and against a background of weaker resources and repute than the older universities, developed new forms of teaching and research.

Hmmm. Why stop with Germany and Sweden. Here's another NYTimes story from May 2006. This time, its about the French university system.

... The country's university system guaranteed a free — or almost free — college education to every high school graduate who passed the baccalauréat exam. University enrollment soared. The value of a bachelor's degree plummeted.

But the state failed to invest much in buildings, facilities and professors' salaries to make the system work. Today the French government allocates about $8,500 a year to each university student, about 40 percent less than what it invests in each high school student.

Most students are required to attend the universities closest to their high schools. ...

Coming back to the article about the Swedish universities, it has this (among much else) to say on American universities:

... American universities, especially the private universities, have almost endless resources to make their own major investments in new fields of science. The American state, which has otherwise sold itself to laissez-faire, has always had a generous relationship to technological and scientific development, as support of this kind has favoured defence and security interests (and acted as a concealed support for industry). This knowledge mercantilism has, in combination with a generous donation culture, created the prerequisites for an extremely strong and dynamic university sector. ...

Agastya Foundation

Will paralysis be cured if you eat white pigeons? Why do human beings, plants and animals grow vertically and not horizontally?

Just a couple of questions posed by some 250 students to a team of scientists from IISc, reports the Hindu. This interaction was organized by Agastya Foundation. Here's an earlier story in the Business World, that describes Agastya's mission, its 'Mobile Lab' and its flagship program: training primary school teachers.

Invisible (to microwave radiation)

For an object to be truly invisible, it should neither reflect (scatter) nor absorb light. Instead, it should let light "slide around [it] like water flowing around a smooth rock in a stream". Today's NYTimes reports that an object has been rendered invisible to microwave radiation:

The system, a set of concentric copper circles on fiberglass board, deflects electromagnetic waves of a specific frequency that strike it, without much of the scattering and absorption that make reflections and shadows. [...]

The exact structure of the circles was described in an earlier paper by Sir John Pendry of Imperial College in London, who worked with the Duke group to see his theory etched into a working model by means of the process used to print circuit boards. In the recent paper, researchers said they had successfully cloaked a copper cylinder.

The Scientific American has some more details, including a picture of the 'copper cylinder' (it's actually copper etchings on fiberglass), and another showing the comparison between simulations and experimental results on how the microwave 'flows around' the cylinder.

Forget invisibility for a moment. In the NYTimes article, what is highly visible -- and very admirable too -- is the unwillingness of the Duke team's leader Prof. David Smith to hype their work to beyond what it really is about:

But Dr. Smith warned against getting ahead of the day’s announcement and envisioning the disappearing Romulan warbirds of “Star Trek” on the horizon. The work “is really a scientific explanation,” he said, adding, “Whether it’s useful is always a question.”

Creating a cloaking device in the visible spectrum would be vastly more complex, he said, since the device would have to warp all of the wavelengths of light. The chance of creating such a device is “dim,” he said, but, “The theory doesn’t prevent it from an electromagnetic point of view.”

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Rise of the modern university

From the New Yorker review of William Clark's Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University :

Between 1750 and 1825, the research enterprise established itself, along with institutions that now seem eternal and indispensable: the university library, with its acquisitions budget, large building, and elaborate catalogues; the laboratory; the academic department, with its fellowships and specialized training. So did a new form of teaching: the seminar, in which students learned by doing, presenting reports on their original research for the criticism of their teachers and colleagues. The new pedagogy prized novelty and discovery; it was stimulating, optimistic, and attractive to students around the world. Some ten thousand young Americans managed to study in Germany during the nineteenth century. There, they learned that research defined the university enterprise. And that is why we still make our graduate students write dissertations and our assistant professors write books. The multicultural, global faculty of the American university still inhabits the all-male, and virtually all-Christian, research universities of Mommsen’s day.

Thanks to Guru and Pradeepkumar for the link.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Somini Sengupta on shortage of skilled manpower in India

In today's NYTimes. While her take is a little to IT-centric for my taste (and I don't know why she thinks India has nine IITs), she lays out the key problems with interesting examples. In particular, she talks about TCS going to small-time colleges in semi-rural areas in its efforts to recruit talent.

This year, India’s largest software company, Tata Consultancy Services, plans to add 30,000 people to its current work force of 72,000. So it was that on a recent afternoon a four-man team from the company roamed the halls of a college founded by a local textile magnate in this small south Indian outpost.

The team came to Tiruchengode with the goals of selecting its next generation of software programmers and assessing how, in the short term, the company could help the college churn out more of what it needed. ...

They grilled professors and administrators: How many faculty members have doctorates? Why did so many students have incompletes by the time they entered their fourth and final year? What software programs do they use for the class in mechatronics — a combination of mechanics, information technology and electronics?

They tested the students’ ability to reason and speak, tossing out debate topics, like democracy versus dictatorship, and science quiz questions, like what happens to an iron rod put in a beaker of nitric acid.

They sampled the offerings at the college library and the English language lab.

The exercise was part of an elaborate process by the company to assess whether this campus, the K. S. Rangasamy College of Technical Education, can be added to the pool of colleges from which to recruit. ...

The imprimatur of Tata Consultancy would clearly be a prize for the college, and the campus was festooned with flowers and banners welcoming the company team. ...

Redeeming Shing-Tung Yau's reputation

After Silvia Nasar and David Gruber trashed   Prof. Yau's reputation, Dennis Overbye tries to restore some of it in his article in today's NYTimes. This new effort can at best be described only as a partial success.

[I]n 2003, a Russian mathematician, Grigory Perelman, sketched a way to jump a roadblock that had stymied Dr. Hamilton and to prove the hallowed theorem as well as a more general one proposed by the Cornell mathematician William Thurston. Dr. Perelman promptly disappeared, leaving his colleagues to connect the dots.

Among those who took up that challenge, at the urging of Dr. Yau, were Huai-Dong Cao of Lehigh University, a former student, and Xi-Ping Zhu of Zhongshan University. Last June, Dr. Yau announced that they had succeeded and that the first complete proof would appear in The Asian Journal of Mathematics, at which he is the chief editor.

In a speech later that month during the string theory conference, Dr. Yau said, “In Perelman’s work, many key ideas of the proofs are sketched or outlined, but complete details of the proofs are often missing,” adding that the Cao-Zhu paper had filled some of these in with new arguments.

This annoyed many mathematicians, who felt that Dr. Yau had slighted Dr. Perelman. Other teams who were finishing their own connect-the-dots proofs said they had found no gaps in Dr. Perelman’s work. “There was no mystery they suddenly resolved,” said John Morgan of Columbia, who was working with Gang Tian of Princeton on a proof.

This new piece of dirt doesn't help Yau's cause at all:

In a twist, a flaw has been discovered in the Cao-Zhu paper. One of the arguments that the authors used to fill in Dr. Perelman’s proof is identical to one posted on the Internet in June 2003 by Bruce Kleiner, of Yale, and John Lott, of the University of Michigan, who had been trying to explicate Dr. Perelman’s work.

In an erratum to run in The Asian Journal of Mathematics, Dr. Cao and Dr. Zhu acknowledge the mistake, saying they had forgotten that they studied and incorporated that material into their notes three years ago.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Nobel Peace Prize links

Here are some posts with some commentary and some links: Madhukar Shukla, Stephen Zavestoski (via Swarup), Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta, Neha Viswanathan, Tyler Cowen and Mark Thoma.

Trivia about American professoriat

Via Mark Thoma, we get this:

Contrary to stereotype, most college professors are not atheists or agnostics, according to new research. In fact, only about one-quarter of professors deny God exists or claim it is impossible to know, according to survey results analyzed by sociologists Neil Gross of Harvard University and Solon Simmons of George Mason University.

Here's somewhat more encouraging news (via Peter Klein): Among the members of the American Economic Association, "about 8 percent can be considered supporters of free-market principles, and that less than 3 percent may be called strong supporters. . . . Even the average Republican AEA member is ‘middle-of-the road,’ not free-market".

Finally, an interesting study (via Brayden King) found that, on being "asked to share data from a recently published study, only 27% of psychologists were willing to do so."

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell on child prodigies

After this post, we get another chance to look at the (meaningless) concept of child prodigy. This time, it is this report of a talk by Malcolm Gladwell at this year's Convention of the American Psychological Society. Bottomline: we all succumb to "our irresistible desire to look at precociousness as a prediction".

What a gifted child is, in many ways, is a gifted learner. And what a gifted adult is, is a gifted doer. And those are quite separate domains of achievement.

Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank

Grameencredit is based on the premise that the poor have skills which remain unutilised or under-utilised. It is definitely not the lack of skills which make poor people poor. Grameen believes that the poverty is not created by the poor, it is created by the institutions and policies which surround them. In order to eliminate poverty all we need to do is to make appropriate changes in the institutions and policies, and/or create new ones. Grameen believes that charity is not an answer to poverty. It only helps poverty to continue. It creates dependency and takes away individual's initiative to break through the wall of poverty. Unleashing of energy and creativity in each human being is the answer to poverty.

Grameen brought credit to the poor, women, the illiterate, the people who pleaded that they did not know how to invest money and earn an income. Grameen created a methodology and an institution around the financial needs of the poor, and created access to credit on reasonable term enabling the poor to build on their existing skill to earn a better income in each cycle of loans.

From this article by this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. Here's the press release from

Money and evil

Evil is the root of all money.
-- Nobuhiro Kiyotaki and John Moore

From Tim Harford's latest Dear Economist column. The context in which this quote appears is this:

[W]e need money because people simply don’t trust each other. In the words of economists Nobuhiro Kiyotaki and John Moore, “evil is the root of all money”.

Friday, October 13, 2006

"I'm Dalit. How are you?"

Please see the powerful short film (of about 10 minutes) over at Shivam's blog.

Kamasutra of very personal computing

It is certainly not in the same league -- which is to say, absolutely fantastic -- as Kamasutra of reading, but what the heck ... Go here [via reddit].

While not on the topic, you might want to read this essay by Steve Almond.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Moily Committee suggests fee hike in elite institutions

The Committee headed by Veerappa Moily to suggest ways of implementing the new regime of OBC quotas has made a bunch of suggestions which seem to go well beyond the quotas themselves. The Hindustan Times reports:

Seeking more administrative and financial autonomy in higher educational institutions, the Moily panel sought to end the admission fee subsidy for students in IITs and IIMs, barring post-graduate courses. ...

The panel said the entire fee package should be financed through education loans and the government should stop subsidies. The report said students could repay loans after placements.

While I welcome this particular suggestion (and some of the others), I just don't see how it impacts the quotas.

Update (13 October 2006): Take a look at this in today's ET:

Students pursuing higher education may soon be provided with laptops going by the recommendations of the Oversight Committee. ...

“Every student and every teacher should be given such a device on an ownership basis and the process should be facilitated by bank loans,” the report said.

It's entirely possible that our media, whose hostility to the OBC quotas is well known, are highlighting only the lousy recommendations to make the Moily Committee appear less than credible. I would still blame the Committee for helping the media by offering some opinions which are somewhat extraneous to its main job.


Columbia: $ 4 Billion.

University of Virginia: $ 3 Billion.

Yale University: $ 3 Billion.

Stanford University: $ 4.3 Billion

These figures are from this story in Inside HigherEd about the fund-raising plans announced by the universities listed above. The article goes on to examine some of the bad effects of such large fund-raising campaigns. While rich societies can afford to have such a discussion, let me turn your attention to the situation in India.

It's clear that our policies have done a wonderful job of encouraging the wrong sort of private money flowing into the higher ed sector: investments -- sometimes from crooks, politicians and thugs -- seeking high returns. Philanthropic inflows -- for academic programs, scholarships, research fellowships, buildings, hostels, what-have-you -- are far more desirable, but our policies have done a good job of placing obstacles on their way to our institutions which could greatly benefit from them.

I can go on and on, but I'm tired of ranting about why Indian philanthropists are unable to contribute to the development and growth of our institutions of higher education. I did it last year, so go read it if you are interested.

The Christian Science Monitor on Rasam

A nice essay on rasam with an appropriate title: It's delicious no matter what you call it. The essay is by Vijaysree Venkatraman, whose nom de blog is Tilo.

Link via Gilli.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Us vs. Orkut

A court in Aurangabad has issued a notice to Google asking why it's hosting an anti-India online community in its networking site Orkut.

Frankly, I think it's atrocious that such haters of India are allowed to express their hatred so openly. It's even worse that an entity is providing them safe haven. Our courts, which are already in a complete mess, will take ages to put the fear of our justice system in the culprits. Also, you can't trust the judges; in spite of their initial bluster, they may turn around and say India-haters are protected by our Constitution. There is only one viable, morally defensible course of action, and our government should pursue it vigorously and unflinchingly until the world is rid of this threat to freedom and liberty.

We should invade Google.

My favourite Nobel

The 1986 Physics Prize recognized some of the key achievements that played -- and continue to play -- a pivotal role in materials science. One half of the Prize went to Ernst Ruska for his "fundamental work in electron optics, and for the design of the first electron microscope", and the other half was shared by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer for their "design of the scanning tunnelling microscope".

The Nobel Foundation's website has a nice page on TEM; curiously, its photo gallery of TEM images are only from biological specimens! This page and this Wikipedia entry are also quite informative.

Nobel Foundation also has a page on STM; the Wikipedia entry is here. An image gallery is hosted by IBM's Almaden Research Center.

The electron microscope -- specifically, the transmission electron microscope, or the TEM -- opened up the innards of materials, and allowed scientists to get a clear view of phenomena and processes at extremely small scales -- down to one nanometer. We can tweak modern microscopes to reveal secrets even at the atomic scale (down to 0.2 nanometer) (however, since electrons have to pass through -- hence the qualifier 'transmission' -- a layer of material, these 'atomic' level secrets are somewhat blurred).

On the other hand, the Scanning Tunnelling Microscope (STM), is a surface probe that tells us about the structure -- arrangement of atoms and molecules -- at the surface. As Gerber and Lang note in this article (in the first issue of Nature Nanotechnoloty), the invention of STM is one of the "crucial events in the history of nanoscience and nanotechnology".

Research at the nanoscale is expensive primarily because of gadgets such as the electron microscope, STM and its cousins such as the Atomic Force Microscope. As Prof. C.N.R. Rao said in his plenary lecture at Nano-2006, 'doing' chemistry at the nanoscale -- synthesizing nano-sized compounds by exploiting interesting chemical principles -- is actually quite easy and inexpensive. With strong chemical insight and intuition, all one needs is basic infrastructure that can be found in a high school or a junior college! It is only the associated machinery required for probing the structure, chemistry, properties, etc, which makes nanoscience an expensive enterprise.

To get back to the topic of this post, I have to confess that the 1986 Physics Prize is my favourite simply because the achievements it celebrates are things that are useful for us materials scientists and engineers; more importantly, these are achievements I understand and relate to, and I can't say this about any of the other science Nobels from any era!

However, here is one more factoid which I'm sure you would find interesting: this Prize recognized research from two very different times: the electron microscopy work dates back to the 1930s, while the STM work is from the early 1980s. Thus, in terms of the time gap -- ΔT -- between the actual work and the Prize, then the 1986 Nobel in physics is unique in that it has both the longest and the shortest ΔT!

Let me end this post with a quote from Gerber and Lang's short history of STM and its cousins in Nature Nanotechnology (which actually triggered this post):

The initial results [on the design of STM] were written up in a manuscript entitled "Tunnelling through a controllable vacuum gap", which was submitted to a leading physics journal in June 1981. However, the paper was declined by the editors based on the following referee reports: one referee said that the exponential dependence of the tunnelling current on distance was well accepted, so the experiment would not give any new insight; the other report described the work as "extraordinary" and a "technical jewel", but this referee said that whether such technological work should be published in this particular physics journal was an editorial decision. Eventually the results were published in another leading journal, Applied Physics Letters, in January 1982.


Talking about food, let me give this quote, dished out by the Quote of the Day on Google personalized home page:

I like rice. Rice is great if you're hungry and want 2000 of something.
-- Mitch Hedberg

Here's the NYTimes story:

What if the candy maker Mars could come up with an additive to the coating of its M&M’s and Skittles that would keep them fresher longer and inhibit melting? Or if scientists at Unilever could shrink the fat particles (and thereby the calories) in premium ice cream without sacrificing its taste and feel?

These ideas are still laboratory dreams. The common thread in these research projects and in product development at many other food companies is nanotechnology ...

These opening lines are just a hook to draw you in; the rest of this interesting and informative story discusses quite a few different things, including benefits and potential dangers of getting nano into our foods.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Deadly insults

Via Marginal Revolution, we get the link to this great post with tons of delicious insults. Here are a few about other people's death:

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go."
Oscar Wilde

"I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure."
Clarence Darrow

"I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it."
Mark Twain

"I've just learned about his illness. Let's hope it's nothing trivial."
Irvin S. Cobb

"There's nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won't cure."
Jack E. Leonard

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Manmohan Singh on the state of R&D in India

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave a speech yesterday at the Platinum Jubilee (75th anniversary) of the National Academy of Sciences (one of India's three -- three! -- science academies).

The Hindu reports [Thanks to Vishnu for helping me fix the broken link]:

"How can we achieve our development goal if we do not perform well in the field of basic sciences," Dr. Singh asked, pointing at the standard of research in the universities and even in the IITs.

What worried the Prime Minister more was the "divorce" between research and teaching, which was hampering the growth of the spirit of inquisitiveness and enquiry among students. The universities were unable to mobilise adequate financial and intellectual resources to support creative research and development efforts unlike in the past when they were at the centre of advanced research and attracted great talent.

Some quick data from this ToI report:

He then went on to outline the UPA government's plans to increase the allocation on science and technology from less than 1% of the GDP to 2% in the next five years. The 10th five-year plan has allotted Rs 25,243 crore to promoting research in institutions under scientific departments.

National investment in R&D hovers around 0.6-0.7% of GDP. Singh's statement would mean a quantum jump in funds available to academic institutions: two per cent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) would translate into a figure in the region of Rs 64,000 crore.

C.N.R. Rao on India's nanoscience program

We missed the semiconductor revolution in the early 1950s. We had just gained independence. But with nanoscience and technology, we can certainly be on an equal footing with the rest of the world. ...

We have set up ten units of nanoscience and seven centres of nanotechnology. We have teams working in the area at the IITs, the IISc and the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), among others.

From Prof. C.N.R. Rao's op-ed in the Hindustan Times. It's not exactly the best of articles on India's science policy, but I'm linking to it here because it gives us some idea about Prof. Rao's thinking. He is the Chairman of the Prime Minister's Scientific Advisory Council.

Bloggers vs. IIPM: One year on ...

It was a year ago that the IIPM vs. bloggers story broke. In subsequent weeks, it led to a massive wave of protests primarily -- but not exclusively -- in the desi blogosphere. It also led to an analysis (neutral word for debunking!) of IIPM's claims.

But first, do take a few moments to go back and read the original posts by Rashmi Bansal and Gaurav Sabnis, the two principals who bore the brunt of IIPM's threats, lawsuits, and unethical (and probably illegal) actions such as threatening Gaurav's employers of dire consequences if he didn't remove the offending posts from his blog.

The immediate aftermath -- which saw a large number of bloggers taking a hard line against IIPM -- created a lot of negative publicity for the institution. This also forced the hands of several MSM outlets (the Business World and Outlook, in particular) to shine a bright, harsh and uncomfortable spotlight on IIPM. The regulatory authorities such as AICTE breathed down the institution's neck for sometime.

Yet, one year is a long time! IIPM is back in action, with all its original claims in garish ads. The regulators have backed off. MSM outlets have made peace with IIPM's advertising rupees. Heck, one of them -- a crappy 'business' magazine from the India Today stable -- even chose to feature them in their B-school ranking!

IIPM is still around, and is upto its usual tricks. That is the bad news.

What about the good news? I see quite a few different strands of it, actually. The first, of course, is that the original threats to Rashmi and Gaurav have vanished, and they have got on with their lives.

Next, during its battle against IIPM, the desi blogosphere did a thorough analysis of all the publicly available information, and revealed to the whole world how silly and hollow IIPM's claims were. I'm sure all that IIPM-fisking has deterred -- and continues to deter -- more than a few good students who might otherwise have chosen to study there. And desi bloggers can certainly feel happy about this outcome.

The threat from IIPM united -- probably for the first time -- the desi blogosphere, a diverse group with divergent views on almost everything. Also, it led to the emergence of a new set of blogger-leaders -- I have in mind people like Kaps and Patrix, who used their sites (in particular, DesiPundit) to facilitate collective action, instilling in us a sense of community -- a community with a purpose.

Finally, the IIPM fracas also proved to be a good training ground for the united front of bloggers; when the next big threat to bloggers' freedom of speech arrived, we were ready!

Friday, October 06, 2006


It's real research. It's all published in real papers. The awards, too, are real.

Somehow, it all seems surreal ...

* * *

I'm just glad to have blogged about at least one of the IgNobel-winning research efforts. Here, and here.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Management theory needs a William of Occam

Simon Caulkin in the Guardian:

The wrong thing that the entire management industry has spent the past 40 years trying to put right is mass production command and control. 'We are committed,' as [the distinguished systems theorist Russ] Ackoff also notes, 'to a market economy at the national [macro] level, and to a non-market, centrally planned, hierarchically managed [micro] economy within most corporations.'

We know that central planning doesn't - can't - work. But, my goodness, that doesn't stop people trying. The result is an increasingly vicious circle in which each effort to control the uncontrollable simply destabilises the system further, provoking yet more frantic efforts to get things back in hand. So the end of management becomes control rather than creation of resources. ...

In the private sector the ratchet is reflected in the ever greater sacrifice that seems to demanded for every new unit of 'progress' - tighter performance management, less job security, not even a pension in retirement. In the public sector, look no further than the NHS, spending terrifying amounts on reorganisation after reorganisation with no attendant increase in productivity, and managers everywhere so busy chasing targets that they have no time to do the work that matters to patients.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Chemistry Nobel

This year's Chemistry Nobel goes to Roger Kornberg of Stanford. His father won the medicine/physiology Nobel in 1959.

The Nobel Prize site has a separate section devoted to some interesting trivia facts. For example, the Kornbergs are only one of six father-son duo to have won the Nobel. On the other hand, Marie Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie continue to be the only mother-daughter duo with a Nobel each.

The Discover magazine also has a story on some curious Nobel facts.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Women in physics

Female physicists have continued to confront deep-seated prejudices. Emmy Noether, who discovered that all physical conservation laws were associated with mathematical symmetries, was a contemporary to Einstein and helped work out some of the math of general relativity. She did so without a formal academic position and mostly without pay.

Lise Meitner, who developed the theory of nuclear fission, was not included when the Nobel Prize was given for this work in 1944. The Harvard University physics department did not give tenure to a woman until 1992.

This week, the Swedish Academy announces the Nobel Prizes in science. It will be remarkable if any women are on the list. Marie Curie won a Nobel in physics in 1903; the only woman to follow her was Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963, when she shared the award for her theory about the structure of atomic nuclei. In mathematics women have fared even worse. The Fields Medal, the mathematical equivalent of a Nobel, has never gone to a woman.

From Margaret Wertheim's article which appeared in the NYTimes today, just a few hours before the announcement from the Physics Nobel Committee.

Update: Here's the Nobel announcement: this year's Physics Prize is shared by John C. Mather and George F. Smoot.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Nobel miscellany

Today, Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, is being celebrated with a National holiday in India. In my ideal world, the Nobel Committees would use this day -- not just this year, but every year -- to announce the Peace Prize.

In the event, this day has been used for announcing this year's Nobel in Physiology and Medicine: Andrew Z. Fire of Stanford and Craig C. Mello of UMass Medical School.

While searching for more information, I came across a story with the title The secret talks of the Nobel Committees. It starts with a bang:

This was how the talk went with Nobels medicine committee:

"If we pick telomerase we'll meet the woman quota straight off. We'll have two female winners in one go: Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider."

"Yes, telomerase is fun, it's that enzyme that allows the chromosomes to maintain their length. In the future it might stop cancer and slow down the ageing process altogether, but isnt it a bit early?"

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Mathematics for poets

No, strike off the word "poets" in the title, and replace it with "crossword enthusiasts". In Lali's post describing the Resident Mathematician's tutorial on recursions and factorials (link via Neha) we find this:

"A function can be thought of as a sort of mathematical vending machine. If you put in a certain kind of number the function will return to you a number. Not all forms of coins are accepted by every vending machine, you see?" The Resident Mathematician said.

Of Metro lines and tennis stars

Vivek, our man in Moscow, has a great post about the city's Metro:

The Moscow Metro is one of the oldest and one of the busiest Metro systems in the world. The first station came up way back in 1930s. The metro stations in Moscow are not ordinary either, as many of them would give some museums a run for their money. For some amazing photos of the Moscow Metro, take a look here. In a way, the Metro is a tourist destination in itself.

If, on the other hand, you were wondering "Where in frozen Siberia did Russians learn how to swing a racket?", you might want to read the musings of Sherge Shmemann, who used to be their man in Russia.

There’s a time-honored tradition in the West to approach Russia as a riddle, devising elaborate explanations for admittedly befuddling ways. I know: I was a foreign correspondent in Moscow for 10 years, expounding on the effects of endless winter, endless expanse, the collision of East and West, long subjugation by Mongol hordes. I’ve always had a soft spot for the swaddling theory, wherein the practice of binding babies like mummies between feedings formed a nation given to lurching between passivity and anarchy.

So there is a certain temptation to seek a profound explanation for the rise of Russian tennis. ...