Friday, September 30, 2011

Nobel Season: Meet the Ig Nobels

I liked the coverage in The Guardian and The Chronicle. Here's the full list at the Improbable Research website.

The Chronicle focuses on the Literature Prize, because the Prize-winning article appeared in its pages back in 1996: How to Procrastinate, and Still Get Things Done. It was by John R. Perry, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford, who "deemed the tardiness of his award "quite appropriate" given the nature of his essay." [Perry has expanded on this theme in several follow-up essays -- all available at at Structured Procrastination.]

Here's the Guardian, leading off with the research on wasabi:

How do you wake a deaf person in the middle of the night if there's a fire? Squirt a cloud of wasabi at them, of course. For the Japanese researchers who came up with the horseradish-based alarm system, it was a lifesaving piece of work, but on Thursday night they entered the history books with the award of the Ig Nobel prize for chemistry.

The Japanese scientists and engineers who came up with the 50,000-yen (£400) wasabi alarm tried hundreds of odours, including rotten eggs, before settling on the Japanese condiment – a favourite of sushi lovers. Its active ingredient, allyl isothiocyanate, acts as an irritant in the nose that works even when someone is asleep. "That's why [people] can wake up after inhalation of air-diluted wasabi," said Makoto Imai of the department of psychiatry at Shiga University of Medical Science, one of the team that won this year's Ig Nobel for chemistry.

Nobel Season: 100th Anniversary of Marie Curie's Second Nobel

The Smithsonian magazine features a profile -- by Julie Des Jardins -- that "[examines] the story of [Curie's] story—how she lived, but also how she has been mythologized and misunderstood." Here's an excerpt from near the end of the article:

With the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s, Curie’s reputation as a remarkable scientist came to the fore. The physicist Rosalyn Yalow, in an essay she wrote at the time of winning her own Nobel Prize in 1977 for research involving radioactive compounds, said that Curie was her inspiration. Biographers attempted to depict the brilliance and complexity of this outsize character. A new play, Radiance, written by the actor and director Alan Alda, focuses on her relationships with Pierre and Langevin as well as her science. A new graphic novel, Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss, examines Curie’s life in the context of radioactivity’s impact on history. It has a glow-in-the-dark cover.

It’s taken a century, but we can finally appreciate her as a multifaceted woman of uncommon intensity, intelligence and will—a woman of courage, conviction and yes, contradictions. After a century we see her not as a caricature, but as one of the 20th century’s most important scientists, who was, at the same time, unmistakably, reassuringly human.

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Update: Back in 2006, after I read an excellent biography of Marie Curie -- Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith -- I posted some excerpts from that book: here, here, here, and here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

S.S. Bhatnagar Prize

The much awaited Bhatnagar Prizes for 2011 were announced yesterday, and it is absolutely thrilling to see my colleague and friend Prof. U. Ramamurty among the awardees. [The list is here (pdf); the previous year's lists are available at this page]

And it's great to see a couple of other familiar names in the list: Prof. S. Balasubramanian, a friend from JNCASR, Bangalore, and Prof. K.N. Balaji, a colleague in the Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology at IISc.

Hearty congratulations to them, and to the other Bhatnagar awardees from elsewhere.

* * *

Update: One of the Prize winners in math has a very interesting background -- see Swarup's post: A Swamiji Wins Bhatnagar Prize.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Do Surgeons Need Coaches?

Atul Gawande does it again, with an awesome essay that weaves in keen observations on coaching in sports and music with his novel experiment of having a coach keep a watchful eye while he performs complex surgeries.

Gawande has an an extended section about coaching of teachers:

So outside ears, and eyes, are important for concert-calibre musicians and Olympic-level athletes. What about regular professionals, who just want to do what they do as well as they can? I talked to Jim Knight about this. He is the director of the Kansas Coaching Project, at the University of Kansas. He teaches coaching—for schoolteachers. For decades, research has confirmed that the big factor in determining how much students learn is not class size or the extent of standardized testing but the quality of their teachers. Policymakers have pushed mostly carrot-and-stick remedies: firing underperforming teachers, giving merit pay to high performers, penalizing schools with poor student test scores. People like Jim Knight think we should push coaching.

California researchers in the early nineteen-eighties conducted a five-year study of teacher-skill development in eighty schools, and noticed something interesting. Workshops led teachers to use new skills in the classroom only ten per cent of the time. Even when a practice session with demonstrations and personal feedback was added, fewer than twenty per cent made the change. But when coaching was introduced—when a colleague watched them try the new skills in their own classroom and provided suggestions—adoption rates passed ninety per cent. A spate of small randomized trials confirmed the effect. Coached teachers were more effective, and their students did better on tests.

Knight experienced it himself. Two decades ago, he was trying to teach writing to students at a community college in Toronto, and floundering. He studied techniques for teaching students how to write coherent sentences and organize their paragraphs. But he didn’t get anywhere until a colleague came into the classroom and coached him through the changes he was trying to make. He won an award for innovation in teaching, and eventually wrote a Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Kansas on measures to improve pedagogy. Then he got funding to train coaches for every school in Topeka, and he has been expanding his program ever since. Coaching programs have now spread to hundreds of school districts across the country.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

SEC's War on Insider Trading

In Roger Lowenstein's NYTimes story, you'll find several familiar people, including Raj Rajaratnam and Mark Cuban, at the receiving end of SEC's recent assault. Here's an excerpt from this gripping essay:

Then, in August 2006, the S.E.C. got a tip about a New York hedge fund, Sedna Capital Management. [Sanjay] Wadhwa [a lawyer in SEC's Manhattan bureau] was assigned to this case, too. Sedna was a small fund, but its manager, Rengan Rajaratnam, was the younger brother of Raj Rajaratnam, the head of Galleon Group, a $7 billion fund. Born in Sri Lanka and educated at Wharton, the elder Rajaratnam kept an extensive network of business associates, many of whom were also South Asians. Since 2000, his fund outperformed its peers by a stunning eight percentage points a year. Wadhwa’s focus began to shift to Raj, a gregarious, daring trader who reminded him of Plotkin.

... [T]he S.E.C. began an examination of Galleon, issuing subpoenas for its trading, telephone and bank records, its appointment calendars and e-mail. Wadhwa’s interest was piqued by the cryptic tone of Rajaratnam’s instant messages with Roomy Khan, a former Intel employee with extensive contacts in Silicon Valley. One, from Khan to Rajaratnam, urged the hedge fund magnate not to buy Polycom stock until she got “guidance.” Sensing the potential for a criminal case, the agency briefed lawyers at the Southern District, who agreed the case looked promising. Then, in March 2007, the S.E.C. received an anonymous letter on plain white paper claiming that Galleon traded tips in exchange for prostitution and “other forms of illegal entertainment.” The author hurled a taunting challenge at the regulators: “It hurts my heart to see how these guys make monkeys out of individual investors, S.E.C. insider trading regulations and the attorney general’s office.”

The S.E.C. could not identify the letter’s author, nor did prostitution figure in the eventual charges. But that June, Rajaratnam trooped downtown to the S.E.C. for a formal deposition. The agency’s lawyers asked about insider trading — which he denied. Less than a month later, Hilton Hotels revealed that it was being acquired; Finra promptly notified the S.E.C. that Galleon had invested in Hilton before the news broke. Wadhwa was stunned by Rajaratnam’s brass.

Two weeks later, Rajaratnam did it again: Galleon sold Google just before it announced disappointing earnings. In November, an F.B.I. agent visited Khan and asked if she would be willing to talk about Rajaratnam. Khan replied, “What took you so long?” [...]

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Moderate Optimism and Extreme Optimism

Alina Tugend offers a nice overview of recent research on optimism and pessimism. The verdict? "... Moderate optimism may be good for you, extreme optimism is not. And at times some pessimism is helpful."

Here's how the moderates deal with life:

Moderate optimists, on the other hand, work longer hours, save more money, are more likely to pay off their credit card balances and believe their income will grow over the next five years.

How about the extremes?

“Extreme optimists don’t think savings are good, don’t pay off their credit cards and don’t do long-term planning,” Professor Puri said. “They think the economy will always do better.”

They are also more likely to remarry if divorced. [Bold emphasis added]

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Brown Curriculum

The Chronicle has a profile of Prof. Ruth Simmons who will be stepping down as President of Brown University at the end of this academic year. She is the first African American president (and so far, the only one) of an Ivy League university, and her Presidential career is nearly 17-years strong -- six years at Smith, and eleven at Brown. The profile covers quite a bit of ground, so you will have to go read it. What I wanted to highlight here is something that I learned through the article: the Brown Curriculum.

The freewheeling nature of Brown, however, is also one of its assets, Ms. Simmons added. In 1969 the university adopted the "New Curriculum," which allows students to chart their own courses of study.

That curriculum is a piece of Brown's distinctiveness, but it is also something its presidents are often called upon to defend and explain.

"This model we have might seem lax, but we think of it as being a very challenging and rigorous approach, fit for students who are highly motivated, very intelligent, and able to handle the responsibility of the open curriculum," Ms. Simmons said.

The same sorts of students for whom Brown is a good fit are also prone to questioning authority, and Ms. Simmons has faced some tough questions during her tenure.

"I don't think anybody fears me," she said in March. "I say that with a little bit of regret."

Paul Tough: What If the Secret to Success is Failure?

His fascinating article in NYTimes is about the importance of key character traits (such as grit, self-control, curiosity, and optimism), and what two different kinds of schools -- one with rich kids and the other with poor kids -- are doing to strengthen these traits in their students.

... It is a central paradox of contemporary parenting, in fact: we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we all know — on some level, at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can. As a parent, you struggle with these thorny questions every day, and if you make the right call even half the time, you’re lucky. But it’s one thing to acknowledge this dilemma in the privacy of your own home; it’s quite another to have it addressed in public, at a school where you send your kids at great expense.

And it’s that problem that Randolph [the principal of the school with rich kids] is up against as he tries to push forward this new kind of conversation about character at Riverdale. When you work at a public school, whether it’s a charter or a traditional public school, you’re paid by the state, responsible, on some level, to your fellow citizens for the job you do preparing your students to join the adult world. When you work at a private school like Riverdale, though, even one with a long waiting list, you are always conscious that you’re working for the parents who pay the tuition fees. Which makes a campaign like the one that Randolph is trying to embark on all the more complicated. If your premise is that your students are lacking in deep traits like grit and gratitude and self-control, you’re implicitly criticizing the parenting they’ve received — which means you’re implicitly criticizing your employers.

Amartya Sen on Nalanda's Progress

In an interview published in The Telegraph, Prof. Sen talks quite extensively about the progress towards the creation of Nalanda University, and addresses some of the concerns raised in media reports (like this one in Tehelka).

Along the way, Prof. Sen narrates this great story:

It is perhaps a matter of interest that when my friend Bimal Matilal was interviewed for becoming the Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics (a post that he held for many years with great distinction), he was asked by the vice-chancellor of Oxford whether he thought it was a limitation that he was not religious himself.

Bimal told me that the vice-chancellor very much agreed with him when he answered that this was neither here nor there, since he was supposed to educate people on the nature of — including beliefs and practices in — Eastern religions, rather than perform religious practices in his class.

Thanks to Ankur Kulkarni for the comment-alert.

Academic Blog of the Day

And this one is big. Really, Really Big.

It's called A central Central University -- "the Unofficial Blog of the VC, University of Hyderabad." [A big thank-you to my colleague and coffee buddy B. Anantanarayan [blog) for the alert].

The Vice Chancellor, of course, is Prof. Ramakrishna Ramaswamy. In addition to dealing with vice-chancellorly   matters and other such heaviosities, Prof. Ramaswamy is not averse to telling (and showing) us what he had for breakfast!

Prof. Ramaswamy was earlier with JNU-Physics Department. Among his many other avatars, I'll just note two that I know of / about: he is among the good folks behind Scholars without Borders, an online bookstore for academic books. And he co-edited (with my colleague Prof. Rohini Godbole) the wonderful book of autobiographical essays by Indian women scientists, Lilavati's Daughters. He has been writing this blog since July, but I came to know about it over this morning's coffee with Anant.

Go check out the awesome blog, whose URL says it all: HCU Rocks!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Torturing Data Until They Confess"

In his round up of recent misconduct cases -- including those of Bruno Frey and Marc Hauser -- Andrew Gelman offers this comment by E. J. Wagenmakers, about the Marc Hauser affair:

One of the problems is that the field of social psychology has become very competitive, and high-impact publications are only possible for results that are really surprising. Unfortunately, most surprising hypotheses are wrong. That is, unless you test them against data you’ve created yourself. There is a slippery slope here though; although very few researchers will go as far as to make up their own data, many will “torture the data until they confess”, and forget to mention that the results were obtained by torture…. [Bold emphasis added]

* * *

If Marc Hauser has written books with titles like Moral Minds and Evilicious: Explaining Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad (forthcoming), Bruno Frey -- the guy who got his Titanic paper published in four journals -- once wrote a paper with this title Publishing as Prostitution? ... [via Kent Anderson].

Monday, September 12, 2011

Two Links

  1. Anne Murphy Paul in NYTimes: The Trouble With Homework:

    Fortunately, research is available to help parents, teachers and school administrators [make homework smarter]. In recent years, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and educational psychologists have made a series of remarkable discoveries about how the human brain learns. They have founded a new discipline, known as Mind, Brain and Education, that is devoted to understanding and improving the ways in which children absorb, retain and apply knowledge.

  2. Matthew Syed at BBC: Is it wrong to note 100m winners are always black?

Research Cloning

That's a far lovelier phrase than 'self-plagiarism,' 'duplicate publication', or 'concurrent publications.' And I got it from this post by Debora Weber-Wulff.

The latest to get caught for research cloning is Bruno Frey.

Read this whiplash he (and his coauthors) received from an editor at one of the four -- yes, four -- journals that published his work. Immediately following it is a pretty abject apology from Frey.

Weber-Wulff also sends us to the iceberg that sank this Titanic. Don't forget to read the comments!

Sunday, September 11, 2011


  1. Must read article of the month: Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist by George Monbiot.

  2. Dheeraj Sanghi has a series of posts on teaching a first-year programming course to 500+ students: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

  3. John Sides: What Can Presidential Speeches Do? A Dialogue.

  4. Richard Wiseman: The Most Amazing Illusion Ever?

  5. Finally, the Turbo Encabulator:

"The Elements of Press Release Style"

By Gary Klein. At McSweeney's.

7. Revise and rewrite.

Revising is part of writing. Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your press release ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.

“Our internal investigation has pinpointed the blast origin to a defective part slated for replacement in 1975.”

“We are investigating the possibility of sabotage by eco-terrorists.”

Just in case you are feeling good about your work life ...

... here's a remedy: El Empleo / The Employment by Santiago Grasso [Link via Marc Bousquet and CommonDreams.Org]:

And just in case that wasn't enough ...

You're welcome!

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Uh, oh!

  • In reply to an unstarred question on August 25, Ministry of External Affairs said no vice-chancellor has been appointed in Nalanda University.

  • However, according to an RTI reply, vice chancellor Gopa Sabharwal and seven of her associates are drawing salaries since October 2010. Vice-chancellor draws salary of Rs 5,06,513 per month.

Tehelka's Iftikhar Gilani digs up a lot more dirt of this kind. There's probably some innocent explanation for this sort of stuff, but it seems bizarre that this university should be run by the Ministry of External Affairs.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Cute Overload

Here's the YouTube link.

Link via Jonah Lehrer's post on recent research following up on the original marshmallow kids.